Theater Review: The 39 Steps

Jolly good show.

Scheduled to close January 10 after a two-year run on Broadway, this lark of a production remains funny and fresh. Maria Aitken directs a versatile, bustling cast of four who play dozens of characters in a frequently hilarious yet loving sendup of Hitchcock’s famous 1935 thriller, paced like an extended Monty Python skit and delivered in a series of not very serious accents and silly walks. The cast is small but the business is booming; the quick character and setting changes are a nonstop delight, the Tony Awards for lighting and sound well deserved. Jolly good show.

Theater Review: Creature by Heidi Schreck

Haunted House or Tunnel of Love? The creatures lurking within can be one and the same.

Heidi Schreck's first full-length New York production peels the hardened hide of history off a corner of life in turn-of-the-century England – the turn of the 15th century, that is. It was a time when people with delusions and hallucinations were venerated as mystics and saints (rather like now), and when mobs, egged on by the priesthood, burned religious heretics at the stake – also pretty much just like some parts of the world today.

Ms. Schreck, a well-known downtown performer, has based her script very loosely on The Book of Margery Kempe, sometimes considered the first autobiography in English. Kempe was a middle class wife and mother who ran a brewery and had a vision of Jesus around the time of the birth of her first baby. The story focuses on her inner battle to keep herself spiritually "clean" despite being a married woman. She wanted to be a saint in the way a reality show participant wants to become a celebrity, but she lived under the scrutiny of an intolerant orthodoxy that forbade women from preaching, among other strictures.

Ms. Schreck's characters speak in a colloquial, mostly naturalistic American idiom, a good choice for two reasons. First, her 600-year-old story resounds powerfully into our own times. Second, the blunt language creates an immediacy which, juxtaposed with a whiff of the supernatural, forms a close, magnetic atmosphere.

At the same time, director Leigh Silverman and set designer Rachel Hauck make effective use of the Ohio Theatre's deep, decaying-church-like space. The baby spends most of the play in a cradle suspended high above stage right, rocked via a pulley operated by the Nurse (a funny and touching Tricia Rodley). Characters enter from unexpected angles. Solid-looking tables and benches and an overall brownness evoke the deadly inflexibility of the ruling religious authorities. Candlelight and Theresa Squire's rich, rough costumes create an effectively Medieval feeling.

A blustery Darren Goldstein plays Margery's longsuffering husband John with admirable balance, measuring an old-time male sense of privilege against a genuine love – both affectionate and carnal – for his sexy wife. Jeremy Shamos and Will Rogers are respectively sympathetic and darkly funny as the cautiously heretical Father Thomas and the earnest youth Jacob, two searchers who fall into Margery's charismatic orbit. Margery herself (Sofia Jean Gomez) has a charming late scene with the wonderful Marylouise Burke, who plays the elder mystic Juliana of Norwich with equal parts holy panache and down-home friendliness, a wise old spiritualist and a sweet old coot.

But the play belongs proudly to Margery, and we left the theater feeling that we personally knew this complex and fascinating woman. Ms. Gomez gives a suitably dangerous and sometimes screamingly funny performance. Put simply, she plays the hell out of her, and with a terrifying Hell (along with Purgatory and Heaven) ever-present in the anxieties of the age, this feels like exactly the Margery we ought to have. One can read a proto-feminist strand into this lusty and freethinking depiction of the character, but any sense of anachronism is made palatable – fun, in fact – by the script's unabashed honesty. The comic dialogue and the flow from scene to scene feel effortless.

The second star of the show, besides Ms. Gomez, is the language. Ms. Schreck cleverly fuses modern talk with old topics, and old phrasing creeps in at times like words from an ancestral tongue. In one of Margery's many manic moods, toying with her husband she mimes stabbing him with her keys, then bursts out,

"I'm teasing you! Don't look at me like that. I'm going to open the pantry with these and then I'll make us Fritters. Yum! I'll take yolks of eggs, add flour and ale and stir it together till it be thick. Then I'll take pared apples, cut them thin like wafers, lay them in the batter, fry them in butter and serve them forth!"

When, charmed in spite of himself, John embraces her, she grows suddenly serious: "John. We sin too much."

The urge to be and do good versus the lustiness of the human animal – it's the same basic struggle, whether couched in centuries-old religious doctrine or modern secular morality. With a firm hand steering her characters through their struggles, Ms. Schreck transports us to a distant but not so different world. Haunted House or Tunnel of Love? The creatures lurking within can be one and the same.

Creature runs through Nov. 21 at the Ohio Theatre. For tickets please visit Theatermania or call 866-811-4111. For more information and group rates call 646-336-8077.

Photos by Jim Baldassare.

Theater/Magic Review: Creating Illusion

Magic, mentalism, and storytelling propel Jeff Grow’s award-winning solo show.

Having missed Jeff Grow's award-winning show during the soloNOVA Arts Festival earlier this year, I was glad to get a chance to catch it in its limited return engagement at D-Lounge last night. But I found it hard to figure out just what to make of the performance, which mixes magic, mind reading, and storytelling.

Mr. Grow quickly establishes his warm, witty personality along with his sleight-of-hand skills. The tricks are old ones, but when done well they still work, no matter that Houdini was performing and improving upon the same types of illusions a century ago. In any case this act isn't about a succession of magic tricks; it's more of a meta-magic show. Between Mr. Grow's impressive demonstrations of manual dexterity and mental skill, we're treated to stories about classic street scams, peppered with topical references and swayed (and slowed) by plenty of audience participation.

The ultimate payoff is a real showstopper. Along the way, though, things periodically bog down. For an audience with little knowledge of the arts of the magician- mentalist, the narrative parts of the show may be more edifying than they were to me (I had read a biography of Houdini recently and much of what Mr. Grow talked about was familiar to me from the book).

I found it hard to tell how much of his seeming distraction and his rather scattershot presentation was shtick, intended to charm and distract the audience. Magicians' stock in trade, after all, is to make us focus on one thing and thus completely miss something else. But some of the hemming and hawing occurred not in the context of an illusion or trick, but of a story. This, I found myself thinking at various points, is just going nowhere. Not having looked carefully at the promotional material, I wasn't aware that there was a director, Jessi D. Hill. The show didn't seem directed. It seemed haphazard.

In the end it all does go somewhere, and I'm glad I attended. With a show that requires so much audience involvement, there's always going to be some variation, and perhaps this was an unusually slow-paced night. But I couldn't help feeling that tautening the show up would have significantly improved it.

On the other hand, maybe it's an advanced form of performance art which only highly evolved beings can fully appreciate and which therefore went over my head. Wouldn't be the first time.

Creating Illusion has two more performances, Oct. 23 and 30, 10 PM at D-Lounge, 101 E. 15 St. (at Union Square). It's a small space and it was packed last night, so getting tickets in advance would be a good idea. Visit Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.

Photo by Zack Brown.

Theater Review: Ghost Light by Desi Moreno-Penson

Entertaining and thought-provoking, this new thriller is a nice way to begin hacking one’s way into the Halloween season.

A car horn, flies buzzing, a cheap-looking bed, a plastic, institutional ashtray – we're in a no-tell hotel somewhere in Manhattan. The real location of such a place would more likely be Queens or New Jersey, but let that go – Ghost Light isn't about reality. Quite the opposite, and doubly so. Desi Moreno-Penson's new thriller shoulders its way into the world of Hollywood and the theater, while trying to carry the weight of the occult as well (just in time for Halloween), thus tripping through our two most culturally potent lands of make-believe.

One of Ms. Moreno-Penson's goals here is to explore the desperate measures people will take to succeed, and what can happen to them when they overstep the bounds of sensitivity and sense in their quests. Treachery, sex, violence – how far can it go? It all starts plausibly enough. Natalie (the intense, vibrant Kate Benson) meets Brian (the excellent Bryant Mason) in the nameless hotel. Both married (to other people), they're here for some on-the-side action. The playwright has a good ear for the uncomfortable way people talk to each other over heavy subtext, and by the time the pair find their way to bed we think we've got a pretty good idea of their motives.

Mr. Mason, who was good when I saw him Raised in Captivity, really shines in the bigger, meatier role of Brian, who is after some no-strings sex with someone outside his circle. Despite his womanizing, his own self-image is that of a truly "nice guy" – so much so that the sincerity with which he insists "I'm a terrific person" is both funny and a little heartbreaking. For her part, the sensual but acerbic Natalie, who has spent time in a mental hospital, seems to be acting out her career frustrations on the more intimate stage of tawdry sex.

Natalie: You probably have enough women dancing for your pleasure out in L.A.

Brian: Not really. I'm not that attractive.

Natalie: That doesn't matter! Don't be so pathetic. Once you're successful, everything comes…That's it. It just COMES…

Once we know that Brian isn't just an actor but a Hollywood celebrity, the dynamic elasticizes. Who is taking advantage of whom, and why? Then Natalie sees something in the ceiling mirror that interrupts their coitus, and the macabre game is afoot. Mirrors mean a lot in this tale. A prominent feature of the neat set (by Jason Simms, fresh from the couldn't-be-more-different challenge of MilkMilkLemonade) is a wall mirror in which the audience sees vaguely distorted reflections of…the audience. It's a little creepy, and makes for effective foreshadowing.

Natalie, a struggling playwright, is not the only frustrated artist. An intrusive hotel security guard (the fine Hugh Sinclair) turns out to have a creative side too. Ironically, the one character who has achieved success in the land of make-believe, Brian, is the one who has nothing to hide (except from his wife). The others coruscate through multiple layers of reality and fantasy. The big reveal turns out to be stunningly implausible, but the nonstop forward motion of the play's climactic final third, the evocative verbal storytelling, and the flawless direction by José Zayas keep the vaguely confusing story moving along. Spooky lighting (by Evan Purcell) and sound (by David Margolin Lawson) contribute buzz and crackle to the action.

In the end Ghost Light doesn't fully succeed as horror. But it accomplished something rare for me: it made me feel like a kid afterwards, thinking through the plot, trying to work out what really happened and what underlay it all. The story isn't just fantastical; it also fails to make complete sense, at least to me. But in what matters most the play succeeds overall: it entertains and makes you think. It's a nice way to begin hacking your way into the Halloween season.

Ghost Light runs through Oct. 31 at the 59E59 Theaters. Get tickets online, call 212-279-4200, or visit the box office.

Photo: Carla Bellisio

Theater Review: Disillusioned

Georgie Caldwell’s appealing performance can’t debug this magical tale’s problematic script.

Susan Hodara's new one-act has a number of the elements of a good dramatic yarn. Unfortunately it also bears the marks of an incompletely integrated and realized vision. The story has promise as a semi-fantastical tale: Bernie, a small-time magician who is seemingly friendless except for an arthritic rabbit, befriends Jane, an even more lonely orphan; in time he adopts her and trains her as his assistant. Their new act and his magic shop are successful enough to keep them in business. Alas, fate has sadder plans for the pair; the theatrical blindness our heroine affects for the magic act becomes real, and that's not the worst of it. Eventually Jane is left destitute, but in the end gets a chance for redemption.

Georgie Caldwell's appealing performance as Jane can't debug the problematic script, however. A string of clichés spoils the awkward opening section, in which Bernie imparts his hard-earned showman's wisdom to his new protégé. Scarves are a dime a dozen; Jane has a fire in her belly; Jane also, like spunky orphans everywhere, is a piece of work.

Voiceovers connecting successive scenes seem both unneeded and cheap, and some lines come out of nowhere, as when Jane tells Bernie she "never meant to break your heart," apropos of nothing I could identify. In a voiceover, after we've seen that Bernie has suffered a stroke, Jane asks, perplexingly, "How could I have known it was a stroke?" Finally, the overall structure is weighed down by a disconnected and too long scene in a shelter, where homeless Jane meets a sympathetic caseworker (Keith Manolo Embler, who, like Mr. Powers, hasn't much to work with).

The character of Jane and Ms. Caldwell's effective performance in the role are the main strong points of this production. With better structure and sharpened dialogue, there could be a powerful story here. You can sense it, like the string of scarves hidden up Bernie's sleeve, itching to come out in shabby, multicolored glory.

Disillusioned has two more performances, 10/22 and 10/25, at Where Eagles Dare Studios in New York.

Theater Review: The Pumpkin Pie Show: Commencement

As performed by the bewitching Hanna Cheek, Clay McLeod Chapman’s monologues deliver old-fashioned catharsis in a big way.

Actress Hanna Cheek and writer-actor Clay McLeod Chapman continue their fruitful collaboration with a new edition of the long-running Pumpkin Pie Show monologue series, this time a solo shot for Ms. Cheek. Here, instead of unrelated monologues, we get three pieces that link up to portray the aftermath of a horrific event in the life of an American town that's only technically fictional.

Ms. Cheek, one of the downtown scene's leading lights, is a remarkable performer whose work continues to grow richer. Here she carefully delineates three distinct characters: a mother going through a mother's worst nightmare; a bookish high school student; and a second mother who shares the nightmare but from a very different point of view. Mr. Chapman's monologues rarely fail to grip in some way, but these taken together have a power greater than the sum of their parts.

Not just a series of absorbing sketches, Commencement builds until it takes the form of a multi-character drama with a real plot. While Mr. Chapman's pieces can be read as effective short stories, the Pumpkin Pie shows are as far from literary readings as Greek drama is from NPR's "Selected Shorts." Presented on stage, these serious stories deliver old-fashioned catharsis in a big way.

The small audience at last night's performance seemed restless at first, rustling things and shifting in their seats, perhaps from the shock of the unexpectedly wintry weather in the real world outside. But they quickly stiffened into rapt spectators as the first monologue progressed and the terrible situation of the townspeople slowly became clear. As the first mother, Ms. Cheek sits quaking like a person in the throes of withdrawal. Then, loosing her hair and slapping up a nervous smile, she becomes the insecure student who'd formed a secret friendship with the unseen main character whose actions have triggered the whole bad dream. Finally, as the second mother, she begins with studied calm, then explodes into mournful rage, and finally reaches a kind of closure through an unexpected confrontation. It's riveting stuff, and ghoulishly satisfying too.

The Pumpkin Pie Show: Commencement runs at UNDER St. Marks through Oct. 31. Tickets online or call 212-868-4444.

Theater Review: My Life in a Nutshell by Hanne Tierney

Renowned puppet artist and OBIE winner Hanne Tierney has worked with abstraction for many years, pioneering a kind of "theater without actors." The use of actual human figures, even in the form of puppets, is new in her work. My Life in a Nutshell, her new creation at HERE Arts Center, continues the center's Dream Music Puppetry Program created by Basil Twist. It features very cool life-sized burlap marionettes, deftly quickened from the side of the stage by Ms. Tierney and two other string-pulling operators.

Jane Wang's darkly humorous incidental music (sawing an upright bass, plinking a toy piano), Hannah Wasileski's projections, and Ms. Tierney's measured narration are among an assortment of clever elements that set an evocative mood and tell a story of a thwarted love triangle fraught with and followed by various complications, including lots of death. Unfortunately the story unfolds ponderously and fails to grip. It feels as though two opposing forces are pulling the piece into a confused state: partially abstract, partially human, it is not fully anything. One waits to be engaged, but is only tickled with a succession of amusing visuals and softly humorous lines, and then it's over. I found my mind wandering a number of times, even though the show was just 45 minutes long.

Though the human characters get puppet representation, they are granted only letters for names, one of many abstract and abstract-tending ideas threading through the story (the concept of the "love triangle" gets new meaning here). Though the figure of Death speaks and has a distinct personality, he is played not by an anthropomorphic puppet but by two connected line segments, like a compass or the detached leg of a giant spider, and curiously, this makes him more interesting than the unremarkable human characters; we wait to see what his two legs will do, where they'll point, whom they'll arch over – it's vaguely horrific.

One of the marionette characters, D, is an experimental artist who performs works of Gertrude Stein accompanied by bouncing Slinky-like spirals which may or may not be imaginary; again, the abstractions seem to have more interesting personalities than the people. They make us want to observe them more closely, to understand what they mean or at least sense something of what drives them.

The vision that drives Hanne Tierney and her co-conspirators has numerous fascinating conceptual facets, but has here resulted in something only intermittently interesting, and ultimately unsatisfying.

My Life in a Nutshell runs Tues.-Sun. through Oct. 25.  For more information visit

Theater: Oleanna with Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles

Would David Mamet’s 1992 sexual harassment drama seem dated today? A 2009 New York audience decisively answered no.

When I mentioned to a fellow theater writer that I was going to see the new Broadway production of Oleanna with Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles, he moaned, "Oh, I'm so sick of that play."

My colleague may have seen David Mamet's sexual harassment drama one too many times, but his sentiment struck me as more representative of the feelings of a full-time theater maven than of those of an average theatergoer. The shocked reactions of the crowd at last night's performance bore me out.

In the play, a college student named Carol (Ms. Stiles) first comes to her pedantic, distracted professor (Mr. Pullman) for academic help, then files a sexual harassment complaint against him. Her perception of what has occurred in his office – all on stage, right in front of us – seems monstrously skewed, however. And as Ms. Stiles noted last night in a post-performance bloggers' Q&A session, Mamet's script also leaves open the possibility that Carol (backed by a somewhat mysterious group of "those who suffer what I suffer") has set out to target and entrap the professor from the beginning, though the actress has not chosen to specifically play it that way.

Distinct, shocked thrills went through the audience each time Carol's attacks on John were further revealed. She certainly appears villainous, but nothing is black and white in this tale. John is far from perfect. In trying to make his points, he has told stories from his own life that seem inappropriately personal for a teacher-student relationship; he has even offered to change her grade if she visits him for more tutoring. Also, as Carol's accusations have John on the verge of losing not only his career but his family, she evinces some sympathy for him, some second thoughts.

A post-show audience talkback session with a moderator and a panel of two attorneys brought out audience feelings just as strong as when the play was new in 1992. As one of the lawyer-panelists pointed out, public policy on sexual harassment was in its infancy then, affording little protection to men against abusive or frivolous harassment claims. But although the particulars of the case might be a little less realistic now, Mamet's play – at least in my opinion – was never meant to be entirely time-topical, despite its then straight-from-the-headlines theme. Its stychomythic, stream-of-consciousness dialogue, which at times reduced Mr. Pullman to chirps and groans, gives it a slightly hallucinogenic feel, and the mysterious "group" – the uncertainty of what's really going on behind Carol's complaints – reminds me more of a Margaret Atwood dystopia than a legal drama. And that's leaving aside the deep questions raised by the play about the purpose and value of academia. The sharp performances in this production bring out the Kafkaesque universality of the story. Whether in a democracy or a dictatorship, we're often at the mercy of forces we don't understand and over which we have no control.

I imagined Oleanna might seem dated in 2009. Several hundred audience members last night proved otherwise. Some of them may have been drawn by the Hollywood star power of the cast, but they left with much to think about.

Oleanna by David Mamet, directed by Doug Hughes and starring Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles, is now in previews. It opens October 11 at the Golden Theatre.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Theater: Homer’s Odyssey

Handcart Ensemble should be congratulated for much about this production, and not least for seriously telling the story of the Odyssey – in most of its rough essentials anyway – in under three hours. The acting is very good and the production inventive and engaging, but playwright-poet Simon Armitage’s text, originally written for a BBC radio production, is the biggest star, simultaneously elevated and gutbucket, Homeric and homespun. Shadow puppets, glorious costumes, haunting songs, a chilling trip to Hades, and an old-fashioned, barrel-chested, egotistical hero just like they used to make ’em (David D’Agostini is Ulysses) – this show’s got just about everything. The galumphing puppets are a trip, too. Closes Oct. 18.

Theater Review: The Buddha Play: The Life of the Buddha Assembled from the Original Texts

Books, many, piled haphazardly about the floor. A comfortable, well-worn armchair. A lamp.

Unrolled scrolls of rice paper form a striped backdrop. The incidental music is by Phillip Glass and is familiar – a little too familiar for comfort? You sense right away you're about to experience something peaceful, as theater goes. But you fear that it might also be saccharine.

Have no fear. Evan Brenner's one-man play, produced and directed by David Fuhrer, is a simple piece of theater, but not simple-minded. Mr. Brenner plainly and engagingly recites from the oldest Buddhist sutras, known as the Pali Canon, recounting the life of Siddhartha Gautama, who became forever known as the Buddha. He brings the characters alive, not histrionically, but through measured, focused, artful talk and movement.

The Baruch Performing Arts Center's Nagelberg Theater may be the most subterranean performance space in New York City. The staircases seem to take you down forever. (Magically, though, there's cell phone service – it's a very modern space indeed.) Its depth seems appropriate for the deep thoughts on stage. Yet there is an inherent discrepancy between the tension and catharsis we typically expect of Western drama, and the meditation and lack of goal-orientation that characterize Buddhism and its teachings.

And indeed as the play begins it feels more like storytelling than "drama"; but it slowly becomes suspenseful in spite of itself. Gautama does not take lightly his decision to leave behind his rich inheritance and "go forth" as a seeker of salvation. And after he has achieved Nirvana he continues to live in a warlike world, with followers, family – and the Devil periodically prodding him away from his path.

Hong Sooyeon's ghostly, effective lighting and the music cues assist Mr. Brenner in pushing the mood gently from dark to light, calm to questing. Yet despite a devastatingly violent turn of events, there is little sense of tragedy. After all, everything that lives must die.  And not everything must suffer; those who have little dust in their eyes may learn to achieve the cessation of suffering, and hence salvation.

And so there may be an affinity between theater and the Buddha's teachings after all. Seeing a well-made theater piece, we do let our sufferings cease, at least for a time. The talented Mr. Brenner's story-time piece blossoms into a humble, graceful, and worthwhile teaching. And a really nice way to spend an hour and half.

The Buddha Play runs through Nov. 1 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. Tickets online or call (646) 312-4085.

Theater Review: ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford, Adapted by Toy Box Theatre Company

‘Tis Pity She's a Whore, John Ford's blood-spattered incest/revenge drama from about 1630, certainly made an impression on me when I studied it in Professor Marjorie Garber's "Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama" class back in college – more, I think, for the graphic violence and gore than for the brother-sister love story. But over a quarter-century later I had yet to see a stage production of the once-banned, ever controversial play. So kudos to the Toy Box Theatre Company for its expert new production of this under-appreciated classic.

As befits the tiny stage of Teatro Iati, both cast and script have been reduced. Director Jonathan Barsness and his artistic team have cut an entire subplot, causing minor but noticeable injury to the play. On top of that, of the remaining characters, several actors play more than one, though quite deftly. Ford's humor, however, along with his audacious story and effervescent language, survive well. This is in just about every way a fit and flowing staging, thanks to superb direction, an ace production team, and a fine cast.

Ford doesn't tiptoe around his taboo subject. As the play opens, Giovanni, an intense young scholar and nobleman – fairly mild-mannered, as played by Andrew Krug – has just confessed his ardent love for his sister Annabella (Jessica Rothenberg) to the Friar (a very good Ron Bopst), his friend and former teacher. The shocked holy man counsels restraint and prayer, but Giovanni can't contain himself, goes home, and pleads his love. Annabella, though shocked as well, has, as it turns out, been harboring reciprocal feelings, and after much hesitation, they consummate. Mr. Krug and Ms. Rothenberg enact this pain-wracked yet joyful scene – one of the most stunning in English literature – with smoldering sensitivity and exquisite passion; I felt privileged to be in the theater, in their presence, at that moment.

If you're thinking to yourself, No good can come of this, congratulations. Annabella has a number of legitimate suitors, among whom her wealthy father Florio (Zenon Zeleniuch) is seeking to make the best choice, subject to Annabella's own preference (little does he know what that really is). Though he dallies with his friend Donado's (Mr. Bopst again) silly and foppish nephew Bergetto (the wonderful Michael Nathanson), he ultimately prefers the self-confident young nobleman Soranzo (the excellent, poised John Buxton). Bergetto, for his part, is too foolish and wayward to even woo properly, quite happy to divert his attentions to another young woman when one presents herself. This element of the story is one of the small, incompletely sutured wounds left by the cutting of the subplot. Fortunately, though, we get plenty of Bergetto, through whom Mr. Nathanson provides the play's comic relief in spades. His death scene is delightful.

Sarah Hankins, in a fine dual performance, actually gets two death scenes. She is the vampish Hippolita, the very model of the vengeful woman scorned (by Soranzo). She is also Annabella's tutor and confidante, Putana, who, in this version, is simply strangled rather than having her eyes gouged out. This change wasn't made to reduce the gore quotient; it's another artifact of the cuts that have been made in the text. Ms. Hankins dies fabulously both times, however. We are not cheated of her talents.

Just as Ms. Hankins easily negotiates two very different characters, the cast smoothly navigates Gian Marco Lo Forte's handsome, compressed but functional set (and manipulates it handily during the many scene changes). The production is a master class in efficient technical operations. The live three-man band, under the direction of the hirsute yet nimble bassist James Sparber and collectively known as Colonna Sonora, enhances the play's romantic, dark, and tragic moods with creepy and dramatic rock music, alternately insistent and haunting.

But the big discovery here is Ms. Rothenberg. With a scant New York resume, she is a product of Boston University's Conservatory Program, which has given us Michael Chiklis, Julianne Moore, Geena Davis, and Jason Alexander. After her spellbinding performance in this tricky and probably exhausting role, one imagines a similarly shining career for this newcomer. She is as beautiful as she is talented, and while in some roles that might be a distraction, here it adds a dimension, as one can easily identify with Giovanni's ardor. Yet through body language and makeup she transforms, heartbreakingly, into an ashen moral wreck, as the Friar's prediction – "death waits on thy lust – nears fulfillment.

Mr. Krug, for his part, while very good in the run-up, and very facile with the high-toned language of his flowery speeches, displays a certain lack of gravitas as the violent climax approaches. Hence his vengefulness feels less fully justified than the motives of the others. As a result, the violent, climactic scene seems oddly antiseptic – a bit of a let-down after the romance and humor and tension and darkness of the play to that point.

In the scheme of things, though, the production's flaws are vastly outweighed by its virtues. In fact, it's a must-see. ‘Tis Pity She's a Whore runs through Oct. 16 at Teatro Iati, 64 E. 4th St. Visit the Toy Box Theatre website for tickets.

Photo credits: 1) Teresa Olson. 2) Toy Box Theatre Company.

Theater Review: Thunder Above, Deeps Below

Last December the talented director Pat Diamond helmed an unusual, video-centric production of Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas. Now Mr. Diamond, an opera specialist, has brought a brash, colorful, operatic flair to his staging of A. Rey Pamatmat's new play Thunder Above, Deeps Below for Second Generation. Like Dido this is a story about abandonment, but it's no tragedy – Thunder Above is about redemption and rebirth as well as loss. It concerns three homeless teens in Chicago, who've all been left, one way or another, and their efforts to find a better way of life without sinking to violent crime or excessively dangerous behavior.

It's quite a sight, this play, with lavish costumes, grandiloquent sound design, and a spectacular set by Sandra Goldmark. It also boasts some very fine performances, led by Maureen Sebastian, who was so good as the swashbuckling hero of Soul Samurai back in February. This lady deserves a boost to Broadway.

The material here, however, is somewhat lacking, for two main reasons. First, the script veers from overly self-conscious poetics to cliched and unrealistic dialogue. After hearing Theresa's (Ms. Sebastian) story of being forced to abandon her baby, would a teenage Latino youth ask, "Is that why you're made of stone?" Would a sixteen-year-old homeless Filipino transsexual cry, "I won't be another trannie who dies helping his friend pull off some harebrained scheme!"? It's a testament to the skill of the actors who portray these roles (Rey Lucas and Jon Norman Schneider, respectively) that we are not thoroughly turned off by such dialogue. Rather, we grow to like and appreciate these characters, rooting for them to get to their Promised Land of San Francisco, just as we root for the production, which has many good elements, to reach the transcendent heights suggested by Ms. Goldmark's two-level, industrial-mythic set.

It never does, partly because it tries too hard to escape the base world of humanity. The play's second flaw is the way Mr. Pamatmat weaves a perplexing and unnecessary element of magic through the plot. The scenery may be operatic, but the characters aren't mythic heroes; in spite of their sometimes unrealistic dialogue, the cast makes them seem real to us. That's why we like them. Applying magic to point their way and solve their problems seems like cheating. The magic and mysticism center around the coffee shop manager/mother figure of Marisol (Phyllis Johnson, who does what she can with an awkward role). She sprinkles fairy dust in the kids' coffee. She dons an extravagant hooded robe to, Charon-like, row Theresa's lost boyfriend (a wild-eyed Darian Dauchan) across a mythic version of Lake Michigan to find her. (I'm not giving anything away; you spot right away that the hooded supernatural figure is Marisol in another guise.)

Finally, when Hector, feeling once more abandoned, cracks and threatens violence, it's Theresa who defuses the situation with her own very human grace; but it's Marisol who then lies him down and mumbo-jumbos him through some sort of mystical rebirth.

By the end, despite some amusing and touching scenes that brightened up the second act, I had begun to feel not just disengaged from the story, but uncomfortable with the character of Marisol. I had thought that in the era of President Barack Obama we might have grown past a reliance on that kind of "Magical Negro" character. The other main adult character, a rich man who wants to be Hector's "sugar daddy" while maintaining the outward life of a straight family man, seems by contrast satisfyingly real, in spite of a somewhat stiff performance by Rafael Jordan.

In short, this is an ambitious and very well done production that manifests several pleasures, but is hobbled by the flaws at its foundation.

Thunder Above, Deeps Below runs through Sept. 26 at the TBG Theatre, 312 W. 26 St., New York.

Photo: Maureen Sebastian as Theresa. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Theater Review: Henry V by the Queens Players

Henry V may be Shakespeare's most stirring history play, with its heroic king, powerful exhortations to the troops ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers"), and lusty depiction of the Battle of Agincourt. At the same time, it contains a good deal of dense and difficult language, both high noble speech and slangy vernacular, as well as a fair amount of political detail that goes well beyond what a typical modern audience can be expected to find fascinating.

Director Rich Ferraioli has cut some of the politics, and some of the bantering, from his new Queens Players production at the Secret Theatre, focusing even more narrowly than does the play's full text on the character of the King. The small bit of bad news here is that we lose some of the vagabondish fun contained in some of those peripheral scenes. For example, while it's a clever touch in an American production to play Fluellen, the Welsh duke, as a southerner in a cowboy hat (complete with leeks) – and Sean MacBride Murray has fun with the role – the Irishman MacMorris isn't here, and though he may be a stereotype, he's Shakespeare's stereotype. Too, in an effort to keep the production down to two hours, some scenes that did make the cut go by almost too quickly to follow.

The good news begins with Danny Yoerges, a marvelous Henry. Any staging of Henry V needs a strong King, and especially a fairly traditional production like this one. Early in the proceedings, Yoerges seems stuck in an angry declamatory style, but his character fleshes out methodically, until by the time the young boys guarding the storehouse are killed by the fleeing French cavalry, Henry's seething, buttoned-up rage is thoroughly believable. Subsequently, after the battle is won, he transforms handily into Katherine's arch, bright-eyed wooer.

By a "traditional" production I mean the story is told straightforwardly, without extravagant sets and props, and, except for the cuts, in a form Shakespeare himself would probably recognize easily. The cast is very large, which makes for effective charging unto breaches. Casting the members of the French court as women, from King down to Herald, might in another production seem experimental or even outrageous, but after initially absorbing the conceit, one takes relatively little note of it, in large measure due to Jennifer Ewing's suitably regal performance as the French king. Jeni Ahlfeld is appropriately hot-headed at the Dauphin. (The Queen has been eliminated from the script, but she isn't missed.)

Luckily Mr. Ferraioli also cast women as the female characters: the Hostess (the former Mistress Quickly) in England; and in France, Meg Mark as a delightful and winsome Katherine and Jessica Renee Russell as a very funny Alice. The pair have a blast with the famous French-language scene where Alice teaches Katherine English words for various parts of the body. Ms. Mark is graceful, coy, funny and charming in the wooing scene as well.

Other performances of note include Thom Brown III as a very fine Chorus – mellifluous and stentorian, half Derek Jacobi, half Brad Oscar – and Jeff Burroughs as a fiery, biker-chained Pistol.

Henry V runs through Oct. 3 at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City, Queens.

Theater Review: heavenly BENTO

A unique video-grounded production dramatizes how Sony discovered a magical ability to tap into consumers’ unconscious dreams.

Quick, think of a play about business and businessmen. What comes to mind? The works of David Mamet? The sad career of Willy Loman? In any case, if you've thought of something, it's probably some savage American play about hard men, hard luck, or both.

Now imagine a distant, alien land, where doing business is a matter of cooperation and honor, not cutthroat competition. Where a business contract – if a contract is even deemed necessary – contains a requirement that if circumstances that might affect the terms of the contract change, the parties will sit down and politely discuss the matter.

Japan, early 1950s. With his country still reeling from the war, weapons engineer Masaru Ibuka (Alexander Schröder) dreams of founding a new consumer electronics company where he will run "the ideal factory" and help "reconstruct Japan." He will "eliminate any untoward profit-taking" and in the process "elevate the nation's culture." Doesn't sound much like the dog-eat-dog world of American business, and indeed it's not.

heavenly BENTO, a German production which just ran for three nights in English at the Japan Society, uses narration, dramatic conversations, dance, and innovative video to tell a stylized but engrossing version of the founding and success of Sony, first in Japan, then in the US. The audience sits above a raised white platform which is both stage and projection screen. The players – two actors and a dancer – interact with projected images at their feet.

One thinks of a boxing ring. One thinks also of a giant flat-screen TV. Both are appropriate. When Sony comes to New York, in the person of Akio Morita (Jun Kim), it must adjust its culture to that of 1950s America: competitive, chaotic, and big. Though a hit in Japan, Sony's pocket-size radio initially fails to impress American distributors, who insist that Americans want everything to be huge.

Initially a cautious and none-too-confident fellow, Morita squeezes himself through the sieve of American styles and ways, emerging a forceful, creative, and adaptable marketer. Ikeda, who stays in Japan struggling for years to perfect what would become Trinitron color TV technology, never fully comes to grips with what is required to expand successfully into the US market, and it is the contrast between the two men, one developing and progressing, the other sticking to the old ways, that provides the play with much of its drama.

The development of Sony's technology becomes a compelling story too. The company initially had to fight a reputation Japanese manufacturers had in America for "cheap stuff and bad imitations." But after lengthy birth pangs, the Trinitron is a technological and popular success, and when color is finally projected onto the wide, white stage floor, the change is dramatic. With it the dancer (Kazue Ikeda) appears, and the future appears bright.

It's interesting to hear of Ibuka's half-century-old dream for his radios, that "they will be smaller and more beautiful than anything built before," coupled with his desire to "build unseen things in mysterious ways…such products exists in people's dreams – we just have to follow our dreams." This is exactly the sort of language used today of (and by) Apple. The breakthrough iPod was a latter-day Sony Walkman (which was itself a latter-day Sony TR-6 portable radio). iPod and Walkman had exactly the same function. But in the interim Sony had acquired too much faith in its own infallibility, insisting too firmly on going its own way and that the public would follow. It had lost that magical ability to tap into consumers' unconscious dreams, and instead trusted its own. Apple stepped in.

The play doesn't deal with Sony's loss of the the mantle of cool. The closest it gets to Cupertino is a mention of Sony's leap into Hollywood with its 1989 acquisition of Columbia Pictures. But the story it tells has something mysterious and magical about it – as mysterious, in its way, as art itself.

heavenly BENTO played for three nights this past week at the Japan Society in New York. It returns to Berlin for a short run next month.

Photo: posttheater

Theater Review: MilkMilkLemonade by Joshua Conkel

One of the funniest shows in town right now is also one of the most searching. Joshua Conkel's MilkMilkLemonade is a rollicking, twisting, and twisted coming-of-age tale that's also, thanks to an excellent cast and Isaac Butler's boisterous, assured direction, pretty slick for an Off Off Broadway production.

The Management has become known as an edgy downtown group with notable depth. Their new production explores being gay in America, but specifically Middle America, and more precisely a chicken farm not far from the implied national nightmare succinctly summed up in the name "Mall Town, USA." Conkel's script feelingly and humorously explores the relationship between two schoolboys, one effeminate and (mostly) liking himself that way, the other so desperately fighting his homosexual urges that he lashes out in a number of ways: "setting stuff on fire," getting into fights at home and at school, and punching and kicking the air like Cuchulain battling the waves.

The graceful, plastic, slightly Jim Carrey-ish Andy Phelan is a joy as Emory, who both embodies and explodes the stereotype of the boy who plays with dolls, dreams of singing and dancing on Broadway, and sometimes wishes he were a girl just to make things "easier." Elliot, the tough kid – coiled with rage, but at heart a romantic with a thing for tuxedos – is played wonderfully by the diminutive actress Jess Barbagallo. She's much shorter than Phelan, and the reverse-role height difference is a constant reminder that what's on the inside is what should matter. Elliot is bitterly ashamed of their sex play in Emory's barn, and it discomfits Emory too, in a different way; Nanna, his grandmother, is constantly trying to "cure" him of his effeminate ways, and his best friend and confidant is not a person at all but Linda (Jennifer Harder), an oversized chicken.

Linda's not a pretend friend, exactly. Though only Emory can understand her clucking, she's known to all, having attained semi-mythical status with the curious Elliot and become a thorn in the side of the impatient Nanna (Michael Cyril Creighton in hilarious drag). Nanna just wants to get her chickens processed and sold, while Emory wants to protect this special chicken from the jaws of the machine; in fact, he wants to grow up and turn the farm into a vegan paradise. How it all ends isn't terribly important; getting there is where the fun is, and there's an awful lot of it – a number of moments had the audience in such stitches the cast had to wait patiently for the laughter to fade.

Meredith Steinberg's energetic and funny choreography deserves mention, and the choices of music are spot-on – how can you not love a show that features "I've Never Been to Me"? And, while the whole cast shines, it wouldn't be fair to skip a mention of Nikole Beckwith, who plays a constantly terrified narrator/chorus figure in a black leotard. Among other things, she provides translations of Linda's chicken-speak in a deadly-funny synthesized-computer voice, plays a creepy evil twin, and dances the part of Elliot's beloved Barbie-type doll.

There's so much to recommend this show, so many show-stopping bits and scenes, that it was standing room only last night at the tiny UNDER St. Marks theater. (Beckwith and Harder's spider scene is not to be missed.) It runs only through Sept. 26, so get your tickets now.

Photos by John Alexander.

Theater Review: Emily by Chris Cragin

This diverting but flawed play aims to bring Emily Dickinson to life through drama and poetry.

It can't be easy to create a drama about a famous recluse like Emily Dickinson, but playwright Chris Cragin and director Steve Day give it the old Amherst try with Emily. The play aims to illuminate the spinster poet's self-circumscribed life through dramatizing family scenes during her late teens and twenties.

It begins unpromisingly, with the cast clumping about constructing the set for the first scene, then introducing their characters in a sequence that's meant to be enveloping but comes across as too precious. The stylized quality of this prologue extends through much of the play, and while it does help convey the distance Emily establishes between herself and the rest of the world, it also curtails our engagement with the story. In spite of the graceful cast and their lush costumes, Mr. Day doesn't develop much of interest to look at on stage; the slow pace sometimes sinks into ennui rather than expanding into stateliness.

The play comes to life in certain amusing scenes, and it boasts some good performances, notably the finely calibrated, unsentimental yet touching portrayal of the poet by Elizabeth A. Davis. At one point, Emily's teacher, Mr. Williamson (an earnest, composite character somewhat overplayed by Christopher Bonewitz) tells Emily he has submitted one of her poems anonymously to a journal, and it has been accepted. "I don't know why I'm crying," Emily confesses in a poignant, perfect little moment that shines a pinpoint light on her character.

Another such moment, a more obvious one, crowns the play's liveliest scene: the young Emily, her siblings, and her friend Newton (Mr. Bonewitz again, here very funny) are reading from Romeo and Juliet, and the girls go on to discuss which suitor they'd choose. Emily makes an absurd selection. In her late teens, she hasn't yet retreated into her somber white cloud, but she's already a girl apart.

Ms. Davis also recites Dickinson's poetry very sweetly, and if nothing else, seeing this play will remind you (or teach you for the first time) of the great beauty of these poems. Certain lines of some of the poems are read in unison by more than one character, which I found distracted from the sense of the lines, though my companion appreciated its musicality. Other quibbles: Jenny Ledel is good as Emily's sister-in-law Sue, but Sue's lower-class origin is one of a number of potentially dramatizing factors that are spoken of but could have been taken better advantage of to make the play more engrossing. Also, though Ms. Ledel is a talented young actress, giving her a pair of granny glasses and a shawl doesn't convincingly transform her into Emily's aging mother.

In short, this modestly diverting play partially succeeds in bringing Emily Dickinson to life, but more through the lead performance and the poetry itself than through the play's conception or realization. I can't deny that it succeeded in sending me home to crack open my copy of Emily Dickinson's Collected Poems.

Emily runs through Sept. 27 at Theatre Row.

Photo: Firebone Theatre

Theater Review: Lizzie Borden

This new rock musical is loud, dark, creepy, lovely to look at, and strikes like a hammer – or an axe.

After some none-too-thrilling recent experiences with new musicals, including one about a famous set of awful murders, I wondered whether Lizzie Borden would be more of the same blathering – or the refreshing energy charge its promotions seemed to promise. Thank the Lord of the Flies (or somebody), it's the latter.

Loud, dark, creepy, and lovely to look at (despite limited quarters), the show fancifully retells the story of the sensational 1892 double murder in Fall River, Massachusetts. Thirty-two-year-old Lizzie Borden was acquitted of killing her father and stepmother with a hatchet, despite circumstantial evidence against her. After the acquittal, many continued to believe in her guilt, and the nation has never forgotten the grisly tale.

The show assumes Lizzie's guilt and explores why the deeds might have gone down. Its creators – Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner, who also directs – have set the songs in heavy metal modes, but little about the score screams "genre." It's loud, but never painfully or confusingly so, and it's edgy, with some gloomy imagery, but in essence it's comprised of simply wonderful tunes, with satisfying crunch, engaging and well-crafted lyrics, and bright (okay, dark) pop hooks. Some have complex structures, most luxuriously "Questions, Questions," one of several showstoppers, in which the four characters sing different overlapping parts and spin through evocative choreography – all in 7/8 time.

As there isn't much book, the show depends almost entirely on the songs to carry the story. Fortunately the sound designer (Jamie McElhinney) keeps the levels sensible, mics the singers well, and mixes everything properly, so one seldom misses a lyric. Even more fortunately, the four-woman cast is absolutely stellar, wonderful actors with clear, powerful voices that cut through the tight band's rock bombast without trouble.

Though the historical Lizzie's homosexuality has been fairly well established by events later in her life, the show's creators have (themselves, it seems) cooked up a romance between Lizzie (a supremely confident and perfectly fetching Jenny Fellner) and her friend Alice Russell (a radiant Marie-France Arcilla). Though the relationship is speculative, the writers have made smart use of Alice's trial testimony, turning lines like "I am afraid somebody will do something" and "I saw no blood on that dress" into pointed moments and memorable songs, and deepening the meaning of the events by the added dimension of the love story. An early song between the pair ("The Soul of the White Bird") takes place in the barn, where Lizzie escapes her hellish home life to tend her beloved pigeons. Artfully lit and shadowed by lighting designer Christian DeAngelis, it is beautifully, movingly performed by Ms. Fellner and Ms. Arcilla.

There are no characters but the four women: the regally coiffed but passionate Alice; Lizzie herself; her older sister Emma Borden (a sharp and funny Lisa Birnbaum, who has a powerful alto); and the maid, Bridget (a fierce, punked-out Carrie Cimma). The choice to leave out the elder Bordens seems a little odd at first, but its wisdom quickly becomes apparent as we're plunged into the closed, claustrophobic world of the sisters' half of the divided household. Each sister, and Bridget too, has been suggested by historians and enthusiasts as the real murderer, and the show develops along conspiratorial lines, with motives coalescing. A haunting Act I number, "Shattercane and Velvet Grass," is another showstopper, with Lizzie and Bridget circling around the idea of poisoning the usurping stepmother.

Bobby Frederick Tilley II dresses the women in gorgeous costumes, some period, others punk and biker-chick, effectively melding repressive Victorian mores with the escapist, almost vampiric imagery of the darker forms of rock music. The superb band includes Mr. Hewitt, along with Christian Gibbs of the Passing Strange band (also known as the very talented singer-songwriter C. Gibbs). The musicians propel the story inexorably towards its conclusion, which is tragic in a way, in spite of the uncertainty that lingers. Indeed, there's nothing indeterminate about this Lizzie Borden – it strikes like a hammer (or an axe), and with precision. The show would require only a modest expansion in length and breadth to be worthy of a production in a much larger setting, even Broadway. (Musicals need to be pretty long these days to justify $125 ticket prices).

For now, until Oct. 17, you can catch it for just $25 at The Living Theatre. Forty whacks to anyone who misses it.

Photos by Carl Skutsch. 1) Jenny Fellner. 2) Marie-France Arcilla, Jenny Fellner, Carrie Cimma.

Theater Review: Spinning the Times – Five World Premieres by Female Irish Playwrights

It’s often dangerous to generalize, but I feel secure in stating that the Irish are pretty good at writing drama. The Origin Theatre Company’s new evening of world-premiere one-person plays, collectively titled Spinning the Times, has done nothing to disabuse me of this happy prejudice.

Part of the Origin’s 1st Irish festival, the production brings together brief new works by five female playwrights. Though the writers all hail from Ireland, it is a highly international evening, and director M. Burke Walker seems to have chosen the order of presentation with care, as one might map out a world tour.

Rosemary Jenkinson’s The Lemon Tree takes place in a modern-day Belfast where violent echoes of the Troubles linger, and linger. Young Kenny likes to stir up mischief with his pals and harass the local Catholics, but he’s affected more than he’d like to admit by an encounter with an American relief worker drumming up aid for Palestinians in Gaza. As embodied by the lanky, magnetic, and deadly-focused Jerzy Gwiazdowski, who dominates the stage seemingly effortlessly, Kenny is not merely a fully realized creature, but bigger than life in that believable, language-soaked Irish way. Ms. Jenkinson has the exceptional storyteller’s talent of deriving large truths from small fictions. Her play is a compressed, polished marvel, practically a poem, with not a word out of place, nor, thanks to Mr. Gwiazdowski and the exquisitely skilled direction, an extraneous gesture.

From talk of Gaza, we move to the place itself, where in Lucy Caldwell’s wrenching The Luthier a young Palestinian violin repairman evokes his horrific childhood. The subtle and precise sound design (by Christian Frederickson),  lighting (Jonathan Spencer), and set design (Lex Liang) aid mightily, as music and rockets and the buzzing and dimming of stuttering electrical power transport us to the workshop where Dawood, partially protected from the war outside, studies his craft – and from which he slides us into the past, where as a child he lost his family and saw his friends die in an undeclared war he didn’t ask for.

Ms.Caldwell illuminates moments that limn Dawood’s essential humanity against the inhumanity that surrounds him: as a child, crowding around a pilfered “porno” DVD with his friends; imagine that in this day in age, now all the New and popular sex videos are all at dosexvideo. As a young craftsman and music student, being transported by Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance”; as a physical being, lighting and snuffing the tin-can candles he must use when the power goes out. As played convincingly by Ethan Nova, Dawood spreads his mild, peaceful nature over the theater, so that when he relates violent events they strike us all the harder. Mr. Nova easily overcomes the slight handicap of not quite looking the part, brilliantly casting a soft, cold spell, then kicking us when we’re down.

Mr. Walker next gives us a welcome break with the funny, relatively breezy, but still absorbing Miracle Conway by Geraldine Aron. In this artful tale, the expert Rosemary Fine (Juno and the Paycock, The Abbey, The Gate) brings to life an everywoman who gets a job as an assistant to a famous songwriter. Spinning love fantasies, she concludes, with eminent sense, that something ought to be done about the man’s beautiful but annoying wife. By the time we find out, finally, where Miracle has actually ended up, we’re utterly charmed by the brazen, deluded creature, who frankly admits that “I always end up getting on people’s nerves.”

It was a pleasure to see again the marvelous Aysan Çelik, who nearly stole the Queen’s Company’s production of Twelfth Night last fall. Her vehicle here isn’t the best of the evening, however. With Rosalind Hazlett’s Gin in a Teacup we’ve arrived in the New World, where Nooshn, a young woman of Iranian extraction, waits for her sister in a bar/cafe in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Crazy Joe Gallo’s old turf is now a “frontier” neighborhood whose gentrification has been slowed by lack of subway access but which is nevertheless up-and-coming; it’s appropriate that the eccentric Nooshn, a vintage clothing enthusiast and blogger, has washed up in a place that’s still mostly possibility. But the piece, while well-written and performed, doesn’t leap off the page as the preceding stories do. It’s an amusing slice of an interesting life, with Ms. Çelik rousing our sympathies and cleverly conjuring up her old-fashioned mother and pushy, politically active sister, but it doesn’t quite take on the dimensionality that can elevate a one-person work from monologue to play.

The evening ends with the disappointing Fugue, in which neither Mr. Walker nor actor Mark Byrne is able to bring to life Belinda McKeon’s tale of emigration. That now-familiar sectarian violence has chased another young Irish Protestant across the ocean to New York, where it remains lodged in his mind even as he’s buffeted by unrelated vicissitudes of life in his new city.

Nevertheless, the best of this evening is outstanding and accounts for the bulk of it. Spinning the Times runs through Sept. 20 at 59E59 Theaters. Not taking a theater-heavy trip to Ireland anytime soon? Alas, neither am I. Fortunately, the Origin Theatre Company has brought some of the cream of the crop to New York audiences, who ought to jump at the chance to take it in, Troubles and all.

Theater Review: As You Like It by the Queens Players

Some secrets are more secret than others. The other day I was 115 feet below ground, inside Secret Caverns in upstate New York, marveling at the attraction's 100-foot underground waterfall. Man, is that loud. With abundant, fanciful advertising signage rippling for miles along the nearby roads, Secret Caverns are surely the least secret caverns in these United States.

A bit harder to find is the Secret Theatre. Located in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens, NY, the Secret Theatre is not far from well-known cultural institutions like P.S. 1 and Silvercup Studios. But the two-year-old space is tucked away under the shadow of the elevated number 7 train, set back from a night-desolate street through a loading dock, indicated by a single sign, then another half-hidden sign, then through a lightly marked door… you get the picture.

Manhattan snobs, check your snobbery at that door. The Secret Theatre's current production of Shakespeare's popular comedy As You Like It is as good as any Off Off Broadway Shakespeare you'll find on the more glittery side of the East River, and better than most.

The Queens Players, resident at the Secret, are not to be confused with the Queen's Company, which presents Shakespeare with all-female casts and anachronistic bursts of pop music. This As You Like It does not lure (or repel) with experimental casting or unorthodox interpretation. Extraordinarily well directed by Greg Cicchino, it triumphs with more or less pure Shakespeare.

We'll probably never know whether the Bard's inability to use female actors had anything to do with his attraction to stories that involved young maids disguising themselves as swains. What we can safely say, reinforced by the elastic Claire Morrison's animated and expert performance here, is that Rosalind is one of Shakespeare's most fully realized and interesting female characters.

Banished from the court of the usurping Duke Frederick, she flees into the Forest of Arden accompanied by her moody cousin Celia (the comically smoldering Melisa Breiner-Sanders) and the court Fool, Touchstone (the magnificent Daniel Smith, here channeling John Cleese.)

The forest, also the hiding place of Rosalind's beloved and already banished father, Duke Senior, and his band of loyalists, is at first a "desert" of hunger and exhaustion to the newcomers. But the upbeat Duke (the appropriately stentorian Timothy J. Cox, who also plays the usurper) has fashioned it into a pastoral realm of merry ease, removed from the stresses of court (read: modern) life. Yet the forest's fantastical aura also makes it a fit setting for the play's most famous passage, the "All the world's a stage" speech. Uttered by the melancholy Jaques, it is, among other things, the ultimate exposition of life's meaninglessness. Yet Jaques (Chris Kateff in a knife-sharp performance) is a man apart. Both mocked and humored by the other men of the Duke's company, he cannot, even to the bitter end, share in the rough optimism of his lord, nor the love-soaked banterings and witticisms of the young lovers prancing abundantly about.

And love and wit do triumph. If, as Touchstone lectures, "The truest poetry is the most feigning," it is nonetheless the rhymes carved in the trees by Rosalind's swain, the passionate, lovelorn Orlando (an effective Anthony Martinez), that keep hope burning, not to mention the story.

Mr. Cicchino has a gift for focusing his actors' strengths, and for creating moments of unscripted, silent humor that move the action swiftly along. From his fine cast he draws out a number of standout performances in the smaller roles too, including Michael Henrici as Orlando's cruel elder brother Oliver (and the heavily inebriated and uproariously named Sir Oliver Martext); Griffin DuBois as the besotted shepherd Silvius; the zesty Larissa Laurel as Phebe, Silvius's cantankerous object of desire; a mutely hilarious Amy Newhall as Touchstone's foil, the clueless country wench Audrey; and the delightful Louis Tullo, a welcome newcomer to the New York stage, in two roles, notably a very funny LeBeau. Indeed, despite the dominance of the Rosalind-Orlando storyline, the production is the very model of a modern ensemble piece.

Leave it to Shakespeare, in the loving and crafty hands of a director like Mr. Cicchino, to bring to glorious life the human tapestry in all its poetic good cheer under the rumbling elevated trains of Long Island City.

As You Like It runs only through Sept. 5, so make your plans now. Tickets (call 866-811-4111 if you don't like ordering online) are a piddling $15.  You can't even buy a movie ticket and popcorn for that anymore, but you can get excellent live Shakespeare one subway stop from Manhattan.

Theater Review: A Time to Dance by Libby Skala

Libby Skala based her first solo play, Lilia!, on the life of her late grandmother, the well-known Hollywood actress Lilia Skala. In her wonderful new show, A Time to Dance, she channels her great-aunt, Lilia's younger sister Elizabeth ("Lisl") Polk, who, while attaining less renown, lived a life just as long, eventful, and interesting, if not more so. Out of the 201 productions in this year's New York Fringe Festival, it's one of the small number of must-sees.

Having experienced just about all of the 20th century – both in timespan and in all it had to offer – the half-Jewish Lisl can almost be said to embody the century itself. As Ms. Skala tells it, before becoming a dance therapy pioneer in New York, Lisl grew up in Austria, was sent to Denmark for safekeeping during World War I, contracted and beat tuberculosis, got kicked out of a modern dance studio for the sin of studying ballet, and managed a harrowing (and apparently also magical) escape from the Nazis.

Of course, many people live interesting lives, but few have a descendant as talented and ambitious as Ms. Skala to celebrate them. That she is a confident and graceful dancer is clear from the nearly constant movement she weaves through the hourlong monologue. But what makes the show such a charming entertainment, aside from the meat of the story itself, is her remarkable skill as a comic actor. Pouting, marveling, dancing, raging, worrying, dancing, beating time to the music (from recordings produced by Lisl herself for her dance therapy), mugging, miming, marrying, divorcing, dancing some more, and even finding a kind of true love (in an unexpected but soul-satisfying fashion), the character and the actor fuse until we just about believe that Lisl herself, thick Austrian accent and all, is before us, telling story after story for us to laugh and wonder at.

In a way, it's an old-fashioned biography. Take an interesting life; tell it from the start – Lisl's premature birth and surprising survival – to nearly the end; and allow the audience to marvel at its foreignness while recognizing its universality. A Time to Dance is truly uplifting without being at all saccharine, and that is perhaps the greatest miracle of all.

Top photo: Libby Skala in A Time to Dance, photo by Damon Calderwood.
Bottom photo: Elizabeth Polk in Vienna, 1930s. Public domain.