Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Chris Schutz, Easter Monkeys, Putumayo’s Jazz, Tom White

Chris Schutz’s CD is one of the top pop debuts of the year.

Chris Schutz + Tourists, Gemini

There's a lot more to Chris Schutz's sound than the Radiohead-like thrumming bass and plaintive single-note guitar pinches of "White Lady," the opening track on his debut disc. Schutz's voice comes at you as if from a cave beneath your feet and somehow says "postmodern," but the simple fact that you're hearing a good song keeps you listening. Next comes "Spinning Wheel" with its fast pop pulse and organ-heavy wall of sound, clocking in at under 2 minutes 20 seconds, and the folky, vaguely tropical "Continental Drifter" which reads like a cross between the Drifters (title no accident?) and the Mamas and the Papas.

Other songwriting styles and beats drift through the rest of the disc: a swirl of reggae-soul, south of the border trumpets, country-western swagger, a Squeeze-like jauntiness. Slightly muted, echoey production sweeps through everything, reflecting Schutz's use of analog equipment and his 60s-influenced aesthetic. The latter is evident in titles like "Tripping the Bit" and "So High" with its not one but two deceptively simple two-chord hooks alternating with chunky, Kinks-like surprise changes and completely unexpected sax solo.

All tied together by Schutz's honeyed voice and the vintage sounds he and his band prefer, the disc closes with a contemplative acoustic number and a power ballad that sounds like Roy Orbison meeting the Beatles. Like many of the songs, they each bear an unexpected change or two. And that's what this excellent album – definitely one of the top pop debuts of the year – is all about: solid but dreamy pop that does much more than just float by.

Easter Monkeys, Splendor of Sorrow

Easter Monkeys ravaged Cleveland in the early 1980s with drug-addled, slightly psychedelic punk rock. Their album Splendor of Sorrow has been re-released, nicely remastered, and packaged with extras including live tracks and a concert DVD that will definitely please fans. Despite the bleary vocals and anything-goes sensibility, this foursome could play, and this is quite a fun listen if you're in the right mood: loose, goofy, unjaded. It may have helped, in my case, that I never heard of the band before and knew nothing about them except what's in the liner notes, which are themselves thirteen years old.

I have been to several Cleveland rock clubs, though. Even played in a few. I've seen American Splendor. And it does all make a stinky kind of sense. This rocking, jangling, funny music, of a type I don't normally listen to, has grown on me. Like mold in a damp underground club.

Various Artists, Jazz Around the World from Putumayo World Music

Ahhhh… everything's OK. Feels like it anyway.

Must be a Putumayo CD in the stereo.

This time around it's Jazz Around the World, featuring artists from all over (but especially Africa and Europe) performing or at least touching on America's classical music: jazz. Appropriately enough it starts out with Montreal's Chantal Chamberland singing "La Mer" in the original French, her husky alto preparing us for a journey through worlds of cool. Flecks of neo-soul dot the almost disturbingly unthreatening vocal and guitar stylings of Cameroon's Blick Bassy. Djelli Moussa Diawara, who hails from Guinea, applies his kora skills to a Cuban tune as part of the Kora Jazz Trio. Mexico-based group Sherele jazzes up traditional klezmer. Artists better known in the West are represented too: Hugh Masekela teams with singer Malaika and a South African chorus for "Open the Door," which crosses gospel with Afropop. (It's a bit of a stretch to call this particular number "jazz.") And fusion legend Billy Cobham appears with the Cuban group Asere.

Putumayo discs are always likable and almost always relaxing; but some of the choices on this one feel, if anything, excessively safe. Nonetheless it's certainly a pleasant listen and would make a fine stocking stuffer for most world music or jazz fans.

Tom White, Voices from Corn Mountain – Instrumental Music Featuring the Hammered Dulcimer

While Putumayo travels the world in search of music that's both exotic and pleasant to Western ears, your intrepid reviewer has to drive only a few hours north of New York City to work with producer, recording engineer, and multi-instrumentalist Tom White, who kindly gave me a copy of his recent CD. The disc is loaded with instrumental pieces featuring the hammered dulcimer, one of the many instruments of which he is a master. (Tom also plays guitar, fiddle, mandolin, tin whistle, flutes, two different banjos, concertina, and percussion, and that's just on this one CD.) The tunes are a mix of traditional Celtic dances and originals. Email Tom at wizmak at a-oh-ell dot com for information on ordering a copy of this beautiful and unusual recording.

Theater Review: THIS by Melissa James Gibson at Playwrights Horizons

The “annoying” gay friend – hardly the sitcom stereotype.

Human interaction is a complex, intuitional, frequently absurd jumble of conversation, innuendo, and the unspoken. At the same time, it’s broadly predictable: people we know well will seldom surprise us, so that it’s memorable when they do.

Dealing with this dual nature of communication is a major challenge for a playwright who wishes to craft realistic dialogue. Generally such a writer wants to dramatize important events in the lives of her characters, while at the same time making the minutiae of their interactions convincingly real. She must accomplish all this with characters known only to her, since we the audience have just met them; without the benefit of the elevated, concentrated language of poetry; and yet in a short period of time. Melissa James Gibson, author of the award-winning [sic], meets this essential challenge of tone, pace, and content nearly perfectly in her new play THIS.

The story skeleton is pretty standard: four friends in their late 30s, three straight and one gay, deal with major life events, catalyzed by infidelity and an exotic new acquaintance. The glory is in the details. Jane’s (Julianne Nicholson) husband died a year ago, leaving her with a school-age daughter. Her friend Marrell (Eisa Davis), a brand-new mom herself, has in mind to break Jane out of her widowy slump by introducing her to handsome Jean-Pierre (Louis Cancelmi), a French “Doctor Without Borders.”

Meanwhile Marrell’s marriage to Tom (Darren Pettie), already troubled, has grown shakier and sexless with the arrival of their new baby. After a party in which a parlor game goes hilariously, frightfully wrong, Tom reveals longstanding feelings for Jane in a brilliantly composed and delivered speech. The “real” game is afoot.

Gibson plays games with our expectations throughout. The rules of the parlor game – so the friends tell Jane, who doesn’t like games – are simple, but she objects: “You make them sound simple, which means they’re not.” That seems a suitable watchword for life, and certainly for this realistically messy tale. Alan (Glenn Fitzgerald) is the gay, single friend whose sexual orientation is the one aspect of his character that isn’t “otherizing.” (The “annoying” gay friend is hardly the sitcom stereotype.) Alan (with his “dormant Judaism”), Tom, and Jane are white, while Marrell is black, but race comes up only in unexpected yet biting bits.

Everyone has some otherness to submerge or nurse. The four friends met in college, but Tom, the one who works with his hands, was an employee there, not a student. When Marrell confesses to Jane her marital unhappiness, she mentions the lack of sex, but also that “Tom stopped voting… I don’t know him anymore.” That sort of loose bit of information, like Jean-Pierre’s funny phone call scene, doesn’t really go anywhere or even make perfect sense, but reveals character while touching on the layer of absurdity that’s a part of everything we do to and with one another.

Thanks to Alan’s gift of perfect recall, we have a mechanism for seeing through the veils of interpretation different characters pull over the same events. One small imperfection is the self-consciousness of the scene in which we see Alan performing his mnemonic act, introducing us to this important plot point. But creating a character with this ability was an inspired twist.

A sixth character is Louisa Thompson’s vast, jumbled set, which in its fullness represents Tom and Marrell’s homey loft apartment. Loft apartments have long been considered very elegant, artsy places to live and you may want to GO TO SPACE STATION ? if you’re interested in living in one of them yourself. Overhung with a huge skylight panel, its large size, lived-in clutter, and two levels echo the complexity of the lives Gibson splatters before us. It’s telling that the whole thing fades away (Matt Frey’s lighting is very effective) for a sparkling closing scene in which Jane, having at last shaken off some of her burden of grief, addresses her sleeping child in the latter’s bedroom. Despite its broad canvas the play is full of such moments: the lonely rattling sound emanating from a wooden bowl cum baptismal font after Marrell learns she’s been cheated on; Tom placing the baby monitor on Marrell’s piano and returning grimly to his cabinetmaking; Alan helping Jane on with the coat whose broken zipper she hasn’t bothered to fix; Jane’s sad, broken metaphor, “the wolf is never away from the door, the wolf is the door.”

Daniel Aukin, who also directed [sic], does beautiful work here with his superb cast. I’m a firm believer that if you don’t notice the direction, the director has done a good job, and just about every scene here feels natural, though powerfully staged at appropriate moments.

THIS continues at Playwrights Horizons through Dec. 13. Order by Nov. 25 with the code THGR to get tickets for only $50 (reg. $65). To order, visit or call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200, open daily noon-8:00 pm.

Photo by Joan Marcus.

Theater Review: Cyrano de Bergerac

Daniel Wolfe delivers a tour-de-force performance as the swashbuckling poet in Rostand’s masterwork.

The story is as familiar as that of the sword in the stone or the vacillating Danish prince. Swashbuckling solider-poet Cyrano loves his winsome cousin Roxane, but despite his valor and popularity among his comrades his huge nose prevents him (or so he is convinced) from being taken seriously in matters of the heart. Learning that his beloved has taken a shine to another soldier, and that the handsome but tongue-tied Christian loves her back, Cyrano swallows his pride and settles for wooing Roxane indirectly by feeding Christian the high-flying, romantic poetry and wit Roxane demands.

The ruse is working, but Colonel DeGuiche, a jealous suitor, sends Cyrano and Christian's unit on a dangerous mission to the front lines just after Christian and Roxane have, with Cyrano's anguished help, hurriedly wed. Misunderstanding and tragedy carry the day, until the truth comes out years later when it's too late.

Though the story is familiar, we don't often get the chance to see it up close on a small stage, and certainly not with as fine an actor as Daniel Wolfe in the lead role. Mr. Wolfe's commanding performance in this Queens Players production – passionate, witty, antic, elastic, full-throated – is nearly enough all by itself to carry the weight of this very long (even though somewhat cut) production of Edmond Rostand's century-old classic. And fortunately, Mr. Wolfe is not alone, getting able backup from Anthony Martinez – who was a spirited Orlando in the company's recent As You Like It – as a suitably comical yet sympathetic Christian, and from a charming if slightly less sure-footed Sarah Bonner as Roxane. Ms. Bonner seemed to warm up as the long evening rolled on, perhaps inspired by Mr. Wolfe's blistering presence.

Of the supporting cast, some are quite good, while others turn in merely adequate performances, and there are one or two glaring failures. A more general problem mars the production as well. It's very difficult to understand what's going on during the lengthy opening scene, which is supposed to give us a cross-section of Parisian society before Cyrano's entrance; though the scene is briskly paced, some dialogue is lost through a combination of poor diction and the echoey sound of the Queens Players' new, larger space in the Long Island City Art Center (you can still smell the paint). Overall the ensemble scenes are prone to weakness. Rostand's picture of the society in which his heroes move, which ought to be sharp as tacks, comes through hazily at best.

But this production is well worth seeing, first for Mr. Wolfe's galvanizing performance, and second for the vision of Queens Players artistic director Richard Mazda, which is penetrating where it counts.  Mr. Mazda directs the production himself, and gives proper stress to a supremely important facet of the play: besides love and society, it's about art itself.

The dual meanings of that little three-letter word merge in Cyrano. The hero is a true artist in both senses. He is a wizard with words, a poet, a playwright, even a kind of "artist" with his sword. At the same time, he is supremely "artful" – a kind of trickster, a deceiver, though one with only the noblest of intentions. The pain that motivates him produces many of the play's comical elements as well as its ultimate tragedy.

Cyrano is among other things a piece of meta-theater. It asks us to believe the unbelievable – that Roxane won't recognize when a literally different voice has takes over beneath her window; that Cyrano can spin fresh, clever rhymes while engaged in a swordfight, and then hack his way through 100 attackers. And it doesn't apologize for asking these things of us; it knows it is a piece of artifice. Rostand's triumph, and here Mr. Wolfe's as well, is to pull us along the whole way, going gladly.

I have a feeling Mr. Mazda wanted to have it both ways: to present the play in as much of its broad, spread-out glory as possible, while bringing the central characters into sharp focus. Perhaps that was too much to ask of a low-budget, Off Off Broadway production and an unevenly skilled company. But the sharp realization of the central story, with an unforgettable performance in the title role, is more than enough to make this a very worthwhile evening of theater. 

Cyrano de Bergerac runs through Dec. 5 at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City, Queens (one stop from Manhattan on the E or V train).

Photos: Cameron Hughes

Theater Review: Wolves at the Window by Toby Davies (after Saki)

What stayed with me from my childhood reading of Saki was the sense of eerie irony, along with the threatening feeling of something wild lurking just beneath the veneer of civilization. What actually happened in the stories mattered less. But Toby Davies' stage adaptation of a selection of the stories has brought back both the mood and the materials, and made it clear to your humble reviewer, though he must shamefacedly admit to not having re-read Saki as an adult, that the tales retain their punch.

Mr. Davies has woven a number of Saki's short stories into a web of darkly funny, skit-like scenes, populated by an assortment of broadly drawn and eloquently written characters all played by four fabulously droll actors. The cast, like Mr. Davies, director Thomas Hescott, and, sadly, H. H. Munro (alias Saki) himself, won't be too familiar to American audiences – not, at any rate, as familiar as playwright Alan Ayckbourn, who is also represented at this year's "Brits Off Broadway" series at 59E59 Theaters. But do catch this production if you have a chance – it's a delight, and a fine introduction for those unfamiliar with Saki, who was born in 1870 and died fighting in World War One.

Dark and sometimes macabre materials, laid out with a humorous touch – that's Saki, and this play is faithful to the writer's tone. Animals star in many of the selected tales (Mr. Davies has drawn from ten). An ancient tiger is goaded via his own predatory instincts into becoming prey for two absurd British huntresses. A woman uses a tiny, tyrannical dog to lord it over her household. A cat learns to talk, but with disastrous consequences for his elegant self when the family that once adored him realizes with horror that "He's heard…everything…" And always there are the wolves of the title, baying and howling in the background (just one element of Tim Saward's effective sound design), advancing in literal fashion into more than one story, turning the haughty, hunting homo sapiens into the hunted.

Even when there's no animal per se there are predator and prey. In the very first story, a grifter tries to gull a smart-ass, who ends up betrayed not by actual gullibility but by an unexpected twist of fate. In the last, a violent end awaits two feuding neighbors, who have buried the hatchet only to fall victim to a literal manifestation of the old "if a tree falls in the forest" question. A malevolent core hums at the center of everything, taking on various guises: petty human deceit, real wild animals – or a vengeful Pan, jealously guarding the tribute left for him. Pan's appeaser is a gentleman who has taken a holiday in the country reluctantly, but adjusted rather more successfully to pagan ways than his jittery wife.

Cleverly constructed and gracefully directed – and superbly lit by Richard Howell – this devilish evening of theater is as enchanting as it is eerie, with many laughs, brilliant acting, and a number of effective goosebump moments. It, just like its source material, could have come from nowhere but Britain. "I suppose," says the con artist in the opening skit, "you think I've spun you quite the impossible yarn." But Saki isn't pulling the wool over our eyes. He's exposing bloody nature. "I've heard it said," declares the city gentleman, "that the Wood Gods are rather horrible to those who molest them." Indeed. Saki meant to skewer Edwardian manners and mores. But when it comes to the human animal, things change very little, whatever century you're in or continent you're on. See this show, then go forth from the theater into the wilds of Midtown, and watch your back.

Wolves at the Window runs through Dec. 6 at 59E59 Theaters, NYC.

Theater Review: The Lesser Seductions of History

The 1960s, A to Z, in one night.

I usually find it disconcerting when a play's skeleton is patently visible, especially a play that aspires to realism. Maybe it's just me, but I remember, even as a child, having to overcome the embarrassed chill the Stage Manager in Our Town gave me with his narration, and only gradually settle into enjoying the show. "The name of our town is Grover's Corners…" I want to be immersed in the world of the play, not given a set of water wings and steered by Mom and Dad.

Another thing that bugs me is when a playwright (or a musician or artist, for that matter) pounds a message too hard. I hate being preached to. Even by someone with whom I agree.

Impressively, then, August Schulenburg's The Lesser Seductions of History narrated, steered, and preached its way into my heart. With an agile cast, and under Heather Cohn's crisp direction, there is no stopping this beautifully written juggernaut, even as it wears its structure on its sleeve.

Schulenburg has bitten off a lot here. In terms of story, he aims to present no less than the entire decade of the 1960s – Camelot, the counterculture, drugs, the sexual revolution, Apollo, Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement (nonviolent and otherwise) – in one evening of theater. And damned if he doesn't do it.

The Flux Theatre Ensemble is known for ambitious productions. Their superb Pretty Theft, for example, was big and sprawling too, though not to this extent. As in Pretty Theft, multiple storylines play out simultaneously on one stage. Eleven precisely drawn characters dance through the decade, illustrating through a quick succession of mostly short scenes their own messy dreams and devastations, while shouldering the zeitgeist they are also asked to embody. They become real to us while representing movements and ideas as well. It's a heavy load but Schulenburg's writing is pointed enough, and the players deft enough, to carry it with seeming ease, and they rivet our attention for two-plus hours.

The ensemble is talented, game, and for the most part well cast. Especially affecting are Ingrid Nordstrom and Christina Shipp as estranged sisters Anisa and Lizzie, one cerebral, the other a troubled free spirit. Both struggle and ultimately fail to live to see their respective triumphs – for scientist Anisa, the moon landing; for flower-child Lizzie, a genuinely valid reason for being. As precisely as the play is structured, the lives it depicts are anything but neat. Therein lies the real accomplishment.

A few times the structuring feels like too much. The stories are told well enough through the characters that I wasn't sure we needed the year-by-year "chapter" divisions – it's quite clear that years are passing, even if we don't know or recall exactly what years Ranger 3 missed the Moon and the Doors broke on through. (A helpful timeline in the program informs us of these and many other facts referenced in the play.)

The narrator/chorus (Candice Holdorf), called "One" in the program, is the genius (in the original sense) of the age, representing ideals like Progress as well as their flip side – the pain and uncertainty that afflict real people seeking their place in the world. An omniscient spirit, "One" mostly watches but, like Athena guiding Odysseus, she comes down to earth to steer when needed, and can get frustrated with her charges' obtuseness. Unlike Athena, she's always high-minded, never petty – and occasionally grating.

"One" sets in motion one of the production's especially impressive sequences, a backward-spinning of time in which the characters nail, rapid-fire, the moments of fateful chance or decision that led them to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where the play's violent, climactic scene occurs. "If I hadn't seen that girl swimming in the waves…" Schulenburg has very cleverly swirled his characters together and apart and together again in different ways, so that their fates coalesce here.

In another remarkable scene the characters sequentially recite Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech while continuing through their own separate scenes, in character, somehow making those titanic lines resonate with these little people's moments. It's one of several sparkling moments in the play when you hold your breath, thinking, Are they actually going to get away with this?, and happily they do.

Except for a slightly disappointing drag near the end, where the final year is more told than shown, the energy never flags, and even that one slowdown is rescued by a beautiful ending. We forgive "One" for being so demanding; in the end she's made a damn good case for activism. Extra kudos go to the moody sound design by Asa Wember, Becky Kelly's understated but right-on costumes, and the rest of the production staff for helping the director make this thick stew flow like clear water.

The Lesser Seductions of History continues through Nov. 22 at the Cherry Pit, 155 Bank St., New York. Tickets ($18) are available online or by calling TheaterMania at 212-352-3101.

Photo by Tyler Griffin Hicks-Wright.

Music at the Morris-Jumel Mansion

Well, blow me down. For ten years they’ve been putting on concerts at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, in upper Manhattan, and no one told me until now (thanks GEMS). Apparently the oldest still-standing residence in the city, the mansion was Washington’s headquarters in 1776 and is a museum now, with period furnishings from the 18th and 19th century including some things that belonged to the Jumels themselves. My grandmother wrote a historical novel about Madame Jumel (long since out of print) but I had never visited the mansion until this past Saturday, when Elisa and I took that long ride on the #1 train to check out the museum and see a concert, held in the room where they used to have concerts two centuries ago. nyc The concert featured the Brooklyn Baroque, a marvelous trio, who performed a program called “Bach and His Contemporaries.” Baroque flutist Andrew Bolotowsky (whom I’ve seen before, I think with Muse) and baroque cellist David Bakamjian were masterful. A special treat was hearing the harpsichord so clearly. Rebecca Pechefsky plays with feeling and a sure touch, but so often in early music concerts in larger halls the harpsichord is barely audible. Not here.

Another cool thing about early music concerts: we get to be among the youngest people there. That doesn’t happen too much anymore!

All-Star Cast of David Mamet’s New Play Race: Dishing the Broadway Dirt

Richard Thomas plays “a man in a suit who’s in a lot of trouble” in David Mamet’s upcoming premiere.

With the decline of the newspapers, mainstream coverage of Broadway and other New York theater has dwindled. The flip side is that there are fewer bigshot reviewers with inflated influence. In response, producers have become hip to the importance of bloggers to getting out advance word about new shows (and then reviewing them).

Today I had the opportunity to meet the all-star cast of the upcoming premiere of David Mamet's new play, Race. David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington, the seemingly ageless Richard Thomas, and James Spader, who confessed that he hasn't done a play in decades, met us upstairs at Red-Eye Grill near Columbus Circle and answered questions about the play, the process, and their own backgrounds.

Understandably, they couldn't tell us anything about the plot. But as the new production of Oleanna reminds us, Mamet's work has a way of generating heat, and the very title of the new play seems to promise a controversial or at least highly thought-provoking evening. Besides, said Thomas, it's "so complex, so many perspectives – to talk about the plot would be reductive. A quick summation would make it seem much simpler than it is. It's about things that no one says. It's strong stuff. Provocative, but not shocking for the sake of being shocking."

“I play,” he was willing to squeeze out, "a man in a suit who's in a lot of trouble." And muttered something about lawyers.

Mamet is directing too, which has the benefit that "we don't have that struggle [to understand the writer's intention] because the man is in the room," as Washington put it. "The playwright and director aren't arguing," added Thomas.

About Mamet's famously exacting language, Spader noted that "you can't stumble your way through this material or be off by a syllable." Mamet loves patterns, and they can get ruined if anything like improvisation occurs. At the same time, the play is still being rewritten as the cast works through it in rehearsal, including tiny things like adding an "and," then changing the "and" to a "but" – those little patterns and sounds that mean so much in a Mamet script. And yes, if you're wondering, there's cursing, though Thomas complained, "I have only one 'fuck.'" ("Richard, you're married," Grier interjected.) "And I'm afraid if I don't say it right I might lose it."

While Grier and Thomas have done a good deal of theater in recent years, having left (respectively) In Living Color and The Waltons behind long ago. (For example, I saw Thomas in Michael Frayn's Democracy on Broadway a few years back.) Nearly all of Spader's career, however, has been in film (Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Crash) and TV (Boston Legal, The Practice), and "I'm really glad to be doing a play again after so many years," he said. Washington is best known for screen work as well (Ray, Fantastic Four), but told us that she "fell in love with acting doing theater. This is where I learned to be an actor."

About Race and David Mamet, she says, "The process is delightful and fun and challenging and creative, he's fantastic." Of course, actors have to say things like that. But this cast seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the play, and Thomas predicted that "there'll be a lot of talking about it after it's been seen."

Previews begin Nov. 16. Tickets are available at Telecharge.

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.

Behind the Scenes at Law & Order

Blogcritics sent me on a bloggers’ press junket to interview the cast and go behind the scenes at Law & Order‘s Chelsea Piers studios.

Blogcritics sent me on a bloggers’ press junket to interview the cast and go behind the scenes at Law & Order‘s Chelsea Piers studios. Check out all the action here.

tv,law & order,Anthony Anderson

In the photo, actor Anthony Anderson (in the red tie) shows us the interrogation room.

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.

The Unbeliever’s Dilemma

atheism, beliefs, religion

A new atheist ad campaign hits the New York City subways this week. A group called the Coalition of Reason is sponsoring posters declaring that "A million New Yorkers are good without God. Are you?" The campaign aims to give non-believing New Yorkers assurance that they're not alone. This seems unnecessary in New York; the anonymous donor might have spent his or her money better in some Bible Belt city, someplace where nonbelievers really do feel marginalized. But it did get me thinking.

The "million" figure comes from the famous 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, which found 15 percent of respondents claimed to have no religious affiliation. In terms of New York's population, that points to roughly a million people. While the numbers may lack precision, there are certainly millions of Americans who don't believe in God. President Obama's acknowledgment of nonbelievers in his Inaugural Address was a small but significant gesture towards recognition of this population.

But awareness campaigns can go only so far. Nonbelievers in a country dominated by religious people will always labor under the near-impossibility of being able to prove a negative.

The term "atheist" and the question "Do you believe in God?" pose an oppositional conundrum similar to what occurs when I ask, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" In asking the question that way, I'm stipulating that you have beaten your wife at some time in the past, regardless of whether you have since stopped. Similarly, if I say "I am an atheist" or "I don't believe in God," the very phrasing puts me in opposition to something I don't recognize as existing – theos, a god, a supernatural being.

Hence the term "atheist" defines me according to a belief system I don't accept; it places me in a world in which there may be an entity people refer to as "God," and in which I am something like a scientist who doesn't accept a certain theory because he believes the evidence is inadequate or has a rival theory. But that picture does not accurately describe a naturalistic worldview. In my conception, a naturalistic worldview by definition does not stand in opposition to some competing worldview. It isn't one of a number of possible theories posited to explain some phenomenon; rather it has defined a supernatural worldview out of existence. "Naturalistic" means "with reference to what is." In nature, in the world, in the universe, there are things that are. Of course, there is much that is unobservable to us, and perhaps some things that we will never observe. Still, these things are. Anything else is speculative or imaginary.

Saying "I don't believe in God" is somewhat better than using the term "atheist," because it at least refutes the superstition implied in the term "belief." But it suggests that the alternative, "believing in God," is somehow of equal logical weight. The oppositional conundrum still applies. The term "belief" itself is weighted. In its religious sense, "belief" means trusting in the existence of supernatural beings and events that one has not personally observed (and which, since they are supernatural, are also, to a naturalist, nonexistent, hence unobservable). To a pure naturalist, this kind of "belief" is an almost meaningless concept. Opposing it is like arguing with the wind.

Miracles are a prime example. These are fictional phenomena that, by definition, defy natural law, or else real phenomena that witnesses could not explain because the necessary scientific knowledge is or was not yet available. "Believing in" miracles means accepting a supernatural origin for (currently or formerly) unexplained phenomena. This was understandable in pre-scientific cultures. It is far less understandable today. Angels are another example – fictional characters firmly "believed in" by some of the same adults who are just as sure Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are made up. As with miracles, there is no logical explanation for such beliefs. Logic isn't relevant – people believe these things on faith. Thoughtful theologians often have no problem admitting as much.

Ideally, there should be (philosophically speaking) no conflict between science and religion. They operate on different mental planes. Unfortunately our terminology too often doesn't let us – believers and nonbelievers – see that. Instead we see things in terms of opposition and conflict. We "atheists" and naturalistic thinkers continue to struggle to find accurate and acceptable terms with which to describe ourselves, using a language whose very terms deny the reality we perceive.

To follow a lively discussion on this post or leave a comment, please click over to where it is posted at Blogcritics.

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.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Malcolm Holcombe, Jeff Norwood, Putumayo’s España

In a minor key, Malcolm Holcombe’s grey, gravelly voice can sound like an extended death rattle.

Malcolm Holcombe, For the Mission Baby

Malcolm Holcombe isn’t for everybody. In a minor key, his grey, gravelly voice can sound like an extended death rattle. His new CD opens with the insistent plod and slightly too-loud bass of “Bigtime Blues,” with nearly unintelligible lyrics, as if Holcombe is daring you to plunge in to something dangerous. “Hannah’s Tradin’ Post,” about an abandoned gold mining settlement, drily evokes the emptiness of a ghost town. Listening to these songs, you have to lean in to understand what’s going on. This is a good thing.

On disc, you don’t get the benefit of Holcombe’s hyper-physical presence, his shaggy, almost violent guitar attack, or the full measure of his humor – for those, catch him live. But this CD, with its unstoppable beats, David Roe’s pounding upright bass, and the sere plinking of Holcombe’s 1950 Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar, is a respectable approximation.

Though his songs take traditional forms, his sound and his outlook make Holcombe a true original. His strange singing style can suggest or even verge on the abstract, but there’s a canny and fully engaged songwriting sensibility underlying that effect. He can play nice and accuse at the same time: “I ain’t got what I want / Never enough / But I got what I need… I ain’t got what I want / You have it all.” There’s lyricism in the almost pastoral “Doncha Miss That Water” and humor in the jaunty “Short Street Blues”: “Honey make some coffee, pack up the boxes / Pick your panties up off that floor / We ain’t living on Short Street anymore.”

There are themes here too – missions, a tentative sort of salvation, and “someone left behind.” The waltz “Whenever I Pray” resembles “Satisfied Mind,” but rather than ending the disc on that triumphant note, he closes it with a sad song about abandonment – which nevertheless allows that “there’s better days ahead.” “There’s one who does the hurtin’ / Two who feel the pain.” Gravelly voice and all, this troubadour has a way with a song. If a mix of the raw and the lyrical is your kind of brew, this disc should satisfy. And go see him live if you ever have the chance.

Jeff Norwood, Awendaw

Jeff Norwood’s clear tenor and spare, clean guitar sound are a little atypical for Delta blues, a style which white artists often deliver with intentional gruffness. Intriguingly, Norwood’s fresh-faced sound feels more real, less studied, than the efforts of some rougher-edged bluesmen. A big part of it is the down-home sense of fun in this set of ten original songs. Instead of worriedly trying his hardest to overtake a retreating “authenticity,” Norwood writes and plays what inspires and delights him, and nothing else. Just the titles suggest this sensibility: “Bad Ass Boogie,” “Walking Catfish Blues,” “Horny Road.” The lyrics are the same; “Way up past the strip malls, back to the piney woods / Find a Horny Road somewhere baby that’s gonna do us both some good.” Sounds like Norwood could do with a visit to, because he seems to have all things sexual on his mind!

He often sings of salvation, damnation, and sex, just like an old-time blues artist, and occasionally tries too hard to be elemental (“Shake”), but hits the nail dead-on in “The Devil”: “It all seems much too easy / With Satan by your side / Once he gets inside you boy you’re down for sure.” The blues scale was meant for lines like this and Norwood matches it up perfectly. Another top track is “Kokomo,” where he lets loose with a howl, sliding his voice all over the liquid growl of his slide guitar. It’s followed by “Deep and Cold,” a surprisingly convincing paean to the peace found only in death; then the disc closes by rocking out with “Save My Wicked Soul.” It’s not that the best songs are at the end; it’s that this is that rare disc that intensifies as it goes along.

Various Artists, España from Putumayo World Music

Here’s an easygoing but fascinating survey of music from the many of Spain’s culturally distinct regions. The selections come mostly from recent albums, some by new artists, others by elder statesmen like Peret, “the Elvis of rumba catalana,” whose “Para Poder Olvidarla” is a good choice to open the disc. The song sets the tone with a typical flamenco acoustic guitar line, then flowers into an amplified jam, flowing through the decades but never losing its surefooted rhythm. Fans of the Gipsy Kings will recognize Peret as an influence on that popular French-Catalan band. Other eminences include the Galician Uxía, whose Danza Ritual features staccato, slightly sinister-sounding piano and horns; the Basque artist Xabier Lete, whose wistfully romantic “San Martin, Azken Larrosa” has a gentle jazzy flavor; and Fernando Burgos who hails from Valencia. The latest generation of Spanish musicians is represented by songs like the soulful “Lunita” by the 21st century band Calima, with its jazz-fusion flavor, and the Afropop- and reggae-influenced “Te Estás Equivocando” by Gecko Turner, who comes from the Extremadura region. Such multi-national grooves, some modern, others old, play through many of these tracks. Listening to this disc is like eating a tasty paella – lots of zesty flavors cooked into one big circular world of goodness.

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.

My Life in a Google Nutshell

Gmail’s intelligent parsing of calendar entries is sometimes too intelligent. I’m going to see a play tonight called “My Life in a Nutshell.” Here’s how Gmail has parsed my calendar event. Note the location of the theater.

My Life in a Nutshell via Google

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.