Monday, October 12, 2015

Checking in with Fringe Encores

This year, I was out of town for most of the New York International Fringe Festival (for those interested, you can read about some of my summer travels here and here), but I'm checking out some of the shows I missed at SoHo Playhouse during the Fringe Encores Series, which also features shows from the Edinburgh Fringe. Last week, I caught Daniel Cainer's 21st Century Jew and Schooled.

I must admit I hadn't heard of Daniel Cainer before now, but judging from all the audience requests during the encore, he has a fan base, and it's not hard to see why. His easygoing approach makes it easy to listen to him for an hour. Using song, projections, and stories, he explores what it means to be Jewish today. It sometimes feels more like a concert than a cohesive show, but then again, each song is strong enough to stand on its own. Though he is often funny, he is even better when telling a moving story, such as one about going to cricket games with his grandfather. This show will especially resonate with other 21st century Jews, but you don't have to be Jewish to appreciate a skilled storyteller at work.

Remaining performances at the Huron Club (downstairs at SoHo Playhouse) are October 13 at 7, October 14 at 3, and October 18 at 3.
Lilli Stein and Quentin Maré in Schooled. Photo credit: Andrea Reese
Schooled was one of the most talked about shows at Fringe and the winner of overall excellence for playwriting. Lisa Lewis explores sexism and privilege through three characters at a college campus. Andrew (Quentin Maré), a screenwriter and professor, offers to help senior Claire (Lilli Stein) with her script. She is hoping to get a prestigious grant, which requires a nomination from a professor. Her much richer boyfriend, Jake (Stephen Friedrich), is going after the same grant. Lewis's pithy dialogue hones in on problems in our society, such as when Claire tells Jake, "I can tell a 50-year-old man, 'I like your movies,' without it meaning, 'I want to sleep with you.'" When Jake says that's what men hear, she answers, "That's not my problem." Snaps.

There is one performance left on October 17 at 7, but don't be surprised if it transfers soon.

Musical Comedy, Politics, and Free Donuts

When you enter the Actors' Temple Theatre for Who's Your Baghdaddy? Or How I Started the The Iraq War, you might wonder if you're in the right place. There is a table with free donuts and mimosas in the middle of the room, with chairs arranged in a circle around it. No, you didn't accidentally walk into a meeting. Well, not exactly. The musical by Marshall Pailet and A.D. Penedo takes place at a support group for people who started the Iraq War, so the treats help set the scene. Actors take their seats in the circle and Brandon Espinoza, who plays the support group leader and various other roles, starts the meeting. Don't worry, though, despite the intimate staging (Pailet also directs), you won't be asked to participate.
Photo credit: Jeremy Daniels

As each character tells his or her role, we see flashbacks, often elaborately told through song and dance (Misha Shields's choreography impressively utilizes the minimal space). There are a lot of pieces in the true story (with dramatic license taken, of course) of how the Iraq War started and Pailet and Penedo make it easy to follow. There's Richart Becker (Brennan Caldwell), a German detective responsible for Curveball (Nehal Joshi), an Iraqi defector who claims to have intel on biological weapons. He sends information to CIA analysts Berry (Larisa Oleynik) and Jerry (Olli Hasskivi), who verify it with weapons inspector Martin Bouchard (Bob D'Haene). Though they are all convinced that Curveball is telling the truth, CIA operative Tyler Nelson (Jason Collins) is skeptical.

Although the members of the cast, which also includes Claire Neumann in multiple roles, have varying skills in the vocal department (Joshi is the standout), they all work extremely hard. Though comedy should appear effortless, for the most part, their efforts pay off, as in Caldwell's big number, "Das Man," (German words in musical numbers always seem to be funny). For fans of The Secret World of Alex Mack or 10 Things I Hate About You, it's also fun to see Oleynik rap.

But it's not all frivolity and the writers deserve credit for tackling this subject matter in such an unexpected way. The musical is based on J.T. Allen's 2005 screenplay, which couldn't get made in Hollywood. Producer Charlie Fink writes in a program note, "Musical comedy may be one of the few vehicles through which we can see and accept our responsibility for what happened, and what we will do in the future to repair the world we have so terribly broken." It's also a form which can constantly evolve and surprise as long as producers are willing to take risks.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Let's Talk About Sex... And Talk... And Talk

Threesome might be the least sexy ménage a trois ever. The sex talk is theoretical, not dirty, and  foreplay involves establishing context. But at 59E59 through August 23, Yussef El Guindi offers intellectual stimulation.
Photo caption: Hunter Canning
El Guindi delves into issues of gender equality and cultural identity through an Egyptian-American couple--Leila (Alia Attallah) and Rashid (Karan Oberoi). In an attempt to work out their relationship issues, they've invited a stranger--Doug (Quinn Franzen), who they met at an office party--into their bedroom. As the characters talk their way around any actual sex, they sometimes feel more like mouthpieces than real people, but the debates not often heard on stage are worth hearing. 

Full-frontal nudity is used twice in the show, very effectively. First, Doug is introduced completely naked (bravo Franzen for being game to bare all for such a long period of time) and it's refreshing to see male nudity used as comic relief. Later, it is used as an act of empowerment. Nudity, like threesomes, doesn't always need to titillate.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Girls and Boys

Feminist. Body image. Cougar. Needy. Pushy. Family. Biological clock. These words--which immediately make one think of women--are written on a white panel on the left side of the set on which Howard Korder's Boys' Life and Rebecca Gilman's Boy Gets Girl are playing in rep through August 2. On the right of the stage is a similar panel with labels like narcissism, player, bro-mance, weakness, chiseled, testosterone, and nice guy. And in the middle is vocabulary for what happens when men and women interact--hope, friend zone, awkward, fear, marriage, and compromise. Different terms resonate in each scene in The Seeing Place Theater's thoughtful productions, directed by Erin Cronican (Boys' Life) and Brandon Walker (Boy Gets Girl).
Natalie Neckyfarow, Logan Keeler, and Brandon Walker in Boys' Life. Photo credit: Russ Rowland
In Boys' Life, the words on the male panel draw attention to the way Jack (Walker), Phil (Logan Keeler), and Don (Alex Witherow) want others to see them and the ways they are afraid of being perceived. Written in 1988 and nominated for a Pulitzer, the play presented as a series of vignettes probably felt more groundbreaking at the time. It hasn't aged well and might make more sense as a period piece (characters in this production have iPods and cell phones). It's hard to have sympathy for any of these men who behave in deplorable ways as a means to sex or the women, who let themselves be treated poorly. Sure, people like this still exist, but Boys' Life on its own doesn't say anything that interesting about them. So it is smart of The Seeing Place to pair it with a better play.
Daniel Michael Perez and Erin Cronican in Boy Gets Girl. Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Boy Gets Girl premiered in Chicago in 2000 and is still terrifying and relevant today. Journalist Theresa Bedell (Cronican, giving one of the evening's most powerful performances) goes on a decent blind date with Tony (Daniel Michael Perez) and agrees to a second date. After she realizes that there is no chemistry there, she tells him politely that work makes relationships impossible. He doesn't take no for an answer and continues to call and send flowers, even show up at her office. Gilman, with believable dialogue, hits on something really troubling in society about what is thought of as normal male behavior. It takes Theresa's coworkers some time to be seriously concerned, at first thinking Tony is sweetly persistent.

One of her coworkers, Mercer (Walker), has a theory that men are conditioned from the movies that women will reject them and then have to be chased before being won over. Though the characters in Boys' Life aren't as insane as Tony, it sets up this idea. Clearly the company has thought a lot about how the two works can have a conversation with each other, which should extend to conversations after the shows.

Boys' Life is 90 minutes and Boy Gets Girl is 120 minutes. Neither has an intermission, but there is a 30 minute break in between the two. Tickets are only $15 for each.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Drinks and Shakespeare

I love Shakespeare. I love seeing his plays performed classically. And I'm also always down to see a modern interpretation. Drunk Shakespeare caters to both the Shakespeare buff and the theatergoer who would rather see anything else than a Shakespeare play.

The space at the Lounge at Roy Arias Stages at 300 West 43rd Street is set up like a library, so if you're a nerd like me, you'll feel at home as soon as you arrive (and the complimentary shot is a nice way to kick things off). At every performance, an actor is selected as the "drunk actor." He/she starts with five shots of whiskey, and continues to drink throughout the performance of Macbeth, occasionally bringing up volunteers from the audience to join. Luckily, no one is forced to participate, but if you love being part of the show, then you might want to be the King or Queen. That means you sit in a throne during the show, drink champagne, eat caviar, and get to make decisions during the play. It's priced at $500, but if no one reserves ahead of time, it's auctioned off to the highest bidder, starting at $15.

My only complaint would be that I would have preferred a play that isn't performed as often as Macbeth, since I've seen it so many times recently, but at least I'd never seen it like this. As the actors point out, Shakespeare plays have a lot of references to alcohol, so it just makes sense. The scenes are performed using Shakespeare's original language, but actors interrupt to clarify things in the play or bring up pop culture references. You can order drinks throughout the 90 minutes and they will be brought to the table. But this is a show that can be enjoyed sober. Shakespeare really is for everybody.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

I Saw Entourage And That Doesn't Make Me A Terrible Person

According to many posts on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, the Entourage movie is the worst thing to happen in the history of cinema. Maybe even in the history of the world. I don't remember ever seeing so much hate for the release of a movie. There's nothing wrong with not wanting to see it and expressing that on social media. But what I found strange was the disbelief that anybody would have any interest in seeing it except maybe bro-y douchebags. I am a woman of reasonably sound mind and this weekend I paid (matinee price, of course, because who can afford to pay full price for movies anymore) to see Entourage in the theaters. I don't think anyone is asking me to defend myself or that anyone needs to defend the entertainment he or she chooses to consume, but with all the negativity surrounding the movie, I just wanted to throw out another perspective.

Entourage only opened at number four at the box office and it got terrible reviews. That's pretty fair. It wasn't a great or, let's be honest, even good movie. It was a movie for fans of the show. And it succeeded on that level. That's all I expected from it. Like most Entourage fans, I really enjoyed the first few seasons and then continued to watch out of a completist's need. That's also why I saw the movie, which was basically an extended episode, no better or worse than the episodes towards the end of the series.

I smiled as the familiar theme song played. Nostalgia is a powerful thing and it had been so long since I'd heard it. I was happy to see each of the characters again as they appeared, at least at first (in truth, I really only always loved Drama and tolerated the rest). All the recurring characters made appearances and acted pretty consistently with the way they acted on the show. Yes, it sucks that the female characters aren't written better. But I have other shows I watch for well-written female characters. And I think it's ok to be entertained by a show or movie with sexist characters. It's not the same as condoning the behavior. The show was always escapist, and as a woman, I can be disgusted by some of the conversations and also drawn to the fantasy of living in a huge house, eating extravagant meals, and telling people off the way Ari does.

Creator Doug Ellin has said that he would do 20 Entourage movies and I hope he gives up on that plan. It should end with this movie. But if he does make another one, I'll probably see it.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The New Group is on A Roll

To tell you the truth, The New Group has always been pretty hit or miss for me. But this 20th anniversary season has made up for all the misses with Sticks and Bones, Rasheeda Speaking, and now, The Spoils, Jesse Eisenberg's third play.
L to R: Jesse Eisenberg, Erin Darke, Michael Zegen, Annapurna Sriram, Kunal Nayyar
Photo credit: Monique Carboni
Eisenberg has once again written himself a character who is spoiled, sexist, racist, and thinks he's superior to everyone. That probably doesn't sound like a guy you want to spend two hours with, but it's impossible to look away from Eisenberg's fidgety performance, even while you cringe at the words coming out of his mouth.

Ben (Eisenberg) lives in a nice apartment (Derek McLane's set makes me jealous that I don't live there) paid for by his father. He was kicked out of film grad school, so now he spends his days working on his movies although it doesn't seem like he's ever actually made one. He lets his Nepalese roommate, Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar), stay rent free, but he treats him terribly. According to the program, Kalyan is based on Eisenberg's Nepalese friend and I hope Eisenberg treats him better in real life. It's hard not to wonder if Eisenberg is trying to ease his own guilt with his writing, but I'm not here to review the person, just the play, which is getting an excellent production directed by Scott Elliott.

Ben runs into an old classmate from grade school, Ted (Michael Zegen, mastering the art of the awkward laugh), who it turns out is marrying Ben's old crush, Sarah (Erin Darke). Ben invites Ted, Sarah, and Kalyan's girlfriend, Reshma (Annapurna Sriram), for a dinner party. The writing is sharp and funny and actually sounds like how young people talk, especially when spoken by this fine cast of actors. You might find yourself simultaneously laughing and sighing in recognition.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Marathon Theater + Sugary Cereal = A Good Way To Spend a Sunday

Madeleine Bundy as Kapow-i GoGo, Photo credit: Crystal Arnette
I often joke that the perfect run time is 75–90 minutes with no intermission. But as much as I love getting home at a decent hour, I honestly think that a show should be as long as it takes to tell the story well. I also love marathon theater. There's something fulfilling about spending the day with the same audience members, getting to know characters over a long period of time. So I happily sat through four-and-a-half hours of Kapow-i GoGo on Sunday. Based on anime and video games, Kapow-i GoGo is broken down into three parts (each is about 60-75 minutes, so it falls into my perfect run time), each further separated into three episodes. There are three-minute breaks between each episode and fifteen-minute breaks between each part, enough time to grab some free sugary cereal and candy, so you can really feel like a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons.

The saga starts with our blue-haired heroine, Kapow-i GoGo (Madeleine Bundy), at 14 as she heads with her brother, Hiccup (Michael Axelrod), and teacher, Master Masterwhiskies (Hank Lin), to a tournament to determine the World's Greatest Fighter. She even has a kick-ass theme song, written by Brian Hoes. The episodes get darker as she grows into adulthood and continuously has to save the world. She also falls in love, and not to give away too much, but it's refreshing to see a love story between two women treated so naturally.

Although I've played a lot of Super Mario Bros. in my day, I'm not as well-versed in anime and was worried that I wouldn't understand a lot of the references, but it didn't really matter. It helped that my plus one is a Pokémon fan and explained a lot of the inside jokes I missed, but the story by Matt Cox works on its own. As solely a parody, it would probably get old after an hour, but I grew to really care about the characters. A lot of this is in the writing, but also in the multi-layered performances that co-directors Kristin McCarthy Parker and Joel Soren get out of the entire cast.
Karsten Otto and Matt Cox as Mr. Smiles and Mr. Snuggles, better known as Team Trouble
Photo credit: Eleanor Philips
Bundy is both sweet and tough as Kapow-i and believably plays every age. Josh Boerman and Soren's perfect costumes also subtly change as she gets older. It truly is an ensemble piece, but I had particular affinity for Team Trouble, made up of Mr. Smiles (Karsten Otto) and Mr. Snuggles (Cox), often the comic relief, but also surprisingly moving in their friendship. And Evan Maltby broke my heart a few times as Tuxedo Gary, Kapow-i's insecure "rival since they were both babies."

Your next chance to see Kapow-i GoGo is Sunday, June 20th at 1 p.m. at the PIT. Tickets are $30 for the whole marathon and are available here, so go (go).