Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Some Dialogue In Small Mouth Sounds, But The Rest is Silence

"Each time we invite you to Ars Nova, we go all out to deliver an experience like no other," reads the program note from Jason Eagan and Renee Blinkwolt, artistic and managing directors. They are succeeding. Where else can you find a working Jacuzzi on stage or a play with almost no dialogue? The latter is the case with Bess Wohl's Small Mouth Sounds, which takes place at a silent retreat.
Foreground: Marcia DeBonis and Sakina Jaffrey; Background: Jessica Almasy and Erik Lochtefeld
Photo credit: Ben Arons
Wohl, director Rachel Chavkin, and the cast do a remarkable job of creating compelling narrative with very little talking. We know, for example, that Joan (Marcia DeBonis) and Judy (Sakina Jaffrey) are together, but something is going on between them, from their ease in holding each other but also their distance. Or that Rodney (Babak Tafti) loves to show off his body and expertise in yoga. Tilly Grimes's costumes and Noah Mease's props also go a long way to establish characters, like a bedazzled phone and Trader Joe's grocery bag for the frazzled Alicia (Jessica Almasy) or a child's backpack that Jan (Erik Lochtefeld) carries or even a package of tissues that Ned (Brad Heberlee) is constantly trying to pass off to those in need of comforting.

The audience is seated on either side of the action, so close that it feels as if we are also on the retreat. When the teacher (Jojo Gonzalez, who does speak, but is never seen) says to breath in and out, I found myself doing it as well. Though not all the characters leave healed--some have more problems than when they started--as an audience member, I did leave with slightly lighter baggage and new hope about what theater can be.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Want Discount Tickets to The Lion?

I recently wrote a story about how Benjamin Scheuer turned his life into the musical The Lion with the help of director Sean Daniels. You can read it in TDF Stages. If you haven't seen the show yet (or if you want to see it again), you can use the promo code LOVETHELION214 for 50% off tickets. I'm not trying to be a shill here. I'm just spreading the word about a show that I like. If my recommendation isn't enough, listen for yourself:

So, Why Was The Baker's Wife A Flop?

Fans of musical theater history have the rare chance to see The Baker's Wife, the troubled 1976 musical that played a pre-Broadway tour but never made it to Broadway. I figured there was a reason this musical didn't succeed, but The Gallery Players' production, directed by Barrie Gelles, makes a pretty strong case that it just didn't get its due.

Maybe it's because I just finished my Gilmore Girls rewatch, but the small village in 1935 Provence, France where the play is set reminded me a bit of Stars Hollow, with everybody in everyone else's business and constantly bickering. When the baker dies, the village is tragically left without bread. But finally a new baker, Aimable (Charlie Owens) arrives with his young wife, Genevieve (Alyson Leigh Rosenfield). Everything is great for a while, until she runs off with the town Don Juan, Dominique (Jesse Manocherian).

If you've ever seen a Broadway leading lady in concert, you're probably familiar with the ballad "Meadowlark." The rest of Stephen Schwartz's score is just as lovely and is served well in the capable voices of this cast, especially the songs performed by Manocherian. When he opens his mouth to sing, it becomes immediately clear why he was cast, though he could use some more of that passion in the dialogue scenes. There's also a lot of unexpected humor in both the lyrics and the book by Joseph Stein, but that's not to say the book isn't without its problems--cliché dialogue and subplots about the villagers that are not as fully developed as the love triangle.

But these are issues with the musical itself, not the production. The Gallery Players always does a lot with a small theater's budget. Ryan Howell's set--separated into a cafe, the baker's home, and the rest of the town--is charming. The only time when budget is an issue is that nobody ever eats the bread (presumably so it can be reused). It just takes you out of the moment when everyone is going on and on about how happy they are to have warm, fresh bread without ever tasting it. Still, the show is going to make you crave carbs, so be sure you have some stocked at home for afterwards.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Long Story Short at 59E59

If you're meant to be with someone, you'll know. That's what Hope (Pearl Sun) and Charles (Bryce Ryness) were raised to believe. She was told the Chinese legend that a red string tied to your ankle leads you to the one you will marry. He was taught bashert, the Yiddish word for "meant to be." But finding that person doesn't mean everything will be easy. Long Story Short, playing at 59E59 through March 29, follows the ups and downs of their relationship over the course of 50 years (or 90 minutes; time works differently here, the program states).
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy
Married team Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda based the musical off of David Schulner's play An Infinite Ache. The songs and dialogue are fluid, the way time is in this show. Sun and Ryness seamlessly transition from speaking to singing that you may not notice. Likewise, David L. Aesenault's bedroom set slowly evolves with the addition of photographs and other items (Sara Slagle is the props master) showing the passage of time.

Cultural differences are addressed, such as what religion to raise the children, but race isn't the central issue. That's not often the case with interracial relationships onstage and it's nice to see. The story is universal, but the downside is that sometimes it's a bit too general, with not enough details about these two people. Still, Sun and Ryness are so likable that it's easy to look past any issues and go along their journey.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

The Seeing Place Takes on Othello

The mission of off-off-Broadway theater company The Seeing Place is one that I think everyone can get behind--to make theater approachable and affordable (all tickets are $15). Its sixth season explores gender warfare, victim shaming, racial bias, and police corruption. What better play to kick off those themes than William Shakespeare's Othello? This production, directed by Brandon Walker and Erin Cronican, updates the play through the lens of current relations between the Middle East and America  using modern dress and music, but retaining Shakespeare's original language.
Brandon Walker (Iago), Ian Moses Eaton (Othello), Logan Keeler (Cassio), Photo credit: JHoch Photography
Things are going pretty well for Othello (Ian Moses Eaton), a black Arab, at the beginning of the play. He's recently been made a general and has just married Desdemona (Cronican), a white senator's daughter. But as you probably know, trusted friend Iago (Walker), fueled by jealousy, devises a plan to destroy Othello, convincing him that his wife is having an affair with Cassio (Logan Keeler). If you've seen the play, it's still worth checking out. The actors delivered their lines in a way that I was able to understand them more clearly than I have before. I could quibble with overuse of contemporary touches--the cell phones are sometimes distracting--but for the most part, the staging is exciting, especially during the booze-filled, raucous scenes. For anyone who wonders why Shakespeare plays are still so frequently performed, this production proves why they continue to be relevant.

Othello runs through March 15 at the Clarion Theatre in Kips Bay. The Seeing Place is currently in the middle of a fundraising campaign to make the space its permanent home.

Friday, February 20, 2015

One Day Has A Case Of The Glee Problem

The program of One Day: The Musical includes statistics about problems that teenagers face. Approximately 2.7 million students are bullied each year. Suicide is the cause of about 4,400 deaths annually. Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors. The show uses journal entries of actual teenagers to get to the heart of the statistics, but it does not manage to humanize them as much as it should. Originally called Inappropriate, it was conceived and written by Michael Sottile and the late Lonnie McNeil and developed by the DeSisto School. Since its debut Off-Broadway in 1999, it's been revamped with new songs by Sotille and new problems that didn't exist then (cyberbullying, online dating).
Photo credit: Bob Degus
The characters don't have names (they are referred to in the program by the names of the actors), which makes it hard to get to know them, especially because the stories aren't fully developed. We get glimpses: one is bulimic, another was abused and uses drugs to escape her pain, and another has trouble dealing with the pressure to be perfect. They may sound cliché because we've seen them so often on TV and in film, but these are real issues deserving of attention. One of my biggest complaints about Glee is that it introduces stories just to check off each topic, and that's how I felt here. The format doesn't give each the time it requires.

There are moments of promise. When Brenna Bloom, Chase O'Donnell, Marco Ramos, Honey Ribar, Aaron Scheff, Austin Scott, Ben Shuman, Andy Spencer, Aliya Stuart, Nyseli Vega, and Charlotte Mary Wen are harmonizing, it's easy to hear why this pop score originally gained a cult following. Also, if you've never been to 3LD Art & Technology, this is a good excuse to visit. It fits well into the space, especially with Andrew Lazarow's video and projections on the walls and rock concert lighting by Jason Lyons.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

An Introduction to Baba Brinkman

On Sunday, I saw my first (and probably not my last) Baba Brinkman show, Rap Guide to Religion. It's the latest of the Canadian hip-hop artist's rap guides (he's also covered evolution, the Canterbury Tales, and the wilderness). It was a hit at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and was part of the 2014 Edinburgh Encore series at SoHo Playhouse, where its currently in an extended run through March 1.

Brinkman is an atheist, but this isn't a show about attacking the religious beliefs of others. He is interested in exploring the evolution of religion. He's done thorough research, referring to various books and studies throughout the show, which has been fact-checked by scholars. Projections and videos illustrate his points and he keeps the show from getting too intellectual by including personal details about his family. It's easy to get caught up in what Brinkman is saying, skilled as he is in public speaking and rap, but to his credit, he doesn't just preach. He wants to start a conversation. After the show, he invites the audience to join him in the bar downstairs to chat over drinks.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Off-Broadway, Offices Provide the Setting For Master Classes in Acting

Allen Moyer's set for Rasheeda Speaking is so realistic that I had doctor's office anxiety just waiting for the show to begin. I didn't get anymore comfortable as it went on, but a play about office politics and racial tensions should not be pleasant.
Photo credit: Monique Carboni
Jaclyn (Tonya Pinkins) and Ileen (Dianne Wiest) work in a surgeon's office. Jaclyn has been sick and away for a week. On the day she returns, Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein) meets with Ileen, who he recently promoted to office manager, to tell her to keep an eye on Jaclyn. He's looking for an excuse to fire her. At first, Jaclyn and Ileen engage in polite office banter and passive aggression, which will be familiar to anyone who has ever worked in an office environment, but their behavior soon veers from the passive to the aggressive.

There are no easy answers in Joel Drake Johson's play, directed by Cynthia Nixon, making an impressive directorial debut. It's to his credit that there are no heroes and villains. Jaclyn is organized and efficient and Ileen is messy and scatterbrained, but Jaclyn can be rude and abrupt with patients, which we see firsthand when Rose (Patricia Connolly) comes into the office for her appointment. Characters make racist comments to Jaclyn, but she also comments that her neighbors speak "Mexican."

Towards the end, the play seems to lose its grasp on reality, but then it picks it up again, and Pinkins and Wiest manage to make every moment work.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus
A few blocks over at the Westside Theatre, is a different, but also convincing office--the set of Application Pending (designed by Colin McGurk). YouTube celebrity Christina Bianco plays Christine, the new head of preprimary admissions at Edgely Prep (she's inexplicably been promoted from kindergarten assistant), and about 40 other characters who call her on the phone. Written by Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg, who also directs, the play is meant to shed a light on the cutthroat world of prep school admissions, but the jokes aren't new and the format repetitive. But let's call this show what it is, a showcase for Bianco's talents of imitation. Add her to the list of thrilling performances Off-Broadway right now, which also includes Pinkins and Wiest.