April 10, 2016

Sedna

Powerful  &  timeless! Now to make politicians & big business take heed!

Carol Mennie

October 28, 2015

The Dr. Blake Mysteries

Australian television is often as good as American and British television. One current example is "The Dr. Blake Mysteries." Good scripts, very well directed and beautifully crafted performaces by Craig McLachlan and Nadine Garner. Time well spent on drama as good it gets.

Barry Hoffman

April 4, 2015

Griselda Steiner

How lucky we are to have poets who unite the wide variety of world religions with the essential universal human needs for compassion, love and undertsanding, and our esssential common relationship with the beauty and power of nature.

Michelle Prochazka

See Griselda Steiner's poetry in the Scene4 Archives

December 11, 2012

Bruce Willis

Bruce Willis is not a great actor. He's a competent professional and a successful Hollywood star. The camera loves him and doesn't. In Looper it couldn't kiss him enough. In another recent film, Fire With Fire, a role he phoned in on an old Motorola phone, the camera had a hard time finding him and when it did, it blinked often. Does it matter? No, he doesn't care and neither do the audiences. It's all on the great fadeout.

A. Meiselman

November 5, 2012

Mania, Einstein on the Beach, Gertrude Stein's Brewsie--(Karren Alenier)

My son and wife flew to San Francisco from Seattle, to see Einstein. They have flown to other parts of the world to see Glass and have been so excited anticipating this. After talking to them I percieved that they really didn't need an airplane to fly home-- they were Flying on the energy of the show. considered buying a ticket for the  Amsterdam production-- but reality caught up--

Carol Levin 

read Karren Alenier's "Einstein" review
read Karren Alenier's "Brewsie" review

April 4, 2012

Page Eight

A clipped, low-key spy thriller without (thankfully) violence, gratuitous sex or ear-numbing action. Written and directed by David Hare, this is a film of innuendo and beautiful editing. It explains little all the way to its unpredictable ending and is worth revisiting more than once. Hare's coy, subtle approach is dependent on equally coy and subtle acting in the more than capable hands and eyes of Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Judy Davis and Ralph Fiennes. The rest of the cast is spot on.

A. Meiselman

July 21, 2011

Three Graces

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(L-R): Newton Pittman as Michales and Mariana Newhard as Irini.
Photo by Alexander Karasev.

Reviewed: July 20, 2011
Venue: 3LD (NYC)
Producers: Immigrants' Theatre Project
Running Time: 90 minutes
July 20 - 23, 2011

Creative Team:
Libretto/Lyrics by Ruth Margraff
Music by Nikos Brisco
Directed by Marcy Arlin

Graceless

Only rarely have I sat in the theatre and wished for a show to be over. Three Graces is now counted among them

Subtitled "A modern Iliad set in 1889 Crete at the end of the Ottoman Empire...Inspired by failed rebellion," Three Graces takes its narrative cue from the works of two Cretan writers, Nikos Kazantzakis and Vitzentzos Kornaros, as they write about the various rebellions Cretans enacted against their various occupiers, such as Venice and the Ottoman Empire.

Several elements made watching Three Graces difficult. The singers were not trained singers, the lyrics were mostly unintelligible (and those that could be discerned came across as poetically flat), the dialogue sounded like third-rate sword-and-sandals movies, and the direction was unfocused and the choreography clunky.

Not all was a loss. The projections were interesting (though not really tied in to the story), and the music had a Greek/Turkish/Middle-Eastern inflection to it that at least gave it a Zorba-like energy. I felt for the actors and the musicians, who all gamely tried to bring this inert material to life but, in the end, couldn't pull it off.

I was never sure during the performance what dramatic and moral question Ms. Margraff had in mind which Three Graces answered. It lacked the vitality and urgency that comes with dramatic pieces on the hunt. Perhaps as it goes through more workshops and performances it will discover that question, but right now it is not there.

Michael Bettencourt

July 20, 2011

Victory: Choices in Reaction

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Cast members of Victory: Choices in Reaction
Photo by Stan Barouh.

Reviewed: July 18, 2011
Venue: Atlantic Stage 2
Producers: Potomac Theater Project
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, with intermission

Creative Team:
Written by Howard Barker
Directed by Richard Romagnoli
Set Design by Hallie Zieselman
Costume Design by Carlie Crawford and Jule Emerson
Lighting Design by Mark Evancho
Sound Design by Allison Rimmer

Actors:
Steven Dykes as Scrope, Somerset, Ralph Undy
Willy McKay as Boot, McConochie, Ponting, Stanley Street, Beggar
Michael Kessler as Shade, Southwark, Edgbaston, Robert Parry
Mat Nakitare as Wicker, Nodd, Beggar
Alex Cranmer as Gaukroger, William Hambro, Footman, Milton
Jan Maxwell as Bradshaw
Robert Zukerman as Roast, Clegg, Moncrieff
Robert Emmet Lunney as Ball, Frank Mobberley
Michaela Lieberman as Cropper, Devonshire
David Barlow as Charles Stuart, Feak
Edelen McWilliams as Cleveland, Pyle, Hampshire
Ele Woods as Lady In Waiting, Gwynn, Brighton, Beggar

Crew:
Stage Managers: Michael Block, Melissa Nathan, Alex Mark

Puritans, Fops, and the Coming of Money

Director Richard Romagnoli does so many things right with Howard Barker's autopsy of power, desire, and money, Victory: Choices in Reaction. The script is vintage Barker, with equal measures of bombast and scathing observation delivered in dialogue fueled by adrenaline. The cast is uniformly strong, with David Barlow, Jan Maxwell, and Stephen Dykes offering up superb performances. Set changes, choreographed to the propulsive music of the Sex Pistols, are mini-plays within themselves, and Mr. Romagnoli's set, costume, and lighting designers create a rich, subtle, and full-blown world within the walls of the theatre.

The play's action is set in England in 1660 with the restoration of the monarch Charles II (David Barlow) after the brutal civil war and the collapse of Oliver Cromwell's Puritan commonwealth. Those who had opposed, and then killed, Charles' father are scattered to the winds, including Bradshaw (Jan Maxwell), the widow of John Bradshaw, who had pronounced the death sentence upon the king. When Charles II returned to the throne, he had Bradshaw's body disinterred and placed on public display, his rotted corpse a reminder of the fate of those who question the power of kings.

Bradshaw, now dispossessed of all, sets out with Scrope (Steven Dykes), John Bradshaw's secretary and still a true believer in the commonwealth, to collect her husband's "bits," in the process collecting for herself a new life in a very dangerous world.

But while the monarchy is restored, it is not the same monarchy. Charles can threaten and humiliate, but he cannot rule with a divine right. Power has shifted not only to Parliament but to the bankers, like William Hambro (Alex Cranmer), which Barker demonstrates in a scene just before intermission. The true wielders of power, Hambro and his associates, meet in the bowels of the bank next to the vault of gold to discuss and decide policy.

Charles shows up and is goaded by his friend, Nodd (Mat Nakitare), to give a gold ingot to a whore who's accompanied them on their visit. Charles fingers the keys to the vault but then pushes them away, saying that he cannot do that. He then proceeds to humiliate all those present with the preserved skull of John Bradshaw, but as Charles finally makes his retreat, Hambro says to one and all that the important thing is that Charles knows who pulls the levers of power: "The rest is shrill and squealing. Never mind the squeal. I don't."

By the end of the play we can see the outlines of the new shape of power. Ball (Robert Emmet Lunney), a cavalier who fought on the side of the king, believes still in divine right and absolute rule, but at the end of the play, he is a man broken on the rack with his tongue pulled out and suspected of treason. Equally so, Scrope, a true believer in radical egalitarianism, has his lips cut off and is tortured into irrelevance. All the idealists are disarmed; the only survivors are the ones with expandable morals, like Bradshaw or the mercantile class.

While Ms. Maxwell and Mr. Dykes give formidable performances, it is Mr. Barlow who holds center stage, bringing off Charles' rancid mix of adolescence, remorse, and self-loathing with authority. Mark Evancho's lighting design, especially toward the end of the action, plays with very subtle shifts of light, almost as if painting, and Hallie Zieselman's mobile set design can be moved from magnificence to mud in the blink of an eye.

Howard Barker's plays are not easy plays -- they don't wash over an audience but instead demand that the people in the theater, viewers and actors alike, engage in ideas, in ambiguities, in discomfort and impatience. The prize for this, of course, is the richness of the theatrical experience: as one critic has written, more happens in one scene of a Barker play that in entire plays by other writers.

Mr. Romagnoli manages this controlled mayhem with great skill, moving things briskly along (even in those scenes where Mr. Barker seems more taken by his own voice than by creating dramatic action). It's a long play, almost three hours in length, but its rewards are well-worth the time spent.

Michael Bettencourt

July 17, 2011

Territories

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(L-R): Stephanie Janssen, Alex Draper and Megan Byrne in a 'light gathering of dust'.
Photo by: Stan Barouh


Reviewed: July 16, 2011
Venue: Atlantic Stage 2
Producers: Potomac Theater Project
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, with intermission

Creative Team:
Written by Steven Dykes
Directed by Cheryl Faraone
Set Design by Hallie Zieselman
Costume Design by Emma Ermotti/Lilli Stein
Lighting Design by Mark Evancho
Sound Design by Hallie Zieselman

Actors:
a light gathering of dust
Alex Draper as 3
Megan Byrne as 2
Stephanie Janssen as 1

The Spoils
Alex Draper as Shilling, an interpreter
Nesba Crenshaw as Loti, a secretary
Cori Hundt as Tala, a secretary
Gillian Durkee as Dobra, a secretary
Lilli Stein as Kyat, a secretary

Crew:
Stage Managers: Michael Block, Melissa Nathan, Alex Mark

The Geographies of Betrayal

Territories by playwright Steven Dykes is a diptych of plays, a light gathering of dust and Spoils. Each play reflects the other's concerns about trust and betrayal, and the practice of both in oppressive political situations. While Spoils is over-long and uncertain of its target, a light gathering of dust hits more closely to home with its story of distrust and desire.

a light gathering of dust takes its historical cue from the public airing of the secret files of the Stasi, the East German secret police, when the two Germanys were unified in 1990. People could read their files, though names and other information had been black-lined out, and it was estimated that 2% of the population coöperated with the Stasi to inform upon people close to them.

Director Cheryl Faraone strews the stage with hundred of redacted documents to indicate this time and place, and at times the actors paw through them to read about themselves, remarking that the obsessive detail ("pornographic," one character calls it) mirrors back to them lives they do not recognize, though they are clearly their own.

The story at the heart of a light gathering of dust concerns a triangle of lovers among two women and a man, and how one of the women decides to inform upon the other two. The reason for her betrayal is both personal and political -- in fact, under the constant pressure of surveillance, it is impossible to unknot the two. What the opening of the files does is fill the air with the dust that comes from excavated secrets, breathed in and breathed out, and these three are forced to unify within themselves what the reunified Germany tells them about who they were, are, and hope to be.

(On a side note, the play begins with a wonderfully mysterious and evocative theatrical image. Alex Draper is on a bed, belly-down, wearing nothing but underwear. Before Stephanie Janssen begins her monologue, Megan Byrne enters, leans over, and with a gentle breath blows a thin scrim of dust off his skin, which swirls away in the light.)

Spoils is set in a recently conquered unnamed desert country, where Shilling (Alex Draper), an interrogator who speaks the local language, questions four women who worked as secretaries in various ministries. It is never quite clear what he wants from them, though it has to do with learning about how the party, to which all functionaries belonged, encouraged both loyalty and treachery.

Shilling is also interested in the degree to which art (in the guise of a musical composition by Paul Englishby), allied with interrogation, can redeem and re-grace those who have sinned. He not only wants information; he wants their salvation, too.

Each of the five characters gets a good chunk of stage time to talk about himself or herself, and while it isn't always clear how the long renditions link to Mr. Dykes' purpose, they are all expertly delivered, with Mr. Draper's disquisitions on the structure and meaning of the music conveyed with his usual masterful skill.

As is always the case with anything the Potomac Theatre Project creates, the production values are excellent, the direction is sure-handed, and the acting is vibrant, spacious, and assured. In a light gathering of dust, Mr. Dykes strikes the right balance between revelation and mystery, and it is a delight to watch the ease with which the three actors navigate the time and emotional shifts of the play. In Spoils, Mr. Dykes has all the elements for a sharp, ironic take on the distorted dance of power, principle, and truth. He just needs to take that play within the play that he has and edit it into the daylight.

Michael Bettencourt

July 14, 2011

An Impending Sense of Doom

doom01.jpg (L-R): Bix Bettwy as Scientist X, Chongsi Chang as Scientist B, Jason Grimste as Scientist A (Photo by Jane Stein)

Reviewed: July 13, 2011
Venue: 3LD (NYC)
Producers: Subjective Theatre Company
Running Time: 90 minutes
July 13 - July 16, 2011
Part of Ice Factory 2011

Creative Team:
Written by Colab (a collaboration of writers led by Julia Holleman)
Directed by Jeffrey Whitted

The apocalypse has arrived, and it is delivered by the hands of Facebook.

At least that's the premise of An Impending Sense of Doom, Subjective Theatre Company's take on the ills of the modern world. Set in a post-disaster universe, the survivors live in the Sanctuary, a computer-mediated haven where people sport a Signia chip that encodes their personal data and tracks their social status. (Loss of social status for various "crimes" results in a loss of certain privileges, such as shopping in the supermarket near your home.)

Garrison (James Bentley), who works for the Signia company, discovers that someone has created an alternate network, the UR-Cloud, which is odd because no one is presumed to be alive outside the Sanctuary. Driven by the desire to find out the source of the UR-Cloud and convinced that his superiors are lying to him and everyone about the true nature of their existence, Garrison heads out to The Pile, the vast landfill created by the Sanctuary's garbage, drawn on by the radio voice of The Gentle Leader, head of a revolutionary cadre.

In the meantime, Declan (Toby Levin), an orphan in The Pile, is the actual creator of the UR-Cloud, which turns out to be a game in which everyone can connect with everyone else all day long every day. He makes his way to the Sanctuary, where he is picked up by April (Alix Fenhagen), Garrison's abandoned wife. Declan, with April's help, worms his way into Signia, eventually taking over the company and refining the UR-Cloud into an all-encompassing social media game where people will lose status, and thus privileges, if they ever stop playing.

Meanwhile, Garrison, with The Gentle Leader, makes his way back to the Sanctuary to rescue April and blow-up the UR-Cloud, thus liberating people back into reality.

All this is a lot of fun, though I felt the "zany" factor of the story should have been raised several notches for it to really channel the absurdist energy needed to make the point that, in some sense, we are already living this apocalypse and might want to consider some alternatives. As it is, the play's energy gets dragged down by a somewhat clunky structure, where too much scene-bouncing back and forth between The Pile and the Sanctuary gets in the way of building up a narrative velocity. And for a play with this title, there is a remarkable lack of impending doom in the onstage action -- an edge of risk and danger should underscore the story in order to make it hit home with the proper declarative force.

Congratulations, though, to Subjective Theater Company for taking on the joyful task of theatricalizing the clear and present danger of our own human desires, which is what the art form should always try to do as often as it can.

Michael Bettencourt

Spatter Pattern

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(Jeffries Thaiss as Dunn. Photo by: Stan Barouh)


Reviewed: July 10, 2011
Venue: Atlantic Stage 2
Producers: Potomac Theater Project
Running Time: 90 minutes no intermission

Creative Team:
Written by Neal Bell
Directed by Jim Petosa
Set Design by Hallie Zieselman
Costume Design by Emma Ermotti
Lighting Design by Mark Evancho
Sound Design by Hallie Zieselman

Actors:
Jeffries Thaiss as Dunn
Adam Ludwig as Tate
Lucy Van Atta as Woman (Selma, Ellen, Ms. Fisher, Mrs. Roth, Andrea, Hooker)
Christo Grabowski as Man (Realtor, Detective, Mancheski, Moxley, Hustler)

Crew:
Stage Managers: Michael Block, Melissa Nathan, Alex Mark

Lying is a Form of Revealing the Truth

In Spatter Pattern, Neal Bell tries to mash together a police procedural about a murder with a memoir about grief, and the effect is mixed: the procedural aspects end up not that interesting, and the grief ends up less poignant than it should be.

On the investigative side, the police are looking into the death of a female college student, and the prime suspect is her professor, Marcus Tate (Adam Ludwig). Though there is no physical evidence tying him to the crime, the police have homed in on him. As a result, his wife leaves him, he's fired from his job, the newspapers are playing up the "professor screws student, then kills her" angle, and someone is harassing him on the phone by calling and not speaking (at one point Tate thinks it's the ghost of the dead student).

On the grief side, writer Edward Dunn (Jeffries Thaiss) is trying to recover from the death of his 20-year partner, David, who died of lung cancer (having been a life-long smoker). Dunn is stalled in his career (his agent is ready to kick him to the curb: "Ten percent of nothing is nada"), guilt-ridden about David (whom he loved and not-loved at the same time), and desperate for an answer to the meaning of his life.

By coincidence, Dunn takes a new apartment next to Tate, and as their paths eventually cross, Dunn suspects that he might find some release and relief by turning Tate's dilemma into a sellable screenplay (a prospect his agent relishes). As that process continues, both men become more invested in each other's lives, engaged as they are in parallel quests to speak out a truth and relieve a guilt. We learn Tate's secret that the student knew (and with which she tortured him), and Dunn finally allows himself to mourn David's death properly.

Part of the reason why the play doesn't quite jell is the flatness of Mr. Bell's writing. The back-and-forth between Tate and the detective (Christo Grabowski) is lifted right out of third-rate police television shows and delivered without any wry or ironic note, and Dunn's grief is maudlin without being poetic (getting married is like "advanced sky-diving" where "you hit the ground hard/And one of you hits the ground first"). And Mr. Bell introduces a somewhat irritating device where, as the lights shift, a character switches out of ordinary conversation into subtitles that reveal an underneath "truth." This is interesting once or twice, but after a while the truths revealed are not that deep or dark, and it just becomes a device to deliver exposition, similar to when Dunn, typing on a computer keyboard, "reads" from the page what he's typing.

Part of it is also the validity of the script's narrative. To paraphrase Rick in Casablanca, "of all the vacant apartments in all of New York City," how convenient it is that Dunn ends up next to Tate. The same applies to Tate's gradual revelations to Dunn, whom he knows is a writer and a man planted on the edge of the abyss -- certainly not the most trustworthy of confidants. As the story goes on, it becomes increasingly difficult to accept the premises of the relationship and the direction of the action.

The four actors (with Christo Grabowski and Lucy Van Atta handling multiple roles) do an excellent job under Jim Petosa's brisk direction. Mr. Ludwig balances nicely the tension of not being guilty of the crime but still being guilty of something, and Mr. Thaiss delivers Dunn's pain about David without ever sliding into self-pity or mawkishness. Mark Evancho's lighting design crisply sets scenes and transitions, and Hallie Zieselman's ultra-simple stage design keeps the playing area uncluttered and flowing.

Though the mixing of the genres doesn't quite work, the story that Spatter Pattern tries to tell is endlessly fascinating: how the search for truth and the equally human propensity to lie about the self in order to re-invent it provides the perpetual dramatic grist of our human lives. Mr. Bell's play doesn't quite capture that competition, but it comes close enough at times to make the production worth seeing.

Michael Bettencourt

July 9, 2011

Pontiac Firebird Variations

pontiac01cr.jpgReviewed: July 6, 2011
Venue: 3LD (NYC)
Producers: Aztec Economy
Running Time: 90 minutes
July 6 - July 9, 2011
Part of Ice Factory 2011

Creative Team:
Text by William Shakespeare and Casey Wimpee
Music by Ryan Dorin and Charles Yang
Directed by Matthew Hancock

(L-R): Michael Mason as Rico and Isaac Byrne as Dickey (Photo by: Yvonne Allaway)

In the Pontiac Firebird Variations, the "Pontiac Firebird" part refers to an auto chop shop in Willet's Point (Queens) run by Dickey. The "Variations" part refers to a portion of Act I, Scene IV of Shakespeare's Richard III, where the two murderers sent to assassinate Clarence, Richard's brother, muse upon conscience.

In the play that bears the full title (described on Aztec Economy's website as "Richard III mixed up with some other shit"), six killers are rearranged in variant takes on Shakespeare's text as they (struggle with? meditate upon? engage in an existential debate about? who knows?) the moral consequences of killing and dismembering Clare and stuffing her in a barrel full of Pepsi, the modern variation of the "Malmsey butt." ("Clarence" has been inexplicably changed into a sister that Richard never had.)

As in Casey Wimpee's previous Ice Factory entry, Lavaman, in 2009, the characters spew text like high-pressure firehoses, some of which goes where it's supposed to but most of which just spatter-coats every living and non-living form in the immediate vicinity. The six killers natter on about the Pepsi-Coke wars, 1980s pop music, world wrestling classic moments, the tech specs of Pontiacs, McDonald's Happy Meals, tendonitis, crickets (in short, the "some other shit" goes on for days) while Clare, handcuffed, slips her biography and musings in edgewise as the murderousness swirls around her.

At about 90 minutes or so, the show feels overlong, in part because a kind of aural exhaustion sets in as the variations play themselves out. It also feels overlong because the production's structure (controlled mayhem) works against its dramatic intent: to explore how "the murderers' conflicts of interest and unique dregs of conscience are unraveled." Things are pitched at such a high decibel level and frantic pace that there are no spaces where the actors have a chance to engage in a real dramatic subtextual exchange.

The actors all acquit themselves admirably, the technical crew is superb, and Ryan Dorin (piano) and Charles Yang (violin) provide excellent musical accompaniment. But the Pontiac Firebird Variations could both be more fun and more dramatically interesting than it is. The production's structural elements need to be better integrated (why the reel-to-reel tape recorder? why bottles of Pepsi that look like they're filled with weak tea?), and some rhythmic change-ups need to work their way into the proceedings so that the core moral exploration of the piece has a chance to make its presence known.

Michael Bettencourt

July 1, 2011

The Pig (or Václav Havel's Hunt for a Pig)

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Václav Havel (Robert Honeywell) on the shoulders of the chorus
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Reviewed: June 30, 2011
Venue: 3LD (NYC)
Producers: Untitled Theater Company No. 61/The Ice Factory
Running Time: 65 minutes
June 29 - July 2, 2011

Creative Team:
Text by Václav Havel
Adapted by Vladimir Morávek and Edward Einhorn
Music by Bedřich Smetana (The Bartered Bride)
Directed by Henry Akona

Václav Havel's The Pig was originally a short dialogue written in 1987, circulated hand to hand, about his attempt to buy a pig for a pig roast for his friends. In 2010, Czech director Vladimir Morávek decided to stage the piece, adding in new lines and, for some unexplained reason, music from the operetta The Bartered Bride by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana.

In turn, Edward Einhorn, whose Untitled Theater Company No. 61 has been a champion of Havel's works, got permission to adapt it further by adding in more lines, some choruses, a live video feed, a small orchestra, and choreography.

The result is a short fizzy theater piece that, while full of brio and talent (many of the singers also play instruments), overshadows its source material, Havel's wry account of how the country folk outsmart the intellectuals who are searching for a pig for their pig roast.

The set-up is an American journalist (Katherine Boynton), trailed by her two-person video team, interviews "Mr. Havel" (pronounced with a long "a") about this porcine adventure. As Havel (Robert Honeywell) recounts his quest, the ensemble intersperses selections from The Bartered Bride that provide something of a commentary on the action while also acting out the characters Havel encounters.

At the end of the hunt, when Havel has been outmaneuvered and forced to pay an astronomical price for the animal, the show slides sideways towards Havel's political side, with the thick contract he signs agreeing to the price turning into the text of Charter 77, the seminal cri de coeur of the Czech intelligentsia in the mid-1970s, and the show ends with a choral rendition of Havel's famed dictum, "Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred."

The Pig is a slight work, timed properly at about an hour. It's not clear what the point of the production is, but it's a pleasant enough time spent in the theatre, especially if you partake of the pre-show pork snacks.

Michael Bettencourt

May 15, 2011

3 films - two hits and a miss

1. Jane Eyre Keep the basic plot Jettison Charlotte Bronte's excessive romantic mysticism Find a brilliant young actress (Mia Wasikowska)to embody Jane Use brief suggestions in the book to fill out and enrich the back story Deepen the relationships Cut poor mad Mrs. Rochester's part to a bare minimum... And you end up with a re-imagining of the too familiar classic that is fresh and immensely satisfying. Not to miss.

2. The Lincoln Lawyer Taut, snappy dialog, neat plot work, fine performances from William H. Macy, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillipe, Lawrence Mason and Frances Fisher, all lift this irreverent tale of a shyster lawyer and the gang of drug dealing Hell's Angels who aid and abet him out of the run-of-the-mill into a very entertaining ride in that eponymous Lincoln. An excessively wealthy mother defending her spoiled grown son also keeps things crackling. Great fun.

3. Queen to Play Can chess liberate a woman from an oppressive marriage and a job of drudgery? Not even in France. Kevin Kline works hard at making it happen and when he's on screen it seems a worthy enterprise. Unfortunately that is less than 50% of the running time. Sandrine Bonnaire's super-serious would-be "Queen" never locates the levity implicit in the plot--not even Kline telling her she's beautiful when she smiles gets her to do so. A disappointing effort, too flat to lift the spirits as it is obviously intended to.

Rich Yurman

December 14, 2010

An Extraordinary "Merchant of Venice"

merchantpacino3-cr.jpg

Daniel Sullivan's extraordinary version of "The Merchant of Venice" is almost certainly sold out for the remainder of its limited run at New York's Broadhurst Theater, but those of you lucky enough to hold tickets have a treat in store. This somber yet thrilling production is the only truly cohesive version of this notoriously problematic play that I have ever seen.

How good is it? Top-billed Al Pacino gives one of the finest performances of his career--and yet he does not dominate the production. Sullivan's overall vision of a stultified, hypocritical Venetian society, in which hatred is ingrained and all protestations of love and affection merely hot air, reinterprets the story for modern audiences with great effectiveness. The production is designed so that all the scenes--whether set in a Venetian prison, Shylock's counting-house or Portia's villa--appear as a series of cages, and the costumes are funereal except for Portia's (fire-engine red in the first half, mauve-pink in the second). Shylock is by no means a hero in this production, but his vituperative rage is not villainy, but the logical reaction to a life filled with both personal and societal oppression. Sullivan includes a wordless scene after the trial, depicting Shylock's forcible baptism in the bowels of a Venetian dungeon; the sheer degradation of the scene, and Pacino's outraged dignity in the face of his ultimate humiliation, are things you won't soon forget. After that scene, it is no surprise that the romantic folderol at the end, involving the exchange of rings and vows of fideltiy, comes across as bitter and acrid--the product of a false and cruel society.

With excellent performances throughout--particularly Lily Rabe as Portia and Byron Jennings as Antonio, as well as Pacino--this "Merchant of Venice" seems bound to become one of Broadway's legendary Shakespearian productions.

Miles David Moore

September 28, 2010

A Home Across The Ocean

homeacrosstheocean01.jpg

Photo: Antonio Miniño
(L-R) Mark Emerson, David Stallings, and Lavita Shaurice Burr


Reviewed: September 21, 2010
Produced by: Maieutic Theatre Works
Venue: Studio Theatre, Theatre Row
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (with intermission)

Written by: Cody Daigle
Directed by: Dev Bondarin
Producer: Martha Goode
Set Designer: Blair Mielnik
Costume Designer: Rachel Dozier-Ezell
Lighting Designer: Dan Gallagher
Sound Designer: Kimberly Fuhr-Carbone

Assistant Sound Designer: Carrie Cook
Production Stage Manager: Carolynn Richer
Assistant Stage Manager/Prop Designer: Nichol C. Rosas-Ullman

Alex Bond as Grethe Rast
David Stallings as Connor Rast
Mark Emerson as Daniel Bader
Lavita Shaurice Burr as Penny
Dathan B. Williams as Mhambi Nobhule

This Ocean Is Easy To Cross
As befits a play with "ocean" in the title, A Home Across The Ocean, by Cody Daigle, is a moist play. Not a scene goes by without some character standing on the verge of tears (of laughter, of anger, of relief, of joy); it seems that whenever Mr. Daigle wants to illustrate emotional authenticity, on come the waterworks.
Connor (David Stallings) and Daniel (Mark Emerson), a gay middle-class couple (though we never do learn what they do for a living), bring Penny (Lavita Shaurice Burr), a 13-year-old African-American girl who has been through the wringer of the foster-care system, into the their home. They plan to adopt her but have agreed to something like a trial run as foster parents to see if the situation will work out.
Penny arrives three weeks after David's father, Anthony, died from a massive heart attack, and Grethe (Alex Bond), David's mother, seems insufficiently grief-stricken after 35 years of marriage -- she not only wants to offload the father's suits to Goodwill, she writes a letter to Mhambi Nobhule (Dathan Williams), a college lover originally from Nigeria, letting him know, in so many words, that she's available. Mhambi, for his part, has always kept a flame in his heart for Grethe, and he arranges to fly from London, where he's lived for years as a literature teacher, to Chicago to see what sparks can spark.
At first, Grethe is a bit shocked that Connor and David arrange to take the older Penny into their home; she was expecting (one can sense) a white infant, someone she could mother. But she soon warms to Penny, and Penny to her, to the point where Penny prefers to stay at Grethe's house rather than with her two highly agitated, trying-too-hard foster parents. When Mhambi arrives, Penny sees in him the father she has always been hoping will return to rescue her, which drives Connor and Daniel into a deeper hole of self-doubt and self-recrimination.
But not to fear -- we are not in the land of August: Osage County: people cross this ocean, not drown in it. While Connor accuses Grethe of betrayal, and Grethe defends herself by saying that life goes on, they are too closely bonded for this disagreement to rupture their relationship, and they reconcile as Grethe goes off to spend three weeks with Mhambi on her own test-run of a new life.
Penny, at first distant because afraid of risking any emotional attachment that may not last, eventually grows closer to Connor and David, and by play's end they are on the road to being a family. Mhambi, for his part, gets the woman he's always wanted, even if it is 35 years later than he expected.
While the play is earnest in its narrative of happiness won through emotional struggle, the honesty it aims for is undermined by a whole host of clichés (though it's not clear if these are in the writing itself or come from Dev Bondarin's direction). For example, as the gay couple aching to be parents, Connor and Daniel exhibit every tic of the "stage gay man" (like the "stage Irish" of the English theater): eye-rolls, hissy fits, a love of "The Golden Girls," even Connor's little gelled rooster-comb of a haircut. While fun to watch (Mr. Stalling and Mr. Emerson work well together onstage), it also makes one wonder how they ever passed the interviews with the case worker: they hardly seem settled enough in their skins to qualify as potential parents.
More irritating is the way Mr. Daigle employs the black characters as saviors of the white family, especially in the exotic otherness of the Nigerian Mhambi, a published (if minor) poet who speaks in perfected sentences and appears as the soul of grace (right down to his bow tie). Penny, too, plays this role for the white people around her, a body of still water that runs deep with insight and advice that brings Connor and Daniel to the senses they should have had going in to this venture.
A Home Across The Ocean is cleverly written, well-plotted, and performed with great skill (Ms. Bond is especially good), and if you like high fructose plays that end well, this is your cup of sugar. (Note: A few of the shows will have talkbacks about the perils and pleasures of adoption, as part of their mission to "raise awareness of the social issues presented in our work.")

Michael Bettencourt

September 18, 2010

Roadkill Confidential

roadkill02.jpg

Photo: Carl Skutsch
(L to R) Alex Anfanger as Randy, Polly Lee as Melanie, Danny Mastrogiorgio
as FBI Man, Greg McFadden as William and Rebecca Henderson as Trevor

Reviewed: September 13, 2010
Venue: 3LD
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Written by: Sheila Callaghan
Directed by: Kip Fagan
Set Designer: Peter Ksander
Costume Designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting Designer: Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew
Sound Designer and Original Music: Bart Fasbender
Video Designers: Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty
Sculpture Designer and Animals: Jessica Scott
Wig, Hair, and Make-up Design: Erin Kennedy Lunsford

Production Stage Manager: Sunneva Stapleton
Assistant Stage Manager: Colleen M. Sherry
Assistant Director: Sarah Rose Leonard

Cast
Alex Anfanger as Frizzy Haired Man/Randy
Rebecca Henderson as Trevor Pratt
Polly Lee as Melanie Colander
Danny Mastrogiorgio as FBI Man
Greg McFadden as William Whiting/The Doctor

The Con Game in Roadkill Confidential

Sheila Callaghan's "noir-ish meditation on brutality" has an interesting moral and aesthetic knot at its core, about an artist living in a brutal culture using the means of that culture to inform its citizens about that brutality, only to become, in the process, as indifferently brutal as those she chastises. That artist is Trevor Pratt (Rebecca Henderson), the sculpture is built from animals she injures as she speeds down country roads, the situation she wants to condemn is the war in Afghanistan (with its own roadkill in the form of IEDs), the fatalities she causes include a nebbish lover and a nosy neighbor (both from tularemia, contracted from the animal carcasses) as well as her husband and step-son (by emotional abandonment).

But as the subtitle of the play hints, this is all treated very "-ish," that is, not with an entirely serious commitment to the moral forces at play in her story -- instead, we get an ironic arms-length attitude abetted by an overlay of ornamental technical effects (multiple video monitors, projections, etc.) and a narrator (Danny Mastrogiorgio as FBI Man) whose pastiche delivery of his lines, by sampling the voiceovers of old noir films, constantly reminds the audience that they're attending a sort of vaudeville show.

This is not to say that Roadkill Confidential doesn't entertain. Ms. Henderson signs off everything she says with a trademark snarl -- after all, this is a person who burst her way into the art world by using the photos of a dead woman in a car crash as an art installation, the mangled woman being the first wife of Pratt's current husband, William (Greg McFadden), an art historian who has hitched his academic career as well as his heart to the rise of Trevor.

Mr. Mastrogiorgio gives the cartoonishly drawn FBI Man what heft he can, as a man whose patriotic fight for justice (he even lost his right eye in the battle) is flummoxed by his growing admiration for Trevor's ruthlessness. Polly Lee plays Melanie Colander, Trevor and William's next-door-neighbor, with great energy, gradually revealing how her good-neighborliness is really an aggressive pitch for affection from an emotionally starved woman. Alex Anfanger gives Randy, William's son from the first marriage, non-stop voltage as the perpetually angry adolescent who has every reason to distrust the adults around him and the world they've created.

And kudos to the technical staff for the projections, video, lighting effects, and set design as well as to Kip Fagan's direction, which is sure-handed, inventive, and well-paced. Ms. Callaghan is served well by her crew.

Yet, in the end, it's not clear what the audience is supposed to take away from this "meditation on brutality." Both the off-kilter humor and technical tricks in the play displace rather than deepen an emotional response to the story, and by the end, when Trevor and FBI Man have their inevitable showdown, the action shades off into demonstrations about the whorishness of fame and the hypocrisy of making art, rounded off with an unsatisfying display of the actual roadkill sculpture as Trevor walks into a blizzard of photographers' strobes.

However, there is one moment in the play when Ms. Callaghan lets down her guard and goes simple, in a good way. When Trevor tells William that she doesn't want him to attend the opening, he reminds her that by giving her the photos of his dead wife "I took my hands off the wheel/I signed up for this./All of this." She responds by eviscerating him, turning him into emotional roadkill: " I'm, I'm sick./Sick of your intellectual postscripts./Your fame whoredom/Your cloying regard/And I'm so fucking sick/of being the one thing/that makes your career feel important."

When she finishes, one can feel the whole audience leaning forward, drawn into the scene by the strength of the writing and the honesty of the actors onstage and actually "meditating on brutality" as they watch William wither under Trevor's blast.

Trusting more of that and less of the tricks and gadgetry could make Roadkill Confidential the serious dramatic meditation on brutality Ms. Callaghan wants it to be rather than the theatrically skillful but emotionally remote exercise that it is.

Michael Bettencourt

September 10, 2010

A Mysterious Way

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Reviewed: September 10, 2010
Venue: Red Room (85 East 4th Street, New York City)
Running Time: 40 minutes (no intermission)
Run: September 9-18, 2010

Written by: Steven Walters
Directed by: Barrett Hileman
Sound Design: Chris Monroe

Produced by: Firebone Theatre
Stage Manager/Assistant Director: Zach Dorn

Cast
Gene Francis as Kane
Alexander Richard as Gordon



A Mysterious Way - Not All That Mysterious

Steven Walters' play, which Firebone Theatre first produced in 2009, has Edward Albee's The Zoo Story stamped all over it: the two-people-on-a-bench set-up and a character (in this case named Kane, as in Abel) whose theological uncertainty leads to a murder. But while this interrogation of God's will in human life may have been shocking in 1959 when Albee loosed The Zoo Story onto the world, it has no bite a half-century later, which is why the play has no bite either, even though it ends with a murder and has vigorous performances from Gene Francis (Kane) and Alexander Richard (Gordon).

The arc of the play is simple. Kane and Gordon are both waiting for a train to Atlantic City, with this difference: Gordon is planning to visit his mother there, while Kane plans to blow up the train enroute. Kane murders Gordon, a gentle-souled Bible-reading Christian, as part of his challenge to God to use his divine powers to prevent such evils, and the play ends with a voiceover announcement that all train service has been suspended, hinting that while God did not save Gordon, he thwarted Kane by causing the system to malfunction.

But none of the action in Walters' play feels authentic or necessary, in part because he never gives any urgent reason for Kane to enlist and then kill Gordon. If Kane's objective is to test whether God would interfere with his plans, he could simply keep his mouth shut, get on the train, and see what would happen (assuming that God, being God, would know Kane's intentions).

The coincidences in the play also give it an inauthentic feel: the only other person on the platform at 3:30 AM just happens to be a Bible-reading fallen human being trying to work his way back into life from (it is hinted) some dissipations involving gambling, drinking, and sex -- in other words, the perfect foil for Kane's maneuvers. Perhaps we're meant to think that God put Gordon there so that Kane can have his means, but the neatness of the set-up just stretches believability a bit too much.

Albee's play struggled with the question of what do people do when they reach the end of their tethers -- a question any matured adult confronts on a daily basis. The core issue of A Mysterious Way -- does God intervene in human history to prevent evil -- is less compelling because it's less imperative in people's lives -- and, in any case, most evidence indicates that God doesn't intervene, which more or less settles the case and makes A Mysterious Way not mysterious at all.

Michael Bettencourt

July 20, 2010

Lovesong of the Electric Bear

lovesong2.jpg
Photo-Stan Barouh | Tara Giordano as Porgy Bear and
Alex Draper as a young Alan Turing

Reviewed: July 19, 2010
Venue: Atlantic Stage 2
Running Time: 2 hours, with intermission
Run: July 6 - August 1, 2010

Written by: Snoo Wilson
Directed by: Cheryl Faraone
Scenic Designer: Christina Galvez
Lighting Designer: Hallie Zieselman
Furniture Designer: Eleanor Kahn
Costume Designer: Danielle Nieves
Projection Design: Ross Bell
Sound Design: Jimmy Wong

Produced by: Potomac Theatre Project
Production Manager: Hallie Zieselman
Production Stage Managers: Alex Mark, Lisa McGinn

Cast
Alex Draper as Alan Turing
Tara Giordano as Porgy Bear
Alex Cranmer as Blackwood/Turing Sr/Cornish/Sergeant
Peter B. Schmitz as Churchill/Davis//Barman/Greenbaum/Dilly Knox
Nina Silver as Clemmie/Mother/Judge
Cassidy Boyd as Christopher Morcom/Joan
Willie McKay as Kjell/Undergrad 1/Rejewski/Arnold
Claire Graves as Nurse/Fortune Teller/ Undergrad2/Ylena
Lilli Stein as Bronwyn/Varia
Martina Bonolis as Old Southern Woman/ Hallam/Man

To Animate the Inanimate

As part of its summer repertory series, the Potomac Theatre Project presents Snoo Wilson's Lovesong of the Electric Bear, the theatrical version of the movie industry's "biopic," about the brilliant and misaligned Alan Turing: mathematical whiz-kid, World War II code-breaker, pioneer in artificial intelligence and computer science -- and homosexual prosecuted for "gross indecency" who eventually took his own life.

The play moves in a pretty straightforward biographical line, narrated and guided by Turing's childhood toy, a bear named Porgy, and the picture we get of Turing is of a childish genius, unequipped by common etiquette (he thinks saying "hello" back to people who greet him is a waste of time) who, but for the prejudice of his society against his sexuality, would have produced even greater accomplishments than he did.

Wilson paints on a big canvas, so there is much theatricality in the play, beginning with the bear in the title, played by Tara Giordano in a torso-suit of shaggy brown material, topped with ears and outsized paws and feet. She interacts with Turing, guides him on his adventures, admonishes him when he errs, and dies with him when he commits suicide.

Scenes move briskly from boyhood to college to his work as a war-time breaker of the German code to his experiments with computer technology, sidetracking along the way for emotional dalliances (with males and females), philosophical discussions, and self-doubting. The rest of the cast play multiple characters, and at times it feels a bit like the costume changes in The Mystery of Irma Vep, with people sliding offstage as one character and emerging moments later as another.

However, Snoo's presentational style does not give Turing, played with great skill by Alex Draper, much time to build emotional connections with the swirl of others around him since it's always time to be getting on to the next point. This also forces Porgy to voice long stretches of exposition and, at one point late in the play, a stream of prophet-like doom-saying about the revenge of the gods for choices Turing wants to make in his life that, while poetic in its efforts, sounds off-key and a little tedious.

Director Cheryl Faraone has handled Snoo's scene-making well, moving things briskly and interestingly along, aided by Hallie Zieselman's lighting, Ross Bell's projections, and Jimmy Wong's sound design, with its mix of dance-hall and popular music and sound effects.

Turing's life was indeed an interesting ride, and the humiliation he underwent in 1952 for his sexuality, very similar to what Oscar Wilde suffered 57 years earlier, has its destructive legacy in our own culture's continuing assault against homosexuality. But by focusing on the biographical, Mr. Wilson misses out on the excitement of the intellectual, the stuff that really drove Turing.

We never really learn the "how" of the code-breaking or get to explore the dramatic possibilities of Turing's observation that there is no defensible line between the machine and the human (leading to the famous Turing test). We are meant to feel pathos at the death of this man, which we do when he ingests his cyanide by eating a red apple (a reference to Snow White, one of his favorite movies). But pathos is not dramatic, and that's the one thing that the play lacks.

Still, Lovesong of the Electric Bear is intelligent theatre expertly produced, a rare enough commodity these days, and is most definitely worth checking out.

Michael Bettencourt

July 16, 2010

The Barker Poems: Gary The Thief, Plevna: Meditations on Hatred

gary_plevna3cr.jpg
Photo - Stan Barouh | (L-R): Alex Draper, performer of Plevna: Meditations on Hatred,
and Robert Emmet Lunney, performer of Gary the Thief

Reviewed: July 15, 2010
Venue: Atlantic Stage 2
Running Time: 1 hour
Run: July 6 - August 1, 2010


Written by: Howard Barker
Directed by: Richard Romagnoli

Cast:
Robert Emmet Lunney (Gary The Thief)
Alex Draper (Plevna: Meditations on Hatred)

Barker's Dry Acidic Voice
As part of its summer repertory series, the Potomac Theatre Project brings forth two single-actor pieces from British playwright Howard Barker. Though coached in different voices and vocabularies, they both express Barker's contrarian notions about what constitutes virtue, redemption, and truth.
Gary The Thief charts how a character on the moral fringes of a society can, by keeping faith, in a twisted sort of way, with a moral calculus based on being a parasite, can reach a point where ethical emptiness becomes the seedbed of virtuousness change as the ego dissolves and uncertainty becomes the only certain thing.
Gary's story, expertly delivered by Robert Emmet Lunney (who played Starhemberg in PTP's 2009 production of Barker's The Europeans, begins in contempt: "You monkeys/You cattle/I tread your consciences like a brass heeled/Titan wades a sea of eggs." After going to prison, being appropriated by the revolutionaries, becoming a valuable bureaucratic apparatchik -- in essence, where his villainy is rewarded by those equally villainous but who are veneered in respectability and protected from punishment -- he comes to where he recognizes the emptiness of all that and is scoured clean of his attachments.
This is not Christian humility or Taoist No-Mind leading to spiritual renovation but something more valuable to Barker: the self-recognition of how we delude ourselves and how that recognition can lead to the only trustworthy state of being, one that is cool, dry, acidic, scornful (but without righteousness) -- in short, a state shorn of Christianized sentimentalities and the urge for things to make sense.
Alex Draper, who has appeared PTP's productions of Barker's No End of Blame and Scenes from an Execution, takes a very different approach with Plevna. (Plevna is a city in Bulgaria that became a key goal in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 -- a war, in other words, between Christians and Muslims, a topic also taken up in The Europeans). Though written in 1988, before the Balkan atrocities of the 1990s, it predicts the return of an already bloody history of wars prompted by religious allegiances to God and Allah.
Draper, entering as a bon vivant at a party, delivers his communiqués of horror with a chilling wit, and this drollery underscores Barker's point: that hatred, far from being a moral failing, is an engine that drives the rotation of the world, returned to again and again for its power and its satisfactions. As he says at the beginning of his meditations:

All these were killed
Not by the army
But by neighbors
Who in later years
To satisfy the curiosity of children
Talked of the peculiar speed
At which relations deteriorated...

But one said
One with a very ordinary eye
Even when smiling I nourished hate under my tongue
Which flooded
An abundant saliva
When politics exposed the fear
In those we lived among....

In wars of culture it is never enough to be dead.

Our Christian sentimentalities makes us long to believe that we are better than we are, that atrocities are aberrations of human nature rather than its core, that evil is a momentary lapse, but Barker will accept none of that special pleading. He ends Plevna with his own take on the matter. And given the blooded and cemeteried earth under our feet, who's to say that Barker is wrong, or too pessimistic, or morally churlish?

The possibility hate is intrinsic
The possibility hate waits to be born with every birth
The possibility it sits in the same mouth as grief
And floods the lip with pity's pouring
Rising like mercury through the phial
Flashing like the casement catching sun
Its succulence lending life to the tongue

Explain its durability among so much civility
its persistence in the blizzard of understanding
its how amidst welfare
its boldness in guilt

And how it thrives in innocent lives
Like the rat carrying its unwieldy gut along the
Grave channel

Michael Bettencourt


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