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August 2008 Archives

August 4, 2008

Heistman by Matthew Maher (SoHo Think Tank/Ice Factory 2008, Ohio Theatre, New York - Conceived and Directed by Gabriella Barnstone. Reviewed August 1, 2008)

heistman1_web.jpg Photo: Steven Rattazzi as the Heistman - Photographer: Brian McDermott

In "Heistman," Heistman, played by Steve Ratazzi, and his two cohorts (a man and a woman) have just taken over a bank and secured two female hostages when they are surrounded by the police and commanded to give themselves up by a police officer (Matt Oberg) barking through a megaphone. However, instead of surrendering, Heistman proceeds to deliver the first third of "The Heist Man Manifesto" (the complete text of which, running for three double-sided single-spaced pages, is stuffed into the program). The Manifesto begins with Personal Happiness and ends with The Fear, which he defines as "the fear that your life is a waste"; according to Heistman, it is The Fear which drives most people to do desperate things (such as robbing banks) to make their lives have meaning. At this point, about 20 minutes into the 45-minute production, Heistman, driven by his own capital-F "Fear," is saved by the two hostages, who have somehow freed themselves from being tied up and who lead him and his two "associates" on a dance of self-peace. This is all sort of a metaphoric and mildly interesting silliness, with ideas like "heist" and "hostage" and "giving up" laden with double and triple layers of "meaning," underscored by an eclectic sound design by Marcelo Añez, choreography by Barnstone (which is excellently performed by Ratazzi and Molly Lieber, Eleanor Smith, Carolton Ward, and Barnstone herself), and Paul Douglas Olmer's and Garin Marschall's effective set and lighting. Ratazzi's performance is what gives the piece any intellectual heft that it has: by turns flippant, fear-laden, comic, and dangerous, Ratazzi turns the commonplaces of the Manifesto, which are a dull read on the page, into words with edges and possibilities.

Michael Bettencourt

August 14, 2008

Zombie by Bill Connington (FringeNYC 2008, adapted and performed by Bill Connington from the novella by Joyce Carol Oates. August 9 - 21, 2008.)

Zombie_photo_A_web.jpgPhoto: Bill Connington as Quentin P., serial killer, with his favorite ice pick (photographer Tony David)

What are we to make of "Zombie," a one-actor piece about Quentin P., the queer sadistic sexual-psychopathic murderer who yearned to create a zombie who would obey him without question by performing home-made lobotomies with an icepick rammed up through his victims' eye-sockets? "Zombie" is in that genre of theatre that uses the stage for the case-study of a psychological/psychotic condition (think "Equus"), in the hope of (in this order) titillating the audience through voyeurism and, perhaps, shedding some explanatory light on the "abnormal" (i.e., people not like the audience members). But a script is not a case-study, imagination is not the same as the DSM-IV, and two-hours-with-intermission does not substitute for therapy. Inevitably the interpretive effort must always deliver less than it promises because, one, the audience is always more interested in titillation than explanation and, two, explanation can never be dramatic (think of how all those CSI shows try to tart up the lab tests with music and camera-work so that people won't switch the channel). Well, then, if by the end of "Zombie" Quentin P. is still an unsolved riddle, what about the quality of the performance itself? Again, "Zombie" delivers less than it promises. Directed by "Mamma Mia!" resident director Thomas Caruso, with set by Josh Zangen, lighting by Joel Silver, and sound by Deidre Broderick, Connington chooses to present Quentin as a sort of button-down nerd, with owl-eye-styled brown-rim glasses, slicked down combover, chinos, and a short-sleeve shirt who speaks in slow, upper-Midwest-themed accent. All this is meant to contrast with the viciousness of his anecdotes about using the trash of society as his experiments in zombie-making. Connington does well enough, though several line-flubs and Caruso's advice to play Quentin with only the slightest hint of animation drain off most of the story's vigor and danger. But the choice to adapt this as a monologue is also partly to blame for the slightly soporific quality of the production. No matter if the actor is talking to a stuffed dummy (the only "zombie" Quentin is able to create) or to the audience or to the air, the stage lacks a second center of gravity around which the dramatic action can orbit. In addition, almost all the "action" in the piece is told in retrospect, not shown in the present tense, and so the piece becomes something more for the ear than the eye. Finally, Connington just does not offer the kind of performance that turns the dialectic between the outward dweeb and the inner monster into a memorable hour upon the stage. "Zombie" unfortunately feels too much like its title.

Michael Bettencourt

August 23, 2008

Victory at the Dirt Palace by Adriano Shaplin (SoHo Think Tank/Ice Factory 2008, Ohio Theatre, New York - Directed by Whit MacLaughlin. August 20 - 23, 2008.)

PaulSchnabel_Stephanie Viola_web.jpgPaul Schnabel as James Mann and Stephanie Viola as K Mann - Photo by Abigail Feldman

The Riot Group, using a script by co-founder Adriano Shaplin (who also performs along with Riot Group company members Paul Schnabel, Stephanie Viola, and Drew Friedman), sets many targets in its sights in this sharply drawn, occasionally tedious 90-minute piece. The story, such as it is, follows the rise and fall of broadcast news rivals James and K. Mann, father and daughter (the "K" stands for Katherine, but she never refers to herself by that name). Their head-to-head battle for ratings supremacy is also a stand-in for the passion play of a bitter father/daughter battle, with K. accusing James of his loving her "like cancer loves cells." During K.'s premiere broadcast, terrorists attack the United States, cutting off all electrical power. Within the space of ten minutes the US declares war, then wins the war it has declared, and, as power is restored, K. beats James to the usual insipid end-of-broadcast eulogy/paean delivered by news anchors about victory and heroism. The overnight ratings declare K. the winner, and James resigns (to be replaced by his assistant Andrew). But Andrew, not content with his victory, brings down K. by exposing photographs of K. in a leather S&M mask, photographs taken by K.'s assistant Spence (who is also K.'s sex partner), who is angling for his own rise up the corporate food chain. The play ends with Andrew and Spence co-anchoring the nightly newscast that James had run for 30 years, while a chastened K. and James (now doing the weather report) work for a local TV station somewhere in America's heartland. Each has his or her own "victory at the dirt palace," the lowest kind of victory, as K. points out. Shaplin's satiric dissection of celebrity culture, the vapidity of the news media ("all news is jokes," James says at one point), and the operatics of family dysfunction are all intelligent and presented with humor and flair (thanks to Whit MacLaughlin's tight direction). Yet Shaplin also has a love of his own voice and pours out metaphor-laden word-streams that often strain too hard for significance and delay or divert the story's unfolding. And the choice to have the actors direct almost all their lines to the audience and the air (only rarely do the characters interact with each other) in essence makes the play a monologue and denies it the opportunity to build the kind of gravitational attraction among characters that creates dramatic tension. "Victory at the Dirt Palace" is cerebrally interesting and sometimes culturally provoking, but it never goes beyond its own cleverness and bombast, in the end not looking or sounding very different from the celebratized superficial culture which it aims to demolish by parody.

Michael Bettencourt

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