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July 11, 2009

A Wonderland by Eamonn Farrell (book/lyrics) and William Antoniou (music) (SoHo Think Tank/Ice Factory 2009, Ohio Theatre, New York - Directed by Eamonn Farrell. Runs until July 11, 2009)

Wonderland1-cr.jpgJanelle Lannan (center) as Alice and the cast of A Wonderland - Photographer: Eamonn Farrell

The musically induced "A Wonderland" takes Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" as its founding text, sending Alice, a failed actor and chanteuse relegated to the dreary life of a 34-year-old administrative assistant, on a druggy trip into the psyche of her failed dreams. "A Wonderland" is over-long and under-focused, but it has many many wonderful elements in it that, even though they don't add up to a satisfying whole, give a great deal of theatrical pleasure.
Anonymous Ensemble, which produced the work, is known for its "pan-medium projects," and "A Wonderland" mixes in live-camera feeds and pre-recorded video with Vegas-style ensemble dancing (sharply choreographed by David Scotchford) and a tight three-piece band (Sasha Brown, Shoheen Owhady, Raky Sastri), all supported by a tech crew that turns the boxy environs of the Ohio Theatre into an appropriate dreamscape (Lucrecia Briceno, lighting; Kumi Ishizawa and Ken Travis, sound).
But even "pan-medium projects" need a good hook, and this is where "A Wonderland" doesn't deliver. One problem, at least for me, is that Farrell and Antoniou make the songs carry the narrative burden, and while all the singers were articulate and crisp in their deliveries, it was impossible to catch all of what one needed to catch to make sense of the story's progression. This also made the songs seem to go on far longer than needed, which stopped narrative forward-motion cold.
As a piece of musical theatre, "A Wonderland" wants to have the same campiness as "Hedwig," but the characters come off more like the poseurs in "Hair" -- the Mad Hatter (Josh Hoglund) as a floppy-hatted motor-mouthed drug dealer had "dated" stamped all over it, as did his "tribe" of March Hare (Cory Antiel), Dormouse (Liz Davito), and The Duchess (Meghan Williams), and the notion of drugs inducing spiritual revelation died a well-deserved death long ago. The reason it doesn't have "Hedwig's" coolness is that "A Wonderland" tries too hard -- it foregoes the light touch that camp requires for the over-gestured mannerism and the over-decibeled in-your-face. And, most important, "Hedwig" had a heart in the character of Hedwig, who gave an emotional anchor to all the outrageousness. There is no matching character in "A Wonderland."
The creators of "A Wonderland," though, have come up with some really inventive and clever theatricalities that inject some effervescence into the proceedings: the Red Queen (Jessica Weinstein), comes in on stilts, a tall crown making her even more elongated and imperial; the Caterpillar is five glow-in-the-dark Hoberman spheres, expanded and contracted by five performers in black clothes as it wriggles across the stage; and the Cheshire Cat is Kiebpoli Calnek doing aerial corde lisse as she floats above the questioning and questing Alice.
Janelle Lannan, playing Alice, has a supple and vibrant voice and a self-assured presence that is just a pure pleasure to listen to and watch, especially in what is probably the best song in the whole show, "The One." Matt Mager, as Blanche duBunny, struts his transvestite self across the stage with a cocksure half-smile, and Liz Davito, as the loopy and possibly perpetually drunk/stoned Dormouse, not only plays a mean guitar and violin but keeps the comic temperature rising with her excellent timing. And watch for the dancers, who manage to live large within their tight muscled choreography: Theresa Coombe-Mannino, Simone De La Rue, JD Smith, and Billy Tighe.

Michael Bettencourt

July 17, 2009

Lavaman by Casey Wimpee (SoHo Think Tank/Ice Factory 2009, Ohio Theatre, New York - Directed by Matthew Hancock. Runs until July 18, 2009)

Lava17_w.jpgMichael Mason, Cole Wimpee and Adam Belvo. Photography by Kalli Newman.

Buried inside the spew of words of Casey Wimpee's text, there is an actual story in "Lavaman," dealing with the way sons who have lost their mother deal with that tragedy. Arnie (Michael Mason), twin brother of Archie, creates a character in a never-written graphic novel called Lavaman, born in the fire of a volcano in Iceland and which harbors fire in his belly and anger in his heart. Archie, for his part, seems to have consumed, and been consumed by, the anarchic energies of punk rock -- by the time the play starts, Archie has died a burnt-out death, and our only knowledge of him is through his friends Gill (Cole Wimpee) and Dino (Adam Belvo).
More tragedy floods in. Dino is stabbed to death by a deer antler wielded by Arnie, now channeling the explosive spirit of Archie (though Gill might also have been the one to stab Dino) as the three of them, fueled by a stew of pharmaceuticals, attempt to rescue Erica, Gill's former girlfriend, from a gang of vegan bike dykes affiliated with the Hell's Angels. (Where the deer antler comes from and why Dino convinces the hapless pair to go through with this harebrained scheme are story elements I will leave to the discovery of the audience.)
But the story itself seems less important to writer Casey Wimpee than the way the story gets told: he fragments the tale so that the audience is fooled, at least for a time, into thinking it is watching something that is, in fact, not happening the way audience thinks it is. And what passes for dialogue between the characters tries to mimic the blasting sonic torrent of early punk -- Dino and Gill are motor-mouths supreme, and kudos to them for making Wimpee's riff upon riff upon riff upon riff articulate and (mostly) coherent.
Director Matthew Hancock sets the action in Gill's apartment (inherited from his dead mother -- dead mothers seems to abound in this play), suitably garbaged to fit the life of a ne'er-do-well who will never ever do well. Hancock's design team (lights by Jake Platt, sounds by Ryan Dorin, visual editing by Sean Berman, and projection consulting by Cameron Yeary) provide a driving punk soundtrack and projection drawings of Lavaman that are scatalogically funny and expressive of Arnie's inner torment.
Though I think that Wimpee wants the play's propulsive drive and high-decibel anxiety to be like a fist in the solar plexus, I found that these elements produced the opposite effect in me, a dissipation of my attention-span and a fatigue with/loss of interest in the characters' struggles. Less could be more here -- less indulgent language traded in for more self-reflection in the characters, less admiration for pure energy and more attention given to sharpening the dramatic conflicts. The show runs 105 minutes and could easily be tightened to 90 minutes with judicious editing, without any loss of emotional appeal or comic apocalypse.
That being said, praise for the three actors for their total commitment to what is happening on the stage and for a production that, in its trading of bodily fluids and its admiration for the dead art of punk, channels some much needed transgressive energy out into the boutiqued and malled environs of Soho.

Michael Bettencourt

The Europeans by Howard Barker (Potomac Theatre Project, Atlantic Stage 2 - Directed by Richard Romagnoli. Runs until July 26, 2009)

671_w.jpgValerie Leonard as The Second Mother, Antoinette Lavecchia as The Empress and Robert Emmet Lunney as Starhemberg. Photography by Stan Barouh.

The Potomac Theatre Project, now known as PTP/NYC, had great success last year with another of British playwright Howard Barker's plays, "Scenes From An Execution," which garnered a Drama Desk Award for Best Leading Actress for Jan Maxwell. And the year before that, Barker's "No End Of Blame" had multiple nominations by the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. So, Howard Barker has been good for PTP/NYC.
This year, the company has decided to do the American premiere of "The Europeans," a play more opaque and furtive than the other two in both its intentions and obsessions, and for the most part, except for a few scenes with dramatic impact, director Richard Romagnoli and his cast did not manage to make Barker's meditations and investigations about war, freedom, morality, history, and power (and its attendant eroticism) take on dramatic life.
Barker locates the play in an actual event: the aftermath of the 1683 siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Turks which is repelled by General Ernst Rüdiger Von Starhemberg (who appears in Barker's play, along with another actual historical figure of that event, Emperor Leopold -- the rest of the characters are Barker's inventions). Barker focuses on the aftermath because it gives him a forum for speculating about the possible liberations that wholesale destruction can bring -- from sclerotic moralities, imperial follies, shallow art, even accepted norms of sanity.
Each character populating this flattened Vienna is now without a compass, except, perhaps, for the most basic (and base) impulses. For some, like Orphuls (Robert Zuckerman), a gluttonous priest who murders his mother to gain a proper knowledge of evil, becoming unhinged from the past gives him license to indulge his every human appetite without restraint or judgment, whatever the consequence and without remorse. For others, like Emperor Leopold (Brent Langdon) and Empress Elizabeth (Antoinette LaVecchia), the direction is retrograde, a return to the verities that established their power and kept them at the top of the heap. Others have urgencies more mixed and porous. Starhemberg (Robert Emmet Lunney), the successful general, shuns all official accolades and seeks, among the human refuse of Vienna and especially in the raped, mutilated, and Turk-impregnated body of Katrin (Aidan Sullivan), some path that will not lead to an "official" morality that cements injustice in place and honors the impostors. Katrin, for her part, wants to make her suffering a public spectacle, even a public art: she insists that 10,000 pictures of her breastless torso be distributed throughout the city and stages the birth of her half-Turkish child outdoors in the city's center for all to witness. In Starhemberg she finds a companion who will love her in the way she demands: without pity, without concern for beauty, attracted to her by her defaults and absences.
And elsewhere in this urban chaos, sex is exchanged for food and vice versa, a severed head is cradled like a baby, intellectuals discuss art while people starve -- the world off-kilter and thus (at least to Barker) ripe for amendment.
In short, in "The Europeans," consistent with his formulation of a Theatre of Catastrophe, Barker presents his audience with the obverse of what he thinks are their settled beliefs so that they have the chance to question themselves and, in that questioning, come to know what they did not know they knew. At least, that's the theory.
In practice? In this play, more so than in the other two Barker plays PTP/NYC has produced, the theatrical world is more hermetic and arid. I would even go so far to say that Barker, despite his intention to get his audiences to reëxamine in themselves what does not get examined often enough, is not particularly concerned if an audience is in attendance here. The debates, badinage, aperçus, sermons, renditions all come out of the characters' mouths as what they are and very little more. Occasionally, Barker jobs in what an audience might recognize as dialogue or subtext or narrative forward-motion (there is an actual story being told here, mostly focused on Starhemberg and Katrin), but for the most part Barker has his characters deliver his/their words and then move on to the next oration.
That being said, Romagnoli doesn't help the situation as much as he could have because he chooses to stage the play with his characters in "period" costume (i.e., tightly cinched gowns for the court ladies, rough-wool pants and heavy boots for Starhemberg, etc.) and uses projections on hung cloth to set literal places for the action -- in other words, trying to find some "naturalistic" vernacular to frame Barker's quite non-natural and abstracted theatrical world. I kept wondering if a different sort of staging might have helped sharpen the focus on Barker's intentions here, something less ornamental and more "estranging," to use Victor Shklovsky's critical term. As it is, while at times the production has undeniable dramatic power (as in Katrin's narrative of her despoilment and the handing back of Katrin's child to the Turks at the end of the play), it fails to catch fire overall.
This is not entirely the production's fault. Barker's play, even though supposedly an outwardly aimed meditation upon what makes Europe Europe (written, as it was, in 1990, when Europe debated this question itself in relation to forming the EU), is insular and self-indulgent, and much of the "obverse morality" he posits as the antidote to our aesthetic prejudices, such as the equation of beauty and cruelty, is a morality best left for the actors on a stage or, like the intellectuals in Leopold's court, bandied about by people who have no power to put it into effect -- it is not useable in the real life most of us have to lead.
So kudos to PTP/NYC for bringing more of Barker to the United States, and for participating in the international celebration in October that will honor his work and the theatre created to stage it, The Wrestling School. I look forward to their next Barker project.

Michael Bettencourt

July 20, 2009

Thérèse Raquin, adapted by Neal Bell (Potomac Theatre Project, Atlantic Stage 2 - Directed by Jim Petosa. Runs until July 26, 2009)

4066_w.jpg Scott Janes as Laurent and Lily Balsen as Therese Raquin. Photography by Stan Barouh.

The Potomac Theatre Project's production of Neal Bell's 1991 theatrical reconstruction of Émile Zola's novel is considered and competent, and therein lies its strength and its weakness.
First published as a novel in 1867, and then adapted by Zola himself into a play in 1873, "Thérèse Raquin" became the opening assault by a generation of European artists against what they considered the encrusted art forms of their day: against pretension and social irrelevance they would bring to bear the power of scientific observation of real life, grounded (more often than not) in the life of the lower orders. Zola used the preface to the second edition of "Thérèse Raquin" to post the argument that his art would examine "temperaments, not characters," and how the interactions of these temperaments would inevitably lead, as in a scientific experiment, to the tragic conclusions of the novel.
The core story of "Thérèse Raquin" is age-old and simple: Thérèse, in a loveless marriage to her spoiled and sickly cousin, Camille, more or less engineered by the cousin's mother, meets Laurent, a handsome young painter, and engages in an affair that leads to the murder of the husband, a wave of remorse, and their mutual suicide to escape the guilt. Director Jim Petosa stages everything simply: two wooden chairs (along with a few other props) serve to create time and place; scenes are short and crisply choreographed, efficiently piling evidence upon evidence, buoyed by a (sometimes) lachrymose score; and the primary actors (Helen-Jean Arthur as the mother, Lily Balsen as Thérèse, Willie Orbison as Camille, and Scott Janes as Laurent) command the stage, especially Arthur and Balsen. All the elements conspire to create an evening of unified and proficient theatre.
A certain dullness does creep in as we watch the unfolding of this experiment because we know, right from get-go, that this will not end well for anyone, and no degree of theatrical competence can overcome the fact that the audience is ahead of story almost all the way through. And I wish Petosa and PTP/NYC had delved a little into what it means to produce a play like "Thérèse Raquin" in 2009 in a culture besotted with misdeeds every bit as lurid and lascivious as the crime perpetrated by Thérèse and Laurent. Why do this play now? What does it have to say to a contemporary audience long tutored in irony and self-reference?
But this is really a quibble. With its smooth flow, erotic energy, and artful elements, "Thérèse Raquin" will please if not excite, and these days, given what passes for artistic fare, such competence and clarity of vision is a welcome offering.

Michael Bettencourt

July 24, 2009

Babes in Toyland, Adapted by Michael Levinton (SoHo Think Tank/Ice Factory 2009, Ohio Theatre, New York - Directed by Michael Levinton and José Zayas. Runs until July 25, 2009)

17_p.jpg (L-R): David Greenspan as the Widow Piper and Michael Levinton as Barnaby. Photo by Yi Zhao

The prime, if not sole, goal of a comedy is to be funny, and by this simple clear standard, the Little Lord Fauntleroys' re-production of Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough's 1903 operetta "Babes in Toyland," fails to deliver.

Billed as a "recession spectacular" designed to "recall the happy days of childhood for all who are facing the stern realities of life," Levinton riffs off the Herbert/MacDonough work (itself a riff on/rip-off of "The Wizard of Oz," which opened in 1903 on Broadway, with MacDonough's assistance, and was extraordinarily successful) to create a two-hour dollop filled with Mother Goose characters, a couple of evil men (Uncle Barnaby, played by Levinton, and The Master Toymaker), marching toys, a scary forest full of spiders and demons, and a happy resolution of all outstanding conflicts.

But it's not very funny, for three reasons.

First, everyone tries too hard. Mugging (facial and bodily) substitutes for timing, stage "business" substitutes for narrative action. Such over-exertion might be funny to six-year olds, but to the rest of us, it's a lot of sweating with no comic pay-off. Part of this has to be laid at the feet of the directors, who rarely, if ever, set a "button" on scenes and in general moved people about with little regard for timing or pace. (Note the double prologue, with first a slideshow and then a set-up by Mother Goose -- one would have been quite enough, given that neither were very funny and often repeated each other.)

Second, the narrative pace is too slow. It may be a thin truism to say that if you want something to be funny, do it faster, and if you want tragedy, do it slower, but there are grains of truth in it, and "Babes," in part because of its sweaty efforts to be funny, doesn't settle into a satisfying rhythm of set-up and pay-off. If the action is meant to be mad-cap, then mad-cap it must be, with the attitude and pacing of "well, if you didn't like that joke, then just wait because we got a million of 'em." "Babes" never nears this kind of velocity.

Third, the writing. To re-create an old work without re-describing the material for the time and place in which you're performing it is to do theatre without a purpose, a variant of the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney "Babes in Arms" shtick of "I have a barn -- let's put on a show!" The barn can't be the "reason" for the show, and if it is, the work will lack heart and focus, which is exactly what happens with "Babes in Toyland."

Not all is lost here. David Greenspan's turn as The Master Toymaker who hates children and wants to create zombie-toys that will kill them all on Christmas morning is wry and nasty at the same time (and, strangely enough, is part of the MacDonough book in 1903). All the actors perform with verve and dedication, and the set, costuming, lighting, sound, choreography, and musical direction all show a sure professional touch (including the inventive use of cardboard for both set and costume design).

And I did like Uncle Barnaby's cosmetic moustache. Barnaby will do anything to marry Contrary Mary (including prepare the death by drowning of his nephew, Alan, who is his rival for Mary's hand). In one scene Barnaby walks on with a moustache penciled in short straight lines to the edges of his mouth; in another, the moustache now has fanciful curlicues that reach across his cheeks; in yet another, one side curls upward, the other curls downward, like a snarl. No one ever mentions it or points it out -- it's just there if you notice it, and if you notice it, brings on a smile. The sight gag had just the right mix of humor and subtlety, and should have been the touchstone for the piece because its comedy was unforced, exerting just enough pressure to make its point without over-stating the case.

Michael Bettencourt

About July 2009

This page contains all entries posted to QREVIEWS in July 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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