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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

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 14, 2011

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

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

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 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 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

About July 2011

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