Friday, October 2, 2015

"The Christians" - Whose faith is it anyway?

Reviewed by Judd Hollander
Photos by Joan Marcus

Preaching the world of God is a great responsibility. For what you say in that respect affects not only how you see yourself, but how you are seen by the very people you hope to reach. It's a point strongly brought home in Lucas Hnath's very powerful and compelling drama The Christians, now playing off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons.

Paul (Andrew Garman) is a well respected pastor who has, over the last twenty years seen his church grow from services in a storefront to a thriving mega-complex. Yet of late his soul is deeply troubled. A story he heard at a religious conference affecting him so deeply, he's announced his intention of taking the church in a new direction. One with the idea that all are saved through Christ, even those who do not believe in him, and which also abandons the concepts of Satan and Hell.

Paul's decision, which he announces during one of his sermons, immediately causes a division in both the church hierarchy and its membership. The first to publicly say that he cannot agree with this new perspective is Associate Pastor Joshua (Larry Powell). Joshua quickly departs his position, and takes about 50 members of the congregation with him.

As time goes on, Paul finds his decision repeatedly questioned. This despite his continual explanations and reasoning, all of which seem perfectly clear to him. (Kind of like Hilary Clinton and her email troubles.) Paul's wife (Linda Powell), for example wants to know why he didn't talk to her first before making his feelings public; while others, such as Jenny (Emily Donahoe), a member of the congregation, wondering why Paul waited until the church celebrated finally being free from years of debt before taking this stand. A debt which was paid in no small part by the church members themselves. Paul's response to this last query being particularly telling. Not that it takes anything away from his belief in what he is doing, but it does serve to point out how in religion, just like in politics, timing can be everything. In the end Paul finds his decision may cost him more than he ever thought possible.

The Christians takes a hard look at the power of faith and what happens when people with differing viewpoints, each of whom firmly believe they are in the right, are unable to accept the other's position. One such confrontation played out with Paul and Joshua via dueling bible verses, though Paul does have the advantage here. He having prepared himself for this situation beforehand. Yet while the playwright has provided a religious framework for the story (and a quite convincing one at that), it could easily be translated to many other situations. Just as it is said the how the Devil can quote the scriptures for his own ends, focusing on specific writings to buttress a certain argument is quite common in all walks of life, regardless of whatever the subject of dispute happens to be. Indeed, many decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court have fallen into this category. The Justices charged with interpreting the law, with many of their decisions turning on the meaning of particular word or phrase or intent thereof.

To his credit, Hnath pulls no punches with his tale, never questioning Paul's convictions, nor the viewpoints of those who disagree with him. The story refreshingly avoiding any stereotypical or cliché-like dialogue, with characters feeling fully three-dimensional and completely real.

Scenic designer Dane Laffrey has done an excellent job here, creating a set which calls to mind a Sunday morning religious television program. Complete with a very enthusiastic 20-person choir. A particularly nice touch were the projected messages about refraining from texting during the program. It's also interesting to note how the atmosphere the show projected took hold even before the play began. Often when people are in a church they involuntary talk in whispers, which was also the case here. The normal pre-show chatter of the audience as they were getting settled being markedly absent.

Garman comes off well as a genial, middle of the road sort of pastor. One whose belief in what he is doing never alters, despite all that happens around him. Kudos must also go to Linda Powell, who basically does nothing for most of the play, other than looking supportive and wincing when Paul mentions the pants suit she was wearing when they first met 22 years earlier. That is, until a pivotal scene where she reveals to her husband her own personal beliefs and just how important they are to her. Also doing a particularly nice job is Philip Kerr as Jay, a church elder and one of those responsible for the financial health of the church. Jay being someone who strives to find a middle ground where everyone can exist. Something that is not always an option when it comes to matters of belief.

As The Christians clearly shows, faith can be a demanding mistress. Especially when it threatens to take away everything you hold dear. For while it may indeed be able to move mountains, it can also point to a path where you find yourself walking completely alone.

Featuring: Andrew Garman (Paul, a pastor), Linda Powell (Elizabeth, his wife), Larry Powell (Joshua, the associate pastor), Philip Kerr (Jay, a church elder), Emily Donahoe (Jenny, a church congregant).

The Christians
Written by Lucas Hnath
Scenic Design: Dane Laffrey
Costume Design: Connie Furr Soloman
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Sound Design: Jake Rodriguez
Production Stage Manager: Marisa Levy
Assistant Stage Managers: Erin Gioia Albrecht; Joseph Fernandez, Jr.
Music Supervisor: David Dabbon
Music Director/Pianist: Karen Dryer

Directed by Les Waters

Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or
Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission

Closes: October 25

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

"Mercury Fur" - Where Denial is Not a River in Egypt

Reviewed by Judd Hollander
Photos by Monique Carboni

In 1988 there was an off-Broadway show that featured, as one of its segments, two actors in a talk show setting discussing how to deal with issues plaguing the world at the time. The solution: to pretend that everything is happening somewhere far away and not in their own back yard. But denial only goes so far and when one is forced to come face to face with the reality they're been desperately avoiding, it's an altogether different story. Such is the case in Philip Ridley's very sobering drama Mercury Fur, presented by the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Jack DiFalco and Zane Pais
Ridley sets his story in a dystopian New York City, one not that far removed from the present day. Riots and crime have become commonplace, while weather patterns have gone crazy - bringing with them sand from the dessert and a strange breed of hallucinogenic butterflies, the current drug of choice. Those on the fringes of what's left of society surviving by their wits and on the back and bodies of those less fortunate than themselves. 

Doing a brisk business in the butterfly trade, along with other questionable activities is Elliot (Zane Pais), a no-nonsense sort who, with his mentally-challenged brother Darren (Jack DiFalco), has commandeered an apartment in an supposedly abandoned building for a very special party. They getting help some unexpected aid in this endeavor from Naz (Tony Revolori), a squatter from down the hall.

However this is not simply a party with liquor and drugs. Rather, what is being set up is a scene where the soon-to-arrive Party Guest (Peter Mark Kendall) will be acting out a rather dark fantasy. One where he will be in complete control over a person's life and death. Said person, the Party Piece (Bradley Fong), in actuality a young boy kidnapped by Elliot's crew sometime earlier and kept in a drugged stupor in preparation for this moment. Other members of the team including Spinx (Sea McHale), the liaison between Elliot and the Party Guest, and Elliot's lover Lola (Paul Iacono). This fantasy being one the group has apparently set up many times before.

Running hand in hand with the bleakness that’s everywhere one turns - thanks to a great set by Derek McLane - is the ever-present feeling on denial where no one wants to admit what they're actually doing. Lola, for example has no intention being present at the party under any circumstances; and also doesn't want the Party Favor awake enough to speak during the party preparations. Preparations which include Lola making up the Party Piece properly for the scene which is to follow. Additionally, the Party Favor is referred to in this manner because the others don't want to think of him as an actual human being. Something made abundantly clear when Elliot cuts off any attempt by Naz to learn the Party Favor's real name.

While it's easier for most people to play down things that aren't happening right in front of them, it's something else entirely when they're forced to confront evidence of such a situation, either virtually or in actuality. The uproar following the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs being one such example. It's the same reason why, if most meat eaters knew how their meat was slaughtered, a good portion of them would become vegetarians. There being numerous things society, as a whole, simply does not want to know about or be reminded of.

Elliot and Darren find themselves forced into their own reality confrontation with the sudden appearance of the Duchess (Emily Cass McDonnell), whose presence brings up memories both brothers have tried desperately to forget, or at least severely compartmentalize. Though giving too much information in regard to this character turns out to be one of the few weak spots in the play. The author spoon feeding the audience answers when it's better to let them draw their own conclusions. Eventually when this particular party starts to deviate from the planned script, Elliott and the rest of his family, which is basically what the group has become, find themselves forced to switch from dispassionate observers to active participants. And in doing so, must take a stand on the right and wrong of what they've set in motion.

Zane Pais, Jack DiFalco
Bradley Fong, Tony Revolori
Acting is very good, the various characters often taking on the role of symbols in the world the playwright has created. The Party Guest, for example representing both money and someone who's interested in his own pleasures rather than trying to make a difference. Ridley also has him working on Wall Street - a bit of a dig at the "one percenters" of the world. Elliot meanwhile, probably sees himself as a businessman supplying a need, doing what he has to in order for him and his family to survive, and who can't afford to worry about where he gets the materials he uses - such as the Party Favor - for his various ventures. Elliot is also dependant on those with connections, such as Spinx, to enable his business to continue. Direction by Scott Elliot is very strong, keeping the tension between the characters rising from one minute to the next, the audience never quite sure just who to root for in the scenarios presented. The aforementioned set by McLane makes the audience feel as if they were right in the middle of the action, with no way out for anybody involved.

Often hard to watch, Mercury Fur does an excellent job in showing just how adaptable human beings have become at hiding from the truth; and the not-so-pretty-sight that can follow when denial is no longer an option.

Featuring: Jack DiFalco (Darren), Bradley Fong (Party Piece), Paul Iacono (Lola), Peter Mark Kendall (Party Guest), Emily Cass McDonnell (Duchess), Sea McHale (Spinx), Zane Pais (Elliot) Tony Revolori (Naz)

Mercury Fur
by Philip Ridley

Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: M.L. Dogg
Sound Effects Design: Jeremy Chernick
Fight Direction: UnkleDave's Fight-House
Production Supervisor: PRF Productions
Production Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Director: Scott Elliott

The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes no intermission
Closes: September 27

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Isle of Klezbos

By Byrne Harrison
Photo by Angela Jimenez

One of the best things about going to downtown theatre venues (in this case, Dixon Place) is the opportunity to browse the postcards for upcoming shows and events.

Tonight, a postcard for Isle of Klezbos caught my eye. One, I love klezmer music.  Two, it's a great name for a band.

They have a couple of performances coming up - September 1st at El Sol Brillante community garden, and the one I'm thinking of attending, September 25th at 54 Below.

Here is a little info about the band from their website.

"NYC-based ISLE of KLEZBOS approaches tradition with irreverence and respect. The soulful, fun-loving powerhouse all-women’s klezmer sextet has toured from Vienna to Vancouver since 1998. Band repertoire ranges from rambunctious to entrancing: neo-traditional folk dance, mystical melodies,Yiddish swing & retro tango, late Soviet-era Jewish drinking song, re-grooved standards, and genre-defying originals. ISLE of KLEZBOS concert footage has been broadcast internationally on CBS Sunday Morning, CNN World- Beat, and PBS In The Life, and the band’s live and studio recordings have also been heard on The L Word (Showtime), WFMU, Northeast Public Radio (Live at the Linda), and film soundtracks for Grace Paley: Collected Shorts, Esther Broner: A Weave of Women, and I Guess I’m Not Going to Get toVegas, among others. The band has also been commissioned to create a concert for artist Kiki Smith and studio recordings of Klezbos arrangements for multi-platinum, Grammy-nominated Scissor Sisters."

Has anyone checked out Isle of Klezbos?  Let me know what you think of them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Astoria Bookshop Storytelling Show

By Byrne Harrison

Although I have become a regular at this monthly event, it has been a while since I've written about The Astoria Bookshop Storytelling Show hosted by the talented David Lawson.  I attended tonight's show, and as usual, had a great time.

Lawson's show is a great opportunity for local writers and performers to showcase their work, and for those who are particularly good extemporaneous speakers, just to get up and tell a story.  Tonight's show was a jumbled bag of goodies.  The first included a nightmare involving an ex-girlfriend (and an even more fascinating one, briefly mentioned, involving being eaten alive by the Wizard of Oz flying monkeys).  This was followed by a tale of a crime spree used to finance dreams of becoming a public access star.  Celebrities made appearances in stories involving bonding with Harold Ramis over Star Trek: Insurrection, sneaking into a lecture by Stephen Hawking and having a perfect Seinfeld moment with Seinfeld himself.  Sex was included in pieces showcasing awkward matchmaking, awkward three-ways, and awkward (and painful) STD checks.  Other topics included pyrophobia and a fireworks fail, pranking a foul-mouthed aunt, burying a grandmother at Walmart (no, really) or dealing with a mentally ill parent.

The Astoria Bookshop continues to be an amazing community resource, with events for adults and kids and a great selection of books.  Lawson's Storytelling Show is an excellent showcase for the incredibly vibrant theatre and storytelling scene in Astoria.

The next Storytelling Show will be held August 11th from 7:00-8:00 PM at the Astoria Bookshop (31-29 31st Street in Astoria).  There is no theme to the shows; performers can tell a 5 minute story based on something from their life.  There is no fee (but be a mensch and buy a book or two from the shop).  Names are chosen at random from a bowl, and usually most performers are called (but there are no guarantees if it is crowded).

Here are some photos from tonight's show.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

"Dr. Faustus" - One Man Who Went Too Far

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Joan Marcus

Playwright Christopher Marlowe looks at man's quest for ultimate power and knowledge, and the pitfalls that come with it in his work Doctor Faustus. An interesting though not always satisfying production of which is being presented by Classic Stage Company.

Doctor Faustus (Christopher Noth), a renown and respected man of learning, has been uneasy of late. His accomplishments limited by the bounds of human understanding, as well as the restrictions of society when it comes to the expansion of that understanding. Determined to move past these blockades, he disavows such practices as philosophy and religion and turns instead to Satanism, demonology and other forms of the dark arts. Faustus is helped in this endeavor by Valdes (Carmen M. Herlihy) and Cornelius (Geoffrey Owen); two acquaintances already familiar with these subjects.

Quickly taking to these unsavory practices, it's not long before Faustus is able to summon up the demon Mephistopheles (Zach Grenier). A being so horrible in appearance, the first sight of him causes Faustus to fall to the ground in terror. Faustus proceeding to offer up his soul to Mephistopheles' master Lucifer in exchange for unbridled power for the next twenty four years; during which time Mephistopheles will become Faustus' faithful servant. It's a deal quickly accepted with the contract signed in blood.

From that moment on, Faustus' power and influence begins to grow. Alternately feared and revered, he finds himself much in demand for the miracles he can perform. Miracles which include being able to raise the dead - both those long gone and those killed only moments before - and which lead to vast rewards after he accomplishes his tasks. 

Yet as time goes on Faustus finds himself growing more and more weary. He finding satisfaction in his power, and contempt towards those for whom he demonstrates it, but never attaining any true personal happiness. Part of this situation coming from a sort of caveat in the contract Faustus signed. A caveat forbidding him from taking part in anything that involves holy rites. A point Mephistopheles explains when denying Faustus' request for a wife. As a result, Faustus must content himself with women of easier virtue, all of which Mephistopheles happy supplies. Faustus also having his pick of ladies from history, such as the beautiful Helen of Tory (Marina Lazzaretto), should he so desire.

The above-mentioned caveat also serving as a sort of warning which runs through the entire story. A warning to "let the buyer beware". Or, to put it another way, if you make a deal with the Devil, don't be surprised if he only lives up the letter of the agreement, rather than its sprit. For while Faustus' quest for power is seemingly fulfilled, his thirst for knowledge is not. Mephistopheles often answering the questions Faustus puts to him with circular replies - especially when it comes to the realties of heaven, hell and what happens once one is dammed. Faustus thus learning only what Lucifer and Mephistopheles decide to tell him, rather than what he actually wants to know.

The play has some very interesting points to make, with certain scenes coming across so powerfully one can hear a pin drop as they play out. Especially when Faustus makes his unholy bargain. Where the show runs into problems however, is in the uneven mix of humor and drama. As Faustus' power increases, his servant Wagner (Walker Jones) decides he needs a servant of his own and recruits the street beggar Robin (Lucas Caleb Rooney) for that purpose. Robin soon after chancing upon one of Faustus' forbidden books and, with his friend Dick (Ken Cheeseman), plans to use the magic contained therein for his own ends. Robin & Dick's scenes, played for laughs and having very little depth, only serve to distract from the central characters and plot of the story. While the idea here may have been to show how power corrupts and how absolute power corrupts absolutely, when the characters involved in such a scenario aren't really that interesting, their presence becomes more annoying than anything else. A good portion of this misfire must fall on director Andrei Belgrader who, along with David Bridel, adapted the Marlowe tale for this production. The two being unable to make the different elements in the story come together as they should. Indeed, at points it almost felt like one was watching two completely different plays.

In a delicious bit of irony, it's Mephistopheles who turns out to be the most honest entity in the piece. The demon making no denials as to who and what he is and talking with great fervor of his and his master's long-ago time in heaven. In contrast, Faustus and his various servants are all trying, by any means necessary, to become something more than they actually are. Also shown briefly are two scholars (Jeffrey Binder, Cheeseman) who quote liberally from what they have read in books, but when presented with something they cannot understand, proceed to bluster, stammer and turn into a pair of fools. They being seemingly helpless to transfer what they've learned into the world around them. Which may be Marlowe's way of saying that book learning isn't everything. Rather, how one applies that learning is far more important.

Noth does a great job as the driven, mostly decisive Faustus, while Grenier makes a perfect foil for him as the deceptively quiet, yet full of rage Mephistopheles. The rest of the cast works well in their various roles, though other than Jones as Walker, none really make a lasting impression.

Nicely atmospheric, with a final scene that's wonderfully executed, there's a lot to like about this production of Doctor Faustus. However as whole, the show fails to live up to its full potential - especially considering the subject matter involved.

Featuring: Jeffrey Binder (Scholar/Evil Angel/Lucifer/Knight/Duke/Ensemble), Ken Cheeseman (Scholar/Dick/Ensemble), Zach Grenier (Mephistopheles), Carmen M. Herlihy (Vadles/Good Angel/Cardinal/Duchess/Ensemble), Walker Jones (Wagner/Ensemble), Marina Lazzaretto (Helen of Troy/Ensemble), Chris Noth (Doctor Faustus), Geoffrey Owens (Cornelius/Pope/Emperor/Old Man/Ensemble), Lucas Caleb Rooney (Robin/Alexander The Great/Ensemble)

Doctor Faustus
Adapted by David Bridel & Andrei Belgrader
From the play by Christopher Marlowe

Scenic Design: Tony Straiges
Costume Design: Rita Ryack & Martin Schnellinger
Lighting Design: Jason Lyons
Original Music & Sound Design: Fabian Obispo
Production Stage Manager: Terri K. Kohler
Movement Specialist: David Bridel
Production Supervisor: Production Core
Production Manager: Amber Mathis
General Manager: John C. Hume
Assistant Stage Manager: Heather Englander
Casting: Calleri Casting
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Directed by Andrei Belgrader

Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Tickets: 212-352-3101 or
Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes, one intermission

Closes: July 12

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

"The Immortal Coil" - Revenge with a flourish

By Byrne Harrison
Photos by Derek Barbanti

Erasmus Bernstein (John Michalski) is a playwright who was the voice of his generation.  A Salinger-like personage, he has finally written his next play, a sequel to his earlier work, and he's ready to unveil it to the world.  All he needs is a young actor who can hit his marks and recite his lines.  Erasmus doesn't really seem to like actors that much, especially the ones who want to know what their motivations are and to understand the inner workings of the characters they are portraying.

At first, the eager young Benji seems like he might fit the bill.  Awestruck and thrilled to be working with Bernstein, he has a chance to play a character he idolized in his youth.  But an actor's training will come through, and Benji starts asking questions.  And for a "stand there and say my lines" playwright, that's just too much.

Needless to say, the collaboration is short-lived and disastrous.

Years later, Benjamin, now a movie star about to direct a play he's written about the encounter, gets to reframe that meeting with Bernstein, and not surprisingly, he casts himself in the hero's role.

But Bernstein, or rather, his ghost, isn't about to let him get away with that without a fight.

Deftly and humorously written by J.B. Heaps, "The Immortal Coil" shines a light on the theatre and the egos that inhabit it, while also questioning the nature of art and life (and, I suppose, afterlife).  Heaps' dialog is crisp, with an insider's view of some of the follies of theatrical endeavors.

Eric Kuehnemann makes a wonderful Benji.  His monologue at the beginning of the play is equal parts bravado and nervous self-doubt.  As the older and much more successful Benjamin, he is all ego and smarm.

John Michalski cuts an imposing figure at the cantankerous Bernstein.  An odd mix of modesty and contempt, his Bernstein is a man whose work you'd love the see, but you probably wouldn't want to hang out with him afterwards.

The two have good chemistry, and spark off each other during the more dramatic moments.  Though occasionally their timing seems a bit off (it could have been opening night jitters), when they mesh, they mesh well.

Tony Del Bono and Spencer Wilson, who play the actors cast in Benjamin's play as the ersatz Bernstein and Benji, are amusingly catty and do a great job showing their characters' slavish devotion to their movie star boss.  When Benjamin begins interacting with the (to them) unseen and unheard Bernstein, the two actors assume it is an exercise of some sort, allowing Del Bono and Wilson to show off their comic chops.

Direction by Stephen Jobes is strong, especially in the second act.  At times the earlier scenes feel like they need a little tightening up, though again, it was opening night.

The play is light on design elements; it takes place in a black box theatre and doesn't need much in the way of sets or props.  Annie R. Such creates an efficient lighting design, and Kevin Hastings and Bill Lacey do quite well with the sound design (the play starts in darkness with a critical recording that is referenced throughout the play).

Heaps' play is a humorous rumination on life and theatre, with interesting characters, and well worth checking out.

The Immortal Coil
By J.B. Heaps
Directed by Stephen Jobes
Associate Producer/Lighting: Annie R. Such
Stage Manager: Mary Linehan
Public Relations: Andrea Alton
Sound Specialists: Kevin Hastings and Bill Lacey
Graphics/Props: Rudy James
Featuring: Tony Del Bono, Eric Kuehnemann, John Michalski and Spencer Wilson

Monday, June 15, 2015

"'Tis Pity She's a Whore" - When Loves Goes Far Astray

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Richard Termine

What if Romeo & Juliet were in fact brother and sister? So it asks in the press materials for Red Bull Theater's absolutely brilliant production of John Ford's drama 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (circa 1630). A play which shows all too clearly how love and infatuation can very quickly turn to jealous obsession; and when the taboo of incest is inserted into the mix, the results can be very bloody indeed.

In the Italian town of Parma, Annabella (Amelia Pedlow) the beautiful daughter to Floiro (Philip Goodwin) is wood by many suitors. Among them nobleman Soranzo (Clifton Duncan) and Roman soldier Grimaldi (Tramwell Tillman). However the one who loves Annabella most passionately is much closer to home. Specifically, her stalwart brother Giovanni (Matthew Amendt). It is also a passion that has Giovanni in the grip of despair. For his love is not one a brother would normally have for a sister, but rather a wife and a lover. Friar Bonaventura (Christopher Innvar), horrified at Giovanni's confession to him as to these feelings, orders the young man to pray for forgiveness while begging God to remove these yearnings from his soul. 

Yet though Giovanni indeed tries to purge himself of these desires, he finds he cannot. He also finds himself wondering why this love he feels for his sister, one he is certain is so good and pure that God himself must have put it there in the first place, can be so wrong. It's a question neither the Friar nor anyone else can answer, other than by expressing their own disgust and that of society's, toward the issue. Responses which do nothing to discourage Giovanni in the slightest. When Giovanni learns Annabella feels the same love for him he does for her, his despair quickly turns to joy. However problems occur soon after when Annabella finds herself pregnant, a situation requiring her immediate marriage to another. Something Giovanni does not like in the least.

This plotline alone makes for great drama, while offering an interesting take regarding the condemnation of incest. Especially since there are so many other instances of tolerated hypocrisy in the play - ones in regard to religion, the application of the law, and infidelity, among others. There's also the character of Hippolita (Kelly Curran), a widow and former lover of Soranzo who, in response to Soranzo's spurning of her, plots to have him killed. Her accomplice in this plan being Sorzano's servant Vasques (Derek Smith). Curran and Smith's scenes together coming off as rather hot and full of passion; more so in fact than any of Pedlow and Amendt's moments together in that regard.

Also lurking about is Hippolita's supposedly dead husband (Marc Vietor), who also figures into the story, as does his niece Philotis (Auden Thornton). The latter finding a love of her own amidst the various plotting and scheming. Leavening out the story with some very welcome and much needed humor is Bergetto (Ryan Garbayo), a foppish fool whose mincing and over the top antics sets the audience to roaring with glee. Especially when Bergetto, at his uncle's Donado's (Everett Quinton) urging, tries to pen a note of love to Annabella. The older man doing a wonderful series of slow burns in response to his nephew's attempts in that direction.

Jesse Berger's direction is top notch here, giving equal weight to the various plots lines. The result being that they all come through strongly. What ultimately emerges is a vehicle that's basically a soap opera about star crossed lovers and those in their orbit. The mood of the piece changing continuously from sensual to humorous to dramatic, with undercurrents of dangers and tragedy throughout. It's also important to note that nothing presented here feels overlong. Each point being central to either the plot or to the audience's involvement with the story.

Along with the play's moral message about "forbidden love", there's also a warning about going against the conventions of society. The play noting even though certain hypocrisies may be accepted as givens, i.e. corruption in the church, there are some instances where forgiveness is not permitted. Not only towards those who commit such crimes, but also towards those who know the truth about such circumstances and then attempt to conceal them.

Amendt does a great job as the love-afflicted Giovanni, trying vainly to find a path to salvation but who is able to conquer neither his own desires nor a certainty that what he feels for his sister is in any way wrong. Pedlow is very good as Annabella, a woman with a quiet sensuality about her and whose own love for Giovanni turns to fear when she realizes the ramifications of what she has done. Smith cuts a strong figure as Vasques, one of those people who plays his cards close to the vest, so you never know exactly what he is planning, or on which side he's actually on. Curran is excellent Hippolita, a person not afraid to use her feminine wiles to get what she wants. Garbayo is great fun as Bergetto, and Quinton quite good as the well-meaning yet rather hapless Donado, at least where matters of his nephew are concerned. The rest of the cast is just as strong, and includes good performances from Innvar as Friar Bonaventura, Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Putana, tutoress to Annabella, and Rocco Sisto as The Cardinal.

This production of 'Tis Pity She's A Whore is anything but a pity and a brilliant example of how a nearly 500 year-old drama can be made to feel fresh, alive and new.

Featuring: Amelia Pedlow (Annabella), Matthew Amendt (Giovanni), Philip Goodwin (Signor Florio), Franchelle Stewart Dorn (Putana), Christopher Innvar (Friar Bonaventura), Clifton Duncan (Lord Soranzo), Derek Smith (Vasques), Tramell Tillman (Grimaldi), Everett Quinton (Signor Donado), Ryan Garbayo (Bergetto), Ryan Farley (Poggio), Kelley Curran (Hippolita), Marc Vietor (Richardetto, Auden Thornton (Philotis), Rocco Sisto (The Cardinal)

'Tis Pity She's a Whore
By John Ford
Scenic Designer: David M. Barber
Costume Designer: Sara Jean Tosetti
Lighting Designer: Peter West
Composer: Adam Wernick
Sound Designer: John D. Ivy
Fight Directors: Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet
Hair & Make-Up Designer: Dave Bova
Production Stage Manager: April Ann Kline
Production Manager: BD White
General Manager: Adam Fitzgerald
Casting Directors: Stuart Howard & Paul Hardt
Publicist: David Gersten & Associates
Directed by Jesse Berger

Presented by Red Bull Theater
The Duke at 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 646-223-3010
Running Time: two hours, 20 minutes, no intermission

Closed: May 16

"A Human Being Died That Night" - Putting a Face on Evil

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Richard Termine

When it comes to war criminals and those responsible for mass killings, there's a tendency to think of them as inhuman monsters because it's far more terrifying to realize they're just flesh and blood human beings. A realization which makes their actions all the more horrible, as it begs the question how could one person deliberately act that way toward others. It's a question one woman tries to answer in Nicholas Wright's intimate and powerful drama, A Human Being Died That Night, based on the book by psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, now at the Fishman Space at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In 1996, Gobodo-Madikizela (Noma Dumezweni), a former resident of South Africa, then living in the United States returns to her native land to serve on the Human Rights Violation Committee, part of the government's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an organization trying to help put right the wrongs of the nation's apartheid era. As Pumla listens to testimony from the numerous victims of that time, many of whom still bear the scars of what happened, she quickly learns must she not get emotionally involved or she will not be able to properly do her job. It's a promise she's able to keep until she has a series of interviews with Eugene de Kock (Matthew Marsh), dubbed "Prime Evil" by the media and formerly a major figure in the South African military. When the two first meet, de Kock is in prison serving two consecutive life sentences, plus 212 years. Gobodo-Madikizela's purpose of these meetings is to try to learn what makes a man do the things for which de Kock was convicted, all of which he has freely admitted. In fact, de Kock previously testified at the TRC hearings, which is where Gobodo-Madikizela first became intrigued by him.

However Gobodo-Madikizela quickly realizes that getting to the heart of the matter is not as easy as turning on a tape recorder and hearing the truth spill out. As de Kock notes early on "you must dig in the dirt with me [and] feel the evil". A process that requires Gobodo-Madikizela to get to know the man behind the atrocites while walking in his footsteps as he descibes what happened and why.

What makes the story so involving is that the various incidents described, as well as the reasons behind them are sadly quite relatable to other situations around the world, both past and present. de Kock seeing himself as a sort of crusader in the name of national security, joining the army at an early age and quickly becoming indoctrinated to the so-called dangers from segments of the black majority. He also recalls the continual pressure from his superiors to produce results in order to please the politicians; even if they had to invent an enemy or make them a bigger threat than they actually were. Also brought forth is the general apathy of people who simply want to feel safe in their lives and lifestyles. People who really don't much care how that is accomplished, so long as they can feel safe at night. 
Also present in the story is a continuing theme about the power of forgiveness and the need to let go of the past in order to move forward. Though as the show makes clear, it's easier to forgive the sins of others then to forgive oneself. de Kock still tormented by some of his past deeds and Gobodo-Madikizela recalling all too well her own actions when witnessing events in connection with an attempted military coup in 1990. Actions which then seemed celebratory, but for which she is now ashamed.

Marsh portrayal of de Kock is top notch, initially answering questions in a quiet and somewhat roundabout way, with occasional outbursts of emotion, before getting to at least the surface of the truth; and finally showing the human being he once was, how he became the man he is today and most poignant of all, why he didn't change his course when he had the chance. Marsh's manner is so controlled and informative as to be almost intoxicating. So much so that no matter how repulsed one may feel toward the character, one can't help be drawn into the tale. Also present in Marsh's performance is the ever-present anger de Kock feels at those higher up in his command chain who denied their involvement in his crimes, trying to whitewash themselves, no pun intended, in order to save their own skins. As he notes, it was this continual denial from so many quarters that initially prompted him to volunteer to testify at the TRC hearings

Dumezweni works well as Gobodo-Madikizela, though she has the less showy role, basically a reacting one to Marsh's de Kock. The actress presenting a strong portrait of a woman initially trying to have no preconceptions whatsoever about her subject, yet becomes far closer to him and what he represents then she ever thought possible. While using the de Kock encounters a sort of sounding board for her inner thoughts, Gobodo-Madikizela also shows herself to be someone trying to come to terms with her own past actions, as well as being able to let go of the pains of injustice and stigmatization that still exists in her home country and towards those that perpetuate it.

Jonathan Munby's directorial work is very strong here, operating in tandem with Paul Wills' nicely claustrophobic prison cell setting where the interviews are conducted. All of which allows the story to unfold in an almost leisurely way in the beginning, while getting more intense and focused as what's revealed becomes darker and more painful. Helping to add to this oppressive and emotionally charged atmosphere is the excellent lighting work by Tim Mitchell and sound design by Tim Shutt. Both of which feel at times jarringly unforgiving.

Rivetingly told from start to finish, A Human Being Died That Night delves into the soul of a man who did terrible things in the name of his country and shows how deep down, he's not that different from your next-door neighbor, or perhaps at certain moments, even yourself.

Featuring: Noma Dumezweni (Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela), Matthew Marsh (Eugene de Kock), Motell Foster (Prison Guard).

A Human Being Died That Night
by Nicholas Wright
based on the book by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Design: Paul Wills
Lighting Design: Tim Mitchell
Sound Design: Christopher Shutt
Stage Manager: Julia Slienger
Associate Director: Greg Karvellas
American Stage Manager: R. Michael Blanco
Directed by Jonathan Munby

The Fugard Theatre and Eric Abraham
Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Fishman Space
321 Ashland Place
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission

Closes: June 21, 2015

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Interview with Aubrie Therrien, Artistic Director of DreamStreet Theatre Company

By Byrne Harrison
Company photos by Kendra Heisler

This weekend, DreamStreet Theatre Company, which was founded by Karuna and Len Heisler to bring the joy of theatre to special needs performers, will present Midsummer Night's Dreamin' a twist on William Shakespeare's tale of runaway brides, funky fairies and tinkers with talent.  The show will run June 12th and 13th at 7:30 at Symphony Space at Broadway and 95th Street.

DreamStreet is an important creative resource in the special needs community, and its live performances attempt to break down stereotypes so audiences can witness the talent of the performers and not simply see a face of disability.

I spoke with Artistic Director Aubrie Therrien about the company and Midsummer Night's Dreamin'. 

First, it's nice to meet you. To start of with, tell me a little bit about yourself.  I know you're the Artistic Director of DreamStreet, but what is your theatrical background?

Nice to meet you as well and thanks for your questions!  I started out similar to many persons in the industry. I wanted to be either an actor or a zoo keeper when I grew up, and somehow, the former was more appealing to me.  I went to college at Longwood University in Virginia, a small liberal arts school with a great theatre department, and studied performance.  Shortly after I worked regionally around the country doing the out-door drama circuits and working with a variety of other theaters including the amazing Lexington Children's Theatre, where I learned so much about organizing a theatre machine for the greater good. I also did repertoire shows with The National Players out of DC, where I continued to nurture my love of the classics.  When my tour was finished, I threw everything I owned in my car and moved to New York City. In New York, I performed off-off Broadway in classic, modern and original works. I also continued working with regional theaters in the metro area. I wore a lot of hats during my performance days and decided I wanted to take more control of my artistic career and my life by going back to school. I recently graduated from NYU with a Master's Degree in Public Health and now, with my work at DreamStreet, I am lucky enough to combine my two passions: Theatre and helping disadvantaged populations.

When did you get involved with DreamStreet?

I got involved with DreamStreet during the summer of 2013.

And how did that come about?

Len Heisler, the co-founder of DreamStreet, reached out to me after his current artistic director announced she was moving on.  Lenny had heard of me from a client/friend of mine who knew of my experience in the theatre world and work with unique populations.  I immediately jumped at the chance to be a part of this inspiring organization.  I had always believed in the power the arts played in encouraging self-confidence and growth in various communities; this was my chance to apply it.

Tell me a little about the Dream Team that runs the company.  Who helps create these productions?

Oh wow, I have to say, I am so lucky to be surrounded by such a passionate and dedicated group of like-minded individuals who make up our Dream Team.  Our Co-Founder, Lenny, and our Co-Producing Director Kendra Heisler, act as such a support for the programming and truly believe in the mission of the company. My Teaching Artists are an absolute integral part of this community as well. Kevin Percival and Samantha Evans came into this company so willingly and enthusiastically that their passion and talent becomes contagious to our cast members.  Miriam Wasmund, our Choreographer, generously donated her time to us from day one to help weave modern movement into our pieces to make them contemporary and classy. Our behind the scenes team, like our amazing PR/Marketing squad, our volunteers and our cast members families have all rallied in some way to make productions that break stereotypes and also entertain broad audiences. Even our cast themselves has stepped up to take on challenges that no one has ever asked of them before; and met them with grace and professionalism.  I know that I ask my staff to wear a zillion hats; which they do, pretty effortlessly. And by doing so, our productions come together as a seamless collaboration between cast members and teaching artists. 

And where do your performers come from?

Our performers come from all walks of life.  Most are from Brooklyn, however, we have a few members that travel to us from New Jersey, Long Island, Queens and Manhattan.  We are proud to have a very diverse cast with different ages, races and genders well represented.  Many of our performers hear about us through the differently-abled community grape-vine as well as through other resources such as advocacy meetings, social media, YAI or HeartShare.

Your next production, Midsummer Night's Dreamin' is next week.  Clearly it's based on the Shakespeare play, but what are you doing to make it your and your cast's own?

Doing a classical piece that has been continually done is a challenge in itself for any organization. For our purposes, we have re-worked an abridged version that approaches the text with a contemporary twist in which each of our members can be individually highlighted. This also enables them to comprehend the story line and subject matter a little more and give a really unique, hilarious performance. I like to say we are doing, "The Muppets Take A Midsummer Night's Dream," because our cast functions very much like the muppets; they love each other tremendously and also have this very silly humor that somehow resonates to many different persons. You can see that in the show.

What can the audience expect from this production?

Definitely humor! And a lot of joy.  These guys are totally inspiring. I expect (and hope to see) people leaving with their mouths hurting from smiling so much. It's just like watching an episode of the Muppet Show. You have a very unique cast of characters who love to be on stage and enjoy bantering with one another. I think the audience should also expect a change of perspective; many people have a certain vision in their head of what they expect when they see a differently-abled cast production. I would say to throw those expectations away. Our cast is completely capable of giving moving, sincere and hilarious performances. And they have done just that.

If you could say anything to the people out there who would love to be part of a DreamStreet production but who are afraid, what would it be?

I think it's only natural to be afraid of something that could potentially be a very exciting change in your life.  At DreamStreet, it's about pushing through your fears and growing as a person and as a performer. That is when the magic happens.  We will always, always encourage anyone who works with us in a positive and nurturing way to achieve whatever it is their creative ambitions may be; this goes for teaching artists and cast members alike. Everyone has a dream.

What is coming up next for DreamStreet in 2015?  And are there any long-term plans for the company?

We are really excited to host our first summer workshop series this July at New York City Live Arts.  This is a two-week introduction for all those who want to get to know DreamStreet.  We are working with our performers on improvisation skills, voice and movement, and musical theatre production.  Each week will culminate in a performance for friends, family and care-takers.  We will also be performing our annual musical revue in the December of 2015 and our first DreamStreet Benefit in October.  In the spring, we hope to present an original re-remake of the beloved classic, "Charlotte's Web."

Long-term we hope to open more classes that help enrich the lives of our performers and the differently abled community such as dance, Pilates, yoga, acting, scene study, visual arts and photography classes. We want to be an overall, awesome arts collective!

Friday, May 8, 2015

NY Boylesque Festival Performer Profile - Gilbert de moccos

By Byrne Harrison

The New York Boylesque Festival weekend kicks off tonight with a teaser party at the Knitting Factory and is followed by tomorrow's main event at B.B. King's.

Here's your chance to meet some of the performers before they hit the stage.

Name: Gilbert de moccos

Hometown: Tokyo, JAPAN

How many years have you been doing burlesque?

I've performed for seven years (burlesque: as a member of MURASAKIBABYDOLL); five years (boylesque: soloist); two years (LIVE MC: soloist).

How would describe your burlesque style?

My burlesque style has a story. It's overflowing with happiness and impulse.

Have you participated in the New York Boylesque Festival in the past?

I've performed at the New York Boylesque Festival since 2013 as the first performer for a Japanese person.

Who are you most looking forward to seeing perform this weekend?

All boylesque stars from all over the world.

What would you like to say to your New York fans (and future fans)?

I wanna see, hug, kiss and talk with YOU. Thank you! Glittering LOVE!

NY Boylesque Festival Performer Profile - Rify Royalty

By Byrne Harrison

The New York Boylesque Festival weekend kicks off tonight with a teaser party at the Knitting Factory and is followed by tomorrow's main event at B.B. King's.

Here's your chance to meet some of the performers before they hit the stage.

Name: Rify Royalty
Hometown: Jersey City, NJ

How many years have you been doing burlesque?

About a year and a half

How would describe your burlesque style?

Weird, sexy, conceptual 

Have you participated in the New York Boylesque Festival in the past?

No, this is my first time. Very excited! 

Who are you most looking forward to seeing perform this weekend?

World Famous *Bob* for sure! 

What would you like to say to your New York fans (and future fans)?

Don’t expect anything from me, I like to keep you on your toes, so sit back and enjoy the show. 

NY Boylesque Festival Performer Profile - Johnny Panic

By Byrne Harrison

The New York Boylesque Festival weekend kicks off tonight with a teaser party at the Knitting Factory and is followed by tomorrow's main event at B.B. King's.

Here's your chance to meet some of the performers before they hit the stage.

Name: Johnny Panic
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY

How many years have you been doing burlesque?

Three years. I started out with Chris Harder's Boyleque 101 and haven't stopped since!

How would describe your burlesque style?

Gypsy Rose Lee with a beard.

Have you participated in the New York Boylesque Festival in the past?

Yes! I've had the honor of participating every year!

Who are you most looking forward to seeing perform this weekend?

Luminous Pariah, the festival wasn't the same without him last year!

What would you like to say to your New York fans (and future fans)?

I do it all for the sex.

NY Boylesque Festival Performer Profile - Ben Franklin

By Byrne Harrison

The New York Boylesque Festival weekend kicks off tonight with a teaser party at the Knitting Factory and is followed by tomorrow's main event at B.B. King's.

Here's your chance to meet some of the performers before they hit the stage.

Name: Ben Franklin
Hometown: New York, NY

How many years have you been doing burlesque?

Officially, 2-3 years.

How would describe your burlesque style?

Circus and variety act comedy

Have you participated in the New York Boylesque Festival in the past?

Yes. 3 years.

Who are you most looking forward to seeing perform this weekend?

I’ve never seen Ray Gunn live. 

What would you like to say to your New York fans (and future fans)?

Thank you for coming out and supporting our special brand of entertainment.  We can’t do it without you.

NY Boylesque Festival Performer Profile - El Toro

By Byrne Harrison
Photo by Drasko Bogdanovic

The New York Boylesque Festival weekend kicks off tonight with a teaser party at the Knitting Factory and is followed by tomorrow's main event at B.B. King's.

Here's your chance to meet some of the performers before they hit the stage.

Name: El Toro
Hometown: Toronto

How many years have you been doing burlesque?


How would describe your burlesque style?

High energy, theatrical, acrobatical nonsense with a whole lotta spunk.

Have you participated in the New York Boylesque Festival in the past?

Every year.

Who are you most looking forward to seeing perform this weekend?

Ray Gunn, I keep just missing him.

What would you like to say to your New York fans (and future fans)?

Te quiero, mi amores ;)

NY Boylesque Festival Performer Profile - Christopher J. Anderson of Rhythm Knights Dance Troupe

By Byrne Harrison

The New York Boylesque Festival weekend kicks off tonight with a teaser party at the Knitting Factory and is followed by tomorrow's main event at B.B. King's.

Here's your chance to meet some of the performers before they hit the stage.

Names: Rhythm Knights Dance Troupe - Christopher J. Anderson, Sam Benedict, Nick Deyo, Syville Padayo, Bill Siegfried
Hometowns: Detroit, MI, Wilsonville, OR, Houston, TX, Atlanta, GA and Sugar Land, TX

How many years have you been doing burlesque?

Dancing in particular, for over 25 years and burlesque has been intertwined all throughout since starting in Reno in 1992.  I enjoy being able to introduce and give the opportunity to newer members of my troupe.

How would describe your burlesque style?

Sexy Street Jazz Dance with a little bit of underground funk!

Have you participated in the New York Boylesque Festival in the past?

We are virgins!

Who are you most looking forward to seeing perform this weekend?

I am very looking forward to seeing all of the out of town (and out of country) performers and learn what types of things are happening around the world.

What would you like to say to your New York fans (and future fans)? 

A big hello and thanks to our brothers-in-song of the New York City Gay Men's Chorus.