Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review - Assholes and Aureoles (Midtown International Theater Festival, InterAction Theater, Inc., and Off The Leash Productions, LLC)

Review by Bryan Stryker

When a play has a title such as Assholes and Aureoles, you know you're not in for a squeaky clean Neil Simon experience.

A series of eight interwoven scenes involving domestic abuse, child molestation, rape, self-identification, sexual harrassment, and more are served up with an extra twist of the knife. Just when you think you know where a scene is heading, it veers off in the opposite direction. This thoroughly engaging (not to mention laugh-out-loud funny) piece comes from the delightfully warped minds of its performers, the spritely Diane Kondrat, her performance partner, the Amazonian Karen Irwin, and playwright Eric Pfeffinger.

"What must it feel like to do such good...and be so hot," muses Kondrat during a monologue, as she holds up an 8x10 glossy of Chris Hansen, host of the "Dateline NBC" program's "To Catch a Predator" series. The wide-eyed admiration and adulation for the investigative reporter glistens from her eyes and you can't help but laugh. From there, she launches into a sexual fantasy involving Hansen as if he was a member of a junior debate team competing at a regional competition in Rochester.

Irwin shines during her monologue about a woman who is about to be raped but is able to deftly fend off her attacker by claiming it wouldn't be rape, as she would consent to the act.

"But it'll be rough," she growls as the rapist.

"That's the only way I like it," she drawls.

The seriousness of the subject matter and the subversive take Irwin gives the matter makes you squirm while laughing at the same time.

With four solid scenes under their belt, Irwin and Kondrat tackle what is termed in the playbill as "The Long Scene" set in a woman's domestic abuse shelter. Kondrat plays the harried social worker interviewing volunteer Irwin, and takes her through a role play scene of how to handle certain situations. Kondrat's abused wife with an "undeterminable Eastern European accent" and Irwin's social worker soon include other characters like the redneck husband, an Irish coworker, and a good old boy cop.

While the actresses magically throw themselves into these characters, I couldn't help but think that I've seen the same "actress-playing-multiple-parts-in-one-scene" bit done before and much better (Kristine Nielsen in Durang's Betty's Summer Vacation comes to mind). The timing seemed off during the performance as if it should have played much quicker with less transitioning between character changes.

Additionally, "long" is a bit of an understatement for the scene, as the it dominates the running time of the show and could have been trimmed by a good five to seven minutes while still maintaining the integrity of the scene. Sadly, the momentum generated by the actresses during their first four scenes is lost during this segment. The goodwill generated from the audience during the prior scenes seemed to slowly dissipate, and the final two scenes dealing with suicide and political correctness did not get the response that it could or should have.

Leonora Trey deftly maneuvers her players across the stage with minimal props and staging. Through the two chairs, a card table, modular boxes, and a few pieces of fabric, Trey, along with lighting designer, Marc Tschida recreates the staging for each scene making it easily recognizable and identifiable within the first few moments of each vignette.

Assholes and Aureoles is a delightful comic romp that requires you to leave your sense of right/wrong, black/white, good/bad at home, and embrace a slightly skewed view of some taboo topics.

Assholes and Aureoles
Written by Eric Pfeffinger
Creative Consultant: Nell Weatherwax
Fight Choreographer: Adam Noble
Lighting Designer: Marc Tschida

Featuring: Diane Kondrat and Karen Irwin

WorkShop Theater Company - Jewel Box Theater
312 West 36th Street, 4th Floor

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Review - Pretençión (Pinchbottom and Collective: Unconscious)

Review by Byrne Harrison
Photo by Ted D'Ottavio

Burlesque is generally not what one would consider a highbrow art form. But imagine if it were. In Pretençión, Pinchbottom's latest theatrical burlesque being presented as part of the undergroundzero festival, burlesque impresario Jonny Porkpie imagines a world where burlesque is every bit as pretentious as Cirque du Soleil (not that they are ever mentioned by name). But, egads and alas, Nasty Canasta and Tigger!, performers in this cirque de burlesque, have lost their pretension. And without pretension, all that's left is just, well, boobs.

Enter Jonny Porkpie, the man who can save the cirque and help them to retrieve their pretension. He urges Nasty and Tigger! to use their imaginations to enter another world (one remarkably similar to Oz and which contains Jonny Porkpies of the North, South, East and West) where they can find their lost pretension, with the help of the lovely Naughtia Nice and unwilling audience member, Arrogant Mick. As Nasty, Tigger!, Naughtia and Mick travel through this land of imagination, they encounter its numerous inhabitants, most of whom happen to be lovely young women (the various guest stars, each with an amazing burlesque number).

Will Nasty and Tigger! get back their pretension? Will Arrogant Mick learn to loosen up and use his imagination? Are we ready to live in a world with more than one Jonny Porkpie? Is all of this just a flimsy excuse to showcase some of the city's hotest burlesque talent?

The answer to most of the questions (all, if you happen to be Jonny Porkpie) is yes.

Porkpie has spun a cute tale with just enough plot to make the show interesting, but not so much as to weigh it down. With a lewd wink and a sly nod, he makes fun of everything, himself included, and makes sure the audience has a good time.

Nasty Canasta, Naughtia Nice and Tigger! give solid and amusing performances, as does Arrogant Mick, who starts the show as an audience member. Mick plays a good foil to Jonny Porkpie's Willy Wonka-esque character, and shows off a remarkable voice during the musical finale, though he alone out of the cast doesn't strip down.

The July 16 performance featured Amber Ray as a gleefully malevolent bunny, Julie Atlas Muz in a Balinese inspired dance, Ms Tickle in a white feathered costume that was the most amazing of the evening, and the always amazing Gigi La Femme in a naughty spanking number.

Though Pretençión has closed, look for Pinchbottom's upcoming Marx Brothers inspired show A Day on the Boardwalk, A Night at the Sideshow in August. For information, visit Pinchbottom's web page.

Script by Porkpie
Set Design: Pink Inc.
Press Photos: Ted D'Ottavio
Directorial Assistance: Greg Cicchino
Stage Manager: David Bishop
Stage Kittens: Sapphire Jones (Wed, Thurs), Jasmin (Fri), Lefty Lucy (Sat, Sun)
Presented in association with Collective: Unconscious and Tom Keenan
Associate Producer for Collective: Unconscious: Vik Keenan

Starring: Nasty Canasta, Jonny Porkpie, Naughtia Nice, Arrogant Mick, Tigger!

Guest stars:
Wed 7/15: Angie Pontani, Dirty Martini, Mat Fraser, Peekaboo Pointe
Thu 7/16: Amber Ray, Gigi La Femme, Julie Atlas Muz, Ms Tickle
Friday 7/17: Bambi the Mermaid, Clams Casino, Jo Boobs, Ruby Valentine
Sat 7/18: Darlinda Just Darlinda, Harvest Moon, Legs Malone, Leroi the Girl Boi
Sun 7/19: Creamy Stevens, Gal Friday, Little Brooklyn, Madame Rosebud

PS 122
150 First Ave.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

5th Avenue Theatre Cancels July 23rd and 24th Previews of Catch Me If You Can

By Byrne Harrison

The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle has announced the cancellation of the first two previews of Catch Me If You Can, the new musical based on the 2002 Dreamworks film. According to the Seattle Times, this is due to the death of Teresa Butz, sister of Norbert Leo Butz, who was killed during an attack in her South Park home. Her partner was also injured, but was treated and released.

Norbert Leo Butz, a Broadway stalwart and Tony Award winner most recently seen on Broadway in Speed the Plow, is scheduled to star as Carl Hanratty opposite Aaron Tveit as Frank Abagnale, Jr.

Our prayers go out to his family in this difficult time.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Review - The Hunger Artist (Human Group and Horse Trade Theater Group)

Review by Byrne Harrison
Photo by Romina Memoli

"I have to fast, I can't do otherwise."

Imagine that you have a unique talent. One that leads to acclaim from the masses - even though they don't quite understand it. You bask in that acclaim; it becomes your sustenance.

And then, tastes change and it all disappears.

What would you do with that aching need to perform?

This is the world of the hunger artist (Nick Fesette). Once renowned for his asceticism and his ability to fast, he is now looked upon as a mere oddity; just another circus attraction that you pass on your way from the big top to the menagerie. Where his impresario once set up his cage in the middle of the town square and people came from all around to watch, he is now just another attraction at a circus, sitting alone and forgotten, as the crowds hurry by him with cursory, incurious glances.

While this seems like a curse to the artist, it soon becomes a blessing. Now freed from his impresario's watchful eyes and his limit of forty days for any fast, the hunger artist can finally reach his true potential. He begins a fast that will be longer than any he has ever completed.

But will anyone, including the hunger artist himself, ever realize what he has achieved?

Adapted from Kafka's short story, "Ein Hungerkünstler," Nick Fesette's The Hunger Artist is a dark and expressionistic piece. Using only a bare, straw-covered stage, Fesette turns The Red Room into a cage, with the audience peering in through imaginary bars. At times, the hunger artist puts his arm through these bars, inviting us to marvel at how thin they are. And though he performs for us and makes us laugh, the bars that separate him from us are not nearly as strong as his disdain for people like us.

This disdain is starkly illustrated by the way he sees the impresario and the people who come to observe him (Julia Crockett, William Slater Welles, Stephen Arnoczy). Loud, crass, and awkward in movement, they are grotesque, nightmarish creatures, who at once sustain him and torture him.

Fesette gives a visceral and mesmerizing performance, inspiring a range of emotions from sympathy and disgust. Crockett, Welles and Arnoczy also excel, especially given the completely unrealistic acting style called upon by the play. Their Weimar-flavored costumes, no designer is credited, complete the effect, and help reinforce the difference between them and the hunger artist, who is clothed only in a pair of black leggings.

While Fesette has created an affecting piece of theatre and excels as an actor, the weakness in The Hunger Artist is in its direction. A short play, lasting only an hour, The Hunger Artist nevertheless occasionally drags, most obviously when dealing with the "others" being portrayed by Crockett, Welles and Arnoczy. Giving the actors odd bits of business - repeating phrases, fainting on or otherwise interacting with the audience, stylized movement - is effective in setting them apart from the hunger artist and showing how he feels about them, but a little bit goes a long way. Although this short show would be even shorter if some of their business were trimmed, it would more easily hold the audience's attention.

Expressionistic and experimental, The Hunger Artist is a challenging production that will not be to everyone's liking. But in a world of realistic theatre, it's nice to see something so completely theatrical, and Human Group is to be commended for staging it.

The Hunger Artist
Performance authored by Nick Fesette
From the story by Franz Kafka
Additional texts by Sarah Kane, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Georg Buchner
Lyrics for "Baal's Song" by Bertolt Brecht
"Panther's Song" by Winston Cook Wilson
Original Music: Winston Cook Wilson
Lighting and Stage Management: Randi Rivera
Produced for Human Group by Lindsey Hope Pearlman
Publicity: Emily Owens PR

Featuring: Nick Fesette, Julia Crockett, William Slater Welles, Stephen Arnoczy

The Red Room
85 E. 4th Street

July 16, 17, 18 - 8 PM

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Review - America: A Problem Play (On the Square Productions and the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity)

Review by Bryan Stryker

In an era when wiretapping is conducted sans warrants, government officials determine that they can ignore portions of the Geneva Convention, citizens willingly give up personal privacy and rights under the Patriot Act, only to see how intrusive the government could and would be, and leaders in both major parties are guilty of major moral failings, Deborah Wolfson’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s problem play Measure for Measure comes at a timely point in our country’s history.

America: A Problem Play doesn’t veer much from its original source. Duke Vincentio (Kareem M. Lucas) is leaving on a diplomatic mission and temporarily turns over power to Angelo (Devon Anderson), a trusted judge. Under the Duke’s leadership, things have gotten a wee bit lax in the enforcing of local laws. Sadly for the citizenry, Angelo believes in a firm hand when dispensing judgment. There is no grey area for him; there is only the crime and the prescribed punishment. When Claudio (Michael Swarz) is arrested for impregnating his girlfriend, he is promptly arrested and sentenced according to the law – death. His sister Isabella (Samantha Debicki) intercedes with Angelo on his behalf and learns that the only way that she can free her brother is to sleep with him, thereby exposing himself as a hypocrite. Meanwhile Duke Vincentio has disguised himself as a local friar in order to keep an eye on Angelo. He befriends Isabella, who divulges what is being asked of her. Together they concoct a plan to one-up Angelo at his own game, and submit him to the same punishment that he rendered to Claudio.

The title for Shakespeare’s play comes from the Bible:

For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. – Matthew 7:2

For many years it was considered, oddly enough, to be a comedy but was then reclassified as a “problem play” where the situation that is put forth by the playwright is representative of a social issue or problem. For playwright and director Deborah Wolfson, the inspiration for this piece clearly comes from the George W. Bush presidency, and what she views as a stricter society with less personal liberties than in past years. While still holding true to the original piece, Wolfson has also interspersed the writings of author Naomi Wolf throughout the piece. These moments seem jarring as characters slip out of their Shakespearean dialogue into a more modern jargon, but they still fit the context of the play.

Samantha Debicki shines as the conflicted Isabella, torn between sacrificing her virtue for her brother’s life. Her scenes with Devon Anderson’s diabolical Angelo are riveting to watch. Kareem M. Lucas is a suitable Duke Vincentio, though at times his focus seems to waver. In the ensemble, the comic relief of Nik Kourtis’ Pompey and Anna Marquardt’s Mistress Overdone are a delight, helping break the tense moments with a well-timed zinger.

Zane Robert Enloe’s set, six simple freestanding, doublesided art works, helps the audience understand the transition in power. With the cast members rotating the pictures to their other side, Enloe helped reinforce playwright Wolfson’s vision.

America: A Problem Play
Written and Directed by Deborah Wolfson
Set Design: Zane Robert Enloe
Lighting Design: Matt Lausi
Costume Design: Nicky Smith
Production Stage Manager: Debra Stunich
Some Text & Inspiration: Naomi Wolf

Featuring: Devon Anderson (Angelo), Samantha Debicki (Isabella), Bethany Geraghty (Provost), Jeffrey Golde (Friar Thomas/Servant), Nik Kourtis (Pompey), Kareem M. Lucas (Duke Vincentio), Anna Marquardt (Mistress Overdone), Kyle Masteller (Lucio), Aaliyah Sams (Escalus), Michael Swarz (Claudio), Emily Tucker (Mariana)

Planet Connections Theatre Festivity

Closed June 25th

Review - Wait of the World (Peter and Matt’s Production Company and the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity)

Review by Bryan Stryker

What if the fate of the entire world was controlled by the temperament of one person? Is one person really controlling everything from Hurricane Katrina to the tsunami that ravaged southeast Asia? That is the premise of Wait of the World by Peter Dagger and presented by the Planet Connections Theater Festivity.

As an astronomy class starts, the students learn that their beloved professor (Jenny Checchia) is not going to be in, and that a substitute will be taking her place. While they wait, the students begin to argue the basic tenets of their class; this leads into a discussion of astronomy versus astrology. Soon the students discover a notebook that their teacher left behind for them. It's instructions say that the contents should be read to the entire class. With this, the audience is introduced to Adam Moody (Harry Einhorn) – a child conceived entirely out of love, whose father was killed by a lightning strike at the moment of Adam's conception.

Adam has always been an odd child. The house he lives in keeps sinking into the ground. His mother has grown used to getting concerned phone calls from teachers due to the graphic nature of Adam’s poetry and pictures. Thankfully, his Mother (Joyce Miller) never had to worry about putting those pictures on the refrigerator, since Adam seems to have the power to keep magnets from staying on the fridge. As the story progresses we learn of Adam’s “power” – namely his mood swings that have caused everything from the tragic Southeast Asia tsunami to Hurricane Katrina. In fact, the professor has discovered that Adam is the child the Mayan’s predicted would ultimately hurl Earth into the Sun in 2012.

In her final message to her class, the professor advises her students to live life to the fullest. With only a few years left until Earth is destroyed by the sun, she is choosing to go out and find her own love, rather than staying shuttered in her scientific realm.

Director Jeremy Bloom makes an intriguing move in staging Wait of the World – he moves the audience to the stage and the actors to the platforms that normally house the seating area. This clever use of space, superbly realized by designer Sean Ward, allows the actors to perform in a multi-level environment. The only downside of such a choice is that late comers to the play easily steal focus when they open the door, as they are directly in the audience's line of sight, and the positioning of a few seats directly under speakers sometimes impedes the ability to hear the actors. Otherwise Bloom keeps what could be a rather banal piece moving and engaging, and incorporates grade school science “tricks” to emulate the turmoil in Adam and the havoc he is causing.

While the play is about Adam, who is wonderfully brought to live by Harry Einhorn, the true standout of the show is Joyce Miller. She wonderfully portrays a combination of exhaustion from raising a most unique child, and, seemingly, indifference as well. Nothing fazes Mother and that comes across in Miller’s performance. Through her performance we empathize with her, and marvel at how she has managed to make it this far.

Playwright Peter Dagger's play is a little unwieldy at times and without the strong direction from Jeremy Bloom, the moral he wishes to convey could easily get lost. There is a bit of a letdown at the end when you learn Doctor’s message is simply to go out and live life to the fullest. The moment falls flat and takes the power out of the previous 90 minutes.

Wait of the World
Written by Peter Dagger
Directed by Jeremy Bloom
Scenic Designer: Sean Ward

Featuring: Jenny Checchia (Doctor), Joyce Miller (Mother), Joe Tannenbaum (Scientific Researcher), Rachel Richman (Priestess), Harry Einhorn (Adam Moody)

Planet Connections Theatre Festivity

Closed June 27th

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Review - Our Country (Unrelenting Monkey Productions and the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity)

Review by Byrne Harrison

Country music fans forgive of a lot of things. Arrested for DUI? Boys will be boys. A bit of domestic violence? It's bad, but you're forgiven. Drugs? We all make mistakes.

Gay? Well now, that's something else entirely.

Our Country, a new musical with music and lyrics by Tony Asaro and book by Dan Collins, confronts the issue head on. Tommy Dautry (Justin Utley) has it all - a great voice, a hit love song, "Honestly," that's climbing the country charts, a top-notch band, and a killer smile that charms everyone who sees it.

He also has Duane (Jeremy Pasha), his keyboard player and down-low boyfriend.

Knowing that he'll never catch the brass ring with a boyfriend in tow, Tommy dumps Duane and kicks him out of the band. While he does become a success, the pressure of leading a double life and hiding his sexuality (with the help of the occasional hustler, as explained in the rollicking "Hookers") becomes a bit too much to bear. After an incident involving an undercover cop and a men's room, Tommy spirals down to rock bottom. Faced with continuing to live a lie or embracing his true self, he picks up his guitar and starts over as an out and proud country singer, with a new band in tow. Our Country is presented as a performance on his comeback tour, one that seems limited to skanky venues in out of the way towns.

Begining with the rousing and funny "Lord, Lord, Lord, How the Mighty Fall," Tommy narrates the story of his rise and fall, from his first taste of love (the charming "Not Like That At All"), leaving his small town life behind ("Hittin' the Highway), desire to live his life openly ("Sicka Singin' 'Bout Girls"), and his revelation about life and his place in it ("When Music Mattered" and "Our Country"). Asaro proves himself an exceptional songwriter, capturing the sound and spirit of country music and the storytelling of musical theatre.

Dan Collins' book captures much of the same spirit of Asaro's songs. He also does a good job of taking the needs of the story (exposition, interaction between Tommy and Duane, etc.) and making them work in the context of Tommy's comeback performance. The result is much more theatrical than any country music concert would be, but Collins has captured the essence completely. One weakness in the book is the idea that Tommy would need to start from scratch in rebuilding his career. Embracing one's sexuality openly and honestly tends to lead to universal acclaim from the gay community (athletes Esara Tuaolo and Ian Roberts come to mind, or Neil Patrick Harris and Lance Bass). What made Tommy a pariah among country music fans would have made him a celebrity in gay circles. Our Country shows Tommy performing at a gay sex club, and while it allows Tommy and his band some ribald banter and emphasizes the message of the first song "Lord, Lord, Lord, How the Mighty Fall," it doesn't ring true.

One of the strongest aspects of this production of Our Country is Justin Utley. He has it all - looks, charm, talent, and an excellent voice. He's great when interacting with Pasha (the two have really good stage chemistry), the band, and the audience. As played by Utley, it's easy to see why Tommy was a star, and easy to imagine that he will be again. Jeremy Pasha performs well as Kevin and Duane (it's complicated, but Duane is played by Kevin, Tommy's current keyboard player, who is in turn played by Pasha). Kudos to the rest of the band - Eric Day, Matt Hinkley, Justin Smith, Arvi Sreenivasan - who are not only good musicians, but do a good job serving as a sort of chorus for Tommy.

Minor problems aside, Our Country is a terrific show and features some outstanding songs. While you may have missed your chance to see it at the Planet Connections Festival, it wouldn't surprise me to see this show get revived soon.

Our Country
Music and Lyrics: Tony Asaro
Book: Dan Collins
Producer: Tony Asaro
Director: David Taylor Little
Music Director: Eric Day
Production Stage Manager: Debra Stunich
Associate Producer: Jennifer Ashley Tepper
Orchestrations: Tony Asaro
Set Designer: David Taylor Little
Lighting Designer: Nick Soylom
Sound Designer: Gregory Jacobs-Roseman
Costume Designer: Gordon Leary
Sound Board: Bill Nelson
House Manager: Kevin Cummines

Featuring: Justin Utley (Tommy Dautry), Jeremy Pasha (Kevin/Duane)

Band: Eric Day (Electric Bass/Music Director), Matt Hinkley (Electric Guitar), Justin Smith (Fiddle), Arvi Sreenivasan (Drums), Jeremy Pasha (Piano)

Planet Connections Theatre Festivity
440 Studios
440 Lafayette Street, 3rd Floor

Closed June 27th

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Review - Suckers (Cross-Eyed Bear Productions and the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity)

Review by Bryan Stryker

Vampires are the hot, new, "in" thing. From TV's True Blood to the Twilight book and movie franchise, vampires and those that love them are popping up everywhere. Because of this, Duncan Pflaster's Suckers caught my eye and could not be refused.

The play opens with Jeff (Jared Morgenstern) and Romaine (Paula Galloway) in their local park star-gazing. Jeff implores Romaine to join him on the grass gazing toward the heavens, which he says is a much more visceral experience. Romaine, however, fears acquiring Lyme disease. While she does eventually relent, she clearly doesn't enjoy it. They are soon joined in the park by Kendal (Rebecca Hirota) and Rich (Alan McNaney), a lively pair who delight in entertaining the couple. When told of Jeff's desire to lay on the grass and look at the stars, the flirtatious Kendal doesn't hesitate to do a complete split and gaze heavenward, much to Romaine's displeasure. Despite the late hour and Romaine's concern about having an early morning because of church, she and Jeff accompany their new friends to local café.

There they meet Elvis (Sean McLaughlin), a particularly dramatic creature who is in the middle of a poetry recitation. Also at the coffee bar are Harry (Eric C. Bailey), the goth barista, decked out in a fishnet shirt with red velvet vest (excellently created by costume designer Mark Richard Caswell), Raquel (Katherine Damingos) a jittery girl whose parlor trick is knowing celebrities' dates and causes of death, and David, a fey, musical-theatre-loving, sylph-like creature who is under the special care of Elvis. While the mood is festive, Romaine's natural reserve puts a damper on things. That is, of course, until she and Jeff are served a cup of Elvis' special house blend coffee. Suddenly, they are overwhelmed by sensations they've never experienced, and a new world appears before them. Romaine throws off her reserve and joins Elvis in his recitation, wowing the crowd with her astute observations. Jeff tries, but proves himself her intellectual inferior.

Sensing a chink in Romaine's armor of reserve, Elvis' uses her love of books to woo her into his private chamber for further conversation, while Rich and Kendal are left to tend to the wired Jeff, who is enjoying his second cup of the wicked brew. They immediately drop their cheery facades, and show their true conniving, blood sucking ways, feasting on Jeff's blood, while revealing their desire to usurp Elvis.

Meanwhile, Elvis reveals his vampiric self to Romaine and offers her the chance to be his queen, in a totally platonic sense, of course. Elvis realizes the threat that Kendal and Rich pose to him, and given Romaine's intellectual prowess, he knows she'd be the perfect complement and help keep them at bay. But can Romaine reconcile her temptation to join Elvis with her Roman Catholicism? Even if she does agree to help, what about Jeff? Will Elvis and Romaine be strong enough to defeat Kendal and Rich? What about the wild cards, Harry, Raquel, and David? Who will they fight with, if they fight at all? While the outcome is uncertain, one thing is sure - there will be blood.

Suckers comes from the wonderfully warped mind of Duncan Pflaster, who also directs. I must admit to being somewhat wary of playwrights who direct their own work as they tend not to see the holes in their story line, refuse to alter the storyline when it's not working, or sacrifice direction for the sake of the story. It is primarily the latter in this production - the direction is not as strong as it could be. In addition the well-crafted story weakens at the end as Pflaster tries to tie up all the loose ends.

Leading lady Paula Galloway steals the show with her spot-on comedic timing and glares. Her Romaine is endearing and you can't help but root for her as she tries to save Elvis, Jeff, and herself from the clutches of Rich and Kendal. While she flubs a few lines during the course of the 90-minute show, Galloway takes Pfaster's campy story to heart and delivers in scene after scene, often garnering laughs without saying a word.

Shawn McLaughlin's Elvis is about as campy a vampire as you could get. His droll delivery combined with a certain rakish charm makes is clear why others would be drawn to him - even without his hypnotic vampire powers. His dramatic entrance riding atop the coffee counter during a scene change sets the tone for his larger than life persona. Duncan Pflaster has written Elvis as a star and Shawn McLaughlin does not disappoint.

In the ensemble, attention must be paid to that dastardly duo of Rebecca Hirota and Alan McNaney. As Kendal and Rich, they play off of each other so well. They have level of onstage chemistry that is rarely achieved and so much fun to watch - even (or perhaps especially) when they're being bad.

Written and Directed by Dunan Pflaster
Fight Choreography: Christopher C. Cariker
Costume Design: Mark Richard Caswell

Featuring: Eric C. Bailey (Harry), Katherine Damingos (Raquel), Joe Fanelli (David), Paula Galloway (Romaine), Rebecca Hirota (Kendal), Shawn McLaughlin (Elvis), Alan McNaney (Rich), Jared Morgenstern (Jeff)

Planet Connections Theatre Festivity

Closed June 27

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Review - Hound (Rachel Klein Productions and the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity)

Review by Byrne Harrison

There are certain directors whose work is instantly recognizable. Having seen a few Rachel Klein productions, I would add her to this list. Klein's productions feature an otherworldly feel, highlighted by odd costume pieces, choreographed movement, and a bold, non-realistic acting style. The effect is like seeing the world through a kaleidoscope - there are things that are familiar, though bent out of shape and rearranged, and while the picture is odd and possibly unsettling, it is beautiful.

At first blush, a play based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novel, "The Hound of the Baskervilles" seems an odd choice for Klein's theatrical stylings. This Victorian mystery about a wealthy landowner seemingly done in by a hound from hell, certainly has supernatural elements that Klein's fanciful style could highlight, but ultimately this story is one in which cool, rational observation triumphs over irrational fear and superstition.

Hound, John Patrick Bray's play inspired by Conan Doyle's book, is a different story altogether, and one that is indubitably suited for Klein's direction. Bray takes the focus off the Baskervilles and Holmes, and explores the character of Dr. Watson (Cavan Hallman). This Watson is not the affable sidekick that is normally seen in Holmes stories. He is full of despair and doubt, his life shattered by the loss of his beloved wife, Mary. When Holmes (Ryan Knowles) is approached by Dr. Mortimer (Elizabeth Stewart) about the murderous hell hound and her concerns for the new Baskerville heir (Grant Boyd), Holmes sees a mystery to be tamed and truth to be uncovered. When Watson hears about the supernatural hound and the mysteries surrounding the Baskerville family, he sees a doorway to the next world and a possible way to contact his lost love.

What follows has more to do with a rational man's struggle to comprehend a world that no longer makes sense, and his flailing attempts to grab on to anything that seems to answer his unanswerable questions. The theatrical elements of Bray's play - monologues by secondary characters explaining their backstory, talking dogs that Watson can understand, use of flashback - all combine to create a world that to Watson's eye is completely off-kilter. Klein's direction and costumes underscore that alien feeling. The result is decidedly theatrical and unrealistic, but certainly entertaining.

The acting in the production is strong, and the actors, especially those whose characters are wildly over-the-top, excel at creating this surreal vision of Victorian England. Chief among these are Elizabeth Stewart as the quirky Dr. Mortimer, and Blaine Peltier, as Stapleton, the eccentric naturalist. Holmes is played with a twinkle in his eye by Ryan Knowles, a late addition to the cast. With a impressive voice and commanding appearance, his Holmes looks and sounds like those who have come before him, but Knowles captures the humor and compassion that others have missed in the cool and logical detective. Overall, it is Cavan Hallman who is given an opportunity to shine as the tortured Dr. Watson, and he takes full advantage of it, making the most of Watson's highs and lows as he navigates this unfamiliar landscape, both literal and figurative, that he finds himself in.

While those seeking a traditional staging of Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles" may be put off by John Patrick Bray and Rachel Klein's creation, those with and adventurous spirit and a desire to see something original will be delighted by Hound.

Written by John Patrick Bray
Directed by Rachel Klein
Stage Manager: Teresa Maranzano
Sound Designer: Sean Gill
Costume Designer: Rachel Klein
Costume Design Consultant: Emily Taradash
Make-up Designer: Anita Rundles
House Manager: Erin Trinidad
Board Op: Victoria M. Moshy
Press Representative: Emily Owens PR
Photographer: Joseph Stipek
Holmes Photographer: Rachel Adams
Model for Holmes Photograph: Evan Melancon
Graphic Designer: Danielle Bienvenue Bray

Featuring: Grant Boyd (Sir Henry Baskerville), Jack Corcoran (Mr. Barrymoore), Meredith Dillard (Mrs. Hudson/Mrs. Barrymore), Cavan Hallman (Watson), Abigail Hawk (Beryl Stapelton/Mary), Ryan Knowles (Sherlock Holmes), Blaine Peltier (Stapleton), Alyssa Schroeter (Curley the Spaniel/Toby the Dog/The Hound), Elizabeth Stewart (Mortimer), Jason R. Stroud (Mounted Officer/Boy/Seldon)

Planet Connections Theatre Festivity
440 Studios
440 Lafayette Street, 3rd Floor

Closed June 25th

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Review - Infectious Opportunity (Nosedive Productions)

Review by Byrne Harrison
Photos by Aaron Epstein

It all begins with one lie. A simple lie of omission - not even a lie, really, just a hint at something that you neither confirm nor deny, in order to get something you want. Surely, there won't be consequences on something so tiny, so innocent. How could there be when we are all guilty of the same little lies every day of our lives?

But what do you do if that lie suddenly opens doors? If it tempts you with an easy path to splendors you have coveted, but that you would otherwise spend years trying to achieve with no guarantee of success?

For Wes Farley (David Ian Lee) - screenwriter, activist, philanthropist, and person living with HIV - his tiny lie has spiraled out of control. The tiny lie? That he has HIV. At turns awestruck and jealous of Rob (DR Mann Hanson), a fellow film student with HIV, Wes allows him to think that he has HIV, too. Oddly enough, that lie provides him with a fast track to everything he wants - a degree, teaching position, and a string of movies.

Tortured by the fear that he will be exposed right as his star is ascending, Wes finds himself haunted by Josie (Andrea Marie Smith), a character from his critically acclaimed movie, "A Shoulder For the World To Cry On." Josie is based on a woman with whom Wes had a relationship, a former HIV+ heroin addict that he met in a support group. The relationship ended badly, and now Josie plays the part of his conscience. Or at least she tries. Tortured though he is, Wes is not going to give up everything he's been handed without a fight.

It's this fight between Wes and Josie, or really between Wes and himself, that forms the core of the dramatic action in Infectious Opportunity. Really, that's to be expected; it's Drama 101 - internal struggles make good drama. What Comtois is to be commended for is creating dramatic tension in the audience. Wes is doing something that any rational person would find deeply offensive. And yet, he's so damn sympathetic. Surely he has just let things spiral out of control through no fault of his own. We've all done it, albeit not on this scale. We just know that he will do the right thing in the end, because we see a little bit of ourselves in him, and we know that we would eventually do the right thing in the same situation. Comtois enables our sympathy every step of the way. He raises our expectations and knocks them down over and over again in this well-written play. He sets up red herrings that lull us into complacency and lead us smugly to decide that we've figured out his play. Then he smacks us across the face and shows us that he still has surprises up his sleeve. Like any good roller coaster ride, Infectious Opportunity leaves the audience with a racing heart, exhilarated, and a little bit nauseated.

The acting is superb, especially on the part of David Ian Lee and Andrea Marie Smith. While Smith at times seems a little too well-adjusted for someone who spent her life on the street as a heroin addict, she is playing a Hollywood version of the real Josie, so it actually works. Lee does a marvelous job eliciting the audience's sympathy and disgust for Wes, and he strikes the perfect note in the last monologue of the play, which is one of those moments that shouldn't be spoiled by giving away too much in a review. Suffice it to say, the last two sentences of the play are chilling thanks to Comtois' script and Lee's portrayal.

Each of the other actors has a moment to shine in the play. Rebecca Comtois shines as Jenny, one of Wes' star-struck students. Hanson is marvellous as Rob, Wes' film school rival and HIV mentor. Daryl Lathon, Ronica Reddick, and Matthew Trumbull round out the excellent cast.

Pete Boisvert directs with a steady hand, keeping the action moving and choreographing tight scene changes that make use of Rebecca Comtois and Ben VandenBooms wonderfully versatile set pieces, while not interrupting that building tension of the play. Ian W. Hill's lighting design and Patrick Shearer's sound design complement the play nicely.

Although Infectious Opportunity has completed its official run as part of the Antidepressant Festival, it is one of three productions from the festival (along with Adventure Quest and Suspicious Package Rx both of which have been added to the Game Play Festival) to have been extended. The final two performances of Infectious Opportunity will be July 19th at 3 PM and July 21st at 8 PM. As part of the Antidepressant Festival, Infectious Opportunity was selling out, so buy your tickets early.

Infectious Opportunity
Written by James Comtois
Directed by Pete Boisvert
Stage Manager: Stephanie Cox-Williams
Set Designers: Rebecca Comtois, Ben VandenBoom
Sound Designer: Patrick Shearer
Lighting Designer: Ian W. Hill
Costume & Prop Designer: Stephanie Cox-Williams
Makeup Designer: Leslie E. Hughes
Composer: Itai Sol
Producers: Pete Boisvert, James Comtois, Rebecca Comtois, Stephanie Cox-Williams, Patrick Shearer
Associate Producers: Marc Landers, Ben VandenBoom

Featuring: David Ian Lee (Wes), Andrea Marie Smith (Josie), Rebecca Comtois (Jenny/Moira/Interviewer/Student), DR Mann Hanson (Mark/Rob), Daryl Lathon (Brent/Student), Ronica Reddick (Professor Hale/Amanda/Diane/Interviewer/Student), Matthew Trumbull (Professor Franklin/Dude).

The Brick Theatre
575 Metropolitan Avenue

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Review - The Imaginary Invalid: By Prescription Only (Aliza Shane and the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity)

Review by Byrne Harrison

Think you know The Imaginary Invalid? Aliza Shane's version is not like any other you will have seen. Adapted from Molière's original, The Imaginary Invalid: By Prescription Only takes aim not only at the doctors, but at modern society and our nearly universal belief that a happy life is just a pill away.

Unlike the original play, the doctors in Aliza Shane's version aren't complete quacks; they're just greedy. In a world where insurance foots the bill, they will prescribe anything and everything that Arganne (Stasi Schaeffer) wants - and with a half dozen doctors, that's a lot of pills. In order to save a little money on her co-pays, the miserly Arganne decides to marry off her daughter Angélique (Ayelet Blumberg) to her doctor's simpleton son (Anthony Aguilar). What better thing for a hypochondriac than to have a doctor in the family? Sadly, Angélique is in love with Cléante (Chris Cronwell), a young man without means. Only with the help of the wily servant Toinette (Michelle Foytek) and her wise aunt, Béralde (Kymberly Tuttle), can she hope to avoid her fate.

Aliza Shane takes aim at the major drug companies by making sure to mention by name the various medications that Arganne is taking. The actors, those not playing the six main roles, dramatically list the various side-effect of each medication that Arganne ingests. An intriguing concept, but one that quickly grows old since so many of the side-effects are the same. In addition, Shane give this Invalid a decidedly unhappy ending. Given the breakneck speed with which modern medicine is churning out remedies for everything (Restless Leg Syndrome? Really?), Shane's vision of a country that turns to pills at the slightest misfortune seems eerily on target.

As a director, Shane uses Chanda Calentine's choreography to accentuate the dreamy feel of the piece. Stripped to a barebones set (also designed by Shane), the chorus of actors becomes scenery, never obtrusively, but always in a "Wow, that's cool" way. Shane has a good eye for stage pictures, and her production always features something interesting to watch.

Acting in the production is good, particularly Michelle Foytek as the sly maid Toinette. Ably showing off her physical comedy skills and mastery of clever retorts, Foytek's Toinette delights as she runs, schemes, and avoids the withering disdain of Arganne. Also amusing is Kevin Mitchell as Arganne's mincing gold-digger of a husband. Adding a note of quiet calm, Kymberly Tuttle plays the straight woman to all the insanity around her as Béralde, and provides a nice counterpoint to Schaeffer's cranky and distressed Arganne. Schaeffer hits all the right notes as the hypochondriac, and truly shines in her scenes with Foytek. As the young lovers, Blumberg and Cornwell lack chemistry, and make up for it by playing up the sexual innuendo. Cornwell, in particular, doesn't seem to know what to do with his character - Shane's version of Cléante is considerably different from Molière's original dashing young lover - and as a result, never seems to be fully incorporated into the play. This is a minor problem, given that most of the play focuses on the grownups.

Clever and timely, Aliza Shane's The Imaginary Invalid: By Prescription Only is a worthy adaptation of the original.

The Imaginary Invalid: By Prescription Only
Written and Directed by Aliza Shane
Based on Le Malade Imaginaire by Molière
Choreographer: Chanda Calentine
Assistant Director: Kenzie West
Assistant Director/Stage Manager: Fran Acuna
Lighting Designer: David Monroy
Costume and Set Design: Aliza Shane
Postcard and Logo Design by Duncan Pflaster
Produced by Aliza Shane, Darrell Fontenot, Dr. & Mrs. Alan and Fran Hirschman

Featuring: Anthony Aguilar (Doctor Five/Thomas Diafoirus), Melanie Bell (Doctor One/Dr. Purgon), Ayelet Blumberg (Angélique), Chris Cornwell (Cléante), Michelle Foytek (Toinette), Kevin Mitchell (Belin), Stasi Schaeffer (Arganne), Harlan Short (Doctor Two/Dr. Diafoirus), Emily Tuckman (Doctor Three/Dr. BonneFoi), Kymberly Tuttle (Béralde), Ebru Yönak (Doctor Four/Dr. Fleurant)

Planet Connections Theatre Festivity
440 Studios
440 Lafayette Street, 3rd Floor

Closed June 27th.