Wednesday, October 29, 2014

"The Blood Brothers present... Bedlam Nightmares - Execution Day" - For the ghoul in all of us

By Byrne Harrison
Photos by Kent Meister

I've seen some horrific things at the Blood Brothers' shows -- eyelids ripped off, skin peeled, human flesh consumed, rape and incest, and more forms of murder than you can shake a stick at.  But when the lights went down after Nat Cassidy's short play "The Art of What You Want," my first reaction was to lean over and whisper to the person sitting next to me, "THAT was fucked up."

And that was just the first of the short plays.

The final episode of "The Blood Brothers present… Bedlam Nightmares" series provides all the thrills and macabre chills that you've come to expect from the long-running franchise.  Following the now familiar format, "Execution Day" features a series of short plays about inmates in the sinister Hospital One, framed by the story of the Blood Brothers' incarceration and scheduled execution.

Nat Cassidy's play about a very rich, very determined man, Harris (Michael Markham), whose dead wife (Morgan Zipf-Meister) keeps showing up at his house, and the lengths he will go to keep her, is easily one of the creepiest of I've ever seen.  Markham shows great versatility in this piece, and watching him with Kristen Vaughan's Doctor Queen (part of the story that ties the play into the rest of the evening) is a treat, as are Markham's interactions with Lynn Berg's Terry, Harris's best friend.  Featuring the best (and most upsetting) surprise ending I've seen in a while, "The Art of What You Want" sets a very high bar.

Playwright Mariah MacCarthy meets that challenge with the extremely disturbing, and surprisingly gore-free, "Daddy's Girl."  All George (Tom Reid) wants to do is keep his pretty Sely (Jessica Luck) safe as she grows up.  After all, everything he is doing is for her.  And the sooner she realizes that, the easier it will be for her, because Daddy knows best.  Reid is the epitome of the loving father who just goes completely off the rails.  That Reid can inspire both disgust and sympathy from the audience highlights his excellent work in this piece.  And Luck's portrayal of a happy daughter, warily trying to understand her father's smothering behavior and betrayal is exceptional.

Nat Cassidy returns (both as a writer and performer) in the second act with "All in Good Fun" and "Joy Junction" (also credited as "cannibalized" by Mac Rogers for this production).  "Joy Junction," which appeared in an earlier Blood Brothers production, features Christian TV puppeteer Ronald (Roger Nasser) who, when not looking at photos of little kids, is experimenting with new "life-sized" puppets.  Well, you can guess what those puppets really are.  Nasser's Ronald is creepy as hell, in all his saccharine sweetness, but the really disturbing part of this play is one of the most grotesque sound effects I've heard.  If you are easily nauseated, this will set you off.

"All in Good Fun," which features Cassidy on guitar as The Troubadour, completes his song cycle which has been slowly teased out in the earlier episodes of "Bedlam Nightmares," about a 7-year-old serial killer in training who lives in Hospital One.  Maybe he's real.  Maybe he's just a myth.  But he is a hero to some of the inmates.  Cassidy, ghouled up in Blood Brothers make up (pale face and blood red eyes), is mesmerizing, and the piece, directed by Patrick Shearer, features some marvelous theatrical devices - shadow puppetry, moving sets (used to show someone running), projections, mime - and like "The Art of What You Want," a terrific surprise ending.

Not to mention that the song features some catchy hooks that will immediately plant themselves in your brain.  I'm still hearing sections of it in my head a week later.

"Execution Day" the overarching story of the Blood Brothers (Patrick Shearer and Pete Boisvert) and their upcoming execution is everything that I hoped it would be (they are even forced to perform in a final Grand Guignol show featuring a short play, "Arby's," describing their final murder spree that landed them in Hospital One).  Disturbing, funny (thanks in no small part to Bob Laine), surprising, and ultimately completely satisfying.

The only thing that upsetting about the finale is knowing that no matter who wins, you'll have to say goodbye to an amazingly well realized character.  Because it's clear that someone has to die - either the Brothers or Doctor Queen - and the characters are so wonderfully drawn by Mac Rogers and brought to life by the actors that you kind of want to find a way for everyone to live and form a sort of bloodthirsty family.  It's a weird position to find yourself in - rooting for all the psychopaths to win and live happily ever after.

It has been a delight watching Boisvert and Shearer get to stretch their characters outside of their normal  milieu (Shearer's normally suave killer becoming tentative and beaten down, Boisvert's thuggish brother finding a mother in Doctor Queen) and Vaughan's Doctor Queen is a force of nature.  Vaughan gives a speech about what it means to be a true "Master of Horror" that will leave you stunned.  Mac Rogers' words with Vaughan's delivery… priceless.

While I'm sorry to see "Bedlam Nightmares" come to a close, I really enjoyed the ride.

The final episode of "Bedlam Nightmares" is billed as being appropriate for people who haven't seen the rest of the trilogy.  I brought a Blood Brothers virgin to the theatre with me, he confirmed that it was easy to follow without prior knowledge.

So don't be afraid to see the Blood Brothers if you haven't seen the rest of the series.  Just be afraid of the psychopaths you'll see onstage.

"The Blood Brothers present… Bedlam Nightmares - Execution Day"

"Execution Day"
By Mac Rogers
Featuring: Pete Boisvert and Patrick Shearer (the Blood Brothers), Kristen Vaughan (Doctor Queen), Bob Laine (The Old-Timer), Stephanie Cox-Williams (Grandma Blood), Roger Nasser (Mintz), J. Robert Coppola (Orderly Joe), Nat Cassidy (The Troubadour), Ivanna Cullinan (Sonia/Leslie), Collin McConnell (The New Kid), C. L. Weatherstone (Tim), Andy Chmelko (Jim)

"The Art of What You Want"
By Nat Cassidy
Directed by Pete Boisvert
Featuring: Michael Markham (Harris), Kristen Vaughan (Doctor Queen), Morgan Zipf-Meister (Emily), Lynn Berg (Terry)

"Daddy's Girl"
By Mariah MacCarthy
Directed by Patrick Shearer
Featuring: Tom Reid (George), Jessica Luck (Sely)

"All in Good Fun"
Words and Music by Nat Cassidy
Directed by Patrick Shearer
Featuring: Nat Cassidy (The Troubadour), Stephanie Cox-Williams (Mrs. Albermarle), Bob Laine (Another Old Man), John Hurley (Andre Grijalva), Karle J. Meyers (The Nurse), Pete Boisvert and Patrick Shearer (The Blood Brothers)

"Joy Junction"
By Nat Cassidy (as cannibalized by Mac Rogers)
Directed by Stephanie Cox-Williams, assisted by Pete Boisvert
Featuring: Roger Nasser (Ronald), Collin McConnell (Marty), Lynn Berg (Marigold)

By Mac Rogers
Featuring: Pete Boisvert and Patrick Shearer (The Blood Brothers), Stephanie Cox-Williams (Cashier), Bob Laine (Cavaliers Fan), Collin McConnell (Boy), Tom Reid (Manager)

Production and Design
Production Manager: Stephanie Cox-Williams
Production SM/Board Op: Robyne C. Martinez
Assistant Director: Stephanie Cox-Williams
Costume Designer: Karle J. Meyers
Gore/Prop Designer: Pete Boisvert
Graphic Designer: Pete Boisvert
Lighting Designer: Morgan Zipf-Meister
Sound Designer: Patrick Shearer
Original Music: Larry Lees and Nat Cassidy
Producers: Pete Boisvert, Stephanie Cox-Williams, Roger Nasser, Patrick Shearer

The Brick
579 Metropolitan Ave.
Williamsburg, Brooklyn
October 22-November 1
8 PM

Halloween party to follow the 10/31 performance

Monday, October 27, 2014

Interview with Rob Hartmann and Farah Alvin of "Vanishing Point"

By Byrne Harrison

On November 4th, 54 Below will present a concert version of Rob Hartmann's musical "Vanishing Point," featuring Farah Alvin, Katie Thompson and Kate Shindle as Agatha Christie, Aimee Semple McPherson, and Amelia Earhart.  I had a chance to speak with Rob and Farah about the genesis of the show, some recent productions, and this latest version.

Rob and Farah, thank you both for taking the time to discuss your upcoming show.  First, Rob, could you tell me a little about "Vanishing Point"?

"Vanishing Point" imagines that three women, who all vanished at one point in their lives – Amelia Earhart, Agatha Christie and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson – all meet in "the vanishing point", a sort of limbo between worlds. There they replay the stories of their lives, and decide whether or not to go back. It's very funny but also very wrenching at times -- I always describe it as a high-wire act for three powerhouse actresses. As they replay their lives, the three actresses play all the additional roles -- instantly switching to play each other's mothers, husbands, reporters. Since this is a concert, we only will see a bit of that, but it's always awesome to see it in production -- the three women create everything out of nothing. It's a marathon.

What was the inspiration for this show?

When I was getting my MFA at NYU's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, my collaborator Scott Keys had a book called "Among the Missing" which was all about mysterious disappearances. He made the connection among the three women: Agatha Christie, who disappeared for 11 days in 1926; Aimee Semple McPherson, who disappeared for three weeks that same year; and Amelia Earhart, who vanished in 1937. Agatha and Aimee never spoke about what happened during their disappearances; Amelia of course was never seen again. 

He noticed that they made a natural trinity -- like mind, body, spirit. One disappeared on the road, one in the sea, and one in the sky. In our show, the opening number is called "Adventure, Spectacle, Mystery" -- the things that they brought to all our lives.

Scott wrote a one-act with another composer that was the germ of that idea (it ended up being just about Amelia Earhart). After grad school we wrote two shows, and when we were looking for an idea for our next show, I immediately jumped on "Vanishing Point." 

Some years ago I attended a staged version at Symphony Space, and there have been several productions since then.  In fact this was a particularly busy year for the show, with several productions which I understand you've attended.  Could you tell me a little bit about those?  In particular, how involved were you in the productions?  And what did the different casts and directors bring to the productions?

This year we had a production in Madrid in July, a college production in Dayton in August, and a professional production in Baltimore in September. It was great to see the show in three wildly different productions so close together. I saw all three but really wasn't involved in any of the rehearsal processes. That is a good sign -- that the show doesn't need me or my collaborators around to find its own way.

L to R - Laura González Serrano,
Isabel Fonseca Gómez, Justi Vega
Each company created its own distinctive version. In Madrid, the director Carlos Herencia designed it as an homage to silent film -- pale faces, a black and white feeling to the setting, footlights, theatrical gestures. In Dayton, director Marya Spring Cordes (directing it for the second time) used a very bare space. It was staged in a thrust, with just a few cubes, a few props, a ladder, and some very powerful projections. 

In Baltimore, director Ryan Haase dreamed it up as though it were taking place in a mysterious overstuffed attic. He did it all with natural light sources -- lamps, candles -- which gave it a dreamy shadowy feel. We talked about Alice falling down the rabbit hole -- in illustrations, she's always falling past cupboards and bookshelves and mirrors and sconces. It felt like they were falling down their own rabbit hole.

Photo by Spencer Grundler
Each production was completely different, yet they each found the truth of the piece. It's about discovering your passion, and the difficulty of following that passion when the world makes its inevitable demands on you. Each of the women is almost destroyed by following her calling -- but they return to the world stronger.

I'm particularly interested in the one in Madrid.  Did you work directly with the translators?  And what was the reaction of the Spanish audiences?

Isabel Fonseca Gómez
Isabel Fonseca Gomez, whose theater company produced it (and who played Aimee Semple McPherson, brilliantly), did the translation along with Carlos Herencia, the director. I believe they split the work between them -- Carlos I think did Agatha's patter songs (god bless him.)  I know enough Spanish to understand it in performance. I had a multi-lingual friend come with me and he said the translation got the spirit exactly. With a lot of the patter songs, they kept the rhythm and didn't worry about trying to translate exactly. Agatha has a song called "Red Herrings" in which she comes up with a cover story for each of the women when they're ready to return to the world. There isn't an exact translation of that in Spanish, but they have that concept -- it was called "Sin Pistas" ("Without Clues.")

The Spanish audiences really seemed to love it. The audiences were very energized by it -- there was always a crowd in the street outside the theater talking about it after the performance.

And what about the other productions?  Well received?

The college production in Dayton ran for just a weekend -- I went out to see two of the performances. The college audiences were screaming their heads off for the trio of actresses -- seeing their friends take on these huge roles and pull them off wonderfully. Even though those actresses were all young for the parts (the characters were all late 30s at the time of their disappearances), they brought a real sense of power to the show. Each one of those three found sharp, specific moments that I had never seen done in exactly that way before. They made it their own.

The Baltimore production, produced by a young theater company called Stillpointe Theatre Initiative, got some of the best reviews the show has ever gotten. The three actresses in that production are all members of the company, and they happen to all be good friends. You could tell they had an immense amount of trust in one another -- which you need for this show!  

Can you tell me a little bit about the actresses you've had involved in the show in the past?  It's a pretty illustrious group.

I have been really fortunate to have had so many great performers give their time and talents to develop this show over the years. We've been working on it quite a while -- it's had ten full productions over the years, along with workshops and readings. 

Alison Fraser did one of the first concerts of the show, playing Agatha Christie (she also sang on the demo recording we have.) It was one of those experiences where you hear someone sing a number and it sounds so distinctive that it's like a cast recording. She has been an amazing supporter of the show. Nancy Opel and Ann Morrison also did very early readings.

For Amelia Earhart, some of the actresses who have taken on the part in some way or another include Julia Murney, Barbara Walsh, Lynne Wintersteller, Cristin Hubbard and Leenya Rideout. Our Aimees have included Emily Skinner, Klea Blackhurst and Sally Wilfert.

Patty Nieman has had the distinction of playing two different roles in the show. She was our original Agatha in the first Minneapolis workshop; in 2012, we had a production in Florida in which our Amelia lost her voice and couldn't continue with the run. On literally a day's notice, Patty agreed to come in. She flew in on a Monday, and by Wednesday was on in the role. It was astounding.

So tell me a little about the actresses in this latest production?  How did you choose this cast, and what was it about this combination of actresses that seemed to complement your show?

I'm always interested in seeing what actors bring to the role -- each performer who takes on these parts shapes them in their own way. Farah, in fact, did a one-day reading of the piece (playing Aimee.) We were doing a reading that was basically testing out a new song for the top of Act II. Farah was traveling between New York and LA -- she basically said, I'm insane to try to fit this in, but I want to give it a shot. I sent her the new song to look at -- the only one we really needed her to sing -- but I included the other songs that Aimee sings, just so she would have some context.

That day in the read-through, we got to one of Aimee's songs, and Farah nonchalantly said, "Oh, let me just give it a try," and proceeded to blow us all away. Farah is like that. She has an incredible force to her -- and is one of the most down-to-earth people you'd ever meet.

All three of these women are forces of nature in their own right. I've known Katie Thompson more or less since she moved to New York from LA. She comes and does readings of new work for us at NYU whenever she can -- and of course she's always incredible. I've thought of her in the role of Aimee Semple McPherson for a long time. If anyone could convert you to her own personal religion, I think it would be Katie.

I haven't worked with Kate Shindle before, but of course have seen her everywhere. Besides her Broadway outings, she turns up often in concerts of new work. She is always clear and specific in her performances -- I had had her in mind for Amelia for quite a while too. There's something interesting to me about Kate's personal knowledge of being an American icon -- as Miss America -- brought to the role of Amelia. In Vanishing Point, we see more of Amelia's driven, high-strung side -- we see all the pressure she was under to live up to a manufactured image. I think Kate can understand that.

We met over e-mail last year when I was trying to put a different concert of Vanishing Point together (which didn't ultimately work out for scheduling reasons.) I sent Kate two of Amelia's songs to listen to. She went to the show's website and listened to all the material on her own -- not just the two songs but the entire score. Who does that? Nobody. For someone to take that time to research the project carefully -- it told me that she's someone who cares very much about which shows she chooses to appear in.

Which brings us to the amazing Farah Alvin.  How did you come to be involved in this production?

Rob has been a friend through working at NYU. A few years ago, (maybe 2008?) Rob had been doing some rewrites and asked if I would come in and cold read the role of Aimee. She has a very difficult song called "The Heat" and Rob said,"It's really difficult. Just read the lyrics, don't worry about singing it. I just want to hear it in context." But I had already learned it by the time he told me that! I think I may have done some recording of Aimee material as well. So now that I'm playing Agatha, it's a totally new experience.

What is it like playing Agatha?  Do you find there are things about her that resonate with you?

I love that what Agatha feels very confident about is her intelligence and creativity. She feels strong about her intellectual abilities and her vulnerabilities are aggravated by her inability to understand them. I can relate to feeling power in creativity. And wanting to rely on logic to solve emotional problems, even when you know, logically, that's unlikely to work. I love that Rob and Liv and Scott have chosen three dynamic and smart women to theatricalize. That's rare. And special.

I've always been interested in how an actor prepares for a role.  Do you have a particular approach?

I would love to tell you that I do lots of research and learn what Agatha Christie ate for breakfast. But the truth is, I am not playing the actual Agatha. I am playing the version of her that these writers have envisioned. So I have to base my character on the the elements the writers have presented. For this piece, I'm trying to find action that gets me invested. So I'm thinking about, if Agatha was responsible for her own vanishing, what hurt so much that she had to literally disappear? Or if not hurt, frightened, angered? That's my loop in to finding emotional truth in a character who is abstracted here.

And how has it been working with Kate and Katie?

I haven't actually been in the room with them yet! This is what happens when you try and compile a cast of busy ladies. But I know both Katie and Kate and have worked with them both multiple times. They are smart, amazing actresses and PERFECT for the parts they have been cast in. I'm really looking forward to singing with them. I think it's going to be pretty thrilling.

Going back to Rob for a moment, what is your favorite thing about this production?

I think just bringing this incredible group of actors together, along with our music director, Gillian Berkowitz. Gillian has worked on the show for a long time, and brings an incredible musical depth to the piece. In this concert we also have cello and clarinet -- a treat because so often you can only have piano. Gillian can play anything -- and her musical instincts are always right on. I'm actually right in the middle of adjusting one of the orchestrations with feedback from Gillian -- she calls me in her spare minute between shows -- and leaves a voicemail with sixty seconds of brilliant insight.

Farah, what about you?  Is there something in particular that stands out for you?

I love the theatricality of "Vanishing Point." I love the idea that maybe these three ladies all went to the same place to work out their stuff. And relied on one another and learned from one another. It's kind of a brilliant use of the device of a musical. It takes a mysterious story, three mysterious stories and explores an implausible but totally magical explanation. That's cool.

What else is coming up for you this year?

This year is nearly over which I can't believe. I had a baby this year so the fact that I'm performing at all right now is sort of surreal. But right around the corner in 2015, I am performing with the Naples Symphony, the Omaha Symphony and the Phoenix Symphony. Concerts and other projects are always popping up. People can keep up with me on my website, my Facebook fan page and on Twitter. If anything new happens, it'll all be there!

Rob, what about you?

I've got a few things cooking in the early stages -- one project I'm having a lot of fun with is writing a show for high school performers, with my collaborator Katie Kring. It's called Kelly the Destroyer Vs the Springfield Cobras, and is like Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets '70s glam rock.

And what about Vanishing Point?  What is next for the show?

Now that we've been polishing it in various productions around the country (and the world), I really want to do it in New York in some way. So what's next is, we're making that happen.

So here is the lightning round.  Five questions for each of you.

Farah, favorite show you've been in?  

"Sycamore Trees" by Ricky Ian Gordon, world premiere at Signature Theatre in DC in 2010.

Rob, best show you've seen this year?

You know, I really liked Rocky. And so far I have been really behind in seeing the shows that have opened this fall. I have a long list of must-sees.

Farah, favorite song in "Vanishing Point"?

I love "When I Am the Wind" (Amelia's song).

Rob, actor or actress you'd most like to work with, but haven't yet?

That is a tough question. Hmmm.... I don't know how this would come about, but let's say Angela Lansbury. I was obsessed with "Bedknobs & Broomsticks" as a child, so...

Farah, role you'd most like to play someday?

Mrs. Lovett.

Rob, first show you ever saw?

My first Broadway show was the original production of "Into the Woods," which I saw the day after Christmas, a month after it opened. I thought, "a whole month, I hope some of the original cast is still in it..." because when you're in college, running a month seems like a very long time. I flew to New York for one day in order to see it.

Farah, next show you want to see?

I gotta hustle and see "Here Lies Love"!

Rob, favorite theatre you've worked in?

I have to cheat and give two answers. One is, Porchlight Music Theatre in Chicago. That theater was founded by Jill Moore, one of my roommates in college -- and it's still going strong all these years later. They have produced three of my shows, including the first-ever staging of "Vanishing Point." I have great memories of Chicago, putting on shows in the basement of a bar. They are close to my heart.

The second answer is -- the theater where "Vanishing Point" played in Madrid, Teatro Lara. It's a gorgeous grand old-school theater -- all red and gold, velvet curtains, gorgeous murals. You really felt a sense of history there.

Farah, favorite theatre experience?

Martha Clarke's "Garden of Earthly Delights." Two minutes into the revival, I leaned over to my husband and said, "This is the greatest show I've ever seen in my life." And it was.

Rob, same question.

I have too many to list. I teach at NYU's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, and am privileged to be able to see incredible new works of theater being created each year. Watching the performances of those, I regularly cry like a sap. Because there's so much passion in everyone who is working in this art form. It makes you fully alive.

Thank you both for your time, and I'm looking forward to seeing "Vanishing Point" next week.

"Vanishing Point" will be performed at 54 Below on Tuesday, November 4th at 9:30 PM.

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the 54 Below website.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The 6th H.P. Lovecraft Festival - Creepy fun

By Byrne Harrison

It's become an annual tradition for me to attend the Radiotheatre H.P. Lovecraft Festival.  I really enjoy Lovecraft's work, and it is so perfectly suited for Radiotheatre's aesthetic.

The performance on October 9th featured two Lovecraft stories -- The Beast in the Cave and The Shadow Over Innsmouth.  The Beast in the Cave was written when Lovecraft was a teenager, and frankly, it shows.  The story hints at the writer he will become, but it's an overwrought horror trope (devolving cave-dwelling humans who prey on visitors) that has been handled better elsewhere.  However, in the hands of the Radiotheatre actors (R. Patrick Alberty, Joshua Nicholson and Frank Zilinyi) and aided by the outstanding sound and lighting of Dan Bianchi and Wes Shippee, the story is elevated into something that at least holds an audience's interest.

Radiotheatre's strengths are on full display in the second piece, Shadow Over Innsmouth.  Dark and disturbing, Shadow features much of what Lovecraft devotees want -- degeneration, family secrets, elder gods, human hybrids, demonic cults, and a host of other nasties.  With the brooding sound and lighting, the excellent vocal talents of the actors (you'll easily forget there are only three actors on stage), and outstanding direction by Dan Bianchi, this is one of those works that gets everything right.

I wish I had had time to see some of the other works in this series (The Call of Cthulhu and The Dunwich Horror, in particular), but I will have to save that for future festivals.

Photo by R. Patrick Alberty

Photo by Dan Bianchi

The 6th H.P. Lovecraft Festival
Adapted/Directed/Designed by Dan Bianchi
Sound/Lights Engineer: Wes Shippee
Cast: R. Patrick Alberty, Danielle Adams (not appearing 10/9), Joshua Nicholson, Frank Zilinyi

Visit the Radiotheatre website for more info about this company (and to hear some samples of their work) -

"The Killing of Sister George" - A Serious Misunderstanding of Tone

By Judd Hollander

There's a fine line between serious drama, parody and outright camp, a fact director Drew Barr sadly doesn't seem to grasp in The Actors Company Theatre's revival of Frank Marcus' The Killing of Sister George.

In 1964 London, June Buckridge (Caitin O'Connell), a hard drinking actress with a hair trigger temper, has for the past six years been playing the beloved character of "Sister George" on the BBC radio drama "Applehurst". However with the show slipping in the ratings and rumors flying about an impending cast shakeup, June finds herself in a state of continual agitation, one occasionally verging on panic. Making matters even more uncertain is the impending arrival of Mercy Croft (Cynthia Harris), an officious and somewhat staid woman who works in the BBC programming office. June meanwhile is taking out her frustrations on her live-in lover Alice (Margot White), a seemingly young girl who likes to play with dolls and write poetry and with whom June a rather intense sadomasochistic relationship. Also dropping by from time to time is Madame Xenia (Dana Smith-Croll), June and Alice's neighbor and also a practicing psyche.

Groundbreaking when it first was premiered, and still having the potential for being something quite powerful, what should have been a strong work about people's insecurities, the fear of being forgotten and a look at relationships that were once unspoken, comes off instead as totally campy. Making matters worse is the continual staidness of the production, with virtually none of the elements of the show coming across as remotely real. To be fair, Marcus' text contains a great deal of repetitiveness, but Barr fails to compensate for this. Also having the characters come off as rather stereotypical doesn't do anything to help matters.

What's most frustrating of all are the flashes of brilliance appearing here and there which serve to show how, in the right hands, the work has the potential to be something really special. Most of these coming from O'Connell, such as when June learns not only the fate of Sister George, but also that of the characters with whom Sister George has interacted; thus showing how she really feels about the character and its legacy. There's also the matter of Alice's true role in her relationship with June, and what Mercy's ultimate motives are in her supposed interest in Alice's writing ability. Unfortunately the most compelling moments of the production occur in the final section of the play, and happen far too late to negate all the missteps that have come before. Another problem occurs in the play's final moments when June reacts upon learning what the future may have in store for her both professionally and personally. Yet her reaction, which could be one of desperation, anger or defiance - any of which would make perfect sense - comes off instead as totally matter of fact. It's as if June is in denial about what's unfolding; something completely not in keeping with what's been shown of the character up to that point.

While none of the performances are terrible to watch, none of the actresses are able to make their characters all that interesting. It also doesn't help that the show's pacing is so slow, the entire experience feels elongated to the point where one is just praying for something to happen, instead of each scene and situation feeling almost exactly like one that has come before.

Narelle Sissons' set, filled with dolls and doll houses is interesting, though one can't help but wonder why June, who supposedly rules the roost, would allow Alice to dictate the choice of decor for their home. This being just another point in June and Alice's relationship which needed to be made clearer. Having the characters running up and down the aisles of the theatre was a nice touch.

File this production of The Killing of Sister George as a major misstep and here's hoping the company's next effort is a better one.

The Killing of Sister George
by Frank Marcus

Featuring Caitlin O'Connell (June Buckridge), Margot White (Alice "Childie" McNaught), Cynthia Harris (Mrs. Mercy Croft), Dana Smith-Croll (Madame Xenia).

Set & Costume Design: Narelle Sissons
Light Design: Mary Louise Geiger
Sound Design & Original Music: Daniel Kluger
Props Design: Samantha Shoffner
Production Stage Manager: Jeff Meyers
Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Burns
Production Manager: Cate Digirolamo
Technical Director: Stephen Sury
Casting: Kelly Gillespie
Publicist: Richard Hillman
TACT General Manager: Christy Ming-Trent
Marketing: The Pekoe Group
Directed by Drew Barr

The Beckett Theatre
Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or

Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes, with one intermission
Closes: November 1, 2014

Review - A Walk in the Woods

By Judd Hollander

Playwright Lee Blessing offers up some harsh political truth in his powerful drama A Walk in the Woods, the show being given a very strong revival by Keen Company.

It's the mid 1980s, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union are strained, with both countries sending delegations to Geneva, Switzerland for endless rounds of arms negotiations. After one of these marathon sessions, veteran Soviet delegate Irina Botvinnik (Kathleen Chalfant) indulges in her favorite pastime; taking a stroll through a nearby wooded area away from the prying eyes of reporters. Accompanying her at her request is John Honeyman (Paul Niebanck), the new lead American diplomat recently assigned to the negotiations. Though John is rather flummoxed to learn Irina is not interested in privately talking about the latest proposals. Rather, she wants to get to know her American counterpart better and hopefully become his friend. A relationship the all business John has no desire to pursue.

As these conversations play out over a period of months, it becomes evident Irina uses these walks not only as way for her to get to know John and what drives him, but also as a sort of safety valve to take the edge off the tension in the negotiations, where what's eventually agreed upon is often little more than political posturing. All of which can live or die on which side announces the deal first. John however is more determined to actually create something substantial at the bargaining table. A fact Irina accepts with a weary resignation and perhaps even a grudging admiration.

As Blessing keeps pointing out, using the seasoned Irina as the vehicle for the play's message, the simple truth is that neither side really wants the negotiations to in any way alter the status quo. Especially since neither party trusts the other nor wants to significantly pare down their nuclear arsenal or be limited in terms of what they can develop in the future. As such, anything that is agreed on is mostly cosmetic and all done for show. "Don't try so hard" the President of the United State tells John at one point; showing him a political reality Irina has long since known and one which John refuses to accept, or at least let continue without a fight.

Chalfant, who has the best lines in the show, does a great job as Irina, a career diplomat who has seen negotiators come and go over the years. Yet through it all she has managed to develop a quiet and cynical sense of humor and is not afraid to try to relate to others on a more personal level. Indeed, quite often the most important thing for her includes taking the time to be frivolous, as the larger issues will always be there to worry about later. It should be noted that the role of the Soviet diplomat is usually played by a man. The gender switch being done here with Blessing's approval and works quite well indeed.

Niebanck has the harder role of the two as the somewhat officious, all-too-sure-of-himself John, coming off some successes elsewhere and determined to really make a difference in Geneva; eventually learning to unbend a bit and really talk to Irina. All the while wringing out a few small concessions along the way. Though his ultimate fate may be the one of many career diplomats, unless he heeds Irina's warning about what awaits him not too many years down the road.

Jonathan Silverstein's direction is nice and tight, keeping the conversations between the two characters on a kind of middle ground, with the tension of the international situation ever present, but allowing the actors to play up the humor of the script with John often getting thrown for a loop by Irina's seemingly inane questions or requests. All of which actually have a purpose, even if it's just to say something funny. Scott Bradley's set of the wooded area the two diplomats constantly find themselves in is well presented, with the lighting by Josh Bradford and sound design by M.L. Dogg nicely adding to the overall atmosphere.

Based on an actual incident, A Walk in the Woods offers a look at a not-so-long-ago era where things seemed simpler because the enemy was one you could better understand and envision. At the same time the play shows the importance of getting to know ones adversaries while equating the audience with some harsh political realities and a process that can grind up everyone it touches while it moves inexorably on despite any attempt to change its course.

Photo by Carol Rosegg

A Walk in the Woods
by Lee Blessing

Featuring: Kathleen Chalfant (Irina Botvinnik), Paul Niebanck (John Honeyman)

Scenic design: Scott Bradley
Costume Design: Amanda Jenks and Jennifer Paar
Lighting Design: Josh Bradford
Sound Design: M.L. Dogg
Props Designer: Ricola Wille
Production Stage Manager: Theresa Flanagan
Directed by Jonathan Silverstein

Presented by Keen Company
Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
Running Time: 1 Hour, 45 Minutes, one intermission

Closed: October 18, 2014

Monday, October 20, 2014

Canadian Burlesque Star, Rosie Bitts, Makes New York City Debut

Canadian Burlesque Star, Rosie Bitts, makes her New York City debut in her new solo-show, Stories of Love and Passion which is being presented by the Untied Solo Theatre Festival. Stories of Love and Passion is written and performed by Rosie Bitts, directed and dramaturged by Suzanne Bachner and accompanied by Jeff Poynter. Rosie will be donating 5% of all profits from her solo work, Stories of Love and Passionto local organizations that advocate for sex workers.

The Fabulous Miss Rosie Bitts mixes jazz and burlesque with raw seduction in these heart-breaking, hilarious and taboo tales of sex work, unplanned pregnancy, loss of virginity and more. With live accompaniment by Jeff Poynter, Rosie creates a night of entertainment that is a luscious pleasure to the senses while also being subtly subversive, perfectly frank and completely titillating.

Stories of Love and Passion had its first view as a workshop in Best Bitts' Sexy Factory Fest, then its official World Premiere in the UNO Festival in Victoria, BC which is run by Intrepid Theatre (which also runs the Victoria Fringe). Stories of Love and Passion just finished a successful run at theCome Inside, the first Sex-Positive Theatre Festival in the US in Portland, Oregon.

The creative team includes lighting design by Theodore R. Sherman, costume design by Kerri Derksen and technical direction by Chasmin Hallyburton.

Performances take place at Theatre Row/Studio Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street (between 9th & 10thAvenues) New York, NY 10036. Subways: A/C/E to 42nd Street. Tickets are $19.25 (including a $1.25 theatre restoration charge) and are available at the Theatre Row box office, or at 212-239-6200 –

Show Date:
Tuesday, October 21st @ 7:30 pm

Running time: 60 minutes

More info available at or

Rosie Bitts (Writer/Performer) is a performer, producer, author, and educator, and one of the pioneers who brought the art-form of burlesque to Vancouver Island. Rosie's first solo show, The Fabulous Miss Rosie Bitts, garnered her critical acclaim and was a multi-award winner across Canada. Her newest work, Stories of Love and Passion, which premiered at the end of May at the prestigious Canadian Solo show Festival UNO Fest, has opened to critical acclaim, adoring crowds, and standing ovations. She is looking forward to touring with it across the United States in the fall of 2014. She was a co-founder of the award-winning Cheesecake Burlesque Revue and the first burlesque teacher on Vancouver Island, having since taught hundreds of women—and now men—how to release their inner Diva and connect with their Sexy! As well as teaching locally, Rosie has also been a guest teacher at BurlyCon Seattle many times (North America’s only burlesque education convention).  Rosie is a keynote speaker and speaks on subjects from “Releasing Your Inner Diva” to “Getting Your Sexy Back after Kids”. In 2013, Rosie turned her talents to writing and, in collaboration with indie author Bruce Blake, has created the historical-pirate-erotica-adventure serial The Lady Corsairs. Rosie started her production company,  Best Bitts Productions (co-owned with Bruce Blake), in 2008, and has since toured Western Canada with her popular shows as well as bringing headliners from all over North America to further titillate and educate her audience. She runs Canada's only Sex Positive Theatre Festival: “The Sexy Factory,” which will be looking forward to its 3rd year in 2015. An active fundraiser, Rosie also advocates in the community for local and international causes. In this spirit, Rosie will be donating 5% of all profits from her solo work Stories of Love and Passion to local organizations that advocate for sex workers.

Suzanne Bachner (Director/Dramaturge) is an award-winning playwright and director. She is the director and developer of Bob Brader’s acclaimed solo shows including the award-winning Spitting In The Face Of The Devil. Her play, CIRCLE, ran for five months Off Broadway, was performed nationally and called “ingenious” by The New York Times. Her new 2-actor production of CIRCLE is currently optioned for production in Australia following a 4-month 7-City Sold-Out International Tour during which it was awarded Most Daring Show of the London Fringe. Playwriting and directing: a six month NYC run of her cult hit, Icons & Outcasts; a five month NYC run and international tour of BITE; her epic new play, Brilliant Mistake, a San Diego commission, which the Coast News called "A work of pure genius!" and her celebrated kaleidoscopic memoir play, We Call Her Benny, which Broadway World called “the future of theatre”. Her plays have been seen at PS NBC@HERE, the Duplex, the National Arts Club, the Michael Weller Theatre, the Samuel French Short Play Festival, Pulse Ensemble Theatre and 20th Century Fox at the Coronet Theater in LA, among others. Directing: Frank D. Gilroy's The Subject Was Roses at the Celebration Theatre in Los Angeles and the short film, Jennifer Monroe, P.I., a finalist in Flicks on 66. Suzanne studied playwriting with Romulus Linney and Adrienne Kennedy and holds an MFA from the Actors Studio Drama School at the New School University. Suzanne’s plays are published on Indie Theater Now. She is a four-time OOBR Award winner, a Madeline Sadin award winner, Resident Playwright Emeritus at the Actors Institute and a member of the United Solo Academy and the Dramatists Guild.

Jeff Poynter (Accompanist) is a multi-instrumentalist, educator, and artist manager based in Victoria, BC, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Music from the University of Victoria, with a major in Saxophone Performance. He is also the Chairperson of Music For Youth Works Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing music lessons to children who could not otherwise afford them. Jeff performs regularly with the popular indie-folk group West My Friend as well as with burlesque performer Rosie Bitts. As an experienced pianist, accordionist, and guitarist, Jeff was the music director at Pilgrim United Church in Colwood BC for five years, was the Assistant Music Minister at Oak Bay United Church in Victoria, and now leads music at Cadboro Bay United Church with Louise Rose. He regularly tours Canada and the US, and plays many styles of music, from classical to funk, latin to celtic, and jazz to folk.

About Best Bitts Productions
Best Bitts Productions is an entertainment production company headed by Rosie Bitts and Bruce Blake. We are dedicated to producing top quality cabaret, burlesque and theatrical shows that mix the best talent of Vancouver Island with international performers to create a truly unique entertainment experience.

About the United Solo Theatre Festival

United Solo, the world’s largest solo theatre festival, celebrates its 5th anniversary season and its dynamic expansion in scope and popularity. Over 130 shows from six continents are staged at Theatre Row: 410 West 42nd Street, New York City.