Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Jerry Springer-The Opera

A Good Idea Taken Too Far

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

In the world of tabloid talk shows, few are more famous, or infamous, than "The Jerry Springer Show". A place where relationships, questions of sexual identity, politics and other issues of the day are regularly discussed, dissected and bandied about. Accompanied at times by insults, accusations and the occasional flying fist or tossed chair. This is the atmosphere recreated in Jerry Springer - The Opera. The work first seen in London in 2003, and now making its Off-Broadway debut with The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The show's creators, Stewart Lee & Richard Thomas, were clearly aiming for parody in their efforts, while also tucking in a few moral messages. But the end product goes so far over the top, it feels more like a wasted opportunity.

This is a shame, especially since things start off so wonderfully. The first act offering a hilarious take-off on the Springer show, complete with some folks in the "studio audience" who are more than ready to let loose with insults and heckles. Egged on by a somewhat demented Warm-Up Man, (brilliantly played to hilt by Will Swenson), this group serves as a sort of Greek chorus for what is to follow. Soon after, we meet Mr. Springer (Terrance Mann) himself. The character seen here as a quiet, unassuming fellow. His attitude a marked contrast to the continual frenzy going on around him.

Among Jerry’s guests are a man with several different paramours, a fellow with a diaper fetish, and a woman who wants to be a professional pole dancer. Each of these people, as well as their loved ones, also having other hidden secrets in their lives. All of which are brought out in a way to cause maximum humiliation for them, and maximum enjoyment for the aforementioned studio audience. Jerry trying his best to stay above the fray by quietly asking some leading questions, and then letting Steve (Billy Hepfinger), his head of security, run interference when things get out of hand. As they inevitably do.

L-R: Terrence Mann, Billy Hepfinger, Beth Kirkpatrick, Florrie Bagel, Luke Grooms, Sean Patrick Doyle in “Jerry Springer – The Opera,” a production from The New Group, in a limited Off-Broadway engagement at The Pershing Square Signature Center Jan 23 – Mar 11, 2018. PHOTO CREDIT: Monique Carboni / www.thenewgroup.org

The problem with all this, however, is one of immense overkill. Each of the above scenarios following the same pattern. Especially with the supposed "innocents", who turn out to be just as brazen and crude as those initially spilling their secrets. Using one or two  similar instances as a set-up for what follows is fine. But by the third such example, things start becoming rather tedious. A feeling that never fully goes away from that point on.

Act Two starts with Jerry finding himself in Hell. His only chance of salvation being to successfully mediate an extremely long-running dispute between Satan (Swenson), Jesus (Justin Keyes), Adam (Nathaniel Hackmann), Eve (Tiffany Mann), Mary (Jennifer Allen), and God (Luke Grooms). It's certainly an idea with plenty of potential. Unfortunately, the show's creators seem to be more fixated on having religious figures continually swearing at each other, rather than trying to find anything deeper on which to focus.

Despite the various problems, there are times when the musical is able to touch on some very important issues. Such as when a group of Jerry's hardcore followers serenade him with the song "We Eat, Excrete and Watch TV". Their main purpose in life being to live vicariously by watching other people's misery. The irony here of course, is that these fans, who think Jerry's guests are basically nothing but a bunch of losers, are themselves the biggest losers of them all.

Another good moment occurs when Jerry finally loses his patience and tells those around him that there are certain things on which they never will agree. A situation which, he notes, is not necessarily a bad thing. An important sentiment, especially in these days of polarizing opinions; where the idea of compromise and bi-partisanship have become dirty words to so many. Sadly, too many of these points are simply tossed into the mix haphazardly, and are never given a chance to grow to fruition.

Although Springer may be a fascinating individual - he was the Mayor of Cincinnati and a campaign advisor to Robert Kennedy, both points mentioned in the show - we never get the chance to know the character as a real person. Mann's portrayal somewhat lacking in depth or passion, at least until the very end. Another key point occurs when Jerry mentions how the purpose of his show is to give a voice to people who have no voice. Admirable to be sure, but too often he comes off as either an enabler or someone who has let things get out of his control. He often providing "gotcha" moments to embarrass his guests, titillate his audiences and boost ratings, rather than actually trying to help those who come on his show deal with their various issues.

The music by Mr. Thomas is enjoyable, though the way the songs are presented cause the lyrics to be drowned out more than once. Especially in the beginning of the show. As for said lyrics, using swear words extensively only succeeds in reducing their shock value. Cutting down on the total somewhat would have made those that remain far more effective.

Swenson is the clear standout among the cast. The actor hitting it out of the park "Backstage Family". Where, as the Warm-Up Man, he rhapsodizes on his bromance with Jerry. Mann, at the same time, offering a contrasting viewpoint to Warm-Up Man's interpretation.

L-R: Will Swenson, Terrence Mann in “Jerry Springer – The Opera,” a production from The New Group, in a limited Off-Broadway engagement at The Pershing Square Signature Center Jan 23 –  April 1, 2018. PHOTO CREDIT: Monique Carboni / www.thenewgroup.org

The entire company - other than Mann, as discussed above - throws themselves into their roles with extreme enthusiasm. Their actions helping to make up for the various lack of substance in many of the selfsame characters. High marks also go to director John Rando and choreographer Chris Bailey for making full use of venue playing space. Thus putting the characters at times right next to the audience. Also quite good is Derek McLane's set. Especially in Act One where he recreates the studio where the Jerry Springer show is taped.

Jerry Springer - The Opera starts out with the potential to be something really amazing, but tries way too hard to be outrageous without ever settling on a clear through line for the story. Either focusing more on Jerry himself, or trimming a good portion of Act One would have been a good place to start. As it stands now, what's presented on stage feels like a tired imitation, rather than anything fresh or new.

Featuring: Billy Hepfinger (Steve), Will Swenson (Warm-Up Man/Satan), Terrence Mann (Jerry Springer), Luke Grooms (Dwight/God), Florrie Bagel (Peaches/Ensemble), Beth Kirkpatrick (Zandra/Ensemble), Elizabeth Loyacano (Valkyrie/Andrea/Angel Michael), Kim Steele (Valkyrie/Backing Jerry/Ensemble), Sean Patrick Doyle (Tremont/Angel Gabriel), Justin Keyes (Montel/Jesus), Jill Paice (Baby Jane), Tiffany Mann (Shawntel/Eve), Nathaniel Hackmann (Chucky/Adam), Jennifer Allen (Irene/Mary), Brandon Contreras (Backing Jerry/Ensemble), Brad Greer (Backing Jerry/Ensemble), Nichole Turner (Backing Jerry/Ensemble).

Jerry Springer - The Opera

Music and Lyrics by Richard Thomas
Book and Additional Lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas

Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Sarah Laux
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Joshua D. Reid
Projection Design: Olivia Sebesky
Orchestrations: Greg Anthony Rassen
Musical Direction: Michael Brennan
Wig, Hair and Make-Up Design: David Bova and J. Jared Janas
Dance Captain: Kim Steele
Fight Direction: Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum
Production Supervisor: Five Ohm Productions
Production Stage Manager: James Harker
Casting: Telsey + Company, Cesar A. Rocha, CSA
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski
Advertising: AKA
Associate Artistic Director: Ian Morgan
Development Director: Jamie Lehrer
General Manager: Kevin Condardo
Marketing Director: Stephanie Warren
Choreography by Chris Bailey
Directed by John Rando

Presented by The New Group the
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com
Information: www.thenewgroup.org
Running Time: Two Hours, 15 Minutes, one intermission
Closes: April 1, 2018

Matt McGrath will take over the role of "Jerry Springer", beginning March 13, 2018

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Flight - Putting A Human Face On A Hot Button Issue

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The McKittrick Hotel, home to such artistic triumphs as Sleep No More and The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, has another winner with their latest offering, Flight. Created by the Scottish theatre group Vox Motus, the production at the McKittrick marks the North American premiere for this immersive, intimate, and sadly, all-too topical tale.

Based on the novel "Hinterland" by Caroline Brothers, and brilliantly adapted by Oliver Emanuel, Flight is the story of two young boys from Afghanistan. Aryan (Farshid Rokey) and his younger brother Kabir (Nalini Chetty). Wanting to leave the turmoil and danger of their homeland far behind, the two have resolved to make their way to London and start a new life. They leaving home with only the clothes on their backs, a small amount of money, and a cell phone without a SIM card. Aryan and Kabir's route, one which will take close to two years, will see them travel through such countries as Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy and France as they attempt to reach their goal.

Though Aryan and Kabir start out with big dreams, they are all too soon brought down to harsh reality. From a dangerous night water crossing by raft into Turkey, to living as virtual slaves when they take jobs as migrant workers, to a desperate ride in a refrigerated truck, each of the boys are eventually pushed to the limits of their endurance, and beyond. As Kabir notes to his brother after a horrendously devastating encounter, "you never told me people could be like that". The question finally becoming not only if Aryan and Kabir will ever reach London; but if they somehow actually do, what will their physical and mental condition be when they arrive?

What makes Flight so unique in its staging of an off-told tale, one of people seeking a better life in a new land, is that none of the characters presented in this story appear as flesh and blood. Rather, the audience is ushered one at a time into a special seating area, given a pair of headphones, and then watches the tale as it quite literally unfolds in front of them. This process accomplished via scenes depicted in rotating dioramas, with accompanying dialogue, narration and music.

It is through these figures and painted scenes that the brother's journey begins to take shape. The audience slowly but surely getting to know these two people quite intimately as their story progresses. We worry about them when they are in trouble; feel their mental exhaustion tinged with desperate hope as they consider their next move; and enjoy a rare moment of relaxation when they meet those who help them along the way. Such as a group of female Iran-American tourists. These young ladies completely assimilated into the Western way of life, but still recognizing something of themselves in Aryan and Kabir as they offer them food and clothes - and especially new shoes - all thanks to the power of their credit cards.

         Kabir and Aryan enter a new city on their journey to a new life

Flight is also a show with a clear double meaning. It referring not only to the ability to travel through the air; but also the brother's attempt to escape from a place which offers them no future. In an interesting twist, many of the official authority figures Aryan and Kabir meet on their travels are depicted as uniformed white birds; regardless of the country in which they happen to be at the time. These "birds" carrying guns, wearing badges and caps, and each pictured with a rather stern demeanor. These creatures all fiercely protective of the lands and boarders they patrol, and determined to keep out any who try to enter uninvited.

The models created by Rebecca Hamilton and her team are excellent. The figures and scenes ranging from deliberately crude to finally detailed. A view of a well-manicured neighborhood, complete with grass and trees, and which looks like it could be a scene out of any modern suburbia, is a good example of the latter. Another key element is the affecting music and sound design by Mark Melville - efforts which particularly hit home in the final section of the story. Adding the all important human factor to the tale is the strong voice work by the various performers. Especially when it comes to the two leads and the youthful vocal cadence they each convey. Both of these characters feeling quite real by the time the show is over.

There are a few problems here and there. It takes a few minutes for one to really get into the flow of the story, and some of the narrative is not quite clear in the beginning. Such as how Aryan and Kabir first get involved with the people who use them as undocumented workers. There are also times when one isn't exactly sure where Aryan and Kabir are, geographically. However, long before the story reaches the half-way point, one finds oneself well immersed in the tale.

Putting a human face on the subject of immigration by making its audience get to know two of those who dare to dream, Flight ends up being quite an emotionally stirring story.

Featuring (voice only): Nalini Chetty (Kabir), Farshid Rokey (Aryan), Emun Elliott (Narrator), Maryam Hamidi (Ensemble), Robert Jack (Ensemble), Rosalind Sydney (Ensemble), Waleed Akhtar (Ensemble), Adura Onashile (Ensemble), Chris Jack (Ensemble).


Created by Vox Motus

Based on the novel "Hinterland" by Caroline Brothers
Adapted by Oliver Emanuel
Directed by Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison
Lighting Designer: Simon Wilkinson
Co-Designer & Lead Model Maker: Rebecca Hamilton
Composer & Sound Designer: Mark Melville
Character Artist: Sav Scatola
Storyboard Artist: Kenneth MacLeod

Presented by The McKittrick Hotel & Emursive

The Heath at the McKittrick Hotel
542 West 27th Street
Tickets: 212-904-1880 or www.mckittrickhotel.com
Running Time: 45 minutes, no intermission
Closes: March 25, 2018

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Hey, Look Me Over! - It's What's Not There That's The Problem

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

For the last quarter of a century, the appeal of the Encores! series at New York City Center has been the opportunity for audiences to see little known, or long forgotten musicals return to the stage. Thus allowing these properties to be seen and appreciated by a new generation of theatre goers. In keeping with that tradition, kicking off the organization's 25th anniversary season is Hey, Look Me Over! Conceived by Jack Viertel, the company's artistic director, Hey, Look Me Over! presents a collection of musical numbers from over half a dozen different shows. None of these works having graced the Encores! stage as full productions. As least not yet.

While this might have sounded like a great idea on paper, the actual execution ends up missing the mark. Lacking a proper narrative to fully set the stage as it were, the songs showcased here often end up feeling like little more than a loose collection of threads which fail to come together into a cohesive whole.

This problem of perspective is visible right off the bat with first musical offerings of the evening. They coming from the 1960 Broadway show Wildcat. This is extremely unfortunate as performers Britney Coleman, and particularly Carolee Carmello are excellent in their rendition of the Wildcat number which Encores! has chosen to use as its title for the presentation. But with only the barest of background information provided, one feels no emotional connection to the various pieces as they unfold.

The issue becomes even more evident later on when actress Vanessa Williams comes out to sing two numbers from the musical Jamaica. Williams performs the songs wonderfully, but there's no back-story offered for either piece. Or for the particular character who's supposed to be singing them. As a result, the numbers feel more conducive to a concert act, rather than an Encores! performance.

To their credit, the Encores! creative team recognized this problem when the show was in the planning stages, and came up with the idea of having Bob Martin reprise his role of "Man in Chair" from the 2006 Broadway musical The Drowsy Chaperone. Martin playing an introverted musical theatre aficionado providing various background information on that show's cast and creators, as well as dropping in numerous bits of trivia. Along with his own personal take on the different numbers 

                                        Bob Martin as Man in Chair
                                           in Hey, Look Me Over!
                                            (photo by Joan Marcus)

If Martin's character had fully applied the Chaperone process to Hey, Look Me Over!, things would probably have worked out better. However, all too often he just announces the name of each musical we're about to hear, as well when it originally opened and perhaps, how long it ran. None of which is enough to get one really invested in the musical selection that follows. Even the final number of the evening, the rousing "Give My Regards to Broadway" from George M!, a song which should have brought the house down, doesn't work nearly as well as it should, for this reason. That said, the dancing in "Give My Regards" is excellent, thanks to the effort put forth by Clyde Alves in the George M. Cohan role, and the members of the Encores! ensemble. Also wonderfully effective here is the excellent choreographic work of Denis Jones. Jones' efforts also bearing fruit in the "Independence Day Hora" number from Milk and Honey.

One place where Martin’s presence does work to a show’s favor is All American. One of two shows presented strongly enough to make you really want to take a second look at the material. It also helps that, despite its now somewhat quaint set up, the subject matter of All American remains quite timely. It dealing with America being the "great melting pot". This, by the way, becomes a point touched on time and again during Hey, Look Me Over! Especially in an added bonus after the curtain calls, where the entire company performs a number from Irving Berlin's Miss Liberty.

The second show that really stood out during Hey, Look Me Over! - and which was wisely given the task of closing out the first act – was Mack and Mabel, which featured a score by Jerry Herman. Herman the only composer to be represented by two separate shows here – the other being Milk and Honey. The Mack and Mabel offerings including a wonderful blend of song, slapstick and silent movie era comedy; all led by Douglas Sills who offered a powerhouse performance with the number "Movies Were Movies".

Another element that does not really work in Hey, Look Me Over! is the playing of several of the overtures from the featured shows. They feeling more like add-on pieces than anything else. Encores! also commits the sin of playing the overture from the 1961 musical Subways Are For Sleeping and then not presenting any other songs from that show, or even offering any information as to what that musical was about. They could have at least mentioned David Merrick's publicity stunt in that regard - surely Man in Chair would have known about that!

The individual performances are superlative down the line. In addition to those mentioned above, Judy Kuhn and Reed Birney are wonderful together in the heartstring pulling "Once Upon a Time", from All American. Bebe Neurwirth is nicely sarcastic in Noel Coward’s Sail Away. A production which reminds one of a lightweight Anything Goes. Mark Kudisch delivers solidly with his work in numbers from both Milk and Honey and Greenwillow. As does Clifton Duncan with "Never Will I Marry"; a fantastic solo number from the latter work. It's a shame we don't get a chance to understand enough about the character Duncan plays here; as it would have made the song resonate that much more with the audience.

The Encores! orchestra, under the able baton of Rob Berman, is, as always, a real treat to the ear. The melodies and refrains sounding alternatively lush, strong, and at times, quite stirring. It’s also wonderful to hear these songs as performed by a full orchestra.

Hey, Look Me Over! is a pleasant enough experience, but ultimately one found wanting. The show suffering the same problem as Prince of Broadway, a musical which opened on The Great White Way earlier this season. It too had a bountiful crop of material from which to choose, but ended up displaying them in a way that only rarely explained what actually about - and why we should care to experience them.

Featuring: Clyde Alves, Reed Birney, Carolee Carmello, Britney Coleman, Clifton Duncan, Marc Kudisch, Judy Kuhn, Bob Martin, Tam Mutu, Bebe Neuwirth, Nancy Opal, Douglas Sills, Alexandra Socha, Vanessa Williams, Alex Aquilino, Carleigh Bettiol, Rachel Coloff, Kerry Conte, Rick Faugno, Eloise Kropp, Matt Loehr, Michael X. Martin, Michael Mendez, Justin Prescott, Wayne Pretlow, Lindsay Roberts, Steve Routman, Sarah Jane Shanks, Jaquez André Sims, Diana Vaden, Jessica Wockenfuss.

New York City Center
Encores! at 25

Hey, Look Me Over!
Conceived by Jack Viertel

Scenic Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Alejo Vietti
Lighting Designer: Paul Miller
Sound Designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Production Stage Manager: Adam John Hunter
Music Coordinator: Seymour Press
Casting by Binder Casting / Jay Binders, CSA, Justin Bohon
Choreography by Denis Jones
Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra
Music Director: Rob Berman
Directed by Marc Bruni

Presented at New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Running Time: 2 hours, 35 minutes, with one intermission
Closed: February 11, 2018

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Disco Pigs - the Pangs of Youth

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

It’s great to have a best friend when you’re a child. Someone you can tell secrets to, watch television with, and just hang out together. But as one grows up, things start to change – sometimes forever. It’s a point shatteringly brought home in Enda Walsh’s 1996 drama, Disco Pigs. A powerful revival of which is currently taking place at the Irish Repertory Theatre.

In 1996 Cork City, Cork County, Ireland, seventeen year-olds Pig (Colin Campbell) and Runt (Evanna Lynch), are the best of mates, and have been almost from the moment of their birth. Both from the same neighborhood, they were born in the same hospital on the same day, placed side by side in the hospital nursery, and have been inseparable ever since. Hailing from working class families, things don’t always come easy to them. The two in recent times, venting their frustrations with actions that fall outside the law. Pig in particular getting great satisfaction from trashing liquor stores and beating up those who stand in his way. All while Runt looks on, offering moral and vocal support. Their current enjoyment of choice - other than drinking and getting into trouble - is disco music, with their holy grail being a place called “The Palace Disco”.

Lately however, things have started to change for the two, with neither as content as they once were. Pig is grappling with raging hormones, and begins to see Runt as a woman for the first time. He wanting her every way in that regard. Runt, on the other hand, is beginning to realize that there is a world beyond the narrow streets of Cork City. As evidenced when she starts looking at her fellow schoolmates while wondering what will happen to their them, as well as to her and Pig, in the times to come.

Told in a combination of recollections, real time and tangents, Walsh’s writing has never felt more alive or more filled with imagery. Lynch and Campbell performing on what is basically a bare stage, yet they are able to transform their surroundings to a gritty urban neighborhood; a quiet beach with the waves breaking just out of sight; and a flashy nightclub/disco. While the dialogue can be quite hard to follow, told in an Irish street slang of the time – “Cork City” being pronounced as “Pork Sity” for example - the feelings presented are completely universal as Pig and Runt alternatively lash out and begin to question everything they know. Going hand in hand with this is the reality of inevitable change, as the life Pig and Runt once had threatens to come crashing down in a torrent of rage, music and desperation. All of which will ultimately test their friendship as never before.

Campbell gives a powerhouse performance as Pig. A young man with an ever-present, almost sadistic air of menace, this quintessential rebel-without-a-cause often seems far older than his years. Yet he also possesses a sensitive soul. Pig’s soliloquy concerning his feelings toward Runt is both quite heartfelt and totally sensual. The speech showcasing both his baser desires and his dreams of a scenario which would cement the two's relationship forever. Another example of Pig’s gentler side occurs when he takes Runt to the beach one night, thus offering her a small respite from their usual gritty haunts.Though he does harass their cabdriver more than once during the trip.

Colin Campbell and Evanna Lynch in DISCO PIGS
 (photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)

Lynch is excellent as Runt. At first an almost tagalong sort, we soon begin to see her starting to break away from Pig as she begins to question her lifestyle, while wanting to experience something other than what she’s always known. A feeling which crystallizes when she starts interacting with people other than Pig. The result being that she starts to see Pig differently for the first time, and may not be all that happy that she does.

It also helps that Campbell and Lynch have a wonderful chemistry together. The two playing off each other perfectly. Their characters feeling totally in synch in the beginning, yet beginning to grow apart as the show progresses.

John Haidar directs the show with sure and steady hand. Using the text as a guide, he allows the actors free reign to basically explode off the stage. While at the same time, making sure the images and feelings that result are completely understandable to the audience. Even if the dialogue may not always be. Particularly effective are the fight scenes where Pig pounds a character, unseen by the audience, into the dirt. Said actions coming across as brutally real.

Focusing on the themes of teenage angst and the inevitability of change, while giving these guideposts a rather refreshing twist, Disco Pigs offers a frightening look at two young people trying to make their way in a world that is no longer as simple as they once thought it to be.

Featuring Evanna Lynch (Runt), Colin Campbell (Pig).

Disco Pigs
By Enda Wash

Set & Lighting Design: Richard Kent
Lighting Design: Elliot Griggs
Sound Design: Giles Thomas
Movement Director: Naomi Said
Assistant Designer: Rachel Stone
Assistant Director: Nathan Markiewicz
Production Stage Manager: April Ann Kline
Press Representative: Matt Ross Public Relations
General Manager: Lisa Fine
Directed by John Haidar

The Tara Finney Productions
20th Anniversary Production of Disco Pigs

Presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or www.irishrep.org
Running Time: 80 minutes, no intermission
Closes March 4, 2018

Thursday, February 8, 2018

He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box - The Many Shades of Racial History

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Shadows of the past run long and deep, and breaking free to find your own way is not as easy as it may seem. A point Adrienne Kennedy makes clear in her absolutely brilliant new one-act work, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, now at Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.

In June of 1941, in the small town of Montefiore, Georgia, seventeen year-old Chris Aherne (Tom Pecinka), is making plans to leave his home and heritage forever. A heritage inexorably tied to racial inequality and the Jim Crow laws. His father Harrison (Pecinka), and grandfather, both successful businessmen, implemented the segregation system for the town – from the placement of “White” and “Colored” signs, to determining by skin color which group of people should live where. Chris however, plans to leave all this behind. Having just buried his mother, he’s about to head to New York to fulfill his dream of acting on the stage. But first he has come to the local Boarding School for Coloreds, founded by his father, to pledge his love to Kay (Juliana Canfield), a girl his own age that he has known all his life. Born of mixed-race parentage – her father was white – and having deep feelings for Chris, Kay accepts his proposal.

While these two young people would like nothing more than a beautiful future together, Chris in particular dreaming of living in Paris after the war in Europe concludes, both face constant personal reminders of the racism that permeates their society. Harrison for example, sired several children of color over the years. He often treating them, in the eyes of Chris’ late mother, better than his legal wife and son. As for Kay, she was born when her mother was only 15. She depositing Kay with relatives soon after the delivery and departing for Cincinnati, where she died under mysterious circumstances shortly thereafter.

He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box is not simply a linear story, nor does it center only around Kay and Chris. Kennedy came up with the concept from notes and clippings in her mother’s scrapbook, and her mom’s own racial experiences while growing up. These memories, and the images they evoke are brilliantly laid bare on stage, as the work opens a window to a time where Whites and Blacks rode in separate train cars, sat in different sections on buses, and drank from different water fountains. Images and memories coming alive to haunt the two would-be-lovers who dare to believe things will be different for them.

At one point it’s noted that both Kay and Chris’ fathers thought they could do whatever they wanted to in regards to colored women. They both being so powerful, people were afraid to do anything. Both men’s legal wives carrying a great deal of bitterness towards their philandering husbands, the women with whom they had relations, and the children born as a result.

As Kennedy and the entire technical team clearly understand, the best way to make a point is not to hit your audience over the head with a message time and again; but rather introduce it slowly and subtly until it envelopes those watching almost without their knowing it. The story weaving together references to past tragedies and actions, with the few attempts at showing something perhaps softer, such as Harrison’s half-hearted attempts to play a role in his illegitimate family’s life, not met with understanding by Chris or acknowledged by Kay. In one of the play’s more backhanded compliments, Chris notes that not only did his dad found the town’s colored cemetery, but he also ordered tombstones for the mothers of his Negro children. Chris pointing out that those women are the only people in that particular graveyard to have tombstones. It’s also interesting to note that, for all the love he has for Kay, Chris seems to have no particular problem with the racial situation as it currently exists in Montefiore. He wanting to leave town for his own personal reasons, not because he is rebelling against segregation as it currently exists there.

Pecinka and Canfield do a great job in their respective roles. Pecinka making Chris, if not a truly likeable character, at least one completely understandable. A boy trying to be his own man, but far too accepting in what has come before. A habit he would probably continue to follow as time goes on, simply because it’s easier. Canfield is excellent as she switches from a young woman about to start a new life with the man she loves, to someone nearly crushed by familial memories. From start to finish, the atmosphere is thick with an ominous feeling of dread. Further stacking the deck in this regard are references to the dramatic Bitter Sweet and Paris Massacre (the latter also known as The Massacre at Paris), both of which depict events which do not end happily.

Even the lighting effects (an excellent job by Donald Holder), do more to call attention to the overall gloom, rather than dispel it. Evan Yionoulis’s direction is nothing short of superlative here, taking all the various elements - including the strong sound design work by Justin Ellington - and making them come together in a quiet clash of power. Lording over the entire story is Christopher Barreca’s muted set of staircases and doors that help to accentuate the bleakness that permeates the story from the first moment to the last.

Brilliantly presented on every level, He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box offers a sobering reminder of a period in our nation’s history where many people preferred to either continue the status quo, or make only a token resistance to it. Rather than strive for anything resembling real or lasting change.

Featuring: Juliana Canfield (Kay), Tom Pecinka (Chris/Harrison Ahern).

He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box

Written by Adrienne Kennedy
Scenic Designer: Christopher Barreca
Costume Designer: Montana Levi Blanco
Lighting Designer: Donald Holder
Composer/Sound Designer: Justin Ellington
Video Designer: Austin Switser
Hair & Makeup Designer: Cookie Jordan
Properties Supervision: Noah Mease
Voice & Dialect Coach: Beth McGuire
Dramaturg: Jonathan Kalb
Production Stage Manager: Cole Bonenberger
Assistant Stage Manager: Shane Schnetzler
Fight Director: J. Allen Suddeth
Casting: Jack Doulin + Sharky
General Manager: Michael Page
Press Representative: Blake Zidell & Associates
Directed by Evan Yionoulis

Presented by Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or www.tfana.org
Running time: 50 minutes, no intermission
Closes: February 11, 2018

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Undertaking - A Pallid Examination of the Dark Side

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

A theatrical documentarian gets pulled into his own subject in The Undertaking, now at 59E59 Theaters.

After working on various projects for the investigative theatrical group The Civilians over the years, Steve (Dan Domingues), has decided that it’s time to "go after the big one, per se". The big one in this case being Death, in all its relevant aspects. How different people in different cultures deal with it; how people rationalize surviving near-death experiences; why do some people constantly challenge death; and what does it mean for who are left behind when death strikes?

After interviewing such people as an embalmer and a crime scene cleaner, Steve has arranged to meet with Lydia (Aysan Celik). A performance artist, while in Brazil, she once participated in a ritual called "the vine of death". However as Steve explains what he's trying to do, Lydia begins to suspect that he's more emotionally invested in the subject than he’s letting on. When she calls him on this, Steve goes quickly into defensive mode, saying "he doesn't do personal". Steve is thrown even more off his game when Lydia begins to tape him for her own performance piece.

As the audience soon finds out, Steve does indeed have a personal connection to death; via his mother’s battle with multiple sclerosis. Her ever-worsening condition forcing him to realize he may one day soon have to go on without her. In an attempt to ease his pain, Lydia offers to conduct Steve on a spiritual journey. One where he may be able to find the answers he seeks.

Perhaps the most troubling question when it comes to death, and one which Steve eventually verbalizes, is what happens if there is nothing beyond our current state of being? What if, when you die, you simply cease to exist, forever? Though, as the piece makes clear, if there really is no such thing as an afterlife - however one personally defines it - we’ll never know. Therefore, all one can do is to go on with one's life as best they can.

Yet for all its talk about death - with references ranging from the physical to the spiritual to the artistic - The Undertaking never breaks any new ground, nor offers any great de-mystification on the subject. Indeed, one could get just as much information from a self-help book or motivational lecture. Though the show does toss in an interesting bit of New York City trivia when it mentions that such places as Union Square, Madison Square Park and Washington Square Park were once the site of mass graves.

The show’s rambling connection to its subject matter is also visible through the journey Lydia takes Steve on. All off which happens in the confines of her apartment. While one can certainly recognize the belief Lydia feels in the process, her character having previously gone through an awakening in this regard, we get no “aha” moment or flash of incite from Steve; other than a bit of quiet resignation in the final moments of the play. Since Steve is a stand-in for the audience who are, by extension, taking this journey with him, they end up basically out in the cold with no new understandings as to what the show purports to explore. This lack of depth in regards to Steve’s character is also why Celik comes off far better than Domingues in the acting department.

More than simply two people sitting around talking, The Undertaking is also a multi-media presentation. The work including scenes from the 1950 film Orpheus directed by Jean Cocteau, as well as audio interviews from other people Steve has talked to - Celik and Domingues voicing the different characters. All of which only serves to further defuse the show's central message. By tossing in so many references and viewpoints, it makes the play seem disjoined when it should be cohesive, and bland when it should be personal. Just about all of these problems coming from the creators' conception of what the piece should be. Steve Cosson's continually meandering text and rather weak direction keeps the play moving in first gear throughout. With the entire experience feeling far longer than its actual running time.

The show’s technical efforts are good, particularly Tal Yarden’s production design and Mikhail Fiksel’s work in the sound department. However, while their efforts help to make the show more interesting, they are not able to make it any more substantial.

The premise behind The Undertaking is certainly one offering numerous possibilities. Sadly, what ends up being presented on stage doesn’t really go anywhere.

The Undertaking
Written and Directed by Steve Cosson

Conceived in collaboration with Jessica Mitrani

Featuring: Aysan Celik (Lydia and others), Dan Domingues (Steve and others)

Creative Collaborator and Psychopomp: Jessica Mitrani
Set and Costume Design: Marsha Ginsberg
Lighting Design: Thomas Dunn
Sound Design: Mikhail Fiksel
Production Design: Tal Yarden
Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda
Assistant Stage Manager: Rachel Gass
Production Manager: Ron Nilson
Producer: Margaret Moll
Assistant Set and Costume Designer: Blake Palmer
Sound Design Associate: Lee Kinney
Dramaturgy: Jocelyn Clarke and Jacey Erwin
Interviews Conducted by Steve Cosson, Jessica Mitrani and Leonie Hettinger

Presented by the Civilians at 59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.59e59.org
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission

Closes: February 4, 2017