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Hugo – short for huge letdown

Posted by metaphorical on 30 January 2012

Hugo’s ratings at Rotten Tomato—94% for the critics, but only 83% for audiences—is the first clue that all is not well inside this giant clockwork of a movie.

Look inside, and you’ll see a lots of gears that need oil—David Edelstein’s review for New York Magazine, for example, is counted as favorable, but to read it is to find more green splattered on the page than red. He concludes it by noting that Hugo tells his young friend Isabelle that

machines have no extra, unneeded parts, and if he were a piece of a machine he’d have a reason for being. We know, of course, that he is a piece of a machine: Scorsese’s Colossal Stupendous 3-D Thrill Generator. It’s not clear if the irony is intentional.

That hints at what Joe Morgenstern says directly, over at The Wall Street Journal:

thematic potency and cinematic virtuosity—the production was designed by Dante Ferretti and photographed by Robert Richardson—can’t conceal a deadly inertness at the film’s core.

That’s it exactly. The movie’s dialogue is so entirely on the nose, from beginning to end—as if it isn’t enough have Hugo explicitly say that people are machines and need to have a function, and he says it several times—with Isabelle finally replying, gee, maybe that’s what’s wrong with my dad. Doh! Marty, we got the point an hour ago when you made an automaton a central character in the movie.

Even the 3-D didn’t work for me. As it was supposed to, the effect heightened the distance between them when one person was closer to the audience than another, but the people themselves, especially the front person, looked like a cardboard cutout—two dimensional, in other words. And throughout, the 3-D was just plain distracting.

Then there’s the matter of the movie’s tutorials on the history of cinema. I can think of no one I would rather hear lecture on the subject than Martin Scorsese—and if he would deign to teach us, a thousand at a time in a big lecture hall at NYU for twelve bucks a night, sign me up for all of them. But I didn’t take the subway in the other direction to a theatre in the middle of Queens to watch Marty at his most didactic, channeled through the character of Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg). You know that public service commercial that Scorsese does for film preservation? That’s most of the third-act plot in Hugo.

Finally, speaking of film school—Screenwriting 101 isn’t too early to learn a handy little rule of thumb: The protagonist has to resolve the biggest conflict—the crisis—by his own actions. James Bond can’t just sit there enchained by Blofield until Felix Leiter comes to rescue him, he has to escape by his own devices. But Hugo’s final salvation—I’m not really giving anything away, because it’s inconceivable that this movie not have a happy ending—comes as he stands hopelessly in the middle of the train station until Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) saves him.

I have no doubt that Hugo will enter the pantheon of great films, as The Departed did. If only the Academy had given Gangs of New York the Best Director title it arguably deserved, we wouldn’t have to keep rewarding Scorsese for the disappointing movies that have followed.

IMDb / Box Office Mojo / Rotten Tomatoes (94%/83%)

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p2947-eH

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We Need to Talk About We Need to Talk About Kevin

Posted by metaphorical on 15 January 2012

The opening scene of We Need to Talk About Kevin involve a bizarre giant mosh pit filled with buckets and buckets, barrels worth, of tomato sauce. It goes on and on. The viewer becomes impatient. Still, it continues.

When the scene finally ends, it gives way to not one, but a series of flashes of very different scenes, none long enough to make any real sense. Eventually, like a child being disciplined, it becomes clear that you need to sit still and take it. You’re not going to get any quick or clear explanations. You settle in for the long haul. You hope the payoff will be worth it. It is.

Tilda Swinton is just extraordinary, in a role that can’t have seemed even possible to play when reading the script. She’s the mother of a teenage boy who has done about the worst thing a teenage boy can do.

The other performers, notably Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller as the child and teenage Kevin, are exceptional as well. John C. Reilly is also excellent, but we don’t see as much of him, though it’s hard to know whether, or how much, that contributes to what finally happens.

The movie has no easy answers, no answers at all in fact, for questions that almost surely have no answer. How much discipline? How much love? How much is nature, and how much nurture? Can a boy be born bad? Can people living in the same household live in different realities?

Instead, it spends its time exploring these people, giving substance to things that can ordinarily only be talked about and never embodied—this particular boy, this particular mother, these other family members, and those other mothers, whose children were the victims of this particularly horrific event.

There is nothing wasted, nothing extraneous, in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Events unfold in three chronologies, shuffled like decks of cards (once the three stories sort themselves out, you’re never confused about which you’re watching): Kevin and his mom, from his birth onward; mom, and eventually Kevin, on the horrific day; and mom, and eventually Kevin, in the frozen, undead days and months that followed.

Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of a woman dragging herself through one day after another, in the shell of her former self, has to be seen to be believed. This story needs to be seen, not to be believed—nothing can make the unbelievable believable—but because it at least makes it it seeable. Few movies try something this hard. A very rare fewer still, succeed.

IMDb / Box Office Mojo / Rotten Tomatoes (82%/86%)

Short link: http://wp.me/p2947-er

Posted in language, movies, screenwriting, the arts | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Fringe 2011 Review: When the Sky Breaks 3D

Posted by metaphorical on 27 August 2011

When the Sky Breaks 3D

1h 0m
VENUE #5: Dixon Place
Performance seen: Fri 26 @ 9:15
http://decadancetheatre.wordpress.com/

Rating: 7
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

On the Friday that turned out to be the last day of the Fringe, I was determined to see three shows, as I had on the Friday that the festival opened. That first night I saw COBU as the last show. It was a wise choice; the torrent of drumming and hip-hop dancing washed over the audience—the perfect thing to see at 9:45 pm. So last night I employed the COBU strategy and ended the evening with “When the Sky Breaks 3D,” a 3D-enhanced show by the Brooklyn-based hip-hop troupe Decadancetheatre.

Dance is already the most 3D of all the arts. As it turns out, when I put on the 3D glasses to best see 3D images being projected onto a back wall, the images popped forward in the way they’re supposed to, but the dancers in front of them flattened. Worse still, dance requires sharp lines, but, like the way a prism breaks up light, the 3D glasses turned the outlines of the dancers into rainbow blurs. In only one number, which featured complicated angular hand gestures (picture a hip-hop version of the sign language of the deaf), did that work to an advantage.

The 3D images consisted, as the show’s name would suggest, mainly of skylines and other cityscapes as seen looking upward. For me, the urban images served no particular purpose. I suppose cornfields would have been incongruous with the hip-hop music but they would have been no less integrated with the dance.

There were only a couple of points in the show that offered the hoped-for integration. In one, the dancers, facing away from the audience, run in slow motion through a beautiful blue sky. In my favorite piece, the finale, which was a sort of ecstatic urban rain dance, raindrops fell onto the dancers quite believably. In other numbers, however, the backdrop was ignorable or worse—occasionally images were faintly projected onto the dancers’ grey shirts.

There was little integration between the music and the dancing, either—nothing that went beyond matching steps to the beat, and one number, to Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life,” didn’t even do that. The audience didn’t seem to care one whit, though, as it rewarded break-dance body sculpture moves, poses, and spins with applause and whoops of glee—as it did for just about every number.

The music was terrific throughout and there’s no having a bad time watching human forms in coordinated motion to it, but I think the 3D hindered the show at least as much as it enhanced it. Technologists have taken on the challenge of large-scale glasses-free 3D (it already works for handheld game devices); when it works not just for the living room but the dance stage as well, Decadancetheatre will really have something.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Master List of New York International Fringe Festival 2011 Reviews

Posted by metaphorical on 25 August 2011

NOTE: The Fringe has cancelled all shows for Saturday and Sunday, 27-28 August.

It also announced a first round of shows to make the Fringe Encore series:

The 2011 series will include PigPen Presents the Mountain Song, The Legend of Julie Taymor, Fourteen Flights, The More Loving One, Facebook Me, Araby, Paper Cut, You Only Shoot the Ones You Love, Parker & Dizzy’s Fabulous Journey to the End Of the Rainbow, Pearl’s Gone Blue, Felony Friday, COBU, and several more shows yet to be determined (including the TheaterMania Audience Favorite Award Winner). A complete schedule of performances and showtimes will be announced Sunday, August 28.

Four of those shows are reviewed below.

Useful links:

Fringe Festival search/database

NYTheatre.com Fringe Reviews

Broadway World thread

Here are all my reviews to date:

Yeast Nation (the triumph of life)
2h 30m
VENUE #9: The Ellen Stewart Theatre @ LA MAMA
Rating: 10

Fourteen Flights
2h 30m
VENUE #3: CSV Kabayitos
Rating: 10

PigPen Presents: The Mountain Song
1h 0m
VENUE #12: 4th Street Theatre
Rating: 10

I Might Be Edgar Allan Poe
1h 20m
VENUE #17: Manhattan Theatre Source
Rating: 10

COBU
VENUE #14: Bleecker Theatre
0h 45m
Rating: 9

74 Minutes of Stereo Radio Theater
1h 15m
VENUE #18: The Studio at Cherry Lane Theatre
Rating: 9

Who Loves You, Baby?
0h 50m
VENUE #13: Bowery Poetry Club
Rating: 9

Life Insurance
0h 37m
VENUE #17: Manhattan Theatre Source
Rating: 9

Theater of the Arcade: Five Classic Video Games Adapted for the Stage
2h 0m
VENUE #14: Bleecker Theatre
Rating: 8

Felony Friday
2h 15m
VENUE #7: Connelly Theater
Rating: 8

The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady
1h 40m
VENUE #9: The Ellen Stewart Theatre @ LA MAMA
Rating: 8

The Eternal Husband
1h 15m
VENUE #8: The First Floor Theatre @ LA MAMA
Rating: 8

The Toughest Girl Alive!
1h 50m
VENUE #15: Le Poisson Rouge
Rating: 8

leonard cohen koans
1h 15m
VENUE #15: Le Poisson Rouge
Rating: 8

The Apartment: A Play With Four Sides
1h 15m
VENUE #1: Teatro SEA
Rating: 7

22 Stories
0h 45m
VENUE #10: IATI Theater
Rating: 7

When the Sky Breaks 3D
1h 0m
VENUE #5: Dixon Place
Rating: 7

Noir
2h 0m (really 1h 0m)
VENUE #7: Connelly Theater
Rating: 7

Virgie
1h 0m
VENUE #13: Bowery Poetry Club
Rating: 6

Wilhelmstrasse
1h 55m
VENUE #8: The First Floor Theatre @ LA MAMARating: 6

Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies
1h 10m
VENUE #3: CSV Kabayitos
Rating: 5

Chagrin
1h 0m
VENUE #8: The First Floor Theatre @ LA MAMA
Rating: 5

WHALE SONG or: Learning to Live With Mobyphobia
1h 15m
VENUE #8: The First Floor Theatre @ LA MAMA
Rating: 5

Rachel Calof
1h 30m
VENUE #2: CSV Flamboyan
Rating: 4

The Day the Sky Turned Black
0h 55m
VENUE #10: IATI Theater
Rating: 3

Em O’Loughlin was a BIG FATTY BOOMBAH!
1h 0m
VENUE #16: Players Theatre
Rating: 3

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Fringe 2011 Review: Wilhelmstrasse

Posted by metaphorical on 24 August 2011

Wilhelmstrasse

1h 55m
VENUE #8: The First Floor Theatre @ LA MAMA
Performance seen: Wed 24 @ 4:15
Remaining performance: Fri 26 @ 2
http://www.stuartsvault.com/

Rating: 6
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

Here’s a description of the show that it seems Stuart Caldwell wanted to write in “Wilhemstrasse”:

A 1990s friendship between a Samuel, a New York Jewish man and Rica, a German woman, never tips into romance in this story that moves forward toward its dramatic and backward to its beginning, as the differences pulling them apart prove stronger than the attraction that pulls them together.

Here’s the show as Caldwell himself describes it in his Fringenyc.org description:

A provocative relationship between a beautiful German girl and sarcastic New York Jew probes art, sexless love and the struggle to comprehend the Holocaust and its enduring stigma. Part travelogue, part polemic on identity, religion and the Past’s binding ties.

I trust it’s obvious that that’s not a show, nor would it be even if the relationship were provocative (which it isn’t), even if the guy were sufficiently sarcastic (he isn’t), and even if the show probed art and sexless love (which it doesn’t and doesn’t).

Before I create the impression that I hated this show, which I didn’t, let me first say it fills me mostly with frustration at what it could have been. The idea of the show is fine: a two person play in which a Jewish man’s inability to forgive the Germans for their Nazi past is embodied in his inability to regard a German woman he cares deeply for more as an individual person than a member of the German people.

There, are, however, a couple of other constraints that Caldwell placed on his story, and they prove to be its undoing.

First is that this is not a romantic relationship. It’s all fine and well for Caldwell to want to explore friendship instead of romance, but the problem then becomes, what’s at stake for these two people? Samuel seems to want a romance, though with an uncertain intensity of desire—by which I mean, we never really know how much he wants it (and by the way, I suspect we don’t because Caldwell himself doesn’t know)—and she unequivocally doesn’t want it.

Worse, because the story unfolds forward and backward in alternating scenes, with the penultimate scene being their last time together, and the final scene being the time they met, the play starts in the middle and we instantly know that there will be no romance for them.

So what’s left? Some kind of friendship. But to sustain a two-hour show such as this one, it has to face obstacles, and they must want it very much.

Here again, Caldwell’s decision to tell the story forward and backward compounds his problems. The scene that clearly shows the wit, charm, regard, and growing affection between them falls in the second act; then too, the obstacles are all in his head. They are internal to him, making them literally invisible to us, and they leave her out of the conflict except to be its object. Rica never, for example, has to make a choice—say, one between her prestigious and exciting lawyering job at the Volkwagen company that employed slave labor in the Nazi era and now is dragging its heels over reparations, and her growing love for Samuel.

As the beginning of this review might suggest, my reaction to this play in its first couple of scenes was a fairly violent hostility, and I came within an inch of the exit at the intermission. My initial thought was to blame the actors, specifically Nick Masson as Samuel. His every line was preceded by a pause, or followed by one, and often both occurred in the same piece of dialogue.

I still think Masson is wrong for the part, but I don’t think that’s the bigger share of the problem. Frankly, the acting in the Fringe is almost uniformly fine or better, and actors are invariably held back from better performances by the limitations of their material. Sure enough, my inclination now is to blame the play. Masson is fine whenever a scene has some rising beats of conflict. Most of the time, he just doesn’t have anywhere to go.

Giordona Aviv seems a very good actress—again, as much as she can be with a part that ought to be filled with a protagonist’s actions and dilemmas, but instead is mostly standing around watching the Samuel character wrestle with the demons in his head.

In the end, I’m glad I stuck it out. There are some good moments in this play, and they’re almost all in the second act. The storyline ends with a whimper, not a bang, but then, there weren’t many bangs along the way.

It’s a pity. The basic idea of the play still seems sound to me. But sometimes you need to let your basic chrysalis of an idea shed the cocoon of whatever other ideas you had, and fly where it wants. If the impetus was autobiographical, as several theatregoers around me hypothesized, then sometimes you have let go of that as well.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Fringe 2011 Review: Theatre of the Arcade

Posted by metaphorical on 23 August 2011

Theater of the Arcade: Five Classic Video Games Adapted for the Stage

Rating: 8
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

2h 0m
VENUE #14: Bleecker Theatre
Performance seen: Sat 20 @ 4:30
Remaining performance: Sat 27 @ 7:45
http://www.theaterofthearcade.com/

“Theatre of the Arcade” is a very clever and well-played (pun intended) show. Each of its five scenes (with one intermission) constructs a story out of two themes—the actions, characters, and objects of a classic arcade game, and an iconic theatrical work.

Sadly for me, I’m not in the target audience for this show. I got the theatrical references (well, all but one), but other than a single afternoon spent playing air hockey with my daughter, I’ve never even stepped into a game arcade.

My knowledge of Frogger (the arcade game for the first segment), for example, is limited to a classic Seinfeld episode about it. I sort of understood, that Donkey Kong was the game in the second segment, which was the best realized, I think, as a piece of theatre (it used “A Streetcar Named Desire” as its starting point, with the Stanley Kowalski as an out-of-work barrelmaker). I enjoyed the fourth segment almost as much; it uses some kind of Spacewar game (Asteroids, as it turns out) to reimagine one of my favorite plays, “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Though it went on a bit too long, the Mamet-like dialogue was spot-on.

The audience, fortunately, seemed in the main the right one for this show, and seemed to like the final segment the best. I thought the videogame references were too explicit—I didn’t get a single one of them, but could tell they were explicit references (to Super Mario Bros, as it turned out. And I never got the theatrical reference, though a friend thought it was something by Sam Shepard, maybe “Fool for Love”)—but the audience seemed to love them. By not naming the game, apparently they could serve as punchlines to an ongoing joke.

This is, in short, a tremendous show for anyone with at least a passing understanding of the arcade games and at least an okay show for anyone else.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Fringe 2011 Review: Felony Friday

Posted by metaphorical on 22 August 2011

Felony Friday

2h 15m
VENUE #7: Connelly Theater
Performance seen: Sat 20 @ 7:15
Remaining performances: Wed 24 @ 9:15 Sat 27 @ 4 Sun 28 @ 3:30

Rating: 8
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

Few plays, at the Fringe or elsewhere, approach complicated themes, like the ambiguous nature of evil, or man’s eternal quest for salvation, with as much confidence as “Felony Friday.”

Paul Giaciomatti, scion of a New York crime family, finds himself locked up for the weekend after cops plant drugs in the trunk of his smashed-up car on a Friday night. It seems Paul and his cousin Tony have been reducing the number of the devil’s minions by killing killers and rapists, a la Murder, Inc. Their latest victim is Jack, a corrupt cop who raped Paul’s cousin Angela, and it’s in Jack’s body that Paul is visited by one of the devil’s top lieutenants.

The others in the lockup include a transvestite hooker and his john; BBI, an ex-boxer; and a hippie dude replete with a Castaway/Gump beard, a joke that is exploited endlessly, mostly to good effect.

After a reasonably brief prolegomenon in which each character is introduced with a moment in the spotlight, the real action begins with the arrival of Jack, played brilliantly by the play’s author. I don’t know if Scott Decker does as well with roles he doesn’t himself create; if he does, I want to see everything he ever performs in.

Unfortunately, the play’s second act goes much like the first, except that it takes much longer for Jack to return on stage, a digression that feels yet longer still because this time around we’ve already been privy to Decker’s magnetic pull and are impatient for its return.

The digression consists of little more than an extended, and quite tired, riff on race relations and the words we use for race, occasioned by the twin introduction to the lockup of a new inmate, CJ, and Paul’s cousin Tony, who has contrived to get himself locked up in order to help Paul battle Jack. The play comes to a grinding halt as we consider the reasons blacks can use the n-word while whites cannot. Yawn.

All of the actors stumbled over their lines in this performance, especially John Amos as BBI, the ex-boxer. While the inevitable kinks of opening night surely played a part—in Amos’s case especially, because he came to the play only a few weeks earlier—I think there was another reason.

The worst stumbles occurred in this first half of Act II and I think it’s precisely because the material is so aimless. The cast, led by Joe Wissler as Paul, is uniformly excellent, and Amos in particular is a fine actor who surely would have no trouble memorizing a relatively small part. But without any beats to go on, some of the lines sound similar to others, and it must be easy to get lost.

Better would be to just lose the additional character, CJ (well played by Jas AndersonJaime Smith), get Tony into the action right away, find some other, less artificial way to engage BBI in the story, and get Jack back on stage quickly.

If, in the course of losing this mostly useless material, the play shed a few of its 135 minutes, so much the better—indeed, it could be tighter all around. For example, there’s a terrific set of jokes early on riffing on nicknames in general and prison nicknames in particular. But then it’s dropped—Paul is never even referred to by the new name he has negotiated for himself. A play is not a novel. These kinds of digressions are self-indulgent luxuries that can’t be allowed to make the editorial cut. Every gun, not just the one above the mantel, has to go off.

When the play finally shifts out of neutral, it picks up speed quickly, and by the end is flying down the highway as quickly as it did in most of Act I. The action builds nicely, the revelations explode as they should, and the ending is one of those shocks that come as no surprise. It also left me thinking, as it intended to, about retribution and redemption.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in language, playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | 3 Comments »

Fringe 2011 Review: Yeast Nation

Posted by metaphorical on 21 August 2011

Yeast Nation (the triumph of life)

2h 30m
VENUE #9: The Ellen Stewart Theatre @ LA MAMA
Performance reviewed: Sun 21 @ 2:15
Remaining shows: Mon 22 @ 8:15 Tue 23 @ 8 Thu 25 @ 2
http://www.yeastnation.com/

Rating: 10
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

“Yeast Nation” is nothing like “Urinetown,” yet it’s destined to be the next “Urinetown.”

Like “Urinetown” it’s an absurd story requiring a simple disbelief easily suspended, and, like “Urinetown,” once suspended, the plot hangs together surprisingly well. (“Urinetown” in particular is as complicated and tight a story as “The Sting” or “Three Days of the Condor”; Yeast Nation gets its science all wrong but freely self-comments to that effect, hilariously.)

The story is of the first colony of yeast—and therefore the first life forms on Earth— living in the ocean, three billion years ago.

The yeast have overdivided, so they are low on salt, their only food (I know, and they know, there are no hydrocarbons in salt) and so the first and eldest, and therefore king, yeast has decreed that they avoid any further (asexual) reproduction; nor are they allowed to travel beyond their prescribed salt-hunting boundaries, nor shall they float to the surface. In a hilarious song, the king extols the virtues of stasis. Yet of course, as in all societies, the center cannot hold and, in Act II, anarchy is loosed upon the yeast world—forbidden asexual reproduction, sibling rivalry, Goneril-like treachery, and treasonous floating to the surface.

Why is the first yeast therefore king? It would have been an interesting question for “Yeast Nation” to explore: What would be the human correlates of a yeast colony’s social structures? “Yeast Nation” goes another way. It dresses the yeasts in togas and robes and a group of them function as a Greek chorus led by Jan the Unknown (one of the conceits of the show is that every character is named Jan—the Elder, the Second, the Sly, the Wiser, etc.).

Rather than concern itself with social structures (as “Urinetown” did) “Yeast Nation” takes on other, arguably broader, themes, notably love. Socrates, in “The Symposium” and elsewhere, proffers the theory that humans originally were male and female combined; having been separated, we spend our lives searching for our other half. In “Yeast Nation” love newly unifies hitherto unjoined entities, it brings together the show’s romantic couples, and it’s the force of nature that impels single-celled organisms to become multi-cellular ones (and yes, that’s yet more crackpot science, as the show acknowledges).

The show’s plot contains jealousies and betrayals of Shakespearean proportion (and more than a few Shakespearean references) but mostly cuts out the middlemen and mines the same mythologies as the Bard did. Jan the Unknown, for example is a sort of Tirelas, that is, a blind prophetess (Harriet Harris, brilliantly).

In one of the show’s many hilarious apologias, “Yeast Nation” notes how badly the Earth’s currently-dominant species is messing things up, and speculates, “If science can’t save them, perhaps a piece of biohistorical musical theatre can.”

If “Urinetown” represented a biocultural future, “Yeast Nation” is exactly the opposite, a bioanthropomorphic past. But Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’s new show shares an important quality with the old one: a New York Fringe run that will propel it to further much-deserved success.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in language, playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | 2 Comments »

Fringe 2011 Review: The Apartment

Posted by metaphorical on 20 August 2011

The Apartment: A Play With Four Sides

1h 15m
VENUE #1: Teatro SEA
Performance reviewed: Fri 19 @ 8:30
Remaining performances: Mon 22 @ 9:30 Wed 24 @ 2 Sat 27 @ 4:45
http://www.playwith4sides.com

Rating: 7
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

The Apartment is a mostly charming collage of four vignettes written separately to a common element—a desireable apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. A few additional common elements were added later; the overall effect is seamless.

In the first, a couple comes home to find the A/C doesn’t work. They quickly discover that the entire city has been in a blackout for two hours. He, a lawyer, covets her, but settles for her apartment, which she has been packed up to leave for two years. He writes the lease on the spot.

In the second, a couple sublet from the lawyer, who is traveling; the third is another couple, also subletting, despite the man having to carry the woman and her wheelchair up the walk-up’s stairs. In the fourth, something has happened and the apartment is being cleaned up as violent crime scene by the owner of the small cleanup business and his new employee. This vignette, like the others, takes us through a few ups and down in their romantic relationship.

The third is the weakest (nor does it match the description at fringenyc.org); there’s a surprise in the center that’s fun but can’t sustain a playlet by itself, and the whole piece functions mainly as the backstory to the fourth, which was my favorite and apparently that of the rest of the audience as well. It was the funniest and had several Marty-esque qualities that mostly serve it well, except that movie’s habit of telegraphing its strongest punches.

The acting, especially the various ethnic and regional accents, was strong. The sets were the most elaborate I’ve yet seen in this year’s festival, though a few problems with a doorway and a window evidenced the reason most shows keep it simple.

There were a couple of other small nits to pick. The plot of the first vignette requires both that they arrive at the apartment in the daytime and at night. In the fourth, the cleanup couple wear rather complete and nicely authentic disposable hazmat suits but without the overbooties needed to keep blood and brains from ruining their shoes. These are easily fixed and in any case only minorly detracted from an enjoyable show.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Fringe 2011 Review: Fourteen Flights

Posted by metaphorical on 18 August 2011

Fourteen Flights

2h 30m
VENUE #3: CSV Kabayitos
Performance seen: Wed 17 @ 8
Remaining performances: Sun 21 @ 4 Mon 22 @ 4:15 Fri 26 @ 8:45 Sat 27 @ 4:45
http://www.fourteenflights.com/

Rating: 10
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

“Fourteen Flights” is an extraordinary show. The writing, with the rhythms of Aaron Sorkin’s “Sports Night” and the situational intensity of Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad,” demands an exceptional level acting and direction. Great architecture demands great engineering; fortunately, the cast and crew here are theatrical engineers of the highest caliber.

The play is at once very simple and very complex. Two airline pilots will have a near-death flight experience (for themselves; thirteen passengers will die) in Act II. Act I consists of their backstories, related more for the audience than through interactions between them; in fact, at times they take a role of interacting with the other on behalf of some character in that person’s life (ex-wife, son, etc.).

Some of these stories are told two three at a time, with the other pilot also relating some story. It’s not hard to follow, but the details often don’t matter so much as the poetry of the words and the shape of the lives that are reconstructed. Scenes rise and fall like waves crashing on the beach.

The two pilots reach the brink of their existences in the first two acts. In the third, one goes over the brink, the other pulls back, as if there were a throttle to his life.

It’s hard to convey just how extraordinary a job Jared Houseman and Matt Macnelly do as the two pilots. (Maurice Williams is also excellent in a small role: two scenes that bookend the play.) One of the reasons I looked forward to “Fourteen Flights” as much as I did was the knowledge that it was the same company as last year’s “Art of Attack,” perhaps my favorite show in the 2010 Fringe. Halfway through watching “Fourteen Flights” I realized I must have confused two plays—something else must be this year’s play by the “Art of Attack” guys, because those actors were nowhere to be seen. In fact, though, that’s just a mark of how deeply Houseman, who last year won himself an Excellence In Performance By An Actor Award, buries himself in his roles. And yet, this year, I liked Macnelly’s performance even better.

As for the story, it would be easy to believe that playwright Ryan Campbell has no overarching message here. If there is one, it’s that life is what we make of it, except when fate intervenes, and success—or even survival—can break a man just as easily as defeat. How many of the people around us leading the life of the golden child have simply never been tested? It’s a question extraordinarily asked and answered in “Fourteen Flights.”

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in language, playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | 1 Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: Em O’Loughlin

Posted by metaphorical on 18 August 2011

Em O’Loughlin was a BIG FATTY BOOMBAH!

1h 0m
VENUE #16: Players Theatre
Performance seen: Tue 16 @ 6:45
Remaining performances: Thu 18 @ 9:45 Wed 24 @ 3:30 Sat 27 @ 9:45
http://www.emoloughlin.com/

Rating: 3
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

As an entertainer, Em O’Loughlin is a triple-threat: She wasn’t funny, she wasn’t interesting, and she offered no insights into herself, obesity, or any other aspect of the human condition.

Instead, she skips through her life as a fat person, stopping every five or ten years, noting on a large pad the year and her weight in pounds, kilograms, and stone. No real milestones, but there are stones.

O’Loughlin does have a performer’s heart, a strong stage presence, and a nice singing voice, though the last quality surfaced only through a parody line or three of about seven different songs. And I’ll readily note that there was a fair amount of laughter from the audience.

Toward the end of the show, she remarks that at 40 she had her first boyfriend. I would have been more interested to hear what it was like to try to get stage work as a 300-pound woman, if indeed she did, or what it was like to first try to get stage work at 40, if she didn’t.

What, in other words, was it like for all that raw performing talent—which unfortunately doesn’t translate into writing talent—to be bottled up in a 300-pound jar? It’s a mark of how poorly written this show is that after an hour of insipid and self-indulgent autobiography, we have no idea.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Fringe 2011 Review: Who Loves You, Baby?

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

Who Loves You, Baby?

0h 50m
VENUE #13: Bowery Poetry Club
Performance seen: Sun 14 @ 7
Remaining performances: Fri 19 @ 10 Sun 28 @ 4:15
http://www.tellysavalaslive.com/

Rating: 9
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

Modern writers have the benefit and burden of decades and centuries of past culture. The modern style is to mine it relentlessly and the post-modern style is to do so self-consciously. The prior work then becomes subtext. That creates a further complication for the writer, because, after all, subtext must, from time to time, surface.

These self-conscious moments are thus fraught with risk, as the new work must lower the fourth wall that separates the stage from the audience even as it erects it—even as the theatrical experience depends on its continued existence. It helps, though, that the cabaret format has always had a low picket fence of a fourth wall.

So picture a one-hour 2011 nightclub act in which Savalas (Tom DiMenna, brilliantly) comes back to comment on the lack of Real Men in the years since his demise. (About one modern actor he says, “In my day you stuck a guy like that in a club sandwich to keep the bread from falling off.”) Picture him reprising the weirdly successful singing career most of us forgot (or never knew) he also enjoyed, and, of course, commenting as well on the pop singers of today (“Who are the Neil Sedakas of today?”).

Throw in some affectionate references to such friends as Peter Falk and Frank Sinatra. Add a hilarious first-person prologue (performed by Taylor Negron, who directs the show) about Savalas at the height of his cultural prowess feeding steak tartare to a kid he is babysitting. Add as well a few numbers in which Savalas calls his brother George to the stage to help him sing or dance. Wrap it all up in a solid 60 minutes of advice, sage and self-consciously absurd.

Such a show should have legs. But see one of its remaining Fringe performances. Why risk missing it, when right this week you can go see the man who loves you?

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Fringe 2011 Review: Whale Song

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

Whale Song or: Learning to Live With Mobyphobia

1h 15m
VENUE #8: The First Floor Theatre @ LA MAMA
Performance seen: Sun 14 @ 2:15
Remaining performances: Thu 18 @ 2 Mon 22 @ 6 Wed 24 @ 7 Sat 27 @ 9:30
http://dreamscapetheatre.org/shows/whalesong.html

Rating: 5
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

“Whale Song” is a perfectly okay play about overcoming grief. I would ascribe to it a more definite idea or purpose but I’m not sure it has one. If—and unfortunately only if—you’re suffering from recent grief and think a play would help, I heartily recommend it.

As the show begins, Maya, a young New York schoolteacher, addresses her class of four year olds in increasingly inappropriate ways. It quickly comes out that she has recently lost her father.

The father, it also quickly comes out, died in an unusual way that involves whales. Meanwhile, Maya can’t return phone calls and instead spends her time obsessively watching the TV news about a whale that has accidentally—or was it????—swam up the Hudson.

Through a quick series of phone messages that emphasize Maya’s psychic isolation, we’re introduced to her sister in Florida, her boyfriend, and a drummer dude she wants to hire for obscure but ultimately unimportant reasons.

None of it has much importance. The relationship to the boyfriend can’t endure, the sister is only as supportive and helpful as one can be through occasional phone calls, the drummer understands her best and least meaningfully. They each ultimately add up to little more than plot devices, such as the plot is; their own needs are limited and predictable and don’t come into conflict with Maya’s, which in turn add up to little more than an inchoate desire to understand her father’s death and whether she herself is crazy. It’s not really enough to drive a whale up the Hudson—or a plot toward a climax.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Fringe 2011 Review: Life Insurance

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

Life Insurance
“A motorcycle crash on a rural Virginia road. An overeager volunteer firefighter, a bitter standardized test instructor, and a stoic salesman must confront the American dream. Death. Birth. Sacrifice. Office supplies.”
http://www.hamnertheater.com/Life-Insurance

0h 37m
VENUE #17: Manhattan Theatre Source
Performance seen: Sun 14 @ 4
Remaining performances: Thu 18 @ 6:15 Fri 19 @ 9 Wed 24 @ 2 Sat 27 @ 12

Rating: 9
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

“Life Insurance” is a clever inquiry into the circumstances of a motorcycle death on a Virginia country road and other questions about how much control we have over our lives in the face of fate and the actions, capricious and otherwise, of others.

The life insurance agent who paid a sales call to the deceased shortly before his demise, the former college teacher who first called 911, and the born-again first responder first on the scene tell their disparate, overlapping stories in alternating bursts.

Comparisons between this show and the movie “Crash”—in subject matter as well as the random joining of lives—are inevitable but not entirely apposite, given the vast differences between theatre and film in general and the specific fact that one actor plays all three parts.

Joel Jones, who also wrote this play, does a superb job capturing the three characters and moving between them. The program notes say the show began “as a single-character monologue in a bar in Charlottesville, Va.” One has the idea—and not just because the insurance agent continually sips from a rocks glass—that it was also, as so many good plays are, conceived in a bar. But the addition of the other two characters played by the same actor not only distinguishes it from “Crash” but surely more than triples the play’s considerable power, if not its initial impact.

This is a show that seemed to end with a whimper, but it’s the whimper of a mutt that followed me onto the subway, into my home, and perhaps even delayed my sleep. I don’t remember “Crash” keeping me up late at all.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in language, playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | 1 Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: 74 Minutes of Stereo Radio Theater

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

74 Minutes of Stereo Radio Theater

1h 15m
VENUE #18: The Studio at Cherry Lane Theatre
Performance seen: Sat 13 @ 5:15
Remaining performances: Fri 19 @ 7 Tue 23 @ 8:45 Thu 25 @ 7 Sat 27 @ 5 Sun 28 @ 2
http://www.stereoradiotheater.com/

Rating: 9
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

If you want 74 minutes of pristine hilarity, you could hardly do better than to seek out “74 Minutes of Stereo Radio Theatre.”

This two-person show consists of eight hilarious vignettes: a game of desert island (pick one book, CD, food, person) that goes horribly wrong and right; a chance encounter on the street of two friends who decide to have a doomed love affair; a delusional tribal chieftan and his loyal and infinitely wiser advisor; a nervous new patient and her psychiatrist as they explore the voices of a large Jewish family in her head; a taping of a TV chef and her passive-aggressive mother; a bachelor showing an amorous young woman his collection of macaroni & cheese; a challenging job interview for a coveted position of gong ringer; and two teenagers who work in a trendy clothing chain store.

The last was expendable (and the gong ringer would have been a great—pardon the word—note to end on) but the first seven were thoroughly charming—in some cases surprisingly so. When the lights arose on the tribal chieftan I was sure I would hate the tired stereotype, yet it might have been my favorite segment. I teach my writing students that you need to exorcise clichés, except for the occasions when you turn them inside out, making them fresh again.

Or my favorite might have been the game of desert island—a textbook example for my students of building a scene with rising beats. The piece depends entirely on the timing of the machine-gun animus-laden repartee, a challenge the multitalented Maureen Fitzgerald (who also wrote the show) and Andrew Shulman (who directed it) met with surpassing ease.

Or my favorite might have been the gong ringer—a classically simple absurdist idea brilliantly executed, in which a ridiculously wealthy and eccentric mansion-owner more than meets his match in an revisionist scholar and exponent of a preposterous art form.

Shulman makes the most of his considerable acting abilities to turn another absurdist character—owner of the world’s largest collection of macaroni & cheese—into a sympathetic—albeit pathetic—potential boyfriend. It would be hard to pin Fitzgerald down to the vignette I liked most for her acting, and likewise for her writing—there’s just too much to choose from.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Fringe 2011 Review: The Eternal Husband

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

The Eternal Husband

1h 15m
VENUE #8: The First Floor Theatre @ LA MAMA
Performance seen: Sat 13 @ 2:45
Remaining performances: Wed 17 @ 3:45 Sun 21 @ 6 Fri 26 @ 9
http://www.eternalhusband.info/

Rating: 8
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

The conceit of author and director Nat Cassidy’s loose adaptation of the novella of the same name is that Dostoevsky was the Raymond Chandler of his day. While I can’t speak to the fealty of the adaptation, the detective at the center of “The Eternal Husband” is indeed close kin to Philip Marlowe.

The detective, Younger Man, well played by Arthur Aulisi, is haunted by his past and by an unfamiliar older man who he thinks is following him. Older Man turns out to be the husband of a woman Younger Man had an affair with nine years earlier.

All the roles are well played, especially, I thought, that of Claudia (Karen Sternberg), a friend and former lover to Younger Man. Elyse Mitro’s adulterous and castrating Natalya is eminently believable as the sort of woman an eternal husband is drawn to, as a moth to the flame. Charles Gerber, a terrific actor, seemed less prepared for the role of Older Man than the other three, though the contrast between the meandering early scenes between the two men on the one hand and the crisp banter of Sternberg’s scenes with Aulisi on the other surely had more to do with the quality of the dialogue than the quantity of rehearsal time.

I can’t say whether noir is a particularly strong undercurrent in this year’s Fringe, or if the perception that it is merely reflects the selection biases of this reviewer, but certainly, as our society becomes ever more pragmatic and job oriented, conventional and utilitarian—more math-and-reading, yet with ever-less history and literature to calculate and read—our artists will, as they have in every age, ask the counterintuitive and countercultural questions. In this age, that means the existential ones.

For after all, Cassidy’s conceit, which is (his program notes notwithstanding) by no means uniquely his, is well founded. Good noir, like existentialism, blurs the bounds between reality and imagination, and it is surely no coincidence that not only were Dostoevsky and Nietzsche writing their seminal works contemporaneously, so were Sartre and Chandler, Camus and Cain. That would make The Eternal Husband noir to the nth.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Fringe 2011 Review: The Mountain Song

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

PigPen Presents: The Mountain Song

1h 0m
VENUE #12: 4th Street Theatre
Performance seen:Sat 13 @ 7:30
Remaining performances: Thu 18 @ 6:30 Mon 22 @ 7:15 Thu 25 @ 10 Fri 26 @ 3:45 Sat 27 @ 12*
http://pigpentheatre.com/

Rating: 10
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

“PigPen Presents: The Mountain Song” was already going to be a hot ticket on the strength of the company’s general excellence award at last year’s Fringe (for “PigPen Presents: The Nightmare Story”). Now it’s going to be a hot ticket for word of mouth. Before, it was “if it’s anything as good as last year… .” Now, it’s “it’s even better than last year.”

The Mountain Song has a lyrical and narrative cohesion that seems deceptively simple to achieve. Through song and prose, the story is told of an carpenter searching for his mute daughter’s wedding. Along the way, he scales a mountain three times, is launched into flight by a waterfall, meets a giant and builds for him a pair of shoes the size of a boat, and is carried to the ocean by a man who uses his suitcase as a horse.

The voice of this thoroughly original story is that of a tradition of tall tales that’s distinctly American—no Swiftian sarcasm here—and the language is authentically that of the Appalachian hollers—perhaps those of West Virginia, a stone’s throw (at least, a giant’s stone’s throw) from Carnegie Mellon University, from which the troupe of seven graduated this past May.

The style is an emerging form that we might call theatrical collage.

The Pigpenners use a hand-held length of fabric to represent the mountain, a child’s dress for the daughter, a papier-mâché head and hand for the giant, a pair of fingers for the man climbing the fabric mountain, a shadow-stencil for a village, a shipping pallet for a raft, more shadow stencils, and more objects d’puppetry. That no two are of the same scale, even in the same scene, only adds to the charm.

Last year’s Fringe saw at least two such shows; besides Mountain Song’s Pigpen predecessor, there was the astonishingly incoherent and delightful “Butterfly, Butterfly, Kill Kill Kill!” (imagine if, instead of making “What’s Up Tiger Lily,” Woody Allen had spent four years at CMU with the Pigpen boys).

There’s nothing incoherent about “Mountain Song” though. The story moves clearly and inexorably toward a bittersweet ending that’s fully foretold in an opening speech, and the speechifying throughout is as charming as the bluegrass music, the shadow and other puppetry, and the life-sized acting.

The whole thing made me want to rent a couple of grandkids and go back to the next performance. The only thing better than seeing “Mountain Song” through adult eyes or those of a child would be seeing it through both at once.

Posted in language, playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: The Bardy Bunch

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady

1h 40m
VENUE #9: The Ellen Stewart Theatre @ LA MAMA
Performance seen: Sat 13 @ NOON
Remaining performances: Fri 19 @ 9 (sold out!) Sun 21 @ 8:45 Wed 24 @ 2

Rating: 8
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

When I say I thoroughly enjoyed “The Bardy Bunch” you have to take into account that I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of the Brady Bunch (nor the movie); I was not a fan of the Partridge Family; and I don’t have the greatest head for Shakespeare.

Yes, Shakespeare.

“The Bardy Bunch” is a telling of Romeo and Juliet where the rivaling families are the Bradys and the Partridges and there are two forbidden loves, not one: Marcia–Keith, and Greg–Laurie.

But the Shakespearean references only start there. Midsummer Night’s Dream, All’s Well That Ends Well, Tempest, and most especially Macbeth and Hamlet—I can’t tell you all the plays quoted from and referenced (the playbill claims a dozen), because they come fast and furiously and, as I say, I don’t have the greatest head for Shakespeare, confusing the various gender-bending ones, for example. Sorting out the Hamlet from the Macbeth was particularly tricky until I realized that the same ghost was doing double-duty: For the Bradys, he’s Duncan, for the Partridges he’s Hamlet’s father.

It’s a clever idea, and that kind of cleverness pervades the show—notably in the mixing of Shakespearean plots, without losing itself in fealty to any one of them, but also in the use of music, especially the way “Woke Up in Love” and “I Can feel Your Heartbeat” hurtle the conflicts toward their inevitable tragic and hilarious conclusion.

The huge cast is entirely outstanding—it seems unfair to single anyone out, but Marcia (Cali Elizabeth Moore) and Greg (A.J. Shively) are particularly aptly cast, Erik Keiser’s singing channels Keith’s voice perfectly and is terrific in its own right, and speaking of voices, Craig Wichman gets Reuben’s so right it’s eerie. It’s probably not possible for the Alice part not to be a crowd pleaser, but Joan Lunoe does a terrific job of milking the small role for all it’s worth.

I have only two small complaints about this show—the name, and the fact that in an early scene Marcie and Jan make an explicit reference to Romeo and Juliet. It’s unnecessary, and undermines the show’s greatest charm—that the subtext to a story grounded in the most ephemeral of 1970s pop culture is rooted in the 16th century writer who created the most enduring cultural monuments we have. Indeed, the number of Fringe shows that reference the Bard is literally and figuratively uncountable, but I can’t remember enjoying it this much.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in language, playwriting, pop culture, reviews, the arts, writing | 1 Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: COBU

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

COBU

VENUE #14: Bleecker Theatre
0h 45m
Show seen: Fri 12 @ 9:45
Remaining performances: Wed 17 @ 7:30 Fri 19 @ 5:15 Wed 24 @ 2:30 Thu 25 @ 5:15

Rating: 9
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

Our favorite of our three-show opening night of this year’s Fringe was COBU, which describes itself as an “explosive fusion of Japanese Taiko drumming and funk tap dance … created and directed by STOMP veteran Yako Miyamoto. COBU is a dance/percussion troupe with the motto ‘Dance like Drumming, Drum like Dancing’.”

The first piece uses five drums, three upstage, and two down, each with a woman wearing a unique outfit that in one way or another—whether its pink hot pants with black fishnets, or a yellow tank top, yellow shorts, and loose yellow leg warmers, or just an orange golf hat worn backwards—bespoke hip-hop. The woman at the center drum, who I came to quickly think of as the queen drummer, wore olive drab baggie cargo pants and a sort of long sleeveless black hoodie robe.

The entire effect was both sexy and extremely powerful, and got only more powerful as the show progressed.

Three dancers appeared between the two rows of drums, at least, at first they seemed to be just dancers, but they held drumming sticks and soon alternated the choreography with drumming on the floor itself.

There were about nine distinguishable pieces—the boundaries were unclear, except when the costumes changed, which happened several times—and perhaps my favorite was the third, in which the queen drummer led off with a lengthy tap dance that included using the side of her square-heeled tap shoe for added volume and, for a moment, rising en pointe. After the dance, she sat cross-legged downstage, facing away from the audience and toward two drummers who came out and played the rhythms she had tapped out. In a later number, she would sit in the same place and do a call-and-response with the entire troupe, with her banging only the floor.

Every time it seemed we’d seen everything the troupe had to offer, something new was added. In the fourth number, drums lying sideways were struck on both sides by two different women, several of whom, standing between two drums, alternated between them. The eighth piece was mostly dance, with the queen drummer holding the beat—mostly dancing, that is, until it evolved into a beautiful chanting song.

I can’t easily describe the finale except as a tour de athletic force of rhythm and choreography that included cartwheels, dancers jumping over one another, and the queen mother wielding a six-foot-long stick with which to strike the sticks of others and be struck by them.

A powerful pas de quatre in which dancers circled four drums and with perfect precision struck their own and those of the others, first with little ronde de jambs over them, then with swooping, drumming 360 turns beside them, was the dramatic highlight of the piece and an altogether pleasing show.

Posted in language, playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: Rachel Calof

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

Rachel Calof

VENUE #2: CSV Flamboyan
1h 30m
Show seen: Fri 12 @ 5
Remaining performances: Fri 19 @ 2 Sat 20 @ 9 Sat 27 @ 2:15
http://www.rachelcalof.net

Rating: 4
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

A picture bride survives an unbearable childhood in Russia and a brutally harsh North Dakota family of in-laws and winter before things become better.

If this logline strikes you as surprisingly inactive for a dramatic story, you’ve identified the central problem in the one-person play “Rachel Calof.”

Teachers of narratives—whether it’s a play, movie, short story, novel, or even a memoir or nonfiction narrative destined for a magazine—all agree: If your story has a protagonist, the protagonist has to actively resolve the plot’s complications (or fail trying). Jack Hart, in his excellent book “Storycraft” says, “when you’re looking for a protagonist, search for the person who makes things happen.” Rachel Calof, it turns out, is no protagonist.

The play is based on a book, “Rachel Calof’s Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains” (Indiana University Press, 2009) that in turn is based on a hand-written memoir Calof’s family found after she died, augmented by “scholarly essays that provide historical and cultural background,” according to IUP press materials.

In childhood, Calof, whose mother died when she was four, is bounced like a pinball between a thoughtless and cruel father, a thoughtfully cruel step-mother, and an imperious and uncaring great-uncle who, as Calof approaches marrying age, wrenches her from a growing friendship and love with a village butcher boy by sending her to America to marry a total stranger to the family.

In America, Calof is an impeccably passive fiancee and then wife and daughter-in-law. Her mother-in-law, by turns superstitious and just stupid, but always domineering, would make one long for the violently cruel step-mother.

Writer Ken LaZebnik shows almost no awareness of the need to make Rachel Calof at least somewhat the mistress of her own fate. It’s left to the music and lyrics (by Leslie Steinweiss) to show us a Rachel acting on her own initiative, pathetically fashioning a lamp out of mud and butter as the fuel. To be sure, in on lone, belated scene LaZebnik has Rachel saying no to the ridiculous demands of her husband, himself laughably submissive to his mother. It’s not enough. Every good thing that happens to Rachel—the visit by a neighbor to Rachel and her six-week old baby, left alone in a tiny shack; the declaration by the shochet that the ailing post-partem Rachel is allowed to eat unkosher ox meat; the children she is allowed by her husband to have—happens to her.

The narrative is bookended by Rachel’s desire, and eventually resolve, to visit her daughter in Seattle. Stepping across the threshold without her husband’s permission is apparently LaZebnik’s idea of the decisive act of an active protagonist. It’s not enough, and not just because all we see is a resolve; it comes 85 minutes and 30 years too late in the story. Worse, with a flat inactive protagonist, “Rachel Calof” almost inevitably has no other interesting characters either. Everyone, especially the husband and his mother, are flatly cruel and stupid, albeit hardworking.

There’s much to enjoy in Rachel Calof—the hardships of homesteading are novel and engrossing to a modern audience, and Kate Fuglei’s acting is inspired, her Russian-Jewish accent letter-perfect, and her singing voice is stunningly clear. In the words of IUP, “her narrative [is] both unique and a representative western tale.”

It’s not possible to rewrite a show from the audience, nor is it a critic’s place to do do, but it’s impossible not to note that the protatonist-confrontation-resolution structure is not the only one available to the author, nor is Rachel the only protagonist available.

The story as it actually seems to exist on the page’s of Calof’s memoir is one of a family with almost insurmountable challenges of culture, abject poverty, pride, and jealousy, finally and reluctantly uniting to defeat the greater enemy of North Dakota’s unrelentingly grim and nearly fatally harsh winters. In that story the husband’s admirable qualities of hard work and fealty to family would at least briefly shine, and the mother-in-law, enduring 40-below winters at the end of her life and, like Moses, given only a view of the promised land, might at least evoke our sympathy.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in language, playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

 
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