by Hazen Cuyler
New Light Theater Project’s current production provides requisite holiday fare while exploring our alarming tendency to disappear from our loved ones lives. Charming and impactful, Everything is Super Great encourages togetherness by articulating the pain caused when someone goes missing. Directed by Sarah Norris and written by Stephen Brown, Everything is playing at 59East59 Theaters.
Tommy is hired by the local Starbucks after losing his job at Applebee’s, because he nearly burned it down. He’s full of wit and charm and quickly falls for Alice, his unreasonably unpleasant coworker. Tommy’s father left his family years ago and his brother has been missing for seven months. After lighting a restaurant on fire, Tommy’s eccentric mother, Anne, arranges a meeting between him and a therapist. Her choice is Dave. Kind, disheveled and unbalanced, Dave is an inexperienced art therapist, whose emotionally abusive girlfriend left him one night without a word. Alice’s mother is mentally ill and often goes missing.
Stephen Brown’s well-crafted play molds its characters into a singular, often fascinating consideration- people are missing in everyone’s lives and we don’t witness the consequences. Near the play’s conclusion, Anne speaks to her son, “I had all these people and then I blinked and they were gone. I’m afraid if I blink again you’ll be gone. Is there something wrong with me?” Later, Tommy states something like 76% of people who go missing are runaways. “Who completely take off from their lives and don’t tell their families where they are, what happened, what’s going on.” This idea persists as you examine each character’s unique case of abandonment.
Tommy is made charming, affable and compelling through a talented Will Sarratt. Alice, Lisa Jill Anderson’s dynamic Starbucks employee, seems like two people. We’re introduced to a hardened, angry, insensitive barista and within minutes we’re charmed by a gentle, open, nurturing daughter. Xavier Rodney’s Dave provides levity entrenched by a complicated personal history and conflicted psyche.
In a wholehearted performance, Marcia Debonis plays Anne, Tommy’s mother. She hires a therapist for her son and finds herself in therapy. Anne sits with Dave, describing the scattered memories of her missing son, oscillating between waves of joy and despair as tears flood her eyes. While her son was in college, before he went missing, she longed for a better relationship with him. He would rarely talk with her so she began sifting through his debit card transactions to sustain any possible relationship. Bank statements substituting a mother’s relationship with her son. In seeing Burger King transactions, she would mail him coupons. “Do you think maybe this could tell me why he didn’t ever want to talk to me?” she asks Dave. A heartbreaking interaction embodied by a fine actor revealing the despair our loved ones face as we leave them behind.
Sarah Norris’ crafts several scenes of significance. Anne gives Pop Tarts as gifts to the people she loves- – microwaving them with butter and heaping stacks into Tupperware. Near the play’s end, her manager at Walmart publicly humiliates her by mocking this meaningful gesture. A fight breaks out, Tommy hears the news and goes to his mother. Sitting in the Walmart breakroom, they fantasize what his brother would do- he’d storm in and fight the manager and they’d all escape. They’d all go to Burger King together and talk. A colder reality sets in and they’re alone, humiliated, inside the breakroom of Walmart. “I’m gonna have to lean on you, is that okay?” she says, limping as they make their way across the room. Ms. Norris’ guidance of her actors, progressing through the contrasting dynamics required in this scene, result in a captivating expression of familial sense of humor, adventure and bleak despair.
In this play, everyone is distanced from one another during the Christmas season. A father and brother are missing. And a husband and son. A girlfriend packs up and leaves. A mother suffers from mental illness and disappears for days on end. In the play, Alice has been searching for her mother around the clock and Tommy invites her to spend Christmas with his family. “I think sometimes it’s important to take an hour,” he says. Everything is Super Great is a play illustrating society as a collection of individuals choosing to spend a little time with each other, no matter who might be missing.
by Hazen Cuyler
The setting is a dilapidated Manhattan loft in the 1950’s and 60’s juxtaposed with the same location in the present day. In the present it’s cold, abandoned and isolating. In the 50’s/60’s, the loft is buzzing with deranged, drunken, drugged up brilliant artists sacrificing career and family to live here and create. (A)loft Modulation is written by Jaymes Jorsling and directed with meticulous care by Christopher McElroen, produced by The American Vicarious and playing at A.R.T./New York Theatres through October 26th. You should try not to miss this unique theatre experience.
Eugene Smith was a world-renown war photographer. Here, he’s named Myth Williams. In 1955, he left his wife, children, and job at Life Magazine, moved to a broken down loft in a shady Manhattan neighborhood and pursued greater artistic freedom. Over the next ten years, he captured 40,000 pictures and recorded 4,500 hours of audiotape containing environmental sounds, uncensored conversations and impossible to ignore live music. Hall Overton was a jazz professor at Julliard. His name is changed to Way Tonniver. Way holds legendary jam sessions at an adjacent loft with some of history’s best. Steve, our guide in the present, discovers Myth’s recordings and is determined to listen to them all.
At first glance we see a community which appears stable. Resembling an inspiring, art-filled, post-college bachelor life where everyone seems mostly happy and well adjusted. We fool ourselves thinking it can last forever. The more Myth distances himself from significant social institutions- his job and family- the more his world becomes consumed by drinking, drug habits and frayed relationships. Drug and alcohol abuse runs rampant at this loft. The brilliant Reggie Sweets, a young, drug-shattered-stage-frightened drummer, scribbles the word “distraction” on the wall after a Beckett-esque epiphany on how life is only a series of distractions as we wait for Godot… I mean death.
The Loft Band provides the heartbeat of this capricious, desperate world; jiving through slow drudging despair up into the sky highs of joyful inspiration. Troy Hourie’s impressive wooden loft skeleton set radiates hand-built charm and comfortably houses two or three or four scenes at once. Adam J. Thompson’s video design places cameras throughout the loft, projecting lo-fi close ups and unedited peeping tom angles like fragments of early era Casavetes films.
P.J. Sosko as Myth and Eric T. Miller as Way succeed in providing necessary anchor points to the story. Elisha Lawson’s portrayal of the tragic artist Reggie Sweets is at one moment haunting and at the next uplifting.
Playwright Jaymes Jorsling has intertwined past and present in compelling fashion. Tapes are unlabeled, so Steve sometimes doesn’t know what happens chronologically. We’ll witness someone in a state of desperation and suddenly the tape will run out. Needing to see what happens to next, he’ll play a new tape only to discover a different period from their life, one filled with joy and satisfaction. This jarring structure from Mr. Jorsling makes the experience even more devastating.
Christopher McElroen’s direction is detailed and forms one of the most accomplished productions I’ve reviewed. Mr. McElroen’s orchestration is perhaps the most impressive when communicating multiple timelines concurrently. A police officer (Buzz Roddy), investigating the present day loft, records the scene with an iPhone and a flashlight. The video is streamed and projected on walls. At the same time, the 50’s and 60’s come alive. Drugs, prostitutes, a photographer rushing up and down stairs documenting madness. Two cameras from two timelines in one space. Unaware of each other. Like blind ghosts. A second example occurs near the play’s conclusion when we witness a character who is simultaneously celebrated in one timeline and mourned in another. The fading memory of this once-happy home.
In the present timeline, there is desperation to Steve’s obsessive efforts because we discover the loft is scheduled to be demolished. Determined to sift through these time-forgotten documents, he gives up his job and nearly loses his family. This battle between distraction and institution tears at the fabric of every character. Distilling motivations down to distraction is devastating when you watch lives destroyed under the constant fluctuation between impulse and structure, passion and lethargy. This frenzied community and that loft- that bold and jazzy institution- could never have survived and perhaps were only meant to be remembered. An emotional catalogue from the tortured artists of our New York beat generation, documenting our most capricious pursuits of ultimate creative freedom. Pursuits of perfection resulting in some of the best art our country has ever created.
by Hazen Cuyler
Small or no budget theatre often creates amazing, pure work. But the vast majority of these Off-Off Broadway productions operate under not-so-ideal conditions and sometimes the limitations of a truncated budget and abbreviated rehearsal period, mixed with blossoming experience, can lead to half-baked work. This is the case of The Great Novel written by Amina Henry, directed by Sarah Norris and running until June 29. It’s housed at The Flea but produced by New Light Theatre Project. And despite its shortcomings, the production is a healthy sample of Off-Off Broadway. Certainly not perfect. But through its stumbles, we witness the creative missteps of a young, healthy and growing theatre company.
Bertha (Nikki E. Walker), originally from Jamaica, is an aspiring novelist working as the live-in house maid of the very wealthy Brennan family. Scribbling away in her tiny, green.99 cent notepad, she’s delighted to discover and utilize ideas resembling those in classic European literature. Suddenly, Granny, her remembered Jamaican grandmother, begins appearing. The imagined ghost tirelessly works to convince Bertha to steal a valuable treasure from the home of this wealthy family, sell it, quit her job and focus on completing her book.
A harsh criticism of class, the play’s production maintains that these wealthy, stock-playing people are the hollow and unfeeling shells of society; each capable of achieving only an idea of identity, rather than functioning as a unique individual. Contrasting this harsh statement is a more sympathetic Bertha, whose conscience is clawed at by her determined grandmother, guiding her home to Jamaica toward an assumed freer and happier self. The play’s production also tip toes around an unclear, indirect and hardly discussed layer of implied racial significance- everyone’s face within the mixed ethnicity cast (aside from Bertha and her grandmother) is painted white as though they’re wearing Halloween store Lone Ranger masks.
Nikki E. Walker plays Bertha, providing an anchor point throughout the play. By the end, we see a revitalized person, freed from the confines of the same silly social status ideologies imprisoning her employers.The eldest sibling in the Brennan family is Saul. He’s an emotionally intelligent, sardonic, post college pill addict. Played with effortless magnetism by Michael Aguirre, he represents a lost generation of directionless, filthy rich adult children. People of potential who, as he states near the end of the play, never have to do anything. Living at home, he hates his father and casually curses out his sister. Often hilarious in their dueling wit and unabashed cruelty, nearly every scene with Saul and his sister is infused with complicated passion, fire and idleness.
Charlotte is Saul’s sister. Self-diagnosed as unhappy and played with confident poise by the talented MaryKathryn Kopp, she sifts through glossy pages of People Magazine while pressuring her rich, video-game-delusional, war-glorifying boyfriend into insincere games of adolescent courtship. Although these interactions are often funny and charming, she never feels love for him and when he ends their relationship we feel little sympathy for her.
At times, when the production encounters moments of despair or emotionally difficult realities- the death of a mother, a widowed father’s relationship to his lost wife, a major betrayal revealed late in the play, a revelation that one is not loved- the characters seem to experience an emotional void. This may be the script deliberately saying these particular rich people are unfeeling and it’s OK they’re unaffected by circumstantial trauma. However, in that case, we too remain unaffected. It may also be that the heightened emotional realities of the play were either not yet considered or not yet realized by the artists presenting this work.
Sarah Norris’ staging is precise, guiding her actor’s motivations around the stage so we rarely second guess this sterile, corporate household. Amina Henry’s script is challenging and the juxtaposition of Jamaica against the wealthy family home, sets up clear opposing ideologies at odds with each other. The construct of Granny grounds the audience with an inside look at Bertha’s personified inner thoughts and desires as she struggles to free herself from a secure but ultimately unsatisfying lifestyle.
There are some presentational elements which are difficult to ignore. Most glaringly, the stage’s depth is sacrificed for the sake of Jamaican scenery behind windows. This added scenery lacks detail and is curtained off for most of the play, resulting in a more claustrophobic playing space in exchange for a setting infrequently utilized. Atmospheric lighting to justify this crammed setting is also distracting. At one moment, Bertha’s grandmother speaks to us about her life in Jamaica. Colors transition to the clear orange skies of a Jamaican sunset. Very hot and tropical but its harsh color palette removes us from reality. Puzzling, under such bright lights, a tropical rain storm is heard simultaneously in the background.
The play’s production leaves you with much to think about and it’s possible that the play’s meaning is the element least pondered. Instead, this production is a fascinating exploration of successes and missteps from a talented and relatively young theatre company. Productions lacking in professionalism or heart or desire to say something are unfortunately very common. And this isn’t one of those productions. The Great Novel, in all its production aspects, feels like the early steps of a passionate company with good taste. There are stumbles now, but even stumbles are exciting to witness when you can see the future potential.
Photos: Hunter Canning
By Hazen Cuyler
and now my hand is ready for my heart: intimate histories is a bio-play written and performed by Nicky Paraiso. The show’s dynamic staging comes from John Jesurun and features a strong ensemble of dancers. On stage are four chairs, a piano and two curtains used as projection screens. Beginning the story without context, we feel claustrophobic and offended, held captive by someone talking only of himself. Unable to escape the long winded life story of a relentlessly selfish figure we’ve never met. Thankfully, as more details accumulate, these irritations dissolve and we find ourselves astonished by Nicky’s enchanting story. An everyman-autobiography. A profound and touching historical document. An archetype of artist life in New York City. It’s an intimate journey, one performed at La Mama until April 7th, and it deserves to be seen. And celebrated.
Nicky Paraiso studied music at Oberlin and received his Masters in acting at NYU. A fixture of New York City’s experimental theatre community for over 40 years, and a full time waiter while in his 50’s, he’s created work alongside legendary theatre makers and now serves as a curator and program director at La Mama. He doesn’t have a Wikipedia page and he’s not a Broadway, film or tv star. I’d never heard of him and there’s a good chance you haven’t either. He’s experimental, relatively unknown and now he’s performing an autobiographical one man show.
The play opens to a sepia colored, post-war photograph. Projected upon a delicate white curtain, it features a young boy standing in the yard of a two story family home. Five bodies enter the playing space. One sits at a piano and begins to play classical music. His electric body expressing every note. Until he stops. Rising from the keys, he begins to speak. This man, we discover, is Nicky, enumerating early childhood details while dancers gently glide and float through space. A story and a dance. Two distinctly separate entities functioning simultaneously. Movement without context alongside description without context. Mr. Paraiso’s eyes fixate on the ground and not on us. Anxious, stumbling and perhaps a bit ill-prepared, he rushes through his story. Carrying on about himself and convinced no one will listen, this unsettling experience persists for about 20 minutes. During this exhausting period, we find ourselves more obligated to remember details than compelled to hear.
After we’ve been so tediously force-fed details and so inundated with backstory, around the time Nicky graduates from NYU, we’re surprised to discover a profound attachment to his story.
Nicky travels across time, incremental event stacked on incremental event. Through his childhood living room playing Beethoven. Past the dark, blue-lit hidden adult corners of spoken word romance in jazzy clubs. Loosely strung together fragmented existence. The projector beams a decade old recording. We’re a fly on the wall at a lively brunch where Nicky’s friends berate him for not standing up for himself. He sits tucked away in a corner, timid and smiling as they criticize his unstable love life. Later, we live through his parents’ death. Later still, through an inheritance irresponsibly managed. And then most central to his life, we witness the apparent impact from working alongside luminaries of American theater history such as Meredith Monk and Jeff Weiss.
We follow Nicky until we’re stopped. Frozen in space to observe a once-upon-a-time performance. A demonstration of a character formerly played. A dictator, performed without word. A dictator defined by movement and gesture, expressed from powerful sensation. Then back to the story. A dear friend is dying. He asks Nicky to sing at the funeral and we stop along the way to sit and listen. It’s filled with trauma and love and heartbreak and the void from loss. In these examples, we’re not told a story. We experience Nicky’s most precious moments of life through his artistic technique- the lasting impression from working alongside luminaries of American theatre history.
“Why are we up here?” The dancers ask. “I wanted us to make something together!” Nicky exclaims. They’re his friends. Because this play is about community. It’s an ode to life-long appreciation and participation and chased enlightenment. It’s community as an inspired collection of people maintaining up and down friendships over a vast period of time. Of unstable love and heartache and shattered dreams and taped up hopes. Of a community where you know everyone because you can point to them. And they point back at you. Your story isn’t yours, it’s shared. It’s everyman’s. Shared intimate histories connected through art. And this story, Nicky Paraiso’s story, is his. But it’s also ours. The everyartist.
by Hazen Cuyler
To document your mother’s suffering as she dies from cancer requires courage. To expose a family’s feelings and desires throughout that traumatic time might be even more burdensome. Right now, Primary Stages has produced God Said This by Leah Nanako Winkler. Written by Leah Nanako Winkler and directed by Morgan Gould, The Primary Stages production of God Said This runs through February 15. Based on Winkler’s experiences, the play sizzles with clever dialogue and well documented behavior. But without suspense or clear character motivations, God Said This struggles to engage.
Masako is a mother and wife. And she has cancer. She’s hospitalized and undergoing chemotherapy with the support and visitation of her family. Her husband James is a recovering alcoholic. Hiro and Sophie are their two daughters. Sophie is religious and married, Hiro is not. Hiro and her father have a painful relationship. Near the start we meet John (Tom Coiner), a responsible former classmate of Hiro’s who has a charmingly capricious temperament. Together, he and Hiro smoke pot and confide in each other. The play cycles through these relationships.
A fascinating characterization of the alcoholic father is embodied by Jay Patterson. A kind spirit shackled to a hopelessly addictive personality. If it’s not alcohol, it’s a rock collection. He’s mostly bald and his gut protrudes and his feet sprawl out as he walks and his body is dried out from years of boozing. His clothes are disheveled and he knows how to talk; like habits grown from his friendly drinking years. And then James recalls first meeting his wife. Mr. Patterson descends into the audience to meet her memory. His eyes glow from a profound, grateful love surpassing all barriers of time and space. From up close we experience the feeling of companionship from a gifted actor.
Through the commanding Ako (credited as her full name) we experience Masako’s dynamic and exhausting stages of her devastating journey. Drugged-up optimism. Shameful helplessness. And Masako’s anger and hatred and violence; desperate to escape her failing body’s prison.
Despite these powerful performances, we rarely experience lasting conflict or suspense. We experience notable flare-ups of confrontation, but they dissipate as quickly as they arrive. The overuse of low stakes expositional dialogue also help to stave off tension for large portions of the play.
Here’s an example of a flare-up which does little to continue the momentum of the play:
Hiro (Satomi Blair) misses her period and tells her family-oriented sister, Sophie (Emma Kikue). Sophie reveals to Hiro that she can’t have children. This escalated conversation acts to further articulate a bitter conflict between the two sisters’ conflicting lifestyles. But it’s never been noticeably alluded to previously in the play. And then it’s never brought up again. Outside of added information, the conflict doesn’t contribute to the subsequent events, plot or forward momentum of the piece.
Although examples are littered throughout the play, the following scene demonstrates the most obvious use of low stakes exposition, which helps dilute suspense throughout the production:
God Said This opens with a monologue from James. He stands on stage to speak to us, his AA group. We are his receptive, open, accepting group of people. Like a therapy session, this structure, repeated throughout the play, removes James from conflict and allows him to safely tell the audience what they should know about his background and the background of his family. It nullifies immediate conflict and we find ourselves forced into listening opposed to feeling compelled to listen.
The play’s observations are painful to experience, but you can’t help wonder what God Said This is actually trying to say. Yes, cancer is terrible and it happens to sweet people. And families are tormented and traumatized by the experience. But that experience is so common and so traumatic that many people are already able to articulate those haunting observations themselves. At the play’s conclusion, some stood in applause. I have a feeling their response has more to do with never having witnessed cancer’s effect on the human body and spirit, moments which the play carefully observes, or a projection of their personal experience caring for someone with cancer, as opposed to something newly revealed.
God Said This is a noble and brave undertaking directly from Ms. Winkler’s life. And her sharp observations brought audience members to tears. However, a play expressing the feeling of her unique experience is as important as it is challenging. Revealing physical observations is one thing. Revealing family relationships and hidden motivations during the most monumental crisis of their lives would be a remarkable achievement. And God Said This doesn’t quite reach those heights. Primary Stages supported a talented and accomplished writer fighting to say something about the most challenging period of her life. And if what she has to say is important to her, that journey might not be over yet.
By Hazen Cuyler
Adapted for the stage by Jean-Claude Van Itallie and based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, the first time they’ve staged it they enjoyed a totally sold out run for good reason. And now The Russian Arts Theater and Studio has done it again. Extended until January 27 and playing at Pushkin Hall, The Master and Margarita or The Devil Comes to Moscow, directed by Aleksey Burago, is a captivating event you should not miss.
Woland has arrived in Moscow. He’s dapper and charming and he’s also The Devil. He and his minions meet a famed Russian editor who shortly loses his head. They meet a famed Russian poet, Ivan Homeless, who’s quickly institutionalized. And in this institution Homeless meets another writer, The Master. The Master and Margarita were star-crossed lovers until The Master’s manuscript received scathing criticism, driving him to turn his back on the world and his love. To end her painful longing, the devastated Margarita makes a deal with The Devil. And we follow her trip through Hell.
Mr. Burago’s work can be experienced as a sequence of contrasting sensations. One cold, tormented atmosphere may pull you directly into a warm, playful and totally new atmosphere. Like a high brow acid trip, this arresting pattern continues. One after another after another.
Here’s an example:
A rickety sidecar, made from every cast member crammed between benches and flashlights, chugs down a pitch-black cobble stone street. It reaches the audience and bursts apart. Without transition or warning, we’re in a bright park near a pond listening in on the theological ramblings of two writers.
And another example:
The Master tells his love story to Homeless inside a cold and lonely prison cell. He turns on a warm lamp across the dark playing area and suddenly we experience two realities simultaneously; Homeless’ claustrophobic cage in contrast with The Master’s warm memory of a wide-open apartment full of love and opportunity.
Roman Freud is Woland. He’s The Devil hosting a magic show. It’s all fun and games and we laugh and laugh. And then he orders his cat to rip off the Emcee’s head. The audience goes silent. Nothing changes drastically in Woland’s behavior. However, through Mr. Freud’s characterization, we witness The Devil’s divine influence and experience shame and regret in ever having trusted him.
Woland’s minions are a giggling gang of demonic misfits. Luisa Menzen is a magnetic Hella; a playful and sexy maid without remorse. Ariel Polanco is transformative as Koroviev. He’s a wirey, snake-like gentleman atop six inch platforms. Michael Dona’s Azazello is totally dynamic as the easily intimidated, tough-guy mafioso. And Charles Anderson’s insatiable performance as Behemouth is bursting with joyful maniacism. They’re all laughing and sexy and deadly. A grab bag of childlike impulses and adult fantasies taken to homicidal heights and gone awry.
Tom Schubert plays both The Master and Yeshua. Facing his historic trial, Yeshua’s beaten body collapses to the ground. Schubert’s warm smile grows wide and his eyes shine with conviction, defiant in the face of his cold fate. His body trembles as his bright spirit fights to inspire a confounded Pontious Pilate.
In the beginning, Di Zhu as Margarita is a powerful and grounded woman. Infatuated by The Master, her stoicism melts away. After making a deal with the devil she becomes a witch and her eyes go wild. An upward mania races as she sails across the Moscow sky. Ms. Zhu is left alone in the center of an empty stage; a speech from an actor standing still, nearly naked, holding an antique broomstick. And yet, we see sexy, untethered, animal passion. She smashes her skull into an imagined window pane. Her head bounces back with shock and surprise and her eyes shift to raving pleasure. The seductive glowing embers of hatred and desire. We witness all this in Ms. Zhu’s eyes. There’s a reason the audience bursts into applause as she exits the stage.
The Master and Margarita was posthumously published after Bulgakov lived a life under fierce censorship. The play’s very existence is a war cry of free expression. Bulgakov was an unknown, relatively. Burago is an unknown, relatively. But if you are searching for the great artists of our generation; the unique voices shattering the boundaries of our conventional and repetitive lives; some reside here at The Russian Arts Theater and Studio. Here, we are witnessing the now-unknown greats of history. Performing boldly on a darkened stage. Born from the written echoes of our great human history. Not yet known. And soon to be legend.
By Hazen Cuyler
When your show is titled, Medicine the Musical, it’s easy to jump to conclusions. Even before walking into the theater, I envisioned a half-baked, money grabbing spoof. And I hoped to be proven wrong. And I was proven wrong. Mostly. But I was also proven right. The new musical by Michael Ehrenrelch is held together by a talented cast and directed by Joey Murray. It’s playing at HERE Arts Center through November 18. Full of 90’s rock and characterizations you’ve seen before, this production unabashedly embraces Cliché. But if you can ease judgment and relax into that construct, the show succeeds as an enjoyable experience despite some irritating missteps.
In Mr. Ehrenrelch’s new musical, we witness brand new, first year med students receive acceptance letters, form relationships and work toward completing their first year together. They develop friendships, face social and familial challenges and confront daunting examinations. The acknowledged suspense of the play is, “who won’t make it to the second year of med school?”
Here’s a brief list of the musical’s cliché characters:
A mysteriously disabled doctor with limp and cane (aptly named Prof. Crutch). A troubled young man, post incarceration. Students born of privilege, confronted by those without. A distraught son-made-villain, misunderstood and longing for his father’s affection.
Cliché or not, these backstories set the foundation for any depth and sincerity. And if they’re not fully embraced or explored (as clichés often are not), it diminishes the substance of a character and it diminishes the substance of the entire piece.
What’s most apparent is raw talent. Every actor/singer on stage has experience and ability. Vocal power and clarity sends shockwaves through the intimate space. Both Prof. Crutch (Dan Rosenbaum) and Christina (played by Sarah Stewart Chapin) electrify. As quickly as these singing actors have concluded saying what they’ve had to sing, the audience bursts with appreciative applause. This reaction is frequent and deserved.
Intermingled within these impressive vocal performances, reside subtle moments of great sincerity. Tiff, played with sensitivity and honesty by Marina Laurendi, nurtures and cares for her suffering boyfriend. In her heart, he is more important than she. Near the end, she gently adjusts the skewed collar of his lab coat. Though extremely subtle, this reactive gesture communicates her warm, healing nature. The expression of this nature holds further reaching implications. Providing a poetic connection between Tiff’s love and her professional calling.
Of course, there are missteps as well. The casting of one actor is totally distracting. The fault is not the actor’s. One character he plays has a heart attack. Another is constantly lamenting the change of time- the way things used to be when he first became a doctor. Another is a father of a student. The actor cast to play these roles reads to be in his 30’s. The ages required for this track simply require a significantly older actor. This glaring disregard for circumstances distracts and depreciates each of his scenes, resulting in a slight amateur polish to the overall production.
This musical was composed by Michael Ehrenrelch, but it’s not surprising to see that additional arrangements and orchestrations were made by someone connected to RENT (Matthew DeMaria). Harkening back in time with satisfying power chords, we are 90’s every step of the way. Electric guitar, electric keyboard, drums. Medicine the Musical isn’t RENT. But its entire soundtrack hovers around an archetype some shared 90’s sounds. It’s infinitely more care free than RENT, expressing significantly less despair and consequently, perhaps because of that, is less varied than Jonathan Larson. But there’s no denying the fun in hearing the band rock out.
Director Joey Murray admirably keeps charge of this tight ensemble. The pacing never slows and the energy never wanes. Staging is adaptable on this blank canvas and environments remain mostly specific.
And through it all. A question still rests in people’s gut: why does this show actually exist? Despite all the entertainment value. Despite all the satisfaction this production brings. There is substance on the page, yes. The characters are given moving histories and desires, yes. But they’re never taken seriously. They’re never given the chance to be fully explored outside the safe excuse shell of cliché. The production embraces these clichés and successfully makes them a part of the experience in several ways. But when that happens, the audience is left with a hollow, wanting feeling. They’ve experienced so many moments deliberately not acknowledged honestly. This production doesn’t really say anything outside of a fortune cookie message of “work hard and you can achieve something, even if it’s difficult.” And that’s upsetting. If the collection of resources and apparent talent involved, more sensitively explored this material, embracing these clichés as reality, audiences would be rewarded. We would experience a piece of art and not an entertaining gimmick.
By Hazen Cuyler
An avid art audience, of any form, searches for the new. A resounding voice, never before experienced, expressing the evolved emotional lives of people today. Independent Study by Ben Gassman isn’t exactly there, but it manages enough innovative elements to make meaningful theatre. It’s running through November 17 at The Tank and you should see it to break from the traditional. This sharp new production aggressively attacking our digital lives is guaranteed to leave you unsettled the next time you find yourself scrolling.
GG is a first generation college student. She lives with her brother, Bozo, within a mostly parentless household. Her mentor and former teacher, Prof Mel, is a forward thinking, liberal academic. Both of these women have a brother with extremist viewpoints. Scattered within its loose plot, is a “Hate Chorus” – a chorus for the digital age, drawing connections between hate-fueled digital rhetoric and our hate-filled real world actions.
Emotionally charged and violent, the Hate Chorus emphasizes our anxiety-ridden relationship to technology. In one instance, they crescendo by throwing rocks through GG’s window. In separate instance, Finn Kilgore, a talented chorus member, plays a newscaster. Nuanced character work aside, he illuminates how our limited attention span responds to complex information. When details require effort to continue listening and our interest fades, we laugh as his voice mumbles complex information down to nothing.
Theatre audiences rarely witness sibling relationships composed with such honesty as the powerful scenes between GG (Andrea Negrete) and her brother (Alphonzo Walker Jr.). Their scenes comprise the finest, most subtle work of the play. Ms. Negrete captures a youthful longing, struggling to fit lessons from school into real world relationships. Searching for new ideas, puzzle pieces, solutions and YouTube prophets, we may only spectate as her frustrations spiral into a kind of youthful madness. Mr. Walker Jr. as GG’s brother, Bozo, inhabits a young man built on love, disparaged from living within a discriminatory culture. Ms. Negrete and Mr. Walker Jr. hold within their eyes a balanced kinship of respect, love and competition. They reveal a brand of affection only possible from developing together in life.
An-lin Dauber’s evocative set design provides a sharp, modern palate. Rope lights the color of our blue-lit phones bolt across the stage, splitting it comfortably into multiple environments. Bare, speakeasy lightbulbs dangle above the playing area. Fabric swatch patterns cover flat seating. Transparent cloth fastened to a canvas frame, hangs askew upstage. Rehearsal cubes sit alongside a discarded white roller chair. Everything seems trash picked yet clean, lived in and purposeful. Even before houselights fade, you’re enlivened, imagining how everything works.
Virtuoso director, Ran Xia, conducts this cutting edge collage. Bold choices hammer the play’s ideas into our consciousness. From the moment Independent Study begins, we are bombarded by stimuli. Relentlessly shaken from a mixture of violent and tenderness. Jarred and interrupted by a Hateful Chorus, denouncing our digitized social society. In one moment, members of the Hate Chorus form the shape and features of a speaking, flickering television screen. While small in scale, its application is complex and will remain a piece of theatre magic I’ll never forget
By now, you may have asked the question, “What exactly happens in this play?” That question pinpoints where the production veers a bit off course. Relationships between GG and her brother and her Professor are clear and revealing. We witness inspired and angsty private meetings, complicated and rich home life, and along the way, the Hate Chorus provides a context to this emotional outside world. But the actual storyline is difficult to identify and we never get a real sense of an arch. That lack of necessary structure forces the audience into unnecessary effort, depreciating a powerful message.
And so we’re here at The Tank. A home where artists and audiences search for something new. Something that’s never been made before. Where innovation cracks open structures of the old to breathe life in the now. Thousands of artists come here, to The Tank, to reach into the darkness of the unknown, blindly grasping for light. Even at the risk of that light being artificial. Without collections of people creating new and bold and unapologetic work, like those who created Independent Study, we are lost. We are lost to time and we are doomed to the same. Doomed to the same cozy bubble feeds on repeat. Doomed to the same hateful pundit soundbites. Lost in a maze of the same sickening rhetoric and trolling and hurting. To break this system, we need plays like Mr. Gassman’s Independent Study to create a new chorus. Interrupting our structured conversations. Unapologetic in their efforts to create a more bold, understanding, peaceful world.
by Hazen Cuyler
Emma and Max—now playing at the Flea Theater—is a trap set to deceive us all. Written and directed by Todd Solondz, an experienced independent film-maker who I hope will achieve greater visibility. See it while you can, because this hyper-relevant dissection of our fears, favoritism, shortcomings and blindness will only run until October 28.
Brooke and Jay are wealthy Jewish parents of Emma and Max, two young children. Their nanny is Brittany. She is a black illegal immigrant from Barbados who’s just been fired for no apparent reason. When the family replaces Brittany with a white au pair from Holland, we smile and rest on our convenient diagnosis of rich suburban white privilege and racism. The signs aren’t subtle and we aren’t wrong. But as events wax on, we’re forced to confront our propensity for snap judgments.
Here’s an example of a typical scene:
The stage is split into two adjacent areas, a sunny vacation spot and Brittany’s bedroom. Brooke and Jay lay poolside at a resort in Barbados. Brittany lies beneath covers in her drab, windowless bedroom.
Jay is asleep in the sun, snuggling his iPad. Brooke speaks to her sleeping husband for the next ten minutes. After attempting to Facetime her newly appointed nanny, she notices the shortage of employees. There must be high unemployment in Barbados and a staff job at this resort would bring anyone dignity. “If you want to have success, it all comes down to attitude,” she explains, stretched out in her chaise lounge chair. “I like totally get the whole white privilege entitlement thing,” she says, hurt that some people may find her unsympathetic.
Suddenly, Brooke describes her childhood. Her mother was dying of ovarian cancer. Her brother was mentally retarded. She had weight problems and a skin condition. School girls would tell her she’s lucky to be so ugly because she’ll never have to worry about being raped.
And then without warning, “It was like my own personal Kristallnacht—only it went on for years!”
This is the continuum of the play. And it does not slow or alter. The audience will relentlessly laugh at a character until a tragic detail of their past is casually revealed. And then you can watch that same audience scan amongst the crowd, seeking guidance of how to appropriately respond. It’s a fascinating experiment.
All of this is made possible from accomplished and skillful performances.
As Brooke, Ilana Becker’s lovable charm disarms us. We jeer at her ignorance and uncultured opinions but as warm tears tumble down her cheek, we feel a sharp pain for our part in dehumanizing her. Through Ms. Becker’s sensitive and very funny portrayal, we see ourselves reflected in those whose cruelty we condemn.
Matt Servitto’s Jay is obnoxious, entitled, successful and educated. Armed with a similar charm, he is disarmingly aloof, filling the room with a kind of misguided dad charisma. We chuckle at his absurdity and then punch ourselves in the face for ever trusting him.
I won’t be the only one to take notice of Zonya Love’s radiant and subdued performance. Strategically directed, Ms. Love’s Brittany embodies a magnetically apathetic physicality while delving deep within a lifetime of despair. Her final moments on stage recount a bitter and tragic life. And her choices strain our capacity to remain sympathetic.
Of course, one must mention the maestro, Todd Solondz. This is his first play and before now I’d never heard of him. And there’s a good chance you hadn’t either. He’s a seasoned filmmaker, though he’s never amassed a huge audience. But it is thrilling to encounter a sharp persona commanding such fresh satirical bite. An emotionally intelligent artist with disregard for solemnity or overly-agreeable conventions. Considering our current climate, Mr. Solondz could prove to be a notable and influential artist of this epoch.
As we venture further into our digital age, our lives and relationships can seem frustratingly nuanced. At best they appear unintelligible; at worst, utterly hopeless. But the brilliance lying within Emma and Max is that no matter how villainous some characters may appear or how irrational we are to forgive their trespasses, we can’t stop rooting for them. Maybe not to become more financially successful. Maybe to become more understanding. Maybe to be happier. Maybe, we just hope they’ll keep going. To stay afloat. To swim and not to drown.
by Hazen Cuyler
James & Jamesy In The Dark, now running at Soho Playhouse thru October 14 and directed by David MacMurray Smith, is an outer space romp exploring our perceptions of life. And although that may sound daunting, its themes are easily accessible thanks to Aaron Malkin’s and Alastair Knowles’ unparalleled charm and playfulness. Something only seasoned clowns could pull off. It’s silly, clean, very sweet and as intelligent as any piece of theatre you’re likely to see this year. And it doesn’t hurt that they wear lampshades on their heads.
We begin in darkness. And then there is one, small, fast-moving light. And then two. They race across a dark abyss until finally beaming to the stage and transforming into our actors. After a bit of stumbling around, they bump into one another and explore a playful and curious existence. There’s no easily discernable story arch here. James & Jamesy is a clowning play and the entire experience feels like a highly talented series of theatre games. One game leads directly into the next. The journey matters more than where they’re going, and that is almost entirely the meaning of the play.
Each new game reveals a desire for companionship, sexuality, a limited ability to perceive the world, limited ability to accurately recall recent history, an instinct for utility, hope for something else beyond this life, to name a few. Each idea is skillfully (and indirectly) expressed with silliness, charm and naiveté. Sexuality, for instance, is portrayed with such modesty and playfulness that we experience it as the overwhelming excitement of not being alone. The sensation of touch for the first time leads to a fit of giggling pleasure. In another game, exploring limits in perspective, James and Jamesy notice each other’s back for the first time. Astonished at this new discovery, they struggle to understand why their friend is incapable of seeing what lies in plain sight. Although these instances may seem frivolous at first glance, it is an inspiring experience as they occur relentlessly.
James, played by Aaron Malkin and Jamesy, played by Alastair Knowles are nothing short of magnetic. Their openness and emotional intelligence is dazzling and their joy while performing this show is infectious. Both have long-standing relationships to director David MacMurray Smith from working with him on several projects in the past. And so we are blessed by a remarkable display of chemistry.
Mr. Smith has orchestrated a profound and tidy work. Not only guiding his actors toward a remarkable and seamless performance, but creating a tantalizing aesthetic not to be missed. At only 75 minutes, it is perhaps the most concentrated expression of minimalism I’ve seen. An unmistakable atmosphere penetrates our instinctual curiosities of existence. Infinite darkness engulfs self-aware lighting. Clothing complements its mood. Grey makeup, grey suits, even the hands of the actors are covered by grey fabric. Upon each head is a lamp shade (the primary source of lighting) attached to what appears to be black boxing headgear. An appealing and otherworldly impression. The entire aesthetic seems familiar and at the same time retains a kind of alien and inorganic presence.
There is a lot to dissect within James & Jamesy In The Dark. But its most powerful quality is kindness. It is a production we need today. It works to bypass our deeply held insecurity of needing to be right. It boldly embraces our investigation into reason and knowledge with a sense of playfulness and companionship so often missing in our adult world. It’s not that James and Jamesy always get along. Throughout the entire play, there is always an underlying tension and conflict. But despite any conflict, fear, insecurity or stupidity, there is an unwavering kindness. James and Jamesy are often frightened by their new discoveries, but together they venture toward them. During the show, house lights rise on the audience. And we sit there with these alien beings. All of us, observing each other, together for the first time. We become a collective. We become a “We.” There is no need for scorn while making mistakes or feeling shame in the face of our own naiveté. There is only moving forward. No shouting. No hateful speech. No insensitivities. Just a resolute and joyful playfulness, trembling as we face our journey, wherever it may go.
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