Monday, April 21, 2014

Red Bull's 30th Anniversary Revival of The Mystery of Irma Vep at Lucille Lortel Theatre

L-R: Robert Sella and Arnie Burton in THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Charles Ludlam was a remarkable theatrical talent: a prolific playwright with 29 works to his credit; founder of the avant garde Ridiculous Theatrical Company; and an accomplished and flamboyant performer who not only starred in his own plays but produced and directed them as well.  His most successful play, The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful, was first staged off-Broadway in 1984 and ran for nearly two years.  It has since been staged all over the world: it was produced in London’s West End in 1990; it was the most produced play in the US in 1991; and it became the longest running play in Brazilian history in 2003.

Currently it is receiving a 30th Anniversary Revival by Red Bull Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street in the West Village in downtown Manhattan.  Red Bull Theater takes it as its mission “to explore great classic plays of heightened language.”  That being the case, what better play than The Mystery of Irma Vep could Red Bull have selected to celebrate its own tenth anniversary?  For if Irma Vep is nothing else, surely it is a play of “heightened language.”  It is a grand send-up of more literary, theatrical and film genres than you can shake a pen at: Aristophanes and Shakespeare, horror stories and gothic novels, Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe, Victorian melodrama and film noir, werewolves and vampires, Egyptian mummies and Alfred Hitchcock...the list goes on and on.

The Mystery of Irma Vep is a rollicking two hander in which two actors play seven different roles – male, female, or some other species altogether – appearing and disappearing; limping and leaping; entering and exiting; losing a leg and regaining it; changing, cross-dressing, and transforming – and all in the blink of an eye.  It seems that Irma Vep (an anagram of “v-a-m-p-i-r-e”), Lord Edgar Hillcrest’s first wife, died along with her son, Victor, under mysterious circumstances: her throat was torn out by her pet wolf (also named Victor) – or perhaps by a different wolf.  Or maybe even a werewolf.

Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Robert Sella) has since re-married; his second wife, Lady Enid Hillcrest (played by Arnie Burton in drag) remains jealous of his first wife and is something of a strange bird herself: she appears to sleep all day and only comes out at night.  Jane Twisden (also played by Robert Sella in drag) is the housekeeper at Mandacrest, the Hillcrest Estate, and is herself in love with Lord Edgar.  Nicodemus Underwood (also played by Arnie Burton) is the Estate’s swineherd, hobbling about on his wooden leg – except when he’s not – and lusting after Jane.

Most of the play’s action transpires at Mandacrest but Lord Edgar, an Egyptologist, also gets to travel to Egypt where he encounters Alcazar (Arnie Burton again), a guide to the Egyptian tombs.  It is there that he discovers Pev Amri (yup, she’s played by Arnie Burton too), a long dead and buried Egyptian princess whom he seeks to resurrect with hilarious results.

In the original production of Irma Vep in 1984, it was Charles Ludlam himself and his longtime companion Everett Quinton who played all the roles.  Sadly, Ludlam died of AIDS prematurely in 1987 and couldn’t be here to see this excellent revival of his work.  But fortunately Quinton is still with us and, in fact, it is he who directed this latest incarnation of Ludlam’s classic.  (What goes around, comes around.)

The plot of Irma Vep is manifestly preposterous but no matter.  The play’s goal, after all, is not really to convey a coherent story but, rather, to provide two very talented actors with an opportunity to display their comic skills (with particular emphasis on cross-dressing; indeed, to that end, Ludlam actually stipulated that the two actors must be of the same sex to ensure that cross-dressing would take place).  In that it succeeded admirably in 1984 when Ludlam and Quinton starred.  And today, in this 30th Anniversary Revival, it again succeeds splendidly: both Arnie Burton and Robert Sella are exceptionally talented actors (and quick change artists) and their portrayals of men, women, werewolves, mummies and vampires are truly superlative.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Head Hunter by Mark Borkowski at The Producers' Club/Grand Theater

L-R: Sal Inzerillo and Robert Mobley in THE HEAD HUNTER.  Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
When The Head Hunter by Mark Borkowski first debuted off-off-Broadway fourteen years ago, it received scant notice (although its only real critical review at that time actually was very positive, comparing Borkowski’s writing to that of both David Mamet and Sam Shepard).  Here’s hoping that the play’s current revival at The Producers’ Club/Grand Theater on West 44th Street in midtown Manhattan draws more attention.  It certainly deserves it.

This is a very well well-written, gritty, black comedy in which Salvy (Sal Inzerillo), a hit-man for the mob, comes to the aid of his cousin Casmir (Robert Mobley), a screenwriter duped by an unscrupulous producer into relinquishing the rights to his script.  Salvy, who has a signature penchant for decapitation, intends to assist his cousin in retrieving the script (based on the lives of Salvy’s and Casmir’s fathers) – no matter what it might take.

Inzerillo and Mobley are two very professional actors and they play their roles in this disturbingly funny two hander for all it’s worth.  As they confront the superficial problem of retrieving Casmir’s script, they come to explore as well the deeper bonds between their respective families – including those that might better have remained undiscovered.  Inzerillo is particularly effective, coming across as something of a mixture of a comical low-life straight out of Damon Runyon and a psychopathic killer.

The Head Hunter is now in the midst of a limited run which ends on May 4.  So if you are planning to see it – and I certainly hope you do – there’s not much time left.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Double Bill: A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity and Clean at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Emma Dennis Edwards, Chloe Massey, and Jade Anouka in CLEAN.  Photo by Jeremy Abrahams.
Zainab (Emma Dennis-Edwards), of mixed British-Egyptian descent, is a young, street-savvy, London criminal, specializing in identity theft.  Chloe (Jade Anouka), a slightly older, more refined, but equally dishonest Brit, is a highly successful emeralds smuggler.  And Katya (Chloe Massey), a Russian √©migr√©, not quite old enough to be ex-KGB agent (but then again: Who really knows?), is the third female criminal, her forte being market manipulation, with occasional forays into diamond smuggling.

What the three women have in common is that they are all, as Zainab expresses it, “clean crime ladies…meaning no death no blood no mess kinda ting but still illegal as sin.”  And they are all exceptionally competent at what they do, prompting Caitlin, the co-owner of the club at which the three hang out, to recruit them to work as a team in the biggest caper of their lives.  It will be up to them to steal an incredibly well-guarded microchip from the notorious Kristof Clementine who, at one time or another, not only hurt Caitlin, but brought harm to Chloe and Katya as well.

If all of this sounds more like a video game than a stage play, well, that’s because in a way it really is.  When Sabrina Mahfouz wrote Clean, it was with the specific intent to “write a tale of three females who could easily be the basis of crime-based computer games”  (ostensibly as a way to redress the imbalance between the number of male anti-heroes and the number of female anti-heroes in video games).  In that, she clearly has succeeded: she has penned a rhythmical, rhyming, rap song of a play embodying the essence of a video game and she is fortunate that Dennis-Edwards, Anouka, and Massey are all exceptionally talented and play their roles with great panache.

But to what avail?  When all is said and done, it still all amounts to little more than a video game, necessarily derivative and corny.  Even granted that it’s largely tongue-in-cheek, that Mahfouz is a clever wordsmith, and that the dynamic trio are just that – a dynamic trio – we really have seen it all before and just because the play’s three protagonists are women rather than men doesn’t make it really different or compelling.

L-R: Gavin Jon Wright and Joanna Tope in A RESPECTABLE WIDOW TAKES TO VULGARITY.  Photo by Jeremy Abrahams.
Clean is just one half of the Double Bill currently being presented by The Traverse Theatre Company of Edinburgh at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan (the other half is A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity by Douglas Maxwell).  Both short plays are enjoying their US premieres and are directed by Orla O’Loughlin in 59E59 Theater’s Scotland Week (the first week in its highly regarded annual Brits Off Broadway program.  And the second of the two, A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity, is a real winner.

In A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity, Annabelle Love (Joanna Tope), mourning the loss of her husband, encounters Jim Dick (Gavin Jon Wright), one of her late husband’s employees.  In this terrific two-hander, the well-bred Annabelle learns more from Jim about language – its uses and abuses – than either Wittgenstein or Chomsky might ever have dreamt of in their philosophies.  Words, even the most vulgar of words, can mean very different things to different people and in different contexts.  They may have the most innocent, even endearing, connotations in some situations while other seemingly much more innocuous remarks may elicit far more negative reactions.  (Just think of the difference in reaction to the use of the N-word when the slur is hurled at an African-American employee by his white boss and when it is used by a black teenager innocently bantering with his black teenage friend.)

Along the way, both Annabelle and Jim learn much more about many other aspects of life as well – what it means to grieve, for instance, or how differently those in different socio-economic classes may see the world.

Joanna Tope is marvelous as Annabelle as she evolves from being the type of well-bred matron about whom one initially have said “Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth” to one who could hold her own among a group of sailors.  Gavin Jon Wright is equally delightful as Jim, whose unusual relationship with Annabelle ultimately enables him to see the world as he never has before.  They play off one another wonderfully and it makes for an exceptionally enjoyable theatrical experience.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Breathing Time by Beau Willimon

L-R: Lee Dolson and Craig Wesley Divino in BREATHING TIME.  Photo by Jacob J. Goldberg.
Fault Line Theatre is currently presenting the world premiere of Breathing Time by Beau Willimon at the Iati Theater on East 4th Street in downtown Manhattan.  This is an exceptional play, insightful and thought provoking, deeply nuanced, and multi-layered, with sharply-written dialogue reminiscent of David Mamet.  Try not to miss it.

Mike (Lee Dolson) and Jack (Craig Wesley Divino) might seem to be something of an odd couple – at least superficially.  Mike is married, the father of an eight year old boy, and a buttoned-up, by the numbers analyst, specializing in derivatives at an investment bank.  Jack, by contrast, is a single, fast talking, hard drinking, former trader, recently re-assigned to the marketing department of the same bank.  Somewhat surprisingly, they are called upon to share an office and it is there that we begin to discover just how misleading first impressions can be, how little we really understand each other (and often even ourselves), and how presumptuous it can be to jump to conclusions and interfere in others’ lives, even with the best of intentions, based upon one’s own values and attitudes, without knowing all the facts.  In short: “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.”

As it turns out, Mike and Jack might have more in common than first meets the eye.  For one thing, they both were once Boy Scouts.  Not surprisingly, Mike made it all the way to Eagle Scout, while Jack quit after becoming a Life Scout.  Did that presage Jack’s lack of stick-to-it-iveness?  But what, then, is one to make of Jack’s having persisted for years in seeking out the family of a military officer whose West Point ring had come into his father’s possession upon the officer’s death in Vietnam?  And isn’t it odd that tight-assed, quantitative Mike, the former Eagle Scout, can’t recall the Boy Scouts’ rules or oath while erratic Jack, the Boy Scout dropout, can recite them all verbatim?  Nothing, apparently, is quite what it seems.

Indeed, why has Jack really been sent to share Mike’s office?  Is it realistic to think that an unsuccessful trader would be reassigned to the bank’s marketing department and, even if it is, wouldn’t it have made more sense to have relocated him within the marketing department itself?  Is it possible that he is just being parked temporarily in Mike’s office as an interim step before his being forced out of the bank entirely?  Or is it Jack whose career is going downhill?  It is he, after all, who occupied a private office to begin with and who now is being required to share it with a stranger.  Neither Jack nor Mike express any compunctions about what is going on but can we really believe what they have to say?

When we first meet Jack, he is preparing to make a major presentation to a group of the bank’s senior officers, recommending that they offer clients a new derivative product based on the Nielsen ratings.  It is a bold and creative idea and one that could prove to be the most important of his career.  Or rather, he is not prepared but only scheduled to make such a presentation, since his proposal really hasn’t been fully fleshed out (he’s hoping that Mike will help him out on that); he’s still hung over from partying the night before; and even the documents he plans to distribute in support of his proposal haven’t yet been copied and collated.

Breathing Time is presented as a one act play with no intermission and it is in the first scene of that single act – set in Mike and Jack’s office which has been brilliantly designed by Tristan Jeffers - that all of what I have thus far been discussing transpires.  The theatre itself is a modified theatre-in-the-round with parallel rows of seats facing one another on opposite sides of the stage, affording everyone in the audience a view of the entire stage with perfect sight lines.  Mike’s and Jack’s desks have been positioned catty-corner in the corners of the stage as if to emphasize that the two are polar opposites.  Or perhaps it is to suggest that they are both variations on the same theme.  Or that they are two sides of the same coin.  Or maybe all of the above.

L-R:: Molly Thomas, Shannon Marie Sullivan, and John Racioppo in BREATHING TIME.  Photo by Jacob J. Goldberg.  
The second scene takes place in a completely different setting.  Jack’s sister, Denise (Shannon Marie Sullivan) and Mike’s wife, Julie (Molly Thomas) are meeting for the first time over dinner.  Julie is a typical suburban homemaker, as conventional and mainstream as her husband.  Denise is a single mom, providing for her young daughter by performing at a “gentlemen’s club,” while harboring dreams of being a professional dancer.  Stereotypical images, to be sure – except that just as there were facets to Mike and Jack of which we were at first unaware, so too is there more to Denise and Julie than first meets the eye.  We would never have expected, for instance, that it was Denise who visited MOMA whenever she came to New York and that it was she who knew the precise location of every painting in the museum.  And why was Julie so strict with her eight year old son, grounding him for six months simply because she discovered him viewing internet porn?

It was Denise who initiated the dinner meeting, hoping to share with Julie a photograph she had received from Jack that she thought would very much interest her.  And yet, much to her surprise, Julie not only wasn’t interested in the photograph but actually resented Denise’s showing it to her in the first place!  (Her reaction was similar to that of the family to whom Jack attempted to return the West Point ring; they didn’t want any part of the ring and he found himself being rebuffed for what he had considered to be a gratuitously generous gesture on his part.)  From there, the relationship between Denise and Julie only got worse, with Julie attempting to encourage Denise in her dreams, Denise taking umbrage at Julia’s presumptuousness, and neither approving of the other’s child raising methods.

All four of the principal actors - Lee Dolson, Craig Wesley Divino, Shannon Marie Sullivan, and Molly Thomas - are excellent in their respective roles, expressing the multiple facets of their complex  personae with nuanced sensitivity.  They are ably supported Whitney Conkling as Karen, Jack’s tough assistant, and John Racioppo as the waiter serving Denise and Julie.  In sum, a first rate production of a not to be missed play.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Fifty Shades! The Musical at the Elektra Theatre

L-R: Kaitlyn Frotton, Amber Petty, Chloe Williamson, and Ashley Ward in FIFTY SHADES! THE MUSICAL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Following successful runs in Edinburgh, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, 50 Shades! The Musical, an hilariously funny, over-the-top, parody of Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, has returned to the Elektra Theatre on West 43rd Street in midtown Manhattan.  Billed as “The Original Parody of the Greatest Novel Ever Written,” 50 Shades! The Musical may not be good, clean fun – but it certainly is great fun of a more earthy sort.  By all means, don’t take the kids (ask your more prudish friends if they wouldn’t mind baby-sitting them for you) but you go out and pleasure yourself by attending a performance of this wildly entertaining musical sex-travaganza.

Anastasia Steele (Amber Petty), is a young, wholesome virgin, anxious to please, but with a deep feeling of emptiness in her life, which she cleverly expresses in her terrific double entendre rendition of “There’s a Hole Inside of Me.”  And, in a way, that says it all.  When she meets Christian Grey (Chris Grace), a billionaire businessman and kinky sexual predator who never met an orifice he didn’t like, how could she help but fall in love with him?  Cast against type, Christian has the body type of a scaled down sumo wrestler and the rubbery face of a clown – not every woman’s fantasy come true, to be sure, but he is just what Anastasia’s has been yearning for – and that makes for some rollickingly entertaining scenes.

The play really belongs to Amber Petty and Chris Grace.  She is not only a delightfully attractive and talented actress but she can belt out a song with the best of them.  He is a consummate physical comedian, whose agility, body language and facial expressions continually surprise.  Together, they are a matchless duo, but they are also fortunate in being surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast.  I was particularly taken with Tim Murray in the role of Jose, the Mexican youth smitten by Anastasia, and by Kaitlyn Frotton, Chloe Williamson and Ashley Ward, as three sexually frustrated book club members who get the whole show underway by selecting Fifty Shades of Grey as their next book to read in the first place.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Musicals Tonight! Stages Revival of For Goodness Sake at The Lion Theatre

For Goodness Sake, written by Fred Jackson with lyrics by Arthur Jackson, music by William Daly and Paul Lannin, and with merely “additional” music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, was first produced on Broadway in 1922.  Starring Fred and Adele Astaire, it didn’t make much of a splash, closing after only 122 performances.  But then, re-staged in London a year later as Stop Flirting, with additional Gershwin songs and a revised story line (but still featuring Fred and Adele Astaire), it proved to be considerably more successful, running there for more than a year.

And it hasn’t been seen here since.  Until now.

Musicals Tonight!, which takes as its mission the resurrection of long-forgotten musicals, is currently staging a revival this period piece as For Goodness Sake by George and Ira Gershwin, at The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan.  This production marks Musicals Tonight!’s 79th revival – others of which have included Girl Crazy, Lady Be Good, Meet Me in St. Louis, Irma la Douce, Paint Your Wagon, and Milk and Honey.  To be sure, many of those 79 musicals were well worth reviving but some were not and, sad to say, For Goodness Sake falls into that latter category.

For Goodness Sake has a hackneyed and dated story line, providing no real surprises.  The dialogue is flat and the first act especially tedious.  And of all its musical numbers, there is only one, I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise, that really is up to the Gershwins’ standard.  Indeed, the rest of the score is so disappointing that that one tune is performed four times, as if to distract from everything else.

This production of For Goodness Sake is set at the Bourne Lodge where Vivianne (Amber Guest) who, despite being deeply in love with and engaged to marry Perry (Brandon Andrus), persists in extensive and innocent flirtations with an array of other men, much to the consternation of her fiance.  Perry enlists the aid of his friend Geoff (Nathan L. Freeman) to help him determine whether Vivianne truly loves him and to dissuade her from her flirtations but Geoff demands a quid pro quo: he will assist Perry if Perry will sanction his marriage to Marjory (Natalie Beck), Perry’s ward and Vivianne’s former classmate.  The two men agree and concoct a plot whereby Perry fakes his death in a phony airplane crash on a trans-Atlantic flight piloted by his friend Bobby (Matt Demont); their hope is that, when Vivianne hears of Perry’s death and then learns that he is alive after all, she will return to her senses, realize how much she loves him, and abandon her flirtations.

Of course, events fail to develop quite as planned.  Vivianne learns of the ruse and turns the tables on Perry.  But since Perry and Vivianne are truly in love, as are Marjory and Geoff, everything works out predictably well in the end and all the players can take turns singing I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise and other more forgettable tunes.  Finally, even the musical’s third romantic coupling – that between Teddy (Sean Bell) and Suzanne (Sarah Rolleston) – is brought to successful fruition.  And the fortune hunter, Count Spinagio (Jason Simon), finally gets his come-uppance.

The musical itself isn’t much but that is not to say that the Musicals Tonight! company doesn’t do a wonderful job with the limited material at its disposal for, indeed, they do.  The entire cast deserves credit for their performances but, in particular, I would single out Amber Guest, who has a terrific voice and uses it to full advantage; Sean Bell, who has a tough act to follow as Teddy (since that’s the role that was originally played by the iconic Fred Astaire), but who pulls it off with exceptional charm and grace; and Jason Simon, who provides delightful Falstaffian comic relief as Count Spinagio. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Liliom Starring Gerrard Lobo at Beautiful Soup Theater

Gerrard Lobo and Morgan DeTogne in LILIOM.  Photo by Samantha Mercado-Tudda.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel was originally inspired by the play Liliom, written by the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar in 1909.  Liliom was not well received when it was first staged in Hungary but it was a rousing success when it subsequently opened on Broadway in 1921 in a translation by Benjamin Glazer and again when it was revived on Broadway in 1932.  It was staged in New York again in 1940 but has not been seen here since – not until now, that is: it is currently being revived in an excellent off-off-Broadway production by Beautiful Soup Theater at Celebration of Whimsy (the former home of The Living Theatre) on Clinton Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. 

Liliom is set in Budapest, Hungary and in a sort of transitional area outside of Heaven.  In this production, Gerrard Lobo performs powerfully in the title role as a tough, arrogant carousel barker who, despite falling in love with and impregnating Julie (Morgan DeTogne), generally mistreats her, once even to the extent of slapping her.  Nonetheless, concern for his unborn child prompts Liliom to engage in an ill-conceived robbery, resulting in his untimely demise.  At that point, Liliom finds himself waiting outside the Pearly Gates to learn of his eternal fate: after spending 16 years in a fiery Purgatory, he is given the opportunity to return to Earth for a day to make amends for the life he lived, before final judgment is passed upon him.

(Carousel Americanizes the play in many ways.  The first half takes place in Maine rather than Budapest.  Liliom becomes Billy Bigelow.  And the play’s climax is made more hopeful.)

But since Carousel is widely considered to have been one of the greatest musicals of all time (indeed, in 1999, Time Magazine named it the Best Musical of the 20th century), and since it has been frequently revived, while Liliom seems to have been all but forgotten, one might reasonably ask: Why revive Liliom now?

In a Program Note to this revival, Steven Carl McCasland, the Artistic Director and founder of Beautiful Soup Theater and the Adaptor and Director of this production, addresses that question.  While he readily concedes that:

“The music [in Carousel] was so stirring that, despite several revivals over the years, Molnar’s play is often forgotten and companies around the world choose instead to mount the beloved musical”

he contends that:

“…the play evokes a cautionary tale.  The War on Women continues to rage.  But much like when Julie challenges Liliom to raise his fists again, the fight for equality passionately continues.”

And he concludes that

“[Liliom is] just as moving a journey, even without the sweeping sounds of Carousel.”

I’m sorry but I must respectfully, and vehemently, disagree.  Liliom is nowhere near as moving a journey without the sweeping sounds of Carousel.  And it is really quite a stretch to attempt to interpret this play as a polemic against wife abuse: Molnar emphasizes the point that Liliom has struck his wife only once and that others are mistaken in believing that he is a habitual wife-beater.  And at the play’s conclusion, both Julie and her daughter Louise (Kelly Reader) express the sentiment that sometimes a hard slap does not even hurt.

Rather, the play explores a whole variety of human behaviors – both admirable and reprehensible - of which wife abuse is only one.  It touches on a woman’s confessing to her dead lover what she had been unable to express to him when he was alive; on the joy (and fear) a man experiences on learning that he is to be a father; on individuals’ petty concerns for their own portraits or pay or pensions in the face of others’ real tragedies. 

None of what I have just written is intended to trivialize all of the unforgivable, misogynistic, sociopathic and brutal aspects of wife abuse.  Such behavior is to be condemned, criminalized and punished and I, for one, applaud Beautiful Soup Theater for bringing this matter to the attention of its audience, soliciting their support in combating it, and contributing the proceeds from its own production of Liliom to Safe Horizon, the largest organization helping victims of crime and abuse in the United States today.  But support for a worthwhile cause still doesn’t justify misinterpreting what a theatrical work is all about or why it may be worth producing or seeing.

Nor should what I have written be taken to mean that I didn’t enjoy this production of Liliom, nor that I wouldn’t recommend to you that you see it.  On the contrary: I think that this is a very professional production of a seldom seen play and theatre aficionados – especially those with a particular interest in the precursors of selected works (in this case, Carousel) – are very likely to enjoy it.

But it doesn’t really strike a blow for women’s rights.   And it really isn’t even in the same league as Carousel