Monday, April 25, 2016

ECHOES by Henry Naylor at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Filipa Braganca and Felicity Houlbrooke in ECHOES.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Both Felicity Houlbrooke and Filipa Braganca are exceptionally talented actresses and both deliver truly spectacular performances in Echoes, currently enjoying its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway Festival.  But, sad to say, their talents are largely squandered on this play which, despite its success at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is little more than a superficial diatribe seeking to establish the moral equivalence between the excesses of British colonialism and the horrors of Islamic terrorism and proclaiming the eternal victimhood of women and ethnic minorities at the hands of men and Western Europeans.

Tillie (Felicity Houlbrooke) is a 17 year old Victorian pioneer woman from Ipswich who accepts the British Government’s offer of free passage to India in the mid-nineteenth century so that she might marry a soldier and fulfill her responsibility to provide him with offspring to help populate the British Empire.  Samira (Felipa Braganca) is a 17 year old Muslim woman from Ipswich who travels to the Middle East today so that she might marry an Islamist terrorist and contribute to the establishment of a Caliphate   In dueling monologues, Tillie and Samira expound on their ordeals and ultimate disillusionments but without ever really acknowledging any responsibility for their own actions.

To be sure, men must bear much of the responsibility for the exploitation and subjugation of women over the ages and European society must accept responsibility for much of the exploitation of indigenous peoples around the world.  But it is long past time, I think, for us simply to be satisfied with two dimensional attacks on all men and all of Western culture and to examine in greater depth the degree to which women and ethnic minorities may have been complicit in their own victimization.  And Henry Naylor, in penning Echoes, has failed to even approach those questions and has taken the easy way out  – with a couple of gratuitous swipes at Donald Trump and Ted Cruz thrown in for good measure, as if to underscore the fact that the play really is nothing more than an extreme feminist and far left polemic.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

ARSENE LUPIN VS SHERLOCK HOLMES at The Onomatopoeia Theatre Company

L-R: Kevin Sebastian and Philip O'Gorman in ARSENE LUPIN VS SHERLOCK HOLMES.  Poster Design by Kevin Sebastian.  Poster Photography by Max Kilsheimer.
Arsene Lupin vs Sherlock Holmes, currently being staged by The Onomatopoeia Theatre Company at The Gene Frankel Theater on Bond Street in lower Manhattan, is an entertaining tour de force adapted by Thomas R. Gordon (Onomatopoeia’s founder and artistic director)  from the short stories The Fair Haired Lady and Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late by Maurice LeBlanc and A Scandal in Bohemia by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.   The play provides everything that one might expect – the theft of a precious jewel (the Blue Diamond) by the notorious Arsene Lupin (Kevin Sebastian); the unexpected death of Mme. Rosette Bordeaux (Taylor Khaldy); the inability of Inspector Justin Ganimard (Alexander Larkin) of the French Police to solve the murder or robbery cases or to capture Lupin; the Police’s reluctant decision to call upon Sherlock Holmes (Philip O’Gorman) for help; - together with the mystery of the fair haired lady, the discovery of a secret passage at the Chateau Thibermesnil, counterfeit currencies, and, of course, the matching of wits between Holmes and Lupin.

It is frequently the case that the enjoyment of a theatrical production requires, at the outset, a suspension of disbelief, and that is certainly the case here.  For starters one must learn to overlook the actors’ on again off again French accents and focus instead on their general exuberance   And, if nothing else, they are exuberant.

There are fifteen characters in this production, played by ten different actors with several playing two or more roles.  Of them all, I thought the most outstanding was Lisa Monde who portrayed Alexandra James (A.J.) ”Raffles” Holmes, the daughter of Sherlock Holmes, a character invented by Mr. Gordon specifically for this play as a strong counterpoint to Holmes himself.  I was also particularly impressed by the performances of Kevin Sebastian as Lupin and David Alexander in the dual roles of Victor Grunbaum and Jean Dudouis.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


L-R: Zoe Watkins, Aedin Moloney and Barrie Kreinik in WHEN I WAS A GIRL I USED TO SCREAM AND SHOUT. Photo by Carol Rosegg..
When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout by Sharman Macdonald premiered in London in 1984 and was first produced in New York City four years later.  Now it is being revived by Fallen Angel Theatre Company at Theatre Row’s Clurman Theatre on West 42mnd Street in midtown Manhattan, marking its first off-Broadway production and its first production by an Irish/British New York based company.

Fallen Angel was founded in 2003 by Aedin Moloney, a highly accomplished actress who recently delivered an outstanding performance as Margaret Willoughby in the Mint Theatre Company’s superb production of Women Without Men.  Now she is doing it again, delivering a fine performance as Morag, a beleaguered Scottish mother attempting unsuccessfully to repair her damaged relationship with her daughter Fiona (Barrie Kreinik).

When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout is a memory play set on the rocky coast of Scotland in 1983 when Fiona is a grown woman in her late 20’s, shifting back and forth through a series of flashbacks between that time and Fiona’s early childhood, her pre-pubescence, and her teenage years.  What is generally established is just how blissfully ignorant Fiona and her best friend, Vari (Zoe Watkins), were of all things sexual and theological in their early years, how Fiona not only did little to alleviate those conditions but contributed to them, and how it all led to the direst consequences including Fiona’s impregnation by Ewan (Colby Howell) at age 15, her subsequent strained relationship with her mother, and the failure of mother and daughter to ever truly reconcile.

The performances of all four cast members were commendable but as for the overall production, not so much.  The play is really two separate plays, one a slice of life impressionistic expression of Fiona’s relatively stultifying upbringing with its emphasis on her sexual and religious ignorance and the other a more structured rendition of the events leading to her pregnancy and her subsequent relationship with her mother.  But the two plays never really mesh into one - the first is more smarmy, anatomical and distasteful than enlightening and the latter, which should have provided the play’s driving force, is much too tepid to be truly effective.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

HAPPILY AFTER EVER at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Brennan Lowery, Molly-Ann Nordin, Jeffrey Brian Adams, and Marlon Meikle in HAPPILY AFTER EVER.  Photo by Erik Carter.
For much of human history, little distinction was made between one’s gender and one’s sex, or between one’s sexual characteristics and one’s sexual orientation, or between one’s biological sexual markers and one’s sexual self-identification.  It was simply assumed that what it meant to be male was to have a Y chromosome, to have a penis and testicles, to be physically attracted to and sexually stimulated by women, and to think of oneself as a man.  And what it meant to be female was to lack a Y chromosome, to have a vagina and uterus, to be physically attracted to and sexually stimulated by men, and to think of oneself as a woman.  And all the parts were thought to go together in neat packages: chromosomes, sex organs, emotional inclinations, and self-identifications.  Sure there were tomboys and sissies among us – and occasionally we even came across blatant homosexuals or lesbians -  but those were thought to be rare aberrations of little significance.

Not any more.  The gay rights movement, culminating in the broad acceptance of same sex marriage, has led, in turn, to the recognition of the extent to which all those parts really don’t necessarily go together, a better understanding of the degree to which one might exhibit male physical sexual characteristics and a female sexual orientation (or vice versa), and the belated realization that we were wrong to have believed that one’s sex (as evidenced by one’s chromosomes and sex organs) and one’s gender (as evidenced by one’s orientation and self-identification) must necessarily coincide.  Yes, they usually do – but not nearly as consistently as we once thought.

Indeed, the very idea of there being any such thing as, say, a lesbian trapped in a man’s body was once taken to be nothing more than a sophomoric oxymoronic joke.  That is, until today.

It is this revolutionary change in our thinking about sex and gender that lies at the heart of Ricochet Collective’s production of Happily After Ever, a rather quirky impressionistic play by Laura Zlatos currently premiering at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  The play’s slight plot revolves around Janet and Darren, newlyweds eager to create a perfect life for themselves and one that must, of course, include a perfect baby.  But life throws them a curve when Janet gives birth to a baby with both male and female genitalia.  Is it a boy?  A girl?  Both? And what, if anything, should they do about – or to - it?

Are sex and gender absolutes or are they relativistic concepts: in other words, is one either male or female and that’s all there is to it, or do those concepts really lie on a continuum so that one can be mostly male or mostly female or sort of both?  And whether absolute or relative, are sex and gender fixed or are they malleable?  Might sex be fixed and gender malleable – or the other way around?  The questions never seem to end.

While the play’s primary focus is on these conundrums, the playwright also raises all sorts of other questions of a relative or absolute nature.  Are happiness and unhappiness absolutes or are they also relativistic – i.e., are we happy (or unhappy) irrespective of our perceptions of others’ happiness or unhappiness or is our own happiness somehow dependent upon our perception of the happiness (or lack thereof) of others?  Schadenfreude, anyone?  To that end, we are introduced to Janet and Darren’s next door neighbors, Jerry and Dharma, the perfect couple whose own lives come to represent the standard against which Janet and Darren measure their own.

In directing how the characters in her play should be cast, Ms Zlatos specified that “Janet and Dharma should be played by a woman or someone who is feminine” and that “Darren and Jerry should be played by a man or someone who is masculine.”  In fact, in this production, Darren and Jerry are played by two very talented “real” men (Jeffrey Brian Adams and Brennan Lowery, respectively) and Janet is played by an exceptionally exuberant and irrepressible “real” woman (Molly-Ann Nordin)..  But Dharma is played by a notorious drag queen (Marlon Meikle) whose over-the-top femininity surpasses that of most “real” women, only serving to underscore the degree to which our perceptions of sex and gender are relativistic rather than absolute.

Nor is it just the concepts of sex and gender that Ms Zlatos contends are more relativistic than absolute.  The same thing apparently can be said about the concepts of love and loyalty and most anything else you might imagine.  As an example, in response to Janet’s affirmation that she “was not meant to be alone,” Darren’s response is much less reassuring in any absolute sense than one might have expected:

“And now, you never will be.  Except when I leave for work every day.  Or if I take a really long shit.  Or when I need to get the hell away from you, but it’s pretty damn safe to say that I’ll be there for the minimum amount of time it takes to keep you around.”

And when Janet seeks absolute assurance from Darren that

”you’ll love me, right?  Forever.  And after that even.  And again after that”

the best that Darren can come up with is:

“I promise to love you as long as you don’t get fat.”

The only other character in the play is Tommy (Jim Anderson), a runaway, misunderstood family dog who, as it turns out, is really a bitch, Tania.  Apparently even the sexual identification of dog can be suspect and relativistic.  As played by Mr. Anderson, the droll and downcast Tommy adds further comic relief to an otherwise unusual and entertaining production.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

IDEATION by Aaron Loeb: A Philosophical Feast

L-R: Mark Anderson Phillips and Carrie Paff in IDEATION.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
When Brock (Mark Anderson Phillips), Ted (Michael Ray Wisely), and Sandeep (Jason Kapoor), three business consultants, returned from their latest assignment in Greece, they were in for a big surprise: their boss, Hannah (Carrie Paff), was there to inform them that their new assignment was to devise a program whereby millions of people could be efficiently and secretly liquidated and their remains disposed of, with the public to be none the wiser.

Just imagine, if you will, that some evil entity – think ISIS or Al Qaeda or North Korea or Iran – came into possession of a chemical weapon with no known antidote, a substance so toxic that it would spread virally throughout the world, infecting millions.  Imagine, further, that all those infected would die within months and that, worse yet, anyone coming into contact with such an infected individual would himself have a 50% chance of infection and imminent death.  Under such circumstances, mightn’t the US Government (or some other government in the civilized world) attempt to devise a plan whereby all those who had been infected could be put to death (as humanely as possible, of course), while keeping the entire project secret from the public?  And if our Government (or some such other entity) might do that in the event of such a worldwide human catastrophe, might it not seek to take preventive action and develop such a workable plan even in anticipation of the mere possibility that some rogue nation might someday threaten the world in that fashion?

That is the dark premise at the heart of Ideation, the remarkably original new play by Aaron Loeb, currently premiering at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  The US Government (or some other unknown client) has retained a prestigious business consulting firm to devise just such a plan.  And now it’s all up to Brock, Ted, Sandeep,  and Hannah to pull it off.

You got a problem with any of that?

After all, shouldn’t humanity’s survival trump concern for any specific human subset - particularly one that is already diseased and on the verge of death anyway?

Or should it?  And even if it should, how could anyone, even a “civilized” nation (such as the US?) with untold resources, possibly accomplish such a goal?

The play’s action all takes place in the consulting firm’s conference room, where Hannah and the three man team are pressing to achieve their goal under a severe time constraint, and with Scooter (Ben Euphrat), a young intern much too big for his britches, underfoot and doing more harm than good.

The truly extraordinary thing about this play is the way in which it manages to explore a whole host of serious philosophical and psychological problems, while never failing to fulfill its primary function which is, of course, to entertain.  The moral dilemma at the play’s core, with which utilitarian philosophers have grappled unsuccessfully since Bentham and Mill, is really the classic “trolley” problem writ large.  Nor is it just that ethical conundrum that vitalizes this production: we are confronted, too, by epistemological issues and the problem of “other minds”: what do we really know and how do we know that we know it?  Or, in this context, How do the team members really know that the threat they have been asked to deal with is only hypothetical and hasn’t already occurred?  How do they know who their real client is and what his true motivations may be?  Indeed, how can they even know what each other know or believe?

And if they could find answers to such abstract questions, then what?  How are they to develop a meaningful course of action when there is no hard data to begin with?  Descartes couldn’t get very far beyond “Cogito ergo sum” and the ontological argument for the existence of God, while linguistically clever, really doesn’t get one very far in proving the existence of a Deity.  And today’s business consultants and quantitative analysts, with all their whiteboards and decision trees and algorithms, often accomplish little more than did Descartes or St. Anselm.

Finally, Ideation raises important questions regarding human psychology.  How willing are perfectly normal individuals to follow orders or go along with the crowd for the sake of community, conformity, or self-interest - even when to do so may cause pain (or death) to others?  When does discomfort and uncertainty lead to paranoia?  Indeed, Ideation may well be interpreted not only as Loeb’s tongue-in-cheek attack on the failures and pretensions of today’s business consultants and their cousins in academia but on the self-satisfied smugness of all of the rest of us as well. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Invisible Girls Theatre Co. Revives Three Plays by Havel, Churchill and Beckett

Invisible Girls Theatre Company deserves considerable praise for its ambitious staging of Three PlaysUnveiling by Vaclav Havel, Abortive by Caryl Churchill, and Embers by Samuel Beckett – at TBG Theatre on West 36th Street in midtown Manhattan.  The juxtaposition of Havel’s Orwellian attack on Communist conformity, Churchill’s ruminations on a marriage crisis, and Beckett’s expression of existential despair was not only imaginatively conceived but, equally important, it was intelligently and creatively executed.

The entire program is just 90 minutes long with no intermission but a lot is packed into that brief hour-and-a-half.  In Unveiling, the first of the three one act plays, Ferdinand Vanek (Alexander Robin Kass) has been invited to the home of his best friends, Vera (Marcela Biven) and Michael (Patrick Hamilton) where his hosts ply him with food and drink, entertain him with a display of their own opulence and, most importantly, try to convince him to conform to the values and lifestyle that they deem most appropriate.  (Vanek, who also appears in several of Havel’s other works, is a thinly-disguised stand-in for Havel himself, a dissident playwright forced to work in a brewery because his writing has been banned by the Communist Czechoslovakian Government.)

In Caryl Churchill’s Abortive, Roz (Marcela Biven) and her husband, Colin (Patrick Hamilton), are grappling with the reality of Roz’s having been raped and having chosen to have an abortion, despite Colin’s having offered to raise the child as his own if she chose to keep it.  She’s not sure that she made the right decision and he’s not absolutely certain that she really was raped.  It is all taking a toll on their marriage, particularly on their sex life.

Embers is a rather typical example of Beckett’s sense of existential despair, although probably not his best.  Henry (David Carlson) seeks to drown out the incessant sound of the sea in his head through his own continual blathering, but to little avail (his father died in the sea and, by this time, he is probably quite nuts, as his wife Ada (Marcela Biven) never ceases to remind him.

The entire Three Plays production gets by with a minimal set, which presents no real problem in Abortive and Embers which originally were produced as radio dramas.  It is a bit more of a problem in Unveiling, however, where the audience is forced to simply imagine the opulence and other “stuff” which normally would be presented on stage and which are integral to the play.  But somehow the play’s director and its outstanding cast still make it work.

Friday, February 26, 2016

After 77 Years, Mint Theater Revives WOMEN WITHOUT MEN

L-R: Emily Walton, Dee Pelletier, Aedin Moloney, and Kate Middleton in WOMEN WITHOUT MEN.  Photo by Richard Termine.
When Madeline Albright claimed that there’s a special place in Hell reserved for women who don’t support other women, she surely didn’t have the denizens of the teachers’ lounge at Malyn Park Private School in mind – but she very well could have.  For it is there that the teachers in Hazel Ellis’s Women Without Men (all of whom are women at the exclusive girls boarding school in Ireland in the 1930s) allow their most petty jealousies to gain the better of them – and ultimately come to bear the inevitable consequences of their actions.

None of the women, other than the newest member of the faculty, Miss Jean Wade (Emily Walton), is married or engaged, or likely ever to get married or even have a suitor.  (Ruby is the exception: she has a boyfriend and fully expects to marry him some day, just not right away.)  Miss Connor (Kellie Overbey) is constrained by the fact that she must care for her aging mother and invalid sister, providing her with no real opportunity to create a family of her own.  She has channeled whatever creative energies she might have had into the writing of a a history of “beautiful acts” through the ages, annoying her contemporaries no end with her self-aggrandizing references to her book, The entire experience has left her unpleasant, officious and friendless.

Madamoiselle Vernier (Dee Pelletier) was born into a somewhat higher estate than the others, which meant that most men weren’t good enough for her but, when her grandfather lost all the family’s wealth (and with it their social standing and Madamoiselle’s dowry), it turned out that maybe it really was she who wasn’t good enough for most men.  Nor do marriage prospects for Miss Marjorie Strong (Mary Bacon) or Miss Margaret Willoughby (Aedin Moloney) seem any brighter.

Ruby and Margaret are forced to share living quarters which serves as a continuing irritant to both of them.  Ruby is well-liked by the students (if not by her fellow-teachers) but since Jean arrived, Jean appears to be replacing Ruby in the students’ affections, much to Ruby’s consternation.  Margaret resents the fact that Mademoiselle granted permission to one of her students to abstain from Margaret’s class walk without first clearing it with Margaret.  Miss Connors and Mademoiselle are at loggerheads over the proper use of the teachers’ lounge.  Miss Connors and Jean are at cross-purposes when it comes to the disciplining of a student, the use of space for a play rehearsal rather than tutoring, and the importance, or lack thereof, of participation in an elocution contest.  Somehow, Marjorie manages to maintain her distance and stay above it all.

Women Without Men was first produced in 1938 at the Gate Theatre in Dublin but, despite receiving positive reviews from both critics and audiences alike has not been revived since.  Now that oversight is being corrected with a wonderful revival  - indeed, the long-overdue American premiere! - of the long lost play currently being staged by the Mint Theater Company at New York City Center Stage II on West 55th Street in midtown Manhattan.

This, of course, is what the Mint Theater Company is justifiably noted for: unearthing worthwhile forgotten works and staging them with great aplomb (with ostensibly considerable emphasis on the works of forgotten female dramatists).  The lost plays by women that it staged in the past included A Little Journey by Rachel Crothers and Rutherford & Son by Githa Sowerby (among others), both of which proved to be excellent productions.  Nor has the Mint lost its magic touch: this production of Hazel Ellis’s Women Without Men clearly deserves a place in that panoply of Mint successes.

Women Without Men is something of a whodunit but, unlike most whodunits, in which one or more murders would seem to be de rigueur, Ms Ellis predicates her mystery on what superficially would seem to be a far more trivial crime: the wanton destruction of Miss Connor’s nearly complete magnum opus, that history of “beautiful acts” through the ages.  No one is murdered or abducted – there is not even a jewel heist – but Miss Connor has devoted her life to writing her book and for someone to have taken it from her in this manner does appear to have been the most dastardly of acts.

No one really wished Miss Connor ill, but then no one really wished her well either, so it would seem that virtually anyone might have perpetrated the crime.  Suspicion quickly falls on Jean, however, and when Miss Connors discovers a piece of Jean’s broken brooch beneath her shredded manuscript, the case against Jean grows even stronger.

In addition to the six teachers, the cast includes the school’s Headmistress, Mrs. Newcome (Joyce Cohen), the school’s Matron (Amelia White), and three of the school’s students (Beatrice Tulchin, Shannon Harrington, and Alexa Shae Niziak).  The entire ensemble cast is just terrific, so good that it is simply impossible to single any one out.  Suffice it to say that the entire production is first-rate, in no small measure due to its first-rate cast.

But due as well to all the other women involved in this production since, in terms of direction and design, it is also an all-woman production: Jenn Thompson has done a fine job of directing while Vicki R. Davis (sets), Martha Halley (costumes), Traci Klainer Polimeni (lights) and Jane Shaw (sound) all deserve plaudits for their respective contributions.
Indeed, to paraphrase Madeline Albright, if there is a special place in Heaven reserved for women who work so well together to provide us all with such a fine theatrical experience, these women can all start adjusting their wings.