Friday, August 26, 2011

FringeNYC 2011: Banshee

This is a play that can be appreciated on many levels: as the story of an Irish-American mother reluctant to let go of her grown son; as a man’s psychological odyssey to regain his sanity; and as a spooky, supernatural thriller.

Set in Chelsea, New York in 1981, Banshee by Brian C. Petti, is a well-written and well-performed play that explores the relationships among an overbearing Irish-American mother, Kit Sullivan (Elisabeth Henry); her vulnerable 40 year old son, Jerry (Brian Christopher); Jerry’s devoted brother, Neil (Ron Morehead); and the new woman in Jerry’s life, Cara (Lauren Murphy).   Oh, and we can’t forget the title character, the banshee, a feminine spirit in Irish folklore often perceived as being an omen of death.

The play begins with Jerry having recently returned home from the mental institution in which he had been residing while recovering from a nervous breakdown.  His prognosis is relatively good: his doctors are sufficiently confident that he will be able to make it in the real world that they have been willing to release him; he is effectively medicated; and he can look forward to the support of his brother, Neil, a cop, who has found him a job and is eager to introduce him to Cara, a lovely young single mother who works with him as a police dispatcher.  On the other hand, Jerry’s mental condition is still fragile and he will be returning to live with his widowed mother, Kit, with whom he has lived ever since the death of his father, Jerry Sullivan Sr. years ago.  And that won’t be easy: she is selfish and controlling and reluctant to let go of her boy in order to allow him to develop a life of his own.  Indeed, she may have been one of the factors that contributed to his nervous breakdown in the first place.

All goes well at the outset.  Jerry performs well at his job and he and Cara really hit it off, despite Kit’s overt attempts to sabotage their relationship.  But then Kit has her ominous dream which she is quick to relate to Jerry.  In it, her dead husband (Jerry’s father) returns to tell her just one thing: “Banshee!”  Kit interprets that to mean that Cara is a banshee and that it is Cara’s presence in Jerry’s life that bodes evil and possibly death.

This is a lot for Jerry to handle in his fragile mental state, even with the support of both Neil and Cara and he suffers a relapse, voluntarily checking himself back into the mental institution.  When he leaves the hospital for the second time, it is with a new found strength and with the intention of finally cutting the cord that has bound him to his mother and moving in with Cara in order to embark on a new life of his own.  Not surprisingly, this does not sit well with Kit and there is, recall, still that banshee (whether real or imaginary) to contend with.  The play builds to a dramatic and somewhat enigmatic climax, which I did not find fully satisfying, but let’s not quibble: for a minimalist Fringe production, Banshee is well worth seeing.

FringeNYC 2011: The Three Times She Knocked

Last Wednesday, I saw the Frtinge Festival production of The Three Times She Knocked at Manhattan Theatre Source and found it to be a cleverly constructed tale of sexual obsession with a good plot twist. I thought that the acting was excellent as was the chemistry between the two players: Bob D’Haene and Isabel Richardson.

Isabel Richardson and Bob D'Haene in The Three Times She Knocked. Photo by Josh Jones.
Tara (Isabel Richardson), a recently hired employee, is young, beautiful and newly-married and, from the moment he first laid eyes on her, Eric (Bob D’Haene), her co-worker, has been absolutely smitten.  Indeed, not merely smitten but obsessed and not just with her physical beauty but with her “transcendence.”  His love for her is not of this world but is on an entirely different plane.

Eric felt this way once before about another female co-worker eleven years ago and that didn’t work out well at all.  But he has learned from experience and won’t allow himself to slip into a situation like that again.  And so he does whatever he can to avoid any contact with Tara unless absolutely necessary: when he sees her coming, he turns the other way or ducks into an office or cubicle; if he’s invited to join a group of co-workers for lunch and he learns that she’ll be part of the group, he begs off; if she initiates a conversation with him, he makes every effort to cut it short.

Tara quickly becomes aware that Eric is avoiding her but she doesn’t know why.  Understandably (albeit mistakenly), she assumes not that he is obsessively in love with her but, rather, that he hates her or that she must have done  something to offend him.  And so she confronts him to find out just what is going on.

Not surprisingly, Eric is reluctant to disclose his feelings to her at first but, as she persists, returning time and again to his office (and always knocking three times, whence the title of the play), he explains his actions to her, ultimately going so far as to share his innermost fantasies with her.  That, in turn, triggers a reaction in Tara and an odd but strong sexual tension develops between them, one lacking in physical contact but akin to what might be experienced through sexting or telephone sex.

And that is about all that I can safely tell you about the plot of The Three Times She Knocked without running the risk of ruining the play for you, since there are still some unusual twists to come that you’re better off not knowing about in advance.  But I can tell you this: the chemistry between Richardson and D’Haene is terrific, both of their performances are pitch perfect, and this play is well worth seeing.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

FringeNYC 2011: The Town of No One

The Town of No One by Tariq Hamani, presented by Playsmiths at Teatro LATEA as part of this year’s New York Fringe Festival, has been billed as a “surprising black comedy” but, while it may be “black,” there really is nothing comedic about it.  Rather, it is a dark, existentialist, nihilistic work which provides few laughs.  But if it is not funny, it certainly is thought-provoking  and, on that score alone, it is worth seeing.

The play is set in a somewhat phantasmagorical seaside town which boasts no laws, no rules, and no religious nor marital institutions.  Women procreate but don’t necessarily raise their own children nor even know their names: Mother May (Mary Catherine Wilson), the proprietor of the local pub, has borne eleven children but she never sees and can’t even recall the names of ten of them who she handed off at birth to be raised by Felice (Iriemimen Oniha).  The only one of her children who she still maintains contact with is Charlie (Timothy John McDonough) who publishes and hawks a trashy newspaper and drops into her pub where, at his mother’s insistence, he engages in a game of “Tick Tock,” the town’s favorite sport, with Mag (Helen McTernan) the town gravedigger’s spunky daughter.  (The game or sport of Tick Tock consists of two players alternately punching one another until one is physically unable to continue.  When Mag and Charlie play, it is Mag who prevails.)

Residents of the towns neighboring on “the town of no one” are followers of the “Religiobook” and, consistent with its teaching, they ritually toss the bodies of their deceased out to sea, envisioning their souls arriving at a better place in some afterlife.  That may or may not be so, but so far as their physical bodies go, it certainly isn’t: their bodies end up bloated and decomposing, only to be fished out of the sea by the gravedigger, Deadmen (Michael Selkirk) who, with the reluctant assistance of Mag and occasional help from Bub (Ben Newman), buries them in “the town of no one.”

The “town of no one” is thus something of a libertarian dystopia – or, worse yet, a libertarian nightmare.  With no laws and no rules, everyone does as he wishes and communal needs tend to go unanswered.  When the school house burns down, for example, the ineffectual Mayor Monty (Jim Nugent) is reduced to seeking voluntary contributions from the town’s citizens to rebuild it, but to little avail.

Things begin to change, however, when Harold (James Parenti), a runaway from another town, arrives on the scene.  In rapid succession, he and Mag fall in love, he is (possibly) seduced by Felice, and Mayor Monty resigns his post.  Mag assumes the position of mayor, promulgates new regulations for the town for the first time and, armed with a lead pipe, enforces her will on the town’s citizens.

But is the town any better for that?  Deadmen ultimately discloses to Mag that neither he nor she were born in “the town of no one” but that they immigrated there from some other place after Mag’s mother died in childbirth.  It was her mother’s death that made Deadmen realize that the platitudes he had been fed all his life – that if men engaged in productive labor and if women fulfilled their biological destinies by reproducing, all would be well in this world and that, in any case, an even better world awaits us all after death – were all just so much pap and that he and Mag would be better off in a town that had no such nonsensical illusions.

So what point, exactly, is the playwright, Tariq Hanami, trying to make?  Surely it’s not that an anarchic town with no rules and no laws, depicted here so distastefully, is more to be desired than a world in which laws and rules exist.  But equally surely, it’s not that rules and laws imposed by force and a society suffering from religious mystical delusions is preferable to one that is based on rational considerations and individual freedom.   Perhaps Hanami is simply saying “a plague on both your houses” – on both the libertarian dystopia that inevitably would result from a total lack of rules and laws and the totalitarian monstrosity of a state that would inevitably emerge from the forcible imposition of rules and laws on an unwilling citizenry coupled with that society’s facile acceptance of religious platitudes.  Or maybe Hanami is saying that what is really needed is something in between – a compromise suggestive of the big deal that eluded Barack Obama and John Boehner.  In any case, it’s worth thinking about.

FringeNYC 2011: What the Sparrow Said

Kevin Mannering and Matthewl Michael Hurley in What the Sparrow Said.  Photo by Alona Fogel.
What the Sparrow Said by Danny Mitarotondo, produced by The Common Tongue and now playing at Teatro Latea as part of the 2011 Fringe Festival, is an outstanding example of what the Fringe Festival is supposed to be all about.  It is a wonderful example of a new playwright’s pushing the limits of his craft to produce a work that transcends traditional theatrical boundaries and that, notwithstanding its limitations, makes its audience sit up and take notice – if only to say “I was there when he first burst upon the scene.”  For there is little doubt in my mind that Mitarotondo is, indeed, a major new talent from whom we’re likely to be hearing much more in the years ahead.

What  the Sparrow Said doesn’t really break any major new ground in a substantive sense: it is simply a variation on the oft-told story of two brothers who meet after several years of estrangement at their mother’s deathbed.  But it does break new ground in form and structure: it is a non-linear, right-brained exposition of the relationships among a number of tangentially related characters which forces its audience to view it from a variety of perspectives (in much the way that Braque or Picasso may initially have engaged their audiences with their visual arts).

The play’s overarching theme is the fractional, fractal, fractious and refracted nature of human relationships – the degrees to which we all may be perceived as composites of those whom we may resemble in one way or another and the sense in which we filter our impressions of others through our recollections of still earlier encounters.  All six of the actors in this production were up to the tasks set before them – Brenda Currin as Hannah, Lila Dupree as Amelia, Matthew Michael Harley as Dan, Kevin Mannering as Blaze, Ruby Ruiz as Nursie, and, most especially, Heather Oakley as Cynthia – and the director, Jenna Worsham, elicited the very best from them.

One caveat: while I very much enjoyed this production, not everyone will.  If your tastes run more toward the theatrically traditional, including temporal linearity with plots and characters developing along reasonably predict able lines, this might not be the play for you.  But if, like me, you’re intrigued by theatrical risk-taking experiments, then this is one you might not want to miss.

Monday, August 22, 2011

FringeNYC 2011: Lola-Lola

Lola-Lola, one of the better submissions in this year’s Fringe Festival, is well-written, well-directed, well-acted and a load of fun.  John (Christopher Sutton) is a full professor of anthropology at a conservative Christian college and a nationally recognized expert on “the missing link” (or, rather, the apparent absence thereof).  By the standards of his university, he is relatively liberal – that is, he accepts the general validity of the theory of evolution as it relates to all species other than man – but he refuses to believe that man, himself, descended from any ape-like ancestor, emphasizing the fact that “no fossil link” between man and the great apes has ever been found.

John’s wife, Mary (Leanne Barrineau) seems to share John’s general convictions on the subject of evolution and is herself a teacher of elementary school students.  She is also in the throes of an extra-marital affair with Ted (Colin McFadden), who is John’s best friend and a second-rate associate professor of anthropology at the university himself.  When Mary returns from a trip to Africa, she brings back a pet chimpanzee named Lola-Lola (Melissa Sussman) with her.  And, as it turns out, the chimpanzee is not only highly intelligent and insightful but falls in love with John who ends up reciprocating her feelings.

Superficially, at least, the play might appear to deal (at least metaphorically) with a whole host of “big” issues including interracial marriage, same sex marriage, polygamy, homosexuality, nature vs. nurture, animal rights, the advantages (or disadvantages) of assimilation vs. the retention of one’s historic ethnic identity, speciesism, and on and on and, assuredly, there will be those both on the left and on the right with such intellectual, religious, political or philosophical pretensions that they will focus all their attention on just those sorts of metaphorical allusions. The liberals and secularists among them surely will recognize in this play the obvious ignorance of the right in its denial of the self-evident truth of evolution while the religious right is certain to discover ample evidence of the left’s narrow-mindedness in its refusal even to allow an investigation into intelligent design’s alternative explanation to evolutionary theory.  Animal rights advocates will focus on the mistreatment of Lola-Lola and will see in her the virtual evolution of a chimpanzee into a “woman” under the proper environmental conditions.  Religious fundamentalists will disapprove of Ted and Mary’s extra-marital affair but will see it as inconsequential in comparison to John’s fornicating with a chimpanzee; secularist ethical relativists might consider John’s behavior no more reprehensible than Mary’s.

But if one focuses on issues of that sort, one will run the risk of failing to see the forest for the trees.  For the fact is that this really is not a very deep nor intellectual production – and I don’t think it was ever intended to be one. None of the plays characters present any intellectually rigorous arguments in support of any religious, political or philosophical positions and I don’t see that as an oversight or shortcoming on the playwright’s part.  On the contrary, I think that the playwright, Peter Michalos, just wanted to create an entertaining work and he certainly succeeded at that.

All five of the play’s actors were wonderful in their respective roles: Christopher Sutton as John, the renowned but conflicted anthropologist who ends up in the sack with a chimpanzee; Leanne Barrineau as Mary, the shallow, unfaithful wife; Colin McFadden as Ted, John’s disloyal friend, Mary’s lover and a second-rate intellect; Dennis Z. Gagomiros in multiple comic roles, all of which he plays to perfection; and, best of all, Melissa Sussman as Lola-Lola, a chimpanzee in love with a human, on the cusp of becoming human herself, and yet still maintaining her chimpanzee-ness.  Her performance alone was worth the price of admission.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

FringeNYC 2011: Hush The Musical

Madelyn Schwartz, Diana Falzone, Seth Blum, Tommy J. Dose and Emelise Aleandri in Hush The Musical
Now playing at Le Poisson Rouge as part of the 2011 Fringe Festival, Hush The Musical is set in the VIP Lounge at LaGuardia Airport during a blinding snowstorm which has grounded all flights.  It is there that we meet Othello Salviati (Seth Blum) who, having been cuckolded by his wife Vittoria (Diana Falzone) is ambivalently conspiring with Nick, a soft-hearted hitman (Tommy J. Dose) to arrange her murder.  Also in attendance is Georgia, a pesky New Age meditation instructor (Emelise Aleandri, who is also the play’s librettist and the artistic director of The Frizzi & Lazzi Theatre Company which, together with Charles Mandracchia who co-conceived, composed and directed the work, was responsible for the overall production).  The cast also includes a rather bereft stewardess (Madelyn Schwartz) and assorted other airline passengers (Blair Anderson, Emily Billig, Jim Roumeles and Isabel Cristina Orbando).

It all makes for a somewhat amusing 75 minutes entertainment and I left with a smile on my face.  But while the score and the lyrics were serviceable, they were scarcely memorable and I didn’t find myself humming any of the tunes at the end of the show.  Musical direction and orchestrations were provided by Mitch Marcus who also played the piano; he was accompanied by Alisa Horn on cello and Yuiko Kamakari on violin.  All three exhibited exceptional musical talent and can’t be faulted for the score’s shortcomings.

All five of the leads (Blum, Falzone, Dose, Aleandri and Schwartz) performed well but the one who came closest to stealing the show was Dose who, as a homesick and somewhat inept Eastern European hitman, was responsible for virtually all of the show’s comedic high points.  If there’s any really good reason to see this show, his performance is it.  The rest of the show’s cast (Anderson, Billig, Roumeles and Cristina) seemed to be there more as filler than anything else and it wouldn’t have mattered much one way or the other, had they been left out.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Off Broadway: The Pretty Trap

Katharine Houghton, Nisi Sturgis, Robert Eli and Loren Dunn in The Pretty Trap. Photo by Ben Hider.
After more than sixty years, The Pretty Trap, Tennessee Williams’ one act precursor to his much better known autobiographical masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie, is only now having its New York premiere at Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre. One’s inclination is to say “Well, it’s about time,” but that really would be overstating the case. Not that this very well done production by Cause Celebre isn’t likely to prove of great interest to literary historians in general and Williams scholars in particular; it surely will. But for the typical theatre-goer, more interested in being entertained than in learning about a play’s evolutionary development, not so much.

The four characters in The Pretty Trap – Amanda Wingfield (Katharine Houghton), Laura Wingfield (Nisi Sturgis), Tom Wingfield (Loren Dunn) and the Gentleman Caller (Robert Eli) – are the same four characters who appear in The Glass Menagerie, but they are not nearly as well fleshed out in this earlier version. To be sure, Amanda, the one-time Southern belle, is just as obsessed with finding a husband for her morbidly introverted daughter Laura in The Pretty Trap as she is in The Glass Menagerie. But the overbearing narcissism and almost delusional bouts of nostalgia Amanda exhibits in The Glass Menagerie, which at times seem to border on outright personality disorder, are much less apparent in The Pretty Trap; here she is considerably more good humored - indeed one might almost say “normal” (albeit still irritating). (Houghton, incidentally, does a wonderful job of bringing this somewhat lower-keyed Amanda to life in The Pretty Trap and one might only speculate on how terrific she might have been had she been given the opportunity to play the even richer role of Amanda in The Glass Menagerie.)

Similarly,Laura in The Pretty Trap is also a far cry from Laura in The Glass Menagerie. In both plays she is painfully shy, but she is not also physically handicapped in The Pretty Trap as she is in The Glass Menagerie and her obsessive relationship to her collection of glass animals, which is at the symbolic core of The Glass Menagerie isn’t much more than an incidental allusion in The Pretty Trap. And much the same can be said of both Tom and the Gentleman Caller: neither is nearly as fully developed a character in The PrettyTrap as he is in The Glass Menagerie.

The Pretty Trap was subtitled “A Comedyin One Act” by Williams but it really isn’t very funny (except, perhaps, by comparison to the truly depressing The Glass Menagerie) and it does have a happy ending. But tacking a happy ending on the play didn’t make it a better work but merely a shallower one.

The director and the entire cast (especially Houghton) do a first rate job with the material they’ve been given but, notwithstanding that, the play itself, running under 50 minutes, is slight. Indeed, it really is little more than the germ of an idea for The Glass Menagerie, the exceptional work that succeeded it.