Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Peddling Starring Harry Melling in Brits Off Broadway Program at 59E59 Theaters

Harry Melling in PEDDLING.  Photo by Bill Knight
Harry Melling is a very talented and passionate actor who expends inordinate amounts of energy in his solo performance of Peddling, currently enjoying its US premiere as part of the Brits Off Broadway program at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  Unfortunately, his talent, passion and energy aren’t enough to carry this play which I didn't find to be particularly engaging. But since Melling also wrote the play, I guess he’s really got nobody to blame for that but himself.

The play’s opening scene takes place when a young peddler awakens in a field amid the burnt detritus of the night before but with no memory of how he got there.  In attempting to make sense of his situation, he seeks to retrace his steps over the previous three days.  Apparently, he was a member of a crew of six boys – possibly foundlings and referred to as part of “Boris’ young offenders’ scheme” – who are forced to sell housewares door-to-door.  In due course, the audience is made privy to the various exchanges he had with an innocent young girl, a senile older woman, a fireworks vendor, and other potential customers.

In the play’s promotional material, it states that the peddler’s attempts to retrace his steps “lead him on a haunting journey where everything comes into question: his life, his world, his future.”  If so, I’m sorry to say that I missed it.  I saw no real evidence that the play was delving into any deep existential questions about life, the world and the future.  Rather, it communicated a sense of the peddler’s mixed emotions - anger, confusion, basic decency, resentment, resignation – but never really tied it all together in any more meaningful, interesting or challenging sense.  

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.