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.