Category Archives: Off Off Broadway

TornKid at Lady Fest

As the name would suggest, Lady Fest theater festival in New York shines a light on womanhood in all its wondrous forms.  In the supportive atmosphere of The Tank, female and female identifying artists are provided the opportunity to be heard by youthful spirits of all ages.  Currently on stage in the smaller of the two houses is Tornkid, a multimedia fable for the times, presented in partnership with Baltimore Asian Pasifika Arts Collective (BAPAC).  Written by Katelynn Kenney, the script vividly illustrates the emotions underlying the immigrant experience, using Southeast Asian and Pacific Indigenous creation stories as a springboard to explore the quest for belonging.

Struggling to fit in with both traditional Asian family life and the typical school experience of American children, Tornkid literally tears themselves in two.  Sadly, their other half runs off with the voice, pointing out that Tornkid hasn’t really made use of it.  Refusing to be doomed to a life of silence, Tornkid journeys through mystical lands, determined to be reunited with the parts of themselves that have been lost.

Use of the inclusive pronoun “they” to describe Tornkid is significant since exploring identity is essential to both the story and the storytelling technique.  Tornkid is pulled apart by two distinct ways of being as well as an environment that constantly shifts between comforting and strange.  The actors, too, morph identities as they move from role to role, often employing intriguing masks created by Tara Cariaso and Aaron Elson of Waxing Moon Masks.

The experience is similar to the ones frequently offered at The New Victory on a Saturday afternoon.  Typical of myths, the story is very episodic, though the through-line is strong.  A dragon-headed magical guide addresses the audience directly, explaining that we are the ancestors.  She elicits our help at critical junctures, encouraging us to participate by adding claps, slaps and clicks and other sound effects.  Metaphors are creatively made concrete by most of the characters.  Each interaction makes Tornkid stronger and brings the goal into clearer focus.

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Tree Spirit in a previous workshop of TornKid

Surasree Das lends tremendous warmth and stirs compassion as she pantomimes her way through Tornkid’s unusual journey.  Her most powerful encounters are with a Tree Spirit and a Sea Warrior, two fantastic puppets created by Jess Rassp and given voice by Elizabeth Ung who also provides unique hand-decorated costumes.  The narration supplied by the Magic Teller is sometimes stilted, but actress Kim Le sweetly and enthusiastically engages with the audience.  Marela Kay Minosa and Mika Nakano round out the cast, playing a half dozen roles between them.

Co-directors Cara Hinh and Donna Ibale don’t yet have the knack for arranging movement appropriately in 3/4 round, staging too much of the action for the center section.  But this is a minor distraction with so much creativity clearly in evidence.  The puppet movements are nicely choreographed and literally extend the actors performances. There are also wonderful props by Pauline Lamb which draw on childlike images.  Sounds not provided by the audience are designed by C. Swan-Streepy with the mystical atmosphere capped off by Miranda Poett’s lighting.

BAPAC’s inaugural production, this second iteration of Tornkid delivers an upbeat message in an inventive way.  This worthy work is being hosted at The Tank (312 W 36th Street) a nonprofit that strives to remove economic barriers for emerging artists.  Remaining performances of this workshop production are Saturday, August 10 at 3 PM and 7 PM and Sunday, August 11 at 3 PM. Lady Fest runs through Wednesday, August 28.  Tickets range from $0 – $25.  For a complete performance calendar and to purchase tickets in advance visit www.thetanknyc.org/ladyfest.

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Square Go

Get ready to go toe to toe with two terrific actors in the fast moving and highly entertaining Square Go. (A “Square Go” is a Scottish term for an all-out fist fight.)  Max has made an unfortunate remark that received the wrong kind of attention from local bully-in-chief Danny Guthrie.  Now he’s been challenged to fight it out in the playground.  Max’s best friend, the affable and slightly dim Stevie, stands firmly at his friend’s back  But his support will be limited to the moral kind.  The audience is therefore invited to participate in Max’s preparation for an almost certain pummeling at Danny’s bigger and more experienced hands.  As we contribute our cheers and a hand or two, we learn the key turning points that led to this undesirable moment in Max’s short life. 

Several components put this slice-of-life tale in a class above most two-handers.  The writing by Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair is poignant, humorous, and well edited.  Both Daniel Portman (Poderick Payne on Game of Thrones) and Gavin Jon Wright (Black Watch with the National Theatre of Scotland) turn in wonderfully layered performances. Wearing boxing shorts and tank tops which fully display bodies that obviously did not just emerge from the New York Sports Club next door to the theater, they perfectly capture the awkwardness of their youthful characters.  

What stands out even more is the viewpoint, with the action moving seamlessly from a school, to various locations around small-town Scotland, to inside the characters’ heads, to inside the theater.  The entire creative process used to tell the story is imaginative and well executed.  The setting is a simple square imbedded on the floor.  The rest of the background is filled in with a soundscape and lighting.  The lights designed by Peter Small, props developed by Martha Mamo, and original soundtrack provided by members of Frightened Rabbit are integral to Wright’s remarkable portrayal of multiple characters.  Portman has the tougher job of bringing variation to the more straightforward role of the downtrodden Max.   

Daniel Portman and Gavin Jon Wright in SQUARE GO part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Daniel Portman and Gavin Jon Wright in SQUARE GO. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Director Finn Den Hertog, who won a Scotsman Fringe First Awards for this production, has staged the entire piece within the square with the audience on all four sides just like a wrestling arena.  The energy builds from the close proximity and the physical containment of the actors.  The players’ interactions with the audience  — which can often be awkward — are carefully crafted and skillfully managed.  There’s no room for bad moods or poor sportsmanship from the crowd.  You’ll be required to keep your feet out of their space and your head in their game.

Arriving at a time when toxic masculinity is being reevaluated by all genders, Square Go presents a universal story in a singular fashion.  Though the details of Max’s journey may be particular to him, the experience of trying to find one’s place in the world is one that everyone can understand.  Performances run through June 30 in Theater C at 59E59.  Tickets are $25 ($20 for members) and seating is general admission. Running time is 60 minutes, with no intermission.  To purchase or for more information, call the 59E59 Box Office at 646-892-7999 or visit www.59e59.org.

EPIC Players’ Little Shop of Horrors

The American Theatre Critics Association (of which I am a member) promotes theater as a resource to communities throughout the country.  EPIC Players takes this goal a step further by opening the craft to an underserved company of performers.  An acronym for Empower, Perform, Include and Create, this talented troupe is neuro-diverse: composed of actors over the age of 16 who are on the spectrum of autism.  Casting calls are open, though priority is given to company members. Rehearsals are conducted over an extended period, which allows the cast and crew to co-create a particularly supportive environment.  The results are not only empowering for the artists, but expansive for the audience as well.

With its sprawling cast and blended genre of horror and comedy, Little Shop of Horrors is a masterful choice for EPIC’s current season.  The story follows Seymour Krelborn and Audrey, two fragile outsiders working in a skid row flower shop, and presents them with wit and affection.  The pair is brought together by a demanding plant named the Audrey II, who has troubling intentions.  The music is by Alan Menken with lyrics and a book by Howard Ashman, the team behind Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.  While the work can be viewed as a piece of social commentary, it is unquestionably a wildly good time.

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EPIC Players’ Nicole D’Angelo and Ben Rosloff in Little Shop of Horrors

Equity member Ben Rosloff performs the underestimated Seymour with the gentleness this lead role requires. Slipping into Audrey’s leopard prints is Nicole D’Angelo, who replicates Ellen Green’s ultra-high-pitched speaking voice and sweet singing style.  Her sadistic boyfriend is played with glee and a touch of menace by Dante Jayce, who also makes the most hysterical entrance.  Michael Buckhout takes on flower shop owner Mr. Mushnik with appropriate slapstick asides.  In many productions, the Audrey II is represented by a series of ever-larger puppets.  Here, a booming Nick Moscato appears to be having a blast portraying the full grown plant, which heightens the character’s ability to engage.  The chorus of street urchins has been expanded to five expressive and funny singer/dancers (Imani Youngblood, Justin Phillips, Aria Renee Curameng, Melissa Jennifer Gonzalez and Kathryn Cristofano) who enliven every moment they are on stage.  Music is performed by a live four piece band under the direction of keyboardist Jonathan Ivie.  Whitney Blythe, Gianluca Cirafici, Brianna Freeman, Jessy Leppert, Samantha Elisofon, Nick Amodio, Gideon Piankor, and Eric Zimmer are the supporting players with Andrew Kader, Kim Carter, Meggan Dodd, and Amaker Smith making up the ensemble.

The performance I attended was a final dress rehearsal and there were a few timing and technical issues.  Even with those difficulties, the production sparkled with imagination.  Directed by EPIC’s Executive Artistic Director Aubrie Therrien with assistance from Max Baudisch and Zach Lichterman, the staging makes fabulous use of the Black Box space.  Aisles and overhead platforms are filled with residents of the downtown streets and Audrey II’s many admirers.  You might even be offered a bag of “cocaine” or gifted with an Audrey II plant clipping.  Clever costumes by Cat Fisher include Audrey II’s enticingly and colorful garb.  The effective set by Tim Catlett is topped with projection screens that enhance the play with classic horror clips and horticulture documentaries.

This production of Little Shop of Horrors radiates joy from its very roots, serving to shatter any preconceived notions held by uninitiated theater-goers.  Noise canceling headphones are available for sensitive audience members, and anyone needing a break is invited to decompress in the lobby.  Runtime is 94 minutes with one 10 minute intermission.  It plays  through Sunday, June 16 in the Black Box Theater at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street.  Tickets are $27-$57 and can be purchased at https://ci.ovationtix.com/34409/production/1007814?performanceId=10390542.  EPIC — a 501c3 non-profit — holds auditions year round and provides professional development classes and workshops free of charge to all who are accepted.  You can also support their work by visiting https://www.epicplayersnyc.org/support.

Original Sound

Danny — a spunky young Puerto Rican musician with a knack for creating earworms — uploads his diss track poking fun at pop phenom Ryan Reed.  Stumbling across the piece, the blocked Ms. Reed isn’t so hurt that she can’t seize the opportunity to steal Danny’s best song and recorded it for her new album.  Their heated decisions set in motion Original Sound, an engaging and emotional play with music by Adam Seidel. The events were inspired by his previous job as a Chicago-based hip-hop journalist.  In order to keep his work to a tight 95 minutes, Seidel can’t completely avoid the inclusion of music industry tropes.  Anyone who keeps up with that world will see echoes of recent headlines, from the cathartic 22-years-in-the-making Verve settlement to the unexpected collaboration of Lil Nas X with Billy Ray Cyrus to gain acceptance in a different genre.  Yet Seidel also skillfully mines even more interesting territory covering the potentially destructive role of power in the creative process.  What happens when your so-called self-expression is no longer your own?

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Jane Bruce and Sebastian Chacon in Original Sound; photo by Russ Rowland

The strong back beat of the plot is built atop the complex relationship that develops between Danny and Ryan.  Neither is completely in the wrong, which sets up a fascinating dynamic.  The supporting characters each heighten important story elements.  Danny’s sister Felicia attempts to be supportive.  He more easily receives encouragement from his friend Kari, a business school dropout who strives to keep him safe in an exploitative industry.  Ryan is backed by her well-intentioned manager Jake and a team of unseen studio producers and executives.  A sign of the script’s sophistication is that it is possible to experience both hope and sadness at the end of their shared journey.

Sebastian Chacon brings genuine warmth and exuberance to Danny.  (It is fitting to witness the young actor leave the theater with headphones on and a skateboard tucked under his arm.)   He is beautifully balanced by singer-songwriter and actress Jane Bruce’s Ryan, by turns stubborn, guarded, and freed by music.  Anthony Arkin plays Jake with credible matter-of-factness.  Countering is Lio Mehiel’s sensitive interpretation of Kari, though it seems a missed opportunity not to present the character as non-binary.  The production’s shortcoming is not providing Cynthia Bastidas and Wilson Jermaine Heredia enough to work with in their critical turns as Danny’s sister and father.

Director Elena Araoz generally keeps the energy high, all the better to shock the audience with quieter moments. The spirited scene is set by Justin Townsend, who cleverly echoes the look of LPs  further enhanced by lighting designer Kate McGee’s dance floor elements.  An array of imaginative t-shirts and power booties are provided by Sarita Fellows.  But it is the music that appropriately takes center stage in the production’s design. Both Chacon and Bruce perform the songs live.  The catchy hits are written by Daniel Ocanto, Ms. Bruce and Mr. Seidel.  An improvised solo was originally created by musical artist Armen Dolelian from diverse influences.  Additional sound design is provided by Nathan Leigh.

Like a tune recorded by multiple artists, each player in Original Sound goes through variations of their own central theme.  It makes for a stirring experience for lovers of emerging works.  Original Sound plays through June 8th in The Studio at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village.  Set 3/4 round in this small house, there are no bad seats.  Tickets are $55-$85 and are available by visiting CherryLaneTheatre.org, by calling 866-811-4111 or by visiting the Cherry Lane Theatre Box Office. 

The Owl Girl

Many writers have examined tensions in the Middle East, a particularly thorny issue.  Playwright Monica Raymond does so with a poetic eye in her new work, The Owl Girl.  Taking the conflict to an absurdist extreme, she distills the historic schism down to two families — one Arab and one Israeli — and places them in the same dwelling.  Both can reasonably claim ownership of the home.  Zol and Leedya were raising their teenagers, Joze and Anja, in the house when they were all sent to a camp in the West Bank.  Rav and Ora then purchased the property for their family, which includes daughter Stel and young son Capi.  

Stel still feels the spirits of the other children in her room, where she chooses to keep two marks on the wall that indicate Joze and Anja’s heights at the time they were forced to leave.  Meanwhile in the camp, Joze has also started to feel a draw, eventually convincing his father to give him the key to the old front door so he can visit one last time.  He happens to choose a night when Stel is home alone and the two form an instant connection.  Stel invites Joze to come back, but when he does, his parents and sister follow.  Rav, Ora, and Capi return, and the eight decide to share the space as a cultural experiment.

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Yaara Shilony and Julian Alexander as Stel and Joze in The Owl Girl

Raymond employs a number of metaphors to make her points about battles ideological, cultural, and territorial.  The most graphic of these symbols is the Owl Girl of the title. Anja stopped developing at the age of 13, literally stunted by losing her place in the world.  Stuck in exile, she fell under the spell of her rage-filled grandmother. Since Anja hasn’t matured into a woman, she tries on a number of animal personas, settling on the owl.  These birds represent power and destruction in her culture, but also possess vision and insight.  Returned to her rightful station, she not only starts menstruating, but swoops about the house, eventually sprouting literal wings in order to gain a better vantage point.

Ms. Raymond has been developing this piece for 15 years, and some sections flow with the passion she obviously feels for her subject.  Her understanding of the thin line that can exist between enemies is well articulated, at one point represented by a literal string running down the kitchen.  Her use of magic helps her reveal emotions that can be difficult to articulate.  But she defuses her message by adding too many layers.  There are aggressive chess matches, a hellish hidden room, and a jar of mysterious ointment.  Then in the middle of the second act, Raymond introduces a subplot involving the lust Rav feels for Anja.  Eventually, like a child’s painting, the metaphors are so thick that they turn muddy.    

The Owl Girl is presented by THML, a majority female-run theatre company that promotes stories by and about women.  It is therefore unsurprising that the exchanges that have the most rhythm are the ones between the two mothers. They share a frustration with their sexists husbands and are both raising challenging younger children. Ora and Leedya bond as almost any two women will eventually do, finding common ground and poking a little fun at their differences.  Director Bryan Raanan Kearney who plays Ora has good timing and provides some comic relief.  The other relationships don’t work at least in part because many of the actors are miscast.  One in particular is the wrong age and ethnicity and has not gained mastery over an unnecessary accent. The exception is Julian Alexander, who brings a delightful softness and sense of wonder to Joze.

Having  received awards from the Castillo Theater, Peacewriting, Portland (Maine) Stage, and the Jewish Plays Project, The Owl Girl is a promising work that still needs to find a clear voice.  It is playing through March 20 at The Center at West Park, upstairs in the Balcony Theater.  Tickets are $30 and can be purchased at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-owl-girl-tickets-53977563345.

The Baby Monitor

The shattering impact of an “I love you” with a “but” clause is at the heart of The Baby Monitor, currently mounted as a workshop production at the 14th Street Y.  The plot centers around the suspicions a woman harbors concerning her gay cousin’s treatment of the toddler son he shares with his husband.  By fleshing out this nightmare scenario with all-too-common misunderstandings stemming from distinctions in race, class and religion, playwright David Stallings has delivered something far richer than an issues play.  It is a thoughtful examination of the ways in which simply tolerating differences rather than embracing them can cause irreparable damage to our societal fabric.

The scene opens on a family Thanksgiving.  Rejected by most of his strict Catholic family after coming out, Damon has invited his close cousin Claire and her husband Josh to join him and his husband Phillip to celebrate the holiday along with their two-year-old son and nanny.  The evening includes a great deal of reminiscing and chardonnay and concludes with flipping through the new family’s photo album.  A combination of tainted religious doctrine and personal frustration leads Claire to react inappropriately to one of the pictures.  Her misguided good intentions have the potential to destroy the happiness of everyone involved.

David Stallings, Leo Goodman, Amanda Jones, and Hector Matias. Photo by Michael Dekker.jpg

David Stallings, Leo Goodman, Amanda Jones, and Hector Matias. Photo by Michael Dekker

Even at a time when gay marriage is legal and children stemming from these unions are not uncommon, it has been hard for many people to move beyond ingrained beliefs.  Stallings realistically explores a variety of viewpoints stemming from these slow-to-shift societal norms.  The genuine danger that can grow from preconceived notions is revealed in peeling layers.  While there is certainly an ideology that skews left running underneath, the dialogue is stealthy, with little slips of the tongue that indicate early on that Claire’s love for Damon has many qualifiers attached to it.  By making Phillip and the nanny Soledad immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Stallings can additionally explore the role culture and class play in the escalating tensions.

Stallings also stars as Damon, a performance infused with deep passion.  Héctor Matias is positively dreamy as Phillip, accustomed to keeping up his guard except around the family he clearly adores.  Stallings is less successful in his drawing of female characters.  Though Amanda Jones strives to manifest Claire’s sympathetic backstory, the character is essentially unlikable and therefore challenging to portray.  This is magnified in her scenes with Leo Goodman’s wonderfully nuanced Josh, who is most often given the voice of reason.  Greta Quispe similarly struggles to give balance to Soledad, whose personal journey could make for an equally compelling play.  However, Mel House is strong in her too-brief performance in the critical role of activist Shelly.

For this production, the black box theater has been set up in 3/4 round with a simple set of padded tiles and wooden boxes.  Lighting designed by Kia Rogers is used to shift the setting and to mimic a violent climatic moment.  Direction by Stallings’ husband Antonio Miniño is skillful, with an engaging blend of quiet touching moments and palpable strain.

As much as it is a powerful drama, The Baby Monitor is also an important conversation starter.  Developed on both coasts of this divided country, it would be wonderful if this work could find its way into the middle.  The production contains very brief partial nudity and is recommended for ages 16 and over.  It is playing through December 16 at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street near 1st Avenue.  General Admission tickets can be purchased by calling 646-395-4310 or by visiting www.differenttranslation.com.  Prices are $25 for adults and $22 for seniors and students.  $5 rush tickets are available 15 minutes before curtain for those living in zip codes 10003 and 10009.  

Plano

All fans of quirky theater are encouraged to flock to Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks, which typically runs from mid-May to the end of June.  Each season, the Clubbed Thumb artistic team — currently spearheaded by Producing Artistic Director Maria Striar (who has been with Clubbed Thumb since their 1996 debut) and Associate Artistic Director Michael Bulgar — pore over hundreds of submissions seeking unique voices with something funny  and insightful to say.  Each final selection is carefully cultivated with precision and vision.  As the company’s reputation has grown, so has their ability to attract superior acting and behind-the-scenes talent that can rapidly bring these challenging pieces to fruition.  Many of these plays go on to lead fuller lives, including Men in Boats at Playwrights Horizons and The Wolves at Lincoln Center.

Their current production is Plano, which was commissioned by Clubbed Thumb for the 2017-18 Directing Fellowship.  The director in question is Taylor Reynolds who, along with her outstanding cast, brings out every magical beat of Will Arbery’s script.  Surreal  images including a red ribbon independently descending a staircase and a Faceless Ghost (played with acrobatic aptitude by Brendan Dalton) are blended into the often funny story of three fairly realistic sisters.  This authenticity is no doubt made possible by playwright Arbery being the only boy in a family of eight siblings.  Genevieve, the eldest, is a stereotypical know-it-all.  The youngest, Isabel, is coddled to the point of thinking she might be a saint.  In between them is Anne, the often-overlooked middle child struggling to establish identity.  Their simple lives of work and family are intruded upon by strangeness that might be a curse. The town of Plano is used almost Mad Lib-like to represent alternative mindsets which are open to interpretation. Time passes through the use of the phrase “it’s later.”  And husbands split into multiple parts so that they can do the dishes while also dancing the night away.

The skill needed to pull off clipped dialogue that is based more on timing than on story cannot be overstated.  Crystal Finn as Anne, Miriam Silverman as Genevieve and Susannah Flood as Isabel stay perfectly in tune with each other throughout the 75 minute runtime.  They are wonderfully supported by Mary Schultz as their religious fanatic mother, Mary, Cesar J. Rosado as Anne’s gay husband, John, and most especially by Ryan King as multiple Steves all of whom are married to Genevieve.  The far-seeing Ms. Reynolds pushes their characters’ oddball boundaries by using nearly every inch of the theater, including the exit aisle and the area beneath the stage.  Elaborate fight scenes are expertly choreographed by Kelly Bartnik.

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Susannah Flood, Miriam Silverman, and Crystal Finn in Plano.

The rest of the creative team has kept things delightfully simple.  The suggestion of a ranch house by scenic designer Daniel Zimmerman is given necessary mood changes by Isabella Byrd’s lighting and Mark Van Hare’s sound design.  Stephanie Levin’s costumes are casual and, most importantly, move well.  

With its basic human experience infused with mystical adventure, Plano is unlikely to be confused with anything else you’ve seen.  It is being presented at The Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd St.  This column is based on the June 21 performance, at which point performances were being added to the schedule and it was anticipated there would be a few modifications made to the production.  For tickets and the latest information visit https://www.clubbedthumb.org/productions/2018/.