Category Archives: Play

A Nagging Feeling Best Not Ignored – Live Stream

January 6th will never again be just a date, but rather an historic occurrence.  Some consider what happened in 2021 to be the most serious attack against democracy.  Others saw brave patriots who took action when they felt those same institutions had betrayed them and their leader.  A third group finds the entire episode to be just so much more political blah-blah-blah that has nothing to do with them.  All of these viewpoints are presented by the unreliable narrator and sole character in Roland Tec’s A Nagging Feeling Best Not Ignored, a live Zoom-based theatrical event.

A ticket to this happening comes with precise instructions.  We have volunteered for a citizen panel.  Check-in is at 7:45 PM and while the piece will conclude by 9:00PM we are requested to stay for “processing”.  In order to participate fully, we will keep our cameras and microphones on and wear headphones to eliminate extraneous noise.  (I further recommend using the Full Screen mode and Do Not Disturb to block out any notifications.)  After hearing his story, our judgement of “the subject” will be legally binding.

Roland Tec is The Subject in A Nagging Feeling Best Not Ignored

These directions set the expectation for a serious and intense engagement with the solitary character, Benj.  Eery music and distant voices that we hear upon entry only heighten the mood.  As portrayed by writer Tec, Benj is an attempt to create an Everyman in what is becoming the everyday experience of many.  Shot at a slight diagonal, this man clearly needs to clean house in all the meanings of that phrase.   His headphones are askew and there’s a ladder and a towel behind him hinting at a mess beyond.  COVID has kept him home alone more than at any time in his life.  Most of his news is delivered through social media.  New connections are only made online, where it is often hard to tell who is genuine and who is a bot.  The valley has never been more uncanny than in Benj’s landscape.

As directed by Leigh Strimbeck, Benj speaks in a manner that alternates between rushed and halting.  He shares his circumstances just before and shortly after the actions that took place on January 6th, with asides that give insight into his personal life. How deeply you are touched will depend on how well you are managing your own feelings.  

The distractions are many.  Chat has been left open, which allows for some important intervention but also unnecessary prattle.  One of the disadvantages of conversations over Zoom is that the highlighted speaker is the loudest instead of the most important.  With over 30 microphones open, those featured including a man with a persistent cough, a woman making clattering noises, and several very personal laughs.  Perhaps this is meant as a metaphor for how easily our attention is diverted from discomfort.  How deeply can we ever react to something on a screen?  But there is no question that the technical set-up made it difficult to remain fully absorbed in what we had been told was a civic duty.  

The section that leaves a lasting impression is the post show discussion, which on the night I attended was led by retired psychologist Henry “Hank” Greenspan, a playwright/historian whose work focuses on survivors of genocide.  Our audience was less invested in whether Benj should suffer any consequence than in finding productive outlets for their own grief and discouragement.  Reactions were only partially to the play and the rest to very real life.  One woman pointed out that her feelings are not nagging at all, but in her face screaming 24/7.  

That a short work like A Nagging Feeling Best Not Ignored could bring forth that level of emotion at this time of perpetual overwhelm is noteworthy.  And while there are problems with Zoom, it does allow for sharing of the work across the country.  There is one more scheduled opportunity to be a witness on Wednesday, September 7, at 8PM.  Tickets are $22.50 and can be purchases on Eventbrite at  https://www.eventbrite.com/e/302460416247.

Lavender Men – Los Angeles and Streaming

Taffeta, one of three characters in Lavender Men, describes what we are about to see as a “fantasia”.  The piece explores a personal chapter in the life of Abraham Lincoln as filtered through the mind — indeed the entire body — of playwright Roger Q. Mason.  In 1860, Lincoln mentored a young law clerk, Elmer Ellsworth.  Ellsworth went on to help Lincoln campaign for president.  He eventually made history of his own when he became the first Union casualty of the American Civil War, killed while removing a large Confederate flag from the rooftop of a Virginia inn.  That the men admired each other and became good friends is well documented.  In Lavender Men, Mason speculates that the two meant much more to one another.

The fast moving script, developed in Skylight Theater Company’s resident playwrights lab, covers many themes and styles.  Taffeta proposes that she take Abe and Elmer back in time to reexamine their relationship.  She will take on the role of “everyone else” including a young soldier, a cleaning woman, Mary Todd Lincoln and even a tree near a swimming hole.  Black, large, boisterous, and proudly queer, she is everything the two men are not, opening up plenty of space for conversation about oppressed voices throughout our history.  Themes of body image issues and social biases are explored, though the main plot always returns to a heartfelt love story.  

The play works best when it is self-aware such as when a character questions what is currently being taught in classrooms.  Mason seems to be using personal experience to deepen the emotions of the storytelling, which also makes the viewpoint very specific.  Their haunting voices literally make themselves heard in Taffeta’s ears.  The work does an admirable job of showing the imperfections of Lincoln’s legacy, but there are missed opportunities to connect those events more tightly to today’s political and social climate, particularly as that relates to Lincoln’s own party.  

Director Lovell Holder, who has been attached to the production since a reading at New York’s Circle in the Square, has brought out an intensity in all three actors.  His staging makes great use of a relatively small space and every speck of furniture.  The company has wisely hired Seth Dorcey to direct and edit the streaming version so that the flow translates for home viewers and harnesses the power of the enthusiastic live audience.  The set designed by Stephen Gifford uses a wardrobe as the main doorway so that Abe and Elmer literally go into and out of the closet throughout.  The backdrop includes some wonderful detail — a photo of Frederick Douglas, a paste-up of Lincoln — but nothing that distracts from the terrific performances.  Like a proper fantasia, there is original music by David Gonzalez which smooths the transitions ranging from burlesque to gravitas with cello played by John Swihart.  The shifts in mood are further supported by Dan Weingarten’s atmospheric lighting. Erin Bednarz’s sound design also incorporates some well-timed gun shots.  

Pete Ploszek, Alex Esola, and Roger Q. Mason; Photo credit Jenny Graham

Swirling in Wendell Carmichael’s glorious skirts and bonnets, playwright Mason portrays their unique creation, Taffeta, as bold yet self critical, wise, but with lessons to learn.  The chemistry between Pete Ploszek’s Abe and Alex Esola’s Elmer is electric.  The two maintain connection as they move through time — now, then and never — while manage Taffeta’s coaxing, interfering, and micromanagement.  This renders the tightly choreographed slo-mo love scene superfluous and, with Taffeta as a witness, cheapens what had felt genuine.  

Lavender Men is an engaging and emotionally charged look at pages from history you think you know.  It is currently playing at the Skylight Theater at 1816 1/2 North Vermont Ave in Los Angeles.  It is also available On Demand which is how I was able to enjoy it in New York City.  Run time is 95 minutes with no intermission.  Seats for the live show are $23 – $80.  Showtimes are Saturday 8:30pm, Sunday 3:00pm, and Monday 7:30pm.  The virtual experience is $28.75 for a secure link good for 72 hours.  Tickets through September 4 are available at https://skylighttheatre.org/program-lavender-men/.

Cymbeline – FREE in NYC

For its 23rd season, New York Classical Theatre has chosen Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.  This inventive, lively company is the perfect troupe to take on a work that even Will’s Mum likely thought a headache.  Equal parts comedy, tragedy, romance, and fairytale, the work has a cast of nearly 40 and spans multiple locations.  With a wink and a smile, NY Classical’s jovial band of seven actors skillfully tackles the Everest-high pile of coincidences and present an evening of pure enjoyment. 

The group’s signature style includes traditional staging from the 19th century and the use of New York City parks as a natural backdrop.  In years past, viewers would physically move with the actors as the scene changed.  This year, the city has requested that a single area be used in each location, but the action is staged so that the audience remains the focus of attention. Costumes are minimal with a simple hat or cloak often distinguishing between multiple characters.  (Thanks to designer Sabrinna Fabi, Queen looks as if she shaved the neighbor’s cat to trim her dress, which befits her character.)  Lighting is provided by stagehands holding common flashlights; all the better to focus on engagement and storytelling.

I will not recount the sprawling tale of Cymbeline, which isn’t even about that king so much as his feisty daughter, Imogen.  A read through the dramaturgical notes provided on the website and via email is highly recommended for your enhanced enjoyment of the production.   Even if you do not heed this advice, the cast will give you a helping hand in their concise introduction to the evening, which also sets proper expectations and tone.

Artistic Director/Director Stephen Burdman has wonderfully edited the dialogue and uses each space to full advantage.  Fight scenes are amusingly choreographed by Sean Michael Chin and punctuated with Batman-like sound effects.  Oft-tangled pun-filled lines are delivered with clarity and wit.  Moments that could have been groan-inducing are transformed into delightful farce, as if we and the actors are together chuckling behind Shakespeare’s back.  Evan Moore-Coll is a standout in his four roles including the juicy part of Cloten the clod.  Also pivotal to success is Terrell Wheeler, who undergoes several hot changes between a kindly servant (Pisanio) and a powerful warrior (Caius Lucius).  He makes an imposing contrast to the slight Nick Salamone as the easily manipulated Cymbeline.  Holding the heart of the story as Imogen is an elegant and fiery Aziza Gharib, who also appears as Jupiter in one of the plot’s more outrageous moments.  Brandon Burk, Christian Ryan, and Jenny Strassburg complete the strong company.

Attendance on the Circle Lawn in Carl Schurz (enter at 87th and East End Avenue) is limited to 200 people.  Reservations are recommended in large part so you will receive helpful information including notice of a rain cancelation.  If you do not regularly attend a yoga class, I recommend bringing a short beach chair.  (Taller chairs are permitted, but you will be seated to the side.)  The logistics are described well on the company’s website.  

Above all, this entrance into N Y Classical’s line-up reminds us that sometimes Shakespeare can be FUN!  The strangled twists of Cymbeline are in support of an all-is-well ending that is sorely needed at this time.  Performances continue in Carl Schurz Park in Manhattan through Sunday, July 3, and then move to Brooklyn Commons Park at MetroTech from July 5 through 10.  Tickets are FREE to encourage every theater goer with a pulse to come out and enjoy the show.  Donations to support the professional actors are highly encouraged.  Visit https://nyclassical.org/cymbeline for further information.

The Orchard – NYC and Live Stream

Long before Joni Mitchell decried the paving of paradise to put up a parking lot, Anton Chekhov’s emotionally paralyzed Ranevskaya family auctioned off their cherished cherry orchard to make way for summer homes. His last play, The Cherry Orchard, centers on Madame Lyubov who is hopelessly in debt after years of living in Paris.  She and her daughters have returned to their estate for one last party and it is only then that they reflect on the once-prized fruit trees that will be chopped down to make way for modernization.  Like many of Chekhov’s works, there is a sense that happier alternatives have simply slipped out of reach.  

In Arlekin’s (zero-G) imaginative retelling, The Orchard, the work is simultaneously performed live and streamed to a global audience.  Typically, live streams have been made available because there was no audience permitted at the theater or it was presented in a way meant to simulate as closely as possible the live experience.  This is the first theatrical piece I’ve seen that deliberately gives those watching from home a different experience from those seated at the venue. 

While it is simply wonderful to make this production available worldwide and Ukrainian director Igor Golyak has unique experience using virtual reality to enhance traditional theater, it seems unnecessary to have augmented this particular work with an interactive component. The video-game-like curtain-raiser features various rooms of the house containing Mikhail Baryshnikov as Chekhov reading some the author’s more personal words in the original Russian.  Much of the interaction during the play involves being able to select something other than the main camera, though the few times I switched to another unit, it wasn’t revealing so much as disorienting.  And it was impossible to avoid FOMO when just before the auction of the property — during which the audience makes non-binding bids with proceeds going to support the company — the home audience was addressed directly by matriarch Lyubov Ranevskaya while a completely different scene was taking place on stage.

Furthermore, the production is straight-up terrific and needs no embellishment.  Golyak, whose homeland is currently undergoing life changing destruction and loss, has harnessed those feelings of disconnection and grief and made additions to the work that are engaging and meaningful.  The elegant script was translated by Carol Rocamora, who preserves the poetry while tightening the storyline and punching up the more farcical elements.  On scenic designer  Anna Fedorova’s all-blue stage, blossoms litter the floor and even the nursery room teddy bear and hobby horse appear melancholy.  The backdrop envelops the players in dramatic projections by Alex Basco Koch, including lines of dialogue, stars and planets, and the faces of the enraptured audience. The onstage robotics by Tom Sepe lend an eery futuristic and fatalistic feel to the tale.  

Denisova, Hecht, Brett and Nelson in The Orchard; photo by Maria Baranova

The cast is led by the sublime Jessica Hecht, who gives Ranevskaya’s delicacy meaning and tenderness.  Baryshnikov appears again as Firs, the faithful older servant.  His interpretation of an aging, submissive body practically collapses in on itself and he never stops being fully present, even providing a warm interaction with a mechanical dog.  The clowning of Arlekin Players regular Darya Denisova as Charlotta  the soon-to-be-displaced governess, adds appropriately discordant levity.  While Nael Nacer’s booming voice is just perfect for sounding the alarm as Lopakhin, the man best positioned to win the orchard his ancestors tended to as slaves.  John McGinty has been cast as Trofimov, though it’s unclear whether making the perpetual student deaf is a comment on communication between characters or Golyak just appreciates McGinty’s talent.  Juliet Brett, Elise Kibler, Mark Nelson, and Ilia Volok round out the company.

As a fresh take on a classic, The Orchard blossoms under Golyak’s knowing hand.  The themes of class division, misplaced materialism, and cultural loss are sadly timely and touching.  A quick read of The Cherry Orchard will only deepen your understanding of events.  Live performances run through Sunday, July 3, and take place at the Baryshnikov Arts Center at 450 West 37th Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues) .  Showtimes are Tuesday – Thursday at 7PM, Friday – Saturday at 8PM, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2PM.  Proof of vaccination is required for entry and face masks must be worn throughout the two hour runtime.  Prices for the intimate live show run from $39 to $125.  The virtual experience — which requires a plugged-in laptop or desktop — is $29.  There are bundles to purchase both live and streaming together.  For tickets and additional information, visit www.TheOrchardOffBroadway.com.  

Manifesting Mrs. Marx

Though you have no doubt heard of economist/revolutionary Karl Marx, his gifted and loyal wife has been all but erased from history.  Encyclopedic entries of her life are usually reduced to her lineage, marriage, and the early death of her children.  You will learn something more of Johanna “Jenny” Von Westphalen Marx by watching Manifesting Mrs. Marx, but that is not its ultimate goal.  Still evolving three years after it was performed at the famous Edinburgh Fringe, the piece is the brainchild of actress/musician/producer Clara Francesca who employs a wide range of techniques to shape the story.  In less than an hour, she puddle jumps from Von Westphalen’s biography to the constrictions of the patriarchy to the struggles of creative process itself. 

Jenny had her own distinct views of social revolution and the suppression of the working class.  But she was also a writer of criticism which makes it particularly fitting to have her character critique parts of her own performance.  The work is unconventional in that Ms. Francesca plays not only herself, Mrs. Marx, and characters in Marx’s world, but also against herself as the unseen writer who is heard over the theater’s speakers creating the script in real time.  This allows the actress to simultaneously narrate and comment on the story.  She is both the center of the work and being controlled by it, an apt metaphor for the constrictions faced by early feminists like Jenny Von Westphalen that continue into present day. 

Laurence Olivier Award winning director Guy Masterson wisely keeps the focus on his talent, placing her in drab shapeless clothing against a dark backdrop.  Ms. Francesca is given only a chair, a microphone and a “bag of tricks,” which suits an actress this playful, expressive, and bright.  Her physical comedy is likely to make you think of another Marx — Harpo — especially in a segment where she brattishly defies her writer who is giving her too many instructions.   She also uses her well-tuned voice to manipulate her audience, poking fun at “the pace of perfection” in measured dulcet tones and then rapidly firing off some of Jenny’s pent up frustrations.

Manifesting Mrs. Marx is a broad rather than deep experience.  But while it’s hard to retain much of the detail, the impact of the performer’s energy and passion lingers.  It is making its New York City debut as part of the The New York Theater Festival at the Teatro Latea at 107 Suffolk Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Three performances have been scheduled: Wednesday, May 18, at 4PM; Friday, May 20, at 6:30 PM; and Sunday, May 22, at 1PM.  It will be paired with a second short play to create an 85 minute event.  Tickets are $25 for advanced purchase general admission, $30 at the door, and $45 for VIP seating (https://innovationtickets.com/product/manifesting-mrs-marx/).   

Our Daughters, Like Pillars – Boston and Streaming

Playwright Kirsten Greenidge understands the impact of order: birth order, marriage order, and trying to keep order.  In her family drama Our Daughters, Like Pillars, she explores the significance of order in three full acts, allowing her characters to leisurely reveal their affecting histories and conflicting hopes for the future.  

This was my third viewing of a Huntington Theater play made possible by their digital insurance policy.  These offerings are not films, but rather live capture of a singular experience using 10-12 cameras.  While nothing can replicate the energy of sharing a performance with an in-person audience, The Huntington’s digital works offer quality productions to those who remain unable to sit in a venue with strangers.  All three had exceptionally clear audio. My first of these was the darkly funny Teenage Dick, energetically directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel with a first rate cast.  This stream was later shared with the Pasadena Playhouse for an extended run.  Next was Toni Morrison’s devastating The Bluest Eye gorgeously adapted by Lydia R. Diamond.  Director Awoye Timpo’s swirling camerawork allowed home audiences to better view the characters’ movements around a stage poignantly shaped like a chopped tree stump.  With Kimberly Senior’s traditional proscenium staging, Our Daughters, Like Pillars uses more expressive close-ups than shifting angles, but it never loses pacing. 

The story revolves around the three Shaw sisters who are vacationing in a house rented by oldest sister Lavinia (Seldes-Kanin fellowship winner Nikkole Salter) and her husband.  What should be a celebratory time of togetherness turns increasingly tension-filled as Vinny becomes progressively more controlling of her siblings and their mother.  Having felt isolated during the first year of COVID, Vinny’s vision is to have the entire family under one roof on a permanent basis.  But though she tries tactical cajoling, needling guilt, and outright manipulation, that goal is not shared either by people-pleasing middle sister Octavia (Arie Thompson) or youngest Zelda (Lyndsay Allyn Cox) who has only just taken her first steps towards independence.  We gain a deeper understanding of the siblings through their mother Yvonne (Lizan Mitchell) and their stepmother Missy (Cheryl D. Singleton) who are each given profound fourth-wall breaking monologues.  Race and class play important but smaller roles in the script.

Lyndsay Allyn Cox, Arie Thompson and Nikkole Salter; Photo by T Charles Erickson

While the spotlight is clearly on the women — by turns strong and brittle — it is the two men who supply the softness.  Genuine light shines from Julian Parker’s Paul King, Zelda’s casual conquest living by his wits who gets caught up in the whirl of family conflict. And Postell Pringle portrays Vinny’s husband Morris with intensity as he tries to rein in his wife’s darker, more destructive instincts.  The set by Marion Williams includes several levels which provides a feeling of movement to the dialogue-heavy drama.  The family is tightly contained, with the outside world intruding only through the ringing of a telephone.  Costumes by Sarita Fellows add essential color and flow while Jane Shaw’s sound incorporates music from Prince to Sam Cooke.

At 3 ½ hours including two 15 minute intermissions, Our Daughters, Like Pillars, indulges in the kind of rolling storytelling rarely seen since March 2020.  It is playing at the Huntington’s Wimberly Theatre in Boston through May 8 and On Demand through May 22.  Prices range from $25 – $99.  For tickets and information visit https://www.huntingtontheatre.org/plays-and-events/.

Django In Pain – Streaming on Demand

A play about a young man so depressed that he wants to kill himself may not sound like an appropriate match for our national state of mind.  But the journey Antonio Vega and Ana Graham invite us to take in Django in Pain is a beautifully rendered one.  Filmed by Graham mid-pandemic on a cellphone, it features handmade puppets, with props and scenery fashioned from found objects.  And just like in the parable made famous by The West Wing, Vega has been down there and he knows the way out.  The 2016 election kicked him in the soul and the earthquake in Mexico the following year affected him more than he could comprehend.  But the time he found himself in COVID lockdown, he could hardly function.  An invitation to be part of a creative project — the one that resulted in this innovative work — is what motivated him to push away the mental cobwebs and seek help.

Performed on a clear desk by Vega and two visible puppeteers, the piece follows Django on a series of adventures. His suicide attempt is interrupted by an overexcited dog with whom he slowly forms a bond.  The playwright often interacts with his inventions, his inner monologue taking the form of an astute vulture.  While the story has gloomy themes, there are also absurdist images such as Django eating breakfast with a noose still secured around his neck.  These farcical elements prevent Django’s anguish from becoming excruciating for the audience while still honoring the character’s feelings. 

A scene from Django in Pain

Vega’s dialogue isn’t distinctive nor is it a particularly important element for success.  The visuals are what is essential to the narrative and they are inventive and impactful.  Many types of puppets are employed including Indonesian style shadow puppets and traditional stringed puppets.  The shadows are often as prominent as the characters and set pieces, well-representing the dark and lighter moods battling for attention.  As Django’s outlook brightens, so too does the palette employed.  Music with a Spanish flavor written by Cristóbal MarYán heightens the mood.  Headphones may improve your streaming experience.

Django in Pain serves as an important reminder of the powers of connection and accountability.  Whatever our circumstances, there is always an opportunity to develop our own story.  Originally commissioned by PlayCo, the production is streaming from 59e59.org as part of their Plays in Place series.  Runtime is 56 minutes including Vega’s introduction: essential for comprehending the ending of the play.  Narration is available in both English and Spanish.  $15 tickets are available at https://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/django-in-pain-streaming/ and can be used on demand through October 19.  Due to the intensity of the content, there is a viewer advisory.

F.I.R.E. – Streaming On Demand

To end their inaugural season, New Normal Rep is presenting the world premiere of F.I.R.E. by talented new voice Julia Blauvelt.  Pronounced just like “fire”, the acronym stands for Financial Independence; Retire Early, the ultimate goal of Hutch.  The hotshot accountant has landed his dream job at a prominent hedge-fund that comes with a summer drinks night and free pretzels in the break room.  The only young white male in the department, he appears to have been uniquely embraced by the executive floor and consequently can’t wait to get out and mingle.  He is the newest member of a diverse team led by the emotionally intelligent Shauna.  She brought the devoted Jazz from her previous job to add to the brilliantly inventive Noel and old timer Chris and she has since hired temp Penny, a mediocre actress with huge potential to be the best accountant among them.

It takes 30 minutes of a play filled with clever banter, great humor, and sly character development to get to the first reveal in the plot.  Someone has opened an off-the-books account to funnel money out of the company and Danika, to whom Shauna reports, needs the team to find the culprit.  A team member will have to be fired, and not in Hutch’s unique meaning of the word.  If they fail to get answers, she’ll simply have Shauna sacrifice Chris — the only family man among them.  Act Two moves more swiftly towards the ultimately satisfying conclusion.

Director Heather Arnson does little to help with the pacing of this psychological whodunit.  While she interjects camera movement and makes the presentation visually interesting, she doesn’t seem to have given enough guidance to her fine cast.  Without the action that would be included in a live staging, there needed to be more variation in the dialogue to follow the build up of numbers-oriented incidents and consequences.  Instead, the energy present in the lines is muffled, and the performers are kept at a fairly constant hum.  Aaron Matteson infuses Hutch with the same high voltage boom throughout.  And though clearly capable of much more, Ella Dershowitz keeps Penny’s intelligence and the essential nature of her character clouded with a Valley Girl drone and nervous hair twirling.  These two characters who could be opposing swirling vortexes are firmly anchored like two metal poles with the rest of the cast hung between them.  Carol Todd’s appearances as Danica are at a constant boil, though that might be fitting as a woman who often repeats her origin story.  Jeffrey Bean is given some opportunity for breadth beyond fuddy-duddy through Chris’s phone calls with his unseen wife. Shauna also has story outside of the office, which Kierra Bunch leverages in the latter half of the piece.  (Her explanation of how work works is priceless.)  Jazz has one dramatic moment that Nathaniel P. Claridad uses to best advantage.  And Nygel D. Robinson brings appropriate warmth and smoothness to Noel, though he too could obviously provide more range.  

Kierra Bunch, Ella Dershowitz , Aaron Matteson, Nygel D. Robinson, Nathaniel P. Claridad, Jeffrey Bean in F.I.R.E.; Photo by Dora Elmer

As with the other NNR offerings, the production is enhanced with a virtual contiguous set that makes the characters appear to be in different sections of the same room.  This one is designed by Edward T. Morris complete with simulated florescent lighting, modern room dividers, and a city view.  The ensemble is well outfitted by David Woolard with the men all in shades of blue and grey, the two managing women in black, and Penny in the sole pop of red.  The sound by Lindsay Jones — who also provided transitional music — is unevenly mixed and Hutch is particularly difficult to hear.

While the entire creative community continues to struggle with the consequences of a global pandemic, it is promising that that New Normal Rep has presented an entire season of quality streaming theater not as a substitute of anything but rather as its own art form.  F.I.R.E. is a satisfying example of what can be achieved within the confines of Zoom boxes.  This production streams through October 20 at NewNormalRep.org. Runtime is an hour and 47 minutes with a brief intermission.  Tickets are $25; $10 for students, educators and theater professionals, and can be purchased on the company’s website.

Lines in the Dust – Streaming On Demand

“Opportunity is about positioning.”  So says Denitra Morgan in Lines in the Dust, a powerful drama beginning today on NewNormalRep.org.  Though set in 2009 and 2010, the play is a well-constructed examination of the systemic racism that still proliferates our educational institutions.  Built on the relationships formed among a handful of characters, it illustrates just how easy it is for people to move those dusty lines that are theoretically put in place to protect a community and transform them into rigid roadblocks used to constrain those who are less privileged.

The action takes place in Millburn, a New Jersey suburb that is home to an upscale mall and Regional Theater Tony winning Paper Mill Playhouse. With one of the highest income averages in the state, the residents support a public school system with a student/teacher ratio of 11 to 1. So it is unsurprising that Denitra has gone to great lengths to place her studious daughter at Millburn Township High School.   There, the teen is thriving academically under the watchful eye of Interim Principal Dr. Beverly Long, whom the girl idolizes.  

Denitra and Beverly had met as the only two Black people at an open house. They bonded over the many racist euphemisms employed by the real estate agent representing the nearly $900,000 property.  Now a year and a half later, Denitra is in Beverly’s office trying to straighten out her daughter’s registration paperwork.  Her timing could not be worse.  Beverly is under considerable pressure because a student who was shot and killed turned out to be a so-called “border hopper” from nearby Newark.  Blacker and poorer, nearly 1 in 8 residents in that city don’t graduate from high school, making it tempting for ambitious parents to falsify their home addresses  in order to send their children to Millburn instead.  At the insistence of the school board, Beverly has just hired Mike DiMaggio, a private investigator, to look into possible other incidents of residence fraud.

Melissa Joyner and Jeffrey Bean in Lines in the Dust

Based on events all too familiar to her, Pulitzer nominee Nikkole Salter’s script is economical, with every line providing meaning and insight.  Though the issues discussed are well-known, they are deeply humanized by her characters.  As embodied by Melissa Joyner, Denitra’s frustration and anger reverberate with genuine rawness.  Lisa Rosetta Strum gives Beverly a foundation of both tenderness and professionalism.  Their performances are nurtured by director Awoye Timpo with the action crisply edited by Hiatt Woods.  Not only is the relationship of these two bright women beautifully rendered, but the connection to their children and their deep understanding of what they each represent to the larger world are also apparent.  Much of that knowledge and acceptance is brought forth by their interactions with DiMaggio (a fierce Jeffrey Bean), a man so deeply enmeshed in a fantasy version of safety and fairness that he can’t even see his prejudice when it’s doused in spotlights.

As with the other projects presented by New Normal Rep, Afsoon Pajoufar’s production design is precise without being distracting.  An original jazzy score by Alphonso Horne becomes increasingly cacophonous, reflecting the devolving situation.  Qween Jean provides the well chosen outfits, from Beverly’s bold and polished attire to Denitra’s slightly too casual look.  

Lines in the Dust is created specifically for theater lovers who are still not comfortable being in an enclosed space with strangers.  Thoughtful performances and expressive dialogue move it beyond an issue play into the realm of truly satisfying home entertainment.  Offered on demand through August 8 at NewNormalRep.org, it runs one hour and fifty minutes with a brief intermission. Tickets are $25 with discounts available for students, educators and theater professionals, and can be purchased at NewNormalRep.org.

Brutal Imagination – Streaming On Demand

In late October 1994, OG “Karen” Susan L. Smith of Union, South Carolina called the police to report that an African American man had highjacked her car with her two young sons still strapped into the back seat.  Nine days later she was arrested for the boys’ murder.  Brutal Imagination is writer/poet Cornelius Eady exploration of the ease with which Smith constructed her lie.  Originally presented at the Vineyard Theatre at the end of 2001, it was nominated for the Lucille Lortel for the engulfing sound design and Eady was awarded an Oppenheimer for the script.  The piece has now been reimagined as a fundraiser for this supportive Off-Broadway incubator of dauntless voices.  Viewed through the shattering prism of recent events, the continued criminalization of Black men’s everyday actions, and the persistence of the rageful boogieman mythology, the work is as powerful as ever.

Though it is billed as a staged reading, this recreation by Joe Morton is more of a full-fledged film, complete with powerful special effects and a blood pumping score.  Fresh off her well-received role of Jane Apple in the Zoom-perfect Apple Family Plays, Sally Murphy revives her performance as the increasingly antsy Smith.  More tortured by her deception than the death of her children, Murphy is often shown caught in a frame constructed by turns from her bookshelves, her rearview mirror, and her television antenna.  But this is Morton’s show wherein he embodies Smith’s self-aware creation Mr. Zero.  At times he chuckles at his own inconsistencies, her shocking stereotyping, and above all the improbability of his very existence.  At others, his anger and those of thousands of others is channeled into brilliant condemnation of a society so deeply seeped in racism that Smith’s flimsy fabrication persisted for days.

Sally Murphy and Joe Morton in Brutal Imagination

Obie Award-winning video designer Jared Mezzocchi has brought Morton’s bold images to life, vividly blending them the way they would be entangled in someone’s mind.  This technique gives the piece tremendous movement even on a small screen.  Several racist touchstones are incorporated including the brilliant Buckwheat’s Lament.  The one flaw in the presentation stems from the sound mixing in which the score often obscures Murphy’s dialogue.  Closed captioning is unfortunately not available. 

Throughout the viewing of Brutal Imagination, it is hard not to feel weight of how little we have moved as a culture since the time of Smith’s saga.  Yet the poetry of the language and the wisdom of Mr. Zero’s observations shine through the darkness.  “We hope this play will be part of discussions about how we imagine or try to imagine what a future, a multicultural future, looks like,” says Cornelius Eady. “That to me is the heart of the struggle. This is part of the push that is going on. And the arts are part of this push… you have to imagine it before you can walk into it.”  This engaging play is available to stream On Demand through 11:59PM on June 7.  Runtime is 90 minutes and playback can be paused.  Tickets begin at $27.50 and are available on https://www.vineyardtheatre.org/brutal-imagination-2/.  Proceeds support the artists and programs in The Vineyard’s 2020-2021 Season.