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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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I Spy A Spy

Undocumented Mexican immigrant José Rodriguez is working hard at two jobs while awaiting  his big break as an actor. He wants to be seen, though he’d settle for entering a room without being mistaken for the waiter or the janitor.  Alina Orlova is striving to blend in in order to continue her family’s tradition of spying for Russia.  Unfortunately she is so stunning that she gets noticed no matter which of her worker-bee costumes she dons.  When the two are brought together by proximity and chicken tikka pizza, they cook up a plan to collaborate in hopes of fulfilling each other’s missions.  But with coyote Prisciliana Espinoza making threats against José and pressure on the Orlovas from new local asset “Beef Stroganoff” the pair must leverage every possible opportunity, including the mayor’s upcoming Face of New York contest. 

This is the set-up of I Spy a Spy, the clever new musical which just started a two month Off-Broadway run in the Theater at St. Clements.  It was inspired by headlines from eight years ago when a beautiful Russian agent found she enjoyed the local nightlife more than her assignment to bring down America.  That germ of an idea has blossomed into a funny and insightful two hours of entertainment.  Featuring a pop score by Sohee Youn and witty lyrics by Jamie Jackson, it combines a sincere and relevant immigrant story with some Get Smart level spy craft, touching on our culture’s obsession with all that is beautiful along the way.  Set against the backdrop of the diverse Hells Kitchen neighborhood, the cast is purposefully multi-ethnic.  At its most sincere moments, the piece is an anthem to the blend of cultures that sustain the American Dream.

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Andrew Mayer (center) and company members in I Spy a Spy; PhotoCredit: Russ Rowland

Director and choreographer Bill Castellino keeps the adept cast of twelve on their toes as many of them “shape shift” to take us through the layered plot.  The hyper-reality is captured in the whirling movement of the actors as well as the illustrated set pieces by James Morgan.  Costumes by Tyler Holland keep the look from becoming too fantastical with lights by Michael Gottlieb amping up the effects at key points.  It is to be hoped that the issues with sound design during the July 16th preview will be resolved to complete the unique picture.

Anchoring the production is Andrew Mayer’s José.  With a powerful voice and expressive face, he makes you root for the character from his first entrance dressed as a Times Square Statue of Liberty.  Emma Degerstedt matches his talent as a singer, but she could use more assistance from hair and makeup to take her from sweet looking all the way to Alina’s required irresistibility.  Her father Cold Borscht is played with cartoonish perfection by Bruce Warren.  Filling out the spy team, John Wascavage has cranked it up to 12 as Beef Stroganoff, a step too far when the humor is apparent in the script.  In a secondary plot, the sensational Hazel Anne Raymundo alternately soars and snarks as deli owner Sunny Park.  Sorab Wadia is a great counterpart as Abdul Makhdoom, the sweet and socially clumsy owner of the fusion restaurant across the street.  Their duet decrying the behavior of tourists is among the show’s audience-pleasers.  Of the flexible ensemble (including Grace Choi, Taylor Fields, Connor McShane, Nicole Paloma Sarro, and Lawrence Street) James Donegan does an especially fantastic job of playing multiple hosts with different degrees of swagger and smarminess.  It should be noted that in the spirit of the work, Sarro is donating to Families Belong Together.

I Spy a Spy makes for an engaging family-oriented outing or a fun date night at a reasonable price. It’s currently scheduled to run through September 21 at The Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 West 46th Street – between 9th & 10th Avenues).  Performances are Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday at 2pm and 7pm, Thursday at 2pm and 7pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm.  Tickets are $79 with premium seating available for $99.

LadyShip at the New York Musical Festival

The 16th New York Musical Festival (NYMF) is underway.  This line-up of diverse and daring musical productions, concerts, and readings has given rise to 23 commercial Off-Broadway productions and catapulted four more (including the acclaimed Next to Normal and clever In Transit) all the way to the Great White Way.  It’s a specular opportunity for budding artists and audiences alike to experience fresh thinking in a nurturing environment.

This weekend’s offerings included the tuneful LadyShip, with book, music and lyrics by sisters Laura and Linda Good of The Twigs.  Inspired by true events that took place from the 1780s to the 1860s, it tells the tale of a sampling of the 25,000 women sentenced by London courts for petty crimes to serve out their time in Australia.  The concept was that the city could simultaneously reduce overcrowding of their prisons and accelerate the colonization process by sending females of marriageable age to the new land.  The journey was harrowing and many of these women found themselves forced into prostitution in order to afford housing and basic necessities in their new home.  

LadyShip does a good job of encompassing many of the grimmer facts.  All of the women depicted are victims of a male dominated culture and were reduced to stealing by drunken fathers, gambling husbands, or complete abandonment.  The focus is on the orphaned teenage Reed sisters, Alice and Mary, who were caught shoplifting in an effort to feed themselves.  As performed by Maddie Shea Baldwin and Caitlin Cohn, their soaring duets such as “No Matter Where We’re Bound” well-represent the tight and loving bond that keeps them moving forward under the most bleak of circumstances.  Unfortunately we learn less about the other four convicts.  Jennifer Blood’s educated Lady Jane Sharp biggest number is “I Need An Anchor” alongside Quentin Oliver Lee’s Captain, which seems a lost opportunity given her character’s potential for a superior life in an officer’s household.  Also sublimated is Lisa Karlin’s bold and witty Abigail Gainsborough, whose know-how might just help her escape traditional fate.  The potential for 11 year old Kitty MacDougal (an angelic voiced Noelle Hogan) comes into sharper view with her dreamlike solo “So Many Stars.”  Rounding out the group is Brandi Knox as the defeated Mrs. Pickering, who tells rather than sings most of what we learn of her backstory.

Ensemble Cast of LadyShip photo by Russ Rowland

Ensemble Cast of LadyShip; photo by Russ Rowland

All of the women develop variations of relationships with the male crew  — exemplified by Trevor St. John-Gilberts’s swaggering Lt. Adams and Justin R.G. Holcomb’s perpetually wasted Zeke Cropper — bargaining for writing paper or bribing them with rum.  One even establishes a true connection with Jordon Bolden’s charming and sweet Marcus “Finn” Findley, something which did often occur on these transportation voyages.  Clear ties are also made to current events including the notion that women and children will be separated upon arrival in their new land and that tougher levels of justice are meted out for the poor.  But there is little light shown on the few more hopeful stories of women who were permitted to marry emancipated men and lived more traditional married lives, much less any inclusion of the inspiring rebels such as entrepreneur Mary Reibey.  More emphasis on these story elements would have made the optimistic ending feel more earned than it currently does. 

The level of talent that went into this production is obvious.  Coming from the pens of an indie rock band, the music and lyrics are surprisingly subdued.  Under the direction of Simone Allen with Christopher Anselmo on guitar, Charlotte Morris on violin and herself on piano, most of the numbers are dulcet, easy to listen to and filled with luscious harmonies.  Karlin leading the women in the rollocking “Only the Strong Survive” is the closest we hear to the anticipated battle anthem.  Director Samantha Saltzman keeps the women realistically contained with scenic designer David Goldstein deftly providing the no-frills pieces that make up the dreary London jail, the dark bowels of the ship, and the sparse dockside.  Costumes by Whitney Locher appropriately telegraph class and rank, though they all stay a bit too clean throughout.  Sam Gordon’s lighting and Patrick Calhoun’s sound go a long way to completing the picture of life at sea.

NYMF continues through August 4 at Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre in Pershing Square  (480 W 42nd St, New York, NY 10036) and other nearby venues.  This is a not-to-be-missed affordable and rewarding chance for fans of musical theater to indulge their passion.  Passes for four or more tickets as well as individual tickets are available at http://www.nymf.org.

Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson

On a soundstage, a talented production team is preparing to shoot an AT&T commercial featuring beloved Luke Wilson.  The creative concept is to drop red gumballs around the star to symbolize all of Verizon’s dropped calls.  Despite a lack of time to test the hastily put-together rig, prop lead Rob is able to toss the small projectiles just shy of Luke’s shoulder and the first few takes go smoothly.  Then a case of nerves sets in and a few of the hard objects hit Luke squarely on the head.  The actor sees stars; the director —award-winning documentarian Errol Morris — sees excitement and orders the crew to deliberately aim for the performer on the next take.  

This is the set-up of the aptly named Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson, which is based on true events.  Though the Directors Guild of America takes set safety very seriously, sadly there are occasional incidents of a director demanding a dangerous shot, as happened in this case.  Rob Ackerman accurately has commercial Assistant Director, Alice, threaten to report Morris to the Guild.  The script also provides enough background to realistically make her vulnerable to manipulation.  It’s a creative stand-in for any project on which a concerned would-be whistleblower has instead been made complicit through intimidation.  If only the playwright had trusted his audience to get his very clear and impactful message.  Instead, after a lively and thought-provoking 55 minutes, he burdens the additional 20 with outright lectures on broader issues and political topics ranging from gender discrimination to Nazis.  It’s an unnecessary departure from the previous territory that mars an otherwise engaging production.

First time director, famed playwright Theresa Rebeck, does an imaginative job of bringing us deep inside the physical set of the commercial and the mind set of each participant.  The results are visually stimulating and often laugh-out-loud funny.  The assorted screens that are employed by Morris for playback at the shoot are also used to show us the crew’s previous experiences that have brought them to this critical moment.  (Yana Birkukova provides the ideal video design.)  The nearly all-white set designed by Christopher and Justin Swader shows off these projections to great effect.  Emphasis is achieved by Mary Ellen Stebbin’s well-placed lighting, which often shifts to a befitting green-screen green.  The look is completed by the essential craft service table.  Costumes designed by Tricia Barsamian will make any production pro feel right at home.  All-important clever props are provided by Addison Heeren. 

the cast of DROPPING GUMBALLS

The Cast of Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson; Photo by Carol Rosegg

As a former prop person, Rob Ackerman makes the prop man, also named Rob, his spokesperson.  George Hampe does a fabulous job of growing increasingly manic as character Rob struggles to remain the voice of reason and the closest thing we get to a hero.  With a get-on-with-it gruffness, Dean Nolen is well cast as his boss and seasoned rigger, Ken.  Reyna De Courcy is less successful at maintaining an appropriate emotional build in the role of their assistant, Jenny, becoming akin to a cartoon character with jerky motions and high-pitched yelps of displeasure.  With enough charm and swagger, Jonathan Sale could easily be Luke Wilson’s deliberately pudgy body double.  It’s less easy to know how well David Wohl impersonates Errol Morris.  The part is written in one obnoxious note, though the theater vet certainly manifests a typical ego-driven artist.  In the toughest role, Ann Harada swings rightly between assuredness and fear as Alice, but she struggles to differentiate the other small parts she takes on in memory and flashback.

Ackerman’s love of television production and those who strive to keep it creative and truthful shines through despite a dip in the ending.  It is easy to see why both Luke Wilson and Errol Morris have given the project their blessing.  With a little reworking of the last section, Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson has the makings of insightful modern satire.  Running time is 75 minutes with no intermission.  It plays through July 6, 2019, in the Mezzanine Theater at at A.R.T./ New York Theatre (502 W. 53rd Street). Tickets are $25 for union card holders, $30 general admission and $40 for reserved seating.  For purchasing and additional information, visit TheWorkingTheater.org or call the Box Office (Ovationtix) at 866.811.4111.

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.