Ajijaak on Turtle Island

In Ajijaak on Turtle Island, chicks are hatched, buffalo dance, and butterflies flutter overhead to the delight of young theater-goers.  The multimedia piece is the creation of Heather Henson in collaboration with an array of First Nations performers and her famed father Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.  Storytelling is imparted through song, dance, and projections in addition to the expected marvelous marionettes.

Ajijaak © 2018 Richard Termine

Ajijaak on Turtle Island © 2018 Richard Termine

A synopsis is included in the program and should be shared with children before the curtain rises to help them get the most from the experience.  We are on Turtle Island — now known as North America — at a time when animals could talk to one another.  A young whooping crane named Ajijaak has been separated from her parents during a fire.  Her journey to find them on the Gulf Coast puts her in touch with deer, buffalo, coyotes, crabs and a few two-legged beings.  Each interaction teaches her something valuable and contributes to her “medicine bundle.”  These lessons will help her heal the world when the time comes to confront Mishibizhiw, the violent creature who is awakened from sleep whenever the earth is being exploited.

The visuals are quite stunning and work in harmony.  Multimedia images of nature are combined with music and movement in support of the environmental message.  Indigenous pieces by Dawn Avery & Larry Mitchell, Kevin Tarrant and Ty Defoe are punctuated by two drummer/chanters along with conventional instruments.  The script —  also by Ty Defoe based on a story by Heather Henson — is episodic, as is typical of a work geared to children.  The narrative breaks down in spots and some of the dialogue is stilted.  These weakness are largely overcome by the charm and warmth of the narrator Grandma Moon as embodied by Joan Henry.  Mishibizhiw’s entrance happens without an inciting incident, which seems a lost opportunity to really hit home the overarching theme. A highlight comes shortly after when the audience participates in the unique song meant to restore balance to the world.  It is a tune you will hear little voices continuing to sing throughout your walk to the subway, briefly pushing Baby Shark to the back of your mind.

Complementing Ms. Henry is Henu Josephine Tarrant who gives Ajijaak a soaring angelic voice worthy of a bird.  The remainder of the performers — Tony Enos, Wren Jeng, Adelka Polak, Sheldon Raymore — are uneven in skill, but all provide enthusiasm and heartwarming interaction with the audience.  Dancers Jake Montanaro, Jennifer Sanchez, Euni Shim and Dormeshia Ward fill the background and theater aisles, uplifting spirits, sometimes with the aid of kites representing, birds, butterflies and such.  Traditional dances choreographed and performed by Tarrant, Raymore and Enos add spark and authenticity.

The set by Christopher and Justin Swader features six drum heads representing the heartbeat of Turtle Island. These also function as screens for the dramatic projections designed by Katherine Freer.  Rather than the all-black garb favored by most puppeteers, these artists sport bright colors in their wardrobe designed by Lux Haac with some pieces by Donna Zakowska.  This is in keeping with the cultural roots of the characters and plays up the relationship between the animals and their handlers.  

Presented by Ibex Puppetry, an entertainment company founded by Heather Henson that creates spectacles promoting themes in support of a healthy planet, Ajijaak on Turtle Island is intended as family entertainment.  Adults firmly in touch with their inner child should find enough to engage with here.  The recommended age is 7 and up, though I saw many pre-schoolers in attendance..  Your child should be able to sit still for 75 minutes, not interfere with performers in the aisles, and hold questions until the curtain falls.  There is an opportunity for them to participate in support of Aijijaak in the way past generations clapped in order to keep Tinkerbell alive.  Performances run through March 10 at the New Victory Theater.  For information and to purchase tickets visit https://newvictory.org.

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The Price of Thomas Scott

Long before there was Reverend Moore in Footloose, there was dance adversary and forceful chapel congregant Thomas Scott. Scott has been offered a small fortune for his declining neighborhood textile business.  The problem?  The new owners would turn the desirable corner location into a dance hall: a devil’s playground as far as Scott is concerned.  A righteous Protestant Nonconformist, he must now weigh his family’s future against his steadfast convictions.

Despite being written in 1913 by rising star Elizabeth Baker, The Price of Thomas Scott is brimming with modern dilemmas.  Class still dictates potential opportunity for education and career.  Our highly divided social climate is filled with the voices of strong convictions that have soured into prejudice.  Many become even more entrenched in the familiar and pass judgement on those who are open to differing opinion.  Yet as time moves forward, the seemingly outrageous and unusual can find more acceptance.

Scott’s family in question includes his far-sighted and talented daughter Annie (a radiant Emma Geer), whose creativity is stifled by her tasteless clientele.  Her brilliant brother Leonard (Nick LaMedica who does his best to come across as a teenager) has the potential to become upwardly mobile.  Their mother Ellen (an underutilized Tracy Sallows) longs to retire with her husband to Tunbridge Wells where they first met.  While Scott himself (a crackling Donald Corren)  has built his life around his chapel and now seems driven to protect everyone’s prospects for entrance to heaven.  Temptation is provided in the form of Wicksteed (a polished and eloquent Mitch Greenberg) a former friend now employed by the successful Courney Company.  The story is made richer by the Scott’s friends and neighbors played by Andrew Fallaize, Josh Goulding, Jay Russell, Mark Kenneth Smaltz, Ayana Workman and Arielle Yoder.

THE PRICE OF THOMAS SCOTT by ELIZABETH BAKER Tracy Sallows, Donald Corren and Emma Geer Photo by Todd Cerveris

Tracy Sallows, Donald Corren and Emma Geer.  Photo by Todd Cerveris.

Director Jonathan Bank is constrained in his approach, relying heavily on Tracy Bersley’s choreography to pick up the momentum.  All the action takes place in the back parlor of the Scott’s shop, represented by the perfectly rundown set created by Vicki R. Davis.  The charming mostly muted costumes by Hunter Kaczorowski tell the story of period and class in pre-WWI England.  The hats on display illustrate the gap between Annie’s instinct for style and her clients’ misguided requests.  Shifts in the lighting by Christian Deangelis and music and sound by Jane Shaw help set mood and pace. 

All are in service to the clever and often humorous words of Ms. Baker.  Growing up in a household similar to that of the Scotts, she took in her first play at the age of 30.  In short order she had transformed from an obscure stenographer to recognized playwright.  At first you may need to navigate the various accents and a few older expressions, but then the flow is established and the characters come into focus. However, the ending will feel extremely abrupt to a modern audience.  (Those around me failed to clap for a full 30 seconds, though they appeared stunned more than unhappy with the performance.) The production team seems to have recognized Baker’s departure from what has become an acceptable character arc and tacked on a post-curtain call “coda” to better manage expectation. Your reading of the Artistic Director’s statement and dramaturgical notes will help you better appreciate the work.

The Price of Thomas Scott poses some deep questions through pleasant voices.  It is Mint Theater’s latest project in support of giving new life to neglected women playwrights.   Runtime is 90 minutes with no intermission.  It is playing through March 23 at the Beckett Theatre in Theatre Row.  Full priced tickets are $65, though there are several discount options including $32 day-of Rush.  For more information and to purchase seats visit http://minttheater.org/current-production/

Bonnie’s Last Flight

Pack a bag full of whimsey and climb aboard Bonnie’s Last Flight.  This imaginative new play by the prolific Eliza Bent is taking off at Next Door at NYTW.  Your experience of the extended metaphor begins as soon as you receive your confirmation from the theater.  First class passengers are allowed to enter first and receive pre-performance wine and snacks.  (Though bibs on the back designate them as First Class, Comfort Plus or Economy, all the chairs are the same and there are no bad seats in the house.)  Upon entering, you are immersed in a representation of a cabin surrounded by oval windows and Virgin inspired overhead lighting.  Leg room is generous, though there is a limit of one carry-on per person.

Despite the title, the head of your crew is Jan. Thirty-one years ago during the rise of feminism, the then sexually naive teen found herself pregnant and alone.  She chose to carry the child to term.  Though she gave her daughter up for adoption, the chapter derailed her lifelong ambition to become a writer.  Taking a job as a “waitress of the skies” she continues to jot down ideas between trips down the aisle to serve brownies.  Her inspiration is a manic Mark Twain who is almost always by her side.  Recently accepted into a renowned Chicago based writing program, she’s finally hanging up her wings to follow her abandoned dream.

Jan’s story is one of many we learn during our fictional flight to Chicago and it is by far the most linear. The remainder of Ms. Bent’s script includes several personal episodes told by the rest of the crew as if glimpsed through cloud cover.  Jan’s counterpart is the well-meaning, high-energy and somewhat dimwitted LeeAnne who is also struggling to course-correct her life. Rounding out the cabin team is Jan’s devoted longtime colleague Greig, moved by items he finds left in seat back pockets and under seats.   Up in the cockpit is Tony, whose obviously lack of fitness to fly is one of the play’s plot holes.  His calling his co-pilot Erik “Jesus” is a running joke.  The troupe also portray other characters from the past.  To reveal more about the titular Bonnie would be a small spoiler, but she too is on board.

Ceci Fernandez in Bonnie's Last Flight. Photo by Shun_Takino

Ceci Fernandez in Bonnie’s Last Flight. Photo by Shun Takino.

In the elegant and graceful body of Barbara Walsh, Jan is a marvelous character, surprisingly well rounded and deeply sympathetic given the short amount of time we get to spend with her.  Greig Sargeant’s Greig isn’t given as much depth, but he acts as a sweet partner and balances Ceci Fernandez’s frantic and funny LeeAnne.  While those three are tonally in sync, the others seem to have stumbled in from a much more farcical piece.  The cockpit duo played by Sam Breslin Wright and Federico Rodriguez veers firmly into stock character territory.  Playwright Eliza Bent’s own clown-like Twain nearly pulls the piece over the slapstick edge, though this is apparently integral to her vision for the work.  

Director Annie Tippe cleverly choreographs the motion using the confined space defined by airplane body, aisles and jump-seats.  A good portion of the runtime is devoted to skits and business including clips of inflight movies.  This necessitates looking from side to side like a tennis match and occasionally completely turning around to see a curtained area behind you.  A few times, an unwitting “passenger” is included in the action.  Scenic design by Meredith Ries and costumes by Heather McDevitt Barton make the best of a small budget. Small overhead monitors expand the performance space and creative wigs and accessories make for quick changes.  The live action is supplemented by videos by David Pym and sound by John Gasper, which in previews had some technical glitches.  (For anyone who has tried to use Go-Go inflight wireless, this is not out of step with the rest of the gag.)

With tickets starting at $25, Bonnie’s Last Flight is a pleasant diversion, delivering some great fun and mild food for thought.  Can we lose our emotional baggage as easily as a major carrier sends the suitcase clearly marked for Rome to its hub in Abu Dhabi?  It is playing through March 2 as part of Next Door at NYTW, 83 4th Street near 2nd Avenue. Tickets are available online at NYTW.org, by phone at 212-460-5475, or in-person at the NYTW Box Office. Be warned that similar to a real flight, it will be impossible to leave before reaching the final destination.

Blue Ridge

Alison only knows one way of being.  All waving arms and defensive language, she’s a fast talker in all the meanings of that phrase.  Having been incarcerated for taking a hatchet to her lover’s car, she’s been released into the loving care of a church-sponsored sober house in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina.  We meet her at her very first group session where she recites Carrie Underwood lyrics instead of the bible passage she’s supposed to have prepared.  Within minutes she’s telling the circle why she’s not really responsible for her crime and emphasizing that, having never done drugs, she doesn’t have need of any one of the twelve steps.  

Anyone who has experience with someone in recovery will know exactly how this story is going to unfold.  That’s the essential problem with Blue Ridge, now playing at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater.  While Abby Rosebrock’s script is beautifully written with textured dialogue, it doesn’t have anything new to say about mental health, boundary issues, or the powers of addiction in its many forms. Only those who find a new path have a real prayer of moving on intact enough to survive in the outside world.

blueridge.dress.1064

From lower left: Peter Mark Kendall, Chris Stack, Kyle Beltran,  Kristolyn Lloyd, Nicole Lewis and Marin Ireland in Blue Ridge. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.

In the hands and body of stage steady Marin Ireland, Alison is particularly irksome.  Her constant shrillness and twitching makes it hard to believe anyone in this substitute family would warm to her.  This is especially true of her devoted roommate Cherie, played with deep sincerity by the excellent Kristolyn Lloyd.  The male housemates’ reactions come from two diametrically opposed yet equally predictable directions.  Peter Mark Kendall brings genuine vulnerability to the easily beguiled Cole while the endlessly watchable Kyle Beltran’s Wade creates friction in his struggle to find inner strength.  The program’s co-founders are equally ill-equipped to lead everyone safely through a  troubled journey. Pastor Hern (a smooth Chris Stack) weakly attempts to guide the housemates in a more mindful direction, and Nicole Lewis’s insufficiently defined Grace generally lives up to her name by simply finding the good in what comes naturally to each of her residents.  

Director Taibi Magar successfully explores the shifting mood as the house moves from warm community to too close for comfort.  Confrontations have a palpable and fiery emotional core.  Her pacing is off, though, with the play running nearly 15 minutes over the prescribed two hours on Thursday night.  Mikaal Sulaiman provides the intelligently curated soundtrack for both conflict and healing. Unfortunately, some of the other design choices are distracting.  Why is the ten year old furniture of Adam Rigg’s set in a palate associated with the late 70s?  Why does Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting incorporate an incongruous brilliant December sunshine streaming through the window and ugly fluorescent overheads that play a supporting role for just a few minutes?  Why, while indicating the passage of time through Thanksgiving throws and a Rudolf mantlepiece, do we need to break the story’s flow and see each item put in place by the glow of a proscenium of LEDs?  

Taken as a whole, this production of Blue Ridge is flawed and consequently frustrating.  Writer Rosebrock has obvious talent, but her storytelling has not yet been brought into focus.  However, if you are fascinated by the ways in which broken people can either fit together with or puncture those around them, you may find enough with which to engage. This limited run is scheduled through Sunday, January 27th.  Regular tickets begin at $65 and can be purchased online at atlantictheater.org, by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111, or in person at the Linda Gross Theater box office (336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues). 

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.  

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

The first glimpse of a miniature cardboard cutout of the London skyline sets the tone for an evening spent with Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.  Wildly creative and deceptively simple, this retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel is one selection from this year’s Fringe Encores line-up.  Well curated by Artistic Director Darren Cole and his team, the series brings to the nonprofit SoHo Playhouse the very best shows from the world’s most well regarded fringe festivals including Brighton, Edinburgh, Hollywood, Limerick, Orlando, and Toronto as well as New York.  It’s theater for lovers of lively and inventive works.

At first, the dapper Burt Grinstead as Dr. Jekyll plays straight man to Anna Stromberg, varying her accent and exchanging aprons, hats, pipes, and other bargain bin objects in rapid succession as she takes on every other character.  It’s a tour de force performance for the actress, who also directs the piece.  Several purposefully awkward lectures later, Mr. Grinstead gets in on the fun with his brilliant transformation from mild Jekyll into villainous Hyde, played out in effective silhouette.  From there, the pace accelerates until the play’s dramatic conclusion.

Officer Hug - Cooper Bates Photography

Burt Grinstead and Anna Stromberg; photo by Cooper Bates

The two actors wrote the script, which is witty with just enough scare to keep audience members jumping.  Their adaptation retains many of the major plot points from the original book while taking quite a few creative liberties.  The character line-up has been streamlined.  This gives Ms. Stromberg the opportunity to show the full range of her talent without giving herself a coronary.  As playwrights, they have also infused the story with contemporary relevance: heightening the social commentary and playing up the frustrations associated with Victorian era repression by providing Jekyll with a feminist love interest.  It all works to tell a tale that is at once familiar and completely fresh.

The suggestive sets are composed of black interlocking wooden pieces with hidden compartments that reveal essential details in white.  Mood changes are emphasized with solid color lighting behind a plain backdrop.  These physical elements are augmented with a wonderfully produced soundscape of gulls, clock chimes, and musical flourishes.  

At 75 minutes,  Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde takes you on a highly engaging ride that ends before it can become repetitive.  With its pun-filled dialogue, clever production design and remarkably flexible two person cast, it’s low-budget entertainment done right.  And with tickets available for as little as $25, it’s also tremendous night-out bang for the buck.  

The “best of the fests” runs through December 16 at the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street off 6th Avenue near Spring.  To see a calendar of remaining performance dates and purchase tickets, visit www.fringeencores.org.

The Thanksgiving Play

In the right hands, satire can be a terrific educational tool.  This was clearly in the mind of award-winning playwright and activist Larissa FastHorse when she chose to go broad with The Thanksgiving Play.  Pained by the way the typical Thanksgiving story obliterates the voices of her people, the Sicangu Lakota uses laughter rather than lecture to take on all those insulting myths.  This is the award winner’s first New York production and it’s a worthy entrance. Through her four well-intentioned if off-base characters, she blows up those oft-repeated stories of pilgrims showering America’s indigenous peoples with respect and side dishes.  The results are uneven and she’s likely preaching to at large number of regular choir members, but a good time can still be had.

Thanksgiving Play

Greg Keller, Jennifer Bareilles, Jeffrey Bean, and Margo Seibert; photo by Joan Marcus

The economical cast of achingly progressive characters are developing a holiday performance that celebrates Native American Heritage month for a elementary school audience.  The director of this play within a play is Logan, an anxiety prone vegan who has pulled together an array of small niche grants in order to fund her vision of a more honest Thanksgiving story.  Her school play will co-star Disney-obsessed actress Alicia and Logan’s yoga-loving street performer boyfriend, Jaxton.  Rounding out the “creative team” is Caden, a playwright-wanna be and first grade teacher.  For the majority of the 90 minute runtime, these well-intentioned souls improvise and brainstorm their way towards an increasingly awkward outcome.  Their endeavors are occasionally interrupted by wildly off-kilter musical numbers covering all the cringe inducing story elements they are trying to leave behind.

Under the direction of Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, the dialogue starts out at such a high pitch it doesn’t have enough room to grow.  Jennifer Bareilles as Logan is a constant bundle of nerves.  Greg Keller’s Jaxton’s oozes PC doctrine from every pore.  Margo Seibert’s Alicia is such an airhead she’s perfected the art of looking at the ceiling.  And Jeffrey Bean’s Caden is like a Jack Russel terrier, excited just to be in their company.  All four quality actors do their best to add range and fair better with the piece’s physical humor.   These moments includes an uncoupling ritual and reading aloud from several fantastically illustrated textbooks.

The design team mostly strikes the right comedic notes.  The single set by Wilson Chin combines classic classroom elements with some of the most appropriately inappropriate theater posters.  Costume designer Tilly Grimes delivers equally well with liberal casual and tacky pageant wear.  Lighting created by Isabella Byrd highlights the action as it shifts from faux intense to intensely faux.

As both a comedy and a lesson plan, this production of The Thanksgiving Play would likely earn a B- for its insufficient build and variation.  But it has heart and successfully serves as a reminder that the upcoming family holiday is fraught with misunderstandings that go far down and way back.  Certainly if you’ve ever had a Caucasion friend who built a sweat lodge right next to his jacuzzi to honor “their heritage,” you will recognize FastHorse’s creations.  And even if you haven’t, you’ll be reminded that what you’ve learned about US history is not necessarily the full story. 

Performances are scheduled to run through November 25 at the Peter Jay Sharp theater at Playwrights Horizons.  For tickets and information visit https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/thanksgiving-play/.