Tag Archives: solo performer

Dogs of Rwanda

Dogs of Rwanda is like that really sweet guy you wanna like, but you just can’t get beyond his shortcomings. There are several unfortunate distractions that prevent it from being as powerful as it should be.  Given that the Rwandan genocide took place in 1994 and the audience spans a large age range, a short background beyond the artistic director’s statement would have helped.  By necessity, the tale we hear is a deeply personal one and moments are certainly shocking, but they are not given sufficient context or a sharp enough lens through which to see.  There are also some artistic choices that have hindered the impact of the piece.

The script by Sean Christopher Lewis is delivered as a monologue told solely from the point of view of David Zosia, who at 16 volunteered for a church run spring break program in order to spend time with his crush, Mary.  At their Ugandan camp, they are assigned laundry duty working just downstream from Rwanda.  When the fight between the Tutsis and the Hutus breaks out, bodies begin floating by the horrified youth. The pair is drawn deeper into the conflict when they attempt to help a local boy named Gods Blessing.  Over the course of 90 minutes, David vividly describes what happened at the time and also 20 years later when he receives a note from Gods Blessing that takes him back to Africa.  The audience is present to bear witness to his account: an integral role in any deeply meaningful ritual.

David is portrayed by Dan Hodge, an actor and director with an impressive resume.  Unlike most solo performances this isn’t Hodge’s story and that is the first stumbling block to its success.  Hodge never fully inhabits the role: he is acting not being.  The only other person on stage is musician Abou Lion Diarra who accompanies David’s tale with original music performed on a variety of percussion instruments.  This creative embellishment was added by the Urban Stages team, but the execution doesn’t quite work.  Hodge is inconsistent about including Diarra in the action, sometimes exchanges glances and sometimes ignoring him.  Furthermore, the talented Diarra is often so swept away by the joy he finds in playing that it is easy to catch him smiling incongruently to the horrors being described.

Dan Hodge stars along with instrumentalist Abou Lion Diarra. Photo by Ben Hider (3)

Actor Dan Hodge with instrumentalist Abou Lion Diarra. Photo by Ben Hider.

There is also the critical issue that David is essentially a selfish SOB.  Everyone else we hear about — Mary, Gods Blessing, and his current girlfriend — have been treated with contempt by our narrator and guide.  He is not without redeeming qualities, having literally bled to share at least some of his story with the public in a book called Letters From The Red Hill.  While David is certainly contrite by the end, that is where we leave him, never witnessing any actual change in his behavior.  This makes his confession a rather hallow one.  How can we forgive David as we are meant to if we never see him embody the lessons he claims to have learned and put them into action?

Urban Stages Founder, Frances Hill, and Director of Musical theatre, Peter Napolitano are responsible for the meandering direction.  The creative team is the same as the one that brought Zhu Yi’s A Deal to life.  Their vision is much murkier this time around.  The set by Frank J. Oliva is made to look like a village clearing with a faux earthen floor and thatch peering through a side opening. It lends an interesting flavor to the atmosphere, though the setting is only appropriate some of the time.  John Salutz’s lighting casts long shadows which may be intended to add mood but come across as an amateurish mistake.  The brilliant Ryan Belock has once again designed the projections, but the screen is at an angle over Hodge’s head.  This is effective for planes, trees, and clouds, and a head scratcher for ocean waves.

While not completely successful as a drama, Dogs of Rwanda can serve as a reminder of the dehumanizing effects of war, the atrocities committed based on tribalism, and the many treasured places around the globe devalued by Americans.  It is a worthy end to a season in which Urban Stages has been shining a light on works with an international point of view.  It runs through Saturday, March 31, 2018.  Tickets for are $35 ($25 during previews; $50 on opening and $15 student rush) and may be purchased via OvationTix at www.urbanstages.org or by phone at 1.866.811.4111.

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I of the Storm

Richard Hoehler. Photo by Michael Abrams (4)There is no denying that Richard Hoehler is a talented man.  A winner of the The Off-Off-Broadway Review (OOBR Award) for Best Solo Performer, he knows how to own a room. In his latest monologue, I of the Storm, he tells tales, recites poetry, sings heartily and even dances a lick or two.  You’re sure to take notice throughout even if it doesn’t quite all hold together in the end.

The story is told from the point of view of Hoehler’s alter-ego RJ Bartholomew.  In this adventure, an increasingly shady finance whiz who goes one deal too far, gets sent to jail, and winds up living on the streets.  There are clear-sighted descriptions of how poorly our society treats those who have paid that debt.  (It should be noted that Mr. Hoehler is the founder of Acting Out, a professional-level acting class for at-risk youth and men who are incarcerated.)  What is unusual is that his circumstances have led RJ to be more aware and alive than when he was in possession of money and power.  If this seems unrealistic, just tell yourself that for this particular Alan Watts reader it is the truth.  He is living his version of “holy poverty” in which having nothing to lose has given rise to complete freedom.

Over the course of 85 minutes, we learn snippets of RJ’s “riches to rags” story.  The through line is kept in broad-brush watercolor, with splashes of the darkness of his greedier days and the light of his relationship with a free-spirited artist who goes by the name of Mars.  Hoehler shares the narrative directly with the audience, but there is something missing from his invitation to completely enter his world.  On the night I attended, those around me remained unsure about whether they were actually meant to engage with the character or simply observe.

Bartholomew keeps his mind nimble by writing poems in a tattered notebook.  They range from Spike Milligan style doggerel to rap-ish verses akin to early Fresh Prince.  Hoehler’s energetic recitations, staged engagingly by director Janice L. Goldberg, are punctuated by song phrases from the Beatles to Broadway.  Along the way, Hoehler/Bartholomew make observations about the modern American way.  Though his declarations aren’t revolutionary and details are few, the hopeful viewpoint is refreshing and presented with flair.  A little editing would be wise.  75 minutes into the performance the presentation reached a saturation point, and the performer was in effect clapped-off by an appreciative but restless audience.

Painting also makes up the majority of Mark Symczak’s set.  Three striking canvases and a swirled floor stand in for light, sky, ground, and cityscape.  David Withrow’s costume captures almost the entirety of RJ’s rise and fall in a single blemished suit.  Michael Abrams’ lighting and Craig Lenti’s sound add texture to key moments while making use of every production dollar.

Whether you are a crusader for social justice or a fan of fresh solo work, I of the Storm makes for an absorbing evening.  It is scheduled to play through October 29 at The Gym at Judson.  Tickets are available though Ticket Central.  For more information visit https://www.iofthestormoffbroadway.com/about.

The Terms of My Surrender

N.B. This review is based on a late preview.

As film personalities on Broadway go, Michael Moore lands somewhere between a shining Bradley Cooper and a shunned Bruce Willis.  Stringing together personal accounts and observations, Moore makes some forceful motivating statements in The Terms of My Surrender. Unfortunately, these powerful moments are diluted by muttered off-the-cuff remarks and self-indulgent digressions.

Terms of My SurrenderMichael Moore

Michael Moore ©️Joan-Marcus

To be sure, there is plenty of anti-Trump rhetoric.  Moore has made it clear as a frequent talk show guest that he considers Mr. Trump an entertainer, unqualified to hold public office.  The show’s Playbill includes a somewhat sarcastic personal invitation to the President, written in Russian, to attend any performance.  But while Moore clearly has liberal leanings, he also recognizes that many of the issues about which he is concerned have roots before January of 2017.  He digs into his private vault of stories going back to the early 1970s to illustrate a number of social injustices and troubling trends that have only been magnified in the light of recent events.

Fans of Moore’s documentaries will likely enjoy learning about his formative years, when a combination of intellectual curiosity and a rabble-rousing nature led to the important discovery that anyone can make a difference.  These amusing and inspiring highlights are further enhanced by projections and videos by Andrew Lazarow making his Broadway design debut.  Tossed in are rapid sight gags (some of which work), a potentially funny game, a disturbing phone call, a needless interview, and a physical bit I won’t spoil in case it comes together after more rehearsal.  This piling on of elements resulted in a runtime of well over two hours on the night I attended.  That’s at least 30 minutes longer than necessary or desirable for Moore to make his point.  By the time he announced the terms of his surrender, I’d forgotten that was even the title of this work.  Moore is a bright and witty guy, but in this case he desperately needed an editor.

Director Michael Mayer, who was behind the vivacious and colorful revision of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, appears not to know what to do with what is essentially a monologue.  The stage seems to be unfamiliar territory under our hero’s feet.  One can almost sense the stage manager’s queues as he moves robotically from podium to desk set to faux living room.  At least there is plenty of distraction provided by David Rockwell’s backdrop of a magnificent and impressively functional American flag.

While I wish The Terms of My Surrender was a stronger piece, it has enough to recommend it.  Admirers of Moore’s films should take the time to see what he does with the live medium.  And those looking for a call to action in a polarizing political climate might well find one among his tales.  The limited run at the Belasco Theater is scheduled to end October 22.  Tickets and information are available at http://michaelmooreonbroadway.com.

Turn Me Loose

Standup comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory’s rise to fame began when Hugh Hefner heard him address a nearly all-white Southern audience at a black-owned establishment and brought him to the Playboy Club.  His big breakthrough came when he was invited to be the first African American guest to be seated on the famous couch at the Tonight Show.  Whether you remember his scorching political satire, heard about it second-hand or are completely unfamiliar with his history, revisiting his work in Gretchen Law’s Turn Me Loose is an opportunity not to be missed.  Hearing his words through a 2016 filter is a punch to the gut and a sad commentary on the one-step-forward-two-steps-back progression of race relations in this country.

On stage for a solid 90 minutes, award-winning actor Joe Morton is completely captivating in the lead.  Given the still-living Gregory’s real bite, it’s a tall order.  Yet Morton perfectly portrays a span of nearly 50 years solely with adjustments to his posture and a roughening of his voice.  His total control of the audience never waivers as he gets them to rise to their feet in approval or recoil when requested to shout out the N word.  Morton receives occasional and essential support from the versatile John Carlin as every background player including a heckler, cabbie, and radio interviewer.

Law’s script blends chapters of Gregory’s autobiography and clips of his routines with a touch of fiction to keep the storyline tight and clear.  Chris Barreca’s adaptable set holds the audience’s attention firmly on the electricity generated by Morton’s performance and Gregory’s words.  Director John Gould Rubin ensures that every audience member is treated to moments of direct eye contact with his star, helping each segment land with a thump.  The design team of Susan Hilferty (costumes), Stephen Strawbridge ((lighting) and Leon Rothenberg (sound) moves the action seamlessly from club to studio to home.  Unfortunately, the haze meant to recall the days when smoking was allowed is an unnecessary touch that leads to more coughing and watery eyes than nostalgia.

Turn Me Loose is playing at The Westside Theater through July 3, 2016.  For Boomers, it provides a profound reacquaintance with the past.  It is my hope that younger people will also flock to see Papa Pope of Scandal tear into something more worthy of attention than his daughter’s life.  For tickets and information, visit http://www.turnmelooseplay.com.

Phalaris’s Bull

I am a fan of solo performances, having experienced the wonder that was Spaulding Gray and later regularly attended the fabulous Marsh Theater in San Francisco.  The Marsh introduced me to the memorable works of Don Reed, Dan Hoyle and Josh Kornbluth among others.  All of them took me on adventures far from my own personal history.  I also have close friends who studied with The Marsh’s gifted workshop leaders, Charlie Varon and David Ford.  So I admit my taste in this arena has very much been formed by their focus on storytelling techniques to define character, time and place.

Yesterday I saw my first one-man show in New York after 30 years away. Phalaris’s Bull: Solving the Riddle of the Great Big World is written and performed by Steven Friedman.  Phalaris’s Bull was an execution device described in stories of Ancient Greece and it is also one of dozens of obscure references used by Mr. Friedman as he knits together his life story with philosophy, medicine, and poetry.   With that as background, I was expecting the piece to be dense and perhaps a little above my intellectual capacity.  But I was sorry to also find it as overly accessorized as Mr. T the day after a David Webb half-priced sale.  Swells of music, flashing lights, and dense projections cloud the story until Mr. Friedman’s words are literally turned into objects.  This is quite counter to the approach I’ve seen so successfully employed and I do not think it served the material or the performer well.

Director David Schweizer and his design team (Caleb Wertenbaker, Jimmy Lawlor, Ryan Rumery and Driscoll Otto) are certainly a cohesive artistic collective.  But what they’ve created is a flashy piece of multimedia decoration around Mr. Friedman’s tale rather than a production that enhances the work itself. We are told it’s “staged to reflect Friedman’s prismatic and eclectic vision of the world”.  Instead, it comes across as if Mr. Friedman either didn’t believe in the power of his story or didn’t have faith in the willingness of his audience to follow him on the journey.  His doubt became my doubt, and with each showy step I became less involved and more irritated.  It’s a shame because once you strip off the goo, the narrative has some profoundly sweet moments and the unique viewpoint only a gifted student and unconventional artist could tell.  While Mr. Friedman may not be the most natural and relaxed of actors, what he needed was cultivation of his on-stage persona not razzmatazz.

Phalaris’s Bull: Solving the Riddle of the Great Big World is playing at the wonderful Beckett Theater — part of Theatre Row — through January 16.  Visit http://solvingtheriddleplay.com/ for tickets and information.