Tag Archives: solo performer

The Elephant in the Room

Some people who have suffered trauma shut themselves away to deal with their pain.  Melanie Greenberg chose to turn her experiences into a one-woman show featuring original lyrics and humorous storytelling.  Her solo piece, The Elephant in the Room, covers her very personal journey in search of her “tribe.”  Her twisted and often tortured path from severely depressed childhood to performance-oriented adulthood took her to a family of well-meaning Texan Christians, a sadistic psychiatric center, a rotation of therapists and medications, and a ceremony featuring Ayahuasca, a drink made from a psychoactive plant.  Though her story contains some chilling chapters, she delivers it very matter-of-factly.  Balanced with genuine warmth and uplifting song snippets, what could be deeply disquieting becomes quite entertaining.

Greenberg sings her well-crafted lyrics with precision.  The music is based on the Broadway shows that helped preserve her sanity and sense of humor over the years.  Knowledge of Chicago, Little Shop of Horrors, Grease and Little Mermaid would add to your appreciation of the work, but that is not essential for enjoying the tunes.  The actress/singer is to be admired for how well she organizes her reflections on an injurious childhood, the many appalling attempts at treatment, and a psychedelic trip gone wrong.  Though she returns to her memory of a captive elephant who was brought to a child’s birthday party as entertainment (the animal for whom the work is titled), she is really more like the proverbial fish out of water: perpetually treated as unsuited to traditional society.

Greenberg is joined onstage by her charming musical director and occasional contributor Bill Zeffiro, the winner of several cabaret awards.  Her director Joanie Schultz is also a close friend and may have consequently used too gentle a hand.  Greenberg’s stories are vivid and filled with distinct details, but many are told at the same energy level rather than given variation.  Sadly, no explanation is provided for Greenberg’s fanciful satin dress with a huge black sequence snake wrapping itself around her body.  The recorded performance was done with a single camera at an unusual angle and it could have used some more balanced sound mixing.  Even so, it was obvious that the show has promise.

Melanie Greenberg is a gifted storyteller with a great deal to say.  She is worthy of attention, with infectious vivacity and a genuine sense of compassion for her struggling younger self.  Despite her casual manner, it seems likely that a certain amount of personal distancing is required to actually enjoy hearing the darker aspects of The Elephant in the Room.  The piece debuted at United Solo Fest at Theatre Row and is now traveling to other intimate venues.  The next performances are December 3, 10, and 17 at The Apple Tree Inn in the Berkshires, all the better to hunker down and continue the conversation with fellow audience members.  Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at https://www.sevenrooms.com/experiences/appletreeinn/the-elephant-in-the-room-7597649199.  Runtime is approximately 80 minutes.

Delejos (from afar) – Live Stream

“Blessing” has its origins in the words for “blood” and “bend”.  Never have the connections among these three been more obvious than in Delejos (from afar), a solo performance currentlylive-streaming on Zoom.  Storyteller/comedian/musician Julie Piñero uses her many artistic talents to share with us her experiences of love and loss during her relationship with VR video game designer Jose Zambrano.  

Zambrano — whose family had immigrated from Venezuela in search of a more stable life — died at the age of 26 after becoming a victim of a random act of violence (https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/ny-game-developer-dies-after-brooklyn-attack-20191122-pjkampeqabczphrdhnngmy2vtq-story.html).  So completely does Piñero describe his energy and creative spirit that he is the more present of the two.  Through the shared screen of producer Caitlin Stone, who acts as a stage manager, we are treated to Zambrano’s illustrations, photos and text messages which bolster Piñero’s recounting of their adventures: his term for their dates.

Julie Piñero in Delejos (from afar)

While most of the focus is on her romance, we are also given enough of Piñero’s backstory to appreciate how that relationship opened her to new possibilities.  There are adjunct stories which touch on the feelings of distance produced by language and cultural gaps that are core to the couple’s experience as Latinx.  At several intervals you will be asked to put on your “VR headset” which is simply closing your eyes to better “see” the scene as painted by Piñero. To get the most from this Zoom-based live-stream, it is recommended that you use speaker view in full screen mode and pop in your headphones.

At the beginning of her piece, Piñero is addressing Zambrano in his medically induced coma before shifting to acknowledge us.  She often accompanies herself on the guitar and sometimes employs flashcards to help we monolinguals put her select Spanish vocabulary into full context.  The background of the frame is dominated by Zambrano’s drum set, the significance of which is revealed in the final chapter.  Her changes of scene are accomplished by simply moving to a different chair or switching on another light.  For all her talk of the power of flow, it is unfortunate that Piñero breaks the spell she has cast by taking a five minute intermission.  It’s a jarring disconnection that could be avoided by working with a compassionate and seasoned editor to trim the runtime by helping her sort through which elements truly serve the story.    

Delejos (from afar) is such a heartfelt ode to an extraordinary person that you too will feel his loss but also benefit from exposure to his ethos.  This immersive work is in a limited weekly run until May 1.  7PM performances are currently schedule for April 1, 11, 17 and 22. The show is free of charge but tickets are limited.  Reservations can be made at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/delejos-from-afar-tickets-131417508305 with donations accepted through Venmo.

The Jewelry Box (Streaming)

Though The Jewelry Box is the story of one particular little Black boy buying a Christmas present for his mother, by distributing this production online the San Francisco Playhouse has given us all a gift.  Holiday season brings up a range of emotions; never more so than in the middle of a pandemic when we are likely isolated from the people with whom we’d most like to celebrate.  This warm, human, and utterly heart-melting play is performed and co-written by Brian Copeland, who’s Not A Genuine Black Man still echos in my mind despite the dozens of solo shows I’ve seen since.  Though there are storytellers who depict their assortment of characters with more physical distinction, Copeland has a singular flair with language and the ability to paint vivid and lasting images with his words.  Moreover, he has a fantastic sense of humor and periodically draws on his stand-up experience to share a little secret with the audience as his adult self.  

The Jewelry Box covers an early chapter in Copeland’s life, but it stands complete on its own.  We’re in 1970s Oakland where a six year old Brian has spotted a wooden jewelry box he knows will make his Mom smile.  His family had been forced to move four times in a short period and personal possessions had been left behind at each stop.  He sets out to raise the $11.97 he needs to purchase the box, showing himself to be a tiny but mighty entrepreneurial spirit.  We get to meet many of his neighbors — some more understanding than others — sketched out in detail with the colors filled in by mixing Copeland’s artistry with our own imagination.

David Ford directed the original production for The Marsh Theater.  The intimacy of this project makes it well suited for the streaming environment where San Francisco Playhouse’s Artist Director Bill English did the editing.  For this rendition, English balances mimicking the theater experience with more intense close ups. No set is necessary as Copeland builds his own landscape with some sound effects and lights fully focusing the picture.  The choice of a slightly baggy primary colored striped shirt makes it easy for Copeland to embody his much younger self.

No reflection on all those theaters who will once again stage A Christmas Carol or A Child’s Christmas in Wales, but the San Francisco Playhouse deserves praise for finding such an appropriate fresh offering for this unique holiday season.  Class and race play important supporting roles in The Jewelry Box, evergreen themes that have taken on renewed significance.  Two COVID compliance officers kept Copland and the production team safe and a brand new Equity agreement made it possible for this to be seen online for a limited time.   The final screenshot is a long “Heroes List”: a visual reminder that now more than ever we need to pull together and keep the performing arts healthy as well.  The only element I dearly missed was the laughter of my fellow audience members.  But I know for certain it was there.

The on-demand video stream of The Jewelry Box is available through Christmas day.  Single tickets are $15-$100. Call 415-677-9596, or visit https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020-2021-season/the-jewelry-box/.    Subscriptions in support of the San Francisco Playhouse season may also be purchased.

Border People

If you find that putting a face on an issue gives it meaning, you must make some time to experience playwright and performer Dan Hoyle.  In his latest work, this richly talented storyteller wears many faces to help us better understand the lives of Border People. Like the celebrated Anna Deavere Smith, Hoyle conducts  personal interviews — what he calls “the journalism of hanging out” — then weaves his subjects’ words into a rich tableau that shows us more of who we are as a nation.    

For this piece, Hoyle spoke with people on the Mexican and Canadian borders as well as his old stomping ground in the South Bronx, which shares a socio-economic border with Manhattan.  Taking close to 18 months to develop, the picture is a disturbing one, though not without hope.  His careful editing works like Miracle Gro, helping tiny seeds of individual moments blossom into deep insight.  While the cloud of the Trump administration’s policies hangs in the air, the stories are more personal than political.  These borders are shaped as much by culture and opportunity as they are by geography.  One particularly sweet section centering on a young girl’s introduction to chocolate cheesecake is bound to make you better appreciate whatever little treasure worked its way into your day.

Hoyle Border People_ by Carol Rosegg

Dan Hoyle in Border People, Photo by Carol Rosegg

Originally developed with and directed by Charlie Varon, Border People has all the hallmarks of the superlative solo-show development tank, The Marsh in San Francisco.  While Hoyle may be a young white male, for 75 minutes this flexible actor IS also by turns Black, Hispanic, Muslim, gay and female.  As staged by Nicole A. Watson, the audience has the pleasure of watching Hoyle physically and emotionally transform to deliver others’ experiences in their own words. Each character is rendered with respect and obvious affection.  A projection wall (scenic designer Frank Oliva; video design Yana Birÿkova) adds further detail and sense of place.

All borders are constructs and can be deconstructed if only we take the time to listen and understand their impact.  Dan Hoyle makes a chink in the walls that separate us, shining light on the view beyond them.  Presented by Working Theater, Border People is currently running Off-Broadway at the Gural Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 W. 53rd Street).  The borough tour starting March 3 and includes stops at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island, The Bronx Documentary Center, and the IBEW Local 3 in Queens.  Visit https://theworkingtheater.org/events/border-people/ for details and to purchase tickets.

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.

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.