Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Review of Uncut Production's "Disaster the Musical"

“You’re going to have to prove that you are undoubtedly sane, and singing songs about disaster is not going to help.” So echoes the theme of Disaster:The Musical!, the brilliant theater and multimedia work-in-progress brought to the Fringe by Uncut Productions. In this biting satire, the story follows Brea Bee as Kelly Depooter, a starry-eyed and hopeful American who wanders about the globe from one disaster to the next, trailing the fictional DNR news crew in her quest to achieve fame as a news reporter, find true love, and stave off an insanity that threatens to ruin her. Staged in what felt like a U.N. disaster-relief tent, this piece takes a penetrating look at the news media’s sensationalism of tragedy, and devastating effects that such a desensitizing attitude can bring about.

The humor in this piece could not have been any more on target. Imagine the comedy of The Daily Show coupled with the political commentary of Orwell, and you get some idea of what Uncut presented at the Fringe. In between every staged episode, a simulated news cast flashes upon a large screen above the stage. Here the audience bears witness to an over-sexed and flagrantly insincere parody of Dan Rather in Mark Dahl’s “Mr. Stone;” a mocking portrayal of Ann Coulter in Brenda Logan’s “Julie Junck;” an “I-feel-your-pain” manic-depressive (and hilariously over-the-top) “Susie Whinfrey” by Crystal WhyBark; Newel Gatrell as the hysterically bitchy fashionista “Micheal Knight;” and Scott Yelity as “Scotty G,” who takes nothing seriously, using each disaster as an excuse to steal from victims, flirt wildly, and get drunk. This ensemble works together brilliantly and seamlessly, as they deliver one send-up of events after the next. The material is written so well that the only surprise comes from how much the audience laughs at this cast’s satirized portrayal of the tragic events that unfold.

This commentary on the media is where Disaster succeeds most, as this production captured the false hyper-reality of television’s persistent pretension of seriousness. Touching upon Chernobyl, the Ebola outbreaks in Africa, AIDS, Columbine, Waco Texas, and the Asian Tsunami disaster, the DNR crew shows up, takes pictures, and pokes fun at the victims before returning home to provide the “serious” commentary for their viewers. On the beaches after the Tsunami, they pick the pockets of their victims, take “wish-you-were-here” style photographs, and find the tragedy of thousands of deaths in the singular loss of model Petra Nemcova’s photographer boyfriend. Yet this is only one example of the contrast Disaster provides—showing brilliantly that all journalism does anymore is find the sensational in tragedy, just so long as the people affected are not us. They drive this point home towards the end of the first act, when they touch on but refuse to deal with the 9/11 events—giving a showstopper if there ever was one, with Bee mingling mourning and hope as she sings of the victims, promising not that we will never forget them (a patriot’s cry), but that we will always remember them with our love. One of the best moments of the piece, this contrast interjected into the satire completely devastates, as it mercilessly forces the audience to realize that half the joke of Disaster is on them.

As a musical, the production consisted only of Bee (and the ensemble) singing familiar hits, ranging from Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” to “Buttons” by the Pussycat dolls. But this apparent lack of originality on Uncut’s part only enhances the musical’s theme. Bee plays a young woman on the verge of an insanity brought about by the culture in which she lives, so it makes sense that she could only understand her own feelings through the popular culture that defines, reinforces, and allows her to interpret them. The choices of some of the songs presents a slight problem in this regard (would she have known a song by the Bangles?), but the intent only further skewers and illuminates the degenerate impact that the media has on people’s lives. Bee shows a real dexterity in her wonderful voice, which completely obscures the fact that hers is the only character that sings in this piece.

The play only broke down at the point when it shifted from the satire in an attempt to focus on the subplots of Kelly’s relationship with Mr. Stone (still funny though), or with Knight’s very real concern over the tragedy of AIDS, or Junck’s nasty competitive feud with Kelly. Uncut managed some of these elements better than others, and the lapses here only reminded that they presented a work-in-progress for the Fringe. The unfinished aspect of this work detracted slightly throughout; leaving the news team as underdeveloped stereotypes, plot elements lacking integration, and an ensemble of dancers that does very little. But these flaws go mostly unnoticed in a production that succeeds so well as clever political satire.

Disaster The Musical! doesn’t so much make a point, as it illustrates an idea—fleshed out in the very self-defining understanding of events in one woman’s mind, dictated to her through the lens of arrogant media sensationalism. In the second act, she goes mad, and the question Disaster invokes is not why this happens, but how even the most cynical mind could escape her fate. I hope that Uncut Productions takes this piece and fleshes it out fully, restaging something more polished, focused, and finished than the flash of brilliance they presented at this years Fringe Festival. Disaster is one of those rare new productions that works.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Review of HATG's production of "Desdemona: a Play about a Handkerchief" 9-03-06

In the back room of Othello’s palace, Paula Vogel sets Desdemona: a Play about a Handkerchief, taking Shakespeare’s women and turning them on their heads. In this comedy, the pure and loyal Desdemona becomes a manipulative and sexually adventurous army wife, Emelia becomes a disgruntled washerwoman longing for advancement, and Bianca becomes a courtesan with her heart set on domestic respectability. The play touches upon elements of class, social position, marriage, the role of women, and religion, all served up with clever humor in Vogel’s modern take.

While I don’t think much of this play, I do think it deserved better treatment than Bridget Dougherty’s direction provided. Desdemona is a playful and vulgar comedy with serious themes. However, Dougherty’s production focused only on these serious elements and caused the audience to laugh less often than the actors on the stage. Without the humor, the social and political commentary only seemed dull, and detracted from the production.

As Desdemona, Sara Gruber rarely realized the complexity of the role. Vogel took Desdemona’s purity and added aggression, pride, insecurity, vanity, a hatred of the commonplace, duplicity, and a massive indifference to risk. Gruber only hit some of these notes, and all of them in a haughty inflection that never changed. Her part also demanded someone who could move quickly back and forth between many different faces with the dexterity of a seasoned manipulator. Yet Gruber never convinces that the rest of the characters would respond to her machinations.

In this production, Jen Wolfe’s Emelia consists of only the serious elements of her part. She gave a very capable performance in her pious righteousness, her condemnation of Desdemona’s adultery, and frustration over her miserable marriage. However, the script serves up a slew of one-liners for the role, all but one of which she delivers humorlessly. She reads the line, “I long for the day when he makes me a lieutenant’s widow,” with sincere self-pity, missing an obvious opportunity for humor. But this leaves out so much, as she’s only funny once. When trying to determine if Desdemona, while working for Bianca, might have slept with Iago, they run through a number of possibilities. Finally, Desdemona remarks, “there was one man, who didn’t last very long,” to which Wolfe lowers her head and delivers one of the funniest lines of the play, saying only, “Aye.” Here Wolfe clearly demonstrates a capacity for the comedic timing her part demands, which Dougherty never took to this production’s advantage.

Rebekah Bonney, playing the courtesan Bianca, gave the finest performance of the night. She fired her lines with admirable spunk, describing sex as “Adam-and-Eve-ing it,” discussing the downside of her job as having “the cushiest night for laying, but the stingiest for paying,” and finally indulging Desdemona in a mock dominatrix scene that ends in a vicious catfight between the two. Her acting is solid throughout; when she realizes that Desdemona is using her, even the hurt she displayed felt genuine.

This portrayal enlivened the entire second half of the production, as Dougherty finally let Bonney give the audience a reason to enjoy themselves. Dougherty only gets right the tragic element of this story, aptly staging a devastating moment near the end when Desdemona finally retrieves the sought-after handkerchief. However, beyond Wolfe’s capable foil, and Bonney’s quirky excitement, this production suffers the loss of comedy throughout, and ultimately offers little to recommend.

Review of "The Island" 9-02-06, part of Philadelphia Fringe Festival

Long before The Shawshank Redemption and Cool Hand Luke, African men suffered unjust sentences in Robben Island prison. This Apartheid-era institution that once housed Nelson Mandela is brought to life in The Island, a powerhouse of a play by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona. Their play bears witness to the suffering of two men, John and Winston; both sentenced for violations of the unjust racial policies of the state. In the midst of their struggle, they prepare to stage Antigone at a prison concert, and the play centers around the bond between them, their plight, and their ultimate understanding of that play in relation to their lives.

Any director attempting to stage The Island must answer one question for the audience: Why stage a production of Antigone, an ancient Greek myth, while imprisoned? In answering this question, director Daniel Rodriguez and actors Kenard Bunkley and Jeffrey Cousar both succeed and fail in what is ultimately an uneven production.

Most of this imbalance occurs because of a failure to answer that question in one respect. John and Winston stage Antigone as a political protest against the unjust Apartheid regime. But this production loses that element of the play. Some of this is because as John, Bunkley yells so many of his lines that it is difficult to determine what is rage, and what frustration. Then, when John tries to explain to Winston why they perform Antigone as their protest against the state, his words carry little force. As a result, the striking similarities between their cause and Antigone’s go unrealized. This is a shame and a fault, because both actors possess the skill to make this happen, and the audience misses much that the play offers as a result.

As Winston, Cousar gives a solid performance that suffers only when Bunkley overshadows him. His portrayal flows easily between rage at the guards, despair over his life-sentence, and envy at John’s commuted sentence. However, the deep friendship between these two is blurred by a dynamic that is one-sided; as Bunkley’s singular loudness eliminates Cousar’s tempered responses. When Winston curses John’s newfound freedom, the shock that should have occurred is lost with the sorrow of his advice when he tells John, “Forget me.”

When he wasn’t yelling, Bunkley did prove his abilities in the softer moments of the play. Many of these were exceedingly powerful in their execution: when he feigns a call home, when he portrays Creon during the concert, and mostly when he despairs over his realization that an appeal will soon set him free. Again an imbalance, as he fails to make this depth more evident throughout the play.

The productions best moments occur in their answer to the question, “Why Antigone?” Here the actors displayed the existential force of this piece, as two prisoners performing Antigone because they must hold true to the ideals that give their lives meaning. John receives his reprieve and stays awake counting down the days remaining. Winston tries to count down the balance of his life sentence, and without inflection merely counts out “one, one, one…” In this chilling moment, he refuses to indulge in self-pity, realizes why he must perform Antigone, and forces the audience to share in his plight.

The Island is one of the 20th Century’s best plays, and this production brings out many of the elements that make it such. There are many beautifully performed moments here, but unfortunately Rodriguez never integrates these into a coherent whole. However, this production is worth seeing for those moments that do realize the full force of the play’s theme: that we must live true to our ideals under any conditions, no matter how unjust the times in which we live.

Review of Green Light's production of Neil Labute's "Fat Pig," 9-1-06

Many people hide love affairs; that decision is a central plot element in plays ranging from Romeo and Juliet to Hedda Gabler to Tristan and Isolde. In most of these works, the secrecy is only a plot device. However, in Neil Labute’s Fat Pig, the entire play centers around a handsome and likeably vulnerable young businessman named Tom, who misleads his friends and himself, all because his new girlfriend Helen is excessively overweight.

While this sounds intriguing, the simple plot and underdeveloped theme only serves to waste some of Philadelphia’s significant talent. Charlotte Northeast, as the jaded ex-girlfriend Jeanne deserved a far better role than this play offered, and she delivered her few lines with a well-modulated nastiness. Her part is the smallest of the four, a role LaBute only uses to contrast the joy Tom now shares with Helen, against the suffering the audience must imagine he previously endured with her. Even without much text, Northeast made this abundantly clear. However, she failed to offer even a single moment of affection between the lines that would have justified her complaints. This is doubly strange: she complains that she and Tom “should have been engaged by now,” but since Northeast never gave a reason to accept that logic, her later outbursts are then only justifiable by an egotistic self-centeredness. This choice is understandable, but still diminished the production, as it missed an opportunity to add a depth that Northeast could have easily provided.

Damon Bonetti gave the most thorough performance of the night, as he successfully portrayed the evolution of Tom’s character. He begins the play both confident and boyish, a man who admits his faults, but is still someone who doesn’t even blanch when his friend comments on his level of courage. From here, Bonetti gives a slow and well-measured degeneration, as he cowers and lies, lashes out at those he once cared about, and finally, in the full light of self-awareness, despairs over what he sees. His concealment is well effected; he is completely believable when he lies to Jeanne, Helen, and his friend Carter, and only at the end of the play do both he and the audience fully realize cowardice has motivated all of his actions.

As Helen, Natalie Randazzo is fine, but only that. Many of her early lines involve so much self-deprecation that all Randazzo can realize is the insecurity, and everything else she tries seems false. Most of the humor in the play comes from Randazzo insulting herself, all of which director Dawn Cowle worked to maximum, if cruel effect. But Randazzo fails to convince us of the lies she tells Tom and herself through all of this, and gives no evidence to suggest that she is anything but needy. Most, but not all of this stems from LaBute’s script, which relies too heavily on the stereotype of a fat person who feels insecure in a beauty and image centered culture. Yet in the final scene, she demonstrated an under-utilized intensity when, despite her claim to contentedness, she reveals that she “eats when she’s upset.” Here Randazzo knelt prayer-like on the ground, huddled up like a cornered rat, and nibbled nervously on a hot dog. Both creepy and perverse in execution, this was one of the best moments of acting in the whole play.

When he didn’t try to look or sound clever, Allen Radway’s performance of Carter demonstrated an ability that he should have focused throughout the play. Though LaBute reserved most of his lines for humor, Radway twice captivated the audience with his effortless movement between telling fat jokes to a display of the intense anguish and hatred that motivated them. The rest of the time, Radway only made it obvious that he studied comedy with the great acting coach, Chandler Bing. This lack of comedic inventiveness on his part, especially in the mannerisms he displayed, grew old quickly.

The dynamic between Tom and Helen showed the only fault in Cowle’s direction. She made the pauses in their dialogue too awkward and drawn out, which only diffused what they felt onto the audience. This lessened any belief that Helen could charm Tom in a food court (of all places) during the first scene. Later, the length of these pauses created more problems, as their awkwardness hampers the clarity of Tom’s motivations in the relationship. Because of this, there is no certainty in what the director attempts—whether she wanted to make it clear that Tom did love Helen or whether he treats her as a water break, a mere respite from the pressures of his life.

The biggest disappointment of the night rests on the pages of the script. LaBute’s play provided no insight, no elucidation of the theme, merely an unfulfilled promise of issues unexplored. The summation of LaBute’s thematic development came when Carter remarked of fat people, “We hate them because we realize that we’re just a few steps away from them.” But this statement neither proved nor exemplified anything, as it only runs in a circle—we cannot hate someone because we could become them if we did not already possess reasons for our hatred. Here Labute’s avoidance coincided disastrously with the simplicity of the plot, leaving too many questions unanswered, squandering the ability of these actors, and detracting immensely from this production.

Two hours later, Tom can no longer hide in the island of his relationship. Every event is weaved into this one narrative—and as a result, there is very little for the actors to stage. To make it worse, LaBute fails to develop his theme with any fullness—the characters don’t even represent “sides” for or against what Tom is doing to Helen, and more so: not even Tom’s character grasps this struggle. Maybe LaBute wanted to write a play about Tom’s self-realization—at the end of the play, he breaks down, and you’re left wondering, unsympathetically, whether his tears flow because of his cowardice or because he’s losing someone he has truly loved. But neither LaBute nor the choices of the director make this obvious, and the play’s finish only makes the audience glad that this drama is over.