Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review of "Death and the Maiden" at the Curio Theatre, published in Edge Philadelphia

While the American media seethes over Bush’s commutation of Scooter Libby’s sentence (and before that, Ford’s exculpation of Nixon), our news outlets devote considerably less attention to the pardoning of crimes perpetrated by the world’s more brutal regimes. The question in most of these countries is the moral theme that drives Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden: “When the same judges who excused a government’s behavior now sit on the same benches to grant pardons, what happens to the criminals?”

With a script filled with heady political discourse, ambiguous ethical dilemmas, and three characters whose past and motivations he stains with disturbing moral complexities, Dorfman doesn’t make his play easy for any cast or director to stage. Yet Gay Carducci’s skillful direction and the superior talents of Curio Theatre’s cast creates a forceful and emotionally stirring production that seemingly makes short work out of Death and the Maiden.

Dorfman’s play takes place in an unnamed country still emerging from the remnants of a brutal dictatorship into the relative tranquility of democracy. Human rights lawyer Gerard Endawe (Jerry Rudasill) has accepted a recent appointment to head an official commission, one dedicated to investigate and uncover the truth about crimes committed by the former government.

He and his wife Paulina (Erika Hicks) hold a particular stake in the matter. While both sided with the opposition, she was imprisoned, tortured, and raped for her participation, and has yet to recover fully.

A chance roadside encounter—a flat tire without a spare—brings him into contact with the Good Samaritan Dr. Miranda (Paul Kuhn), who drives him home.

Paulina overhears them talking, and immediately believes that she recognizes Miranda’s voice as that of the doctor who prolonged the life of her fellow captives, assisting in their torture, and who had even raped her. Taking her husband’s gun, she binds Miranda, and through the course of an evening, works him over, both to extract a confession of his guilt and enact the vengeance that will allow her to finally move forward with her life.

From a seemingly awkward start that downplays the level of trust and genuine affection between the married couple, Carducci strikes a balance between the interests of all three characters. He skillfully escalates and draws out the tension between each link in the triangle, effectively highlighting the moral ambiguities and potential evidence revealed in Dorfman’s play: Gerard once promised to avenge Paulina, Miranda’s fondness for Schubert (the music played while she was tortured), and Paulina’s own longstanding rancor that suddenly finds a convenient, though much needed outlet.

Hick’s conveys a searing embodiment of her character’s pain, while at the same time showing the internal struggle between her desire to move forward and her uncertainty over what—violence or forgiveness—will best make that possible. As Gerard, Rudasill gave the evening’s most intense performance, that of a man walking through the minefield of his wife’s past, while trying to balance the interests of their future (his really) against the absurdity of the painful dilemma in which she’s placed him.

And while Hick’s sense of outrage tips the scales for many in the audience (who nearly cheer when she strikes or threatens Miranda), Kuhn’s brilliantly subtle innocence never allows them to sit in definitive judgment of his character. The question “Did he or didn’t he?” drives the play’s plot, and while the script offers hints, Kuhn’s spellbinding performance reveals nothing.

Kuhn’s set design-in-the-round even amplifies this by encouraging judgment, placing jury boxes of seats nearly inside the Endawe’s home, while Jared Reed’s sound design eerily accentuates the seaside location, a pacific background noise of waves crashing on the shore that creates a perfect contrast for the symphony of violence Paulina inflicts.

Who should forgive, forget, or do either? Will purges following regime change—democratic or otherwise—amount to any good or sense of justice achieved?

Curio’s production obliquely references South Africa, both in mentioning Soweto and transposing the “Escobar’s” from Dorfman’s original script into the “Endawe’s” of this production. If they intentionally specified this location, it’s only gives more reason to applaud the craft in their production.

After nearly half a century of human rights abuses, South Africa’s new government purposefully refrained from policies of redistribution and revenge against the former regime. But like Paulina’s character laments, how fair is it that the victims “must always make the necessary compromises to move a country forward,” when they’re the very ones who suffered the injustice? Dorfman’s play offers no easy answers. Curio’s production asks them with a fury.

Review of "Rigoletto" at the Opera Company of Philadelphia, published in Edge Philadelphia

Dramatically, the story of Rigoletto has everything to recommend it. Francesco Piave closely based his libretto on a play by Victor Hugo, whose theme consists of curse-spewing vengeance (fulfilled, no less), larger than life characters including a hunchback, assassin, and a philandering Duke, and a tightly woven plot centered on seduction, filial love, and revenge.

Musically, Verdi achieves a minor perfection to match, with the Duke’s easily recognizable arias and the tender songs of devotion offset by the dark intensity of Rigoletto’s anguish stricken numbers, not to mention one of the most engaging quartets in the genre. Little surprise that Verdi’s work ranks as the ninth most performed opera in America.

Verdi’s opera opens on the Duke of Mantua candid pursuit of the wife of one of his courtiers, a fellow noble named Ceprano. The Duke’s jester Rigoletto suggests simply imprisoning Ceprano, which the Duke considers before he’s interrupted by the appearance of Monterone, whose daughter the Duke had earlier seduced. While Rigoletto mocks, Monterone vows revenge, and the Duke sentences to death this potential threat to his libertinism, but not before Monterone puts a curse on both the Duke and Rigoletto.

Fearing Rigoletto’s influence, Ceprano and the court abduct Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda (they believe she is his mistress). Unbeknownst to them, the Duke has been disguising himself as a poor student in order to see Gilda on the sly, resisting his possibly true feelings of love while deceiving her into loving him nonetheless. When the courtiers bring her to the Duke’s palace, Rigoletto swears revenge, and hires the assassin Sparafucile to kill the Duke, after which he and Gilda can escape to neighboring Verona. Little of these competing plans come to fruition, as fate cruelly intervenes at the cross purposes of human action to ensure the tragedy and fulfill Monterone’s curse.

Musically, this is the best production I’ve seen at the Opera of Philadelphia since their 2003 Il Trovatore, largely due to the company premiere of Israeli born soprano Chen Reiss in the role of Gilda.

Matthew Polenzani, the much-hyped tenor playing the Duke, sings beautifully the solo arias that everyone loves in this opera (Questa o quella, La Donna e mobile), with his honey-toned voice so charming to hear that I didn’t even mind how softly the orchestra played underneath his singing.

Yet he’s exceptional when singing with Reiss, as she brings out of him not only more volume, but also the most pleasing aspects of his voice, particularly in the flourishes (the “Adio” runs) that end their first scene together.

Alan Opie‘s Rigoletto gravelly baritone proves capable, if not outstanding, expressing his anguish more through his pained expressions and tantrums of rage than in his singing. Kirk Eichelberger looms over the stage powerfully as the Duke-cursing Monterone, and Dimitrie Lazich‘s Marullo, and particularly Julian Rodescu‘s Sparafucile admirably round out this cast.

However, the evening’s real delight emanated from Reiss’ flawless, brilliantly controlled, beautifully sung performance. Beyond her exquisite coloratura, she made comprehensible to me (for the first time out of the half-dozen or so productions of this opera I’ve seen) the motivations why her character would sacrifice herself to such a lecher as the Duke.

Here, her singing proves all the difference—portraying a caged lament when paired with Rigoletto, contrasted strongly against the happiness of a moment’s freedom and the joyful exuberance of first love that her voice conveys when singing with the Duke. She makes the choice of options so visibly (audibly, really) clear that her fatal choice almost seems obvious.

(Ms Reiss, thank you for clearing up the only problem I’ve ever had with your character’s motivations in this opera. Now, if someone could finally show me why Sparafucile abandons his otherwise proud assassin’s duty…)

Dramatically, the new production suffered, though not from any aspects of the visually opulent staging. No sooner did the anguish-driven overture end than the curtain raised upon a palatial revelry brought to life by jugglers, ballerinas, clowns, and courtiers, all resplendently bedecked in Richard St. Clair’s costumes, right down to a Duke entirely clad in the devil’s red. Paul Shortt’s set design impresses by sheer enormity, notably the massive Rubenesque-styled painting that depicts an abduction (after his Leucippus, rather than his Sabine Women) which hangs over the entrance to the Duke’s chambers in Act II.

Yet (maybe because of all this) Robert B. Driver’s direction somehow manages to underscore the dark and tragic aspects of the story. Granted, the extremity of the tragic impact only comes in the very last scene (enhanced superbly by Drew Billiau’s lighting), but for a opera which contains a forced abduction, judicial murders, a curse, multiple currents of revenge, and deep moments of shame, nothing seems dark, and none of the negative emotions seem effectively conveyed by the production. Nothing made this lack more evident than when the audience laughed after Sparafucile told his sister to “mend the sack” in which he plans to put the corpse of his next victim (in addition to their laughter during several other nasty moments in the plot).

Not that Verdi’s opera could ever achieve a happy ending. Rigoletto, who proudly exclaims, “Let the world behold the Jester and the King,” gets a comeuppance undeserved by any figure in tragedy, while the only innocent figure in the piece suffers irreparably.

Yet Rigoletto stands as one of the more powerful and penetrating operas written, and the opportunity to see this piece in a musically beautiful new production marks a reason for opera loving Philadelphians to rejoice. My only hope: that the Opera Company of Philadelphia will plan their future seasons around more opportunities for Ms. Reiss to perform here.

An absolute must see.

Two Recent Arts Editorials published at The Broad Street Review

‘Death and the Maiden’ and Duke U. lacrosse 10.20.2007 Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden takes an even-handed look at the question of due process vs. cathartic revenge. But his premature support for action against Duke University’s lacrosse players suggests where his sympathies lie.

Death and the Maiden. By Ariel Dorfman. Through October 27, 2007 at Curio Theatre, 815 South 48 St. (215) 525-1350 or www.curiotheatre.org.

Click on the image above to read the article published at the Broad Street Review.

Artists and criminals 09.08.2007 Should a convicted drug dealer be allowed to put on a show about his crime? Performance artist Christian Lisak raised that question with his recent monologue, That’s Why They Don’t Call It a Picnic. Some Philadelphia theater people say yes and others vehemently disagree, but all of their reactions seem to misunderstand what art— not to mention crime— is really all about.

Click on the image above to read the article published at the Broad Street Review.

Review of "Three Tall Women" at BCKSEET Productions, published in Edge Philadelphia

BCKSEET Productions kicks off their second season in residence at the Society Hill Playhouse with a compelling production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Albee’s play—which attempts to come to terms with the memory of his mother—marks a strange choice for this young company, and a difficult choice for any company to attempt.

Act I poses all the problems. Imagine going to a home for seniors, not to see anyone you know, but to walk into the room of a wealthy, cantankerous 92-year-old matron (Jean Brooks, referred to in the script only as “A”), her left arm disintegrating from osteoporosis, her mind melting away under an equally progressive case of Alzheimer’s, to hear her ramble on about her life.

Competing for time in arguments and listening to the stories are two other women: A’s caretaker (Catherine Palfenier, only called “B”), and a young representative from A’s lawyer (Janice Rowland, as “C”). While certain plot-lines surface throughout this act—A believes everyone cheats her, C recoils in horror from the A’s physical decline which B tries to manage with equal parts callousness and compassion—ultimately the first half exists to offer a window into the inner life of the recalcitrant, slightly bigoted woman who once threw Albee out of her house, and with whom he never completely reconciled.

To his credit, Albee fills this seemingly bland scenario with enough intrigue, humor, and bitter and joyful anecdotes, so that director Oscar Dubon and this cast can plough through the first half. (Which is in many ways a placeholder for the meatier material of Act II, where A, B, and C each play Albee’s mother at various stages of her life, as the woman in the twilight of her year’s, at 52, and two year’s before marriage at 26, respectively.)

In Act II Albee offers a captivating scenario that many would like to experience, the opportunity to listen as our future selves give us advance notice of the painful reality to come. Here the play takes off, becoming a dynamic and poignant meditation on the very nature of human experience in a life where the only constant is change. Highly pessimistic (in the philosophical sense), Albee explores the notion that “a person’s character is their fate,” as C points at the future selves that now terrify her with their bitterness and shattered ideals and declares, “I will not become that,” long after the audience has seen the futility of this gesture.

I’ve seen productions of this play where the director seemed to relish in the vitriol, nastiness, and existential anguish, which if taken seriously, would result in “streets littered with adolescent corpses.” Thankfully, Dubon makes some choices that both add dimensions to this play and unburden the audience from the potential viciousness and despair laden into Albee’s script.

Where Albee’s script uses B’s telling her younger self tales of adultery and mid-life anguish in an attempt to implode C’s notion that “happiness is on the way,” Dubon lightens the presentation, having a much softer A than the woman we met in Act I, and by showing the source of B’s cynicism as having more to do with rage in her interaction with Albee’s onstage, though silent, character (Noah Mazaika). The overall feel of the production then capitalizes on the existential themes (when is the happiest time? Why do we struggle?), particularly as enhanced by Steve Heitz’s lighting in the final moments of the play.

All three women help Dubon maintain this softness, particularly Rowland, who gives a searching and very affecting performance that struggles to hold onto the hope of her ideals even while seeing their eventual betrayal. Palfenier’s intermittent callousness in both acts plays nicely against this, nailing the bitter humor in stories like her adulterous interlude with a stable boy on a pile of straw that “probably has shit on it,” while Brooks tames Albee’s mother with an almost sing-song reading of her lines in the second half.

In a sense, Brooks’ acting further cleaves the production in two, as there’s not enough of her temperamental Act I persona or her Act II gentility. But this is a minor loss compared to the only real detraction, which is that these three tall personalities don’t have enough room.

Christopher L. Butterfield’s design isn’t the problem, as the jagged lines of his set aptly harp on the fractured memories and timelines played out on stage. But the small space nonetheless smothers these actors, starving them of the necessary space—personal and theatrical—necessary for them to manifest the grandeur of each of the contradictory epochs in this woman’s life.

At an age where A can’t even remember which one of her husband’s eyes was glass, she remembers being tall. Ultimately this play is much more than Albee’s coming to terms with his mother, and this production very compellingly shows not just a woman who endured, but who fought her way through life with a confidence in the values of an era many are thankful no longer exists. The real question, “How do we not become our future selves, how do we not lose our ideals, our capacity for happiness?” goes unanswered, but I walked away with enough of the impact of Dubon’s production to still ask this question.

Review of "Man of La Mancha" at the Walnut Street Theatre, published in Edge Philadelphia

For theatre-goers accustomed to the visual and auditory onslaught of musicals written at the end of the 20th Century, 1965’s Man of La Mancha offers little in the way of the spectacle.

While Dale Wasserman scripted his book for a large cast, only two muted, barely rousing chorus numbers take full advantage of their appearance. Joe Darion’s lyrics on many of the songs range from the straightforward to the simple, and that Mitch Leigh’s score contains four refrains, showing a seemingly boring lack of imagination (this isn’t Wagner where you expect motifs that work, or Andrew Lloyd Webber, where they often don’t). Moreover, though magnificent and impressive, the staging never deviates from Todd Edward Ivins’ initial set, most of the cast spends the entire evening sitting or lying down, little action takes place, and what does occur, all happens within the imagination of the main character. Not exactly a promising premise for a musical.

Yet, in terms of pure spiritual excitement and courage, I can think of no musical that matches it. I’m not referring to church or religion here, but to the spirit of the chivalrous Golden Age of Spanish literature from which this musical draws its source—Cervantes Don Quixote—a spirit that argues for a proud and noble bearing in the face of the constant onslaught of life. And in spite of (or maybe because of) all the elements of a traditional musical that Man of La Mancha lacks, this production still manages to soar.

Set in the late 16th Century, Man of La Mancha opens on Cervantes (Paul Schoeffler) being thrown into prison by the Inquisition. His fellow prisoners quickly realize by his dress and bearing that he’s a gentleman (not to mention that his servant, Pancho (Jamie Torcellini) accompanies him even in a dungeon), and attack him, justifying themselves by setting up a mock court in which “one’s fellow prisoner’s determine your guilt first.” If found guilty, he must forfeit all his possessions, including the unfinished manuscript of Don Quixote.

Cervantes offers to stage his defense as a re-enactment of his novel—to explain why his “cowardly idealism” (as they see it) has landed him in a dungeon alongside thieves and murderers. More to relieve their boredom than to truly help out, the inmates take their parts, “converting” the dungeon into a castle, inn, and battlefield, the male prisoners into knights, fellow nobles, and priests (today they could play themselves), and having a prostitute named Aldonza play the princess Dulcinea.

It’s much to this musical’s credit and the Walnut Street’s production that they evoke so much of Cervantes novel with so little, a spectacular feat without spectacle that captures the spirit of indomitable virtue arising from imagination’s necessity in escaping despair. If any “spectacle” does color this production, it’s only noticeable in Jack Jacobs lighting that deftly narrates the play like a film camera that shifts from one location to the next.

Director Bruce Lumpkin stages the right amount of tedium and languor in both the prisoners and the background to imbue their side of the production with the necessary contrast for the grandeur of spirit exhibited by Schoeffler’s Quixote. And while Schoeffler initially seems ridiculous shifting back and forth between Cervantes and Quixote (mostly though, because he plays the latter role with the style of “Master Thespian”), his silky baritone quickly redeems his part, softly blending even his show-stoppers into the general tenor of the production.

Thankfully, the one role that gets to scream and make some noise does so with the fire of a hellcat, as Denise Whelan’s Aldonza ignites the stage with her passionate singing, while still managing to provide a heartbreaking final turn of character in the last moments of the play.

When Cervantes wrote his masterpiece four hundred years ago, Spain was slowly unwinding from the knight’s spirit of living boldly, finding beauty and goodness while fighting what was filthy and base. These Aristocratic values, long since lost on a democratic society, came back to life for a few hours at the Walnut Street, where the notion of “living beautifully” lived once more in song.

A two-hour withdraw from the world that’s well worth seeing.

Review of "An Empty Plate at the Cafe du Grand Bouef" at the ArdenTheatre, published in Edge Philadelphia

Though it delivers a “feast of adjectives and adverbs,” Michael Hollinger’s An Empty Plate at the Café du Grand Boeuf offers little in the way of plot, character development, or (dare I say) entertainment. More of a grad school exercise in animated storytelling than a real play, the Arden’s production of Hollinger’s play only left me hungry for more filling and creative fare.

The Arden Theatre is celebrating their twentieth anniversary in a number of ways. They opened their season with a smash production of Sondheim’s Assassins. In January, they will present a world premiere of Wittenberg, the much-anticipated follow-up to their hit Daedelus of a few years ago. And to solidify and commemorate their long-standing collaboration with local playwright Michael Hollinger, they’re currently reviving An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf, the first of the six works that they’ve premiered.

I didn’t see Empty Plate when the Arden first presented it in 1994, but after watching this production, I can’t imagine how it ever launched Michael Hollinger’s career as a nationally produced, nationally recognized playwright.

Empty Plate opens upon the aptly named (I won’t spoil it) interior of the Café du Grand Bouef (Café of the Big Ox), a four star Parisian restaurant devoted solely to the gastronomic satisfaction of one individual, Victor (Douglas Rees), a wealthy American expatriate and former publishing magnate. As much the traveler as gourmand, Victor keeps the restaurant’s temperamental staff on-call 24/7, occasionally dining in to share the latest, fascinating stories of his pan-European exploits.

And that’s about it.

Well, not quite, as Hollinger invokes a pair of twists—one major, one minor—to make this particular evening different from all of Victor’s prior visits. The minor twist: the restaurant’s former busboy (we never meet him) has died, and the staff’s closeted bi-sexual head waiter Claude (Ian Merrill Peakes) has hired the object of his desire Antoine (James William Ijames) as a replacement.

The major twist: Victor, despondent over an unrevealed crisis, has returned from Madrid without his traditional dinner guest Miss Berger (Mikaela Kafka), and now refuses to eat, instead deciding to starve himself to death in the seat of his culinary paradise. Over the course of 90 (long) minutes, the staff tries to restore his “appetite for life,” tempting him with descriptions of a series of “empty plates,” while Victor relates both the story of his life “from birth to a bullfight,” and the present tale of woe that’s caused his despair.

A few plot-lets break up the monotony of his narrative. In his intermittent lust for Antoine, Claude has severely neglected his wife Mimi (Mary McCool), who longs to travel as Victor does. The chef Gaston (Richard Ruiz) despises Claude and secretly pines for Mimi, but fears telling her. Victor longs to die. Antoine, the only self-described happy character, simply longs to work as a journalist.

Now that’s really all there is to this play.

Hollinger conceived Empty Plate as a gourmet-inspired poetic meditation on longing. However, just as longing must be felt, in a play it must also be shown, and while Hollinger masters the art of culinary description (perhaps paying homage to the first careers of actors and playwrights everywhere), and cleverly inserts allusions to stories and snippets from Hemingway, the evening contains no action whatsoever. Like Victor’s twin narratives about life and loss, it’s all told to the audience, with little acted out or shown.

The actors struggle valiantly to overcome this, most notably the energetic Peakes and neurotically amusing McCool, playing the only characters (besides Victor) with enough lines and stage time to do anything with their roles. Dees emanates a certain type of mournful vivacity (indicative of his former self), and his placid, sarcasm heavy demeanor adds color and humor (though over all, this production lost a great deal of the humor of Hollinger’s script). But in the one passage where he’s called upon to act out the tragedy that’s befallen him, he falters, though it’s probably not his fault, as the script calls on the cast to convincingly portray the spectacle of a bull slaughtered in a bullfight.

Like the series of empty plates symbolizing the food left in the kitchen, all I can think is what a waste: of the talent of this cast, Jerold R. Forsyth’s intimate lighting, and Donald Eastman’s gorgeous café interior, the walls themselves a series of oil-painting panels bound by deep mahoghany columns.

As a short story, Hollinger’s play would’ve succeeded very well, and it’s not hard to imagine what Nolen felt when first reading it, that it “leapt off the page at him.” But on the stage it plays like a grad student’s experiment in “animated storytelling.” And while I might expect to entertain children with a main character who does little more than sit in a chair and tell stories, Empty Plate doesn’t satisfy the needs of theatre for grown-ups, or even for those looking for passable entertainment.

In one of her last lines, Mimi comments on one of Victor’s stories, that “it was very eventful.” If only I could say the same of Hollinger’s play, which in the end, only sent me home hungry for more fulfilling theatrical fare.

Review of "Miss Saigon" at the Media Theatre, published in Edge Philadelphia

People pick the worst times to fall in love. Take Chris (Christopher deProphetis), an embassy guard in Saigon. A few weeks from his redeployment home, he used to “love getting stoned and waking up with some whore,” but now he feels only disgust over the life he’s led in country. Then he meets Kim (Michelle Liu Coughlin), on the night of her first “deployment” in a brothel, and quickly falls in love—as she represents all the innocence that this do-gooder felt when he first arrived in Vietnam.

It’s bad enough when you’re forced to admit to friends, “this is the guy I met while trolling on Craigslist,” but imagine the story he’d have to tell… Such is the plot of the smash musical Miss Saigon, now in production at the Media Theater. Or rather, it would’ve been the plot, if NVC’s hadn’t overrun the embassy in 1975, forcing Chris to flee on the last helicopter, abandoning the woman now pregnant with his child.

Back in the states, Chris has (re)married—Kim believes they had wed after a village ceremony—and only returns to Southeast Asia after a visit from his old army buddy John (Jonathon Lee Iverson) informs him that he has a son, now living in Bangkok with Kim. Chris and the new wife Ellen (Jessica Edwards), though realizing that they could provide a much better life for the child in America, struggle over what to do with the child, causing some conflict, (if they had only asked themselves “What Would Angelina Do?”), before Kim preempts their decision with one of her own at the musical’s end.

My insensitive jokes aside, Miss Saigon stands as both a powerful love story, a tale of a mother’s love, and the failure of good intentions that too often lead to tragedy, set to emotionally powerful (some would say manipulatively so) music and lyrics by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil—the same pair that wrote Les Mis—with additional lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr.

Under Jesse Cline’s direction, the Media’s production focuses mostly on the love story, but in what’s quickly becoming his signature style, Cline took a story of drunk, roughhousing GI’s, Vietnamese prostitutes and violent pimps, and a war ravaged country, and made it even lewder. After watching this production, I felt like I needed to take a bath.

Which is to this production’s credit, as Kim is no “hooker with a heart of gold,”—a character for whom prostitution is romanticized in everything from Madame Butterfly to Pretty Woman—but a farm girl who watched her family butchered, her village burnt to the ground, and found that her only escape from both the atrocities of war and a prearranged marriage to a violent cousin (Anton Briones) lay in (literally) prostitution. There’s nothing romantic in this—and Cline (rightly) doesn’t treat it that way. Instead, he intensifies the drama by letting her remaining innocence become the last battlement in her psyche to fall victim to this onslaught.

Cline also managed to assemble a stellar cast to sing the 30-plus songs this musical contains. As Chris, deProphetis seems chosen as much for his physique—one that equals his rich voice—and for his earnest, American-boy appeal, that he conveys well in his innocent, though bumbling manner. Coughlin adds her own charm, delighting as Kim, so long as she’s not forced to belt unendingly under Steve Ertelt’s musical direction (that also requires this of most of the cast). Moreover, she plays her role to great effect—shy and demure enough throughout that she devastates when she cries, “you don’t know what I’ve done to be here.”

But the supporting cast nearly runs away with the show. Briones gorgeous voice sparkles vocally in the darkest role, and Iverson’s and Edwards’ compelling solo numbers emotionally anchor their conflicting interests. John Haggerty’s engineer—the comedic undercurrent and embodiment of seediness—sings and entertains wildly, even if not quite nasty enough to convince that he’s capable of the violence that colors his daily life as a pimp.

The production values run high overall—though inconsistently in the minor details, which put Michelob Ultra bottles and German Luger pistols into a show set in 1975’s Vietnam—glitches which offset the impressive onstage appearances of a helicopter and a vintage Harley. And while Joshua Schulman’s lighting brought nightclubs, dream sequences, and gate-crashed embassies powerfully to life, the poor sound design and technical problems made the choral numbers mostly incomprehensible.

Like in Vietnam, the lengthy musical is one long set up for the events in the plot to tragically devastate Kim’s innocence at the end. Cline doesn’t ignore these political implications either—though to his credit, he touched upon this without resorting to heavy-handedness, deftly incorporating History Channel footage from that era into the songs to show the effects of a war-torn country—showing the general suffering that mirrors the individual tragedy in Kim’s story.

It’s hard to imagine a similar story today. Prostitution’s better monitored in Iraq, and more stringently enforced against in Islam, though I’m sure it won’t stop composers twenty years from competing to write the first drafts of Miss Bagdad. And while it’s tough to imagine anyone romanticizing current events in the Mideast at any time, I’m glad that this fall we had Cline’s production of Miss Saigon: a tragic, spectacularly performed story of love and devastation brought to life on the Media stage.

Review of "Company B" at the Pennsylvania Ballet, published in Edge Philadelphia

The Pennsylvania Ballet opened their 44th season with Paul Taylor’s Company B, the featured work in an evening that also offered George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, and As It’s Going, by the Pennsylvania Ballet’s choreographer-in-residence Matthew Neenan. Though the dancers upheld their consistently high standards of performance (for the most part), contrasts—both between the works and within them—both delighted and annoyed.

If it’s possible to describe choreography as “Baroque,” where each movement matches one of the notes, Concerto Barocco fits that definition. In Balanchine’s piece, set to Bach’s Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, two principal dancers (during this evening, Arantxa Ochoa and Amy Aldridge) play the “violins” of the piece, mirroring the score of the music in their movements.

To keep pace with the music, the dancers mimic the progressions of Bach’s chords through their sharp, nearly explosive, but perfectly controlled movements. There’s no plot or story, just a bare stage and a blue background, but Balanchine’s choreography nonetheless achieved a spiritual brilliance, an enchanting embodiment of Bach’s work. To see Ochoa and Aldridge dance to Balanchine’s choreography truly exhilarated, and the visual effect of their performance mesmerized.

Neenan’s As It’s Going offered an equally athletic, mostly in pairs choreography, with lots of lifts and tremendous physicality of motion and a structure that seems to echo the style of Concerto Barocco. But the plotless choreography here marks a frustrating difference between the first and second pieces of the evening. Where Balanchine does away with plot, he still keeps an overall structure, using Bach’s music as the backbone that structures the sequence of movements.

Neenan, by contrast, has one movement follow another in the way a bipolar sufferer (touched with a mild case of ADD) would suddenly express one contradictory emotion after the next. Only here, we see this affliction in movement, and while the effect sometimes pleases, it’s more often than not simply ridiculous, showcasing lots of technical artistry, but very little art.

His work does offer powerful images, utilizing the physical, aerial style of his choreography, combined with the ending moments of each of his pieces to great visual effect (John Hoey’s lighting helped out tremendously). However, even this is mere cleverness of style, as what Neenan effects at the end of each movement stands at a stark disconnect from the rest of the piece.

It’s not that Neenan can’t produce a coherent work either, as his seventh movement makes clear. Here he combines the physicality of his work with well-patterned ensemble choreography to produce something that’s harmonious visually and artistically.

Taylor’s Company B, paired to the 1930’s and 40’s hits of the Andrews Sisters, is engaging, spirited, and lots of fun. The music’s great to hear (I walked home humming the signature “Bei Mir Bist du Schon”), and the dancing incorporates or touches upon swing, jitterbug, and polka styles from that period. Santo Loquasto’s charming period costumes (think polka-dots and chinos), and the great hairstyles added to the overall feel of being carried back in time.

Many of the themes—love and loss, young men marching off to war during the heartbreaking “There Will Never Be Another You” number (captivatingly danced by Lindsay Purrington)—still resonate today. Though devoid of an overall story line, Company B offered some of the best-acted performances of the night, and how could it not? These songs of youth and free-spiritedness from a more optimistic time fit right in with the qualities that these dancers both posses and emanate in abundance.

But I’m puzzled as to why a ballet company should perform some of the numbers, especially the ones that either incorporate little classical (or even 20th C.) technique. Some rough spots make the differences in the training clear, as none of the ensemble in “Oh Johnny” can bob their heads convincingly, except Barette Vance. Her attitude throughout suggests that she’s one of the few who captures the overall spirit of Company B, and her sizzling and sultry dancing to “Rum and Coca-Cola” marked the best performance of the piece.

If only they had performed the Balanchine piece last (rather than first), the evening would not only have achieved a better style of presentation, but provided more enjoyment as well. Though ending on the Andrews Sister’s music puts the catchiest piece last, Balanchine’s superior choreography provides the best performances of the night, giving balletomanes what they came to the ballet to see.

Review of "Amadeus" at the Wilma Theatre, published in Edge Philadelphia

In his landmark study on envy, the Austrian sociologist Helmut Schoeck alleged that “the greatest civilizing effect of Christianity lay in its ability to temper the destructive influences of envy.” Of course, Schoeck wrote this before he could have seen Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, especially the tersely-crafted, mesmerizing production now onstage at the Wilma Theatre.

In Amadeus, Christianity's instead the force that motivates an envy-driven hatred—at least for Salieri (Dean Nolen), the Viennese Court Composer who believes in a God that makes real and irreversible bargains with men. As a 16 year old, he promises the heavens that he will lead a life of virtue in exchange for musical ability, so that he can speak the pure language of God, and serve as a vessel to glorify Him on earth.

However, years later, when the younger, more brilliant (though less successful) Mozart (Drew Hirshfield) arrives in Vienna, Salieri instead hears God’s voice “spoken through an obscene child. Accusing God of reneging on their agreement, Salieri vows to destroy Mozart, and thereby block God’s presence on earth.

Or so this 18th C. composer of operas claims in his final composition, performed for a “conjured audience,” and entitled, “The Death of Mozart,” or “Did I Do It.”

In Shaffer’s drama, Mozart comments on the difference between plays and opera, arguing that the latter—by using music to intensify and evoke dramatic action—represents the supreme form of drama. With many other plays I’m inclined to agree, but to director Jiri Zizka’s credit, the caliber of his production of this stage play entranced me as much as most of the operas I’ve ever seen. His lightning quick pacing, the inclusion of Mozart’s music to intensify Salieri’s anguish, his choice of how to have Hirshfield play Mozart, and stunning projected backdrops take a play infused with esoteric stretches of narratives where the central conflict is fought between Salieri and an unseen God, and ignites it into an emotionally-charged sensory explosion on the stage.

While the Oscar winning movie (and many stage productions I’ve seen) focus on the “Mozart-as-boy-genius” aspect of his character—with “boy” as the operant term—Zizka and Hirshfield’s approach instead portrays him as a musical talent who can’t fully make himself a servant to those he considers incompetents that should rightly get out of his way. Hirshfield’s Mozart—almost a boy Nietzsche—can’t (or won’t) control his tongue, offending everyone, not only increasing the tension by enraging Salieri, but also lessening the effects of Salieri’s wickedness.

This choice clearly pays off, when toward the end of the play, Salieri asks the audience, “which of you would refuse the opportunity to block a disliked human rival?” and the barely controlled silence showed at least a partial belief in his justification of a wickedness that carried the evening’s tension.

Of course, the production would suffer by more than degrees without Nolen’s Salieri. Compelling from his first throaty-voiced moments on stage, he proves no less a maestro dramatically than the much-maligned composer was musically, and makes it difficult to believe that someone so charming and sparkling could behave so viciously. Moreover, he balances these elements with such precision—only allowing the scales to tip decidedly in the closing moment of the play—entrancing with a subtle evolution of character that’s a devilish delight to watch.

The remainder of the cast serves to either increase the humor— Christian Kauffmann’s delightful stooge of an Emperor, and Pete Pryor and Jared McLenigan’s “little winds” blowing rumors through Vienna while updating the chronological backdrop of the play—or function as the obstacles Salieri sets along the path of Mozart’s destruction. Only Mary Rasmussen, as Mozart’s wife Constanze, shows the sense of defending loyalty and sympathy to Mozart’s plight (that perhaps we should all feel), in her apt portrayal of a boarding-house owner’s daughter unsure of how to function when elevated to a world above her upbringing.

Robert Pyzocha’s set design festooned the entire theatre space with long white draperies, fittingly contrasting the sense of innocence in Salieri’s rendition of his story with the cobwebbed sense of history conveyed in the dust and spider web covered chandeliers hanging above the audience. And though the text has someone call Mozart’s coat “vulgar,” Janus Stefanowicz’s costumes capture nothing less than the spirit of pure pageantry that dominated the aristocratic era.

In our age, we’re used to seeing men war with other men because of God; Shaffer’s play provides an intriguing example of one man warring against another to spite Him. While there’s something initially admirable about a man who engages in pitched combat with a deity (even if today we lack the pleasure of justifying our envy-driven abuse in this manner) the Wilma shows everything that’s admirable about a production that brings this battle to life.

Review of "Beyond Therapy" at Villanova, published 10-08-2007 in the Main Line Ticket

Long before the films of Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler, (playwright) Christopher Durang perfected the genre of zany comedies driven by over-the-top characters thrown into otherwise usual/normal situations. Case in point: his hilarious early 80’s comedy “Beyond Therapy,” now receiving a slightly updated, slightly imbalanced production at Villanova University.

Prudence (Rachel Anne Stephan) and Bruce (Carl C. Granieri), two imperfect thirty-something’s, use online personals to look for love and maybe another marriage. She’s a homophobic uptight perfectionist, he’s an overly emotional bisexual living with his lover Bob (Luke Moyer). Both struggle through the relationship on the advice of their respective therapists—Dr. Framingham (Jeffrey S. Paden), a slimeball who bases his advice on trying to sleep with her again, and Charlotte Wallace (Amy Walton), who absentmindedly occupies the session with her own problems. Durang’s approach echoes through Wallace’s advice: “If you take psychological suffering in the right frame of mind, you can find humor in it.”

Dina Amin’s direction attempts to capitalize on the topical humor by updating the script (though not enough—it still feels like a period piece), but veers wildly between comedy that’s neither consistently frantic and over-the-top or consistently straightforward enough. Some lapses in timing further tarnish the production, particularly the stilted ending, which rather than giving one last explosion of absurdity or tapering off the play’s comedic high, falls apart entirely. Her best choice of the night: writing in a café singer for the adorably corny, vocally talented Janet McWilliams.

Some of the production’s imbalance lies in the cast, as only Walton’s blisteringly funny performance truly understands her part (even though in this production, her apt playing seems almost out of place). Granieri’s emotional dexterity produces one laugh after another, and finds a fitting compliment in Moyer’s pouting and ridiculously straightforward portrayal. By contrast, Stephan, whose character is fraught with indecision and constantly frazzled, plays her part too confidently. Whenever she declares, “I’m going,” I expected her to do anything but stay put. Meanwhile, Paden’s womanizer is never ridiculous or sleazy enough to effect the humor of his role.

While not the laugh riot Durang intended, the production nonetheless illustrates both the absurdity of imperfect professionals helping their imperfect clients, and Durang’s commentary on the silliness built into every relationship. If you’re longing for a comedy that’s delightfully off-kilter, or that nostalgically pokes fun at an era when patients solved their problems by lying on couches rather than popping pills, Villanova’s production will prove quite therapeutic.

Review of "Boy Gets Girl" at Celebration Theatre, published 10-17-2007 in the NEWS of Delaware County

Don’t meet for a blind date at Celebration Theatre. At least not during their current run of Rebecca Gilman’s psychological thriller “Boy Gets Girl,” where the question, “What’s wrong with pursing a woman?” only finds a tragic answer.

In Gilman’s play, slightly misanthropic journalist Theresa Bedell (Jennifer Summerfield) meets the socially awkward Tony (Jim Hopper) for a blind date. After a few missteps, the evening ends a qualified success, and she agrees to date number two. Here, his lack of sensitivity (“so, are you like a feminist?”) fails to conceal a smothering pushiness, and Theresa uses the familiar “it’s not you, it’s me” to end the evening and refuse any future engagements.

But he won’t hear it. A few dozen phone calls later, she tells him to get lost, and he turns from creepy annoyance into threatening stalker, interfering with her life, both at home and work.

Coinciding with Tony’s escalating intrusions, Theresa’s magazine requires her to interview Les Kennkat (Ben Kendall), an aging cult-figure and producer of B-movie sexploitation films. He initially becomes the target of her misdirected anger, as do her sympathetic coworkers Howard (Ed Gretz) and Mercer (JP Timlin), but when the stalking intensifies to violence, she finally seeks the help of Officer Madeleine Beck (Laura Cevallos). Beck’s pitiless policewoman advice: get a new number, apartment, and identity, because in her experience, these problems only end in tragedy.

Celebration’s superb effort marks one of the best non-professional productions I’ve ever seen. Dave Ebersole’s direction engages immediately, effectively exploiting Gilman’s Hitchcockian device (can’t give that away), while crafting a performance that mines the script’s latent humor only to escalate the tension further.

However, little competes for, or captures the attention more than Summerfield’s penetrating portrayal of a woman under siege. Even the quality of her laughter changes under the crippling stress, as the tremendous depth she brings to this role conveys the ever-intensifying degree of the simmering terror she experiences.

The solid ensemble performances radiate outward from her tremendous portrayal, most notably Kendall’s intentionally scene-stealing humor, Gretz’s and Timlin’s amiable protectiveness, and the harmless looking Hopper, who deftly turns surface-level awkwardness into venom.

Rodney Bruce Warren’s well-structured set, Ebersole and Bill Bansbach’s score-like sound design, and especially Paul Peyton Moffitt’s chilling lighting all enhance the force of this electrifying production.

Only Gilman’s script interferes, veering off into quasi-feminist politics and cultural analysis as she tries to insert the theme that “Tony is not alone in how he sees women.” While some of her points ring true—Theresa argues that saying, “he’s a good guy who can’t deal with women” no longer counts, as it really means that a man “can’t deal with half the population”—the majority of Gilman’s message only impedes the play’s second act.

Thankfully, Ebersole diligently handles the thematic distractions, enabling the cast to make Gilman’s arguments believable extensions of their characters, while Summerfield’s ever-more brittle responses never allow a drop in the tension that deflects from the thrust of the plot.

This hard-hitting play represents a powerful season opener for Celebration Theatre. As Theresa clings to the last shards of her identity, Tony reduces her to one final humiliating option. In this disturbing production, boy gets girl after all.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

"Best of the Fringe: Part II," published in the NEWS of Delaware County, Sept. 12, 2007

The Philadelphia Fringe Festival continued through its first full week, with productions that ranged from the lackluster to the spectacular. Since the bad ones aren’t worth writing about, here’s some of the best I’ve seen:

Drexel Hill’s Music and Motions dance group’s performance of Red exploded in a series of color and movement, displaying a vibrant versatility of styles that incorporated and fused ballet, jazz, hip-hop, and gymnastics. Here, Stephen Weisz’s choreography showed a creative mastery of these genres, both in elegant and moving duets and dazzlingly complex group numbers. Why he’s not earning more money directing music videos is both a mystery (his hip-hop pieces were energetic and alive in ways you won’t find on MTV) and a testament to his artistic devotion to the future of his craft.

The Fringe is often a place for works too controversial and challenging to find theatres willing to take a risk on these productions during their regular season, and this year’s festival is no exception. New York’s Stone Soup Theatre Arts troupe led the more challenging of these works with their production of Edward Bond’s Stone. Bond’s play draws the audience on an allegorical journey that fuses vaudeville song and mythic writing (not to mention a striptease), in an existential look at the apparent futility of life. A fascinating production, with Chris Wild giving the best acting performance I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe.

Diving deeper into the controversial, New Jersey’s The Riot Group presented the world premiere of Adriano Shaplin’s Hearts of Man. This compelling new work takes a stance on which few theatres would risk offending their mostly moderate audiences: the notion that Megan’s Law and cyber task-force stings—the kind featured in the “To Catch a Predator” series—often ensnare lesser types than the hard-core pedophiles, and in those cases do more harm than good. Shaplin’s play sparkles with lines of true poetry (he was the first playwright-in-residence for the Royal Shakespeare Company), and Riot Group’s Stephanie Viola and Kristen Sieh give powerful and heart-rending performances as the legal team trying to defend the worst cast-offs of society.

I’m split on my best pick of the week, neither of which posed a controversy, and both of which fall into the category of musicals. Philadelphia’s BCKSEET Productions played their rock and roll Hung on a Blonde Ponytail, about the tragic (and I don’t use that word lightly) breakup of a rock duo on the eve of their greatest success. Brilliantly structured as a mystery, the exhilarating performance of Greg DeCandia (singing his own lyrics), features original compositions by Joe Horak in an evening that explores the often devastating history that lies in the life behind an album. With better quality singing and songs than you’ll find in any current top 20 lineup, I can’t recommend this performance enough.

But Brooklyn punk legends World/Inferno Friendship Society gave by far the hippest show I’ve seen at this year’s fringe in Addicted to Bad Ideas, their punk rock operetta about the life of troubled actor Peter Lorre. Their ninety-minute set took the audience on an odyssey through not only his life, but also the styles of music—ranging from swing, jazz, blues, and rock, and from big band to punk—of the entire 20th Century. Jack Terricloth’s charismatic singing fused the silky voice of Brian Setzer with the mesmerizing fury of the Sex Pistols, backed up by an overpowering nine-piece band of horns, percussion, and electric guitar. Though their run already ended, catch them on their return tour through Philadelphia on Friday, Sept. 21 at the First Unitarian Church, for what will probably be the most invigorating and wildest show of the season.

Review of "Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical," published by EDGE Philadelphia

Poor Debbie Benton. She’s got a great life as captain of the cheerleading squad, and a chance to make the Dallas Cowgirls when she graduates. However, her parents consider cheering a form of “outdoor burlesque,” and won’t help provide the money she so desperately needs to relocate to Texas. What’s a girl to do but form her own company (aptly named “Teen Services”), and bleed the pockets of all the sexually frustrated and lonely men in town?

When I was in high school, all the cheerleaders worked as cashiers or waitresses. Then again, my life (regrettably) didn’t follow the plotlines of a 70’s porn classic.

Such though, is the story of Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical, the hit off-Broadway show written by Erica Schmidt and Susan Schwartz to Andrew Sherman’s music, now performed by To The Wall Productions as part of the 2007 Philadelphia Fringe.

However, the only overlap lies in the plot (there’s no nudity), and only the goofiness of the piece matches the style of a 70’s porno, except with much better music. Schwartz and Schmidt wrote this as a send up, and director Dawn K Cowle treats it as nothing less. After her first encounter (“Ten Dollars Closer to My Dream”) with frustrated adults willing to pay far more than minimum wage for what girls now give away for free on spring break videos, Debbie (Kara Senich) pauses philosophically to remark, “I suddenly feel as if everything is clear to me and I know how I must live.” The ridiculousness builds by degrees from here, as the girls slowly take offers for teen services from all of their various bosses, and song and dance numbers become just so much hysterically simulated sex on stage. Even the sensuality is contrived, as the leering of the adults more resembles Mr. Furley than Jack Tripper. (Sorry, can’t help with the 70’s references here.)

And while DDD contains a few oblique references, both literary (to the Scarlett Letter, no less) and political (one of the girls longs to run for Senate, and worries that she needs a spotless background to enter politics), most of the humor requires a less urbane audience background. Due to the nature of the show, most of those seated in Sister’s nightclub this evening were 20-something members of Generation Porn, all of whom laughed in full comprehension at the jokes, having no trouble understanding the reference during a water-gun fight when one of the girls mock-erotically cried out, “get it all over my glasses.”

Thankfully, Cowle never lets an opportunity for humor go unused, and makes this musical as much about a porn film as Legally Blonde represents the legal field. A few rare intrusions of semi-serious sentimentality (when a voice-over announces, “and now, a song from the heart”) break the mood with no real effect, and display the only moments of awkwardness in a thoroughly ridiculous send-up. Of course, too much of anything wears thin, but by the time Debbie’s plot takes its last twist—having her give up her virginity for more money than she could dream of—this cast has so successfully created a spirit of ludicrousness onstage, that the self-referential attempt at the fringe festival becomes more of a nuisance than a joke. (Not that anyone stopped laughing though.)

Although this show might not make Senich a star (it’s one of the jokes), this production should certainly bring some much-deserved attention to everyone in the cast. Senich delights in her bubbly, naïve portrayal, and an impressive ensemble makes a wild evening out of this material, with Caitlin Reilly (as the future first lesbian Senator Tammy) and John Greenbaum (in multiple roles) delivering hysterical character-based performances.

I hope that Cowle restages this show later in the season—hopefully in a place with better sightlines—so that larger audiences can better see the wild physical humor of this show, and experience the smash production she’s made of it. Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical was some of the most fun I’ve had at this year’s Fringe.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Review of Nice People Theatre's production of "Killing Women," published by EDGE Philadelphia

Three women, struggling their way through workplace filled with sexism, glass ceilings, and eventually beat the odds and the rule of their male bosses, rising half-heartedly, to some satisfaction and a place at the top.

Though it sounds familiar, it’s not Nine to Five, or even Working Girl, but a piece of theatre, in this case, the allegorical comedy Killing Women by Marisa Wegrzyn, in production at this year’s Fringe by the Nice People Theatre Company.

Killing Women centers around the lives of three professional hit-women. Gwen (Miriam White), married to an assassin, enjoyed her tenure as a stay at home mom, and never wanted anything to do with her husband’s career, though she possesses a real knack for offing people. Abby (Annie Erickson), on the other hand, killed her one true love in order to pursue a career to the top, only to run against the glass ceiling that exists even in the murdering business. Lucy (Nicole Blicher), lies somewhere in between the two. Vaguely interested in her job (but refusing to use guns, as the trigger breaks her nails), she uses her job contacts to meet potential boyfriends, only to find her work a nuisance when her contract requires their deaths.

As allegories go, well, there’s probably a reason that Aesop composed his fables about humans with animal characters. Besides the over-used vehicle that Wegrzyn’s play adopts (society has long described business as “making a killing,” or their jobs as being “murder out there”), the overlap between what these women do in their work, and the actual business world situation becomes too confusing in her play.

For while it’s clear that women, like Abby, must often drop an early romance to pursue a promising career (nicely drawn in her back story about her first kill), the play confuses in Gwen’s substituting murder for divorce (doesn’t fit) and glosses over reality when substituting a this-or-that choice in Gwen having to pick a career or family life, ignoring the reality of millions of women who shift comfortably and effectively between these two worlds. And Lucy’s inability to date business contacts because they’re business points to a dated problem in the work world.

Which isn’t to say that this play is without its charms, or that this production suffers under the undue weight of an overbearing heavy-handedness. Thankfully, it’s a comedy, which Nice People Theatre takes full advantage of in their laugh-out-loud production. Wegrzyn shows a real knack for humorous one-liners (“you make me wish I was autistic”), and she cleverly spoofs business management style textbooks with advice to not “get involved with anyone you have to kill,” and “every job has its shit and you have to learn to cope or you don’t get a paycheck.”

Of course, not all of this is well-effected either—White and Blicher show subtlety in their delivery, while Erickson’s a hit or miss—sometimes her coarse attitude serves the humor well, at other times, she’s one gritty F-bomb away from making the audience feel too uncomfortable to laugh at anything. Luckily, when character laughs are needed, Chris Fluck’s big grinning moron Mike produces a laugh-riot every time he appears on stage as a dimwitted haiku-writing killer.

When it comes to handling the allegory itself though, director Bill Felty misfires, only partially exercising the obvious knack he displayed for over-the-top comedy in his recent direction of Valhalla. Instead, he splits the difference on the treatment the play calls for—opting for humor, but of a straightforward kind, when the overall intent of the play, as any allegory, clearly requires a touch of absurdity, as no one will believe it otherwise. Moreover, most of the confusions mentioned earlier would diminish in a less sincere treatment of the script.

Only Pat DeFusco’s well played Mike Hammer clone of a boss, Fluck’s goofiness, Ben Stanley’s Antonio Banderas inspired Johnny Duke, and White’s milksop of a housewife-turned-killer add the right atmosphere to the play. Erickson’s too literally forceful, and while Blicher shows the most talent of the three women, she applies it in the wrong direction, opting for a sincere love-struck girl torn between her heart and her career, and not doing enough with the sheer ridiculousness of her role. A line like “cold calculation is barbaric and doesn’t suit me,” uttered sincerely, just doesn’t fit—or rather it does, but only at the expense of believability.

As a result, long, long stretches of semi-seriousness become flat streaks of boredom between the play’s peaks of humor (particularly the overly long “chemical killing” scene). Part of this does rest on Wegrzyn, who shuffles fast-paced, clearly goofy vignettes of scenes in between longer, expository or character-detailing passages, a rhythm that by itself is enough to distort the enjoyment of her play.

In the play’s send-up of women’s struggles in the workplace, Killing Women scores as a boisterous comedy spoofing modern life. But whenever Wegrzyn or Felty take the allegory too seriously, Nice People’s uneven production made it appear more like the ups and downs of a business cycle—great when riding the crests, the rest of the time in a recession waiting for the humor to build again.

Review of The Riot Group's production of Adriano Shaplin's "Hearts of Man," published by EDGE Philadelphia

In his preface to Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov wrote that there are three subjects that modern society won’t tolerate in art: a work that depicted interracial relationships, a work that glorified the life of a degenerate, or a work that non-judgmentally (or favorably) dealt with the (sexual) relationship between a grown adult and a young person.

While changing social norms reflected in books, plays, and movies have shown the acceptance of the first two, I think it’s fair to say that the last topic still remains a taboo in art.

Or, as Adriano Shaplin’s Hearts of Man’s criminal defense attorney states even her reluctance, "I don’t do politics, and luring’s a politicized crime."

In Hearts, a police sting arrests the mid-thirty-something Rabideux (Drew Friedman) attempting to meet a 14-year old boy after dozens of suggestive online chats that they’ve recorded (and conducted). The initially self-serving DA (Paul Schnabel), goaded on by the lead detective (Dennis McSorley), the media, and the community activist leader of "Jill’s Group" (Tara V. Perry), indicts him on every possible charge. Rabideux’s sister Kris (Kristen Sieh) interns at a law firm, and convinces crusading defense attorney Vicki DeFazio (Stephanie Viola) to take the case.

Most people who go to the theatre wouldn’t think twice about condemning even a potential child offender, even one who’s engaged in online luring only (reinforcing Nabokov’s point). Yet Shaplin’s play takes the opposite approach entirely-indicting everyone but the perpetrator for their self-righteousness, their gun-jumping approach to justice, and their leering voyeurism in the popularity of programs like "To Catch a Predator."

But Shaplin’s also very careful to draw his character and his crimes in a way that not only implies potential innocence of a man victimized by an overzealous police sting, but to craft the language of the internet chat’s in a highly ambiguous not-clearly-sexual manner. And his play argues (much like an essay argues, but not always like a play argues), that anti-child endangerment programs and Megan’s law often ensnare lesser types than the hard-core pedophiles, and in those cases do more harm than good.

For such odious subject matter, this is a very compelling new work, especially in this world premiere by New Jersey’s The Riot Group (as part of the 2007 Philadelphia Fringe Festival).

Shaplin’s obvious gift lies in his use of language to shape characters, which ranges from the coarse, streetwise vernacular of the detective, to the Biblical alliterations of his Chris Hansen tele-clone Rex (Friedman, double-cast), to the intense, near poetry spoken by DeFazio. Phrases like "you log one half a dirty phone call and call it police work" mingle with "I knew these laws were wrong, but I hid and did nothing...and now I must defend those human remains whose corpses even seagulls would avoid" to create an effect that’s half Law & Order, and half C.S. Lewis style religious prose drama.

For the most part, the actors underscore the text with sincere, nuanced performances. Friedman is just pathetic (and guilty) enough as the alleged predator, while McSorley presents a cantankerous, too-funny-to-dislike detective. Only Schnabel fails to present a convincing role in his DA, either in his reticence to push the case, or his half-hearted attempts to get the media to back off when he barks, "the law is not your sentiment."

However, the women outclass all of the men in this production, though not enough to provide a noticeable imbalance, as Perry’s roles all line up morally opposed to the parts played by Sieh and Viola. Perry shifts effortlessly through multiple, disparate roles, and Sieh’s concerned, yet doubting sister gives an insightful haggling of her emotions from denial through rationalization, while still making the audience feel her shudders when faced with a brother who may have tried to lure a teenager into his bed.

Yet it’s Viola who gives one the best performances of the entire fringe in her attorney’s mix of Christian zeal and legal righteousness. Her quick, nervous movements across the stage generate more tension that what’s on the page, and she makes her final sequence of scenes a heart-rending experience to watch as she crumbles under the weight of the "you’re fucked either way" statutes set up to condemn any defense of these offenders.

Regrettably, it’s this aspect that Shaplin didn’t focus upon more in his play-the frustration experienced by many (mostly drug offenders) slammed by a prosecutorial system in this country that indicts defendants with "attempted" and "conspiracy" charges on top of the actual acts themselves-all in an effort to railroad them into pleading guilty to a lesser charge. Instead, he veered off course to indict too many other sources-the media, the internet itself, the "Jill’s group" type community activists-all of which diffused the injustice initially brought about by the overzealous laws and their highly politicized enforcement.

The play ends with Rabideux, arriving back at his apartment, after pleading guilty (and receiving a long probation) to a lesser charge, only to find an activist has already posted a flier labeling him as a sex offender all over his neighborhood. Rabideux’s guilt remains indeterminate, and I’m inclined to pity him for the self-inflicted wound he’s put on his life, but not because he’s suffered an injustice.

This is partially the fault of the story, and partly the fault of the playwright. The plot never let Rabideux defend himself in a trial, and his early protests of "I didn’t do anything wrong" aren’t the same as innocence. However, Shaplin errs in trying to do too much (the whole media indictment became one monologue of a dead end), and as a result, only touches upon the source of the potential injustice he wants to point out, alerting us to a problem like a town crier vaguely saying, "there’s a fire...somewhere."

Review of Uncut Productions "Assembly: Junior High," published by EDGE Philadelphia

What do you remember learning from junior high school assemblies? “I learned that I should be scared everywhere I go” answers one of the students emerging from the first half of Uncut Productions presentation of Mark Dahl’s Assembly: Junior High. After listening to songs about “the terrorists among us,” getting raped in cyberspace, and watching 1950’s sex-ed and safety films re-edited for maximum effect, you’d be scared of everything too.

But this is the theatre, and this is the latest work from Uncut Productions, the local masters of all things satirical in Philadelphia. So while the characters on stage get frightened out of their tidy-whities and training bras by the educational performing troupe “Scare Tactics,” the audience nearly falls out of their chairs with laughter.

Split into two halves, the play starts with the principal’s announcement for all students to meet in the auditorium for an “emergency assembly” designed to shock and horrify the students—conveniently occurring right after the school has subjected them to the latest rounds of personality tests borrowed from the FBI. This slightly eerie beginning quickly explodes into hilarity, as the five-member crew of “Scare Tactics” performs Dahl’s original songs that parody the Pledge of Allegiance, Homeland Security and the lurking dangers that are only one mouse-click away.

The second half of the show shifts its tone to focus on five junior high students, one from each decade—from the Eisenhower fifties to the Clinton nineties. These students struggle to cope with first periods and crushes, sexual and drug experimentation, and their identities, gender or otherwise, with all of their (mis)information filtered through the lens of the various assemblies and school films by which the first half has educated them. The result, of course, is one of awkward missteps, ignorant malice, and general confusion—students mistaking bulimia for morning sickness, and Chlamydia for flowers.

Carried forward by humor, the highlight of the first half was Dahl’s “The Ability Song,” where a wheelchair bound member of Scare Tactics laments his condition, and where the lyrics (rightly) skewer our society’s current means of inducing tolerance in children by celebrating the unfortunate circumstances of the handicapped. Joining him in song, a girl with flipper arms (from her mother’s thalidomide use) delights in resembling a goldfish, and a boy with one giant sized foot proudly announces his success in kickball. Just when I was writing in my notes “this is the kind of genius that made Avenue Q possible,” out comes one of the members of Scare Tactics attached to a puppet representing his conjoined twin, gleefully boasting of a difference that in class "lets them see 360 degrees.”

The heavily re-edited school films do no less justice to Uncut’s brilliant multimedia work, particularly Jena Serbu’s original short safety film, “The Buddy System.” For those who aren’t aware of the efficacy of partnering to avoid danger, Serbu shows two kids, hand in hand walking through a playground filled with snipers and machine guns, walking unscathed, protected from all harm by following the rules. It could’ve been Philadelphia, or Baghdad, in either case, in an age of terror and violence-filled streets that requires something better than sleep-inducing propaganda, her film provided a moment of much needed, hilarious insensitivity.

Of course, Dahl does have a slight, though sinister message hidden in his play. The hesitant and unsure behavior of Act II’s Junior High’s students stands as the direct result of witnessing the very types of assembly spouted drivel and films presented in Act I. We can laugh at them, but for five decades worth of kids growing up on this paternalistic pulp, the results aren’t nearly as funny.

If only the two halves weren’t so disparate. I loved Assembly, and could tell from the ever-ascending pitch and volume of laughter that the audience loved it too. And while certain parts of Junior High both evoked laughter and clearly disturbed (a woman behind me blurted out loudly, “this is so wrong,” when Dahl’s 80’s Valley Girl described her bulimia as “Karen Carpenter in reverse”), overall, I think everyone kept waiting, as I did, for the second half of the program to reach the tenor of the first.

Otherwise, the entire evening seems like two plays linked by location and Dahl’s theme of the deleterious effects of institutionalized ignorance. The brilliantly over-the-top satire of the Assembly strikes almost painfully against the Junior High’s more muted tones, so much that they don’t even appear as written by the same person, but rather a collaboration; one half fashioned by a satirical genius, and the other crafted by the painstaking efforts of a historian.

In this regard, Dahl’s play is still a work in progress, though I wouldn’t have missed Assembly for any other show in town. The writers of the Onion could not have done more justice to this first half than Dahl’s songs (and a highly talented pair of ensembles) so cleverly achieve. And no artistic directors in Philadelphia slaughter the sacred cows of society with as much verve and hilarity as Dahl and Serbu, and no show at the Fringe made me clutch my sides in laughter as much as the first half of Assembly: Junior High. See it.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Review of "Hung on a Blonde Ponytail," published by EDGE Philadelphia

Two musicians-one an aggressive alpha-male singer, the other a shy guitarist/composer-struggle with their art as they fight over the same girl. Almost a rock and roll cliché, one of them remarks, or rather in BCKSEET production’s current show, an intentional set of them.

Yet even the most worn and repeated story, when retold with depth and sincerity (not to mention solid, original lyrics), acquires an inspiring sense of freshness and new relevance. When that happens, the result is very often something like Hung on a Blonde Ponytail. (Book and lyrics by Gregory G DeCandia, music by Joe Horak.)

Brilliantly structured as a mystery, the story speaks and sings its way through a music magazine interview with Josh (Gregg Pica), a reclusive musician who’s kept himself in hiding after the release of a quickly soaring first album. Flashbacks play out the drama behind each of the songs (mostly sung by DeCandia’s unnamed singer), driven by the unanswered question, "what happened to the other half of this duo?" Though built around an interview that serves initially to narrate the story, Hung never becomes like a (often vulgar and self-indulgent) VH1 "Behind the Music" piece. Instead, both DeCandia and Pica treat the material with sincerity, presenting intriguing characters roughed up by duplicity and self-destruction, told with exceptional lyrics that melt seamlessly into the story. The ending, utterly tragic-as Josh’s obvious affection for his self-destructive singer compels sympathy-ends with one more mystery, beautifully rounded out in the final song.

While he’s written half of the show (in the book and lyrics), DeCandia’s singer is most of the story, and his obvious passion for his own work both motivates and holds the entire evening together. Why he’s still in musical theatre is the real mystery, as he effortlessly looks (and acts) the part of the rock star, while having a voice that bests most of them.

Pica’s Josh gives the right blend of vulnerability and likeability (that hides his darkly played complicity in the singer’s fate), while at the same time providing a softer vocal counterpart to DeCandia’s powerful singing. Between them, director Christopher Butterfield and Debra Henri (as the reporter) keep the interview focused on its ability to drive the plot, even as Josh’s character keeps slipping between the conversation and his guilt-induced imagination.

The music consists mostly of simple, straightforward chords, full of verve and drive, a kind of hunger and restlessness that never became overbearing or too eager to impress (and the guy on electric guitar commandingly rips his way through these chords). The greatest compliment I can write is to note that many in the audience lined up to buy the soundtrack on their way out the door (and I’m listening to it while writing this review). And why not? For $10 anyone who bought this CD got music that was equal to or better than anything (with few exceptions) currently playing on the radio or churned out of the factory known as American Idol (and with DeCandia’s more sincere lyrics to boot).

The only thing missing-more of a back and forth between the reporter and Josh’s character-either make the decision to use her purely as a device that moves the action along (after all, if we’re supposed to believe it’s an interview, we can accept it as that, and let it ride that she’s not a fully developed character). Otherwise, this aspect of the play seems like the most bizarre magazine interview ever conducted, and some of the segues almost confuse the action.

But I only scarcely noticed this omission hours after I left the theatre. Seated in the audience, this story, and DeCandia’s performance, completely captured my attention.

What a good album used to attempt, DeCandia and Horak have put together here in a rock musical raised to the level of true artistry. Hung on a Blond Ponytail stands as a throwback to rock and roll’s great period of singer-songwriters, achieving a compilation of songs that are not only connected chronologically by a story, but which move with an inner aesthetic from one to the next. The music and lyrics, laid down in the plot of DeCandia’s script, and brilliantly executed in this production, capture the tragedy of an album lived by these artists-the truth of their lives, finally put down and owned by them in song.

My only regret is that I can’t arrange my Fringe schedule to see them perform this again.

"Best of the Fringe: Part I," published in the NEWS of Delaware County, Sept. 5, 2007

The 11th annual Philadelphia Fringe Festival kicked into high gear over the Labor Day weekend. Bringing the spectacular, the wild, and occasionally the truly bizarre productions, the 2007 lineup features all the elements of the live arts in both seasoned productions, those on the verge of major success, and young companies just starting out and testing the waters with new works.

This year’s festival offers over 170 productions, with artists from all over the country, and removes as far away as Vietnam, the Congo, and Europe renting every performance venue in Philadelphia available (some even appearing in the street, or in one case, in the backseat of a car). Scattered among this nationwide and international artistic representation, several Delaware County based artists and arts-ensembles will ply their trade during this year’s Fringe.

My Fringe weekend kicked off seeing Upper Darby based actress Meghan Heimbecker appear as part of a stellar cast in 11th Hour Theatre Company’s production of “Six of One.” This chamber musical by Paul Loesel (music) and Scott Burkell (lyrics) deals with the friendships and relationship struggles of six people on the verge of turning 30, still trying to figure out how to handle the interpersonal disasters that plague their lives. Strong performances from the cast, combined with the clever and often funny lyrics make this exploration of trial marriages and pre-mid-life crisis memorable.

Two Lansdowne Improv groups gave back-to-back performances, which will continue next weekend. Tapestry Theatre presented the two-woman show “Cecily and Gwendolyn’s Fantastical Balloon Ride,” an improvised adventure about two English women (Karen Getz and Kelly Jennings) travelling through time and space to seek out the lost heir to the British throne. Taking cues of places and objects from the audience, while forcing them to participate, Tapestry’s production provides great fun, and is highly recommended for kids and families.

Lunch Lady Doris practiced the art of “long form improvisation" in their impressive (and regularly sold out) show Sunday evening. In their performance, five comedians take a simple suggestion from the audience (song title, childhood memory), which they quickly turn into a series of sketches ranging from the absolutely hysterical to the surprisingly sophisticated and poignant. Their hyperactive wits and effortlessly sharp timing definitely impress in one of the most entertaining improv acts I’ve seen anywhere.

The local improv theme will continue next weekend in “LEAP! The Actor’s Improv Experiment,” where Havertown’s Ben Lloyd joins a cast of some of Philly’s best actors in a ten-day improvisational comedy boot camp. Local improv coach Bobbi Block (part of Lunch Lady Doris) will force Lloyd and four other actors to drop their script addiction, and learn how to create a compelling text seamlessly and out of thin air. Look for this to become one of the most interesting (and best-attended) Fringe productions. Lloyd and the others can certainly act, having several Barrymore Awards amongst them, and I can’t wait to see what they will do without any lines to read.

However, the best show (by far) I’ve seen in the first few days of the Fringe hailed from a little outside Delaware County, in the Philadelphia based Brat Productions show, “Fatboy” by New York City’s Fringe co-founder John Clancy. In Fatboy, South Park collides with Michael Moore in a piercing satire of modern America’s imperialist ambitions, the average consumer’s infinite desires that drain the globe of resources, and the U.N.’s inability (if not complicity) in doing anything but offering to get someone a round of drinks. Suitable for voters of any stripe, politics fall by the wayside here, as the over-the-top crazed performances and blitzkrieg humor of the script catapult the audience through Fatboy’s wacky quest for world domination, driven onward by his insatiable appetite for pancakes and bacon. An absolute must see.