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Chris Harcum preparing for his one man play "Two Lovely Black Eyes"

Chris Harcum preparing for his one man play “Two Lovely Black Eyes”

The FRIGID festival is on this week, and your intrepid reporter saw two plays Friday night that showcase the diversity and character of Off-Off Broadway theater this season.

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MMITtRML

As a grown man, I still wear the scars inflicted in childhood by my wonderful mother. I recognized her approach from afar by the click of her high heels, which boomed down hallways in my school. The sound filled me with anxious anticipation, because it always seemed like I was the last person waiting to get picked up. The nadir of our relationship was a family trip to Florida with my aunt and younger sister. I was twelve. In the car on the way down I made the mistake of air drumming the break on a hit Van Halen song. At the resort my mother, my aunt, my sister and I went to the (apparently all ages) dance club, and when the DJ played that track, my mom dragged me out onto the dance floor to dance with her. At the drum break she mimicked my imitation of Alex Van Halen and gestured for me to join in. Need I say more?

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Dave Droxler as The Man Who Laughs (photo Carrie Leonard)

Dave Droxler as The Man Who Laughs (photo Carrie Leonard)

The technology of spectacle has changed at an accelerating rate over the last century; the truths of the human heart, however, have remained the same from one generation to the next. The permanent existential crisis that has emerged from world transforming technologies, like a boil on the soul of every human over the age of thirty, hit theatre folk especially hard. First movies tried to be like plays, until plays worried they need to be like movies. Then TV stepped in and made movies a nervous wreck. Now TV is worried that is has to show thirteen hours of entertainment in one sitting if it wants to compete with the Internet. Next thing you know, all theatre will be “immersive,” accessible through social media, and patterned on first-person video games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. On Saturday nights, patrons will spend five hours with a smartphone in one hand, buying credits to level up, a drink in the other hand, following a group of “actors” around cavernous warehouses repurposed as high concept haunted houses, shrouded in a pleasant or terrifying fog of illusion.

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Jake Lasser, Sofia Lund, Randall Benichak, & Joyce Barnathan (Photo Stephanie Warren)

Jake Lasser, Sofia Lund, Randall Benichak, & Joyce Barnathan (Photo Stephanie Warren)

“The world breaks everyone … those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

Two guitarists take a seat on the stage, and a woman in flamenco dress steps into the spotlight, her heels tapping a Spanish tattoo like a brace of castanets. A dandy in a ruffled tuxedo shirt and another in a tweed suit are drawn into the light with her, and each takes turns playing the bull to her matador. She is the ánima of España, and these are her most famous artists, Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí.

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Cora Bisset and Matthew Pidgeon in "Midsummer" (photo by Chester Higgins)

Cora Bisset and Matthew Pidgeon in “Midsummer” (photo by Chester Higgins)

Midsummer [A Play With Songs], a play by Scottish playwright David Greig that is making its New York debut at the Clurman Theatre on 42nd street, is widely agreed to be a rom com. Its salient feature is a loveless man and a loveless woman who are thrown together by chance, torn apart by social convention, and reunited by Love’s cosmic flux. What more needs be said? Certain generic applications appear to be cut and pasted into the plot to lend the story the standard, twitterpated, magical realist Hollywood feel: The male protagonist is a low-level gangster with an ironically appropriate name; the female protagonist is a divorce lawyer who is ironically committing adultery with a married man; there is a wedding, a “lost” night of sex and substance abuse, and a soulful reckoning in the rain at Salisbury Crags, a popular lover’s lookout / suicide spot in Edinburgh.
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Pete Simpson and Ben Williams as Gregor and Alesh

Pete Simpson and Ben Williams as Gregor and Alesh

Grimly Handsome, a Modernist work that marks the longevity of the form on the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” the Armory Show of Modern Art, and Edmund Husserl’s Ideas, is a play in three acts. In part 1 we meet Alesh (Ben Williams) and Gregor (Pete Simpson), two Christmas tree lot attendants who appear to be salesmen, woodsmen, and gangsters all at once. Natalia (Jenny Seastone Stern) is a customer who is strangely compelled to shop for trees at Alesh and Gregor’s stand.

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Jonathan Draxton in "Soldier"

Jonathan Draxton in “Soldier”

When you enter the small, black box theater at HERE to see Soldier, a new play written and performed by Jonathan Draxton, the usher presents you with a jar of pennies. You and the others take one, receive no playbill, are told to keep all bags off the floor, and are sent to sit on the stage in what might be described as a cloud of chairs facing each other in a randomly distributed circle. Everyone can see everyone else. There is an emo guy with a shaved head and a soul patch, some plain looking white guys in their 30s, two older women and a couple of older men, a young black woman, a young south Asian woman, and three young white women who dress as if they are on their way to a yoga studio.
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Joe Paulik as P. S. Jones

Joe Paulik as P. S. Jones

You don’t have to consult the Mayan calendar to know that futuristic dystopias are what’s what these days. Though the stage has often considered science fiction and speculative fiction to be subpar, genre-driven pulp, I have long maintained that this movement is far more vibrant and productive than the playwrights’ reflex of rehashing mid-twentieth century Modernism. The work of Flux Theater Ensemble, Gideon Productions, and AntiMatter Collective have brought serious Science Fiction works to the stage in 2012. TerraNOVA Collective brings another Sci-Fi offering to the stage with P. S. Jones and the Frozen City.
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Lindsay Austen and James Oblak in "Outfoxed"

Lindsay Austen and James Oblak in “Outfoxed”

“You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs — the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate — of the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.” — Lolita

Amanda Knox, who was convicted of murdering her English roommate while they were students in Perugia in 2009, and who was acquitted on appeal and returned to her Native Seattle in 2011, is scheduled to publish her memoir of the event on April 30, 2013. News reports say she will be paid four million dollars for the story, much of which will go to pay off debts she acquired in her legal defense. Her former boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, has just published a memoir that purports to tell his side of the story. Not surprisingly, Sollecito claims he and Knox were just kids who were badgered by the corrupt Italian police and judiciary into giving false witness against themselves.

Knox’s erstwhile roommate Meredith Kercher is still dead. By turning Knox’s true tabloid story into dramatized fiction, Lucy Gillespie’s play Outfoxed seeks to give voice to three marginal characters: Knox’s mother, the Italian state (personified as female), and Meredith Kercher.

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What do you have to do to get noticed around here? It seems like all of us in the theater biz are permanently tortured by this question. Directors, actors, dancers, singers, designers of all varieties, not to mention writers, press agents, and critics, all clamor for a look, a nod, a glint of recognition in the eyes of Our Audience, even if that’s just some schmuck transferring trains at Union Square.

(You don’t think writers schlep their merch in the subway? Clearly you never met Donald Green.)
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“Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee / Calls back the lovely April of her prime.” ~ W. Shakespeare.

It’s not easy to lug a stroller down the subway station stairs, and it is definitely difficult to hold a screaming baby while pressed cheek to jowl with eight million fellow urbanites. Raising a kid in the city has probably never been carefree, but in The Big Apple it’s not only a headache, it’s also expensive and socially limiting. Susan Bernfield’s play Barking Girl is a sweetly lyrical meditation on one woman’s experience of motherhood that takes a philosophical view of the many privations and rewards of procreation in New York.
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A Twist of Water is a family drama with twists, but not the kind you think. Plot twists, though there are a couple, are not nearly as important as the bending and twisting of conventional social roles — identity bending, if you will. The broadest theme of the play is identity — how it is created, how it empowers, and how it limits and disempowers. Identity, layered like lacquer on a fine musical instrument, is bent and shaped by the playwright Caitlin Montanye Parrish and her creative partner and the play’s director Erica Weiss to give the story an affecting cultural resonance. But the appeal of this production lies not so much in its burnished finish, as its timeliness, which is, perhaps, a simple twist of fate.
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Love is risk. That tagline is the premise of Kerry Vaughn Miller’s new production of Alan Bowne’s 1987 play Beirut.
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Michael Crowley (as Beethoven) and Michael Rau (photo by Rick Ngoc Ho)

The elaborately named Song of a Convalescent Ayn Rand Giving Thanks to the Godhead (In the Lydian Mode) is a play constructed of twenty-four comic skits, self-consciously styled “variations,” that aspire to something like fugue structure. This is not a happy accident of “negative capability”: the show’s writer, Michael Yates Crowley, constructs the analogy between musical formalism and dramatic form explicitly and self-consciously throughout the performance. That analogy is, in fact, the grounds for the argument of the play, which is that Romantic art only gains transcendence when tempered by philosophical Stoicism.

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Though people like to say money is the root of all evil, you won’t find many who will refuse it to save their souls.

Loretta and Frances, two community care workers in Belfast, are paid by the state to take care of the old and infirm. Though their wages are low and the work is draining, they are the only two who stand between Davy, an old-age pensioner, and isolation. After they wipe his bum and put his meals-on-wheels in front of him, Loretta gets his weekly pension from the ATM, and Frances places his weekly five pound bet on the ponies.

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“Gee whiz Rocky! There’s too many of them!” says Chip Skipper, best pal and lieutenant cheerleader for the plucky crew of the X-1 rocketship. “Easy does it, Chip! We’ll get out of this,” says Rocky. (And they do. They don’t call him Rocky Lazer, Captain of Space for nothin’!)

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Tender Napalm, a new play by the East London playwright Philip Ridley, is as close as theater is likely to come to the Platonic Ideal of a Pure Play. Its set is a rectangle on the floor; the lights are static; there is no music; the costumes look like comfy clothes the actors chose themselves. And I hope they did! Because the real (only) visual element of this “theater” is the acrobatic athleticism displayed by Blake Ellis and Amelia Workman, who play “Man” and “Woman” respectively. The same artistic impulse forms the drama around two archetypes (note the characters’ names). You might categorize the dramatic conflict as a “battle of the sexes,” which would not be incorrect. But in truth, “sex” is just a way of saying “two complementary but diametrically opposed positions.” And Ridley makes a point of telling us Man and Woman can (and do) switch places very easily.

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Erin Cronican and Brandon Walker in “The Lover”

In New York City it can seem like the audience is an accessory to theater. Plays with big name stars charge a king’s ransom to sit in the back row of a giant theater, and you had better bring your binoculars if you want to see that movie actor strut and fret his hour upon the stage. Every restaurant in Manhattan has a cast of waiter/actors ready to slip you a postcard with info on how to see a burlesque or magic show, a comedy club, an art installation, a theater festival, or a musical act in any genre that tickles your fancy. Usually when you get there the art is so high concept you want to scrub your brain with Kardashian reruns just to get back to normal. Did they create that work of “art” for you, or did you just pay $15 to bear witness to their artistic genius?

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Miss Lilly praying for a bone from Heaven

What is it with playwrights and puns? Elaborate, mind-bendingly cute puns — they just love ‘em. In Bekah Brunstetter’s new play Miss Lily Gets Boned the biggest, most playwritingest pun is eleven feet tall and requires three adult men to operate. That’s how big it is. And you know the secret of big puns? If they get big enough they turn into metaphors.

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The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven

Paradise Lost Book I, 254-255

In Seth Panitch’s hilarious new play Hell: Paradise Found, a satirical send-up of conventional religion and  morality, Simon Ackerman (Thomas Adkins) walks into an office to find himself in an interview with the devil (played by the playwright Seth Panitch). Simon is confused and a little indignant. After all, he never broke the rules at any time during the span of his completely predictable life. He got a respectable job, a wife, a 401(K). He should spend his golden rest-of-eternity years on the golf links in the sky, playing everlastingly on soft greens at three under par.

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Brian, Quinn, and Stu in the Man Cave

Three guys, three drinks, three acts: Virilia, Virility, Visectomy; beer, schnapps, whiskey; Brian, Stu, and Quinn. Three dudes, buds, bros from the old skool, do what bros do best — torture each other in a never ending test of masculinity and boner bona fides.
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Anarchist Occupiers and The Hipster Cop

It is proverbial to say the city is naked and filled with eight million stories. The Bad and the Better, playing at The Peter Jay Sharp Theater on 42nd street, is detective noir set in contemporary New York City that tries in scope and imagination to reach that magic number. Twenty-six (count ‘em) actors from the downtown theater troupe The Amoralists tell a story of corrupt cops, corrupt politicians, corrupt revolutionary anarchists, and more than one moll with a heart of gold, making you feel as though eight million isn’t actually all that many storylines.

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Trescante receives a letter from the government

Michael Bradford’s play Olives and Blood is a memorial, a testament to the aftereffect of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca who was allegedly assassinated near his childhood home in Granada by fascist militiamen in 1936. It is a hymn to the power of dramatic poetry to endure and overcome the prosaic power of angry men and sclerotic social conventions. Garcia Lorca’s favorite word for that power is duende: that which “gives you chills, makes you smile or cry as a bodily reaction to an artistic performance that is particularly expressive.” In Olives and Blood Garcia Lorca himself is closer to the original meaning of duende — a goblin, elf, or imp. He is a spirit, a ghost of the creative energy that operates through perfect metaphor, shaping formless experience into memory and then art.

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Cultural Capitol welcomes our guest columnist Keith Meatto! Check out is other work at Frontier Psychiatrist.

Beethoven and Quasimodo team up to write a musical interpretation of a cryptic stage direction in Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard, but both men are deaf and near death, Beethoven is senile, and the project ends in failure. Such is the setup of The Hunchback Variations, based on Mickle Maher’s play with music by Mark Messing, a “chamber opera” that had a successful run in Chicago and opened June 1 at 59E59 Theaters in New York.

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Slim and Cavale observe the lobster boy’s ablutions

“I hope I die before I get old.” – Roger Daltrey

Slim and Cavale are holed up in an apartment in the East Village. If you want to find them, ask the lobster boy standing on the corner of 1st Ave and 2nd street. He’ll give you a fortune cookie with directions to their lair.

The folks at One Old Crow Productions have transformed a studio apartment into a studio theater for their production of Sam Sheppard and Patti Smith’s 1971 one act Cowboy Mouth. Stepping through the door is very nearly like stepping through a forty-year time warp into the gritty, mythical, heroin soaked New York of punk rock lore. Alas, the Mars Bar may be no more, but the smell of the Ramones lingers in the peeling paint above Lucky Cheng’s.

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Christopher Fahmie as hard-boiled private eye Kit Marlowe

What do you get when you take film noir, throw in a heaping helping of classical mythology, and top it off with a dollop of Jacobean conceit? Words that sound like poetry, a trip to the underworld, the brink of salvation, and the depths of despair.
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David Harrower’s play A Slow Air aims to evoke the feeling of an old song, one that a bar full of drunks will sing in the wee hours. To do that he puts us in the moment when the song becomes meaningful: that smoky local (you know the one) late night, after the bad feelings have come up and been spit out like bile, after the accusations and recriminations, the years of disappointment and confusion, after watching your dreams modified into hopes, and even those hopes contracted to a desire to be left alone.

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Scars are an aide-mémoire for Riti Sachdeva. As metaphor they fix a truth in our collective memory by fusing two apt objects. The scar etches on the body a trace of its trauma; Parts of Parts & Stitches is a raised embroidery on the fabric of history, a trace of the scar of left by the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

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Rachel Rouge, a.k.a. Lucy Johnson

What is more fun than having sex? Talking about sex.

By far.

Thank Eros (the porn god) that we live in an age of discourse and technology, where folks from the middle classes can get their jollies amplified and fine-tuned into art.

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Paul Nugent at The (Irish) Cell

Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with two one act plays at The Cell theater.

Larry Kirwan’s “Blood” is based on the actual disappearance of James Connolly for three days in January of 1916, some months before the Easter Rising. Connolly’s three day trip “through hell” (from the program notes) should ring some church bells for the literary minded theatergoer. Like Dante, Connolly makes his trip through the Inferno of revolutionary Irish politics before ascending on Easter to participate in the (re)birth of the Irish nation.

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