Artists in the presence of Art

Artists in the presence of Art

Ars Gratia Artis

The band plays an overture, and the lights rise on New York of the not-too-distant future. Mary, an MFA grad student studying painting is at a Catholic mass — to get inspiration, she tells her lover Françoise (for non-francophones that’s the female version of François), who is also an MFA student in sculpture. Kate, Mary’s sister and an aspiring art dealer, arrives to ask Mary for her signature on some documents related to their dead parents’ estate. Mary has been using her inheritance to fund her studies, which bothers both Kate and Mary’s conscience. But no matter, Mary hears a higher calling, and she feels she has no other choice: create art or die.

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Ryan and Jenni on a rock in CO

Ryan and Jenni on a rock in CO

Adolescence is a special time, when boys and girls become men and women, and the inherent fantasy experience of childhood meets the brutal reality of adulthood. Less Than Rent (the name makes me think of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Less Than Zero and the musical Rent) theater company’s production of Words, Razors, and the Wounded Heart at Under St. Mark’s Theater offers the connoisseur of teen angst a stage full of beautiful, young, white kids at the center of an adolescent vortex, gyrating to popular music, addicted to sex, drugs, and drama.

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Garrett Neergaard and Jenny Seastone Stern (photo credit Jim Baldassare)

Garrett Neergaard and Jenny Seastone Stern (photo credit Jim Baldassare)

On November 23rd, 2007 Roger L. Dillon, 23, and Nicole D. Boyd, 25, liberated $8 million from the vault of AT Systems armored car company in Liberty Township, just outside of Youngstown, Ohio. Roger and Nikki hit the road with Roger’s mother and headed to the secluded mountains around Pipestem, West Virginia to hole up in a trailer and wait for the heat to blow over. Less than a week later the FBI showed up and brought the fugitives’ escapist fantasy crashing back to Earth.

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Honky 01

Honky, playing through April 7th at Urban Stages, asks whether any word can be as offensive to white people as the “N-word” is to black people, and the answer is, “the R-word.” No one who is under fifty and lives north of Maryland wants to be called a racist. For that matter, not many folks south of the Mason-Dixon line like being called racists anymore. But as Mr. Kalleres’s characters discover, just saying you’re not a racist doesn’t mean you aren’t one deep inside.

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Trevor has dinner with mom and Morgan Fairchild

Trevor has dinner with mom and Morgan Fairchild

We are caring creatures, you and I. We want to share, and we want to know, and we love to think that the object of our affections shares, and knows, and loves us right back. Horror movies and psychological thrillers are based on the fear that others don’t share our caring, or worse, they actively mislead us, pretending to care in order to take advantage. As a Scottish king once said, “there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.” Actors must be well aware of this phenomenon, actors, who are one step away from sociopathy anyway. Their job is to pretend to be someone who cares, someone you can empathize with. A good actor can make even a surly antihero or outright villain charismatic and appealing.

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FRIGID-NYC-logo-500

Sometimes working in the entertainment biz seems like a real fairytale. The people you meet are quite literally fantastic, and it only takes a little push for everyday experiences to take on an outrageous, otherworldly glow. Two shows that are a part of this year’s FRIGID festival shine brightly in the alien luminescence of the stage. Sisters Grimm: Fables of the Stage by Bricken Sparacino and Amy Witting and JonBenet: Murder Mystery Theater!!! by Medium Face Productions recreate the magic of childhood in order to smash it into a thousand glittering, glamorous pieces.

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The Gershwin Hotel

The Gershwin Hotel is a Gaudi-esque anomaly on 27th street. Its red facade and the frosted glass light sculptures that curl upward from the window tops contemplate a Flatiron inferno. As you walk through the front doors, a collection of characters that belong at the Algonquin round table sit at the hotel bar on the right. Past the reception desk on the left is a table with information on the trip you are about to take around the world. A lovely lady in a floor length dress leads you to the back of the building and a set of stairs. Two other people wait with you. Ushers appear through double doors and take you into a room with several laptops and headsets. you are about to visit three different countries to have three long distance affairs.

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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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Orchids and Polka Dots featuring Kistoffer Tonning and McKenzie A. Frye Photo credit Nathan Yungerberg

Kristofer Tonning and McKenzie Frye in “Orchids and Polka Dots”

The Fire This Time festival, now in its fourth year, features ten minute plays by young and emerging playwrights of color. (Check out my review for the 2010 season.) The founding producer Kelley Nicole Girod’s mission with The Fire This Time (the name of the festival is a play on the title of James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time) is to broaden the scope of the Theatre of Color to include not only African-Americans and the conventions of Baldwin’s generation of writers, but to “any play written by a black playwright . . . even if it is a play about two white people in love.” This is an expansive definition of what constitutes “black theatre,” and the playwrights whose works are featured this year explore many of its implications.
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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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Urinetown! (photo: Chasi Annexy)

Urinetown! (photo: Chasi Annexy)

It’s fun to come back to an old favorite, even more so after you’ve grown a little older and wiser. I saw Urinetown on Broadway during the first G. W. Bush term. At the time, I was completely enraged by three years of right wing cynicism, war mongering, crony capitalism, and the vast, feckless, left wing conspiracy that allowed such perfidy to pass for policy. I cheered with Little Sally and Bobby Strong as they took down the evil Mr. Cladwell; I reveled in the quirky, postmodern, multi-layered, self-reflexive irony; and I applauded what seemed like its liberal take on environmentalism.

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Kalle Macrides as Lia

Kalle Macrides as Lia

Responsibility, obligation, and service are the themes of Erin Courtney’s new play The Service Road, running now at the Voorhees Theater of New York City College of Technology. The curtain rises on a typical day in the park, maybe Prospect Park, where Lia (Kalle Macrides), a tour guide for the ornithologically curious waits on the service road for a group to lead. Frank (Cory Einbinder), her friend and a park ranger, wishes her luck on the first anniversary of her new life. One year ago today he saved her from a botched suicide attempt in the park and gave her her present job. He tells her to play it safe because the news is forecasting strange weather.

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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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Hearts Like Fists featuring Becky Byers, Rachael Hip-Flores, and Aja Houston Photo credit Isaiah Tanenbaum

Beck Byers, Rachael Hip-Flores and Aja Houston as the CRIMEFIGHTERS!

Lock your windows, Lovers! Dr. X is prowling the town, a twisted Opposite Day Santa Claus, creeping through windows after midnight, looking for inamoratos whose heads are filled with dreams of sugar plum fairies and bright tomorrows, and injecting them with deadly venom. Who can stop this murderous crime wave? Nina, Sally and Jazmin — the CRIMEFIGHTERS! They’ll find out why Doctor X is such a murderous creep! But dang my dingies! The Gruesome Doctor slips through their fingers until Lisa, an unmasked amateur, follows him through a window and attempts to stop him herself. Though he escapes, Lisa gains the admiration of Nina, Sally and Jazmin who ask her to join the team, Alexandre Dumas style.

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Brandon Walker and Erin Cronican as Beane and Molly

Brandon Walker and Erin Cronican as Beane and Molly

Why do birds sing so gay? Because they’re fools. Besides, what else are you going to do? If the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven, then why not choose happiness over misery? Beane has been in a minimalist hell of his own creation his whole life. He owns one cup, one spoon, one jacket, one hoody, and an overcoat. He lives in a one room apartment with one lamp (bare bulb), one table, and one toilet. He works in a toll booth all day and has hallucinations induced by solitary confinement at night. He also has one sister, Joan, and one brother-in-law, Harry, who are cynical and world-weary, which is to say they don’t have much imagination, curiosity, or joie de vivre. They are his clueless caretakers, the sort who invite him over for dinner then give him a psychology test from the back of a magazine to show they care.

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Matthew Foster and Michael Poignard in Australian Made Entertainment's production of "Speaking In Tongues"

Matthew Foster and Michael Poignard in Australian Made Entertainment’s production of “Speaking In Tongues”

The first scene of Andrew Bovell’s 1996 play Speaking In Tongues features four characters — two men and two women — who share one dialogue about marital infidelity. All four, dissatisfied with their partners, pick up a stranger in a bar to consummate an adultery. It turns out that the four have randomly cheated on each other with each other, though the two couples are strangers to each other. The quartet share the same conversation, speaking the same speeches simultaneously. Chance — randomness, serendipity, long odds — only seemingly operates on these four; in fact, the rigid structure of the first act merely suggests coincidences that are relentlessly denied by the tight framework of dramatic irony.

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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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What scares you the most? Vampires? Zombies? Hurricanes? Horror may have a face — a hockey mask, a visor made of human skin, or the horrible burn scars produced by the fires of Hell — or it may be a place, like the Overlook Hotel or the Bermuda Triangle. UglyRhino’s production of “Gowanus ‘73” gives you an interactive tour of the terrifying underworld around the Brooklyn Lyceum thirty years ago: party girls and gangsters, prostitutes and pimps, and the ghosts of human flotsam and jetsam that beat softly against the wooden pilings of the canal’s embankment.

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Caitlin Johnston, Nadia Sepsenwol, and Mariana Newhard as Irina, Maria and Helen (Photo: Samantha Walsh)

To some extent all theatrical performance is translation. The author — the person with an original idea — puts words on the page, and the performers, including the director, the actors, the design team and the techs, translate those words from page to stage. In the case of The Great Plays of Western Culture, the play may have been written in a language folks in the audience can’t understand, in which case the play must be literally translated. And when the culture the play was produced in is almost as historically alien to the audience as the language, the play must be brought up to date. Christopher Diercksen’s production of By Rights We Should Be Giants is more than just a modernized translation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters however; it is an attempt to rise above translation and totally reimagine the play, from alpha to omega.

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Bryce Henry as “Maggot” (Photo by Jonathan Shaw)

In 1968 Philip K. Dick asked if sentient machines had feelings in the title of his book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  Adam Scott Mazer’s Oedipal fantasmagoria Motherboard asks the related question “do gynoids lactate electrolytes?” As the pun in the name implies, Motherboard posits technology as humanity’s nourishing mother. Tech is not just a tool that we created and control, it makes us human. And like all bad children, we get into big trouble when we talk back to mommy.

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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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