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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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Henry (Aidan Redmon) and Annie (Synge Maher) share a moment

Tom Stoppard has been keeping it real since 1982 when “The Real Thing” premiered in the West End. Now you can catch the realness courtesy of the Boomerang Theatre Company at The Secret Theater in Long Island City.

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Melissa Johnson as Cassandra and Amy Lee Pearsall as Hecuba in "The Trojan Women"

The enduring appeal of classic plays is sometimes hard to understand. In Shakespeare’s case, the play can be literally hard to understand. Even well-educated viewers can miss out substantially on the Bard’s subtleties of language, not to mention the differences in sensibility between twenty-first century Moderns and sixteenth century Elizabethans.  And he wrote in English! With Greek drama – particularly tragedy – the difference between how they saw the world and how we see the world is particularly wide. Though the Athenian government of the 5th century was democratic, only ten percent of  the total population was enfranchised, and every family of means owned slaves. Though some ancient Greeks invented rationalism and science, their most devout religious rituals looked like a mix of Burning Man and Bonnaroo. And their view of fate was fare more bleak than our belief in Divine Providence, which, in our secular age, we call American Exceptionalism.

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Lindsay Teed and Anna Marie Sell as Viola and Olivia

“Be not afraid of greatness” is the advice Malvolio gets from an anonymous letter in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” Our officious, comedic villain hopes the greatness of his mistress Olivia will be thrust upon him, a thought that tickles him in all the wrong places. Ever ready to put a subordinate in his place or flatter his betters, when he sees the opportunity to move up the social ladder a rung or two Malvolio exults in the thought that he could be better than he is.

The idea that you can be better than you are was laughable to the play’s Elizabethan audience. You were born into your place; you stay in your place; and morality consists of being faithful to who you are. People act immorally when they put on airs, or act beneath their station. We laugh at the type of fool Malvolio represents in hopes that public scorn will teach him a lesson in humility. It’s an important lesson to learn, because those who don’t learn it turn into tyrants and / or corpses.

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The title of Thomas Bernhard’s play “Ritter, Dene, Voss” comes from the surnames of the three actors who premiered the roles in 1986: Ilse Ritter, Kirsten Dene and Gert Voss. It is worth noting as well that Ritter means “knight” and Voss is an aristocratic surname from the fourteenth cenutry. This is significant because “Ritter, Dene, Voss” is a play about the death of the Viennese ideal of urbane aristocracy and the horrible, beautiful flowers that bloomed in the rotting dung heap of post-World War I Austria.

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On a darkened highway in upstate New York a cute, fuzzy bunny is transfixed by the glare of headlights and the roar of an internal combustion engine. The poor rabbit’s eyes widen in horror, and his lip quivers uncontrollably as the car swerves. The innocent lapine wanderer is struck hard by two tons of steel and rubber, but it’s only a glancing blow; and though his back legs are crushed, his heart, still hammering with fear, has survived. The car screeches to a halt, and a woman gets out. She’s pale and trembling like the rabbit. She picks him up gingerly, and tells him it’s going to be alright. She wraps him in a towel, puts him in her car, and speeds off, into the night.

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Paul Herbig and Richard Altmanshofer in "Donnie and the Monsters"

Kids live in a world full of problems. Who can help? Mom and dad have their own problems. Heck, sometimes they are the problem. Best friends are fickle, especially in those crucial years between the halcyon innocence of deep childhood and the flowering of full adolescence. Tell your friend a shameful secret in confidence, and when school starts again after summer break, your best friend has a new best friend, and the whole class is sniggering about you behind your back. You might as well tell your troubles to Mr. Chips, your fat, black lab, the soul of patience, or a sock puppet. At least Mr. Chips won’t talk back.

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What dark horror lurks beyond this vale of wrath and tears? Is it the undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveller returns? Is darkness the mere nothing at the end of the world, as Byron imagined in his poem “Darkness”? Is it where the monsters hide in your bedroom? Or is darkness that which we carry within us, the “palpable obscure” of Hell that Satan laments in Paradise Lost:

Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven.

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Blood sucker or theater critic?

The Theater of the Expendable is staging Conor McPherson’s 1997 play St. Nicholas at The WorkShop Theater in Hell’s Kitchen. Darrell James plays McPherson’s narrator for ninety captivating minutes.

St. Nicolas is a play about power and parasitism. The narrator is a middle-aged, Dublin theater critic who hits rock bottom, and after a long decline, runs away to London to become the R. M. Renfield for a group of vampires. The set is a single chair, and the play an hour and thirty minute monologue. The nameless narrator tells us, the audience, a ghost story starring himself.

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The Last Supper

The Rising Sun Performance Company is now performing Dan Rosen’s movie cum play The Last Supper at The Red Room. It’s a rip-roaring good time, and well worth your dime.

A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged

The official blurb runs something like this: A group of young, liberal graduate students in Iowa have a formal, sit down dinner once a week, to which they like to invite a stranger – to spice up conversation. Their ivory tower serenity is disturbed, however, when their latest guest, Zach (played in the 1995 movie by Bill Paxton!), turns out to be a redneck, pedophilic, murderous, Holocaust denier. Zach taunts the tolerant liberals, saying that they don’t have the balls to stand up for themselves, and pulls a knife on Marc, the resident Jewish artist. Zach is distracted for a moment while breaking the arm of Peter, another sissy liberal, and Marc seizes the opportunity to stab Zach in the back with his own knife. Existential angst ensues as the “liberals” try to justify their aggression. They rationalize it so well that they decide to recreate the scenario every week with a new flavor of conservative crazy. Their preferred method of execution? Poison in the chardonnay.

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The Patient from "That Old Soft Shoe" at The Brick

How many comedies about torture there are in the naked city! Maybe not all of them are comedies, but it seems like our Empire City response to 24 and the Bush years has been laughter – hysterical, terrified laughter, of the mad scientist variety.

Kyle Ancowitz’s production of Matthew Freeman’s play That Old Soft Shoe at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg is a hilariously irreverent, frenetic, and absurd send up of 24 and its genre of fear mongering drama that will keep you laughing all the way to a highly classified black site in Jordan – or more probably, Florida.

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Amir John and Lakshmi fight in "Before Your Very Eyes"

“Who are you going to believe? Me or you eyes?” —Groucho Marx

I jokingly asked myself on the way to see Before Your Very Eyes, a play about 9/11 at the Flamboyan Theatre, “Is it too soon? Is nine years long enough to get a grip on the real truth of 9/11?”

I thought I was being facetious, but the question goes to the heart of what Edward Elefterion, the writer/director of Before Your Very Eyes is aiming to do with his play. The question “what happened” is a question of perspective. Each one of us who were in the city on 9/11/2001 have a personal story about that day that we have shaped and polished over the years into an appropriate three minute downer that you tell people outside the City. “I did (or didn’t) see a building fall with my naked eyes”; “I knew (or didn’t) someone who worked there.” A lot of us have stories of friends who were supposed to be near the World Trade Center towers that day and for some reason weren’t; many of us saw figures covered in concrete dust streaming across the East River bridges into Brooklyn; some of us trapped outside the city had to watch our city cope with disaster from a distance.

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Erin Markey in "Puppy Love: A Stripper's Tail"

Some girls give me money,

Some girls buy me clothes

Erin Markey’s one woman show Puppy Love: A Stripper’s Tail is a must-see tale/tail for all you ladies and gents (but mostly ladies) who work in the gray area between theater and erotic arts in New York. It’s also worth seeing if you don’t work in that lovely, glistening niche of the alternative entertainment world. But if you are a woman who has ever wondered how glitter got into that, or categorize men as “sweet hearts” and “pervs,” or looked in the mirror and said “I’d do me,” this is a show you can’t miss.

Guys on the other side of the tip rail will appreciate this play too. Strippers, erotic performers, and sex workers have earned their own technical name in the world of knuckle dragging, ham-knecked, mouth breathers: “stripper crazy.” Stripper Crazy is the kind of girl who, after three cocktails, leans over and whispers in your ear that she thinks you’re a sweet heart, and do you want to go to the bathroom for some X-rated fun? Then, three cocktails later, when you’re at the bar buying her another drink, you hear her siren giggle as one of the pervs from the table next to yours, the table of guys who earned her scorn when they leered and cat called, hoists her over his shoulder and takes her to the bathroom for a little X-rated fun.

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Playbill graphic for "Jacob's House"

The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth…. And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life. — Genesis 6: 11-13, 17

A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating.  His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.  This is how one pictures the angel of history.  His face is turned toward the past.  Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet.  The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.  But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.  The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. — Walter Benjamin

Hey kids, 2012 is just around the corner, and after a dry, post-Y2K decade, Biblical metaphors are back in style, flooding the stage (as it were) at the same time the Tennessee Valley is being flooded by a real, not metaphorical flood. Two productions up now, Noah’s Arkansas and Jacob’s House use these metaphors to explore the Great American Love Affair with Apocalypse.

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Zig and Alex salute Rose in "The Tender Mercies"

Live theater aims for two things: truth and intensity. Oftentimes they are in a zero-sum relationship to one another. That is, the more you have of one, the less you can have of the other. On one hand, truth commonly understood is elusive, messy, and boring. Reading a thousand cotton-mouthed books might get you close to understanding why your pension is still in peril. Intensity, on the other hand, is crack cocaine or sugar coated choco-bombs: full of immediate high, it can’t be weighed down by buzz killing substances like facts. Take, for example, any speech by Sarah Palin. Occasionally, however, a play can convey a great truth and be intense at the same time. That is most definitely the case with The Tender Mercies playing this week at the Teatro Círculo on East 4th Street.
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Jeff Sproul and James Patrick Cronin in "Poppycock"

Just what did you expect for nothing? Rubber biscuit?

A guy walks into a bar and says “ouch!” No wait. I told that wrong. A man and a woman walk into a derelict bed and breakfast carrying the woman’s catatonic sister. This is the last night the bed and breakfast will be in business because an unscrupulous Richie Rich, a real Snidely Whiplash, is about to repossess it from its humble bumbling owner. And then they say “ouch.”

Poppycock: A Modern-Day Farce at Under St. Mark’s Theater from now until April 24th is roughly an hour and a half of non-stop gags, jokes, tom-foolery, one-liners, puns, witty repartee, and monkeyshines. It’s like Monkey Business meets Fawlty Towers envisioned as a live-action Tex Avery cartoon (like Malcolm in the Middle). I laughed through the whole thing.

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What does a world without hope look like? Is it a bleak moonscape — black sky, cold sun, gray hills? Or is it the too perfect world of American suburbia, where the sun — and the smiles — shine a little too bright; where too-green, cultivated lawns lead to soothing interiors, painted in shades named “Ocean Side”, “Interactive Cream”, and “Moderate White”; where real freedom is banished to the gritty, marginal, blind spots of ubiquitous surveillance cameras?

The Realm, running from now until April 18th at The Wild Project in the East Village, is a futuristic dystopia in the tradition of American post-apocalyptic dystopias like Logan’s Run, A Boy and His Dog (remember that one? Don Johnson starred in the movie!), and, closer to our time, Urinetown. The time is the not-too-distant future. After an unnamed cataclysm, humanity has been forced underground. Natural resources are scarce — especially water. Human beings have learned how to live spare, lean lives, stripped of all superfluity — and fun. And, for that matter, freedom. Water is rationed, life is rationed, even words are rationed.

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The lights come up, and a group of girls parades into a classroom. Three march in military cadences around their acknowledged queen standing on a desk: Chelsea, whose name evokes the precincts of money and class in both New York and London. They carp in posh English accents, the kind that set my teeth on edge when they aren’t done well. (American actors usually slip into something that sounds like a poor man’s Monty Python.) But the actors keep it together admirably as Chelsea self-consciously plays the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland to her sycophantic entourage. Then a fifth actor comes on stage, taller than the rest, with a lean and hungry look, but also painfully shy. Alice in Wonderland meets Mean Girls. Queen Chelsea and her court give the new girl the standard test for rank in their disciplined hierarchy: Name?! Hazel. (Rather boring and dowdy – points off.) Family vacation spot?! France. (Also boring, but better than Brighton.) It looks bad for Hazel when she tells the court – without being prompted! – that her family went to France on a cheese tour. Definitely not cool. The hierarchy is settled and the ladies take their desks in order of rank. Hazel, being the lowest, has to take the creepy, ancient, wooden desk in the corner.

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IT OR HER, a new play by Alena Smith being performed now at the FRIGID festival is a cross between Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Baron-Cohen’s “Brüno”. When that pitch line occurred to me in the darkened theater, I thought I was being pretty clever (if catty), but when I read the official blurb in the press packet I saw that the allusion was intentional. The playwright intentionally copped Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, albeit in a cute, neo-absurdist way.

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The cast of The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov barely fits in the Red Room on West 4th St. There are fourteen actors (14), who represent over a third of the living creatures in the tiny space on top of KGB bar. The play is also crammed full of personalities: the sisters of the title, their brother, his wife, the alcoholic doctor, the Baron, his ill-mannered friend, the school teacher, two soldiers, the elderly female servant, the elderly male servant, and the artilery commander. It’s a lot of emotion to pack into a space the size of a one bedroom apartment.

Like a silvery, slippery sardine is kind of how you feel when you sit down, elbow to elbow with other viewers, and with your knees poking into the actors. (The seats are set in the round, so to speak, on the perimeter of the play space that stretches the length of the floor.) This is not in-your-face, interactive theater like De La Guarda, where the performers dance with the audience during the performance, but I get the feeling that the large company, the director Jess Chayes, and the set designer Nicolas Benacerraf were making a virtue of necessity when they wrapped the audience around the players in an almost uncomfortable embrace.

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Tanya O'Debra in Radio Star

Everything old is new again! At least that’s how it feels these days. Five long years ago the vogue in vintage was vintage 70s — 1870s that is. Remember when conservatives wanted to repeal income tax and Social Security? It was the new Gilded Age.

But ah, how quickly the worm turns! Now vintage styles in dress and drink reflect the more sober times of the Great Depression and the privation of WWII. Only we call it the Great Recession, and our great global war is being fought by guys with explosive powder in their banana hammocks.

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Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth with their little stillborn demon child

October 1st, 2009

Macbeth is appropriate to autumn and October. Macbeth’s colors are red and black; the poetry evokes the lengthening of nights and shortening days; and it’s full of witches and ghosts. Pecfect for the month of Halloween! I went with Lesterhead to see Strike Anywhere and ANITYA’s joint production of “Macbeth Variations II” at the Irondale Center in the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church on Lafayette and South Oxford St. in Fort Greene tonight. The production definitely set the mood for a spooky October.

There are a few things you might want to know before you go see the play. First, Strike Anywhere and ANITYA are based in New York and Paris respectively. It is performed in both English and French. Unfortunately the Irondale Center, unlike the Met, doesn’t provide subtitles in glowing green LED in the banquette in front of you. For those who either know French or know the text of Macbeth or both, this isn’t an issue. If you speak English but not French and don’t know the play well, it can be confusing. Second, this is an interpretation of Macbeth, not a staging of Shakespeare’s play. If you get upset when directors cut the Bard’s plays, you definitely won’t like this. Third, the philosophy of the joint company prioritizes improvisation. As they say on their website, it’s never the same play two nights in a row. If you love surprises and don’t mind the occasional sour note that’s great; if flat moments take you out of the action, you might be disappointed. On the other hand, if the classics bore you but you feel compelled to get cultured anyway, this production is both edgy and old skool.

I would give you my take with no chaser, but I happened to overhear a conversation as I was walking out of the theater that I think says it all about what this show accomplishes. Three men, all in their mid-20s, were walking ahead of me on the sidewalk as we left the theater, and this is what I heard. (I’ve given them names. If this is you, and I gave you the wrong name, email the blog’s administrator.)

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photo by Jenny Bai

photo by Jenny Bai

Last Monday I sat down with rising star Broadway Brassy at The Magician bar on Rivington and Essex to talk about her career, where she’s been, where she is, and where she’s going. She’s is out of town for the next couple of weeks, but be sure to catch her at Duane Park in late July and August! (Details below.)

CC: Hello Broadway Brassy! Thanks for coming to talk to us at Cultural Capitol. I guess my first question is, how did you get to New York?

BB: I took a chance, I don’t know. God I hate interviews. I just always wanted to come here to New York City since I was a little girl — always. There was never any wavering, there was never any other place I wanted to be. It was here. So I came. That was that. I finished college, and I just moved. To Staten Island. And it was horrible there.

CC: Why did you go to Staten Island?

BB: Because I had friends there. So I thought, if I go to New York City I should be near my friends. I didn’t know anything. So I moved there, and realized right away that was not where I wanted to be, so I moved to Brooklyn.

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by J.D. Oxblood

It’s so rare that I make it to a Broadway show—what with most of the Great White Way awash in Disney-fied claptrap, reincarnations of old musicals and old movies reincarnated as new musicals—that we decided to make a night of it.  So much so that I actually went out and purchased an umbrella to keep my suit from getting soaked in the dismal, rainy April night.  I was excited, yet anxious, because the last time I tried to get my fill of some good, old-fashioned absurdist drama, I was cringingly disappointed:  to anyone else who shelled out the big bucks to sit through last years revival of (Harold Pinter’s exquisite test) “The Homecoming,” my condolences.  Reeked so bad it took a month to get the smell out of my tux.

The Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Samuel Beckett’s anti-classic, at Studio 54, features Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane as Didi and Gogo, with none other than John Goodman as Pozzo and the spellbinding John Glover as Lucky, under the direction of Anthony Page.  (FYI: everyone in the previous sentence has won a Tony, with the exception of Goodman, who’s won a Golden Globe.)

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I went to check out Oskar Eustis’s production of Hamlet last night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The skies threatened rain all day, and finally delivered just as the play was about to start. It misted more or less heavily until I left, which was thirty minutes into the show.

I kind of feel bad for the actors. They’re the ones who have to suffer the brunt of shame when things go bad. On the other hand, a sense of self-preservation is necessary in all living things. If you can tell things aren’t going right, it’s your responsibility to take up the slack. And Shakespeare isn’t boring! If people are bored the text is not the problem — it’s the production. Hamlet is, in my opinion, the hardest role — ever — for an actor. Hamlet’s indecision has to be rendered by an actor with incredibly strong instincts for nuance and timing or it comes across as mere confusion.

The obvious and avoidable screw ups — when Hamlet forgot his lines in hist first scene, or when Polonious (played by Sam Waterson) got so off track in Act II, scene i you could hear crickets chirping — that I can blame on the weather. But some problems were in the production concept, and those problems aren’t going away even after the rain clears up.

Michael StuhlbargHamlet is definitely not a he-man or a “decider“. When Claudius tells him in the second scene that his grief for his father is “unmanly” he tells us, the audience, that Hamlet is going to have a crisis of heroism. I was no fan of Mel Gibson’s Hamlet for this very reason: Hamlet is a sensitive boy. But casting Michael Stuhlbarg as the dithering Dane made Hamlet into Alvy Singer, a neurotic bumbler who tosses out one-liners like a borscht belt comedian.

Sam Waterson played Polonius, and as I said above, the rain may have had something to do with his inability to deliver his lines. It could also have been because Richard Easton was originally cast for the part (though in the program Waterson credited as Polonius). Did they have a last minute personnel switch-up? Is this a sign that Eustis’s ship has leaks?

The biggest problem with the show was the direction, which is a little surprising considering Eustis’s reputation. All the actors from the bit-player guards to our hero decided to convey the intensity of tragedy by yelling, from the first scene where Francisco and Bernardo see the ghost to Hamlet’s first soliloquy. If there is one iron-clad rule that all directors who tackle Shakespeare must follow, it is to let the poetry do the work and restrain the actors’ desire to over act. Ironically Shakespeare dramatizes this fundamental truth in Act III, scene ii with the “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it” speech:

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus; but use all gently: for in the very torrent, tempest, and—as I may say—whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance, that may give it smoothness. O! it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise: I would have such a fellow whipped for o’er-doing Termagant; it out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.”

Pray you, Mr. Eustis, tell your actors this. They start the play by shouting, and have no other means to increase the dramatic tension than by increasing the volume of their voices.