Fringe report: TAKE ONE

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Written by  Jeff Ward

Directed by Michael Schiralli

As Ernest Hemingway famously stated, “The first draft of anything is s**t.” Apparently playwright-songwriter Jeff Ward agrees, as none of TAKE ONE’s hapless heroes gets anything right on the first draft. Even Jehovah himself finds the creative process exasperating. But thanks to a tuneful score, bright dialogue and clever lyrics, the tribulations of history’s frustrated geniuses are extremely fun to watch.

Somewhat reminiscent of David Ives’s short play collections, the play comprises three separate thematically linked once acts. The evening begins at the Beginning, as God (Tom Alan Robbins) endeavors to create a world in which something interesting is liable to happen. His intentions are somewhat perverse, however, as he secretly hopes that Adam (Rob Brinkmann) and Eve (L.R. Davidson) will sneak a taste of the fruit he has forbidden them to touch. Even when the Serpent (Caroline Schmidt) sashays around the garden in slinky green gown, she cannot tempt the first couple into doing the wrong thing. Fearful that his Book of Genesis is going to end up a very dull read, God next attempts to turn Cain (Corrado Alicata) against his brother Abel (Carl Howell). The result of His efforts are, again, confounding.

Flash forward to the Florentine renaissance, where Michelangelo (Keith Varney) labors tirelessly on the Sistine Chapel. Then as now, the artist is perpetual conflict with the money man. Pope Julius (Alicata) complains about everything from Michelangelo’s personal hygiene to the sluggish pace at which he paints. Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that Michelangelo’s first ceiling is a little too far ahead of its time. Much to the delight of his rivals Leonardo (Robbins) and Raphael (Brinkmann), Mich is badly out of favor with the Vatican. Thankfully, a muse arrives in the form of a young apprentice. Ludovico (Howell) isn’t the sharpest chisel in the box, but his youth, beauty and good-hearted innocence give the master a new lease on life. Alas, even their happiness is short lived, as politics inevitably clashes with both art and love.

Fittingly for a musical theater writer, Ward chooses Rodgers and Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA! as his next major event in the story of civilization. In an era when Broadway spectaculars had always featured lighthearted ditties and leggy chorus girls, Oscar Hammerstein (Varney) is ready to break new ground. In order for a plot-driven musical to work, however, certain songs will have to be cut. Dick Rodgers (Howell), will have none of it. Insisting that the song must stay, he meets with resistance from everyone from his wife Celeste (Schmidt) to producer Rouben Mamoulian (Robbins).  Killing one’s darlings has never been an easy task, but Oscar’s powers of persuasion are not to be underestimated.

All three mini-musicals are as solidly crafted and sport unexpected twists as well as clever cultural references. Of the three, the middle piece has the most heart. Michelangelo’s resigned self-assessment (“I’m 28, and nearly dead”) stands out in sharp contrast to 17 year old Ludo’s purity of spirit. Their ill-fated effort at mutual redemption forms a narrative through line on which they pin the piece’s satirical conceits. Director Michael Schiralli adds a touch of visual wit with sly references to the iconic poses Michelangelo’s masterworks.

The actors, hip to the quirky rhythms of Ward’s David comic sensibility, are committed to their roles and strong on vocal dexterity. Betsy Rugg-Hind’s costumes Lauren Page Russell’s set and prop designs add opulence and graphic whimsy to the proceedings.

TAKE ONE has completed its run at the Fringe, but will likely be transferred to another venue. Check http://www.takeonethemusical.com for updates:

 

Fringe report: CALM MOM and AT THE CROSSROADS: MUSIC FOR FAUST

Now in its twentieth year, the New York International Fringe Festival has managed to keep its energy high, its ticket prices low, and its offerings diverse and provocative. Here are two that are highly recommended:

 

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CALM MOM

Written and performed by Gaby Gold

Directed by Theresa Gambacorta

Musical Director/Arranger Steven Gross

In Gaby Gold’s charming one-woman musical, the tribulations of a young mother form the basis of an evening of drama, comedy and best of all, original songs. As the story begins, Gaby is anything but calm. For no discernible reason, her infant son has just stopped breathing. She rushes him to an emergency room, where a bewildering array of doctors, nurses and EMT’s fails to give her clear answers. As she waits to hear what the tests reveal about her son’s condition, Gaby thinks back on her own childhood in pre-gentrification Greenwich Village. Many of the memories involve Gaby’s larger-than-life mother, Gretchen, a one-promising singer with a faux-British accent and penchant for age-inappropriate clothing. As Gaby matures, she must of course find her own style of motherhood, and though it isn’t easy, having a sense of humor certainly helps. Co-written with composers Tom Corrado, Mitch Lance, Paul Fujimoto, Michael Hart and Dina Pruzhansky, Gold’s songs feature tight rhymes, and strong melodies and hooks that encapsulates the characters  (“If It Weren’t For You, I’d Die”, “Chaos Plus Hysteria Equals Love”). Gold’s impressive vocal range and warm delivery animates the comedy songs and tender ballads with equal grace and precision, and there’s added fun to be had watching her morph fluidly into a rich array of supporting characters. Plot wise, what’s here is solid, but there’s room for expansion. We only get brief glimpses of Gaby’s recovery from alcohol  dependency, her transition from the streets of Manhattan to a bucolic life in Westchester, and her relationship with her husband Steve. More story beats and more songs could easily be added without overstretching the show’s length. There is life after Fringe for some shows. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that CALM MOM settle into the Triad or the Laurie Beechman for the longer run it deserves.

CALM MOM continues on Tuesday, August 23rd @ 6:15 and Friday, August 26th @ 7:30 at the Huron Club, 15 Vandam St, New York, NY 10013

Tickets: Fringenyc.org

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AT THE CROSSROADS: MUSIC FOR FAUST

Film Directed by F.W. Murnau

Music composed by Ben Singer, performed by Modern Robot

Whether German auteur F. W. Murnau saw the writing on the wall is not known (he died in 1931, before the Nazis took power). But the horror he depicts in FAUST is eerily reminiscent of the Fascism to come. Creepy as he is, it isn’t really the leering Mephisto (Emil Jannings) that threatens to destroy all the good in the world. Human vanity, prejudice and mob psychology are the real monsters here. The trouble starts when aging alchemist Faust (Gösta Ekmant), unable to save his town from a devastating plague, begins throwing his books, including the Bible, into the fire in frustration. One of the tomes falls open, and is revealed to be an occult instruction manual. Faust, ready to make a deal, follows the book’s crude diagrams and meets Mephisto at a shadowy crossroads . Our hero gets his youth back, wallows in earthly splendors, and seduces the Duchess of Parma (Hannah Ralph). After the thrill of debauchery wears off, though, Faust discovers greater meaning in the pure face of the simple country girl Gretchen (Camilla Horn). Her innocence doesn’t last long, however. Faust’s neglectful treatment of Gretchen sets of a chain of a chain of tragic incidents that places her fatally at odds with an intolerant society. Murnau embellishes this cautionary tale with opulent sets, chiaroscuro lighting, Carl Hoffmann’s sweeping cinematography and special effects that, even in the age of CGI, are striking. The Gothic potency of the images is complimented by an original score, performed live on percussion and guitar. Composer Ben Singer gives more of the complex phrasing to the drummer. The guitarist, in some of the slower scenes, remains limited to a two-chord, heavy-reverb universe. Still, what the music lacks in melodic variety it makes up for in proficiency and rapport. In the more kinetic moments, and especially in the film’s brutal climax, both musicians get a chance to shine, with fuzz pedal distortion and other hard rock pyrotechnics put to effective use. A neglected classic, FAUST is ripe for rediscovery, and the added energy of live music makes it all the more compelling.

AT THE CROSSROADS: MUSIC FOR FAUST continues on Wednesday, August 24th @ 8:00 at 85 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009.

 

STRANGE COUNTRY

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Written by Anne Adams

Directed by Jay Stull

After so many noted playwrights have had a crack at the genre, it’s not easy to give the dysfunctional rural family play a fresh spin. Yet, thanks to her keen ear for regional speech and compassionate approach to her characters, playwright Anne Adams delivers an original and affecting take on the American dark pastorale.

Darryl, (Sidney Williams) lives a life of self-imposed exile in a slovenly apartment in Bell County, Texas. His set routine of drinking and loafing is disrupted by the arrival of his imperious sister Tiffany (Vanessa Vache), who insists that he join in an upcoming family gathering. Their parents are about to renew their wedding vows, and Tiffany has promised Mama that Darryl will attend the ceremony. Cooperation is in short supply, however, as Darryl and his father have been estranged for years. To complicate matters, Tiffany’s girlfriend Jamie (Bethany Geraghty), who is struggling to maintain her newfound sobriety, feels as if she’s caught in the middle of the family’s squabble. Tiffany and Jamie take off, leaving the conflict unresolved. Darryl’s solitude is short lived, however, as Jamie, stranded after a violent row with Tiffany ends up knocking on his door in the middle of the night. Darryl grudgingly lets her stay the night. The two get to talking, and find they have plenty in common. Both have struggled with behavior illness, both have been on the losing end of bitter custody battles and been separated from their kids. Talk leads to physical intimacy, and Darryl and Jamie’s find themselves wandering into dangerous territory—especially when the atomic-tempered Tiffany returns unexpectedly.  The ensuing conflagration leaves no one unscathed.

Confident in his cast, director Jay Stull lets the actors, like the lost souls they portray, experience the awkwardness of their newfound vulnerability. The subdued, disarmingly authentic performances give the play a vital emotional core. Adams thankfully steers clear of redneck stereotypes, and makes it clear that, though her characters may have sketchy coping skills, they don’t lack intelligence. Their language is peppered with recovery rhetoric, and with phrases like “raison d’être”, which take on an intriguing musicality when delivered with a Texas twang. Adams also exhibits a feel for dramatic structure, steering clear of the shoehorned exposition and forced plot points that often haunt single-set naturalistic plays. Visual manifestations of the characters psyches are provided by Michael O’Connor’s lighting design, Samantha Rose Lind’s costumes Brian Dudkiewicz’s grungily lyrical set.

STRANGE COUNTRY continues through August 13, 2016 at the Access Theater, 380 Broadway, New York, New York. Tickets:

THE IRON HEEL

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Based on the novel by Jack London

Adapted and directed by Edward Einhorn

A committed socialist, Jack London took occasional forays from adventure novels to explore a more politically-charged brand of fiction. The Iron Heel, published in 1907, is an odd alloy of economics and melodrama. The first part of the book is mainly devoted to polemical discourse, with the characters functioning largley as mouthpieces for economic theory (the socialist side, of course, neatly trouncing the opposition in any argument). Once the simmering discontent reaches a boiling point, though, the novel shifts gears, taking on the action-packed tone for which London is celebrated. In Edward Einhorn’s briskly-paced and endearing stage adaptation, the spine of the story remains, while much of the soapboxing has been trimmed, and a few of the cornier lines ( “Social evolution is exasperatingly slow, isn’t it, sweetheart?”) have wisely been excised.

In keeping with the show’s theme, admission is pay-what-you-can, and food and beverages (adult and otherwise) are available for free. The play takes place several hundred years in the future, where a group of historians examine a 20th Century artifact known as The Everhard Manuscript, an account written by a revolutionist named Avis Everhard. Led by Antonia (Yvonne Roen), the scholars don period costumes and act out the events found in the book. Young Avis (Victoria Rulle) lives a sheltered, happy life in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. Her father John Cunningham (Kevin Argus) is a university professor and stockholder in the local mill. John enjoys entertaining the intelligentsia, and among his frequent guest is highly idealistic Bishop Morehouse (Craig Anderson).  One night an unexpected guest crashes the soiree. Ernest Everhard (Charles J. Ouda) is a strapping, rough-handed working man, who also possesses a world class intellect. He casts an instant spell over Avis, and his dinner table conversation has a lasting impact on the gentlemen as well. Ernest contends that the status quo cannot continue. The oligarchs, led by Mr. Wickson (Trav SD), wallow in splendor while the working class live in deplorable conditions and work inhuman hours. When workers are injured on the job, slick company lawyers cheat them out of compensation. Avis takes a walk on the rough side of town and discovers that Ernest is right. She joins him in matrimony and in rebellion. Cunningham and the bishop also speak out against injustice and are summarily dismissed from their positions and robbed of their holdings. The revolution has begun. What follows is a rousing tale of rigged elections, false identities, prison escapes, bombings, romantic interludes, songs of solidarity , and scenes of terrifying carnage.

Blending sensitivity with defiant zeal, the charismatic Ouda movingly embodies Che Guevara’s assertion that “the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love”. He is matched by Rulle, whose trans-formation from ingénue to hardened warrior forms the arc of the show. The supporting cast displays impressive versatility in multiple parts, breaking character now and then to return to their roles as Antonia and her contentious colleagues.

21 Century audiences are, of course attuned to the hazards of putting collectivist theory into practice. But it’s not hard to understand the sense of economic injustice that motivated London and others of his era to take a stand. In some ways, the rhetoric of the time seems to be making a comeback (substitute “one percent” for “oligarchy” and Ernest Everhard is barely distinguishable from Bernie Sanders). Despite the naiveté of its source material, THE IRON HEEL does seem to have a relevant message: As in London’s time, the American atmosphere is abuzz with the need for change. It’s the solidarity we need to work on.

THE IRON HEEL CONTINUES through September 5, 2016 at 138 South Oxford Place, 138 South Oxford Street (Between Atlantic Avenue and Fulton Street) Brooklyn, NY, and other locations. Check website for details. http://www.untitledtheater.com/previous-productions/the-iron-heel.html.