THOUGHTS & PRAYERS

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Created & directed by Lauren Hlubny
Produced by Danse Theatre Surreality

Though occasionally heavy handed, Lauren Hlubny’s meditation on the challenges of contemporary life is both visually arresting and refreshingly unpredictable in its musical flights of invention. Even before the action begins, tension, albeit comedic in tone, is already palpable. The orchestra’s suit-waring horn section (Guy Dellacave, Josh Lang and Galo Morales), takes the stage like a cheerful boy band, currying applause from the audience. Called “Congress” in the show’s program, the guys represent the glad-handing element of our political culture. The string section, or “Activists” (Sergio Muñoz, Charlotte Munn-Wood, and Lena Vidulich), are clad in flowing clothes and skeptical expressions, sneering at what they see as the politicians’ insincerity.

After a turbulent overture, there we move to the small apartment of a young couple, Dana (Emma Factor) and Felix (Thomas Giles, who also composed the show’s searching and lively score). Poking gentle fun at millennial culture, the scene, cleverly written by Alexis Roblan, touches on a variety of trending social concerns from the environment to mental health. Clearly Dana want to make a difference, but it’s hard to know if starting an environmental vlog will do any good, and whether it’s okay to drink almond milk when there’s a water crisis in California. Dana and Felix will repeat the scene twice more, speaking the same lines but with a very different tone as they struggle to cope with mass shootings, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, government malfeasance and personal tragedy.

Luther Frank’s fluid lighting and scenic design combine with Tyler Barnett’s expressive costumes to create pictorially arresting framework for Hlubny’s choreography. Extremes of tenderness and violence, destruction and rebirth are expressed through a haunting series of tableaux, culminating in a tentatively optimistic denouement. As we watch the people from opposite sides begin communicate, using the language of music, we get the feeling all is not lost. Hlubny seems to be saying that, even in the midst of chaos and destruction, our better angels are still hard at work. Let’s hope she’s right.

THOUGHTS & PRAYERS ran from September 20-29, 2019 at TADA! Youth Theatre, 15 W 28th Street, 2nd floor, New York, NY 10001. For information on upcoming shows click here: https://dansetheatresurreality.org/upcoming-performances.

DECKY DOES A BRONCO

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Photo by Daniel Davila

Written by Douglas Maxwell
Directed by Ethan Nienaber
Assistant director Morgan Hahn

Set design…………… Diggle
Lighting design…..Aidan Marshall
Sound design………Cody Hom
Costumes…………….Susanne Houstle

When it comes to boyhood, everything that really matters happens on the playground. At least that’s how it through the lens of adulthood, with the mixed blessing of a greater knowledge of the world and its discontents.

Cody Robinson, who gave a starkly memorable performance in 2017’s Vietnam drama OCCUPIED TERRITORIES, stars as both the grownup and nine-year-old incarnations of the plays haunted protagonist. While adult David narrates the story, he revisits the swing set in his home town of Girvan, Scotland where the innocence-shattering events took place. Memories spring noisily to life as David’s childhood friends come barreling into view, vibrating with the unselfconsciously quirky hardihood of preadolescence. David’s cousin, Barry (Kennedy Kanagawa), who spends the summers in Girvan, obsessively times his bike rides so he can maximize his playground time and still make it home by dinnertime. O’Neil (Graham Baker) moves about the yard with a bad boy swagger that awes the other kids. Chrissy (David Gow) and Decky (Misha Osherovich) are the best of friends who express their affection by constantly fighting. David finds the whole thing a bit odd, but hey, that’s life at the swings. One of the gang’s favorite activities is a knuckleheaded stunt called “broncoing” that involves jumping off the fast-moving swing at just the right time, so that the chains will coil around the top beam and make a cool noise. Runty Decky can’t seem to master the art of the bronco, which makes him the object of some razzing (or, in their parlance “taking the mickey”) by the other boys. One afternoon, the teasing goes too far and Decky storms off, threatening to join the army and never return. What happens next sends shocks throughout the community and abruptly brings the boys’ childhood to an end. Everything that matters happens on the playground, including things that David, all these years later, can barely process.

The show’s deceptively simple (and remarkably durable) set provides a solid framework the action and adds the clank of its chains to the rhythms of the boy’s rowdy rituals. Making ample use of the space director Ethan Nienaber captures all the raw, startling contradictions of childhood, sometimes breaking into lyrical dance sequences accompanied by popular music of the early 80’s. In lesser hands, the conceit of adults playing children would feel artificial or cutesy, but Robinson and company bring a keenly-observed authenticity to their roles, never forcing a response from the audience. These boys are three dimensional beings. Like all of us, they are as fragile as they are resilient: practical schemers one moment, magical thinkers the next. Maxwell’s dialogue uncannily captures the cadences, the mad protocols playground life as well as the poignant simplicity of kid-logic (When, for example, David hears there was a lady at Decky’s house crying, he wonders if perhaps she’d been watching The Waltons). All too soon, though, the boys will reach a point where the old explanations no longer suffice. The experience of watching the sense of safety ebb from their faces will be difficult to forget.

DECKY DOES A BRONCO ran from September 6 through 21, 2019 at the  The Royal Family Performing Arts Space is located at 145 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. For more information visit https://www.deckydoesabronco.com.

ONLY YESTERDAY

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                                                                                                                                                                                              Photo by Carol Rosegg

Written by Bob Stevens
Directed by Carol Dunne

Based on a real incident, Bob Stevens’ affection tribute to the Beatles examines a moment a when the Fab Four – rock itself, for that matter – began maturing from a passing fad to an important voice for change.

It is 1964, the height of pop music’s British Invasion, and the Beatles, the world’s biggest band at the time, are set to play to a sold-out show at Jacksonville’s Gator Bowl. But Hurricane Dora has forced the lads to postpone the concert. Their road manager (Christopher Flockton) books a hotel in Key West, with George and Ringo sequestered in one room, Paul (Tommy Crawford) and John (Christopher Sears) in another. With throngs of rabid fans outside the inn, it isn’t safe for the boys to go outside. And they can’t pull in any English-speaking stations on the radio or “telly”, so they’re stuck with only each other for amusement. They fill up the time by horsing around and breaking out their guitars to strum a few of their faves by the likes of Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent.

Their antics are disrupted from time to time as journalists call in for some good-natured abuse from the boys, and one resourceful fan (Olivia Swayze) succeeds in getting as far as the air vent above the room. A more serious problem develops as word arrives of a troubling action taken by the Bowl’s proprietors. Florida is a southern state, which means the arena’s management plans to seat black audience members in a different section than whites. The lads, especially John, are having none of this: if the audience is segregated, there will be no show. This incident prompts a debate about whether writing silly love songs is a worthwhile pursuit in a world full so clearly of turmoil. While the mop-top Liverpudlians were busy strumming their way into the hearts of screaming schoolgirls, Bob Dylan and others were playing to a discerning audience who emphasized poetry and social criticism over danceable beats and crooning vocals. After having gotten high with Bob Dylan in New York, John believes the times are a-changin’, and the Beatles had better change with them. If they don’t, they’ll soon be only yesterday’s news. Paul demurs, but clearly John has set the gears clicking in his mind.

Weary of confinement and lubricated by alcohol from the hotel bar, the boys begin to open up about the deep wounds they carry inside. Both have lost their mothers at a young age. Paul coped by shutting down, John by lashing out (both would later pay tribute to their mothers in the lyrics of their songs). This is the first time they’ve been able to talk about it, and the feeling is palpable that the experience is a turning point in the development of their friendship and creative partnership.

Stevens’s trim, lively script deftly mingles the personal with the histori, with Michael Ganio’s detailed set evoking a beige Cold War world for whom rock and roll must have felt like a plasma infusion. Crawford and Sears wisely steer clear of strict impersonation, preferring instead to keep their acting choices spontaneous and natural. Flockton brings a touch of classic British comedy to his portrayal of the exasperated factotum, saddled with keeping the young “tossers” out of trouble, while Swayze is both appealing and ominous as the groupie who reminds the Beatles just how fickle their teen fans can be.

With all these positive ingredients, though, the show still feels more like an affectionate tribute than a deeply felt emotional journey. Carol Dunne directs with a light hand, so much so that the stakes don’t always feel high enough to keep us invested in the story. If the idea is to show us a glimpse of the real men behind the Fab Four image, it would be helpful to get a stronger dose of Lennon’s anger and self-protective wit, McCartney’s quiet stoicism, and of the roiling intellect that informed the band’s groundbreaking musical achievements. For Beatle aficionados, ONLY YESTERDAY will serve a welcome addition to the growing body of work inspired by the lives and songs of Lennon and McCartney. Judged purely as theater, it’s a well-crafted, agreeable production: perfectly entertaining, but not a must-see.

ONLY YESTERDAY continues through September 29, 2019 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, New York. Tickets: http://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/only-yesterday

TECH SUPPORT

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Written & directed by Debra Whitfield

Remember Somewhere in Time, featuring Jane Seymour and the late Christopher Reeve at the peak of their talent and beauty? How about Time After Time, in which H.G. Wells falls in love with a forthright bank clerk while chasing Jack the Ripper across 1970s San Francisco? The once popular time-travel-meets-romance subgenre is due for a 21st Century reboot, and playwright/director Debra Whitfield is just the person to do it. Bringing a decidedly contemporary sensibility to her an era-hopping heroine search for fulfillment, Whitfield examines both our gadget-addicted society and the evolution of women’s rights over the past century.

TECH SUPPORT begins with scenario we’ve all found ourselves acting out at one time or another. Antique bookseller Pamela Stark (Margot White) having one of those days where absolutely all of her “smart” devices simply refuse to work. She calls tech support, but only succeeds in getting stuck in circuitous maze of automated option menus. When she finally reaches Chip (Ryan Avalos) she is overjoyed just to hear a human voice.  Opening up to Chip, Pam admits she feels nostalgic for a time “when going viral meant catching a communicable disease and trolls were just dolls with funny hair”. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. After accidentally pressing the wrong button  Pam enters a surreal swirl of digital imagery and finds herself, like a modern-day Dorothy, plopped into the center of an unfamiliar world.

The creatures she encounters here, though, are hardly munchkins. They’re just regular Americans in old-fashioned garb. Slowly Pamela comes realizes what’s happened. She’s in the same location, but the year is 1919. In this slower-paced milieu, people’s demeanor is far more hospitable and polite than what we’re used to in 2019. Yet the atmosphere is no less politically charged. Two energetic young ladies, Grace (Lauriel Friedman) and Maisie (Leanne Cabrera) are busy demonstrating in favor of a controversial new policy proposal: votes for women. Affable boarding house proprietor Charlie Blackwell (Mark Lotito) jokes about this new proposal, but seems fine with the fact that women’s suffrage has already passed in New York (the imminent  ban on alcohol is more irksome to Charlie). He’s actually a decent sort, old school views notwithstanding, and has seen his share of personal tragedy. Pamela takes him up on his offer of a job and a room, and for a moment it looks like she might just find contentment among these kindhearted villagers. Then along comes an unpleasant reminder of just how much those seemingly simpler times differed from ours. When unmarried Maisie finds out she’s pregnant by her boyfriend Chip (Avalos), her options look bleak, possibly even life-threatening. While attempting to counsel and comfort Maisie, Pamela inadvertantly activates the time machine again and…

She lands in 1946. The war is over and the American economy is booming. Women, who got out of the home and went to work while the men fought overseas, are feeling a new sense of power. Grace, older but no less vital, is rising rapidly in the political sphere. The demands of the job have taken their toll on her marriage to Charlie, but neither one wants to throw in the towel just yet. Pamela helps by taking a job on the campaign alongside Maisie’s son, Chip Junior (also Avalos). The two banter, flirt, go on dates and – uh oh! – fall in love. Panicked at the thought of that this inter-era romance can’t possibly work, Pamela jumps to disco-driven 1977. A more vocal form of feminism is now taking flight as embodied by ERA activists Lupe and Tori (Cabrera and Friedman) and the now famous Senator Grace Blackwell. But all is not well at campaign headquarters. Here the story enters It’s A Wonderful Life territory as Pam confronts the aging Chip, Jr., clearly a man whose destiny would have been different his one true love hadn’t chosen to time-jump out of his life at the worst possible moment. Pam is faced with a dilemma. Should she chronoport to 2020 and let the whole escapade vanish like a dream? Or go back and fix the midcentury mess she left behind? This time Tech Support can’t help. Pamela will have to silence her electronics and listen to that still, small voice inside.

Both in her script and direction, Whitfield wrings laughs and tenderness out of the culture clash between her FOMO-driven protagonist and the practitioners of a more thoughtfully-paced way of life. The cast, anchored by White’s endearing Pamela, bring warmth and wit to their sociological and personal arcs. The story’s journey through history is made colorful and convincing by the well-researched and visually appealing achievements of the gifted design team.  To be sure, there are a few puzzling aspects of TECH SUPPORTS’s take on American history. For example, the only time men we see men getting handsy or inappropriate with their female colleagues is in the supposedly more liberated Seventies. Perhaps there’s something to be said for the notion that something of chivalry and courtship was lost as greater equality was gained, as journalist Kay Hymowitz and others have posited. But we don’t get as much exploration here as the topic deserves. This minor complaint aside, though, TECH SUPPORT does a marvelous job of delivering a much-needed reminder that, regardless of the times, the human heart is the only smart device any of us really need. Or, as H.G. Wells declares in Time After Time “Every age is the same. It’s only love that makes any of them bearable.”

Scenic Design ……………………………..Natalie Taylor Hart
Costume Design …………………………Janice O’Donnell
Lighting Design ………………………….Deborah Constantine
Sound Design ……………………………..Ed Matthew
Sound Design Consultant …………..Carlene Stober
Projection Design ……………………….Elliott Forrest
Hair & Make-up Design ………………Inga Thrasher
Prop Master ………………………………..Cyrus Newitt
Dramaturge …………………………………Benjamin Viertel
Casting ………………………………………..Stephanie Klapper, CSA

Photo credit: Russ Rowland

TECH SUPPORT continues through Sept 21, 2019 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park & Madison Avenues, New York, New York. Tickets: http://www.59e59.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MAC WELLMAN: PERFECT CATASTROPHES

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BAD PENNY directed by Kristan Seemel

Scenic Designer…………………………………………………………………..Frank J. Oliva
Costume Designer…………………………………………………………Barbara Erin Delo
Lighting Designer…………………………………………………..Becky Heisler McCarthy
Sound Designer……………………………………………………………………..Emma Wilk
Properties Master …………………………………………………………..Patricia Marjorie

SINCERITY FOREVER directed by Dina Vovsi

Scenic Designer………………………………………………………………………..Jian Jung
Costume Designer………………………………………………………………….Emily White
Lighting Designer…………………………………………………………………..Daisy Long
Sound Designer………………………………………………………………….Keenan Hurley

Mac Wellman, a noted envelope pusher in the 1990’s, is seldom seen these days on off-Broadway stages. The Flea’s SEASON OF ANARCHY festival provokes mixed emotions as to whether Wellman is playwright worth revisiting. Certainly his verbal pyrotechnics and narrative inventions offer a lively alternative to traditional approaches to stagecraft, and audiences craving an American spin on the Absurdist traditions of Ionesco and Becket will feel well fed by the the festivals one act offerings. But there’s no overlooking the fact that theater has changed significantly in the past 20 years, and much of Wellman’s writing today feels more quaintly cerebral than bracingly avant-garde.

Both BAD PENNY and SINCERITY FOREVER focus on a kind of imminent reckoning between humanity and darker forces from another plane of existence. The characters seem to be intuitively ratcheting up their idiosyncratic demeanor in anticipation of a coming event, in much the same way that animals are said to behave erratically when they sense an incipient earthquake. The set design of PENNY simulates a public park, equipped with blankets, picnic tables and a concession stand. The actors are cleverly interspersed with the audience, so you never know who’s going to suddenly jump up and start participating in the action. Man #1 (Joseph Huffman) hails from Big Ugly, Montana and, not surprisingly, has plenty to say about the Big Ugly things that have happened in his life. At the moment, he’s coping with a flat tire, which he has rolled into the park to get a better look at the damage. Eccentric Woman #1 (Emma Orme) gives the young westerner grief, but Brooklyn-accented Woman #2 (Bailie de Lacy), insist the stranger  ought to be treated hospitably. Seated on a plastic cooler, Man #2 (Alex J. Moreno) gets his two cents in, while sportily Man #3 ) Lambert Tamin) wanders about the park questioning the meaning of life. The multiple voices of the characters form a cacophonous collage of sound, and in time their jeremiads are joined by a rhythmic Chorus (Caroline Banks, Dana Placentra, and Katelyn Sabet). Religious, philosophical, flirtatious, civic, bombastic, or all of the above (this is New York, after all), the rants build to a ritualistic climax as a hooded green figure (Ryan Wesley Stinnett) – who, rather refreshingly, doesn’t speak – arrives on the scene to ferry some unlucky soul to the next world. His selection seems random, but then that’s part of the point. The park dwellers may prefer to believe they can make sense of their world through language, but the cosmos, as always, has the last word.

SINCERITY FOREVER begins with two small town high school girls (Charly Dannis and Malena Pennycook) chatting away in front of a mirror as they put on makeup and fix their hair. Their concerns are typical teen fare: who’s cool, who isn’t, who has a crush on whom, plus a bit of idle pondering about the way the world works. The scene takes a dark turn when the two don the final element of their wardrobes: the iconic white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. On the other side of  town a group of grungy outcasts who call themselves the Furballs (Zac Porter and Neysa Lozano) gather to sound off on all the things they hate (including each other).  In a trope reminiscent of Tom Stoppard, two male Kluxers Nate DeCook  and Vince Ryne play out the same scene, with largely the same dialogue, as the girls. This time the gossip leads to flirtation and the boys begin making out. The notion of gay Klansmen is undeniably provocative, but Wellman doesn’t stop there. An apocalypse looms as one of the boys recalls his father’s last words (“She dark!”).  Daddy was referring to Jesus H. Christ (Amber Jaunai), who materializes in town to bring judgement to the wicked. Naturally, a black female Nazarene is destined to be greeted with less than a warm welcome by the racist townspeople, most of whom prefer to thump the Bible than to try to live by its tenets. As the inevitable confrontation draws nearer, tensions erupt in a kind of verbal Vesuvius.

Both plays feature strong ensembles and intriguing staging (though, of the two directors, Kristan Seemel is somewhat more successful than Dina Vovsi at getting the actors’ gears to mesh). The design teams adds ingenious touches to help immerse the audience in a comically apocalyptic universe. The material itself, though, is only partially satisfying. Wellman’s logorrhea, even in the short form, wears thin over time. By the end of each fable, the onslaught of rhetoric no longer rings with the clarity of a keenly-observed examination of communication breakdowns in modern society. It begins to sound more like the neurotic tape loop spinning inside the hyperactive mind – albeit an exceptional one – of a writer chained to his desk. Less dependence on deus ex machina endings, and a deeper dive into character dynamics, would help boost the relevance of his work for our time.

MAC WELLMAN: PERFECT CATASTROPHES continues through November 1, 2019 at The Flea Theater 20 Thomas Street, New York, NY 10007. Phone: 212-226-0051.