KING KONG: ALIVE ON BROADWAY

Book by Jack Thorne
Music and Lyrics by Eddie Perfect
Directed & by Drew McOnie

The temptation to reinvent the quintessential creature feature, billed in its day as “The Most Awesome Thriller of All Time” is understandable. After all, the original King Kong defined movie magic and captivated audiences with its groundbreaking special effects and a story that mashed up mythic allegory and crude Darwinism with emblems of modernity like the Empire State Building. But the world has turned a few times since Kong was billed as its eighth wonder, and any contemporary author attempting to reboot the classic story is faced with two daunting challenges. Firstly, how in the hell do you keep the plot of the original while making it acceptable to today’s sensibilities? Even by 1933 standards, Kong’s gender politics are old-school. Many pre-Code Hollywood films featured street-smart, independent female protagonists,whereas Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) does little but writhe fetchingly as the ape, a raging male libido incarnate, sniffs, ogles, fondles and abducts her: no courtship or consent required. And then there’s the problem of Skull Island’s natives,those drum-pounding, spear-brandishing savages who are so impressed with Ann’s blonde locks and milky skin that they kidnap the “golden woman”and serve her up as an antipasto to appeasement their simian god. Clearly, none of this would fly today, but once you jettison the story’s racism, sexism and imperialism, is it still King Kong? Secondly, in a time when IMAX 3D movies are playing at the mall and hyper-real graphics are available on X Boxes and smart phones, is it still possible to concoct a spectacle capable of filling an audience with awe?

The creative team behind the great ape’s latest incarnation struggles valiantly with the first of these two conundrums. Their efforts yield, to put it gently, uneven results. When it comes to the second question, though, the show is truly breathtaking, so much so that the sense of wonder its gargantuan star provokes almost compensates for the inconsistencies in its score and script.

Like the movie, KKAOB takes place in Depression era Manhattan. But its heroine is decidedly more proactive. Ambitious Ann Darrow, (Christians Pitts) a farmers’ daughter from the Midwest, dreams of being a Broadway star. She auditions tirelessly, but finds the competition fierce and the jobs scarce. Down to her last few pennies, she is loitering in a greasy spoon one night when a waiter tries to get fresh with her. She gives the chap a well-deserved biff on the chin, and the commotion attracts the attention of impresario Carl Denham (Eric William Morris). Denham buys Ann a hot meal, and presents her with an offer to star in his new movie. There’s a catch, of course. The picture will be shot on Skull Island, uncharted terrain rumored to be populated by primordial beasts. It’s sure to be a treacherous journey, but with few prospects on the horizon, Ann decides accept Denham’s proposal. No sooner has the boat launched than tensions begin to simmer. Ann puts up resistance when Denham wants to shoot a test reel of her screaming. Uncomfortable in the role of damsel in distress, she’d rather roar with power than screech in terror. The sailors, too, get tired of doing Denham’s bidding, and Ann again asserts her strength by quelling a potential mutiny. The only person who doesn’t seem to have a problem with Denham’s tyranny is his faithful factotum, Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld) a gentle soul who takes a liking to Ann. When the crew comes ashore, they find no indigenous people (and therefore no offensive stereotypes) on Skull Island. There are, however, sentient trees, and Ann finds herself bound by grasping vines, unable to escape when the big primate comes to call. As the giant King slowly emerges from the sultry darkness, Ann is awed but not afraid. When he roars, she roars back. More protector than predator, he rescues her from a giant serpent  and she, in turn, uses her homespun wisdom to remedy a wound he has acquired during the fight.

Their bond deepens when Denham has his people tranquilize Kong and ship him to New York, where he’ll become the center piece of a new musical extravaganza. Ann, heartbroken at seeing the majestic animal in chains, wants to walk out on Denham, but the avaricious showman threatens her into fulfilling her contract. Thus, like Kong himself, she is held captive and put on display. Inevitably, though, the need for freedom proves stronger than any psychological or physical bonds imposed by an exploitative system. Liberty may have its price, but both Ann and the King are (and Lumpy, too, in the show’s most skillfully written scene), are willing to take their chances.    

Christiani Pitts is passionate and appealing as the spirited Ann, and impressively holds her own even when playing opposite her 20-foot costar. Lochtefeld, amid the production’s noise and derring-do, manages to turn a small, quiet moment into one of the show’s few poignant beats. They could do better still with stronger material: the songs aren’t particularly memorable, and some of the dialogue is so on-the-nose that the characters begin to feel more like polemics than people. But when the magnificent brainchild of creature designer Sonny Tilders takes the stage, these shortcomings recede into the distance. Kong is not merely a mechanical marvel, but a living, breathing creature endowed with soul. In one particularly heart-stopping moment (in a word, a gorilloquy), the orchestra goes quiet and Kong is alone onstage, his penetrating eyes taking in the audience, his guttural noises expressing more truth than can be found in any of the play’s homilies. It’s the beauty of the beast that keeps this show from becoming the most dreaded of Broadway monstrosities: a colossal turkey.

KING KONG continues through April 14, 2019 at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, between 52nd & 53rd Streets. Tickets @ Telecharge.com.

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THE YEOMAN OF THE GUARD

Written by W.S. Gilbert & Arthur Sullivan

Directed by Albert Bergeret

If the kickoff show is any indication, the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players are set to have a grand 44th season. Both in terms of production values and the level of performance, YEOMAN OF THE GUARD serves as a reminder of the enduring warmth and brilliance of the G&S catalogue and as a master class for aspiring musical theater practitioners. YEOMAN, though no less erudite than the boys’ more iconic pieces, represents something of a departure from their customary cocktail of social criticism and farcical derring-do. Here, Gilbert controls his urge to syllable-binge and rarely uses the story to hold a mirror to the hypocrisies of late Victorian society. Instead, he spins a fanciful, bittersweet yarn about the machinations of love, requited and otherwise. Sullivan’s score is rich with soaring arias, catchy melodies and even a nod here and there to English folk and madrigal traditions.

Set in 16th Century England the story concerns the dashing Colonel Fairfax (Daniel Greenwood), whose interest in alchemy has landed him in the Tower of London (one man’s science, is apparently another man’s sorcery). It’s all part of an evil scheme perpetrated by Fairfax’s avaricious cousin Sir Clarence Plotwhistle, who stands to inherit the entire family estate if Fairfax dies unmarried. As the Colonel awaits execution, his buddy Sergeant Merryll (Richard Holmes) cooks up a plan to sneak him out of the tower and find him a bride, thereby foiling Plotwhistle’s plot. The Sergeant’s daughter Phoebe (Abigail Benke) is only too happy to volunteer, as she has a thing for Fairfax. As complications ensue, more characters are roped into the scheme, including head jailer Wilfred (Matthew Wages), who has a thing for Phoebe, and then there’s the tower’s housekeeper Dame Carruthers (Angela Christine Smith), who has a thing for Sergeant Merryll, and of course roving Jester Jack Point (James Mills), who has a thing for his bandmate Elsie Maynard (Laurelyn Watson Chase). As the folderol thickens, identities are switched, passions intensify and unexpected allegiances are forged. No heads are severed, of course, but not all hearts escape unscathed.

The mellifluous voices and razor-sharp comedic skills of the cast are matched only by the painterly splendor of the scenic design, costumes and lighting (the day I saw it, the set itself got a round of applause). David Auxier’s seamless choreography and Albert Bergeret’s assured direction highlight both the robust and somber turns of the story with equal skill.

Up next, THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE promises to provide a spirited antidote to the between-the-holidays doldrums. Both diehard fans and the G&S curious are urged to check it out. Click here for affordable ticket options and subscriptions: https://nygasp.org/current-season/

A WILDER CHRISTMAS

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Written by Thornton Wilder

Directed by Dan Wackerman

Featuring James Beaman, Victoria Blankenship, Merissa Czyz, Brad Fryman, LaMar Giles, LaWanda Hopkins, Michael Sean McGuinness,  Kristin Parker, John Pasha, Jeremy Russial, Barbara Salant, Gael Schaefer, Anna Marie Sell, Rafe Terrizzi, Barbra Wengerd  and Giselle Wolf

Before OUR TOWN won him a Pulitzer (and a place on the syllabi of countless grade schools), Thornton Wilder experimented with shorter, meta- theatrical pieces that chronicled the changing social landscape of the early 20th Century. As this opulent, if uneven revival proves, Wilder was deeply attuned to the rhythms of a society in which automobiles, railroads and factories energized the national self-image while simultaneously trampling over tradition and increasing the geographical and ideological distances between generations.

Said to have influenced the famed breakfast table scene in “Citizen Kane”, THE LONG CHRISTMAS DINNER telescopes 90 years in the life of the prosperous Bayard family into 35 minutes. The setting remains fixed, but the shifting  mood and carriage of the characters indicates that significant blocks of time have elapsed between scenes. The first holiday banquet takes place in an optimistic, frontier America, where Mother Bayard recalls a time when Indians lived on the land that now contains the house. A few Christmases later, her son Roderick has launched a successful business. He and his wife Lucia soon have children, Charles and Genevieve. As death (represented by a luminous gate at upstage) inevitably claims some family members, Charles grows into manhood, takes over the Bayard firm and marries his sweetheart Leonora, while Genevieve struggles to find a purpose in life. As a new generation rises, modern warfare, college education, and Jazz Age innovation replace the staid life of a small town and family business. The young depart for brighter prospects and the house grows colder and emptier, a relic of an era of simpler aspirations.

PULLMAN CAR HIAWATHA turns the microcosm of a Chicago-bound sleeper car into a spiritual journey. Like OUR TOWN, the play is narrated by a Stage Manager who interacts with the public, even calling on audience members to read passages of poetry and history. The passengers and staff of the locomotive  represent a cross section of society, each lost in a personal reverie. One woman pores over her Christmas gift list, a doctor peruses a medical journal, a regular guy reads a pulp fiction magazine, a mentally ill woman is calmed by her nurse, etc.  One of the travelers, Harriet, falls ill as she rests in a separate cabin from her husband. The doctor is urgently summoned, but to no avail. As she passes into the afterlife, figures from the Bible and Greek mythology attend Harriet’s final judgment. Looking down on the heartland from up above, Harriet sees at last the meaning that was there all along, easy to miss as she rushed through life. The infinite resides in the minutiae of daily existence.

Visually, the production is topnotch. Marianne Custer’s costumes, Nelly Reyes’s prop designs and Harry Feiner’s scenic and lighting design evoke the paintings of Thomas Hart Benton and others who, like Wilder, saw nobility and promise in America’s fecund fields, booming industries and determined citizenry.  Quentin Chiappetta’s lyrical music and sound design eases the show’s transitions of time and space. Director Dan Wackerman effectively blends the ethereal with the commonplace in HIAWATHA. He is less successful in THE LONG CHRISTMAS DINNER, which, despite its title, feels a bit rushed. The actors nail the technical aspects, such as the period accents and the physicality of aging, but rarely get the opportunity to breathe within their roles. The audience would be better able to invest emotionally in the fates of the characters if they would linger in their struggles long enough for us to get to know them.

A WILDER CHRISTMAS continues through January 10, 2016 at the Theater at St. Clements, 423 W 46th St (at 9th Avenue), New York, NY 10036. Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/2772

 

2 ACROSS

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Written by Jerry Mayer

Directed by Evelyn Rudie
Out-of-work adman Josh (Kip Gilman) isn’t the first person to swear at Will Shortz. For over 20 years, the wickedly clever cruciverbalist has challenged and confounded those brave enough to enter the daunting intellectual thicket known as The New York Times Crossword Puzzle. Like many puzzle enthusiasts, Josh gets a few clues right, then finds the whole enterprise too daunting and gives up. Not so with circumspect psychologist Janet (Andrea McArdle). In her view, a quitter never wins.

The two discover each other’s differences – and a few surprising commonalities- during a chance encounter on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train. It’s early morning and there are no other passengers in their car. Janet’s lost in her own troubled thoughts, but given their shared penchant for puzzles, and Josh’s innate yenta-like nature, the two soon get to talking. Significantly, Janet does the crossword with a pen, carefully thinking her answers through before making a mark. Josh jots things down in pencil, believing errors can always be rectified. Opposites attract, but Janet is understandably hesitant to jump into a relationship with a total stranger. This leaves Josh with the challenge of winning her over in only ten or so BART train stops. If he reads the clues carefully, he just might have a chance.

Given the show’s constraints of time and space, it’s only natural that a few contrivances are needed in order to steer the story to its destination. Yet the exposition rarely feels forced, and the characters have more dimension than the  romcom cliches that usually accompany this type of premise. Playwright Jerry Mayer endows Janet and Josh with complicated lives, and the script touches, albeit lightly, on real issues like career regret and strained familial relationships. Direcor Evelyn Rudie keeps the action flowing convincingly in confining space of the subway car, while Gilman and McCardle bring buoyancy and charm even to the play’s more somber beats.  The production’s only major problem is technical one: the actors are miked in a way that feels tinny and artificial. Amplification is a necessary evil in today’s theater, but in a naturalistic presentation, the audience should never be aware of it.

2 ACROSS continues in an open run at St. Luke’s Theatre , 308 West 46th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues).  Tickets, Telecharge.com 

 

GLUTEN!

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Written by Stephen Kaliski

Directed by Stephen Kaliski & Amanda Holston

As in a 1950’s sci fi movie, the exclamation point in the title of Stephen Kaliski’s dystopian satire signals the arrival of a frightening new era. This time around, though, the menace of the moment isn’t a swarm of giant insects or a horde of hostile aliens, but the pathogens found in the very food we eat and in the air we breathe. Like all futuristic stories, it’s really a comment on its own time, and GLUTEN! uses hyperbole to highlight the absurdities of our purity-obsessed culture.

Newlyweds Copious Fairchild (Jeremiah Maestas) and Hibiscus Van der Waal (Shawna Cormier) have just moved into the Goldilocks, a state-of-the-art, sterile, “character-free” new home. They subsist on a diet of Goji berries and calming tea, and are required to wear hazmat suits when they go outside. Copious and Hibiscus are trying for a baby, but sex (for that matter touching of any kind) is entirely off limits to this germaphobic generation. Thankfully Copious lives up to his name as he saves his emissions in a jar (in a clever twist, he watches Paula Deen style high-cal cooking shows instead of porn). But  the young couple have barely begun to practice contact-free fertilization when a monkey wrench is thrown into their perfectly ordered world. Copie’s mom Linda (Maggie Low) drops by (gasp!) unannounced. As if that spontaneity weren’t anathema enough, Linda has brought a stranger along. Maple (Roger Manix), is the leader of a new movement, one in which people live as they did before the cataclysmic event known as the Great Correction changed the way people do things. Hibiscus seems curious about the wider world, but Copious is appalled at the prospect of relocating to the wasteland known as The Suburbs. Generational differences heat up and values are called into question– until at last Copious pays attention to his own yen for a more authentic life.

Much of the play’s humor is visual, and the design team rises to the show’s quirky requirements. The hermetically sealed world of the story is neatly evoked by Jason Sherwood’s traverse set design and Jessica Greenberg’s lighting. William Mellette’s costumes highlight the ideological differences between the wooly elders and the puritanical youth.  Matt Sherwin’s sound design gives the Goldilocks a mind and personality that lampoons the increasing role of artificial intelligence in modern life.

The ensemble, which also includes a versatile Josh Tobin in multiple roles, mine the comic possibilities of the script’s jargon-rich dialogue while maintaining a truthful emotional core beneath the blather. Kaliski and co-director Amanda Holston, for the most part, keep the pacing tight. The action stalls a bit in the show’s midsection, and the emotional turnarounds that drive the plot could be delivered at a more rapid clip. Nevertheless, the play’s startling, darkly hopeful ending makes a timely and touching point. This world is a hazardous place: increasingly so, if the headlines are to be believed. And yet we have to live our lives, embrace one another while we’re here, and somehow try to make sense of it all.

GLUTEN! continues through December 5, 2015 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison, New York, New York. Tickets: 212-279-4200

STEVE

steve-prod-42Photo credit: Monique Carboni

Written by Mark Gerrard

directed by Cynthia Nixon

As marriage equality becomes the norm, playwrights are turning their attention to all the attendant phenomena of matrimony. Though it ends on a hopeful note, Mark Gerrard’s seriocomic portrait of a middle aged same-sex couple details the inertia, dissatisfaction and friction that have always made monogamy a challenging proposition.

Steve (Matt McGrath), seems like a guy who has it all: a killer apartment, a rich husband, a healthy child, a cadre of good friends with whom he sits around the piano singing show tunes or trades bon mots in trendy restaurants. But beneath the veneer of domestic bliss, there is trouble in this particular paradise. Steve’s little son Zack has been misbehaving, his close friend Carrie (Ashlie Atkinson), is beginning to lose her battle with cancer, and his husband Stephen (Malcolm Gets) has been “sexting” with another man. Deciding that two can play at the infidelity game, Steve has a fling with young Argentine waiter Esteban (Francisco Pryor Garat). Meanwhile Steve’s friends Matt (Mario Cantone) and Brian (Jerry Dixon) are rebooting their relationship by having a hot personal trainer move in with them. As time goes by, everything worsens, including Steve’s midlife crisis and Carrie’s medical condition. Still, longtime friendships prove indestructible, and Steve and company, their sense of humor intact through it all, find a way to navigate life’s inevitable changes.

Director Cynthia Nixon draws charming performances from an adroitly cast ensemble. Allen Moyer’s sets and Eric Southern’s lighting evoke an elegant but confining Manhattan and, in the finale, a breezy, sprawling Fire Island. When it’s cooking, the script delivers a potent cocktail of devastating wit and rueful reflection on the ravages of time. Structurally, though, it feels a bit lopsided. Self-absorbed Steve gets a disproportionate amount of stage time for what he has to say, and the pace stalls at times when he reiterates that he is feeling discontented and uncertain of his future. The deadpan Stephen is far funnier and more sympathetic as he struggles, however imperfectly, to hold his family together.  In one brilliantly written scene, Stephen stands before his Christmas tree juggling a call from his mom, another call from Steve’s Mom, lewd texts from Brian, and impatient texts from Cassie, who waits with Zack for the promised ice cream that Steve was supposed to bring but has, being Steve, forgotten (and judging from the spent look on Steve’s face as he staggers in, that’s not all he’s forgotten). Like a 21st Century edition of Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory, Stephen’s plight encapsulates the absurdities of life in our multitasking age. Gerrard sets the writing bar high in scenes like these, and doesn’t always succeed in matching it. In its current draft, STEVE is certainly worthwhile: an evening spent in good company. With a bit of revision, it could be much more.

STEVE continues through January 3, 2016 at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. https://www.ticketcentral.com/thenewgroup/online/

SHEAR MADNESS

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Created by Bruce Jordan & Marilyn Abrams

Adapted from the play by Paul Pörtner

Directed by Bruce Jordan

After more than 30 years of successful runs in Boston, Chicago and many other burgs worldwide, this interactive whodunit has finally made its New York debut. Like any newly arrived out-of-towner, the show hasn’t yet fully adapted to Manhattan’s rhythms and sensibilities. It does, however, feature a cast of charming and improv-savvy actors, and with some tuning-up, SHEAR MADNESS has the potential to do well in Gotham.

The play opens with a bit of well-played silent comedy. Shaving cream, shampoo, scissors and other inanimate objects take on a life of their own as tawdry Barbara Demarco (Kate Middleton) and flamboyant Tony Whitcomb (Jordan Ahnquist), go through the motions of a typical day in the Shear Madness hair salon. Unbeknownst to the hairdressers, customers Mike (Adam Gerber) and Nick (Patrick Noonan), are actually undercover cops investigating a blackmail case. The upstairs neighbor, a once-renowned concert pianist with plenty of money, has received threatening letters. And when she turns up dead, Mike and Nick need some questions answered. Barbara and Tony are, of course,  persons of interest. So are two mysterious clients, sharply-dressed Eddie (Jeremy Kushnier), and Park Avenue patrician Mrs. Shubert (Lynne Wintersteller). Like a Brooklyn edition of Hercule Poirot, Nick instructs the suspects not to go anywhere. He then breaks the fourth wall and turns the audience into eyewitnesses. Who was absent from the shop when the murder took place? Did anyone see anything suspicious? Of course, clues have been planted all throughout the proceedings, and viewers recall seeing Barbara kissing Eddie, Mrs. Shubert making a cryptic phone call, etc. Based on an audience vote, any one of the four potential culprits might turn out to be the real killer. The cast is ready with a motive and back story for each eventuality.

More than the murder mystery plot line, the comic tension created by the show’s unknown outcome gives the show its theatrical energy. Under Bruce Jordan’s thoroughgoing direction, the actors manage to stay solidly in-character while responding to the wild cards thrown at them by the audience. The resulting spontaneous comedic combustion is far more successful than the show’s scripted witticisms. Jordan and co-creator Marilyn Abrams take a kind of birdshot approach to comedy, peppering the audience with blasts of topical one-liners in the hopes that some of them will land. References to Kim Kardashian, the Spice Girls, and many other pop-culture figures are laced throughout the play, and while some of the material is clever, much of it feels passé. For SHEAR MADNESS to click with Manhattan ticket buyers, its script would benefit from some trimming, shaping and styling.

SHEAR MADNESS continues in an open run at New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street New York, NY 10019. Tickets at telecharge.com.

 

 

 

tiger tiger (on the nature of violence)

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Written and directed by Jessica Almasy

Starring Matt Baguth, Kate Benson, Jill Frutkin, Fernando Gonzalez, Hannah Heller, Hannah Kallenbach, David Neal Levin, Teri Madonna, Eliana Mullins, Christopher Nunez, Nazli Sarpkaya and Brendan Titley

There are some interesting metaphors and provocative ambiguities at the center of Jessica Almasy’s kaleidoscopic examination of predatory instinct. There’s also quite a bit of clutter and noise, which mostly serves to obscure – and not in an intriguing, Dadaist way – the author’s intentions.

The plot concerns a group of twenty-somethings, a bit high and looking for adventure, who break into a zoo after hours. Two of them find a quiet place to make out, while the others stand by a tigress’s cage and philosophize about the nature of the cosmos. When one of them approaches the “tiger goddess”, the animal becomes hostile. Escaping her confines, she mauls the man to death. The whole thing is caught on security cameras, but the incompetent zoo cops but can’t figure out if the kids did anything to provoke the tiger, or even if the sex between the other couple was consensual. A TV pundit hosts a show concerning  the event  and callers chime in with opinions. Lots of other things happen as well: Girl scouts looking for thrill go to visit a psychotic cross-dresser, a pill addict encounters a talking tooth (who has the show’s cleverest line), various people spout obscure poetry and there are droll group therapy sessions which, despite the show’s avant garde trappings, feel like territory that’s been ploughed before.

Especially in the earlier scenes, the sound design is so thick and clamorous that the actors are forced to give unsubtle performances in order to be heard. Other beats are intentionally, though not compellingly, played flat, as when the news anchor sits and reads all the parts of a panel discussion as if it were a courtroom transcript (while on a projection screen we are for shown someone with A.D.D. endlessly revising a text message). The sad part of all this randomness is that when Almasy stays on-topic, she does achieve potent theatrical effects. There’s a sensitive monlogue in which the tigress, floating in a kind of afterlife, explains herself to her victim. And there are some erotically-charged scenes involving a courtship between the predator and her prey, and in which a possible rape victiim reaches a climax while telling her aggressor to stop. Here, at last, we have some primal questions: Are human beings attracted to the very things most likely to destroy us? Do we want to be taken, devoured? Do we identify with wild beasts even as we seek to remain safe from them?

These moments show talent and imagination, and it’s a shame that Almasy couldn’t see her way clear to pruning away the play’s more self-indulgent schtick. There’s nothing wrong with challenging an audience, prompting us to work harder to find connections between seemingly unrelated events. But good experimental theater is more than just a receptacle for sundry brain blips. As much, if not moreso than traditional forms, a non-linear presentation requires the author to separate the truly original from the merely weird. Both as a writer and and as a director, Almasy needs to take a more rigorous approach to honing her asthetic and finding the internal rhythms that make for a strong dramatic statement.

tiger tiger (on the nature of violence) continues through  November 21 at Dixon Place, 161 Chrystie Street, New York, NY 10002. Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/171

CUCKOOED

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Written & performed by Mark Thomas

Directed by Emma Callander

Impishly reversing the famous slogan “speak truth to power”, British comedian-anarchist Mark Thomas has had remarkable success in tricking the powerful into making startlingly self-incriminating confessions on camera. He’s doesn’t stop there. Targeting major players in the shadowy world of the military-industrial complex, he has taken part in numerous demonstrations, peace campaigns and speak-outs. Of course,  the powerful have ways of hitting back, and as Thomas discloses in his impassioned new one man show, the results can be devastating.

In an energetic style somewhat reminiscent of Alexei Sayle, Thomas recalls his involvement with the activist group Campaign Against Arms Trade. Designed to foster peace by stymieing large weapons interests, CAAT is largely composed of idealistic students and straight-laced Quakers. It’s therefore a breath of fresh air to have someone with a big personality like Martin Hogbin join the team (Thomas scrupulously leaves out the last name, but it’s easy enough to find on the internet). Raw, working class, funny and outspoken, the charismatic  Martin becomes a great friend to Mark and other members of the group, and a father figure to the younger recruits. They all grow to trust and love Martin, and he’s the last person anyone would suspect of treachery.

Yet in 2003, a Sunday Times article reveals that the defense company  BAE Systems has been running a spy network through a third party. It seems odd that Europe’s largest arms dealer would expend its resources on a small group of studious peaceniks. But CAAT has undeniable evidence that confidential documents have been leaked. In an unusual court decision, BAE admits to having hired an operative to infiltrate the group, and officially promises to desist. This is a bittersweet victory for Mark and company. It’s great that BAE’s public disgrace brings media attention to the evils of the arms trade. It’s not so good for morale. Once the tight-knit CAAT crew knows there is a spy in their midst, things can never be the same– especially when the paper trail leads, unambiguously, to Martin.

Like all artists, a devastated Thomas turns to his work to try and make sense of it all. He talks to many of his colleagues (excerpts from filmed interviews are interspersed throughout the show), and writes down his own recollections of events. A visit to Martin’s home reveals that he’s hardly living in luxury. So if money wasn’t the motivator, what did BAE have on him? Thomas is, to his credit, impeccably fair to Martin, offering repeatedly to let him tell his side of the story. Alas, Hogbin ultimately decides to keep mum. Someone seems to have gotten to him yet again.

It would be comforting to dismiss this story as the paranoid rant of a conspiracy theorist. Sadly, the documentation is incontrovertible, and Thomas goes on to show us interviews with construction workers, teachers, and other ordinary people who have similarly been targets of illegal surveillance, harassment and blacklisting because of their political beliefs.

The show’s core narrative, a kind of loss-of-innocence story, gives the show an emotional spine that makes it a true theater piece rather than just an evening of politically-oriented standup. If it’s intended as a call to action, though, CUCKOOED is not entirely successful. Thomas does not paint a rosy picture of an activist’s life, nor does he attempt to flatter the audience with the good news that we can make the world a better place. He does, however, provide an honest, and ultimately moving glimpse of life in the trenches.

CUCKOOED continues through November 21 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E 59th St, New York, NY 10022 (212) 753-5959

BIG APPLE CIRCUS: THE GRAND TOUR

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Directed by Mark Lonergan

A sense of wonder is a challenging thing to instill in today’s audiences. Yet even the most jaded patrons will find it impossible not to gasp at some of the derring-do displayed in the THE GRAND TOUR,  not to smile at the production’s overall charm, spirit, and panache.

The show’s ingenious framing device is established quickly, as ebullient ringleader John Kennedy Kane prepares the crowd for the journey ahead. The theme here is luxury travel, 1920s style. The concept serves a dual purpose: it helps provide a loose through-line on which to pin the performances, and more importantly, allows the creative staff to add fanciful sonic and visual touches.  Rob Slowik’s orchestra plays selections that evoke exotic locales and jazz age splendor.  Scenic and lighting designer Maruti Evans – whose remarkable storytelling skills are familiar to fans of the Godlight Theater Company – joins forces with costume designer Oana Botez to give the presentation an opulent style reminiscent of vintage travel posters.

A richly varied lineup of acts includes the voluptuous hula hoop artistry of Chiara Anastasini, an innovative juggling routine by Alexander Koblikov, exuberant teeterboard antics from the Dosov Troupe,  feats of physical dexterity by the Zuma Zuma African Acrobats and the aptly named Energy Trio, a truly heart-stopping turn by the Dominguez Brothers on an enormous apparatus called the Wheel of Wonder, and a lyrical aerialist solo dance by Sergey Akimov. The talent pool here is not limited to the human species, and demonstrations of canine agility and equine beauty, choreographed by animal whisperer Jenny Vidbel, are among the show’s most memorable moments. Along the way, clowns Joel Jeske and Brent McBeth add a touch of commedia dell’arte to their wordless portrayals of the pompous steward of a luxury liner and his trickster assistant.

The entire evening vibrates with a refreshing tone of sincerity and joy– the born performer’s deep desire to show the audience a wonderful time. Populist in the best and most timeless sense of the word, these troupers seem grateful that there is still a place where they can do what they love, where their diligently-honed abilities still matter. Both children and media-weary grownups would do well to place a soul-rejuvenating visit to the big top on their holiday season to-do lists.

THE GRAND TOUR continues through January 10, 2016 at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park, Amsterdam Avenue  and West 62nd Street, New York, NY 10023. Tickets: https://tickets.bigapplecircus.org/Online/default.asp