Review: ‘The Trojan Women’ send an anti-war message through millenniums

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

‘The Trojan Women’, currently running in Flea Theater, is a tragedy originally written by Euripides. Ellen McLaughlin adopted the 415 BC play in 1995 in response to the Bosnian War. Unfortunately for humanity, anti-war plays are always relevant, thought this particular production, directed by Anne Cecelia Haney, doesn’t have many concrete historical or timely references.    

Women of Troy lost everything – their loved ones, their city and their freedom to the war with the Greeks. They spend their last hours awaiting the departure of the ships, which will bring them to new lands. The poisonous green walls, painted halfway, are like a transfer point for the refugees at a government owned institution. Scenic designer, Marthe Johanne Ekhougen, added some dirty plastic sheets to the ceiling and a string of bare lamp bulbs to transform the chamber space of the Flea’s basement theater into a prison-like limbo. 

As the audience enters the theater, they see women sleeping on the floor. Their eyes are tied with transparent fabric. They dream of the majestic Troy, which was their home, they dream of themselves in the past, in a former life. They rise and join their voices to a chorus of nostalgic reminiscence. The terror of reality greets them upon awakening. Lead by Hecuba, a queen in exile (intense and unbreakable DeAnna Supplee), the women of Troy are fighting fear and despair. They remember the time when they saw a beautiful wooden horse outside the city and welcomed it as a token of peace from the Greeks. They sing and dance, recreating the joy of the end of the war. But we all know how that gift paid off. 

Unable to reach their offenders, they hurl their anger on Helen (Rebeca Rad) who is hardly the one to blame. A fighting/dancing scene follows, beautifully staged by the choreographer Joya Powell. The sound design by Ben Vigus and the lighting by Scot Gianelli highlight the slow-mo moments of the fight, making it even more surreal and terrifying. The strong side light creates a very dramatic theatrical effect. In combination with the eclectic costume and scenic design by Marthe Johanne Ekhougen, it creates a unique, appealing and fancy look. 

‘The Trojan Women’ runs through September 30th. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 9PM and Sunday at 3PM. Tickets are $15-$20 with the lowest priced tickets available on a first-come, first-served basis. The Flea Theater is located at 41 White Street between Church and Broadway. Purchase tickets by calling 212-352-3101 or online at www.theflea.org. Photo by Allison Stock

 

Review: ‘The Layover’; sex, lies and strangers on the plane

Asys Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

Two strangers meet on a plane waiting to take off from Chicago’s O’Hare on a snowy Thanksgiving night. The romantic flame between a college professor, Shellie (Annie Parisse), and an engineer, Dex (Adam Rothenberg), sparks immediately and nobody seems to be overly disappointed when the flight gets canceled. The layover becomes a romantic affair with a backdrop of snow falling over the tarmac. 

The prelude leading to the hotel room resembles one of a thousand romantic comedies set on the cusp of Thanksgiving/Christmas/Saint Valentine’s Day. ‘The Layover’ covers all three holidays while adding a couple of dark twists to the story of two lonely souls trying to connect. The romantic comedy quickly turns to psychological drama with elements of erotic thriller thrown into it.  

Playing with different genres seems like an interesting idea but it didn’t quite come together in this play. More and more characters appear (8 characters played by 6 actors total) with the solemn purpose to push the plot forward. Whether it’s the uneven writing or the underwhelming stage direction of Trip Cullman, but none of what’s happening seems realistic or relatable. At least the chemistry between Annie Parisse and Adam Rothenberg is good, particularly in two mirror scenes in the hotel room. But before you get to the first of them, you need to sit through three lengthy “talking heads” scenes.              

The “getting to know each other” part is long and not particularly grabbing. The dialogues are supposed to be funny and sharp (as promised by reviewers praising Leslye Headland’s writing talent). The playwright spreads the peacock tail of her wit and, through characters flirting with each other, is desperately trying to win over the audience. Dex stumbles and shies away from the flirty and confident Shellie while she seems to know exactly what she wants and is aggressively approaching it. Individual loud bursts of laughter are heard in the audience, so at least somebody is into it. 

What began as a romantic adventure quickly becomes the story of dysfunctional relationships and attempts at escaping into a “romantic dream”. I got to give it to Headland, she succeed in creating characters whose lives are a constant seesaw between imaginary worlds and reality. Everybody is trying to hide from the truth in the fairytale-like narrative they create for themselves; whether it’s a “42 year old micromanaging her own wedding” while the relationship with her fiancé is cracking apart, or another 42 year old woman who once pretended that she is somebody else entirely.
      
The layered scenic design by Mark Wendland looks stunning and accommodates the action, which sometimes runs in two places at once. Glass panels slide up and down, creating different configurations depending on where we are. The gradual opening of more and more space is a visual representation of the structure of the play: as we move on we discover the true identities of the duplicitous characters. The lighting design by Japhy Weideman completes the set architecture by throwing colored shapes on the glass walls. The video design by Jeff Sugg features dreamily blurry window views of the airport and series of looped shots from 50s’ black and white movies. 

‘The Layover’ produced by Second Stage Theatre is running through September 18th. Schedule and tickets are available here. 

Review: ‘The Tempest’, all female, mostly naked.

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

‘The Tempest’ by Torn Out Theater is not your ordinary “Shakespeare in the open air” production. Like some of the similar projects around the city, from Public’s Shakespeare in Central Park to Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, the Torn Out Theater’s shows are free (donations are accepted in the end) and take place outside. What sets them apart from everybody else is the fact that the all-female cast performs nude. Well, to be specific, the islanders – humans and spirits are fully nude or painted with the body paint. The arrived royals are fully dressed in the beginning; some of them end up fully nude in the end.     

Set on a remote Island, ‘The Tempest’ tells the story of the magician Prospero and his young, beautiful daughter Miranda. Twelve years ago, Antonio, Prospero’s’ brother, exiled his sibling from Naples. Supplied by some food and books by his counselor Gonsalo, Prospero was preparing for revenge. When the ship with Antonio, his friend Alonso, and Alonso’s brother and son (Sebastian and Ferdinand, respectively) sails nearby, Prospero raises a tempest, which brings everybody ashore. Ferdinand gets separated from the rest of the men. He falls in love with Miranda, who hasn’t seen other men in her life. The spirit Ariel, who serves Prospero, messes with the stranded while they wander in the woods. 
     
The comedic drunk duo, Stephano and Trinculo, and the monstrous Caliban aren’t in this shortened version of the play. The play features eight actresses, three dancers and two musicians. It was first produced last May in Central Park and had its second run in the beginning of September in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. The audience was seated inside the Music Pagoda with the action unfolding in the clearing beneath. Four massive tree trunks, growing in the corners like a symmetrical trapeze, were cleverly used as set design with spirits hiding behind them. 

The vast park landscape behind the “stage” is utilized as well. A few minutes before the show starts, the audience can spot Miranda (Elisabeth Gilbert) collecting wood with Amazon-like strength. This graceful and unobtrusive introduction to the nude production of ‘The Tempest’, as well as the pastoral scene of three spirits running in the woods in the distance lit by the golden hour sun, sets the harmonious tone of the unity of person and nature. Establishing a non-sexualized and non-violent image of the naked body is the company’s goal. The directors, Pitr Strait and Alice Mottola, deserve praise for both concept and execution. 

Soon enough, the nudity of Prospero (Gina Marie Russell) and Miranda starts to be perceived for their costumes. Small realistic details helped to create separation between nudity and sexuality: Miranda is covered in dust and mud, like a child who was playing outside all day, and Prospero has tattoos of occult symbols all over her body. The body paint from head to toe (by Ish Paralta) on the spirits makes them creatures from a different reality where any standards of human sexuality don’t apply. I whish the group choreography was thought through better because otherwise they are one step from a hippy musical festival crowd. That needs to be distinguished from the movement of Ariel (Reanna Roane), who practically danced the Shakespearian lines, enriching the words with inhumanly beautiful body language.  

The costumes by Enee Olsen were eye catching, stylish and ridiculous. Layered skirts and multiple accessories on the aristocrats, paired with high tight buns and strong make up, make fun of the very idea of clothing. This mad interpretation of Renaissance costumes comments on how foolish clothing etiquette is, and how the standards of beauty and fashion strangle the body and the mind.  

Review: myth and realism in the ‘Crackskull Row’

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina: “All happy families look alike, every unhappy family is miserable in it’s own way”. So every time I come to the theater and see a couch in the middle of a living room on stage, I expect to see yet another way of how this particular family is unhappy. ‘Crackskull Row’ indeed tells a story of one Dublin family, which used to live on the street that gave the paly its name. But as the tale progresses, we become increasingly unsure of what is real, what is not, who is alive and who is dead. The dark and disturbing play by Honor Molloy walks in circles through the swamped woods of one’s mind, leaving us without the firm ground of reality until the end. 

The matriarch of the family, Masher Moorigan (Terry Donnelly), has no energy or desire to leave her shabby couch; it looks like she has spent days on it. Everything she needs to be at hand she hides between the cushions: sweets, a candle and bandage. Everything she doesn’t need she hides there as well, like utility bills, which she clearly is not paying. The house is falling apart – the inner structures of the walls are peaking through. 

The scenic designer, Daniel Geggatt, did a great job creating an atmosphere of decay. The costumes by Siena Zoe Allen took it even further by layering women’s garments in the manner of homeless people, combining the 60’s and 90’s in the eclectic outfits. Little details, like vines in Masher’s hair and vines swallowing the fence outside the house, turn the stage into a family crypt where the living, ghosts, memories and hallucinations are in agony and unable to find their rest.      

When Masher’s daughter, Dolly (Gina Costigan), appears from the fireplace, she has to use the rainwater from the bowl outside to wash her mother’s feet because there is no running water in the house. After performing this “biblical” ritual, the women discover that the water turned to blood. They seem to get over this phenomenon quickly and continue teasing each other and reminiscing about the past. 

Terry Donnelly, portraying Masher Moorigan, seems to wear this part like a second skin. The actress switches gears smoothly, puling out both comedic and tragic parts of her character. Gina Costigan doubles as the young Masher, a woman trying to escape her unbearable life conditions but only pushing her family towards the catastrophe. Colin Lane plays both grown up Rasher, Masher’s son, and Basher, her husband, with scary intensity. The cast is complete with John Charles McLaughlin, playing young Rash and an ESB utilities boy.           

‘Crackskull Row’ intertwines realism and myth, giving a homicide in Dublin the taste of a Greek tragedy. It’s a very heavy and painful story brilliantly worded by Honor Molloy and directed by Kira Simring. Expect to hear heavy Irish accents that create another layer of unique atmosphere in this show, supported by the dim lighting design by Gertland Houben and haunting sound track by M. Florian Staab.           

 ‘Crackskull Row’ runs through September 25th, Thursday & Friday at 7pm, Saturday at 3pm & 7pm, and Sunday at 3pm with additional performances Sept. 14th & 21st at 7pm. The Main Stage of the Workshop Theater at 312 West 36th Street – West of 8th Avenue – in NYC.  Tickets are $25. For more information about the show and tickets go to www.thecelltheatre.org

Photo: Michael Bonasio
 

Review: ‘The Further Adventures Of…’ by TOSOS at the Fringe 2016

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

I hope one day people will say: “I can’t imagine there were times when somebody had to hide their homosexuality in fear that they won’t be accepted”. I was thinking about it while watching my second show produced by TOSOS, the first professional theater company established in 1974 in New York to deal “openly and honestly” with the LGBT experience. 

Kathleen Warnock’s The Further Adventures Of… shows some anachronisms, just like the company’s signature play, Doric Wilson’s Street Theater. Like the fact that the heroine, Maggie, had to go to Vermont to marry her girlfriend. These traces of a certain time period make The Further Adventures Of… a testimony of an epoch, yet at the same time it’s a timeless story of love, superheroes and a writer. Part of the Fringe Festival this year, The Further Adventures Of… began it’s journey in 2007. Kathleen Warnock first wrote it for Wings Theater’s 24-hour play festival, since then the play has been produced 12 times (by Kathleen’s count). What began as a 10-minute play became a 75-minute show, every minute of which is brisk and engaging.  

Meet Maggie Day (Jamie Heinlein, who originated the role), the writer investigating the behind-the-scenes of the 50s sci-fi serial, Atlantis, 1 Million Years B.C. The TV show about Commander Zoron (Mark Finley) and Prince Kal (Tim Burke) holds a special place in her heart. Watching it and reenacting scenes with her friend made her realize two important things about herself: she is a lesbian and she wants to be a writer. 

From her childhood memories brought to life by Tim Burke and Mark Finley, we fast-forward to Maggie’s meetings with the aged producer of Atlantis (Mark Finley), and equally aged Frank Gallagher, who played Prince Kal (Tim Burke). As Maggie is pulling other people’s secrets from the closet, she analyzes her own marriage, writer’s ethical boundaries, and her life principals.               

All three actors: Heinlein, Burke and Finley have played in this show during multiple runs, which might explain the great chemistry on stage. Direction by Eric Chase brings forward the smart, funny and touching writing of Warnock. The ascetic design is entirely just one chair on stage.

At times I wanted to close my eyes and enjoy The Further Adventures Of… as if it was an audio book. The text consisting of dialogue, followed by Maggie’s reflection on them delivered directly to the audience, sounded a lot like an investigating journalistic podcast. But I just couldn’t take my eyes of the stage where Burke and Finley. Both were dressed in crisp white shirts and portraying multiple people from Maggie’s memories and fantasies, sometimes in a hilarious campy manner and sometimes so touching and believable that it made me tear up.            

Tickets are $18.00 and are available at www.fringenyc.org. Performances take place at Venue #3, Teatro LATEA, 107 Suffolk Street (between Rivington & Delancey). Subway: F to Delancey, J/M/Z to Essex.

Remaining Show dates are:
Saturday, August 20 @ 7:15 pm
Wednesday, August 24 @ 5:00 pm
Saturday, August 27 @ 9:15 pm

For more information, visit www.tososnyc.org

Review: I survived ‘In The Event of My Death’ at the IRT Theater

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

During the first act of In The Event of My Death, I had a feeling that I am reading somebody else’s Facebook feed and I am increasingly losing interest in it. Now the grown up high school friends and acquaintances are assembling for an informal mourning of their friend Freddy, who committed suicide. We newer see Freddy and never get a chance to sympathies with him - the situation is as awkward as being at the funeral of somebody you didn’t know.

Unfortunately none of the former schoolmates, written by Lindsay Joy, are particularly interesting. Peter (John Racioppo) lives in his parents’ house, works for his dad, and is considered a loser by his friends. Amber (Lisa Jill Anderson) is a chubby misfit seeking confidence in drugs. Becky (Samantha Strelitz) is a prom queen, who used to treat everybody badly and now is hated by the group, except for Peter because they are dating now. Trevor is a gay guy. Conner works in advertising in New York. 

Photo credit: Katy Atwell

Photo credit: Katy Atwell

Direction of Padraic Lillis often gets trapped in stereotypes as well. Scenic design, by Doss Freel, featured a boring living room with highly organized, and therefore artificial, looking mess in the beginning. The set had a nice addition, a porch, where the action took place sometimes. Movement in the living room was frozen for the duration of the porch scenes, which was an interesting director’s choice but didn’t quite land. With flat jokes, clichéd sentiments and endless gossip about two-dimensional people who you don’t care about, I barely made it through the first act. 

The intermission was presented like a TV commercial with act one ending on a sudden appearance of two sisters and the girlfriend (Breanna Foister) of Freddy, interrupting the gang’s wild dancing. Act two picked up from the same moment and finally the show got some fresh air. As we learn more about Freddy’s older sister Meg (Lillith Fallon) and his twin sister Kate (Kara Young), the complicated family dynamics makes the show much more interesting.     

In The Event of My Death runs through August 21st at IRT Theater (154 Christopher Street, third floor) with performances Wednesday through Friday at 7pm, Saturday at 3pm & 7pm, Sunday at 3pm, and Monday at 7pm. Tickets ($18; $20 at the door) are available online at www.stablecablelabco.org or by calling Brown Paper Tickets 1-800-838-3006

Review: ‘Newton’s Cradle’, a special musical about a special young man at NYMF

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

Review: ‘Newton’s Cradle’, a special musical about a special young man 

New York Musical Festival is over but hopefully we will have a chance to see Newton’s Cradle again. The musical won 6 well-deserved awards, including NYMF Award for Best Musical Sponsored by Play-by-Play. Tony Award-winning actress, Victoria Clark (A Light in the Piazza, 2005–06), added an NYMF Outstanding Direction award to her regalia.   

Newton’s Cradle tells the story of Evan (Heath Saunders), a young man diagnosed with autism, yet bright and highly functional. He brings his girlfriend, Charlie (Rachel Kara Perez, Outstanding Individual Performance), to his parent’s cabin in Alaska to propose, but things didn’t go as smoothly as planned. Charlie’s uncertainty about marriage makes Evan look back at his past and reevaluate his principals.  

The cast of 'Newton's Cradle." (Photo: Michael Kushner)

The cast of 'Newton's Cradle." (Photo: Michael Kushner)

Present and past overlap in Evan’s head, he confesses that this is how his mind works. Instead of a linear plot, we are presented with a tangle of memories, imaginary interactions and present day events. This structure, although confusing at times, is very engaging and allows for interesting overlap both in dialogue and staging. 

As characters enter the house, (minimalistic scenic design by Luke Hegel Cantarella), they remove their shoes, lining them up without distinguishing between “shoes from the past” and “shoes from the present day”. Often scenes overlap, different dialogues get mixed up, lines increase their frequency and reach a state of turmoil where it is impossible to distinguish individual words. Sometimes this cacophony evolves to a beautiful harmony, which gives the audience a wonderful sensation of untangling a tight knot. 

Although the structure of Newton’s Cradle is supposed to reflect how the brain of a special kid makes connections, the feeling of deep satisfaction when pieces of a puzzle fall into place is familiar to everybody. It is easy to relate to the struggle with labels which society and family put on you, trying to define your identity and determine your future. Maybe that’s why Newton’s Cradle feels so warm and personal. 

May be the reason behind the incredible warm-heartedness of the piece is the fact that the music, lyrics and book were created by the mother-and-son duo of Kim and Heath Saunders (NYMF award for Outstanding Lyrics). Another member of the family, Trent Saunders, won in the category of Outstanding Performance for the Supporting Role for his portrayal of Michael, the non-autistic brother of Evan. His layered performance demonstrated the difficult position of a “healthy” sibling, caring and attentive at times, angry and violent at others. 
   
Andrea Jones-Sojola singing the part of Audrey, mother of two boys, won in the category of Outstanding Performance for a Leading Role.  She perfectly captured the state of a frustrated and tired woman that is not giving up. Her pain and love for her kids is poured out in a beautiful and powerful number, “The Sun Will Newer Set”. The background screen brightens like a never fading Alaskan day, providing a simple backdrop for the beautiful performance of Jones-Sojola. 

Review: ‘LUDO’s Broken Bride’ walks down the aisle with pterodactyls swarming above her

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

When you enter the Duke on 42nd street theater, a warning sign greets you: “This performance contains Raptors, Wormholes, The 80’s… And Strobe lighting”. And the creators of LUDO’s Broken Bride were not kidding.  Prepare to experience the effect of an exploding piñata stuffed with intense rock music, puppet dinosaurs, dancing zombies and other awesome things. If you missed LUDO’s Broken Bride during New York Musical Festival you sure missed a lot, but hopefully this rock opera will be picked up and will have an extended run, as it deserves it like nobody else. 

With concept, music and lyrics by LUDO, direction by Stacey Weingarten and Donna Drake, the show ties the band’s rock songs into a coherent narrative about a time traveler, Tom, on his journey to prevent the death of his wife. We are witnessing his journey from prehistoric dinosaurs to an apocalyptic future mixed with a flashback parallel story of how he met and married Oriel.   

Photos by Jeremy Daniel

Photos by Jeremy Daniel

The songs by LUDO are rich in narration by themselves. Unfortunately, it was difficult to hear the lyrics over the music sometimes, but the imagery created by puppets (designed by Sierra Schoening) and video projections (Pauline Lu) helped to fill in the gaps. The promised dinosaurs, zombies and dragons were delivered galore. One night in the theater turned out to be a rock concert, a haunted house and a fashion show. Credit to the last one goes to the designer, Bree Perry, with special applause for her work on King Simius’ costume (devilishly charismatic Brian Charles Rooney). 

LUDO’s Broken Bride’s flashbacks are set in the 80s and namely the costumes and meticulous styling creates its unique visuals. The production design by Justin and Christopher Swader is minimalistic and virtually non-existing. The elements of it are very few: trunks (to give a stage some relief), a draped stand-alone wall and a vertical bed on the other side. But even this modest set design could be minimalized even further taking into the account the abundant puppetry and dancing.   

Choreography by Steven Paul Blandino utilizes available space fully. Most notable are the duets of Tomas’ and Oriel’s dancing doubles (Spenser Clark and Melissa Hunter McCann). Or should I say “dancing souls” as they express the overwhelming emotions of Oriel (Gabrielle McClinton) and Thomas, from the flashbacks (Michael Jayne Walker), through dance. McClinton and Walker were very sincere and sweet as young lovers. McClinton doubles as a kick-ass single mother, Uchefuna, from an apocalyptic future where Thomas, the time traveler (Carson Higgins), arrives accidentally.           

Brendan Malafronte as the puppet captain was incredible! Even with his great puppeteer skills it was hard not to watch his lively acting, his face and body working as one with a puppet.  I wish we could see more of Larry Hamilton singing the part of the Archangel, Reguel, with his magical voice. He spends the entire show on the catwalk and doesn’t come down even for a curtain call. I guess, even with the whole dinosaurs and dragons fantasy, this sci-fi gloomy fairytale is true to life: you can’t bring people back to life and ask an archangel for a curtain call.

Review: ‘Lisa and Leonardo’, a sketch of the musical at NYMF

Asys Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

Presented at New York Musical Festival, Lisa and Leonardo, with music by Donya Lane, lyrics by Ed McNamee and book by McNamee, Lane and Michael Unger, has an half-baked quality to it. This circumstance is acceptable if we are ready to look at it as a showcase with roughly sketched out mise-en-scenes and some elements of scenic design. The show definitely has some potential and I can easily imagine it finding it’s audience in an intimate off-Broadway venue. But everybody, and most of all the director, Michelle Tattenbaum, has a lot of work to do. 

Photo: Matt Montath

Photo: Matt Montath

The story is set in 16th century Florence with Leonardo Da Vinci in the middle of it. Timothy John Smith portrays the Renaissance genius with humane softness and serious ADD – the artist and inventor has trouble finishing any of his projects. His apprentice and lover, Salai (fiery Ravi Roth), is helping Leonardo organize his life, but the scatter-brained genius only gains focus when Lisa (Lizzie Klemperer) enters his life. The Florentine silk merchant, Francesco (Dennis Holland), commissions Leonardo to paint his young wife, and so the friendship between the artist and the model begins. 

During the duets of Lisa and Leonardo, “Choose One” and “Chicken Doesn’t Fly”, I thought to myself, what a nice solid story of friendship and creative collaboration between a man and a woman. But to my disappointment, towards the end of the first act the friendship quickly turned to passionate kissing on the table and to pregnancy in the second act. This made up story of the relationship between Leonardo and the subject of the famous painting has a scent of the cheap dime-store novel with a tyrant husband, helpful friend, escape and happy reunion. 

There is a second political plot line focusing on war with Pisa. Although the connection to the romance of Lisa and Leonardo is a little loose, this parallel story features some enjoyable characters. Every number with Isabella D’Este (comically vain Marissa M. Miller) is a delightful and funny showstopper. With support of her entourage and the single roll of red fabric for palace décor, Miller created probably the most lively and consistent character in the musical. 

The scenic design by Reid Thompson, as did everything in this show, demonstrated some interesting ideas but didn’t quite come together. Two taut strings above the stage had interior elements hanging from them, marking different settings: a scrap of fabric for silk merchant’s house, sketches for Leonardo’s studio. As actors entered the stage, they pulled the necessary part from the wings allowing for the smooth transitions without extra people involved. I found this quite elegant and inventive, very much in the spirit of Leonardo’s drawings. 

It seemed odd that we don’t see a single painting in a musical about a painter. Instead, we are forced to look at two banners of a cityscape, presumably cropped out from some picture of the period. They eat up a lot of space on the narrow stage and although they did a simple little trick in the end, they were very inefficient and inexpressive.                     

Review: ‘Strange Country’ at Access Theatre

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

Tiffany (Vanessa Vache) has a lot on her plate on the weekend of 4th of July. She needs to organize a recommitment ceremony of her parents and bring her brother Darryl (Sidney Williams) to the event, which he resists with all the energy, remaining in his depressed and constantly buzzed mind. Tiffany’s girlfriend Jamie (Bethany Geraghty) tag along but her high sensitivity to the mess in the apartment and siblings arguing makes her a terrible help. So here we are, in a small town in Bell County, Texas, trapped in the apartment with three lost soles, watching them helping and terrorizing each other, and it’s not always evident which one it is (is it clear here?)  

Strange Country, produced by New Light Theater Project and Access Theater, is a play written by Anne Adams. She created three complex characters who’s state of being is stagnation jet there is a constant movement in the show which makes it very engulfing (?). Feisty Tiffany, portrayed by Vanessa Vache is like a launched (?) arrow, she has a goal in front of her and she is pushing hard to get there. She is very active on stage, constantly cleaning and packing, smoking in between, firing inspirational lines. Her disturbed other half Jamie played within a broad emotional range by Bethany Geraghty is the one who stirs sibling’s lives. The real dark horse in the play is Darryl brought to life by Sidney Williams. His performance is evenly mellow on the surface throughout the show yet he seems like a different person towards the end of it. 

Three wonderful actors directed by Jay Stull have an amazing chemistry and play off each other very well. Every pause is in its place and even when we are left alone, looking at the stage that everybody left, the anticipation is charged with possibilities.    

The single set designed by Brian Dudkiewicz is a scarily realistically looking apartment with junk crammed (напиханный) everywhere, faded wallpaper and greased lazy-boy. The interior portrays Darryl’s emotional state very well. The lighting design by Michael O'Connor creates seamless transitions between different times of the two days over which the story is unfolding. 

Alcohol and drug abuse, violent temper, broken marriages and children in custody of the ex spouse without visitation rights - Darryl and Jamie have a lot in common. While Tiffany is running around trying to make everything right, the two “most screwed up people in the world” are bonding. Adams doesn’t give us a straightforward answer if they are helping each other or ruining each other’s and theirs futures. Much like in life, there is no black and white, there is a constant struggle for truth and happiness and sometimes people disagree on what is right and their happiness hurts other people. 

Strange Country is running through August 13, Wednesday –Saturday at 8pm. Access Theater is located at 380 Broadway on the 4th floor (at White Street) Tickets are $15 at 630-632-1459 or strangecountry.brownpapertickets.com.

Review: ‘Then She Fell’, the house haunted with desires

Asya Danilova

OnStage New York Critic

The life, works and myths of Lewis Carroll laid the groundwork for Then She Fell. Written, directed, designed and choreographed by Zach Morris, Tom Pearson and Jennine Willett, the show first opened in New York in 2012 and has been on the list of the unique and most popular theater attractions ever since. This piece of sight-specific immersive theater by Third Rail Projects invites only 15 audience members per performance, which makes the experience very personal. You have to be curious and brave enough to jump down this rabbit hole, but if you do, you will be rewarded with a journey full of theater magic.  

When you enter the Kingsland Ward “hospital facility” in Williamsburg, one of the staff members gives you a set of instructions and checks your ID. You are invited to the waiting area where a nurse checks your belongings, hands you a vial of dark herbal elixir and a set of three keys. According to the facility rules, you are welcome to investigate locked cabinets and dark corners of the rooms but not allowed to open any closed doors. 

As the Doctor (Charley Wenzel) does the introduction, members of the audience are being pulled out of the room in groups of as many as four and few as one. Hospital staff and characters inspired by “Alice In Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” inhabit the house and lead you from one room to another. With the help of the original music and sound design by Sean Hagerty and the lighting design by Kryssy Wright, the audience is transported to a zone of the unconscious where dreams and desires meet. 

The order of the scenes is different for everybody. I start my journey alone with Alice (Julia Kelly) in her walk-in-closet. She shows me her doll collection and asks to select my favorite one. She asks me when was the first time that I fell in love and if I ever had to tell a person that I don’t love them even if I did at least a little bit. She asks me to brush the back of her hair. 

This extreme artistic device of putting you in the scene by making you speak, do things or simply make a choice provides you with a different kind of theater experience. It certainly engages you and doesn’t allow the mind to drift away. It also makes the fourth wall thin and fragile especially in the moments when the actors are piercing you with their eyes. The effect gets only stronger when you are alone with the person in a tiny room. For me, the main event of the evening became the gaze that cast members wear, as though part of their wardrobe. This calm and steady staring is disarming and paralyzing. It has a seducing intensity but there is no object and no subject of desire, just the gaze. 

There are scenes where you are invited to assume the position that is more familiar for a theatergoer, the position of a voyeur. I’ve been told to wait in the hallway by the Doctor’s office. The door is open and I see the Doctor going through her paperwork and cabinets filled with files and tools. As she does it, she dances around the room, on the cabinets, chairs and window cell. 

Then She Fell contains numerous beautifully choreographed scenes such as this one, where dancers give the space new dimensions by employing every single surface in the room. Sometimes they literarily turn the space upside down and outside out making the familiar architectural and interior objects look like M. C. Escher’s drawings. The most spectacular illustration to my words is a duet of Lewis Carroll (Samuel Swanton) and the second Alice (Kim Savarino) on the staircase where the dancers were going up sideways, almost parallel to the ground, using the space between the staircase and the wall. 

There are other stunning visuals in the show, a lot of them build around the mirror as an object and as a metaphor of duality. I could watch the hypnotizing dance of both Alices with a semi-translucent mirror between them forever. Then She Fell engages not only your sight and your hearing, but also your smell and taste. You are offered a vial of alcoholic potion here and there, occasionally a fruit, a tiny cup of tea.            

The connection between the hospital entourage and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s (aka Lewis Carroll’s) story remained a mystery to me. As I was guided through the rooms and hallways of the three-story house, it seemed like two worlds exist in parallel universes and you are standing in the doorway between them. Are the characters of the novels patrons of the hospital? Are you the patient that is hallucinating the imaginary romance between the writer and his 11-year old muse? The best way to find out is to jump down the rabbit hole. After all, Then She Fell is a mirror held to you, and everybody sees something different in there.      
 
Then She Fell by Third Rail Projects runs Tuesday - Sunday at 7:30pm & 10:30pm.  Tickets are $95 - $200, available at www.thenshefell.com through September 25. Private events are also available; visit the website for more information. The Kingsland Ward at St. Johns is located 195 Maujer Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. For more information call 718-374-5196.

Review: Bloody family secrets of ‘The Red Room’

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

Set on Thanksgiving, The Red Room, a new play by Morgan McGuire introduces us to one disturbed family for which this day carries a different meaning. Three Hodges siblings are visiting their parents Gerald (Thomas F. Walsh) and Jeannie (Sheila Stasack) in Northern California anticipating the sentencing of the murderer of their brother Tommy. The tragic event that happened four years ago still haunts the family and is about to bring more pain and destruction. 

Two sisters, older Kate (Meghan E. Jones) and younger Ceeci (Jessica O’Hara-Baker) hold opposite opinions on justice and forgiveness, which fuels the main conflict of the play. But even before the painful past and the tragic present enter the room, the atmosphere is very unsettling. The homey living room designed by Christopher Bowers is put together with much love and attention to detail. A wooden staircase leads to the unseen upstairs, and the old-fashioned furniture looks inviting. As we “zoom out” we see that the stage is a stand-alone construction with its edge lit red, its posts buried in a sea of documents. The walls are tiled with the same documents creating the space of a mad researcher.     

Michael Kingsbaker and Meghan E. Jones in The Red Room. Photo by Michael Bernstein.

Michael Kingsbaker and Meghan E. Jones in The Red Room. Photo by Michael Bernstein.

Patrick’s (Michael Kingsbaker) foreplay with his wife, Kate, is interrupted by the arrival of Ceeci and her boyfriend (Rob Brinkman) accompanied by John (John DiMino), the youngest in the family. The chatter rises up as multiple people start talking at the same time. It becomes especially hard to hear what anybody is saying when the baby monitor goes on. The longer Kate ignores her baby’s cry, the more irritation it causes the members of the family and the audience. A scene follows this supposedly hyper-realistic situation of overlapping dialogues where John talks on the phone “outside,” located in the foreground, but we only see him moving his lips. I don’t know which director’s decision threw me off more; the silent phone call or the cacophony.

Probably the only time when overlapping dialogue is appropriate and well orchestrated by the director, Jenny Beth Snyder, is the visit of Melissa (Orisa Henderson), the Deputy District Attorney. This is one of the most intense and nicely timed dialogues I’ve heard in the theater lately. As Melissa is trying to explain the importance of the presence of the family during the sentencing, Kate, who is obsessed with revenge, is constantly interrupting. In her usual manner she is trying to overpower everybody in the room but suddenly meets a firm resistance from her younger sister, Ceeci. 

Meghan E. Jones delivers a heated performance with quite a few explosions as her anger shakes the air in the room. Her pregnancy adds an edge to the character, making it more complex and three-dimensional. The aura of purity and meekness that stereotypically surrounds a pregnant woman is shattered to pieces by Jones’ aggressive and violent energy. Her mimicry and gesticulation is sharp and exaggerated in the moments of the argument when she is not speaking, which provides a statement as powerful as the opponent’s. 

The intrigue of the The Red Room’s plot is built on revealing the facts of the past. A tragic event triggers the conflict to explode. The sadness and ugliness in the family is brought to the surface as we see Hodges’ deal with it. The problem is that from the very beginning the sad and ugly was too close to the surface both in the text of play and the performances. I was numb by the culmination. The same goes for the printed documents in which the stage is sinking. It’s already there, right in your face, so when the two younger siblings finally address it towards the end, there is no wow-effect for which the changing lighting (Joe Cantalupo) and ambient music (sound design by Aidan Meyer) call.   
             
The Red Room is produced by The Shelter Theatre Company. The show runs through July 30th, Thursday - Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. TGB Theatre is located at 312 West 36th Street, between 8th & 9th Avenues. Tickets are $18, available at 212-352-3101 or www.theshelternyc.org.

Review: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’: a hipster romance in the parking lot.

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

You probably know the story of Shakespearian A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Hermia is in love with Lysander but her farther insists that she marry Demetrius. Helena, Hermia’s friend and partner in crime, adores Demetrius who can’t stand her. Then there is a troupe of amateur actors preparing a play for the wedding of Duke Theseus and Hippolyta. There is the king of fairies Oberon, his queen Titania, and fairies. Everybody’s paths cross in the woods where fairies mess with humans. 

Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, presented by The Drilling CompaNY, sets the story in modern day New York City, which seems very appropriate when taking into the account the specifics of the venue. Loyal to the tradition started in 1995, the production takes place in a literal parking lot which is provided by The Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center on lower East Side.    

Photo: The Drilling Company

Photo: The Drilling Company

As always, all the seats are free, there is no lottery, no line. The set consists of two small stages atop plastic buckets. Plastic chairs for the audience are arranged in a U shape. Lighting design features the same bare functionality: a few strings of bulbs above the action and two halogen work lights upfront illuminate the action as it gets darker outside. But don’t be fooled by the guerrilla style of the production.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Parking Lot offers some top-notch talent directed by inventive Kathy Curtiss.  

The magical Shakespearian forest is transformed into the city jungle of East Village. Lysander (Eddie Shields) and Hermia (Mary Linehan) are two hipsters, Demetrius (Bradford Frost) and Helena (Kathleen Simmonds) represent a wealthier youth. The royals Theseus (Zander Meisner) and Hippolyta (Zoe Anastassiou) are transformed into rock-musicians. The troupe of actors hold day jobs at Google. And the fairies are still fairies because there is always a place for magic in the city. 

Although the reinvented social roles don’t quite fit into a believable and organic symbiosis of the urban habitat, this rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is still very enjoyable. The inclusion of modern slang and New York locations into Shakespearian text takes you by surprise every time and actually helps keep focus on the ornate Jacobean poetry. This adaptation of the text adds more spice to this comedy and presents a great example of the easiness and playfulness with which classics can be presented. 

This “easiness” is not easy to achieve, the challenge for the director is to keep viewers engaged and hopefully laughing yet not pandering to the broad audience. Kathy Curtiss is doing a great job creating an atmosphere of “magical urbanism”, where the scent of purple love flowers is mixed with the smell of fresh asphalt, and inhabiting it with timely and funny characters. 

But sometimes she misses the mark by highlighting characters that don’t bring much to the table. By giving each fairy a name and a distinct personality, the director honors their acting talent but steals the attention from more important issues. While the side stories can be funny showstoppers, there is a risk of overpowering the main action, much in the spirit of Nick Bottom who wants to play all of the roles in the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in Space, and presents each of them with great passion. The performances of secondary characters needed to be fine-tuned and the background chatter lowered a bit, but strong professional actors in the leading roles saved the day.

The ensemble of young lovers, Lysander (Eddie Shields), Hermia (Mary Linehan), Demetrius (Bradford Frost) and Helena (Kathleen Simmonds) won my heart with Simmonds being my favorite star of the evening. These four nailed the “love quadrangle” sequences playfully. It seems like the passions burning inside made them sweat, not the heat of a midsummer’s New York night. The choreography of their movement conveyed as much information as words, making their dialogs look¬¬¬ like a dance. 

Enjoy the last two performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream produced by Shakespeare in the Parking Lot on Friday, July 22nd and Saturday, July 23st, both at 8pm. Parking Lot is located behind The Clemente, 114 Norfolk Street (E. side of Norfolk St. between Delancey and Rivington) All admission is free. Seats are available on a first come first served basis. 

Don’t worry if you missed Midsummer Night’s Dream, the second production of the season, The Merchant of Venice, will be running from July 28th to August 13th. For more information and schedule visit www.shakespeareintheparkinglot.com and www.drillingcompany.org 

Review: ‘Good’ is just okay.

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

A good man, a literature professor in Franklin University, John Halder, makes all the right decisions in his life: he looks after his aging mother, who is suffering from dementia, he puts up with his mess of a wife, and he joins the Nazis. Two hours we spent in his head watching him rationalizing atrocious orders of the party. The fact that burning books, and later Jews, is logically justified by this intelligent mind, makes the play by Cecil Philip Taylor, written and first produced in 1982, desperately painful. 

Celebrating its 30th season, Potomac Theatre Project (PTP/NYC) puts on a revival of Good, under direction of Jim Petosa, following the company’s stride in creating socially and politically charged theater.  Good refers to the 1930s in Germany and takes place in John Halder’s head (Michael Kaye). Interactions with different people and different scenes are connected seamlessly. He sometimes directly addresses the audience, which serves as Halder’s conscience and judge. 

Minimalistic scenic design by Mark Evancho, although lacking clarity, conveys an ambiguous space: three cubes in the middle of the stage work as various furniture in different scenes, four benches mark the edge of the stage and provide seating for actors not involved in the dialog. Their presence seems appropriate, as these people always inhabit Halder’s head, even outside of the direct communication. The piano in the middle is rarely used as a musical instrument but more often as a podium or storage. 

Music plays a big part in Good as we hear songs and instrumental pieces playing in the professor’s head, accompanying significant moments in his life. It is odd to see a silent piano; note sheets spread on the floor in one corner and records in another but hear music coming from nowhere. This detachment of the sound from the source causes on an uncanny feeling of detachment from reality, a suspension in somebody else’s fantasy. 

Photo: Stan Barouh

Photo: Stan Barouh

At times we hear “real” people coming through, like Halder’s Jewish friend Maurice (Tim Spears). With his raising concerns for the lives of his family and himself, this joyful man becomes more and more desperate. The comedic relief, which Tim Spears hits strongly in the beginning by crawling and hiding behind the furniture as soon as he sees a Nazi officer, disperses quickly when the menace becomes more real. Halder pushes his friend away and occupies his family mansion where he brings his young lover, Anne (Caitlin Rose Duffy). 

By choosing the immature student, Anne, over his struggling with neuroses wife, Helen (Valerie Leonard), not only does he follow his passion but also his desire to hide himself in a comfortable life. A life where his favorite music is humming his conscience to sleep and his beautiful young lover tells him that they are good people as long as they are good to each other. Halder’s attachment to material pleasures, no matter where they come from, the willingness to alter his principles to the point where they are turned upside down, and indifference to “the others” makes him a very real and timeless character with which we don’t sympathize but hopefully are able to identify ourselves.      

Performances of Good are Tuesdays - Sundays at 7pm, and Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm. The schedule varies - for exact days and times visit http://PTPNYC.org. Tickets are $35, $20 for students and seniors, and can be purchased online at http://PTPNYC.org or by calling 1-866-811-4111. For info visit http://PTPNYC.org, follow on Twitter at @ptpnyc, and Like them on Facebook at https://www.Facebook.com/pages/Potomac-Theatre-Project-PTP/32709392256.

Review: ‘The Golden Bride’ a pure joy of Yiddish operetta

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

With the decline of the Yiddish speaking population around the world there are only five professional theater companies that are consistently producing Yiddish plays or plays translated to Yiddish; the Folksbiene is one of them. Founded in 1915 it is considered the oldest theater company in New York, Yiddish and English. For the sound of Yiddish language alone this musical would be worth seeing and hearing as it is, unfortunately, a rare cultural experience. The show is accompanied by English and Russian supertitles so no need to worry about catching up with the plot. Especially since it is so charmingly naïve and straight forward. 

Goldele (Rachel Policar), a girl abandoned in childhood, living in a Shtetl (a Jewish settlement) in Russia receives the news about inheriting a fortune from her father. Her American uncle Benjamin (Bob Adler) comes to the village to accompany his nice to the New World. Every young men in town is exited and wants to marry “the golden bride”, and every girl is ecstatic with joy for her lucky friend. The story is a pure joyful immigrant fantasy featuring the loving community of the Shtetl and exuberant life in America.  

The cast of 20 with their strong voices and orchestra of 14, conducted by Zulmen Mlotek, bring up a hurricane of sounds so sweet and rich it grabs you immediately. The lightness of the music and the subject matter is combined with opera arias, which gives a genre of operetta its distinct style and fills the audience of different tastes and backgrounds with warmth and satisfaction. The duet of Rachel Policar (simpleminded and sweet Goldele) and Cameron Johnson (Disney-prince-like Misha) was especially strong. 

The Golden Bride (Yiddish: Die Goldene Kale) is a 1923 operetta with music by Joseph Rumshinsky, lyrics by Louis Gilrod and a book by Frieda Freiman. It was last produced in 1948 and than forgotten until the Folksbiene, the National Yiddish Theatre in New York revived it in December 2015. The show was nominated for two Drama Desk Awards and now is enjoying its second run at the Museum of Jewish heritage.    

The Golden Bride runs through August 28, 2016 on the following schedule: Mondays at 7:30pm; Wednesdays at 2pm & 7:30pm; Thursdays at 2pm; and Sundays at 2pm & 6pm. There are also additional performances July 14 at 7:30pm, July 15 at 1pm, August 9 at 2pm, August 11 at 7:30pm. The Museum of Jewish Heritage is located at 36 Battery Place at First Place -- accessible from the 4/5 trains at Bowling or the 1/R at Rector Street. Tickets are $40 at (866) 811-4111 or nytf.org.

Review: ‘Liberty, a Monumental New Musical’ teaches a history and human rights lesson to the entire family

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic 

Liberty, a Monumental New Musical presents the adventures and misfortunes of the Statue of Liberty on her way to becoming a national landmark and international symbol of a welcoming light of a new home for immigrants.Liberty is portrayed as a young girl (delightful performance by Abigail Shapiro) sent to New York by her father Bartholdi (Ryan Duncan also playing a Native American).

With no penny in her pocket she walks the streets of downtown New York City and meets immigrants from all over Europe as well as marginalized locals – a black person and a Native American. They share the stories of their struggles as they look for work and confront the authorities represented by bureaucrat Francis A. Walker (Brandon Andrus, too charming for a servant of evil) and the lady of society Regina Schuyler (hilariously doubling as a Jewish, Russian immigrant).

Abigail Shapiro, Brandon Andrus and cast (Russ Rowland)

Abigail Shapiro, Brandon Andrus and cast (Russ Rowland)

Supplied by the recommendation letter from her father, Liberty is seeking the patronage of Walker but is getting a hard no during the playful duet “Charity Tango” which Walker and Schuyler apparently “don’t do”. The help comes from the poor immigrants and citizens who all pitch in as a part of the campaign of Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of New York World (Mark Aldrich also performing the part of an Irish immigrant).Though this story might sound too rose-tinted-glasses, it is based on real life events. The fundraising for the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty attracted more than 120,000 contributors, most of who gave less than a dollar.

The joyous moment of giving Liberty her home is completed by the sonnet composed by Emma Lazarus (Emma Rosenthal). The famous lines “Give me your tired, your poor…” are made into a beautiful song “The New Colossus” and makes everybody’s eyes sparklewith tears.

The main element of the lighting design by Jamie Roderick is an LED backdrop with changing “postcard” views. Other than that there is practically no set with the exception of a couple of trunks and ladders. The historically inspired costumes by Deborah Hobson stand out against the electronic images of scenery.

Liberty, a Monumental New Musical with book and lyrics by Dana Leslie Goldstein and music by Jon Goldstein is a very engaging rendition of history from human perspective. Directed by Evan Papas, it is a delightful family show.

After its opening on 4th of July, Liberty will be running on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday at 3pm & 7pm & Thursday at 12pm at 3pm at 42 West (514 West 42). Tickets are $72/$36 (Premium/ Child Premium); $63 (Adult); $27 (Children 4-12) and can be purchased by visiting LibertyTheMusical.com.

Group Sales Inquires: 1.866.811.4111

Broadway Review: ‘The Color Purple’ Celebrates the Liberated Woman

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

The Color Purple, the Musical is an adaptation of the 1983 novel of the same name written by Alice Walker. It won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The Color Purple was made into a film directed by Steven Spielberg in 1985. The musical opened on Broadway in 2005 for the first time and ran through February 2008. Featuring the book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray this 2015 Broadway revival directed by John Doyle received a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. 
    
The second Tony award the show received went to the star of the show, British actress Cynthia Erivo, for the Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical. And I must admit, even though musicals are not my favorite form of theater and I rarely get them, this one got me, largely because of Erivo’s colossal performance. 

The transformation from 14 year-old Celie, pregnant with the second child from her father to an empowered and wise woman, is incredible to witness. Celie has a massive arc of character; her story has a separation from beloved sister, abusive marriage to Mister, love affair with the female jazz singer named Shug Avery, their life in Memphis and opening her own business. It’s a blessing and a curse for an actor. On the one hand this narrative gives you a wide range of emotions to work within, on the other it can easily become a soap opera like. 

But Cynthia Erivo owns the part, she lives and breathes Celie, and it’s impossible not to fall in love with her as the entire audience of more then a thousand people, filling the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, does. They laugh and sigh in unison, with the corner of my eye I see people brush away tears and I see hands waving in the air like at a rock concert. When Erivo is leaving her despotic husband and yells in rage: “I may be poor, I may be black but I’m here!” and throws her apron on the ground, a thousand people scream as if it was their own victory. 

The joy and energy of “Miss Celie’s Pants” number is contagious, Erivo leads a choir of ladies hopping on and off the chairs in a rousing number celebrating female entrepreneurs. By the end of it the audience claps so long and hard that Erivo has to step out of the shoes of her heroine and put on a conductor’s hat. With a single sign of her hand she makes the raucous ocean of applause quiet, sings one line and the audience bursts into laughter. 

Erivo final solo “I’m Here” is performed on a bare stage with just the singer holding the attention. One can almost feel the vibration of the sound waves, as her voice is that strong. The powerful message of the song delivered by this wild voice lands directly in your heart. Sobbing and smiling, people hop on their feet and give Cynthia Erivo a long, substantive ovation. 

The other members of the cast form a magnificent ensemble making no number insignificant. The Color Purple features a variety of female characters that influenced Celie. There is her sister Nettie, a gentle soul (Adrianna Hicks substituting for Joaquina Kalukango), tough Sofia (Danielle Brooks) with a catch phrase and musical number “Hell No!”, seductive but a bit worn out Shug (Heather Headley) and a simple-minded Squeak (usually Patrice Covington but Phoenix Best in the performance that I attended). Male characters sparse in quantity and “quality”, lead by sadistic Mister (Isaiah Johnson) and his humble but goodhearted son Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe). 

This opposition of “bad” men and victimized women makes the story a bit one-sided. But it’s a piece of a commercial musical theater on Broadway so a head-on approach is unfortunately expected. However, the empowering effect of it is undeniable, I even saw somebody’s comment on Instagram: “this musical has a healing power”. Three main components of its success are: 1) the cast, 2) score of jazz, regtime, gospel and blues and 3) John Doyle, the director and set designer of The Color Purple.                                     

The story is set in the beginning of the 20th century in the rural South but you won’t see any sign of the pretentious realism in this production. John Doyle gets rid of the scenery and furniture, putting actors on a bare stage. He uses a series of objects as elements of set design and props: hats, large pieces of fabric, baskets but most of all chairs. Old wooden chairs of different designs are hanging on the back wall made of wooden planks, filing three segments from top to bottom. Actors sit on chairs, stand on chairs, use them as weapons and tools. Doyle gets very inventive and consistent in the use of chairs to the extent where this piece of furniture becomes a continuation of an actor’s body. 

The minimalism allows for the seamless transitions between the scenes, draws the attention to the actors and puts the story out of the historical context, hinting at the timelessness of these topics. It also accumulates symbolism around chair, like home and support, which is spelled out in the final solo “I’m Here”. Cynthia Erivo sings: “I got my house, it still keeps the cold out, I got my chair when my body can’t hold out” and lightly touches one of the chairs on the back wall. The anonymous chairs on the wall instantly become a representation of other women’s houses and lives.    

The Color Purple runs in Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre at 242 W 45th Street through December 18th. Tickets start from $59, go to http://colorpurple.com/tickets for purchase and more information.   

Broadway Review: 'Long Day’s Journey into Night' - The Brightest Picture of the Darkest Moment in One Family’s Life.

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

I don’t know where to begin my praise of Roundabout’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. The quality of production is exquisite, the play by Eugene O’Neil is a masterpiece, and the performances are at the top of the theater Olympus. It was nominated for 7 Tony awards this year and even though it only won two, Long Day’s Journey into Night is a central gem in the crown of the Roundabout’s anniversary 50th season and arguably the best play currently running on Broadway.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is a semi-biographical play by American classic Eugene O’Neil written in 1941-42, first published and performed in 1956. It tells the story of the Tyrone family and takes place on a single day in August 1912. A 3 hour 45 minute play drags us through numerous miseries of one family. 

Photo: Joan Marcus

Photo: Joan Marcus

James Tyrone, the patriarch, is an aging actor who killed his dramatic talent and professional opportunities by performing a romantic character in a “vehicle” play. This part brought him money but because of his miserliness, his family is unable to enjoy a comfortable life. The well fitted but stained suit designed by Jane Greenwood says it all: the man is a penny pincher. Gabriel Byrne, nominated for Tony Award as the best lead actor for this part, plays on a quieter side, the expression of tiredness never leaves his face.  

Jessica Lange portraying Mary Tyrone won a well-deserved Tony as best leading actress for her performance in this production of Long Day’s Journey into Night. Her unsettling nervousness, even in the beginning of the play when she tries to appear cheerful and flirty, conveys a deep discomfort that she ties to their nomadic life.     

Set design by Tom Pye features a faded interior with a dining room behind the glass doors in the back of the stage and an exit to the porch. Plenty of sky, visible through the windows, allows for observing the changing light throughout the day, orchestrated by Natasha Katz (Tony award for the best lighting design). However the openness of the space doesn’t leave an impression of lightness. The fog, constantly talked about in the play, finally appears towards the end, filling not only the porch but also the dining room with its greenish poisonous clouds. 

Trying to escape the unwelcoming outside world, Marry prefers to fog her head with morphine. As we find out in the beginning of the play, she is a recovering addict.   The entire family is worried that she will start taking the drug again. This becomes a very realistic prospect after she finds out that her younger son, Edmund (John Gallagher, Jr.), is sick. Even though his doctor recommends that he not drink, he can’t resist whiskey, to which the entire family is addicted, including the older brother, James (Michael Shannon), the bitter cynic and brothel frequenter.  

As the day moves inevitably towards the night, we see how four members of Tyrone family are embarking on a journey of blame, self-pity and resentment. They are trying to support each other in their miseries yet they can’t resist blaming each other for their own disappointments. A hug is immediately followed by a slap, figuratively speaking. This is how O’Neil’s text is built and this is greatly emphasized by director Jonathan Kent, especially in his work with actors. The love-hate seesaw takes swings of a grand range within a sentence, keeping you on the edge of your seat for all 3 hours and 45 minutes. 

The atmosphere is charged to the highest extent, you can almost hear the pluck of the taut nerves. Though each of the four family members contributes evenly to the sadomasochistic misery they are going through collectively, the play swirls around Mary, mainly because of the strong performance of Jessica Lange. From the restless fingers to the nuanced mimic, her performance engages every single muscle in her body. Her voice travels from high to low and back, breathing meaning and power to the words.

Pastel pallet dresses by Jane Greenwood match Lange’s pale skin and gray wig.  When she reappears from upstairs to deliver her last powerful monologue, Lange is dressed in a light blue-grayish robe, her hair braided loosely. As the orange light above the table fades out, leaving James Tyrone and his two sons in the darkness, the cold stream of white moonlight focuses on Mary, making her look like a ghost. She is drifting on the waves of her memories, carried away by the fogs of morphine. 

Long Day’s Journey into Night by the Roundabout Theatre Company can be seen at the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street, New York thought June 26th. Tickets and more information at http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/  

Review: Musical theater meets improv comedy ‘On The Spot’.

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

Monday nights in the city are a strange kind of animal. Some part of you resists the thought that the weekend is over and wants to party on. Another part wants to just sit back and do nothing. Well, luckily there is just the right place where both needs can be satisfied and that is On The Spot, the show where talented singers meet on stage with brilliant improvisation actors. Producer Nathan Armstrong picks the hottest young talent in town while the co-author of the show and it’s director, Patrick Reidy, keeps his improv group of 4 to 7 “on their toes”.  “We’d like to think of it as we are creating a family”- says Nathan. I truly felt like a part of the family and even got to chat with some of its members.  

***
As I walk into the Broadway Comedy Club on Monday night, the first people I see are the singers stumbling nervously from foot to foot in anticipation of their New York debut. Tonight On The Spot features eight graduates from The Citrus Singers, a 3-year music and performance program in Citrus Collage, California. Carlene O’Neill, Delia Trear, Edward Little, Julia Iacopetti, Kelly Grandmaison, Kylie Molnar, Steven Federoff, and Taylor Barbata; their brief visit to New York is packed with sightseeing and going to the theater but they are used to intense schedules as the group tours a lot domestically and internationally. 

Patrick Reidy and Nathan Armstrong anounce the house rules to the singers. Photo: Asys Danilova

Patrick Reidy and Nathan Armstrong anounce the house rules to the singers. Photo: Asys Danilova

“In the last three years I have gone to Germany, Check Republic, and China. And in four days I am going to Philippines and China again to perform with the Citrus Singers and to do a Broadway review!” – Kylie Molnar shares with me excitedly while we are waiting for the house to open. The energy of a bright eyed, perky musical theater lover is doubled by the thrill of just being in New York. I can only imagine how it feels for the singer to see a Broadway musical on stage for the first time. Well, actually I don’t need to imagine as Kylie is radiating the contagious joy after seeing Something Rotten, Matilda and Fun Home. She is going to see She Loves Me the next day, she said: “I love Laura Benanti so much, I’m gonna die”! 

This great energy and love for the musical theater supported by Kylie’s talent made her performance that night electrifying. To be honest, all eight singers were really good. Each of them prepared the song without any idea of what’s going to happen. The director of On The Spot and one of the improv actors, Patrick Reidy fills me in: “Tonight there are eight singers, usually we have four that do two songs each.  And they pick their songs and the actors can’t know what they are. We will just sit there and listen for the lyrics and emotion and something from it will inspire one of the four of us for a scene. And hopefully that scene is funny”. 

Tonight Patrick directs three other actors besides himself: Meg Reilly, Chris Catalano and Andrew Del Vecchio. To stay in tune with each other, the actors meet for a couple of hours a week and practice; this is what the “rehearsal” process for improv is like. When asked to define the role of director in an improve, Patrick says the following: “There is no script. But you are still using the same set of skills: the characters, the plot and the story, so I think you need to have a little bit of a director brain to be an improviser. So the other improvisers definitely have a lot of say in what happens in the story and I am there to help control it as well. If anything needs a firm director’s grasp on it I can literary jump into the show and steer it in the direction that I think will work best for everybody and will bring up all the characters and show them in the best possible light”. 

With ten years of experience as an improv actor and the support of his stage-mates, Patrick can turn even the saddest song upside down and make you laugh hysterically a moment after you were nearly sobbing at a touching piece of a musical theater. “Some of the songs that they bring in are so sad and we are sitting there thinking: how can we make anything funny about it, - the improviser says, - But in reality no matter how dark and depressive our lives get sometimes, there is always a sense of humor in there that keeps us going so that’s kind of what we go for. The drama is necessary to have a big laugh, to take a step back and enjoy the fact that you are still here”. 

***
Before the show I briefly meet Nathan Armstrong, the producer and co-creator of On The Spot. He nervously adjusts his cufflinks while giving the last instructions before the public will flood the cozy cabaret. As he told me later, “99% of being the producer is just to put out one fire after another, dealing with all kinds of crazy situations, trying to be the calm one in the room as everything else is crumbling around you. But for that one percent when things are right and it’s your show up there, and that’s what you have envisioned, that one percent is one of the greatest feelings”. 

Nathan also admitted that he was particularly nervous that night because his show was hosting students from his Alma Mater; he himself was a member of the Citrus Singers. In the honor of them he sang the opening number and, oh my, did he transform! All of a sudden a business looking guy lights up with the fire coming from within and fills the room with his gorgeous voice. The applause hadn’t even stopped yet as Patrick, Meg, Chris and Andrew took the space to improvise a story about two Jersey Boys coming to study in Hogwarts. The audience met these characters again in a couple of other sketches. The evening also gave birth to such individuals as a gay cave man, a dog who had thumbs, a girl who makes the world fade away when she yodels and many more. 

Andrew Whitbeck, playing the piano, was rocking it. Andy Scannell, technical director, was working the lights, which, besides creating an atmosphere, is an important narrative tool as Andy is the one who “cuts” the scene namely by doing blackouts. Even the bartender was almost dancing between the tightly packed tables without being destructive. I was amazed by how well harmonized, not only the performers, but also the backstage people are. 


***
I was looking forward to Kylie’s performance, as during the short interaction with her before the show I already became a fan. As she sang “Cute boys with short haircuts” from Vanities, I truly felt for the heroine even tough I have no idea what the musical is about. For a few minutes I got carried away to the world of girl’s heartaches and witnessed an entire story in miniature. I had a chance to experience something that Kylie said to me earlier: “I don’t think it really matters where you get to perform as long as you get to perform. It can be on a Broadway stage or it can be in a coffee shop. You are performing for people who care and if they are there to watch, they are there to watch. What kind of a performer are you if you don’t make them feel something no matter where you are”.  

Improvisers, as per usual, turned the story upside down. That was one of my favourite moments in the show when the strongest emotional tension was immediately followed by the biggest laugh. “Cute boys with short haircuts”, which felt like a page in a young girl’s diary was turned into a scene of an audition for the part of a “boy with a short haircut” for Law and Order. And this is the beauty of On The Spot, the mixture of emotionally charged musical theater and down-to-earth timely humor. ¬¬¬

The melting of these two elements creates a completely new narrative. When I asked Nathan if the song of the musical theater loses its sense when put out of context, he answered the following: “Some numbers are very contextual so in order really to understand it you have to understand what’s going on before and after that. But what I think we are trying to do is to create that before and after outside of what it was originally intended. What we are really doing is creating a new story for these songs to be a part of”. 

On The Spot is a great show to see on a Monday night for both musical theater and improv comedy enthusiasts. Even if you don’t think of yourself as either, like myself, come share a laugh, maybe a couple of tears and a drink with your New York theater family. 

On The Spot is happening every Monday at 8pm (doors open at 7:30pm) in Broadway Comedy Club - 318 West 53rd Street, New York. For more information and tickets visit http://www.onthespotnyc.com/home.html

Review: ‘The Beekeeper’s Daughter’ at The Theater For The New City

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

NEW YORK NY - The Beekeeper’s Daughter, written and directed by Karen Malpede celebrates its 22nd birthday this year. It talks about the Bosnian war of 1992-95 but takes place far from the theater of action, namely on the remote island on the Adriatic Sea, where the poet Robert (George Bartenieff, who originated this role in 1995) enjoys the company of his young lover Jamie (P.J. Brennan). Robert’s sister, pensive and doleful Sybil, shares the roof with them and looks after the beehives. The family is soon to be completed with Robert’s daughter, Rachel (Najla Said), who returns from her humanitarian mission in Bosnia with Admira (Di Zhu), a pregnant refugee whom she took under her wing.  

From there the narrative branches out like a soap opera: young love bursts out, skeletons come out of the closet, wounds heal slowly and painfully. The appearance of Admira and her baby stirs the world of the eccentric American family and puts everybody on a journey of self-rediscovery. As announced by Karen Malpede on the opening night, Di Zhu joined the cast very recently. Maybe it was the coming together of this circumstance and the role of the outsider, but Di Zhu really shined as Admira. Visibly subtle on the surface, her performance conveyed distress and tension with only the occasional tear showing the turmoil inside. 

"The Beekeeper's Daughter," written and directed by Karen Malpede, presented by Theater for the New City, June 2-26, 2016.  L: Najla Said. R: P.J. Brennan. Photo by Beatrice Schiller.

"The Beekeeper's Daughter," written and directed by Karen Malpede, presented by Theater for the New City, June 2-26, 2016.  L: Najla Said. R: P.J. Brennan. Photo by Beatrice Schiller.

The rest of the cast seemed like potentially strong actors, with which the director didn’t work enough. Scenes looked stale, dialogues often too lengthy and there was no chemistry whatsoever despite drama escalating in the plot. To demonstrate the Dionysian atmosphere of the island, some provocative moments were thrown into the viewer’s face, like eating grapes from the genitalia and full frontal nudity. How pertinent these moments are is debatable, but at least it gave the performers some outer motivation to react and act. Even in the simple action of pouring and drinking wine they seemed more involved than in the supposedly passionate scenes.  

At least the director, Karen Malpede, managed to utilize the unconventionally long and deep stage space by putting different scenes on different planks with the most dramatic ones being closer to the audience. The costumes by Carisa Kelly and Sally Ann Parsons were surprisingly professional and well developed. They managed to create a very unique world of it’s own where fantasy about ancient Greece meets modern days. However, the armature looking scenic design by Michelangelo DeSerio seemed less considered. 

The topics that Karen Malpede raises in her play are relevant today; that’s what brought me to The Beekeeper’s Daughter. However real issues and potentially rich emotional knots are barely touched, all sacrificed for the witty writing to which the actors couldn’t connect. It seems like the entire play is built on quicksand. Unfortunately The Beekeeper’s Daughter became another play where interesting ideas didn’t find solid ground and never gained proper footing.  

The Beekeeper’s Daughter can be seen in The Theater For The New City at 155 First Avenue, New York, through June 26th. Performances run from Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 3pm. General admission is $18 per ticket and can be purchased on the theater’s website: http://theaterforthenewcity.net/index.html. $10 tickets are available for seniors, students and the unemployed. More information about the show can be found here: http://theaterthreecollaborative.org/.