“Drinking Bird” is full of very relevant and well thought out ideas but the execution of those ideas never really gets out of lecture territory and I found myself longing for questions but only being given the one answer.Read More
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Thomas Burns Scully
The world of Off-Broadway is often weird and wonderful. Sometimes more weird than wonderful. Sometimes just weird. I’m still trying to work out exactly where “The Upper Room” falls on that ill-defined spectrum. Twenty-four hours after viewing, this strange new-age play with music still has me wondering exactly what it was that I saw. I have come to one definite conclusion. It’s not a show for me. The message and tone of the piece did not kick me hard enough to leave any kind of emotional or intellectual bruise. However, when the lights came up at the end the first thing I heard was a woman behind me saying “That was beautiful.” And so, hence, my confusion. I’m trying to work out if I’m a philistine who doesn’t get what these crazy kids are getting up to these days, or if I’m the voice of reason justly raising a finger and going “Hang on a minute” in the face of ridiculousness. Hopefully I’ll have worked out something to tell you by the end of this review.
‘The Upper Room’ is written by Jeremy Bloom and Brian Rady. Inspired by stories of the ‘back to the land’ movement, they created this story of a community on an island off the coast of Maine. The inhabitants of the commune are worried. Faced with rising sea levels and mounting anxiety within their group they are unsure as to whether their way of life, and life in general, will continue much longer. Debate is sparked when one of their group suddenly disappears, presumed dead, and others report strange new cravings and physical sensations. They meet regularly in the titular upper room around a large table to discuss, pray and argue. Throughout the play there is music, performed and mixed live by Catherine Brookman and Joe White, with vocal assistance from the whole company.
The way I have outlined it above, the story seems fairly reasonable and straightforward. But the way it unfolds is anything but. The presentation of the play fluctuates between the characters talking directly to the audience in the manner of a science lecture, or TV documentary, and the audience watching scenes unfold in ethereal dialogue, or hyper-ethereal physical theatre. I’m all for using theatre to push the boundaries of communication and storytelling, but all this shifting of focus and time perspective left me fuzzy as to exactly what was at stake moment-to-moment. Not since I last tried to watch ‘Twin Peaks’ have I oscillated so quickly between being bored and confused.
How the play dealt with character differentiation confused me too. You’re aware of the fact that they’re supposed to be individuals, but they don’t have distinct personalities or identities. There’s also next to no character conflict. At times, certain people do certain things to one another, but there’s never any lasting disagreement from these actions beyond mild disgruntlement. The whole thing felt like a dream that played with the idea of consequences, but never committed to anything other than an overall sense of doom. And it made for dull viewing.
That said, ’Upper Room’ is not without some merit. For one, the music is good, and technically impressive. It is live mixed and performed using minimal instruments, a microphone, the human voice and a looping station. Although an opening number with actors mimicking whale song and dolphin clicks went a bit far for me, generally speaking the organic soundscaping and unreal harmonies created by Catherine Brookman, Joe White and the cast (all excellent singers) were haunting and easy to listen to. Like a combination of Bjork and the XX. Through virtue of the way they were constructed, no individual song stands out. But if you were to give me a CD of the soundtrack, I would listen to it again. Also, the show’s movement pieces, though inefficient at moving along the story, were well constructed and interesting to look at. Downright innovative is the only way to describe the show’s use of an overhead projector to create dancing light patterns and special effects. Well done to Rady&Bloom and Jay Ryan on that front. ‘Upper Room’ also has moments that are genuinely, un-ironically funny. Characters obsessing over potatoes and compost produced easy laughs. But none of this was enough to distract me from what I felt were the shows unassailable flaws.
If you are planning on seeing this show, I recommend you stop reading now, because this is where I’m going to get in to spoiler territory.
I suppose what bothered me the most about the show was the play’s conclusion. Or, put more accurately, the show’s conclusion weighed up against the ineffectuality of its characters. Faced with the advancing ocean, and the fear of being consumed by same, the peaceful agrarians realize that they are turning in to walruses. No, really. It turns out that the girl who supposedly died actually dove in to the ocean and became a walrus. The physical anomalies experienced by the other members of the community mean that they are all on their way to the same fate. It’s an ending that sounds like M. Night Shyamalan meets Doctor Suess and it just doesn’t work.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that you can make a good story out of anything. I believe that you could write a play that ends with people turning in walruses and have it win a Tony. But this is not that play. I have two major problems with it. First, the sincerity with which the idea is treated. The characters all embrace their fate it like it’s this beautiful, spiritual thing; it fits in line so neatly with the cultish system of belief that they have been espousing. Their variations along the Gaia line border on the creepy throughout the play, but remain tolerable, if dull, because of their general passivity. However, when they are told they are going to become sea-creatures and they go on about what a beautiful thing this is to happen… I just wanted to burst out laughing. I haven’t found something so laughably serious since the “Goddess Arachne” segments of ‘Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark’.
Now, I could accept the idea that walrusification is a beautiful thing if these people had reacted like, well… people. If they’d questioned it, discussed it, laughed about it, and eventually gone… “You know what, this could work.” But the characters don’t, they go “Yes, oh my god, it’s beautiful. This was god’s plan all along.” And that’s that. I’ve never met anyone that ready to become a walrus at the drop of a hat. Or maybe everyone wants to be a walrus and I’ve just never noticed before. This is also possible.
Beyond the unquestioned ridiculousness of it, my second issue with the conclusion is how unearned it feels. Throughout the play, none of these characters do anything to prove that they are in any way worth saving. They’re working the land in a healthier way, yes. They’re more in touch with nature on a day-to-day basis, yes. But in the face of destruction, and the seeming deaths of the people they share their lives with, they’re shockingly un-proactive. They’re quite content to stay on their island and take the death of one of their own in stride. One member of the community suggests moving somewhere safer. He is immediately shot down, and the idea never broached again. And yet, despite no demonstration of survival instinct, they are saved, and its treated like a Judeo-Christian miracle of the oppressed. The characters of the play are caught in this Rapturist belief that they will be saved because they did the right thing and everyone else didn’t. And that’s exactly what happens in the play, a triumph of blind belief over proactivity. And I’m just a little uncomfortable with that.
So, long story short, I’m not a fan of ‘The Upper Room’. The things it does right (and it does do some things very well) don’t make up for the shambolic of plot, dull characters and its creepily-messianic treatment of the subject matter. I think it’s sanctimonious, and overly sentimental in a way that does not stand up to any real scrutiny. However, I am also prepared to yield that it is not a play for which I am the target audience. I can believe that there are people who will enjoy this play. Perhaps that are less cynical and questioning than me, more willing to buy in to the harmonious soundscape of the play, more concerned with an overall feel and aesthetic. People less questioning than me. And hey, maybe I will be wrong in the long run. Maybe when the New York Times review comes out, the woman in the row behind me who thought it was beautiful will be right, and the show will run forever. But this is my review, and I have to be honest about what I feel and think. And “Upper Room” didn’t make me feel or think. None of it felt real or relatable or human to me. It felt naive, oversimplified and prosaic. Goo Goo G’Joob.
Thomas Burns Scully
A post-apocalyptic vampire western on stage. Yes, you read that right.
It’s an old truism that you should always write about what you know best. It’s also a generally accepted truism of everyone born Generation X through to the Millennials, that we watched too much TV, read too many comic books and saw too many movies growing up. So what we know best, as a culture moving forward, is pop-culture. If you would like to see these two worlds of thought collide in a unique world of theatrical entertainment, you should go and see Vampire Cowboys’ “Six Rounds of Vengeance” at the New Ohio Theatre. It’s like nothing else around.
Vampire Cowboys are a Theatre Company started back in 2000, dedicated to producing “Geek Theatre”. The company’s brand of grindhouse/comic-book/anime inspired output has included such titles as: “Alice in Slasherland”, “Soul Samurai”, “Fight Girl Battle World”, and “Let’s Science Ninja Ranger Team Get!” Their house aesthetic is a mode of theatre arrived at by way of Rodriguez, Romero, Tarantino, and Cowboy Bebop. “Six Round of Vengeance” is their latest foray. Written by co-artistic director Qui Nguyen, it is a post-apocalyptic vampire western , it is a post-apocalyptic vampire western with kung-fu sword fights and monsters. I know, right?
The play follows Malcolm Prince (Sheldon Best), a former cop turned ‘Lost Vegas’ gunslinger. He is out to avenge the death of his lover, Nathaniel (Jon Hoche), at the hands of vampire seductress/ninja Queen Mad (Nicky Schmidlein). To assist him he enlists the help of bounty hunters Jess December (Jamie Dunn) and Lucky (Tom Myers). The three journey together, encountering vampires, trappers and lost scientists, all the while reliving their difficult pasts and fighting for survival in an unforgiving world.
“Vengeance” is a lot of fun. A whole lot. The play skims by fast, coming in at a brisk eighty-eight minutes. Within two minutes of curtain up the audience gets their first fight scene. Within seven minutes there have been enough well-landed jokes that the audience is completely relaxed with the performers and ready for the ride that’s coming. The play flirts with being a grind-house flick brought to the stage, but more often than not simply parodies the genre and relies on silliness and character insecurity to get the laughs. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. The play is frequently funny, and occasionally hilarious. Sheldon Best turns in fine work as the leading man, grounding the production and providing a fine foundation for the rest of the cast to work from. Jamie Dunn is the Uma Thurman stand-in here, she wields a sword comfortably, talks back well, and has a rather touching relationship with Tom Myer’s ‘Lucky’. Jon Hoche also gives good ground as Nathaniel, the scenes between him and Best give the play a lot of heart. Nicky Schmidlein is probably the hands-down funniest performer of the cast, and certainly gets to show off her versatility, playing four very different speaking roles. When she’s not quipping expertly, she’s cartwheeling expertly or wielding a knife on par with the likes of Lucy Liu. Put together, they make an excellent team, and do Nguyen’s script justice.
The show is also quite something visually, the production’s commitment to aesthetic stretches through every part of “Vengeance”. Costuming by Kristina Makowski evokes Fallout 3’s retro-futurism and Mad Max’s dune-buggy-punk. We’re also working in the grind-house vein here, so expect women in impractically sexy and revealing leathers and string vests. Nick Francone’s set is a series of impressively built wooden set pieces which include a life-size derelict replica of the “Las Vegas” sign. The wooden flats he has built also work to form the backdrop where elaborate projections, devised by Matthew Tennie, play out. These include backgrounds to service the action, as well as a couple of visual showstoppers. These are the show’s pre-show; a vintage grind-house trailer for a blacksploitation film called “Shut That Shit Off!” in which an angry woman murders people talking on their phones at the theatre; and a mid-play stop-motion cartoon about a vengeful tumbleweed’s vendetta against a cactus. They don’t contribute a lot to the story, but they go a hell of a long way to build up the live-action-cinema world of the play. And they’re hella funny. Props as well to Shane Rettig for the stellar sound and music of the play, a mix of classic Western hooks and bombastic battle themes that tie everything on stage together nicely. Director Robert Ross Parker’s work in creating a unified aesthetic is exemplary, and the play is worth seeing just for that.
Much as I enjoyed myself, I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention the play’s stumbling points. The most prominent of these stems from the classic problem associated with paying homage to grind-house, pulp comics and other genres that flirt with the dangerous phrase: “So bad it’s good”. If you are paying homage, are you parodying the genre, or are you embracing it and all its idiosyncrasies whole heartedly to make the most entertaining product you can? If you go too far one way or the other you may stumble past “So bad it’s good” and fall in to “So bad it’s bad”. “Vengeance” sometimes feels a little undecided on whether it’s a parody or not. Some of the jokes suggest that it is, the characters give the audience a “Wink, wink, nudge, nudge,” and then say something ridiculous. However, Nguyen’s script is also committed to giving the characters a sympathetic emotional life. The way some of the humor plays out, it serves, at times, to undermine the emotional landscape created. So, we’re not always sure of the stakes in a scene. We’re not sure if a character’s death matters or not. This problem worms its way in to general dialogue as well. “Vengeance” is largely well written, but there are lines here and there that feel clunky, overwritten, or out of place. It is not clear if this is a feature of Nguyen’s own writing style, a deliberate emulation of bad grind-house dialogue, or an actor mishandling a line. These are the perils of the genre, unfortunately, and they distract from the great amount of fun you’re having.
If I have to nit-pick (I don’t, but I’m going to do it anyway), I would also have to say that I wasn’t completely satisfied with the fight choreography. Nguyen, a man of many talents, is also the show’s fight-master, and obviously writes with an eye to give himself as much work as possible. Watching the play you quickly lose track of the number of sword fights, fisticuff exchanges, martial-art battles, general acrobatics, and stylized boss-fights you’ve witnessed. Many of these exchanges are excellent, some are downright astounding, and generally I have no love lost for the fights in the show. However, there are times when the pace of the action slows, or blows are too obviously stage combat and it takes you out of what is going on. It’s a trapping of replicating a cinematic genre on stage. On screen, fights can much more easily be cheated, cuts can speed action up to lightning pace. On stage, things happen at the speed they happen, and when we’re expecting a cinematic fight scene, real-life can seem slow by comparison. All that said, the final fight of the show is spectacular. I won’t reveal too much for fear of spoilers, but David Valentine’s ingenious puppetry, coupled with marvelously stylized comic-book slow-mo moments, and the downright physical commitment of the cast make it one of the most awesome things happening in downtown theatre right now. Hat most definitely off to Nguyen, Parker and every member of their team for that one.
If you’ve ever watched and enjoyed a Robert Rodriguez movie, read comic-books under the covers at night, or played video games till your eyes were sore, there’s a very good chance you’re going to enjoy “Six Round of Vengeance”. They call it ‘Geek Theatre’ for a reason, and in an era where geeks rule the world, Vampire Cowboys couldn’t be more timely. It’s a pretty safe bet that there isn’t anything quite like this happening anywhere else in New York right now. I would also say that if you want to get a stroppy teenager interested in theatre, this would be the play to take them to. I can say a lot of positive things about Vampire Cowboys. For reasons outlined above I don’t think “Vengeance” is going to be their magnum opus, but it is a damn fine demonstration of their aesthetic, a highly enjoyable play in its own right, and, moreover, it’s an example of the best kind of theatre. Theatre where people are doing something they love and making no apologies for it. Everyone involved is clearly having a blast and it shows. As for the company’s magnum opus… well I’m not highly familiar with their back catalogue, but I will predict that if you give them a few years working the way they are working now, Vampire Cowboys are going to produce something that everyone will talk about. Everyone. So now is a very good time to get started on the whole “I saw them when…” thing.
Tickets are $18. That’s a steal for a show like this. It runs through May 16th.
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