Off-Broadway Review: “Lewiston/Clarkston” at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

Off-Broadway Review: “Lewiston/Clarkston” at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

There is quite an intriguing theatrical event occurring at the Rattlestick Theater, where two ninety-minute plays separated by a thirty-minute communal dinner break takes the stage to engage an audience of fifty, in two compelling dramas. The playhouse is stripped down to its original walls discovering weathered multi paned windows and worn wainscoting, wearing years of neglect, with some sections beyond repair. This is the performance space, perhaps a foreshadowing of a shared theme of discovery, as two brave young people make a journey following the steps of their ancestors only to reveal the ugly past and face the troubled and turbulent present.

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Review: “Hamlet in Bed” at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

David Roberts

“There is no play and you know it.” – Michael to Anna

‘Clever’ morphs to ‘profound’ as film noire narration counterpoints with spoken word and played scenes, in Michael Laurence’s “Hamlet in Bed” a play within a play within a play. Playwright Michael Laurence constructs a fascinating and engaging retelling of the “Queen’s closet scene” in “Hamlet” (Act III, Scene 4) where Hamlet confronts his mother about her infidelity and her complicity in the murder of his father. Mr. Laurence’s premise is shared with the audience early on: “An actor and an actress perform a play./(It’s a play within a play.)/The actor and the actress may or may not be mother and son,/and they may or may not know it./You know the play, the play is Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Yes, ‘that’ mother and son.”

Michael Laurence and Annette O’Toole. Image by Tristan Fuge

The protagonist of the new play – Michael (Michael Laurence) – was abandoned by his mother at birth and he has longed to find her all of his life – and believes he has in the person of Anna (Annette O’Toole). After purchasing a diary from Cy the book peddler, Michael reads it carefully and believes the actress who wrote the diary could in fact be his mother. How to find out if Anna is his mother? Asking her directly would result in her protesting too much, so instead he recreates Hamlet’s “mousetrap” to – in this case – catch the conscience of the Queen (played by Anna) and hope she will – under pressure – come clean.

Both Michael and Anna were abused – Michael by his adoptive father Professor Joe. Both have subtle and not-so-subtle connections to the Shakespeare characters they have agreed (it is, in fact, a contract!) to play. Like Hamlet, Michael is enigmatic, philosophical, contemplative, melancholy, depressed, and truly mad. And like Gertrude, Anna is sexual, has an aversion to the truth, dependent, spiritually conflicted, and guilt-ridden. Mr. Laurence and Ms. O’Toole embody these characterizations with incredible craft. Mr. Laurence fits well into the melancholic skin of both Hamlet and Michael – both with mega-mother issues. Ms. O’Toole riddles her dual characters with conflicted guilt and seductive disingenuous charm.

The conceit is brilliant and the execution by the actors under Lisa Peterson’s direction is equally brilliant and equally engaging. Both actors move – glide actually – in and out of narration, monologues, and engaging scenes in and out of “Hamlet’s bed.” This is a complicated and deeply rich script that lingers with the audience long after the curtain call providing many “Aha” and “Wait, now I think I get it” moments. Rachel Hauck’s scenic design is sparse leaving much to the imagination of the audience to determine the setting. Jessica Pabst’s costumes are simple, appropriate, and complimented exquisitely by Scott Zielinski’s mood-driven lighting which – like the set – teases the audience into star-studded wonderment.

Throughout “Hamlet in Bed,” Michael assumes Anna knows that he is her son and she is aware of the “conspiracy of the play.” The audience is drawn into this matrix of mental gymnastics and will enjoy every shift in the unraveling of the plot and every rebaiting of the mousetrap. Who sets the trap and who is the prey? “Hamlet in Bed” is so well written, the audience will need to be attentive to the layers of subterfuge and the rich allusions and re-tellings of “Hamlet.” When, for example, Michael decides to visit a sex worker “uptown” he refers to the business as a “nunnery” and when Anna auditions for Michael, she read’s Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death, the role she played with Michael’s presumed father (who played Hamlet) in the 1970s. Stay alert, be amazed, be dazzled!

HAMLET IN BED

The set design for “Hamlet in Bed” is by Rachel Hauck; costume design is by Jessica Pabst; lighting design is by Scott Zielinski; sound design is by Bart Fasbender; projection design is by Dave Tennent; fight director is J. David Brimmer.  The production manager is Jeremy Duncan Pape; the production stage manager is Michal Mendelson; the assistant stage manager is Emily Ballou. Publicity: Don Summa, Richard Kornberg & Associates. Casting is by Calleri Casting. Production photos by Tristan Fuge.

“Hamlet in Bed” plays Monday, Wednesday, and Sunday at 7pm; Thursday through Saturday at 8pm at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, west of Seventh Avenue South, between Perry and West 11 Streets.  Tickets $35.  Theater artist and Under 30 tickets are $10; student tickets are $5.  Tickets may be purchased by visiting www.rattlestick.org or by phoning OvationTix at 866.811.4111.  Memberships for Rattlestick’s 2015-2016 season, which are priced at $83, are also available.  Prices and performance schedule are subject to change.  Please refer to the Rattlestick website for the most up-to-date information: http://www.rattlestick.org/. Running time is 90 minutes without intermission

Review: “Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait” at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre at the Gym at Judson

David Roberts

“Remember that feeling? Of endless energy?/Endless joy? Like when you’d have your/parents’ car late at night with your friends? All/the windows down? In the summer? Loud/music? Your hands on the wheel? Everything/felt so strong? So easy? So light?/Where is that?/Who feels that anymore?” – Mom to Smith

Daniel Talbott has written one of the best surreal, kaleidoscopic fables about not just the horrific legacy of combat on “foreign” soil but perhaps more importantly about the specter of all human conflict – physical, psychological, and spiritual. The unnamed military outpost that serves as the setting for Daniel Talbott’s “Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait” serves as a trope for all of the “mental wards in the middle of the desert” where feelings become numb and connections to moral centers become unhinged.

AZAK. Jelena Stupljanin and Brian Miskell (c)Joan Marcus

AZAK. Jelena Stupljanin and Brian Miskell (c)Joan Marcus

On the surface, this challenging and well-constructed play centers around the conflicts between Smith (Seth Numrich), Leadem (Brian Miskell), Miller (Chris Stack), and their collective demons past, present, and future. Those demons include the Serbian woman (Jelena Stupljanin) who introduces the play and serves as the soldiers’ superego and the fusillade of hallucinations that both anchor the three men and challenges them to ultimately question the possibility and desirability of survival. Beneath the surface, covering the play’s underbelly, is an absurdist exploration of the meaning of life and the ability of the species to survive (yes, it is that dark).

Raul Abrego’s multilayered set, covered with the dry desert sand that stretches into the audience, connects profoundly to the creviced contours of the brain and the elusive mind that mysteriously counterpoints the more tangible structures of the brain. Just as the audience steps carefully over uneven terrain to get to their seats, actors and audience members are challenged to stumble over repressed memories and navigate their own issues of survival. The specter of discomfort pervades the spaces of set and mind.

The cast is uniformly brilliant. Seth Numrich brings a tortured authenticity to his portrayal of Smith the young soldier who attempts to hold onto the belief that somehow what he has done in the desert mattered and that someone was on the way to rescue him and his mates. Abject angst pours from every pore of Mr. Numrich’s being as he gives life to the deconstruction of his character Smith. Brian Miskell gives a charming vulnerability to Leadem who leans heavily on his vivid imagination to survive the desert. Chris Stack’s Miller completes the trio of soldiers awaiting rescue. Mr. Stack brings a frenetic presence into the well-established family system and manages to add his character’s own brand of dysfunction to daily life in the outpost.

This talented cast is rounded out by the equally talented Jimi Stanton (Brother), Kathryn Erbe (Mom), Andy Striph (Soldier 4), and Stephen Dexter (Soldier 5). Ms. Erbe is a powerful presence as the hallucination (“Do you think they’re real?” Leadem asks) that not only haunts Smith repeatedly but eventually ushers him into a new and unfamiliar place. More cannot be said about this encounter without a spoiler alert.

Just as the spoils of war continue to leave trails of death, destruction, rape, suicide, and despair so the spoils of living leave trails of joylessness, ennui, weakness, numbness, regret, and guilt. Soldiers of war and soldiers of civilian life hunker down waiting for reinforcements or for much-needed supplies which, more often than not, never arrive or fail to arrive on time. Whether it be Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Kuwait, Charleston, Birmingham, Ferguson, or Aurora (among many other outposts) these soldiers long for times of peace, justice, equality, freedom, joy. Daniel Talbott raises profoundly rich questions in his new drama that resound far from the battlefields of war.

AFGHANISTAN, ZIMBABWE, AMERICA, KUWAIT

Written and directed by Daniel Talbott. Presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre and piece by piece Productions. The set design for “Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait” is by Raul Abrego; costume design is by Tristan Raines; lighting design is by Joel Moritz; sound design is by John Zalewski; projection design is by Dave Tennent; violence and dance choreography by UnkleDave’s Fight-House. Production photos are by Joan Marcus.

“Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait” plays Tuesday and Thursday through Sunday at 7:00 p.m. at The Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson Street. Tickets are $45.00 and may be purchased by visiting www.ovationtix.com; by phoning 866-811-4111; or by going to the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater box office, 224 Waverly Place, Monday through Friday 11:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.  Student tickets are $10.00 and are available for advance sale at the Rattlestick box office with a valid student ID.  For more information about “Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait,” please visit www.rattlestick.org. The running time is 90 minutes without intermission.

WITH: Stephen Dexter, Kathryn Erbe, Brian Miskell, Seth Numrich, Chris Stack, Jimi Stanton, Andy Striph, and Jelena Stupljanin.

“The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

David Roberts

“Time it was /And what a time it was, it was/A time of innocence/A time of confidences/Long ago it must be/I have a photograph/Preserve your memories/They're all that's left you.” “Bookends” by Simon & Garfunkel

The insidious sounds of “right now” that threaten to relegate the present to the past creep eerily into Hank’s Bar in Chicago in 1992. Hank (played with a droll, brooding intensity by Jeb Brown) loves his gritty rock club that has launched a good number of performance careers. He loves his daughter Lena (played with a focused intensity by Margo Seibert) even more. And he still has a deep love for his ex-wife Bette (played with a powerful charm by Lusia Strus) who continues to support Hank and Lena with tough doses of advice and admiration. The final member of this intentional family is Toby (played with a wistful, wry, and willing demeanor by Brian Miskell). Toby is bookkeeper, booker, and unrequited lover of Lena.

As with all family systems, it only takes one “intruder” or one family member’s decision to change to wreak havoc on the delicate balance of domesticity. That intruder is DJ Nash (played with a diabolical charm by Daniel Abeles) whom Lena, Toby, and Bette meet at one of Nash’s shows. Nash wants Hank to add spinning to his roster of regulars and it is the conflicts between Nash and Hank and Nash and Lena that drive the engaging plot in “The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” currently running at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Add to all this the published article that frames Hank and his bar more as nostalgia than the “next thing” and the dynamic plot of Laura Eason’s play explodes.

Hank does not wish to be a memory in a photograph. He believes that rock has a place in the musical world of the late twentieth century and he plans to move forward rather than being bought out as Nash suggests:

NASH: Yeah. Sure. But you’ve had a great run of it and people are getting interested in other kinds of clubs, other kinds of music. I bet someone would buy you out--
HANK: Why would I do that?
NASH: I don’t know. Just... the next thing’s coming.
HANK: So, what? I’m supposed to -- what? Make some room? Step aside?

With no plans to step aside, Hank initially refuses to book any DJs. All that changes when the undeniable “sound” of a rent increase forces Hank to give it a try. The gig proves successful and Hank decides to buy the adjacent space and expand his musical offerings to include popular DJs. This plan gets derailed by the landlord’s son Joey (played with a lush despicable demeanor by Chris Kipiniak) who plans to sell the property including the bar to a higher bidder. Hank must vacate the bar. Under Kirsten Kelly’s taut direction, the ensemble cast delivers authentic performances and brings Hank’s story into a transcendent collision with all that threatens to undo the fabric of stability and success.

Playwright Laura Eason’s women are survivors first and foremost and tough and tenacious as a result. Margo Seibert (Lena) and Lusia Strus (Bette) tackle their characters with a deep and rich understanding and the subplots their conflicts drive support the important themes of playwright Laura Eason’s equally important work. John McDermott’s set design and Joel Moritz’s lighting design are both spot on and capture the spirit and sense of Hank’s bar.

“The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” is about far more than the story about Hank’s resignation to the reality of the shift in musical tastes, the tenuous bonds of loyalty, and the strain gentrification places on long-established communities. The title suggests the deeper connections and the enduring questions the play offers. “Right now” encompasses not only the historical context; the phrase embraces all present contexts – the sounds of being in the moment and in the present. The well-crafted play is a brilliant trope for all that which would relegate the wonder of the present to a well-worn scrapbook.

THE UNDENIABLE SOUND OF RIGHT NOW

The set design for “The Undeniable Sound of Right Now is” by John McDermott (“Dry Land”); costume design is by Sarah Holden (“Bethany”); lighting design is by Joel Moritz (“Scarcity”); sound design is by Lindsay Jones (“Bronx Bombers”); properties design is by Judy Merrick; presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and Women’s Project Theater. Production photos by Sandra Coudert. “The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” plays Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 7:00 PM; Friday at 8:00 PM; Saturday at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM; and Sunday at 3:00 PM at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place. The ticket price is $45.00. Student tickets are $15.00; theater artist and under-30 tickets are $20.00. Tickets may be purchased by visiting www.rattlestick.org or by phoning OvationTix at 866.811.4111. Prices and performance schedule are subject to change. Please refer to the Rattlestick website for the most up-to-date information. Running time is 95 minutes without intermission.

WITH: Daniel Abeles (“Where We’re Born”), Jeb Brown (“Beautiful”), Chris Kipniak (“Macbeth”), Brian Miskell (“The Hill Town Plays”), Margo Seibert (“Rocky”), and Lusia Strus (“Elling”).

“Everything You Touch” at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre

David Roberts / Critic Everything you touch turns to gold. Everything you touch turns to dust. “Everything you touch surely dies.” (From the song “Let Her Go” by Passenger)

“Everything You Touch” is a time warp and space warp marathon, pushing and pulling at the audience as it takes audience members on a roller-coaster ride through events in real time, through events in the past, and ultimately to that place where all events initiate and resolve: the human mind. Sheila Callaghan’s play, currently running at the Cherry Lane Theatre, explores the important themes of love, longing, and loss in the context of indifference, suffering, and objectification. Her play is at the same time complex and compelling and worth every bit of the effort it takes to connect with the enduring questions it addresses, including the question of how we truly affect those whom we know and those we might not know.

Typically one wonders whether interacting with others results in something positive or constructive (‘gold’) or something negative and destructive (‘dust’). In “Everything You Touch,” 1970s fashion designer Victor has the knack of having everything he touches wither and/or die. But this is really not Victor’s (played with an eerie realism by Christian Coulson) story but the story of protagonist Jess (played with brilliant dreamlike realism by Miriam Silverman) whose memories and fantasies and needs spin the fascinating and intriguing story of the need to belong in an environment of nihilism and neglect.

Jess’s story in the present is intimately connected to past events, events in the 1970s involving Victor, his two muses Esme (Tonya Glanz) and Louella (Lisa Kitchens), her wannabe boyfriend and co-worker Lewis (Robbie Tann) and three Models (Allegra Rose Edwards, Chelsea Nicolle Fryer, and Nina Ordman) who strut the runway for Victor and who appear as delicious props phones, Chipotle servers, bubble gum machines) in scenes with Jess.

“Everything You Touch” at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre at the Cherry Lane Theatre (through Sunday March 29, 2015)It is difficult to review “Everything You Touch” without giving too much away. The relationships between real time characters and characters from the past and the relationships that never were developed in real time are so intricately intertwined that to reveal one “secret” would interfere with the audience experiencing the strength of this brilliantly written script. What can be reviewed are the remarkable performances, the script itself, and the efforts of the creative team.

Under Jessica Kubzansky’s precise and expansive direction, the ensemble cast delivers authentic and deeply honest performances that invite, even cajole the audience to consider several questions. These questions are answered (well, mostly) throughout the course of the play and will leave the audience members engaged in the lives of Ms. Callaghan’s characters for some time after the performance. Who is Jess and how is she related – if she is – to Victor and Esme? Is she related to Louella; if so, how? Why are models serving as props in Jesse’s scenes? Francoise-Pierre Couture’s sets, Jenny Foldenauer’s brilliant costumes, and Jeremy Pivnick’s phantasmal lighting add to the overall charm and mystery of this must-see performance.

Pixels are the key to understanding the dramatic matrix of “Everything You Touch.” Pixels are the key to perception and perception is the key to all of the events that occur in Jesse’s adventures in the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. Perhaps Jesse’s tumultuous journey is a journey to inner peace. At one point Victor says about his new clothing line inspired by his new muse,” Um, well we've been through quite a bit of tumult the past few years as a nation, with the war, and the recession, and et cetera, and I believe it's time to be innocent again and turn our attention to our most basic needs. Comfort. Stability. Simplicity.” Coming to terms with one past, one’s fantasies, one’s present can provide that kind of comfort, stability, and simplicity in the present “bit of tumult” of the first quarter of the twenty-first century. In one of what might be a fantasy/dream sequence, Victor also affirms to Jess, “Death will get in, though.” The enduring question: can comfort, stability, simplicity, innocence, and honesty get in first and circle the wagons? EVERYTHING YOU TOUCH

By Sheila Callaghan. Directed by Jessica Kubzansky. The set design for “Everything You Touch” is by Francois-Pierre Couture; costume design is by Jenny Foldenauer; lighting design is by Jeremy Pivnick; property design is by John Burton; video design is by Adam Flemming; sound design is by John Zalewski. Production photos are by Joan Marcus. “Everything You Touch” was commissioned by True Love Productions. Presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, True Love Productions, and the Theatre @ Boston Court. “Everything You Touch” plays Tuesday–Friday at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday at 3:00 p.m. at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street. Tickets are $55.00; student tickets are $15.00; and theater artist and under-30 tickets are $20.00. Tickets may be purchased at www.rattlestick.org or by phoning OvationTix at 866.811.4111. Please note that prices and performance schedule are subject to change; please visit www.rattlestick.org for the most up-to-date information. Running Time is 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission.

WITH: Christian Coulson, Allegra Rose Edwards, Chelsea Fryer, Tonya Glanz, Lisa Kitchens, Nina Ordman, Miriam Silverman, and Robbie Tann.

This piece also appears on www.theatrereviews.com/reviews/offbdwy-EverythingYouTouch.htm