Review: "Cold Blooded Witch: The Sex Musical" at Under St. Marks Theatre

Review: "Cold Blooded Witch: The Sex Musical" at Under St. Marks Theatre

Cold Blooded Witch: The Sex Musical is a one-woman show that’s earned its place in the biggest Fringe Festival in the world. It’s a fantastic opportunity to watch an actor and up-and-coming comedian tell a story that you, quite literally, will not hear anywhere else. It is superbly expounded, thoughtfully presented, and damn funny to boot.

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Review: Short Reviews of Short Plays - The Pull of the Moon

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Critic

So, occasionally I get asked to come along to short play festivals and other similar events to review plays that are thirty minutes or less. Now, I have no qualms about doing this as a reviewer, every bit of drama deserves a fair crack of the critical whip. However, as there is just less to say about short plays and monologue nights (and so on) because, well, they’re short, I’m trying out a new format. I’m calling it ‘Short Reviews of Short Plays’ or SRSP. We’ll see if the acronym sticks. Essentially it’s a cliff notes version of my normal reviewing style. And I can’t think of a better short play to start out on than ‘The Pull of the Moon’. Let’s begin the experiment.

Title: ‘The Pull of the Moon’

Writer: Paige Zubel

Director: Sophia Grasso and Jon Steiger

Produced by: Midtown International Theatre Festival

Venue: Jewel Box Theatre

Cast: Jenny Boot, Montgomery Mauro, and Ned Brennan

Themes: Cyclicality of pain, relationships, sexual abuse survivors, tides and waves

Plot Summary: A young professor type gives a play-by-play description of the formation of a wave and its journey. This is juxtaposed with a young couple discussing the deterioration of their relationship in the wake of the girlfriend’s acquaintance rape. The boyfriend tries to be understanding and loving, but he and his girlfriend just can’t get back to who they were as a couple due the the girlfriend’s enduring psychological trauma. Tempers rise and come to a head as the professor’s description of the breaking of destructive wave reaches its climax.

Thoughts on Performances: The cast are generally strong. Jenny Boot in particular (also reviewed recently in ‘A Man Like You’) seems to be a bottomless well of emotion, and captures depression with scary accuracy. Ned Brennan is suitably understanding as the boyfriend character. Montgomery Mauro fills his role of collegiate professor well, but this isn’t a showcase piece for him. There just isn’t that much for him to do other than give a convincing Ted Talk on waves. Which he does very nicely.

Thoughts on Writing: Interesting. Comes down firmly on the politically correct side of the sexual abuse issue and attempts to throw light on new aspects of it. Admirable in its goals, and it certainly meets them, but it plays the ‘elephant in room’ angle for far too long. Audiences are smart and worked out what was not being talked about pretty much from the get-go. The reveal of sexual abuse at the end, then, comes as no shock and feels like it limited the play’s comment and conversation rather than advancing it. That said, it still presents an interesting descent from melancholy to actual full-blown depression. 

Miscellaneous Thoughts: The wave metaphor is haunting, in a larger production it would be interesting to integrate a visual element to back it up. But alas, production design always suffers in short play festivals.

Final Thoughts: The play is thoughtful, but limited by over-reliance on a tired storytelling device. A strong cast and good direction guide it to a place where its festival-worthy. It would be nice to see it staged with a stronger visual element to underpin its central wave metaphor.

One Sentence Review: It pulled me in.

More info: www.midtownfestival.org, facebook.com/ThePullOfTheMoonPlay

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He performs improv comedy professionally and plays lead guitar in two bands. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: ‘A Man Like You’ at Red Soil Productions. Humanist political theatre at its finest

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Critic

New York, NY - As a child who grew up in the Middle-East, my perspective on the world is different from your typical twenty-something. I won’t say better or more rounded, because there’s no way of quantifying these things, but it’s different, make no mistake. When the headlines are filled with talk of what Muslims are like, what terrorists represent, what extremism means, and how it is birthed… I can’t help but think to my time growing up in Oman and reflecting on how unsubtle the picture is. The shocking truth that travel and experience of other cultures teaches you is that people are just people.

Every society has its saints and bullies, its unfortunates and its fortunates, its lovers and its fighters, its philosophers and its shallow frat boys. Humanization of your enemy is the best prescription anyone can hope for, not because it teaches you that all people are good people, but because it teaches you all people are people. Not some archetype or headline… just a cluster of cells, blood and neuroses. ‘A Man Like You’ is a play that understands that, and Red Soil Productions’ presentation of this play by Silvia Cassini is as eye-opening, moving, and dark, as you can expect it to be. It understands the subtlety of existence and dares to humanize extremists non-tokenistically. For that it should be praised. And so I will, for the next few hundred words or so.

‘A Man Like You’ follows the kidnapping of Patrick North (Matthew Stannah), a British man working in International Relations in Somalia. He is kidnapped by a terrorist group and imprisoned by the sinister Abdi (Jeffrey Marc) and the brutal Hussan (Andrew Clarke). As days turn in to months, he has long and thought-provoking conversations with Abdi about the nature of extremism, the trappings of their various societies, and the parallels between them as people. All the while, we cut back to the North’s house in Nairobi, where North’s wife Elizabeth (Jenny Boote) is dealing with her husband’s absence, and coming to terms with the reality that he may never be returned to her. The whole affair is gritty, honest and unsensational in the best possible way.

Make no mistake, this play is not torture-porn, a plastic manufactured white-guilt play, or a melodramatic Grand-Guignol. So often these are the traps with these works, to make a thing brutal and violent with no regard for reality. But, while it is far from cozy and loving, ‘A Man Like You’ avoids all these pitfalls. Cassini’s writing and Yudelka Heyer’s direction instead speak extensively to cultural misunderstanding, and the parallels of entrapment between privileged and unprivileged cultures. Neither Abdi, nor North is outright villainized or deified, they are instead presented as two individuals, two people who under the circumstances presented to them, became the creatures that they are. Their interactions and understandings within misunderstandings, and vice verse, have to be seen to be fully understood. Suffice to say, the play speaks to honest, common humanity, without painting over either side’s atrocities.

Stannah and Marc’s performances here make the play, one can make no bones about that. They are the meat and potatoes, the ham and eggs, the black bean and chipotle mayo of this show. They are uniquely engaging, unabashedly brave, devoid of pussyfooting, and raucously uncynical, all at the same time. Put shortly, you believe they are the individuals they are pretending to be. These feel like real people having a real conversation under real duress. Also excellent is Jenny Boote as Elizabeth. While one could argue that her role in the play is unnecessary (I would not argue this position very hard, but a more cynical person than me might) she makes her role integral with an emotional performance that pulls no punches. She also never falls in to the trap of being a one-note crying-machine. Boote finds a seemingly infinite variety of ways to play scenes of torturous heartbreak, allowing each one to feel unique, and a logical evolution of the last. The only real disappointment of the play, so far as I can see, is that Andrew Clarke is underutilized. Yes, he is menacing and devilishly violent as Hussan; he plays the role fully and utterly convincingly, but it would be nice to have a human moment with him at some point. Abdi has so many, Hussan could have had one good joke to flesh him out. Anyone who has seen his work knows that Clarke is capable of such feats.

That said, this is a minor inconvenience to the viewer, and, as I have amply and unabashedly outlined above, I enjoyed this play greatly. Humanist political theatre at its finest. The production feels rich, characterful, mucky and hurtful in a real and thoroughly stimulating way. I recommend it to all theatre-goers over the age of fifteen. Younger that that may be pushing it, given the themes explored. Red Soil have done a wonderful thing here. This is probably their most grown-up and groundbreaking show to date. Not that there work was juvenile before, but this particular showing feels like they have found a new depth that their company can explore. It will be thrilling to see what comes next. In the mean time, go and see ‘A Man Like You’, it is excellent.

‘A Man Like You’ plays at the Iati Theatre at 64 E4th St. until July 31st. It is written by Silvia Cassini, directed by Yudelka Heyer and presented by Red Soil Productions. For tickets see redsoilproductions.com. Shows typically start at 8pm and tickets begin at $35.

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He performs improv comedy professionally and plays lead guitar in two bands. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

‘The Golden Bride’ at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Right On The Money.

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Critic

As a reviewer, I think the hardest reviews to write are reviews of shows that are good, but not really my cup of tea. I’ve said before I’m not the biggest musical fan, they’re all well and good, but, with a few exceptions, I’d always rather see a play. My views on Opera and Operettas are comparable. The talent of the people involved is undeniable, the skill, training and rehearsal that goes in to the stuff is staggering, but they rarely move me in that same way as a well-made play. The loss is entirely mine, I am sure. But what that means is, when the time comes for me a to review a piece in one of those genres (in this case Operetta), I’m at a loss for what to say besides: “Yes, it was very good.” The show I’m looking at this week is very much like that. I believe it was rather good. Even excellent in many places.

There’s not a lot I can find to fault it on. But I will never carry it with me in the special room of my heart where lurks classic ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ and ‘Kapow-i Gogo’. Not through any fault of its own, of course, but this is the fragile nature of opinion and criticism. Given the purview with which I am allowed to write for OnStage, and my own personal writing style, then, allow me to indulge in prose that will attempt to praise what I do not understand, and hope that I do not fall accidentally in to echoes of faint damming. Because ‘The Golden Bride’ at the Museum of Jewish Heritage was rather good. It just wasn’t for me.

Jillian Gottlieb, center, as Khanele in “The Golden Bride.” Credit Ben Moody

Jillian Gottlieb, center, as Khanele in “The Golden Bride.” Credit Ben Moody

It is being presented as part of KulturfestNYC, the international festival of Jewish performing arts. At its core, and its extremities, it is a simple story. A girl living in a small Russian township inherits a fortune. She longs for the love of her childhood sweetheart, but must leave with her Uncle for America in order to claim her fortune. Bound by duty, she says she will marry whomsoever finds her long lost mother, believing it will be her sweetheart, but as time wears on, doubts surface and other prospective husbands take to the field to try their luck. She becomes known as ‘The Golden Bride’, because of the immense wealth that will go to her eventual suitor. As a fun side plot, the sister of the girl’s sweetheart wants to come to New York to become an actress and courts the Golden Bride’s silly but charming actor son. And the whole thing is performed in Yiddish, with supertitles for the dialectically impaired.

‘Golden Bride’ feels like a throwback, and it is, a very pleasant one. The feel is similar to what I got when I went to see ‘On The Town’. It feels very of its time, and so seems quaint to a modern audience. Quaint however, in the best, least patronizing sense of the word. Charming might be a better one. The plot is an old-fashioned comedy plot, in that it ends with at least one marriage, but within that it is able to find all sorts of fun characters, diversions and the like. The songs are often larky and upbeat, with the odd lament thrown in for color, and the performers all sing wonderfully. Not a weak link in the cast. Though bland, the central love story is well played by Rachel Policar and Cameron Johnson and so is endearing as opposed to insufferable. By far my favorites were Rachel Zatcoff and Glenn Seven Allen as the sister and her American beaux respectively, who share the funniest scene in the play. In this scene they pretend to be in an abusive relationship, playing as if they are in a melodrama, and are walked in on by other members of the family, who don’t realize they’re pretending. This comic misunderstanding is worthy of the Marx brothers and performed with the timing and skill of same. A close second comes Adam B. Shapiro as a local matchmaker. His song in which he sets up a harem of maids with terrible men is a lot of fun, though it doesn’t quite ascend the same heights as the acting-misunderstanding scene.

And that’s all I have to say. If you like a good light Operetta, this is for you. It had enough appeal and pizzazz for me, a non-Operettist, to enjoy himself, so I can only imagine how much fun this would be if you’re in to such things. A terrific cast, fun songs and witty book that doesn’t lose anything in the translation all make for an enjoyable sit down in the theatre. And what a theatre. The performance hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage is a rare thing of beauty too, an Off-Broadway venue that feels like its pitching way above its pay grade. I would give ‘The Golden Bride’ a hearty recommendation. It’s still not quite my cup of tea, and it probably never will be, but that should by no means stop you from taking a trip down Bowling Green way, where this little delight is playing through August. It would be well worth your time.

‘The Golden Bride’ runs through August 28, tickets start at $40. For more information and ticketing see nytf.org.

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He performs improv comedy professionally and plays lead guitar in two bands. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: 'God of Venegence' Staged Reading at New Yiddish Rep

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Critic

Regular readers may remember last year’s review of ‘Death of a Salesman’ in Yiddish. It was produced by the New Yiddish Rep and, on the whole, I liked it. New Yiddish Rep specializes in theatre presented in the historical language of Ashkenazi Jewish people. I was recently invited to a reading of their latest venture: Sholem Asch’s ‘God of Vengeance’, presented in the original Yiddish. This play was considered groundbreaking and scandalous in its day. It’s Broadway premiere in 1923 prompted the entire creative team to be prosecuted on obscenity charges. The reason? The play presented what was almost certainly Broadway’s first ever lesbian kiss. (That story has since been chronicled in ‘Indecent’) Of course in olden days what was looked on as something shocking is now as passé as a glimpse of stocking. So how does a text that formed its reputation on scandal hold up in a world where what made it scandalous is now acceptable to the vast majority of its audience?

‘God of Vengeance’ is, surprisingly, quite a simple story. Brothel owner Yekel has had a Holy Scroll commissioned for his household. He is feeling the weight of his sin, and wishes to do something good. He feels it is too late for him and his wife Sarah, a former prostitute, but he believes wholeheartedly in the purity of his eighteen year-old daughter, Rifkele. To that end, the scroll will be placed in her room and will go with her when she marries. Unbeknownst to Yekel, however, Rifkele has fallen in love with Manke, one of the prostitutes in Yekel’s brothel. She runs off one night with Manke. Yekel, ignorant to the full story, believes she has run off to become a prostitute. When she returns the questions are as uncomfortable as the answers and tempestuous misunderstanding abounds.

Overall, the play holds up, though, occasionally, by the skin of its teeth. It’s not that the content feels dated, the lesbian characters have actually aged surprisingly well. They feel authentic and unfetishized. What holds the play back is the overbearing self-deprecation of the religious characters. It doesn’t feel out of place, people of that time and background presented with that situation would most likely behave in such a way… but there’s just so much of it. About thirty minutes of the play is Yekel recriminating himself and apologizing loudly to God for every sin he has ever committed. At certain point you just want to tell him to repress it and cry in the shower like the rest of us do. It pads the runtime unnecessarily, and stalls the plot. It is, however, a pleasantly uniting experience to realize that Jewish people also suffer from Catholic guilt.

I want to return to the lesbians again for a minute. I mentioned them in passing sentences earlier, but I want to restate again how well they are presented. For every line of tiring masochistic religionisms, there is a beautiful, romantic line of distilled love between the two girls. This aspect of the show catches you off-guard. The text has a simple, soothing lyricality in these dialogues that holds you in rapturous fixation. You completely believe these two young women are in love. It’s some of the best written romance I’ve heard out loud in a while. Essentially, this romance is what elevates the play. Taken just on it’s plot points, the show is little better than a Lifetime Channel movie, but the poetry of the language allows it to transcend such trappings.

The rest of the play is solid. Not terribly groundbreaking, but conniving prostitutes and lying brothel workers make for decent diversions and feed back in to the main plot neatly. I would still say the show needs about twenty or so minutes clipped from it. Perhaps this is the curse of the staged reading, but particularly in a show where the non-Yiddish speaking portion of the audience will be reading the English super-titles, you have to worry about the mental fatigue of the audience. One hour and fifty minutes with no intermission is a long time to do that. I would be interested in seeing a full staging of this piece, though I’d want it to go through a dramaturge first. New Yiddish Rep have succeeded in introducing me to a striking play that I did not know about prior, one that still has something to offer to a long conversation.

‘God of Vengeance’ was presented by the New Yiddish Rep as part of the Festival of New Jewish Theatre. It was directed by Eleanor Reissa. For more information about the New Yiddish Rep please visit newyiddishrep.org. For more information about the festival, visit jewishplaysproject.org.

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He performs improv comedy professionally and plays lead guitar in two bands. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: ‘The Astonishing Adventures of All American Girl & The Scarlet Skunk’. Pride, Prejudice and Superheroes.

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Critic

It’s clear to anyone with even a vague handle on pop-culture that we are currently obsessed with superheroes. Pop-culture writers like Bob Chipman (alias: MovieBob) have written about their proliferation. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that they are the modern myths and legends, that they have supplanted religious figures as our moral touchstones. I quite enjoy this idea, but it’s not my place to debate it here. Needless to say that people playing dress-up and punching one another are big business these days. But why are we fascinated with these super-people in strange costumes? Is it just the power fantasy? Is it the tights as well? ‘The Astonishing Adventures of All American Girl & The Scarlet Skunk’ by Charles Battersby takes a comic peek into that mindset. It just closed at the Brick Theatre as part of the Trans Theatre Festival and it is a romantic comedy… in spandex.

‘Astonishing Adventures’ is presented in the guise of a 1950s superhero radio serial. An announcer (Matt LeClair) leads the audience through the action and introduces us to the characters. Our hero, All American Girl (Kirsten Lewis), works as a secretary for psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Worthington (Xander Kozak). She is bored of her mundane day-to-day life, and so decides to put her skills to use as a crimefighter. She quickly encounters The Scarlet Skunk (Charles Battersby) and his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend Hyena (Isabella Church). The Scarlet Skunk is a man who dresses as a woman to gain a tactical advantage over his opponents and sprays them with tear gas. He and Hyena disagree on crime-fighting ethics and quickly break-up. All-American Girl and Scarlet are initially at odds, but gradually fall for each other and team up to clean up the streets of New York. They thwart various schmoes and schlubs (played by Tony Patron and David Littleton) and enjoy the dubious company of the sassy waitress at their local diner (Tabitha Vidaurri), but gradually come to realize that something more sinister is going on in the city. Hyena has turned evil, and her strange new business plan probably has something to do with the ominous ‘Dr. Mindshrinker’…

This show is a lot of fun. A superhero send-up that plays on tropes, but never relies on them for its humor. Much of the comedy is silly and vaudevillian, but in the best possible way, and played with enough savvy to keep it fresh. Charles Battersby is great fun as the Scarlet Skunk, playing his transvestite character deadpan and completely straight (pardon the pun). Kirsten Lewis’s All American Girl is similar, a largely straight-laced performance, at once staying true to the source material and acting as the straight woman to all the bizarre villainy going on around her. And the bizarre villainy is a great deal of fun. Isabella Church’s Hyena gets to tell old-fashioned shaggy-dog jokes. Xander Kozak, Tony Patron and David Littleton all revel in their ridiculousness, belting out maniacal laughs and one-liners as if nature itself intended them to do so. Tabitha Vidaurri’s waitress character serves as a fun, realistic counterpoint to all the high camp going on, and, by seemingly doing very little, gets some big laughs. Finally, Matt LeClair nails the vocal energy of an old-time radio announcer, and ties the whole thing together with his performance. Everything gels nicely.

If I have a few criticisms. I would say that the energy wasn’t consistent throughout. Given the nature of the material lines needed to fly quick and sharp, and though they often did, there were a few clear moments of lag time. Production wise, the show also felt very spartan. Battersby’s costume and prop design is flashy and evocative as all heck, but the sound design was almost nonexistent and could have been used to ease some of the dead air during scene transitions. After all, wasn’t over-the-top music and foley one of the defining traits of radio’s golden age? The rear projections used too, were somewhat limited. While a great idea, to have comic book frames shone on to the back wall, enhancing and, occasionally, explaining the action, they were a little too obviously Photoshopped PowerPoint slides. It never felt like they completely meshed with the actors’ performances. A bit of shame.

That said, none of this is distracting enough to take away from the inherent of fun of Battersby’s production. And I mustn’t forget to mentioned the heart that shines through in this piece too. While the show’s affection for superheroes is clear, it also takes time out of its day to be about something substantial. One of its main characters is a transvestite, and this is portrayed as an entirely empowering thing. It’s part of his superhero make-up (pardon the pun again) and allows him to get the drop on his enemies. But as part of the Trans Theatre Festival, this being Pride-Season, and, sadly, the show taking place so soon after the Orlando tragedy, the Skunk is quick to remind the audience: “Any day could be the day I get shot in the back of the head because someone doesn't like the way I'm dressed.” This little reality-check goes a long way. Then he adds: “But that doesn't stop me.” It’s a surprisingly moving moment in such a light and frothy comedy. If it’s ever playing again, you should give it a look.

‘The Astonishing Adventures of All American Girl & The Scarlet Skunk’ was produced at the Brick Theatre in Brooklyn as part of the Trans Theatre Festival. It was written and directed by Charles Battersby. For more information on the future of the project, see charlesbattersby.com. For more information about the festival, see bricktheater.com.

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He performs improv comedy professionally and plays lead guitar in two bands. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: A Surrealist’s Guantanamo Bay. ‘I’m Bleeding All Over the Place’ at LaMama.

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Critic

It’s refreshing to see theatre that doesn’t hold the audience’s hand all the way through. But, just as a glass of water after a long walk in the desert is preferable to a glass of urine after same… there’s refreshing and there’s refreshing. Such is the situation with ‘I’m Bleeding All Over the Place’ at LaMama. I am willing to applaud a production wholeheartedly for trying something different, for choosing a deliberately strange aesthetic and committing to it. However, I can’t say I enjoyed ‘I’m Bleeding All Over the Place’. Despite it’s interesting promenade layout and occasionally striking visuals, the distilled essence of the play would appear to be fifteen or so repeated sentences and a small pool of vapidity.

‘Bleeding’ begins in the theatre lobby at LaMama. An actor comes out and starts speaking to the audience in the guise of the playwright, Brooke O’Harra. She contemplates various problems in her life, tiffs in her relationship with her girlfriend, and her constant feeling that she wants to punch people in the face. The audience are then led by the cast on an interactive tour, where they are presented with people sitting on a sofa, actors talking directly to audience members sitting on overturned tubs, a girl cycling in circles for a seeming eternity, people having arguments in unison, a girl being showered in blood, and finally an overlong musical number. There is no story, beyond a vague feeling and the self-important ramblings of actors speaking in the playwright’s voice. Like Paris Hilton, the show is obnoxious and full of issues.

My greatest gripe with the piece is the playwright’s voice. Patronizing is the only way to describe it. Whilst initially interesting and funny, as the show progresses one gets the distinct sense that the playwright is convinced she’s blowing your mind.  And she’s not. O’Harra draws constant attention to fact that she is speaking to you through the actors, as if a mind-controlling Yeerk twisting people to do her bidding. Interesting idea… but she never brings it any further than that. She dwells on the one note like a morse code dispatcher. The text never evolves or completely draws you in, and she never says anything truly profound in the world she creates.

Cast members of I’m Bleeding All Over The Place: A Living History Tour Photo by:  Julieta Cervantes

Cast members of I’m Bleeding All Over The Place: A Living History Tour Photo by: Julieta Cervantes

Granted, the text isn’t helped by the actors’ delivery. The lines sound highly rehearsed, and yet the circumstances of the show seem to demand a fully naturalistic delivery, even an improvisational feel. Whether the actors are bad, or whether they’ve been directed in to a corner is difficult to tell, but the manner of speech was incredibly distracting to me. It completely undermined one section of the piece, in which actors end up isolated with audience members in shower cubicles. The actors talk directly to the audience and contemplate various aspects of the show, reminding them that everything they’re saying is scripted, but still discussing events in immediacy. That sequence would have been chilling if the line delivery had felt authentic, but it was as natural as a conversation with a telemarketing robot. It felt like a ninth grade drama class.

There were a couple of redeeming moments in ‘Bleeding’. A sequence in which an actress is showered by blood-packs is creepy as all hell, and in the initial segment of the play a mannequin is used to represent the playwright’s girlfriend. Comedy comes out of that quite naturally. But so much of the play, despite it’s overbearing efforts to be daring, feels incredibly tame. It’s deliberately overlong segments of repetition might work in an art-installation setting, where the watcher can leave at will, but trapping an audience with them felt more like torture than entertainment. In fact that may have been the point of the show. It’s central joke seemed to be: “We have an audience. Hah! Why would they give us an audience? Let’s see what we can do to them.” Which in the hands of a sadist might have been terrifying and psychologically stimulating. But in the hands of a writer whose writing is bolshy without being incisive, I simply felt like the victim of a mediocre subway showtime. This show may be the surrealist movement’s version of Guantanamo bay.

I like the concept of ‘I’m Bleeding All Over the Place’, a promenade piece where the playwright looms over the audience like a video game villain. However, the writing is devoid of imagination, the actors devoid of inspiration, and there isn’t a ‘mise en scene’, so much as general smell of perturbation. I would hesitate to call the play a vanity project, but I wouldn’t hesitate for long. If you really need to see something that’s not a fourth wall realist drama, and there’s no decent Beckett in town, maybe give it a look. But other than that I find nothing in this to recommend it to a person with money to spend on a trip to the theatre.

‘I’m Bleeding All Over the Place’ runs at the Ellen Stewart Theatre at LaMama until June 26th. Tickets starts at $25, the runtime is approximately forty-five minutes and it was created by Brooke O’Harra. For more info and full show schedule, see lamama.org.

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He performs improv comedy professionally and plays lead guitar in two bands. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: ‘Echoes of Ebola’. Flawed, Imperfect, Compelling.

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Critic

‘Echoes of Ebola’ is a good play, but a frustrating one. It’s a show that does a good many things right and has the potential to be a game-changing piece of political theatre, like ‘The International’ that graced the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre last year. On those same boards now, however, ‘Echoes’ succeeds only in being good. Which is, as should be evident given how antonyms work, not bad. Plenty of plays have failed where ‘Echoes’ has pulled through and created compelling drama, but it has fallen short of attainable greatness. When working in its wheelhouse, it’s an excellent political thriller that twists and turns with the best of them. However it also has a tendency to get bogged down in facile emotional cliches, and an unwillingness to fully explore its central argument. Overall, then, this play reaches around seventy percent of what it’s capable of. Whistleblower Theatre are one to watch, but they have yet to reach their full potential.

Sarah Yuen and Jack Gilliat have penned the script for ‘Echoes of Ebola’ with a mind towards being timely, political, and controversial. It is set in an unnamed African country, where an unnamed virus is wiping out swathes of the population. Teams of scientists from different pharmaceutical companies are racing for a vaccine across the country. We meet once such team: Aisha Laboru and Aidan Jones played by Santoya Fields and Daniel Damiano respectively. Aisha is a local female scientist full of promise and hope, Aidan is a cynical older American scientist. She longs for a more empowered life, and the opportunity to do real good for her country, but also feels the need to honor the stifling traditions of her family. Into this walks Ned (played by Jack Gilliat), a young aspiring journalist looking for his first big scoop. He begins investigating the lab and its personnel, whilst also taking a look at the local international aid office. There he meets aid officiant Joy Cartwright (played by Joan D. Saunders) who starts to spill some local secrets. As he probes deeper he begins to realize just how far the rabbit hole goes.

We have to begin with the positive here, because the show has a genuine strength about it that deserves acknowledgement. When in full ‘political thriller’ mode, the show flies. Conspiracy and layers of deception are unmade, bitter ugliness is revealed, and it’s lean forward in your chair time. The cast too, are generally good. Gilliat’s idealism in Ned, and Damiano’s world-beaten callousness, in particular, make for excellent viewing. Their choice of subject matter is also bold. Plenty are content to read foreign news like its science-fiction and go about their day. To use theatre to bring immediacy to those stories is a time honored cause that never stops being a healthy use of time. All this makes ‘Echoes’ a worthy piece of theatre.

However, when the show is not in its stride, its problems bubble like teenage acne. Pacing is all over the place. ‘Echoes’ is around two hours long and could easily be an hour and a half. Several superfluous character scenes slow plotting to crawl. The scene transitions too, add about fifteen minutes to the run time. Either the writers or director Zenon Kruszelnicki have decided that full set changes are needed for every locale in the play, which entail the switching of almost every single piece of scenery between every scene. These transitions take two-three minutes each, and there are a lot of them. It’s a technical issue that drags the action to a standstill repeatedly, and feels like it could so easily have been avoided.

That said, the biggest stumbling points are in the script. ‘Echoes’ is working very hard to be an informed, savvy, “I’m going to rock your world with facts” theatre piece. But the research feels lacking. It raises some great points about FDA practices and international medical law… and yet easily disproved anti-vaccination facts are spouted like gospel. And vaccinations are confused with cures. And while the premise of a government cover up over population control is fascinating, it eventually becomes too far-fetched to read as anything more than an internet conspiracy theory. Then there’s the script’s central conflict: government intervention in population vs. individual freedom. It’s “rights of the individual” agenda is spot-on, but only lip-service is paid to the Malthusian camp. The writers aren’t brave enough to truly entertain the idea that their argument might be wrong, and so the play can never offer a balanced discussion. That’s what holds it back the most. Like I said, when the play works, it works well, but a much better play is inside it, fighting to get out. One free of these trappings.

Overall then, this feels like an evolved workshop performance. I would like to see the play go through a development process, because I genuinely believe that with all the nuts and bolts tightened, it could be an earth-shaking, knife-to-the-heart experience. As it is now, it’s just a step or so above entertaining. Whistleblower are an admirable company who have yet to hit full stride, and I look forward to whatever they do next. they have a knack for choosing good actors and directors, but their theatrical voice is still in its infancy. When they develop that, however, they are certain to go viral.

‘Echoes of Ebola’ ran at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre from 9 – 18 June 2016. It was written by Sarah Yuen and Jack Gilliat, directed by Zenon Kruszelnicki and produced by Whistleblower Productions. For more information, see whistleblowernewyork.com.

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He performs improv comedy professionally and plays lead guitar in two bands. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: ‘The Tempest’ at Smith Street Stages. What a Wonderful Storm.

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Critic

‘The Tempest’ is one of Shakespeare’s final plays. According to some sources it was his last of all, or at least the last he wrote alone. At any rate, it would be nice if ‘The Tempest’ was his final play, given it’s plot. An old sorcerer, living on a distant island for years, conjuring forth spirits storms and faeries… surrounded by monsters, plagued by usurpers, he enjoys his power, but longs for some kind of peace at the end of it all. He speaks of actors melting in to the air, and how the globe itself shall dissolve. Then at the end of the play, he breaks the magical implement he uses to summon forth all his visions and disappears from his exile, never to return. The parallels are beautiful. When staged well, it is a play that feels about as Shakespeare as Shakespeare can be. It can currently be seen in Carroll Park, Brooklyn performed by Smith Street Stage, and their feels pretty Shakespeary.

Outdoor Shakespeare is a lovely thing, it often feels like Shakespeare in its natural habitat, with all the “Can we have class outside today, sir?” sentiment that goes along with it. Smith Street Stages plays up to that nicely, making full use of park space in their staging, often having actors run in from the other side of the park, shouting their lines to great comic effect. In fact the comedic aspect here is as strong as I have ever seen it in a production of ‘The Tempest’. The central comic trio of Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban (Played by Kate Eastman, Will Sarratt, and Patrick Harvey respectively) are some of the most fun you can currently have in an NYC park after dark. Their bawdy songs, drunken revelry and ineffectual plotting quickly move sublimely from the ridiculous to the even more ridiculous. On the other side of this, Peter Molesworth plays a wonderful Ariel, every inch the ethereal wisp. His athletic yet soft movement about the stage, combined with his waif-like speaking voice give him an almost translucent quality which is distinctly other-worldly.

In fact, the whole cast are rather excellent, with one exception, who manages only to be rather good instead: Kate Ross as Prospero. I’m all for gender-flipped Shakespeare, anything that gives a girl some decent lines to say is alright by me. As I already mentioned, Kate Eastman as Stephano is possibly my favorite part of this show. But something seems off about Kate Ross’ performance. I often found myself glancing at a nearby ice-cream truck during Prospero’s many speeches. It was particularly noticeable in the first tenth or so of the show, before the plot kicks in proper. Something about her presence lacks gravitas. When she interacts with Arial, you don’t get the sense that she is in control, even though the script manifestly demands that she is. It improves as the play develops, but it was the one core aspect of the show that felt like a loose girder.

However, if we’re going to get back to ways in which this performance excels, and we are, I’d like to talk about the music. The soundscaping here, composed by Clara Strauch, is gorgeous. She works with musicians Joe Jung, and Oliver Palmer performing multiple instruments. Everything from accordions, to guitars, to thunder-sheets, and create a folky, ambient, occasionally trance-like soundtrack that gave the play more character than Peter Sellers in the middle of mental breakdown. The component performances were generally wonderful, but the music unifies it, creating a wistful, buoyant, yet melancholic tone that tugged on my heart’s manifold strings. By the final scene of the play, where Prospero stares out at the ship she is to join, and sail upon back to civilization, leaving behind all her magic, and the home she has kept for twelve years, I was ready to forgive all transgressions, imagined or otherwise, that the production had done to me, just for a few more sweet moments of that visual with that music. Bravo to director Beth Ann Hopkins and all accompanying fellows.

All in all then, I would say that this is a rather successful ‘Tempest’. Plenty of heart, plenty of funnies and music to die for. It starts slow, but when it gets going you quickly forget these issues and get swept up in what’s going on. I can whole-heartedly recommend it, particularly if you like ‘The Tempest’, and particularly if you haven’t seen Shakespeare before. This is a non-threatening, easily accessible way to be introduced to the Bard, and you should definitely catch it before its closure on the 26th of June.

‘The Tempest’ runs until June 26th at Carroll Park, produced by Smith Street Stages. It is directed by Beth Ann Hopkins. Admission is free. For full show schedule and further information, consult smithstreetstage.org.

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He performs improv comedy professionally and plays lead guitar in two bands. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: Unliked. ‘Seen / By Everyone’ at HERE Arts.

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Critic

Sometimes you’re not sure if a show is trying to make a comment, emulate reality or extrapolate within established context. ‘Seen / By Everyone’ at HERE arts typifies this. The concept is a play  about life and death composed, largely, of Facebook posts and comments. In theory, an excellent exercise in verbatim theatre. In reality… a mess. There’s no coherent through line, beyond vague attempts at a theme and a symbolic character arc. It leans on its concept like a gimmick, but despite its commitment to the bit, there’s no evidence of a thesis. What occurs, then, is an array of scenes that would be bewildering if they weren’t so boring. Occasional moments of poignancy are created, and the tech aspect of the show is gorgeous, but as an experience for an audience, it’s an awful slog.

As mentioned above, the script for the show is an amalgamation and appropriation of hundreds, possibly thousands, of Facebook posts and comments. They are reworked to become monologues, discussions, and conversations. There is a vague idea that the show is set at a wake, and digital condolences flood throughout. Also processing is a thread about a man getting divorced, a man terminally lonely, a discussion of foreskin and karaoke samplings. The people having these discussions are attended by an ominous bartender, and a girl in a white dress who runs about the stage haphazardly at irregular intervals. Occasionally, people are diverted to a confession cam, or put on glitter-ball masks and shout. I’d say it feels like watching the manifestation of a bad first draft, but actually it’s more like watching someone’s rough brainstorm notes come to life.

I suppose the essential problem of giving full voice to people’s Facebook output, is that most people aren’t great writers. Now you might say that verbatim theatre works despite the fact that most people aren’t great public speakers. That’s true, but verbatim theatre captures the essential honesty of uninterrupted, unplanned thought, captured, recorded, and reproduced authentically. Facebook posts are not typically fonts of honesty or hidden depth, so using them in a theatrical context captures their inherent simplicity, repetitiveness and, often, shallowness. If the piece’s goal is to take online superficiality, blow it up giant size and smear it in your face, then it works perfectly. But then, why would you want to do that? You could just go on Facebook. Yes, there are occasional moments of great honesty, just like on Facebook, but they are few and far between. Most of it just sounds like badly written dialogue because that’s what Facebook conversations are when you take them out of context.

 Meg MacCary, Enormvs Muñoz, Alesandra Nahodil Photo:  Carl Skutsch

 Meg MacCary, Enormvs Muñoz, Alesandra Nahodil Photo: Carl Skutsch

From an acting point of view I can’t find too much fault. The problems of this piece all stem from the construction of the text, not the manner in which it is delivered. Many of the performers have genuinely touching moments, particularly on the stage bar’s apparent ‘Confession Cam’. In fact, the technology aspect of the show informed many of ‘Seen’s best moments. Screens behind the bar showed trippy trick-video, cartoons and astral graphics, creating a period indeterminate retro sci-fi feel. Large screens on the ceiling and far wall of the traverse stage allowed for some exciting visuals, as well as the faux-karaoke gimmick the play used at various times. Additionally, the bartender character used a camera on his person to broadcast a live feed to one or other of the screens at various times. He would film the ‘lost’ female character as she ran about the stage, and when she stood in front of he screens her image would be duplicated infinitely behind her. Simple tricks, but creating cool visuals. Of course, because there was no emotional context for it provided by the show, that’s all they were, cool visuals; but credit where credit’s due. Rey Sun Ruey-Horng’s tech design, mixed with Christopher Heilman’s set design was undeniably impressive.

‘Seen / By Everyone’ is an interesting concept. Using online discourse to create real-world interaction. It’s just a shame the show has nothing to say. It doesn’t seem to be indicting online communication, nor commending it, nor presenting it ‘as is’ and free of judgement. It does seem to be trying to tell a story, but I’ll be buggered by a canary if I can tell you what it is. There are vague ongoing threads throughout, but none of them add up to any kind of a narrative. I was too confused to feel anything, too busy trying to justify all the incoherent images to accept there was a story. If this review reads as vague, then please, by all means go and see the show, because I promise you it is the spring whence the vaguery originates. That said, don’t go see this show, it’s not worth your time. You’re not going to learn anything you couldn’t learn from ten minutes on Facebook. 

As a side note, if you want to see online comments put to more interesting use, I can recommend YouTuber ‘Jacksfilms’ series ‘Your Grammar Sucks’. It’s much funnier, and much more coherent. If you want to see a good play about grieving online, check out ‘Canuck Downunder’ by Jessica Kazamel at the NYC Fringe this Summer.

‘Seen / By Everyone’ is presented at the HERE Arts Centre as part of the SubletSeries@Here. It was created and produced by ‘Five on a Match’, conceived by Amir Darvish and Meg MacCary. It runs until June 25th, all shows are at 8:30pm. HERE Arts is located on 145 6th Avenue NYC.

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: Humor is More Serious Than Seriousness. ‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’ with The Night Shift

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Critic
  • Tiwtter: @ThomasDBS

When it comes to the subject of physical and mental disability, the kid gloves get broken out at lightning speed. Of course, this is a natural, understandable social reaction, and it probably avoids a lot of embarrassment all round. But a lack of frankness, and an unwillingness to allow humor into a conversation is often severely limiting and robs people of an honest voice. The modern level of discussion is at a better place than it has ever been. By no means perfect, but when you see comedians like Francesca Martinez doing stand-up about her experience with cerebral palsy, talking about it, by turns, earnestly and flippantly, you realize that time does elicit development. Even if on a geological timescale. You could say similar things about the play ‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’. Originally produced in England in the late sixties, it is a non-PC, gloves-off, honest and often hilarious piece that follows a couple raising their cerebral palsy stricken daughter. It seems strangely timely, and yet of its time. Its relentless humor allows a keen insight in to the life of parents in a seemingly hopeless situation. Presented last weekend by The Night Shift at IRT, it was touching and fun, and a more than fitting off-off revival of an excellent play.

‘Joe Egg’ tells the story of Brian and Sheila, a married couple in their thirties. They lead barely manageable lives loomed over constantly by the specter of their daughter Joe. Joe has severe cerebral palsy which renders her wheelchair bound, incapable of communication and, largely, as Bri puts it, a vegetable. Joe’s condition puts considerable strain on their relationship, and the two of them, particularly Bri, use elaborate black humor to manage. We see them interacting with Joe, pretending that she is talking back to them, giving her different imaginary personas, building a series of ridiculous fantasies around her. However the disquiet in their relationship gradually comes more and more to a head, which prompts Brian to take some questionable actions on an evening when Sheila brings her friends Freddie and Pam over for drinks. All the while the question hovers as to what the right thing to do really is, and there are no obvious answers.

Director Christina Ashby’s work here is excellent. The time and place are unified like tea with milk and two sugars. Probably the most enviable touches are the spurs of authentic 60s BBC radio that play in the background at different points. Nigel Harsch’s sound design is excellent, and Ashby’s collected vision builds a world on stage that feels distinctly British, despite being located on the Western side of the island of Manhattan. I think that is the greatest compliment I can pay to the show, that it has the smell and sound of authenticity swirling about it like bubbles in a jacuzzi. From the setting, to the delivery of the humor, to the mise en scene, to the occasionally devastating performances, the play feels well looked after and committed to. It keeps you planted firmly in seat, assured that reality, no matter how surreal, is happening in front of you.

Sam Leichter plays an excellent Brian. Whether deliberately or not, he seems to be channelling Eddie Izzard. His timbre of speech and faux-lackadaisical delivery are positively adroit and his portrayal of Brian’s internal conflict is imperiously nuanced. He squares off nicely against Brittany Proia as Sheila, who is able to be both the play’s soul of incorruptible goodness, and a flawed, conflicted, and put-upon human being all in her own right. Isobel McBride is endearingly lump-like as titular parsnip Joe, with occasional fanciful moments of normalcy that come off as intensely touching. Brian Nemiroff (Freddie), Amber Bodgeweicz (Pam) and Margaret Catov (Grace, Bri’s mother) form the gaggling mob of houseguests that brew the plays final kerfuffle. They are each strikingly and individually flawed, extra and unsolicited voices in a difficult conversation between Sheila and Brian, adding fog to the mist. They are integral to the play’s climactical caterwaul. Put simply, the cast are excellent.

I suppose what ‘Joe Egg’ boils down to is a debate. A debate taking place between the forces of quality of life and right to life. The debate, however, is not a dry, lifeless C-Span drudge, it is an animated, agonized, but incredibly funny and witty back and forth. No one character seems to wholly represent any one side, and no one is painted as being obviously wrong, or obviously the villain. The play is fair and full of comic flair, made all the more remarkable by its age. For a play roughly fifty years old it feels surprisingly current. True, many of its cultural references are mired in the time and place, and I’m certain a fair few of them fly over the heads of a 21st Century American audience, but the piece’s core conflict is treated with a stark frankness that seems timeless. Perhaps that’s due to the text, with its complete unwillingness to cow-tow to molly-coddling and easy morals. Perhaps its due to the cast and crew of The Night Shift, who have obviously worked so well to give ‘Joe Egg’ a life beyond being a play of historical interest. Perhaps it’s both. Maybe it’s Maybelline. Whatever it is, it works, and it’s a shame this show only ran for the one weekend. It had the strength and tenacity to go well beyond that. A superlative showing all around.

‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’ ran from the 26th to the 28th of May. It was produced by ‘The Night Shift’ and ran at IRT Theatre. For more information about The Night Shift and their upcoming works, visit thenightshifttheatre.org.

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: An Early Halloween at Radio Theatre NYC’s Edgar Allan Poe Festival

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Critic
  • Twitter: @ThomasDBS

NEW YORK NY - Edgar Allen Poe is widely regarded to be the mother of all grand-daddy’s of American horror. His stories are taught in schools, universities, and are universally held up as examples of good writing. As they have been handed down over the centuries they have been adapted into memorable movies and TV shows, but to my knowledge there has never been a theatrical adaptation that one could could say has entered the pop-culture lexicon. Last year’s oddball off-Broadway musical ‘Nevermore’ made a valiant attempt, and by many accounts was quite good, but it can’t be said to have left a lasting impression on New York or world theatre. So what, then, is the solution? Poe’s writing is undoubtedly good, you don’t need me to tell you that, but how to translate it adequately to the stage? Well, Radio Theatre NYC may have a solution: fifties radio-style staged readings of Poe’s work in front of an audience. Simple. Let Poe do all the talking, don’t futz with a ship that floats.

On the night I went, four of Poe’s short stories were being read. ‘Morella’, ‘The Tell Tale Heart’, ‘The Oval Portrait’ and ‘Manuscript Found in a Bottle’. For those unfamiliar, ‘Morella’ is the story of a man, his wife, and her obsession with the deviltry. ‘Tell Tale’ was the ‘Seven Nation Army’ of the night. Arguably Poe’s greatest hit, it’s the story of a servant’s obsession and the murder that haunts him. ‘Portrait’ sees two lost hikers discovering a cabin in which the painting of a women appears to tell a tragic story of obsession. Finally, ‘Manuscript’ follows a rational minded man who gets caught in a typhoon, and is forced to confront the limits of his comprehension. The evening was introduced with a biography of Poe, and each story was prefigured by a short monologue to provide context for its content.

As described above, the presentation was simple. Actors with microphones stood in front of podiums that contain their scripts. For added effect there was mood lighting, atmospheric music and a smoke machine. And that was it. It all worked as well as could be reasonably expected. The actors were engaging, and all in possession of rich, velvety voices. The sound design was such that their pronouncements were never drowned out by music and so clarity of speech was always maintained. The lighting and smoke punctuated key moments and was never overused. It’s a show that gives you exactly what it says it will. If you fancy sitting in a church and hearing some scary stories read to you, this is an excellent way to fill your fix. I will however, single out a few additional pros and cons that I feel are worth mentioning.

For a con, the church is hot. New York is descending in to Summer hell and St. John’s is not a chilling environment. It’s not boiling, but it is warm. Not a deal-breaker, but worth knowing. Pro, Frank Zilinyi’s voice is amazing. Good god the man can say words. His intonation is Wellsian, his delivery canderous. You can (and should) listen to this man for hours. Con, Cory Boughton shifts his weight from one foot to another a lot. This might seem nit-picky, and it is a little, but when there’s no other visual stimuli on stage, this becomes a point of focus. It’s rather distracting, at least for me. Particularly when you’re front-lit and casting a giant shadow on the wall behind you, that also moves when you do. Pro, the locale adds a great big something to the text. St. John’s Sanctuary, the church in which the show is performed adds an extra ladle of gothic on top of Poe’s already inherent gothic tone. I stand by my initial assessment of the show, if you want what this show is selling, then you will enjoy yourself, but the above factors both limit and enhance the experience contained therein.

I suppose there is only one major change I would like for this show. Put it on in October. The whole affair feels steeped in Halloween envy. The gothic location, Poe’s writing, the sound design… I felt like I was entering a house of horrors. And that’s a good thing. It was creepy and fun. But the Summer heat, the long day’s fighting off the night… it detracted from the atmosphere. This show belongs in the cool and eerie of Halloween. That said, I would still recommend it. If you like Poe, horror and good voice acting, this will tickle all your tickle bits. A few flaws, a few outstanding moments, mostly does what it says on the tin. And that’s pretty good.

The Edgar Allen Poe Festival runs from May 19th to June 11th. Shows start at 8pm and are performed in The Sanctuary at St. John’s Lutheran Church, 81 Christopher St. Tickets start at $20, $10 for Students/Seniors. For more information and full show schedule consult radiotheatrenyc.com.

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: ‘The Commedia Cinderella’. The Best Family Show in Town.

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Critic
  • @ThomasDBS

When people look back at the early twenty-first century with the weary eyes of history, there are going to be five letters that come up a lot. LGBTQ. It’s a hot button rights issue that just keeps getting hotter. Whether we’re talking marriage, bakeries or bathrooms, we are talking, and that’s great. It’s fantastic that the conversation is happening. It’s sad it’s such a slow and shouty conversation, but it is a conversation. The cultural impact is being felt all over the world. Particularly in NYC and particularly in the world of theatre. It’s really quite cool. I got to see, what many would consider to be, an unexpected example of it the other day down at the SoHo Playhouse: LGBTQ Family Theatre. In a show called: ‘The Commedia Cinderella’. This show of fabulous gaiety features the best in drag, camp, and musical theatre references, as well as outrageous physical performances, bright costuming and silly voices. It’s incredible fun, for the youngest ages and upwards, and it’s definitely worth your theatre dollar.

‘Commedia Cinderella’ is Ragtag Theatre Company’s successor to last year’s ‘The Commedia Rapunzel’. I saw this at the NYC Fringe and loved it. Following the Fringe, the show encored at the SoHo Playhouse, and out of that prolonged encore came this continuation of the franchise. Like with ‘Rapunzel’, they give their outrageous modern commedia dell’arte treatment to the Cinderella story. The show begins by not beginning. The audience is told it has been cancelled. This prompts the now familiar Commedia characters to argue, get flustered, fight, and eventually agree to do the show anyway. At last they manage to get things started and, with near constant nods and winks to the audience, they tell the story of Cinderella. With the added qualifier that Cinderella is now no longer a story about looking pretty to get a prince, it is about accepting who you are and realizing your inner beauty. It’s a heck of a lot of fun, and I haven’t mentioned any of the best parts yet.

Photo: Dennis Corsi

Photo: Dennis Corsi

In every way, this is a stronger show than ‘Commedia Rapunzel’. And ‘Commedia Rapunzel’ was already pretty darn strong. When I saw it last year, the space they were performing in, combined with the limitations of the Fringe were holding them back. Their bright and colorful sets and costumes felt at odds with the bleak dance-studio walls they were surrounded by. and the sound system felt like it was running through a fish tank. The performances were excellent, the jokes were funny, but the space was cavernous and the acoustics poor. At the SoHo, they appear to have found a warren to call their own. It feels perfect for their purpose. On entering the space, you are greeted by warm colors, vibrant lighting and the faux-ramshackle nature of the show. It’s instantly welcoming, and stepping through the doors makes you feel like Alice diving in to Wonderland. With ambience set at a perfect eleven, and their world firmly established, the players are then free to run riot. And run riot they do.

Company leader and writer Sam LaFrage plays Arlecchino, the playful clown, (and subsequently The Fairy Godmother and others) who in this incarnation is outrageously camp and often in drag. Like a contestant pulled straight off RuPaul he delivers an endless stream of sassy quips and looks divine in a dress. Andy Dispensa plays the crotchety miser Pantalone, who also transforms into the handsome Prince, and Cinderella’s pet crocodile. He walks the line between gentle charisma and unabashed self-mockery brilliantly. Sean Barry-Parsons as Zanni (and others) is a feast of squeaky high-energy, as is Jason Hurtado, who not only plays a great Pulcinella, but a marvelously hairy-legged ‘Little Orphan Annie’ too. Billie Aken-Tyers is also a lot of fun, playing the hideous Rosetta, and then lending delicious villainy to Cinderella’s evil stepmother. Rounding out the cast is Natasha Nightingale as Columbina, and the titular ‘Cinderella’. She provides the audience’s viewpoint and has the tough task of being the show’s pillar of stability, like Graham Chapman in ‘Holy Grail’. The world around her is mad, but we can only appreciate it because she is relatively like us. Her work is excellent, and she gives the show the heart it needs. 

Amy O’Neill as ‘Girl With Stick’ is a revelation.

However, as strong as the cast are individually, as a unit, they are herculean. A year of performing with each other has given them the freedom and relaxation to improvise like pros. Part of what makes this show so endearing is how they interact with the audience. They will ask the children for suggestions, chat with them, even completely derail the show based on something a kid has said. That’s what makes this show ideal for a younger audience. The cast are essentially behaving like children themselves, and they include the real younglings in their mania, so actual children feel completely welcome. However, ‘Cinderella’ is a family show, and RagTag are more than happy to cater to the fifteen and ups too. Incredibly witty verbal gags, savvy as all heck flow like jealousy at a bridal shower. Not only that, every member of the cast is a high-energy singer and dancer. They throw themselves around that stage like they’re made of flubber; belting, crooning and even rapping with the best of them. It’s a big, loud, astoundingly physical show and you would be a fool not to see it before the ticket prices suffer the Hamilton effect.

I can’t think of a single negative thing to say about this show, even for the sake of balance. A stellar cast, a script to die for, and a reckless silliness powered by good taste and native wit. You don’t stop laughing. Your children will love it, you will love it, I love it. But don’t forget that underneath all the fun and games is a kind message of empowerment: You are beautiful just the way you are. And it doesn’t feel crowbarred in or gregarious, as morals often do in family entertainment. It comes out of the show naturally, because everything builds to it. The words of the roller-skating fairy godmother, Cinderella’s fantastically eccentric costume (Designed by Angela Borst and Sam LaFrage), the warm familial nature of the Commedia concept, and, of course, the LGBTQ element. Because no one knows more about the fight for social and self-acceptance than the LGBTQ community. And its such a wonderful thing to see the iconography of the community presented here, free of the usual doom-and-gloom we associate with the struggle of non-conformity. Here we have the non-tokenistic celebration of non-conformity, and I love that. It makes this show unique, and it means you should absolutely head down SoHo way on Saturday to catch it. Bring your loved ones, your little ones, your old ones… bring all your ones. ‘Commedia Cinderella’ is legitimately great, and it deserves your love and attention.

‘The Commedia Cinderella’ is being performed by RagTag Theatre at the SoHo Theatre every Saturday Morning at 11am. It is currently scheduled to run every weekend through July 16th. Tickets starts at $25 for thirteen and unders and $39 for adults. For full show schedule, ticketing links and other details see either thecommediarapunzel.com or sohoplayhouse.com. Follow RagTag Theatre on Facebook (As Ragtag Theatre) and Twitter (@RagTagTheatre).

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: ‘Body: Anatomies of Being’. Unrevealing.

Thomas Burns Scully

Have you ever been at a dinner party where you get stuck at the boring end of the table? I have. You end up surrounded by people repeating BuzzFeed factoids as if they’re the latest findings from the Curiosity Mars Rover. It’s not the fact that they don’t know interesting things that’s bothersome, it’s the fact that they are convinced you don’t know the incredibly facile things that they do know. There’s nothing worse than a condescending stupid person. Except perhaps most disease and poverty. This is the experience of Blessed Unrest’s ‘Body: Anatomies of Being’ at the New Ohio Theatre. It is a show with something to say about nudity and perceptions of the human body. It’s just, if you’re a liberal-minded New Yorker, there’s a good chance you’ve heard this before. And they present it as fresh insight. So for all its apparent radicalism, this show is very tame and, for a show that features nine naked actors of various shapes and sizes, surprisingly boring.

Format-wise, the show resembles a dreamscape. It begins with eight out of nine cast members standing naked before the audience for about a minute. They then break off in to different movement pieces, some machine-like, others more organic and esoteric. Out of these movements emerge vignettes, about four or five individual stories that are more conventional dialogue scenes. These include a love story between a cancer-survivor and a surgeon, a nude painting session, monologues about neuroscience to the audience, a discussion of race, and more. The general intent seems to be to demystify nudity, view the body free of sexual and racial context and address the issue of the beholder’s gaze. These are all good ideas, but the writing feels decidedly stale.

Natalia Ivana Escobar, Darrell Stokes, Nathan Richard Wagner, Sevrin Anne Mason, Joshua Wynter, Sonia Villani Photo: Alan Roche

Natalia Ivana Escobar, Darrell Stokes, Nathan Richard Wagner, Sevrin Anne Mason, Joshua Wynter, Sonia Villani Photo: Alan Roche

How to put this gently? The individual stories within the show are dull. None of them go anywhere interesting, and the societal mores they seek to challenge have all been challenged better elsewhere. Discussing race, mastectomies and breast reconstruction provide some interesting and heartfelt insights, but so much of the other dialogue is bland and regurgitative. It’s like speaking with someone who has just read a self-help book and won’t shut up about it. I stress, none of the show comes from a cynical, shallow, or dismissive place, but despite the fact that they are approaching the work with vulnerability, the actors come off as superficial, even if they are well-meaning. This is particularly noticeable in the scientific parts of the show, which feel like stilted TED talks distilled from Wikipedia articles. Despite the actors’ undeniable bravery in performing a show almost entirely nude, the piece they are performing in does not live up to their moxie.

The movement pieces that form up the rest of the show are fine, they might even be interesting. Without good dialogue scenes to connect them, however, they just feel like so much set dressing. The way the show is structured, the dialogue scenes are what’s meant to endear the performers to you, and the movement pieces extrapolate on that emotional connection. However, with the dialogue pieces faltering in their purpose, that jeopardizes the movement sections, until they become just pretty physical pictures. However, the thing that bothers me most about ‘Body’ is how un-daring it feels. It’s a show that features nine predominantly nude actors on stage, supposedly tearing down your walls of perception. How is it that I left the theatre feeling dull and un-moved? Perhaps that signifies that, in some small way, the show succeeded. In that it made me find nudity boring. Or perhaps I have had my mind dulled to nudity from six seasons of ‘Game of Thrones’. At any rate, while the show is bold in its staging, it is middling in its emotional depth and its confrontational pretensions are just that. Ironic that a play in which actors remove so much clothing is so… unrevealing.

I’ve had a lot of good conversations about feminism, nudity, sexualization, objectification and body image in my time living in New York. Some of them have made me really re-think my attitudes, and some of the people I have talked these things over with have become incredible friends and kindred minds. Maybe that’s why ‘Body: Anatomies of Being’ felt stale to me. Maybe to the people who made it, the things they are doing and saying do feel radical and new. It’s the way I feel when I talk to people who’ve just discovered ‘Doctor Who’ or ‘The White Stripes’. They are two things I have studied and enjoyed extensively, and can talk at great length and insight about. To then have the conversation: “Who’s cuter, Tennant or Smith?” (Tennant, obvs), or “Did you know, Jack White uses a Whammy Pedal, not a bass guitar on ‘Seven Nation Army’?” feels tame and 1st grade. That said, I wouldn’t call myself an expert on nudity and sexualization, but none of what was discussed in ‘Body’ felt new or epoch-making to me (Maybe I’m better informed than I though). It felt like valid, basic advice about not being a tool, that was presented like a newly discovered book of the Bible. So the show is well-intentioned and brave, just deeply flawed.

I’ve completely failed at not being patronizing in this review haven’t I? Don’t worry, the next one will be much nicer…

‘Body: Anatomies of Being’ is being presented by Blessed Unrest at the New Ohio Theatre until May 21st. Tickets start at $18. Full details can be found at blessedunrest.org  along with full show schedule and ticketing links. They can also be found on Twitter (@_BlessedUnrest_) and on Facebook (As ‘Blessed Unrest’). For details about the New Ohio Theatre see newohiotheatre.org.

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: ‘Spring Fling: Crush’. ASMR Theatre at the IRT Theatre.

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Critic
  • @ThomasDBS

I’m going to talk briefly about ASMR. The reason will become clear in a minute. For those unfamiliar, it’s a kind of video that has come to the fore in the YouTube era. As defined on Wikipedia, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) signifies the subjective experience of 'low-grade euphoria' characterized by 'a combination of positive feelings, relaxation, and a distinct static-like tingling sensation on the skin’. The name generally refers to YouTube videos where people whisper breathily in to a microphone (though the rabbit hole goes much deeper, I am told). The effect is similar to those headache-cure claw things that feel like someone cracking an egg on your head: Mild pleasure and relaxation. It sounds like a sex thing… I can’t say 100% that it’s not, but a lot of people use them as a sleep aid. Why bring this up? I need to give you that context, because the other day I experienced a set of short plays that had the ASMR effect on me. Not by having actors whisper in to a microphone (though there was a little of that), but something about the context, themes and the rhythm of the words, created that mild euphoria and feeling of relaxation. I’ve never had that in a play before. It was also a compelling evening of interesting and thoughtful drama, covering a range of topics edging towards the surreal, and all based around the lose theme of ‘Crush’. But enough about my fetishes, let’s jump right in and talk about F* It Club’s production of ‘Spring Fling: Crush’.

The event was an evening of seven one-acts at the IRT Theatre. ‘Behind the Wall’ by Krista Knight was an analogue of New York intimacy from the perspective of an unexpected friend. ‘He Lights Up My’ by Stephanie Del Rosso, is a story about a woman who falls for a lamp. ‘You Were Crushed’ by Ariel Stess featured a therapy session that started odd and got odder. ‘A Conversation I Never Had’ saw a man and a woman fast-forwarding and rewinding through heartache. ‘Bagel Meets Door’ was an OkCupid date, taking place through a door. ‘The Epic Life of Sam Wheeler’ was about just that, a man, seen both as he was and as a person’s memory, who knew how to live life with gusto. Finally, ‘Crush’ puts the audience as a fly-on-the-wall at a singles’ mixer where people’s flaws are agonizingly and endearingly in the fore. The whole thing felt more like an episode of Monty Python than a one-act festival, and, of course, I mean that as a compliment.

I’ve never been married to the ‘night of one acts’ idea. They often feel either vain or opportunistic, but, more than anything, the jumps in tone and style (and quality) from one piece to the next are disorientating and make for an inconsistent viewing experience. Like watching Michael Jackson’s ‘Moonwalker’. ‘Spring Fling’ does not have this problem. Either by design or serendipity, these pieces all gelled beautifully as a viewing experience. Probably my favorite of them was ‘Crush’, an excellent satire on dating that never fell in to rom-com tropes. Instead it presented terrifyingly fragile people dealing moment-to-moment with threats of expectation and self-disappointment. Jill Frutkin’s performance, in particular, was wonderful. A woman painfully, but realistically awkward, and her chemistry and awkward romance with Ben Beckley was delightful. ‘He Lights Up My’ was a weaker piece of writing, perhaps because it was so conventional in its conceits. When compared to the other pieces it simply felt like it didn’t have as much to say. It relied a little too heavily on its central joke which, while funny, didn’t lend itself well to mileage; and the tone was muddled.

‘A Conversation I Never Had’ and ‘You Were Crushed’ were probably the most impenetrable of the evening. That said, I enjoyed both greatly. Each presented an omni-permeating mood-scape, rather than a story. The meaning of the words being said felt entirely secondary to the way they were being said. Plot in both was on the nebulous side, I’d have trouble recounting any of the story beats to you, but when I think of them now I can remember with clarity the feeling that each created in me. They were the show’s peak ASMR. With one exception: ‘Behind the Wall’. This protracted, multi-act monologue is given no context whatsoever, beyond light costuming, and a few clues in the script. It began the play, and filled the air whilst sets were being changed. At first, you have no idea what is going on. It feels like a beat poem sans jazz backing. The actor, Ben Beckley, says some bizarre things about dancing, soda-streams and household appliances. He keeps talking about a birthday dance he has prepared for someone he loves. Levels of WTF rise beyond all reason. Then gradually you realize who the man before you is, and what he represents. And suddenly his bizarre aggression, and occasional bombasticism make sense, and he becomes beautiful. I won’t spoil the ending, unless you decide to look below*.

‘Bagel Meets Door’ and ‘The Epic Life of Sam Wheeler’ were more grounded, but just as surreal. ‘Bagel’ saw a subway worker encountering a woman with a strange house-binding condition through a door. At first it seems like a surreal joke which the man isn’t quite buying, then gradually the two develop a sweet understanding. Sort of like a dark meet-cute featuring improbable disease. I liked it. The fact that it resolved its initial mystifying strangeness in a grounded, realistic strangeness gave the play a satisfying resolution. The same was true of ‘Epic Life’. The titular Wheeler is a man incapable of living life by halves. His brain chemistry makes it impossible for him to be normal, and he tries to rescue his best friend from shackling blandness. Ugo Chukwu is excellent as the indomitable man himself. His performance is neatly offset by scene-partner Rory Kulz, as well as the parallel scene of the play. This features Mikaela Feely-Lehmann and Nick Lawson, one playing Sam’s wife, and the other playing a potential suitor. They are on a date at a point years later. Lawson comes off as an awkward, Eisenberg-esque nerd-do-well, while Lehmann is the woman who never thought she’d have to love again. Their chemistry is endlessly engaging.

Shows like ‘Spring-Fling’ are rare. Indomitably weird and high-brow, but without being esoteric to the point of pretension. It’s for the introvert stranger in all of us, that part of ourselves that is quietly a freak, and we, and the rest of the world, are able to just about not notice. It massages a part of the brain that is difficult to reach, and for that I admire it greatly. The writing is unique, the direction excellent, and the cast on-point. I highly recommend it if you need to see theatre that is unlike every other show on or off Broadway. It’s what I wish every one-act festival could be. Most of these feature reiterations of conventional theatre on a smaller scale. This was a venue for honest theatrical experimentation, performed by people who unquestionably knew what they were doing. I love that. I recommend checking out F* It Club’s work in future.

‘Spring Fling: Crush’ run as part of IRT Theater's 3B Development Series from April 28-May 8. For more information about F* It Club, follow them on Facebook (facebook.com/EffItClub) and Twitter (@f_itclub)

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: As Yet, Still Untamed. ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ by the Queen’s Company.

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Critic
  • @ThomasDBS

When it comes to staging Shakespeare on the indie stage, the pressure nowadays seems to be to find a new take, a new way of telling the story that no one else has thought of. Some of them work, some of them don’t. Gender-bent casting is an old trick, but it is one that has worked in the past. It’s advantageous in New York, given the ratio of male to female actors in the city, and it can be used to make a point about the message of the chosen play. So when that play is ‘Taming of the Shrew’, and the cast is all-female, what message does that send? It’s not a play that really works in a modern context, given its sexist themes and out-dated philosophy. In a conventionally cast production it’s hard to make it work without extensive re-writes, so does an all-girl cast make it better, or worse? The answer is… well, neither.

The plot of ‘Taming of the Shrew’ is interesting, varied and available for your perusal online. If you’re not familiar with it, I don’t have time to baby you, go read a Wikipedia. The Queen’s Company are a company that specialize in all-female Shakespeare, and this production is right within their wheelhouse. Their take, at least in this instance, of women playing all the parts, is to have the women playing men play the men as men and not as women. The issue with that is that some of the women doing it are better than others. Amy Driesler (as Lucent and Curtis) is transformative in the men she plays, completely embodying a masculine identity. It’s like Cate Blanchett in ‘I’m Not There’, she’s that good. Others, however, just seem like women in trousers and fake beards doing deep voices. Elisabeth Preston (as Petruchio) falls under this banner. She’s not a bad actress, by any means, but because she’s working so hard at being a man, and so physically is not, you are constantly distracted by who she is rather than who she is pretending to be. She falls in to the uncanny valley for women playing men. Again, I stress, she’s obviously very talented, but what the overall effect here is distracting.

Elisabeth Preston (Petruchio), Tiffany Abercrombie (Katharina) Photo: Bob Pileggi

Elisabeth Preston (Petruchio), Tiffany Abercrombie (Katharina) Photo: Bob Pileggi

I know it’s going to sound like I’m getting down on this production a lot in this review. In reality I don’t hate it, and I admire the vision of the Queen’s Company, but this particular showing just has so many points of conflict I can’t not talk about them. I’ll take a moment here, then, to highlight the stuff that really does work, because this show has a few strokes of genius. The first is to have Bianca played by a blow-up doll. That’s just hilarious. All her lines are cut, bar a couple that are done for her by an off-stage Kelsey Arendt, and the actors make some great stage business out of her, including a rather daring tango. Katharina's final monologue, too, works brilliantly. Tiffany Abercrombie delivers it marvelously and it’s a wonderful distillation of everything the character has been through. Director Rebecca Paterson also makes use of lip-synced musical numbers, with actors pretending to croon away in order to further the emotional action. I can’t see purists loving these, but I found them engaging and entertaining. So there is stuff to like here. There’s just also so much that frustrated the bejesus out of me.

Nailing down exactly what I don’t like about this production is very hard. I suppose it’s an accumulation of muddled moments all failing because of the same banner. That banner is the idea that you can somehow fix the inherent sexism of Shakespeare’s text with any amount of staging conceits. You can’t. Apparently the only way to make this script less sexist is to cast Heath Ledger. They try and lampshade the play’s sexism with a brief skit at the start of the play. It’s doesn’t work. Women play all the male parts. It doesn’t work. They cast a blow-up doll to make a point about Bianca. It’s really funny, but it doesn’t work. This play is still sexist as fuck. It still is about a strong, independent women, who is psychologically tortured by a man who tricks her in to marrying her, has her will broken, and then stays married to him at the end of the play because… reasons. No matter how they frame it, and they try and frame it every which way but Wednesday, they can’t get away from the fact that play endorses, or at least excuses, rape culture. Which, when performed by a company of all women, sends a weird message. Interesting to think that the weakest thing about a production of Shakespeare is Shakespeare himself.

So the end result of this production is, essentially a big fat zero. It’s positive points can’t overrule the fact that it’s a play about abusing women for fun and profit that rules in the man’s favor. Even if that man is now a woman, that’s still fucked. So there’s no great reason to go and see this show, but then there’s no great reason not to either. The cast are pretty good, not all of them make great men, but some of them do, and the rest all act pretty good. Some laughs are had, but the message of the play, combined with the directorial vision come off as a muddled, sexist mess. So see it or don’t, I’m not fussed. It’s not bad, it’s just not good either.

The Queen’s Company’s production of ‘Taming of the Shrew’ ran at the Wild Project until May 1st. For more information about the Queen’s Company, visit their website (queenscompany.org), follow them on Facebook (As ‘The Queen’s Company) and on Twitter (@queenscompany).

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: ‘The Disembodied Hand That Fisted Everyone To Death’ at the PIT

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Critic
  • @ThomasDBS

Sometimes I get emails from producers and press agents asking me to come and see Shakespeare, Miller and Chekhov. Sometimes I get invitations to shows called ‘The Disembodied Hand That Fisted Everyone to Death - The Musical!’ It’s one of the reasons I enjoy doing this job, I like the variety. Now, when someone sends you the title of a show like that, it has a lot to live up to. It’s a throwing down of the twin gauntlets of hilarity and eccentricity, and you’d better believe you have to live up to that. All this was running through my head as I sat down to watch this shlock-horror inspired piece at the PIT the other day, but, luckily, for me and for them, the show delivered on the title’s promise. This is the story of a rather fun musical about disembodied hands fisting people to death.

The show opens with a highly serious monologue. A representative of the cast po-facedly explaining how important and sincere this presentation is. Then the show begins proper, with two mad scientists in a lab, trying to bring a dead hand back to life. Their experiment appears to fail, but then, when they leave, the hand does indeed come to life. It escapes from the lab and proceeds to terrorize a frat house. In said frat house it begins fisting the occupants to death. This includes the usual pledges, invited sorority innocents (who may not be so innocent), and a black girl posing (surprisingly successfully) as a white guy. Songs are sung about love, loneliness, the inventor of the polio vaccine and, naturally, fisting. It’s all quite larky and silly.

It won’t surprise anyone in the know that this presentation has the ring of MST3K about it. I’m willing to put down money that creators Amanda D'Archangelis and Anderson Cook are fans. It is a clear parody of the improbable drive-in horror genre, and all the ridiculousness involved. The plot twists are dumb and predictable in various familiar and enjoyable ways. That in itself is funny, so the show passes its first essential hurdle with ease. However, that vaulted, it runs in to its second obstacle: the musical comedy aspect. So how do the songs fare? Pretty well, mostly. I wouldn’t call any of them especially memorable, but they function well within the story to move the plot along, and campily and goofily reveal the play’s purposeful shallowness. Essentially, the conceit of parodying hack movie-making extends to the joke of parodying hack musical-making too. To that end there are all the songs you would expect in a cheap musical: a torch song, a love ballad, a lament, etc. Except they’re all about fisting. ‘Disembodied Hand’s parody-logic is faultless, and so the show hangs together perfectly, doing everything you could reasonably expect it to comedically.

One of the things I love about shows at the PIT is that the performers (at least in the shows I’ve seen) all feel like they want to be there and are enjoying what they are doing. Something like that allows you to forgive certain shortcomings in bad theatre, and enhances the experience of good theatre. The cast here are no exception to that, they all seem to be having a ball. Ryan Andrews as the scientist Dr. Meyers is hamming it up like a toasted sandwich. His assistant, Kleiner, played by Anderson Cook is charming and naive, with an unforced stupidity that brings in the laughs. Aby James, who seems to be this show’s Felicia Day, gets surprisingly raunchy as sorority-ite Vivian and throws gusto into singing gleefully about how much she wants to be fisted to death. The greatest props, however, go to Connor Wright playing the titular hand. That is not an easy part to play. Aside from the extensive emotional and physical character preparation I’m sure was required, he spends the entire show with his whole body, save his hand, inside a black morph suit. He even has to sing through it. That alone is worth a round of applause, the fact that he does it well heralds roses. The rest of the cast are also terrific fun, each with their own moments in the spotlight, but alas, this paragraph is already running long and we must move on. Save to say, if you’re reading this: high five, guys.

I suppose the only thing I have left to say about ‘Disembodied Hand’ is that it is a hedgehog, not a fox. It is very good at one thing, and plays to all it’s strengths, but there isn’t a lot of variety to it. Which is not to say that it’s bad, I think I’ve made it quite clear up until now that I think it’s a highly enjoyable show. But, there isn’t much beyond that. It plays its central joke perfectly, and takes it to its logical illogical conclusion, but it never transcends its own humble origins. There’s never a moment where you find yourself feeling something you never expected to, you never suddenly care about the characters, or get any feeling of pathos. Yes, that’s not what the show’s about, it’s about an amusing hand fisting weird people to death. It does that brilliantly and it’s funny as hell, but if this show were to take it to the next level and be a ‘Kapow-i Gogo’ that’s what it would do. So it’s Mel Brooks, not Woody Allen. But that’s still high praise.

So if you are looking for a good time, call the PIT and ask for the hand. ‘The Disembodied Hand That Fisted Everyone to Death: The Musical!’ is a perfect essential parody that works brilliantly within its own niche. It never rises above that niche, but by god does it mine all the gold out of that mountain. Best viewed with friends, alcohol and all sensibility left at the door. It’s a ridiculous hour of campy horror silliness, watch it like you’d watch ‘Plan Nine From Outer Space’ and you will have all the fun in the world. This one comes highly recommended for the naughty child in all of us. Give it a look.

‘The Disembodied Hand That Fisted Everyone To Death’ runs at the PIT through to June 17th playing irregular days. Full show schedule and links to ticketing available at facebook.com/DisembodiedHandFisted. Follow them on Facebook.

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: Remembering Paris Correctly. ‘April in Paris’ at Feinstein's/54 Below With Floanne.

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Critic
  • @ThomasDBS

NEW YORK NY - Paris. Synonymous with romance, music, the 1920s, art, life, free-spiritedness, existentialism, strong philosophy, good writing, simple beauty, good wine, cups of coffee, sex that’s somehow artistic, and a lot more besides. We all know Paris, even if we haven’t been there. Of course, in the past couple of years, Paris has also become the new face of victimization. We all experienced the Facebook tricolorization of “Je Suis Charlie” and “Je Suis Paris”. Most of us knew where we were when we found out about both, in the same manner all historically symbolic tragedies ask us to recall. Lucky for Paris, they have a long history of overcoming unwelcome invaders, be they ISIS, Nazis, or even the British. The indomitable joie de vivre of the city endures and thrives in spite of whatever militant force with disappointing genitalia attempts to do to them. With that in mind, I invite you to read about ‘April in Paris’, a benefit cabaret for ‘Strength to Strength’ (A charity benefitting the victims of terror) at 54 Below, featuring the wonderfully talented, Floanne.

Feinstein's/54 Below is a New York City treat that I had yet to experience until last week. Sure, I’ve done cabarets before, I help run one (On The Spot, every Monday at 8pm at the Broadway Comedy Club, onthespotnyc.com), but this was my first time at 54 Below. It’s one of those places that even seasoned, cynical locals still talk about in approving tones. Its beautiful gilded walls, immaculate place-settings and warm ambience immediately make you feel like you’ve walked in to Sinatra’s America. You might think it odd, then, for a Franco-Centric benefit to be held there, but banish such thoughts from your head immediately. Floanne’s musical offerings, running the gamut from Cole Porter to Brigitte Bardot felt as naturally at home in this midtown cellar as Elvis did in bluejeans.

Floanne’s show conjured up the spirit of Paris as only a pretty cabaret-ist with a charming accent can. Her setlist included old favorites like ‘I Love Paris’ and ‘La Boheme’ whilst also mixing in obscurer pieces of opera, and lesser known, less nightclubbish faire. In the manner reminiscent of a Godard starlet, she drew the audience in, whilst gently showing off her impressive vocal range. Throughout her set she peppered the air with anecdote and banter, talking about Paris, her material, infusing light humour, and even a little call-and-response. She is an excellent performer, with a voice that knows no bounds and a superlative command of her own charm, presence and sensuality.

Her band are a solid group of performers: Dan Furman on piano, Ray Parker on bass and Todd Isler on percussion. All of them are seasoned musicians. Scarce a beat was missed and few to no notes were out of tune. However, the audience was never left in doubt that, good as the band were, the night was not about them. It was not even about Floanne. No, the gifted songstress was always careful to bring the evening’s spotlight right back to Paris. And the way she did it was probably the best part of the evening. She was able to do it without forcing the specter of guilt in to the room, as many benefits are prone to do. Everyone knew why they were there, that this was a charity to aid victims of terrorism, but rather than parade photos of victims and reeling of death counts, Floanne read from Parisian book of love and rejoiced in the bohemian spirit. In a phrase: the evening wasn’t a downer. It was uplifting, positive, and fun, as well as raising money and awareness. An all around success.

If you are interested in contributing to ‘Strength to Strength’, you can find details on their website: stosglobal.org. To follow Floanne and keep up to date on upcoming shows, you can find her on Facebook (As Floanne), on Twitter (@floanne) and at her website (frenchtalent.com). For more information on 54 Below, see there website (54below.com).

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, The Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: ‘When I Was A Girl I Used To Scream And Shout’ at Fallen Angel Theatre

Thomas Burns Scully

OnStage New York Critic

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It seems that there has never been a better time in history to talk about women. We can’t check Facebook anymore without someone calling out cat-calling, re-posting a HeForShe think-piece, or sharing BuzzFeeds latest top-ten about menstrual cycles. The conversation is ubiquitous and ever-growing. It’s therefore stands, then, that there has never been a time in theatre when muliebrity has been more in the fore. Theatre is, after all, a reflection of societal conversation. ‘When I Was A Girl I Used To Scream An Shout’ is a theatre piece that feels highly relevant to that conversation, despite being written thirty years ago. The play, by Sharman MacDonald, documents the lives of a group of women recalling their upbringings and experiences of womanhood. It’s an interesting piece, and, in a paragraph’s time, I will explain why.

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Photo: Carol Rosegg

‘WIWAG’ (as it shall henceforth be known for the sake of brevity) sees the thirty-something year-old Fiona sat down on the beach with her aging mother, Morag. Morag laments her lack of a grandchild, and Fiona makes cryptic remarks about already having one. Her mother says “That doesn’t count”. As the play goes on we meet Morag’s childhood friend Vari. We see them playing together as children, and interacting again as disparate adults. Between these two time periods, running parallel on stage, we witness the circumstances that inform Fiona and Morag’s enigmatic edicts. Along this journey we gain insights in to womanhood, the iron-rod of religion, and the mother-daughter relationship. Equal parts disturbing, awkward and loving, it’s a play with a bit to say.

MacDonald’s central concern is clearly the modern woman at odds with the worlds of misinformation that surround them. Whether they be the fatuous things that young women are told about their bodies, or the institutions of religion and public opinion that tear them between a constitutional duty to please men and a divine quest for infinite chastity. This comes across in the play very strongly, occasionally too strongly. Those of a weaker constitution may find the societal commentary ladled on a little thick, but for the most part ‘WIWAG’ treads the fine line between thoughtful voice of dissent and obnoxious social warrior nicely. I wouldn’t say that this is a play that will give you an all new insight in to the female condition, its gender politics are little too dated for that, but by equal rite it is a play that still has great relevance in spite of its age.

All this said, if dialectics aren’t your thing you needn’t worry. Humanity is at the heart of this play, not diatribe, and the cast delivers it in spades. Zoe Watkins as Vari struts and frets about the Clurman, alternating between excitable child and world-trampled mother as if cyclothymic. Barrie Kreinik as the lead, Fiona, masters similar transitions and is able to be the plays victim without feeling like an agentless waif. Instead she is characterful and bold, which gives Fiona’s fall from grace the ring of hamartia, rather than pity. Aedin Moloney as mother Morag is also rather good, although a few of her speeches could do with trimming. Morag could easily be the play’s inconsequential sad-sack, but Moloney’s portrayal allow’s the part a lightness that steers her away from the rocky shores of monotony. Finally, Colby Howell’s work as the young, dumb and, narratively crucial, full-of-come Ewan is a welcome presence. His flimsy male-bravura and sexually-unsure comedy are counterpointed nicely by his later failed attempts to be valiant and fulfill the noble male archetype.

Other crucial touches are the play’s music, provided by Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains, which is evocative; as well as Luke Cantarella sets, which are evocative; and the light and sound design by Jessica Kasprisin and Florian Staab, respectively, which are evocative. Evocative of Scotland, naturally, in case you were wondering. Scotland’s ethereal literary folk identity throws in to stark relief the messiness of the lives of the women who live there. A masterful touch by director John Keating. I can recommend ‘When I Was a Girl’ to the discerning theatre-goer. Fallen Angel Theatre have given this play a worthy revival at a point in time where its message still rings out loud and clear. Although it may not be progressive, as it may once have been, it is still firmly on the right side of history. It presents women as creatures who’s grasp on their own destiny is shaky, but crucial. It is a snapshot of 1980s gender politics, not as they related to trendy metropolitan socialites, but to ordinary working women and mothers on the sleepier parts of the seaside. Give it a whirl.

‘When I Was A Girl I Used to Scream And Shout’ runs at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre row until May 8th. Tickets start at $45 and are available online via Telecharge. For more information and full show schedule, please see fallenangeltheatre.org.

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: ‘King John’ at Hamlet Isn’t Dead. Shakespearean Off-Cut, or Hidden Gem?

Thomas Burns Scully

OnStage New York Critic

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NEW YORK, NY - Say the name ‘King John’ to someone and the likely response will be mild confusion. Or “The bad guy from Robin Hood?” But King John is also the subject and title of what is possibly William Shakespeare’s least performed play. A historical from sometime in the mid-1590s, ‘King John’ tells the story of its eponymous monarch, his struggles to remain on the English throne, and the French opposition that threatened to depose him. ‘Hamlet Isn’t Dead’ have just finished a staging of this performance-starved text (in their ongoing quest to perform every one of Shakespeare’s plays in chronological order), and the results were pleasingly pleasing.

It’s my custom to forego a synopsis in Shakespeare reviews, because the stories are so well known, and synopses so readily available on the internet. However, due to ‘King John’s deep-cut status, I will forego my usual forgoing. In the play that bears his name, King John’s claim to the throne is being disputed by King Philip of France. Philip believes that the young noble Arthur is the true heir to the throne. Despite initially successful peace talks, interference from the Catholic Church sends the French and the English to war. In the course of this, Arthur is captured, and as the losses pile up on both sides, loyalties fray and everyone’s life and power is at stake.

If anything, this play puts me in mind of a demure episode of ‘Game of Thrones’. The power struggles that in Shakespeare historicals normally feel like Grecian myths, battles among Gods, here feel petty, bitter and conniving. It’s as if the intention of the work is to show the impotent nature of political squabbling. Keeping with the ‘Game of Thrones’ theme, there’s a young boy who falls from a great height, a charismatic bastard and marriage of convenience that quickly becomes inconvenient. Aside from a few standout pieces, it’s easy to see why the play doesn’t get performed all that often. It’s not that it’s a bad play, but for almost every scene, there is a better realized version of that scene somewhere else in Shakespeare’s canon. That said, the work that director Lisa LaGrande does with the play is excellent.

It’s first worth noting that her cast is excellent. Isaac Miller is impossible to dislike as the scene-stealing Bastard, Philip, and speaks the text as if it were written only yesterday. Leah Alfieri as the young would-be King Arthur brings a tremendous awkward innocence to the part that jumps ably between pitiably endearing and surprisingly funny. Kathryn Connors as a cross-gendered King John provides the central totem around which the company circles. Quite a company it is too, filling in the supporting roles neatly and deftly, these actors earn blanket praise for their diligence, commitment and charm. There are no weak links here.

LaGrande’s vision for the play is marred slightly by the venue. Hamlet Isn’t Dead often perform shows at the Westbeth Artists' Community. No matter how inventively the space is used (and it is used very inventively) you can’t quite escape the fact that it looks and feels like a room, rather than a Kingdom, a castle, a battlefield, a prison, or even a theatre. Of course, good drama survives in spite of whatever locale you put it in, but it is worth noting. LaGrande’s work is no exception to the stated rule. The play is staged in a three-quarter round, with actors entering from every conceivable gully. Rarely is a conversation static, it constantly shifts to allow for audience visibility or to underpin the dynamism of a scene. Monologues and soliloquies are particularly well handled. Speeches will be addressed to the masses if a court is in session, Arthur’s ascent of the wall seems directed to all the hearts of the world, Philip the Bastard goes out of his way to engender kisses from nearby admiring ladies… the audience is never left feeling orphaned. It’s a pleasant hark back to the days of the groundlings. LaGrande’s addition of movement pieces to ‘King John’ make for interesting and informative bits of symbol-play. I’m not normally the biggest fan of unsolicited physical theatre, but here I found the offerings unobtrusive, and reasonably informative. All good, overall.

‘King John’ itself, independent of Hamlet Isn’t Dead, is a little wanting. As a historical it doesn’t match up to the grandeur of better known faire, as a drama removed of historical context it’s interesting, but with a muddled message. That said, it’s surprisingly not bad. Middle of the road Shakespeare is still Shakespeare, after all. And in the hands of a creative group of people, it’s a good look-in. Philip the Bastard is a defiantly strong character, almost crying out for his own play. And Arthur’s scene on top of the wall is a monologue I’m surprised I haven’t heard before, given it’s gentle innocence and powerful resonance. Hamlet Isn’t Dead have a done a great job of making ‘King John’ accessible and endearing. They make the weaker scenes work, and the stronger scenes pop. If the show were still running, I would encourage you to go and see it. Unfortunately, the show’s limited run has now ended. That said, Hamlet Isn’t Dead are constantly working on something, and I strongly advise you to follow them on their various social media in order to stay up to date with their performances. Past and present experience has shown them to be more than worth your time.

More information on Hamlet Isn’t Dead can be found at hamletisntdead.com, on their Facebook page (facebook.com/HamletIsntDead), or on their Twitter account (@HamletIsntDead)

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS