Tuesday, September 27, 2016

AT THE 2016 INNOVATIVE THEATRE AWARDS: Off Off Broadway Celebrates Its Own

The New York Innovative Theatre Foundation celebrated Off Off Broadway’s best and brightest last night at the 2016 IT Awards ceremony at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College.

Kudos to the 145 individuals, 50 productions, and 44 theatre companies who were nominated.  Here is the list of the winners:

** The Golfer, Gemini CollisionWorks
Fred Backus, Broderick Ballantyne, Rebecca Gray Davis, Lex Friedman, Ian W. Hill, Bob Laine, Matthew Napoli, Timothy McCown Reynolds, Alyssa Simon, Anna Stefanic

**Siobhan O'Loughlin
Broken Bone Bathtub, Elephant Run District

**Timothy McCown Reynolds
The Golfer, Gemini CollisionWorks

**Midori Francis
Connected, Project Y Theatre Company

**Fred Backus
The Golfer, Gemini CollisionWorks

**Maeve Yore
Harper Regan, T. Schreiber Studio

**Becky Baumwoll
Above Below, Broken Box Mime Theater

**Fritz Brekeller
Composure, WorkShop Theater Company

**Aaron Gonzalez
Wait Until Dark, Variations Theatre Group

**Kaitlyn Elizabeth Day
The Golfer, Gemini CollisionWorks

**George Allison
Hot L Baltimore, T. Schreiber Studio

**Joe Jung and KJ Sanchez
Unity (1918), Project: Theater

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

LURED: Disturbing New Play Examines Proliferation of Anti-Gay Violence in Russia


It has been widely reported that the Russian parliament, with the enthusiastic support of President Vladimir Putin, has taken a strong stance against gay rights. But what has not been as well examined is the virulent riptide of anti-gay violence and public humiliation of LGBT individuals to which the police and officials have pretty much turned a blind eye in the wake of the Government’s position. 

A particularly vicious hate group is one that calls itself Occupy Pedophilia, an organization founded by one of Russia’s better-known neo-Nazi activists. Claiming to protect youth from "predatory assaults" by homosexuals, Occupy Pedophilia’s modus operandi has been to use social media to arrange for “trysts” with gay individuals, and then to violently attack them. As an added touch, they make digital recordings of their attacks, clearly identify the victims, and post the recordings on a popular website. 

The story of one such assault is depicted in Frank J. Avella’s Lured, a short (under an hour) play that is having a brief run at Theater for a New City as part of the 2016 Dream Up Festival. 

It is, in a word, harrowing.

The play unfolds in three scenes. The first two seem almost identical, with one pretty much a variation on the other. In both instances, we are asked to bear witness to a series of violent acts in which only the personnel change. There is little more to these first two scenes than this, so that you may feel you basically are watching one of Occupy Pedophilia’s videos.

It is not until the third scene that you gain a fuller understanding of what has been going on. Lured changes instantly from an enactment of heinous crimes into a far richer play that will leave you feeling both horrified and terribly sad. And, if truth be told, you may shockingly discover within yourself a sense of satisfaction when you grasp that one of the earlier scenes represents an act of revenge on behalf of one of the victims.   

This is the play’s hidden strength, and what makes it a stand-out even with its minimal production values. What unfolds before you is one of those endless cycles of assault-and-vengeance that plague the world. Who can mediate or intervene to end it? 

Most of the characters are representative types rather than fully fleshed-out individuals, but there is one key presence that stands out. That would be Tatiana (Cali Gilman), a leader in the anti-gay movement who truly believes, as she puts it, that “Homosexuals are psychologically unstable animals that dwell in debauchery and bring damnation on us all.” For her, assaulting gays and exposing their “crimes” to public scrutiny is nothing less than a crusade. That she has picked up some of her beliefs from an “American Evangelical Conference in Florida, United States on YouTube” provides a telling irony to the proceedings.

The story depicted in Lured is one that ought to be more widely known. For now, only Tatiana has been developed to any extent. But the play could be expanded to turn the others into characters whose fates would matter to us, not just as nameless victims and perpetrators, but as real humans. That would make a far more dramatic statement and reshape the play from a cry of outrage to an eye-opening call for action.    

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

Monday, September 12, 2016

THE WOLVES: Eavesdropping on the Insular World of a High School Girls' Soccer Team

Photo by Daniel J. Vasquez

Wolves travel in packs of 6-12, coincidentally about the same number of players it takes to make up a soccer team such as the group of “fierce, fearless, female” high school girls depicted in Sarah DeLappe’s compelling and insightful new play, The Wolves, a production of The Playwrights Realm at the Duke Theater.  

Not a lot happens during the course of the play, at least not in terms of traditional plot development, but what a rich portrait it gives us of the lives of these suburban teenagers as they get together for pre-game warm-ups over the course of the soccer season. 

This is a play that needs to be listened to as much as watched as the girls fret over the competition, share gossip, and worry about the state of the world. The playwright has a great ear for the way girls talk to each other. Take, for instance, the opening scene, in which the nine members of the team are spread out across the indoor soccer field doing their stretching exercises. As is typical of such large groups, there are two separate conversations going on simultaneously at either side of the room. One is about the relative merits of menstrual pads and tampons, and the other is about atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (a carry-over from a social studies lesson, perhaps). 

In this little bit, you can see the micro and macro perspectives of the girls, who are both self-absorbed and caught up in a growing understanding of the world-at-large.  No one dwells on any one topic for very long; they are, after all, getting ready to go out there and play soccer. But if you are attentive, you’ll pick up on their misconceptions, naiveté, blossoming sexuality, peer pressure, and competitiveness as you spend time eavesdropping on the moments they are willing to share among teammates who are not quite friends.  

Since all of the girls are in uniform, most are referred to only by the numbers on their jerseys. And while some stand out as individuals  the alpha wolves in the pack   we are meant to think about them largely within their collective identity as a team. This perspective is sadly reinforced near the end of the play when one of their members has been in an automobile accident and disappears from the action. Possibly slightly embarrassed, audience members are likely to spend some time trying to figure out who it is by accounting for the players’ numbers.  

There are a couple of places where situations feel a little forced. One of the players, for example, a home-schooled girl the others don’t know very well, lives with her mom in a yurt. That unlikely suburban housing situation seems to be a set-up for jokes that mix up “yurt” with “yogurt.” But for the most part, both the dialog and the well-choreographed exercises seem fully authentic. The late appearance of an adult, a distraught soccer mom, arrives as a spell-breaker, an intrusion into the insular world created by the team.  

Anyone hankering for a fully plotted play with a clearly delineated conflict and resolution may be disappointed by the unwavering attention on the girls' interactions. But the consistently strong cast under Lila Neugebauer’s sharply focused direction does a splendid job of opening the door on the world of these teenage girls, who show themselves to be pretty fierce and fearless indeed. 

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

Friday, August 26, 2016

A DAY BY THE SEA: Chekhov with a British Twist

Julian Elfer and Jill Tanner
Photo by Richard Termine

There is more than a little Chekhov in N. C. Hunter’s 1953 play A Day By The Sea, and so it is most fitting that director Austin Pendleton is on hand to helm this rare production by the Mint Theater Company, that great restorer of lost theatrical treasures now ensconced at its new home at the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row.

Pendleton, who has directed Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and Ivanov for the Classic Stage Company, has mined this paean to the regrets and follies of middle age for all its worth. The acting is excellent, as are the production values – set, costumes, lighting, and sound.  Praise-worthy all.   

But before I heap on any further plaudits, let me warn you. It is long (nearly three hours, with three acts and two intermissions), and not a lot happens, at least not as you may have come to expect in terms of the rise and fall of conflict and resolution. More than a few audience members disappeared after the first act, which, to be honest, seems determined to out-Chekhov Chekhov, what with its rambling speeches and diatribes that do precious little to move the story forward. It’s almost as if Hunter were saying – “You want Chekhov?  I’ll give you Chekhov!" Here's an alcoholic doctor straight out of Uncle Vanya; a mother disappointed in her son, straight out of The Seagull; a confused old man living on his memories, straight out of The Cherry Orchard. There are probably other recognizable connections you can make as well, 

But if you are patient and come back after that first break, you’ll find that Act II and Act III are ever so much more engaging, poignant, and often surprisingly funny. Here’s Hunter saying, “OK, now take a look at my British twist on the old Russian master!”  The parade of characters who were barely distinguishable from one another (there are ten of them) suddenly burst out in their individuality, and, as it turns out, there is a central story after all. 

Julian Elfer, Philip Goodwin, and George Morfogen
Photo by Richard Termine

A Day By The Sea takes place at the home of Laura Anson (Jill Tanner) in the Southwest of England, along the English Channel in Dorset. Laura lives there permanently, occasionally joined by her son Julian (Julian Elfer), a member of the British diplomatic corps stationed in Paris. Also living with her is her octogenarian brother-in-law David (George Morfogen) and an attendant physician, the heavy-drinking unreliable Dr. Farley (Philip Goodwin).  

This summer, there are some additional guests: Frances (Katie Firth), an old family friend who is taking refuge after a scandalous divorce, along with her children – daughter Elinor (Kylie McVey) and son Toby (Athan Sporek) – in tow with their governess, Miss Mathieson (Polly McKie).  Two other characters who pop in from time to time are the family solicitor (Curzon Dobell) and Julian’s boss in the Foreign Office (Sean Gormley).

As you might imagine, it does take a bit of time and work to sort everyone out.  But eventually we settle on Julian’s story. At the age of 40, he is confronted with the realization that his career is heading nowhere and that his life has been one of wasted and unappreciated efforts and lost opportunities.

The biggest loss, at least as he is able to discern it, was the possibility of marriage to Frances. Once close friends, it turns out she was in love with him for the longest time, while he was oblivious and focused on his career. Though they went their separate ways two decades earlier, Julian permits himself to imagine that he can rekindle the spark of their youthful potential. Surely it is love that will rescue him from sinking into a life of quiet anguish, an emotional vortex that has already grabbed hold of the desperately lonely Miss Mathieson. Everyone, it seems, clings to hope, however unlikely it is to bear fruit. 

That, in a nutshell, is A Day By The Sea, an accumulation of missed opportunities, unrequited love, foolish expectations, and dashed dreams. It is not an easy play by any means, but it is a significant work that will resonate with anyone who has had to shelve an ambition or wrestle with accepting what is rather than mooning over what might have been. Mr. Pendleton, the Mint, and the entire company of actors have done a great service in restoring this neglected work. 

Special kudos, too, to the frame-within-a-frame-within-a-frame set design by Charles Morgan that perfectly captures the feel of the seaside locale; the lighting by Xavier Pierce that recreates the summer sun; the just-right period costumes by Martha Hally, and Jane Shaw's wonderfully modulated sound design (lots of seabirds and relentless ocean waves quietly underpin the action). 

Bravo, Mint.  You've done your mission proud!

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.