Monday, November 9, 2009

Off-Broadway Delights, Part I

New York theater-going audiences are blessed with many Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway acting companies offering exciting, intriguing, and sometimes off-the-wall new plays, as well as productions of classic or seldom-seen older plays. What is truly amazing about many of these companies is how they can produce what are often top-notch productions on shoestring budgets in quirky spaces, ranging from fifth floor walkups in office buildings to church basements, storefronts, outdoor parks, and even bathrooms (e. g. “Ladies and Gents” and “Downsize”).

Today, I would like to talk about two of these dynamic companies, along with the plays currently in production at their respective venues.

Emerging Artists Theatre [EAT]
identifies itself as a “dynamic home for emerging writers and artists, “ with a mission to “provide the unique opportunity for playwrights to collaborate with directors, actors, and designers…from idea through fully realized production.” Aspiring playwrights take note: EAT solicits original work on its website:

The current production, having its Off-Broadway debut, is Penny Penniworth, a perfect example of what I mean by a top-notch production on a shoestring budget. Taking a casting cue from the Broadway hit, The 39 Steps, a dozen assorted characters in Penny Penniworth are portrayed by four talented and versatile (not to mention physically fit) actors who romp at full tilt through a 75-minute wacky, jokey, punny, and altogether clever hoot of a Charles Dickens parody on a set that consists entirely of a couple of chairs, a modest backdrop, and a rear curtain.

The deliberately-convoluted Dickensian plot takes the title character from a comfortable country life to scratching for a living as paid companion to one “Miss Havasnort” in London, and then on to financial independence through a surprise identify revelation and unexpected inheritance that Dickens would happily recognize as one of his own plot devices.

I would be remiss if I singled out any of the four performers over the others. All do splendidly as they switch characters, costumes, body language, accents, and genders at the drop of a hat. So kudos to all four—Christopher Borg, Jamie Heinlein, Jason O’Connell, and Ellen Reilly. Hooray, too, for director Mark Finley, who keeps all the craziness moving at a race car pace, and playwright Chris Weikel who, one imagines, had an awful lot of fun burrowing into Dickens and the many theatrical, movie, and PBS Masterpiece Theater versions of Dickens’s work.

The second featured company is one that prides itself on operating as a “resident company” devoted to production of the classics. The Pearl Theatre Company recently relocated from downtown to midtown and its current space at City Center Stage II, where one might surmise it would hope to attract a more traditional Broadway/Off-Broadway audience, including out-of-towners reluctant to venture south of Times Square or north of Lincoln Center.

One real advantage of having a resident company is that you have a set of performers who develop together, so that whatever play they are presenting has a consistent ensemble feel to it. I cannot tell you how many plays I’ve seen where all of the actors appear to be in different productions; i. e. where individually they may have learned their parts, but collectively the result is a mishmash of clashing styles and parallel worlds. Thus, one of the delights of the current production of The Playboy of the Western World, is that all of the performers seem to belong in the same place and time as one another and as intended by the playwright, J. M. Synge. The only real adjustment for the audience is to attune its ears to brogues so thick that it would take an axe—or perhaps a sharpened loy (more about that in a moment)—to cut through them.

The Playboy of the Western World is a classic of Irish theater dating from 1907, but I confess to having never seen nor read it before. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the production, which turns on a lovely piece of blarney about a young man, Christy Mahon, who shows up at a pub in a small coastal village, proclaiming that he is a runaway from the law. He has, he declares, killed his “da” by bonking him on the head with the aforementioned “loy,” a long-handled farm spade. Fathers rarely being portrayed in a good light in Irish literature, this deed is seen by all and sundry as a great act of heroism, and all of the eligible young ladies of the village are instantly smitten and proclaim Christy Mahon to be the great “Playboy of the Western World.”

This is a classic comedy, indeed, filled with rich—at times Shakespearean—romantic imagery and poetry, and the company does a splendid job all around. Standouts are Sean McNail, as the title character; Lee Stark, as the pub keeper’s daughter, Pegeen Mike, to whom Christy gives his heart; and Rachel Botchan, as the saucy Widow Quin who wants Christy for herself but who will happily settle for the right-of-way to farm a piece of property she has been eyeing for some time. So bring your Irish-English dictionary and plan to spend a delightful afternoon or evening!

Emerging Artists Theatre and The Pearl Theatre Company are but two of the dozens of wonderful Off-Broadway and Off Off-Broadway independent and/or not-for-profit companies offering high-quality professional productions of works that deserve to be seen and supported by theater-goers. I will be discussing more of these in upcoming blog entries.

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.

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