Wednesday, November 20, 2013

'Norway Plays': A Pair of Quirky Scandinavian Delights At Theater For The New City

Ioan Ardelean and Alexandra Cohen Spiegler
Photo By Yann Bean

There’s nothing wrong with Norway Plays:  Drama Beyond Ibsen  that could not be cured with a revised title, something like Those Wild and Crazy Norwegians, perhaps.

So, let this serve as notice that if you are seeking an intellectual evening exploring the darkness of the soul or absorbing diatribes about individual rights, you are heading out to the wrong venue. 

Instead, what you will see is a highly entertaining pair of one-acts by contemporary Norwegian playwrights. The first, The Returning, is a funny and quirky modern-day fairy tale by Fredrik Brattbert. The second, More, is a surrealistic and quirky play by Maria Tryti Vennerød. Both boast outstanding performances by their respective casts as well as excellent directing (Henning Hegland helms the first; Joan Kane does the honors on the second). 

Even before The Returning begins, you might very well be lulled into believing you truly are in Ibsen territory, or possibly that of Strindberg or Chekhov.  The silence is disturbed only by the ticking and occasional chiming of a mantel clock—a sad and lonely sound. As the play opens, you see a woman sitting on the sofa, knitting, while a man dressed in a bathrobe stands apart from her, seemingly staring into space.  You get a sense of a pair of lost souls who are no longer able to connect with one another.  She invites him to sit next to her; he demurs, muttering something about a lost dog.  This is an unhappy couple, you think.

And then we learn they have lost their only child, a teenage boy who simply disappeared one day while on a skiing trip. 

OK.  Did I mention that The Returning is funny and quirky?  Since the plot hangs on a string of events related to the missing son, I will try to avoid being a spoiler here.  Let me just say this: if Stephen King had written Pet Sematery with a sense of its comic possibilities, he might have come up with something like The Returning.

The cast of three, Ingrid Kullberg-Bendz, Andrew Langton, and Kristoffer Tonning, are delightful—with Mr. Tonning a real charmer as the adorable but irritating teenager, Gustav.  It’s a lot of fun to watch the shift in the actors’ tone and style as the play moves from dark to light to off-the-wall wacky. 

Oh, and keep an eye on the knitting, which adds a touch of its own sublime weirdness to the unfolding events. 

The second play in the twosome, More, eschews Ibsen for Kafka, and takes the notion of “media circus” to new and surrealistic heights.  It is so very difficult to successfully pull off absurdist theater without tumbling inappropriately into burlesque or slapstick comedy.  So truly Ms. Vennerød deserves high praise for this most excellent juggling act, in which the murder of a teenage girl, Benedickte (Skyler Volpe), by her best friend Ida (Christina Toth) serves as fodder for two television reporters/media personalities (gloriously portrayed by Alexandra Cohen Spiegler and Ioan Ardelean).  The pair put pressure on the police to help them sell the killing as “a lesbian crime of passion” and then prod their audience:  “Stupid?  Evil?  Or Mean?  Call in and vote!” 

The truth, of course, is far more complicated—but, hey, this is the world of sound bites, instant causes célèbres, and reality TV, so who cares about actual reality?

As was true of The Returning, the cast of More is first-rate, and includes—in addition to the ones I have already mentioned--Erik Schjerven and Chevy Kaeo Martinez as a pair of detectives caught up in the media blitz.  Special notice must be given to Shannon Stowe’s well-choreographed movement that flows through the production and melds acting with performance art. 

Thanks, Norway, for sharing these works by two of your rising stars.  Thanks, too, to Ego Actus and Scandinavian American Theater Company for presenting Norway Plays:  Drama Beyond Ibsen, which you can catch until December 1 at Theater For The New City.   

Now, about that title…

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Saturday, November 2, 2013

'The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters' Intrigues Like Underground Comix

You won’t find St. Martyrbride listed in any volume on the lives of Catholic saints, yet she figures prominently in The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters, the new and unusual play by Marlane Meyer now on view at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons.

St. Martyrbride springs from the mind of Aubrey Lincoln, the misfit heroine of the play—the only succor she has been able to cling to in a world that is, at best, indifferent to her.  Aubrey, played by Laura Heisler with just the right mix of dreaminess and a stubborn refusal to give in to the negativity of her surroundings, pins her faith on the belief that God, through her beloved saint, will unite her with her “soul mate,” the ne’er-do-well Calvin Little. 

Our hero, Calvin (well played by Rob Campbell), is the kind of man that a rebellious daughter would latch onto to spite her scornful mother, not unlike the one Aubrey has had to live with. Calvin is crude and lascivious, cannot hold down a job, consorts with low-life, and, on at least one occasion, has committed murder.

Ever the optimist, Aubrey, who has at least found academic success in life (she is a physician and runs a free clinic in the backwoods town of her upbringing), is determined to win Calvin’s heart and change his wicked ways. 

The story of these two lies at the heart of the play.  Over time, both change and grow, so that by the end of Act II it’s not out of place to be thinking in terms of catharsis and redemption. But be warned. This represents a huge shift in tone from most the play, which is performed in a style that would be right at home in one of those underground comix written by the likes of R. Crumb. 

The other characters in the play are an oddball assortment of…well…oddballs.  Mothers come off as particularly nasty pieces of business, but there is also the threatening presence of Calvin’s stepbrother Jack, a Crumb-like big-breasted prostitute, varied and strange townspeople, and occasional appearances by Jesus and St. Martyrbride herself. There are also many references to sexually transmitted diseases and drug and alcohol abuse, and members of the cast occasionally stop the action to speak directly to the audience about political corruption and corporate greed. 

So, while it is clear that The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters is not going to appeal to everyone, I have to say it is certainly compelling.  In addition to the strong performances by the two leads, the rest of the cast, under the direction of Lisa Peterson, does fine work as well. They are Candy Buckley, Danny Wolohan, Jacqueline Wright, and Haynes Thigpen—all of whom are required to play three or more characters and manage to make each of them unique. 

While the play could use some further trimming and shaping, one thought that occurred to me is that—in addition to its connection to the world of Mr. Crumb and his ilk—it has the feel of one of those B movies that later became successful musicals, like The Toxic Avenger or Little Shop of Horrors (whose heroine was named Audrey; could this be an intentional nod?)  I wonder if some composer might want to take this on.  I’d want to go back and see it again if that were to happen.

If The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters sounds intriguing, you might want to take advantage of an offer for discount tickets, though you’ll have to hurry because the discount ends on November 5.  Here’s the scoop:

DISCOUNT TICKETS TO THE PATRON SAINT OF SEA MONSTERS available for performances to Dec 1. Order by Nov. 5 and use the code SAINTBLOG to receive 
$40 tickets (reg. $60).
To order online:  Go to
By phone: 212-279-4200
In Person: Ticket Central Box Office, 416 W. 42nd Street 

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