Tuesday, July 28, 2015

DEATH OF THE PERSIAN PRINCE: Human Rights Story Packs an Emotional Wallop

Gopal Divan and Pooya Mohseni
Photo provided by John Capo Public Relations

During the summer months, when the number of new theatrical openings on and off Broadway slows to a manageable handful, there is an outpouring of theatrical events that take place all over the city, with shows popping up for very brief runs in every available venue and at any odd hour under the auspices of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, FringeNYC, East to Edinburgh, or the Midtown International Theatre Festival, among others.

You never know what you’re going to get when you attend one of these shows, but occasionally a real gem will appear among the simulated jewels.      

One such gem is a work titled Death of the Persian Prince, a play of substance and heart that deserves recognition and the opportunity to be more widely seen. Written and directed by Dewey Moss, the play came and went in the blink of an eye as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival, but, fortunately, it is about to reappear in the South Asian International Performing Arts Festival. (The dates are August 4 at 9 P. M. and August 8 at 4 P. M. at the Access Theater Black Box, 380 Broadway. Mark your calendar!)

Death of the Persian Prince sheds light on the heinous practice within the country of Iran of coercing homosexuals into undergoing sex reassignment surgery. In a country where homosexual behavior is prosecuted as a capital crime, the State has determined that the sex-change operation makes the problem disappear. You cannot be a homosexual if you are physically the opposite sex of your lover, or so goes the twisted and perverse logic that seems to satisfy both political and religious absolutists.

There is a tendency for plays with a strong social justice message to become pedantic and sanctimonious, but, truly, we do not come to the theater to be lectured to.  So double kudos to Mr. Moss for presenting this story through a naturalistic recounting of the story of Samantha (portrayed with great dignity and commitment by Iranian-American actress Pooya Mohseni), who is living and attending law school in New York.  Her life is complicated by her increasingly serious romantic relationship with James (George Faya), an ex-U. S. Marine who is talking marriage and children. 

In other hands, the “big reveal” (that Samantha was born male and had been in a gay relationship) would be the melodramatic climax of the play and would have come wrapped in a preachy plea for tolerance. But the program explicitly explains the background of the play so that we can focus our attention on observing the emotional toll on Samantha in her interactions with James. Thinking about the issue itself will come later; these are human beings we are dealing with, not talking PowerPoint slides.   

For his part, James, who served in Iraq, prides himself on being empathetic to the challenges to human rights  in Samantha’s part of the world. He understands why she drags him to forums on the treatment of women and other topics of injustice, and why their discussions about them often become heated. Her passion is one of the reasons he has fallen in love with her. 

But there is that secret Samantha has been keeping to herself, one that is forced into the open when her brother Cas (Gopal Divan) shows up at her apartment. Cas is intent on bringing her back to Iran where she had been under his thumb ever since he presumably saved his/her life by forcing him/her to have the surgery. Cas’s threatening demeanor makes it clear that freedom from prosecution does not translate into freedom from persecution. He considers Samantha to be nothing more than valuable commodity in the sex trade back home.

The playwright does not allow for a fanciful and romantic ending to break the honesty of this compelling story. Cas leaves, but we know he’ll be back, and Samantha’s future remains at great risk. When a badly shaken James asks why Samantha went through with the surgery, she replies:  “because it’s legal there, and we can’t question things…and live.”  What would you have done? 

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Friday, July 24, 2015

FOOLERIE: Entry in NY Musical Theatre Festival Runs Amok with Shakespeare

The cast of Foolerie
Photo by Lance Brown

So…You know that musical that’s playing now, the one that has Shakespeare as a central character and where the cast runs around acting very silly and sings songs that remind you of other show tunes? 

Well, this isn’t about that show. 

This is about the other musical that’s playing now, that also has Shakespeare as a central character, with the cast running around acting very silly and singing songs that remind you of other show tunes. 

Confused?  Good.  You are now primed to enter the topsy-turvy world of Foolerie, a musical which is not Something Rotten! but which, in its own distinguished way, mines the same source material. 

Foolerie is one of the 50 or so productions that are being presented in that annual three-week whirlwind of activity  known as the New York Musical Theatre Festival, whose purpose is to provide a showcase for up-and-coming writers and composers of musicals.

In this case, the up-and-coming writer and composer is Santino DeAngelo, who has fashioned a work that will leave you feeling as though you had consumed some funky mushrooms and fallen into a dream about a land of zanies. There you will take a journey into burlesque-style bada bing bada boom low comedy, encounter traces of Gilbert and Sullivan, and experience a full-bodied embrace of Stephen Sondheim.

The premise is this:  A troop of traveling players (fools and clowns all) proposes a competition. Is there anyone in all the land who can outclown their leader, Clowne (Ian Knauer)?  The prize is the scepter and all the spoils of power that go with it. For the loser, the reward is death. 

Just when it appears there will be no takers, up onto the stage steps Knave (Ryan Breslin), a doe-eyed philosopher who believes that the antic Clowne has it all wrong. The purpose of fools is not to distract us with pratfalls and hijinks, he posits, but to “heal with the truth.” 

The gauntlet has been tossed. The game is on. 

At this point, logic melts away into a series of Alice’s-Adventures-In-Wonderland moments, as the company puts on a play-within-a-play on the theme of love before their host and judge, the Earl. The characters in their play include, among others, Shakespeare and his mother (Clowne and Knave alternate between these roles), and various characters from Shakespeare’s works, including Malvolio (Patrick Massey), Friar Laurence (Geoff Belliston), and Shylock (Patrick Richwood). 

The plot, such as it is, keeps reshaping itself as Clowne and Knave each attempts to seize control of the goings-on in order to come out on top. When Clowne holds the reins, the jokes and songs fall into the category of buffoonery and crude burlesque. When Knave is in the driver’s seat, things turn lyrical.  In the end, the Earl, voiced by comic Gilbert Gottfried (which should give you a hint about the sort of jokes you can expect to encounter) decides…  (we’ll let you find that out for yourself). 

As a playwright, Mr. DeAngelo could use a hand in shaping the convoluted plot, and the reliance on unsavory frat boy humor does wear thin. But he does show more flair as a composer.  I was particularly taken with a manic number called “Malvolio’s Soliloquy,” splendidly performed by Mr. Massey, and by the company’s rendition of the optimistic “The World Can Be Your Oyster.” But far too much of the music sounds like variations on a theme by Sondheim – so much so that I’d be inclined to retitle the musical, “Into The (Arden) Woods.” 

However, Foolerie is still in “workshop” mode, and its composer, a recent graduate from Binghamton University, is just entering his mid-twenties. Let’s hope both will continue to evolve. We'll be watching!

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Saturday, July 11, 2015

SHOWS FOR DAYS: A Comic and Heartfelt Memory Play About Falling in Love with the Theater

Thank you, Patti LuPone. Because of you, I had the all too rare experience of seeing a play without the distraction of a single cell phone from start to end. 

The show in question is Douglas Carter Beane’s comic memory play Shows For Days, which I saw the day after Ms. LuPone made headlines by snatching the cell phone from the hand of an audience member who had spent the entire first act texting. Next evening, Ms. LuPone took to the stage pre-show and greeted the audience at the Mitzi Newhouse: “Whip out those cell phones, turn them off, and come to the theater.” 

"Come to the theater" is the perfect invitation to Shows For Days, an autobiographical work with roots in Moss Hart’s great theatrical memoir Act One, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, and any number of Neil Simon’s plays set during his own youth. Mr. Beane made his mark with comic satires about ambition and skewered values in the theatrical and motion picture industries  (As Bees In Honey Drown; The Little Dog Laughed). But with this play he wears his heart on his sleeve and keeps the satire on the gentle side as he examines the world of not-for-profit community theater, where he got his start.    

As the playwright’s alter ego (and, really, as a stand-in for all of us), Michael Urie glows with charm and the excitement of discovery. Here he is called Car, a nickname presumably drawn from Mr. Beane’s middle name, although Ms. LuPone’s character does refer to him as “Douglas” at one point in Act II  (a nice touch, that). Car narrates the play as his older current self, and then, by removing his glasses and changing his posture, becomes the 14-year-old suburban kid whose life changed forever when he stumbled across a community theater group in Reading, Pennsylvania back in 1973. 

Car’s first encounter is with the company’s tough-but-tender lesbian stage manager Sid, carried well beyond stereotype by Dale Soules’s rich performance (she could have been the role model for the pivotal song “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home). Sid hires Car on the spot, hands him a paintbrush, and launches him into his new life. The other company members are the clueless ingénue Maria (Zoë Winters); the flamboyantly gay Clive (Lance Coadie Williams); and Damien (Jordan Dean), the 19-year-old boy toy who is the object of lust for Car and for Irene the company’s formidable queen bee, portrayed by the formidable Ms. LuPone. 

Act I is the most fun. Under veteran director Jerry Saks’s sure hand, the comedy flies as quickly as farce. Car sets up each scene by moving a couple of pieces of furniture to taped-off spots on the otherwise bare stage and then telling us where we are. The rest of the cast then joins him in acting out his recollections of life in community theater. My favorite has everyone running around dressed for a performance of a certain well-known but unnamed play about a boy who refuses to grow up, who lives in a land of pirates, Indians, and other lost boys.

What strikes about this particular scene is the details – the well-worn look of the costumes (by the always brilliant William Ivey Long), the back wall crammed with various props and furnishings (set design by the likewise brilliant John Lee Beatty), and the complaints by the company that they actually have to go on performing the play for (gasp!) a whole month while juggling their day jobs that pay the bills.   

Act II takes on a more serious tone, as Car learns about the backstabbing, the politicking, the rivalry, and the constant search for money that is necessary in order to sustain the arts. In the end, Car discovers much about himself and this world that he has so willingly embraced, and he is thankful for it all.   

Throughout, it is Ms. LuPone who dominates as the possibly bipolar Irene (her handbag is filled with pills to keep her steady), who takes her theatrical fix wherever she can get it. Amateur or professional, it’s all the same. What’s a little blackmail, bullying, and betrayal, so long as the theater is served?  Irene, with her dubious Yiddish accent and her ability to get things done, is like Tom Sawyer, getting us to willingly trade our apple for the privilege of whitewashing the fence. 

Admittedly, Show For Days could use some reshaping. Act I has an overabundance of snappy one-liners (albeit, funny ones), and Act II gets a bit preachy and speechy about the politics of keeping the arts alive. But this funny and heartfelt play will speak volumes to anyone who remembers how it is they came to fall in love with theater in the first place.

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

Thursday, July 2, 2015

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS: The Crowd Showers Ellen Greene with Love in Encores! Off-Center Production

The roar of the capacity crowd shook the rafters at last night’s opening performance of Little Shop of Horrors, a showcase presentation of New York City Center’s Encores! Off-Center summer program. And despite the participation of Hollywood superstar Jake Gyllenhaal and popular Saturday Night Live regular Taran Killam, the person receiving all of that love was Ellen Greene, reprising the role of the sad-eyed Audrey whom she first brought to life in the 1982 Off-Broadway production of the musical and later in the 1986 film version. 

Shouts, whistles, and sustained applause greeted Ms. Greene with every word she uttered and every note she sang.  At the end of the evening, when Mr. Gyllenhaal graciously gave her the last solo bow, she appeared to be overwhelmed by all of the attention.  Who knew that after thirty years and at a rather more mature age (you do the math), Ms. Greene — whose last Broadway appearance was in 1993 in a short-lived revival of the 1935 comedy Three Men On A Horse — had such a devoted fan base?   

If you only remember Little Shop of Horrors from the movie version of the musical, the theatrical version is smaller and its humor is darker. It is closer in spirit to the original quirky Roger Corman film from 1960 that famously featured Jack Nicholson in the supporting role of the masochistic dental patient (Bill Murray played the part in the 1986 movie).  As in the original, the musical ends in a note of triumph for Audrey II, the plant from outer space that is set on devouring all of humanity.   

The Encores! Off-Center production, directed by Dick Scanlan, does a fine job of capturing that pared-down Off-Broadway vibe, with little by way of sets and props (a pointed finger serves as a gun, for example). There are also a number of jokey remarks about the fact that this is a semi-staged reading. When Seymour, the nebbish-y shop assistant (played with self-effacing charm by Mr. Gyllenhaal) discovers the plant’s penchant for human blood, it happens when he gets a paper cut from the script that all of the cast members carry and occasionally read from. 

Musically, the score (book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menckin) is fun and bouncy (the title song, in particular), with a couple of very sweet ballads (“Somewhere That’s Green” and “Suddenly, Seymour”) to round things out.  Mr. Gyllenhaal and Ms. Greene more than hold their own with their singing.  Eddie Cooper, dressed in an oversized green fake fur that makes him look like a giant Muppet on St. Patrick’s Day, handles the booming bass role of Audrey II with aplomb. The backup trio of Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks, and Ramona Keller are first-rate, as is the on-stage band, under Chris Fenwick’s musical direction. 

The biggest surprise is how well Mr. Killam takes to the stage, playing Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend and a number of other smaller roles. His television-and-movie-bred sense of comedic timing translates well here, and it would be nice to see him in additional roles on or off Broadway.

Still and all, this is Ms. Greene’s moment of glory. Long may she, and Audrey, live in our hearts!

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