Darkness holds dominion in The Muse Collective’s ‘Pistrix.’

Reviewed by Sander Gusinow

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Darkness holds dominion in The Muse Collective’s ‘Pistrix.’ Tiny flashlight, ghostly murmurs and grotesque wooden dolls are brought insidiously to bear in this Tragi-Gothic shadow waltz. Like all standard Artaudian fare, the play begins in a mental institution. Raving Italian Toymaker Ilario reflects on the circumstances that uncoiled his mind. Ilario lost his son when a natural disaster (possibly caused by the mythological sea monster ‘Pistrix’) devastated his small turn-of-the-century village. Ilario’s reluctance to sell his home puts him on a collision course with his community. Though admirably ambitious and stimulatingly realized, ‘Pistrix’ falls prey to a lamentably overwrought script and repetitive staging.

_MG_2420 The most striking element of ‘Pistrix’ is the direction of Michael Alvarez and choreography of Sidney Eric Wright. With minimal lighting and an athletic ensemble, they deliver an onslaught of spooky, inspired sequences. Notably, a joyous, laughing crowd devolves into wickedly demonic cackling when Ilaro is told his wife has died in childbirth. Sadly, like looking at a bright light too long, the visceral staging wears out its welcome and creates an unsatisfied urge for something new. The costumes are charmingly reminiscent of Danse Macabre, but the lengthy getups interfere with the more realistic moments, and the conspicuous moral color-coding (black equals bad, white equals good, stripes equal conflicted) are a bit nail-on-the-head.

_MG_2434 But the reason ‘Pistrix’ won’t soar is the script. Annie R. Such’s dialogue is overwritten and taciturn, sounding more akin to a translation than a contemporary english speaker. Far too much time is invested in the minutia of Ilario’s money problems, so much so the play almost comically boomerangs between Gothic hysteria and Ibsonian rent drama. Although the tension mounts between Ilario and his community as he refuses to sell his land, there is very little development between the characters in favor of reflection and exposition. The long-winded nature of the script leads to lengthy, uninteresting intervals between visual events.

_MG_2294 Lead actor Bobby Mittelstadt is severely miscast as Ilario. Mittelstadt seems more suited to play a heartthrob than an old demented toymaker. He sweats and shrieks his way through the role as best he can, but does very little to accrue sympathy or understanding. Heather Shisler and Alli Urbanik deliver the most gripping performances as Ilario’s best friend and the town’s mother superior. Shisler shines as a woman who, having lost her husband and children in the disaster, feels a certain kinship with Ilario despite his mental state. Urbanik delivers a deeply conflicted woman torn between God and her commitments as a secular leader. Yet both women are woefully underused in favor of Mittelstadt damaging his throat with hysterical hollering.

I love a good Goth jubilee, and I really wanted to like ‘Pistrix’ a tad more. That said, The Muse Collective proves an intrepid, sanguine ensemble. You can bet I’ll be watching them evolve with great interest.

The Bauer Sisters: New Stories from the Old Country

CAM00638Part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival
Review by Sander Gusinow

Old scars and lighthearted humor are at the center of The Producing Club’s Chekhov-esque The Bauer Sisters. Written by relative newcomer John Dirrigl, the play revolves around a book club of greying German women in 1986 Pennsylvania. On a hot summer’s day, a confluence of events pushes decades-old skeletons into the sunlight. Despite the play’s occasional long-winded tendencies, not to mention questionable German accents, The Bauer Sisters proves a bittersweet look at the pleasures and regrets of life long lived.

Deborah Unger plays the firm and fragile Rosie Bauer. Rosie’s guilt surrounding the deaths of her children prevents her from marrying her rakish ex-lover Louie. As the play progresses, her desire to move on pushes her into confrontation with the other members of the club, most notably her sister Ingie. (Jacqueline Kroschell) Stories of life and death, both long past and yet to come, swirl around the sentimental hour and a half.

Director Troy Diana has a bit more to learn, I think. Diana’s use of clichéd lighting and clunky tableau sucker-punches moments that would work plenty well on their own. That said, the wash and rhythm of the staging strikingly suggests a sweaty summer’s day. A talent to watch, for surety.

The show slows down considerably in the second half (unevenly halting between one emotional revelation after the other) and I couldn’t help but wonder what a play so thoroughly in the thrall of the old masters is doing onstage in 2014. But although the play seems right at home in a museum, the topic of late-life regret will never go out of style. If you look past the odd setting and suspicious dialect, The Bauer Sisters may well give you reason to both curse and rejoice the ever-creeping passage of time.

God love “Bielzy & Gottfried,” a devil of a good time!

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Part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival
Review by Ashley Hutchinson

When left with the tagline “what if God and the Devil wrote a musical?” One can know little of what to expect. Sure, biblical references would be abundant, and perhaps the source material would be a tad overused, but when I sat down at the June Havoc theatre on Saturday, July 19th at 8:50 p.m. fear became instilled in me. What would happen if God and the Devil wrote a musical? The end result, in Omar Hansen’s eyes, is a cabaret or variety show of sorts, hosted by God and the Devil themselves.

The task of playing God, surprisingly enough, isn’t the hardest part when putting the big man upstairs onstage. The real problem lies with how to discover one’s inner Devil, and make it translate. Tyrell Clement plays the role of Lucius Bielzy, or to simplify, Satan. Clement is tall and slender—perfectly snake like—and his menacing facial hair does the trick (things are so much better with menacing facial hair). Clement exhibits an impressive ability to be charming yet evil, keeping the sociopathic wit of the devil alive throughout the performance and I would argue keeping the show rolling forward. Would it be insulting to say that this man was meant to play the role of Satan? The writer of the play, Omar Hansen, plays the part of Joshua Gottfried, or God. Hansen does not particularly shine when put beside the imposing Clement, but then, the Devil would command the stage so this dynamic proves realistic, or, as realistic as it can be.

The show goes from there starting with the story of Adam and Eve, put to a new context of Pandora’s box. This conflict of whether to open the box or not keeps an effective suspense and forward motion, so much so that midway through this skit I asked myself how I was still so invested in the issue at hand. Adam, played by Zachary Marchello and Eve, played by a very genuine Rose Fiona Kiernan, kept the momentum up with their conflict of interest, but the moderator of this, in the form of a snake, really stole the scene. One of the surprising twists that Hansen threw into the mix was his decision not to write Bielzy into this scene as the snake, or tempter of Eve, but rather created a snake character that would later become the minstrel for the show. Jacob Chapman quite literally pops out of Pandora’s box and captures the scene. Chapman’s witty snake rendition is not one of evil as one would expect, but one of simple conviction on the consequences of opening the box, and hilarious one-liners. Chapman posses a charm that breaths total life into his character, who really only speaks in one scene, yet is a watchful presence throughout the entire show. One of the most difficult hurdles to jump as an actor is the problem of watching action onstage when one is not the focal point, so on Chapman’s ability to do so I was quite impressed.

The show went on to an introduction of another scene by our hosts, Bielzy and Gottfried, and then to a scene on throwing stones. The plot of this scene didn’t have as clear an objective as that of Pandora’s box, and at times felt muddled. Bielzy’s fervent insistence on his knowledge of John McCarthy was fiery and Spencer Thayne’s eager receptionist character reminded me of a smiling tap dancing Mormon: the two put together proved an ironic and clever mix, which carried me through the confusion.

Then came a scene expressly about loving sin, and I have to say I was glad someone finally brought it up. Lori Prescott Hansen, playing the role of Sister Prescott, began her segment of the show as a nervous wreck of a woman, forced by the pastor (played by Omar Hansen) to give a speech on pride in front of her entire church. The result was a hilarious and well-delivered speech, relaying the ‘truth;’ that she loves gossip, hates her husband, and likes the gays. Hansen’s performance was brilliantly unrefined and cathartic and allowed for a lighthearted shift in the show.

This lighthearted turn, however, quickly dissipates in the second act of the show, and the mood turns dim. The fun skits in the first act don’t seem to belong with the two large scenes in the second. The shift wasn’t unwelcome; simply a sharp left turn from the expected. The idea of putting an “audience member” onstage in the second act is fresh and really exciting, even if planned. The point in bringing Jon Peter Lewis onstage was to create a new story of Job, in which a man is put through pain and tragedy and is confronted with the choice to stay with God or to give up on a holy life. The end of the scene is hopeful, and Hansen’s rendition of God comes more to the forefront as he and Clement’s Satan shake hands (surprisingly) and admit their enjoyment in working together.

However supporting Hansen seemed to be throughout most of the play, he really shows his ability in the final scene, in which he plays a now dead, disillusioned abusive father. Hansen’s performance is astounding and the back and forth between this man and his son (played by Joe Lawless) is loving yet strained. The father/son dynamic is really moving, and when underscored by a four-woman quartet, it becomes haunting. However moving and beautiful the scene was, however, the ordering between the two scenes in the second act did not seem quite intuitive and could have contributed to the last scene not quite landing.

Bielzy and Gottfried say their goodbyes to the audience after a clipped ending to a very heavy scene. Regardless, the show was a very enjoyable one with very diverse talent: with a witty beginning, and a thought-provoking end, Bielzy and Gottfried proved to be a charming and meaningful piece which managed to make the bible less dry and more dry-humored.

Greed is Good when you do “Long Division”

Part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival XV
Review by Rannie McCants

LongDiviWith an influx of witty dialogue and economical debate, Long Division by James Presson reforms Shakespeare’s King Lear into a contemporary piece on greedy Wall Street bankers. Lights up on the wealthiest 1% amidst the Occupy Wall Street protesters, their stone cold faces are unmoved by the angry American protesters. In a moment’s time, they retreat to their Upper East Side apartment to discuss the importance of capitalism over champagne glasses.

Although it’s been only a few years since the Occupy Wall Street protests ended, the movement already seems to be a distant memory. The laundry list of grievances with no plan or leader left the wealthy untouched, as this modern take shows us. These four of the wealthiest self-congratulate and bask in their riches, but deep down their greed still claws for more.

Anne Bates, portraying Meryl, controls the stage with her excellent execution of Presson’s script. “I like the idea of poor people,” she jokes. The Queen Bee in the family, being the oldest of three daughters, Meryl is married to Allen (Ben Diserens), the senior executive in her dying father’s company, and although she doesn’t work in finance, she’s certainly in the center of the business. Meryl wants it all; money, sex, and power. Her affair with her middle sister’s fiancé Cody (Zak Risinger), an equal partner in the company upon her father’s passing, puts her in the position to have everything—that’s if things go according to plan.

In a fit of anxiety, the overzealous Allen calls youngest and estranged sister Cordelia into the mix. Meryl’s dramatic foil arrives with a fresh new hippie attitude and streaks of colored locks. It is Allen’s intention for Cordelia, or Corie, to become a silent partner in the company giving him two-thirds majority, but Meryl knows how incapable she is of silence.

Emily Tarpey, portraying Corie, encapsulates the kind and gentle, yet strong qualities of this character so effortlessly. Presson created a character with so much compassion and grace—a natural born leader of the people. Tarpey played the hell out of the sharp-tongued fire starter ready to overthrow the people upholding the status quo, even if they’re her own family.

Like King Lear, this play had twists and turns, deceit, lust, and greed. Since the turns were so extreme and undeniably humorous, I often wondered if the piece should be labeled a satire. The family members were all caricatures and surely extreme versions of a typical Wall Street family. The structure of the piece introduces an unconventional protagonist, Meryl, as America’s villain and the antagonist, Corie, as their savior.

Long Division, skillfully directed by Marc Connor Eardley, was thought-provoking and current, especially when it came to its use of technology. The main plot is solid and the actors are electrifying. Long Divison will be playing on July 22 @ 6:00 PM and July 26 @ 5:00 PM at the June Havoc Theatre, 312 West 36th Street.

Nazi Intelligence Held Captive at FARM HALL

Part of the 15th Anniversary Season of the MIDTOWN INTERNATIONAL THEATRE FESTIVAL
Review by Robert Gulack

Imagine you — a very bright person, indeed — and a group of your friends are mysteriously locked up and kept from communicating with the outside world. Delicious food is served regularly, and you are allowed healthful exercise on a country estate. Every sign of hospitality is present: you are even allowed a piano, a chess set, and a variety of reading materials. But no one ever asks you any questions, and no one will tell you why you’re being held or when you’ll be allowed to leave. You and your friends are scientists, and you are all being forced to confront, day after day, the same ultimate factual riddle: Why do your captors want you there?

That was the real-life conundrum faced by the Nazi physicists captured by the Allies in World War II and spirited away to a handsome country hiding place in England referred to only as “Farm Hall.” It is the subject of the play, FARM HALL, written by David C. Cassidy, a Hofstra University professor of natural science and the winner of multiple awards as a historian of science. As a subject for a play, it offers both advantages and pitfalls.

The idea that, if these Third Reich physicists had just been a little bit more on the ball — or, on the other hand, if Hitler had been willing to sink the same level of money into nuclear research as he proved willing to spend developing rockets and jets — the Fuhrer would have wound up with nuclear weapons will always remain one of the most frightening might-have-beens of history. (As Einstein had warned FDR, there was every reason to suspect the Nazis would put together an effective atomic program. It was, after all, a German who first split the atom, on a desktop in Berlin.) And, since British military intelligence did, in fact, wire every guest room in Farm Hall with microphones, the whole world now has access to very complete transcripts of every private comment spoken by the Nazi physicists to each other during the course of their captivity. There is thus no lack of source material for a drama.

But the pitfalls are equally evident. First, the Nazi physicists never did really get to the bottom of why they were being held. (The right answer: to stop the world from discovering the imminent possibility of nuclear weapons before the U.S. was ready to use them in combat, and to prevent any possibility that these Nazi scientists would be captured and employed by the Soviet Union. In the meantime, by listening to the microphones, the British and Americans were trying to gauge just how far the Nazi atom program had gotten.)

Second, the basic revelation underlying the story of these particular men is simply that people who are intellectual giants can nevertheless be moral pygmies. Again and again, the Nazi physicists are revealed to be blinkered in the most juvenile possible manner.

In spite of all their brains (one of them had won the Nobel Prize, one was about to get a Nobel Prize, and one of them should darn well have gotten a Nobel Prize, but never did), these scientists are convinced, as a factual matter, that German science is inherently superior to American science. Since they, the Germans, never got an atomic reactor to work, the Americans could not have done so. (We did.) Since they, the Germans, never got achieved a workable A-bomb design, the Americans could not have built an A-bomb. (We did.) When the news of Hiroshima reaches the Nazi scientists in Farm Hall, they are convinced it’s all “a bluff.” These Nazis didn’t even believe the British were sophisticated enough to have wired up Farm Hall. (The microphone were there, nevertheless.)

Morally, these fools remain uniformly convinced that their highest mission in life — before, during, and after World War II — is to safeguard the reputation of “German science,” no matter how many tens of millions of innocents are being slaughtered by the German dictatorship, and no matter how many nations are being swallowed up into eternal slavery in a worldwide racist empire. Stale mindless Fascist bureaucrats, they remain convinced to the last that newspapers should be thoroughly censored by the powers that be.

But it is simply not very surprising that people who worked their hearts out to give Adolf Hitler nuclear weapons are, one, blinkered by prejudice, and, two, idiots when it comes to ethical analysis. So the underlying revelation inherent in this material can hardly come as a shocker to anyone who has the slightest idea what Nazis were.

Then, too, the situation within Farm Hall is, by its very nature, extremely static. At times, the endless waiting around of these Nazi scientists comes off like a production of Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT cast entirely with Nobel laureates. At other times, one is reminded of Sartre’s NO EXIT, but, in this case, hell is revealed simply to be other physicists. As these Nazis carry on and complain about how their families back in occupied Germany are upset, lonely, and deprived, one can scarcely stop oneself from climbing on the stage, slapping them around, and demanding of them whether the millions who died in concentration camps might, at times, also have been upset, lonely, and deprived.

The most experienced and resourceful playwright might find it challenging to keep this unchanging situation dramatic. This is David C. Cassidy’s first play, and, despite his diligent and long-continued efforts to redraft and rewrite the material, he has not yet succeeded in keeping the audience’s attention, even over the course of a relatively brief evening in the theater. These physicists are just not lively company. Only one shows the vaguest sign of having had a conscience, and no one in the audience is expecting the rest of them to acquire a shred of compassion or self-knowledge. They will spend the rest of their lives shoring up the sacred reputation of “German science,” and trying ineffectually to paper over how desperate they were to give the ultimate weapon to Adolf, and how ignominiously they failed to do so. (Some of Cassidy’s best material, though, is the very accurate depiction of how these scientists labored to come up with a detailed cover story that would depict their villainous efforts in the most flattering possible light. They were all desperate — all of a sudden — to appear pacifists, but not so pacifist as to be seen as traitors by their countrymen. It was a very delicate balance.)

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Even when history gives Cassidy something really good to work with, however, he sometimes manages to push it to one side. For example, when the scientist who first split the atom heard about Hiroshima, he became suicidal for a time. Cassidy has the scientist report he felt suicidal at some previous time, but didn’t kill himself. Surely it would have been far more dramatic actually to see the man become suicidal, and attempt to deal, in front of us, with those feelings.

Neither has Cassidy found a way to deliver the necessary exposition. We are given each man’s resume in the clunkiest manner, with these scientists — who have all worked together for years — painfully rehearsing out loud what each of them already knows by heart — i.e., each physicist’s credits and credentials.

Cassidy also breaks with the basic realism of his play by shifting to a radically different style in order to announce the attack on Hiroshima. Suddenly, a character known only as the “Voice of Doom” is heard intoning what J. Robert Oppenheimer was thinking while he observed the first A-bomb test. Those in the audience unfamiliar with Oppenheimer’s penchant for quoting sacred Hindu texts to himself must have been left totally in the dark.

As presented in its world premiere by Break A Leg Productions on its July 15, 2014 opening night at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, Cassidy’s script was further handicapped by a production that appeared massively underrehearsed. The cast seemed not to be confident of their lines. The lights cues bobbed up and down mysteriously. The sound cues wobbled on volume for no apparent reason. One hopes these issues will be corrected before the July 19 and 20 performances.

In general, the cast has quite a physical resemblance to the actual Farm Hall physicists. Keith Herron has just the right presence for Werner Heisenberg, the scientific head of the Nazi A-bomb program (and, in fact, has played Heisenberg before, in a production of Frayn’s COPENHAGEN). But — perhaps due to lack of rehearsal — one was constantly struck by the failure of the actors to maintain credible and continuing emotional lives (not to mention credible and consistent accents). To cite only one example, when Otto Hahn mentions his wife is “in an asylum,” one would expect to hear some emotional response in Hahn’s voice. Is this a depressing fact to him? An embarrassing fact? We’re just not hearing a specific emotional response to what had to have been a very specific emotional situation.

Cassidy frames the Farm Hall detention with scenes involving the Dutch-American scientist who managed to grab these Nazis and keep them away from the Russians, but these scenes don’t give the material a satisfying climax. Neither does the dull recitation of all the wonderful material success and prestigious appointments that awaited these loathsome would-be mass murderers after they were freed by the Allies. Of course, had these physicists actually succeeded in vaporizing Washington, D.C. and New York, these men would no doubt have received even more important rewards from Hitler’s own hands.

FARM HALL, by David C. Cassidy, directed by Gerald vanHeerden, presented at the June Havoc Theatre at the Abingdon Theatre, 312 W. 36th Street, New York City, by Break A Leg Productions in association with the Midtown International Theatre Festival and the Science & the Arts programs of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

ROBERT GULACK is the author of numerous plays seen in NYC, including CHURCHILL IN ATHENS, SIX HUSBANDS OF ELIZABETH THE QUEEN, and the award-winning ONE THOUSAND AND ONE.

Photo Credit: A.G. Liebowitz/WrightGroupNY

Verdict: A Gripping Countdown

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COUNTDOWN is part of the 15th Anniversary Season of the MIDTOWN INTERNATIONAL THEATRE FESTIVAL
Review by Sander Gusinow

Like all one-person shows, MITF’s Countdown lives and dies by it’s performer. Thankfully, Gregory Higgins engrosses Philip, a middling public defender who visits his first (and longest) client on the day of their execution. From the outset, Higgin’s character seems slow-witted and schlubby, offering his unseen client a cheeseburger, asking him runaround questions and speculation on the afterlife. As the play goes however, the crooked history between Philip and his client surfaces, leading to a sharp, if somewhat predictable reveal.

The writing of the piece waxed and waned, it’s language never quite soared into eloquence or plunged into the nitty-gritty. Playwright William Packard is irritatingly hesitant, using the phrase ‘had sex with’ instead of more colorful alternatives. The direction plays consistently to the performer’s strengths, but leaves the play somewhat lacking in intensity; the play simmers when it could explode.

But the pleasure of Countdown is in it’s slow inevitable building up. Higgins courses through the monologue like a slow-acting poison, gradually winning us to his side with caustic charm. Though at times a bit too painless, Countdown is like the lethal injection around which the play revolves: a slow, smothering descent into darkness.

Sander Gusinow earned his MFA in playwriting from Columbia University. He was published in Portland’s dramatic journal, Pause. His plays, Cinderella, Hell Bent, Hansen & Greta, and Ruth & Naomi won acclaim in New York. He’s also been produced at The Flea and Signature Theatre.

Photo Credit: A.G. Liebowitz/WrightGroupNY Communications

2014 is MITF 15 by Sander Gusinow

John Chatterton sits kingly amongst the crowd gathered in the re-purposed synagogue at 339 West 47th Street. His comfort-grip cane rests scepter-like in his lap as a sea of sweating hipsters, frilly goths, hip-hop dancers, and wrinkled theatre old-guard swirl around him, celebrating the start of the Midtown International Theatre Festival. Chatterton has cultivated the festival for fifteen years as its Artistic Director. He works tirelessly to ensure his festival is anything but stagnant. A short play lab aimed at fostering new writers, as well as a ’commercial’ program meant to gain traction for plays looking for a commercial run, are new additions to the lineup. Where some festivals might rest on their laurels, MITF is ever-evolving work in progress. Despite his achievements, Chatterton is slow to accept praise. He credits his delegation skills more than anything in the show selection process, casually critiquing the militaristic hierarchy of another not-to-be-named summer festival we casually labeled ‘The “F” word.’

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With over fifty plays on the docket from the U.S., Japan, Italy, and elsewhere, this kickoff cabaret night was sure to be anything but business as usual. Excerpts from nearly every play in the festival were to be staged. As the crowd poured in from the exhausting summer heat, a vigorous, youthful energy crackled in even the codgerliest attendee. They were all in the program. Everyone but this reviewer would be, or have their work performed, onstage before the night was through.

The Gothic, ‘Sleep-no-more-esque’ Pistrix was a standout of the evening. In a staged bathed in darkness, the actors tell a macabre story of heroism and all-consuming hunger with tiny red and white flashlights, creating a grim, sickly sort of stage magic. The cabaret was a mixed bag to be sure. The stodgily poetic Homage to Henry was followed by a the fiery half-nakedness of Chanel Star! My Journey Through the Strip Club. This structure seemed to encapsulate the pace of the evening; hiccups and bursts of Off-Off Broadway theatrical fuel.
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To say the cabaret night went off without a hitch would be a gross misstatement. Changes to the roster based on train traffic and technical difficulties abounded. But whatever the snag, what struck me was the unwavering sense of community. No chair shifted, no phone was toyed with, and no matter the performance, it was met with thunderous applause. If the purpose of theatre is cultivating community, John Chatterton has already succeeded where so many more stumble.

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Although the vibe of MITF was unashamedly off-the-cuff, there’s no denying the inspiriting warmth in this labor of love. Even if you’ve experienced the sensory-deadening that comes from years of sitting through theatrical squalor, have no doubts that MITF will, if only for a moment, bring your inner amateur flickering back to life.

Midtown International Theatre Festival runs now through August 8th. All performances will be held at 312 West 36th street.

(photos: Bielzy & Gottfried, Chenel Star, Sleep Well, and Champagne Lady)