Performance Art in the Heart of Commercial Street

Manhattan Rep’s November Event was a buffet of plays, character studies, and dance-performance pieces exploring the human condition. Program A was a mixed bag of vaudevilles styling (The Haberdasher and Daguerreotype Dialogue #4) and relationship plays (Breaking Up is Hard to Do and Philoctetes) and a Gershwin-like dance piece.

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The best of the initial program was surely Philoctetes by Sander Gusinow. This clever tale weaves the new social mores of the second decade of the 21st century with the myth of an injured Greek solider. What we got was a well-written neurotic love story filled with witty wise prose that made everyone feel like they were part of a private joke. Kiersten Armstrong and Alessandro Colla looked and sounded like every fractured twenty-something addicted to the internet thanks to schoolyard-into-office peer pressure and derision. It’s not easy to play both alienation and attraction – but they handled that obstacle with ease. Mathew Kreiner kept the action brisk with polarized placement of the actors until the defenses were dropped. Gusinow’s clever, delicately-sharp wit and understanding of the new majority will take him far as a scribe.

The other standout was the Vanessa Long Dance Company’s Boys Will Be Boys. This dance piece used the intimate Manhattan Rep stage brilliantly in depicting the nightlife of New York’s twenty-somethings (I see a pattern forming here). Like Gusinow’s play, “Boys” showed us what is now a norm where once was not, but the agile group took us on train rides; to dance clubs, bars; or just city streets. In some ways it was a cautionary tale, in others a melodic lampoon, but all ways an enjoyable diversion.

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Program B was a series of character studies starting with a Middle Eastern man’s misery in the 21st Century (Canaan); a pair of sex starved actors using their acting class as a way to get off (The Rehearsal); a stunning riff on the life of a pop/concert performer (The Comeback) to two harsh tomes about angry people (Scarface and the Gimp and The Next Day). The Rehearsal and The Comeback were very well-done works. The former, a bittersweet exercise in loneliness made truly engaging by some excellent acting. The latter, ironically also a “rehearsal” told the story of a once-famous singer and the ruination his life suffered. Tony Vozzo’s lead character was believable and electrifying throughout.

The best of this program was the first piece.

photo by Christopher Sirota
photo by Christopher Sirota
Canaan is Mohammed Saad Ali’s polaroid shot of Yacub and his family trapped in a world that doesn’t respect his kind and forces him into a state of poverty. With a sibling living with him and a baby on the way, Ali’s three person character study was both topical and historical. While the news allows us to knowingly nod at this Middle Eastern family’s plight, it could have been an Irish family in the 20s; a Jewish family in the 40s; and so on. Yasmine Benjelloun and Molly Baggs Gyllenhaal were an excellent Greek-chorus to Ali’s Yacub – displaying equal portions of anger, fear, and humiliation with conviction. This naturalistic piece could be a full play with great ease – as a matter of fact, it should be as there is more story to tell.

The Manhattan Rep opens it doors to pieces that aren’t strictly plays but performance art or moments of emotion set to paper. They should be praised and supported because a little room with a breathe of real art is like an oasis on the street with a gigantic MacDonald’s marquee.

Fright Night

Review by Bob Greene
Original Poster Artwork by Songe Riddle

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As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the Grand Guignol of Paris, using tech tricks and old-fashioned fright, allowed us to be scared by live theater. An audience could sit in a dark crowded space and be taken on a journey into the unreal. Those were the days.

Andrew Rothkin and Jay Michaels brought that kind of horror night back for a brief two-evening jaunt, until Brigadoon-like it will vanish until next Halloween. Things That Go Bump in the Night, thanks to clever screen projections allowed us to return to the Night Gallery for ten tales – some funny, some scary, some good, some otherwise, but all with ghoulish flavor.

The night opened with THE CHANGE by Andrew Rothkin; directed by Robert Armin and starring Jon Noto. A well-written tale of a man’s dark side winning over him. Good as it was, it could have been more gripping, but its overuse of sound and visual effects muddied its shock ending thus losing some of the needed tension.
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No disappointment with THE GREENHOUSE by Mark Cornell, helmed by Scott H. Schneider starring Nitin Madan, Sara Minisquiero & Nic Tyler. bump6 One of the best of the night, this comedic chiller, involving two idiot kidnappers and their demonic charge, gave us laughs and screams with some excellent acting and simple but engrossing staging. The ending was welcomed thanks to the relish of Sara Minisquero. NOT FUNNY by Christopher Lockheardt (Ariel Leigh Cohen, dir.; Bill Moore & Janette Zapata, the players) was also a crowd-pleaser. This gory-humor piece was truly entertaining thanks to swift direction and fine comic acting.bump4 Jonathan Wallace’s UFO WEATHER (Erin Soler, dir.; with Charlie Jhaye & Jennifer Lynn Tune) is a well-acted and well-staged relationship play but it lost some impact as it’s not really a horror play. In a regular short play series, this would have shined more. It was still a worthy watch.

Another pleasure was A TROUBLED HEART, bump7 written and directed by Constance George, with Vance Clemente & Wende O’Reilly. A sweet, well-done homage to The Twilight Zone-style of this genre was a real treat. Nice chemistry between the actors left us wanting more and allowed us to be taken unaware by the ending. CALL UPON by Devlin Giroux and staged by Andrew Rothkin, with Emilio Evans, Ellen Karis & Samantha Randolph, Adit Dileep & Charlie Jhaye was an interesting piece kept crisp by Andrew Rothkin’s direction. bump5

The best two of the night could have been bookends for each other:
THE MONSTER SEATED NEXT TO ME by Steven Korbar with direction by Jay Michaels, starred character actor and was a stand-out. Tense, chillingly funny, well-acted and directed, it told the tale of a nasty “Twilight” fan coming head-to-fang with the genuine article. Frank Carandini’s perfectly played creature of the night was a feast for those who relished the old movie macabre-makers. dracula
Following MONSTER was the best of the night, FANG by Alex Dreman; staged by James Monohan; starring Lili Klein & Ben Rezendes. James Monohan supplied all the great twists and turns for the genre included creepy music and fun lighting effects and then peppered the whole endeavor with Carol Burnett quality sketch humor. The very witty ending could have had a bit more exposition to guarantee everyone would get it but whether you laughed in the theater or the car ride home, you’ll have to admit it was worth it. Ironically, Rezendes suffering pretty boy vampire was every bit what Carandini’s aged bastion of the good old days railed against.

Gluing the ten plays together were a bevy of horror hosts supplying laughter, good scares, and even a musical number to two. Each was a tribute to a horror host of the past with Sara Minisquero and Melissa Skirboll appearing in certain segments weaving the whole thing together. We were treated to Vampira (Marlain Angelides), Zacherley (Alex Mark Eckstorm), the Crypt-Keeper (Minisquero) and a Scream-Queen (Skirboll) but it was Greg Pragel’s spot-on Rod Serling (complete with “black & white” make-up) that really commanded our attention.
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In the end, everybody – on stage and in the sold-out audience – had a blast and – like the Universal Pictures monsters of the 30s and 40s – that is always worth the trip.

The Short Play is at the CORE

Review by Sander Gusinow

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This past summer, the Core Artist Ensemble mounted over forty workshop productions of short plays from around the country. A commendable undertaking, to be sure. Now, CAE has returned to the Barrow Group Theatre armed with seven shorts selected for full production.

And what a rowdy bunch of shorts they are. The Core Artists clearly have a type; bawdy, bombastic, with just enough of human element to keep us interested. Peppered with lewd humor, drunk shtick, and NYC inside jokes, CAE’s aptly named ‘Twisted Shorts’ delivers an evening of impish laughter.

The evening puts it’s best foot forward. ‘Parent Interview’ by Justin Warner was the cream of the proverbial crop. Held aloft by the hilariously rigid performance of Libby Collins, a tightly-wound teacher interviews a hopeful couple (Rachael Lee and Matt Reeves), longing for their child to get a slot at a prestigious elementary school. Poking fun at the insurmountably high standards of NYC private education, the play’s raunchy twist comes when the teacher (Collins) reveals a more carnal motivation behind the interview.

‘Immersion Therapy’ by David MacGregor was by far the most heartfelt of the evening. A timid woman (played by Jane Elias) confronts her crippling fear of clowns when her husband introduces her to Droppo, (Nate Rollins) whom he’s hired to help her overcome her phobia. Elias and Rollins imbue the scene with mountains of sad sincerity; the woman’s fear of clowns is cleanly reflected in Droppo’s mourning of a world that no longer wants him. The pair are simply divine; blissfully amplified by the strong character-driven direction of Jewells Blackwell.

Of course, with seven shorts you’re bound to fall flat somewhere. ‘3,000 Reasons’ about a bickering couple obsessed with Derek Jeter wears out its welcome, and ‘Post Mortem’ about a bedbug-ridden couple’s diminished sex life never quite gets off the ground. Fortunately, they’re both followed and preceded by genuine crowd pleasers.

Core Artist Ensemble does not fail to impress here. This series of shorts further cements their place as masters of the scandalous, quirky, and bizarre. They seem like a company capable of pulling off Lindsay-Abaire’s ‘Wonder of the World’ or Durang’s ‘Ms. Witherspoon.’ One can only wait to see what the future holds, but I’ll certainly be in the front row.

A Long List of Short Plays

October Installment

PROGRAM A reviewed by Sander Gusinow

The experiments continue! John Chatterton’s Midtown International Theatre Festival Short Play Lab brings another host of vivid shorts crackling to life. This suite of shorts left me with a happy predicament, some plays were so good they deserve entire reviews of their own. Alas, alack, I have but one article to give, and wordcount is a cruel and unforgiving master.

spl1 Joyce Fontana’s Trail Meetups was arguably the best of the night. Erika Vetter gives a tense, gripping portrayal of a woman alone in the woods where she encounters a (seemingly) nice man on the trail. As the cleverly-written piece unfolds, the young woman gets more and more desperate as the stranger challenges her white lies about having a big dog, and a boyfriend, right around the corner. Vetter captures the not-unfounded phobia of strangers in the modern day, but Fontana ends the piece with a painfully appropriate twist. The ending transforms the play from heartbeat-skipping stranger-danger into a meditation on our inability to ever really know someone we just met.

spl4 Paths: No Rhymes, No Reasons was a close second. in this sanguine one-man show, Aaron Phillip Watkins portrays a Baltimore native who overcomes an impoverished background to attend a prestigious Business school. Despite his moral fiber and burning desire to make something of himself, he ends up in jail anyway by way of corporate greed. A poignant, well crafted work, Watkins is deeply in element playing various other characters (most notably his side-splittingly hilarious weed-loving best friend) as well as rapping in intelligent, affecting verse. In the end, we all wish his character would have pursued his artistic career rather than fallen prey to the trappings of corporate America. Such a play is right at home at short play lab, with multitudes of actors, writers, and directors in a similar predicament.

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The Man and the Words, written and directed by Mehdi Mashhour, puts the ‘International’ in Midtown International Theatre Festival. Straight off the plane from Iran, the avant garde movement-piece concerns a man who meets…. and falls in love with… His hand. A delightful confluence of voice and body, Alexsander Kwanje delivers as the man, whose masterful animated-hand physicality sells the beautifully bizarre work. Is it a cautionary tale of self-involvement? Probably. But even if I totally missed the mark, it’s a roarin’ good time.

spl2One last mention (because it’s my review and I can do what I want!) Abuse from Another Life by Fran Handman is just plain good writing. The premise is simple, a woman confronts an oblivious man about his alleged offenses against her in a past life. Wittily written, astutely directed by Elowyn Castle, and playfully acted by Dana Feinberg and Baltsar Beckeld, the piece is nothing if not a charmer (even if the ending is a bit of a letdown).

Sadly, there are plenty of solid plays I’m failing to mention. For that, I’m sorry. This was an exceedingly good round. Fight on, ye ten minute warriors. I look forward to seeing what you concoct next month!

PROGRAM B reviewed by Bob Greene

The ten-minute play has become a staple amongst theater companies and festival producers. And that’s not so bad. As actual works, one might argue, but as opportunities to test out one’s skill in dialogue creation, plot and character development, even wit and pathos… it’s like looking both ways before crossing the playwriting street.

Case in point is John Chatterton’s institution, the Short Play Lab. The title alone suggested that these are experiential. Not all trial runs are noteworthy but it can be reported with much happiness that there were some interesting examples in the latest monthly submission located at Roy Arias’ Studios in Times Square.

Some like, A Long Day’s Journey Into A Hotel Room by Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin, displayed promise with a unique style and fast-pacing but petered out quickly. Others like Burnout by Maia A. Maiamatsushita might have seemed like a commercial for a nonprofit organization, but it showed what can be done with good acting. Exit Interview by Tom Delgado was a great idea that just needed more work.

spl5The standouts of the night were Jesus and Mary by George Klas, directed by Rhonda Goldstein; starring Morgane Jaremczuk and Caleb Hicks. The excellent writing, well-timed direction and acting took shtick-filled expected humor and made it a truly engaging comedic piece. The artists involved here were committed enough to make us forgive the blasphemy. spl6Pull the Trigger, Stupid by Christopher Sirota only needed work on the title (the flip moniker did not match the dark surreal drama it encased). Jay Michaels and Adele Wendt provided powerful direction for this parable about euthanasia harkening to what man was and will be again. Emmy Pai & Joseph Conway’s chemistry and energy put us on the edge of our seats and Sirota’s dialogue kept us fascinated though a bit more exposition would have been a welcome spice to the broth. spl7But the winner is Atonement on the 8th Hole by Lorne Svarc, directed by Tasha Gordon-Solmon; starring Dangerfield Moore and Shelly Antony. Many 10-minute plays are single jokes or ideas. But it takes expert writing and acting to make it a play. This – like Jesus and Mary – took a joke and made it a pleasing experience. The use of a muse for the golf-playing rabbi gave the play an added bit of class, and the brilliant ending was certainly worth the wait.

Students of theater history know that even the likes of Tennessee Williams wrote one-acts and short plays. He wrote one that is acknowledged as his experiment before creating A Streetcar Named Desire. If John Chatterton and his contemporaries were around way-back-when, imagine how many more Williams’ we might have had.
See you next month.