Drama in a Comedy? It’s on the menu in STALLED

Reviewed by Sander Gusinow
John Chatterton’s Midwinter Madness Festival

What begins as a simple sit-in lunch takes a sharp turn towards Looney Toons in Christopher Sirota’s ‘Stalled.’

Two friends sit at restaurant for lunch. One is hell-bent on telling the story of how he had an awkward moment with his boss in the restroom, while the other is much more keen on flirting with the waitress. The bathroom story is somewhat innocuous, and the two friends bicker about just how important the story actually is when contrasted against their real-world hunger. (The diner’s short-handed at rush hour)

Throughout the play, director Jay Michaels inserts highly stylized moments of lively cartoonishness. When the first friend relates the story of the bathroom stall, the play jumps into the style of a Bela Lugosi-esque horror. When the second friend talks to his would-be waitress paramour, the set is bathed with red light, prompting a cigarette-smoking ‘Casablanca’ style romance.
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These forays, though certainly entertaining, affectionately highlight the play’s subtle message: We blow up little stories to titanic proportions because we’re all the stars of our own micro movie. In the end, ‘Stalled’ reminds us life can be good, even if truth is blander than fiction.

Retro-NELLY

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Review by Sander Gusinow
Midwinter Madness Festival presented by John Chatterton

Wee Man Production’s ‘Nelly’ touches all the hot-button issues of the 1950’s, white flight, women’s budding autonomy, violence against African Americans, and the the abysmal quality of band names. The titular Nelly is an Irish-Catholic tenement dweller in Brooklyn. Her dream is to move upstate to a new home with her alcoholic husband and dreamy-eyed daughter. When she borrows against her husband’s pension to put a down payment on a new house, she alienates herself from family and friends.

Nelly’s an exceedingly likable woman. She’s friends with her black neighbor despite the prejudice that comes along with it, she’s affably ambitious, and she has enough patience to deal with both her frustrating daughter’s mood swings and her even more frustrating husband’s boozing and Norman Bates-esque mommy issues.

The problem with ‘Nelly’ as a play comes in the logistics. The entrances and exits are unforgivably convenient. At one point point the audience is actually expected to believe that the daughter got upset by the impending move, wrote an eloquent runaway letter, crawled down the fire escape, met her boyfriend, was broken up with by said boyfriend, went to the neighbor’s apartment, and got a new boyfriend in approximately six minutes.

But it’s still a pleasant slice of the past, and in the best way possible. In the world of Trayvon Martin, Economic recession, and the Men’s Rights Movement (S***heads) , ‘Nelly’ cuts closer to home than it has to, and reminds us that the past is prologue.

One Family’s Journey to CANAAN

Review by Sander Gusinow
The Midwinter Madness Festival presented by John Chatterton

There’s certainly a fire burning inside Mohammed Saad Ali. His play ‘Old Men are Full of Shit’ made waves last summer at MITF. Half economic struggle, half rage against the tethers of tradition, his new short Canaan, sees him focus his lens inward as a young mixed-heritage couple Yacub & Rachel (Muslim and Jewish) navigate an unexpected pregnancy.

The surprise baby stirs up long dead arguments, and surprisingly, Yacub & Rachel aren’t the primary belligerents. Their banter seems tranquil when compared to Yacub’s sister Dina, a brazen young woman who calls both of them out on all things misogynist and myopic. ‘We’ve been told to bite our tongues all our lives’ She tells Rachel. ‘Well now my mouth is bloody and I won’t take it any more.’

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Sara Minisquero matches Ali’s passion in her portrayal of Dina. Her righteous indignation is anchored by a sincere love of her family. (which now includes Rachel) Minisquero plays Dina’s fervor with the best intentions, so no barb is cruel, no accusation too catty.

A whole lot of story is crammed into a tense ten minutes. Possibly too much. But then, Ali is a playwright with an abundance to say. Yacub and Rachel must both adapt to their new circumstances or face brutal consequences, not unlike an audience in 2015. Hopeful, vicious, and poetically just, Canaan is a fine installment in Ali’s emerging canon.

No Touching … Except Your Soul

Paradise Gained
Reviewed by Sander Gusinow
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at Roy Arias Theaters/Times Square Art Center.
Written, Directed, and starring Renee McNeil

It’s Jesus versus the G-string in Renee McNeil’s ‘Paradise Gained.’ A practically medieval morality unfolds when struggling club owner Frank calls in Patrica, a new girl, to aid his struggling venue. The club is as wholesome an establishment as a strip club can be; no touching, no drugs and (most surprising of all) no frontal nudity. Patricia quickly destroys everything the club holds dear in the name of profit. The play revolves around Vanessa (McNeil), a struggling Christian dancer with big dreams, and her decision whether to leave the club for good.

McNeil succeeds in creating characters more complicated than they seem at first. Frank, the club owner, is a sincerely good man who cares about the well-being of all his dancers, but also demands sexual favors of them when they get out of line. Patricia is an unabashed Jezebel, but also understands the plight of her abused co-worker, and comforts her when she gets the chance. For a play with such an intensely black-and-white moral spectrum, McNeil remembers to fill in the gray.

But the three-dimensionality of the characters comes at a high cost. Practically every scene is pumped full of so much exposition it’s impossible to keep everything straight. McNeil is a competent actor and director, but as a writer she lacks subtlety. At one point a character actually says of Patricia ‘She represents everything bad we aren’t and have fought so hard against.’ As if it wasn’t so overtly obvious.

The standout performance of the night easily goes to Justine J Hall as Jordan, a spunky, volatile dancer whose fiery spirit is slowly crushed under the weight of addiction and abuse. Cassiopia Coyne gives fun portrayal of Alexis, a cheery young dancer who is immediately seduced by Patricia’s dark side.

If you’re not into the old-school morality play, avoid ‘Paradise Gained’ like the plague. I can only imagine how a humanist would feel when secular dancer is the first to fall, and most committed, to Patricia’s sinful ways. But if you’re ready to wrestle with such Gothic themes, and you don’t mind a little exposition, check it out.

284 on the right track at the Midwinter Fest

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Review by Diana Prasad

284 Empire Service by Paloma D’Auria. Starring Gregory, Heather Olsen, Sydney Soucy and Akoni Steinmann. Stage Manager, Edgar Yanez.

Part of The Fifth Annual Midwinter Madness Short Play Festival running through March 1, 2015 at Roy Arias Studios, Stage II.

As the lights fade up the stage reveals two couples lined up in a row, the lights then transition to each individual briefly questioning their truth on the subject of love and relationships. One couple falls apart while the other grows together. Krista (Sydney Soucy) and Wesley (Akoni Steinmann) try to salvage their dwindling relationship. Tense energy emerges as they convey lack of conviction within themselves as well as uncertainty for commitment. Insecure choices hinder their growth to continue love for each other which eventually becomes a crystallized truth, it’s over.

On the opposite end Carter (Gregory Archer) and Adelaide (Heather Olsen) meet aboard an Amtrak train, they connect immediately. At first they flirt and joke around then stimulating conversations arise as Carter asks Adelaide what is her purpose for being on this ride. She opens up with some resistance explaining she left her family to begin an independent life. Carter responds with he is moving on from a past relationship. The two continue to connect and share their passion for super heroes while sending out playful vibes to each other.

All four actors conveyed their emotions well enough to understand the circumstances surrounding their situations. However 30 minutes was not enough time for character development. Certain sound ques distorted the train conductors’ lines which made listening strenuous as he mentioned “all aboard” and names of various stops. Everything else was excellent, the lighting design by Scott Schneider painted a convincing picture setting the mode to reflect the environment. At the end the message was clear, relationships are journeys couples ride together.

Some reach an ending destination while others begin a new ride to happiness.

WHAT CAN’T BE UNDONE

REVIEW BY RANNIE I. McCANTS

Beth Newberry, writer and director of the new play Undone, is a woman on a mission. With a powerful piece that pushes boundaries of both theater and society, she exposes the trauma of Anna—a former sex slave—and how she copes with it. The audience watches Anna as she tries to rebuild her life as an author and a hairdresser, although still painstakingly entangled in her past.

Her story starts as a young girl from a poor family who falls in love with an older man. He buys her things she wouldn’t otherwise have, becomes close to her family, and manipulates her into fall in love with him. If only she knew he was grooming her for a life in the sex trade.

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Anna, portrayed by the fearless Jessie Fahay, recounts her first exploitative experience with vivid detail; commenting on how she still remembers the stench of body odor, the searing pain inflicted on her body, and how vulnerable she felt.

This perpetual vulnerability is what carries through the entire piece. While watching, I immediately related this aspect of the play to Brené Brown’s speech, “The Power of Vulnerability.” Brené concludes that being open to vulnerability is accessing it’s power, which then leads to love, strength, courage, and so forth. Anna was a vulnerable and impressionable girl when she was convinced to run off with this older man. It was this vulnerability that allowed Anna to access that love for someone even after they’d betrayed her trust and sold her childhood innocence. She says after that first experience she “[felt] sorry for him” because he’d never known love.

And it’s when Anna allows herself to love again that she realizes and accepts her own strength. Jessie’s moving performance gave voice to all the women who might not be able to show their faces or lend their voices to stop sex slavery from happening. Over 12 million people are currently working in the sex trade and it is said that we have more slaves now than the time of American slavery. Beth uses Anna’s story to compile the real life stories of three women who’d spent time as sex slaves. In a talkback afterward, Beth explains that women who come forward with their stories reveal that they still deal with trauma even if they go about with “normal” lives as wives and mothers. It is this trauma that cannot be undone, so through awareness and action, we must work tirelessly toward prevention.

Organizations that support the effort to stop sex trafficking: Safe Horizons, RestoreNYC, Coalition Against Trafficking Women, and GEMS. For more information, visit http://www.infusionarts.org.