Extraordinary Extremities

*published on April 15, 2014 in The Edge

Puppeteer Carlo Adinolfi will star in the world premiere of ’Extraordinary Extremeties’

Puppeteer Carlo Adinolfi will star in the world premiere of ’Extraordinary Extremeties’  (Source:Richard Termine)

 

The premise for this 60-minute one-man show is so fascinating that the play could prove difficult to live up to the evening’s backstory. “Extraordinary Extremities” is written and directed by Renee Philippi, who created the magical, “The Whale.”

This piece is designed and performed by solo-performer and puppeteer, Carlo Adinolfi. Add to this the lovely music composed by Lewis Finn and performed on stage by cellist Jeanette Stenson.

Author Philippi attempts to mesh the inspiring story
of Hugh Herr, the biomedical engineer whose legs were amputated after a climbing accident, and who now designs technologically advanced artificial limbs. The story aired on NPR and featured Herr as enthusing that he has over 20 different pairs of feet. “I feel fortunate that I can always look forward to having better and better feet,” he stated in his “Fresh Air” interview entitled, “The Double Amputee Who Designs Better Limbs.”

So artists and collaborators, Philippi and Adinolfi took this concept of many feet and tried to cobble (pun intended) together a tale of Geppetto, the woodcarver best known for making Pinocchio, into a tale of three mythic Greek tales, all with a hero who has different sets of legs. Are you with me?

What the audience sees on stage at the adorable SoHo Playhouse on Vandam Street (readers take note this is NOT the SoHo Rep, which is further downtown) is a complicated tale with very little script and lots of wonderful, imaginative props and stage scurrying. The children, teens mostly, seemed to laugh and love the madcap, crazy professor approach to pulling strings from hither and yon to make waves flow on the puppeteer’s workbench as he simultaneously bemoans having to now “do it all” as his beloved wife Donna has recently passed away.

The myths told in the briefest outlines are Andromeda and Perseus, Menelaus and Helen of Troy and finally a dive into a painted underworld with Orpheus and Eurydice. In every case the hero is outfitted with new legs, ingeniously clamped with mathematical compasses, or wooden hammers and metal extensions that shoot out and allow him as Orpheus to descend into the underworld to save his beloved.

The overarching theme is that in our modern over-charged world, we all wear so many hats and feet. We must all soldier on whether with our partners and helpmates or finally alone, and we can never give up.

That is an admirable theme and the attempted knitting of myth, reality and performance works on occasion, but the show is scant on words and too long on fussing without a full-throttled payoff. But golly we could all use some of those super exchangeable legs, for the days when our own just won’t carry us another step.

“Extraordinary Extremities” runs through May 31 at the Concrete Temple Theatre at the Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street in Manhattan. For information or tickets, call 212-691-1555 or visitwww.sohoplayhouse.com/event/0b01423ed6f716bdca8ab58e40d5dbaa/Extraordinary-Extremities

 

Mothers and Sons

*published on 27 Mar 2014 in The EDGE

Bobby Steggert and Frederick Weller in a scene from Terrence McNally’s ’Mothers and Sons’

Bobby Steggert and Frederick Weller in a scene from Terrence McNally’s ’Mothers and Sons’  (Source:Joan Marcus)

 

Terence McNally is one of the American playwrights who has chronicled the AIDS crisis from first whiff to full-blown plague, to the triple cocktail and now in his newest work “Mothers and Sons” he asks us to ponder the plight of those who remained and went on courageously to remake lives.

His newest work plays at the lovely jewel box John Golden Theater, where John Lee Beatty has installed an opulent Upper West Side apartment. Every New Yorker in the audience is ogling it, wondering how they might sneak in to live there during the day, vacate during the show, and return to luxuriate on the divan taking in the view of the park made manifest in the first scene.

In this opening salvo there is discomfort between Tyne Daly, who icily portrays the still grieving Catherine Gerard, mother of Andre, who passed away in the early years of the AIDS crisis and Andre’s former lover Cal Porter, the very adroit Fredrick Weller.

They address each other as Mrs. Gerard and Mr. Porter, even though Cal had been with Andre for eight years. The ice has not melted and to insure we note this, Catherine Gerard does not remove her enormous bear of a fur coat (costumes well done by Jess Goldstein) until nearly half way through the play, even when asked repeatedly to do so.

Catherine has arrived unannounced two decades after her son’s passing and it seems she wants to rant and rail and share her anger and disappointment with anyone who will give it an ear. At one point she tells Cal she could angrily deconstruct the horrors of a particular ottoman. She seems always cocked and ready to go off.

The dialogue at times skews to humor and the audience either titters or roars as the barbs and sadness give way to the kind of laughter we use to mask the real conversations and emotions roiling under the surface. In life we often wish for that outer layer of fur to protect us from both the fragility and fear we carry from decades of mourning the young.

Cal makes it clear that he waited to find love, all the time missing Andre. None of this is enough for Catherine, who wants revenge. She wants to know who gave this plague to her son and yet she seems to want no part of the logistics of the gay sexual rites in the early ’80s. Catherine is convinced that when she sent her son off to New York City he was not gay. This elicits uproarious laughter.

Finally Cal’s husband Will arrives with their super-sweet six-year-old son Bud (equally lovely Grayson Taylor) in tow. And there is some wonderful dialog discussing why being able to call someone “my husband” is such an enormous treat for Cal, who, at 15 years older than Will, never expected that he would get that right and privilege.

Bobby Steggert plays the boyish, ebullient and outspoken Will Ogden and we can see the difference in the two gay generations. Cal proffers that he never thought it would be possible for him to be a father, while Will never expected anything other than fatherhood. McNally effortlessly utilizes these simple facts to underscore the changes in a gay mindset, as he paints a picture of a changing world.

There are some great moments in this rather uneven play and
McNally reminds us in between the banter and bubble bath in the next room what is so crucial. “First it will be a chapter in a history book, then a paragraph, then a footnote… It’s already started to happen. I can feel it happening. All the raw edges of pain dulled, deadened, drained away.”

We need to remember that we lost an entire generation who might have been Einstein or Mozart, or the Top Chef, and that for those who remained there is a combination of guilt, a sense of as McNally says, “those who remain being punished enough.”

This newest work marks McNally’s 20th Broadway production. Many of his works have deconstructed the various stages of the AIDS crisis and he has done so consistently inserting humor where one would assume only a mordant sense of gloom could prevail.

“Mothers and Sons” adds to the “The Lisbon Traviata” (1989), “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” (1991) and “Love! Valour! Compassion!”(1995) to create an important tapestry weaving the ongoing saga of decades in the fight against AIDS and the prejudice that shadowed it.

“Mothers and Sons” enjoys an extended run at the John Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street. For information or tickets, call 888-847-4869 or visit http://www.mothersandsonsbroadway.com

Stage Kiss: a review

*published on 7 Mar 2014 in The EDGE

Jessica Hecht and Dominic Fumusa

Jessica Hecht and Dominic Fumusa  (Source:Joan Marcus)

It is exciting to anticipate an evening in the theater watching a play written and directed by women.”Stage Kiss” is penned by the two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony nominee Sarah Ruhl and directed by Rebecca Taichman who recently helmed “Milk Like Sugar” and Nico Muhly’s amazing opera, “Dark Sisters.” This new work is the fourth in Playwrights Horizons 2013-2014 Season and it is a breath of spring that we all yearn for.

The play might best be described as a heartfelt comedy with extreme farcical leanings. It is a must-see for anyone who has worked in theater, as one is privy to many inside jokes of rehearsal mishaps, hissy fits, diva meltdowns and oh of course, the romances.

The play opens with an audition for a remounting of a 1930’s melodrama about a woman who is dying and summons her former lover to her opulent home. The character is called She and Jessica Hecht brings a loose-limbed and even looser-lipped portrayal that for the most part wins the evening. Hecht’s accents occasionally go array, but all to laughter. She is an aging actress who has taken time off to have and raise a daughter, now she is back with a vengeance.

It turns out She is cast against a male romantic lead, He, a man with whom she actually had a long, tumultuous affair before marrying her rich husband. And so begins and ensues the play within a play. He is so perfectly embodied by the amazing Dominic Fumusa, who many fell for in “Nurse Jackie.” The fun here is that with leading man sex appeal and serious acting bones, Fumusa also gets to be a clown and ham it up.

As the sexy kissing sizzles on stage, the affair rekindles between the real characters. Of course there are the farcical glitches, where He takes a pratfall on stage and breaks his leg. The very gay understudy, hilariously portrayed by Michael Cyril Creighton, gamely goes on attempting to recreate the magic of the stage kissing with a gaping mouth like a fish about to swallow prey.

Creighton also plays a pimp, a butler and a doctor, all to giggles and guffaws. It turns out the understudy is having an affair with the director, an aging, anything-goes hippie brought to listless life by Patrick Kerr. The circles of who is kissing whom continue until the curtain falls on Act I.

In Act II She and He have left their mates and thrown their lots in together, living once again in an actor’s hovel in Hell’s Kitchen. They are approached by the director to work in his newest play about to be produced by the hilarious sounding DAT Theater of Detroit. So the action moves to Motor City. There are some twists and turns all punctuated by a heartfelt denouement and original music composed and played by Todd Almond, which adds an air of zest to the evening and a sense of real melodrama to the 1930 portion of the play.

Excellent performances are turned in by Daniel Jenkins as the very dry husband and Emma Galvin, a tiny firecracker of an actress, taking on three roles. Rebecca Taichman keeps all the action going with wonderful side bits, the stuff that goes on in rehearsal, a serious scene playing out with other actors marking dance steps in the wings. This made the often-silly play seem so vibrant.

The set works wonderfully well, sometimes putting the real audience backstage and just as often using the paying patrons as audience in the on-stage production. The piano player moves from stage to a balcony and all of this in a small stage with not a bad seat in the house.

There was great laughter and applause heating up the winter and hastening spring. The Ruhl/Taichman team are wonderful and everyone needs more farce and kissing in their lives.

“Stage Kiss” runs through March 23 at Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street. For tickets and information, visit https://www.ticketcentral.com/playwrightshorizons/

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

*published on 21 Mar 2013 on The EDGE

David Hyde Pierce, Sigourney Weaver, Kristine Nielsen, and Billy Magnussen in ’Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’

David Hyde Pierce, Sigourney Weaver, Kristine Nielsen, and Billy Magnussen in ’Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’  (Source:Carol Rosegg)

The new comedy by Christopher Durang with the tongue tripping title of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is a wild ride inside the overeducated, under edited author’s mind. If you love Durang’s irreverent, humor, which can bounce from sex to religion, to technophobia, to arcane commentary about the classics, all with lots of physical comedy thrown in for shits and giggles, then this work is for you.

Durang has corralled one of his long time collaborators, the very tall and funny Sigourney Weaver who has been a Durang muse since they were on the edges of Robert Brustein’s Yale Drama School back in the early ’70s. Brustein’s well-documented brutality to Weaver is more than alluded to in the play as they talk about the route and role her character Masha took, doing five sequels to a popular movie, rather those roles in Chekov for the stage dahling.

Often the problem with so many inside jokes is that the character of Masha has trouble distancing herself from the real live Sigourney playing her. And hence this character falls short and is perceptibly less funny than the other five incredible actors populating the stage.

The thin comedic backstory revolves around three siblings Vanya, Sonia and Masha who come together for a weekend in the Buck’s County house where they all grew up. Sonia was adopted, but yet she and her brother took care of their aging, Alzheimer-ridden parents while movie star Masha ventured forth to make and remake a “sex romp,” which sounds much like a less alien-ridden “Aliens.” It seems as if beyond a mere visit Masha has come home to put the family home up for sale. Not surprisingly the property has a few Chekhovian cherry trees on it and blue herons, which keep appearing.

Sonia is played with comedic genius by the beyond excellent Kristine Nielsen, another Yale Drama School grad, who has done Durang duty in the past and also has a raft of Broadway and off-Broadway credits. She is a welcome addition as the sister who gave up a life to care for her parents. She plays a mean Maggie Smith, wearing the hell out of a sequined dress and doing a monologue on the phone where you would swear another person was talking to her from backstage. She is also often the pivotal role and glue for great scenes.

The ever-strong David Hyde Pierce plays Vanya with understated comic ease. (It is a pleasure to see that neither Pierces’ nor Weaver’s Playbill Bio list film or television work, just reams of theater. KUDOS.)

Durang’s Vanya is an aging, gay man who often ogles the wonderful slice of cheesecake, Masha’s boy-toy Spike, embodied by Billy Magnussen. This kid will be a star if his heart holds up. His energy, verve, beauty and comic timing are a breath of fresh air. Magnussen literally jumps, runs, leaps and lunges everywhere and brings his guilelessness to further lighten many scenes.

The house is held together and often prophesized over by the erstwhile mad Cassandra, played with amazing comic timing and snarky edge by Shakti Grant. Like her Greek namesake, Cassandra often tells the future but no one in the house listens until the prophecy comes to fruition. This Julliard grad has been with this play in all of its incarnations from the McCarter to Lincoln Center and it is wonderful to see her now really own this role.

The final character to wander into this mad house is a young neighbor girl named, well you guessed it, Nina. Nina is a huge fan of Masha’s work and allows Masha to be humorously jealous and envious when Spike takes Nina home after a costume party. Nina is played by the fresh as a daisy Genevieve Angelson and she holds her own among the veterans.

At the costume party Marsha is Snow White, Spike is Prince Charming and Nina and Vanya, who Nina has taken to calling Uncle Vanya, are such funny dwarves. This is where and why Sonia gets her Maggie Smith on. There is not a lot of rhyme or reason to the loosely strung together play other than belly laughs and a template to explore families using the master of familial discord, Chekov, as a guide.

At one point a character commenting on the scenes being played out says, “If everyone took antidepressants Chekov would have had nothing to write about.” Perhaps that’s true, but then there would be different dramas to pen. Durang has balanced this work between the family drama of the past and the ranting times we live in.

The work is well directed by Nicholas Martin on the pitch-perfect country house set by David Korins. I took especial note of the wonderful music, composed just for this work by Mark Bennett, who also did the sound design.

This show is not perfect and there are moments when it drags and lags, but in general the laughs keep coming and finally, as Durang says, “You must always get your hopes up.”

Old Hats

*published on Mar 12 2013 on The EDGE

Bill Irwin, Nellie McKay and David Shiner

Bill Irwin, Nellie McKay and David Shiner  (Source:Joan Marcus)

Imagine all the laughter you have heard in your life and then play it back: titters, guffaws, giggles, bellows, erupting tee-hees, chortles, chuckles, snickers and snorts. Get ready, because you will hear all of it during the wondrous new work, “Old Hats.”

Bill Irwin is a treasure, he even possess a MacArthur genius grant to prove it. He is a genius at making us laugh. Irwin often partners with David Shiner in a sort of good clown, bad clown duo and this dynamic was in full evidence and directed with gusto by Tina Landau in their new production, their first collaboration since the acclaimed Broadway offering, “Fool Moon.”

Clowning has as many nuances as laughter. It can be dark and weird; hence so much fear of clowns, or it can reflect back our better, sillier, more absurd selves. For the most part we are privy to the lighter side of clowning in this full-length piece, which consists of a series of vignettes punctuated by an amazing little band led by the vibrant, uber-edgy Nellie McKay.

The show begins with a literal bang. Smoke, meteors and film engulf the two hapless clowns as they gambol across the stage in signature vaudeville suits and old, top hats. Even though both Irwin and Shiner are no longer young clowns, they are still spry and rubbery, all languid limbs providing the strength for juggling and miming. Shiner picks fights with a man in the audience, Irwin demurs, and they have a hat-flipping contest. All of it is hilarious, and yet words flatten the sensation of being in the presence of wild animals of comedy.

As the film screen engulfs both clowns, the band takes over providing an introduction to the next piece, a “Saturday Night Live” sort of mock political debate. As an example of songstress Nellie McKay’s edgy wit her song features a lyric about politicians singing, “Be nice and salute the flag or they will say you are a fag,” all sung in the sweetest voice with music whose melody is aptly reminiscent of vaudeville.

Politics segues to an Irwin solo called “Mr. Business” where a badly suited “Master of the Universe” fights with his cell phone and iPad. Each in turn tries to eat a part of him, photographs him and heckles him from the screen. The ubiquity of the experience is pitch perfect.

Following there was a long, bittersweet solo, called “Hobo,” by Shiner, whose Bavarian home base, may explain his connection to more traditional European clown traditions. Here Shiner embodies the classic sad sack sitting on a park bench rooting through the trash until he finds the fixings to create a mate from a booze bottle, broom handle and discarded cloth. He dances with his damsel until a strong wind carries, even her, off stage and we are all left with our existential solitude.

I applaud the wide variety of the show as it stretches to the humor of pathos, sidesplitting slapstick and political commentary. Directly following “Hobo,” (and there is no run order listed in the program, so I bet it may morph), McKay and her musical cohorts perform “Inner Peace,” an homage to those who, “care not a wit for those suffering in Ethiopia, all they want is inner peace.” It is performed at such a furious pace that all but a few choice phrases were lost, causing a reviewer to ask, when the musicians strolled at intermission, for the lyrics, which McKay attempted to sing in snatches between before moving to the next aisle.

More giant clown pants are featured, the costumes by G.W. Mercier as glorious, as Shiner and Irwin become old commuters waiting for a train and comparing the pills they consume and miming the results. Then Irwin is a crazed Italian waiter with bowls of recalcitrant pasta that spanned the edges of the stage, there is also a “Cowboy Cinema” where Shiner plucks audience members to populate a silent film to raucous results.

But the place where the aisles were littered with laughing bodies came with the skit called simply “Magic.” Shiner is an aging magician with a stringy ponytail wig and Irwin is his wifely assistant. Let me take a moment to praise the wigs and make-up, by Erin Kennedy-Lunsford, as Irwin and Shiner were eerily transformed. Irwin’s “lovely assistant” was part Cindy McCain, part Martha from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and so wincingly perfect, casting gimlet eyes at any perceived rival for her unctuous man’s affections that between roars, one wonders at Irwin’s ability to see gestural nuance with such clarity.

Irwin and Shiner are truly a perfect pair and yet they were made even more beguiling, sharp, and touching by the addition of Nellie McKay’s sweet voice and astringent lyrics. As spring approaches and politics threaten to swamp our spirits, treat yourself to an evening of hilarity. We all deserve it.

 

 

The High Water Mark

*published on 21 Oct 2013 on The EDGE

The cast of ’The High Water Mark’

The cast of ’The High Water Mark’  (Source:Luna Stage)

Talent, like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography, is something that you may not be able to define — but you know it when you see it. And by chance this reviewer saw talent unfurl and scream, “I am here, pay attention.”

The Luna Stage is a small, theater in West Orange N.J. not the usual crucible for new theatrical talent. Or is it? Jane Mandel who served as its artistic director until she stepped down last season founded Luna Stage some 20 years ago.

Mandel helmed Luna well, utilizing her education from NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts and her strong bones in experimental theater. Then she handed it over to Cheryl Katz, also a Tisch grad, who had been scratching in piles of written work for eight years as the Director of New Works. Katz certainly uncovered a spectacular new playwright in Ben Clawson, whose work “The High Water Mark” had its world premier on Oct. 10 at the Luna Stage.

Clawson is less than 30, but an old soul who channels dark humor, pathos, slapstick and enlightenment. And he has the perfect delivery gals in the equally talented duo of Sabrina Profitt and Andrea Maulella. Maulella plays the well-married character named Janet, while Profitt is Lily, a newly divorced mom who lost custody of her kids, her house and now lives on the seamy side of town. The two have been friends since childhood. Janet on a toot, seeks out her long lost pal in her new hovel and hijinks ensue.

Yes this is a comedy. Yes the small, well-kept black box theater vibrates with yucks and guffaws, but after intermission the thoughtful writing, careful delivery and seamless direction by Katz gathers like steam in a kettle to provide a roiling emotional experience.

We are all guilty of misdeeds, of poor choices and beyond awkward moments. Some of them impact us and some slide by. It seems that both Janet and Lily have been acting out and acting up for quite a long time and the play provides the moment when it all comes to a boil.

Without giving away the secrets, which have to unfold to make this evening work so well, here is the premise. Lilly, a school teacher, is awakened by Janet who is drunk and out carousing, and with alcohol as the lubricant the conversation begins to flow allowing old friends, both in the midst of differently crafted mid-life crises, to commence self diagnosing, complaining and plotting.

The entire play takes place in a small apartment, well designed by Charles Lucas with enough doors and a window to provide for farcical physical antics aplenty. The lights by Jorge Arroyo and the costumes by Deborah Caney continue to set the scene so that the audience is immersed in the lives and fate of these two women. In the hands of a lesser crew of actors and designers this play might seem only over the top and lack any emotional punch so crucial to make it the fully realized event it became on opening night.

There is something magical about being on the other side of the river from where one traditionally expects the new, the amazing to be unearthed and presented. And it is more than heartening to see such stunning new talent populating plays with characters able to make us laugh, sigh and question the vibration of the spheres.

 

 

Cirque du Soleil: Quidam

*published on 26 July 2013 in The EDGE

Cirque du Soleil: Quidam thrilled the Barclays Center

Cirque du Soleil: Quidam thrilled the Barclays Center  

The circus is back in town and this year’s Cirque du Soleil, “Quidam” features a young girl, her red balloon and an escape from what seems to be a very Dickensian life into a fantasy world, albeit one still populated by many folks in gray tatters.

This is not a joyful romp by any means. Perhaps the evening seems haunted by the recent death of a 32-year-old acrobat, mother of two, in a fall during a different show, “Ka” in Las Vegas. But many around me at the gleaming, but not near to full Barclays Center were murmuring that the show was too dark and depressing for children.

Director Franco Dragon and founder Guy Laliberte have called this show a walk into the fantasy life a child uses to escape a boring childhood. The design harkens to surrealism and images of Magritte can be found in many corners of the show. One of the most prominent is a large headless man carrying a bowler hat under his arm and marking the periphery of the stage with a silent circling.

The show is designed by Michel Crete and features an aluminum monolith, which represents a cold modern city. The huge arches of the set are ringed with moving rails, which can lift performers to heights above the stage and zoom them down again in an instant. There are more than 50 acrobats, dancers, musicians, singers and performers in this show, all costumed by Dominique Lemieux.

Although the theme is not a romp, the show is still filled with bravura performances highlighted by the live band and singularly amazing music composed by Benoit Gutras. The sounds really chill and enhance every moment. The show opens with the German Wheel, an enormous metal wheel where varying performers roll, leap and astound every time.

A young man tosses Chinese yo-yos with the aplomb of a college Frisbee champion and glee in his grin, as all around different performers dance, shimmy or carry props across the revolving stage. One woman dressed as a rabbit continues to appear, perhaps a nod to Alice in Wonderland being led on adventures by that famous bunny.

The ubiquitous ribbon dancers always entrance me as they wrap and wiggle, slide and wriggle from ceiling to floor. This time the ribbon was scarlet, perhaps reflecting the red balloon lost by our heroine, called Zoe. Further in the realm of acrobatic wonder, veering toward dance was a hand-to-hand acrobatic ballet.

The man and woman, both clothed in what appeared to be dingy undergarments, take the stage and in minutes grab the audience by the heart and soul. They move as if in slow motion, lifting legs arms and balancing on each others’ backs. They seem to assume the avian grace of shore birds lifting from heavy water taking frictionless flight.

A grand finisher was the Banguine, an Italian acrobatic tradition where a large troupe tosses participants as they build and deconstruct tall human towers all to the gasps of the audience.

Although this is not by any means the finest Cirque du Soleil presentation, it still thrills and enchants many who are attending for the first time. Times are darker, and perhaps a circus that reflects the need for all of us to escape and dream is a perfect reflection of these times.