Let's Talk Off Broadway

Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Ensemble Studio Theatre

Review | Fast Company by Carla Ching | Directed by Robert Ross Parker | Ensemble Studio Theatre / Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

IMG_0119 (2)FAST COMPANY is a fast moving, funny and suspenseful comedy about an Asian-American family of grifters, the Kwan’s, who’ll con anyone — best of all one another — to get what they want.

L-R Moses Villarama, Stephanie Hsu, Christopher Larkin, Mia Katigbak.  Photo: Ensemble Studio Theatre

Blue, the girl of the family, using, she says, probabilities based on her college study of game theory, manages to swipe a copy of Action Comics #1, the first  Superman comic book (worth over a million dollars, the world’s most valuable comic book) but she loses it!  To get it back, she has to turn for help to her brothers who’ve never thought much of her grifter skills.  This sets up a round-robin of conning with her brothers, Francis, who’s retired from pick-pocketing to become a TV magician, and H, a crooked gambler, until, in their need, they turn to that legendary con great, Mabel — their mother.

As con artists, they base their moves on calculations of what their targets expect and don’t expect.   What makes this play so delightfully funny is the playwright's canny sense of what the audience can and can't anticipate — the playwright’s the best con artist of all:  she knows what we will and won’t figure out, and that, as the play continues and we catch on, we’ll get smarter — so she ups the ante.  FAST COMPANY is a voyage through cleverness:  the Kwans outwit one another and the playwright outwits us — to the very end where she shifts gears to give an unexpected ending that enriches the meaning of her play.

Stephanie Hsu as Blue let’s us catch on through her facial expressions and body language that there’s some kind of special, i.e. family, intimacy, between herself and her brother Francis even before we know who’s who, and Francis — with help from the playwright — takes “cool” to new lengths.  Moses Villarama is touchingly conflicted as H, and Mable, as played by Mia Katigbak, with her outstanding deadpan, is tops in the script and in the play.

As for “game theory” … well, the concept may have given a scientific whiff that would involve the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation which has partnered with the Ensemble Studio Theatre to develop plays about science, technology and economics* … but crooks were crooks before there was game theory.

FAST COMPANY plays at The Ensemble Studio Theatre on Manhattan's west side through April 6, 2014.  For more information and tickets, click on live link of title.

Yvonne Korshak

*Two plays developed through this partnership reviewed here are Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler and Isaacs Eye by Lucas Hnath.  Click on live links of titles for reviews.

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Review | Year Of The Rooster by Eric Dufault | Directed by John Giampietro | Ensemble Studio Theatre / Youngblood

… the charismatic rooster …

To put it simply, you have to see Bobby Moreno as Odysseus Rex, the fighting rooster:  it's as stunning a performance as has ever come along.

The others of the cast, with their highly individualized characters, are equally brilliant – though, no doubt about it, Moreno’s charismatic rooster coming alive on stage has an unforgettable edge.  The play is good enough – you have to love a play that offers this distinct array of characters.

We’re in rural Oklahoma where Gil Pepper is training a tremendously promising fighting cock, Odysseus Rex.  That’s about all Gil has going for him because otherwise he’s a wimp, pushed around by everyone — Lou, his mother, Philipa, his co-worker at McDonald’s, and Dickie, the local Important Man and cock fight promoter (a lot of the humor and irony of this play is about big fish in small pond) who wants to get his hands on Gil’s cock (and if that line isn’t in the play, something close to it is).

All Gil’s strength, and his very manhood, is in his fearless rooster, tough, angry, ready to take on anyone and anything. 

With alert eyes, a piercing but unsettled gaze, snarling but vulnerable mouth and jerky movements Moreno is the rooster, bred to fight, nurtured to anger, puzzled by his own rage without losing its momentum, and with a soft spot, tragically overlooked.   Moreno doesn't need a "costume" but, wittily, his jacket gets some feathers looping over his shoulders – in Western style.   

Dickie throws his weight around to get what he wants – the rooster, and some valuable eggs Gil’s incubating.  Philipa, newly appointed Manager of McDonald’s, throws her weight around, grossly humiliating Gil, her one employee, continuing the relationship he’s had with his narcissistic mother.  Worthily or not, Dad, long dead, is Gil’s ideal, Odysseus Rex’s alter ego or vice versa, at any rate a source of the strength that gets Gil through to the big match, the climactic cockfight, staged all-out by Qui Nguyen, between Odysseus Rex and Dickie’s powerful old bird.   If you’ve never seen a cockfight, here’s your chance – the feathers really fly.

The cockfight opens the door to a lot more enchantment, comic and tragic, before Gil reaches a pat but reasonably satisfying resolution – after all, we are rooting for him.

Thomas Lyons as the schlemiel finds humor in broad type and stunning subtlety.  Denny Dale Bess is scary as the local impresario who, with the deep Western drawl, takes things to the edge.  Megan Tusing is amusing and convincing as the nasty mouthed Macdonald’s manager, who doubles as an over-plump chicken: at the risk of repeating an idea, I’d say you have to see Megan Tusing as Philipa.  Delphi Harrington is the lazy, self-centered mother who put lipstick and make-up on her little boy  (the psychology is a little simplistic).  

If you are anywhere in range of this play, you’re lucky:  you can see Year Of The Rooster.  Don't miss the chance.

Year Of The Rooster  plays in an extended run at the Ensemble Theater on Manhattan's west side through February 1, 2014.  For more information and tickets, click on live link of title.

Yvonne Korshak

Comments very welcome.  Scroll down, click on "comments," write in comment box and click on "post."  Emails are private and never appear with comments.

Review | Isaac’s Eye by Lucas Hnath | Directed by Linsay Firman | Ensemble Studio Theatre | Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Isaac’s Eye takes as starting points what it asserts are a few “truths,” (e.g., Newton stuck a needle into his eye as a scientific experiment, Newton was engaged once but never married) to construct a play about the young Isaac Newton.  The truths are arbitrarily selected and some are suppositions,  even though they’re chalked onto a blackboard that, we’re told, holds genuine truths, which is not playing fair with the audience!  While the first act has some point to it, the second trails off into unsupported, drawn out material that doesn’t add up to any insight or interest. 

The first act brings together two scientists with different points of view in a potentially meaningful conflict: Robert Hooke as a proponent of experiment, and Newton, depicted as believing he has an intuitive “God told me so I am certainly right” genius.

After several letters from Newton seeking admission to the Royal Society of London, Hooke, the Society’s Curator of Experiments, comes from London to visit Newton in his rural hamlet intending to shut down the youthful competitor or at least delay him a few decades.  Driven by genuine scientific curiosity, however, Hooke is drawn into wanting verification of an experiment in which Newton plunges a needle into his eye, causing a prismatic breakdown of light into color, thus proving that light is formed of particles, not waves.  As I read Newton’s notes, which you can find at this link,  what he describes he saw in the needle-in-the-eye experiment differs from what is recounted in the play, and doesn't demonstrate that light is particles, but I’m not a scientist so perhaps I’ve missed something.

At any rate, in Newton’e Eye, Hooke’s urges that Newton repeat the experiment using an objective subject who has no vested interest in the outcome.  This leads to the revelation that Newton lied about ever having done the experiment at all, on himself or anybody else — he just “knows” he's right about what would happen if one did it because his father died before he was born and so he’s closer to God.  This gross violation of the empiricism Hooke represents creates some interesting conflict in Act I, which would be meaningful except that according to his written notes, Newton did the experiment and there’s no reason to believe he lied to Hooke.  Historical drama has broad license but arbitrary playing with the audience under the guise of telling a truth is … well frankly it’s a turn-off.

In Act II, Hooke drinks too much, makes bathetic noise, all but seduces Newton’s girl friend Catherine, and is uncovered as a child molester – anything to keep things going.   We move from over-stretched historical license to fantasy when Newton, finally trying the experiment on himself — and abandoned by Hooke, Catherine, and everyone else because of his nasty, self-involved temperament — spends a month or so unable to move out of a chair, with the needle in his eye.

The actors wear modern casual dress and speak in contemporary language which starts things off with an appealing immediacy.  In Act I, Haskell King provies a persuasive portrait of Newton’s self-involved and ambitious personality.  Kristen Bush brings warmth and dignity to the role of Catherine, the woman friend he never can quite bring himself to propose to although by Act II, her script driven deviousness and emotional turnabouts have broken through this character’s plausibility. 

Michael Louis Serafin-Wells brings charismatic vitality and humor to the serious minded but pleasure loving Hooke.  Jeff Biehl is engaging as actor/narrator, and also a man dying of the plague, desperate enough to agree to let Newton stick a needle in his eye in one of the play’s more gruesome scenes.  Plague at the time was known to be highly contagious (Newton, like many, fled to the country to escape it), yet neither of these two smart men appears concerned about hands on experimental contact with pustule-covered man dying of the disease:  Newton sticks the needle into the dying man’s eye, Hooke holds him down, and together they haul out the corpse and throw it in the river.

At times in Act I, I thought Newton’s Eye was heading for the level of the the Ensemble Studio Theatre and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s brilliant production of Photograph 51, about Rosalind Franklin and her role in the discovery of the DNA double helix, also directed by Linsay Firman, but no such luck.

Isaac's Eye plays at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in Manhattan's Clinton district, midtown west side, through February 24.  For more information and tickets, click on live link of title.

                                                                                   Yvonne Korshak

Comments very welcome.  Scroll down, click on "comments," write in comment box and click on "post."  Emails are private — no emails ever appear with comments.

Kristen Bush as Rosalind Franklin and David Gelles as Laboratory Assistant Ray Gosling.  Photo:  Gerry Goodstein

Review | Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler | Directed by Linsay Firman | Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

 X marks … what?

This is an important and fascinating play about the interplay between ideas, evidence and personalities surrounding one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time, the structure of DNA.  Of three scientists central to the discovery, the play focuses on the one who didn’t get the Nobel Prize, Rosalind Franklin;  James Watson and Francis Crick received the Prize in 1962.

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