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

Tag: David Greenspan

The Mystery of Irma Vep | Charles Ludlam | Directed by Kenneth Elliott | Starring David Greenspan and Tom Aulino | Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor, Long Island

This play is hilarious — one laugh after another, and done with style and vivacity.  I enjoyed every moment — and smile thinking back to it.

It’s a spooky take-off on Gothic melodrama, Shakespeare, Alfred Hitchcock, the Bronte sisters, Rebecca, and other sources of scary and mysterious goings-on, set mainly in (where else?) an English manor house, Mandacrest Estate.  Lord Edgar has recently married Lady Enid but the presence of Edgar’s deceased first wife, Irma Vep, whose portrait dominates the sitting room, is inescapable.  All the characters including Edgar and Enid, the one-legged swineherd Nicodemus, the maid Jane and four others, are played by a total of two actors of the same sex — as per the author’s instructions because the cross-dressing, as well as the hilarious costumes and faster-than-the-speed-of-light character and costume changes, are all part of the fun.

And fun it is as the play mounts from one wildly-imaginative episode to the next.  Each time you think you’ve caught on to what Ludlam is doing, he ups the ante with a farther inventive leap.

But the play wouldn’t work for three delicious acts if it were only a joke.  As a married couple, and as lovers, Lord Edgar and Lady Enid need to find the way to one another, while embattled by werewolves and vampires and life’s complicated back stories.  All the camp and ironies in the world wouldn’t make it interesting if it weren’t, bottom line, about genuine characters — even if they are nuttily hyperbolic.

David Greenspan, whether playing the former actress given to dramatics, Lady Enid, or the low-class swineherd in a greatcoat worthy of Sherlock Holmes — to say nothing of a stint as an Egyptian dancing girl — is brilliant.  Tom Aulino who shifts in the twinkling of an eye from Maid Jane dusting the furniture to Lord of the Manor dragging in the huge wolf he’s just shot  (oh no, the wrong wolf!) is equally a marvel.  The actors seem to defy the laws of physics in making those changes of costume and character.  But they do, with charismatic wit and breathtaking intensity.

What a clever play!  What a perfect production!

The Mystery of Irma Vep  plays at Bay Street Theatre on the wharf in Sag Harbor, Long Island, through July 28, 2013.

Review | Go Back To Where You Are by David Greenspan | Directed by Leigh Silverman | Playwrights Horizons | Peter Jay Sharp Theater

… transformations …

The setting, the deck of Claire’s beach house around Montauk, on the East End of Long Island, is delightful and the play is pleasant in a summery way well into it, with sun shining on the deck, the ocean near by, and a touch of the magic of time travel. Lunch is being prepared, conversations swirl, tensions emerge among the characters to keep things interesting. Claire’s a successful actress while her friend and fellow actress, Charlotte, has to scramble for parts. Tom’s a successful producer, on hand because he’s working with Claire on her next play, but he and his partner Malcolm are at odds because of Tom’s compulsive promiscuity.

Then, in a scene shift, we meet Passalus, who once lived as an actor in Ancient Greece: now God (why not Zeus?) sends him emphatically, and as way to earn his release from purgatory, to our contemporary world to straighten out the relationships of this particular Hamptons gathering.

To be able to fulfill his assignment, Passalus arrives on Claire’s deck disguised in the form of a chatty 72 year old woman with an English accent -– nobody’s sure where she came from or why but the point isn’t pushed –- English accents are so protective. David Greenspan, a brilliant performer, and inevitably hilarious at playing women, plays Passalus in this, his play.

But instead of simply doing what God commanded, Passalus falls in love: with Claire’s son, Wally, a pleasant young man but, brooding over a lost love, a determined loner. But for Passalus to be able to take long walks on the beach with Wally, and to woo him, the guise of an old lady just won’t cut the mustard. Passalus changes himself into the male actor he really is — or was back then in Ancient Greece — and, as needed, transforms himself back into the old lady.  Greenspan changes from male to female and back again at the drop of a hat –- in mid sentence, no costume change needed for him to be convincing. So there’s lots of fun here with confused identities.

Abruptly, the play becomes emotionally intense as Passalus, smarting from Wally’s rejection, grieves mightily, about Wally and, more generally, about the transformations of time — becoming an aging, wrinkled actor whose lost his looks, lost his appeal and, as he sees it, is fated to be unloved and alone.  We’re not prepared for the shift in tone, and the emotions seem too raw.

Then, though nothing happens to explain it, Wally changes his mind and we’re given to think that Wally and Passalus will live happily ever after — or at least for a reasonably long time.  And almost everybody else’s relationship problems are resolved, too; Tom, formerly driven to promiscuity, will henceforth be faithful.  Really?  How?  We don’t see it. And almost out of the blue (there was an early, unexplained phone call but that seems like a mechanical plant) we learn that Claire will be dead of cancer in a year.  Huh? That resolution is unsatisfying because it’s so arbitrary – i.e., why did the playwright do that when he could have done this or the other?

In alternating between Passalus the actor from ancient Greece acting as a contemporary man, and the 72 year old English Lady, Greenspan pulls off a fine tour de force;  he’s such a fascinating performer that you watch him even when he’s in the background and not part of the action.  Among the other fine performances, Lisa Banes is wonderful as Claire – timing, wit, drama, stage presence, she has everything and it’s a privilege to see her.

Miscellaneous:  Speaking of transformations … I wondered why Greenspan names his character Passalus?  Looking up the word, I found it’s the name of one of a pair of thievish scamps in Classical mythology, the Kerkopes brothers, who for punishment, are transformed into wrinkled, old, monkey-men, as in Ovid’s long poem of transformations, Metamorphoses — and as Passalus feels he’s become in his moment of agonized despair in the play.   If that not enough of an explanation, it’s also the name of a certain horned beetle.   P. S. The playwright Agathon wrote in the 5th Century B.C.

In one of the breaks from sheer play to sly communications with the audience, Passalus/Greenspan suggests that Go Back To Where You Are may be a sketch, not a play, and I can see why he entertains the thought.

Go Back To Where You Are plays at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater on West 42nd Street through May 1.

Review | Orlando, from Virginia Woolf’s Novel | Adapted by Sarah Ruhl | Directed by Rebecca Taichman, choreographed by Annie-B Parson, with Annika Boras, Francesca Faridany, David Greenspan, Tom Nelis and Howard Overshown | Classic Stage Company

… another great first act …

The first act of Orlando is a kind of enchantment — like falling in on Prospero’s island.  We are in the 17th Century:  Orlando appears as a swashbuckling young nobleman in a solo sword dance beautifully choreographed by Annie-B Parson.  We go on to follow his adventures, his love adventures, that is — we never see him do much else with the sword.  Much is narrated, with the playwright, Sarah Ruhl, using Virginia Woolf’s words from the novel, which adds to the sense of magical “Once upon a time … “  This is a play about liminality, in gender, in modes of story telling, and in time.  We understand quickly that boundaries are permeable, and everything can change into its other.   It’s a wonderful beginning.

Orlando’s early love conquest is Queen Elizabeth, played by David Greenspan, who hoists around the stage a witty, bare-bones version of that high-ruffed costume we know so well from Elizabeth’s portraits — to say nothing of all those movies.  Soon Greenspan plays another of Orlando’s conquests, a Central European archduchess who — no surprise here — later turns out to be an archduke (one thinks of Count Orlovsky in Der Rosenkavalier), allowing Greenspan to invent even more hilarious and irresistible mannerisms.

Orlando, though, is not only conquering in love but conquered — by Sasha, a Russian princess played with deft delicacy and toughness by Annika Boras (hard to believe this beautiful seductress who skates in from the far North is the same actress who played Electra in Classic Stage’s Oresteia as a thick, dumpy, anguished homeless hag.  Boras is great actress.)

Ultimately disappointed in love by the faithless Sasha, Orlando finds emotional refuge in exotic Istabul where, mysteriously, he falls asleep and wakes having been transformed from a man into a woman.  This is demonstrated when the fine actress who play Orlando, Francesca Faridany, is relieved of her bedclothes and appears fully naked.  That’s a dramatic ending to what has been a visionary and delightful Act 1.

Yet … why such naked drama? the question that pokes its way into enjoyment of the intermission espresso. After all, disappointment in love doesn’t usually lead to gender change.  Nor did we need to see Orlando nude to believe he was male, though he was being played by Ms. Faridany:  why, then, do we need a fully naked Orlando to see that she’s female?  Sarah Ruhl is good at end-of-the-first act visual shock — in her Dead Man’s Cell Phone, there’s the abrupt apparition of a dead man we’ve been hearing a lot about.  Does she feel her second acts are less strong and wants to make sure you come back?

Act 2 shows the now female Orlando returning to England, and whizzing through the 18th and 19th Centuries to the present. The second act loses interest, I think, for two reasons.  Things happen so fast that we loose the character.  Then, the idea is that we learn through now female Orlando something of the difference between being male and being female, but the differences, in the play, are superficial rather than inward.  Now she’s expected to eat small, exquisite portions of food instead of big stuff.  She develops an urge, felt as an itch on the second finger of her left hand, to marry.  Pretty obvious, huh?

The cast is excellent, and the choreographic movement of Annie-B Parson does all it can to enrich the play.  But what’s it really like to have lived both as a man and a woman?  For this, you’d have to ask Teiresias.

Orlando plays at Classic Stage in New York City’s East Village through October 17th.

Review | The Myopia, An Epic Burlesque of Tragic Proportion | Written and Performed by David Greenspan | Directed by Brian Mertes | Foundry Theatre

The Myopia, an epic burlesque of tragic proportion, written and performed by David Greenspan, directed by Brian Mertes, The Foundry Theatre

David Greenspan, photo Jon Wasserman

David Greenspan has all the characteristics of a fine performer — he’s charming, is an excellent actor, has an expressive voice and body, and is an exceptional impersonator, but what makes what he does essential to see is that he’s so smart.  He “gets” everything, just like you do.  It’s so satisfying — and validating!  You feel in your heart yes, I understand, yes, I know just what you mean.  At last!

Whether he’s delivering on the words of Aristotle, or Gertrude Stein or his own Myopia, his subject is that thinking matters and his delivery follows the rhythms of awareness: it’s irresistibly fascinating to watch him do it and share it with you.

In The Myopia, there’s a stage, a chair, a bottle of water, and David Greenspan.  That’s all that’s needed for worlds to open up for you — and the ones he chooses are often preposterous and totally liberating.  It’s a varied, exciting cosmos with unexpected events and rich characters evoked through description, “Light illuminates Warren G. Harding, immobile, seated in an easy chair in his room in the La Salle Hotel, Chicago, June 12, 1920,” and through impersonation — you’ll find Carol Channing engaged in vital conversation in The Myopia.  You believe he’s who he’s impersonating even though he makes no attempt to look like that person: in a riff, I could have sworn I heard Al Jolsen’s rising tenor.

To the extent that there’s an easily stated subject, The Myopia is a quest to understand the truth and power of drama and some episodes involve a playwright hiding out in the bathroom (what can one say? — it is hard for writers to get the isolation they need).  The play, or maybe it’s a musical, is about how Warren Harding became President on a wave of corrupt politics (How’s that for a musical?).  In spite of Herculean efforts on all fronts by the guy with the typewriter in the bathroom, the authorship is in doubt since an electronic orb resembling my roomba (robot vacuum cleaner) named Barclay also claims in his R2d2 voice to be writing it (or is the author Barclay’s father?).  I found the orb ridiculous (I even got a little bored with it) but never with the overall stream of brilliant consciousness that is David Greenspan.  He overcomes the loneliness that separates humans — a definition and achievement of great art.  When it’s over, you’re already looking forward for the next chance you’ll have to share Greenspan’s vision, bridging the impossible — to see another’s inner view outward, through his eyes, his myopia.  Congratulations to the Foundry Theatre and Melanie Joseph, Artistic Producer, for bringing us this outstanding writer and performer in an essential event.

It’s not surprising that Greenspan is taken by Aristotle on the art of theater, and Gertrude Stein’s stream of consciousness: in his dramatic readings of their works, you see the writer figuring it out.  Weekends during the run of The Myopia, you can see it as a “double feature” in combination with his Plays, a lecture by Gertrude Stein (his earlier production reviewed here February 2009).  See both.

The Myopia plays at the Atlantic Stage 2 in Manhattan’s Chelsea, through February 7th.

Review | Coraline | Music and Lyrics by Stephin Merritt | Book by David Greenspan | Based on Neil Gaiman’s novel | Directed by Leigh Silverman | MCC Theater | Lucille Lortel Theatre

The novel is an international best seller, the movie has grossed over $80 million, there’s a movie tie-in edition, a movie collector’s edition, a graphic novel, a visual companion, and a video game, and now a brilliant group of New York theater people have produced a musical play.

This makes sense.  This production, however, in its intense and imaginative focus on the weird visual effects and surrealistic juxtapositions, loses somewhat the thread of the human story.

Coraline — like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, the Darling children in Peter Pan, Clara in The Nutcracker — escapes the world of busy grown-ups and their rules for fantasyland.  For Coraline, adventure lies in an apartment on the other side of a magic door — like Dorothy’s mirror — from her own.

Past that door everything — furniture, Mother, Father, stray occupants — are the same but not quite the same as what she’s left behind.  At first, the differences spell “freedom.”  The Other Mother will give her everything she wants!  Wow!  But the dark side emerges, the Other Mother is a soul-stealer, ghostly children with button eyes appear, her previous conquests.  She kidnaps Coraline’s true parents.  The Good Witch of the North is really the Wicked Witch of the East.

How will Coraline escape and free her parents?  Through a clever game, with the help of a black cat and a special stone.  I think.  At least that’s what I heard mentioned.  But I never really saw how it happened.

How Coraline succeeds in tricking the wicked Other Mother is lost amidst the extravagant visuals, and some arbitrary magic.  Solutions are handed over too easily to special effects.  Coraline, the story, already deemed a classic, is about working out problems for oneself, and coming to appreciate sometimes humdrum loving parents, and love as we have it in our bothersome real world.  It’s a story of growing up, and we need to see that.  But the production skimps on the psychological development and that, even amidst the clever moments, limits ones engagement.  Coraline is smart at the start and smart at the end, and that’s about it.

Still, there are extraordinary images and witty word play, as well as sophisticated disjunctions that provoke big laughs.  Jayne Houdyshell as a mature actress and a convincing pre-teen Coraline at one and the same time is an ongoing fascination, and for this surreal production, a brilliant choice.  David Greenspan plays unforgettably the defeated Other Mother falling down a deep well for a very very long time — I wouldn’t mind seeing the play over just to see him do that again.  Julian Fleischer as the mature, thoughtful, upright talking cat makes the slinky ones in “Cats” seem really tacky.  The songs are wonderfully rhymed;  they’re hilarious, a highlight.

Coraline, a production of MCC Theater, plays at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in NYC’s West Village through July 5th.

Review | David Greenspan performs Gertrude Stein’s Lecture PLAYS | Foundry Theatre | Cherry Lane Theatre

… intelligence at work …

There is a theatrical genius among us:  David Greenspan. On two Mondays in February this charismatic actor and writer performed Gertrude Stein’s lecture about plays as a monologue, Greenspan/Stein.  He characterizes her without imitating her.  How?  By finding the thought processes that lie behind the words and conveying them through his expressions, rhythms, changes of pace and gestures.  The audience concentrates intensely.  The effect:  Stein’s muddy though purposeful lecture takes on the suspense of an action thriller.

Stein peppers her sentences (to the extent they are sentences) with the creative holy grail of the early 20th century — the search for essence.  She’s in harmony with her friends, Picasso and Matisse, and their search for essence but there’s a big difference:  they succeeded, expressing the essential through new modes of abstraction.  Stein didn’t have the creative capacity herself to do for words what the painters did for the visual arts, though she set a challenge for others.

In the new modern painting, telling a story and expressing essence were totally opposed.  In this Lecture, and elsewhere, Gertrude Stein, seeking a comparable purity for her writing, subverts her own narrative.  She also gives herself over to a stream of consciousness style that reflects contemporary interest in ongoing process, and in new psychoanalytic ideas.  These features make her writing hard to follow, to the ridiculous at times — this is an amusing theater piece — but they’re driven by hot, revolutionary convictions with continued import that Greenspan makes accessible by conveying her thoughts-in-motion.

In contrast to Plato who wrote dialogs, Aristotle wrote his philosophy straight yet recently Greenspan performed a monologue of Aristotle’s writings about theater, from the Poetics, that was as intensely dramatic — and deeply moving — as any play I’ve seen.  It was something of a shock.  But, yes, intelligence at work to create ideas is drama — that’s what Greenspan reveals.

Watch what this remarkable theater personality does next!

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