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

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

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

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 McDonald’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.

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. 

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.

Franklin’s x-ray diffraction photograph, number 51, played a key role in defining DNA’s structure, and its evidence was used by Watson and Crick in their article in Nature Magazine in 1953 in which they introduced the world to the double helix and other key structural aspects of DNA, the building block of life.

For a time, the play seems to be about why Franklin didn’t get the prize with some implication that it had to do with the obstacles in her path as a woman scientist in the 1950’s.  We see her arriving from France, where she’d established her reputation in x-ray diffraction photography, to Kings College, London where she struggles to maintain independence over her scientific project of photographing a particularly promising sample in DNA research, and also to resist — at other times absorb — slights from her colleague, Kevin Collins, because she’s a woman.  In spite of the interpersonal flack, she’s driven to achieve, missing meals, missing sleep, and heedless even of dangerous x-rays inherent in her photographic technique.  And she succeeds.

Through her persistence and by making significant improvements to her photographic equipment, she captures on film images of DNA, finally reaching with photograph 51 a clear picture of the famous X which we now know is a cross-section of the double helix.  She didn’t know that then.  The issue is:  how to interpret the X form.  She ponders, and also resists, the idea of a helix, seeking more definitive evidence.  Meanwhile, through the “old boys network,” Watson and Crick, at another laboratory, get a look at photograph 51 and immediately link what they see in it to the theories they’ve been developing about DNA.  The photograph becomes a significant part of the evidence in their first Nature article, which led them ultimately to the Nobel Prize.

The question is often asked, “Why wasn’t Rosalind Franklin awarded the Nobel Prize along with Watson and Crick?” with an assumption that it had to do with her being a woman, and that Watson and Crick had understated her contributions and more or less pushed her out of the way.  I learned, however, from a scientist who attended the performance with me, that she could not have shared the Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick, awarded in 1962, because she died in 1958, tragically at age 37, and the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously.

Would she have won the Prize along with them had she lived?  One can’t be sure.  She experienced difficulties as a scientist because she was a woman but she succeeded in doing what she wanted as a scientist.  She was the first to make the defining photograph of the double helix but didn’t know what she had, or didn’t know for sure.  Watson and Crick, more theoretically minded, and working as a team, were the first to grasp the meaning of her photograph for revealing the structure of DNA.

The stories of the discovery of DNA and of being a woman scientist in the 1950’s, though intertwined, are ultimately separate, and the mixed focus of the play to some extent dissipates its power — we thought we were going here but we end up there.  Never mind — superb acting, with the focal role of Franklin beautifully played by Kristen Bush, fine writing with exceptionally smart and witty dialog, marvelous set, importance of the subject matter, the high intelligence and thoroughness with which the issues are explored make this a thoroughly enjoyable and exciting play to watch, and one which continues to bring pleasure in thinking about after.

About the set by Nick Francone with lighting by Les Dickert which we see first, waiting for the play to begin.  The stage area is big, and very wide in proportion to its depth.  It’s designed in tones of grey, white and silver that are beautiful in themselves and suggest ideas such as the clarity and precision associated with science, its sought-for objectivity and its technology.  The overall shapes form a time-appropriate cubist symphony, with design touches that say immediately “’50’s art deco.”  Bottles and vials of the old chemistry are near and specific, and in the background is a magnificent abstract mural suggestive of crystalline structures.  The set’s a work of art worthy of being seen on its own.

Photograph 51 plays at the Ensemble Studio Theatre  on West 52nd Street in NYC through November 21.

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

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




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