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

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Review | The Painted Rocks At Revolver Creek | Written and Directed by Athol Fugard | Signature Theatre

The World Premiere of a Superb Play

Nukain is an uneducated black farm laborer working in South Africa during the period of apartheid who has nothing of his own but a vision: he paints brilliant designs on bare rocks, creating beauty out of bare bones nothing. This stunning play presses forward with the intensity of a Greek tragedy.

Nukain lives in a pondok (Fugard uses words from the local languages effectively), a small shack made available to him by the Afrikaner landowner couple he works for, and he cares for a destitute, bright eleven-year old black boy, Bokkie, who helps the old man, dragging the wagon with the paints and brushes through the dusty red earth.  Nukain has painted his “flowers” on over 105 rocks  — Bokkie’s counted them – but on this Sunday in 1982, Nukain faces  “the big one,” a huge rough boulder, center stage, and we sense this is his final, great challenge.

Overcoming a reluctance to take this last one on, Nukain paints on the big rock his own story, his self- portrait: a man who has walked dark roads in search of work, overcome personal losses and those thrust upon him by the dehumanizing system of apartheid — to create himself.  I feel blessed to have seen this painting come into creation — reassured by the strong black hand print in the center, and moved by the rainbow at the top.  Nukain is a life-affirming man.

Elmarie, the sweet. young Afrikaner wife, kindly brings some food up to them (left overs, but they look tasty), but her brutal edge springs open like a switch blade at a sign of challenge from either of the two blacks — and she senses a challenge in Nukain’s painting of his story as a man on the big rock.  “Hose it off,” she tells Bokkie.  By this point in the play, the very thought of destroying the painting is beyond bearing – for Bokkie and the audience.

The second act, taking us years ahead to 2003 and the post-apartheid period, brings an encounter on that same dry piece of earth between Bokkie, now a grown man with a real name, Jonathan, and Elmarie.  Post-apartheid, Jonathan’s arc has swung upward and Elmarie’s is in sharp descent.  He wears a suit and tie and leather shoes (slung over his shoulders – a touch of Nukain’s wisdom),  he’s educated and a high school principal, with ideas of someday writing his story.  Elmarie and her (now ill) husband, are living in a state of siege as blacks, seeking to appropriate land, have been murdering white landowners including Elmarie’s neighbors.

Nukain had died all those years ago and three days after completing his work on the big rock.  The light reference to Christ’s three days in the tomb suggest, I think, a spiritual living on for the uneducated, profound creator artist that is fulfilled as the play unfolds.  As for the painted rocks, out in the open, Nukain’s rock paintings, including the self-portrait of his story, have faded.  Jonathan has returned, he says, to restore Nukain’s paintings from the effects of weather and time, but that’s only part of the story.

To the extreme, self-interest and history separate Jonathan and Elmarie , but an underpinning of common humanity keeps them talking.  Nukain does, in a sense, live on.

Leon Addison Brown brings a towering dignity at war with a survivor’s servility to the role of Nukain.  Thirteen-year old Caleb McLaughlin, playing young Bokkie, is totally focused on studying, helping and learning from Nukain and each instant of the action, inner and outer, is reflected in his face and body.

Bianca Amato is so charming as the young Elmarie, though sure she’s boss,  that it’s remarkable to see her shift to the older Elmarie, protecting herself with a gun on the ready, ravaged by events, struggling to maintain her ideology of Afrikaner entitlement, while responding to Jonathan, a man of the new South Africa.  Sahr Ngaujah plays the role of the adult Bokkie, proud of his nation though troubled by excesses, seizing his manly place in the world.

Fugard based his play on a true story of an African farm laborer, Nukain Mabuza, who painted a garden of rocks in the region of South Africa in which the play takes place during the late 1960’s and 1970’s; the play’s narrative and characters are invented. First taken up by Fugard years ago, The Painted Rocks At Revolver Creek was completed through a commission of the Signature Theatre, which has produced other works by this prolific and powerful playwright, including The Train Driver and Blood Knot.  As my companion at The Painted Rocks remarked, it’s high time Fugard was considered for a Nobel Prize.

For a fascinating background article, with photographs of Fukain and his painted garden, see The New York Times Sunday, May 3, 2015.  The one book about Nukain, The Painted Stone Garden of Nukain Mabguza by F. C. Clarke, seems not to be currently available.

The largest issues of historic change and social justice, and the tragedies and ambiguities that accompany them, are made immediate through three “small” lives played out on a patch of rocky earth.  That scrubby piece of earth itself is a like character in the play, rendered with real earth and rock in Christopher H. Barreca’s hard-hitting scene design. Sitting in the front row, I sneezed from the dust, and was glad even that way to be a part of Nukain’s world.

This is a play that matters greatly.  Thank you, Signature Theatre, for helping to bring this superb play into creation.

The Painted Rocks At Revolver Creek plays at Signature Theatre on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through June 7, 2015.

Review | The Nomad | World Premiere | Book and Lyrics by Elizabeth Swados and Erin Courtney | Composed and Directed by Elizabeth Swados | Choreographer Ani Taj | Flea Theater

… nothing missed …

Teri Madonna and Friend Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

Teri Madonna and Friend Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

The opening afternoon of The Nomad was a cold winter Sunday: we made it from the subway to The Flea as falling snow cloaked everything in all-over veils of white to gray … and then the show began.  What a burst of color, brightness, and music, what delicious vibrance, as the play carries you to North Africa and its hot deserts.

With insistent percussive music saturated with North African overtones, theatrical effects to delight and astonish, and the superb performance of Teri Madonna in the lead role, it tells the story of Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904), a well-educated Swiss woman who left Europe to immerse herself in North Africa culture and the Sahara desert.  She dressed as a man for the freedom it afforded her, converted to Islam, married an Algerian, wrote about North Africa, and died in a flash flood and died at the age of 27.

The play, in a brief, intense time, takes us through the major episodes of Isabelle’s life.  Sydney Blaxill beautifully plays and sings Young Isabelle, breaking out of the cocoon of her life in Switzerland:  the Young Isabelle and the grown Isabelle are often on-stage together, the way our young selves are present in our adult lives.   We see Isabelle the overcoming the hazards of travel by ship, dazzled on her arrival in North Africa as we are through the vibrance of the scenes, and surviving the death and ceremonial burial of her mother who accompanied her.

Now alone, she finds a desert horse, her first friend in the new world, and her beloved companion – I loved him too as I think everyone in the audience did.  This comforting, nuzzling horse she rides is an open-work construction of what look like birth branches, moved choreographically by the ensemble.  Talk about suspended disbelief, this horse is a  real – or put it this way, he’s as real as the unforgettable horse in War Horse, and a full match in tenderness, strength and character.

L-R Ryan Neal Green, Glenna Grant, Teri Madonna, Ben Schrager Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

L-R Ryan Neal Green, Glenna Grant, Teri Madonna, Ben Schrager Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

Isabelle’s life purpose is to miss nothing – nothing in Algeria anyhow.  Through a series of episodes, we visit celebrations, funerals, murderous attempts, romantic love, brutality, tender moments, Colonial suppression, hookah parlors, and the flash flood in which Isabelle dies – an exotic panoply of North African culture and terrain.

Each episode is a distinct creation of free-flowing visual, musical and dramatic imagination.  There’s no blurring.  For each there’s different music and a different song – and that makes a remarkable twenty-two songs tracing the stages of Isabelle’s life, each a joyous pleasure.  And — what takes it far beyond a series of postcards — each episode brings us deeper into the central character of Isabelle.  What a bounty of imagination, brilliant theatricality and strong central character this show is!  What density!  What a gift!

Neil Redfield and Teri Madonna Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

Neil Redfield and Teri Madonna Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

Madonna is fascinating in the role of Isabelle, bringing a kind of rough toughness to the songs and characterization.  In addition to Sydney Blaxill as young Isabelle, Madonna is ably supported by a cast that includes Glenna Grant as her mother, Neil Redfield as Slimene, Ryan Stinnet as Vava, and a lavish, talented ensemble of fine singer-dancer-actors.

The Nomad is thought provoking, theatrically stunning, and introduces a compelling new character into the world of our collective imagination.

The Nomad plays at The Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca district through April 6, 2015.

Review | My Life Is A Musical by Adam Overett | World Premiere | Directed and Choreographed by Marlo Hunter | Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor, Long Island

It feels exciting and even uplifting to attend the first performance of a new show.  This one, My Life Is A Musical, has a cute idea, some amusing moments, and some fine performances from its principals and excellent ensemble players.  On the other hand, the characters are thin, the story loose with predictable outcomes, and the music uninventive.

What’s the cute idea?  Parker, who’s otherwise an uptight accountant, has a peculiar and lyrical trait:  he hears ordinary conversation as singing as in musicals, a quirk he hides because it makes him feel weird.  Like Jim Carrey in Liar Liar who can’t help telling the truth, Parker is mechanically locked in to a quirk he can’t help, leading to unavoidable — and potentially amusing — misunderstandings in his dealings with others.

Roped in to being the accountant for a touring rock group, Parker encounters JT, the bouncy girl who’s group manager and Zach, its main singer. Since Parker is introverted and inexperienced with girls, and is used to hiding the truth about himself, he doesn’t confess his love to JT.  Meanwhile, with his special gift for hearing songs everywhere, he’s feeding Zach songs based on everything from fragments of overheard conversations to the words in his own heart about his growing love for JT.  Sure, Zach’s great at putting a song across but he has no soul within to write one himself (an unkind satire of rock musicians that I take in with skepticism).  Anyhow, Cyrano de Bergerac–like, JT falls in love with Zach who’s singing Parker’s love songs

And Zach, played by Justin Matthew Sargent, is great at putting a song across and some of the most enjoyable moments of the show are when he’s playing and singing.  The songs and styles are spoofs on famous singers:  “I’m just an ordinary dog,” sings the gyrating Zach.

As Zach and the group rise to success because of Parker’s terrific songs (if only they were terrific, but they’re not), Randy, a music blogger who senses there’s something funny about the group’s sudden improvement, comes sneaking around in the guise of a suspicious detective to find out “the truth” about Parker and the group.  Randy, a spoof on “detectives you have known” from Sherlock Holmes to The Pink Panther and others in between, sings the song “What Have You Got To Hide” in the “Hernando’s Hideaway” style of covert excitement that’s enlivened many shows before.  Robert Cuccioli is theatrically commanding and archly funny as Randy, and the character lends itself to some engaging second act farce.

That’s a big improvement over what goes for humor in the first act:  I wish someone would explain to me why the phrase “It sucks” (variants he sucks, shethey…) used about eight times early in the show, gets a laugh out of the audience every time.  Why?

Howie Michael Smith as Parker who comes out of his shell in the course of the show has a couple of introspective songs that come near to poignant but since he’s the only even partly genuine character, the others being amusing but campy caricatures (Randy, Zach) or cliché (JT), the songs spin off into nowhere.  Generally the songs, though energetically performed, tend to blend in to one another.  Put another way, “one doesn’t leave humming.”  The singers are miked, which should be unnecessary for professionals, all the more in a small theater.

Early on Parker confesses his quirk of hearing conversation as music — too bad because, he says, “I don’t like musicals.”  In spite of a laugh or two, I don’t think this one would have changed his mind.

My Life Is A Musical plays at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, Long Island, NY through August 31.

Colin Waitt as Jesus and the cast. Photo Jonathan Hollingsworth

Review | The Mysteries, 52 Episodes From the Bible Written by 48 Playwrights | World Premier | Conceived and Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar | Dramaturg Jill Rafson | Featuring The Bats | Flea Theater

The Mysteries is one whopper of a project!

It’s an epic telling of the Old and New Testaments, referring to Medieval and later “mystery plays” of the life of Christ, 52 episodes more or less in sequence divided into three parts:  The Fall, The Sacrifice, The Kingdom.  Written by 48 playwrights, it’s performed by 54 actors who act, sing and

Sarah Keyes of the Angel Chorus. Photo Hunter Canning

Sarah Keyes of the Angel Chorus. Photo Hunter Canning

dance 78 parts or so in 5 ½ hours, all taking place on the relatively small performance space of the Flea, with the audience in touching distance of the actors, and not only that, it includes dinner! .

This is the third immersive play directed by Iskander at The Flea: first was These Seven Sicknesses  by Sean Graney, an interweaving of all seven extant plays of Sophocles (!) and next was Restoration Comedy by Amy Freed.  They feel like a trilogy though the subject matter isn’t continuous, but they all bear Iskander’s mark. The Mysteries is the least coherent of the three and not my favorite, but it’s remarkable for its ambition, it’s engagement with ideas, its remarkable degree of success, and the open arms it gives to the flow of highs and lows of the human condition — all with a focus on joy that comes through somehow even when things are not going well in the human epic.

It begins with a scene in heaven where we meet the lavish Angel Chorus that will be with us for the duration of the play, and witness Lucifer’s expulsion from heaven, something like in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  We encounter right off God, played by Matthew Jeffers:  he’s a fine actor — making expressive use of his face and voice and his whole body like a dancer, helping us see the way he takes things in and how he comes to his decisions.  Beyond that, he represents an original and powerful casting decision since he’s a dwarf — different from most everybody else but not in the way one expects, and raising interesting questions about the view that humans are made in God’s image.  He’s there at the beginning and there at the end — rarely in between, no surprise there:  the play would be less powerful and less coherent without this uniquely envisioned God.

We also meet the rebellious Lucifer in that first scene in heaven, played with dazzling cynicism by Asia Kate Dillon, and at the same time the angel Gabriel, played by Alice Allemano, who, obedient to God, in contrast to Lucifer, struggles valiantly trying to make sense out of God’s commands and following through on them.  These two, Lucifer and Gabriel, played by tall, striking women, fine actresses who resemble one another, hold the vast array together like bookends.

The scenes in the Garden of Eden are delightful, played, appropriately in the nude, by Jaspal Binning as Adam and Alesandra Nahodil as Eve.  Throughout the play, Biblical episodes are interpreted by the many playwrights in non-canonical ways and the first of these is brilliant:  the knowledge the first couple gain through their disobedient eating of the apple is — how to tell a good joke and how to enjoy one!

After a quick flip through a couple of other Old Testament episodes, including a moving dramatization of The Flood with the multitudes choreographed as drowning (I thought of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Flood), it turns out that only a small portion of the play is devoted to the Old Testament, with the emphasis, timewise and in numbers, on episodes from the life of Christ.

Allison Buck as Mary. Photo Hunter Canning

Allison Buck as Mary. Photo Hunter Canning

So, with intermissions that included, first a delicious vegan Mediterranean dinner handed to the audience by charming, talkative cast members, and, after Part II, desert (excellent baklava and tangerines!), the play wends its way through major moments of Christ’s life, from his birth to  the Virgin Mary (multiple and inconsistent unorthodox interpretations provided by several authors) onward.

The miracle of Christ’s resurrection of the dead Lazarus is vivid, scary and funny — the shrouds and semi-corrupted skin of those interred are  represented by wrappings of what appears to be toilet paper, referencing the repellent in a fascinating, appealing and hilarious way.  I felt sorry, though, for those whom Jesus didn’t resurrect, and they didn’t seem happy about it either.

On to the Passion of Christ, from the Entry into Jerusalem through the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, at times with relatively standard action — Peter actually denies Christ — and other times with less familiar takes — Judas betrays Christ because Jesus asked him to do it, Judas being unwilling (though he ends up badly anyway).   The play goes through conniptions assigning blame for Jesus’ death, not wanting to hurt anybody’s feelings, and that matter is left to confusion.

Karsten Otto as Joseph and Colin Waitt as Jesus.  Photo Hunter Canning

Karsten Otto as Joseph and Colin Waitt as Jesus.  Photo Hunter Canning

The Crucifixion is relatively straightforward, with Colin Waitt, who plays Jesus, conveying the human nature of Christ experiencing terror and pain.  And after that on to — according to what is said — Salvation, but it’s hard to see Salvation in what we’ve been witnessing except that the Angel Chorus proclaims it.  Based on what we’d seen, I thought that the play was about to end shortly before when God, absorbed with the problems of his Creation, wonders aloud who is He anyhow to be telling others what to do.

There are repetitions and generally one feels the play needs the kind of overall editorial vision for dramatic unity and intellectual coherence that it would get if it were single-authored.  The discrepancies in religious and philosophical points of view can be seen as expressive of the many ways of looking at the Biblical account of human history, but the narrative line meanders, so that The Mysteries is less compelling than, for instance, the seven plays by Sophocles treated by a single playwright in the equally ambitious These Seven Sicknesses.

In the category of “buyer beware”:  The Bible is run through the hoops of unorthodox and blasphemous interpretations.  Also there’s a lot of complete nudity.  My hunch is that many of the authors scripted nudity in their episodes so nudity loses the weight of meaning it can carry in theater.  It gets a little ho-hum.

In a time of many “90 Minutes And No Intermission” plays, and thanks to the idealism, ambition, talent, volunteerism and boundless youthful energy of The Bats, here’s one that’s big enough and long enough to provides a near total experience — talent, ideas, and joie de vivre. It’s somewhat unruly, and out of kilter in its consideration of the Old and New Testaments, but it’s spectacular, always visually fascinating, often exciting, and often powerful.

 Colin Waitt as Jesus and the cast. Photo Jonathan Hollingsworth

Colin Waitt as Jesus and the cast. Photo Jonathan Hollingsworth

The Mysteries  plays at The Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca district through May 25th, 2014.  EXTENDED with performances through July 14th, 2014.

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Review | And Away We Go by Terrence McNally | Directed by Jack Cummings III | World Premier | Pearl Theatre Company

… all the stage’s a world …

The back stage magic of And Away We Go makes me think of the wonderful song about a dogged and devoted itinerant theater group in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, “We Open In Venice” (“then on to Cremona …. and on to …. and on …”).  And Away We Go, too, is on the move — with the feel of a story about an equally valiant itinerant theater troupe only here the wanderings take them not just through Northern Italy but through time, back and forth.  This  imaginative, mind stretching extravaganza is beautifully pulled off by the Pearl Theatre group.

The play takes us behind the scenes from the Theater of Dionysos (not Dionysios as printed) in Ancient Athens to today, with stops at works-in-progress at the Globe in London and Versailles’s Royal Theater, and first productions of Chekhov and Beckett.  As we weave through time, through plays, and through personal as well as public dramas, the leading character is everywhere and anywhere the theater itself and the chancy, chaotic, demanding and disciplined process that makes plays happen.

An aspect that makes And Away We Go particularly strong is McNally’s inclusive vision of all who make “theater.”  Actors, directors, authors, mask makers, tech people, angels, artistic directors, food deliverers and audiences have roles.  No in-group snobbery here — fun is made of wannabe-a-part-of-it donors, and of everybody else — great fun, thanks to marvelous comic performers in the Pearl Theatre’s troupe!

There’s a total human inflection — theater as family, theater as loss of loved ones, theater as a tension between “advanced” plays and audiences who haven’t gotten there yet.

I wish that in roving through theater from antiquity, and from Russia to Coral Gables, Florida, McNally had included forays into the great theater traditions world wide.  I suppose “you can’t do everything,” but, in the spirit of what works and what doesn’t, the focus on the traditions you’d find in “A History of Western Theater” course came across as narrow.  I also found the AIDS episode seemed a somewhat forced inclusion.

In keeping with the joyous boisterous play, the set’s a riotous wonder of costumes, lights, manikins, and props — it’s a wonderful work of art in itself — and the costumes are entrancing.

At the start, each actor introduces himself or herself with personal and self-invented words — thus the theme that the great illusions are based on real people with specific lives and contexts is sounded — and never forgotten.  Since the play is a continuing flow of segues, it demands perfect timing, remarkable versatility on the part of the actors and comic and dramatic gifts.  Jack Cummings III firm hand on this non-linear romp through time and space is a directorial tour-de-force .

Micah Stock as the delivery man who doesn’t “get” Godot provides one among many comic high points.  Donna Lynn Champlin’s huge round eyes are hilariously expressive, whether she’s pushing a mop as a stolid Russian cleaning lady or catching up as a donor groupie in-love-with-theater.  Dominic Cuskern ranges with power and humor from a perfectionist mask maker in ancient Athens to perfectionist actor at Louise XIV’s Versailles — ever since I saw him as Malvolio in the Pearl’s Twelfth Night, I’ve thought of him as particularly outstanding in roles of men who take themselves too seriously.

Rachel Botcham is vibrant (as well as humorous — just about everything comes with a strong dose of humor) as the woman who wants to act on stage — in epochs when the idea of a female actor was an absurdity.  Carol Schultz is touching and instantly persuasive as, for instance, the Russian Countess who doesn’t want her association with a theater group known.  Sean McNall is energetic and touching in his roles as actor and actor’s lover.  These are just snippets — this play’s a feast!

The breadth of imagination of And Away We Go is invigorating.  This ambitious, perfectly fulfilled production is a fine evening of that challenging, joyous and essential aspect of existence — theater.

And Away We Go plays at the Pearl Theatre on Manhattan’s west side through December 15, 2013. Now extended through December 21, 2013.

L-R Danny Rivera as Pedro, Ariel Woodiwiss as Lena, Kathy Najima as Phyllis, Reg E Cathey as Pontius. Photo Hunter Canning

Review | Heresy by A. R. Gurney | Directed by Jim Simpson | Flea Theater

Heresy is topical, very funny, and totally enjoyable modern parable filled with references to today’s politics and based, roughly, on the life of Christ.  Some of the characters have Biblical names, like Mary for the mother of Chris, her idealistic, purist son currently in jail.  But Gurney’s a wonderfully surprising playwright so you can’t guess from that what to expect.

Gurney's Heresy at the Flea Theater

We’re in the office of Pontius, a government VIP whose preferred term of address is The Decider.  Mary and her husband Joseph, old time friends of Pontius from the roaring sixties (they call him Ponti, a nickname he feels is now beyond his dignity) are trying to get their now powerful friend to get their dreamy, off-beat son out of jail.  All the shenanigans are taken down on the computer by Mark (Tommy Crawford), an orderly intern (meaning : [1] he gives orders and [2] isn’t paid).  Matthew, Luke and John are nowhere in sight.

L-R Danny Rivera as Pedro, Ariel Woodiwiss as Lena, Kathy Najima as Phyllis, Reg E Cathey as Pontius. Photo Hunter Canning

L-R Danny Rivera as Pedro, Ariel Woodiwiss as Lena, Kathy Najima as Phyllis, Reg E Cathey as Pontius. Photo Hunter Canning

There’s a Kafkaesque search to find out just where in the vast and enhanced National Security bureaucracy Chris is being held.

L-R Danny Rivera as Pedro, Ariel Woodiwiss as Lena, Kathy Najima as Phyllis, Reg E Cathey as Pontius.  Photo Hunter Canning

Eventually he’s located and with the help of a gorgeous Venus named Lena (short for Magdalena) is rescued and — although we never set eyes on him — we can assume he’ll be OK for the short term: when it comes to ultimates, Gurney leaves things pretty open-ended.

Reg E. Cathey as Pontius and Annette O’Toole as Mary, Photo Hunter Canning

Reg E. Cathey as Pontius and Annette O’Toole as Mary, Photo Hunter Canning

All the actors, briskly paced by director Simpson, draw great satisfying laughs from Gurneys witty lines and ridiculous situations — played seriously as they have to be to be funny.  I particularly loved Kathy Najimy as The Decider’s dotty but not stupid wife — an enthused fulfiller of the great patriotic mandate to shop.  The expressions that cross her face reflect her thoughts with the accuracy and breadth of the great comic actors and she has the voice to go with it.  The most originally observed character is Mary, whom Annette O’Toole brings to vivid life as a skinny, intense remnant of  60’s  idealism (we see where her son gets it), ready to jaw with anybody.  Ariel Woodiwiss as Lena is seductive and cannily able to grasp what really matters to her man.  Reg E. Cathey as Pontius ponders with great authority as the not-so-decisive Decider.

There are a lot of laughs, yes.  But in one sequence the characters, speaking out of their individual viewpoints and personalities, tell what each of them would do for the sensitive, volatile Chris when he’s freed from prison, each having a different idea.  Gurney turns this, on the dime, into an inspiring moment — as in, seriously inspiring.  How he does it — I’d best leave it to you to find out when you see the show.  I was deeply moved.

L-R Steve Mellor as Joseph, Kathy Najimy, Reg E. Cathey, Annette O'Toole  Photo Hunter Canning  

L-R Steve Mellor as Joseph, Kathy Najimy, Reg E. Cathey, Annette O’Toole  Photo Hunter Canning

Claudia Brown’s outstanding costumes characterize the actors quickly in this fast farce, and enhance the play’s fascination.

Pontius wears a truly scary pair of black, knee-high boots.  Mary’s plaid drab button-down-the-front dress worn with purpley-fuschia tights characterizes not only the role but the 60’s epoch (Super-Earnest-Skip-The-Tie-Dye Type):  in motion, this is a geniusy costume worn by a terrific actress.  Phyllis’ claret red gown (it’s a little different from the photos) is absolutely Phyllis.

Heresy is a very refreshing play! 

Heresy plays at the Flea Theater in NYC’s Tribeca through November 4th.

Review | Looking at Christmas by Steven Banks | Directed by Jim Simpson | Flea Theater | World Premiere

News Flash 12/15/2011:  The Flea’s Romantic Holiday Comedy
Looking at Christmas Comes to TV
December 21 – 25 on Thirteen WNET

Thirteen WNET will air The Flea Theater’s acclaimed 2010 production of Looking at Christmas by Steven Banks (head writer of SpongeBob SquarePants) beginning December 21. Filmed live at The Flea last year, this romantic comedy set in front of New York’s famed holiday window displays is directed by Jim Simpson and features The Bats, The Flea’s resident company of actors. Broadcasts on Thirteen WNET are slated for Dec. 21 at 10pm; Dec. 23rd at 3am, and Dec. 25 at 11pm. Check your local listing for airdates in other markets.  Here’s the review (Dec. 2010 )

… Boy Meets Girl in front of Bloomingdale’s …

Looking at Christmas is a delightful romp through some of the world’s great Christmas stories with just enough bite to make it exciting — and hilarious.

John, a young writer who’s just been fired meets Charmian, a young actress with no audition call-backs, who charms him into accompanying her on their private Christmas Eve tour of NYC’s famous decorated Christmas store windows — Bloomingdale’s, Bergdorf’s, Lord & Taylor’s and then some — with a climactic finale at Macy’s.  After they move on to the next, the window they’ve been viewing comes alive: we get to see what John and Charmian saw and more — what the characters in the windows think and do about their lives in the stories they find themselves in.  All along the way Banks gives us amusingly irreverent views of iconic narratives — he’s a tv writer and the play shows that in its fast-paced episodic appeal, but you won’t quite see this on tv.

Mrs. Santa Claus — in the skimpy outfit we heard about from John and Charmian — allures an Elf.  The Little Match Girl rebels against Fate.  Tiny Tim in a metallic space suit lets Scrooge have it.  The spoof of the fabulous ice wonderland of Bergdorf’s windows, with an icy Princess and a Snowman missing some crucial parts, was one of my favorites.  We get the “true story” behind eight vignettes, with the last being … well, I’m not going to let the cat out of the bag — although you can find it on the Flea’s web page.  A couple of the episodes seem somewhat forced, but all are at the least entertaining.

We may not have known how much we wanted the characters in those detailed and tinseled store windows to come to life but Banks, a lead writer for SpongeBob SquarePants, did (not surprising when you think about it), and in Looking at Christmas  he fulfills our yearning.  As a friend said, John and Charmian’s exchange of gifts at the end echoes that of the couple in O’Henry’s Gifts of the Magi, one of the windows.  With that knowing stroke, the real world and the world of characters in our communal imaginations come together — on the real side of things.

Jim Simpson directs Banks’ witty script with verve and style.  Raul Sigmund Julia as Snowman, Christian Adam Jacobs as Elf, Holly Chou as the Little Match Girl struck me as nothing less than powerful in their humor, but all the actors, mainly from the Flea’s young resident company, The Bats, are about perfect in their roles, and their timing throughout carries the day.  The costumes are just right, the lighting and scenic relationship between the real world and the Christmas dioramas are effective — this play is a real Christmas present!

Looking at Christmas plays at the Flea Theater in NYC’s Tribeca through December 30.

Review | Looking at Christmas by Steven Banks | Directed by Jim Simpson | Flea Theater | World Premiere

The Flea’s Romantic Holiday Comedy
Looking at Christmas Comes to TV
December 21 – 25 on Thirteen WNET

Thirteen WNET will air The Flea Theater’s acclaimed 2010 production of Looking at Christmas by Steven Banks (head writer of SpongeBob SquarePants) beginning December 21. Filmed live at The Flea last year, this romantic comedy set in front of New York’s famed holiday window displays is directed by Jim Simpson and features The Bats, The Flea’s resident company of actors. Broadcasts on Thirteen WNET are slated for Dec. 21 at 10pm; Dec. 23rd at 3am, and Dec. 25 at 11pm. Check your local listing for air dates in other markets.  Here’s the review.

Review | Banished Children of Eve by Kelly Younger | Adapted from the Novel by Peter Quinn | Directed by Ciaran O’Reilly | World Premier | Irish Repertory Theatre

… only four days …

This is an important play about the effects on individual lives of the Civil War draft riots in New York City.  Since $300 would get you out of serving, it was easy enough to see the draft hit poor men unfairly, stimulating poor vs. rich antagonisms which, however, fast turned racial — setting poor Whites against Blacks.  During four days in July 1863, a Black man, woman or child could not walk the streets in safety or hide in safety, and many were murdered.  In  this play, the immigrant Irish represent the poor side of that equation.

The already beleaguered lives of a tiny acting troupe, currently playing a minstrel version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, are sent into spinning crisis by the violent riots.  Eliza, of mixed race, who’s been tolerated on stage, albeit with a feigned “Cuban” identity, is now threatened with death, as is the Black orphan she and her co-actor and lover, the Irish Jack Mulcahey, have taken in as their own and who’s learning the business.  Cohabiting with a Black woman, protecting a Black child — the livelihood and life of heavy drinking and deeply loving Jack is also at risk.

Their paths cross with Graeme Malcolm, a crook who involves Jimmy Dunnne, and Amanda, the Irish maid who has the keys, in a break-in theft of a rich man’s brownstone, plunging these young people into another kind of danger.

How are they all going to make it through?  Backstage at the theater is no longer safe.  Like Eliza crossing the ice, most of them cross the city to the tolerant-spirited artists’ hotel where Eliza and Jack stay, an uncertain refuge, made briefly sweet by an itinerant Stephen Foster, played with subtle feeling by Malcolm Gets, who, drinking too much, and near the end of his life, sings and plays his last and great song on the piano, “Beautiful Dreamer”.  This fragile respite is broken when Malcolm discovers this mixed bag of Blacks and Whites at the hotel.  How will he use for his own crooked purposes what he knows about their location and relationships?  In the worst way possible.  Throughout the play one empathizes with the characters:  if only you can stay alive until this wave of rioting passes you’ll be OK.   If only.  Not everyone does.

And speaking of Uncle Tom’s Cabin …  in the wonderful play-within-a-play, the anguish and grace Amber Gray brings to Eliza’s flight across the ice, and David Lansbury’s moving passion in George’s plea — and encomium to freedom — make one want to see that play, too (the most often-produced play of the 19th Century;  I’ve seen Uncle Tom’s Cabin only once in the Mint Theater’s unforgettably fine production).   Patrice Johnson plays the Black fishmonger, Euphemia Blanchard, with a fascinating combination of knowingness, violence and musicality in her African/Caribbean patois, though I couldn’t always understand her.  Christopher Borger is touching and versatile as Squirt, the street toughened but tender boy Eliza and Jack love as their own child.

History comes alive in the powerful, magnificently acted and beautifully designed Banished Children of Eve.  Its second act happens too fast, I’d have liked a fuller resolution, but this fine play reminds one of what theater really can be.  See it.

Banished Children of Eve plays at the Irish Repertory Theater in NYC’s Chelsea district through December 5th.

Review | John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night | Adapted by Matt Pelfrey | Directed by Joe Tantalo | World Premiere | Godlight Theatre Company

If you want an electric evening of theater, see In the Heat of the Night.  It’s an exciting detective murder mystery story, enlarged by its vivid, shocking portrayal of what it meant to be a Black man in the deep South in the 1960’s.  The play could not have a more dramatic presentation than the production at 59E59 Theaters where the audience, two rows deep, sits on four sides of the square stage.  You can’t get away from the action and — grim as it can be — you don’t want to.

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