Thursday, September 4, 2008

Recent NYC Theater

Since I've left the Road to the White House temporarily, I'll share with you my opinions on some performances I've attended recently. There have been three in particular that I found especially noteworthy—two are still running, one was in the FringeNYC festival which ended two weeks ago.

The Fringe show, Eagle Squadron, GO!, was a delightful little comedy in the style of a 1940s wartime melodrama. It's not really a parody because the writer, Garrett Scott, has done an excellent job of creating a script that might conceivably have been made during WWII—the kind of "B" movie that Ronald Reagan would have done—and it's his attention to how the characters, plot devices and clichés are used that make the play work. Director Kevin Thomsen, on the other hand, has the enviable task of unleashing his cast of 9 actors (playing some 50 or 60 roles) on this material and encouraging them to chew the scenery for all they're worth: they weren't just acting, they were ACT-ING! The production made the most of the limitations of festival performance—set up and strike each performance in 10 minutes, minimal or no storage backstage for sets and costumes, no budget—and delivered a fast-paced 2 hours that cleverly evoked locations ranging from bombers flying high over France to the streets of London during a blitz to a ritzy nightclub in the West End using little more than 6 chairs and 3 tables. The acting was overall pretty strong—a few weak dialects here and there, as is often the case in Off-Off productions; my favorite (and, because he's my friend, the main reason I went) was Mark Finley's turn as the teenage girl fighting in the French Resistance. I don't know if they're planning to mount this piece again, but I think it definitely deserves to find a larger audience.

For the third year, the Spiegelworld has returned to the South Street Seaport. The 2008 edition features two spiegeltents erected in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge offering three productions: the return of Absinthe and La Vie from past years and a new addition, Desir. Catherine and I have seen other performances at the tents in past years but had not yet seen the main events. From what I can tell, the three shows are very similar—circus-style acrobatic acts performed in the intimate theater-in-the-round. Where they differ is the amount of sexual content: Absinthe is apparently R-rated, La Vie is PG-13 I guess and, in my opinion, at least, Desir is PG (the costumes are suggestive without being particularly revealing, no one simulated any kind of activity and the relationships between the performers are sensual rather than sexual—there were a couple of subtle hints at homosexuality, but definitely nothing overt). There's no plot to Desir: the performers exist in a dream-like world in which they explore their sensuality through their athleticism: on trapezes, using rings, with gymnastics. I thought Catherine put it very well when she said it reminded her of a burlesque: the first few performers are fun to watch but after a while it's all pretty much just variations on a theme. Fortunately, these acrobats are all incredibly talented and the production flows very smoothly so the evening very rarely drags.

For the pièce de résistance, this past Sunday we finally got up to the Cort Theater to see The 39 Steps. The script is taken virtually verbatim from the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film (long one of Catherine's and my favorites) and is performed by four actors playing all of the 20-odd roles. Sam Robards plays Richard Hannay, a man falsely accused of murder and desperately trying to stop a spy ring with secrets vital to Britain's defense. Like Eagle Squadron, GO!, the production uses minimal set pieces to evoke a wide variety of locations: a London musical hall, Hannay's apartment (and the street corner just outside—simultaneously), on top a moving train bound for Scotland, the Scottish highlands (complete with several brooks to be crossed). The sole female of the cast (performed quite well by understudy Claire Brownell at the performance we saw) plays three roles while Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders play... well, everyone else! Watching these two guys shift rapidly back and forth between numerous characters is both exhilirating and exhausting: in one scene, aboard the train stopped at a station, they perform no less than 3 characters each, involved in multiple conversations—with and without each other—in the space of 3 or 4 minutes. Virtually every major film in the Hitchcock canon gets at least a passing reference and they even manage Hitch's de rigueur cameo. It's a wonderful production by an extremely talented cast and great fun—don't miss a chance to see it onstage!

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