Thursday, January 22, 2009

This Week (or So) in Theater

I started to say that we haven't been to the theater very much during the last week: only 3 shows in the past 8 days. Then I realized that some people might think that's quite a lot. We had expected to see This Ambitious Orchestra last Wednesday at the Zipper but the theater closed suddenly (no joke: Benjamin got the word on Tuesday night, scrambled and was able to get booked into Galapagos for an 11pm show Wednesday night). We'd also toyed with the idea of seeing the Big Apple Burlesque (Honey Birdette is a friend) but opted to postpone until next week; ditto The Living Theatre's revival of The Connection, which runs until the February 13th.

So what did we see, you ask?

Tuesday last we saw two works-in-progress in HERE's Culturemart festival. Culturemart shows are usually double bills, which some might see as a two-for-one situation (or, if you're me, as a you-mean-I-gotta-wait-around-before-I-can-see-the-show-I-actually-came-to-see situation); fortunately, since these are not finished works, they're pretty short and the HERE tech staff does a great job of making the changeover very quick and painless. The first selection was both short and engaging: The Venus Riff, a dance piece by Johari Mayfield. It is, as the title states, a riff on cultural stereotypes and African-American women's body images using Saartjie Baartman (the "Hottentot Venus") as a starting point: a series of dance vignettes to illustrate how society has viewed these women over the last 100+ years. It's an interesting idea and Ms. Mayfield is a good performer but a few times during the short piece I found myself thinking that an idea hung around a little long without being amplified or even modified. Still, I liked her work and I'll be interested to see how it develops from here.

The second piece—the one we did come to see that evening—was AmazingLand by Geoff Sobelle, Trey Lyford and Steve Cuiffo and it definitely lived up to its title. The work is still in the very early stages of development so I'm not sure where they're planning to take the idea: basically, it's a vaudeville and magic show performed by three 1970s swinger-wannabes (they wore polyester jackets, ties, and shaggy-to-long-haired wigs with pornstar moustaches to match). There's almost no dialogue and yet the three different characters are incredibly clear—partly because the actors are distinctive types but more because they're all very good. They perform a series of illusions and sleights-of-hand, individually and together: card tricks, passing objects, mind reading. What makes AmazingLand stand out from an ordinary magic show is the rhythms they can create when performing the tricks as a group: together, the three artists create a musical, almost dance-like quality that is utterly incredible; in this sense, having it share the same bill with The Venus Riff was a great choice. I look forward to seeing the next stage in the evolution of this project.

On Saturday, we headed uptown to Manhattan Theater Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theater for Richard Greenberg's The American Plan. Set on a lake near a Catskills resort, it's an odd little story about a young woman, her relationship with her eccentric German mother and with two young men who show up at their lakeside home during the summer of 1960 (with a final coda scene that takes place in NYC 10 years later). There's a surprising plot twist early in Act II that I won't divulge (well, there was an audible gasp and lots of mumbling from much of the audience; it didn't really surprise me but I wasn't anticipating it, either); apart from that, I was curious to see where Greenberg would take the story without being all that engaged (unlike the gentleman to my left who may have been a critic and was clearly irritated by the play). I thought there were a few interesting ideas about homosexuality in the years before Stonewall but they didn't really go anywhere. It's possible that all of the interviews that Catherine, Ralph and I conducted with Off Off Broadway artists who were discovering their own sexuality during this same time period just set the bar too high: I couldn't help but compare their stories with the one onstage and they all seemed more interesting than what Greenberg was offering. The performances are all respectable and Mercedes Ruel, as the mother, toed the line between domineering and just plain crazy (and had a pretty decent German dialect, too). The set, which features an enormous, ramshackle dock on a revolve (so that scenes could be done on different sides of the dock but always have the actors downstage center), did not, fortunately, slow down the play as much as it might have done.

Finally, on Monday, we saw our friends Concrete Temple Theatre's The Whale at the Barrow Street Theater. The play is is a one-man adaptation of Moby Dick by Renee Philippi and Carlo Adinolfi, directed by Renee and performed by Carlo. The piece is about an hour long so obviously a great deal of Melville's text has been omitted and the story pared down to a few key images and essential plot points. Still, Renee and Carlo have retained a fair amount of the poetic language from the novel, which Carlo delivers almost onomatopoetically to the accompaniment of crashing melodies and soundscape by composer David Pinkard. The production highlights Carlo's particular skills as a dancer—each of the characters he creates are as recognizable by their movements as by their voices—and as a puppet/model maker. There are several instances when perspectives shift quickly from life-sized to miniature, as when Ishmael is narrating the famous opening lines (which occur, intriguingly, a few minutes into the piece), then the scene shifts to the model Pequod setting sail and, finally, to tiny whaling boat puppets (with working oars that Carlo manipulates) sent off in search of the great whale. Throughout the performance, Renee and Carlo have played with the theatricality of the story and employed a variety of theatrical devices to help them tell it: several objects serve multiple uses, like harpoons that do double-duty as crutches or a full-sized whaling boat that eventually becomes Moby Dick himself. I'd seen a workshop of The Whale a few years ago before Concrete Temple took it to Edinburgh but this was my first opportunity to see the full performance; it's a remarkably clever and engaging production and I hope more people will have an opportunity to see it.

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