Monday, June 8, 2009

Last Week in Theater

Last week was filled with performances for Catherine and me to attend—so many, in fact, that we weren't able to see them all. I was particularly disappointed that we had to miss The Centrifuge's Fresh Ground Pepper on Parade Friday night: unfortunately, it was raining that evening and we already had tickets for another show at 9:30—if I'd just been going home afterward, the idea of a 3-hour traveling adventure through the East Village, even in the cold and damp, might have been fun.

On Thursday night, we were on the Upper West Side for Zakiyyah Alexander's 10 Things to Do Before I Die at Second Stage's McGinn/Cazale Theater. The play shifts back and forth between the lives of two sisters: Vida, the older one, is a high school English teacher who has a knack for getting into relationships with men who can't or won't commit to her; Nina, a novelist struggling with her second book, is in the enviable position of having the perfect boyfriend who would like nothing more than to get married and take care of her. After years of not speaking to one another—Nina included personal observations about her sister's sexual relationships in her first novel—they are forced together again when they receive ten boxes of their late father's personal effects and must comb through their "inheritance". While there are no surprises in the piece—I felt pretty certain well before the act break that all of the plot points would have a satisfying resolution—it's a clever, funny and very sweet script: it might easily have fallen into a Lifetime movie-of-the-week formula but didn't. I can see this play doing incredibly well in regional theater—smart writing, an engaging story and really plum acting roles for two women and three men. This production is nicely staged by Jackson Gay although many of the transitions between scenes took a little too much time and made the evening feel longer than it actually was. All of the actors, without exception, give strong performances but especially Natalie Venetia Belcon and Tracie Thoms as Vida and Nina and Francois Battiste as Nina's boyfriend, Jason.

Catherine and I had seen a previous incarnation last year of The Bang Group's ShowDown at Joe's Pub but we try to never miss their performances here in NYC; as ususal, they didn't disappoint. Choreographer David Parker has an incredible gift for infusing his modern and ballet vocabulary with popular musical theater styles—usually tap dance—into which he subtly hints at relationships between his dancers' characters. Most often, this is manifested by one dancer attempting to reach out or connect to another only to meet resistance—but never outright rejection—from the partner. The drama in Parker's dance comes from the tension within a relationship and how the characters modify, ignore or employ the tension in order to gain control over a situation. In ShowDown, Parker has choreographed to the film score from Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun—a show tailor-made for his humorous explorations of power struggles within relationships. I'd actually love to see the piece in another venue at some point: the stage at Joe's Pub is relatively small and while the dancers do a remarkable job of fitting the choreography to the venue, I can imagine that a little more distance would augment the tension better. The company—Nic Petry, Amber Sloan and my very good friend and personal hero, Jeffrey Kazin—are incredibly gifted performers and make what is clearly very difficult and strenuous choreography appear effortless; they're a joy to watch. Bookending the show on Friday were short comic duets by Deborah Lohse and Monica Bill Barnes (to the accompaniment of recordings from one of Johnny Cash's prison concerts) as a pair of vaudevillian deputies in long red underwear and leather vests (our friend Nomi referred to them as "the rodeo clowns," which I thought was an apt description).

Saturday night took us out to The Chocolate Factory for an evening of lab works from director David Herskovitz and his Target Margin Theater, The Theater of Tomorrow. All of the productions in the lab were non-naturalistic plays written during the first half of the 20th century. David adapted and directed Gertrude Stein's A Family of Perhaps Three for three women—Chinasa Ogbuagu, Allison Schubert and Indika Senanayake. In the original work, a third-person narrator tells us about a family of at least a mother and two daughters—the narrator is either unsure of the details or is having trouble remembering them. It's a piece about the connection of family and how those relationships change over time. Of course, it's Stein's use of language, not plot, that drives the piece—how she modifies a phrase, then contradicts the modification, then splices both phrases together to give the text an entirely new meaning. By dividing the text between the three women, Herskovitz has introduced different voices, spatial relationships and vocal inflection into Stein's poetry; I wouldn't say it makes the text any clearer but it definitely provides the audience with a point of entry and a context for her words. In what may have been one of the most arresting images I've seen onstage this year, the show begins with Ogbuagu sitting silently, looking out at all of us in the audience; after a very long moment, she opens her mouth ever so slightly as if she is going to speak... and then quickly shuts it and sits looking out at us again for another long moment: a brilliant opening that established the self-correction and textual contradictions that will follow. The actors all do a great job; I especially enjoyed the contribution of "Sound Demon" Caroline Kaplan, who sits upstage center running sound cues from a computer and contributing vocally from time to time during the piece: she has a pinpoint focus on the other characters whenever possible that complemented the linguistic gymnastics very well.

Later that same evening, we returned to the Chocolate Factory for two more short pieces: E. E. Cummings' Tom, adapted for puppet theater by Kathleen Kennedy Tobin; and Edna St. Vincent Millay's Aria da Capo, adapted by Asta Bennie Hostetter and Julia Jarcho. The Cummings piece is from a ballet based on Uncle Tom's Cabin; I enjoyed Tobin's puppet work—which runs the gamut from naturalistic representations of characters to dramatic abstractions—but the text itself really didn't engage me. For the Millay, the adaptation is extremely silly—often a bit too silly, I thought—but it is visually engaging and the three performers (Hostetter, Jarcho and Julia Sirna-First) have a lot of enthusiasm and energy that held my attention throughout the piece.

Finally, on Sunday, we saw Naomi Wallace's Things of Dry Hours at New York Theatre Workshop. It's a very smart and beautifully written play about a Depression-era African-American Sunday School teacher and Communist organizer, Tice Hogan, in Alabama. He and his daughter, Cali, must take a mysterious young Caucasian man, Corbin Teel, into their home; neither Tice nor Cali completely trust Corbin Teel (they invariably call him by his full name, making the words seem like an accusation or a curse), but he threatens to turn them into the authorities for Tice's organizing if they don't allow him to stay. Wallace's very poetic, but still naturalistic, dialogue prolongs some scenes a bit too much—especially when Tice must explain The Communist Manifesto to the uneducated Corbin Teel—but, for the most part, her use of heightened language is able to ramp up the tension, as well. The play is exceptionally well-served by the actors Delroy Lindo and Roslyn Ruff: they are both powerful performers and are able to make Wallace's words seem competely natural. Garret Dillahunt, as Corbin Teel, manages to walk the thin line between presenting himself as someone honestly in need of Tice and Cali's help and a sly villain awaiting his opportunity to strike at them. The play is at its most alive in the scenes between Dillahunt and Ruff in which the sexual tension between their characters is counterbalanced by Cali's deep distrust of this intruder into the safe haven she has created for herself. Ruben Santiago-Hudson's direction of the actors serves the script well; I'm not a big fan of blackouts between every scene—especially in this production, it slows the pace too much—but I know I'm in the minority on that point: almost every performance I see these days leaves me sitting in the dark more than I would like. Still, it's a good production of an outstanding play with three very talented actors: head on down to East 4th Street and check it out.

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