A different Christmas twist? Many Christmas shows are about happiness and how wonderful life is. Christmas with a twist? From a talking Christmas sweater in The Illustrated Xmas sweater, directed by Janelle Zapata all the way through a post apocalyptic view of sex in Brocreation directed by Maria Aladren, featuring Darian Bencosme, Mateo Lamuño, Lacey Andreanszky, Sara Minisquero. , . a Night of Unusual Christmas Stories will put you on edge with devilish themes as in The Mall Satan,directed by Janelle Zapata, with Sara Minisquero and Samantha Gloven, Satan does exist in malls. These theater shorts are bound to sway your old fashioned views of Christmas. In each of the six shorts a bunch of great actors are pounding the boards. Comical Lara Fox will bring you to wonder how things can get so incredulously out of limits when she listens to a bizarre Xmas sweater in The Illustrated Xmas Sweater. Can the Invisible man get a lapdance? Sam Lopresti, Jason Michael Dick and Jazmyn Arroyo make the attempt despite missing parts in Lapdance for the Invisible Man also directed by Zapata. Becky’s Christmas Wish directed by Benjamin Abraham with Dana Searing and Gabriel Spector are not prepared for the usual childhood hopes revealed by little Becky. Black Lipstick, also directed by Abraham has another unusual plot with Yvette Chin and Vivian Aladren where the child gives permission to her mom for a night out but only if she dons black lipstick, evoking abomination and evil. These theater shorts bring awe and humor to a visionary view of this 2016 Holiday Season. By Joseph Leone
Reviewed by Robert Liebowitz
A play begins; a man speaks directly to the audience. He is middle-aged, bald, and frumpy, and we wholly expect a familiar or unfamiliar tale of woe to leave his lips. Not so. Within minutes, he has eagerly, in a quietly plaintive way, informed the gathering that he has kidnapped a young woman named Miranda right off the streets, and goes on to explain why he has done so.
Thus begins the odd but compelling play The Collector, adapted for the stage by Mark Healy, from John Fowles’ novel of the same name, at 59E59.
What compels the character, the perfectly creepy named Frederick Clegg, to do this? Not really sure. Clearly, no matter what he says, there will be no sympathy. He has committed an atrocious act, and hopefully, through the journey of the play, will suffer.
Mr Clegg, superbly played by Matt De Rogatis, has little going for him. Plain, humorless, a second rate ne’er-do-well who had the dumb luck of winning the Lottery, he has swept a young girl (the brilliant Jillian Geurts, matching her colleague line for line) off her feet, but in the worst sense of the world, because he purportedly loves her. How? He doesn’t even know her, except a few scant biographical anecdotes.
What is Fowles saying? Is love stupid? Is it shallow? Does it even exist?
As the characters learn about each other, and the threat of violence dissipates, Miranda’s character emerges and dominates the action, and one thing has become abundantly clear–Mr Clegg has received more than he bargained for.
After a kind of talky first act, the second act picks up the pace. Shortly, with quicker intercuts and the plot now humming along, the play rides to an appropriate conclusion (no spoiler here).
The subject matter might be questioned here, but there is no such hesitation regarding the two players, and their interplay with each other. It was masterful. DeRogatis, calm yet menacing, his voice rarely rising beyond normal stage speech, his accent perfect, his movement suave and dashing and pitiful and hopeless.
Guerts, like a trapped cat, looking, looking looking, using all her guile, her wits, her sexuality…the role requires all of this, and more, and Ms Guerts is more than up to the task.
The play is directed by Lisa Milinazzo with expert usage of the playing area, effortlessly guiding the two actors to deal with audience on three sides; perfect pace and rhythm as to the authors unwritten wishes. Really well done.
The work of the designers–all first rate and subtle, especially the original music composed by Sean Hagerty, which had the right combo of melancholy and menace. The point of all of it? Not sure…except be careful when you cross the street.
ROBERT LIEBOWITZ AND THE PARABLE OF THREE
AMY M. FRATEO, guest reviewer
Everybody’s a playwright. Every day there are new works appearing in festivals and black box theaters throughout New York – everything from 10-minute quickies to two hour tomes. That why it was gratifying to see a revival of some excellent works from the heyday of OOB.
This group of works was all written by Robert Liebowitz, a member of the off-off Broadway circuit for decades.
The series went backward like the Sondheim musical cult favorite, Merrily We Roll Along, kinda-sorta showing us who we are and why we are.
The first play, Seven Scenes of Grande Grande Blah Blah Blah, written just a few years ago, featured Kevin Hauver as a beaten-back administrator with nothing to look forward to except the mortality of a dear friend (maybe something more) and Molly Callahan as a snarky millennial with no patience for him. Mario Claudio brought up the rear as a coffee house server with miseries of his own. The meat of the matter was good, showing us a preamble of what the new world looks like to old people, with Callahan handing us the worst of the new generation and Hauver utilizing everything from brains to brawn to show her the error of her – and undoubtedly his – ways. The ironic use of seduction was obviously there to show societal ignorance as Callahan’s character announces early on that she is a lesbian. Joe Pitzvalty could have done more with staging especially the very funny and eloquent Claudio, whose character had the ability to move much more.
Bus Ride Home, a little longer and a little older (the 90s) gave us Cathy Noonan-Sturges and Ken Coughlin as a disenfranchised working class pair on their way from the ritual of going to Atlantic City. Pair and not couple as they are not married … to each other. The concept of an “affair of need,” common in many dramas these days (even British drama like Call the Midwife), is depicted with Coughlin quite engrossing as a civil servant in a life change. The surprise ending totally reversed the idea that Noonan-Sturges was the villain of the piece. Directed by Ioan Ardelian, the show maintained a dark slow pace that made really feel like we, too, were caught on this endless bus ride home.
Coulda Woulda Shoulda, obviously the main attraction was a powerful play about the people on the fringe and at OTB – a now extinct way of getting your gambling fix in NYC. The play – staged in noir no nonsense by Allan Smithee – gave us the last hours of the life of Allie Neiterman; played by TJ Jenkins, with engrossing desperation, as a once-high-roller, now nobody, who, with his slow-witted partner, Bobo, played with smile-inducing childlike detail by Ted Montuori, try for that last lucky win. The play, an obvious star vehicle for several character actors, played like a old-fashioned sermon on the mount with lines that run the gamut between smart cliché and deep parable.
The play, set in 1985, when connected to the others shows us the aging of the American dream and what it looks like today.
Tommy Sturges insinuated the concept of unwitting narrator well but the playwright should have altered the ethnicity of the role to fit Sturges own culture; not so with the flawlessly authentic Anthony J. Gallo, who moved, motioned, and mannered himself into a role that could have been written for him – down to the clever injection of Italian language toward the finale. The same can be said for the commanding Michael Ruocco, truly superb as the next level of degenerate gambler. He, too, gave us neighborhood guy in all its provincial detail. His inner world was all there in his eyes and was a strong juxtaposition to his goonish demeanor.
Serving as the big number was Jay Michaels as the monster-in-a-pinstripe suit, loan shark Barney Cutley. Michaels’ level of acting was truly powerhouse with a demonic first appearance that silenced the unwitting crowd – both on stage and in the audience – and then a tortured second appearance provoking the tragic finale where you saw a back-story in nothing more than his back. Michaels gave us a “Negan-esque” portrayal (see the Walking Dead to know what this means) with a sense of fulfillment at being the black-hat in this western.
Robert Liebowitz writes excellent dialogue and creates powerful and quite unique situations. Allan Smithee missed the mark by putting so much of the action in obstructed areas and let lots of sitting happen. Only Michaels seemed to utilize the well-planned set and stage.
Of the three parables this evening, Coulda Woulda Shoulda, stands as one for the ages. Something that should be seen more and more. Ironically, maybe the other two will also, when we become a period piece like the 80s is now. Regardless, the credible complement of character actors gave us a evening of real art and performance.
Comfort in Silence
Art is a many-splendor’d thing; on a practical matter it also comes with a list of requirements. One of those requirements is almost a pre-requisite : simply, go where no one has gone before. Go where are no footprints in the snow. Go, where no one has dared.
There is, at the heart of Comfort in Silence, a very beautiful play. Why? It explores out loud the endless possibilities, and the obvious obstacles, when someone who can hear falls for someone who cannot. It is a wonderful premise; it is due; it is overdue; it is fresh footprints in the snow.
Playwright Timothy Patrick Walsh has many tender and profoundly moving moments on stage; his character (Walsh serving double duty as the lead Patty) has met someone (Ray, superbly played with great humanity and understatement by Jose Vasquez) at a party, and when the play explores their courtship and subsequent difficulties, the Gods of Theater look down and smile from ear to ear.
Mr. Walsh has surrounded this tender love story with several cliches associated with the affairs of a gay man living in NYC. Patty is having a mid life crisis, and starts to see a therapist (a voice over). He is egged on and teased by his friend Stevie, adequately played by Christopher Springer, and his other friend Mary, portrayed with great humor by Katarina Vizina. Stevie is obviously gay, wayyyy too obvious. This is unnecessary, and employs clichés to punctuate that fact. Mary is a typical “fag hag,” hanging around gay men, without any rhyme or reason. They drink, they go to parties, they drink some more.
No one seems to work. No one has any issues or internal civil wars that needs to be addressed. No, just one care free time after another. This portrait of this homosexual lifestyle went out with The Boys in the Band, and that goes back to 1970.
The play is a stunning love story — the friends can supply color but with a lot less stereotype. Given the dramatic set up you have provided, the love story is enough and is a ride no one will soon forget.
On Film: THE WATCHTOWER
Allan Johnston, Guest Reviewer
Crime and criminals on television and film are always attractive, daring, even sexy. In other words … fictionalized. However, auteur Steve Silver has given us a riveting, unapologetic tome about what it really means to be a criminal.
The Watchtower, a new feature film, written, directed, and starring Mr. Silver (from his original play), is not a vanity piece as one might imagine since much of the spotlight is focused his way.
What we have a fascinating character study lensed in an old-fashioned style giving us a harder look. A brilliant touch when one meets the denizens of Hell’s Kitchen, in the 80s.
The premise is familiar. We are there at the end of an era. We see Irish and Italian mobsters trying to hold onto a piece of territory the only way they know how, through the eyes of one of their own – who’s not so sure he wants to be there.
And that is the unique part.
This film explores those who were involved in “that thing” … and why. You leave the theatre with a new understanding of what people needed to do to survive then … and even now.
It’s not surprising the level of power Silver himself brought to the role as one feels a sense of autobiography coming off his tense portrayal of of an Irish hood grieving over the effect this life has had on his family. It’s refreshing to see an ensemble share this level of power. Notables include D.J.Sharp, absolutely spot-on as a Russian immigrant who comes to America to be a success … and as a loan shark … he is; Thomas J. Kane as the Irish mob leader – possessing all the needed grit but with excellent acting chops; Ken Coughlin as a Mafia Don who understands what it means to be a Roman Emperor; Caroline Smith, understated as Tommy’s long-suffering wife; and Laurie Rae Waugh, engrossing as Tommy’s sister-in-law by day and a cold-blooded assassin by night.
Watchtower initiates a program under Silver’s command dedicated to putting powerful off-off Broadway plays on film.
If they’re all as good as this one, then we may see history being made.
Ms. Smith and Mr. Silver in the original stage production of The Watchtower.
Why Water Falls
“Always be closing”, exclaims a salesman in David Mamet’s ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, and Leigh Curran, author and performer of ‘Why Water Falls’, has taken that axiom to heart. After a slow start, Ms. Curran’s solo piece rumbles, and by evening’s end she has provided a solid one two punch of riveting theater.
After some necessary but confusing exposition (needed but…) the writing becomes concise and focused, and now, we know why we are here; we know what story Ms. Curran wishes to tell–she has aborted two pregnancies, and is having great difficulty living with the aftermath.
Ms. Curran is a first rate performer, an accomplished actress, and is able to call on all sorts of emotion that the play requires. There is a certain….polite confusion that hovers over the stage, and makes the character endearing. Most people are always heroes in their own stories, but not here. There is blame to go around for everyone, Ms Curran included. The play has a certain rhythm that is attractive and compelling; while one wishes that there was more humor on stage, Ms. Curran plays several different characters with expert ease, and makes a potentially difficult indecipherable journey an easy one to follow one.
Ms Curran’s life story is a compelling one, with dramatic highs and lows, and this is wonderfully captured on stage. Ms. Curran has ‘closed’ sucessfully, and has made her mark on this United Solo Festival with flying colors.
THE TEMPEST – PRESENTED BY IDENTITY THEATER
REVIEWED BY ROBERT LIEBOWITZ
Once in a great while, an evening in the theater becomes more than going to see a play, and even more than a theatrical experience. It transcends any and all art, and makes a statement, directly, about life itself. The last such event was in 2006, when the Classical Theater of Harlem produced Waiting for Godot, but set in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Rather than the two hobos passing their time near a tree, Vladimir and Estagon were seen clinging to life on a rooftop of a flooded home, as the infamous tree passed them by in the muddy Mississippi…and, as in the original story, no help was to be found. Godot was not coming. What an immensely creative interpretation, that was wholly relevant and heartbreaking.
The Identity Theater Company’s version of The Tempest offers a similar experience–an event that leaves the play, and theater itself, behind, and trespasses ever so wonderfully into the Universe of Things That Need To Be Said.
As a play, Shakespeare’s last, The Tempest is not much–trite, clumsy, silly, and forgettable. Set on a remote island, exiled sorcerer Prospero (remarkably played by Erin Mansur)plots to restore his daughter Miranda to her rightful place in court; he conjurers up a storm (the Tempest), to lure his usurping brother Antonio and his underhanded clan to the island.
Right. Who cares.
However, in this production, one must care. Several members of the cast have various and assorted disabilities, and the producers have masterfully woven them together seamlessly with other actors from the Shakespeare Forum; together they have provided this humble scribe with one of the most moving experiences in the theater, ever. It is must-see theater.
As the afternoon, wore on, it became abundantly clear what was going on–simply, a call for tolerance and open-mindedness. A third of the way through, enter Caliban, in a wheelchair. No one, in 400 years, has seen such a sight, or even thought of one. What an amazing sight it was. Once Nicolas Linnehan started speaking, everything stopped. There is no other word for it–stopped. Mr. Linnehan looked the part, sounded the part, acted the part, The wheelchair soon became just another level to the willing suspension of disbelief, nothing more. Would there be a wheelchair is such a scenario? Of course not. Did it matter? Of course not. Mr. Linnehan fit in perfectly, and now was just another actor portraying another Shakespeare hero (villain, actually), and all was right with the world. A man in a wheelchair was portraying a lead character in a play by the Bard, and no one really cared. And that how it should be.
The notes in the program asks–can Blanche DuBois be played in a wheelchair? Maybe, maybe not…but that is a matter for another place, another time. A Good house Seal of Approval must be stamped on this wondrous production, from the outstanding Diana Benigno as the magician Ariel, to Guy Ventoliere as the drunkard plotter Stephano. All performers bar none were successful in their roles, and on a bare stage, save for 3 area rugs on the floor, all costumes, filled with life, color, and excitement by Renee Salierni, sparkled on the stage.
Near the end of the first act, a frustrated Caliban, tied of being called a ‘monster’, a ‘mutineer’, ‘this thing’, or, worse, ‘the Beast’, has a monologue spoken directly to the audience. In it he utters this brilliant line of utter poetry–“I tried to dream again.” And there, in that crystallized moment, was the play at hand. The Tempest had started, and it had ended, on this one lonely sentence. People in wheelchairs are none of these things. Actors in wheelchairs playing characters like Caliban are none of these things. There is a place for performers with disabilities in the theater, and they must be welcomed with open arms. For, after all, if art is to remind people how to live their life, then surely it is an easy stretch to realize the importance of this production. One can only hope for an extended run.
ADDED WORDS “I saw The Tempest last night a wonderful cast co directed by Tyler Moss who gave his actors beautiful tempo pacing and just the right exuberance to call this production a winner Erin Mansurwhose work is always wonderfull exciting takes home the Tony with her PRospero Pat Pat Dwyers Antonio was played the best its ever been as Ben Dworkens Adrian was smooth and organic Hats off to Nicholas Lineman co director founder of The Identity Theatre and his Caliban was exquisite this production runs Friday Saturday and Sunday through September 18 a must see with a well deserved standing ovation.” Jane Steele, The Shakespeare Forum
REMEMBRANCE DAY had all the ingredients to create a wonderful, tasty salad of theater.
Remembrance Day, a one-woman show written and performed by June Ballinger at the 13th St. Repertory Theater. Had a versatile performer, a decent script, and a compelling unique story; a firsthand narrative about a woman who in the bowels of Great Britain secretly worked on Colossus, a gigantic computer whose sole mission was to break the Nazi code and save the world from speaking German during WW II.
Director Janice Goldberg, however used a risky stage device that doesn’t always work – Pantomime.
Every single reference in the text that could be accompanied by a physical invisible gesture WAS accompanied. The frequency of this technique wound up looking foolish more often than not. Truly a shame as the playwright/performer was superb and deserved so much more.
Ioan Ardelean serves as guest director for one of the productions in THREE BITES OF THE APPLE: A revival of Robert Liebowitz’ canon of works. “he’s fascinating” says Ken Coughlin, one of Ardelean’s actors. Fascinating is the right word. it will be interesting to see how his European sensibilities enhance Liebowitz’ hard-bitten NY prose.
We hear a lot about inspiration – or Muse – that drives an artist. What inspires you?
In Greek mythology, the Muses are the inspirational goddesses who symbolized the arts and sciences. Nowadays a muse can be a person who serves as an artist’s inspiration. We know that writers, painters, musicians, poets they have muses but when we talk about actors or directors inspiration and creativity must come from thinking, reading, liberating the monkey mind, etc. In my case, Muse is a deeply thinking about an idea. Deeply thinking on certain ideas for years not only for five seconds.
What is your vision and process for the play/part?
As a director and actor I have to tell a story, which cannot be separated from the playwright story, but has to be my story. I must have in myself an unmoved and disinterested onlooker. From my point of view as a director and actor, I must have a good deal of judgment, penetration and very important according to Denis Diderot “no sensibility”.
What do you want most in your chosen profession? It’s OK to say “fame” or “wealth.”
I sacrificed a lot to be an artist and such a dedication, effort, and benefits of my acting are not like sharing a piece of cake among thousand people, and each person gets only a few crumbs. I would like to think that every person receives the whole piece of cake and allows the constructive energy created by my work and all my positive acts to be perpetuated.
Sally Field and Paul Newman both said of their profession… “it’s all I can do.” Is this all you can do?
It is what I can do and what I know how to do. I do not see myself doing anything else than acting, directing and teaching.
Along those lines, if you couldn’t do this, what would you do?
Try again to be an actor.
How do you want [legit] history to remember you?
A good storyteller, an actor who stayed naked on stage and moved very slowly so the audience could see every side of my personality breathing and leave with my characters.
I invite everyone to come to see different sides of my personality becoming alive thru my characters and my work. See Three Bites of the Apple.
WHY WATER FALLS Commercial CLICK HERE
[Excerpted from LEIGH CURRAN: AN OVERVIEW]
I’ve spent my life in the Arts and while I started out as an actress I soon added playwriting and later founded the The Virginia Avenue Project a non-profit using long term, one-on-one arts mentoring to give children growing up under difficult circumstances the skills to think creatively, critically and courageously about life goals and choices. Project kids join at age six and stay through high school working alongside caring, adult mentors throughout their growing years. The Project’s longtime community partner is the Santa Monica Police Activities League in Santa Monica, California. I was the Artistic Director from 1991-2013.
I’m also the author of three full length plays: The Lunch Girls (finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Award; world premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre, Arvin Brown, dir.; Off Broadway at the Grove Street Theatre , Stuart Ross, dir.); Alterations (Off Broadway at the WPA Theatre, Austin Pendleton, dir.; world premiere at the Whole Theatre Company, Olympia Dukakis, dir.) and Walking the Blonde (world premiere Off Broadway at Circle Rep, Paul Benedict, dir; and Off Broadway at La Mama, Leonard Foglia, dir.) The Lunch Girls and Alterations are published by Samuel French.
My first novel, Going Nowhere Sideways, was published in 1999 by Fithian Press and was highly praised by Publishers Weekly, Spillway, and Inscriptions Magazines and is available on Amazon.com and other on-line bookstores. It is a coming of middle age story that traces one woman’s evolution from Woodstock in 1969 to the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989. My poetry has appeared in Slant: A Journal for Poetry, Onthebus, The Bark, Spillway, and Rattle Magazines as well as in the on-line e-zine, The Junkyard.
As an actress, I’ve performed on, off and way off Broadway working with the likes of Kathy Bates, Arthur Penn, Paul Benedict and George Abbott. In Los Angeles I appeared in my own play, Walking the Blonde and in the LA Women’s Shakespeare Company’s acclaimed productions of Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Measure for Measure. TV/Film credits include: West Wing, Judging Amy,Once and Again, LA Law and Reds.
I was born in 1943 and grew up in California and Connecticut. My father taught at the Thacher School in Ojai, California where my mother, younger brother and I spent the school year but come summer my father would load up our DeSoto station wagon and we’d drive across the country to Salisbury, CT where my father had a summer cabin – kerosene lamps, outhouses, well water and all. During the school year, my father taught French, Latin, Spanish and motor mechanics at Thacher. My mother, an actress/singer, performed with the Chekov Players in Upper Ojai until my father died in 1954 – at which point, my mother took over my father’s classes until the school could find his replacement.
I graduated from Santa Catalina School in 1961 when I was 17 and in 2001 received the school’s Distinguished Alumna Award for my work with the Virginia Avenue Project. In 1962, after a year of working odd jobs in Ojai that included taking care of the studio of noted ceramist and friend, Beatrice Wood and teaching arts and crafts to first graders at my first alma mater, Monica Ros School – I headed for New York City to begin my career in theatre.
From 1962-64 I attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. I studied acting with Sanford Meisner, Bill Esper and Robert Modica; dance with Hanya Holm and music appreciation with Lehman Engel. After I graduated I studied acting privately with Ludwig Donath and later at HB Studios with Uta Hagen.
To support my theatre habit, I waited on tables predominantly at the Gaslight Club – a key club similar to the Bunny Club but with a gay-nineties feel. Because I was tall and strong I was relegated to working lunches and because the club was in a brownstone, all the lunch girls carried heavy trays up and down flights of stairs while trying to look sexy in fishnet hose, scant costumes and six-inch heels. Ten years later, this experience which always felt disconnected from my intended life would become the inspiration for my first play, The Lunch Girls.
I got my Equity Card in 1968 when I was hired to be in the chorus and understudy Brenda Vaccaro in the Broadway musical, How Now, Dow Jones. Shortly thereafter I began making TV commercials and by the mid 70s had become one of the top on-camera commercial artists. Making commercials made it possible for me to explore lesser paying jobs like playwriting, alternative theatre and life in general.
In 1974, I met actor, Edward Herrmann. Shortly after we moved in together, I took up playwriting. I’d had no formal training as a writer but I had a good ear for dialogue and understood dramatic tension. Basically, I asked myself all the questions I’d ask myself when creating a character as an actress – what do I want and why is it so important I get it now as opposed to later? And if the characters had opposing Wants – there was plenty of room for conflict. In time I began to realize my characters would lead me to the story rather than the other way around. This was the adventurous part of writing – I never quite knew how things were going to turn out and, therefore, neither did the audience. And, in addition to writing parts for women that were meaty and off-beat – I also discovered that with writing, unlike acting, you don’t have to wait to be hired to be creative.
My first play, The Lunch Girls, was produced at the Long Wharf Theatre in 1979 under the direction of its Artistic Director, Arvin Brown. Throughout my playwriting career, I’ve been lucky to work with some wonderful directors in addition to Arvin – who taught me about play structure, timing, audience attention, etc. Some of my director/mentors are Austin Pendleton, Olympia Dukakis and the late Paul Benedict. Other influential mentors include playwright, Michael Weller; director, Dan Petrie and producer, Dorothea Petrie.
In 1978, Edward and I bought a house in Carmel, New York and were married in the fall of that year. In the country, I discovered my love for vegetable gardening and while that didn’t seem important at the time, it would become a major part of my life later on.
While Edward was enjoying considerable success in theatre, film and television, I wrote my second play, Alterations which was ultimately produced Off-Broadway at the WPA Theatre featuring Cynthia Nixon and Gretchen Cryer in the cast and Austin Pendleton as director.
Edward and I separated in 1986. I returned to New York City where I wrote and performed in my third play, Walking the Blonde. It had its world premiere at Circle Rep under the direction of Paul Benedict then The Barrow Group picked it up and produced it Off-Broadway at La Mama, directed by Leonard Foglia. During this period, I began exploring alternative theatre. I wrote and performed in my own pieces at PS122 and the Wow Cafe where I was fortunate to work with Lisa Kron and the Five Lesbian Brothers.
In 1988, I was invited to write a short play for the 52nd Street Project‘s One-on-One Program. In this program, a professional actor is teamed with a kid to perform in a short play written by a professional playwright. My actor was Paul McCrane and my kid was an eight-year-old boy from a neighborhood housing project. I was so taken with the experience I began volunteering for the Project as an actress, writer, collaborator, director, class mentor, stamp licker, whatever – because in my heart of hearts I sensed the 52nd Street Project was changing my life. The change became real when I was invited to learn how to teach kids to write plays. The process, called Playmaking, was created by Daniel Judah Sklar – it was creative, smart, loaded with integrity and as much fun for seasoned playwrights as it was for kids. At the end of the training, I knew I had to teach kids how to write plays and, for that matter, how to act in them and it was then I got the idea to replicate the 52nd Street Project in Los Angeles.
In 1991, newly divorced and feeling the wind at my back, I moved to Los Angeles to found the Virginia Avenue Project. At the time I knew nothing about non-profits and little more about kids. I was lucky to have the former Executive Director of the 52nd Street Project, Marsue Cumming, to guide me through the grant writing and set up process. Daniel Judah Sklar, my great mentor when it came to working with kids, flew to LA to get Playmaking and his advanced playwriting program for children, Replay, off the ground.
I started the Virginia Avenue Project in a leaky lean-to behind my house – a scrap of paper hanging over my desk with a phone number to call if I ever needed an Executive Director. When the Virginia Avenue Project’s first production, Strangers in Paradise, opened in April, 1992, I called the phone number and the fates brought me Kendis Heffley who became the Project’s Founding Executive Director. Kendis and I were opposite halves of a whole and great friends. We guided the Project through its first eight years adhering to the belief that who we were in the office would trickle down to our kids so if we wanted the Project to have legs we needed to practice what we preached.
During that time, I also starred in a production of my play, Walking the Blonde at Theatre Geo in Los Angeles. My first novel, Going Nowhere Sideways, was published to enthusiastic reviews by Fithian Press. I began studying with Jack Grapes of the Poets and Writers Collective and writing and publishing poetry.
In 2000, Meryl Friedman became the second Executive Director of the Virginia Avenue Project guiding it through its adolescence for seven exciting, creative years. Meryl and I expanded the Project’s horizons by augmenting our Outreach Program and instituted new programming to challenge Project kids in ways that were relevant to the changing times. We also started the Project’s creative tutoring program, Smart Partners, designed to make learning fun again for Project kids who were struggling in school or kids who wanted to maintain strong grade point averages before applying for college.
At the end of 2013, I retired as Artistic Director of the Virginia Avenue Project and returned to my first love, writing and performing. I began reading personal essays around town and in June, 2015 my solo show, Why Water Falls, had its World Premiere Production at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. This was followed by a successful run Off-Off Broadway in the fall of 2015. Why Water Falls enjoyed a return engagement in Los Angeles at Highways Performance Space in April, 2016 and will be having its final performance at the United Solo Festival in New York City on September 30, 2016. Stay tuned!
Nine Theatricals at the 13th St Repertory Theater’s version of Shakespeare’s HAMLET opens with a new character: ‘The Teller’ (played by RJ Lamb), who serves as a sort of “Living, Breathing Cliff Notes Guy”. It is a convention invented by the Greeks, and, for this reviewer, a welcome addition to guide us through the incessant, beautiful-but-wholly-unnecessary poetry that mars all of Shakespeare’s’ works. However, if indeed ‘”…the play is the thing…”, then it is a dubious achievement to actually present a character that Mr. Shakespeare did not actually write (unless he did, in earlier quartos/folios). But we digress.
Hamlet, despite some obvious misgivings, some odd casting choices, and some anemic costumes, was moderately successful, and many times sustained the drama at hand and held our collective interest all the way through to the tragic end.
Leading us into battle is Matt DeRogatis, who portrays the noble Dane. He makes a striking mark on the stage, and has excellent command of the language. Unfortunately, there is wayyy too much shouting, which is incorrect for three reasons: One, it is hard on the ears; two, it is hard on anyone’s voice to be that angry for that long; three, the conversations are held in the court and assorted ante-chambers of the kingdom–in other words, they are intensely private conversations, for no one else’s business. They are many other emotions besides anger, and there are many other numbers besides the numeral 10–in fact, there are nine other numerals. These are the tools, these numerals, that an actor must convey, and that an audience longs to hear.
The rest of the ensemble were all capable players, all talented individuals, just miscast. Polonious and Claudius should’ve been switched. Lorraine Mattox as Orphelia was also adept at the language, and also a striking figure on the stage–but displayed no sense of the character’s frailty, humility and general innocence. These qualities are essential, because it enhances the notion that Hamlet drove her to suicide by bullying and insulting her, a disgraceful action,. This prompt her brother to seek revenge. However, as played, no such bad behavior existed; Ms Mattox may have been better off playing either Rosencrantz or Guildenstern. Who? Yes, in this production, they are played by women, a wonderful stroke of genius and highly imaginative. Now, the characters bring a lot more to the table that their wry wit–there is wonderful sensuality and sexuality, which now clearly motivates them to come to hamlet as double crossing spies for the King, using all their feminine charms. The stage felt a bit empty when they weren’t on it.
Technically, the costume designer left a lot to be desired, and did nothing to enhance the production. Hamlet was sleeveless at one point, which would be fine, except the actor had modern tattoos all over his arm. However, composer Mary Micari, underscored vital scenes with just the right mood with her library of exotic instruments and a minimum of notes.
Singled out for praise would be Greg Pragel, who was terrific as Horatio. Unfortunately, he was dressed like a 19th Century country barrister, and completely removed from the play. But his acting ability transcended all of it. Well done.
On the whole, an interesting, innovation production with some hits and misses, and moderately successful.
Tom Rowan is talented – that’s for sure. An excellent dialogue writer (Renee Bang Allen’s entrance line, “Who turned the sun up so high?” gives immediate insight into the title character, which she played quite well) but more focus was needed to the entire piece.
At first the drama concerns the foolishness of a convenience marriage; then becomes a mystery; then a tale about forbidden love; then a matter about a young man (played well by Andrew Gelles) coming out for the closet, and standing up to the callous, shallow, contemptible heterosexual world. He seems to be the hero as the other characters seem stereotypical.
But make no mistake, Mr. Rowan has talent, which includes a good ear for dialogue, a well-structured play, and masterful exposition, but he should be mindful of those stereotypes. The women seem too bitchy and the men, too – well – too much like Donald Trump (A thumps up for the performance of Peter Reznikoff, playing the billionaire husband)
With some fine-tuning, Faye Drummond could really say something to its audience.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN
Photos by Jonathan M. Smith
Ernest Barzaga started a theatre company, rented a theatre, raised $25,000, and presented a seminal American classic in one of Indie Theater’s last bastions of cutting-edge theaters. And he hasn’t graduated college yet.
MILLER’S MASTERPIECE in NEW HANDS
‘Death of A Salesman’ by Arthur Miller is an unquestioned masterpiece of American Drama–it is, by far, Miller’s best play, and it belongs, with three others, on the Mount Rushmore of Great American Plays (the others being ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’, ‘Long Days Journey…’ and the combination of ‘Glass Menagerie and ‘Streetcar’)
A thousand before Ernest Barzaga and his company have analyzed the play to death since its premiere in 1949; it remains a towering piece of art, for so many reasons, because of its never ending timeliness, but in a larger sense its devotion to its mission–which is, destroying the lies that people live. The play, at its essence, is a journey, to reveal the lies for what they are–lies and myth-making, nothing more–and discard them. If a definition of art is to remind people how to live their lives, then this is the poster boy for such a proclamation.
Miller also created one of the most memorable characters in all dramatic history–the aptly named Willie Loman, a salesman/husband/father/Chaser of the Fake and False American Dream who has suffered one too many lashes at the mast, and has consistently bet on the wrong horse.
In this production, at the John Cullum Theater, Ian Cooper tries to tackle the role and does it justice. Yes, he’s young – the entire cast is younger than any of the roles in the production. Clearly, with this role at such a young age, he has jumped into the deep, deep end of the pool. But Mr Cooper’s performance is boulder-solid. He is compelling to look at and listen to. He knows how to stand on a stage, and give space to his fellow thespians when necessary. He belongs on a stage, any stage, doing any play. To quote Miller himself–‘Attention must be paid.’ Mr Cooper has accomplished something fairly remarkable–he has, though no choice of his own (the play demands it), taken this gigantic, man-mountain of a play on his back, and has successfully, sometimes spectacularly, carried it across the finish line. This makes us forgive his inapprpriate hair style (one must wonder if he needs his hair long in life thus was reticent to cut it for such a short run).
After a rocky start and some volume issues, about the 15 minute mark, Mr. Cooper talks about the longing for his 1928 Chevy–and then it were over. Mr. Cooper had won over this humble scribe, from that very moment until the end of the play. Swimming against the current, against the dying of the light, Mr. Cooper forges on and on and on and on, and doesn’t stop, never stops. His almost insatiable desire to – what – succeed … sell stuff … teach his children about manhood before he croaks on the Interstate?–is fascinating and harrowing to watch, since we know from the outset that Mr, Loman is doomed in his quest. Why? He has a skewed vision of what constitutes manhood, and is listening to the one man–his brother (superbly played by Caycee Kolodney, who gives Mr. Cooper a real run for his money with his performance), a land baron of the 19th Century, of the Gilded Age almost, who has no problem robbing from everyone he encounters (‘You cannot deal fairly with strangers’, he proudly boasts), who will steer him down the wrong path.
Joining the triumvirate of superior performance was Anna Paone, playing the tortured, fierce, loyal, Linda Loman. From her opening moments, sleeping (again) by herself, to her final monologue at Willie’s graveside, Ms Paone demonstrated a world-weariness and an inner strength that was completely appropriate for the character and in line with what Mr. Miller wrote.
Gianni Damaia was masterful as Willie’s neighbor Charlie. Their scene alone–which both defines their relationship and also creates new question about it–was the high point of the play. The timing, the direction, the pace, the rhythm, the stakes involved, the passion–all first rate and compelling theater. It also raised a question which we don’t think had been explored before–did Charlie have a thing for Linda? Interesting insight.
The brothers were not quite as successful, but acquitted themselves as the play went on. David Levi as Happy has talent but was missing Happy’s shallow view of the world, and his need for shallow things–like chasing girls to the exclusion of everything else (wonderfully highlighted by the steak house scene in Act II).. His parents pay him little attention for a reason. There must be an understanding from the actor to the character, and give it basis. He, like Mr. Cooper, needed more period-perfect make-up and costuming.
Aaron Ogle as Biff gave a good, earnest performance. Mr. Ogle, like Mr. Cooper, affected a tone in their voices that had a Lower East Side flavor. Maybe this was meant to show age or time-period but wasn’t needed. Biff has a powerful journey – as a man doomed to the abyss because he learned his father was a lying hypocrite, a devastating discovery for any child. Authentic tone optional. .
Alexander Gheesling as Howard was well-cast, his time on stage is in a vital scene on which the play pivots, so he could have done even more in his moments. David Melgar as Bernard played both his scenes well, and the latter one, with an ailing Willie, was touching. Now, about that hair… (these aforementioned problems (hairstyles for most characters were incorrect for 1949; costuming was inconsistent) were fixable and a lesson learned for next time).
A tip of the hat to the director, Mr. Ernest Barzaga. At its essence, a director’s job is to address the individual art of the actor, and to bring the assorted arts of the other actors and designers together in a cohesive product – and in this task, Mr. Barzaga succeeded. Matters of pacing and staging will only grow stronger and stronger, that is obvious.
The best of success to a fledgling theater company…and maybe next time, into the ocean, where there is no bottom, and no limits. This group has proven, with little hesitation, which it can tackle anything the Theater Gods present before them.
SUMMER SOUL SOUNDS
There are some lovely words in the English Language. ‘Sound Bath’ would be one.
When this dazzling combo made its entrance about 10 minutes into the Healing Session/Performance, butts shifted in chairs, and attention was paid.
Mary Elizabeth Micari hosted this innovative, unusual, well-meaning experiment–both a ‘session’ and a ‘performance’–and on the whole, despite a few trappings of the modern world sneaking in, was a successful endeavor.
This is an evening of healing, as advertised, by trained sound healers (a wholly legitimate science and art, with schools and degrees dedicated to its teachings), and the healing will take place by any means necessary. It is also a performance of sorts–after all, you’re here, and the healers are ‘up there’. Because of that fact, because the ‘stage’ was dressed so elegantly and appropriate for the tranquil evening planned, a certain level of performance is expected.
Once in awhile the lines became too blurred–sometimes a ‘session’, sometimes a ‘performance’, and sometimes, unfortunately, an infomercial. We are here for meditation, for inner peace through music, that should be the entire agenda.
The evening started with a session by Daniel Lauter, a thoughtful, gentle soul who shared his talent in a caring, giving, touching way. One was free to join in, or not; the decision was entirely ours. His assorted collection of “singing” bowls was beautiful and elegant and lovely to listen to. He was a man of few words, and had nothing to offer except himself, his energy, and his art. Unfortunately, the next performer was not as gracious a host. After an amusing story as a 5-year-old learning the sax, Erik Lawrence regaled us with one tale after another of who he played with, and where. Even if this wasn’t his intention, it seemed as if he was attempting to find new clients in the audience.
Fortunately, Act I was saved by George Brandon–a man filled with spirit and soul, and the possessor of a wonderfully sonorous voice, a voice so powerful we could listen to him recite the Yellow Pages without getting fidgety. A commanding presence on the stage, properly dressed for the occasion, you had no choice but to listen, and enter his world. His musical piece–in which all performers joined, including the hostess–was required listening. His mantra–“Don’t Waste Your Life” was short, sweet, and to the point. If only the rest of the world was listening, we’d all be better off.
Act II brought another infomercial. Malia Culp might be successful amongst those she knows well, but on a stage, performing for a group of strangers, she seemed pretentious. Her talents may or may not resonate with her clients, but it’s hard to believe spending half her evening sounding like a bumble bee would work. She acknowledged her ‘…beautiful Erik’ and then began her own commercial much like he did. Sadly, she, too, decided to talk of her talent was better than to show it making her contribution to the evening amount to nothing.
That left the ‘finale’ to Ms. Micari. She saved the day. There is a reason she hosted the event, and a reason she went last–she has the talent the others have, but also a personality that is second to none. She sang beautiful odes of healing brought down to her from her ancestors, and they did not disappoint–from the Gaelic Hills, to the lovely land of Calabria, her voice lifted the evening all by itself…then, it a fitting conclusion, led the audience members out of their seats and into the lobby of the theater, for a wholly satisfying conclusion.
As Hostess, Ms. Micari must be a little mindful of the ramblings of her company but otherwise, a splendid time was had by all, and a big fat tip-of-the-hat to her for organizing such an innovative evening of healing and performance.
SANDMAN: Potential and Promise
“Novice Playwright Cannot Quite Get out Of Her Own Way”
The Sandman” has potential and promise, but disappoints”
It is no shame; most playwriting debuts fall short because they are afflicted by ‘The Curse of The Shoehorn’…that is, they are determined to get everything they wish to say into one play, even if it needs to be ‘shoehorned’ in. ‘The Sandman‘, running now at American Theater of Actors is, despite several strong stretches of dramatic action and well-written characters, another victim of this malaise.
New York City, 1979. Having escaped from filing bankruptcy and having the Mayor sell apples on the street corner, the pulse of the city turns decadent by decade’s end–discos, cocaine, designer jeans. Easy free living, easy free money. The Irish Mob in Hell’s Kitchen (the Westies, one presumes, although that moniker is never mentioned) gets a scent of this, and wants in–loansharking, prostitution, the rackets out, Columbian Marching Powder in.
Tommy and Diane Cassidy (decently played by veteran Ken Coughlin and Meredith Floor Rust) own a bar on the West Side, ‘The Sandman‘, and are trying to make ends meet. Enter corrupt cops, old hangers-on from back in the day, and of course assorted gangsters pursuing their latest misdeeds. Add several clever plot twists, some excellent dialogue (good ear by Ms Navarra), and some mostly decent performances (especially Greg Valiante as the Head Hoodlum Ian O’Rourke, Dan Lane Williams as the ne’er-do-well Donny Finn, and AJ Converse as Jake Sands) , and there are the ingredients, the makings of a solid new American Play. (Great names, by the way)
It’s Ms. Navarra’s first play, and it shows. The characters are overwritten. There are way too many instances of characters explaining themselves why they do what they do. People, especially these types of people, simply do not explain their ‘feelings’; they simply impulsively act. There is too much action that happens off stage. There is too much dialogue that is realistic but not dramatic–it doesn’t advance the telling of the tale.The second act should be shorter than the first, but here it is in reverse, therefore nullifying and sanitizing the potent dramatic affect. There are too many subplots which get in the way of the drama–a would-be illicit love story (corrupt cop lusting after bar owner’s wife), a lush lamenting her wasted life in the theater (beautifully played by Valerie O’Hara), and the second act is plot-driven, not character driven–in other words, better suited for television or the movies, but not the theater. (Actors pantomiming getting into a car and following the bad guys looked particularly foolish and amateurish, quite frankly)
There are other disservices that compromised Ms Navarra’s work that had nothing to do with the writing: A lead actor should never serve as the director for any reason–the production had a palpable lack of timing, rhythm, and denouement. The production lagged. Ques were not crisp, and it doesn’t help when actors drop lines about 15 or 20 times, an unforgivable sin.The actual playing space, the theater, was far too large to do justice to this intimate play. The first act takes place mostly in the bar; yet half of the playing space is, except for the opening five minutes, completely bare, unused and unattended. The (Keystone) cops (played by Michael Bordwell and Ben Guralnik) unfortunately do not pass the wind-tunnel test, and because so much dialogue and dramatic action are devoted to them, they take the play down with them.
The first scene in Act II, in Donny Finn’s Office in his pool hall, is a complete breath of fresh air, and after the relative staleness of Act I, seems to be a sign of things to come. It is wonderfully written, without any fat or extraneous diversion; it is superbly acted and staged; it brings with it hope for a better day. Alas, this scene was the high point of the play; the rest of the play was anticlimactic and wholly predictable.
Ms Navarra has a keen sense of characters, a good ear for dialogue, and knows what she wants to say–now comes the matter of another pair of eyes (dramaturg time), and removing the fat, so what we are left with is a better, well-rounded shorter play. Brave for the effort, Ms Navarra, the American Theater Welcomes You!