Arts Independent

Robert Viagas gives a warm response to a Snowshow

Slava’s Snowshow

Created and staged by Slava Polunin

Reviewed by Robert Viagas

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Halfway through Act I of Slava’s Snowshow, children in the Broadway audience left their seats, seemingly by magic, and began to speak directly to the clown performers in this New Vaudeville entertainment. The silent clowns hadn’t said a word at this point, but the kids understood the silly stories they were miming and responded to the pure playful charm of the experience by literally playing along.

Returning to Broadway eleven years after its first run, and twenty-six years after its Moscow premiere, this G-rated New Vaudeville entertainment launches a mostly silent clown (originated by Russian performer Slava Polunin) into a world of peculiar and offbeat tiny adventures filled with innocent delight. Polunin still plays the main role at some performances. At the performance reviewed, the role was played by Polunin lookalike Artem Zummo.

What elevates it from being a mere side show? It is filled with wondrous special effects, designed by Polunin and Viktor Plotkinov, that fill the air with stage smoke, with the seat-shaking bass rumble of train locomotives and explosions, with amusing pop music choices, with giant balloons, and with a wave of gossamer floss that flows out over the audience (and sticks to everything). As the title indicates, the main special effect is the repeated use of  artificial snow that falls from the ceiling, rolls in from the wings, and, in the climax of the show, blasts out into the house from a giant fan in a massive and powerful white hurricane.

But even with all these special effects, the true wonder of Slava’s Snowshow often comes from the tiniest of gestures by the main character and his six supporting clowns. The latter wear odd hats with huge side flaps, the source of ample comic invention. One of the sweetest moments came when Zummo, preparing to leave on a train, approached an ordinary coat and hat on a coat tree. He slipped his arm into one of the sleeves, and suddenly the coat came alive, puppet-like, and hugged him in a sad goodbye. Moments like these, not the snow, are the true magic of Slava’s Snowshow.

The show has several casts. The performance reviewed here also featured Vanya Polunin as Zummo’s main foil, and the Green Team of supporting clowns: Georgiy Deliyev, Francesco Bifano, Nikolai Terentiev, Aelita West, and Bradford West.

In its previous incarnations, the show won the 2005 Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience and was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event.

Slava’s Snowshow is playing limited run through January 5, 2020 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Broadway.

T. Adamson and the Road to Revolution

Playwright T. Adamson has entered the ring.

The Straights (https://www.thestraightstheplay.com/)  is an epic play in the literal sense of the word as being a grand spoken endeavor. Grand in the literal sense of the word as being powerful in thought.

It follows millennial friends, Phoebe and Nina, as they navigate hitchhikers, shoplifting, drugs, and a flood of selfies on a cross-country no-boys-allowed adventure through the heart and heartlessness of the USA. This piece uses live action and video to bring about the dismantling of traditional American mythology by focusing its prose and politics on women, queer folx, non-human persons, and people of color as the primary subjects of the American democratic experiment.

And it all started thanks to the little election we had in 2016. Remember that?

Opening Thursday with the New York Times already reserving seats, Ai was lucky to get the playwright, T. Adamson, to jot down a few epic responses to our grand questions.

 

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Tell us about yourself as an artist

As a writer I’m most interested in writing about complex challenging characters, particularly young people living in America right now. I feel people in their 20s and 30s are often depicted as vapid or self-centered in mainstream cultural narratives and I’m trying to counter those narratives by depicting young people in their full humanity, trying to navigate the difficulties of this economic and political climate. I’m also interested in plays that deeply explore the idiosyncrasies of modern speech and illustrate the ways in which everyday speech is rapidly changing in the digital era. I like subverting expectations and using bold formal gestures to inform the inner lives of my characters. 

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What made you write this play? Was it something you experienced? Is it a statement you’d like to make about our current State of affairs? Why the road trip motif?

I started this play shortly after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, which is also when the play is set. By whatever happenstance most of my best friends through my adult life have been queer women and it felt important to me at that time, as it does now still, to write a play that centers queer and femme folx and people of color- to firmly declare that these people are the real heart of this country, that the essence of this country is diversity and difference. I became obsessed with the road trip story as a distinctly American genre; there are so many narratives about young men finding themselves on the open road. I wrote this play as my counter-narrative about women living with the kind of abandon that the men in these classic road trip narratives take for granted. And I think there’s a little bit in the play of trying to hold myself accountable as a straight white man as well. Purposely writing people who look like me out of the story. I also just love road trips. I love long drives. I’m from Texas and I miss the wide open the road and the big sky that you rarely get in NYC. So this is both a critique and homage to typical road trip stories.

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What do you want the audience to take away from this play?

I think the audience is going to takeaway whatever they takeaway! There’s so much going on in this play but the main thing I hope they take away is a sense of the richness and fullness of these human beings and the vastness and possibility that hopefully still exists in the United States. I hope the audiences feels like they met some interesting people- perhaps ones they wouldn’t normally spend time with- and that they spent some meaningful time with them and that meeting those people shifted their perspectives a bit. 

 

TICKETS THRU OVATION

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Evita still conquers.

Evita

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book and lyrics by Tim Rice

Reviewed by Robert Viagas

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Everything Evita warned us about has come true.

The 1978 Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical about the rise and fall of the real-life First Lady of Argentina, Eva Peron, is being presented as the annual fall gala production at the City Center in New York.

But, as directed by Sammi Cannold, it’s more than just a standard revival of a classic. This Webber-Rice epic was a caution about the scary power of charismatic mass-media stars to inspire the public with false promises, then pick their pockets while suppressing their civil rights. Allied with the army corporal Juan Peron, Evita promised to Make Argentina Great Again in the years immediately following World War II, then robbed the once-rich South American country blind while aggrandizing herself.

Cannold’s production never makes a direct reference to anything happening in American politics today. It doesn’t have to.

Cannold’s staging includes a great innovation. She has split the role of Evita in two. Younger Evita is played by the feisty but vulnerable Maia Reficco; Evita in Buenos Aires is played by the volcanic but ambiguous Solea Pfeiffer. But Reficco doesn’t disappear after the action moves to the capital, as you might expect. She continues to appear throughout the show like a sad ghost—a reminder of poverty-stricken and powerless past that the grown Evita spends her life trying to transcend. This bold staging choice doesn’t change the text but greatly strengthens it.

Pfeiffer brings great power to the title role, but never really takes us inside her character. Is she really an idealistic woman of the people, a she presents herself? Or is she a cynical opportunist who gets control of her country’s levers of power simply to enrich herself? This production tries to have it both ways, and, yes, there are strong elements of both in Evita. But this Evita doesn’t seem certain herself. She remains a cypher.

Enrique Acevedo is an excellent Juan Peron, displaying a ramrod-straight military bearing, but also showing a genuine caring for Eva as her final illness overtakes her. Narrator Jason Gotay has a fine voice, but is too flighty to play the dangerous international revolutionary Che Guevara.

The Webber-Rice score is served well throughout by the leads, by the big chorus performing the Latin-flavored choreography by Emily Malby and Valeria Solomonoff, and especially by the rich, full orchestra (24 chairs), conducted by Kristen Blodgette.

Evita is playing a limited run through November 24 at the City Center on 55th Street in midtown Manhattan.

It’s no Secret how good Derren Brown is.

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Derren Brown: Secret

Written by Andy Nyman, Derren Brown & Andrew O’Connor

Reviewed by Robert Viagas

One of the more popular attractions in the golden age of vaudeville was the mind reader—not a person with any special psi powers, but an otherwise perfectly normal person who had sharpened their skills of observation and their knowledge of human nature to the point that they could infer what audience members were thinking with uncanny accuracy.

Some were so good, it seemed like magic.

Fast forward to the present. Vaudeville is vanished, but mind readers like Broadway’s current Derren Brown still ply their trade with a sophistication and a psychological precision that their forebears could only dream of.

Brown, currently starring in Derren Brown: Secret, honed his craft in the U.K. and now comes to Broadway with a solo show that presents itself as pure entertainment, but which carries implications of how easy it is to fool crowds of people who naively trust in their own eyes and ears.

Brown constantly undercuts your skepticism. Are his audience-participation subjects carefully planted ringers? No, he chooses them by scaling a Frisbee-like disc into the house at random. Is he substituting one card or envelope for another through sleight-of-hand? No, he puts such object in the hands of an audience member for safekeeping. He then goes on to tell such people intimate details of their lives and things they have in their pockets, exclusively by reading their body language, their age, the slight changes of emphasis in words they say. Responding to audience gasps of amazement, he assures them, “I have no psychic ability.”

Moreover, he explains some of his feats in advance, or appears to. “I’m honest about my dishonesty,” he says. He warns you that he will bamboozle you, and then goes ahead and does it, all the while wearing the quiet assurance and smug smile of a master con man.

Brown is so good at directing your attention exactly where he pleases, that at one point an assistant in a gorilla suit was able to come onstage and remove a strategically placed envelope without the audience seeing it. It wasn’t invisible; Brown was just forcing you to look elsewhere at that moment because he knows how to do it and he knows that you will succumb to his covert misdirection. Magicians make a science of this. So do many politicians.

The show’s climax is a twenty-minute tour de force epic of divination involving multiple bemused audience members, multiple sealed envelopes, locked boxes, answers written before the show begins, a pre-recorded video, a song sung by a Saturday Night Live cast member, and even the long-promised revelation about the true meaning of the play’s title.

At the finale you’re left with a true sense of exhilaration at Brown’s skill, along with a sobering realization that people, including you, are so easy to “read”—and to manipulate.

Derren Brown: Secret is scheduled to play a limited run through Jan. 4, 2020 at the Cort Theatre on Broadway.

An Earthy Night of Plays

Footprints of the Polar Bear & Other Eco-Centric Plays

By Phil Paradis

Reviewed by Robert Viagas

Photo Flash: Take a Look at Photos From FOOTPRINTS OF THE POLAR BEAR & OTHER ECO-CENTRIC PLAYS

The Earth is being killed off by pollution and if mankind doesn’t do something to stop it, we are all doomed as well. This is the theme hammered home by playwright Phil Paradis in his Off-Off-Broadway one-act multiple bill, Footprints of the Polar Bear & Other Eco-Centric Plays, presented in a limited run by the American Theatre of Actors.

Several of the playlets attack the subject with a black sense of humor, but the centerpiece of the evening is Footprints of the Polar Bear, directed by Laurie Rae Waugh, in which a homeless and alcoholic Gulf War vet (Ken Coughlin) engages in an epic tirade at passersby, humanity and the universe at large about the fact that we have allowed Big Oil to rape the planet and “What we do to the Earth we do to ourselves.”

The audience is left to wonder if this messenger is the best one to get this message taken seriously. Or is Paradis trying to say that it’s already too late and therefore pointless—just a raging against the dying of the light?

Photo Flash: Take a Look at Photos From FOOTPRINTS OF THE POLAR BEAR & OTHER ECO-CENTRIC PLAYS

A savage sense of humor informs Natural Rarities Up For Bid, directed by Jessica Jennings, in which the world’s wealthiest man (Bennett Ferguson) buys up the last precious ounces of clean water, food and air in the world as part of a cartoonish auction to raise money for people stranded and starving from rising seas due to global warming. Jamie Bartolett, who plays the co-presenter in the scene, keeps her relentless perky comedic equilibrium in a scene that grows more insane by the moment.

Photo Flash: Take a Look at Photos From FOOTPRINTS OF THE POLAR BEAR & OTHER ECO-CENTRIC PLAYS Photo Flash: Take a Look at Photos From FOOTPRINTS OF THE POLAR BEAR & OTHER ECO-CENTRIC PLAYS

Two other plays sideswipe other social issues as they satirize our culture’s indifference to the pollution disaster. Directed by Monica Blaze Leavitt, Breaking Gulf News shows what happens when a fire-breathing Coast Guardsman (Cedric Jones) who is all set to eviscerate a smooth-talking oil company executive (Johnny Blaze Leavitt) on a TV news show, suddenly is offered the bribe of his life.

Directed by Chris Goodrich, God is a Ford Man, offers another outraged crazy person (Dan Wuerdeman) a chance to harangue us about how God is mad about the 1969 moon landings, and has sent tornados, wildfires, sinkholes and Chevrolets—yes, Chevrolets—as a punishment for our sins.

Photo Flash: Take a Look at Photos From FOOTPRINTS OF THE POLAR BEAR & OTHER ECO-CENTRIC PLAYS

The gentlest and most elegiac of the playlets, The Perfect Place, directed by Art Bernal, is in many ways the most effective. An old man (William Grenville) and his grandson (Jake Smith) are searching through a wilderness for the perfect spot to plant a tiny oak seedling. Along the way they close a rift between the generations and express hope that a time will come when their descendants will see the tree full-grown. It’s a moment of inspirational optimism that might have played better as the final segment instead of the first. But Paradise obviously feels that the best route is still to fight or die trying.

Footprints of the Polar Bear & Other Eco-Centric Plays is playing an limited run through November 24 at American Theatre of Actors in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan.

Akin to Success

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Akin Salawu was a finalist at Tribeca many times. You’re important when you’re a Getty Image!

Akin Salawu is a writer, director and editor. He is also a two-time Tribeca All Access Winner with a BA from Stanford and a Screenwriting MFA from Columbia. He has been a Sundance Finalist cementing his cinematic credentials into the public psyche.

At Stanford, Akin founded Ergo Student Theater Troupe and was awarded the Sherifa Omade Ego Prize for mounting culturally diverse theater. He was a member of The Public Theater’s Inaugural Emerging Writers Group, Ars Nova’s Uncharted Musical Theater residency, & and his first musical was part of The University of the Arts’ 2017 Polyphone Festival. These and so much more have cemented his theatrical credentials into the public psyche.

Additionally, Akin wrote 2 short plays on Ferguson for Chicago’s American Theater and wrote Chapter 5 in the book, The Obama Movement. he is currently writing a rather urgent play about a murdered black man who returns from the dead to save his brothers from the white woman who got him killed. It is not a very polite play. it is a very angry play. “… and it scares me – the writing of it. It’s not easy removing the Masks of Masculinity,” the playwright/filmmaker-with-a-message said. But since the response he’s getting just in the writing of it has been astronomical. “…so I suppose the fear is good,” he concluded. 

You are truly a renaissance man – stage and screen. tell us your artistic life story. 
It started officially in high school the tide turned, I was on the Drama Board & I got cast in Moliere, Brecht, Stoppard, and Coward. I even got to direct Coward and some of my own plays. While in high school I also started writing, shooting, and editing narrative 90 minute “movies” with special effects and all the inappropriate symbols of social vengeance your average oddball teenager finds vindicating.
I was obsessed with the Nightmare on Elm Street movies & shot a true fan parody that had my mother consider putting me into therapy. At Stanford I founded a student theater company that put a ton of students of color up on stage. Everyone who auditioned got a role. If you wanted to be in my show, I made a place for you.
I went down to USC grad Film school for a few years but dropped out to work for the MTV show “The Real World” after a USC Professor asked me “Why aren’t you writing about crack addicts in the hood?” I had already interned at Kopelson, Donner/ Shuler-Donner, Miramax Dimension, & Dreamworks and was not looking to try becoming someone I was not. I wound up getting an MFA from Columbia University’s Film Division where I became a 2x Tribeca All Access Winner (for a stageplay & a screenplay).
IMG_2521 (1).jpgI started working as a video editor and utilized that skill set when I became a grassroots organizer on the Obama 08 campaign. During the campaign I was selected for the Public Theater’s inaugural Emerging Writer’s Group. I went on to work for a Progressive Think Tank for a few years. Then I wrote the book for my first musical, “The Real Whisper”  in Ars Nova’s Uncharted. We were part of the 2017 UArts Polyphone Festival. Last year I founded LIT Council, a writers group for Men of Color, with the Tank in midtown. We literally just began Year 2 and it has been a fascinating journey…creating the very space that I wish had been waiting for me and all The  other Catholic School Christmas Pageant Rejects. 
 
What is your creative process and how does it differ from genre to genre?
Well, everything I write or create begins with an image, idea, or feeling. Feeling is the engine. You’ve got to need to create. It has to feel fiercely urgent. LIT Council exists because I felt like men of color had become the junkyard dogs of the artistic world – chained top the side of the house to bark at passersby. But If we want to be let inside, we’ve got to put on a tutu & do a lil dance for company…
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Do you have a mission with your art? 
 
It always goes back to that child coming to understand injustice. I suppose I champion those hidden in history’s margins – where the very best of life can be found…
 
What is your dream job?
 
It used to be having my own show on HBO, but I think my dream job today would be impossibly absurd & fun like building and running a gym for wanna-be bodybuilders who lack the genetics to ever be a professional bodybuilder.  And at night, the gym becomes a summer stock theater & any gym member who wants to be in a show gets to be in a show…
 

A Gorgeous – but lacking – Monster

Doctor Frankenstein

By George Allison

Reviewed by Robert Viagas

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Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein in 1818 and James Whale adapted it as a classic Hollywood horror film in 1931. Since then, the story of a scientist who pushes science too far has gotten countless adaptations, sequels and prequels in every medium. Writers find the tale endlessly fascinating.

In his new play Doctor Frankenstein, George Allison takes a different angle on the legend, offering us a drama narrated by the doctor himself, who wants to give us the “real story” behind what he claims is Shelley’s sensationalized version of his life. Audiences will quickly find themselves longing for the original.

The concept is strong, but the script, as staged by Cat Parker, is wordy, static and repetitive.

3BertieAllynNurse.jpgAllison’s Dr. Frankenstein (John Blaylock) explains that he created the real monster in order to save the life of his friend, master physician Dr. James Lind (Steve Shoup), whose body was crushed in a street accident, but whose brilliant brain was able to be saved. Frankenstein and Lind had been experimenting with bringing dead animals back to life through the use of electricity and special serum. The accident affords the perfect chance to see if the procedure works on humans.

Frankenstein places the brain of the frail old man into what’s supposed to be the strapping body of a young laborer. Then Lind awakens in his new body, he is neither grateful nor happy and the two of them talk about why for a long time. And then talk about it more in more scenes. They are joined by Frankenstein’s much-younger and similarly verbose fiancé Elizabeth (Tammy McNeill), who starts to become a love interest for the monster. Frankenstein himself is portrayed as such an self-important snob you can hardly blame her.

The script has more surgery scars than the monster. Among Frankenstein’s complaints about Mary Shelley’s novel is her lack of hard-core medical knowledge. A few scenes later we see Frankenstein believing he can reanimate a brain he has kept in a box for eleven years. Lind complains about having the body of a street cleaner, a bit of biography that hadn’t previously been established. Lind asserts that he’s in constant pain, but moves about the stage with no obvious discomfort. Dr. F also calls himself a monster, then a few minutes later is asserting that he’s “blameless.”

On the upside, this is an exceptionally impressive-looking production for an Off-Off-Broadway show. Eric Siegel’s beautiful and creepy projections, especially the ones in Frankenstein’s office, get high marks, as does a realistic-looking cadaver, which undergoes a trepanning and brain extraction in full view of the audience. In a nod to Whale’s classic film, the reanimation scene employs a real electric arc machine, as part of the set designed by the playwright himself. If only his script were as compelling and visceral.

Doctor Frankenstein is playing a limited run through November 23 at the West End Theatre at the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.