Jay Michaels sat down with playwright James Crafford regarding his latest works at the American Theatre of Actors.
James Crafford began his theatre life studying with the legendary Stella Adler 46 years ago. After suffering through five showcases that failed prior to even opening he decided to do it himself. His first showcase of works as a playwright was approved and produced by Ms. Adler sight unseen. He continued contributing works for Ms. Adler for the next two years. One of his works was optioned for Broadway, which took him on a journey that continues today as a distinguished playwright.
It’s no wonder James Jennings – one of the founding fathers of the off-off Broadway movement – offered Crafford a home at the ATA. Crafford has since supplied plays and screenplays to Jennings and his merry troupe making him a household name in that house. One of that merry troupe, Laurie Rae Waugh, has been a major interpreter of Crafford’s works over the years – directing and thus winning awards for the work. This time around she is a member of huis cast.
Now, the American Theatre of Actors will present two dynamic works by this controversial author and influencer: Moves and Countermoves: New Works by James Crafford. Performances are January 22 – February 2, 2020 (Wednesday – Saturday @ 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 3:00 p.m.) in The B.E.T. (Beckmann Experimental Theatre) of the American Theatre of Actors Complex, 314 W 54th St, New York City; (212) 581-3044 for tickets.
The Chaos Effect doesn’t need a butterfly or the span of the universe. It can be two people and the right – or wrong – words said at the right – or wrong – time. Michael Bordwell will serve as director and interpreter of these two new works by a political firebrand and unapologetic author.
“The Game Is Not Over” explores the relationship between a man and the two women in his life – his wife and his former lover. A simple living room becomes a battlefield as the wife confronts the former lover.
“After the Hanging” explores the aftermath of a racist hanging of an African-American man in the deep south. The aforementioned man’s wife confronts one of the witnesses to the lynching.
The plays feature a repertory company of seasoned professionals familiar with Mr. Crafford’s work and the landmark American Theatre of Actors: Alan Hasnas, Thomas J Kane, Tzena Nicole, Valerie O’Hara, and Meredith Rust; with a special appearance by stage and film actor/director Laurie Rae Waugh in “After The Hanging.”
Crafford – having started as an actor – makes sure that his cast are well fed – with dialogue. “My goal in writing plays is to offer juicy parts for ALL the actors involved,” he said.
A question recently asked of Granville Burgess due to his Lincoln/Douglass musical, Common Ground, has been asked of Crawford as well. “What’s an old white guy doing writing a play like After the Hanging?”
“[the play] banged around in my head for years after having read a short story by Erskine Caldwell called SATURDAY AFTERNOON that tells the story of a whimsical lynching that left me devastated,” he explained; “I recall throwing the book across the room in a fit of despair.” The book was surely his gauntlet if you know Mr. Crafford. Never backing down from a fight – which is evident due to his recent battles with Cancer and President trump (not sure which was worse) Crafford began creating this powerful play.
As “Rick” in his play VIOLENCE
(winner, Jean Dalrymple Award, presented at Sardis)
“I am deeply grateful to ATA for featuring my work and giving me the opportunity to grow as a writer, director and actor. I also hope that audiences will recognize current parallels in AFTER THE HANGING even though it takes place in 1927,” Crafford concluded.
As he alluded to a “glut of one acts” he is ready to have produced, we should prick-up-our-ears for more battlecrys with his by-line.
The Straights by T. Adamson
Reviewed by Robert Viagas
Two women launch an epic cross-country road trip full of madness, drugs, self-discovery, and a torrent of talk in T. Adamson’s frenzied new Off-Off-Broadway play, The Straights.
Tall, redheaded Mary Glen Fredrick dominates the action as Nina, a pure force of nature who machine-guns invective at her traveling companion/would-be lover Phoebe (Jennifer Paredes) in between virtual arias of p.c. vituperation and wheedling barked into her cell phone’s voice recognition software, complete with spoken punctuation.
In fact, he play consists of mainly of similar audition-worthy character speeches, though several would benefit from trimming, especially a rambling story purporting to be drawn from Inuit folklore. Nevertheless, The Straights revels in the pure joy of writing and speaking, created by a powerful and virtuosic voice in the American theatre. The show’s 11 o’clock speech is delivered with mounting power by Paredes, describing her desperate loves and unquenchable hates, presented as a mounting series of “Ifs,” building to a breathless climax, as the travelers complete their journey across what the play repeatedly calls “the long earth.”
But as for pure star power, it’s Fredrick as she rails at her friends, howls at fate, and even as she dashes across the stage joyfully in her birthday suit. The play contains one deathless line. Explaining why she won’t give a sample of her shampoo to her on-the-outs traveling companion, Nina snaps, “Shampoo for my real friends, real poo for my sham friends.”
The production featuring Neo Cihi, William Thomas Hodgson, Emily Shain, Lisa Ramirez, Tony Castellanos, Cat Crowley and Boscoe Barles.
Directed by Will Detlefsen The Straights is playing a limited run through Dec. 21 at JACK arts center in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn.
Created and staged by Slava Polunin
Reviewed by Robert Viagas
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book and lyrics by Tim Rice
Reviewed by Robert Viagas
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.
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.
Footprints of the Polar Bear & Other Eco-Centric Plays
By Phil Paradis
Reviewed by Robert Viagas
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?
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.
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.
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.