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Life and Times: Episodes 4.5 and 5 @ FIAF

Last winter, Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times saga took the New York theatre world by storm at the Public’s Under the Radar Festival. (Check out our review here.) Now they’re back with two more installments that ran this weekend at the French Institute Alliance Française.

Life and Times is based on a series of telephone conversations with company member Kristin Worrall about her life… so far. The result has been a series of theatrical episodes that uses Worrall’s story word-for-word, including the “likes,” “ums,” and incomplete thoughts that make up authentic human speech. The episodes are all genre-specific, and so far Nature Theater has tackled music, singing, dance, and Agatha Christie-esque mysteries as framing devices. Episodes 4.5 & 5 continue to push the theatre-making envelope. Episode 4.5 is a short animated film, with super titles of the dialogue on the screen. Said dialogue is actually sung, which is a welcome element from previous episodes. Episode 5 takes the form of an illuminated medieval-style manuscript.

Episode 4.5
Episode 4.5

While visual art may be the obvious theme of 4.5 & 5,  the evening is still strongly theatrical. Before Episode 4.5, the audience is given manilla envelopes with instructions not to open them. At the start of Episode 5, a man dressed in a tuxedo with a blue cummerbund instructs the audience to open the envelope, which contains a flashlight, a book, and earplugs. While the man plays the keyboard set to sound like an organ (thus the earplug option), the audience has forty-four minutes and twenty-eight seconds to read the book.  Reading a book in itself doesn’t seem theatrical; reading the same book in the cover of darkness in a theatre filled with people doing the same thing does. It feels as if we were all voyeurs, reading the narrator’s diary with a flashlight under the covers. This is no mistake, as we learn the narrator’s first diary, like the book in our hands, has a blue cover. The voyeurism is only intensified by the illustrations, Kama Sutra-stylings with likenesses of Nature Theater founders Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska in a variety of sexual positions. As Copper writes in the book’s afterword, it becomes a “Nature Theater sex tape.”

Episode 5 also takes on a scholarly edge. It’s as if the audience takes on the role of anachronistic scholars, as the electric-powered organ music accompanies calligraphied descriptions of a remodeled teenager’s bedroom. The countdown clock on the screen seems to promise a post-show exam.

Episodes 4.5 & 5 are relatively shorter than previous episodes, but the multimedia creation is a satisfying installment that excites, surprises, and takes us to the end of the narrator’s junior year of high school.

To be continued…

Three Readings and a Holiday: A Conversation with FRESH PRODUCE’d NYC

The denizens of FRESH PRODUCE’d NYC take Labor Day seriously. On Monday night, the group of actors, directors, and writers met for a preliminary reading for their monthly play workshop series. Over 150 artists have collaborated in the series, which began last year. I spoke with artistic director Kyle Metzger about the history of FRESH PRODUCE’d and the process of showcasing new theatre.

Reading a play. Or two. Or three.

How did FRESH PRODUCE’d happen?

FRESH PRODUCE’d actually began last year in May. Actress Riva Di Paola got a bunch of different actors together and started the group, and it began out of a want for opportunities to continue to grow as artists. A chance to work on a new piece every month, a chance to meet other young artists, writers, directors. Riva left to go to LA at the end of 2012, and she created FRESH PRODUCE’d LA out there. Our company, The Glass Eye, then took over FRESH PRODUCE’d NYC as the producing entity. Under our banner, it’s become more about the playwright than ever before and giving the playwright the tools to take it to the next stage.

What is your creative process like? How long are the pieces?

We do a little bit of everything. We’ve had self-contained short plays as short as five minutes, and we’ve done multiple scenes from a longer full length play. It’s really whatever the playwright wants to workshop and what they submit to us.

How can playwrights contact you?

They can email us at nyc@getfreshproduced.com, and they can go to The Glass Eye website to find the FRESH PRODUCE’d submission guidelines there.

So you have a reading, a tech, and then a performance every month.

The tech’s the same day.

So it’s a very cabaret kind of style.

One of the best things about the actual performance is because we don’t get to see what the other groups are doing, when we come together it’s so awesome to see different genres done in different ways. We’ve had staged readings done on music stands to full production-ready performances with costumes and props.

When I saw one of your productions last year, I saw a one act where there were vampires and witches and all kinds of phantasmic stuff. What’s the craziest scene you’ve seen so far?

Well last month we had a Hollywood/TMZ retelling of The Scottish Play in which Mr. Mac was covered in spooge. Does that qualify?

I think it definitely qualifies. What would be your advice to audience members coming to see the show?

There’s nothing like it. You will see three completely different pieces. Three totally different voices, and new voices. Voices that New York doesn’t know they should be listening to yet.

Get Thee to a… Bar? A Conversation with “The Hamlet Project”

1 - David Hudson as Hamlet in The HAMLET Project - Photo by Lloyd Mulvey
David Hudson as Hamlet in The HAMLET Project (Photo by Lloyd Mulvey).

The Hamlet Project, a “A Shakespeare Drinking Theatrical Event” has been such a blast in a glass, it’s been extended until August 26th. I met the creative team (David Hudson, who is playing Hamlet, director Beth Gardiner, and producer Lori Wolter Hudson), and got to know more about this less-than-sober production:

Whose idea was this? How did it come about?

Beth: The Hamlet Project was born in Los Angeles in 2011. It was the idea of an actor and a director that David and I went to graduate school with at UC Irvine. They wanted to do a fun, unpretentious production of Hamlet that they could repeat over and over again in different ways. They cut the script and started a production in downtown Los Angeles. Fast-forward a couple of years, and I’m out here, David’s out here, Lori’s out here, and we thought it would be really awesome to do that here. We got the rights to do the script and made a very “New York” take on what it means to do Hamlet in a bar in New York.

David: We did a production in March in a little bar in Williamsburg. We did two nights and it was awesome.

Beth: It was ridiculous. The response was amazing.

Lori: We sold out both nights, and everybody said they wanted to see more of it.

David: The three of us got together and decided to do this incarnation of it in rep with a drinking game version of Romeo and Juliet that we are premiering in September.

Have you workshopped the Romeo and Juliet script yet?

David: We’ve done some read-throughs, and we’re about to start rehearsals as soon as we open Hamlet. Lori’s directing it, and because it is a very new project, will be more developmental.

Lori: It’s going to be a little more interactive.

David: The great thing about The Hamlet Project is that it is different night-to-night and it’s totally different every time that it’s done, and that’s what we really like about it. It’s totally unpretentious. We can’t be precious with it. We just have to do it 110% and get the audience really excited and involved with it. And it changes each time that we do it.

Beth: And the bar spaces are so small that we’re very close to the audience, in their lap, acting around them at times, drinking with them…

Lori: Don’t be surprised if an actor steals your beer.

Beth: I think it’s a really exciting night of story-telling. It’s drinking, it’s fun, it’s lighthearted, and then it’s also this great story with this great language with good actors doing it. It can’t help but be amazing.

What captured me about The Hamlet Project was despite the high concept absurdity of it all, the idea of bringing this play to where people congregate in New York City as natural audiences connects directly to Shakespeare.

Beth: Its definitely the Groundling’s version of Hamlet.

David: When you think about it, it’s down on that base level. There’s some great stuff happening with it, but it’s happening in a place where everyone is congregating.

What can audiences expect beside direct addresses and some drink stealing?

Beth: They’ll get Hamlet–the story of Hamlet–and they’ll get some twists that we incorporating. Hamlet has a play-within-a-play, and we offer up that play to be performed in a number of genres that the audience can vote on.

Lori: Polonius will be played by an audience member. That is decided when you get to the bar that night. It’s just whoever shows up.

Beth: There are drinking games when characters die.

What would be Hamlet’s drink of choice?

David: So much pressure.

Don’t say draft beer.

Beth: Nooooo.

David: Hamlet’s a whiskey man. I think probably in this production he’s a Manhattan man. Because we are in…

Beth: New York City!

David: He’s a rye Manhattan man. He likes it a little hard.

For more information on “The Hamlet Project,” check out their website: http://www.hamletprojectnewyork.com/

CHARLES IVES TAKE ME HOME @ Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

A classical symphony and a basketball game may not have much in common, especially when each event is played by an estranged father and his daughter. Their complex relationship is explored in Charles Ives Take Me Home, now playing at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

The three-character play begins with composer Charles Ives (Henry Stram) introducing us to high school basketball coach Laura Starr (Kate Nowlin) and her father, Julliard-trained violinist John Starr (Drew McVety). Divorced dad John has trouble relating to Laura, who has been interested in basketball since she was a young child. The sports gene has skipped a generation, as John’s father was a sports fiend who didn’t appreciate his son’s love for music. Laura never inherited her dad’s musical passion, but she makes attempts to understand it—dribbling in rhythm to his list of musical terminology, reading about John’s idol Charles Ives, even picking up the violin to see how it feels. Unfortunately, John doesn’t always return that understanding, causing a tension in their relationship that builds until Laura announces that she’s been accepted to a Midwestern college on a basketball scholarship.

The characters often directly address the audience: Charles Ives as an eccentric yet gentle narrator, John as a confessional, and Laura as an emotionally-charged pep talk to her team. They also interact with one another in scenes presented in loose chronological order. The resulting combination shows the dissonance between Laura and John. Dissonance is also a distinguishing feature in Ives’ music, even though Ives saw the harmony in his family as well as in his compositions.

All three actors make a terrific ensemble. Kate Nowlin is athletic and disarmingly captivating as Coach Laura and adorable as the wide-eyed younger incarnation of a girl eager to earn her father’s approval. Drew McVety is charming and oh-so-tragic as music obsessed but emotionally distant John, and Henry Stram brings a warm, engaging presence to Charles Ives (and is the first person I’ve ever seen whose eyes actually twinkle).

The set, designed by Andromache Chalfant, is both compact and beautiful: a playing space lightly furnished and covered in wood paneling, with each character having their own playing space—for violin tuning and layups. (The sound of Laura’s Nikes squeaking on the floorboards is a realistic and fun surprise.) Daniella Topol’s direction is clean and showcases playwright Jessica Dickey’s humorous and cohesive dialogue. There is also some fabulous violin and piano playing by Mr. McVety and Mr. Stram respectively: their scene together, with Charles Ives coaching a young John, is a memorable one.

Despite the angst and misunderstandings, Charles Ives deftly illustrates the poignancy of a father-daughter relationship. One of the play’s final lines is, “Will Laura Starr make it?” As the lights dim, I suspect that both she—and her father—will.

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