‘Bright Star’ and the Horrible, No Good, Nonspecific Song Lyrics

Good theatrical songwriting is like tailoring a good custom suit. While it may be easier and cheaper to buy a suit off the rack at a department store, the luxury of going to a tailor is to find a perfect match for your tastes and measurements, uniquely proportioned to your every need or desire. It’s the sensation of walking out of a store with a one-of-a-kind object in your possession. The suit is an extension of yourself, created for you with only you in mind. And yet, it’s also made for other to admire as a work of artistry, perhaps even to imitate. Continue reading “‘Bright Star’ and the Horrible, No Good, Nonspecific Song Lyrics”

‘Red Speedo’ at NYTW is Barely Revealing

Peter Jay Fernandez, Alex Breaux, and Lucas Caleb Rooney. Photo: Joan Marcus

The glowing blue waters of a the swimming pool dance entrancingly on stage at the New York Theater Workshop’s production of Lucas Hnath’s new play, Red Speedo. They remind us of the alluring gleam of fame, success, and redemption. Continue reading “‘Red Speedo’ at NYTW is Barely Revealing”

A Heartfelt Family Drama in ‘the goodbye room’

The death of a family member, particularly that of a parent, is an experience full of difficult transitions. Suddenly, a person with whom you have spent your entire life is gone. How do we best honor their lives?  Could we have treated them better? Could we have anticipated their illness or unhappiness with more selfless intuition? How do we healthily move on with such a loss at our core? These are the questions that can either break a family or unite them. Happy Few Theatre Company‘s new production the goodbye room, written and directed by Eric Gilde, aims to uncover what unites us in times of grief, guilt, and uncertainty, and how family bonds are so essential to our identities.

In addition to the loss of their mother Carolyn, sisters Bex and Maggie are experiencing major life transitions of their own. Bex (Ellen Adair) is an accountant living in Chicago whose marriage is on the rocks. Maggie (Sarah Killough) lives closer to her Midwestern family home and is anxious about her demanding work schedule and her static love life. Their relationship is at the center of this quiet, genuine story. When Bex first arrives for her mother’s funeral, she finds her sister’s belongings scattered across her old bed. She reacts angrily, already stressed from her flight and from the circumstances bringing her home, but the stuff on her bed is more than just an annoyance. It’s representative of Bex’s absence in the house and Maggie’s added presence, of Maggie’s resentment and Bex’s guilt, and of their strained adult relationship.

Sarah Killough & Ellen Adair are sisters in _the goodbye room_ - Photo by Colin Shepherd
Sarah Killough and Ellen Adair in the goodbye room. Photo by Colin Shepherd

Their father Edgar (Michael Selkirk) has a far calmer disposition and lets his true feelings go largely understated. He masks his grief with dry humor and demands little from those around him.This steady demeanor, however, is tested when the sisters’ easygoing childhood friend,  Sebastian (Craig Wesley Divino), tries to help the family settle back into normalcy and reveals a crucial detail about Carolyn’s death.

The goodbye room provides a genuine portrayal of a family dynamic. Each character is deeply sympathetic– I could see my own parents and siblings in their complex needs and conflicting responses to grief. While at times a bit heavy-handed (some scenes go a bit too long, and there’s a supernatural suggestion that this essentially family-centered drama could have done without) Gilde’s script provides insight in what is said as much as in what remains unsaid. The play also moves deftly between sadness, confusion, and joy.  It allows for the audience to observe the characters in awkward, silent confrontations as well as in boozy, late-night silliness. The company’s superb acting sets a natural, well-paced tone, as does the excellent sound and set design with an attention to detail (oily pizza plates, a frog-faced mug, a crumb-filled rug)  that invests us in this family space.

The goodbye room plays at The Bridge Theatre at Shetler Studios through March 19. Tickets here.

Where’s the Body Positivity in School of Rock?

Photo: Matthew Murphy

New article up on Onstage Blog from yours truly!  Discusses how the film and musical adaptation of School of Rock differ in one fundamental way…Check it out!

The Cathartic Power of “Dot”

“Don’t write plays about nice days.” This was the mantra of Mr. Moody, who led the after-school acting class at my high school. He taught that every compelling story must have a conflict in its core. At our first session, there were no performance exercises or script readings. No, Mr. Moody wanted to make sure his students understood the elements of drama and how a game of make believe can impact the cast, the audience and society so profoundly. Attending Vineyard Theatre’s production of Dot reminded how essential the cathartic power of identifying yourself on stage is to the best drama.

Marjorie Johnson as Dotty. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Colman Domingo’s story centers on Dotty, an elderly black woman struggling with Alzheimer’s disease, and her adult children. The writing is abundant with the joy and humor of this vibrant family but simultaneously plugged into the pain and loss intrinsic to change, especially aging.  The exquisite directing of Susan Stroman enhances the tragic and comedic nuances established by Domingo as well as the natural playful dynamic between cast members.

The set is a middle-class home in present-day West Philadelphia, moving from the kitchen to the living room. The curtain is a cool-colored pointillist painting of the outside of several homes, reminiscent of the set in Sunday in the Park with George. It is the evening before Christmas Eve. Tunes by Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland set the festive, yet melancholy. When the play is about to begin the light filled windows gives way to a blackout of the entire theatre, during which the music swells in volume. The play begins abruptly upon a severe, almost blinding, switch to light. It takes a few seconds to change perspective from the blurry pixels of a lived in room to a sharpened recognition of the pictures and magnets on the refrigerator door and Dotty’s daily pillbox laying open on the kitchen table. The jarring use of lighting and sound puts audience members in the position of experiencing the dramatic change Dotty and her family are undergoing, not only due to Dotty’s illness, but also the aging of the siblings and their long time family friend Katie.

The performances are absolutely stellar and bold in their vulnerability. Dotty (Marjorie Johnson) is portrayed with refinement and complex swirls of naughty playfulness. Longtime friend and childhood neighbor of the family, Katie (Sharon Washington, who has worked alongside Domingo in Wild With Happy and Scottsboro Boys) enters the play with secret agitation about how her own life has gone in a direction she never would have predicted. This anxiety is set free in a side-splitting tsunami to Jackie in tandem with a much needed box of Cheez-Its. For a large part of Act II, the middle child Donnie (Stephen Conrad Moore) is only present as a voice mailbox in his sister Jackie’s unanswered calls of help in the caretaking of their mother. Soon after, we meet Donnie attempting to indulge in leftovers in secret. He fears that his husband Adam (Colin Hanlon) is ashamed of him for his changing body, his disengagement with drugs (with “white-girl names like Molly”), and with popular gay culture. Averie (Libya V.Pugh), the youngest child and a stormy force to be reckoned with, is YouTube starlet relentlessly stretching her small phase of fame.

Fidel (Michael Rosen) engages in fearless and gentle rapport as with Dotty as her Kazakhstani home care attendant. After spending Act I in denial of her shortcomings and lashing out at those around her, Dotty reveals she is frightened of her declining quality of life due to Alzheimer’s for the first time. This scene between Fidel and Dotty in Act II is one of the most moving scenes of the play.

But one of the most important characters in the play is someone we never meet: Jason, the young son of Jackie. The family asks themselves what families in real life are forced to ask themselves time and time again: How are we going to survive this change? Is survival even possible? On a tape recorder, Dotty shares her memories and stories she learned in school with hope that her grandson will continue getting to know her and remember he is loved by his grandma after her death, which she knows is coming soon. What does Merry Christmas mean during a time of impending loss? How do these characters, with their particular personalities and individual burdens aside from the shared concern for Dotty, take care of one another and themselves?

Facts and figures show that if you have not experienced or have had a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, it is highly likely that you will in the future. One in three of American seniors die with the disease. Despite its increasing occurrence scientists still don’t yet fully understand its cause. A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can seem like a death sentence to many, an unjust robbery of one’s own mind. And yet, even though death under these (and frankly, all) circumstances is a cruel and unfair process, Dot presents the struggle to live life to the fullest and find joy in the face of our eventual end.

The more I think about Dot, the more I want to drag anyone I like in the slightest by their collars to the box office of the Vineyard Theatre. The performances of the entire cast ignite reflection on the vulnerability required to endure human existence and allow us to rejoice in the mixed sweetness and bitterness in the fruits of family.  Dot delivers the catharsis of theatre I first learned about that day in Mr. Moody’s class. I saw myself and my family (everybody’s family!) and all our strengths and weaknesses vividly portrayed on stage with non-judgmental love, generosity, and realism. If Dotty’s family can survive this enormous struggle with grace and love, then we can too.

Dot plays at the Vineyard Theatre through March 20. Tickets and information here.

The Pillowman Will Give Some Needed Chills this Warm Winter

I first read Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman during one of the most productive and exciting lunch breaks I’ve ever had. I downloaded a PDF on my computer, leaned back in my office swivel chair, and spent the following hour completely engrossed in this teasingly grotesque, entirely unpredictable, and darkly comic play. It was the perfect complement to my 9-to-5, and stimulating enough to keep my mind rampant with reflections and questions through my commute home.

Brandon Walker, Logan Keeler, and John D’Arcangelo in The Pillowman

This new production of The Pillowman, produced by The Seeing Place Theater, is running in rep with Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams as part of Seeing Place’s paired thematic exploration of how violent storytellers are dealt with by fearful authorities. The storyteller in this case is Katurian (Artistic Director Brandon Walker), whose violent creations have caught the attention of Detectives Tupolski (John D’Arcangelo) and Ariel (Logan Keeler). The detectives rough him up and make insinuations about Katurian’s socio-political motives—it is clear that the government’s been watching his career closely, as well as the whereabouts of his mentally-disabled brother Michael (Daniel Michael Perez). What you might expect to be a commentary on art and censorship, however, soon becomes something entirely different and far more complex. We learn that a disturbingly large number of Katurian’s stories depict children being brutally mutilated, killed, and even committing suicide, and someone in the town has been copying the murders.

The rest of the play vacillates between these totalitarian interrogation room scenes and Katurian’s storytelling, through which we discover the inspiration for his morbidity—his horrifying childhood—and the unique role his brother plays in his life. The genius of The Pillowman is how its analysis of physical and institutional violence avoids a top-down approach to power. Rather, every character’s power is intricately linked to their victimhood. While the detectives, as representative of the government, may appear to be the main abusers of power, it is actually Katurian and his brother whose actions lead to the most harrowing consequences. Michael’s childlike vulnerability, in particular, is the main means of terror in the story. Because he and his brother were preyed upon as children, they now hold the tools to enact it upon others, even if their actions were unintended. The violence of their childhood is repeated in adulthood in the mere expression of their tales. Is the artist responsible for the actions he inspires in his readers, even as he only tries to grapple with his past? Are we to be trusted with the resolution of our own traumas, or will these traumas repeat themselves in the subconscious of our society?

In the interrogation scenes, Brandon Walker’s Katurian spends a bit too much of his time pinching his nose and sniffling after getting beat up by Detective Ariel for the actors to really allow the dialogue to resonate. There were several points where the play’s absurdly dark humor, a style all McDonagh’s own, failed to come through. More nuanced were the scenes between Katurian and his brother. Perez’s sensitive portrayal of Michael illuminates both his victimhood and his resilience. Their scenes together succeed in giving the play its ultimately flawed heart.

Walker’s intensity was put to better use in Katurian’s storytelling. Here, his grief was steadily mixed with an engaging style. The childlike simplicity of Katurian’s fairytales-gone-awry is strongly contrasted with the savagery of their content (much like Katurian’s own childhood experience) and Waker’s re-telling left me with goosebumps more than once. The storytelling scenes also used computer graphics, musical sound effects, and a three-person ensemble representing Katurian’s family, to enliven the long oral narratives. Some of the scenes would have been just as effective without the visual and sounds effects, though I did think that the presence of Katurian’s family in the background served nicely to remind the audience how the brutality of our cultural myths and legends is not just the stuff fairytales but rather very much alive in our institutions (the state, the family) and our relationships.

A disturbing reflection on violent folktales and the cultures that produce them, The Pillowman is a must-see for anyone who enjoys their theatre with a hearty dose of harrowing surprises, moral dilemmas, and cynical humor.

The Pillowman and Gidion’s Knot, directed by Brandon Walker and Erin Cronican, play in rep at The Clarion Theater through December 20. Visit The Seeing Place Theater for tickets.

Our Podcast on ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch!’

Sara, a ‘Hedwig’ novice, and Norma, an obsessed fan, finally see ‘Hedwig’ together and discuss their thoughts about the show. We talk about Taye Diggs’ performance and the significance of the first black Hedwig, the press’s awkward and insensitive coverage of the show, and the show’s gender and romantic themes.

Warning: We do let the occasional curse slip  every now and then.

Links to things discussed in our podcast:

That awful TMZ video (dabbling in ass play)

That terrible Theater Talk interview (c’mon guys!)

That insensitve NYTimes profile (seriously now)

‘Tonya and Nancy: A Rock Opera’ Is Deliciously Camp

While Hamilton and Burr duel just a few blocks away, the New York Musical Theatre Festival brings us another infamous, Olympic-sized rivalry set to song. Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera has become a highlight of the summer festival, and it’s easy to see why: it’s gloriously camp and relentlessly energetic with a scandalously good cast bringing home the gold.

Jenna Leigh Green and Tracy McDowell as Nancy and Tonya. Photo by Robert Pushkar

Unless you were born after 1994, you’ll know that the titular competitors refer to figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. Their battleground? The 1994 Olympics, where both Harding and Kerrigan compete on Team USA. The two women were from polar opposite American backgrounds. Harding was a Portland-raised, truck-driving, gun-wielding high-school dropout who was perceived as a ‘bad girl’ in the press. Kerrigan was graceful ingenue from middle-class New England, with sweetheart looks enough to cover Time Magazine. Scandal erupted when Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gilloly hired a hit man to whack Kerrigan on the knee shortly before the competition. The rivalry grew only more fierce until neither woman winning the gold in the end. Written by Elizabeth Searle (book and lyrics) and Michael Teoli this new musical tracks the girls’ upbringing, their competition, and the aftermath.

Campy, self-aware comedies thrive in festival environments– the low-budget, makeshift limitations of a festival like NYMF or Fringe do more favors for fast-paced, witty works than serious, realist dramas. Tonya and Nancy, however, manages to give us a thrilling, high-quality production with all the heart and passion of an indie comedy. The ensemble here works their faux-skates off with well-choreographed, dynamic numbers and serve multiple roles. Their energy was astounding. Jenna Leigh Green is a great fit for fresh-faced Nancy, and is reliably graceful in both her defeats and victories. Tracy McDowell is a hilarious Tonya, playing up her naive penchant for bad boys and bathrobes. Liz McCartney plays both mothers (Nancy’s simple and kind mother versus Tonya’s drunk, crude mother)– her quick changes and inventiveness are highlights of the show. And Tony Lepage has powerhouse pipes and charm, even as scumbag villain Gillooly. Yet, Searle and Teoli always treat Nancy and Tonya with good will and perspective. The show may be satirical, but the author’s sympathy for the womens’ situation shines through at all times. The songs are not only entertaining and thoughtful, but also tremendously catchy–my feet couldn’t stop bouncing throughout the entire show (sorry, neighbor!)

If you were enraptured with this saga (along with millions of others around the world), go see this show. You will shout with glee and love for this good-natured, endlessly entertaining show. And if you didn’t, you’ll catch on soon enough, and the work’s ingenuity will be enough to keep you hooked.

Tonya and Nancy: A Rock Opera plays at NYMF through July 16. Tickets here.

Podcast: Oklahoma!: The Sweat, Blood, and Dirt Edition

Website for Oklahoma! at Fisher Center.

Sara and Mariaisabel took a roadtrip upstate to Annandale-on-Hudson’s Fisher Center and saw an immersive and modernized production of Oklahoma! We talk about its relevance to modern America, the exciting new staging, all the delicious chili, and more! Yeeow!

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