Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Radical, Relevant Revival of a Witheringly Insightful, Hilarious Broadway Artifact from the 1930s

If you think a Broadway musical from 1937 couldn’t possibly have much relevance to this century, you haven’t seen Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock. In this era, most people haven’t. Created under the New Deal auspices of the Federal Theater Project, the Feds notoriously closed it down on the eve of its initial Broadway premiere for being too radical. One can only imagine what the Trumpies would make of something that FDR’s people found too subversive.

The Classic Stage Company‘s current revival – continuing through May 18 – couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. Beyond John Doyle’s masterfully smart direction, getting the absolute max out of a minimalist set and a multi-talented cast, what’s most stunning is how well Blitzstein’s uproariously spot-on piece of agitprop has aged. Quaintness only arises in its many historical ironies – like the once-ubiquitous reality of steel made by American union labor, rather than by Chinese slaves.

This show is all about co-optation, and duplicity, Without spoiling the plot (for those who missed the 1999 Tim Robbins film of the same title), be aware that there’s considerable irony in the costumes. Blitzstein’s relentless satire spares no one, other than protagonist and union organizer Larry Foreman, played by a tireless, ebullient Tony Yazbeck, who, interestingly, appears in only about ten percent of the dialogue. He’s looking forward to what appears to be an across-the-board victory for the workers of Steeltown, USA. Only local steel magnate Mr. Mister (David Garrison, who gives him a glowering Lionel Barrymore menace), stands in the way. But he’s making it really hard for everybody. Before the curtain falls, there will be more than one shooting; at least one hapless employee gets caught in the machinery.

Most of the action takes place in song. That those numbers have held up so well over the years testifies to Blitzstein’s reliance on Kurt Weill-style noir, Cole Porter cleverness,, and tinges of gospel and klezmer rather than Depresssion-era vaudeville schlock. Period references abound: lockouts, sitdown strikes, strikebreaking violence. It’s no wonder the censors were so frightened. Everybody sings and plays multiple roles, including three of the cast showing off better-than-average chops at the piano. Rema Webb gets the big arioso vocal moment and hits it out of the park. Kara Mikula distinguishes herself with her voice, on the keys, and also in a fleeting, completely unexpected acrobatic bit. Lara Pulver has brassy poignancy as a hooker in jail, as well as a completely contrasting, savagely ironic alter ego of sorts.

Sally Ann Triplett plays Mrs. Mister with a hilariously relsolute, clueless determination. As her ditzy, heavy-lidded slacker kid, Larry Cooper is even funnier: fauxhemianism goes back a lot further than Bushwick. Benjamin Eakeley is priceless as a mercenary violin virtuoso who gladly lets Mr. Mister buy him off, as pretty much everybody else who might be instrumental in keeping the unions of his mill does. Some have qualms – a doctor, a professor, the publisher of the local newspaper – but eventually pretty much everybody falls in line. Ken Barnett and Ian Lowe impressively negotiate roles on both sides of the divide.

Yet as corrosively cynical as this show is, it’s also a feel-good story. As the protagonist explains, sure, he gets thrown in jail for passing out leaflets – “inciting a riot” was the 1930s equivalent of “terrorism” – but he’s perfectly content to be one of many, standing on the shoulders of giants. Victory really seems inevitable – and in an era that would create union representation for almost thirty percent of American workers, it’s easy to see how contagious that optimism would be. In the meantime, let’s wish the best to the Mexican maquiladora workers in their struggle for something approaching a living wage.

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April 21, 2019 Posted by | drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Momenta Quartet Stage a New Classic of Classical Music for Children

How can you tell if a chamber music performance is appropriate for children? By how the kids react, for one. Yesterday morning, the Momenta Quartet’s boisterously amusing multimedia show, The Lost String Quartet – by their violist Stephanie Griffin – kept two busloads of five-year-olds engaged and for the most part equally well-behaved for over an hour. It’s one thing to keep a preschooler close to you, with the occasional reminder to sit still. Two whole posses of them, all surrounded by their fellow crazymakers, completely change the game.

The plot, based on N. M. Bodecker’s now out-of-print 1983 children’s book, concerns not a missing piece of music but a missing ensemble. The Momentas  cast themselves as the musicians, abetted by actor Fernando Villa Proal, who chewed the scenery with relish in multiple roles as emcee, truck driver, prison warden and several other personalities. The plot follows the misadventures of a quartet who have to deal with all sorts of vehicular drama on their way to a gig – late. And much as the humor is G-rated, it’s far more Carnival of the Animals than Peter and the Wolf. The group have to go down into the sewer at one point – ewwww! The kids loved that.

And like the Simpsons, the jokes have multiple levels of meaning, the musical ones especially. Adults, as well as older gradeschool children who have some familiarity with standard classical repertoire, will no doubt get a big kick out of them. In a mostly wordless performance, the group acquit themselves impressively as actors, in expressively vaudevillian roles. Are violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki really the merry prankster and space-case introvert in the group? Is cellist Michael Haas as dangerously stubborn as his role, or Griffin the quartet’s deus ex machina? That could be an inside joke.

Griffin’s score, some of it improvisational, is sublime, and the group sink their fangs into it, no small achievement considering the physical demands of the acting. Just the slithery, menacing, distantly Indian-tinged viola solo that opens the show, and appears later in disguise, is worth the price of admission. The deliberately educational moments, i.e. how a string quartet’s instruments differentiate from each other, are understated and flow seamlessly within the narrative.

As you would expect, a lot of the music – usually performed in configurations other than the full foursome – is pretty broad too, if hardly easy to play. Doppler effects, sirens, sad-face wah-wah riffs and the like pop up all over the place. But the rest is more carnivalesque than cartoonish There’s vastly more of a Bartok influence, or for that matter echoes of Luciano Berio or Jessica Pavone, than there is buffoonery.

What’s most impressive is that the quartet do double duty as what might, in tightlipped chamber music lingo, be called a hybrid ensemble. Who knew that Haas was such a capable percussionist, playing discernible melodies on found objects including a car door panel and oil pan? Or that Griffin could spiral around on melodica as if she was Augustus Pablo?

This is where the show’s subversive undercurrent takes centerstage What the Momenta Quartet are proposing is tthat if we expose kids to the avant garde when they’re young enough, they’ll be smart enough to laugh at any older, know-it-all Grinch who might sneer, “Oh, contemporary classical music, it’s so harsh and boring and pretentious.”

This piece has a huge upside. The quartet could tour it if they could find the time – it’s hard to imagine a cultural center in this country who wouldn’t stage it. It’s probably an overstatement to suggest that it could be a Broadway hit. Then again, kids are certainly ready for it. Be the first family on your block to see it when the Momenta Quartet’s perform it tomorrow, Dec 10, with sets at 10 and 11 AM at the Time In Children’s Arts Initiative, 227 W. 29th St, Studio 4R just north of FIT. Admission is free, and reservations are highly recommended.

December 9, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, children's music, classical music, concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Harrowing, Ferociously Relevant Mother-Daughter Conflict at the French Institute

While there’s nonstop drama and some actual physical violence in Nazmiye and Havva Oral’s No Longer Without You, a searing mother-daughter conflict currently in its US debut run at the French Institute/Alliance Française, its most serious fireworks are only alluded to. We don’t get more than a mention of the abortion, or passing references to the screaming matches and literal tug-of-war between religious Muslim mother and her willful daughter determined to escape the confines of what she feels is an antedeluvian, misogynist environment.

On a surface level, this is a feel-good story of female empowerment and triumph over adversity. A Turkish immigrant in Holland, Havva raises her Nazmiye with an iron fist in a strict religious household. Nazmiye’s father dies young and doesn’t figure much in this story: it’s clear who runs the show in this family. But Nazmiye doesn’t want an arranged marriage at age eighteen and a life of domesticity like her mom. So she leaves home, marries a foreigner, has a couple of daughters of her own, divorces and becomes a world-famous journalist and performer along the way. What’s not to be proud of?

Havva doesn’t exactly see it that way. In this performance piece, she’s less volubly critical than Nazmiye recalls, dredging up one childhood battle after another. And she’s withholding. What Nazmiye wants most is her mother’s love. In the piece’s most touching scene, Nazmiye recalls that despite the disputes and the terror of being dragged off by a teenage husband-to-be whom she doesn’t even like, the one place she feels secure is in her mother’s arms. And time after time, Havva keeps her at arms length.

Yet Havva is also anything but an ogre. Her traditional garb makes a stark contrast with her daughter’s scarlet dress. She’s calm, stolid, unassailably confident and someone who says a lot in a few aphoristic words. And she’s funny! As the piece progresses, it’s clear that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, two indomitable women, each with big dreams. Daughter speaks in English, mother answers in Turkish, usually translated by Seval Okyay, who also provides gorgeous, haunting musical interludes with electric saz lute and a soulful, often plaintive voice. If there’s anything this performance could use more of, it’s Okyay.

While the cultural idiom here is specifically Muslim, the story is an all-too-familiar one: escapees from militant Christian and Orthodox Jewish environments tell the same tale. Beyond the breaking of one taboo after another – where Havva seems genuinely worried for her daughter’s soul, not to mention her own – the most shocking moment of all might be where Nazmiye asks what right a mother has to live vicariously through her daughter. Havva asserts that it’s perfectly kosher for a child to be the vehicle for a parent’s aspirations – or dashed hopes, perhaps. It’s another familiar dynamic. Obsessive Colorado pageant moms, psycho Texas football dads and harried Park Slope helicopter parents would find themselves more at home in Nazmiye’s childhood environment than they might think.

More poignantly, there are several “do you love me” moments: the answer may surprise you, like the ending, which is anything other than pat. But the one question that Nazmiye never asks, after all she’s accomplished, is “Are you proud of me?” One suspects the response would be more predictable.

Adelheid Roosen’s direction is everything the relationship isn’t: comfortable and familial, the audience seated on comfy cushions around the floor, living room style. There is also a little interaction with the audience, which is similarly welcoming and comforting and a serendipitous respite from the intensity of the performance. The final show today is sold out, but the Institute’s long-running events and concert schedule, including their legendary film series continues through the fall. 

October 15, 2017 Posted by | concert, drama, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sarah Small’s Provocative Secondary Dominance: Highlight of This Year’s Prototype Festival

Sarah Small’s work draws you in and then makes you think. It says, “Get comfortable, but not too comfortable.” It questions, constantly. Throughout her fascinating, understatedly provocative multimedia work Secondary Dominance last night at Here – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – there was so much happening onstage that the leader of the Q&A afterward confessed to having a page worth of notes and no idea where to start.

Executive produced by Rachelle Cohen, the roughly hourlong performance began immediately as the audience settled into their seats, a warm, lustrous voice singing a gorgeous love song in Arabic wafting over the PA. Who was responsible for this gentle and reassuring introduction? It turned out to be Small’s Black Sea Hotel bandmate Shelley Thomas, seated stage right with an assortment of drums and percussion implements.

About midway through, the composer herself emerged from behind her two keyboards and mixing desk – mounted on a podium colorfully decorated like a curbside shrine out of the George Lucas universe – and stooped over, to the side as a trio of dancers – Jennifer Keane, Eliza S. Tollett and Carmella Lauer, imaginatively choreographed by Vanessa Walters – floated on their toes. Meanwhile, Small’s chalked-up collaborator Wade McCollum lurked tenuously behind her as her calmly uneasy vocalese mingled with the atmospherics looming from Marta Bagratuni’s cello, Peter Hess’ flute and Thomas’ voice and drums. A simultaneous projection of the action onstage played on a screen overhead, capturing Small’s lithely muscular, spring-loaded presence in shadowy three-quarter profile.

McCollum’s wordless narrative behind Small’s music explores power dynamics, memory and family tension. Gloria Jung and Henry Packer exuded regal integrity and a stolidity that cut both ways:  there was a moment where someone tried to pry something out of someone’s hand that was as cruelly funny as it was quietly vaudevillian. Ballet school, its rigors and demands was another metaphorically-loaded, recurrent motif, and the dancers held up under duress while barely breaking a sweat. McCollum’s ghostly character didn’t emerge from a fetal position until the spectacle had been underway for awhile, which ended up transcending any ordinary, otherworldly association.

What was otherworldly was the music, which, characteristically, spans the worlds of indie classical, art-rock and the Balkan folk traditions that Small has explored so vividly, as a singer, arranger and composer since her teens. What’s most notable about this surreal, nonlinear suite is that while it encompasses Balkan music – with brief, acerbic, closer harmonies sung by Small, Thomas, Bagratuni and McCollum, in addition to a projection of a lustrously lit seaside Black Sea Hotel music video directed by Josephine Decker  – the majority of it draws on western influences. Inspired by a series of dreams and an enigmatic, recurrent character named Jessica Brainstorm – who may be an alter ego – the sequence has the same cinematic sweep as Small’s work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, grounded by Bagratuni’s austere, sometimes grim low register, Hess sailing warily overhead, sometimes mingling with the voices and electronic ambience. As the show went on, the music grew more detailed, with interludes ranging from gently pulsing, midtempo 80s darkwave, to rippling nocturnal themes evocative of Tuatara’s gamelanesque mid-90s psychedelia.

The work as a whole is a stunning example of how Small so often becomes the focal point of a collaboration that brings out the best in everyone involved.  Over the years, these efforts cross a vast swath of art forms: from her playfully ambitious body of photography in the early zeros, to Black Sea Hotel, to her surrealistically sinister starring role in Decker’s cult classic suspense/slasher film Butter on the Latch, and her lavish “tableaux vivants” staged earlier in this decade, equal parts living sculpture, slo-mo dance flashmob, dada theatre and fearless exploration of intimacy in an era of atomization, data mining and relentless surveillance. Small and McCollum have plans for both a more small-scale, “chamber version” of this piece as well as an epic 1200-person version for the Park Avenue Armory, still in the early stages of development. For now, you can be provoked and thoroughly entertained at the remaining three performances at 9 PM, tonight, Jan 12 through 14 in the downstairs theatre at Here, 145 6th Ave south of Spring (enter on Dominick Street). Cover is $30.

January 12, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, dance, drama, experimental music, gypsy music, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pandemonium and Nonstop Laughs at the Faux-Real Theatre Company’s Lysistrata

Somehow the Faux-Real Theatre Company has found a way to make Lysistrata even funnier than the original. Their performance of Aristophanes’ filthy antiwar feminist polemic last night at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, directed by Mark Greenfield, mixed in-your-face punk rock shock value and carnivalesque pandemonium into an orgy of hilarious sexual innuendo and battle-of-the-sexes humor whose relevance has never waned in the span of more than two millennia. While dramaturge Aaron Poochigian has taken some liberties with the original by sprinkling in some droll contemporary references, the script follows the original more closely than you’d think from this adaptation, emphasis on sexual politics which even by this era’s standards might seem risque.

Men do not get off very well in this play to begin with, a springboard for this production’s most side-splitting moments. See, the never-ending war between Athens and Sparta has not only sent all the guys off to battle, it’s also cut off the sex toy trade. So one, or two, or…um….maybe a handful of them (or, more accurarely, an armload of them) make an appearance throughout the show. The sight gags, and how they’re directed, are too good to spoil. Suffice it to say that the Greeks in this cast may want their wives first, but they’ll settle for their fellow soldiers in a pinch. Arguably the funniest moment of the entire play involves a demigod cast as a lubed-up drag queen, another moment that the cast relishes: the sold-out crowd was howling.

In a nod back to ancient tradition, everybody plays multiple gender roles, but in this case so do the women in the cast. Stephanie Regina imbues – and sings – the titular role with an unexpected, tongue-in-cheek gravitas in contrast to Elena Taurke’s sardonic Calonice, Josephine Wheelwright’s cynical Myrrhine, Emma Orme’s irrepressible chorus girl, Dominique Salerno’s self-centered Lampito and Layna Fisher’s feisty sexy-grandma role. The men in the cast are all pretty much the same lunkheaded guy, easily manipulated and unable to think outside the box, but the group as a whole – Jason Scott Quinn, Tony Naumovski, Alan Fessenden, Aaron Scott, Dorian Shorts, Ricardo Muniz, Tom Metzger and Aidan Nelson – have a stomping, dionysian good time setting themselves up to be pussywhipped and then brought to embrace the womens’ ironclad pacificist logic.

Greenfield has fashioned an entertainingly vaudevillian acoustic score where the cast join in singing several of the chorus parts, plus a couple of what sound like originals that suggest what John Waters might do with this, played with tightness and wry verve from many corners and a considerable distance by multi-instrumentalists Jeff Wood and Jim Galbraith. You will be offered wine by a tunic-garbed cast member as you enter (grape juice and grapes are an alternative), and you may become something of an extra in the play’s most comedic moments if you take an aisle seat. The final two dates in the currrent run are tonight, Oct 21 and tomorrow, Oct 22 at 7 PM at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, 263 E 3rd St. between Aves A and B. Admission is $18/$15 stud/srs.

October 21, 2015 Posted by | drama, Live Events, New York City, review, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Joris Lacoste Brings His Hilarious Found Sounds to NYC

The second the supertitle of a 2003 pre-Iraq War George W. Bush television address hit the screen, chuckles made their way through the audience at Joris Lacoste‘s Suite No. 2 at the French Alliance this past evening. The same thing happened a little earlier with a less unintentionally funny announcement from a Donald Trump property. But those were the coarsest jokes in an evening full of them, most of them vastly more subtle and just as crushingly relevant. It’s something of a shock that as of late this evening, tomorrow’s performance is not sold out. Seriously: if you need a laugh, this is is for you. Friday’s show, in comfortable, plush Florence Gould Hall at 55 E 59th St. is at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.

Is it choral music? Not really, although there are moments where the five-person lineup (three men, two women) join voices seamlessly. Is it theatre? In the sense that the cast are narrating material from the vast online archive L’encyclopedie de la parole, yes. Is it comedy? Extremely. Central to this performance is a reading of the Portuguese parliamentary decision – rendered in a deadpan monotone in the original language, with English supertitles – to cut salaries and necessary services in order to meet the German bankers’ Euro membership requirements. Superimposed amidst this are dialogue from a porn video, a mallstore opening celebration, a frustrated cellphone customer telling off her provider network, and other reconstructed random moments too good to give away here.

Some of the more obvious LOL sequences are a soccer coach’s predictably over-the-top pregame address to his team, a cruelly inept song performed at an open mic, a drunk girl on reality tv and a family video where a fascist Christian family – their most likely closeted gay patriarch included – publicly disown their openly gay son. Less obvious and arguably funnier found footage, all narrated in a deadpan, straightforward fashion that only amps up the LOL factor, includes a haphazardly spot-on diatribe on racism from a drunken, homeless African immigrant in the Paris subway (in French) and a scary manifesto from a wannabe Islamofascist terrorist in Australia (in Arabic).

Cornered after this past evening’s show and asked whether the more seemingly private moments were hacked, Lacoste cited the web, and particular Youtube and Facebook as endless sources of inspiration…and raw material. And he’s site-specific: he tailors this performance to every location where it’s staged. The most New York-centric quote of this particular show was also among the most touching. Where, among all available historic landmarks,  does Lacoste’s breathless teenage pal want to convene with all her friends? At Anthology Film Archives. Otherwise, be careful – your online indiscretions might just show up in Lacoste’s Suite No. 3!

September 10, 2015 Posted by | drama, Live Events, New York City, NYC Live Music Calendar, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Norian Maro’s Deliriously Entertaining Korean Harvest Spectacle Keeps the Crowd on Their Feet

You might think that a drum-and-dance troupe performing an ancient Korean peasants’ nongak harvest festival celebration would draw a mostly Korean audience, right? Friday night at Flushing Town Hall in Queens, Korean ensemble Norian Maro (whose name translates roughly as “Premier Performance”) had an unmistakably multi-ethnic, sold-out New York crowd, ranging from in age from kids to their grandparents, on their feet, cheering and stomping along with the irresistibly kinetic performance onstage.

The show reached a peak and then stayed there for its final twenty minutes or so, the performers clad in bright costumes and wearing caps topped with streamers on a swivel. The group members charged with the task – pretty much everybody – first spun their heads in a semicircle to activate the swivel and get the streamers flying in big arcs behind them, all the while spinning around the stage, and also playing intricate polyrhythms on a diverse collection of drums at the same time. And nobody onstage could resist a grin as they worked an ecstatic call-and-response with the crowd – and made it all look easy. How they managed to do that without losing their balance, or the beat, or a lot more, was mind-boggling. As a display of sheer athletic grace combined with musical prowess, it’s hard to imagine witnessing anything more impressive in this city in the past several months.

Norian Maro premiered the piece, titled Leodo: Paradise Lost, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last fall. It’s a metaphorical tale of the cycle of renewal, personified by a lithe dancer who gets caught in an ocean undertow and then comes face to face with the sea gods, among them a strikingly decorated dragon figure requiring two group members to keep him on his feet. After some very vigorous resuscitation, she’s transported to a magical isle where she comes to life again. One of the women in the group sang the narrative in Korean, in low, mysterious, otherworldly microtones, a revealing glimpse of the ancient, mysterious roots of dramatic Korean pansori singing.

As meticulously choreographed and spectacularly athletic as the dancing was, the stars of the show were the drummers, on a series of janggu drums ranging from a big, boomy tom, to a metal gong, to smaller metal hand drums that provided both clanging and mutedly shimmering tones. The star among all the players was a petite woman with a double-headed drum slung over her shoulder that was almost as big as she was, which she played in two separate time signatures at once, at one point firing off long volleys with a single mallet on both drum heads. Of all the players onstage, including Jong Suk Ki, Jung Hyeon Yung, Min Kyoung Ha, Sungjin Choi and Yoo Jeong Oh, she seemed to be having the most fun. Although one of the guys in the group had an equally good time with a tassel that he swung about fifty feet into the crowd, then later spun and spun until he had it flying from the roof to the floor of the stage, practically cartwheeling to keep it in motion.

The Korean Cultural Service, who staged this show, have a series of enticing concerts and spectacles coming up here. The next one is by Korean classical pianist Eunbi Kim playing works by Debussy, Fred Hersch, Daniel Bernard Roumain and others at 7 PM on Feb 26. Admission is free, but you have to RSVP, the sooner the better: and make sure to get to Flushing Town Hall’s historic Gilded Age auditorium, about five blocks from the last stop on the 7 train, at least a half hour early in order to claim your seats.

January 17, 2015 Posted by | concert, dance, drama, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ivar Pall Jonsson’s Sinister New Rock Musical Is a Hit

“If we act like we know what we’re doing, people will think we know what we’re doing,” Marrick Smith’s tirelessly ambitious yuppie character announces at a particularly pivotal juncture in Ivar Pall Jonsson‘s surrealistically sinister, fearlessly relevant new rock musical, Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson, Furniture Painter, currently playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre. Inspired by the Enron-like run on the Icelandic krona by currency speculators in the wake of the 2008 global financial collapse, the musical is a cruelly telling parable of how the ruling classes and those elected to represent them manipulate the rest of us – and convince us that their failures are somehow ours instead. As both political and musical satire, it’s surprisingly subtle, considering how much dramatic fireworks take place and how over-the-top the parody gets in places. With roots in hippie agitprop, glam rock and George Orwell, it’s well worth the price of admission and with better branding would have a very high upside on Broadway.

The story is simple. Elbowville is a sleepy town full of people situated deep in the titular laborer’s body, south of Mombreast and north of Knee York City and its trendy suburb, Hipburg. As befits satire, the characters are all pretty broad. Cady Huffman’s Manuela, the mayor, starts out egocentrically brassy and gets increasingly diabolical as the plot unwinds. Smith’s Peter, inventor of the Prosperity Machine that brings the town great joy and hilariously spoofy bodily “enhancements,” is insatiable in his quest for more and more until the whole scheme seems on the brink of collapse (a crisis that resolves itself via flashback early on). Jesse Wildman methodically emboldens the persona of Brynja, the ingenue who can’t decide between bossy Peter and his shy, good-hearted brother (Graydon Long). Brad Nacht is exasperatingly unwavering and amusing as doofy third-wheel brother Stein, who will avoid a decision at all costs just to get along. Kate Shindle lends an acerbic fire to his status-grubbing but increasingly suspicious wife Asrun, while Patrick Boll is wickedly perfect as Manuela’s sneaky, kiss-ass straight man, Kolbein (which sounds suspiciously like “Cobain” throughout the performance).

The satire goes beyond politics to Broadway spectacle itself. A good portion of the action unfolds during song sequences, and not a single character bothers to imbue his or her vocals with anything other than a rote, smiley-faced, Disney-approved cheer (which seems to be a directorial decision, a very effective one). The music, also by Jonsson, is catchy and tuneful, drawing heavily on Aladdin Sane-era David Bowie as well as the more anthemic side of 80s new wave pop, with a bit of metal crunch or goth horror in the tenser moments. The band – Matt Basile on bass, Bryn Roberts on keyboards, John Kengla and Rob Ritchie on guitars plus a terse, swinging drummer who somehow managed not to let an injured leg in a thigh-high boot stop him – play with dynamics and intensity.

Interestingly, the narrative positions the local powers that be as the villains, without taking into account external factors conspiring against them – there are a couple of very amusing repo man/woman scenes, but that’s about it. As the bank or its facsimile gets run on, pandemonium ensues and it looks like somebody’s going to get strung up. The sudden ending packs an unexpected wallop. This show succeeds on all levels: as comedy, as corrosively cynical political commentary, as a rock show. And there’s a soundtrack album – sung by the actors and band in the original Icelandic production – that you can listen back to.

Back to that title: it’s got to go for this to succeed on any sizeable level in the US.  A show this accessible yet this impactful could have a real future on Broadway (that Fela managed to last as long as it did is good reason to believe the time is ripe for a similarly edgy 99-percenters’ tale). But xenophobic American tourist audiences won’t buy Ragnar whateverhisnameis. Elbowville would work just fine.

August 12, 2014 Posted by | drama, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Derek Ahonen’s The Qualification of Douglas Evans: A Corrosively Funny Meta-Comedy

A persistent sense of meta fuels Derek Ahonen‘s hilariously satirical new play The Qualification of Douglas Evans, an Amoralists production running through August 9 at the Walker Space, 46 Walker St. (off West Broadway) in Tribeca. The playwright plays Evans, a playwright himself, tracing his romantic and alcohol-fueled adventures and misadventures (far more of the latter than the former) from dorky acting student, to enfant terrible of the New York theatre underground, to a long downward spiral that seems to telegraph where it’s all going to end with the first slurred words of a long bender. Booze may be Evans’ muse, but women are a close second, and Ahonen mines his character’s inability to navigate a series of relationships for an often devastating look at the battle of the sexes. Along the way, Ahonen directs plenty of venom at backbiting and careerism in the New York theatre world. The writing is crisp, the humor murderously spot-on: the jokes come lickety-split, one after the other.

The acting is as acerbic as Ahonen’s dialogue. Kelley Swindall plays Jessica, who takes Evans’ virginity, with a cynical self-awareness that’s all the more amusing for being completely deadpan and straightforward. And while the other characters seem at first to be straight out of Central Casting, Ahonen gives them all a counterintuitive edge. Mandy Nicole Moore plays Douglas’ first drunken foil, Kimmy, your classic cluelessly chirpy drunk chick, who as it turns out has something up her sleeve. Samantha Strelitz is deliciously self-serving as the fauxhemian trust fund girl who suddenly drops back into the picture when it seems she can play the starfucker role. Agatha Nowicki gets the play’s most complex and arguably most troubling role as Cara, whose immutable, Adderal-fueled new age cheer masks inner torment every bit the match for Evans’ demons. Those are illuminated via flashbacks with Evans’ alcoholic dad and codependent mom (Penny Bittone and Barbara Weetman, who also shine in multiple roles).

While the first act plays up the jokes for every possible ounce of corrosive cynicism, the second is practically the reverse image of the first, a theme straight out of Charles Bukowski whose ending you can see a mile away – or can you? No spoilers here.

July 14, 2014 Posted by | drama, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vickie Tanner’s Casually Searing, Insightful Solo Show Earns Another Run

One-man or one-woman theatre pieces are usually to be avoided at all costs. Former sitcom stars recounting every anxious second of a struggle to adopt a Chinese baby…addled old men doing standup about their time in rehab as a condition of their probation…you know the drill. The famous exceptions to the rule – Krapp’s Last Tape, Eric Bogosian in general – give the genre a better reputation than it deserves. Vickie Tanner‘s nonchalantly incendiary solo show Running Into Me, which ended last month at LaMaMa, rises to the level of the latter category and deserves to be brought back in a larger room, especially considering how explosively audiences responded during the run’s final performances there.

With a nonchalant gleam in her eye and a disarmingly direct delivery, Tanner employs her stilletto wit throughout an autobiographical narrative that in many ways is a metaphor for racial relations in American in the here and now. Director Bruce McCarty doesn’t wait ten seconds to set up a clever device that amps the suspense to fever pitch, leaving an unresolved question and its potentially ghastly answer to linger until the very end of the show. In between, Tanner lets her story speak for itself. While an ironclad logic fuels her acerbic humor – her bullshit detector is set to stun as far as hypocrites and cognitive dissonance are concerned – she doesn’t preach.

Tanner is straight outta Compton…originally, that is. But her easygoing if exasperated account of her younger days on the playground in Ice Cube’s old turf quickly takes on a series of ironies, most drastically when she goes to live with her drug dealer dad. And suddenly…she’s transformed from ghetto girl to comfortable suburbanite, with a car of her own, a guidance counselor who assumes college is in everyone’ s plans, and a big-screen tv where she can get lost in whatever’s playing on Turner Classics. This is the first of many implications offered obliquely throughout the show, that people will follow their own compass no matter what their ethnic or economic background, especially if given the opportunity. Without stating it outright, Tanner’s point is that her story could be pretty much anyone’s: what makes hers different is that people make assumptions about her that they shouldn’t.

Over and over, what makes Tanner’s narrative so appealing – and its occasional disquieting detail so appalling – is how universal it is. College girl/party animal with no idea of what she wants to do afterward suddenly gets the epiphany that New York is where she belongs…and the race is on. From there it’s a whirlwind trail of absurd dayjobs – one particularly heartbreaking one in the New York City public schools – bad apartments and one obstacle after another. What gets Tanner over the hump, and gets her over with the crowd as well, is her dedication to her muse and the unlikely places it leads her, the intimation being that not that many young African-American women from Compton are unlikely to find their niche in the world of New York experimental theatre. Throughout what may seem to be an unlikely success story (though certainly not to Tanner herself), she slings the occasional bullseye at preconceptions on every side of what could be called a racial divide. The media takes the most direct hits; in one particularly casual but poignant moment late in the show, she muses on her experience working a college fair for a mostly black crowd of high school kids uptown. And whatever deprivation they may have faced, Tanner marvels, “They’re just like me.” These kids aren’t thugs, they’re just looking to get ahead like anybody else. Balanced against that ultimately triumphant conclusion, the denouement packs quite a wallop and puts those hopes in very, very clear perspective. California-bred though she may be, Tanner is ours now and we’re better off for it. Come to think of it, it’s hard to imagine her anywhere else.

November 23, 2013 Posted by | drama, review, theatre | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment