Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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

Federico Garcia Lorca Inspires a Twisted, Funny, Cruelly Ironic Puppet Show

Don Cristobal and his sidekick Rosita are the Spanish equivalent of Punch and Judy. In their new show Don Cristobal: Billy-Club Man, Luminescent Orchestrii multi-instrumentalist Rima Fand and puppetry designer-director Erin Orr intersperse Federico Garcia Lorca poems set to haunting, flamenco-tinged original music within a sly, innuendo-fueled program that’s part dirty puppet show, part shadowplay and part farce. Lorca several times hinted that Don Cristobal may be deeper than a mere one-dimensional buffoon, a character study that this piece develops by leaps and bounds with plenty of laughs but also an undercurrent of existential angst that eventually takes centerstage.

The fourth wall comes down quickly and for all intents and purposes stays down the rest of the way. Many of the jokes and sight gags are theatre-insider humor, but they’re not so abstruse as to go over the heads of the audience. The plotline is pretty straightforward: having been tantalized by the prospect of life beyond the stage, Don Cristobal suddenly finds his predictable role mauling the other puppets much less interesting than usual. To complicate matters, he’s become hopelesssly infatuated with Rosita. Both characters are portayed with small stage puppets, Don Cristobal also via a creepy, toddler-size Japanese bunraku-style puppet manipulated expertly and voiced by Brendan McMahon. Claudia Acosta plays Rosita with an unwavering sweetness and blind taskfulness, literally unable to think outside the box. John Clancy is a smash hit as Don Cristobal’s smarmy stage director, with a malicious relish completely lacking either boundaries or scruples. David Fand is his meek, downtrodden antagonist, the Poet, who gets a few plaintive, gentle folk songs; Alice Tolan-Mee sings a handful of numbers for Rosita in Lorca’s original Spanish with a lively Broadwayesque flair.

As Don Cristobal’s existential crisis deepens, his dedication to his job as a puppet begins to waver; he slips out of character and his health declines to the point where his prospects of surviving a repair appointment with the Puppet Maker (a deadpan Quince Marcum, who also doubles on horn and percussion) don’t look good. Racy shadowplay interludes alternate with vaudevillian tomfoolery, a bizarre witches’ dance of sorts and endless messing with the audience. At yesterday’s matinee, there was a possible technical malfunction early on. If this was scripted, it fooled everyone; if it was a genuine snafu, the players improvved their way through it seamlessly.

And the music was the high point of the show. Multi-instrumentalist Fand (who primarily played keyboards and mandolin) was joined by guitarists Kyle Senna and Avi Fox-Rosen for a twisted overture, a plaintive, dramatic bolero, skeletal folk-rock interludes, a couple of absolutely chilling, macabre, carnivalesque Lynchian piano themes and an artsy mandolin-fueled goth-rock song that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Black Fortresss of Opium catalog. Fand’s music matched the mood of Lorca’s lyrics, whether voicing longing (Midnight Hours), lust (Rosita’s Song) or suspenseful narration (El Rio Guadalquivir). A score this memorable deserves a DVD, or at least an original soundtrack release. The show continues at the Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand St. on the lower east side on February 22-23 and March 1-2 at 8 PM; February 23 and March 2 at 3 PM; and February 17, 24 and March 3 at 5 PM. Tickets are $20; the discount code for $15 tix this weekend is Rosita.

February 17, 2013 Posted by | drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Theatre Review: Doug Vincent’s A Day for Grace

To call playwright Doug Vincent’s show A Day for Grace harrowing is an understatement. Exploring the events of a hardscrabble Virginia childhood that culminated in his alcoholic father’s suicide, along with those events’ many ramifications, Vincent plays himself as well as a Greek chorus of family members whose take on events don’t always sync with his own: those multiple perspectives shed considerable light on the kind of baggage he brought into the delivery room the day his daughter Grace was born. We know beforehand that despite what could have been an equally harrowing scene at her birth, Grace survived, but even that knowledge doesn’t spare the audience from an emotional roller coaster ride. After a sold-out run at New York’s Stage Left Studio, Vincent is returning it to his native Colorado at a venue still to be determined.

Vincent is a gifted and extremely entertaining storyteller. Early on, his depiction of his childhood emulation of the future Hall of Fame catcher from the Cincinnati Reds is delivered suspensefully, with a deft touch not unlike a baseball broadcaster recounting events as they happen in real time. But even more than he wants to be like Johnny Bench, the young Vincent wants to be like his dad. With one problem: dad’s “medicine” for a persistent physical ailment comes in a can labeled Pabst Blue Ribbon. When grandma comes over with her 40-ounce Colt .45, dad requires even stronger medicine, in the form of Canadian Mist. Vincent’s description of family interaction at moments like these is surprisingly elegant, without the least bit of the kind of mawkishness that typifies so many autobiographical works. Much as this must have been problematic, to say the least, Vincent never lapses into cliche, nor does he play the blame game. Instead, gallows humor is what pulls him through, something he no doubt picked up from his doomed father.

As the show’s segments shift, Sam Llanas – former frontman of popular Wisconsin roots rockers the BoDeans – does his part as Greek chorus with his acoustic guitar and warm baritone voice, singing excerpts from songs including the BoDeans’ brooding classic Far, Far Away from My Heart as well as several numbers from his 1998 cult classic cd A Good Day to Die, by the short-live side project Absinthe [#629 on the 1000 Best Albums of All Time list here – ed.]. Written to memorialize the teenage suicide of his older brother, the pieces from that song cycle used here have had their lyrics tweaked to fit the new context, and add considerable depth and gravitas to the overall ambience.

While Vincent’s father’s suicide is described in graphic detail, it’s the emotional impact that resonates more shockingly. Certain sounds and behaviors become Post Traumatic Stress Disorder triggers for Vincent, culminating with his wife’s struggles as his unborn daughter’s life hangs in the balance. At this past Saturday’s show, as the suspense reached breaking point, Vincent was literally moved to tears recalling how events unfolded: several audience members were overcome by emotion as well. Sometimes the drama of real life surpasses anything contrived for the stage.

One tantalizing aspect of the show, one which sadly won’t be missed by anyone who doesn’t know Sam Llanas’ more obscure catalog, is that his songs sometimes get cut short. Like Vincent, Llanas is also a first-rate storyteller, and there were points where songs like the haunting, down-and-out saga It Don’t Bother Me and the majestically angst-driven, Orbisonesque anthem Messed Up Likes of Us were about to reach their denouement…and then they were over. On one hand, Vincent deserves considerable credit for making such an apt pairing of music and monologue: on the other, those familiar with the Absinthe record will be left longing for more. During the New York run, Llanas played a series of intimate club dates; perhaps the same could be done the next time the show is staged. Otherwise, it couldn’t hurt to extend the work by, say, fifteen minutes, to let Llanas’ grim sagas sink in as impactfully as Vincent’s narrative.

September 17, 2012 Posted by | drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Rocking the World with John Koprowski

Singer John Koprowski’s Five Years That Rocked the World, 1964-1969 is the rare cabaret show that’s both family-friendly and edgy. That may seem like the world’s biggest oxymoron, but Koprowski (abetted by musical director and perennial MAC awardwinner Tracy Stark) has put together a somewhat stagy revue that tells the story of the Sixties via an informative, sometimes predictable but often counterintuitive mix of rock and pop songs from the era (and a little afterward, if you count the Kinks and the Grateful Dead). It’s a rock show for cabaret rooms at this point: with some work, it would have legs on Broadway, as last night’s performance at the Laurie Beechman Theatre more than hinted. Eric Michael Gillett’s direction keeps the show moving along briskly: between songs or medleys, Koprowski’s narration comes across in the style of a low-key, friendly AM disc jockey with a casually encyclopedic, historical awareness of oldies rock that transcends the trivia usually associated with those songs.

This isn’t some anonymous pit band phoning in Abba covers for the umpteenth time, either: Stark, a luminous pianist, strikes an imaginative balance between the hippie inspiration of the originals and an artsy, frequently harder-rocking edge. Eclectic guitar virtuoso Peter Calo and the incomparable Susan Mitchell on violin bring serious downtown cred, backed by a rhythm section of Owen Yost on bass and Donna Kelly on drums along with Wendy Russsell and Cindy Green on vocals. Koprowski projects a friendly, knowing I-was-there vibe: a comedic explanation for why he’s able to remember it comes around when he explains how much of his friends’ time and energy was consumed by the ever-present search for drugs (a subject that he tackles deftly and then deflects, something that parents will appreciate).

There are some transcendent moments here. Russell and Green give Koprowski a lurid backdrop to eerily explode out of with a gimlet-eyed menace on an absolutely chilling, gothic reinterpretation of Creedence’s Bad Moon Rising. Mitchell’s sizzling gypsy-blues solo on a Hendrix-inspired All Along the Watchtower (which Calo caps off with a surreally savage one of his own) is worth the price of admission alone. Mitchell and Calo also unearth the rustic country song beneath Arlo Guthrie’s Coming Into Los Angeles, then segue effortlessly into the Byrds’ Fifth Dimension (that band, along with Dylan, is an obvious favorite here). Koprowski’s strongest moment, a bitterly declamatory take on Phil Ochs’ I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag, is again set up by Green and Russell, this time with deadpan cruelty, a potent evocation of the antiwar struggle, not to mention the sheer body count of the Vietnam War. The nascent gay liberation movement is also addressed via a winking version of the Kinks’ Lola. Among the rest of the songs, including hits by the Mamas and the Papas, Country Joe and the Fish, the Jefferson Airplane and the Beatles (a spot-on version of Revolution lit up by Calo’s overdriven guitar against Stark’s warm, flowing chordlets, and a less successful version of With a Little Help from My Friends), the only dud is America, a shaggy-dog story from the Paul Simon songbook that comes across as something like a Pinataland outtake.

Koprowski is funny, humble and sings the songs in context, something that a younger singer might not be able to pull off so effortlessly. But to a millennial generation raised on autotune and American Idol (and their long-suffering parents), it couldn’t hurt to bolster Koprowski’s vocals, which are those of a survivor, dents and all. Consider: the people who wrote these songs were all in their twenties. To relegate Green – a versatile, tremendously compelling talent – to the occasional harmony is a mistake (was she a last-minute addition to the cast?). Likewise, the show would benefit from considerably more time in the spotlight from Russell: her quietly crescendoing lead vocal on Janis Ian’s plea for racial harmony, Society’s Child, is unselfconsciously poignant. Obviously, with shows like these in their early stages, rehearsals all too often are limited, but since so many of the original versions of these songs featured all sorts of vocal harmonies, the opportunies that the presence of Russell and Green – and Stark as well – offer are tantalizing, and with a little work could be every bit as compelling as the instrumentation. With a little more help from his friends, Koprowski could take this to a much bigger stage.

May 3, 2012 Posted by | concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fred Hersch’s Coma Dreams Premiered Memorably in New Jersey

My Coma Dreams: the title of Fred Hersch’s eclectic new multimedia suite evokes a lurid, surreal netherworld. At the world premiere yesterday at Montclair State College in Montclair, New Jersey, the brilliant jazz pianist and an eleven-piece ensemble conducted by Gregg Kallor revealed it to be definitely surreal, less lurid than one would imagine, blackly amusing and ultimately a genuinely heartwarming portrait of joie de vivre triumphing over enormous odds. In order to facilitate a cure for a particularly virulent case of pneumonia, the doctors at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York put Hersch into a medically induced coma, from which he was not expected to emerge as his old self, perhaps not at all. Yet he did, and after what must have been a grueling rehabilitation process, resumed playing, touring and ultimately making a beautifully lyrical solo album, Alone at the Vanguard, this past December. Hersch’s newest work makes a good companion piece to John Kelly’s The Escape Artist (just reviewed here), another harrowing narrative with a similar gallows humor, also set at St. Vincent’s.

With a narrative by Herschel Garfein, spoken and often sung by actor Michael Winther, the suite shifts between the dreams that Hersch was able to remember from his two months in the coma, along with Hersch’s own observations and those of his doctor and his lover, who maintained a resolute vigil throughout the ordeal. The transitions between narrative voices can be awkward – sometimes it’s less than clear who’s telling the story. But to paraphrase Garfein’s program notes, the story takes a back seat to Hersch’s musical interpretation of it, and of the dreams, often stunningly lyrical, haunting and also uproariously funny.

In one of the early dreams, Hersch finds himself bound and gagged in the back of a van. How he tries to ransom himself from his kidnapers is characteristic of the wry surrealism here, and it’s vividly portrayed via a frantically pulsing, Mingus-esque tableau that gave drummer John Hollenbeck a deliciously amusing interlude to sprint from the scene, less Keystone Kops than Dragnet. Another dream involves a party on a plane – and then another plane, albeit one either set in another century, or with costumes to match. “One cool airline!” is Hersch’s interpretation, the band swinging through a sultry tango-flavored piece lit up by the string quartet of violinists Joyce Hammann and Laura Seaton, violist Ron Lawrence and Deoro cellist Dave Eggar.

The most stunning number on the bill relates to a dream concerning a duo improvisation in Brussels that is fraught with anxiety but ultimately works out well. Beginning with a hypnotic, plucked pedal figure on violin, much of it is essentially a one-chord vamp that builds to an almost cruel suspense with a long, surreal, noir Twin Peaks piano solo whose bright, lurid menace is literally breathtaking. That tune is soon followed by an equally vivid one where Hersch – a Thelonious Monk devotee – finds himself in a cage alongside the guy with the beard and the hat. There’s a composition contest: whoever comes up with a piece of music first gets out. Hersch busies himself while Monk relaxes with a grin; the music gives Hersch an opportunity to literally channel Monk’s playing, with every subtle and not-so-subtle weird dissonance, smokily warped blues phrase and roll he can come up with – and there are many. It’s the longest section here.

The two funniest ones are parodies, and both got the audience roaring: the first a sendup of a schmaltzy girl-in-a-coma afterschool special tv show, the second titled Jazz Diner, a cruelly entertaining account of another dream where Hersch finds himself playing straight man to a diva doing hours and hours at a jazz diner in the woods. Just when the satire starts to feel interminable, Hersch decides he’s had enough and makes the piece interesting,  Steven Lugerner‘s tenor solo beginning as something of a spoof but soon taking off with an energetic unease. By contrast, Hersch offers a requiem, stately and elegant with the strings gently amping the sadness, for the now-shuttered St. Vincent’s – the first New York hospital to have an AIDS ward, which Hersch credits with saving his life more than once.

There are also songs, and strangely, neither Hersch’s cerebral wit nor his purist melodicism translate to them: the effect is like following Monk with Journey, or more accurately, Andrew Lloyd Webber. But except for one of them, they’re over soon. There’s also a video component, which at best is redundant and at worst is distracting (jazz audiences like to watch the musicians). But the strength of the compositions, and the playing, transcends these minor flaws. The rest of the ensemble included trombonist Mike Christianson, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, multi-reedman Adam Kolker and bassist John Hebert: one hopes that this stellar crew can be part of the Manhattan premiere of this powerful and compelling work.

May 9, 2011 Posted by | concert, drama, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

John Kelly’s Escape Artist Cheats Death

John Kelly’s latest performance piece The Escape Artist, currently playing at PS 122 through April 30, is one of his most memorable, a depiction of an artist escaping into a dream world of Caravaggio imagery as he lies immobilized on a hospital gurney in the wake of a possibly catastrophic trapeze accident. As with Kelly’s recent portrayal of Egon Schiele, it’s imbued with Kelly’s signature blend of wit and darkness. Kelly’s initial inspiration for the piece was an encounter with a Caravaggio painting, and how the painter’s modus operandi was to find beauty in the most grotesque and macabre. Years later, Kelly’s own narrow escape from a potentially lethal trapeze accident provided the impetus to bring the work to completion. As Kelly took care to explain, this piece is more inspired by Caravaggio than any attempt to depict him, considering how little we know today about his life, plus the fact that Kelly alluded to not feeling particularly close to him, at least biographically.

What might be most impressive about Kelly’s performance here is that except for a single song, he sings the entire piece lying flat on his back (if you think that’s easy, try it and see how much luck you have hitting all the notes in the wide, three-octave range that Kelly explores, top to bottom, and nails every time). A lithe, well-muscled, youthful presence, his ability to transcend the terror of possible paralysis and maybe even death via an irrepressible joie de vivre and gallows humor as he stares at the ceiling is genuinely inspiring. Behind Kelly, Jeff Morey’s video design puts Kelly’s own face front and center, looking up, between two screens featuring a revolving cast of actors depicting gently playful homoerotic tableaux based on Caravaggio themes.

The narrative could be a lot of things – mawkish, terrified, tormented or even pathetic – but Kelly refuses to give in. As the torment grows, so does the surreal humor in his perceptions. Unable to see anything more than what’s above him, he grows to rely on his other senses to pick up on his grim surroundings: the drunks bleeding from the car crash, the nurse flatly trying to calm the demented senile patient as she may have done dozens of times before, the junkie in the adjacent bed who perhaps predictably has managed to draw everyone’s attention. Kelly intersperses a series of vividly plaintive songs, all but two of the originals with melodies by the queen of Coney Island phantasmagoria, Carol Lipnik, whose vocals also appear behind Kelly along with John DiPinto on piano, accordion and flute, Nioka Workman on cello and Justin Smith on violin.

The songs alone are reason to see this show. The Dazzling Darkness, with its eerie Pink Floyd piano gives Kelly a launching pad for his soaring upper register as a choir of voices echoes behind him hypnotically when it reaches its closing crescendo. The amusing yet disconcerting noir 60s pop of Cupid Song comes along just as Kelly looks up to see a strange figure – or hallucination – who’s just stopped in to say that he cares. Cara Vaggio brings back a hypnotic cello-driven ambience that leaps to an anthemic chorus; DiPinto’s austere arrangement of Oblivion Soave – music by Claudio Monteverdi, words by Giovanni Francesco Busenello – puts Kelly’s crystalline choirboy delivery front and center. The funniest of these is Kelly’s own Profit Blues, musing on what jobs – ones that pay, and ones that don’t – might be lost as a result of paralysis or convalescence. Eventually, a clever out-of-body experience materializes, captured as psychedelic piano pop: “I am the watcher,” Kelly muses.

The best of the Lipnik/Kelly collaborations is the unselfconsciously haunting All That’s Left, a September song set overlooking the Hudson (New York is a constant if frequently elusive presence here). The best of all of them is Kelly’s solo piece, a title track of sorts, which he plays solo on Stratocaster, an austere 1960s psychedelic folk melody filtered through a thick cloud of reverb and sustain. “When I hear all the shallow talk, should I aim or just should I just shoot the breeze…Could I leave this city island, penetrate its water wall?” he asks. By now it’s clear how this will end. There’s also a gloriously terse, noir version of John Barry’s You Only Live Twice that appears as something of a surprise. Directed starkly by Dudley Saunders, less Renaissance Italy than 80s afterdark New York, Saint Vincent’s style, it’s a must-see for anyone who gets that reference.

April 22, 2011 Posted by | concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Elliott Sharp’s Binibon Revisits a Notorious 1981 Murder

“Don’t think of this as a moral lesson, just the oldest story in the book, the latest in the series of New York murders…collect them all,” sneers writer/narrator Jack Womack’s character Ted, in the radio play version of Elliott Sharp’s musical drama Binibon, recently released on Henceforth. It’s more of an attempt to capture the surreal and seedy atmosphere of downtown New York in the 80s rather than an actual crime story. The July 18, 1981 murder of waiter Richard Adan by convicted-murderer-turned-author Jack Henry Abbott outside the lower Second Avenue restaurant from which the album takes its title consumes less than five minutes out of a total of fifty-six. Instead, the story focuses on a cast of authentically bizarre characters who may or may not have been regular customers.

Womack’s Ted is a washed-up, know-it-all, alcoholic jazz drummer with a bizarre southern twang who serves as sort of a Greek chorus here. His beatnik affectations and interminable listmaking underscore his bitterness about spending most of his life on the sidelines. Jedadiah Schultz does Abbott (a Norman Mailer protege whose brief literary ascent outside prison walls ended with this murder) with a breathy, stagy intensity, while Queen Esther portrays waitress Susie with a down-to-earth authority and perfect outer-borough accent. Ryan Quinn doubles admirably in the roles of equivocating junkie Johnny and coked-up transvestite Fabuluscious, with supporting roles played by Sonja Perryman as Contessa, a woman with a lot of anger and not a lot of ways of expressing it and Cy Fore as the evanescent murder victim Richie.

Sharp, who plays not only guitar but also bass, drums, saxophones, clarinets and various electronic components here, turns in the performance of a lifetime: it’s arguably his most diverse effort to date. Ever wonder if Sharp could pull off a spot-on imitation of early 80s style Midnight Starr or Herbie Hancock electro-disco? The answer’s here, and it’s yes. He also does ominously multi-layered, Bomb Squad-style noise; dirtily incisive Jeff Beck-ish guitar; Karsh Kale style South Asian drones; a decent facsimile of the Bad Brains in slow mode; late 50s minimalist noir jazz; and the inimitable squall for which he’s best known.

Womack effectively evokes the downtown New York era when watching one’s back was a survival tool rather just a common phrase in rap music, best exemplified by Susie as she catalogs the implements in her purse that could serve as weapons in a pinch. The major characters are all tragic in a classical sense: Abbott’s narcissism, Johnny’s self-deception, and Susie’s willingness to stay in one place til she “dies from the feet up, like a tree with pissed-on roots” will all clearly get them in the end. The minor characters – the practically incoherent Contessa, the tranny, and poor Richie, who doesn’t seem to have a clue even as he steps outside, trying to reason with the guy who will kill him seconds later – are less interesting. But the milieu is spot-on. Ted references downtown characters from crazed killer Daniel Rakowitz (who dismembered his girlfriend, boiled her and then fed her to the homeless in Tompkins Square Park), to Jean-Michel Basquiat, to scores of others mostly forgotten now. What’s perhaps most appealing, and most bittersweet, is that these characters are all oldschool New Yorkers. All but two of them (the killer and the narrator) were clearly born and bred here, and despite their flaws share a wry gallows humor that still exists in pockets in this city, and which is the antithesis of the “esthetic” – if you could call it that – of the pampered, effete, affluent white children who’ve flooded New York in the last ten years. For that alone, this is worth owning and savoring: the score makes it worth returning to many times over.

February 26, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, drama, experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment