Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Faux-Real Theatre Company Puts Their Original Stamp on an Ancient Greek Classic 

The Faux-Real Theatre Company have made a name for themselves lately with their acerbic, punk rock-style takes on classic Greek theatre. Their versions remain true to the originals, employing the full text in translation while adding edgy musical and dance elements, not to mention mining the wry subtext of these works for contemporary relevance. Their version of Euripides’ The Bacchae winds up its run at LaMama‘s first-floor theatre on East Fourth St. with two sold-out shows tonight, March 19 and tomorrow the 20th at 7:30 PM. If you’re feeling lucky, a handful of standby tix might become available.

Interestingly, while this performance is very funny, it’s not as over-the-top as a real bacchanal. The theme is hubris, Dionysus raining down fire and brimstone on an upstart ruler and his subjects who’ve forsaken the old ways and no longer pay tribute to their erstwhile protector deity. Other than the two main lead roles and a couple of supporting characters, pretty much everybody else is confined to the chorus, so director Mark Greenfield gives them an elegant dance piece to keep the crowd attentive.

Andrew Bryce plays the wine god with a campy smirk. Throughout the play, the homoerotic subtext is underscored with very amusing results. All the women of Thebes off in the woods by themselves, in the grip of Dionysus’ spell? You do the math. And the sequence where the god examines rebellious ruler Pentheus prior to putting him in a dress and a woman’s wig is downright hilarious. PJ Adzima’s cold, deadpan, corporate portrayal of the doomed king makes an apt foil to the fun-loving but merciless deity. The one point last night where the audience broke into spontaneous applause was where Jy Murphy’s wise old Cadmus explains that without wine – the one thing that makes living bearable – there’s also no love, and no Aphrodite.

Tony Naumovski makes the most of his vaudevillian role as Cadmus’ buddy Tiresius, while the rest of the supporting cast are strong in their sometimes tightlipped, sometimes unselfconsciously grinning roles. Greenfield’s direction encompasses the group’s signature style of breaking the fourth wall: spectators are enticed with grapes and real wine (and grape juice for the non-Dionysan among us) as they take their seats. Naumovski, who also serves as musical director, has assembled a tight percussion-and-clarinet team of Jim Galbraith, Jeff Wood (also of lyrically fiery original oldtimey swing jazz band the Fascinators) and Naum Goldenstein. They play a sometimes ominous, sometimes boisterous, minimalist original score that blends elements as disparate as Gregorian chant and Balkan music.

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March 19, 2016 Posted by | drama, Live Events, New York City, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

Object Collection Stages a Deliciously Noisy, Messy. Provocative Piece at LaMaMa

Longtime LaMaMa impresario Nicky Paraiso reminded last night’s sold-out crowd at Object Collection’s latest experimental opera, Cheap & Easy October, that the experience would be what used to be called “total theatre” back in the 80s – a description that really nailed it. With a tight, often scorchingly intense four-piece band playing behind a ratty knitted curtain of sorts and cast members scampering, leaping and chasing each other around the stage, it’s more of a concert with a cast acting out a dadaesque video of sorts than it is anything else. And what a show it is. As immersive and pummeling as composer Travis Just’s score is, it’s far less abrasive than it is enveloping: you are drawn into the heart of the cyclotron, violently thrust out or, surprisingly, cast gently into a starlit reverie. Earplugs will be handed out, hut you don’t really need them. The run at LaMaMa is coming to a close, with final performances tonight, October 17 and then tomorrow at 10 PM; tix are $18/$13 stud/srs.

The band shifts abruptly but strangely elegantly through dreampop, post-hardcore and Mogwai-esque nightmarescapes, with acidic mid-80s Sonic Youth close harmonies, furious percussive interludes that recall taiko drumming, moments of what seem to be free improvisation, and echoes of the cumulo-nimbus swirl of guitarist Taylor Levine’s quartet Dither. Violinist Andie Springer uses a lot of extended technique and nails-down-the-blackboard harmonics; she also plays bass. Explosive drummer Owen Weaver doubles on Telecaster, while keyboardist Aaron Meicht also adds the occasional trumpet flourish or joins the stomp on a couple of floor toms.

The text – drawn from Soviet revolutionary histories by Leon Trotsky and John Reed as well as conversations between writer/director Kara Feely and cast member Fulya Peker (whose butoh background informs the simmering menace she channels throughout the show) veers from lickety-split spoken word to a bizarre, falsettoey singsong. Sardonic symbolism is everywhere: there’s a zombie apocalypse subplot, a telephone gets abused, and swordplay abounds. The rest of the cast – Deborah Wallace, Daniel Allen Nelson, Tavish Miller and Avi Glickstein – take on multiple roles, some of them living, some of them presumably dead.

There’s some toying with poststructuralist japes, springboarding off the premise that if you control the conversation, you control the situation. “Do you think a revolution of words can be as profound as an actual revolution?” one of the cast poses in one of the performance’s less chaotic moments. Much of the iconography in the set is sarcastic and ultimately portends a lot of very gloomy endings: as Feely and Just see it, revolutions tend to disappoint.

No less august a personality than Robert Ashley gave this group’s work the thumbs-up. For those who need their ideas packaged neatly and cohesively, this isn’t going to work. And it raises fewer questions than it intimates – which by itself is reason to see this provocative piece, one more nuanced than its sonic cauldron might initially suggest.

October 17, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, drama, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ThingNY Debuts a Blackly Amusing, Sonically Rich Reflection on Hurricane Sandy

ThingNY‘s provocative, often hilarious performance piece This Takes Place Close By debuted last night, making maximum use of the spacious, sonically rich Knockdown Center in Maspeth, a former doorframe factory recast as adventurous performance venue. Through the eyes of various witnesses to Hurricane Sandy, the multimedia work explores apathy, anomie and alienation in the wake of disaster. It raises more questions than it answers – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Is this limousine liberal self-flagellation, a vain attempt to demonstrate eleventh-hour empathy? A simpering, self-congratulatory meme for gentrifiers hell-bent on their fifteen minutes on Instagram? A welcome dose of perspective on where the hurricane falls, historically speaking, in terms of disastrous consequences? A caustic and often poignant critique of narcissism raising its ugly head at the least opportune moment? You can find out for yourself when the piece repeats, tonight, September 25 through Sunday the 27th at 8 PM; general admission is $20.

Ostensibly an opera, this is more of an avant garde theatre piece with music. The six-piece ensemble lead the audience from one set to another, creating a surround-sound atmosphere, voices and instruments leaping unexpectedly from the shadows. The live electroacoustic score – a pulsing, rather horizontal, minimalistic theme and variations – is gripping and often reaches a white-knuckle intensity, and the distance between the performers has no effect on how tightly they play it. The narratives vary from more-or-less straight-up theatre vignettes, to phone calls, harrowing personal recollections and surrealist spoken-word interludes. Other than Gelsey Bell – whose pure, translucent chorister’s soprano is the icing on the sonic cake – the rest of the ensemble do not appear to be trained singers. Yet they gamely hold themselves together through some challenging, distantly gospel-inspired four-part harmonies. Violinist Jeffrey Young‘s shivery cadenzas and the occasional creepy glissando enhance the suspense, while Bell’s keyboards and Dave Ruder’s clarinet supply more resonantly ominous ambience. Percusssionist Paul Pinto wryly doubles as roadie and emcee of sorts with his trusty penlight. Bassist Andrew Livingston distinguishes himself by playing creepy tritones while sprawled flat on his back in the rubble; meanwhile, Bell projects with undiminished power despite the presence of Livingston’s bass on top of her diaphragm.

Intentionally or not, the star of this show is multi-saxophonist Erin Rogers, whose vaudevillian portrayal of a 911 operator slowly losing it under pressure – in between bursts of hardbop soprano sax – is as chilling as it is funny. Happily, she later gets to return to give the poor, bedraggled, unappreciated woman some dignity. And playing alto, she teams with Livingston for a feast of brooding foghorn atmospherics during a portrait of a philosophical old bodega owner for whom the storm is “been there, done that.”

The characters run the gamut from enigmatic or gnomic to extremely vivid. Young gets to relish chewing the scenery as he channels a wet-behind-the-ears, clueless gentrifier kid who’s just self-aware enough to know that he ought to cover his ass while expunging any possible guilt for gettting away with his comfortable life intact. Livingston’s shoreline survivor, horror-stricken over the possible loss of his girlfriend, really drives the storm’s toll home. Bell’s baroque-tinged ghost is more nebulous, as is Pinto’s mashup of tummler and historian at the end – in a set piece that seems tacked on, as if the group had to scramble to tie things together just to get the show up and running in time. Yet even that part is grounded in history – which, if this group is to be believed, does not portend well for how we will react when the waters rise again. And they will.

September 25, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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

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

Notes from the Underground: Tammy Faye Starlite as Nico in “Chelsea Madchen”

by Serena Angelique Williams

I happen to be partial to divas, so it was with great fanfare and enthusiasm that I set out to see Tammy Faye Starlite’s new work, “Chelsea Madchen,” a self-styled performance piece she has put together from scratch. Though pleased that anyone had been brave enough to tackle the task of taking on the Teutonic temptress, and particularly a woman, rather than a drag queen, I was hesitant to believe that it could really be pulled off while eliminating the potential for excess camp. Impersonating Nico is a seemingly uphill climb for even the most accomplished actress. Were it not for Tammy Faye Starlite, a modern day diva in her own right, my skepticism may have won out – especially since my first attempt to see the show was thwarted. In true Nico style, it had been cancelled – in this case, on account of the unexpected October snowstorm of a few weeks ago.

I knew Tammy Faye Starlite from her noteworthy performances at Lakeside Lounge, fronting the Mike Hunt Band, the all-girl Rolling Stones cover group, as well as her hilarious turn as a country music songstress in Tammy Faye Starlite and the Angels of Mercy, where she croons original country songs as shocking as they are humorous. She has the chops to do many things very well, and had previously put this piece up at Joe’s Pub and Theater 80 at St. Marks Place. The Duplex’s cabaret is a much smaller house – it only seats 77 at full capacity – so I was aware that this would be a rare chance to see her perform in a more intimate venue, with hopes that it would add to the authenticity of the experience. It had long been my dream to see Nico, in whatever way I could get her, and I had never imagined my wish would ever surface as a reality. Still, I kept my expectations from brimming over, though I had read that Danny Fields, Nico’s former manager, had been impressed with Tammy Faye’s interpretation, a stamp of approval that carries considerable weight. In spite of this, I entered the cabaret more curious than hopeful, wondering how in the world she would manage to pull off this daunting task.

This piece could be described as a play within a play, though there are no programs distributed, which dispels the notion that we are seeing anything but a live and improvised performance. Tammy Faye cites that her inspiration to create this piece emerged in adolescence, listening to Nico obsessively as many a teenage girl (including myself) was wont to do before music so radically shifted gears. It was Nico who paved the way for many experimental musicians, a rare female innovator overshadowed by her predominantly male contemporaries. She was irreverent, an outlaw, a conjurer of emotionally charged sound from an era that unforgettably changed the way we perceive and listen to music. Yet she put out a relatively small body of work, and it still is a challenge to track down many of her more obscure recordings.

The band is onstage before Tammy Faye makes her grand, if understated entrance. They are a cohesive ensemble, and utterly faithful to reproducing the Velvet Underground’s signature sound. They start the set with the appropriately titled “Femme Fatale” while Tammy Faye as Nico quietly assumes her place, hesitating before beginning the set with an overlong pause, in character, while keeping everything in the moment. Then she starts to sing.

Though she resembles Nico, she is not a clone. Rather than attempting to present the “Dolce Vita” image of physical perfection that is characteristically associated with Nico, she seems instead to emulate Nico in her later life. This is a wise choice, although at that point, Nico had stopped dyeing her hair, and Tammy Faye retains the hallmark blonde tresses. In an all-black ensemble, wool sweater and heavily lined eyes, she is transformed into a version of Nico that is both aloof and believable, without inviting potentially unfavorable comparisons.

In fact, she is infinitely better-looking than Nico became in her hardcore junkie years, when her beauty was ravaged by self-destruction and bloated with excess. Tammy Faye’s voice is also stronger. However, it is not her intent to fall back on the timeworn stereotype of Nico as a drug addict – a wise decision, as it does not diffuse the focus of the work. Nico, as I’ve mentioned, is difficult, if not impossible to imitate, but the beauty of her vocals is also aided by certain imperfections, and a visceral, hollow resonance, unique unto her alone. Tammy Faye’s German accent, inflections, and phrasing are on point, her timing impeccable, but the better-known numbers from her days with the Velvet Underground lack the dark cultivation of Nico’s original recordings. Still, this does not seriously detract from the performance, and after the first song, she quickly settles into character. As the show progresses, her rhythm as Nico continues to gain momentum, and it is compelling to watch this transformation as it unfolds.

The premise of the piece is an interview – a skillfully assembled pastiche of actual Nico interview quotes from over the years – with a cheerfully inquisitive, if somewhat inept Australian (Jeff Ward deserves a big hand for this role) providing the necessary tension for Nico to play against. His queries are met with a series of blatant non-sequiturs and unabashed haughtiness, revealing an austere and singularly self-involved woman. Her intellect is equally apparent, despite many, many prejudices, echoed with a candid, sometimes beyond-the-pale precision that is surprisingly droll. Tammy Faye proves once again to be a gifted comedienne, and manages to balance these perceptions with such refreshing honesty that she is able to captivate the audience without alienating them with excessive arrogance or an obliquely slanted worldview.  We observe a Nico who is simultaneously astute, eccentric, opinionated, and flawed, a mosaic of contradictions which serve as the basis of her persona as blighted, yet gifted artist of infinite potential.

Nico was one of the great muses of her time. At one point, she explains that her one regret in life is that she “was born a woman instead of a man”. It may seem ironic that she would make such a remark, considering that her classically feminine style of beauty is so integral to her iconic status. She did not embrace feminism, yet she gradually cultivated a level of androgyny emphasizing her more masculine traits. She seems to have regarded her sex to be an extreme handicap, which she perpetually strove to overcome in spite of her attractiveness. She rebelled against her good looks, waging a later campaign that now seems a deliberate attempt to destroy them entirely. Her battle was a long-hidden struggle to desexualize herself in a quest for artistic self-realization. But equating creativity with masculinity, she fell victim to a rigidly established system of chauvinistic ideals. Consequently, nearly all of her work would become heavily influenced by the men in her life while she searched for her true voice as a singer. Handing over the reins, she allowed them to dictate and compose much of her material.

As Nico, Tammy Faye recounts her several collaborative efforts and relationships with Warhol, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Jim Morrison, and even Gordon Lightfoot (one of the most poignant, confessional songs in her repertoire, is her cover of Lightfoot’s “I’m Not Sayin’,” describing her view of herself in relationships with affecting accuracy). She trusted them more than she could trust herself, and in turn, they used her as an inspiration for their own work. There are traces of bitterness in Nico’s harsh delivery of her side of some of these stories, yet she never makes an appeal for our sympathy. In their respective ways, it could be argued that each used the other. The difference lies in that Lou Reed, for example, would have remained Lou Reed with or without Nico: he brought her into the Velvets to serve as eye candy as much as to sing. She would never again achieve the same level of fame as she’d enjoyed with them after going solo, most of her best-known work being laid out during her earlier sessions with the band. When she objectively recalls her problems with Reed, deducing that “he could never get over what my people had done to his people–I can’t make love to Jews anymore,” this is beyond a mere catty or oblivious indictment. Reed’s excuse that they separated under the premise of cultural differences is unlikely. What is more believable is that they could no longer work together because he felt her to be his creative inferior. She simply moved on, to Dylan, and later John Cale, and other musicians, placing them all upon pedestals, and following their respective leads. Forever searching out mentors, lovers, and assistants, she unfortunately undermined her own talent. Dominated by a string of more successful male artists, Nico was all but swallowed whole. She literally fell to the wayside, eventually dying much too early, impoverished, obscured by her more famous friends and colleagues.

And therein lies the true genius of Tammy Faye’s opus as Nico. Tammy Faye is able to vividly capture the woman’s genius, while exposing her weaknesses, providing a completely three-dimensional portrait of a woman often marginalized, and one who continued to persevere despite a long history of folly and failed relationships. She is unapologetic for all of it. Ultimately she ended up with a beautiful catalogue of material that defines her as a modern chanteuse. These songs are timeless. When Tammy Faye sings them, we are reminded of their lasting value as groundbreaking contributions to the evolution of postmodern trends in music, art and performance art. When she sits before the piano and begins the first strains of “Frozen Borderline” from The Marble Index, for all intents and purposes, we are seeing art that is as stunning in originality as it is arresting in its realism. Resurrected from the great beyond, this diva commands her audience with such mastery that by the time she launches into her haunting version of Jim Morrison’s “The End” I was no longer conscious of Tammy Faye “channeling” Nico; the two had harmonically converged.

The show ended all too soon, though it clocks in at nearly ninety minutes, without intermission.  Nico left the stage abruptly after delivering the explosive denouement, a vengeful rendition of Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for My Man,” a powerful statement to conclude this story. There was no encore. No introduction of the superb backup band – Claudia Chopek, Dave Dunton, Rich Feridun, Keith Hartel, Craig Hoek and Ron Metz, nor of the brilliant interviewer. No greeting of the audience after the show. Like a dream, she seemed to have evaporated almost immediately, leaving me feeling overexposed as the house lights turned on. What was left was the lingering sense that I had just experienced the rare good luck to have been transported through time to a place forever obsolete, in the supreme presence of a living phantom. Tammy Faye Starlite–singer, writer, performance artist, comedienne and actress extraordinaire, has offered us a glimpse into the past, giving us a final chance to pay homage to a spirit we should honor and respect. There is one last performance on Saturday, and it should not be missed. This diva will haunt you.

Tammy Faye Starlite is Nico in “Chelsea Madchen” at the Duplex, 61 Christopher St. at 7th Ave. South on Nov 19th at 9:30 PM. Tickets are $10; reservations are highly recommended to (212) 255-5438.

November 18, 2011 Posted by | concert, drama, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment