East to Edinburgh
nytheatre.com review by Various Reviewers
July 11, 2007
Solo theatre doesn't get any better than this. I am writing this review as fast as I can and hopefully still do the performance justice, because I want you to grab the show before it goes across the pond to Edinburgh Fringe. Rash by Jenni Wolfson doesn't even feel like a "show"—it's so real and irresistible you want to demand the rest of her 10-plus year journey that the mere one hour could not possibly cover. And it's actually about post-genocide wreckage and unbearable human loss.
Jenni is entirely real, albeit with a resume that inspires awe. After getting a master's degree in Human Rights, she goes back to her parent's home in Scotland to celebrate. That's when she gets a message on the answering machine, "Jenni, this is Carmen from the United Nations, can you leave next week for Rwanda?" It leads to three years in Rwanda, two years in Haiti, and travels to 25 other countries as a UN human rights and humanitarian worker.
Jenni's family is not, and never has been, happy with her career choice. But she is highly motivated. With a flight ticket to Rwanda that says "we are not responsible for your life," a full-blown case of chicken pox that she was scared to tell anyone about for fear of being pulled out, and a suitcase full of teabags, Jenni embraces her mission and fellow workers from around the globe, initially viewing it as an exciting and exclusive party, a humanitarian Woodstock. Then the reality hits.
The initiation into Rwanda includes visiting a prison of 8,000 war criminals—men, women and children—in a space built for 500. "Don't enter the prison if you can't handle it," she is told, "There's no room to faint." Things don't get easier from there. There are bodies, gunshots, and nerve-wracking waiting for help in silence—or worse, with strained, normal conversations—and wondering if you are wrong to make not only your own, but your family's life a hell.
Life and death collide, and reporting a lost credit card becomes an absurdist theatrical event. Often times Wolfson sits in a comfortable armchair on stage, knitting away with orange yarn as she tells her gripping stories with humor and humility. She paints a picture so human and immediate that you can almost see the shack of a restaurant—the only one—in Kibuye where she calls early to order grilled chicken for dinner, to give them time to catch and cook it. You can almost feel the suffocating mud on her face as she was bound and dragged away in a terrible attack.
At some point this "Scottish Jew falls madly in love with a Cameroonian Animist," Bernard. Love enriches her experience there as nothing else could. You get a clear sense of heightened emotional gravity from this relationship in a war-torn land, between lovers from two entirely different worlds. It's tender, it's funny, and it's maddening. It's like any other love story, except you are driving over land mines, literally.
Through all this, Jenni has a rash on her face and other parts of her body that comes and goes, manifesting her inner turmoil. Her view of the world and her life, and indeed of herself, evolves and shifts and surprises. Her knitting morphs into an allegory for her story.
Wolfson's deft writing is complemented by Jen Nails's direction. She utilizes the space and props, as well as an overhead screen, to their maximum effect, keeping the stage in high tension. The show also employs the most ingenious way to present projected photos that I have seen. Throughout I was enthralled, entertained, and very much enlightened. Get a ticket to see it while you can, for an eyewitness account of one of the most horrific crimes in our lifetime, for an illuminating experience, and most of all, for the chance to meet a truly remarkable human being.
59E59 is celebrating some of the American contributions to this year's Edinburgh Fringe; among those plays being previewed is Kristina Leach's Grasmere, a heavy drama exploring the imagined secretive personal life of poet William Wordsworth. While an ambitious undertaking, Grasmere suffers from leaden dialogue and awkward direction, ultimately amounting to little more than a silly, third-rate Merchant-Ivory melodrama.
In a secluded cottage in England's Lake District, William Wordsworth and his beloved sister Dorothy find their idyllic lives upset by the arrival of two old friends, Samuel T. Coleridge and Mary Hutchison. While William and Samuel pass their days composing prose, Dorothy and Mary reminisce about their childhoods. As time passes, relationships shift with Samuel trying to woo Dorothy away to Europe and Mary finding love with William. But the affections of the once-welcome visitors turn the quartet's happy reunion dark as the siblings find their strangely intimate relationship threatened.
Unfortunately the plot is just window dressing—an excuse for Leach to wax psychological regarding the creepy pseudo-psychosexual relationship between William and Dorothy. The play unfolds clumsily as a series of odd vignettes punctuated by Dorothy's odd journal entries and populated by trite, drawing room banalities and thinly drawn characters.
Noel Neeb's messy staging does little to advance the story and her unfortunate choice to keep the actors onstage at all times (even when not part of the scene) is a confusing distraction. Her chaotic direction further fails the actors who are left to flounder under the weight of the rambling script.
With little to work with, the cast is left to rely on Masterpiece Theatre-style conventions—longing glances, heaving bosoms, and come-and-go accents. Rachel McKinney fares best among the quartet, imbuing Dorothy with an aching desperation not found in Leach's script. She deserves better material.
Clocking in at one hour, Grasmere manages to be both too long and too short—overstaying its welcome but offering no clear resolution. And while it aims for highbrow complexities, Grasmere can only muster middlebrow muddle.
Croft Vaughn has constructed an endearing and enchanting meander through the excitable mind of one exceptional child. He taps right into the plight of any young tall-tale-teller who would almost rather live in his imagined world over ours. In Stinky Flowers and The Bad Banana, Vaughn plays Sinclair, a nine-year-old boy who's closest friends are his Grandfather and the characters in the old man's stories. With utter excitement and abandon, he brings to life a Kingdom with enchanted "Stinky Flowers," a morality story of warring monkey tribes, and the poignant tale of the "Silent Girl and the Whaling Boy" who find their true selves in one another. He does all this with only the aid of an overhead projector, himself, and a wonderfully surprising digital treat (which I cannot possibly reveal).
For the most part, the show is concerned with telling us these amazing stories that Sinclair's Grandfather had told him in the hopes of teaching his grandson some important life lessons. They are, however, woven together with bits of Sinclair's real life. It is here, in that back story, that unwarranted sentimentality creeps in and threatens to dampen an otherwise delightful experience. But the strength of the stories stays their ground and holds the urge for the sentimental at bay. Let me be the first to say, it is more than enough to watch this totally engaging performer tell eloquent, touching, and beautiful stories with subtlety, sensitivity, and grace. Vaughn, and his keen director, Adam Goldstein, would do well to trust the stories, trust the performer and leave the back story to our imaginations. I for one could watch Vaughn spin a tale all night, and would happily imagine where he might go next.
And where might they go next? I had the good fortune of seeing a small portion of this show last year at a night of snippets from longer shows, and I have been humming the "Stinky Flower Song" ever since. Vaughn has written the show with such fun and nuance, I am thrilled to have gotten the chance to see the full-length version. As a performer, he is utterly adorable and entrancing. He employs techniques of clowning (not the scary kind), direct audience address and participation (not the embarrassing kind), and traditional storytelling (not the patronizing kind). He gets excited to tell us a new tale the same way a real child gets excited when they have a good story to tell, or want to show off their favorite new toy. And that excitement is contagious. You want to sing along with him, you want to hear what will happen next, and you want the show to go on for a long time. It's rare that I want more from a show, but I did leave wanting more stories. Perhaps another installment is in the works, or is that just wishful thinking? For now, I reckon the Edinburgh audiences will do just fine with the one on offer. One can always hope for more of a good thing.
How often can you see a show where a near shouting match between the performer and the audience results in hearty applause and laughter?
That happened at Inside Private Lives, an ingenious piece of interactive theatre about ten controversial figures of the 20th century, with four or five featured in each performance. You may get Elia Kazan, the renowned director infamous for having "named names" during the McCarthy era. Or you may meet Marge Schott, the first woman to buy a Major League baseball team, who was known not only for leading her Cincinnati Reds to the World Series but also for making racist remarks. Although they are no longer alive, the fascination with these figures lives on, and this is attested to when we in the audience are given the opportunity to "talk back."
Here is how it works: Before the show begins, we are told that the audience will be assigned a role in each scene and that we are encouraged to participate as much as we like. Then the show is on. As each celebrity takes the stage, he or she gives a 10-minute monologue, speaking from a particular event in their life. They want something from us. It's our job to support, approve, question, or decline.
But do we grant them their request? Do we even get into "the game" to start with? The answer to the first question varies, but the answer to the second is a resounding "yes!"
Much credit goes to producer/actor Kristin Stone who conceived Inside Private Lives and has the tough job of starting the show and loosening us up. As Christine Jorgensen, the first American to receive sex reassignment surgery—turning herself from an ex-GI into a bombshell—Kristin delivers with high-voltage charm, flirting with men and women alike.
But this is New York, where everyone is an actor. When Bobby Sands, an IRA member who dies in prison after leading a hunger strike for 66 days makes his plea, a woman in the audience demanded, with professionally trained delivery, that Bobby give up the struggle for the sake of his family. "This is your sister, Bobby!" She cried dramatically. "I have a sandwich right here for you. Take it!" But Bobby is not at all put off. "This is much bigger than a sandwich." This exchange may initially give the impression that an actor has been planted to help along with the show—which the producer reassures afterwards that they never do—but the feeling goes away quickly, because the show simply doesn't need extra help. We become so involved that we actually resent anyone who "hogs the stage" so much that we can't get our own questions in!
Along the way light is shed on each character's personality and history. The verbal ping-pong leads to not just an outward game, but an inner struggle as well. Director Lee Michael Cohn sets a nice tempo for the exchange, and the actors have done their homework and written their own pieces. Adam LeBow as Elia Kazan is steadfast. Paul Ryan as Bobby Sands is deceptively subdued, until his dignified rage erupts. Julia Phillips is in your face, portrayed by a fiery Leonora Gershman, and Mary MacDonald's Marge Schott has the audience eating out of the palm of her hand.
If you go, you will have more fun if you talk. And by the end of it, you are likely to find yourself doing just that. I certainly did. I am going back to quiz Tokyo Rose and David Koresh, who are set to appear in coming shows.
There is a great deal to be said for using a fresh pair of eyes on a piece of writing or a performance before it is sent out into the harsh world of incredulous audiences. This age-old advice could be especially useful in the case of An Age of Angels, a one-man, multi-character storytelling performance both written and performed by Mark Soper. To wit: Soper, so obviously and endearingly entrenched in his own endeavor, often loses sight of the audience and our comfort level as implicated witnesses. His work would profit tremendously from a few fresh pairs of eyes, even beyond those of director Ines Wurth.
At the most basic level, there is an intriguing concept at work here. Soper has cobbled together and portrays a web of characters that share the unlikely link of a wayward soccer ball. One by one, the motley mix, including schoolchildren, a businessman, a bigoted truck driver, an African American cop, and others, unfold their versions of what happens one afternoon at an intersection in Hollywood when an elementary school student kicks the ball over a high fence and into traffic, thereby setting off a chain of events that lead to catastrophes large and small. The narratives hint at recurring themes of knowledge and the act of knowing, and the myriad ways in which human beings can come to comprehend their own versions of the same story.
Utilizing the familiar "Where were you when XYZ happened?" style of storytelling, the play is most engaging when the soccer ball—the vital throughline—is invoked. Outside of this lifeline, the script slips into stream-of-consciousness that at its worst feels irrelevant or incomprehensible and lulls the mind into a state of wandering apathy.
Often Soper's well-meaning attempts at poignancy and deeper issues land less well than intended. For instance, a portrayal of a 10-year-old girl in a cheerleader's outfit babbling in a sing-song voice about her parents' arguments at home has her hop-scotching and rolling around on the stage as many children do in the privacy of their own bedroom reveries. Indeed, I found it hard to watch her run-on ramblings because I was caught off-guard by the unsavory sensation of witnessing the middle-aged man himself in a moment of privacy, carried away with seemingly improvisational, pigtail-clad movements and "naïve" repetitions of words like "balls" and "tits." I longed for more of an awareness on the part of the performer of his audience, as well as a firmer, more precise directing hand on the part of Wurth. While some level of discomfort is of course desirable in compelling theatre, there were moments here during which I felt saddled with discomfort for perhaps the wrong reasons.
At its best,though, Soper's writing possesses a lyrical quality rife with internal rhyme and colorful wordplay. The warbling, heartbeat rhythms might even be worth exploring in a different art form altogether, such as spoken word, beat poetry, or even as an epic poem, to be experienced in the individual silence of reading. As for the bawdy, expressive characters and their low-maintenance costume changes, they might do well in a casual after-hours cabaret setting.
Not that An Age of Angels has no future on a conventional stage: the makings of a fascinating story are there. But it is in need of a substantial honing of the text, a clarifying of characters and transitions and above all, a few fresh eyes to bring new perspective to the process.
The pleasantly effervescent Mod may be lighter and less substantive than a leaf of lettuce, but that's all right. The new musical, currently playing at 59E59 Theaters in the East to Edinburgh festival, displays a slew of fresh-faced up-and-comers, eager and able to entertain.
Mod follows a group of American teenagers stricken with Beatlemania as they try to track down the touring Fab Four. Rory desperately wants to sing for the quartet, with the hopes of it becoming a quintet, and Kit even more desperately wants to finally meet her future husband, Paul McCartney (who, sadly, is unaware of her existence). Along the way, the boys and girls pair off after much flirtation and hesitation, as every effervescent musical should probably include.
The uniformly young cast happily plunge head-first into the goofiness. Their energetic commitment not only makes the juvenile humor enjoyably silly (instead of silly-to-a-fault), but also captures the unique frenzy of Beatlemania. Director Chantel Pascente, not letting 59E59's small Theater C space get the best of her, keeps her large cast bouncing about the stage without it ever feeling cramped. To add to the authenticity, choreographer Sarah Shankman utilizes every imaginable 1960s "the" dance—the Monkey, the Twist, the Pony, and so on. Surprisingly, the actors execute these moves with complete sincerity and with as much precision as one can apply to the Pony. The result is that rather than laughing at it all, you kind of want to do the Pony as well.
Maybe a lot of kids can do the Twist, but not a lot of kids are patent musical theater performers like the cast of Mod. After shuffling and starting awkwardly while talking to his crush, Austin Wages (as Rory) unexpectedly lets loose an unwavering, robust voice. Lucy Braid, as Rory's crush, fulfills the ingénue role with a sweet soprano but without acting too sugary. And in particular, Jasmine Schwab as Kit and Craig Fogel, playing the nerdy boyfriend Kit constantly neglects, together exude a quirky charm and adept comic sensibility. Their duet, in which they butt heads about Paul McCartney, is one of the high points of the show.
Unfortunately, Mod feels a little unfinished in its writing. The musical has some trouble sustaining through its 90-minutes, because George Griggs's score and Paul Andrew Perez's book concentrate on creating the atmosphere of Beatlemania rather than creating complete stories for the characters. There are a handful of songs that are totally irrelevant and not cute enough to provide sheer entertainment. And although Griggs's music is both catchy and appropriately reminiscent of 1960s pop, his lyrics are pretty generic and, in some spots, annoyingly repetitive.
But that's the thing about Mod: you can forgive these faults if only because of the show's sheer enthusiasm. It has heart which, as Ross and Adler told us, you gotta have. And for that, I wish Mod the best of luck in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Pick up a newspaper, flip through a magazine, or turn on a cable news channel. Odds are the first story you encounter will be on one of two topics: war or celebrity gossip. These twin themes provide the yin and yang of 21st century corporate media. In Shalimar Productions' LA FEMME EST MORTE or Why I Should Not F!%# My Son, a very modern adaptation of the Phaedra myth by Shoshona Currier, military jingoism and the lifestyles of the rich and famous collide, with fascinating results.
Currier's Phaedra is that most modern form of royalty: a celebrity, worshipped by all. Reclining on her bed throughout the first half of the play, she juggles pilates and kabbalah lessons, gives interviews to sleazy celebrity gossip hounds, and harbors secret desires for Hippolytus, the son of her warrior husband Theseus from his previous marriage to an Amazon. Hippolytus has sworn off women in order to keep himself pure for his boxing regimen—and also to hide his own feeling for his stepmother ("Not my mother!" as both he and Phaedra frequently exclaim throughout the buildup of the show).
This unspoken love rises to the surface quickly, with Phaedra and Hippolytus confessing their mutual lust over a bag of fast food. Believing Theseus to have been killed while on military duty in Crete, the unlikely lovers consummate their desires in the absent husband's bed. Of course Theseus isn't really dead, and when he makes his triumphant return from the war to a crowd of flashbulbs and microphones, all manner of hell breaks loose.
Kim Gainer commands the stage as Phaedra, with all the self-obsession, charm, and magnetism of the modern celeb. She sucks in attention from everyone around her like a black hole of narcissism. As her husband Theseus, Atticus Rowe delivers a solid, exciting performance, bringing an "invade first, ask questions later" attitude to the latter half of the play.
Hippolytus is slightly underwritten here; he begins the evening all repression and restraint, but once he succumbs to his affections for Mother, there isn't a lot left for him to do. Joe Curnutte fills the role with enthusiasm, particularly in his sparring sessions with Craig Peugh as his best friend X. Boxing is a recurring motif throughout the play, and Curnutte, Peugh, and Rowe pull off these scenes with pugilistic grace and brutality.
Joey Williamson's paparazzo Tiresias brings a wicked sense of humor to the piece, wallowing in the Page Six dirt gleefully and drinking one too many mojitos along the way. Complementing Williamson, Jen Taher shines as Phaedra's press agent Neevee, nailing one comedic moment after another.
Music and dance play a central part in the evening. Williamson, Laura Lee Anderson, and Marissa Lupp form a paparazzi chorus that comments on the action through karaoke-style pop covers. These numbers are often clever and entertaining, creating a witty counterpoint to the action, but at times the combination of miked singers and prerecorded music becomes distracting, swamping the scenes they are supposed to accent.
I can't say that celebrity gossip and warmongering are two of my favorite themes, but they are certainly preoccupations of our time and country. LA FEMME EST MORTE is being presented at the East to Edinburgh festival at 59E59, and when Shalimar makes the jump across the Atlantic in a week or so for the Edinburgh Fringe, America will be fairly (if savagely) represented by Currier and her crew.
Tender opens with the surprise 29th birthday party of Soledad, a struggling Lower East Side bartender. Soledad and her friends, Sam and Anna, are soon interrupted by an old acquaintance to the group, Julie. It turns out Julie is the center of a lot of baggage surrounding the women, and in the following days the conflict among these four intensifies as Julie tries to provide answers to Soledad's uncertainty about her future. Julie tries to convince Soledad to work in "the corporate world," and even gets her a job interview. As we see Soledad go back and forth with whether to go through with this career change or not, we also see her struggling with relationships with her other two friends, Anna and Sam.
The evening got off to an awkward start with a very long pause at the top of the show after the curtain speech. Three of the actors then hastily entered, two of them shouting surprise to the third. This seemed like an ineffectual beginning to the show. It is very possible though, that this was some sort of technical glitch, and in that case we have all been there.
I was, however, struck by the amount of blatant exposition in the dialogue. Playwright Shapour Benard gives us too much too soon. The exposition both provides the audience background on the characters and also on the culture these women are inhabiting. There are lines that seem to be saying, this is a New York reference and this is what it's like living in New York. These moments are countered with lines like, "My favorite European city is Edinburgh." Every New York and Scottish reference seemed a bit cheap and transparent.
Despite the weaknesses of the script, many issues could be solved through Julie Baber's direction. The feel of the evening is messy and not thought through. The couch and chair from the party stay in the same place for the entire play, even though the action moves from the apartment to the bar, to a store, to a corporate lobby, etc. No choices seemed to be made with regard to lighting or scenery to define the space in a clear or effective way. As far as sound is concerned, sometimes there is sound in between scenes, sometimes there isn't. And one of the characters had the loudest cell phone I have ever heard. I understand the limitations with festival plays, but creativity and conscientious choice making can overcome those practical realities.
The strongest part of the evening was the work of the actors. The cast includes Andrea Dionne, Kelly B. Dwyer, Amber Gray, and Kellie E. McCants. They all managed to find some clear subtextual relationships, and they have a natural chemistry with each other. I did however want to see the ensemble come out of their shell a bit more. They seemed to be very aware of the audience and timid. It was a small theatre yet the energy didn't really fill the space. The impression was of a group of friends being playful on the subway when they know they can't really let loose because they are in public.