Theater Review

The History Mystery

The History Mystery
The TADA! Resident Youth Ensemble

Charming, charming, charming! The premise is simple. The History Mystery opens with students in study hall complaining how boring it is to study history, to the tune of "It's a Mystery." One student pops up exclaiming that the figures of history, about whom they are compelled to memorize dates and events, were actually children once themselves. Shortly a magical mystery tour of history commences, taking three students back though time, where they engage with Ben Franklin, Laura Ingalls, the Wright Brothers, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others as kids.

Menders

Menders
Flux Theatre Ensemble

When departing from The Gym at Judson after the opening night performance of Menders, written by Erin Browne and directed by Heather Cohn, I was acutely aware that I had just witnessed real theater. I know this to be true when a particular mood/mindset overtakes me at the conclusion of a play. Although it will eventually diminish, though not entirely, I want that mood/mindset to last forever. Menders moved me to question what it is to be a human being against the backdrop of the bigger or biggest issues that confront us.

Wintertime and the Watchin’ Ain’t Easy

If the current production of Porgy and Bess accomplishes anything, it is to prove Stephen Sondheim’s preemptive concerns about its approach to this classic piece of American theater to be well-founded. The triumvirate of would-be re-creators consists of Audra McDonald, Diane Paulus, and Suzan-Lori Parks; only McDonald remains standing after the curtain falls.

Seeking to add dimension to the musical’s famed characters while drastically abbreviating its legendary score is a curious undertaking and, in the end, qualities worthy of note are those that long pre-date this version. Drastically reducing the cast’s size had little effect on providing the remaining characters with any enhanced depth but successfully whittled down any grand sense of scale. Ironically, this more resulted in fostering the impression of isolated incident over that of representing a larger world that should be implied as existing outside of the story’s specific realm. This is a two-sided shortcoming shared between director Diane Paulus’s lack of implementation and her cast’s inability to live up to the challenges of this legendary score and libretto.

Fear No More…

Cymbeline
Fiasco Theater at Barrow Street Theatre, NY
Through January 15

Theater in its purest form is an exercise in magical simplicity. Much of what passes for theater today is far closer to the craft of spectacle, which is wonderful in its own right but should not be confused with the art of transforming a relative empty space into another breathing world through the efforts of actors, a director, and a script. Cymbeline is one of those most miraculous of manifestations; armed only with six very talented actors, the immortal words of the Shakespeare and a handful of props and set pieces, they have summoned the muses and created one of the most memorable stage productions of 2011.

The New Way to Say "Boo!"

The Experiment

The creators of Nightmare, one of New York City’s most acclaimed haunted houses, have pushed passed the Halloween season and are now extending their icy grip on "the most wonderful time of the year" with their latest, twisted exploration, The Experiment. Those looking to deck the halls, sing heart-warming carols, and contribute to the general sentiment of peace on earth and good will to men need not apply, but anyone willing to look Santa straight in his more sinister eye should be pleased by the demented vision to be seen there.

Other Desert Cities: Gripping Family/Political Drama

Other Desert Cities
Booth Theatre, NY

There is no reason to beat around the bush when it comes to describing John Robin Baitz's play, Other Desert Cities, which recently opened on Broadway after a sold-out Off-Broadway run at Lincoln Center last winter. To me, it is a great play, a term I don't get to use often, and the best new play I can recall in quite some time. It was riveting, mesmerizing, totally involving, along with being quite funny and relevant. Beautifully written by Baitz, Other Desert Cities grabs the audience from the beginning and never lets go.

A Touch of Poison Does a Body Good

Seminar
Golden Theatre, NYC

Walking away from a theater with genuine joy and excitement for what you have just seen is an all-too-rare and cherished occasion. Between its solid cast, able directing, tight script, and high production quality, Seminar provides just that kind of experience. Looking for any significant holes in this taut piece of private study would prove difficult, and while the play's exploration is not a vast one, it covers the ground it treads thoroughly.

Faulty Assumptions Make Eisenberg's Asuncion Entertaining

My friend and I found ourselves discussing Jesse Eisenberg's new play, Asuncion, for a good half hour after we recently saw it. That says something for the play; while slight and not fully realized, I found Asuncion to be amusing, fairly entertaining, and, obviously, based on our post-play conversation, thought-provoking. And, yes, this is the same Jesse Eisenberg who is better known as an actor and was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Social Network. With Asuncion, Eisenberg shows he has some talent as a playwright. Nevertheless, Asuncion is not quite funny enough for a flat-out comedy and not dramatic or powerful enough for a fully satisfying drama. Still, I'm glad I saw it.

Playing with Your Jesus

Godspell
The Circle in the Square, NYC

Godspell is fighting to prove its relevance while trying to shake off the haunting suspicion of being terribly dated. Energy and dedication are on the side of the ten-person cast of youngsters, but whether youth is any match for a catchy score laden with creaky old Bible stories is a question that hangs in the balance.

All forms of trick and gimmick are employed in this mighty effort to bring Stephen Schwartz’s 1971 classic into the 21st century, from trampolines to confetti guns to on-stage instruments to countless topical jokes and a barrage of celebrity impersonations; even a baptismal version of the proverbial kitchen sink makes way it into the show.