Theater Review

The Black Crook

The Black Crook
Conceived and Directed by Joshua William Gelb
Abrons Arts Center, NYC
September 17-October 7, 2016

The Black Crook, subtitled An Original, Magical and Spectacular Musical Drama, begins with playwright Charles M. Barras (Steven Rattazzi) stutteringly pitching the play The Black Crook to William Wheatley (Merlin Whitehawk), producing manager of Niblo's Garden, a theater that stood, in several incarnations, on Broadway near Prince Street from 1823-1895. This current production of The Black Crook adapts Barras's 1866 original and weaves throughout the adaptation a frame narrative that tracks the origins and success of what was a hugely influential piece of theater. Wheatley and his business partners combined Barras's melodrama with performances by a Parisian ballet troupe and other spectacular interludes, and the result, because of its single unifying plot, is often credited as the first book musical in American theatrical history (the program notes that the song "I Said to My Love," written by Giuseppe Operti for an 1870 revival, includes the male protagonist's name in an early effort to integrate song and plot). While some dispute the designation of first musical for The Black Crook, no one disputes the fact that it was a tremendous, unprecedented hit, running for 474 performances and in numerous revivals.

Innovative, Acrobatic Twist on The Little Prince Takes Flight in NYC

(Ezra LeBank, Cynthia Price & Taylor Casas )

Flight
20th New York International Fringe Festival Encore Series
Barrow Street Theatre, NYC
September 24-30, 2016

A quest. A love story. A search for meaning and connection. In the sweetly uplifting Flight, three performers from the California-based company Curbside pay homage to Antoine De Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. In this sequel of sorts to the classic but still timely fable, the Prince is a girl -- why not? -- cleverly evoked through a sleight of hand, and human bodies transcend the limitations of the physical universe, becoming zebras, cacti, airplanes, and the embodiment of past memory and future potential.

I Won't Forget Blossom

Blossom
Written and directed by Spencer Lott
At Dixon Place, NYC
September 9-September 24, 2016

No one wants to hear the phrase "end-of-life decisions."  Moments after being introduced to us via a daring act of heroism, James Blossom (voiced by Rowan Magee), is being advised by a doctor to make his as soon as possible. James, the eponymous Blossom of puppet artist, director, and filmmaker Spencer Lott's new play, developed with support from the Jim Henson Foundation, has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and we follow James and his daughter Kathryn, a.k.a. Katy, a.k.a. Katy Bee (Jamie Agnello), as they do their best to navigate the practical, psychological, and emotional fallout of James's disease.

The advance of his Alzheimer's precipitates James's move into assisted living facility, against his wishes, of course.  There, he meets fellow residents Maisey and Ronald.  The symbolism around loss of control generated by all three of these elderly characters being embodied by puppets (while the puppeteers play the other various roles) may be intentional or accidental, but it is hard not to see.  Just as Maisey was once a senator and Ronald a CEO, James, we discover, had a storied career as a painter in the film industry, a past to which he reconnects with the help of Kelly (Chelsea Fryer), a young volunteer who runs art classes at the nursing home.

Cloud Cuckooland

Cloud Cuckooland
Lyrical text by Matthew Freeman Created and directed by Djahari Clark
Presented by Desert Sin At House of Yes, NYC
September 8 - September 17, 2016

Cloud Cuckooland is subtitled "a story about death," and it begins with its protagonist, the Girl (Cassandra Rosebeetle), at death's threshold, looking like a patient etherized upon a table as we hear her heartbeat and a voiceover that talks about the "blank space" underlying biology. The Jackdaw (Zahra Hashemian) picks up this thematic thread as she sings about dying being worse than being dead and compares ephemeral humanity to the eternal bird world. The Jackdaw and her companions, the Crow (Renata Bergen) and the Raven (Amanda Mottur), offer the Girl entrance to their avian empyrean, a chance for her to replace humanity's ungainly locomotion with feathered soaring. They present her with a contract (its terms an opportunity for some light comedy), something that any reader of fairy tales knows should be viewed with suspicion, especially when proffered by magical animals; the Girl must be dead and must embrace madness and reject her heart, and then she will ascend to the queenship of Cloud Cuckooland as the Phoenix. As in any good fairy tale, she makes the bargain, and we survey with her the birds' realm of madness and imagination. But is there only blank space under its surface beauty and apparent freedom, as implied by its denizens' avid hoarding of shiny objects set to the strains of a reimagining of Rossini's "The Thieving Magpie," and particularly when set against the depth of life associated with her heart, which continues to haunt her and by which she continues to be tempted?

Slanty Eyed Mama Brings Scathing Wit and Stealth Poignance to New York Fringe Festival

Happy Lucky Golden Tofu Panda Dragon Good Time Fun Fun Show
20th New York International Fringe Festival 
DROM, NYC
August 21 & 22, 2016

"Welcome to the dress rehearsal/tech rehearsal/first performance of Happy Lucky Golden Tofu Panda Dragon Good Time Fun Fun Show!" says Kate Rigg of her bracingly funny performance platter of song, stand-up and tragicomic sketches. What follows is raw in the best senses of the word. Even the rough patches -- waiting for "the white people" to wrestle with skittish technology; a wardrobe malfunction that provokes a sweet, awkward encounter with an angelic staffer at the show’s East Village venue, then gets hilariously incorporated into a skit -- show off Rigg's quicksilver wit and willingness to take her captivated audiences anywhere.

Laughing At Death

In the Event of My Death
Written by Lindsay Joy
Directed by Padraic Lillis
Presented by Stable Cable Lab Co. at IRT Theater, NYC
August 6-August 21, 2016

In the opening minutes of Lindsay Joy's In the Event of My Death, directed in its current world premiere by Padraic Lillis, Peter (John Racioppo) and his friend Amber (Lisa Jill Anderson) clean the trash from the living room of his house, which once belonged to his parents, in preparation for a post-funeral gathering to commemorate Freddy, another friend, who has committed suicide. Unfortunately for them, the past, and its hold on the present, will not be so easy to tidy away; in fact, from then on, events will get far messier. In Peter's suburban Pennsylvania residence, as a small group of Freddy's friends and relatives struggle with death in the Facebook age, death at its most unexpected, and death as a deliberate choice, as well as the knowledge that "it gets better" didn't happen for Freddy, their coming together leads them into a much wider emotional archaeology, seemingly a current strong suit of Stable Cable Lab Co.

Prison Time!

Deathwatch
By Jean Genet (trans. by Bernard Frechtman)
Presented by the HOT BLOODed Theatre Co.
St. Mary Magdalen Church, NYC
July 26-August 6, 2016

Seminal existentialist writer and activist Jean Genet's 1949 play Deathwatch (his first) is intimate in its scale, consisting almost entirely of three men in one room, so it is appropriate that HOT BLOODed Theatre Co. has located their current production in a very intimate space on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The result of an actor-centered process that forgoes a director, this production, their first in NYC, is a lithe, lean hour of theater that bodes well for future productions and successfully implicates the audience in its own voyeurism.

Blood & Tears

Sweat and Tears
Created by Jess Goldschmidt and James Rutherford
Presented by M-34 At JACK, NYC
July 22-July 31, 2016

Sweat and Tears is a new piece of physical theater that draws in part of the past experience of creators Jess Goldschmidt and James Rutherford in karate and dance, respectively.  These physical pursuits, which can also be viewed as ways of disciplining bodies, inform the play’s presentation of what Rutherford calls in a Theater in the Now interview "extreme acts of gendered labor."  The production grew out of what were originally two separate pieces, one by Rutherford that centered around men fighting and one by Goldschmidt constructed around women crying, both of which, Rutherford says, "pulled from a broad swath of performance styles and cultural practices connected to public displays of physical suffering."  In bringing these elements together, the non-narrative Sweat and Tears weaves at intervals into its physical displays both original text and text excerpted from poet Matthew Pinnock, Cormac McCarthy’s hyper-violent novel Blood Meridian, and Tibetan Buddhist writer Tsangnyön Heruka’s biographical Life of Milarepa, asking audiences to interrogate how we perform gendered emotional labor. 

What Font Is This?

Helvetica
Written by Will Coleman
Directed by Brock Harris Hill
Presented by Rising Sun Performance Company
Planet Connections, NYC
June 19-July 9, 2016

While avoiding mingling with guests during a crowded party in Will Coleman’s Helvetica, presented in its world premiere by the Rising Sun Performance Company (who were responsible for the excellent recent production of Sprucehaven B), protagonist Helvetica Burke quotes T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas." Helvetica herself is a writer, of children’s books, and her invocation of Eliot’s famously self-doubting narrator highlights her own cynical side, the side that sees existence as inherently meaningless and stories as a way to help alleviate this condition. She also, however, has a tenaciously persistent sense of childlike wonder and possibility, even if that side sometimes goes unacknowledged for stretches of time. Helvetica, benefitting the New York Public Library as part of the socially- and ecologically-conscious Planet Connections Festivity, explores the interplay between these two sides and how they interact with the stories that we choose to tell ourselves and others.

Smile When The World Is Blue

The Golden Smile
Written by Yaakov Bressler
Directed by Joey Stamp
Planet Connections, NYC
June 16-July 3, 2016

The Planet Connections Festivity is "New York's premiere socially-conscious arts festival," dedicated to inspiring community outreach and social change and to operating eco-friendly productions. One of the full-length plays in the 2016 Festivity is playwright and researcher at Columbia University Medical Center Yaakov Bressler’s comedy The Golden Smile, which follows seven patients in a mental care facility in the 1950s as they attempt to create their own play.