Joyful Noise: Anna Kohler’s “Immense Joy” Brings the Works of Clarice Lispector to Vivacious Life

The specter of Brazilian author Clarice Lispector pervades the stage at Immense Joy, a new production devised and directed by Anna Kohler, and presented by The Tank NYC. At the height of her fame, Lispector’s name (originally Chaya Pinkhasivna Lispector at birth) almost always conjured an air of mystery―not just because of her curious Ukrainian origins, but also because of the abstract way she wrote. And it is abstraction that finds its way into Kohler’s production through a series of vignettes, narrated through the use of innovative multimedia projections by Massimilliano DiMartino. The result is one of, well… immense joy itself.

In the course of nine novels and 85 short stories, Lispector’s work traversed varied human perspectives―most notably, perhaps, are her intimate portrayals of the inner lives of women. That it would be a woman who would eventually stage her work says a lot about Lispector’s ability to communicate through her seemingly unintelligible stream-of-consciousness prose. Having discovered Lispector through her then-student, now-fellow-actor Natalia de Campos, Kohler found herself immediately taken with the author’s words, which drape themselves all over the production like a diaphanous curtain. “Her unusual use of language and the visceral quality of her writing make it so that one feels ‘in it’,” Kohler says, “and from then on, I really, really wanted to create a show about this woman and her writing. I really ‘got’ Clarice Lispector.”

Such a body of work from a female perspective naturally calls for one onstage: here, in the form of Kohler as Olga Borelli, Lispector’s assistant and close confidant whom, according to biographer Benjamin Moser, “would become a key figure in the last years of Clarice’s life and whose tireless dedication and intellectual affinity facilitated the creation of Clarice’s great final works.” In the role of Olga, Kohler cuts just as much of a mysterious figure as Lispector herself as she recites passages of the author’s work. As Lispector once famously notated:

“How does one start at the beginning, if things happen before they actually happen? If before the pre-history there already existed apocalyptic monsters?”

From there, we are launched into the Lispector’s heady world of women—starting with de Campos’ Macabea, a lonely, troubled soul lost among the existential chaos that is part-and-parcel of a Lispector story. In one scene early on in the show, Macabea is practicing to be a bride; in another, she desperately clings to a man she’s only just met but claims as her boyfriend. As Macabea, de Campos is all at once hopeful and forlorn, assured and confused.

Interspersed among the vignettes of Joy, Macabea’s journey represents that of the many Brazilian women Lispector herself knew and observed (particularly, those from the Northeast where the author briefly had grown up). Their stories range from the lyrical to the strange, to even the dangerous: a circle of women singing “Eu Sou Pobre”; three animal-headed figures pick hydrangeas in a field, much to the chagrin of a pale visage at a window; a woman devises a plan to avoid getting raped on a train. These elliptical tales, “apocalyptic monsters” and all, don’t seem to provide a moral neatly tied together at the end so much as ruminate on the complexities of human existence. Indeed, as the woman on the train escapes her doom, only to realize that she secretly wished to be raped, certainly incites some thorny emotions from the perspective of our post-#MeToo landscape.

While it is the women who take center stage, the men which make up the rest of Kohler’s ensemble also make an impact here, gamely taking on the personages of Lispector’s imagination. From re-enacting a Coca-Cola commercial to having an open discussion about poverty with Kohler—actors Fabio Tavares and Justin Gordon impress with their ability to jump, dance, and sing across the stage, breathing life into each story as they go. As for John Hagan, who narrates as well as portrays Lispector in the final scene, he brings with him a grounded reality in his performance.

Taken together, the stories of Immense Joy stir up a world of emotional depth, leaving one with more questions than when one first set foot in the theater. But such is the immortal work of Clarice Lispector. After all, as she once wrote: “So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I will keep on writing.”

Images courtesy of Theo Cote. Immense Joy runs until September 18, 2022 at The Tank (312 W 36th Street, 1st Floor, New York NY 10018). Tickets (starting at $15, with pay-what-you-can ticket tiers) can be purchased here.


The Body Keeps the Score: Marta Mondelli’s ‘Toscana, or What I Remember’ Exercises Some Muscle Memory

For many, memories can be a wonderful thing.  They have the ability to transcend time and space — perhaps to when things were simpler or more innocent.  For others, they can often leave one paralyzed in more ways than one, stuck on a never-ending loop.  In the case of Marta Mondelli’s Toscana, or What I Remember, it is the latter which seems to hold its grasp around the character Emma (played by Ms. Mondelli herself).  

The picturesque backdrop of Tuscany belies the painful memories it may bring to the people in it — particularly, ex-pat Emma, who has just returned to her native Tuscany for her father’s funeral.  Upon her return, she is confronted by memories at every turn.  From the children’s bookstore she remembers frequenting as a young girl; to the bakery which once stood across the street from her hotel; to even the familiar song a young girl nearby persistently sings (much to her annoyance) — a bevy of seemingly fond childhood remembrances but which in reality are relics representative of a more troubled past.  At the receiving end of her frustration is Emma’s American husband Fred (Scott Barton), who himself is bound to a wheelchair — the result of a car accident, referred to later in the play through expository dialogue.  Between the two of them, these memories of past traumas leave their relationship stilted and in constant turmoil, both emotionally and physically.

Serving as counterpoint (as well as some much-needed comedic relief) to the veteran couple is another couple on holiday: the younger and ever-so-cheery Coles, comprised of botany professor and expert Larry (Lance Olds) and his pregnant wife Sue (Nicole Kontolefa).  The Coles, who hail from Wisconsin, find themselves abroad due to a conference Larry is attending, and in awe at everything the Tuscan countryside has to offer (much, again, to Emma’s chagrin).  The two seemingly mismatched couples clash by the pool, their differences at first much more apparent than their similarities, whatever these may be.  

After a few awkward run-ins and misunderstandings, Sue and Fred find themselves alone, pondering the mysteries of the human body, whilst Emma and Larry do the same, albeit with the latter dispensing some botanically-infused wisdom along with it.  He describes something called habituation, in which a plant learns to adapt itself to its environment:  “There is this plant that opens and closes its flowers,” he starts.  “If you drop this flower, let’s say, fifty times, the first few times the plant will take a long time to re-open its flowers.  Because that’s a new stimulus.  But on the fiftieth time, it will take only a few seconds.”

The flower within the play itself, of course, is Emma, whose own memory seems to wilt and diminish as the play goes on, the repeated stimulus of the young child’s singing constantly haunting her.  Later on, when Larry encounters her once again by the pool, he witnesses Emma engulfed in yet another memory, splayed on a lounge chair and speaking to him in Italian, clearly mistaking him for her father.  She comes to, and once again, earlier musings on the effect of memories physically and metaphysically come back into play.  As she explains to Larry, the respective translations of the Italian words for “remember” and “forget” literally describe how memories lodge themselves within us: first, acquired through your heart (ricordare), before flowing through every pore of your body, eventually evaporating from your mind (dimenticare) and into thin air.  Emma’s own tortured memories do not dissipate quite as easily and instead completely take over her.  Eventually, it is revealed that the incidents of mistaken identity between the characters aren’t just scrambled memories, but rather something far worse: a muscle memory of sorts that Emma’s body can’t soon forget…even if her mind already has.

Toscana, Ms. Mondelli’s second outing at the Cherry Lane Theatre (the first of which being the excellent The Window, which I had the pleasure of reviewing for Off Off Online here.), is yet another example of the playwright’s many strengths.  The ability to condense big ideas into an intimate piece of theatre is perhaps one of the hardest tasks any writer is given, and one which Ms. Mondelli not only tackles gamely, but also executes with ease.  Such ease depicted onstage must also be attributed to the trio of cast members at her side, whose collective commitment to their respective roles lends just the right amount of gravitas, humor and everything in between.  As a whole, Toscana is a lovely exploration into Memory and its grasp on places and people, and a piece worthy of self-exploration of one’s own.

Images courtesy of Seth Perlman.


Lost in Translation: Ran Xia Defies Definition With ‘Word Play’

There are things in life that are hard to explain merely with words.  Sometimes, the best way to transcend obstacles is simply to revel in the ineffable intricacy of emotions we are dealt with.  What is left when one not only runs out of memories, but the words to describe them?  Such are the trials and tribulations of young, twenty-something etymologist Icarus (Adrian Burke) and beautiful French ex-pat Esme (Charlotte Arnoux), the young couple at the center of Word Play, Ran Xia’s latest effort.

Just as the title suggests, words are all over this play.  Its own inception is even inspired by a post on pop culture aggregate Buzzfeed, which featured a list of “untranslatable” foreign words, some of which eventually working their way into the fabric of the play, with each word prompting each of the eleven scenes.  Indeed, even as the audience enters the small black-box space of The Theatre Building’s Jewel Box Theater, they are inundated with words: on the floor, on the walls, and even literally hung on the line — a clothesline, that is.

And hang on the line, they do.

Under director Florence Le Bas, we follow the young couple along as their story traverses time and space, across varying states and planes — both literally and figuratively.  Icarus (or Iggy, as he prefers to be called) is diagnosed with a debilitating disease (a brain tumor, it is implied), which starts to affect his memory.  Upon news that it may not be much longer until the disease fully takes hold of his mental faculties, Iggy scrambles to commit his favorite words to memory, writing them down everywhere in a frenetic, Memento-like fashion.  Similarly, he urges Esmé (Essie, he calls her) to go away with him on a road trip across the country, declaring that he wants to live life while he still can.  

This newfound urgency is reflected as scenes from their relationship jump-cut between lived-in and dreamt-up moments.  We see them go through phases as a couple, from awkward, heart-thumping beginning to its inevitable, heartbreaking end.  Iggy’s own decaying memory begins parallels these phases, with elements of his personality changing from one to the other as his mind further riddles with disease.  “This is how memories fade,” Icarus says to Esmé, “Perfectly constructed sentences, reduced to scattered words and eventually, meaningless combinations of letters.  Promise me one thing, Essie.  Don’t ever let me forget you.” 

But forget her, he does.  As his illness worsens, the scenes visibly become shorter and shorter, and by the time they get to see that last sunset, his memory of Esmé all but fades away, descending rapidly into darkness.  The fourth full-length production in an ever-growing output of thought-provoking pieces over the last year and a half, Word Play sees Ms. Xia at perhaps her most heartfelt and earnest to date.  Just as her Icarus decorates his life with words, much of the author’s signatory imprint can be found within Word Play: scenes of roadside Americana; characters out-of-time, with poetic dialogue between them overlapping one another; and — of course — memory.  At its core, it is an exploration into the immediacy of language, the slow fade of memory and the mysteries of human connection.  It is a beautiful piece of theater, and one certainly deserving of a wider audience.


Modern Romance: Second Stage Theatre’s ‘The Last Five Years’ Jerks Tears and Tugs Hearts of a New Generation

Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe in “The Last Five Years” at Second Stage Theatre.
Photo © Sara Krulwich

I’ve always felt that, out of the four seasons, Spring was the perfect time to fall in…and out of love.  As many new couples go walk hand-in-hand out on the streets of New York City, blissfully unaware of the day-to-day realities of a relationship they will soon experience, one couple is discovering just that on West 43rd street.  In Jason Robert Brown‘s much-beloved cult favorite The Last Five Years, the exciting beginnings and tumultuous downfall of a relationship is examined with an intimacy as never before seen in a musical since perhaps its own original mounting in 2001 (which was helmed by Daisy Prince).

As a longtime theater-lover, I’d always heard of The Last Five Years — commonly shortened to L5Y — but never in my RENT-obsessed mind had, at the time, thought much of it.  Until, that is, when my friend Michelle at the Super Awesome Broadway Ninjas blogged about it.  At that point, I had been quietly working on what was then a 6-year writing project, which also dealt with the stages of a relationship told through flashbacks.  When I read about L5Y‘s original concept and format I was naturally intrigued and immediately purchased the Original Cast Recording.  I fell in love with Brown’s beautiful music and story — and the rest, as they say, is history.

For the uninitiated, L5Y is told from the perspectives of Jamie Wellerstein (previously portrayed by Norbert Leo Butz, now taken on by Adam Kantor), a novelist and Cathy Hyatt (originally Sherie Rene Scott, now Betsy Wolfe), a stage actress.  Doesn’t sound all that earth-shattering — that is, until you consider the way these characters tell their story: Jamie narrates from the beginning of the relationship, while Cathy starts from the end.  The show is designed as such that each song the characters sing act as interior monologue, and it is the music through which much of the action is derived.  Each scene, while on different timelines, seems to flow effortlessly from one to the next, yet the contrasts in emotion that result are at once striking and powerful.  All this is probably owed to the fact that this 2013 production is directed by none other than its creator, Jason Robert Brown himself.

Brown’s score being the first thing I fell in love with in relation to this show, it seems only appropriate that I talk about it first.  After all, when one mentions L5Y, the music is most likely the first to come to mind to anyone who has heard its score.  It is probably not much of a stretch to suggest that the music could be a third character in the show.  The music is the main device used in order to tell the story, and every emotion is written into each note and lyric with graceful precision, each a piece of the puzzle, having its place and purpose.  This is clearly reflected in the arrangements of the score, under the careful direction of Thomas Murray.

Apart from the beautiful score, it is the performances from each actor that have certainly benefitted the most from having the show’s creator at its helm.  While I have never seen the original production myself, I can say for certain that we’ve found a perfect Jamie and Cathy this time around in Kantor and Wolfe, respectively.  Kantor, who made his Broadway debut as Mark Cohen in RENT, shines as aspiring writer Jamie and fearlessly takes on Brown’s score with some impressive vocal acrobatics, most notably in “A Miracle Would Happen/When You Come Home to Me.”  His Jamie is playful and flirtatious, while still managing to balance all of that out with unabashed romance.  For her part, Wolfe — last seen on Broadway’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood — is adorable and charming as Cathy.  She presents to us a Cathy that is vibrant and strong-willed, yet insecure and vulnerable at the same time.  In short, Wolfe makes her feel real, which helps us as voyeurs further relate and feel an affinity toward the characters as their relationship unfolds.  Her own interpretation of the music, particularly in “A Summer in Ohio” and “Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You,” complements the score in an understated way .  In fact, both performers do exactly that when they finally cross paths on “The Next Ten Minutes,” the scene in which their characters marry and the only one in which they meet on the same point in the timeline.  Their voices softly tread through the waves of strings and piano accompaniment, just as their characters do the same when their own journey enters tempestuous waters not long after.

It wasn’t just the actors’ individual performances or the music that helped to reinforce the theme of a rocky relationship; Derek McLane‘s set designs and Jeff Croiter‘s lighting were minimal but effective, and did a great job at taking us along for the ride.  Everything was done in such a way that felt just right for the show, not just for the purpose of mood and setting, but for the emotional undertaking that is required for a show with such heavy subject matter.  One shining moment for me was the clever way “The Next Ten Minutes” was staged (which I won’t get into here, but if you go see the show, you’ll know what I’m talking about).  Another was “The Schmuel Song,” which had LCD screens help amplify the story-within-a-story.

This time around, The Last Five Years has proved that you can fall in (and out) of love again, as fans both old and new turned out to show their love for the musical.  It is a beautifully rendered piece of theater, one that will without a doubt continue make audience fall in love again and again for generations to come.

The Last Five Years‘ final extension 
runs until May 18th
For more information about this production,

Out of the Shadows: PigPen Theatre Company Takes us to a Land of Make-Believe

The cast of The Old Man and the Old Moon, from left: Arya Shahi, Ryan Melia, Curtis Gillen, Ben Ferguson, Dan Weschler,  Matt Neurnberger and Alex Falberg.
(Photo via
Over the years, New York has seen its fair share of fairy tale- and folklore-driven theatre; from The Lion King and Wicked to the more recent Peter and the Starcatcher, there’s been an emergence  of innovative re-telling of classic epics in a way that is suitable for audiences of both adults and children alike.  PigPen Theatre Companys The Old Man and the Old Moon is just that: a charming nostalgic gem, perfectly combining elements of puppetry and lighting, taking us on an adventure our 5 year-old selves would surely be envious of.

The Old Man and the Old Moon is an Irish folktale — narrated by Matt Neurnberger and cast — which tells of the eponymous Old Man (Ryan Melia), whose sole duty is to refill the moon with its light every time it “leaks” (presumably the reason why we see the moon waxing and waning).  Life for the Old Man and his wife is simple, thought not without its mundanities, and it is because of this that his wife prods him to go on an adventure to a mysterious island.  The Old Man hesitates and finally refuses, reluctant to leave his post at the leaky moon.  Undeterred by her husband’s seemingly absent sense of adventure, the Old Man’s wife takes their boat  in the middle of the night and sets forth for the mystical island whose haunting music beckons her from afar, like a siren.  By morning, the Old Man discovers his wife missing and is now left with a choice: stay at his post and wait, in the hope that she will eventually return; or leave the moon and chase after her himself.  Ultimately, he chooses the latter and what follows is a turbulent journey across seas, skies and even deserts.  Along the way, we join the Old Man as he meets a gang of sailors, warmongers, ghosts and much more as he continues on his quest.  

The first collaboration between the several members of the cast that make up PigPen, Old Man has its roots in the group’s early days as students at Carnegie Mellon University‘s School of Drama and is their first full-length production.  It perhaps because of this history with the show that its band of “lost boys” give such an energetic performance; throughout, they seemed work well as a unit onstage, as if they were very in tune with one another.  Watching them play the story’s array of vagabond misfits felt very much like being five and watching your friends play make-believe.

A wonderful presentation of song and story, the boys of PigPen Theatre bring us back to a simpler time when when storytelling involved nothing more than a flashlight and your imagination.  The production cleverly plays with light and shadow to help tell the Old Man’s story, and much of Bart Cortwright‘s beautiful lighting installations and fixtures help to create different worlds in a very simple and elegant way, but no less effective.

Another driving force in the show was the beautiful folk music, played by members of the cast and helps narrate the story in a more abstract manner than the dialogue itself.  Much in the way troubadours of the Middle Ages were storytellers of their time, PigPen’s score (some of which can be found on their album, Bremen) harkens to the Irish culture, which is ingrained with traditions of storytelling, both oral and aural.  The music is at once rousing and soothing, contemplative and mysterious; it certainly helps to put you in that stories-by-the-campfire mood, which is all you need when you see this fantastic production.

The Old Man and the Old Moon is a riveting tale, bound to delight your whole family and re-kindle the child in you.  The show ends its run on the 6th of this month (that’s this Sunday!), so if you haven’t seen it, catch it before it closes!

The Old Man and  The Old Moon 
is playing through January 6th
at The Gym at Judson.
For more information about this production,
click here.


Rise Up with Fists: Organs of State Packs a Punch with ‘Fighter’

What do you get when you take one part Super Mario Bros., another part Scott Pilgrim, combined with Mortal Kombat, and a little bit of The Last Airbender? You get all kinds of awesome, which is pretty much the only way to sum up the Fighter experience. Written, directed, and choreographed by Jose Perez IV, who also plays Izzy, the show is an epic journey about two guys searching for the true meaning of heroism.  Whipping into shape a perfect blend of multimedia technology, martial arts, hip-hop, and some hot ripplin’ abs (um, not that I was looking or anything), Fighter will have you on the edge of your seat, ringside and feeling every trickle of blood, sweat, spit and tears on your face – literally (well, maybe not the blood part — at least, I hope not anyway)!

Stepping into the Shell Theater, located in the Times Square Arts Building, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I certainly didn’t expect there to be an interactive “training session” with the company – sure enough, as soon as the house started to fill up, the audience was treated with the sight of the cast doing various warm-up exercises, their shouts and grunts practically reverberating off the walls.  Once the lights dimmed and the show opened to a fight sequence choreographed to The White Stripes’ “7 Nation Army,” it was clear that this would only be a taste of what was to come.  As previously mentioned, the play surrounds two best friends, Izzy and Jake (Keenan Joliff), as they attempt to find out more about a warrior legend passed down Izzy’s family for generations, in the hopes they could use it in a presentation about Myths and Legends for their summer school class.  Of course, as oral history tends to have the same effect as a childhood game of Telephone, major details were eventually omitted, leaving the two to take a road trip, in the hopes that they would find someone to fill the missing pieces.  Along the way, they come across a string of Storytellers, each one providing a new piece to the puzzle. 

Each time the boys gain a little more knowledge to The Legend of the Warrior, each stage of the story gets re-enacted in a fight scene, with Izzy taking center stage as the Warrior himself.  The “flashback” sequences are presented in a similar fashion to the opening scene, often using rousing, head-pounding music to soundtrack Perez’s (literally) kick-ass choreography.  One noteable scene even went so far as to use a remix of “The Bed Intruder Song“, with the cast’s sword-wielding motions timed to perfection with the beat!  Any show that can not only pull that off, but pull it off successfully definitely gets my vote.  In fact, it was a moment that practically brought a tear to my eye (partially out of laughter and partially because, well, it just really touched me okay guys jeez) and made my meme-obsessed self squee with joy, heart all a-flutter.  So bravo to the company, Mr. Perez and Mr. Mitch McCoy (who did the fight direction).  Run tell dat.

The show itself as a whole, especially considering the aforementioned scene, was a lot funnier than expected, and surprisingly had a lot of heart, too.  What really stood out as a central element to the story was that, at its core, Fighter was not just about what it meant to be your own hero — but what it meant to be a friend, as well.  After all, every great superhero needs a sidekick, and Joliff’s Jake provided a great source of comic relief, which in turn added a great balance to Perez’s Izzy, who maintained a quiet intensity throughout.  Their chemistry made me believe in their onstage friendship, which was ultimately be put to the test when all their hard work finally culminated in their summer class presentation — where something happens that would not only change their lives forever, but change the audience’s perspective on the story itself, and how it was told.  In that vein, Fighter was also about storytelling — how it holds the power to inspire and change people’s lives.  Each one of us has a story to tell, and every person we meet along the way affects the way it’s told. 

Watching the show, I couldn’t help but think about how “homespun” it felt, as if you were watching 20 of some of your best friends put on a show.  This is not to say that the execution fell short at all; on the contrary, everything — from the projections (Euthymios Logothetis) to the lighting (Marika Kent) — was well done, the latter being particularly spot-on during the fight sequences.  It reminded me of being 10 years old and seeing my cousins perform at Binghampton University’s Barrio Fiesta nights (organized by student-run Philippine-American League), which consisted of modern and traditional Filipino folk dances, as well as various skits — all written, choreographed and performed by the students themselves.  There was definitely an organic, “let’s put on a show, guys!” feel about it that I also felt when watching Fighter.  It was certainly refreshing and invigorating to see people around my age up there performing and was a thrill to witness.  There was also a sense of instant camaraderie between not just the entire company, but also between themselves and the audience, which brought a unique energy to the show.

Aside from the obvious video game and anime references, Fighter also brought to mind another show I had seen, New York Theatre Workshop’s production of The Seven.  Based on Aeschylus’ tale, Seven Against Thebes, about two warring sons of King Oedipus, it also included a combination of epic storytelling, journeys, ancient warriors, hip-hop and anachronistic cultural references.  I thought the striking similarities in both shows were quite interesting, and were especially evident in the scenes with the various Storytellers.  I loved how each Storyteller had their own distinct personalities, particularly the blind runner, Storytime Steven (Frankie Alicea) and the Not-Quite-Hobo-Enough Storytime Hobo (John Charles Ceccherelli).  There were also other standouts in the cast, such as Gabe Green as Running Man, and Andy Zou as Mr. Bootymonster (yes, that’s his name).

All in all, Fighter had me laughing, crying, cheering and jeering — but really, mostly laughing.  It’s a show that will make you wish you’d taken that Tae Kwon Do class instead of…oh, I don’t know…7 years of jazz dance.  No jazz hands here, it’s all about throwing the punches and doin’ butterfly kicks like a boss when the going gets rough.


Images courtesy of Sasha Arutyunova.Fighter’ ran from October 13th-23rd, 2011 at The Shell Theater. For more information about this production, click here. For upcoming productions by Organs of State, click here.


Like a Prayer: The Adaptations Project Takes Allen Ginsberg’s Autobiographical Poetry from the Page to the Stage

The Adaptations Project’s Founding Artist Donnie Mather, as Allen in “Kaddish.”
Photo by Ben Strothmann.
Allen Ginsberg is considered one of the most important figures of the Beat generation.  Originally from Paterson, New Jersey, the poet later moved to New York, a city with which he later became closely associated.  He is best known for writing the epic poem Howl, which remains a classic.  His poem Kaddish, upon which The Adaptations Project (TAP) based their production, was written three years after the death of his mother, Naomi, who suffered an undiagnosed mental illness.  In the Jewish prayer service, the Kaddish, or Mourner’s Kaddish, is often used in funerals and memorials.  Ginsberg’s poem takes elements of the prayer, weaving in themes of death and loss.
In this adaptation of Ginsberg’s tribute to his mother, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of its publication, TAP Founding Artist and actor Donnie Mather brings Kaddish — and the poet himself — to life.  Here, Mather takes on the piece, staging it as a one-man show.  As someone who was not familiar with the source material coming in, watching Mather was interpret Ginsberg’s words was interesting to see.  The piece, which runs a good 80 minutes, is almost completely verbatim, faithful to the text except for a few instances where Mather takes on other roles, mostly as Naomi.  These role-playing sequences, interspersed throughout, showcase Mather’s abilities to play multiple characters.  The performance is set against a minimal setting of three hanging windowsills, upon which visuals are projected.  Background noises and sound effects, as well as lighting changes, also come into play, along with a few props.
Truth be told, my past experience with one-man shows — while limited — haven’t exactly converted me into a fan, just yet.  The only other such show I’ve seen was Chazz Palmintieri‘s A Bronx Tale, which I’d had some qualms about, and Kaddish was no different.  Mainly, I had a problem with the use of sound effects and noises, as well as some of the visuals.  Perhaps it is just a case of personal preference, but my idea of one-man shows had always been of just a single performer under the spotlight, telling his story.  I suppose these expectations were even more so when I saw that Kaddish was based upon a Ginsberg poem — I somehow had expected it to more of an intimate, poetry slam/reading kind of feel.  Of course, this being live theater, it was silly of me to expect it as such, as much as I had tried to come in with an open mind.  Still, I would have like to have seen a simpler take, in terms of the staging.  I feel as if a lot of the extra stuff, such as the sound effects, distracted from really letting Ginsberg’s words sink in.
That said, there were still things I found enjoyable — some of the projections served as comedic relief in some parts, and also helped to augment the lyrical feeling of Mather’s monologue.  Brian H. Scott’s lighting design complemented the performance very well, creating an intimate feel that can only be essential when looking back at Ginsberg’s life and experiences with his mother.  And, of course, Mather’s performance, which kept me mesmerized.  He has such a presence onstage that no matter who he was playing — Allen, Naomi, or his father, Louis — Mather was able to inhabit each person with such distinctive characteristics that it kept me enthralled.

All in all, it was a very interesting interpretation, and a performance that — even for those not familiar with Allen Ginsberg — will leave the theatre having known a little bit about the voice of a generation…and wanting more.

Kaddish ran from September 29th – October 9th, 2011
For more information about this production, click here.
   Click to vote for it in the New York Innovative Theatre Awards.

Going Back to the Start: Knife Edge Productions Shows What Happens When You Replay the Past and Erase it

What do you do when your past comes back to haunt you?

Such is the running theme in this revival of Stephen Belber’s Tape, directed by Sam Helfrich.  The play tells the story of two former high school best friends, Jon (Neil Holland) and Vince (Don DiPaolo) discover just that when a ten-year reunion starts to unlock secrets from their past.  Jon, an aspiring filmmaker, is in town for the Lansing film festival, where one of his films is screened.  He meets with Vince in a Motel 6 where a friendly conversation soon becomes an interrogation.

Niceties are made, jokes are thrown around and memories are shared — particularly that of one night Jon spent with a girl named Amy (Therese Plaehn).  Through Belber’s sparse but witty dialogue, we soon learn that Jon had not only dated her, but Vince as well.  The conversation starts off innocently enough — Vince asks about the night of a high school friend’s party their senior year, and how far things went between Jon and Amy, both of whom had gotten together shortly after she and Vince had broken up.  It is here the conversation takes a dramatic turn, as Vince’s inquiries start to suggest that things had gone too far and reveal his own suspicions of rape.  He claims that Amy had confided this to him, an idea that leaves Jon speechless.

Jon’s memories of the night are muddled, and though he was sure at first that nothing happened, he begins to doubt himself.  The interrogation reaches new heights when, after much prodding and accusation from Vince, Jon caves in and confesses to the act.  At this, Vince takes a tape recorder out from his pocket and replays the conversation.  

The question of what to do with the tape hangs in the air, as Vince tells Jon that Amy is coming over, at his invitation.  Both are still recovering from the initial shock of Jon’s confession when Amy, now an Assistant District Attorney, makes a revelation of her own: that the supposed rape never happened.

The play toys with the concept of memory; how malleable it is and how it can change over time to suit our needs.  What we perceive a certain memory to be is not necessarily what we remember, and Tape not only walks that fine line, but dares to explore it further.  For Jon, he started doubting his initial memories fooling around with Amy (as any other pair of teenagers would do at a party) to conceding to Vince’s telling of it being a bit on the rough side.  Amy counters this, insisting that the roughest it got was when he covered her mouth during the act.  We never really know whether Amy did truly remember or not; whether she was lying just to test the two, or whether it really hadn’t been rape at all.

Both Holland and DiPaolo played off one another very well, and I very much believed them in their roles.  Holland seemed to find the right balance of anger, resentment and confusion throughout; DiPaolo’s performance gave so much life to Belber’s often comic dialogue (“I’m not high and mighty.  I’m too high to be high and mighty!” comes to mind), and had a great energy that played well against Holland’s Jon.  Plaehn also brought an interesting energy to the overall dynamic, and between the three of them, they seemed to really physically inhabit these roles instead of just playing characters — even the silences and beats between lines just felt right with all of them in the room, distant from one another and yet having so much history between them.

Images courtesy of Sal Cacciato.

Tape ran from September 9th – 24th in the June Havoc Theatre at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex. For more information on the cast and creatives, go here. Click to vote for it in the New York Innovative Theatre Awards.

Review, Rewind

A Mad World: The United States Theatre Project’s ‘columbinus’ Goes Inside the Typical All-American High School — And Tears it Apart

This past weekend’s viewing of A Shot Away had me reminiscing about other docudramas I’ve enjoyed over the years.  Jonathan Mandell noted how Red Fern’s production had reminded him of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s The Exonerated, and I definitely agree; it had a lot of the same elements, including a lot of quote-worthy dialogue.  One other play that ASA had reminded me of was columbinus, a daring docudrama produced by The United States Theatre Project, in conjunction with New York Theatre Workshop.  

I often say that this was one of the plays that changed my life.  I had seen it with my AP English class my senior year of high school.  It was our last school trip as high schoolers, as well as our teacher, Mr. C.’s last as a high school teacher.  Mr. C. had always encouraged a love of the theatre in his students, bringing us out to the off-Broadway world and having legendary artists like Julian Beck and Judith Malina of The Living Theatre into the classroom.  For extra credit, he gave us an assignment where we had to review the play we had just seen.  The result is below — needless to say, I think I did very well!

Seeing columbinus changed how I thought about how theatre was performed and presented.  I realized that it wasn’t just merely another medium used to entertain, but that it provided a forum for social commentary.  It also further cemented the feeling that I had of theatre being a community that I wanted to be a part of, and still hope to be a part of now.  

So without further ado, here’s the review that started it all.

Imagine you’re walking down a hall full of kids: of artists and jocks, of drama geeks and “gangstas,” of dreamers and slackers alike.  Each kid pushing and shoving, trying to make their way through the mad world of high school — or at least just the halls, anyway.  It seems like it’s just another ordinary day at school…except that it’s not.  Despite the proclamation inscripted on the walls, stating: Through these halls pass the finest kids in America, above all the pushing and shoving you hear a gunshot.  In that instant, everything you ever thought or known about high school has completely changed. 

Such is the impact that is made upon viewing a performance of columbinus, a courageous piece based on the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado.  In the play, the first act starts off depicting various familiar archetypes that would haunt any high school in middle America.  In the scene entitled “Selection,” the message that the persona you fit into is something that you purposely choose upon entering high school is shown through each character literally choosing single identifying props for their archetype.  There was a makeup compact for the popular blonde; cigarettes for the rebellious misfit, who also happened to be the drama geek; a hat for the jock; glasses for the nerd, etc.  With Gary Jules’ song, “Mad World” playing in the background, a song so eerily familiar to those who’ve seen the cult classic Donnie Darko, the scene certainly captures high school at its most real. 

And it’s a mad world, indeed.

What pleasantly surprised me was the added depth to each of these everyday figures — they’re not as one-dimensional as we all think them to be.  In one scene, in which The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” (also heard on another cult film, Cruel Intentions) propels a montage-like exploration into each character’s fears and weaknesses through individual spotlights.  We see the same misfit cutting herself, the popular blonde finding out she’s pregnant, and the resident religious girl having a crisis of faith.  As all of these characters line up on the edge of the stage, lip-synching to the song, we come to realize that theses are real people after all, hindered by their choice because they have no choice.

However, the play also starts off focusing on what we see as the everyday norm: the endless taunting and clique rivalries echo through the halls and in our minds.  From little incidents, such as ketchup packets being thrown at the “freaks,” to the isolation felt in the locker rooms, we see the familiar side of high school — its facade — and in it, we two teenagers living on the other side of the jeering, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.  These two, of course,  are based on the actual mass murder duo also known as the “Trenchcoat Mafia.”  Decked out in cargo pants and military boots, along with their signature trenchcoats, both Klebold and Harris were seen as “different” — and for that, everyone had to pay the price.  Sick of having to endure the looks and the whispers day after day, Dylan and Eric start to devise a plan.

In the second act, the production portrayed a play-by-play of the events of April 20, 1999 — complete with documented recordings of 911 calls, as well as transcripts from conducted interviews with victims and actual images of the Mafia from surveillance feeds.  This portion of the production would certainly raise questions by the general public concerning possible exploitation of the victims and glorification of the murderers; how does one reenact a high school shooting?  Despite the questions raised, under P.J. Paparelli’s brilliant direction, raging violence was not on display here, but rather the poignant performances and unique talent of the entire columbinus company.  No longer in their stereotypical teenage garb, Anna Camp, Carmen Hurlihy, Nicole Lowrance, Joaquin Perez-Campbell and others recited actual accounts of the massacre in the library.  Here, they were not just “victims,” but people with strength and dignity, even in the face of a gun.

On that fateful April day, most of the 13 students who perished during the killing spree had been situated in the library.  Upon viewing Paparelli’s staged version of the library massacre, I was glad to see that the murderers were not given their heyday onstage.  Instead, they were left in the background while the rest of the company was at the forefront, making sure that the stories of the lives taken that day were heard over the sounds of “gunshots,” caused by the two villains banging  on the back wall.  This would come to symbolize memories begging to be heard over the deafening sounds trying to silence them into the ground.  For certain moments when victims were met with a gun, it had been staged so that the killers did not directly face them.

While I had been thoroughly impressed with the cast members playing the victims, I had been equally enthralled by the performances of both Will Rogers and Karl Miller, who played Klebold and Harris, respectively.  Throughout the production, I felt that these two had captured the essence of what it’s like as a disenfranchised youth in America today.  I felt Miller’s performance, particularly, to be intense, yet slightly vulnerable at the same time.  As for Rogers, I found him to be a great source of comedic relief during the “Instant Message” scene, as well as equally unwavering in his performance towards the end.  

All in all, columbinus is a surprisingly poignant, thought-provoking look at high school life and the ways it can manifest into something as self- (and mass-) destructive as a shooting.  You leave the theatre wondering how such an atrocity could happen in an adult-supervised world like high school.  Questions plague your mind and you suddenly reevaluate everything, because you realize that the people you just saw onstage reflect people you see everyday in the halls.  They’re the same people you wave hello to, cheat off of in science class,  or just plain ignore.  

Most importantly, you ask yourself one question above all others: Why? 

Images courtesy of New York Theatre Workshop. columbinus ran from May 5 – June 11, 2006 at the New York Theatre Workshop.