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.


Show Girl Showstopper: Andrea Bell Wolff Dazzles as She Recalls her ‘Adventures in Vegas’

There’s nothing like a pandemic to make you a little nostalgic. At least, that was definitely the case for performer Andrea Bell Wolff, who opens her show Adventures in Vegas with a scene at a pandemic-era birthday gathering. From there, Wolff dusts off from the pages of her diary memories of Las Vegas and suddenly we are transported. The year was 1970, when the Rat Pack still ruled the strip. A nineteen-year-old Wolff, fresh off a run playing Ermengarde and understudying Minnie Faye for the national tour of Hello, Dolly!, sets her sights on ambitious roles on Broadway and film. Passed over for the likes of E.J. Peaker and Georgia Engel instead, Wolff seizes the opportunity for a part in the cast of Bottoms Up!, a comedic burlesque revue playing in the famed Caesar’s Palace. The successful revue takes her from Vegas to Sydney and back, proving to be one–if not the most–formative experience in Wolff’s life.

When I previously wrote regarding solo shows, I mentioned that it takes “a certain kind of physical stamina” to fill a stage on your own. Luckily, Wolff (who cuts a tiny-but-mighty figure onstage) manages to deliver a punchy performance with the help of fellow actor Elliott Litherland, who fills the roles of various people in Wolff’s life. Together, they make a vivacious pair, bringing the Las Vegas of 1970 into clear, vibrant focus. As a whole, Adventures in Vegas is a smooth ride down a glittering memory lane, with each stop along the way punctuated by musical selections from such varied artists as Sara Barielles, Whitney Houston, and Tom Waits. (Thrown in for good measure are actual numbers from Wolff’s past, originally performed by Grant Smith and Rusty Warren.) Under the musical direction of Jude Obermüller, each piece felt timeless, perfectly underscoring each memory so that it felt as if the songs were written especially for the show.

All in all, Adventures in Vegas provides the perfect escape into a simpler time.

‘Adventures in Vegas’ is running at the AMT Theater (354 W 45th Street) until August 24th. For tickets, go here.

Review, Uncategorized

How History Happens: TITAN Theatre Company Fearlessly Ushers ‘Julius Caesar’ Into a Brave New World

TITAN Theatre Company has seen the future — and the future is bleak.  The political climate gains momentum, with public opinion ruled by sweeping promises of  Rhetoric, rather than the practicality of Reason.  This could refer to the mud-slinging rat race currently going on in our country, referring instead to one which occurred hundreds of years ago.  The Queens-based theatre collective continues in their mission to breathe new life into classic works with a sleek, provocative take on William Shakespeare’s politically-centered historical historical drama.  The production marks the end of TITAN’s third full season as company-in-residence at the Queens Theatre, this time with Jack Young at the helm.  

In a lot of ways, Caesar stays true to many elements that have become part-and-parcel to a quintessentially TITAN production: a modern setting against which the company’s consistently strong ensemble of actors (along mostly intact Shakespearean dialogue) are juxtaposed.  However, while these elements are certainly carried over into Caesar, giving it that particular air of TITAN-esque familiarity, this production is also a departure from the company’s other works, leaning even more bravely toward the avant-garde.  This fearlessness is perhaps due not just to TITAN’s ensemble of actors (resident company members and visiting artists alike) and its artistic director, Lenny Banovez, but also to the production’s own design team.

Sarah Pearline’s scenic design truly sets the stage for Caesar‘s bleak dystopia.  Just like classic novels of the genre — particularly, George Orwell’s 1984 — the set, despite its stark minimalism, cloaks itself deep in complex symbolism.  Instead of the traditional Roman columns one might expect from the world of Caesar, Pearline punctuates TITAN’s futuristic Rome with the criss-crossing, ray-like beams across the back wall of the set, conjuring images of both the steel frames of corporate buildings and bars of a prison cell.  Either way, the people of Rome are certainly trapped in a less-than-idyllic system — a totalitarian regime, in fact, ruled by the titular tyrant Julius Caesar (Jonathan Smoots) himself.  

Early on in the first act, Cassius (Banovez) utters the famous lines: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in our Selves, that we are underlings.”  Not everything is as fated as we think it is, and if it is Rome that is in a state of complete tyranny, then it is because the people were complicit in their own subjugation.  This is made clear just as the ensemble enters the stage and we can see, etched across its floor, criss-crossing geometrical lines dotted at various points — remarkably similar to constellations in the sky.  At first, the group of Romans, decked out in black slacks and crisp white shirts by costumer Lorraine Smyth, step out individually into a strange assembly of movements.  These movements at first seem random until Caesar himself enters, standing at the center of the stage where all points of the “constellation” on the ground meet, and at the motion of his staff, they fall into a synchronized dance of sorts.  The choreography, abstract and yet specific in its thoroughly modern, Graham- and Cunningham-esque movements, most enhances the production’s aforementioned departures into bolder artistic territory.

However, it doesn’t just stop with just the design elements and choreography.  As they did in last year’s Othello, TITAN rounds up some of the best stage actors found on both coasts and in-between; and as always, it seems almost blasphemous to single any one actor out.  From the aforementioned “grand entrance” in the beginning to the inevitable assassination scene and its dramatic, consequential end the ensemble move as one, egos thrown aside for the sake of better serving the story.  That said, TITAN also utilizes double-casting in Caesar (something seen before in their previous productions –particularly A Midsummer Night’s Dream), which also allows for each actor in all of their varied, respective roles, to shine equally.

Unlike the dystopian doom they depict onstage, TITAN once again proves that unity as a group can positively serve the public at large, and that to progress in theater is not only to challenge its boundaries, but also compel one to think critically.

Images courtesy of Michael Dekker. Julius Caesar ran from March 25 – April 10, 2016 at the Queens Theatre (14 United Nations Avenue).


And to All a Good Night: TITAN Theatre Company & The Queens Theatre presents ‘A Christmas Carol’

As a proud 90s kid, yours truly can recall more than a few versions which had particular influence (or, is in the case of the VHI TV film, simply pure entertainment) in the retelling of the timeless tale: an 26-minute animated short by Disney (Mickey’s Christmas Carol), which featured Scrooge McDuck as the infamous main character; as well as another with the Muppets (The Muppet Christmas Carol), featuring Kermit in full-out Dickensian costume.  There was that totally campy, glittery and positively lol-worthy adaptation on VH1 (A Diva’s Christmas Carol) starring Vanessa Williams as a Scrooge-like pop star (minus the top hat, spectacles and grey beard, of course), and let’s not forget the fairly recent computer-animated version to which Jim Carrey lent his vocal stylings.

These days, not much about the story — or its young audience — has changed.  The times, however, have — and in this tech-obsessed world we’re living in now, it is refreshing to see the next generation engage in something other than what is on a screen in front of them.  There is nothing like sitting in a theater filled with kids hanging onto the edge of their seats — and onto every word being performed onstage.  The performance in question was not the latest pop star (sorry, Taylor Swift), but TITAN Theatre Company‘s production of A Christmas Carol at the Queens Theatre.

The story itself should be a familiar one by now: we are introduced — and given expository background — to Ebenezer Scrooge (
Kevin Loomis) by various nameless characters, who describe the old man’s descent into bitterness following the death of his business partner Jacob Marley (Andy Baldeschwiler) 7 years prior to the play’s start.  We see evidence of Scrooge’s cold heart through his mistreatment of those around him: namely, his nephew, Fred (Dylan Wittrock), who attempts to invite his uncle to partake in Christmas Eve festivities; as well as his office clerk, Bob Cratchit (John Taylor Phillips), to whom the old miser has refused an increase in what is already a meager salary.

Then, of course, as he makes his way home and into his bed, he is suddenly visited by an apparition of Marley’s Ghost, who ominously announces that Scrooge shall be visited by the ghosts of Christmases Past (TITAN company member  Laura Frye), Present (fellow company member Michael Selkirk) and Future (also played by Baldeschwiler).  Over the course of the night, these three ghosts literally lead Scrooge on a journey backwards, forwards — and even sideways — in time, getting to the root of how the old miser became who he was.

In re-enacting these classic scenes to the next generation, TITAN’s talented round of cast members surely do Dickens justice.  The return of company regulars Frye and Selkirk prove once again to be a winning combination, along with fellow standouts Wittrock and the production’s own Scrooge, Loomis himself.  The inclusion of child actors also help in not only help fully round out the cast, but also provide the younger members of the audience with another element to the story with which to relate to.  As both Tiny Tim and the “present-day” grandson in the opening scene,  Moore Theobald gamely holds his own with his elder counterparts, as does his brother Quinn in the roles of Peter and a much younger Scrooge.

As you can see, Dickens’ Carol has been a cultural mainstay, always seeming to find a way to remain relevant in our modern society.   From the beginning of TITAN’s production, which opens with Loomis as a present-day grandfather reading it to his grandson, we are reminded once again of the timelessness of Dicken’s tale.   While their interpretation of the material is less a “modernized” one, period clothing and language remaining largely intact, what seems to make this story modern is in the fact that its themes are still ones we grasp with today — mainly, how greed can corrupt even the most purest of heart, and how ultimately, forgiveness can be the best gift of all.

Combined with an elegant production design, with sets by Jasmine Nicole and costumes by Becky Willet, TITAN proves once more that everything old can be new again.

Images courtesy of Lloyd Mulvey.

Festival Notes, Review

The Whipped-Up Delights of Daliya Karnofsky’s ‘And She Bakes, Live’ (FringeNYC)

You know you’re literally in for a treat when, as soon as you enter the appropriately-named Celebration of Whimsy Theatre (The C.O.W.), you are greeted by an extremely perky, polka-dot-apron’d Bakeress who immediately bombards you with a detailed description of the kind of baked good you remind her of (for instance, this critic was described reminiscent of “one of those buttery British cookies with a chocolate drizzle on top — a little bit exotic, but still a little bit classic”). The Bakeress in question is Daliya Karnofsky, and the aforementioned “treat” she is serving up is an interactive live performance experience called And She Bakes, Live — in which, as the title suggests, Karnofsky cooks up a ravishing dessert in front of our eyes. Originally written, produced and conceived by Karnofsky in a kitchen, And She Bakes, Live grew into a YouTube web series and eventually developed into the live performance which ran at the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC), in conjunction with terraNOVA Collective.

Once everyone is seated, The Bakeress finally gets down to business, setting out to soothe the aches of our hearts through the aches of our stomachs. Throughout the show, the Bakeress answers fan mail from lovelorn women who email her and ask for advice, prompting the Bakeress to answer by demonstrating each step of the baking process and using it and its corresponding ingredient to signify the steps to a relationship. According to Karnofsky, a relationship always starts off Sweet (honey, the first ingredient), with a generous helping of Comfort (peanut butter — natural, fake or otherwise). Next, you should never forget to add a little bit of Naughty to spice things up (“pure vanilla extract, and accept no substitutes!”), while also fully embracing the little Quirks sprinkled here and there, no matter how annoying they might be (perfectly exemplified by Rice Krispies, of course). Also, you can never have enough Passion (chocolate chips in all its ooey-gooey wonder), with a note of Nuance to balance things out (just a touch of salt). Between every other ingredient or so, while waiting for them to come together nicely, the Bakeress dazzles us with a dance break, ever-so-gracefully prancing around the stove-top centerpiece on the stage in a dizzying whirl of polka-dotted elation. For the show’s final dance break, two dancers who seem to pop out of nowhere (or rather, from under the stove contraption) even join her as she gets her groove on to Ke$ha’s “C’Mon”!

As a performer, Karnofsky is one that revels in the awkward moments, using it to fuel improvisation without batting a sparkly eyelash. Indeed, even as we take our seats at the beginning of the show, she ever-so-considerately asks each of us whether we are allergic to peanuts, to which a lone member of the audience answers with a resounding “YES!” At this moment, Karnofsky fully takes advantage, delighting in playfully panning over to said audience member at every mere mention of legumes over the course of the night (“You might ask, ‘well, why bend over backwards for people who have dietary restrictions by choice, rather than people who can’t do anything about it and have suffered and been left out their whole lives?’ I can’t answer this.”). Her hilarious stream-of-consciousness dialogue and onstage antics had our bellies full of laughter long before those gluten-free peanut butter vegan treats (which turned out to be really good, too) reached our hands. Just as with the act of baking itself, Karnofsky’s own act has all the right ingredients, resulting in something just as unexpectedly delicious. 

Images courtesy of Justin Onna.And She Bakes Live’ ran from August 9-22nd, 2014 at Celebration of Whimsy (21 Clinton Street) and was presented as part of the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC).


Snippets: Nicole Maxali’s ‘Forgetting the Details’ is One Show You’ll Never Forget

At the beginning of Forgetting the Details, a one-woman show performed by actress-comedienne Nicole Maxali, she — narrating as a present-day version of herself — turns to the audience and asks: “Are memories enough when people and places are no longer there?” The show, which is featured as part of this year’s New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC) at The White Box, continually asks this question throughout the next hour and a half, as Maxali takes us back to her childhood in San Francisco, where she was selflessly raised by her grandmother, or Lola, as it is called in Tagalog.

Maxali deftly switches from character to character as she re-enacts her experiences growing up in a very Filipino, unusually American household. There’s Lola Encar, the eccentric but loving grandmother who raised her as her free-spirited artist-musician father Max whiled away the hours playing along to Jimi Hendrix records and smoking things that weren’t the “cigarette kind” in their basement. Then there’s Nikki, a past version of Maxali, who is every bit the opposite of what a “good” apo, or grandchild, should be (which is to say: she wasn’t a virginal, Tagalog-fluent, conservatively dressed young woman with a nursing degree). Through these characters, Maxali looks back at these snapshots in time with a careful, sensitive eye, taking us all on an emotional journey. For young Nikki, everything starts to change when she comes home one day to find the door locks changed, and Lola Encar frantically pleading to go to the police station. Soon, more confusing behavior occurs, and after a “hearing” test, the doctor confirms that it is early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Now, not only do Nikki and Max each have to cope with the pain that only a disease like Alzheimer’s can bring, but also re-evaluate their own lives, making sacrifices for the one person who sacrificed everything for them. This means having to prioritize family above all else — including their art. For Nikki, crumbling under pressure to be a “good” apo also means leaving her acting dreams on the back-burner.

The show’s title may seem to only refer to Lola Encar’s diminishing memory at first glance; however, by the show’s end we realize that it’s not just Lola Encar who forgets the details, but Nikki, as well. The same memories she has of Lola cooking Filipino-American mash-ups (sweet spaghetti with hot dogs, anyone?) and handing out ice cream to her second-grade classmates during recess are vivid and yet start to slowly fade into obscurity in her Lola‘s absence. In a scene entitled “I Heart Lola,” Maxali proudly states: “Lolas show their love through food, through cooking, through acts of service…the first question in any Filipino household is, ‘Have you eaten yet?'” And just as her Lola‘s dishes nourished her body and soul, we also leave the theater nourished by Maxali’s dazzingly honest performance. She serves up a perfect blend of comedy and tragedy with a dash of some unique charm — all lovingly brought together the same way her own Lola would in the kitchen. The end result is a pot-belly full of laughter, tears and a heart full of warmth, all of which will make you want to dig up those old photo albums and hug your own Lola.

Images courtesy of Mike Ricca. Forgetting the Details ran from August 13-22 at The White Box (440 Lafayette Street between Astor Place and East 4th Street) as part of the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC). For more information on this production and Ms. Maxali’s other works, click here. For more information on FringeNYC, go here.

Review, Uncategorized

A History of Violence: Cryptic Fascinations Theater Company Takes on Sarah Kane’s Explosive Play

The scene is simple: a hotel room in Leeds — the kind, as it is written, that is so expensive it could be anywhere in the world.  So begins the most powerful two hours you’ll ever spend in the theater.  Set against the tumult of an apocalyptic England, Blasted is a daring work by infamous British playwright Sarah Kane, which explores how a single act of violence over the course of one night can have quite literally earth-shattering repercussions.  Written in 1995 at the tail end of the Bosnian war, the play sought to challenge the desensitization to which our culture often submits in the face of violence.   Using the Bosnian conflict as a starting point, Kane toyed with the premise that the brutalities of civil war were not unlike those experienced in, say, a small hotel room in Leeds.  

This astounding debut put Kane on the forefront of public debate, as it was met with much criticism and shrugged off as just another example of a young dramatist desperate to shock.  Much of that criticism seemed to be forgotten by the time it made its way across the pond for its NYC premiere in 2008.  Now, 18 years after making its debut at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in London, Kane’s play still resonates as our nation is on the cusp of possibly entering yet another war. 

At the play’s start we find 45 year-old Ian and his 21 year-old ex-lover Cate at the hotel, looking to spend the night.  In just the first few scenes, we already get a sense of the themes Kane intends to dissect over the course of the play as Cate and Ian discuss everything from love to death to even racism.  Of course, it is the theme of violence that dominates; particularly, in the parallels between war itself and the atrocities the characters inflict upon one another.  The first act of violence happens after the first blackout and we learn that Ian, after many attempts to coax her into bed in the previous scene, has finally had his way and raped Cate.  As she awakes to find herself wrapped in blood-stained sheets, a war starts to rage – both outside the hotel and within the enclosed space to which we are privy.   Silently resolving to take her leave, Cate feigns going to the bathroom to shower and eventually escapes, leaving Ian alone.   Just moments later, an unnamed soldier eventually finds his way into their room and encounters Ian.  After the hotel is then blasted by a mortar bomb.  The soldier interrogates Ian further, their exchange foreshadowing the brutality that’s to come.  

It was interesting for me to revisit this particular piece of work after 5 years, especially when the previous production had been so ingrained in my memory.  It was the first time I have ever had to do so, and it felt much like diving back into a favorite book and getting something out of it that you hadn’t the first time around.  Every few minutes during the performance, I kept wondering to myself how they would do certain scenes and it was exciting to see the choices that were ultimately made. 

Under Will Detlefesen’s direction, the 2013 production by the Cryptic Fascinations Theater Company achieves in continuing Kane’s legacy.  The company was formed by actors Marié Botha and Jason de Beer (who play Cate and Ian, respectively) after the two, who also happen to be a couple, had performed a scene together on a whim and decided to make a full production of the play.  The production itself, which was held at the Duo Theater on the Fourth Arts Block, was an ambitious one.  With a sleek set design by Jason Sherwood and beautiful simplistic costumes by Olivia Hunt, it was clear that though this was a mostly student-run show, it was one to be taken seriously.  The real standout design-wise was Marika Kent’s gorgeous lighting (readers may remember her involvment in Fighter), which provided the perfect tone for the bleak landscape of the play, especially in the last few moments in the fragmented scenes depicting Ian’s demise.

The trio of actors is somewhat younger this time around, which might not mean much, but I noticed a distinct difference in the way the material was brought forth onstage.  Before this, I would have probably told you that that Marin Ireland of the 2008 production was my definitive Cate.  Ireland (who went on to receive a Tony nomination for her turn in Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty a year later) certainly gave a memorable performance as the stuttering 21 year-old and the idea of seeing someone else in the role made me a bit nervous, actually.  This was a character that could easily become comical, and not in a good way.   

Upon seeing Botha in the role, however, I will be quick to tell you otherwise.  With her doll-like features and mussed up wavy hair, Botha just looked the part.  Botha is able to make the character her own through her portrayal, delivering her lines in such a way that gave certain moments a bit of comic relief (and yes, in the best sense of the word).  She also possesses great stage presence; subtle yet commanding it is the perfect complement to de Beer’s boisterous Ian.  Whether pulling faces at his retching noises or arguing with him, Botha remains steadfast and ever-present, and for me, this completely carried the whole play.

The calm foundation that Botha laid was the perfect complement to de Beer’s Ian.  Compared to Birney as the Welshman, de Beer’s incarnation was much more physical in terms of characterization, with him spitting, hitting and pounding the floor every chance he got.  Like Botha, his portrayal brought out certain things in the text I hadn’t realized or thought of back in 2008, and it helped in further understanding his character and the journey he takes to redemption. 

Logan George rounds out the cast with a strong performance as the Soldier.  To me, this character is so iconic, as he enacts some of the most gruesome scenes which serve as a turning point in both the play and in the character Ian’s arc.  After the disillusioned soldier recounts his horrific experiences in war, he goes on to rape Ian.  Later on, after the hotel is blasted for the second time, the Soldier gouges Ian’s eyes and eats them.  As before, I felt like a voyeur watching these intimate scenes, especially due to their graphic nature.  There were moments when it seemed as if he was rushing through his lines, especially when his character was recounting war stories.  Still, there was a sense of both desperation and hopelessness that came through in George’s Soldier which made these scenes just as effective.

Some of the best works of the stage are those which put a mirror up to society and challenge us to think.  This stellar production of Blasted is proof of just that.  What starts in a small hotel room is amplified by the circumstance of war, culminating in the decay of civilization.  Sarah Kane’s commentary on our culture of violence dares us to endure that which we inflict upon others as well as ourselves.  It is a vital piece of theatre by an inspired group of artists and is one production you shouldn’t miss.

Images courtesy of Corey Melton.

Blasted ran from September 11-28th, 2013 at the Duo Theater (62 E 4th Street).


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,

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.