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.


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.


A Bittersweet Symphony, Served With Zest: Heather Litteer Peels Away the Layers of the Past

The prospect of seeing a solo performance often, admittedly, triggers a silent panic in one whose job it is to dole out an objective opinion about it.  As that they are often based upon a performer’s life experiences, one-man (or, in this case, one-woman) shows often carry with them the possibility of turning out to either be really, really good — or really, really, really bad.  There is the addtitional worry of what one might say should it result in the latter: can one dismiss the truth of someone’s experience if it isn’t performed in a certain way, or simply not to one’s liking?  What then?  It hardly seems fair — or kind, at that.  This is a challenge not only performers must face in sharing their stories onstage, but one critics must also face, in witnessing them.

In the case of screen siren and performance artist Heather Litteer, she finds a way — much like the title of the particular show in question — to turn some possibly sour lemons into some sweet, delightfully-raunchy Lemonade.  This metaphor holds well in representing her current onstage life, as well as the onscreen life around which Lemonade is structured.  She opens the show as Heather Poetess, uttering  a line that eventually becomes an eerie refrain throughout the evening: “I’m not a hooker…but I play one on TV.” 

For roughly the past twenty years, Ms. Litteer has made a career out of playing hookers, junkies and strippers in both film and television.  “I’m arrested by pigs, I’m ripped from brothels,” she continues to say in that same opening scene.  “I’m whipped and I’m wrapped in chains…does anyone make love anymore?”  She describes her roles with gusto, each new one prefaced by a one-sided phone call with her agent.  Her comedic descriptions of each role is peppered with dark, twisted humor, suggestive of her own observations on the ways women are exploited on film.   Whether playing a blowsy Russian girl named Nadia, one-half of a pair of lesbian junkies, or simply billed as Bored Hooker #1, each role and its accompanying scenario is made increasingly more ridiculous than the last, serving as further evidence of the indeed perverse business of sex (and women) as commodity.

In stark contrast to the flamboyant roles for which she would become known, Litteer’s own beginnings as a young girl growing up in Georgia were, considerably, much humbler and innocent by comparison.  The actress’ early childhood largely involve her “Steel Magnolia” of a mother Nancy, whom she affectionately calls a “walking, talking Tennessee Williams character.”  Here, Litteer goes on to describe a younger Heather already showing signs of what is to come, painting for us a picture of a childhood filled with Halloweens dressed up in her mother’s suits as the “Advertising and Marketing director of Vogue Magazine.”  Many of these anecdotes of Litteer’s past self are juxtaposed beautifully against the struggles of her present self, and exemplifies the actress’ ability to successfully mix the bitter with the sweet.  This becomes especially true as Present Heather attempts to balance her professional pratfalls in New York with news of her mother’s own slow decline into disease back home. 

The precarious act of balancing such a  fine line involves just stirring in the right amount of gravitas to counteract the awkwardness of being the sole performer onstage.  This takes a certain kind of physical stamina to accomplish, one which has been achieved in different ways in other solo performances: 2014’s Forgetting the Details (previously reviewed here, for the New York International Fringe Festival) saw Nicole Maxali took on the varied mannerisms of her family members; while that same year, Daliya Karnofsky had the assistance of backup dancers for …And She Bakes, Live (also reviewed here). 

For her part, Litteer falls somewhere between these two, which is not to say that the end result isn’t as effective.  In fact, her slightly less-refined performance makes her Lemonade all the more raw and real in its portrayal.   Here, she instead adopts a thick, Southern-Belle accent (one that would, surely, make even Rhett Butler melt), along with some charming, old-world Nancy-isms in order to bring her mother to life.  Her performance never ceases to command the stage with striking, unabashed self-awareness, eventually culminating in a daring striptease at play’s end — proving that while baring it all for an audience isn’t always easy, doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun along the way.

Images courtesy of Heather Litteer.

Review, Uncategorized

Girl Anachronism: Aquila Theatre Company Reveals the Feminine Side to Literature’s Most Famous Private Eye

Just as a certain wildly popular celebrity departed from New York to commence production on a certain wildly popular television show based on a certain wildly popular, old-timey-but-updated sleuth, another iteration made its way back to the city.  Over at the Queens Theatre, Aquila Theatre Company presented an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  Aquila, the Professional company-in-residence at New York University’s Center for Ancient Studies, is another in a recent line of companies at the theatre whose mission is to provide the public with accessible interpretations of classic works.

(The other one being the theater’s own company-in-residence, TITAN Theatre Company, the most recent production of which I reviewed here.)

As stated above, everyone’s favorite snarky sociopath has seen many a proliferation find its way into the pop culture canon over the years, namely: Guy Ritchie’s films with Robert Downey, Jr.; CBS’ Elementary; and the BBC/Masterpiece hit co-production Sherlock.  Books such as The Sherlock Holmes Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes — along with Conan Doyle’s original collection of works, of course — have lined bookstore shelves, further heightening the Holmesian craze.  If one were to actually apply these books’ methods, one would probably, and very logically, conclude that it would be only a matter of time until a stage adaptation crept upon us.

In which case, that would be correct.

However, unlike that wildly popular celebrity (y’know, the one whose name sounds a bit like Beryllium Cucumber), the Sherlock of Desiree Sanchez’s imagining is much less the tall, cherub-faced specimen of a man we’ve come to know and love onscreen, and instead takes his form in that of a tall, lithe-limbed…woman onstage.

Yes, that’s right, Sherlock Holmes is a female — at least for our purposes here.

Admittedly, it was this exact promise of a “female Sherlock” which led this writer to this particular production in the first place; not only because the prospect of a woman grasping the chance at playing such a character was too interesting and “hmm”-worthy to pass up, but also because the idea of girls in cloaks kicking ass arse was always a personal point-of-interest.  This Sherlock’s female-ness is certainly mentioned within the dialogue of the play, but done so in an almost flippant manner, as if seeing a woman don trousers (along with signature cape and deerstalker hat) in Victorian England instead of a corset and skirts were a natural occurence.  It would seem that this unusual piece of casting was not a device to highlight any political undertones in the text, as with the case of TITAN’s Othello last year; nor was it a way to subvert expectations, just as The Queen’s Company’s production of Sir Patient Fancy did two years ago..

This is not to say that Jackie Schram, the actress embodying the role, did not succeed in exceeding those expectations.  On the contrary, Ms. Schram brings into her Sherlock one that is just as quick-witted, observant and resourceful as the original canon’s, managing all the while to inject some physical humor along the way.  In fact, physicality played a major role in providing much of the levity in the play — aided most wonderfully by Ms. Schram’s delightful Watson to her Holmes, Peter Groom, who does everything from clacking away frantically at a typewriter to scuttering frightfully away from a creaking door.  The rest of the cast is rounded out with Kirsten Foster, Michael Rivers and Hemi Yeroham, all of whom gamely join in on the fun, as well; most notably, in a scene from Sherlock’s first case (‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’), wherein they are chased by a bloodthirsty dog — albeit, an invisible one.

The play, much like its characters in ‘Copper Beeches,’ fumbles along at first, trying to find its footing, tonally.  Many of the jokes only manage to garner a few laughs in many of the early scenes, but eventually hits its stride by the second case, ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face,’ the conclusion of which is not revealed until the beginning of the play’s second act, providing some fun tension.  By the time we delve into one of the most famous of Holmesian cases, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia,’ the entire theatre attention is held rapt, as our female Sherlock comes face-to-face with Irene Adler, later dubbed by the detective as “The Woman.”  Again, despite many possibilities for an interesting, modern interpretation of this case (i.e., homo-erotic overtones), ‘Scandal’ was played rather straightforwardly, and disappointingly so.  Still, the ensemble’s strong and energetic performance more than made up for these missed opportunities, making for an enjoyable evening in the theater.

Images courtesy of Richard Termine. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes ran from April 1-23, 2016 at The Queens Theatre (14 United Nations Avenue) and the GK ArtsCenter (29 Jay Street).

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).


One Final Act: A Peek Behind the ‘Side Show’ Curtain, as it Comes to a Close

It seems as if for years, people have been fascinated by certain anomalies in society — or, as Robert Ripley (yes, that Ripley) would have called them: “oddities.”  This fascination would soon evolve from Mr. Ripley’s eventual Believe It or Not! empire and travelling circuses to that most perverse of modern entertainments: reality television.  From Jon And Kate Plus 8 to Little People, Big World, to even the vast Duggar franchise (basically, any TLC reality show at this point), the public’s obsession with anything even remotely different from what is perceived as “normal” still prevails today.  There are a couple of shows currently running on the Great White Way which would perfectly exemplify this display of curiosity, one of which being the revival of Henry Kreiger and Bill Russell‘s Side Show over at the St. James Theatre.  

(The other — for those who are, well…curious, is the Bradley Cooper-led revival of Bernard Pomerance‘s The Elephant Man.)

For those unfamiliar with Side Show and its unique backstory, the musical chronicles  the lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton, the first conjoined twins in Britain known to survive past a few weeks.  Throughout their lives, the twins suffered many abuses: first, at the hand of their own mother, who sold the girls the first chance she could get; then later, by their over-controlling managers who, by that time, had become the girls’ only family.  Still, despite the troubles they  would experience, the girls managed to make their way in the world.  From a young age, they were trained to sing, dance and play musical instruments and it was these talents which would lead them to the Sideshow and vaudeville circuits — and eventually, Hollywood.  

The original 1997 run of Side Show lasted only 91 performances (122, counting previews) and despite  managing to garner not only critical acclaim but also 4 Tony nominations, the show closed just a few short months later.  This time around, history will repeat itself once more as the current revival will find itself closing on January 4, 2015.   This production is the product of nearly two years’ worth of various reworkings made through out-of-town runs at both La Jolla Playhouse in 2013 and the Kennedy Center earlier this past summer (the show also ran as an “abridged” version at the Kennedy in October 2008, as part of their Broadway: Three Generations presentation).    

With this in mind, it is difficult to gauge these improvements made on the show, particularly because I had never seen the original, “un-tainted” version and had only come to be vaguely familiar with the musical after hearing its name bandied about in the theatrosphere as of late.  This, then, brings with it many concerns for a critic such as myself; therefore, I must give fair warning when I say that the following opinions are solely based on what I’ve seen from this particular production, and may or may not be subject to change should I eventually come across the original material.  (I’ll be sure to let you know my opinions about it here, of course.)

That said, let me start off by saying that there are many things about this show that confused me.  Side Show seems to be a show utterly ripe to be a showstopper; what Bob Fosse would have called a “razzle dazzle” kind of show, one with a deep, dark undertone bubbling under all the glitter and glamor.  At the show’s start, it seems to set up this idea, with the ensemble introduced to us with the number, “Come Look at the Freaks.”  Perhaps a bit too obvious, yes, but as a lover of the darker side of old-timey circus acts  (A Human Pin Cushion?  A Fortune Teller, you say?  SO there!), I brushed aside any immediate judgments for the time being.

As the show goes on, the score never quite delves into the dark underbelly it so intriguingly set up in the aforementioned opener.  There are some attempts, such as “Cut Them Apart,” sung by the girls’ British physicians in an expanded backstory portion, but even so, they barely miss the mark.  In fact, most of the backstory portion displays the inclusion of moments in which Harry Houdini, of all people, gets his own song (“All in the Mind”); while this in itself is interesting — and factually true — it proved to be one of many head-scratch-inducing moments to come.

Side Show‘s tunes perhaps shine most brightly when sung by the two lead actresses playing the Hiltons; from the girls’ introduction song “Like Everyone Else” (which is a great example of a musical theatre song, and a charming one at that), to their song-and-dance number (“Typical Girls Next Door”), to the signature ballad, “I Will Never Leave You.”  It is clear that the show’s creatives are just as interested as the viewing public in exploring the girl’s unique situation — perhaps more so than what really lies beneath the surface.

Still, there are many great things about the 2014 revival, not the least of which is the talented cast.  Led, of course, by Erin Davies and Emily Padgett (who play Daisy and Violet, respectively), and joined by Ryan Silverman, Matthew Hydzik and David St. Louis (as the girls’ bodyguard Jake).  As the Hilton sisters, Davies and Padgett exude charm, wit and vulnerability, both vocally and in their characterization of each girl.  Working — quite literally — in tandem (feel free to cue the sad trombones), the two are perfectly in sync with one another, producing beautiful harmonies.  

As for the aforementioned supporting cast, they each hold their own.  As the scheming press agent Terry Connor, Silverman looks the part of a dashing Cary Grant type looking to sweep the girls (in particular, Daisy) off their feet, and has the singing chops to go with his indelible charms.  Meanwhile, Hydzik, in the role of Terry’s romantically-confused sidekick Buddy Foster, is the perfect bumbling fool to Silverman’s debonair devil.  However, it is perhaps St. Louis who steals the show (which is hard to do when among the likes of an array of talents such as this), reminiscent of Joshua Henry‘s performance in Broadway’s Violet earlier this year —  his booming voice seems to reverberate and bounce off the walls of the St. James, during numbers such as “Devil You’ve Got to Hide” and “You Should Be Loved.”

Rounded out with brilliant scenic design by David Rockwell (even now, I still marvel at changing sets whenever I see productions on a scale such as this) and beautiful quick-changing costumes by Paul Tazewell, which could rival the likes of William Ivey Long‘s in Broadway’s Cinderella (and to be on par with Ivey Long is a compliment, indeed!), Side Show made for a captivating feast for the eyes.  Unfortunately, with a score and book lacking in focus and drive, the show fell short of the possibilities to truly entertain.

Side Show is running until this Sunday, January 4, 2015
at the St. James Theatre.
For tickets and other info, click here.
Readers of The Resident Artist are eligible for a special 2-for-1 offer! 
Just click here and redeem using the code: 


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.


Let’s Pick up the Pace and Go to Hell in a Fast Car: Kander & Ebb’s Chicago Serves Up Some ‘Razzle Dazzle’

Imagine this: a steamy jazz club.  A saxophone whining and groaning into the smoky air.  Dancers in their racy costumes, warming up.  All of a sudden, the song segues into a rag-tag big band number, and under a single spotlight stands headliner Velma Kelly in a rendition of a familiar song.  Well, stop dreaming, because re-living the Roarin’ Twenties has come to life in the form of the acclaimed Kander and Ebb musical, Chicago.  Rife with choreography by legend Bob Fosse, Chicago is a mix of laughs, greed, and sex.

The story surrounds the case of Roxanne “Roxie” Hart, a wannabe vaudeville star charged with the crime of killing her lover, Fred Casely, with whom she’d been having an affair.  The renowned musical is a satire that takes hits on politics, the law, and the impact of the media; it also reflects a time of liberation amongst women, in which they were starting to recognize their sexuality and the power they possess over men.

The first act starts out with “All That Jazz”, the popular number that gave Bebe Neuwirth a Tony in the 1997 revival.  It is here where my fascination with Fosse-esque choreography is refreshed.  Much different than that of Rob Marshall’s in his Ocscar-winning 2002 screen adaptation, Fosse’s choreography is notoriously precise and abstract, and this particular performance is a prime example of why Bob Fosse is a legend.  For the current production, Ann Reinking – who’d starred opposite Neuwirth as Roxie Hart – updates Fosse’s moves, serving as the revival’s choreographer, which is beautifully captured and stylized throughout the evening’s show.  Some choreography, however, disappointed me, most specifically in the “I Can’t Do it Alone” segment, which is one of my favorite songs and parts from the movie.  Onstage, however, it had been choreographed with more child-like motions, to bring out the fact that Velma was indeed talented.  One supposes, however, that perhaps the campy aspects of numbers such as these were to receive laughs, which is considerably the main objective of the show’s concept; we are to laugh at the seriousness these characters take into wanting to be in the spotlight.

As the first act wears on, the cell block girls – consisting of Liz (Michelle M. Robinson), Annie (Gabriela Garcia), June (Sharon Moore), The Hunyak (Emily Fletcher), and Mona (Robyn Hurder) – give their rendition of the “Cell Block Tango”, which remains a popular favorite among audiences who have seen the film.  Here, one may start to notice the show’s minimalist set design, as there are no cell bars, unlike those seen in the movie.  Instead, each girl is given their own chair from which to regale the audience with their respective monologues, which still receive laughs.

The stage setting gave one that intimate feeling, as if the whole story was unfolding before us in a tiny jazz club during that era.  The orchestra sat onstage, in plain view, which brings to mind a heavy Brechtian influence.  Various characters, including at times the conductor of the orchestra, announce the entrance of the characters as a new number began – much as if a bandleader would announce acts in a club.

Another Brecht reference of note had been the absence of a Fourth Wall.  Throughout the production, many actors talk to the audience; the characters Roxie and Velma demonstrate this the most.  In the numbers “Roxie” and “I Know a Girl”, both of the respective characters rely on the audience’s participation.  This is further demonstrated later when Velma asks for her “exit music”, breaking out of character.

The show was not without its eye candy, either; Towards the second act, in “Razzle Dazzle”, the character Billy Flynn sings about distracting onlookers so that they won’t detect a farce, and with the dancers doing cirque-inspired moves, it had definitely been a sight to see.  Sequins at the end of the number also added to the feeling that one had traveled back to the glamour of the twenties.  By the time the “Nowadays” reprise came around, in which Roxie and Velma had joined forces, a glittering gold and silver background provided the high-energy atmosphere, as if we really had arrived at the Chicago Theater.

The cast itself yielded a plethora of multi-talented performers, all of whom simultaneously sang, danced, and acted.  The portrayal of each character revealed new dimensions that otherwise hadn’t been explored through different medium, such as Marshall’s film.  Played to comedic perfection by Bianca Marroquin, I felt that the stage version of Roxie, as opposed to Renee Zellweger’s screen interpretation, made her seem more street smart yet naïve, rather than just ditzy, as had been portrayed in the film.  In numbers such as ”Razzle Dazzle” and “Me and my Baby”, Marroquin’s performance had provided much of the comedic relief.  The trial scene, especially, had been where I found myself laughing the most, as the actors re-told the happenings of Roxie’s crime in a skewed way, and in the process emphasized Ms. Marroquin’s comedic chops.

The other star in the musical is the character Velma Kelly, played by Donna Marie Asbury.  Velma, a washed-up true vaudevillian lounge singer who’d murdered her sister and husband – after having found them in the kip together, no less – is more of a sarcastic and cynical character compared to Roxie.  However, Ms. Asbury was not without her share of funny bits, either – she proved worthy of the stage in songs such as “My Own Best Friend”, “I Can’t Do it Alone”, and “Class”.   

One number, however, that had the audience entranced, had been Roz Ryan’s performance of “When You’re Good to Mama”, as the Matron “Mama” Morton.  Ms. Ryan was a joy to watch, her powerhouse voice mesmerizing as she flirted with the audience, asking a viewer in the front row: “You like that, don’t you, baby?”  She fit the role to a T and was formidable against Donna Marie Asbury’s Velma Kelly.  I felt that Ms. Ryan and Ms. Asbury really had that certain chemistry in which they were playing off each other with great ease, which was evident when they dueted in “Class”.

Upon her entrance into the local jailhouse, Roxie’s case is soon picked up by notorious lawyer Billy Flynn.  With Flynn by her side, Roxie learns to manipulate the media and eventually ends up winning the trial.   By the time Bernard Dotson emerged as Flynn, the show was rolling.  Dotson’s portrayal as Flynn proved at once charming and comedic.  The height of his performance, I felt, occurred later in the second act, during the number “Razzle Dazzle”.

Rob Bartlett, who plays the character Amos Hart, Roxie’s devoted but stagnant husband, was another pleasing surprise.  Known mostly as a commentator on the Imus in the Morning radio show, Bartlett stole the stage (and garnered a few “aw’s” from the audience as well) in the number “Mister Cellophane”.  In the song, his character sings of being constantly ignored by everyone; however, this had the converse effect, as his performance gave us even more reason to keep watching out for him.

Another principal actor, R. Lowe, set a different whirl of emotion amongst audience members: that of confusion and intrigue.  It takes a certain kind of woman to play Marie Sunshine, the gullible yet revered newspaper reporter, and R. Lowe’s outstanding performance proves it.  As Mary Sunshine is introduced to us in the number “A Little Bit of Good”, it seems clear to everyone that things were not as they seemed.  Indeed, by the trial scene, it is revealed that Mary Sunshine is really –

Well, that’s a whole other story entirely.  In any case, if you love deception, greed and murder combined with comedy, as well as song and dance, then you will love Chicago.  So step back into a time of jazz and liquor, where you could become famous in an instant.  After all, there’s no other place that’ll let you get away with murder—that, indeed, is Chicago!

Images courtesy of Jeremy Daniel and Chicago opened on November 14, 1996 and is currently running at the Ambassador Theatre (219 West 49th Street).