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‘Dark Water’ by David Stallings A Play of Impact and Power About the BP Oil Spill

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L to R: Dianna Martin and Chester Poon in Dark Water by David Stallings at The Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory.

The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was a tragedy that we are still reeling from. The riverfront and Louisiana wetlands were forever changed. The area’s ecosystem has been seriously compromised and devalued; the fishing and shellfish industries are crippled. However, out of the public spotlight, it’s business as usual spurred on by “the corexit” which dispersed the oil to the sea floor and like magic, “all was out of sight, out of mind.”  Only those who are part of the clean up process, the scientists, the researchers, those working with the EPA, those who live on or near the water and those in university settings who are familiar with the lasting damage of oil spills and the toxic impact of corexit understand the disastrous consequences that, like dominoes, are still toppling throughout the region. Those folks understand but their voices have not been heard above the din of other distractions. They understand, and the halt, maimed, blind animals (chemical mutations) and marine life understand. Daily, they have to experience the toxic “corexit correction,” and the complete alteration of their shelters, food supply and way of survival.

L to R:  Emily Hartford and Stephen Conrad Moore in Dark Water by David Stallings at The Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory

L to R: Emily Hartford and Stephen Conrad Moore in Dark Water by David Stallings at The Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory

Dark Water by David Stallings, directed by Heather Cohn enjoying its premiere at The Theater at the 14th Street Y, takes us back to the initial spill and reexamines the event from the perspective of the animals and marine life. Through them we acknowledge their reactions, their attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible, and their hopeful struggle to survive despite the creeping “dark water” which moves toward them in a massive, viscous wave of suffocating, burning death.

Mother turtle Barnacle (a determined Dianna Martin) faces a conundrum. She is with her son Weed, but she has left her babies, Weed’s sisters, on an island in the gulf to keep them safe from the spewing dark water. She has told her children she will come back for them to take them to a better place, but the dark water is consuming everything in its path and she is afraid she will be too late. Barnacle drops off Weed (Chester Poon) on another island that appears to be far from the danger, leaving him with Foam (Erica Lauren McLaughlin). Foam, who has been enslaved by Clam (Susan G. Bob)  learns freedom as a result of a loving relationship with Weed. Weed convinces Foam to go with him to find and help Barnacle.

L to R:  Kathleen O'Neill, Dianna Martin, Chester Poon in Dark Water by David Stallings at the Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory.

L to R: Kathleen O’Neill, Dianna Martin, Chester Poon in Dark Water by David Stallings at the Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory.

Before and during Barnacle’s and Weed’s travels, Barnacle has to protect her son while confronting predatory, conniving and dangerous enemies whose habitat is being threatened by the dark water. These birds of prey have grown cruelly rapacious and wanton. Gullet (the foreboding and noxious Brian Silliman) and Blue Heron (an excellent Kathleen O’Neill) connive with arrogance, tyranny and presumption. Barnacle remains strong. She endures and outsmarts these and others who plan to either eat her or Weed. Though some animals and marine life have been driven to desperation out of fear of the rapidly moving dark water destroying their food supply, there are others who remain noble and kind. There is the sweet dolphin, Daedalus (a beloved Antonio Minino), and the prophetic Sea Urchin (Emily Hartford) who gives wise counsel to Barnacle. The highpoints in the conflict create suspense. Will Daedalus who must swim through the entangling, engulfing thickness with Barnacle on his back be able to get to the island in time? Will Barnacle find Weed and will they rescue her daughters before they are all suffocated by the slimy, black ooze?

L to R: Chester Poon and Erica Lauren McLaughlin in Dark Water by David Stallings at The Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory.

L to R: Chester Poon and Erica Lauren McLaughlin in Dark Water by David Stallings at The Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory.

In Dark Water, Stalling’s message and themes are neither preachy nor easily dismissed. His anthropomorphic characters are like us. We are able to identify in his metaphor riot the best and the worst of human traits: maternal and filial love and sacrifice, rapacity, fear, desperation. On the other hand Stallings has found a unique way to differentiate his marine life characters from humans; they speak in verse. These other life forms express their desires, intents, hopes and fears in exacting rhymes. At times the verse is more rhythmic and poetic, at times not and there are no rhymes. His selection rises to necessity depending upon the unfolding action and events. His dialogue versification is interspersed with a few songs, a short dance and a choreographed fight sequence.

Emily Hartford in Dark Wter by David Stallings at The Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory.

Emily Hartford in Dark Wter by David Stallings at The Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory.

These clever devices are packed with meaning and enhance the themes of this parable which is simple, direct and powerful. Stallings infers that though there are similarities between marine life and man, essentially, these other beings which we deem “dumb brutes” who are as “disposable” as flotsam and jetsom, are to be appreciated as beautiful and poetic creatures integral to the loveliness of the natural realm. By having them speak in verse, Stallings’ impulse is to magnify their preciousness and sanctity. For do we not ultimately depend on them for our sustenance? Throughout the play Stallings’ threads the question, “Do we have any idea of what we are really doing when we risk allowing such a disaster?”

Brian Silliman in Dark Water by David Stallings at The Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory.

Brian Silliman in Dark Water by David Stallings at The Theater at the 14th Street Y. Photo by Louise Flory.

Stallings’ choices are stylistically daring and unusually effecting. By the end we realize we are watching in these characters’ struggles for survival something akin to a Greek tragedy and all the more so because they are innocent creatures and have had no hand in what we have done. However, unlike some Greek tragedy, there is no Deus ex Machina (a god coming to the rescue of the protagonist). How can there be when the human “gods” are the executioners? And what they are executing is their own eventual destruction by first harming the creatures that maintain the ecosystems of the planet.

The fundamental theme expressed by Stallings’ title and how the dark water impacts the marine life evokes the symbolism of a darkness that is all encompassing. By extension we understand that this is an amorphous evil represented by man’s primordial lust for profit at the expense of life itself. Stallings ultimately suggests that If we continue to allow such a tangibly felt wickedness to overtake our rationality and common sense, then surely we do not have to fear an apocalypse. It has already happened in the overtaking of the human heart. Unless it is ameliorated, we are dooming ourselves and the fabric of our own culture and environment for future generations.

Dark Water will be at The Theater at the 14th Street Y until March 29th.

Ensemble: Brian Silliman, Dianna Martin, Chester Poon, Antonio Minino, Susan G. Bob, Erica Lauren McLaughlin, Kathleen O’Neill, Lily Drexler, Stephen Conrad Moore, Emily Hartford

This review first appeared on Blogcritics.

 

‘The Tribute Artist’ at 59E59 Theaters

L to R: Cynthia Harris and Charles Busch in The Tribute Artist by Charles Bush, Directed by Carl Andress, presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse.

L to R: Cynthia Harris and Charles Busch in The Tribute Artist by Charles Bush, Directed by Carl Andress, presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse.

Buying and selling Manhattan real estate! It’s all about being in the right place at the right time with the right clients. If the opportunity to sign a deal on a most fabulous place in Greenwich Village just dropped in your lap, you’d probably leap at it. What if it involved a smidgeon of shadiness and a soupcon of fraud?

The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch presents a hilarious scenario of three rather desperate, down on their luck characters, one attractive and potentially nefarious thief, and a $12 million dollar townhouse whose owner has recently died. From soup to nuts, this two act play is a cleverly written comedy that is beautifully acted by the ensemble cast and tightly directed by Carl Andress. Charles Busch, a Drama Desk Award winner for “Career Achievement as Playwright and Performer,” once again delights with his impeccable timing and comic genius in a play that skirts the edges of farce. The Tribute Artist’s trending humor, themes, and ironies are incisive and just shy of brilliant.

The play opens to the sumptuous living room of a Greenwich Village townhouse where we meet grand dame Adriana (the lively and funny Cynthia Harris), the homeowner. We appreciate Adriana’s sulfuric wit which she states, “is not nastiness, but my European sense of irony.” This “upper crust” lady is a former clothing designer and she is entertaining her down-to-earth and frenetic real estate broker, Rita (the excellent Julie Halston), who may or may not broker the townhouse sale. Jimmy (Charles Busch), a recently fired Las Vegas drag queen, who prefers to be called a “celebrity tribute artist,” is staying with Adriana for a while. When we are introduced to Rita and Jimmy, both are modeling Adriana’s designer clothing, and Jimmy is modeling one of her wigs. Rita and Jimmy have been long time friends. They enjoy Adriana’s hospitality as she fills in details from her past which, unbeknownst to them, are portentous to their future. When they all fall asleep from rather too much drink, the scene shifts to morning and the comedy and plot complications jolt into the most interesting of wonderful possibilities.

L to R: Keira Keeley, Charles Busch, Julie Halston, Mary Bacon, Jonathan Walker in The Tribute Artist, directed by Carl Andress for Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse.

L to R: Keira Keeley, Charles Busch, Julie Halston, Mary Bacon, Jonathan Walker in The Tribute Artist, directed by Carl Andress for Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse.

During the night, Adriana has passed; she did say she was dying, but Jimmy and Rita didn’t believe her. No one will inherit this lovely house and it will end up in the hands of the government since there are no inheritors and no will. The path appears to be clear that Adriana wants the house sold and is exerting her will that this should be exacted by those who are present. They are a perfect combination: a real estate broker and a female impersonator who just happens to have in his repertoire all the greats from Marilyn Monroe to Betty Davis. Impersonating “Adriana” will be easy.  Jimmy and Rita talk themselves into the devilish plan (a hilarious segue), plotting that Jimmy will become Adriana for the time it takes Rita to sell the house. In the clear, they will split their “winnings” fifty/fifty. They even have the perfect resolution for how to deal with Adriana’s remains. Through their euphoria, they both agree that they may have forgotten something, only they aren’t sure what.

What they’ve forgotten shows up in the next scenes, creates havoc, and additional conundrums. The plot complications humorously involve the real heirs who will take the townhouse away from Rita and Jimmy. The inheritors are Adriana’s late husband’s loathsome relatives, niece Christina (a perfectly overwrought Mary Bacon) and grandniece Rachel Oliver (a fine Keira Keeley). An additional complication involves one of Adriana’s former lovers, the sexy Rodney (Jonathan Walker in a hysterical performance). Somehow Rita and Jimmy deal with these “interlopers” and Jimmy’s impersonation of Adriana goes swimmingly for a time until Rodney throws the switch that could overturn their peaceful coexistence. Once again the elements of farce are stepped up with the added suspense that Rodney may be up to something worse than the “silly little fraud” that Rita and Jimmy had hoped to commit.

Charles Busch in The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch, directed by Carl Andress for Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse.

Charles Busch in The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch, directed by Carl Andress for Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse.

While spinning these humorous events, the playwright carefully weaves in issues of class, gender, identity, and social injustice. He does this with wit and subtle undercurrents of poignancy in keeping with the comedic pacing. Added to the glee, Jimmy unleashes his repertoire of old-time celebrity actresses with snippets of dialogue from their most famous scenes. Rosalyn Russel, Katherine Hepburn, Betty Davis, and others show up and aptly spout “wisdom” to heighten the madness. In his impersonations Busch is at the apex of his powers. His “Running Wild” is superb. If you don’t know which actress performed the song from which iconic film, then you’ll have to get yourself to 59E59 Theaters where the production is being performed. Rita will clue you in to the impersonations just in case you were born after 1990.

The playwright ties up all the complications and reveals the inner workings of each character reinforcing one of the main themes: one never knows how things will turn out in the end. In Busch’s iteration the phrasing is more poetic. The production will be running until March 16th. It is being presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics.

Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams. A Play About a Teacher, a Single Mom and Her Son.

L to R: Dara O'Brien and Karen Leiner in Gidion's Knot by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

L to R: Dara O’Brien and Karen Leiner in Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Humans are self-deceivers; they often avoid confronting painful truths. When/if their frauds lead to catastrophe, then they are forced to look at how their self-duplicity created the consequences. With self-deception, there is the inevitable manipulation of others and the abusive “passing the blame” of one’s hated flaws onto these victims who may or may not suspect the manipulator’s ulterior motives. If the victims are enablers, they accept the blame and help push the abuser into their catastrophe. Ideally, the sooner one confronts the horrific inner Gorgon of truth, the better. Confrontation leads to enlightenment and growth. Delay, brings stony emotions, obfuscations, and more lies, until there is collapse, self-destruction, or madness.

In her play Gidion’s Knot, Johnna Adams explores how a mother and a fifth grade teacher dance around the “truth” of an incident which involves Gidion who was in Heather Clark’s fifth grade public school class. The dance provokes mother Corryn (Karen Leiner), and teacher Heather (Dara O’Brien), to inadvertently lay bare their souls in an interesting power manipulation. Rather than confront their inner Gorgon, and help one another, they pity, judge, condemn, project, and appear cold-hearted: all acts of self-deception and obfuscation. As the play records their convolutions, we, the audience, try to unravel the mystery of what happened to Gidion and what is happening in the present between the two women. But our attempt to unravel the knots of lies and truths remains feeble. In a fog we wonder about the significance of what we are seeing and question if these characters will ever acknowledge their inner Gorgon, thus destroying its power over them.

Playwright Johnna Adams has contrived a complex, hyper-charged conundrum of a play. Directed with precision, insight and sensitivity by Austin Pendleton, Gidion’s Knot leaves one spinning about the characters’ manipulations and duplicities as it examines the issue of social and parental responsibility. I cannot envision many other directors who so aptly could have created an atmosphere to elicit the marvelous performances. Because of the team’s united efforts this amazing production thrills and provokes.

Dara O'Brien in Gidion's Knot by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Dara O’Brien in Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Pendleton’s talents adhere with the vivid, alive portrayals by actors Karen Leiner and Dara O’Brien. Their creation is a continuous thrumming of palpable tension that keeps us engaged. Can the mysteries be solved given the complexities and needs of the characters?  Pendleton’s, Leiner’s and O’Brien’s masterful work illuminates the charades, blinding rationales, and subtle justifications the characters use to avoid their miserable inner truths. We recognize how Corryn’s and Heather’s self-deceptions have lead to catastrophe. Will these women see the light and help one another or resort to recriminations and judgements enabling and fomenting the inevitability of another disaster?

As the actors and director elucidate these points, the entanglements intensify. The more we attempt to extricate the truths, the more we are caught up in the characters’ rationalizations and self-fraud. We empathize because we are looking at ourselves. We realize that for them, there may be no way out except to live with an inner morass that will worsen. Unlike a Gordian Knot, an allusion aptly used by the playwright, the knot Gidion has created cannot be cut.

For the setting and backdrop Adams uses a conventional educational system and an atypical parent-teacher conference. Along the way she touches upon the issues of our present public educational system’s cultural assumptions about curriculum, appropriate behavior, and the responsibility of the parent, child, teacher, and system to produce learning. She also infers how these assumptions may run counter to the true nature of learning as art and how such learning prompts the finest art. Though parts of the play might appear to be contrived, (i.e. Gidion’s act, Corryn’s choice to put Gidion in a public school, the absence of communication between the school and parent), the playwright tries to smooth over the glitches with the characters’ logical explanations. Just at the point where one might find the contrivance an obstacle, Pendleton and the actors patch up the holes with brilliant performance art that is completely “in the moment.” We are swept up by the life we see and don’t give the contrivance much  thought.

L to R: Karen Leiner and Dara O'Brien in Gidion's Knot. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

L to R: Karen Leiner and Dara O’Brien in Gidion’s Knot. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The playwright focuses Gidion’s Knot around Corryn’s interaction with Heather during the conference. When Corryn first enters the classroom, we believe she is misplaced because Ms. Heather Clark is shocked that she’s come. Corryn tells her she is there to discover the reasons why Gidion, a brilliant student, has been given a suspension by Ms. Clark. She wants to understand what happened to her son and figure out the motivations for his behaviors. We suspect there is more to her initially benign response because of Heather’s amazement at her presence. As Corryn probes Heather for answers, she becomes hostile and aggressive, and the underlying tensions between the parent and the teacher grow. Corryn’s acidic comments push Heather Clark into retreat mode with long periods of silent acquiescence as she takes in Corryn’s opprobrium. Throughout the exchanges we wonder who is being truthful, who is avoiding reality and why is the “bullying” necessary?

Karen Leiner in Gidion's Knot by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Karen Leiner in Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Little by little, the playwright unfolds the mysteries. We find out why Heather Clark is shocked to see Corryn in her classroom. However, this initial revelation is only the beginning. Gidion has left a knot to unravel about his behavior; we search for answers about the extent to which Corryn and Heather might have been culpable in effecting Gidion’s nullifying actions. The playwright adeptly guides the audience through the teacher’s and parent’s perspectives. From Corryn’s perspective we want to know more from Heather Clark. Surely, the teacher understands what happened to Gidion. We understand Corryn’s need to manipulate, browbeat, and abuse the truth from Heather. However, we know from Heather’s reticence that she is protecting someone and is keeping certain situations in her classroom confidential. Aligning with Heather’s professional perspective, then, she appears to be in the right. We assume that Corryn is too emotionally invested to see clearly and rationally. But who is Heather protecting? Heather? The principal? The children? Gidion? Corryn? And from what?

Because of the superb performances which ooze strain and inner turmoil, we yearn to understand and this suspense keeps our attention. As more of the complications are revealed, the less truth we know. The more vitriol Corryn expresses, the farther she moves from inner understanding of herself and her impact on her son. The more Heather Clark enables Corryn’s bitter “truth” seeking with her spare explanations, the less we understand about Gidion’s motivation and Heather’s part in it. Was Gidion’s suspension truly justified? Or was it an example of the public education system curtailing sensitivity, artistry, and creativity as suggested by Corryn? Does the letter that Corryn finds in Gidion’s desk reveal he has been damaged by classmates? Or is there a deeper, hidden truth which will have ramifications upon Corryn’s understanding of herself and her son?

Throughout the play we are riveted because we are off balance. We do not know who is “fronting” whom. By the conclusion we are uncertain and that is the best we can hope for because the characters are inscrutable. We should not be projecting our own failed, misplaced assumptions on them. The issues of where parental responsibility and social responsibility begin and end are not resolved. We do understand that the educational system presented by the playwright (somewhat contrived) is not ready to deal with who or what Gidion is, but then neither is Corryn. Lastly, there is Gidion. In fifth grade, he is past the age of accountability. To what extent does the final culpability rest with him?

Gidion’s Knot was performed at 59E59 Theaters in a limited engagement.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics.

‘Take Me Back’ by Emily Schwindt, A Play About the Heartland of America.

James Kautz in Take Me Back by Emily Schwend, directed by Jay Stull at Walkerspace. Photo by Russ Rowland.

James Kautz in Take Me Back by Emily Schwend, directed by Jay Stull at Walkerspace. Photo by Russ Rowland.

Thomas Wolf said in Look Homeward Angel, that one can never really go home again. This is particularly true for those who have established themselves in careers and have become successful. Not only have they picked themselves up and replanted roots in an environment where they can flourish, they are often loath to associate with their origins especially if the memories are unhappy ones. But what happens to those who have no where else to go? Home isn’t always the place where they have to take you in.

Emily Schwend in Take Me Back, directed by Jay Stull, explores the scenario of a young man who has returned home in desperation. As the play opens, we note that Bill (James Kautz) has served time in jail for theft. Unable to start elsewhere with no education, few prospects, no money or other place to live, he has moved in with his diabetic mom (a fine performance by Charlotte Booker). He attempts to take care of her. He tries to control her eating habits and get her to take her blood sugar in the morning and during the day. Above all he monitors her like a security guard to make sure she stays off the sweets. The exchanges between mother and son are humorous, and Sue’s furtive stashing of candies and goodies brings knowing chuckles from the audience. Kautz and Charlotte Booker have established a rapport that feels right as this mother and son attempt to adjust to circumstances where each are dependent on the other, though it is not necessarily a dependence that is desired or appreciated.

L to R: James Kautz and Charlotte Booker in Take Me Back by Emily Schwend, directed by Jay Stull at Walkerspace. Photo by Russ Rowland.

L to R: James Kautz and Charlotte Booker in Take Me Back by Emily Schwend, directed by Jay Stull at Walkerspace. Photo by Russ Rowland.

Frustrated that he has mucked up his life and upset that his mom is not listening to his adjurations about her diabetes, Bill resorts back to his old thieving ways. What opportunities are open to him in Oklahoma except to work in a Walmart and make the minimum wage? He can only see a series of unrewarding empty decades ahead. For him that is not better than nothing. The exciting allure of his old life beckons with the promise of a quick buck and an easy inside job. It is only when former girlfriend Julie shows up that he begins to believe that he might be able to get along in this desolate environment. When she reciprocates in an affectionate way and says she will come back and see him, he realizes that perhaps there is the hope that they can be together. He has correctly surmised she does not love her husband and is unhappy in her marriage.

L to R: Boo Killebrew and James Kautz in Take Me Back by Emily Schwend, directed by Jay Stull at Walkerspace. Photo by Russ Rowland.

L to R: Boo Killebrew and James Kautz in Take Me Back by Emily Schwend, directed by Jay Stull at Walkerspace. Photo by Russ Rowland.

Schwend has established themes that will resonate with all who have lived in this country during the last twenty years. There is the issue that the children will have to care for their aging parents who are starting on the road to dementia and who have multiple physical problems, including type two diabetes. There is also the issue of few employment opportunities away from larger coastal cities if one doesn’t have an advanced college degree, technical skills, or show entrepreneurial promise in creating one’s own opportunities. Another issue is the sad fact that children after divorce or other major life changes have moved back in with parents to share economic burdens. Worse, some have found it nearly impossible to leave home because they can’t afford living alone or sharing rent.

L to R: Jay Eisenberg and James Kautz in Take Me Back by Emily Schwend, directed by Jay Stull at Walkerspace. Photo by Russ Rowland.

L to R: Jay Eisenberg and James Kautz in Take Me Back by Emily Schwend, directed by Jay Stull at Walkerspace. Photo by Russ Rowland.

Sub rosa issues weaving throughout the play point to a shrinking middle class, increasing economic hardship, and no employment opportunities. These have created a declining social community. Meanwhile, the prison population of which Bill had been a part has continued to soar. Underlying all these themes is that the humdrum, boring every day existence of work at a “dead end” job is no existence. Anything that can prompt one to escape (excessive entertainment, drugs, alcohol, addictions, the seduction of petty crime) is what a young people will seek out to release themselves from the boredom of “life” that is not living. Only family can get folks through. But what hope is there if the family is a parent in decline? There is the possibility of love and a relationship with someone to share one’s existence with, perhaps.

Schwend’s play is filled with pathos. There are a few surprising twists. The ensemble brings it all together under the competent direction of Jay Stull. The underlying questions Schwend asks will be confronting the U.S. in the next decades. How can we create more employment in decent, interesting jobs that pay well? How can we shore up the heartland with opportunities to stabilize the social community and strengthen it? Will resolving these problems be enough to keep men and women out of jail? The questions are important ones. Schwend has brought them to the fore without indicating political answers. With her homely characterizations, dynamic relationships, and important themes, she has given us much to contemplate.

The New York City premiere of Take Me Back will be performed at Walkerspace through March 22nd.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics.

 

The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch

L to R: Cynthia Harris and Charles Busch in The Tribute Artist by Charles, presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leyenes

L to R: Cynthia Harris and Charles Busch in The Tribute Artist by Charles, presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse.

Buying and selling Manhattan real estate! It’s all about being in the right place at the right time with the right clients. If the opportunity to sign a deal on a most fabulous place in Greenwich Village just dropped in your lap, you’d probably leap at it. What if it involved a smidgeon of shadiness and a soupcon of fraud?

The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch presents a hilarious scenario of three rather desperate, down on their luck characters, one attractive and potentially nefarious thief, and a $12 million dollar townhouse whose occupant has recently died. From soup to nuts, this two act play is a cleverly written comedy that is beautifully acted by the ensemble cast and tightly directed by Carl Andress. Charles Busch, a Drama Desk Award winner  for “Career Achievement as Playwright and Performer,” once again delights with his impeccable timing and comic genius in a play that skirts the edges of farce. The Tribute Artist’s trending humor, themes and ironies are incisive and just shy of brilliant.

The play opens to the sumptuous living room of a Greenwich Village townhouse where we meet grand dame Adriana (the lively and funny Cynthia Harris), the alleged homeowner. We appreciate Adriana’s sulfuric wit which she states, “is not nastiness, but my European sense of irony.” This upper crust lady is a former clothing designer and she is entertaining her down-to-earth and frenetic real estate broker, Rita (the excellent Julie Halston), who may or may not broker the townhouse sale. Jimmy (Charles Busch) a recently fired Las Vegas drag queen, who prefers to be called a “celebrity tribute artist,” is staying with Adriana for a while. When we are introduced to Rita and Jimmy, both are modeling Adriana’s designer clothing and Jimmy is modeling one of her wigs. Rita and Jimmy have been long time friends and they enjoy Adriana’s hospitality as she fills in details from her past which, unbeknownst to them, are portentous to their future. When they all fall asleep from rather too much drink, the scene shifts to morning and the comedy and plot complications jolt into the most interesting of wonderful possibilities.

Charles Busch as Jimmy impersonating Adriana in The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse

Charles Busch as Jimmy impersonating Adriana in The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse

During the night, Adriana has passed; she did say she was dying, but Jimmy and Rita didn’t believe her. No one will inherit this lovely house and it will end up in the hands of the government since there are no inheritors and no will. The path appears to be clear that Adriana wants the house sold and is exerting her will that this should be exacted by those who are present. They are a perfect combination:  a real estate broker and a female impersonator who just happens to have in his repertoire all the greats from Marilyn Monroe to Betty Davis. Impersonating “Adriana” will be easy.  Jimmy and Rita talk themselves into the devilish plan (a hilarious segue), plotting that Jimmy will become Adriana for the time it takes Rita to sell the house. In the clear, they will split their “winnings” fifty/fifty. They even have the perfect resolution for how to deal with Adriana’s remains. Through their euphoria, they both agree that they may have forgotten something, only they aren’t sure what.

What they’ve forgotten shows up in the next scenes, creates havoc and additional conundrums. The plot complications humorously involve the real heirs who will take the townhouse away from Rita and Jimmy.  The inheritors are Adriana’s late husband’s loathsome relatives, niece Christina (a perfectly overwrought Mary Bacon) and grandniece Rachel Oliver (a fine Keira Keeley). An additional complication involves one of Adriana’s former lovers, the sexy and very masculine Rodney (Jonathan Walker in a hysterical performance). Somehow Rita and Jimmy deal with these “interlopers” and Jimmy’s impersonation of Adriana goes swimmingly for a time until Rodney throws the switch that could overturn their peaceful coexistence. Once again the elements of farce are stepped up with the added suspense that Rodney may be up to something worse than the “silly little fraud” that Rita and Jimmy had hoped to commit.

L to R: Kiera Keeley, Charles Busch, Julie Halston, Mary Bacon, Jonathan Walker in The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch, presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse.

L to R: Keira Keeley, Charles Busch, Julie Halston, Mary Bacon, Jonathan Walker in The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch, presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse.

While spinning these humorous events, the playwright carefully weaves in issues of class, gender, identity and social injustice. He does this with wit and subtle undercurrents of poignancy in keeping with the comedic pacing. Added to the glee, Jimmy unleashes his repertoire of old-time celebrity actresses with snippets of dialogue from their most famous scenes. Rosalyn Russel, Katherine Hepburn, Betty Davis and others show up and aptly spout “wisdom” to heighten the madness. In his impersonations Busch is at the apex of his powers. His “Running Wild” is superb. If you don’t know which actress performed the song from which iconic film, then you’ll have to get yourself to 59E59 Theaters where the production is being performed. Rita will clue you in to the impersonations just in case you were born after 1980.

The playwright ties up all the complications and reveals the inner workings of each character reinforcing one of the main themes: one never knows how things will out in the end. In Busch’s iteration the phrasing is more poetic. The production will be running until March 16th. It is being presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters.

The review first appeared on Blogcritics. Click Here.

‘Loot’ by Joe Orton, Stowing Mummy in the Closet for the Payoff

L to R: Ryan Garbayo as Dennis and Nick Westrate as Hal in Joe Orton's Loot, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (Red Bull Theater).

L to R: Ryan Garbayo as Dennis and Nick Westrate as Hal in Joe Orton’s Loot, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (Red Bull Theater). Photo by Sarah Moore.

Joe Orton, the British playwright whose London hit Entertaining Mr. Sloan proved his brilliance, had his life cut short in 1967 at the age of 34. He was killed by his partner, who committed suicide in recompense for killing Orton. It is the theater world’s great loss, for Orton had experienced the steam of greatness as an exceptional playwright/writer, but not the substance. Whenever a production of his zany, dark comedies is revived, see it to appreciate the frenzy of hyperbolic farce that Orton was marvelous at creating.  Impeccable timing and jeweled turn of phrase characterize Orton’s work. He is sardonic, like Wilde; over the top, like Monty Python; an iconic British wit.

Loot, in revival at the Lucille Lortel’s Red Bull Theater until February 9, is one of Orton’s gems. This production, directed by Jesse Berger, conveys Orton’s scorn of entrenched social institutions (religious, judicial, legal, medical). Clearly, the playwright had a rollicking time opening them to ridicule. This is appropriate for us currently; the hypocrisies Orton lays bare, are snatched from the 1960s. Yet, they are immutable now as they were then. In the delivery of the madcap and over-the-top plot extremities, we are able to bear the painful truths expressed underneath. If fraud, official corruption, murder and theft are the stuff of life, at least they can be used as meat to gnaw on for our entertainment sustenance in the hands of a savvy, sharp playwright, able director and acute acting ensemble.

The setting, the McLeavy living room is comfortably furnished with chairs and tables circling the walls, a locked chifferobe and what looks to be a folding screen more befitting a hospital room than a living room. The room is a style cacophony of weird items, the most strange being the coffin with decorative grave flowers at center stage. Thus begins the wackiness which develops into full-blown mayhem.

L to R: Nick Westrate, Rebecca Brooksher and Ryan Garbayo in Loot by Joe Orton, directed by Jesse Berger at the Lucille Lortel Theatre until February 9th.

L to R: Nick Westrate, Rebecca Brooksher and Ryan Garbayo in Loot by Joe Orton, directed by Jesse Berger at the Lucille Lortel Theatre until February 9. Photo by Rahav Segev.

We discover from Fay, Mrs. McLeavy’s live-in nurse (Rebecca Brooksher), in a discussion with barely sentient, grieving Mr. McLeavy (a hysterical Jarlath Conroy), that the funeral service is today. The lovely nurse is a sweet, unassuming golddigger who has been married and widowed seven times.She is looking to be widowed again, after she marries Mr. McLeavy who is overwhelmed with grieving his wife and straightening out his affairs, especially his confused mind and emotions. While Fay encourages him that a month or so is an appropriate time to remarry, son Hal McLeavy (Nick Westrate) bursts onto the scene. His entrance with his beloved (he is gay) buddy Dennis (he is a polyamorous bisexual), fosters a scene switch into a plot convolution that stirs up the cauldron of madness.

Hal is like a young George Washington; he can not tell a lie once confronted with the truth. Dennis (Ryan Garbayo), the undertaker will transport Hal’s mum to the cemetery.The other reason Dennis is with Hal is that both have committed a bank robbery and Dennis has become the chief suspect after his questioning earlier in the day. Better his questioning than Hal’s which would be disastrous for them both, for Hal, a parboiled Catholic with issues, can’t lie. If the moral contradiction of not being able to lie but having no problem with stealing seems patently absurd, you’re right. It is and so is the hypocrisy it represents; this is one of Orton’s tucked away jewels. The play abounds with them.

Dennis fears he will be pinched if he can’t stash the hot “loot” away from the piercing eyes of one particular copper, Truscott, (Rocco Sisto, who is hilarious in his continually indignant state). Truscott, who later appears in a poor disguise as an official from the Water Board, has been snarling and eying Dennis like a canny German shepherd. It is only a matter of time before Truscott finds him, discovers the evidence and throws him in prison, especially if he asks Hal any questions about the theft.

The loot which has been stashed but the locked armoire i is the first place anyone would look; and Fay, who can sniff out money like a dog sniffs out a bone, has intimated to Hal that she knows the loot is there and will expose them in a blackmail scheme. When she leaves, simultaneously, both spy the coffin with Mrs. McLeavy’s body inside. Hide the loot in the body? Gruesome, bloody horror! Hal is a “good” Catholic and that would be untoward. Besides, this is a farce, no matter how black hearted. Hide the body in the armoire and the loot in the coffin and lock both.? Perfect! That way Hal will not be lying if he has to deny the thousands are inside the wardrobe. And if someone gets a crowbar and breaks open the chiffarobe? They’ll be a bloody hell of a surprise. Mrs. McLeavy has been stuffed like a sausage and pickled with embalming fluid. She’s a real stiff.

L to R: Rocco Sisto, Nick Westrate and Ryan Garbayo in Loot, by Joe Orton, directed by Jesse Berger at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (Red Bull Theater) until February 9th. Photo courtesy of the site.

L to R: Rocco Sisto, Nick Westrate and Ryan Garbayo in Loot, by Joe Orton, directed by Jesse Berger at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (Red Bull Theater) until February 9th. Photo by Rahav Segev.

The official from The Water Board (investigator Truscott  inept disguise) interrupts their plans to check the water system. Hal and Dennis quickly send him off to the pipes, then speedily trundle the coffin to the armoire and lob in the corpse. In their frenetic haste they flip poor ole mummy like they’re hefting a log onto a wood pile. Their antics are hysterical especially in light of Hal’s professed Catholicism that has forbade him to see his mum naked but allows him to manhandle her remains. The woman hasn’t been able to RIP since she passed.

After this inglorious treatment, the miscreants lock the chiffarobe and dump their cash booty in the coffin sealing it just in time to escape detection. Truscott figures his inept disguise and circular questioning will eventually trip up the thieves so he can pin them like dead insects with the evidence, pulling out all the stops in his “intelligence” to do so. Orton’s characterization of detective Truscott, is an absurdity of confusion, all in the service of quick humor; Truscott is brilliant-inane, hypocritical-legalistic, corrupt but honest about it, opportunistic and self-serving. He is this and more in the interest of feathering his own nest, but money is his object.

The body-cash swap heightens our belly laughs. We see how these ingrates have dumped Mrs. McLeavy in a “most shameful position.” Added to the romp is Truscott’s indignation and frustration at the suspects “innocence” made all the more hysterical by his ridiculous questions which are as twisted as their answers. The scene is surprising and wonderful.

L to R: Nick Westrate and Rocco Sisto in Loot by Joe Orton, directed by Jesse Berger at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.  Photo courtesy Broadway.com.

L to R: Nick Westrate and Rocco Sisto in Loot by Joe Orton, directed by Jesse Berger at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Photo courtesy Broadway.com.

When Fay and Mr. McLeavy enter the fray, they contribute with flippant repartee. The pace steps up, high jinks fueled by understatement, irony. Orton weaves the scenes so the hilarity builds to climax in an even more preposterous and lunatic second act. Plot complications abound and mysteries are uncovered. The innocent are proven guilty and the guilty are shown to be innocent. Such are the pleasant spoils of ambition in a corrupt universe. For irony, Hal’s good, Catholic conscience has remained spotless. He has not seen his mum naked, and he never lied. He’s good to go. We just don’t know where.

The production does not disappoint. It is a pleasure to see the mostly American actors honor this astounding playwright and make him known to another generation of playgoers who can appreciate brilliant farce and black comedy. That said, it must be acknowledged that Orton is uniquely English. Though there is an opaque line between our countries and cultures differentiating America from England, there is a nuanced sensitivity that comes with presenting English cultural and social humor. It is more felt than studied, intuited than practiced. All humor is generic to place, culture, time, range and social consciousness. Very simply, there are some phrases which can fall flat to some ears if not comprehended in the way that the culture normatively means them to be. In this aspect the production’s humor was flattened by our cultural limitations. However, Orton’s words remain true if one has ears to hear them.

Loot is being performed at the Red Bull Theater by special arrangement with the Lucille Lortel Theatre Foundation. George Forbes is the Executive Director; Jesse Berger is the Founding Artistic Director and Evan O’Brient is the Managing Director.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics, at this link: Click Here.

Sacred Elephant by Heathcote Williams: Stage Adaptation by Geoffrey Hyland and Jeremy Crutchley

Sacred Elephant, currently Off Broadway adapted for the stage by Geoffrey Hyland and Jeremy Crutchley, is created from Heathcote Williams’ magnificent epic poem about nature’s divine design represented through the elephant. Crutchley gives an ethereal and other-worldly performance as The Other, the being of the elephant. The production is currently at La Mama’s First Floor Theatre until September 22. See the review on Blogcritics and on this site.

Below are the expressive photographs of Crutchley in an embodiment of the elephant’s ethos. I included these to enhance the previous review because of an article that appeared in the Huffington Post about a baby elephant who was rejected by its mother. It cried and cried for hours. Its response is heartbreaking…like our response when we were hurt as children and cried in desolation, or as adults who feel hopeless and cry out to God and the universe for solace and comfort. Click here for the article.

The elephant is us. Can we continue to destroy it and not perish ourselves? Elephants are beings like the other creatures on this planet and must be safeguarded and protected. If we do this, we safeguard our own destiny. Williams’ poem is dedicated to this end as is Crutchley’s performance.

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The marvelous Jeremy Crutchly.    Photo by Rob Keith

The following is part of the press release by Jonathan Slaff.

Jeremy Crutchley is well known in South Africa and the U.K., having performed a diverse range of award-winning contemporary and classic roles. He has received many Best Actor National Theatre Awards in South Africa and has appeared with the RSC and in the West End. He was nominated Best Actor in the South African Film & TV Awards for his leading role in “Retribution” (2011), a thriller in the style of Cape Fear. He currently appears with John Cleese as The Glock in the feature films “Spud” and “Spud 2.” In January 2014, he wil be featured in the U.S. TV series “Black Sails” (Starz).

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Jeremy Crutchley in Sacred Elephant. Photo by Rob Keith

Crutchley’s varied and enviable career ranges from classics to solo shows to rock shows. He performed Doug Wright’s international hit, “I Am My Own Wife,” in 2009 to kick off the Grahamstown Theatre Festival and in South Africa’s prestigious 2010 Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards, the show was nominated for six awards and received three, including Best Actor and Best Solo Performance.  Theater critic Peter Tromp (The Next 48 Hours) named the piece as one of the ten most memorable productions in his decade of reviewing. The previous year, Crutchley won Best Actor as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” before going on to play Alonso in “The Tempest” at Stratford-Upon-Avon and in that show’s sold-out national tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was a Fleur du Cap Nominee for his performance as Malvolio in “Twelfth Night”, also directed by Geoff Hyland. In 2002-3 at Edinburgh and in the West End, he created the role of Dr. Drabble in the black comedy, “The Dice House” (based on Luke Rheinhardt’s “The Dice Man”). In the UK in the 90’s, he performed at London’s Theatre Royal Windsor and Orange Tree Theatre and appeared in various TV productions for BBC. In the 80’s, he attracted notice for his performances in Sam Shepard’s “Cowboy Mouth” and “Equus,” among others. Also a rock musician, he has written two Rock Theater works and recorded a blues-rock album. When “The Rocky Horror Show” finally hit South Africa in 1992, he played Dr. Frank ‘n’ Furter in the original cast. His recent TV appearances include: “Miss Marple: A Carribbean Mystery”(BBC), “Kidnap And Ransom”(ITV), Martina Cole’s “The Runaway” (Sky TV) and “Women In Love” (BBC).

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Jeremy Crutchley as The Other. Photo by Rob Keith

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Jeremy Crutchley in Sacred Elephant by Heathcote Williams at La Mama First Floor Theatre. Photo by Rob Keith.

Heathcote Williams (author) is a poet, playwright and actor. He is best known for his extended poems on environmental subjects, “Whale Nation” (1988), “Falling for a Dolphin” (1989) and “Autogeddon” (1991). His plays have also won acclaim, notably “AC/DC,” which was produced at London’s Royal Court, and “Hancock’s Last Hour.” He is also a versatile actor whose memorable roles include Prospero in Derek Jarman’s film of “The Tempest.” “Sacred Elephant” was the first environmental poem by Williams, although it was not commercially published until after his better-known work, “Whale Nation” (1988). “Sacred Elephant” actually dates back to 1967, when Williams spent three months touring in India. While in Rajasthan, he observed local elephants and their trainers at close quarters. He also had a close association with a circus elephant named Rani and was able to watch her daily routine and behavior in captivity. Captive behavior, which is largely unknown to the general public, forms a large portion of “Sacred Elephant.”

The poem first appeared in print in 1987, published by Williams himself but in an unusual form. Three thousand copies were issued on elephant-sized paper and with print “large enough for elephants to read.” These newspapers were given away privately to friends and associates. That year, Williams performed the poem as a radio production, receiving many favorable reviews, including one from Harold Pinter who called it “a marvelous poem.” When Williams’ “Whale Nation” was published in 1988, it set a pattern for Williams’ books to follow, including “Sacred Elephant,” which was published commercially by Jonathan Cape a year later. Following this publication, the book received many more favorable notices.

It was recorded as a Naxos audiobook by Williams himself and given recitations, but it had never been explored for its powerful theatrical potential until Geoffrey Hyland and Jeremy Crutchley conceived this production. Heathcote Williams has granted exclusive dramatic rights to Crutchley to perform the work.

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