Sunday, November 15, 2009

Or, (Women's Project)

Women's Project
November 11, 2009
Liz Duffy Adams (playwright)
Wendy McClellan (director)

The ebullient Or, (comma included) is a period drama, a sex farce, a spy thriller, a backstage comedy, even a bit of a feminist burlesque. That Or, can be so many things without spinning apart speaks to the strength of its 17th-century protagonist, Aphra Behn. The ex-spy was the first Englishwoman to make an independent living as a poet. So playwright Liz Duffy Adams dreams up a pivotal night in which Behn must compose her first play while handling two lovers (one of each sex) as well as a former contact with intel on a plot against England.

Adams plainly adores her heroine. Lucky she's got Maggie Siff as her indomitable lead. Siff's got perfect control over her pale face, strong jaw, and hard brow, which give silent expression to every thought. She's also a generous actor, listening visibly to her scene partners. Together, Adams and Siff give us a woman who is cool, intelligent, and devoted to her work—she never forgets herself even during lovemaking. As an agent too, she's a consummate playwright, appraising her contact's motivation and assessing the holes in his plot like she's his dramaturg.

The only problem is, Adams' exuberance threatens to derail her own dramaturgy. She draws a comparison between the 1660s and 1960s, but stretches it too far sometimes and finally drops it altogether. The confusion of genres means director Wendy McClellan must switch tones abruptly, and she doesn't always finesse it. But the biggest problem is that Behn doesn't actually do much except write, leaving other characters to do her dirty work. Uncharacteristically, she dithers over betraying her contact, and the plot demands she must literally sacrifice her spycraft for her art. Anyhow, Adams' strength is her dialogue: she deploys subtext deftly, exploring the 17th-century fondness for double-meaning in a lyrically modern idiom.

Adams and Siff's vivacious Behn so dominates Or, that it's easy to forget the rest of the show. A pair of actors play a dozen extra roles, complete with quick-changes—Kelly Hutchinson's turn as Nell Gwynn, a sort of 17th-century Marianne Faithful, is especially delightful. The design elements cohere beautifully, with a set and costumes just sumptuous enough, their bright colors underscored by deft lighting and adding to the high spirit. Or, is a juicy, overstuffed delight, a rococo concoction of sex, spies, and stagecraft.


Or, plays at the Women's Project (424 West 55th Street, betw. Ninth & Tenth Ave.), closing on December 13.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Americana Kamikaze (PS 122)

Americana Kamikaze
PS 122
October 28, 2009
Kenneth Collins
William Cusick (co-creators)

Americana Kamikaze (teaser) from Temporary Distortion on Vimeo.

I'm not into horror, mostly because I don't find fear too thrilling (mostly it's just stressful). But Temporary Distortion's Americana Kamikaze offers the sort of scare that I imagine others find in the genre. After a quick shock or two early on, this cutting-edge merger of stage acting and video drops the standard kit of scares. Instead, creators Kenneth Collins and William Cusick build a sort of dramatic hall of mirrors designed to unsettle the rational mind.

Collins and Cusick leave just enough traditional dramaturgy to keep the audience engaged. The plot's got several characters, and it does come to a climax. It sees a Japanese salaryman (Ryosuke Yamada) slowly losing his grip after having witnessed an uncanny attack by a succubus upon a couple in a subway station. But this straightforward description erases what's so cool about Kamikaze: its structure is shaped like an infinity sign.

The play cuts back and forth across time, and the characters relate dreams and urban legends, but there's no narrative signposts to help you orient yourself in the story. Yamada's unhinged everyman doesn't provide an anchor for the literal-minded either. He's got the draggy monotone of someone whose mind has been befogged by his glimpse of horror. Kamikaze is the dramatic equivalent of an MC Escher print: your mind can't find the point of focus.

It's not all great, even for those who like their horror cerebral and their theater hermetic. When the show breaks its sleek modern atmosphere—as it does in an ironic parody of a sad-sack karaoke song—its strength and focus ebb. And a subplot involving an American couple seems lifted from another genre altogether. But on the whole, Kamikaze is one seriously disturbing show, a 21st century haunted house for the avant-garde.


Americana Kamikaze plays at PS 122 (150 First Avenue, betw. E. 9th & E. 10th St.), closing on November 14.