Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in SF Theater: A Top Ten List

In 2012, I began to seek out theater that had elements of science fiction. It's been a rewarding experience, especially since it's led me to shows I wouldn't otherwise have seen. SF has a vibrant and exciting environment Off-Off-Broadway. It only rarely appears Off-Broadway, and its sole representative on Broadway is Spider-Man (though you could stretch your definition to include Peter & the Starcatcher). To cap the year, enjoy my top ten list of SF theater, in no particular order. If this 2012 list proves anything, it's that Off-Off-Broadway is vibrant with smart, entertaining science fiction. 

Best show(s)
playwright: Mac Rogers
director: Jordana Williams
company: Gideon Productions

Hands down the best SF work of 2012, Mac Rogers' Honeycomb Trilogy staged the decades-long story of an alien invasion in three full-length realistic dramas. This trio of plays deserves any number of year-end titles and awards. Most audacious vision: a trilogy of two-act, well-made dramas whose insight into the relationship between individual character and cultural dynamics closely resembled the dramaturgy of Henrik Ibsen. Aside from the giant telepathic wasps. Uncanniest aliens: those wasps, never seen onstage―except, memorably, for one nine-foot-long leg! Their hive-mind telepathy, the mirror opposite to humanity's individuality, had produced an anarcho-communist civilization beyond the imagination of Bakunin. Yet the species had destroyed their planet's ecosystem, and now hoped to save humanity from the same fate.  Most memorable character: protagonist Ronnie, who began as a hellion teen and ended as the iron-backed governor of Florida. Each episode of the trilogy uncovered new sides to this knotty role, from her daddy issues in part 1 to her maternal ambivalence in part 3.  Kinkiest romance: a homosexual, interspecies love affair between Ronnie's awkward younger brother and an astronaut whose mind had been replaced by the wasp hive's ambassador. Their relationship may've been unconventional but it was in no way deviant. Each psyche passionately desired communion with the other, which ironically led to both men betraying their species and losing each other.  Greatest undertaking: As befits a scifi epic, Honeycomb took plenty of chutzpah to produce; more established and high-profile theaters than Gideon Productions would've balked. To unroll the trio of shows, Jordana Williams directed her team of designers and 27 actors over a six-month period. The result was a thorough success, stupendous theater full of intellectual heft, emotional drama, and entertaining action. Mac Rogers' trilogy proved that science fiction need not lose its fantastic elements to be great theater.
Keeping it real in Spaceman
(credit: Clint Brandhagen)

Smartest AI or robot
playwright: Eddie Antar
director: Leslie Kincaid Burby
company: Workshop Theater Company

The canniest binary character of 2012 wasn't a killer robot, megalomaniac supercomputer, or cyborg demanding its rights. Rather, it was an extraordinary GPS. Spying into the future, the title character of The Navigator advised its owner on his best course of action, from shortcuts of Westchester County to the path to financial security and finally smartest route back into his wife's heart. In a smart theatrical twist, writer Eddie Antar personified the GPS as a character, played superbly by an android-icy Kelly Anne Burns. Her chemistry with her owner allowed the show to dramatize the relationship of Americans to our technology. In counterpoint, the production itself was charmingly low-fi―mainly a pair of chairs & steering wheel to represent a car. This charming comedy recalled The Twilight Zone at its fuzziest and most humane. And its heroine, by dint of her uncanny gift for prophecy, was the smartest computer of 2012―and the most winsome.

Most nightmarish dystopia
playwright/director: Adam Rapp
company: Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

Even as Lower Manhattan nearly became a literal wasteland after Hurricane Sandy, it also saw a dystopia arise in Adam Rapp's latest play. Superficially, Through the Yellow Hour was a realistic three-scene drama, but (as some reviewers complained) its reality didn't quite convince. New York, depopulated and reduced to rubble by chemical dirty bombs, was under curfew enforced by armored gangs of foreign jihadis who castrate men. Improbably, they're funded by the 1% as part of a plan to cull humanity and practice eugenics. Rapp's scenario resisted plausibility; instead it possessed the irrationality of a fever dream. A dingy LES studio apartment, stripped of everything but a toilet and bathtub, lent the stage its innate claustrophobia, while a soundtrack of gunfire supplemented reports of the disfigured cityscape beyond its walls. Even when illogic and over-ripe dialogue threatened to puncture the illusion, its dream-like atmosphere held its coherence.

Cosmic comedy in Space//Space
(credit: Ryan Jensen)

Deadliest Apocalypse
playwrights: Marc Bovino & Joe Curnette
director/co-creator: Lila Neugebauer
company: The Mad Ones

Samuel and Alasdair jettisoned the conventional tropes of endtimes and robotry yet it delivered the year's most vivid and hopeless apocalypse. A Siberian AM radio station aired a corn-pone romance of small-town Americana, interrupting their tale with country tunes, call-in contests, and more ominously, power outages and strange sonic feedback. The claustrophobic setting and its anonymous broadcasters disclosed an obscured history, one where, back in the Eisenhower era, atomic-era robots exterminated North America with death-ray eyes and telescoping limbs. The radio show suggested that the Russians were paying homage to a lost civilization, infusing the atmosphere with a lonely melancholy. The modest charms of the format (and the live foley-work) of radio was undercut by the hosts' fear and absence of hope. A minimalist style of performance encouraged attentiveness and focus, repaid by a superbly executed production. Though it was a eulogy for humanity, Samuel and Alasdair was deeply moving.

Hardest SF
playwright/director: Steven Gridley
company: Loading Dock

Spaceman imagined humanity's first trip to Mars with a pleasantly realistic approach. Rather than having an interplanetary adventure, its protagonist faced a numb routine of flight checks, the invisible hazard of cosmic radiation, the stifle of recycled air, and worst of all, the loneliness of the void. In this respect, the show's conflict was almost entirely internal, depicting the psyche of a person in extreme conditions. A smart script guided Erin Treadway's tight performance, helping her to hold the stage alone for almost the entire show. By avoiding the SF clichés of interplanetary travel, Spaceman brought out the true heroism of space exploration and the sense of wonder and transcendence that a Mars shot would have, yet the show didn't stint on the human cost. It may have presented a trip to Mars as a Beckett-like essay in tedium―but it was riveting.

Most far-out
playwright: Jason Craig
director: Mallory Catlett
company: Banana Bag & Bodice

Space madness with a method, Space//Space practiced avant-garde irony and destabilization to take its audience on a psychedelic journey. Set within a plexiglass pod in the interstellar void, the drama staged a “failed scientific experiment” involving a pair of twin brothers whose hamster outfits literalized their roles as lab rats. As one brother began to lose his sanity, the other spontaneously became a woman, as if gender were simply a quantum instability. Later, in a stunning theatrical coup, the actress (Jessica Jelliffe) stripped her costume to reveal a belly six months pregnant. Naked and serene, she took on the cosmic aspect of a goddess as she seemed to guide her fearful brother into his space odyssey of death/rebirth. Delightfully abstruse, Space//Space blew our collective mind, a reminder that SF can have a strong component of cosmic weirdness.

Radio days in Samuel & Alasdair
(credit: Ian Saville)
Coolest relic of a past SF production

Oddly, all that's left of a 1980 Off-Off-Broadway space-opera is a radio show and a comic book. A still-strong signal from the DIY scene of NYC yesteryear, Starstruck glue-gunned the puckish anarchism of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to the radical feminism of its time and place. Then, once the show closed, its playwright/director/star (Elaine Lee) collaborated with her neighbor, a famous young illustrator (Michael Kaluta), on a prequel that drew on the deco aesthetic of Flash Gordon. For two decades, issues were published by Marvel Comics and Dark Horse; in 2012, IDW reprinted the full series in paperback. But despite that corporate pedigree, the comic is a revolutionary work, just as dense and complex as caped classics like Watchmen but far more enlightened and far less serious. Meanwhile, Lee adapted the play for radio & webcast in 2010. Now, you can read the TPB, download the audio play, and return for the first time to the stellar adventures of Galatia 9 as she leads a space revolution against her evil sister!

Most overrated
playwright/director: Jay Scheib
company: The Kitchen

Jay Scheib continued to earn applause for his experimental theater in 2012 with World of Wires. His latest piece adapted a 1970s TV drama by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, which in turn was based on a '60s SF paperback. All three versions followed a computer scientist who begins to suspect he's actually inside one of his VR programs. The plot had noirish tones, with a dead body, an icy blonde, and a political conspiracy. But Scheib's method of staging felt cold, analytic, and ultimately uncompelling as anything more than an showcase for his obscurantist style of blocking the action behind walls of sheetrock and instead projecting it on flatscreen TVs. Yes, got it, the actors have been digitized. Scheib's style was more architectural than dramatic, failing to fracture the space-time of the stage in any theatrically productive way. Unlike the critics who raved about his work, I heard in World of Wires a snide, insider tone―alienation not as philosophy but as a measure of cool.

Starstruck: A Girl's Guide
to Space Anarchy
(image: Michael Wm. Kaluta)

The One I Missed
playwright: August Schulenburg
director: Heather Cohn
company: Flux Theater Ensemble

Because a play only exists at one point in time, and so do I, I missed some good SF theater. This year, I'd rent a time machine to catch Deinde. A drama about quantum computing, neuropsychology, and a global pandemic, this drama sounded like exactly the sort of theater that I love. The company, Flux Theater Ensemble, has produced solid SF in the past (Dog Act) and later in the year, they would deliver a satisfying rom-com that mixed '60s romance comics with '40s vigilante action-adventure (Hearts Like Fists). Critics recommended Deinde, theatergoers buzzed about it, I even had tickets―and I couldn't go. Instead, I had to cover the bloated, blundering Broadway musicals during the April/May pre-Tony blitz. Won't make that mistake again.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Off-Broadway: In the Summer Pavilion

Early on, the bare stage of Pavilion
evokes a more primal style;
later, it's simply dull & barren
(photo: Gerry Goodstein)
In the Summer Pavilion
Workshop Theater Company at 59E59
written by Paul David Young
directed by Kathy Gail MacGowan
October 17, 2012

An earnest, dull drama about the sundering of a youthful menage a trois. A frisky bacchanal in the titular gazebo segues to an ominous void, from which the protagonist―a melodramatically moody Princetonian―will visit his potential futures. This first “act” of the 75-minute drama has a primal sense of mystery that weirdly echoes late Greek drama like Oedipus at Colonus. But the show doesn't follow through on its initial prophetic promise. Instead, Pavilion cuts together a montage of the trio, ten years on, in permutations of coupledom and solitude. The performers show some green talent; the director and designers adroitly define a new setting every ten minutes. But the script's scenarios are limited to the near-utopian reality of the 1%. No matter how happy or un- they are, these kids will become international art dealers and high financiers. In the worst case, our Ivy grad kicks heroin to join an all-American terrorist cell. It's a preposterous caricature of Occupy as Weathermen 2.0! The woman, for her part, always gets paired off with one man or the other―so much for the future of feminism. Finally, the play repeats its opening. But the scenes that were incantory now seem like an empty gesture at the cyclical nature of something or other.


In the Summer Pavilion plays at 59E59, closing on November 3. Tickets?


Friday, October 26, 2012

Sci-Fi Theater: Heresy

Nearly alone in this show,
Reg Cathay doesn't phone his performance in
The Flea Theater
written by A.R. Gurney
directed by Jim Simpson

It's a measure of sci-fi's ubiquity in American theater that even A.R. Gurney, an 82-year-old WASP, sets his latest drama in a dystopia. It's “New America in the not-too-distant future, just long enough for five nation-wide “crackdowns” on un-American activity. The image that conjures—of NYPD bashing Occupy—is the only contemporary aspect of Gurney's setting. His targets are Bush-era: waterboarding, wiretaps, and massive databases on American citizenry get cited but not, say, drone assassination. Not a word about the Great Recession but plenty about a newfound unity of church and state. The near-absence of post-'08 malfeasance makes the play seem behind the times, already dated. The near-future resembles the near-past, but with a paranoid streak stemming from constant police surveillance. The lone bit of future-tech is a whooshing door out of BBC's MI-5.

If Heresy were stronger elsewhere, in script or show, Gurney's failure of imagination wouldn't matter so much. But the play is clumsy, its staging uninspired. Its basic conceit is awful: Mary (Annette O'Toole, wooden) visits DC to speak with Pilate about the arrest of her son, Chris. In case his audience misses his point, Gurney hamhandedly emphasizes the parallel: young officer Mark, transcribing the meeting, likes to re-translate prosaic dialogue back into its biblical phraseology. Jim Simpson ignores the script's blunt-edged satire, instead staging the play with a breezy tone. The flickers of enjoyment come from the always-awesome Reg E. Cathay, a Pilate whose bass voice belies a shallow desire for respect, and by Kathy Najimy as his tipsy wife, a society matron who says the dopiest things. The duo's rapport gives this doddering one-act its only moments of vitality.


Heresy plays at the Flea Theater, closing on November 4. Tickets?


Friday, October 19, 2012

Off-Broadway: Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812

Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812
Ars Nova
written and composed by Dave Molloy
directed by Rachel Chavkin
Monday, Oct. 15

Ars Nova: better than BAM and a quarter the cost. This month, the space in Hell's Kitchen hosts a chamber opera by the gifted Dave Molloy. He's set roughly 75 pages of War & Peace to 150 minutes of modernist music―a pomo polyglot of cellos, bass sax, drum loops, and accordions. That scenario could be abrasive, but Molloy, director Rachel Chavkin, and Ars Nova deliver instead a warm, immersive evening. The cozy theater has been converted into a 21C version of a Moscow salon, welcoming audiences with free vodka and black bread. Molloy embodies this generosity by taking the role of Pierre, one of Tolstoy's central characters, a Muscovite with a large heart and unhappy marriage. The character, in turn, represents part of Tolstoy's own artistic spirit: objective yet passionate, and possessed of a judiciously moral voice.

The show draws a slice from midway through the long novel, a brief but catastrophic debut of Pierre's friend Natasha into society and his attempt to salvage her reputation. After he's brought her a modest crumb of comfort, he spots that titular comet in the Russian night and has a moment of cosmic awareness. To reproduce the novel's intimate yet epic voice, Molloy employs a stylistic pastiche and shifts of tone and perspective. Aside from his Pierre, the minor role of Natasha's confidante offers the most “Tolstoyan” moment. As Sonya, Brittain Ashford possesses incredible emotional and tonal range as well as the slightest lisp, which lends specificity to her heart-heavy solo in act 2. Though each act has its slow stretches, it compensates with invaluable moments like this one. Theater of grandeur on a small stage, this show feels somehow indispensible to the artistic life of 2012.


Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 plays at Ars Nova, closing on Nov. 10. Tickets?


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Broadway: An Enemy of the People

Only Michael Siberry (right), as decadent dad-in-law,
points the way to a new Ibsenesque,
an irrealism haunted by David Lynch hobgoblins 

MTC at the Friedman Theater
written by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz
directed by Doug Hughes
seen on September 28, 2012

A town's livelihood depends on its new spa, so it attacks a local doctor for proving that the cheap & dirty construction will spread disease, not cure it. Timed to coincide with the 2012 election, this revival of Ibsen's 1882 work finds its energy in condemning the know-nothing townspeople. Parallels to the Republican party draw themselves, of course. Adaptor Lenkiewicz polishes the play up with pithy dialogue and canny use of English idioms but she also cuts the protagonist's mulishness. Hughes follows her lead by directing a show that's light on subtext and heavy on rabble-rousing speechifying. Boyd Gaines, as the doctor, provides some depth, allowing himself to appear ridiculous by plumbing his middle-aged character's naïvety. MTC's impulse to stage Ibsen may be socially liberal but its aesthetics are too conservative to produce anything but easily-digestible melodrama. This Enemy's irony is that it's a safe crowd-pleaser about the wrongness of that approach in life, politics, and art.


An Enemy of the People runs through November 11. Tickets?


Saturday, September 29, 2012

Off-Broadway: If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet

If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet
Roundabout at the Steinberg Center
written by Nick Payne
directed by Michael Longhurst
Thursday, Sept. 27

British director Michael Longhurst and designer Beowulf Borritt have placed a neat junkpile centerstage for If There Is…. To define a scene's location, the actors pull a fridge, a TV, or a bike from the pile. Scene over, the furniture gets shoved into a water tank at the footlights. It's all part of the consumer culture that's clogging up the environment, and also part of the mess that the play's characters have made for themselves. For If There Is… is another drama where a feckless relative visits a stressed-out family to egg along the crisis.

Cast in that catalytic role, film actor Jake Gyllenhaal takes the Brando approach to stagework, disappearing fully into the part by burying himself under fussy, tic-filled physicality. In response, the rest of the cast gives Kim Hunter-like performances, quieter but stronger and more subtle. Their psychological realism lends substance to the underwritten characters. The effectiveness of the production almost masks the conventions of the script. But If There Is… is the same realistic, episodic family drama that Off-Broadway companies always produce.


If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet plays at the Steinberg Center, closing on November 25. Tickets?


Friday, September 28, 2012

Off-Broadway: Job

The Bats at the Flea Theater
written by Thomas Bradshaw
directed by Benjamin Kamine
Sept. 22, 2012

Thomas Bradshaw, always provocative, has never been so bold as he is here, in his adaptation of Job. The biblical book tackles the cause of suffering, depicting a seemingly heartless wager between God and Satan over the strength of Job's faith. When pressed to account for Job's suffering, God refuses: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the Earth?” Without losing any of the tragic amplitude of the original, Bradshaw turns this into a radical commentary on authority. Job, a successful owner of livestock, sits in judgment over a small fiefdom, mercifully adopting victims of rape and, more disturbingly, be-handing thieves. This mortal world is all bushy beards, animal sacrifices, and declamations in a pseudo-Biblical style. Heaven is superficially different―pressed khakis, wine glasses served on trays, and genial conversation―but its God is just as stern when He delivers His verdicts.

In past shows, Bradshaw has staged explicit and often violent sexual acts, seeming simply to enjoy provoking audiences. But in Job, these horrific acts purposefully underscore the fraught nature of human existence. Castration and necrophilic rape suggest that Bradshaw is personally horrified by (and drawn to) sexual degredation as a dramatic tool, though he also engages the tragic tradition of blinding as the ultimate metaphor for suffering. But Job's suffering, when it occurs, is neither tragic nor heroic, it's just pathetic. As his life becomes unbearable, he laments in plaintive tones that distract God from His silent meditation practice. To end the distraction, God descends from Heaven for His empty self-justification. Job's body, property, and status restored, he returns to ordering amputations.

A casual reading of Job easily sets it up as an allegory for the '07-08 economic catastrophe. Wall Street (Job) is hobbled but, once bailed out by the Government,  returns to its merciless behavior. Common humanity is unchanged throughout: hungry, violent, and fearful. Bradshaw's previous shows have presented a satiric worldview, which would reinforce this reading. But the difference with Job is that Bradshaw seems to believe that hierarchy is fixed and authority is inevitable as well as selfish. Maybe that view stems from the source material, but Bradshaw hasn't altered or subverted it. The show's only irony (though it's a deep one) is a tragic fear for physical frailty and a tragic pity for the exploited. That would seem to be Bradshaw's own position, since it doesn't correspond either to God or Job.

Benjamin Kamine's production of Bradshaw's script pads its runtime to 60 minutes by staging some exhilarating primitive Orientalist dances as well as horrific dumbshows of rape and murder. The Biblical atmosphere is richly evoked, Cecil B. DeMille by way of Peter Brook (if you can imagine that). In the title role, Sean McIntyre uses a deep baritone to stentorian effect, and plays smartly in a flat, Brechtian style that fits the play well. As God, Ugo Chukwu is smooth and casual, a being used to ultimate power. But his earthly manifestation at the show's climax is the evening's own tragic flaw. The problem partly is the costume, an unimposing mask and cloak, and partly Chukwu's voice, which lacks the raw vigor of divinity speaking from the whirlwind. It's a gravely disappointing moment, but Bradshaw's play has enough strength and depth to overcome this.


Job plays at the Flea Theater, closing on October 7. Tickets?


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Theater: New Shows (Sept. 25 - Oct. 1)

Ars Nova will be transformed
into a Russian salon not unlike this one.
Dress accordingly.
The stages are revving up for the autumn season. So with plenty to choose from, I'll shine the spotlight this week on Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. That's a fantastic title. Tasha & Pete are two protagonists of War and Peace, Tolstoy's epic about Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia. This show adapts a small, lovely segment of the novel into a pocket-opera that fuses Russian folk and classic music with “electro-pop” music. The staging, by the sharp Rachel Chavkin, promises to turn Ars Nova into a Moscow salon, its tables set with vodka and dumplings! Imaginative, theatrical, and forward-looking, this sounds like a cool evening.

where: Ars Nova
first night: Monday, Oct. 1

And here's the rest of the week's new shows:

where: MCC at the Lortel Theater
first night: Thursday, Sept. 27
Judicial conservativism seems like a great subject for modern American dramatists, but DGG is the first play I've come across about the movement. Michael Cristofer (Intelligent Homosexual's Guide…) plays a right-wing justice whose pro bono work leads to conflict, internal and external.

where: Minetta Lane Theater
first night: Thursday, Sept. 27
An autistic teen gets thrown out of his rhythm when an estranged relative visits. That sounds formulaic, so let's hope the Midwestern creators (writer Deanna Jent and director Lori Adams, both unknown to me) devise new theatrical tools to get the audience into the strange mind of the protagonist.

where:  The Flea Theater
first night: Saturday, Sept. 29
A.R. Gurney in realistic mode bores me silly, but when he gets theatrical and political he gets my attention. Heresy is him in the latter manner, adapting a passion play for election season. Mary and Joe visit Homeland Security to learn from Pontius Pilate (Reg E. Cathey, always good) why their son Chris has been arrested.

where: Primary Stages at 59E59
first night: Tuesday, Sept. 25
A dishwater drama about a small-business inheritance to be split between siblings. The script is by Hallie Foote, who mines the same Last Picture Show milieu as her late father Horton. Their quirky, quotidian realism has come into fashion in the last decade, though I can't see why.

where: The Secret Theater
first night: Friday, Sept. 28
Four magic words: “After the robot uprising…” LIC's Secret Theater has become The Place for science fiction onstage. The venue's latest follows a nanny-bot across a post-apocalyptic world of the 25C, after humanity quashed the robo-revolution. See you there?

where: Broadway (Booth Theater)
first night: Thursday, Sept. 27
Albee's alcohol-soaked masterwork just played a stupendous run in '05 but it's good enough to stand another viewing. This Steppenwolf production got hossanahs a few seasons ago; with Pam McKinnon (Clybourne Park) directing Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, it's not hard to guess why. This is only Letts' second NYC stage appearance, tho' his scripts (like August: Osage County, which earned Morton a Tony nom) have made his reputation rock-solid.

Last chance!
Bullet for Adolf
where: New World Stages

Fly Me to the Moon
where: 59E59

where: Signature Theater

where: Theater Row

Monday, September 10, 2012

Theater: New Plays (Sept. 11-17)

This week's spotlight is Through the Yellow Hour by Adam Rapp. His spiky pessimism may not be for all audiences but his grungy style and horror-movie tone feels more contemporary than many glossy works of realistic drama. Rapp pursues his imagination down dark alleys, as in this week's debut Through the Yellow Hour. Set in a US that's been attacked (but by whom? from without or within?) and its populace terrorized, a feral woman comes out of hiding to change the world.

where: Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
first night: Thursday, Sept. 13

But there's plenty more to see if that doesn't strike your fancy.

where: 59E59
first night: Tuesday, Sept. 11
Rip-snorting swing jazz from the WW2 era is the main draw of this bio-musical. A pair of twins play Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, bandmates whose rise to fame caused their family and band to rupture. The drama was filmed a few years later in The Fabulous Dorseys, which this staging takes footage from.

where: Roundabout on Broadway (American Airlines Theater)
first night: Friday, Sept. 14
The musketeer with the long nose returns to Broadway, a mere five years after his last visit. This time, the ultra-talented Douglas Hodge dons the prosthetic schnozz; he impressed New Yorkers in La Cage aux Folles a few years back, but Londoners knew his work in Pinter & Shakespeare as well.

where: BAM Opera House
first night: Friday, Sept. 14
I'm ashamed to admit I have no desire to see this modernist masterpiece, a seminal work of the 20C. Usually I love the dilation and abstraction of time that occurs during a play. And coupling that conceptual theme with Einstein's theories of spacetime is a brilliant idea. But I've always been underwhelmed by Robert Wilson's work and I've given it so many chances. Go, and tell me that I'm missing out.

where: The Culture Project
first night: Saturday, Sept. 15
Produced during W. Bush's first term, this piece seemed a theatrical tonic in that bitter conservative era. Astonishing and effective, it shapes interviews, letters and court documents about innocent death-row inmates cleared by DNA evidence into a galvanizing work of journalistic theater. Agitprop can be incredible theater.

where: Broadway (Cort Theater)
first night: Thursday, Sept. 13
Paul Rudd, shorter but also more confident onstage than you'd figure, leads Ed Asner, Michael Shannon, and Chicagoan Kate Arrington to Broadway, a solid line-up for a straight drama. It's a rather dark comedy about faith and Florida, whose sober tone and weighty themes stick with you longer than the plot.

where: Theater Row
first night: Tuesday, Sept. 11
Stephen Sondheim gets top billing here, since this musical features his work. But this show is a set of SS's songs removed from their context and slotted into a new story by Craig Lucas & a writing partner. Their subject is a neighboring pair of lonely urbanites and their romantic fantasies. It sounds pretty un-Sondheim, but may possess its own satisfactions.

where: Cherry Lane Theater
first night: Wednesday, Sept. 12
A quirky comedy about a set of night watchmen who must comfort one of their own after he's lost his cat. Every part of that description—from quirk to cat—should raise your guard. But the Playwrights Realm have a good record of producing writers worth getting to know, so they deserve the benefit of your doubt.

where: Classic Stage
first night: Friday, Sept. 14
A trio of works from Beckett's twilight years—when he'd gone past abstract, beyond abstruse to obscure. Dark, dark stuff. But the staging might be worth your time, with DC doyene Joy Zinoman directing in collaboration with the Cygnus Ensemble, a famously tight chamber orchestra whose style should match Beckett's well.

Last chance!
New Girl in Town
where: Irish Repertory Theater

Space Captain: Captain of Space
where: Kraine Theater

Friday, September 7, 2012

Sci-Fi Theater: Space Captain

The Kraine Theater
written by Jeff Sproul
directed by Lindsey Moore Sproul

Happily, this Flash Gordon rip-off doesn't begin and end by parodying the cheap movie serials of the Great Depression. For one thing, it bounces exuberantly between live action and filmed location shots. Add the styrofoam “puppet” spaceships, which fire be-glittered popsicle sticks for laser blasts, and the production's aesthetic playfully echoes the high-tech/low-fi future of pre-WW2 SF. The bigger surprise is that the playwright Jeff Sproul takes his characters (semi-)seriously. Space Captain Rocky Lazer loses his two-fisted confidence when he realizes his love interest may be turned off by his patronizing attitude. To be a better hero, he must better himself. In fact, every character grows―something Flash, Ming, and the rest never did. Director Lindsey Moore Sproul, unfortunately, is more comfortable with Airplane-style hijinks. A stronger hand would've cut the plot's repetitions, picked up the pace, and even staged the actors better. Most importantly, she would've demanded a stronger end to the arc of damsel Jean Jarvis. Alicia Barnatchez gives a witty performance, but finally her part never rises above the role of Rocky's love interest. That fix would add sass to the show's snappy pleasures.


Space Captain: Captain of Space plays at the Kraine Theater, closing on Sept. 15. Tickets?


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Theater: New Shows (Sept. 4-10)

A low-wattage week, maybe due to Labor Day. But that doesn't diminish my spotlight pick, Strange Tales of Liaozhai. An evening of Chinese folk tales (that alone should be enough to hook you) gets treated via semi-abstract puppetry (which should tempt you even more). The auteur is Hanne Tierney, who manipulates silks, lanterns, & bamboo poles with a complex system of counterweights. Her collaborator, Jane Wang, has composed a modernist score, which she'll perform live on toy pianos & constructed instruments (which should close the deal).

where: Here Arts Center
first night: Thursday, Sept. 6

And here's the rest:

where: Fourth Street Theater
first night: Friday, Sept. 7
It's hard to keep the pulse of theater in Eastern Europe. So take the opportunity to check the English-language premiere of this Serbian trilogy, written just before the Kosovo War of '98-'99. It's a epic & a comedy, covering a family's diaspora from their home city during the Cold War. The playwright, Biljana Srbljanovic, has a strong rep but expect dramaturgical quirks due to cultural differences.

where: Friedman Theater
first night: Tuesday, Sept. 4
MTC mounts a Broadway revival of An Enemy of the People, Ibsen's noble-minded classic. A doctor discovers a toxic contaminant in a resort-town's spring-water. The local authorities want to shut him up, lest he wreck the spa's reputation. Swap a shark for ground seepage and you've got Jaws!

where: 59E59
first night: Wednesday, Sept. 5
An Irish comedy―which is to say, a black comedy―about a corpse who wins a fortune at the racetrack. The Great Recession has hit Ireland particularly hard, and this import finds some mirth in the Celtic Tiger's collapse. By Marie Jones, whose Stones in His Pockets was fondly received a decade ago.

where: New York Theater Workshop
first night: Wednesday, Sept. 5
Kathleen Chalfant takes the lead in this drama about an essential theme of our time, genocide. In this case, the subject is the Armenians, victims of the Ottoman Turks in WW1. Press materials imply that RDH is of the “family secrets unearthed” subgenre & offers a sense of redemption―neither of which suggest a strong drama.

Last chance!
The Best Man
where: Schoenfeld Theater

where: New World Stages

Saturn: A Play about Food
where: The Wild Project

Monday, August 27, 2012

Theater: New Shows (August 27 - September 3)

In a parallel universe, I have gotten a PhD in a comparative religion. That universe's blogpost celebrates Job at the Flea, but this one shines its spotlight on Space Captain: Captain of Space! I've been Inspired by the interplanetary movie serials of the 1930s, this Off-Off-B'way show is staged entirely in black-and-white. A crackerjack preview promises to show us futuristic swashbuckling, puppet starships, and a general tone of Plan 9 from Outer Space. Sounds like a fun way to end the summer season!

Space Captain: Captain of Space!
where: Kraine Theater
first night: Thursday, Aug. 30

And here's the rest:

where: 9th Space Theater
first night: Tuesday, Aug. 28
An encore engagement of this hit from Off-Off that put its company, the Amoralists, on the map. A fine bit of domestic melodrama, this show hangs out with an ad hoc family of anarchists as they're gentrified out of their neighborhood.

where: The Wild Project
first night: Thursday, Aug. 30
A smart young couple inherit a farm, which forces them to tackle science, food, and other Michael Pollan-type preconceptions. Produced by an environmentally conscious troupe, this drama adds a whimsical thread of magical realism, in the form of magic beans and “defiant vegetables”. Dunno what that last phrase means, but it's evocative!

where: The Flea Theater
first night: Friday, Aug. 31
Fans of black comedy already know Thomas Bradshaw, an expert at lancing our hang-ups about race and sex. Now he bravely takes on issues of faith in an “honest, uncynical adaptation” of that biblical masterpiece, the Book of Job. Bradshaw pairs off with those Tribeca ragamuffins, the Bats, who should work well with Bradshaw's loose, brash aesthetic.

where: Peter Jay Sharp Theater
first night: Friday, Aug. 31
It's brave to tackle tough subjects like race and class, but too many shows end up flinching from brutal truths. In this piece, a white couple decide to adopt a black child out, a noble-minded intention that will probably have unforeseen consequences. Question is, just how far will the show go with that?

Last chance!
Clybourne Park
where: Walter Kerr Theater

Into the Woods
where: Delacorte Theater

The Last Smoker in America
where: Westside Upstairs

The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side
where: 9th Space Theater

Potted Potter
where: Little Shubert Theater

where: Union Square Theater

where: Radio City Music Hall

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Theater: New Shows (Aug. 21-27)

Broadway's Chaplin competes with
YouTube videos of the real deal

Let's shine the spotlight on Detroit by Lisa D'Amour. The comedy nearly visited Broadway in '11 as well as just missing the Pulitzer. A strong cast (John Cullum, Amy Ryan, and, um, David Schwimmer) and smart director (Anne Kauffman) mount the show, which bowed to acclaim at Steppenwolf in Fall '10. Subject is another jaundiced look at the 'burbs, and comparisons to Clybourne Park will be inevitable. So will Detroit's themes be lost on an urbane audience like NYC's or will it be a good fit for Bloomberg's Manhattan? 

where: Playwrights Horizons
first night: Friday, Aug. 24

And here's the rest of this week's debuts:

where: Barrymore Theater
first night: Tuesday, Aug. 21
A musical about silent cinema's greatest legend sounds like a contradiction in terms. The show rests entirely on Rob McClure's flexible cane. He's got to sing and dance but also clown well. If he can, this show'll be a delight, whether the music works or not. But FYI, an earlier draft of this show, then called Limelight, got limp reviews at La Jolla in '10.

where: Roundabout at Laura Pels Theater
first night: Friday, Aug. 24
Jake Gyllenhaal makes his America stage debut―back in '02, he played London in This Is Our Youth to respectful reviews. Here he lends his wattage to a new play by a young Brit, taking the role of a drifter-uncle who acts as catalyst for a family in crisis.

where: Theater Row
first night: Thursday, Aug. 23
For Arthur Miller completists, a revival of an early '90s drama by a small OOB troupe. The depressive playwright brings his dour game: themes involve lost dreams, arguments about capitalist striving, and committing wives to mental asylums.

Last chance!
Fringe NYC 2012
where: all over town

Sister Act
where: Broadway Theater

Two Rooms
where: Theater Row

Uncle Vanya
where: Soho Rep