Indie Artists on New Plays #74 Teddy Nicholas looks at Women

womenChiara Atik’s Women, playing at the People’s Improv Theater, is a theatrical mash-up of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic Little Women and Lena Dunham’s HBO “original” series Girls. Atik slams together contemporary dialogue ala Girls with the formal language of Alcott, often weaving the cringe-inducing sarcasm of Dunham’s quartet of twenty-something young women in New York struggling to make it on their own (or at least dance on their own) with the melodramatic plotted structure of Alcott’s story of four young women, the March sisters from Massachusetts, struggling to survive.

Meg, the oldest March (the Marnie from Girls), played with hyperintensity by Abby Rosebrock, marries a tutor (Bradley Anderson) and bares two children while writing bitter letters to her sisters about the burdens they’ve saddled her with. Jo (the Hannah), played by Dunham-conjuring Layla Khoshnoudi, casts asides gender norms, rebuffs her neighbor Laurie’s (a charming Zac Moon) advances, identifying more as masculine while yearning to become a writer in New York City and “the voice of [her] generation.” Amy, (the Jessa), played with feverish flippancy by Lydian Blossom, is an artist who uses limes–lots of them–in her art while speaking in a fake British accent, Madonna-style. And Beth. Poor Beth, the youngest (and the Shoshanna), played by a hilariously cheerful Rachel Lin, is doomed from the start by constant foreshadowing of her death by scarlet fever. Indeed, #Bethdies, but not before giving an impassioned speech to a local businessman (Brett Epstein) about the economic downsides of slavery for the working class folk like her family, outsourcing jobs to slaves, not to mention that slavery is, like, wrong.

Poor all the March sisters! For they are actually poor. Their mother, Marmie (Vicki Rodriguez) struggles to keep the household together, and their lack of money stimulates much of the action of the first part of Women. What truly makes the parallel with Girls quite interesting is the comparison between actual struggling women from poverty and the tedious unnecessary dramas of the Dunhamverse. Unfortunately, romance dominates the narrative by the second half, which moves with an uneven pacing, though Atik stays true to her source material, possibly to a fault. Even Jo finds love–despite her protest of it–in Friedrich Bhaer (a riotous Stephen Stout), a professor she meets in New York who helps her publish her manuscript.

Director Stephanie Ward keeps the pace up at an almost screwball speed, which at time elicits applause from the audience, though she does find moments of poignancy to land. Atik’s Women is definitely a fun time.

NSA – New play by Manuel Igrejas at Left Out Festival

NSA, the new play by Manuel Igrejas, is a smart, adult, bittersweet look at three men who find themselves entangled in an off-kilter love triangle. It’s a worthy successor to Hassan and Sylvia, Manny’s award-winning 2010 play, which traded in similar themes on the complex web of compromise, integrity, and sex. As I write this, there is one more performance left of NSA at the Left Out Festival at Stage Left Studio; I highly recommend it. And I wish the play a full, long life after the festival.

Casey Burden, Afrim Gjonbalaj, and Kevin Perez in NSA

Casey Burden, Afrim Gjonbalaj, and Kevin Perez in NSA | photo by Joel Bischoff

The title is an acronym for “No Strings Attached” (not the National Security Agency); it’s an apt choice for this play, which deals in relationships with varying levels of ties that bind. Monty and Luis have been a couple for ten years, and seem to be soulmates in spite of differences in their backgrounds, ages, and ambitions. Monty wants to marry and Luis does not, but that’s not the central problem in this play.

Rather, the catalyst for all that happens is a cater-waiter they encounter at a gallery opening in Chelsea. I don’t want to give away much about this handsome young man, but both men recognize him (although in different contexts). Both end up becoming acquainted with him, and his impact on their lives rocks their relationship to its very foundation. And everything that occurs pivots on the entwined ideas of how much skin we’re willing to put in the game in terms of relationships with one another; and how willing and able we are to separate love from lust, sex from intimacy, and romance from transaction.

Manny has written three highly individual, richly fleshed-out characters here, all brought to life by the actors in this premiere production. Casey Burden, who was in Hassan and Sylvia, plays  the grounded, good-natured Monty; Afrim Gjonbalaj is more conflicted as his partner, Luis; and Kevin Perez is splendidly ambivalent and enigmatic as the young man who is the third point of the triangle. This production is directed, vividly but in bare bones style suitable to the festival environment, by Robert Teague.

What I like most about the play is that its characters do dumb and/or risky things and don’t get let off the hook by each other or their playwright. And they adhere to moral codes that arise from their very different personalities and histories, In short, they behave like real people rather than constructs or archetypes, and it’s a real privilege to spend time with them in the theater, indulging along with them in their fantasies and foibles. We care for them when our time with them is over.

Play for Today: Walking to America

Alberto Bonilla

Today is the birthday of Alberto Bonilla, who is an actor, director, playwright, and teacher — one of our true Renaissance indie theater types. In his honor, our Play for Today is Walking to America, the resonant and insightful play he wrote ten years ago about a teenage boy from Honduras who walks all the way to California in an effort to flee the violence and impoverishment of his homeland.

September 2, 2004; that was the night that Walking to America opened at the 78th Street Theatre Lab and, for some serendipitous reason, I happened to be there to see it. Within a day or two, I emailed Alberto and asked him if he would consider placing the play in our print anthology Plays and Playwrights 2005. Even though the cutoff date for inclusion in the book had already passed, I was excited to get Walking to America into it. I wrote in the book’s preface:

The message of this play is so important I didn’t want to wait a year to share it with readers….This is a story that hasn’t been told enough, about a boy (and thousands just like him) about whom most people never give a thought….[B]ut Bonilla doesn’t stop there. For interspersed in the straightforward docudrama…are a series of pre-recorded satirical “commercials,” advertisements for the life that the play’s young protagonist thinks he desires….

I should note that Alberto based his play on a real person, a boy named Oscar who was imprisoned in Texas as an illegal immigrant. Alberto learned about Oscar in 1998. We’ve not made nearly enough progress on this issue in those intervening 16 years, but plays like Walking to America help open eyes to a very real and tragic plight. Learn about Walking to America on Indie Theater Now.

[My desire to put important plays before the public right away, as evidenced here, was one of the impulses for Indie Theater Now, by the way. Now we don't even have to wait months to publish a significant new play: we can get them on the site within days!]

Play for Today: Test–Do You Really Want to Know? Are You Positive?

Last night, the Left Out Festival opened at Stage Left Studio. This is the seventh annual edition of this event, which is a celebration of LGBT voices in theater that runs for about two weeks at this intimate space in Midtown Manhattan (just a couple of blocks from Penn Station). I’ll be heading over there tonight to see my first Left Out show of 2014, NSA by Manuel Igrejas.

Cheryl King and TC Corwin in TEST

Right now, though, our attention is focused on the woman who founded and produces Left Out each year. That would be Cheryl King, an energetic theatrical dynamo who–in addition to running a theater–directs, acts, coaches, teaches…and writes. Her Left Out selection from 2013 is our Play for Today: a collection of short plays called Test–Do You Really Want to Know? Are You Positive?

The title is a clue to what each of the short plays is about. Here’s Cheryl with some background:

Do-it-yourself home testing for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has arrived. The at-home hit drug-store shelves two months ago. Within a few days of that event, Cheryl King and William LoCasto decided to write a set of 10-minute plays, entitled TEST – “Do you really want to know? Are you positive?” Each of these plays is about two characters taking the test – from the moment the package is opened until the moment the results are revealed. We see every kind of human reaction – good, bad, ugly and beautiful, and a powerful tension that carries us from the first to the last word.

Here are three reasons to read/buy Test:

  1. They’re timely and educational: each play offers contextual information about the home HIV test and how it works and how it should be used.
  2. They’re REALLY actor friendly: All four of Cheryl’s Test plays feature a knockout role for one man and one woman, of various ages, temperaments, and physical types. These are mature characters that will present great opportunities for excellent performers.
  3. They’re smart and funny: I wrote, in my review of the original production, “It makes for a moving, thought-provoking, and (surprisingly, against the odds) funny evening—indisputably one of the most memorable theater experiences of 2013. Test lets you ponder, with these fascinating characters, what you might do if you discovered something as scary and life-changing about yourself as what the home HIV test reveals, along with the more telling question: Do you really want to know?”

Learn all about Cheryl’s Test–Do You Really Want to Know? Are You Positive? on Indie Theater Now.

(And check out Bill LoCasto’s all-male Test plays, too.)

Potion: A Play in Three Cocktails

Indie Artists on New Plays #73 Mitchell Conway looks at Potion: A Play in Three Cocktails,  a production of Stolen Chair

The patrons and employees speak-song their attempts towards love at a bar that promises large mood shifts from its concoctions in Potion presented by Stolen Chair. It is scored with catchy music by Sean Cronin with the text semi-rhythmically spoken, maintaining or amplifying the inflection of speech, often repeating phrases, aligned with the music but never fully musical. There is no singing and it does not have the melodic metered control and elegance of good rap. This style of speaking stays at approximately the same pace most of the production. The result is emotionally neutralized; however actors remain present through its execution. This may be a commentary on bar culture as lacking genuine vulnerability, but that clashes with the overall premise of potions opening people to new depths and possibilities. Unless there are no depths, merely shifts?

Over the course of the evening various couples form. Charley the bartender makes a love potion for her boss Tom at the threat of health inspector Mr. Forth closing the place down unless she does so. Played by Jon Froehlich with an enjoyable stuffiness, Forth’s object of design is Emma, played by Molly O’Neill with a beaming presence throughout. Her friend Philip pairs intimately with Andi, while Jim the mustached ironic detached hipster, played by Noah Schultz, remains alone. As Philip, David Skeist is an awkward fellow finding his sexiness through imbibing, and as Andi, Liz Eckert begins as a sullen goth who after a beverage becomes all smiles.

If this bar is a place to attempt personal discovery, then the production’s style seems to indict the achievements of Bacchic revelry. This is not an Ode to Alcohol, but through repetition and stagnancy showing our thoughts as unbeautiful. Kiran Rikhye’s text and Jon Stancato’s direction do not dance, they wobble tipsy and speak slurring too loudly; in a haze we can’t catch the melody.


Mixology Review by Jonah Dill-D’Ascoli:

Throughout Potion, set in what I must say is an excellent bar (the People Lounge has found the perfect balance in its décor between LES speakeasy, apothecary, and still unpretentious bar), three different cocktail-potions created by mixologist Marlo Gamora are offered to the audience: “Curiosity” a heady combination of Rye, Cynar-an Italian artichoke based amaro, and lemon; “On Pins and Needles” a citrusy blend of mezcal-agave spirit from Mexico that is not tequila, green chartreuse, and a chili salt rim; and finally, “Love Potion No. 10” an anise driven mix of Lambrusco, gin, and absinthe.

In “Curiosity” the pairing of Cynar, a bitter, with the high citrus of lemon juice and only the humble honey to balance it left the drink lingering in a slightly unpleasant way. The bitter brought out by the citrus sat on the palate long into the second act without any pleasing sweetness to cut it back down. Sadly, for the workhorse honey, the rye did not offer much to the drink as the subtle flavors of cherry and spice of the base spirit were lost behind the overwhelming onslaught of citrus and amaro.

“On Pins and Needles,” Gamora’s second offering, was definitely the strongest. The smoke of the mezcal came through pleasantly without becoming astringent in the way mezcal’s can and the green chartreuse added an herbaceous complexity without over powering. The drink was lovely to look at with a half chili salt rim which gave the tippler the option of a little heat or not which kept the experience changing and interesting. Lest we forget the ginger beer, which offered a picante feel as well as a light and pleasing sparkle element giving the drink a playful note. Overall the balance and execution were excellent.

Finally, as the performance came to its climax and final movement we were offered the sultry, “Love Potion No. 10” was served. The idea of the ingredients are good: Lambrusco, a sparkling red wine for color, flavor, and bubbles; gin, that Madam Genever of the night that helps mankind forget inhibitions; and absinthe, the anisette flavor of green fairies and dizzying forgetfulness that allows the heart to dance with another. On paper this should be a drink that asks or rather requires you to fall in love, but the delicate balance of wooing the taste buds is lost behind a sea of intellectuality. The absinthe overpowers the drink on the front palate and then carries the drying effects of the tannins in the Lambruso to leave the mouth unkissable. The Lady Gin’s delicate floral femininity is lost as the citrus and again those licorice flavors pull too hard away from the center.

Overall, no one would be disappointed having ordered these drinks–they are well thought out by a craftsman who clearly has an understanding of the tools of his trade. Where they fall down is in the desire to have a second, to continue the evenings tippling by merely uttering, “the same please” rather than stopping to reexamine the cocktail list to find the next potion.

The Tower

Playwrights on New Plays #63 Ed Malin shares his thoughts on The Tower

When I heard that Adam Scott Mazer and AntiMatter Collective were staging The Tower, about the great frontier/cannibalism survival story of the Donner Party, I was afraid in a good way.  I saw their entertaining, bloody piece “Death Valley” several years ago.

The Tower is a new twist on the perennial problem: if you and your colleagues are trapped in the snow, would you eat them to survive?  It happened to a wagon train trying to cross the Sierra Nevada into California in 1846.  However, this really deep piece is not heavy on gore.  Instead, there are two psychological hours of being snowbound and worrying about when death will come and how.  There is also cutting edge dance music and actors popping up on all sides of the performance space, sometimes politely moving you out of your seat so they can do a scene there.

This play jumps around in time and space.  I’m not entirely sure who survived the disturbing snowstorm and flesh eating.   More food for thought, of course.

When snow stopped the group’s  westward journey to California, some of the travelers chose to push on over a mountain pass.  These fearless folks included William Eddy (Andrew Krug), Charles Stanton (Scott Raker), Sarah Foster (Marlowe Holden), Margaret Reed (Leah Walsh)–who left her family behind with friends–and their Indian guide, Luisa (Rebecca Hirota).  Out of desperation, they draw lots for who will be eaten.  But it does not go entirely according to plan.

Meanwhile the young Landrum Murphy (Curry Whitmire) and Virginia Reed (Elizabeth Bays) stay in the camp with Tamzene Donner (Courtney Fenwick) and the limping, atheist Lewis Keseberg (Christopher Norwood).  Keseberg seems the most likely to eat everyone else, and is later found with half-eaten bodies.  But did he kill them?

Later, Keseberg, who was accused of murder but acquitted, has opened a bar in Sacramento.  There, he is visited by James Reed (Joe Petersen), who was thrown out of the original group before the whole snowstorm started.  What did they talk about then, and what were they thinking when they first set out across the continent?  The show will tell you all these things and more.  Go see it.

You might also have the opportunity to have Adam Scott Mazer give you a tarot card reading before the show starts.  The chapters within the show are related to tarot.

There is a lot of great historical research in this piece.  Sam Kusnetz’s projections on the diaphanous curtains of Patrick McNaughton’s set include diary entries from the Donner Party.  Dramaturg Maya Rook told me that she made a trip out to Donner Lake, scene of this infamous tale.  Director Philip Gates deftly shows the spectrum of attitudes (and some hallucinations) the travelers had at different times.  To convey the latter, Alana Jacoby’s lighting and Will Fulton’s sound round out the picture.  Stephanie Cox-Williams does the killer special effects, including some gunshots that may be fired in your direction, and the small number of truly disturbing moments in the show.  Anna Grace Carter’s period costumes just make these mild-mannered people more creepy.  Danielle Baskin’s props include a bear head, snowshoes, and human body parts.

Play for Today: The Playactor

The PlayactorToday is the birthday of Indie Theater Now’s very newest playwright, David Hauptschein! We literally just published one of David’s plays on ITN last night: The Playactor. (It’s the first of ten that are planned for inclusion in our library.)

I’m excited that David has joined the ITN family. He hails from Chicago, where many of his works have been produced during the past decade or so; he’s also had productions in London, at the Edinburgh Fringe, and elsewhere in the UK. Learn all about David’s career on ITN.

The Playactor debuted in 2007. It’s a fascinating, weirdly funny play — a little on the disturbing side — spinning a very timely and resonant tale of a young woman who pursues a relationship with a man she met on the Internet who turns out to be a pathological liar.

The Playactor has three wonderfully drawn female characters in addition to Charlie, the perverse young man at the play’s center. All four will provide grand, quirky, off-kilter opportunities for actors. I hope ITN can help spread the word about David’s play to NYC and all over the USA.

So please check out The Playactor on Indie Theater Now. And join me in wishing our newest ITN family member a very happy birthday!


Play for Today: Gloves for Guns

David Lawson

Today’s Play from ITN is David Lawson’s Gloves for Guns. Learn more about this amazing work here.

We choose this for a couple of reasons.

First, Gloves for Guns remains–sadly–a very timely, prescient work. It’s about two teenage boys who are in some kind of mysterious afterlife, working things out and figuring things out following the incident that sent them here–when they committed a shooting spree at their high school. David, who is just 28 years old, has great insight into his generation, and what’s revealed in this play is explosive and important.

Now for the second reason–you will have a chance to experience David’s newest work this week at Dixon Place! His new solo show is called Insomnia in Space and it debuts on April 18th. David just completed a terrific interview about this show right here on Indie Theater Now. Please take a look! And plan to check out David’s work this Friday night.

And read about other David Lawson plays on Indie Theater Now, too.

The Realistic Joneses

Indie Artists on New Plays #72 Collin McConnell looks at The Realistic Joneses  now playing at the Lyceum

How do we talk to each other?
And when things get rough, how do we, really, talk to each other?

“…it just seems like we don’t talk.

What are we doing right now? Math?

No, we’re — I don’t know — sort of throwing words at each other.”

Such is the question – and painful truth – of Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses.

The Joneses – Bob and Jennifer – grapple with Bob’s illness, when the Joneses – John and Pony – move in next door, and try their best to be neighborly (but for their lacking social skills, their “best” isn’t really all that great). And, it turns out, John has a secret.

The Realistic Joneses is excellent in all regards – from writing, to directing, to acting, to design. Will Eno’s play tugs at our perceptions of what is “realistic” and natural with all its wild bandying of words, which Tracy Letts, Toni Collette, Marisa Tomei, and Michael C. Hall expertly manuever, no matter the curve balls Eno may throw at them. Leon Rothenberg creates for us a soundscape quite realistic to what one would expect to hear in a small town near the mountains (and, occasionally, the unatural sounds of pressure and the unknown sneak in, though no less recognizable, and, perhaps, no less realistic). But it is in the silence and stillness that director Sam Gold does something spectacular – with all the difficulty of “talking” (which carries with it understanding – or, in the case of the Joneses, not understanding), in the silences, Gold manages to gently lift the haze created by the language, subtly revealing the truth of these people.

Gently is key here. I am tempted to say this play is about connection, and about reaching out, because so often here we watch characters trying, though failing – Bob and John both have wonderful moments of trying to apologize or be honest that pass almost unnoticed. But those failures point to something more specific. It is about communication. It is about how we reach out, and, as the opening dialogue suggests, how difficult it can be to just talk.

It is really hard to talk. It’s hard, and it’s weird. It’s really weird. Playwright Will Eno has a way of drawing our attention so sharply to the oddity of language that we cannot help but hear and feel the truth behind what we would like to say is ‘strange’ or ‘unrealistic‘. And that’s the thing: we really want to say it’s strange. Yet, coming out of the theater, one may find there is a strangeness within their speech that went unnoticed before – and then you can’t stop hearing it (at least I couldn’t). And you cannot unhear it.

But what does this mean? I think it means we have a hard time saying what we mean. Which is a hard thing to say, and which this play says so beautifully in saying it so gently.

The beauty of the play, again, is in its gentleness. And not the “gentleness” one who enjoys “downtown” theater generally might associate with Broadway, but a difficult gentleness, a gentleness that digs under the skin. But then, when it has burrowed deep into us without our noticing, the play calls into question not only our ability to communicate, but our expectations.

So, to bring up, briefly, an interesting point: this play is on Broadway, which is defying a sort of expectation. Broadway, as Charles Isherwood pointed out in his review of this same play, is mostly a place for repurposed movies and blaring musicals, and not really for daring new plays. And so The Realistic Joneses has the wonderful opportunity to awe audiences with its oddity, perhaps getting many to start hearing the ways which we do – and do not – communicate.

While communication is at the center of all the droll madness, it’s not just about communication. It deals with illness, friendship, honesty, and expectations – or rather how expectations are never really lived up to. Moving, marriage, getting sick, dead squirrels. Somehow, life is never what we thought it would be. And that might be ok if we knew how to talk about it. But we don’t. So we try. And then we move on.

“Isn’t that what people do?”

“I guess.”

Play for Today: You’re a Good Boy, Abercorn

You're a Good Boy, AbercornToday we continue counting down to the Left Out Festival with a play that premiered in last year’s edition of this annual event. Our Play for Today is Topher Cusumano’s You’re a Good Boy, Abercorn.

The Left Out Festival is an event produced every April by Cheryl King and Stage Left Studios celebrating the LGBT theater experience. It’s a benefit for Bailey House, and we are proud to be a media sponsor. All the info about this year’s festival is available at Stage Left’s website.

You’re a Good Boy, Abercorn really demonstrates how far Left Out goes in terms of presenting rich, uncompromising, highly theatrical material. It’s a short, harrowing piece inspired by a true story, about a young man who was kidnapped while still a young boy by a dangerous pedophile. This young man, Abercorn, is the last remaining victim–the others having all been killed by their captor. In an article for nytheater now, Michael Mraz wrote this about the play:

Cusumano dissects the terrible power that most abusers have over children in these situations: Abercorn, who Bull started abusing when a very young boy, is now in his 20s but stuck in a prison of perpetual childhood, for he knows if he doesn’t “stay young,” he will no longer be needed or desired by Bull (and the play often alludes to the fates of previous boys who have outlived their usefulness to Bull’s sordid, torture-fantasies).

In my review, I said:

You’re a Good Boy, Abercorn could easily be genre theater, with no more lasting impact than a visit to a haunted house. But with great compassion and insight, Cusumano has thoroughly transcended such theatrics, and has instead created a deep and penetrating journey into some of the darkest areas of human nature that honestly examines the pain of both predator and prey in a scenario that none of us could wish on even our worst enemy.

Take a look at You’re a Good Boy, Abercorn on Indie Theater Now.


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