I might see most of the playwrights who are part of Indie Theater Now once or twice a year; everybody’s busy all the time. But as luck and karma have had it, I have seen Sean Patrick Monahan not once but twice THIS WEEK. I feel like the theater gods are nudging me to pick his play Diva as our Play for Today.
Sean Patrick, if you’re not familiar with him, is an inordinately talented 20-year-old actor and playwright. He’s a senior at Fordham University, but he’s also a theater veteran of about a decade’s standing, including an important role that Charles Busch wrote for him in Times Square Angel.
Diva was Sean Patrick’s first foray in solo performance/playwriting–and quite a successful one, winning two awards at last fall’s United Solo Festival and already earning a spot as one of the best-selling plays right now on ITN. It’s a mashup of the Ridiculous aesthetic and Greek tragedy (done as a musical!). Sean Patrick’s character is named Desmond Channing, and if you know anything about famous films from 1950 you should see where this is all leading…
Today is the birthday of playwright Dano Madden, and so in honor of that we select The Raccoon as our play for March 6th!
The Raccoon is one of the very few plays in the Indie Theater Now library right now that is expressly written to be performed by kids–specifically, junior and senior high students. Here’s Dano’s note introducing the play to readers on ITN:
The Raccoon was written as a result of my ongoing work in children’s theatre. The time I spent with Idaho Theatre for Youth in Boise, Idaho was some of my most valuable to date. I encountered many talented people ranging in age from kindergarten through twelfth grade. One year I was having great difficulty finding a script for the students who had signed up for our summer production intensive, so I wrote The Raccoon. The play has now been produced in places ranging from McCall, Idaho to Queens, New York. I hope that The Raccoon will find a place on the stage of your middle school or high school.
The story centers around a group of kids reminiscing about the time when their plan to get back at the school troublemaker went badly awry. It’s a fun read for all ages, and a smart and valuable piece for young people to work on.
On this date, five years ago, Mario Fratti’s play Iraq received its NYC debut. It is, thus, our Play for Today.
Do you know about Mario Fratti? He’s past 85, and you can still find him practically every night at a theater, mostly the same indie venues that I frequent. He visits theaters all over the world where productions of his dozens of plays–written from 1962 onward–are being mounted. He speaks to students and teaches and inspires them. And he still writes himself–he’s as prolific as he ever was, and in his writing he reflects on the world as it is right now.
That was certainly the case with Iraq! He wrote it in 2003, which you will recall was the year that the US launched its invasion of that country. It’s a play about that war, and about what war does to us as a nation and as individuals. In it, a vet returns from the Iraq conflict, and winds up in a debate with the father of a comrade, who himself served in Vietnam.
When I reviewed Iraq‘s NYC premiere in 2009 — felicitously presented by Carlo Fiorletta in a production directed by Simcha Borenstein — I wrote that the play may have passed its moment. Alas, I may need to take that statement back.
Indie Artists on New Plays #58 Collin McConnell looks at Kill Shakespeare now playing at HERE
Comic books, an abundance of rock, and Shakespeare! Plus, the narratorial stylings of Mac Rogers, along side an absolutely brilliant cast.
It is a good sign, to me, when walking into the theater, to see everyone milling about in the space – audience and artist alike preparing for the evening together. Some in the audience take their seats, others wander about; some actors are warming up, others are playing and singing the chorus to many a rock song from the 90s, while others still prepare effects and props and chat with friends in the audience. This, to me, means we’re all in this together – sure, the performers are aiming to please, but we the audience are excited to see what the evening has to offer, and the energy of excitement is advantageous to (and infectious in) a live performance.
There is a mythical land, created and ruled by William Shakespeare. But Will has gone into hiding, and the land is plagued with civil war: on one side, the Shadow Hunters – those opposed to their creator’s rule – lead by Richard III. On the other, the Prodigals – those who seek to restore Shakespeare to his rightful mantle – lead by Juliet. Hamlet, washed ashore in this land after a battle with pirates and a tempest, finds himself at the center of this war as the Shadow King, unable to know what side of history to be on…
Anything Shakespeare will easily get me curious, and probably in the door, but a mash-up of some of the greatest heroes pitted against some of the greatest villains in all of the Shakespeare canon? This was far too delicious an invitation to even consider saying no to. And my impulse was well rewarded.
The set up is that of a radio play: actors read from music stands, with Daryl Lathon at the table with a wide array of props to make all assortment of sounds. I want to say the sound effects here are done well – and certainly they are – and yet “well” is not quite the word I would use. It is not a precision or technical craft in the handling of them (though that is certainly part of it), but rather the inventive nature and playful execution that makes them so wonderful. There is a serious joy to be had in watching Lathon (and, in moments of battle – of which there are many – everyone) create the sounds of this world.
But, in the middle of the stage, a large projector screen looms – where images from the comic tell the story in this live format. More than a radio play, Kill Shakespeare is a cross-platform theatrical experience.
This play was not initially birthed as a play, but is a spawn from a comic series of the same name – this is an experiment in form. The combination then of Andy Belanger’s gorgeous images, and the ensemble’s wonderfully committed performances make this such a worthwhile endeavor: the trouble is allowing oneself to watch the strips on the screen and not the actors themselves.
In any endeavor with Shakespeare that is not directly doing Shakespeare, my concern is always the text. It would be easy to steal his brilliantly crafted characters to populate one’s own world – and if done well, I couldn’t hold that against anyone. But the true pleasure in such an outing is in the love of Shakespeare…
Which is why there are so many hats I would like to take off to writers Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery. The love of the plays is so palpable, so alive here that it becomes campy in the most delectable way possible. It is wonderful to watch characters I love so well be exploited in a world that understands them so well (of course it makes sense here that Juliet – the self-assured and action-driven girl – would become the leader of a revolution). Not only that, but other characters not present in name come alive here through others: Hamlet bears a burden similar to Prince Hal; Juliet and Lady Macbeth both have something of (specifically Shakespeare’s) Joan of Arc in them; Falstaff takes on the role of the type of friend found in Horatio, and on and on… And sometimes, we get something so wonderfully new or unexpected from characters we thought we knew (Falstaff gets a scene I never thought I would want him to have, and Iago perhaps has the juiciest of ambiguous surprises).
But the best part is perhaps that Kill Shakespeare never takes itself too seriously. Instead of trying to play coy, it almost (almost) always opts for incredible overindulgence to hilarious extremes, and all you can do is continue to fall into this world, and laugh…
Laugh. And laugh. And laugh…
It wouldn’t do for me not to mention the actors (again), because this incredible ensemble delivers without ever holding back. The amount of fun I had at Kill Shakespeare is just unfair, and it is all thanks to the amount of energy and commitment of every actor on stage. So thank you Becky Byers, Neimah Djourabchi, Abe Goldfarb, Stephen Heskett, Daryl Lathon, Kelley Rae O’Donnell, Mac Rogers, Brian Silliman, and Sean Williams for such a wonderful treat of a show.
…there’s not much else for me to say other than if you love Shakespeare, or if you love comics, or if you love epic fantasy, do yourself the favor, stop whatever it is you might think you’re doing tonight and join the Shadow Hunters and Prodigals, join the tyrannical kings, lovers, fairies, and drunken rogues, join the revelers and music makers and all the other characters that populate Shakespeare’s world, and go Kill Shakespeare.
At the FringeNYC Town Hall Meeting in 2002, I announced that nytheatre.com would review every show in that summer’s upcoming festival. It was something that no organization had ever attempted at that time.
It seemed so obvious: why wouldn’t you want to review everything in a festival? Even if that meant somehow reviewing 180-200 shows in a couple of weeks?
The way we did it–the way we have done it every year for the last 12 years–is to throw a whole bunch of bodies at the task. Not just any bodies: our reviewing squad, which has had several hundred members over the years, consists of people from the world of indie theater. They’re actors, playwrights, directors, designers, stage managers, dramaturgs. They’re theater students. We’ve had publicists, musicians, producers, and artistic directors, too.
There are two compelling ideas that underlie this ongoing project of ours. The first is that providing informed commentary and feedback about all the shows in the largest theater festival in North America is necessary and valuable. Audiences crave it. Artists deserve it.
The second is that enlisting members of the indie theater community to provide this very significant service is itself a potent and empowering act. It means that artists get a chance–at least during those 2-1/2 weeks of FringeNYC (though many continue on to write for nytheater now all year round)–to wear a different “hat” than they usually do. They have to think critically and generously about what they’ve seen; harder still, they have to write coherently and interestingly about the experience they had. Some are superb. Some never want to do it again. I think just about all have grown and benefited from the experience: they’ve gotten opportunities to see shows they otherwise might not have seen, and to engage with them in a unique way.
Engage is the key word in that last sentence. What we strive to do at NYTE–for many years on nytheatre.com, and now on Indie Theater Now AND nytheater now–is to provoke engagement with contemporary drama. We want to bring attention to ALL the work: to meet it on its own terms, to hear what it has to say, to communicate back to it, and to enthusiastically spread the word when it captures the imagination.
We’ve done 100% coverage of FringeNYC 12 years in a row. For lucky year #13, we are rebuilding the process. Scheduling and ticketing, which once upon a time were the big time-hogs in this project, are going to be more automated than ever before. And we plan to take a very proactive approach to matching shows in the festival to the artists who we want to have write about them. I think I might be more excited about NYTE’s 2014 FringeNYC coverage than I even was about what we did in 2002.
Our goals are the same: we want to make sure that every single show in this year’s FringeNYC gets equal attention. But the outcomes will be a little different: we are going to give our squad members the best experience we can manage–not only by engaging them more deeply in their selection of shows, but also by involving them in our planned FringeU educational events and crafting an excellent FringeNYC 2014 Anthology for Indie Theater Now. (Discovering amazing new plays is always the focus!)
So, here’s the call to action that the title of this post suggests. Are you an indie theater artist–a playwright, director, actor, designer, stage manager, dramaturg, student, whatever? Do you think that engaging with cool new work this summer at FringeNYC (and other festivals!) feels like a meaningful endeavor? Do you understand first-hand what it takes to produce theater in the indie/festival sector? Do you want to help NYTE and Indie Theater Now do the daunting thing we and only we have done within and for our NYC theater community for the past 12 years?
If your answer is yes, then I do indeed want YOU for nytheater now. Specifically, I want you to email me right now. If we know each other, just say something like “I want to be on the squad.” If we don’t know each other, tell me a little about who you are and how I might learn about your work.
The 2014 Squad is now in formation. Don’t sit on the sidelines; don’t settle for letting a few friends know what you think via Facebook or Twitter. Jump into the community with both feet! I can’t wait to hear from you.
(And…he adds teasingly…news about our FringeNYC coverage and FringeU plans will be trickling out, right here on the blog, in weeks to come…)
Playwrights on New Plays #53 Ed Malin shares his thoughts on For Body and Light, part of FRIGID new york
The Bay of Fundy, in Atlantic Canada, has the highest tides in the world. The contrast between these high tides and the opportunity one has soon afterwards to walk on the dry ocean floor is extraordinary.
Montreal-based contemporary dance company Travail Rouge, which was in residency in Nova Scotia last year, is premiering their new show For Body And Light at Frigid. France Jacques. Stillness and movement, light and darkness become very fluid.
(This is the first dance piece I’ve ever written about, so perhaps it would be best to refer to the information and video clip on the show site:
Suffice it to say that the dancers under the direction of Stephanie Morin-Robert told a very expressive story that was appreciated by all present. I’m glad that such a special Canadian dance piece is part of this year’s festival.
[Note: Hobo Grunt Cycle by Kevin Augustine is at Dixon Place through March 15.]
The artistry of Kevin Augustine’s new performance work, Hobo Grunt Cycle, is magnificent. Kevin’s craft as puppet-maker and genius as puppet-animator–bringing his creations to what feels like literal life on stage–is well-known in the indie theater community. Here, though, we see a new facet to Kevin’s talent, as he enters the world of Clown and pantomime, brilliantly inhabiting a wordless character in a show that is soulful, ineffably touching, heartbreakingly sad and bittersweet, and supremely affecting. Those in search of theater with the capacity to move the hearts and minds of an audience–and those who want to witness the work of a superb actor at the peak of his powers–should head to Dixon Place before Hobo Grunt Cycle departs.
There’s an eponymous character here, a man who is both hobo and grunt, by which I mean that he’s at once the sad-sack Emmett Kelly-style clown at the bottom rung of the circus hierarchy (i.e., the one who GETS the pie in the face rather than gives it), and also the low-man-on-the-totem-pole army grunt, trained by superiors to become, more and more these days, a killing machine. That he can still maintain–celebrate!–his own humanity despite his circumstances is what makes this fellow a hero.
Kevin portrays this Man, the lone “live” actor in a theatrical world inhabited by clowns of various stripes, anthropomorphized bullseyes, birds, a homeless man, and, most indelibly, the dog who is the Man’s best friend. All of these characters are brought to life by three black-clad masked puppeteers, Nathan Richard Wagner, Nate Begle, and Charlie Kanev, who collectively animate puppets–some just heads, others entire figures–that interact with astonishing felicity with Kevin’s character.
The entire show is staged on a set reminiscent of a circus tent/sideshow. Additional creative contributors are Solomon Weisbard (lighting), Mark Bruckner (sound), Clinton Davis (composer), and Gloria Sun (props and graphics). Kevin is writer and director as well as actor; it’s perhaps his most unified, eloquent work for the stage yet.
The theme of this show is as simple as can be: at its root, this is a story about taking care of one another. It’s so fundamental that, I guess, we keep forgetting the essential wisdom of that idea. But the 70 minutes of Hobo Grunt Cycle will remind you. I wish the world’s leaders–people like Putin and Obama and the heads of multinational corporations and humongous entertainment conglomerates–would all come to watch this show. Maybe it would help.
Yesterday, in my post about telephone plays, I alluded to James Comtois’ modern classic, The Adventures of Nervous-Boy. Little did I realize then that today, March 4th, is James’ birthday. So, I surrender to the universe: our Play for Today is The Adventures of Nervous-Boy!
I mentioned yesterday that one character spends a lot of her time immersed in LOUD LONG cellphone calls, but she’s not the only wired individual in this modern horror-show almost-satire. In my review of the original (2006!) production, I observed
At the very beginning of The Adventures of Nervous-Boy, the title character goes to buy a hot dog at a baseball game. Ahead of him in line is a man on a cell phone. His conversation with the hot dog vendor goes something like this:
GUY ON CELL PHONE: (To the person on the phone.) Hold on. (To the SERVER.) Uh…hold on. (To the phone.) Hold on a sec. (To the server.) Hold…hold on. (To the phone.) Uhhhhhh…hold on. (To the server.) Hold on. (Etc. Keeps going like that.)
The genius of Nervous-Boy is that it captures the dawning of post-landline, hyper-connected, thumb-pressing American society. Eight years on, it feels spookily prescient.
Wish James a happy birthday and check out his plays on ITN!
Playwrights on New Plays #52: Cory Conley looks at The Bridges of Madison County at the Schoenfeld Theatre
Who would’ve thought that the spirit of Joni Mitchell could rescue The Bridges of Madison County?
No, Mitchell herself, that icon of lush, jazzy, confessional songwriting, was not involved in the creation of this musical adaptation of Robert James Waller’s 1991 novel, which features a book by Marsha Norman and a score by Jason Robert Brown. Yet her distinctive style lands squarely on the stage of the Schoenfeld Theater, almost from thin air, in a stunning first-act ballad called “Another Life,” when a character reminisces about a lost relationship from years ago. It tells a memorable story, it’s beautifully sung by Whitney Bashor, and ultimately it lifts “Bridges” from the stale, workmanlike realm of movies-turned-musicals up to the loftier heights of raw, personal, well-imagined theatricality.
And mostly, it stays up there. Brown’s score soon unleashes a trove of rhythm-and-blues-inflected Americana, with soaring melodies and winding refrains that match the heightened nature of this story. Norman’s spare book moves the evening along with a few jokes and not too much fuss, while director Bartlett Sher has crafted a simple, elegant staging that features a chorus of townspeople in chairs. And the power generated by the enormous vocal talent of stars Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale is surely enough for the producers to save millions on electricity. The whole thing got under my skin, to be honest, and not in the way I expected.
Oh: we should probably get to the plot. But I’m assuming you know the basics by now, since the book sold more than twelve million copies and then morphed into a movie with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. But even if you’re lost, it won’t take long to catch you up: Francesca, an immigrant from Italy, has planted herself as a housewife in Iowa. Robert, meanwhile, is a roaming photographer who passes through town while Francesca’s husband Bud and their kids are away on a trip. He stops to ask her for directions. They bond over the scenery. She invites him in for dinner, and it turns out they have a real connection, and then— okay, must I go further? Suffice to say, the thrust of the story finds Francesca torn between her passion and her family.
Waller’s novel made no claims of originality; it’s a tearjerker meant to be devoured on a long flight with a glass of wine and some tissues. On stage, though, it’s the music that blesses this familiar fable with real humanity and seriousness, and Bridges may well represent Brown’s most fully effective score to date. Brown and Norman have removed much of the book’s melodrama and replaced it with an expanded look at Francesca’s circumstances: her son’s desire for a world beyond Iowa; the frustrated yearnings of the neighbors next door. We see flashbacks for both Francesca and Robert; the first comes in that Mitchell-inspired “Another Life,” sung by Robert’s ex-wife. Even Bud gets a sympathetic ear in his bluesy number “Something Like a Dream,” where he eloquently explores the fear of losing his wife. (He’s played by a likable, understated Hunter Foster.)
Of course, it wouldn’t matter much if you didn’t care about the love story. But O’Hara and Pasquale make sure you do. Her anxious, hard-won vulnerability makes for a perfect contrast with his hunky, brooding intensity. I won’t soon shake the memory of their sweeping duet “Just One Second (And a Million Miles)” or the pair of solos that form the show’s finale, particularly Robert’s (“It All Fades Away.”) You might not think Bridges of Madison County will be your cup of tea at all— I certainly didn’t— but life is full of surprises. I saw it on one of February’s most frigid arctic nights, and as long as this show was rollicking along, I could’ve sworn it was already spring.
Key of E arrived at the Frigid New York festival from Orlando, Florida. Produced by Dark Side of Saturn, the music, lyrics, story and direction are by Andy Matchett; script by Corey Volence. It was the winner of 11 Audience Choice Awards at the Orlando International Fringe Festival including Best of the Fringe. This is an entertaining show with music and puppets. It is partly a love story and partly a reflection on the actions we take. It is also an apocalyptic rock musical in the style of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.
Lead character Ethan is a twenty-something hedonistic, disenfranchised white male who is tired of today’s society and gets drunk at a bar and sings “I just can’t wait for the game to end, so we can start all over again.” Corey Volence plays Ethan with moves like Elvis Presley; his singing voice is powerful and melodic. His girlfriend, played by the beautiful and talented Marisa Quijano has to drag him home from the bar. On the way a tsunami washes Florida away leaving Ethan stranded on a desert island strewn with items from Walmart. A handful of weirdly iconic misfits appear such as Hipsters, Punks, Office Workers, Pretty Ladies and Men with Muscles. Amanda Warren, Chaz Krivan, John Bateman, Scott Kerill, Justin Jones, Ethan Earls, Sara Gray bring this strange crew to life as a solid ensemble. The Narrator, played by Andy Matchett helps us follow the action by breaking the fourth wall to include us in on the pop-culture jokes. Early on we learn that these characters are only figments of Ethan’s psyche. Add to this mix a giant, bony-fingered puppet Creature played by Scott Kerill, who represents Ethan’s anti-social behavior. If Ethan is to put his fractured psyche back together again he must confront and defeat this demon puppet.
The original music is perfectly sung by this tightly knit, well-rehearsed cast. The puppets included: Jeep, Fire Magic and the Creature, are expertly constructed and manipulated by Evan & Christine Miga of Dog Powered Robot.The overall production is a little rough around the edges, which, in this case, gives the evening a certain roguish charm. Outside of a “tidal wave” floor drop that becomes the detritus of ruined civilization on the deserted island, there is not much transforming of the space. The exuberant rock music carries us along, moving the story forward and separating not only the scenes, but also the Ethan character’s view of reality.
I enjoyed Key of E and found myself laughing at the jokes and tapping my foot to the rock beat.