Indie Theater Now People of the Year 2013

Indie Theater Now proudly presents the 10th annual People Of The Year. These 15 artists represent the cream of contemporary independent theater. All of them have contributed in multiple ways to the diversity and vitality of NYC theater in the past 12 months. These artists are chosen by nominations from NYTE’s contributors and selected by the Board of NYTE.

RANDI BERRY is the Co-Artistic Director of Wreckio Ensemble, and the Executive Director of The LIT Fund. She also serves on the Board of Directors of The League of Independent Theater. One Memorable Thing She Did in 2013: With John Clancy, Randi helped form The LIT Fund whose first Community Grant was awarded to The S.H.I.T. List, a community-based project developed by Gideon Productions, Flux Theatre Ensemble, and Shaun Bennett Fauntleroy and she spearheaded the Rehearsal Space Grants for The League of Independent Theater. Plans for 2014: Randi plans to continue growing The LIT Fund, and expanding The League of Independent Theater’s real estate efforts. She will also be appearing in Wreckio Ensemble’s upcoming production of The Sisters of Arkansas Can Saw.

J. STEPHEN BRANTLEY is a versatile actor and playwright. One Memorable Thing He Did in 2013: His latest play, Pirira, premiered at The Chain Theatre under the auspices of Theatre 167 this past fall in which he played a leading role and he also starred in Kathleen Warnock’s That’s Her Way. Plans for 2014: J. Stephen is working on a semi-autobiographical solo cabaret show that will premiere at Horse Trade’s upcoming FRIGID Festival, under the direction of David Drake. He will also appear in a one-day, site-specific revival of Theatre 167′s Jackson Heights 3am, which he also co-wrote. He is also working on a new full-length play. Learn more at: http://www.jstephenbrantley.com/

JANIE BULLARD is an inventive and ubiquitous sound designer and composer. One Memorable Thing She Did in 2013: She designed sound for both of Flux Theatre Ensemble’s spring rep productions, Honey Fist by August Schulenberg, and Sans Merci by Johnna Adams (for which she also composed original music). Plans for 2014: Janie will be working on two upcoming productions with director Daniel Talbott: the premieres of Sarah Shaefer’s play The Gin Baby, and David Van Asselt’s Foo Fable. She will also be sound designing August Schulenberg’s new play, Jane the Plain, for Flux Theatre Ensemble, David Stalling’s new play, Dark Water, for MTWorks, and a new revival of Love’s Labour’s Lost at the New School for Drama. Learn more at: http://www.janiebullard.com/

BURAN THEATRE is a New York-based theatre company creating new works that straddle genre and artistic production under the auspices of artistic directors Adam R. Burnett and Jud Knudsen. One Memorable Thing They Did in 2013: Their production of NIGHTMARES: a demonstration of the Sublime played The Brick Theater twice (in both January and October); in-between those engagements, the production toured three western states where Buran remounted it from scratch with all-new casts drawn from local actors. Plans for 2014: They will premiere their newest work, Magic Bullets, at the Incubator Arts Project in May, and take it on tour from November 2014 through January 2015. They are also developing a second new work, Mammoth, which will make its New York premiere in late 2014/early 2015. Learn more at: http://www.burantheatre.com/

CECILIA COPELAND is a playwright, and the Artistic Director of NY Madness. One Memorable Thing She Did in 2013: Her newest play, Light of Night, received its world premiere production this past fall at IATI Theater. Plans for 2014: Her next play, Between Here and There, will be presented by Open Hydrant Theater, and Light of Night will receive a second production later in the year. In addition, Cecilia’s company, NY Madness, will finish its spring season with featured guests August Schulenburg, Mia Chung, Jenny Lyn Bader, and David Bar Katz. Learn more at: http://www.ceciliacopeland.com/

ELENA K. HOLY is the Producing Artistic Director of The Present Company, which produces The New York International Fringe Festival every summer. FringeNYC is the largest multi arts festival in North America and is the sixth most attended event in NYC. One Memorable Thing She Did in 2013: Elena led FringeNYC into its 17th year, and her stewardship of the festival helped hundreds of shows and thousands of indie theater artists to develop and present innovative and passionate work to a broad audience. Plans for 2014: Elena plans to revolutionize FringeNYC’s operations and ticketing, continue providing the best possible resources and support for festival artists, further the coalition of a new World Fringe Alliance, and the formation of a FringeNYC Alumni Association. Learn more at: http://www.fringenyc.org/

LESS THAN RENT is a New York-based theatre company of enormous drive and invention. One Memorable Thing They Did in 2013: LTR presented Sean Patrick Monahan’s solo musical Diva at this year’s United Solo Theater Festival, where it won the Best Musical award and the Audience Favorite award. Plans for 2014: LTR is about to enter its second year of residency at Horse Trade Theater Group, which will include world premieres by Peter Gil-Sheridan, James Presson, and Sean Patrick Monahan. Learn more at: http://www.lessthanrent.org/homepage.html

PADRAIC LILLIS is a prolific and accomplished director and playwright, and the Artistic Director of The Farm Theater. One Memorable Thing He Did in 2013: Padraic directed LabRats Theatre Company’s production of The Rise and Fall of a Teenage Cyberqueen by Lindsay Joy Murphy, for which he won the New York Innovative Theatre Award for Outstanding Director. Three of his plays are published on Indie Theater Now. Plans for 2014: Padraic has a full slate of activities planned for The Farm Theater’s first year, which include developing Brian Luna’s solo show 7th and 11th Dimension, hosting a salon for Russell G. Jones’ play The Blind Spot, and a three-way college collaboration with the University of Ashland, Centre College, and Clark University. Learn more at: http://www.padraiclillis.com/Home_Page.html

SAMARA NAEYMI is the Producing Director and Curator of Incubator Arts Project. One Memorable Thing She Did in 2013: Samara continued to champion new, innovative work at Incubator Arts Project, presenting such varied and distinct artists as Sara Farrington, Joshua William Gelb, Daniel Fish, Vampire Cowboys, and Dave Malloy & Eliza Bent. Plans for 2014: Samara will continue her work as Producing Director and Curator of Incubator Arts Project as they launch their spring season. She will also start work as a freelance producer for a roster of artists soon to be announced. Learn more at: http://www.incubatorarts.org/

TIMOTHY NOLAN is a veteran playwright, and the Literary Manager of Variations Theatre Group. One Memorable Thing He Did in 2013: His most recent play, What’s in a Name?, was produced by Variations Theatre Group at The Chain Theatre last spring. Plans for 2014: Timothy will continue his stewardship of Variation Theatre Group’s staged reading series, Minor Variations Project, and hopes to get a new play development lab off the ground. He is also working on a new play of his own. Learn more at: http://www.timothy-nolan.com/

DIANA OH is an actress of remarkable range and depth, and the creator of the artist’s retreat Filling the Well. One Memorable Thing She Did in 2013: Diana gave a memorable and scene-stealing performance in Gideon Productions’ world premiere of Frankenstein Upstairs by Mac Rogers this past summer. Plans for 2014: Diana will be seen on stage in the next installment of the One-Minute Play Festival. She will also be recording an EP of her original songs, leading future retreats and residencies for Filling the Well, and working on a reading and workshop production of her original musical, Kimchi Mamas and the Dirty Disco. Learn more at: http://www.dianaoh.com/

AMY LEE PEARSALL is an actress, a company member of Wide Eyed Productions, and a frequent reviewer for Indie Theater Now. One Memorable Thing She Did in 2013: Amy Lee gave a memorable performance in Boomerang Theatre Company’s production of Lickspittles, Buttonholers and Damned Pernicious Go-Betweens by Johnna Adams. Plans for 2014: Amy Lee will soon be seen in PlaylabNYC’s staged reading of e.e. cummings’ rarely seen play, Santa Claus: A Morality. Next fall, Wide Eyed Productions will produce the world premiere of Dan Kitrosser’s new play, Dead Special Crabs. Learn more at: http://www.amyleepearsall.com/

JIM SHANKMAN is an actor, director, and playwright. He is also the Director of Scene Study for the Conservatory Program at Michael Howard Studios. One Memorable Thing He Did in 2013: Jim performed his solo show, Kiss Your Brutal Hands, at this year’s United Solo Theater Festival, for which he received their Best Actor award. Plans for 2014: Jim intends to submit Kiss Your Brutal Hands to several other New York theatre festivals throughout the year. He also has plans to move his play Suicide Math (which premiered at this year’s New York International Fringe Festival) Off-Off Broadway for an extended run.

MOIRA STONE is a veteran actress of immense versatility. One Memorable Thing She Did in 2013: Moira delivered a knockout lead performance in The Brick Theater’s spring production of Robert Honeywell’s rock musical Mass. And she was in the Matt Freeman’s Why We Left Brooklyn. Plans for 2014: In March, Moira will be appearing at 3LD in UTC #61’s revival of The Pig, or Vaclev Havel’s Hunt for A Pig by Vaclav Havel. Learn more at: http://moirastone.squarespace.com/

CHINAZA UCHE is a talented and sought-after actor, and a Creative Partner of Flux Theatre Ensemble. One Memorable Thing He Did in 2013: Chinaza played the title role in Kinetic Theatre Company’s revival of William Shakespeare’s Othello. Plans for 2014: Chinaza will be appearing in Flux Theatre Ensemble’s spring production of Jane the Plain by August Schulenberg, and the indie theater-centered webseries Producing Juliet. Learn more at: http://www.fluxtheatre.org/about/creative-partners/chinaza-uche/

The Pigeoning

Indie Artists on New Plays #28: Di Jayawickrema checks out The Pigeoning at HERE

I heard a story on the radio recently about a man who couldn’t spontaneously control his limbs. Every time he wanted to move, he had to carefully imagine the movement he wanted in his mind, and then force his limbs to recreate it. I thought of this feat of concentration as I watched the enormous task of bunkaru-style puppetry in Robin Frohardt’s weird and wonderful The Pigeoning. This meticulously-realized multimedia production, featuring puppetry, video and live music, follows Frank, an obsessive-compulsive office worker in the early 80s, as he comes face-to-face with the chaos that can erupt from trying to build a too perfectly ordered world.

When the audience walks into the theater, each person finds a copy of an Office Safety Manual at their seat. The production opens with a hilarious camp video where an office worker illustrates the manual in the too-bright, slowed-down tones of a flight safety attendant. She guides you through the perils of office life, such as the how to safely walk around corners, and what to do when you come across a plugged cord in your path. The video promises to go through 20-plus chapters but before the joke can grow stale, the play really begins. We find ourselves looking at the puppet Frank sitting at his pristine work desk, engrossed by his own safety manual. You get the sense that the tome has met its perfect reader. Created by the Director/Creator Robin Frohardt and designer Jesse Wilson, Frank is a beautiful puppet, hunched and bespectacled, deep lines creasing his face. As a puppet, Frank is not very big, but you immediately believe that as a character, this is a man made small by incessant worry. Three puppeteers in head-to-toe black man Frank–one puppeteer responsible for making his toes tap nervously, another for drumming his fingers on the desk while the other obsessively straightens his name plate. The fact that the puppeteers don’t always move in perfect unison actually works for this character at war with the world around him. At times, it feels like the hands that swiftly straighten pens and grab tissues to wipe away non-existent spots are just doing it out of pity for the poor, beleaguered man.

It comes as no surprise that when Frank escapes to the park to eat his lunch in peace, his tranquility is immediately shattered by an overflowing trash can abuzz with flies, and a pigeon pecking dangerously close to him. (The flies and pigeons are also gleefully manned by the talented puppeteers.) When Frank flees to the safety of his office, he finds another (or is it the same?) pigeon insistently tapping against his window. With his inner monologue (voiced by the safety manual guide) spinning wildly out of control, Frank flips to Chapter 17 of the manual: “Are you wondering, ‘Is there an inter-species conspiracy against me?’ The answer is probably yes!” Soon, Frank is stalking pigeons through the street, taking the most un-Frank-like risks from letting his desk pile up with clutter to hanging upside down from live telephone wires to record the morse code messages he’s convinced the pigeons are tapping out. Meanwhile, the pigeons are dropping surreal clues, leaving a tiny oar in the park, wearing diving bells, and Frank begins to wonder: are the pigeons trying to torture him, or warn him? The answer to that question is revealed in a wildly artistic journey that is too gorgeous to spoil. As Frank loses his grip on reality, the production takes ever larger flights of fantasy, which push the possibilities of puppetry to its dizzying, dazzling edge. You’re going to want to go down this rabbit hole.

The Perpetual Earth Program

Indie Artists on New Plays #108 Sarah M. Chichester looks at The Perpetual Earth Program part of Planet Connections Festivity

It’s not a particularly common thing to see science or science fiction in theatre. I can only think of a small handful of plays that fits into this slowly growing theatrical genre. So I was particularly looking forward to seeing The Perpetual Earth Program.

Written & directed by Scott Kesselman, this show is about two aliens (who changed their appearance to look like humans) who are tour guides that guide earth humans through the universe to view a planet and creatures that are closest to earth in resemblance. While on the tour, we learn about various aspects of space, time, and the physics of human reality.

The script, which is based on the book Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark (an MIT physics professor), uniquely explores different things that humans can and can’t experience. Going through a number of different ideas and concepts, the dialogue is quite complex. While being well written, it might take an audience member some extra time to think about and process since the script doesn’t simplify the physics being discussed.

The overall production is quite enjoyable. The tour guides, portrayed by Janelle Zapata and Jazmyn Arroyo were exceptional. I applaud both their ability to develop and portray intriguing and strong characters, and their ability to perform such a complicated script so exquisitely. From the interactive nature of the script, it also allowed Zapata and Arroyo to react to unexpected changes within the audience, such as audience members arriving late (after the tour began), and even a chair randomly falling down; which they improvised then went back to the tour quite well. The rest of the cast includes Eric Campos, Jessica Santos, and Cory Herbert- all of whom played the aliens on the visiting planet. While having few lines and lots of physical movement, they simplistically and elegantly portrayed aliens with stunning choreography.

I also enjoyed Kesselman’s staging, the make up and costumes of the aliens, and the projections- that were displayed on two large Styrofoam squares with round cravings out from the middle so we could see the projections in the same way that the aliens view their planet. It was quite an interesting and enjoyable production, which made me leave thinking about a lot of new things (and the few things that I didn’t quite grasp to research when I got home).

B.Madonna

Indie Artists on New Plays #13: Steven Cherry looks at B.Madonna playing at the Ellen Stewart Theatre

In architecture, form follows function. In sculpture and dance—the two closest art forms to architecture—form and function are often one and the same. So it is in B.Madonna, a powerful evening of butoh-like dance by the performance artist Maureen Fleming.

Wikipedia describes butoh by saying it “typically involves playful and grotesque imagery, taboo topics, extreme or absurd environments, and is traditionally performed in white body makeup with slow hyper-controlled motion.”

B.Madonna is indeed playful in its imagery, and Fleming uses to great effect her body as a four-limbed polymorphous substance. The key is her “slow hyper-controlled motion”—it’s what puts her art in the sensually stunning zone between dance and sculpture. One piece, for example, opens with her prone near the top rung of a tier of stadium steps. She then oozes down, like white lava, one step at a time.

Perhaps the most striking effect, used in several of the nine pieces that make up this work, is a black-and-white projection of her, engaged in one set of hyper-controlled motions, while she is on stage, performing the same or related hyper-controlled motions. The projection is several times her own size, and often shows up echoed—as if (and this may actually be the case) there are two, sometimes three mesh screens on the stage that catch the image multiple times. A filter over the projector is manipulated in real time to sharpen or blur the images.

Other props serve architecturally as well—a volcano or tree trunk-like pedestal on which the first piece opens, a pool (of real water) in which the images on stage can appear reflected, a pair of white tree branches that eventually become wings.

Auditory props include music by Phillip Glass (from Koyaanisqatsi, if I recognize it correctly) and two other composers, played live by three musicians in three offstage locations (piano, drums, and accordion); the sounds of running water and thunder; and a few brief sets of words, some by David Henry Hwang, others apparently quoting something Fleming’s mother said.

As a play, “B.Madonna” comes up against the limits of butoh. The quotes of the artist’s mother refer to a car accident they were in when she was two years old, but require program notes to fully make sense. Likewise, Hwang’s brief writings in the playbill explain more than his words during the show. And the accident seems to have inspired, but not really have any connection to, the arc of the show, which refers vaguely to the legend of Persephone. Fleming’s “character” on stage morphs from powerful to wounded to captured underground to ascendant, taking flight with the aforementioned branches/wings. The show’s title, which apparently in earlier iterations was “Black Madonna,” stems from the idea that the Black Madonna is an earlier and more primordial myth from which Persephone springs.

None of this matters. The astonishing geometry on stage—at its most striking, a red garment stretches in an acute triangle from a single point at the top left of the stage to Fleming, wrapped and unraveling in the triangle’s base at bottom right; the asexual drama of Fleming’s bodypainted muscleature; the use of the projector and atonal music to create Hades as a realm of shadows and fog, are worth the price of admission and the two hours of heightened awareness this show—neither play nor dance nor sculpture, but some unique fusing of them—requires.

The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise: youth is not the only thing that’s sonic

Playwrights on New Plays #84: Teddy Nicholas looks at The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise: youth is not the only thing that’s sonic

There’s a moment in The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise (youth is not the only thing that’s sonic) by Toshiki Okada (playing thru June 29th at JACK in Brooklyn) which slyly sums up–without words–the malaise of urban-dwelling 30-somethings yearning for love/connection/meaning/etc. At a makeshift disco (which may or may not be a dream), a man (Dan Kublick) sits quietly with a couple (Susannah Flood and Jason Quarles) engaged in conversation–one of the members of this couple is more passionate about what’s being discussed than the other, as seems always the case in dyadic conversations–while on the other side of the room, another couple (Rachel Christopher and Moses Villarama) dances (despite what it may look like). The silent man shuffles away from the talking couple towards the dancing couple, making feeble attempts to mimic their dance and join in on their fun, fails miserably, and Snoopy-walks back to his seat only to discover it has been occupied by the more-passionate member of the talking couple. Alone, he sinks into his chair and shrugs at the audience. There’s plenty more where that came from. As staged by Dan Rothenberg, Sonic Life features a quintet of talented performers who nearly always address the audience directly, often implicating us into the ‘action’ of the story. Oh, but now I should say something about the ‘story,’ which will be tough considering the purposeful lack of directness of plot in this beautifully intricate language play. Essentially, our ‘hero’ tells us s/he really hope that [his] way of life improves. “When I say that I hope it improves, I meant that I want to live more fully than I do now.” The other actors seem to take up the mantle of this extended line of thought, morphing the character into an everyperson, shifting the narrative to fit their own needs. While this occurs, there are small, stylized movements interspersed as if the movement of the actors function independently of their bodies. Our hero dreams that their girlfriend is dead (which brings a bizarre sense of calm and comfort to them), despises the idea of travel, then falls asleep on a subway where a mysterious human being invites our hero to a party thrown in their honor for performing an act of kindness. Ultimately, our ‘hero’ finds themselves at work, staring blankly at their work computer. It is here that the audience is implicated in the action. Are we the company staring at the hero, silently judging the effectiveness of their performance? There is very little that I require from theater. A performance space, yes. A performer of some kind (human or not). An audience. That’s about it. Usually, I find less being more. And that is especially true of Sonic Life. The set (by Mimi Lien) is a carpet gray, eggshell-walled office with nothing but a few chairs; all the more fitting for Okada’s language to stretch and fill the space with its impressive poetry of the seemingly banal, accompanied by the strangely beautiful abstract choreography of David Brick. Okada owes a great debt to his frequent translator, the playwright Aya Ogawa, who has transformed Okada’s Japanese to fit into the idioms of our American language. The true hero of this show is the Okada-Ogawa doubleteam of language. This is the language of life, the language of the lonely, of the educated working class, of the subway rider, the dreamer and the lover. This is the language of us. This is my fourth Okada experience (having previously seen Enjoy, also produced by The Play Company in 2010; Witness Relocation’s staging of Five Days in March; and Zero Cost House at Under the Radar last year) and I hope it is not my last. Toshiki Okada is the Thornton Wilder for the Google generation.