Sunday, April 19, 2015

Fun Home: The Memory Play

As furniture disappeared into dark chasms and gaping holes remained on stage, I felt a deep sense of anguish.  This re-staging of Fun Home on Broadway had cracked the story open for me in new and more effective ways.  Suddenly everything I was seeing on stage felt stuffed with more meaning and emotion--even the absence of things had multiple interpretations.  I had few complaints when Fun Home played downtown at the Public.  The production directed by Sam Gold, with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron was one of my favorite shows of 2013.  But the strategic differences Sam Gold has applied to this Broadway production in the round showed he was solving problems I did not even realize were there.  And in doing so he's made a stronger, more visually dynamic work.  And I did not think that that was possible.  He's made something I thought was pretty near perfect even better.

The plot remains the same.  Alison (Beth Malone) is trying to draw the book that would become Fun Home.  She tries to unlock what happened with her father Bruce (Michael Cerveris), her mother Helen (Judy Kuhn) and how her coming out to her parents led to her father's suicide.  She thinks about herself in her early years (Sydney Lucas is Small Alison) when she and her siblings (Zell Steele Morrow, Oscar Williams) were witness to her parents fights and played in the family funeral home. She also remembers the handyman Roy (Joel Perez) who used to babysit them.  She focuses on her freshman year in college (Emily Skeggs is Middle Alison) and her first girlfriend Joan (Roberta Colindrez).

Everything I loved about the Public production remains.  They've made changes to some of the material.  A song was cut. I noticed changes in dialogue here and there.  It's hard for me to remember scene by scene and it's possible there has been some re-arranging of scenes.   Tesori and Kron's killer songs remain so. Ring of Keys, Days and Days, and finally the gut-wrenching Telephone Wire reduce me to tears every time.  Lucas, Kuhn, and Malone, respectively, continue to dig into these songs and release the emotional landmines within them.  But how that material is presented has changed and those changes by Gold and Co. are so remarkable it is worth discussing them at some length.

Gold is using space in this production in really intriguing ways.  He's building in empty spaces to represent retreating memories.  The entire production has been structured to be a more solid representation of Alison's struggle to draw the book and her memories.  To do this he has integrated Beth Malone into the production completely.  As the productions have wended their way from workshop to Broadway, it seems like this piece of the puzzle has been the most difficult.  They've brought Malone in more and more to the action but finally in the round, she is able to participate in the action in a way that she was not before.  Malone is an incredible talent and this staging shows that off.  Rather than leaving her as observer, here she is the source of the story. As she wrestles with memories and truth, it is staged like she is unpacking of all of this.  The non-linear timeline makes more sense because the narrative is driven by Alison and her ebb and flow memories.  This was true at the Public but it becomes even more personalized and alive on Broadway.  Where the memories are too strong they are banished--and people leave the stage.  Where memories are embarrassing they are cringed at.  As if she's turning the pages of a diary of her life, these scenes catch her off-guard, scare her, and inspire her to draw.  The fragility of where she is going and how hard this is for her is more clear.

On Broadway it became more apparent how she sees her own revelation undoing the stability of her family.  Her unfairly bearing the responsibility for the family feels so much more acute and so much more driven by how she "remembers" it.  As much as that was in the show before, I did not feel it as much as I did on Broadway.

Gold has also found a way to stage the distance between Middle Alison and her family after she has revealed she is gay.  And although the decor of the house has not seemed to change a great deal from the Public, when Middle Alison and her girlfriend Joan return to the house she grew up in and Middle Alison is so changed, we experience the house differently as well.  Up to this point the furniture has been swirling object on the stage but when Middle Alison returns it rises from underneath the stage like it has been conjured from her memories.  And everything is just so.  Alison and Joan even enter from the audience showing their outsider status compared to this house and this world that is not theirs.

Gold tried to use cartoon panels projected on a curtain at the Public and it never worked (it was my one little nit).  Here, in the round he can project them into the floor and people can be boxed off in them.  I noticed the lighting design by Ben Stanton also helped define space, and drive our focus in ways that were tremendously helpful.  The tiny bits of dark feathering from the lighting design around the black chasms on stage was the kind of small detail that just added so much more to the work.

Gold makes space for silence in the musical--which seems so crazy but absolutely appropriate here.  No only does it allow the performers the space for them to develop their characters it gives us breathing room between songs that are packed with information, emotion, and nuance.

Emotionally the work has gotten more powerful.  The relationships between the characters feel richer.  The push and pull attachment of Small Alison to her father and his mentoring (which at times can be cruel) makes more sense.  Her blind devotion to him makes us understand where Middle Alison is when she goes away to college and why the fracturing of their relationship is so much more crushing.

I felt more impact from the small moments between Cerveris and Lucas. You feel the abandonment of Small Alison as her father leaves the children alone to go out cruising.  His deterioration with her revelation is also richer.  What might have read as quirkiness in the beginning or his idiosyncratic way becomes more symptomatic of his mental illness and deterioration.  The family's struggle with his mental illness--and Alison's awareness of it as a young child is also more sharply rendered.

When Alison's father calls to her and adult Alison is "seen" for the first time in the show and participates in the final scene with him, I gasped.  Malone reacts with such surprise..  She becomes the child again.  Their car ride together (on a rotating bench) gives the whole audience a chance to engage with this crucial scene.  Malone in song and performance takes us through every step of the excruciating pain and childlike hope of Alison's magical thinking.

Gold, Tesori, and Kron have worked tirelessly for years to make this work.  Their hard work has paid off because they have unlocked the greatness of this story and we're the lucky recipients.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Remote New York: All the World's a Stage

The voice in the headphones, Heather, tells us to have a dance party and shake our booty.  In the midst of Nolita I'm disco dancing to a terrible disco track.  Public dancing is not my favorite thing.  But in the safety of the group it's a little more palatable to me.  People in the garden where we are dancing, stop and stare but this is New York.  It's not all that odd.  They go back to their activities. 

Greenwood Cemetery
But as I look around I see two people who are part of this theater group not dancing.  Instead they have their smartphones out and are filming the rest of us dancing.  Smiling like idiots. In this interactive/walking tour/theater show, Remote New York, you have the power to be part of the group and follow the instructions or be an individual and not.  But frankly I thought it was rather dickish to film others participating in the show for their own amusement.  I thought to myself, "Can't we just be in the moment for one fucking moment everyone."  And don't blame this on millennials. These were boomers playing amateur auteurs.

I had high hopes for this show brought to New York by the German theater group, Rimini Protokoll. An audience of about 50 people are given headphones and we receive instructions from the voices on the headphones.  There is no "person" behind the voices.  They are constructed from pre-recorded words and re-constructed for the purpose of the "show."  Heather and Roger (our robot overlords) can't feel love or pain but they can live forever. The recordings were linked to guides in the "horde" and timed to match walk signs at crosswalks and trains arriving and departing. It allowed for us to engage in coordinated action and not get run over by cars.

We were instructed to take a picture of ourselves.
Mortality is a topic of discussion as we started the tour-show from Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.   At the beginning I liked the contemplation of disembodied computers against a world of mortal beings.  We saw the power the voices have over us and we comply.  There's a lovely moment where Heather described the theater of life all around us and we appreciated it in that manner--applauding as an audience as a poor unsuspecting couple walks by (I wish they had taken a bow).  But as the show dragged on (it was two hours) and the antics we engaged in became more focused on this idea of the individual against the "horde" (over and over again) I started to tire of the gambit.  Dramaturgically the material felt repetitive and not particularly rich.  We made our way from Brooklyn to the Lower East Side and the subway portion lacked any real content.  As we waited for our train, we got essentially "hold muzak" in our headphones.  I started to lose interest.  And a forced dance party on the subway train did not really bring me back into it.  I did like Heather's catchphrase whenever a train pulled away, "Go to Hell" she would say. I may adopt that.

Unlike say Hurtling, Greg Wohead's one-on-one show that also used headphones or Temporary Distortion's headphone based experience My Voice Has an Echo In It, Remote New York lacked human performers but more importantly it lacked a strong artistic vision.  The ideas floating around in the recording were interesting on the surface but there was no probing--of us or the ideas.  We kind of floated along just following instructions (or not).  Yes we were operated by your "remote control" but was that literally your whole idea?
With public dancing, fake public protest, and the constant "us vs. them" rhetoric, I chafed at the artificiality of the experience.  Nothing about it felt real.  And maybe they wanted to play with plastic experience--the simulacrum of life as we experience it through technology rather than real life.

But Wohead really got inside my head with show and asked me to think about myself and my life and my memories.  Temporary Distortion played with my perceptions and my understanding of the performance of music and power of sound.  When Chris Thorne and Hannah Walker had me contemplate my cellphone and it's role in my life in I Wish I Was Lonely, it lingered with me for days.  I want theater that goes somewhere.  That gets beyond the surface.  Remote New York kind of just wound me up like a toy and was like, "yeah you should think about that."  I guess it wasn't just the dickheads with their smartphone videos who were using me that day for their amusement.   How I utilize technology or how technology uses me is deep well of material.  Yet, Remote New York seemed casually flippant about it. Maybe putting the control in the virtual hands of the robots was problematic.  There was no artist confronting an audience (I mean artists had to build it but we did not even know who they were).  There was no engagement or mutuality.  There were no consequences for people failing to follow the horde and no rewards for staying with the horde (save getting my driver's license back at the end of the journey when I returned my headphones).  When the horde was to make a choice and there was the potential for disagreement, there was none. It felt a little like we'd all given up and just wanted the show to move along already (perhaps that was just me).  If I could have I might have dropped out at some point when I lost interest--true individualism on display.  But the artificiality of the construct did not allow for this.  And so I participated, trusting that there was a deeper point to it all, waiting for some meaning in it. When it came to the end, the impact of the final actions where we were supposed to feel some sort of momentous understanding of group mentality and individualism was nil.  After it was over, I walked away quickly forgetting most of the experience (except for my growing anger at the men with their videos of me dancing). But at least it was a sunny day and I had a nice walk with myself.  

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Ludic Proxy: Unseen Scars of Disaster

Photo by Carol Rosegg

As the room shakes and the light fixture swings like a pendulum, experiencing an earthquake in Fukushima makes the anxiety of living in the nuclear age quite acute.  Aya Ogawa's play Ludic Proxy takes place in the past, present, and future in Pripyat, Fukushima, and New York.  The production is  suffuse with fantasy, artificiality, gaming, virtual reality, but set against a very human reality--the impact and damage of nuclear disasters. It is a thoughtful package but not an emotional one.

In Act I (The Past), we meet Nina (Jackie Katzman) who reminisces about her life as a child (Megan Stern) in Pripyat when she was looking forward to reciting her part in the school play  Her older sister Masha (Ayesha Jordan) was making out with her boyfriend Seymon (Chris Henry) in her bedroom. But the meltdown at Chernobyl changes her family's life forever.  They are evacuated from their home and eventually her sister Masha moves to America.  Masha chooses to forget everything that has happened.  But when Nina finally joins Masha many years later Nina is an adult lost in the past and in those memories. In Act II (The Present), Maki (Yuki Kawahisa) and Maho (Saori Tsukada) are sisters who grew up near Fukushima. Maho lives in Tokyo and frets about radiation the entire time she is home visiting her invalid father and Maki. The two sisters look at the world differently.  Maho begs her sister to come with her to Tokyo when suddenly another earthquake hits.  In Act III (The Future), a nuclear event has caused everyone to live underground and Trepple (Ayesha Jordan) and her friend Astro (Chris Henry) dream of exploring the surface and finding out if life still exists there.

There are repeating themes in each act--trust or distrust in the government, divided families (sisters in particular) confronting a world that is filled with unseen harm, and survival in the face of all odds.  Life before a nuclear incident and life after are distorted echoes of each other (A "ludic proxy" is a gaming-induced deja vu and thus these echoes may be the hazy confusion between memory, hopes, dreams, and reality).  Radiation changes people and not just on the cellular level--the fear, confusion, commitment to a world and a life that once was and those who run away.  The scars end up visible and invisible.  Even after tragedy has struck the survivors press on. And this seems to be Ogawa's central point. No matter the time or the place, life in all forms is tenacious and people will adapt. 

Ogawa directs the play as well. She uses inventive sound design (Michael Kiley), projections (Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew), and lighting (Oi-Suk Yew) to create this time-bending world of the past, present, and future.  It was a blend of hi-tech and lo-tech design (set design by Jian Jung) to accomplish the situational storytelling.  In Act I Adult Nina watches her nephew play a video game set in the post-disaster Chernobyl and Ogawa and company smartly recreates the video game in projection by moving cameras through a miniature set.  It was a creative way to explore the video game perspective which mimics the vantage point of a child (which is nicely played off of Adult Nina's memories of her childhood).

 When we move into "The Future" Ogawa uses the least amount of apparent technology. Rather with explanations and gestures, we are to imagine this futuristic world full of robots and humans with digital replacement parts.  For all the other sequences we got windows into the minds of the characters through design or projections.  But in The Future it is up to us to picture it.

The audience is called upon a lot in this play to help execute the vision.  In Act II, the play adopts a choose-your-own-adventure structure.  The audience, using numbered signs makes choices for the character Maho.  Some are simple action prompts which allow us to see more about the characters or the world around them ("Peek Into Maki's Planner" vs. "Open Fridge").  Others become critical choices for the character dynamics ("Question Her Outlook" vs "Listen Without Commentary").  Maho is meant to be an avatar for our experience which we are controlling to a degree (though in the staging it didn't feel sharply drawn).  She looks to the audience for her choice and a woman in a hazmat suit shouts out the decision based on the majority vote. 

Certain choices had an overwhelming majority vote but others were more mixed.  There was some tension between the characters and our choices.  Maki's desire to stay in her community despite the radiation risks spoke to her concern about the community and the community's perception of her were she to leave. As we aggressively voted to encourage Maki to leave with Maho I wondered what the gentler path might look like and was our self-interest skewing the story.  Obviously it is written to provide both options and I expect this is the kind of post-hoc thinking we should be doing.

But even though we were driving the narrative in this way I did not feel as integrally linked to the choices like I did in other shows where group votes said more about the audience than the storytelling  (Gym Party by Made in China, Purge by Brian Lobel).  It felt like a simulacrum.  Only the very last choice we make for Maho felt like it had serious consequences. We knew so little of the characters when the Act started and even as we voted I never quite felt I knew what I was voting for or against.

For all these unusual and unexpected creative choices, which were fascinating to watch, I struggled with the play's distancing devices.  With audience participation and contemplation of our own decisions in these circumstances, I should have been more invested than I was.  Though the earthquake was incredibly well-rendered through sound and motion, it kept feeling like we were experiencing the idea of fear rather than feeling actual fear.  I kept waiting to be drawn in emotionally and it did not happen despite what should have been a gripping premise that asks you what kind of survivor you would be.

I received a complimentary ticket.

Sufjan Stevens: A Release of Grief

Sufjan Stevens wiped tears from his eyes as he moved his way through song after song about his mother and her death. His show at the Beacon Theatre this week corresponded with his recent  release of the intensely personal album Carrie and Lowell about his alcoholic and schizophrenic mother who abandoned his family when he was a child and his step-father who he formed a close bond with.

This was the first time I had seen Stevens on stage. Previous tours had been described to me as goofy and full of humor with silly costumes and lasers. But tonight's show was nothing like that.  It could not be.  Not with this album.  

It's a challenging album to tour. How do you take something so close to you and share it with the world and then look them in the eyes while doing that. Something purged in the privacy of a studio is a lot different when put on a stage before a crowd. But it's supremely brave and honest. And he let it all come out. He let his catharsis be our catharsis.  It may be one of the most unusual but moving musical performances I have ever seen.
It was as if we were watching private grief manifest itself on a massive stage. This was raw emotion rendered in song. There was no banter. There was no context.  We did not need it. It was song, sadness, and silence. Conjuring complex images of love, pain, confusion, abandonment, heartbreak, and loss it felt like a seance and exorcism wrapped all into one. 

With home movies flashing behind him, we saw what I imagine were the faces of Carrie and Lowell as children.  Before all that happened, happened.  Sometimes we saw serene scenes of nature (coastal waters, burning sunsets, evergreen tree tops) possibly referencing Oregon where Carrie and Lowell lived and Stevens spent time with them.  The stage lights flashed into the audience quite often. Each time they did I felt like he was casting the spirits out to us.  Releasing something with each brief song. 

It seemed so private that it was hard to know when to clap. It felt rude to interrupt the sonic bubble with our applause.  And it felt like anything but a "regular" stage show that called for applause after every number. 
Just let him get through this, I thought.  It was as if I was holding my breath because if I exhaled too strongly or clapped too loud I'd break it. And yet, maybe he needed us there.  A grounding force to come back to.  Something solid in a sea of sadness.  Or in knowing we were listening, he was not alone.  I was happy to play my part.

The crowd was surprisingly patient and attentive (save all the people going to get drinks and taking bathroom breaks--as a theatergoer I'll never get used to music gig behavior), giving him the space he needed without hooting and hollering as is so often the case.

At times I had to look away. The grief was too real. Too personal. But his voice did not waver. It was only wiping his tears away with his hands that gave away what he was experiencing. He had given us everything in song.  Repeating, "we're all going to die" over and over in Fourth of July was not a lyricist getting dark but a man confronting his mortality and our own. We had no choice but to contemplate this with him.  And I'm not sure I've experienced a music show that asked that of the audience (it might be a little more common to me in my theater-going).  What an unexpectedly human act. 
What a gift.  

The arrangements with his band were gorgeous, naturally.  And I always find live performance adds to an understanding of a performer beyond the polished studio album but these songs which can feel small and intimate on the album filled the space of the large theater.  He built them up to do so and even if singing these songs was a personal act he did not neglect the audience in this manner. 

After an hour of this private/public spiritual cleansing, he stepped forward with a banjo and spoke to the audience for the first time. He asked us to welcome in and celebrate life (and apologized to his out of tune banjo for neglecting it until this point in the show).  He proceeded with the second half of the show where he visited older material.  Nevertheless the tone of the evening it remained within the spirit of the new work. Quiet, somber, and reverent.

It might not be the kind of evening everyone craves. But how can you reject such intimacy, confession, sharing, and truth.  I'm looking forward to seeing the show again when he comes to Brooklyn in May.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Live from the Surface of the Moon: No Blast Off

Max Baker's play Live from the Surface of the Moon fumbles its way through feminism and sexism on the cusp of 1970.  What could have been an interesting window into the relationships between men and women in that era ends up a blunt scenario with underwritten characters.  It's like Mad Men with all the cruelty and smoking but none of the context which is critical to giving any meaning to the endeavor.

Carol (Kate Garfield) and Don (Ian Patrick Poake) have gathered their friends Wendell (Brian Edelman) and June (Breanna Foister) to watch the moon landing on TV.  Carol and Don are expecting a baby and have invited along Holly (Lisa Anderson) who is new in town and will be their babysitter. Holly is into poetry and The Doors and doesn't quite mix with the couples who are slightly older than she is and are puzzled over this "new generation."  Women's lib and gender roles become the topic of conversation. But the evening takes a dark turn and as per usual the women bear the brunt of this darkness.

I've been complaining about the lack of women's lib plays out there and how it would be nice if more writers explored this time period. Sadly Baker's work does not fit the bill. It's meant to give us some insight into the dynamics between men and women at that time but without any character shading just becomes an example of men abusing women...which is sadly, timeless.  Men coercing women into compromising positions when there is unequal power is not particularly newsworthy. And without any exploration of the motivations, emotions, or inner life of these characters all we are left with is watching and experiencing the abuse.

Watching a woman being abused in the "period" hardly feels enlightening. Many of the lines are meant to play on the expectations at the time that women were on the verge of gaining power and rights through women's lib. 40 years later it's not quite the land of equality that was imagined.  If I'm supposed to draw parallels to women continuing to be abused today I'm still not sure what you are saying.  Women continue to struggle to have a voice and when they are abused they struggle to confront their abusers.  The play definitely wants us to feel icky about it. But I felt that well before the play.

The play only perpetuated some pretty awful stereotypes about men being controlling and women being passive.  Neither men not women come out of this story well.   The play seems hellbent on making a broader point about gender roles but I was stymied as to what that point was. 

There were tone issues with Baker's direction.  At times the writing and performance mannerisms made it feel like it was all on the brink of some sort of absurdist breakdown--as if it was about to be another Blood Play (the oddball period domestic drama by the Debate Society).  It was not.

The performers put in a valiant effort to capture the time period but the over-use of smoking as stage business felt like a constant stream of empty gestures.  I wish the actors had had more to work with. 

Doss Freel's wood paneled set and Natalie Loveland's period costumes were far and away the best part of the production.

I received a complimentary ticket to attend. 

R&J&Z: Zombies with a Side of Shakespeare

"Double suicide and reanimation creates a bond that is tough to break."--Juliet

Melody Bates's play R&J&Z
(Romeo & Juliet & Zombies) starts from where Shakespeare left off. Asking the question how would Romeo and Juliet fare in truly eternal love if they were the undead and at the center of a plague-like outbreak of zombies.  It might be unorthodox to go see R&J&Z  to see the reanimated corpse of Mercutio because 20 years ago you saw him in a piece of experimental theater (Distortion Taco) that blew your mind but such is my unusual theater journey. And wouldn't you know it Mercutio and company did not disappoint.  There are some solid laughs and gross-out moments here. 

As in Shakespeare's version, Juliet (Bates) awakes to find Romeo (Matt Hurley) dead in the tomb with her. She tries to suck whatever poison she can from his lips. Still not dead she stabs herself and with such messy business spreads blood on Tybalt (Per Janson), Romeo, and Paris (Blaze Mancillas) also in the tomb with her.  But to her surprise this does not end in death but rebirth for all she touches with her rejuvenating blood. Everyone in the tomb awakes as zombies but still with control over their own brains. Others in town are not as lucky and are your traditional mindless zombie horde. The Apothecary (Rachel Benbow Murdy) who gave Romeo the zombifying-poison in the first place has been secretly experimenting with the undead and keeps zombie Mercutio (J. Stephen Brantley) under his control. The Apothecary sends Mercutio out to kill Juliet but one bite from her and Mercutio also regains his personality. Fighting the undead are two Buffy-like searchers (Margi Sharp Douglas, Caitlin Johnston) sworn to this sacred duty.  Friar Lawrence (Warren Jackson) has some ideas about what has transpired and thinks he knows who is behind all this.

Blood, guts, and gore ensue with a mix of serious pondering and giddy silliness. The play, performed all in verse, gets weighed down along the way with uneven tone issues and excess exposition but when it clicks it's delightful--as delightful as a rom-com dripping with blood can be. The Romeo and Juliet scenes are its strength and its levity.  The star-crossed lovers are our surrogates in all this madness and they're still the two crazy kids we've come to love from Shakespeare just trapped in a scenario they (and we) never envisioned.  Each time they were off-stage I longed for them to return.  Unfortunately when they were not around things got bogged down in subtext as text from the Apothecary and the searchers.  For a two hour show, I wished the play had gotten going a little quicker (it's 30 minutes of what we know of Shakespeare's finale at the start) and dialed up the zaniness throughout. I thought director Joan Jubett could have kept the energy up or made the more "serious" moments a little more campy.  As it stands it doesn't quite have enough gore and laughs to keep the splatter-gore aficionado engaged throughout and a little too much telling and not showing for the regular playgoer.  But there's a real exciting kernel of an idea here and the show has it's successful wacky and sweet moments.

Performances were mixed. But as I hoped J. Stephen Brantley lived up to my twenty years of pent up expectations. His drooling, hissing monster Mercutio moved with the structural integrity of a Frankenstein-like creature driven by blood and hunger. When he returns to his former self and regains his voice, he's a bit of a romantic fool. Embarrassed and self-effacing, overly affectionate but apologetically so.  Brantley manages all with authenticity and with his comedic delivery you might have wished he had entered the story sooner.   Bates makes Juliet strong and delicate even with a taste for flesh. She's convincing as a Shakespearean heroine, a blood hungry zombie, and a girl in love.  It's not an easy trio to pull off.  Hurley starts out a little too earnest and one note (I mean Shakespeare's Romeo can be annoying and is no less so here) but when given more comedic work he comes alive and starts to shine.

A simple set by Tom Lee provides sufficient atmosphere. And the blood works by Stephanie Cox-Willians (particularly a fleshy bloody leg stump eaten Lady and the Tramp style for grossest effect) are well executed.

I received a complimentary ticket to attend.

Friday, April 3, 2015

I'm Looking For Helen Twelvetrees: Lost in Memories

As I watched David Greenspan's dreamy memory play about gay identity through the years, a film actress from days of yore, and the challenges of ever really knowing anything from the past, I understood what he was trying to do.  Blending his own writing of the play, into his experience as a gay man in the 70's, with the characters and sentiments of Tennessee Williams, alongside the history of this actress and her possibly gay husband, he attempts to use memory, layering, and repetition to tell these stories, and his own story, in a nonlinear way.  But rather than all the complimentary aspects of these tales adding up to a coherent and emotionally gripping tale, I struggled to find my footing throughout.

Rather than getting poetically lost in the dreamscape he created (and the beautiful set and staging) I spent most of the time bored and impatient with his storytelling.  Unfortunately a number of things were working against the play.  Central to the problem was Greenspan's own performance.  He played a multitude of characters--from a 16 year-old boy in the 1950's searching for the now aged, early talkies actress Helen Twelvetrees to Greenspan himself as a young man in the 1970's to Twelvetrees ex-husband's new girlfriend to Twelvetrees's second husband and others.  But Greenspan's performance did not make each character clear in voice, manner, or carriage.   Since he narrates much of the storytelling it's a problem that these voices do not ring true and are not distinctive. 

Brooke Bloom and Keith Nobbs play Helen Twelvetrees and her first husband and do so passionately--with all their strife and struggle laid out to bear.  But despite their energy and verve, there was little they could do to clarify the narrative when so little of the storytelling was left to them.  

The structure of the play also worked against it rather than adding to the mystery.  It took me longer than it should have to understand Greenspan was telling his own life story in the midst of all of this as well as him trying to write this play.  The repetition did not make a lot of sense up front until it became more clear that he was struggling to write the story because there was so little information about Helen Twelvetrees out there.  Just tiny bits of clarity up front might have set the story in motion better, so that as things got repeated and layered they would have built upon each other for me.  Instead of flashes of memory or misremebered moments, with characters trading lines, and scenes being repeated or restaged to create poetry or mystery, it came across as muddy and uncertain. 

Working with a nonlinear narrative and an obscured thesis can be exciting and challenging on stage but only if the writer, director, and cast have a firm grasp on what they are doing. Despite beautiful staging by Leigh Silverman and the performances by Nobbs and Bloom, with so much falling to Greenspan, it just never clicked for me.

The Undeniable Sound of Right Now: Looking Back, Moving Forward

Laura Eason (Sex with Strangers) writes lively and vibrant characters and I always want to spend more time with them. She has assembled an array of characters with quirks and passions in The Undeniable Sound Of Right Now where she's looking at fathers and daughters, the past and the future, and how all this plays out against the backdrop of the changing world of music.

It's 1992 and Hank (Jeb Brown) has been running his famed grimy Chicago bar for 25 years.  He has launched a number of bands from obscurity to fame from there. Lena (Margo Seibert), his daughter, has grown up upstairs from this center of rock history and has become his right hand man. His long-time girlfriend Bette (Luisa Strus) has finally moved out of the apartment above the bar but she's drawn back to the bar every night anyway. Toby (Brian Miskell) helps Hank and is dedicated to keeping the bar going and being part of its history even if he's half in love with Lena. When Lena starts to date Nash (Daniel Abeles), a DJ who's rising in the house scene, there's nothing but dissonant feedback from Hank who sees Nash as a symbol of what's wrong with where music is going.

At times USORN is too convenient and sitcom-esque and it's not hard to see where things are going. But even so I can't say I minded too much.  Eason creates such affection for her characters and I found that rubbing off on me especially with a cast that brings out such specificity. Lena is lovingly portrayed by Seibert who makes her somehow hard and soft, smart and dumb, young and old, all at the same time.  And like Seibert's Adrian in Rocky you kind of want to be her best friend or give her a kiss (and covet her shoes--seriously she always gets the cutest footwear).  Strus and Miskell in their performances give lovely shading and outside perspective to this co-dependent father/daughter relationship.  Strus in particular reveals a lot about the relationship dynamics at play through her performance alone.  Bette practically raised Lena but she's trying to make a permanent life for herself elsewhere.  You can feel her gently pulling on Hank to do the same.  But this sense of holding onto the past and struggling to move on towards the future has trapped Hank and Lena in the bar.  Sadly the circumstances rather than the characters force changes.  So the drama ends up a little short-circuited by outside forces moving the plot rather than anyone's decisions. 

The set (by John McDermott) suggested a sticky floored old CBGB-like space with colorful photocopied flyers and band stickers.  But like the play it felt like it wore a surface of authenticity but scratch a little beneath it and it was a Hollywood backlot. The play is uneven and not as deep as it needs to be to really deliver the emotional payoff.  But even so with solid laughs, some nice character work, and me wondering about my own journey from the 90's until now, I found myself happy to have spent 90 minutes with Eason's characters.