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04/14/10 5:00am

The Heroes

They drive a banged-up, forest-green minivan, more deadbeat soccer mom than twenty-something inventor. The front passenger door creaks as I open it, feeling like it might come off in my hand. A colorful tangle of wires hangs from under the glove box, catching my backpack as I try to get my seatbelt on. The inside of the van smells like a garden after a spring rain: vegetables and topsoil.

Eben Bayer climbs in the driver side and smiles at me beneath a mop of light brown hair, “We once had grass growing in the front of this thing,” he says. “Not on purpose, though,” Gavin McIntyre adds from the bench seat in the back. Gavin has black hair and wears a patchy layer of stubble across a face framed by square, black-rimmed glasses and assorted piercings. He goes on to explain, as if it could happen to anyone, that some of their seed stock had fallen into various nooks and crannies in the van and had started to grow. I nod as we pull out of the parking lot in Green Island, New York, just north of Albany, and make a left turn onto a wet county road, heading to a local pub for lunch. I’ve been kidnapped by green inventors.

Rain falls lightly on the roof, barely audible as the conversation veers from R&D meetings to thermo molds to wind turbines. Some impressively technical stuff—at least if the car breaks down, I think, these guys can probably fix it. As the van corners sharply onto the interstate, a 10-inch piece of what looks like molded off-white Styrofoam, with curious pieces of brown bark and particulates laced throughout, slides across the dashboard and comes to a rest on the beat-up glove box in front of me. I pick it up and turn it around in my hands; it’s a little rough, but otherwise feels exactly like Styrofoam. “Sorry,” Eben says, taking it off my hands and tossing it in the back of the car, “It’s everywhere.” The material in question is called Ecocradle, an invention of Eben and Gavin’s, and it just might save the world.
This may sound like a big claim for something that looks like a dirty piece of old Styrofoam, but that’s the point; Ecocradle could very well spell the end of old-fashioned Styrofoam, and all its attendant environmental evils.

The Villain

A molecule of styrene, when combined with other molecules of the same polymer, creates polystyrene—the most common chemical used to make plastics and resins. When heated and combined with benzene and gasoline, polystyrene can be foamed and used to make extruded polystyrene or EPS, which is universally known by its DOW Chemical trademark… Styrofoam. Though heightened eco-consciousness over the last decade has increasingly marginalized Styrofoam as a “food-delivery system,” it remains the only method available for the packaging of fragile goods over 15 lbs for shipping, which means tens of thousands of pounds of the stuff cross the United States in the mail everyday.

Not incidentally, the same combination of chemicals that creates Styrofoam, minus the foaming process, will produce a slow burning, high-heat output petroleum jelly or what is more commonly known as napalm. Yup, napalm. But that’s far from the worst thing about EPS: for starters, it’s not biodegradable nor is it a candidate for mass recycling; it can’t be reused or broken down; oh, and styrene is a known carcinogen. Though we may not be able to see them anymore, the tiny beads of polystyrene that make up the larger EPS product remain in the environment, small enough to enter the food we eat, and, as a result, our blood. With Ecocradle, Eben and Gavin believe they have the solution to our Styrofoam woes.

04/01/10 12:00pm

In the opening musical number of Caligula Maximus (at the Ellen Stewart Theater through April 17),  Caligula (played by former children's television host Ryan Knowles), wearing bright blue eye shadow, his bare chest hairless, screams out, "You don't know me Gore Vidal!" as he prances lightly across the set. The guttural challenge sets the raucous, irreverent and playful tone for what at first seems almost like a publicity stunt, but somehow transforms into a purposefully crafted, though at times sloppy, parody of the inherently conservative tendencies of society, particularly in how we think about and watch sex (or refuse to). The aforementioned reference is a nod towards Vidal's problematic (and by most accounts failed) attempt to bring his version of Caligula to the silver screen in 1979, which only saw fruition after he teamed up with Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione—who provided the funding on the condition that over 6 minutes of explicit, hardcore coitus be added.

Though there is no actual sex on the stage, or rather, the circus ring, in Caligula Maximus, sex is mentioned, hinted at, alluded to, talked about straight out, or pantomimed, in almost every single line uttered or action taken. If this feral extravaganza took itself even the least bit seriously, or tried to posit the production as something other than a taboo-prodding farce, it would have failed. But the fourth wall is broken constantly and the actors literally trade insults with the audience, challenging them to loosen up, live a little, come down in to the weird pool of ecstasy, or something to that effect—just give in to the sheer pleasure of the experience for once, will ya? Though a lot of the production tends to rely on nubile nude hoola-hooping, half-naked porcelain porn stars, and violent bloody spectacle to hold the crowd's attention (true, these things help), there is enough of a challenge in Caligula's appeal to the audience to give in to that kernel of hedonism that often lies latent in us all. As Caligula asks everyone in the audience to join him on stage, and very few people do, the real question becomes: What, exactly, is holding us back?

Though the plot could be transcribed on the back of a postage stamp and is largely based in a picaresque circus where one act follows another, the basic gist is that we are privy the greatest party Rome has ever seen, as well as Caligula's last night alive—accurately predicted by the prophecy-slinging peanut salesman at the beginning of the show. There is the opening musical number—with a moderate sonic showing by Knowles, his massive cartoon-like forehead, voice, mannerisms and makeup reminiscent of Dr. Frank-n-Furter—which as far as musicals go is well done but perhaps not as catchy as it could be, and won't leave you humming it on the way out of the theater. Caligula rides into the ring on a giant golden phallus carried by muscle-bound performers, accompanied by the musical backing of a talented bunch of musicians decked out in Kiss face paint and 90s grunge pageantry, pedaling punchy double-bass drumming and droning acid metal riffs, rounding out the endearing garage feel of the entire piece. Caligula goes through his entourage of slaves then, introducing and berating them, and if you can take your eyes off Justine Joli's glittery, er, features, you learn, among other things, that the king plans over the course of this night to have sex with his sister, sacrifice her, rip the head off their unborn child after he's cut it out of her, have a fist fight with Jesus, kill a bunch of people, have sex with a bunch of people, then make his horse a Senator (after presumably having sex with it). Don't worry: he's not insane, he just wants to have a good time—life is too short, no?

Though most of these bizarre incidences are garnered from the various legends and infamous myths that surround the Roman Empire and Caligula, who ruled just after Tiberius in the late 30s (CE), it would be a stretch to say this is a production based in historical fact. Randy Weiner and Alfred Preisser are both well known in the experimental theater strata as master showmen, and Weiner co-owns The Box on the LES—a venue known for its vaudevillian and circus-like performances and acts. Many historians agree that the real Caligula had advanced neurosyphilis and actually was insane, but Weiner and Preisser are more interested in promoting the fact that he was just misunderstood. In the play he makes his horse a Senator because logically a horse has never conspired to kill other horses; humans have though, and therefore horses are more fit to rule than humans. The thought is nice for a moment, but obviously the outcome of a sick and twisted logic.

In her on the fly review for the Voice, Alexis Soloski notes that most of the audience, when invited down at the end of the play "leave their freak flags furled" and much was the same the night I went, but it's interesting to note that Weiner and Preisser seem to count on this fact as the rest of the play is written with this in mind—that nobody but a handful of adventurous octogenarians (yup, the old fogies went down to dance with the porn star) would leave their risers to join in the fun. Caligula screams at the audience angrily, the house lights are up, illuminating us, why won't we join him? But the question is answered for us as the slaves rise up shortly thereafter and kill him (um, spoiler?). In a strange denouement the dead Caligula gets up and is asked who he is, "Caligula," he says. "Where do you live?" "I live in Inwood," he answers. "Why?" "Because I can't afford to live downtown." And likewise, his golden phallus was really just made of cardboard. It seems that Caligula is just like us, or just like a tiny part of us, and it might do us some good to let him out once in a while, even if we have to kill him off at the end of the night and begin the long subway journey home.

(photo credit: Lia Chang)

03/24/10 10:29am

volcano

This weekend the volcano Eyjafjallajokull erupted in Iceland, which, though barely a blip as far as volcanoes go, has been historically linked to the larger and more devastating eruptions of Katla and Laki; scientists agree it is only question of when. If these much larger volcanoes are set off there could be very real global consequences—including prolonged winters with record low temperatures and record snow fall (as evidenced by the winter of 1784 in New Jersey; not to mention the poisonous smog clouds that killed many in the British Isles that same year). There will be tangible changes.

These geological events coincide with the passing of the noteworthy, yet ultimately benign and somewhat limited Health Care bill in America, and are a testament to mother nature’s ability to provide timely and apt metaphors for hope in regards to these troubling political times, if we only know where to look.

It would also help if we knew in what particular way to form the metaphor. Does the small eruption represent the bill, a necessary explosion to relieve pressure from the inevitable collapse of free-market health care in America? Are we just forestalling the need for truly universal health care? Or does the volcano symbolize the anger of the Tea Partiers (now in the minority of Americans who disapprove of the bill), which will one day erupt in civil war?

Man, I don’t know. Thanks for nothing, volcano.

03/23/10 4:30pm

Bruce Norris's latest piece, Clybourne Park, is a concise examination of race in America and its various mutations from the conservative 50s to the differently conservative present. There is something for every racist/ignorant person out there in the fictional Clybourne Park neighborhood, and truly nothing is sacred in Norris’s imagined community, he attacks everything: homosexuality, deafness, whites, blacks, blonds, conservatives, liberals, males, females, blue collar, white collar, veterans, fathers, mothers, the clergy, the mentally disabled, geniuses, war crimes, hate crimes and anything else that you might be able to make an obscene joke about and have to take a look around before you tell it. The way that Norris approaches these taboos is refreshing and unapologetic; the playwright is looking for a fight and has no qualms about about admitting to it—in an interview with New York magazine Norris said, "I want there to be an argument, and so I start one. It's incredibly easy to do."

Norris confronts our tendency to only address race tangentially in a snappy and quick-hitting script that creates obvious and unavoidable stylistic parallels to Edward Albee and David Mamet. But does this veritable smorgasbord of stereotypes cheapen the underlying commentary, over-saturating the work with ignorance and numbing the audience to its possible impact? Or is that the point? Clybourne Park is a spot-on rendering of gentrification from multiple perspectives, which seems especially relevant to Brooklyn given its constantly polarizing presence in the borough. Although some may argue that Norris's dirty joke war towards the end of the play comes off as a celebration of intolerance, it is interesting to note how liberated the actors seem on stage, as if getting all these tensions out in the open frees them of some intangible emotional burden. This makes the play a joy to watch.

The main thrust of the first act—set in the titular Chicago district in the 50s—centers around Russ (played by the nasally grump Frank Wood) and his wife, Bev (the perfectly mannered and ditsy Christina Kirk) and their decision to move out of the area because of Rotary Club meeting derision in regards to their son's suicide. Russ is exasperated with his supposed community—he has essentially been cast out by his own kind—and is appalled that he and his wife are being treated as if they had some disease. And truly no one even cares that they are leaving until the house is bought by a black family. This precipitates a stuttering and unsure dissection of race issues between the head of the Rotary Club Karl (Jeremy Shamos), the Irish preacher Jim (Brendan Griffin), and Russ and Betsy’s black hired help—Francine (Crystal Dickinson) and her husband Albert (Damon Gupton). The white interrogators in this scene want to know what one black family thinks about another moving into this all-white neighborhood; an effort to prove their point without ever actually having to voice an opinion. Francine and Ralph could care less, really, and are just trying to placate their tip-toeing, over-analyzing Rotarian interlocutors. Karl notes, as if he were positing a new scientific theory, "that in the world, there exist certain differences." When they seem to get nowhere, Karl jumps to his feet and blurts out, "Do you ski?"

Perhaps the greatest success in this very successful dark comedy is the recasting of all the characters in the first act for the second. It is interesting to see how Norris imagines the 50s character's present day counterparts—the priest, for example, becomes a gay real estate agent. The set has transformed from the perfect and pre-fab ambiance of the Huxtable residence to a decidedly more lived-in, trashed and re-appropriated crack house. What has happened to Clybourne Park and why are we here again? The conflict this time around involves a pregnant white couple buying and renovating the old house, and the protests from the black family whose parents had lived there and who are also now on the community architecture board. Lawyers are present and terms are supposed to be brought to the table and agreed upon for the renovation (they are arguing over 6 inches on the roof, essentially).

Both couples try to be civil but both are angry: the black family feels their neighborhood is being intruded upon and the white family feels like they are meeting unnecessary and unproductive resistance at every turn. Norris is a gifted ironist in that the essential problems being faced here are cyclical and when looked at from both perspectives each looks alternately righteous or ugly, and the whole issue is reduced to simple, callous ignorance and hate. But irony is a destructive force and Norris offers nothing more than a duel of offensive jokes to replace the issues he has raised—"What is the difference between a tampon and a white lady? No difference, they're both stuck up cunts." Even though Norris is loathe to offer solutions, and most of these stereotypes are easy prey for a masterful insultist, it may be more important to note that a solution might lie somewhere in the audience—the whole theater laughed at every joke, white or black, gay or straight, male or female—and saw for a moment they were just jokes intended to offend. This realization, if carried over to reality, might do a great deal to open up lines of communication and create solutions in gentrifying areas that aren't supported by irony at all.

(photo credit: Joan Marcus)

03/23/10 2:30pm

Happy in the Poorhouse (at Theater 80 through April 5) comes at a time in the city when many dreams have been shattered due to economic fallout and hard times. The production seems to ask, in a very roundabout way, what are we supposed to do now? The answer, given by the Amoralists and playwright Derek Anohen, seems to be to dream; that sometimes having the dream, holding on to it, is even more important than achieving it. A sappy sentiment, yes, but one that can provide hope in desperate times, if one hasn't already been engulfed by the viscous new cynicism of a generation bathed in jaded irony. The problem with the world of Happy in the Poorhouse is that the dreams of the characters sometimes get in the way of the happiness they could be experiencing. The play works on this basic level, asking the audience to pause and see what is good in their lives—family, love, friends—and there are moments that do provide a modicum of good cheer and hope, but the over-saturation of sitcom plotting, intended but only sometimes succeeding to produce laughs, clutters everything up and in the end eclipses whatever message the Amoralists were trying to convey.

The Amoralist's previous play, Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, dealt with similar themes, though in a less poignant way: that show's slimy hippies taking over the tenements had dreams, but were happy in stasis with the life of a New York bohemian. In Poorhouse, which deals primarily with an extended family in Coney Island, the characters want nothing more than to get out and make it in the wide world. They have been in New York too long to be enamored with its romantic appeal for artists. Paulie "The Pug" (James Kautz) is Coney Island's Rocky Balboa, a mixed martial artist poised on the brink of maybe, possibly having a lucrative career. Paulie throws the words "I love you" like a punch or insult when cornered by his wife Mary (vampy, nasally, Sarah Lemp) who is sexually frustrated because Paulie's childhood memories have made him all but impotent.

The give-and-take between Paulie and Mary is volatile, violent and loud, which sets the tone and pace for the rest of the play. Mary screams and jabs, taking quick, tiny steps in too high heels and a little black dress while Paulie puts holes in the sheet rock wall stage left with his feet and fists. Despite all the carrying on it's clear that they do genuinely love each other. Paulie immediately tries to fix each hole he makes, and Mary cradles his head like a baby's in moments of vulnerability. Paulie is a patent optimist, believing against his age and talent that he still has a shot at the big time. He derides Mary for giving up on her acting career and not going to auditions, but it's all Mary can do just trying to hold their household together through the economic crisis. Paulie is so focused on his dreams that he's unable to see the loving wife in front of him who is ready to leave him because he won't consummate their marriage.

The rest of the play is complicated for the sake of being cutely convoluted, involving a cast of stock characters that doesn't do much to shore up Ahonen's playwrighting ability. A bit of the onus might be placed on the wonderful, yet here fundamentally incompatible talents of the Amoralists as they try to wrap their comedic antics around a quasi-serious drama. To wit: Paulie and Mary are throwing a party for Mary's ex-husband and Paulie's best friend Petie (William Apps), an Iraq veteran who rolls in Lieutenant Dan-style with flamboyant, midriff-bearing Creole gay nurse Stevie (Nick Lawson). Obviously, the party goes awry. The guests include: a brother duo of fight promoters; a washed up hit-man; a pedophiliac mailman and his young conquest Flossie (Meghan Ritchie channeling Snookie); and Paulie's sister, a lesbian country singer with a Nazi lover. At one point the whole cast is screaming and rollicking round the stage in a very well-choreographed (not surprisingly, by Alfred Schatz) vaudevillian slapstick fight between Paulie and the wheelchair-bound Petie. The fight promoters try to film it, the hit man tries to stop it, the pedophiliac tries to escape it, the gay nurse encourages it, but in the end there is no point to any of this; nothing gets resolved.

Despite this haphazard rising action, the original message of trying to retain some hope despite hard times comes through again towards the play's end. In a moment of relative calm Paulie looks out at the audience smiling, bright-eyed, proclaiming in his own honest way, that despite all the hardship they face, he's happy in the poorhouse, because he's got his family, and he still has his dreams. The moment cuts through all the filler nicely, and clues the audience in to what is really at stake here—keeping a level head and not giving in to overwhelming cynicism and sadness no matter what happens in life and no matter how hard it gets. Even though this is hardly a new topic for Off-Off-Broadway theater, and this surely will not be the last of it, if the Amoralists and Anhonen keep up this pace, one wonders if they will be in the poorhouse for very much longer, and if they are truly happy there.

(photo credit: Larry Cobra)

03/05/10 1:30pm

The vaulted set in the New Group's revival of Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind, at the Acorn Theater through March 21, is indicative of the kind of mental compartmentalization that pervades both the script and the production. The stage rises up in the background to form a high wall of cabinets, drawers, curios, chiffoniers, doors, dressers, and other implements of storage—with the odd lamp and model airplane thrown in for color. In his Times review Ben Brantley compares the set to a "suffocatingly cluttered" attic of the mind where one stores "all those pictures, toys and sticks of furniture whose personal significance is sometimes a mystery." A closer inspection of this busy backdrop (by Derek McLane) reveals that it is not so much about the objects themselves but the things/memories these objects can hold, the storage space inside the objects, and more importantly how putting something in a drawer and then closing it, will keep others out and the thing inside.

And so it is with the characters in A Lie of The Mind, whose individual paranoia, shortcomings, psychoses, misgivings, and fears are all hidden away from everyone but themselves and the audience. Director Ethan Hawke kept a hands-off approach, telling the Times, rather intuitively, that "things like a great production are out of your control." Indeed, the production unfolds like an 8-person barbershop rendition of an old favorite. Each actor is tasked with a certain octave in the song, and it is only if they plug their ears, and focus on hitting their own pitch, that harmony exists and a synchronized ensemble emerges—a scary and backwards space where no one listens to anybody else, but everyone has something to say. The production is paralyzing in its emotional landscape, but feels at times like too much to take in one sitting, though it is is a sitting that the audience won't soon forget.

The pace of the production is well set, though the play seems at times a little long—Hawke's version hits three hours, despite dropping almost a full hour from the original Shepard-directed production—and serves to assuage some of the discomfort felt by bearing witness to the characters' alienation and confusion. The curtain lifts on a phone call in which we learn that Jake (played by a wild-eyed Allesandro Nivola) has beaten his wife Beth (played by the ever impressive Marin Ireland) to within an inch of her life, and although we are privvy to the info that she lives, he thinks her dead, or wants to believe it. Jake is unsure of where he is, though he knows he is heading to his brother Frankie's house, a safe haven, furthering the idea that nothing exists outside of known comfort zones for the characters in Mind.

Almost simultaneously the lights reveal Beth in the hospital, speaking gibberish, her exasperated and frantic brother Mike (stage veteran Frank Whaley) by her side. Her brain-damaged state is frightening in its intensity, and Ireland is amazing, reverting to childlike observations that ironically act as the only clear voice of reason in the otherwise psychotic script. Jake and Beth look across the miles and hours separating them to almost see each other, but their realities couldn't be more different. The players handle their troubled and disturbed characters well—Nivola lets his eyes do most of the talking for Jake, revealing schizophrenic characteristics and matricidal tendencies—which is a great feat given that they all only seem to be hearing their own voices. Maggie Siff (of Mad Men fame) is exceptional as Sally, Jake's directionless yet compassionate sister, and her chilling monologue recounting their father's death is deliciously paranoid yet sad.



Shepard's script pushes the limits of dark irony and is rife with all sorts of violence, none of which ever actually occurs on stage, another partitioning that creates doubt in the viewers' and actors' minds. Jake's brother Frankie (played by the helpless Josh Hamilton) decides he needs to know if Jake has actually killed Beth. After he is "accidentally" shot by Beth's father Baylor (played by a grisly, chauvinistic Keith Carradine), Frankie becomes Beth's patient/prisoner while the wound in his leg worsens. Just as we never see Jake attack Beth, when Frankie is shot it's the aftermath the audience reacts to. Much like the way actors speak but do not listen to each other (Frankie screams for a doctor as Baylor steals the blanket from him because his feet are cold), the viewers try to get a handle on the causes of these terrifyingly nuanced scenarios but never can.

With all the confusion in the production, one of the only points of cohesion and clarity here is the live music performed and composed by Gaines, a brother art duo who repurpose old farming and household equipment (brooms as guitars, wash tubs as amplifiers) to give them voice and music. Shepard's original 1985 production featured The Red Clay Ramblers, a little-known bluegrass outfit from North Carolina, doing the interludes that are an integral part of the play, a melodic juxtaposition from the dissonant voices on the stage. Gaines is haunting in their performance of their original hymnal, acapella chants, with the instruments acting like more sad voices in the chorus.

Toward the middle of the show, Jake, wearing his dead father's dog tags and an old army issue jacket, boxers, and jack boots and an American flag as a cape, holds the old man's ashes in his hand, blowing on them and sending them skyward in a pillar of light as Gaines croons out a lament, and the audience is left with a spectacularly visceral image of a troubled man and his dark past. It offers way of looking at this whole production: the piece is best taken as a set of separate images, rather than the collage suggested by the set design, with each piece seen as a whole and not a part of something larger. As viewers begin to assemble the different pictures afterward, it's hard to tell where the truth begins and lies end.

(photo credit: Monique Carboni)

02/24/10 8:00am

Bushwick band and art collective Pass Kontrol's New Hope City, at the Bushwick Starr through February 27, is an Orwellian drama haunted by the zeitgeist of Empire Records with a passionate and calculated lambasting of all things corporate and media-related. It is an exercise in rebellion. Pass Kontrol's take on the sometimes hackneyed Big Brother, post apocalypse scenario is refreshing in its subtlety and control, as the collective's success comes from the multi-faceted DIY nature of the production. They eschew a more polished style to celebrate an underground aesthetic; the combination of video, theater, live music and dancing makes for a physically liberating experience, where the audience can literally get up and dance if they like.

Taken as straight dramatic theater, New Hope City is filled with the endearing care of passionate amateurs. That's not intended as a criticism, as it makes for a charming synthesis of different forms of media, creating new and organic experiences that stay far away from familiar avant-garde audience participation-type cheese. This is an exciting moment in way Off-Off Broadway culture, or something so different that it might not need to be defined in relation to Broadway at all.

As New Hope City opens, Pass Kontrol takes the stage behind their instruments and begin to play, the concert being powered by two rebels on electricity-generating stationary fixed gear bicycles. This foot power also brightens up a video screen in the background showing Lucas Renard (played by drummer O Ralli) escaping from masked Sentries by bicycle through the streets of Bushwick while trying to deliver illegal music to his buddy Finn (singer and guitarist A Brown). Though Lucas evades his would-be captors for the time being, the moment sets the tone for the show: everything we are seeing is illegal in this coward new world, from smoking mood-altering cigarettes and drinking mushroom tea to listening to music, and we are complicit in these acts of rebellion.

The audience becomes part of Pass Kontrol's quest to bring good music to the people through pirate radio despite the overbearing government of Daveshead, which rules over the New Hope City franchise metropolises and tries to censor them. The pedal-powered concert is microcosmic; New Hope City is fueled by the ingenuity of the participants and even the sheer muscle power of the collective. In light of the current movement in DIY low-fi recording, self-publishing, and fringe art that walks the line between legal and criminal in Bushwick, the metaphor grows organically into the future. Pass Kontrol proves that if you want anything done exactly the way that you’d like it done, you must do it yourself.

Lucas and Finn decide they must meet the half man half machine musician the Vissermatron 3000 (it also would be sweet if they could jam with him), and what follows is a picaresque journey that riffs on every 20-something guy's fantasy of picking up with his best buddy and hopping a freight train, getting drunk, doing some mushrooms and seeing his favorite bands perform. In the vein of the journey that Dorothy takes in Oz to see the Wizard (or maybe, less figuratively, the KISS fans in Detroit Rock City), Lucas and Finn go out in search of their own wizard who, though they do not know it, might help them find a way to go on living in the increasingly depressing city they've come to love and hate. Also like Dorothy, they meet all sorts of different characters along the way, who join them in their quest.

The analogies to Brooklyn and the struggling artists therein are well crafted and don't flounder in stereotype. The set is sparse but imaginative, with most things drawn and painted, and possibly culled from curbs all throughout Bushwick on trash day. The interaction between Finn and Lucas feels like it relies more on their actual friendship offstage than anything developed over rehearsal, which makes for a very enjoyable and compelling dynamic. Whatever this script lacks in professional polish it makes up for in these actors' ability to seem at ease with each other and not have to "act" the laughs they share and the enjoyment they seem to get from being around each other. An audience can tell when the players are having fun and in this case it spills off the stage, especially when Finn hands out Fart Beer to a few lucky visitors to New Hope City.

Finn and Lucas do find the Vissermatron 3000—he actually saves them from being "re-programmed," with, obviously, his guitar powers—and they start a pirate radio broadcast so that all of New Hope City can hear the music, and possibly be saved from the torture of government-enforced monotony. The entire cast dances and pulls audience members out to dance with them, for a moment forgetting the lurking specter of the Sentries and the oppressive and controlling Daveshead regime surrounding them. They dance and play and sing knowing full well that at some point the song must end—even though it's clear the audience doesn't want it to.

And this is perhaps the piece's greatest strength, in that it gives a moment of respite and hope to all the aspiring artists in Brooklyn (and in the audience); though they can't pay their rent and survive on hand-rolled cigarettes, PBR and friends, this is evidence that it's possible to get their message and their art out there, even if it's illegal and possibly (probably) dangerous to their health. Though there is a happy ending of sorts, as the mood is high and everyone is dancing, Finn and Lucas learn nothing new about their predicament and how to fix it—there is no way to tell if anything has changed in New Hope City—though making music and getting it out to the masses seems like a start. But this is exactly what Pass Kontrol seem to be getting at: to change anything you sometimes have to circumvent the proper channels and create your own, and even though it feels like nothing new is happening right now, it most certainly will in the future.

(photo credit: Pass Kontrol)

02/10/10 2:56pm

Clothes for a Summer Hotel at Hudson Guild

When Tennessee Williams’ “ghost play” Clothes for a Summer Hotel first opened in New York in 1980, it was thoroughly thrashed by critics and barely made it through 14 performances (to be fair, there was also a blizzard and a transit strike happening when it opened, if you’ll remember). The panning even caused Williams to vow that he would “never open a play in New York again,” as reported in the August 18 issue of TIME magazine of that same year.

Currently the play, concerning the last meeting of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, is being revived by the White Horse Theater Company at the Hudson Guild Theater (441 W 26th Street, through February 21) and it will be interesting to see what the critics have to say this time around (including our own, review coming shortly). After all the play hasn’t been performed in close to three decades.

According to 80s critics the main detriment to enjoyment in Williams’ latest was that the playwright’s “voice,” the one they had come to know and love and expect, was not obvious in this play. In the Times of March 27, 1980, Walter Kerr says as much:

The most dismaying thing about Tennessee Williams’s… “Clothes for a Summer Hotel,” is the fact that Mr. Williams’s personal voice is nowhere to be heard in it. It is as though the playwright’s decision to deal with actual people—not only the Fitzgeralds but Ernest Hemingway and the Gerald Murphys as well—had momentarily robbed him of his own imaginative powers.

Real people? Imaginative powers? Will these issues pose problems for contemporary audiences?

Hopefully, the last 30 years or so will allow today’s critics to let the play stand on its own and take issue instead—as does the New York Press‘s Mark Peikert—with a patent failure on the part of society to be literary, instead of putting blinders on to focus on original authorial intent and voice. Enough time may have passed to view the current production as an autonomous entity, and not just the next work from a beloved playwright. Add this fact to our tireless romanticizing of the figure of the doomed alcoholic writer and Clothes may have a shot at wowing today’s picky New York City audiences. The play remains starkly different from, say, Streetcar and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and the possibility that Williams was entering his late progressive/experimental phase is very real—he died three years later in 1983.

On the other hand there are also the always expanding and re-examined mythos of Gatsby (and consequently the life of F. Scott), the hedonism of the roaring 20s, and the fact that it’s again chic to be poor, all of which might make theater-goers more disposed to enjoying this play. A current re-imagining of the cult play Gatz, in which the entire book is read from start to finish during the production, “beat on, boats” and all, is finishing up a short run at Cambridge’s American Rep, and Brad Pitt even lent his storied and chiseled visage to a little known Fitzgerald short not too long ago. Can the current empathy for a poor artists’ tale of love, loss, and too much booze/not enough barbiturates win out over taking Williams to task for deviations in much lauded tone and form? (For my part I think it can, having attended a recent preview performance.) Inquiring minds want to know.

Whatever the case, the White Horse’s uncanny casting of rootin’ tootin’ Ernest Hemingway and Williams’ written dialogue for the self-eradicating author make this show worth the 30 year wait—and the price of a ticket.

(photo credit: Joe Bly)

02/10/10 1:00am

Although�ƒ�€š�‚ Daddy (at the TGB Arts Center through February 13) alternates between soap opera and semi-political treatise on gay marriage rights, it is essentially a love triangle about how two 40-something gay best friends react when a third (younger) vertex is introduced to their geometry. The soap opera aspect of the play is engaging, if not a little outlandish, culminating in a bizarre turn of events which leaves the audience's collective jaw on the floor and ultimately casts a shock shadow over anything important that was said before. This seems detrimental at first, but closer inspection of the premise and playwright reveals that this is probably the point.�‚ In light of recent�‚ political developments�‚ and�‚ pro-gay rights protests in the straight community, it's hard not to look for a political stance or message in�‚ Daddy. But the only political satisfaction is offstage, and doesn't ever usurp the main narrative. Despite a flimsy effort at creating a versatile set and a script that's at times awkward and affected,�‚ Daddy�‚ does offer a different way of approaching the gay marriage issue. That is, to not acknowledge the hetero model as one for gays to follow or aspire to at all.

Colin and Stew, played by Gerald McCullouch, of CSI fame, and Dan Via as the cynical nerd, respectively, are best friends with history. Colin is an aging yet hip columnist for the Pittsburgh Gazette whose writing focuses on gay issues throughout the city. Stew is a law professor whose syllabi are focused on gay marriage. The pair at first seem to be quite invested in the fight for marriage equality, but their interest is more professional than anything; Stew thinks marriage is "hetero-normative" and not functional for the modern gay man and Colin seems to be more concerned with giving his "Colin injection" to the "sexually ambiguous frat boys" on his Rec soccer team than getting married. It isn't until Tee (played by a sufficiently angry Bjorn DuPaty) appears that we see any passion about the subject either way.�‚ 

But even as Tee and Colin become a couple, their talk never turns to marriage despite the tension surrounding it in the play—at a gay rights protest Tee beans one of the anti-gay marriage speakers with a hand-held tape recorder and gets attacked by the mob. Back at the apartment Stew looks on disapprovingly at Tee's wounds and Colin isn't so much concerned about what caused the outburst as he is with Tee's well-being. Meanwhile, Tee can't understand why they aren't just as enraged as he is about the heinous things being said at the protest. In an�‚ interview with nytheatre.com�‚ about gay marriage rights in�‚ Daddy Via, the star and playwright, talks about the dichotomy and surmises "that being excluded from that traditional institution has forced/allowed gay people to find their own solutions." There is a generational disconnect in the gay community that isn't so easily reconcilable.

At times the writing in�‚ Daddy�‚ becomes over-determined and disingenuous, bordering on self-parody; Colin throws the words "bro" and "dude" around like he's�‚ one of the frat boys that interest him. Tee's initial attempts to meet Colin at a bar are meant to come off cute, but they devolve into annoying stutter that reflects the general dispassion for relationships in the rest of the piece. Via's performance as Stew is particularly noteworthy and interesting—playing the cool, brilliant, and cynical academic to a perfect conclusion as the voice of reason—but it's clear that Via wrote the play with himself in mind and the other characters' dialogue suffers because of it. The set is all flowing curtains that are drawn back and forth on wires to create different rooms, which initially seems like a good use of the tiny stage, but for a play that is so grounded in realism, the flowing gauzy curtains add an element of fantasy that it might have done without. Every room created seemed like another hideaway in some sort of Arabian harem. It is only in the final hospital room reveal that the curtain set is necessary and the actors can let loose with a modicum of emotion instead of the preceding cold, quick-quipping insult-fest.

The characters in�‚ Daddy�‚ are only cursorily concerned with the fight for gay marriage rights; they are for it, but only by default because they are gay—none of them have a desire to marry—so why write a play about them and not a triangle where marriage was involved? There is of course the argument that this play was simply written with gay men arbitrarily and is really about twisted relationships in general, but it is hard to believe this was Via's sole intention. There are a few moments when Daddy�‚ could be a call to action for an older generation of gay men to participate more fully in the current fight for rights, but it's unclear just how interested or committed the playwright himself is to the topic. In either case, it is clear that for a debut effort from an actor turned playwright, it's an interesting foray into the battle. But�‚ Daddy,�‚ as it stands now, will definitely not father any viable theatrical offspring.

(photo credit: Eduardo Placer)

02/03/10 4:15am

1. Sex Addiction is defined as an “elevated desire to engage in human sexual activity” and referred to as Hypersexuality, as per the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. The category is then divided in to female and male affliction, and still listed as nymphomania and satyriasis respectively. Yup, girls are nymphs and boys are satyrs, which, hot.

2. Lothario remains a semi-clinical term (after the character in the quixotic, tale-within-a-tale, The Impertinent Curiosity‚ by Cervantes), and most frequently conjures the image of Frank Langella in Lolita.

3. Nymphomania and Satyrisias are no longer listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Note: To dispel any confusion, Nymphomania may also be referred to in archaic Latin as, Furor Uterinus; a term that translates roughly into, “Hitler Vagina.”

4. Elvis Presley had a penchant for 14-year-old brunettes and eventually married one. And according to Alanna Nash’s Baby, Let’s Play House: Elvis Presley and the Women Who Loved Him, he was also a sex addict.

5. Nymphomania should also not be confused with Vulvodynia, as practiced by the ancient Greek physician Soranus. We’ve still only “practiced” having sex ourselves, so we can’t really explain what “vulvodynia” is.

6. A 1987 Gallup Poll stated that 90% of Americans believed alcoholism to be a disease. This was also the year of the Conference on Sex Addiction at which attendees were told to “treat sex addicts like alcoholics.”

7. According to Dr.Patrick Carnes, sex addict guru and creator of helpful online quiz, “Am I A Sex Addict?“, the number one tell when deciding if someone is a sex addict is if there is “Recurrent failure to resist impulses to engage in extreme acts of lewd sex,” on the part of the subject. Which, duh.

8. The Malleus Malificarum’s Remedies Prescribed for Those Who Are Bewitched by Being Inflamed with Inordinate Love or Extraordinary Hatred “A Guide to curing Sex Addiction” states that when addicted to sex: “…a man often puts away his beautiful wife to cleave to the most hideous of women, and when he cannot rest in the night, but is so demented that he must go by devious ways to his mistress;… it is found that those of noblest birth, Governors, [Golfers], and other rich men, are the most miserably involved in this sin.”

9. In 1988 the LA Times reported that 6% of all people in the US have a sex addiction, not including the Kennedys.

10. Tiger Woods may or may not be a sex addict, but it makes for a good recovery narrative.