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A CurtainUp Report
Brits Off Broadway --2005
Jenny Sandman, Amanda Cooper, Brad Bradley, Lisa Quintela, Jerry Weinstein,Elyse Sommer
Last Updated: June 24 2005
Names and dates of all shows that are part of the Brits Festival are listed in order scheduled. Brief reviews of shows covered follow that listing with critic's name at end of the review. Below are links to specific titles. An * will be added before titles when a review is posted.
*PRIVATE FEARS IN PUBLIC PLACES | *MORTAL LADIES POSSESSED | *WHEN THE BULBUL STOPPED SINGING | *DECO DIVA - TAMARA de LEMPICKA |*THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR | *SISTERS, SUCH DEVOTED SISTERS | *THE PULL OF NEGATIVE GRAVITY | *TABLOID CALIGULA | *UNSUSPECTING SUSAN |*FASTER | *JACKSON'S WAY |
This one-man show which launches the 2005 festival has an arresting performer in Christopher Simon. His story about the 2002 occupation of Ramallah by the Israeli army is dramatic, but the play as a whole is largely devoid of appeal.
Drawn from his diaries written during the month-long siege of Ramallah, Shehadeh takes us through the siege day by day. He and his wife are trapped inside their house for long stretches of time, often without electricity. They must deal with the constant shelling and gunfire, the unannounced intrusions of soldiers, the random killings and violence that affect their loved ones. At the same time Shehadeh is trying to finish his novel. It is an enlightening but inactive story. As in many solo playse very little actually happens. We simply listen to Shehadeh tell his story. His natural charisma almost, but not quite, makes up for that.
The set is more exciting, however. A tiny gray platform has been decorated with an elaborate Oriental rug stencil, picked out in pink sand. Shehadeh traces a rudimentary map of the city in the sand along the way, and in the final moments, pink sand rains down upon the stage, erasing both the map and the rug. A pivoting wall is used to reflect television segments and pictures of the city. A lone chair is the only real set piece. In keeping with the overall atmosphere, the lighting and sound are subtle and evocative.
Plays about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem to be all the rage, but rarely do they impart a new perspective or original thought and too often you're left feeling as if you've watched a dramatized version of the news-- which is fine, if you like that sort of thing, or have a personal stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If not, it can make for a long evening.
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on April 6th performance
April 5 - 24 in Theater C. Written, performed, directed and painted by Kara Wilson. Costume by Katharin Macbain
Running time: One hour and five minutes with no intermission.
"I need to paint. . . can disappear into my work" declares Kara Wilson as she channels Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka. The solo piece is a glowing homage to the Art Deco world of 1930s Paris. Wilson not only wrote directed the play but stars as de Lempicka and paints a copy, in oil, of de Lempicka's "Rafaela surf out vert, or Le Reve" which is auctioned off after each show. The painting is almost as hypnotic, and certainly as colorful, as the play itself.
De Lempicka, an exotic figure in Parisian society, was famous for painting portraits of the glitterati. Born in Poland, she emigrated to Russia, married a lawyer, and escaped after the czar was killed. She made her way to Paris and gradually became famous for both her art and her wild life style. She became one of the most famous of the Art Deco artists, in part because she was so prolific, and in part because of her simple, bold lines. When World War II broke out, she emigrated once again, this time to the United States.
To introduce us to this fascinating if little-known artist, Wilson uses the device of talking to an invisible reporter about her life and art. Being equally gifted as a painter and performer, she has structured the play around the physical act of painting. When the picture is finished, the "interview" (and thus the show) ends. The set is decorated with de Lempicka's works; the easel and painting are the natural centerpiece.
Deco Diva is an interesting show well suited to the multi-talented Wilson. There are even occasional bursts of song (orchestrated by Tom Conti) but what makes the show memorable is the recreation of de Lempicka's painting. Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on April 8th performance
THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR .br> April 27 - May 22 in Theater B. Traverse Theatre of Scotland. Written by Henry Adam. Directed by Ian Grieve Design by Miriam Buether, lighting by Mark Pritchard, sound by Matt McKenzie. Cast: Ronny Jhutti (Nigel), Mary McCusker (Mrs. Mac), Mark McDonnell (Phil), and Daniel Redmond (Marco). Tuesday- Saturday at 8:15 p.m. and Sunday at 7:15 p.m., with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:15 p.m. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including one intermission.
As Henry Adam's daring and effective The People Next Door begins, we see Nigel, a slight, young bearded man in his humble home, examining what appears to be a child's book, and babbling to himself about any number of things including a missing half-brother Karim as well as a contemplated change of his own name to Salif. A person of limited capacity who has landed in the British welfare system, Nigel's life of a loner is punctuated by congenial relationships with two neighbors in his apartment building: They are Mrs. Mac, an elderly older widow, and Marco, an abused but genial teenage lad. Both figure prominently in Nigel's proscribed life, which is complicated by the appearance of Phil, a local cop with a way-above-average need to prove his worth. Phil is determined to recruit Nigel as a mole in a suspected Muslim-centered terrorist ring
The unlikely combination of a bang-about farce with a dramatic exploration of the effects of international terrorism on ordinary people is remarkably successful here. All four actors make their broadly written characters compelling to the audience. As the central figure, Ronny Jhutti not only imbues Nigel with a full palette of credible personality tics, but also valiantly and convincingly suffers repeated physical humiliations that made this sympathetic audience member concerned for the performer's safety. Presumably the actors' union has made efforts to protect him, perhaps at the least awarding him body padding and combat pay. Imagine, if you will, Buster Keaton or any other early film clown going through his assorted pratfalls eight times a week.
Ian Grieve's staging is adroitly paced with ample energy and variety to achieve an empathy for Nigel and his two neighbors as well as a certain suspension of disbelief to comfortably ponder the alarming implications of terrorism in one's own neighborhood. Miriam Buether's fluid and versatile two-story set effectively conveys not only the central location of Nigel's apartment, but also the homes of his neighbors and a nearby children's park, permitting the action to move instantly from one location to another without interruption.
The fresh and engaging script, to its notable credit, is both contemporary and universal in its resonance. The alienating notions of them vs. us and the outsider vs. the system both rise to serious concern, even within the understandably preposterous requirements of farce. Playwright Adam has managed to create characters that are plausible and even appealing within this framework. The action slows only when Mrs. Mac talks to her late husband's spirit. This device is a fine way for the woman to reveal herself, but as Mrs. Mac's story is supportive rather than central, script trimming here would benefit the work. But the play rebounds in the second act with a brilliant gear-change, showing Nigel, a simple yet ever-surprising soul, imaginatively overcoming the normal powerlessness that the system imposes on average citizens. -- Reviewed by Brad Bradley April 29.
SISTERS, SUCH DEVOTED SISTERS
April 26 - May 15 in Theater C. Written and performed by Russell Barr. Directed by Naomi Jones. Music by Max Richter. Make-up by Damien Stirk. Costume by Aileen Sherry. Running Time: One hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission.
"I was in drag, in the back of a Halal butcher's meat truck. . . and one of the carcasses knocked over one of the drag queens and there was great hilarity," declares Scottish writer/performer Russell Barr, or rather his drag queen alter-ego Bernice Hindley, the self-styled niece of Myra the famous Moors murderess. Emerging from behind a curtain of shredded glittering gold, Barr, (clad in spiky white platform heels, a strawberry blond wig, and a shimmery gray dress) sips from a teacup while listening to a sound cue of rabid barking dogs. If you thought transvestites were nothing more than lipsynching Madonna worshippers with bad wigs and bright eyeshadow, then you'll be both amused and moved by Barr's autobiographical depiction of the grisly and often abusive calamities of the Glasgow cross-dressing scene. Through a series of absurdly dark and comical tales, he tells the story of his troubled family life and entry into a world of drag, drugs, alcohol, and violence. A few tales about crooked relatives and his job at a club called Madame Gillespie's and recollections of his trans-sisters are followed with a detailed recap of the event that lies at the core of this play: His being eyewitness to the murder of a transsexual by two transvestites at nightclub.
The irony of gruesome violence amidst campy drag glitz is punctuated by Barr's bittersweet monologues that are punctuated with self-mocking wit and sudden lengthy silences during which he nervously flinches and trembles, suggesting the horror of his traumatic memories. At first these pauses entrance but eventually they feel overused and grow stale.
Barr is a compelling performer and vivid storyteller who seems to thrive during the play's most improvised moments. One can almost imagine his days as a drag queen. Unfortunately, director Naomi Jones' pacing and staging fail to utilize the punchy writing and performance sufficiently to prevent this poignant story of a queen from occasionally being a somewhat disappointing drag. Reviewed by Lisa Quintela based on April 26th performance.
May 11 - June 5 in Theater A. Written by Jonathan Lichtenstein. Directed by Gregory Thompson Cast: Joanne Howarth, Daniel Hawksford, Louise Collins, Lee Haven-Jones. Set & costume design, Ellen Cairns; lighting design, Robin Carter; sound design, andrea J. Cox. Movement Director: Nicola Roswewarne. Running Time: 90 mins, no intermission.
All's painful in love and war. Dai's family anxiously preps fo his return from the Iraq war, only to find him a changed man. The before, during, and after of this homecoming are what make up The Pull of Negative Gravity. Bethan, Dai's fiance hasn't been faithful -- but she hasn't strayed farther than Rhys, Dai's brother. Meanwhile the family farm, without income because Mad Cow's disease has made it impossible for even healthy cows to be sold. The farm is falling apart but the mother holds on desperately, unable move beyond the father's suicide.
This may sound like a melodrama with a fairly simple plot, but it is chock-full of absorbing tension. My mind raced right alongside the production, drawing parallels, making connections -- a deeply affecting experience.
Though things get off to a clunky start, awkwardly laying out the contexts and relationships, it soon gets off and running. The actors all create highly defined, tragic characters. Vi, the mother, played by Joanne Howarth, is a drained soul. Rhys, the brother (Daniel Hawksford), is at odds with his own convictions and is quite possibly the most miserable family member. Louise Collins presents Bethan to the highest intensity, winning our empathy along the way. Lee Haven-Jones, as the broken Dai, gives a tremendous performance of such range and pain, that recreating the role night after night seems downright impossible.
At a time when our war comes across to many average Americans on a TV screen, The Pull of Negative Gravity just may be the closest we can come to understanding the emotional and physical fallout of a war we have created. --Reviewed by Amanda Cooper based on May 12th performance.
Postscript to the above review: Like Amanada, I found The Pull of Negative Gravity an enormously powerful experience. I thought the nonlinear story telling was very effectively handled. New Yorkers are truly fortunate to be able to see this play with the original Edinbugh Fringe cast and steered by the same director. Unfortunately, our casualties from suicide bombings continue to mount and more and more Americans have experienced the death, physical and psychological wounds of family members first-hand. The economic struggle of the farm family in this play also has plenty of echoes in this country.
Theater goers who saw Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman will see a parallel between a scene in that play involving two brothers and in this one between Dai and his mother. These scenes are incredibly wrenching in both plays and comparison does bring the hope that Mr. Lichtenstein will in future plays find some way to introduce some lighter moments to relieve the unrelenting tension.
Finally, I'd like to add a round of applause for the show's very apt design. Ellen Cairns has created a bleak gray world that merges the indoors and outdoors into a single set. The table at which Vi desperately stuffs envelopes to earn some money is ingeniously constructed with conventional legs at one end and a stone footing at the other so that it can be used as a cliff. Aided by Robin Carter's lighting, the gray sky backdrop occasionally reveals Bethan at her nursing duties in a hospital burn unit. -- Elyse Sommer, 2005.
Set in a tailor's basement storeroom is Robert's business of selling "fine used rugs and other antiques," -- in translation: he is in the business of roughing people up for payment. Joe is Robert's young protege who admires the older mans years of work and tabloid clippings about his past jail stint. Tabloid Caligula depicts a less than normal day for these two fringe criminals as their most recent client, Mary, comes by to settle up and follow up, and the skeletons-in-the-closet just don't stop appearing. Darren Murphy has created three distinctly different voices, though they are each from similar class backgrounds. In a surprisingly refreshing twist, his fullest, most complex character is Mary, who initially comes across as the stereotypical sensitive female who has been wronged by her man. It turns out that young Joe is the peripheral player, and is there as an excuse to air the past.
Though all three give strong performances, it is Suzan Sylvester and Peter Tate as Mary and Robert, whose depictions of pain and loss adhere to the brain. Sylvester's Mary is sticky, and she slowly disarms Tate's offensive Robert, her growing power palpable, as he becomes a smaller and smaller man. Chris Harper as Joe is successfully gullible and filled with repressed anger towards himself, but his underwritten part leaves him floundering for direction at the end.
Director Lisa Forrell seemed to struggle, with the pacing during the first half of the production and playwright Murphy's language at times goes in circles -- but then so does the play have you going around as who seems to be conning who. Though not an action packed story, this is a fascinating piece of work as a psychological study of two aging underworld-ers. Reviewed by Amanda Cooper
May 17 - June 5 in Theater C. Written by Matthew Hurt, adapted from the short stories of Tennessee Williams. Directed by Stuart Mullins. With Linda Marlowe. Tuesday - Friday at 8:30 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Running time: 80 minutes (no intermission).
Linda Marlowe would have no trouble matching or even exceeding the current Broadway depictions of weathered Williams heroines Blanche DuBois and Amanda Wingfield. (In the UK she has appeared in both A Streetcar Named Desire and Suddenly Last Summer.) In this solo performance, the versatile and dynamic performer valiantly takes on an entire gallery of largely unknown (and considerably more bedraggled) women (and some men as well) from his stories mostly set in a New Orleans boarding house that could be called a nascent bordello. At the center of this establishment is a proprietor known as the Widow Holly, a woman who herself carries elements of both Blanche and Amanda, although with more consistent desperate anxiousness than do either of the aforementioned dramatic heroines.Marlowe is a fine actress who makes a compelling impression on the audience, and while well-suited for at least the female dramatis personae present, neither she nor Williams has been done any favors by adaptor Matthew Hurt, who stirs the several stories at hand into a confusing melange that will be difficult to follow for even most Williams devotees.
There are pleasures, including some wonderfully vivid moments, and even a number of hilarious ones as well, but the material fails to jell or cry out to warrant attention as do even many of the minor plays of the remarkable Tennessee. Alas, the ideal audience for Mortal Ladies Possessed is a fairly small group: devotees who have read the stories in question quite recently and who can recall missing links that are needed to hold the several fragile narratives together. That said, this tapestry of "passionate souls" is given a bravura depiction by Ms. Marlowe, aided particularly by designers Phil Hewitt in lighting and Simon McCorry in sound. Viewed by Brad Bradley May 17.
PRIVATE FEARS IN PUBLIC PLACES
This tale of the misheard, the unspoken and the sadly misunderstood, a new Ayckbourn play, marks the New York premiere of Ayckbourn's company, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, Yorkshire.
If this magnificently realized bittersweet contemporary comedy is an example of the work of the estimable Alan Ayckbourns "home company," the troupes first visit to New York is long overdue. Furthermore, its work should be seen here annually, at the minimum. A thoroughly engaging sextet of that regional theaters players has brought us Ayckbourns 67th play for an all-too-limited run as part of its own celebration of 50 years of activity.While the play concerns six white collar workers whose lives at first appear to be very ordinary and perhaps even inconsequential, the longish one-act (one hour and fifty minutes) not only sails by in 59E59s especially comfortable Theatre A, but also fascinatingly reveals more and more layers of each small life, scene by scene. As come the revelations, so do the laughs.
Having seen a fair number of Ayckbourn plays both in London and New York, I have to admit that some of the New York incarnations have been less than stellar, while the London ones usually hit a bulls-eye. This staging, with the company Ayckbourn has worked with since his youth (adding up to 48 years of its half-century existence), is even better than many of the Ayckbourn gems offered on the West End. The impeccable timing, ensemble playing with no concern for star quality, and brilliance in both the writing and design all contribute to an enveloping pleasure that sparkles and satisfies even as it sometimes saddens the heart.
Ayckbourn is one of few authors who reliably can direct his own work with both authority and effectiveness to achieve sharp characterizations and brisk pacing, and he has a knack for bringing out the best in both his cast and his production team, even when his script is purposefully silent as the action continues. While the deliberate pauses in Pinters plays tend to add tension, in Ayckbourns they are more likely to reveal personality foibles and produce humor through a richer understanding of character. Pip Leckenbys settings here appropriately would be described as minimalist, but they contribute a rare fluidity that permits scenes to shift repeatedly from place to place with sharp clarity and hardly a need for moving a thing onstage. An imaginatively clever lighting design by Mick Hughes enhances this effect.
Ayckbourns characters are so natural in their ordinariness that they seem like the people who live down the block or across the hall, folks we may see daily and wonder about but rarely ever get beyond sharing a polite "hello." All six performers are wonderful in finding dimension and credibility in their characterizations. Especially touching are Paul Kemp as a desperately lonely real estate agent and Adrian McLoughlin as a secretive hotel bartender who selflessly cares for his elderly invalid parent. Hilariously intriguing are Alexandra Mathie as the real estate agents co-worker who adroitly balances biblical solace with raunchy sexual fantasies and Sarah Moyle as his spinster sister who ritually hunts for a meaningful assignation that might change her dreary life. Rounding out the group is a mismatched young couple whose relationship is crumbling even as they search in vain for the perfect apartment: Melanie Gutteridge is a career-driven yuppie yearning for a meaningful future and Paul Thornley is her mate, a military misfit trying to escape lifes demands through liquor. Two of these six lonely but striving individuals wind up on a hilarious blind date in which both disguise their true identities.
Ayckbourn has been described as a Chekhovian working in Britain, and like that Russian master, deliberately blurs tragedy and comedy. While Chekhovs comic side often suffers in modern interpretations, in the present work Ayckbourns terrific troupe never fails to find the uproarious laughter hidden under the sadness. Viewed by Brad Bradley at the Friday, June 10 preview.
Editor's Note: I saw Private Fears on the same weekend as Brad and I share his enthusiasm. What an ensemble! What a terrific blend of humor and pathos! What simple but effective staging and masterly navigation of more than fifty scenes, some as short as the blink of an eye! One such mini scene wordlessly illustrates the teensy space on offer from Kemp's real estate agent, Stewart: Clearly dissatisfied, Nicola turns sideways and holds in her stomach in order to exit from the under-sized space. From what my London friends tell me, housing is as difficult to find and astronomically priced in London as in New York so 1-bedroom apartments masquerading as 3-bedroom apartments are likely to be quite typical. This second Brits Off-Broadway Festival has been generally strong and the chance to sample what the Stephen Joseph Theatre offers its viewers is a not to be missed highlight. -- Elyse Sommer.
June 14 - July 3 in Theater B. Play by Stewart Permutt and directed by Lisa Forrell about the drama, intrigue and scandal that lie beneath the surface of the seemingly tranquil life of a Hampshire housewife. Starring Celia Imrie, with Gus Danowski and Frankie Shaw. Running time, 75 minutes, no intermission.
We all have at least one person in our lives who can do no wrong. And for Susan, this show's lone actress, that someone is her son.
Susan lives by herself in the English suburbs, finding fault with her former husband and her few friends, while entering into her golden years. She is the pinnacle of proper, with her sweater sets and measured gestures. Of course her life is far from ideal, and though Celia Imrie portrays Susan as tight-lipped and steady, there is an unquestionable vulnerability to her.
We learn bits and pieces of her fairly ordinary life as she narrates at the audience, treating us like some odd mix between houseguest, relative, and shrink. It is easy to laugh at her quiet digs at her friends, and how she is oblivious to her son's implied homosexuality.
About halfway through the performance, things turn surprisingly serious as Susan finds out her son's activities in London were not entirely innocent. She spends the rest of the play trying to convince us (and herself) that indeed he was a victim, not a criminal. Though this plot turn adds more layers to the story, it also dilutes the overall effect (too many cooks…). The simpler strain pertaining to the fairly ordinary, lonely single woman in the suburbs is more compelling.
Imrie only leaves the stage for a couple brief scene changes, completed by two actors dressed as police. She is a strong enough performer for the scene changes and house tasks director Lisa Forrell has doing to be superfluous. --Reviewed by Amanda Cooper based on a June 16 performance.
June 7 - 26 in Theater C . Devised by Filter. Scripted by Stephen Brown. Cast: William Adamsdale (Will), Victoria Moseley (Vic), and Ferdy Roberts (Ben). Musicians/sound designers: Artistic Director Tim Phillips and Chris Branch. Lighting Design: Guy Kornetzki. Running Time: Sixty minutes with no intermission. Tuesday-Friday at 8:00p.m.; Saturday at 2:00p.m. and 8:00p.m.; Sunday at 3:00p.m. and 7:00p.m.
Filter is a brash young theater company that acts its age. It is bold, caffeinated, and passionate. And while is it endlessly inventive, it is also disciplined. Faster, its first show, trades on scientist James Gleicks writings on temporal dissonance to inspire an innovative mixed media piece.
The framework is quite conventional -- a love triangle where multitasking and alienation are playfully but poignantly explored through jump cuts, wonderful (and live!) sound design, movement, and non-linear storytelling. While Gleick might have epiphanies on superstring theory whats on offer here are fugues of intimacy and desperate lives.
Vic is a lawyer who dropped out of the rat race to satisfy her wanderlust. After a year of aboriginal walkabout shes returned to London and re-entered the life of her square peg friend Will, and his world-beating flatmate, Ben. Vic and Ben jump headfirst into a romance thats over before its begun. While Ben seems ideally suited to a life in fourth gear, Will is a throwback to the Romantics. He is innately creative but doesnt see that the only brand that counts is YOU. The pair -- the former copywriter, the latter art director, are commissioned to create a career-changing ad campaign -- a six-second ad that endeavors the impossible -- to delink retirees with retirement (shades of Bushs efforts on privatizing social security).
In the time of TiVo we time-shift everything entertainment, but what about our personal velocity? This is a production crackling with intensity and laugh out loud insights. Its a cautionary life in the fast lane that asks us to pull over to the shoulder of the road and rethink our relationship to this technological cyclone. Faster just might be a postmodern riff on Chaplins Modern Times -- contriving the seemingly paradoxical -- a nanosecond meditation. Its a side effect of the new millennium that that the Y2K ennui we had at fin de siècle is here to stay. --Reviewed by Jerry Weinstein based on June 8th performance.
JACKSON'S WAY-- a celebration of the uplifting effects of pointless behavior.
June 9 - 26 in Theater C (in repertoire). Presented by Underbelly Productions, Fuel, and Will Adamsdale. Created and performed by Will Adamsdale. Thursday to Sat at 10pm; Sundays at 9pm. Running time, 80 minutes, no intermission.
Self-help-ers. Life Coaches. Motivational Speakers. Though you may be more likely to laugh at these professionals, with their Who Moved My Cheese? books and manic info-mercials, you still have to admit, they seem to be surprisingly lucrative careers. There is a bottomless well of people searching for a non-spiritual, non-medicated instructional for life. And this is precisely why Will Adamsdale, AKA life coach Chris John Jackson, has focused this faux self-help seminar on what he feels takes up the majority of our lives: the pointless!
And what does Jackson tell us about the pointless parts of life? Revel in it. Achieve it. Or don't. Focus on the impossible; it is, after all, always pointless.
Adamsdale's skills are beyond impressive. He has written smart, original humor, without involving sex or bathrooms. His performance is robust, from his winning smile to his staccato movements around the space, he is both magnetic and pathetic.
Jackson's Way, which won the Perrier Comedy Award Winner 2004, is theatrical stand-up comedy, complete with non-specific script and audience encouraged improvisation riffs -- not to mention a powerpoint presentation manhandled by skilled stage manager Kathryn 'China' Hayzer. As with most stand-up, much of the content becomes intensely tangential in a way that makes you think"How did we get here again?" However, if , in the name of comedic performance, you are willing to buy into Jackson's theory that most everything is pointless, then most anything is fair game.
Midway through the eighty minutes Jackson elicits laughter and irony when he declares, "People think something's pointless, when it's merely funny." In the end, he takes a turn towards the confessional. Ultimately this is a very funny show -- but not entirely pointless. --Reviewed by Amanda Cooper based on a June 12 performance.
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