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A CurtainUp Feature
The Humana Festival: 2003
Charles Whaley


Six full-length and three 10-minute plays, a "phobic anthology" of 16 monologues and two-character pieces plus pop-up performances by seven spoken-word artists mixing poetry, theatre, and hip-hop under a "Rhythmicity" label--that was the impressive mix at this year's 27th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Under artistic director Marc Masterson the festival continues to exhibit the same high level of acting, production values (particularly in Paul Owen's ingenious sets), and intriguing, if not universally appreciated, choice of material that marked Jon Jory's long reign at ATL.

For this reviewer there were three full-length standouts: Quincy Long's The Lively Lad, with songs by Michael Silversher; Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros and Theresa Rebeck's "Omnium-Gatherum", and Russell Davis's "The Second Death of Priscilla."

The Lively Lad, a deliciously outrageous farce about spoiled debutantes whose parents buy them eunuchs to help them navigate society, is something Oscar Wilde and Joe Orton could have teamed to write with Gilbert and Sullivan providing songs.

Holli Hamilton throws marvelous tantrums as Little Eva, whose rich and flustered father, superbly played by Marc Vietor, wants to please both her and his prim, anti-castration intended (Shannon Holt)--a poor tea-room waitress beneath Little Eva's contempt.

William McNulty as a dense and bombastic old soldier on the Van Huffle household staff and Fred Major and Colin McPhillamy as two boorish and hard-drinking gentlemen's club types are hilarious scene-stealers under ATL associate artistic director Timothy Douglas's brisk direction in a work coded with present-day relevance.Editor's Note See also our recent review of a full-length production of the play in os Angeles.

In Omnium-Gatherum, Latin for "a miscellaneous collection", an assortment of New Yorkers, " all famous", are at a lavish gourmet dinner, soon after Sept. 11, 2001, at the home of a dithery Martha Stewart-like hostess, flawlessly played by Kristine Nielsen, who provides a comically pretentious description for each course as it's served. The food, catered by Louisville's historic Seelbach Hotel, is for real though the wine, consumed in great quantities, is not.

Among the guests is a firefighter who died in the collapsed World Trade Center towers. So are these people all dead, as their wide-ranging, highly literate conversation, intense and involving, takes them through everything from globalization to religion to politics to war and peace to media conglomerates to sex to poverty and race? The suave and thoughtful Middle Eastern scholar, well played by Edward A. Hajj, asks the question but hostess Suzie tells him "we're all too lively to be dead."

Other strong portrayals under expert direction from Will Frears were by Phillip Clark as a blustery opinionated novelist, Roma Maffia as a vegan feminist worried about her pregnancy, and Dean Nolen as a British intellectual who gets very drunk while pontificating on all topics.

The talk intensifies and turns violent when the hostess brings on a young Arab terrorist as a guest. He's at the table, too, eating and drinking, as the play ends with the sound of bombs and sirens, debris falling to the stage, and the hostess and the novelist dancing to a Sinatra recording of "I've Got the World on a String."

Watching The Second Death of Priscilla, seamlessly directed by Marc Masterson, brings on a surreal feeling of being inside a Magritte painting. The illusion is fostered by Paul Owen's spare set with two chairs, blue curtains on a ramshackle window frame, and gorgeous blue color carried over to a screen on which videographer Valerie Sullivan Fuchs's images are projected.

We're inside the tortured crumbling mind of Priscilla, brilliantly enacted by Barbara Gulan, often in wordless responses to others. Her facial expressions and body language as she sits in her blue dress in her claustrophobic room are unforgettable elements in creating the play's stark beauty, power, and stunning theatrical magic.

Playwright Davis has given a surprising twist to the fairy tale of the three little pigs and the wolf who destroys straw and stick houses but not a brick one with his huffing and puffing. The wolf, fascinating to see and hear in Graham Swift's mesmerizing interpretation, batters away at Priscilla's disturbed mind just as the wolf assaulted the pig houses. Two of her multiple personalities are destroyed and now he seeks to storm the last rampart. Is the wolf telling the story? Is there a wolf inside all of us? Is no one ever safe?

The Faculty Room is Bridget Carpenter's mordant and engrossing look at burned-out teachers at a high school in "an ugly small suburb in an ugly small city somewhere in the middle" of the U.S. Zoe (Rebecca Wisocky), the speech and drama teacher, and Adam (Michael Laurence), the English teacher, who were once married and still teach at the school from which they graduated, play hurtful cat and mouse games with each other and with Carver (Greg McFadden), the idealistic new teacher of world history, who used to teach at a big-city school but left under mysterious circumstances.

Young people in the backwater town whose parents are aggressively Christian and regard the school as free day care are caught up in the idea of "The Rapture" that's supposed to lift them as good Christians to Heaven when the world ends. Zoe and Adam taunt each other about choosing boyfriends and girlfriends from their classes as they regress shockingly to rebellious juvenile behavior they see in students. Predictably and unconvincingly the play ends with a Columbine-type bloodbath and the indication that cynical Adam has experienced The Rapture. Real life teachers could probably recognize some truths in what could be viewed as a cut above a corrosive sit-com but would certainly not identify with these teachers. As with The Second Death of Priscilla, audiences are likely to either love or hate this play.

Orange Lemon Egg Canary by Rinne Groff is billed as a trick in four acts and is, as the title would suggest, a play about magic. Great--that's his name--is a magician who inherited his expertise in magic from his performer grandfather, also known as Great. The grandson, skillfully played by René Millán, puts on shows while traveling with the old man's props and footlocker crammed with journals he kept. Old Great was known especially for his spectacular Hypnotic Balance illusion that stretched his comely female assistant and lover Henrietta atop a huge and dangerous spike.

Henrietta, sympathetically portrayed by the scantily clad Wendy Rich Stetson, walks and talks through the play as a ghost. She connects with Trilby (Nell Mooney), who manages to become the assistant to Svengali-like Great, whose former assistant named China (a compelling Roz Davis) but now billing herself as Egypt hooks up with Trilby. The tables are turned when the women become magicians instead of assistants and Great is to be hypnotically balanced.

The line between illusion and no illusion is demonstrated by the trick named in the title: inside the orange is a lemon with an egg inside it and a bird (does it fly away?) inside the egg. With its red velvet curtains forming a four-sided tent and its hold-your-breath responses to the balancing of the women on the sharp spike the play is eminently watchable. But the illusions it conjures are quick to vanish. However, one pricelessly idiotic line can't be forgotten: Trilby is balanced on the spike and Egypt yells at her in disbelief, "You're impaled on a spike, and you're dumping me?!?"

While an interesting idea lies behind Kia Corthron's Slide Glide the Slippery Slope, her examination of family issues involving cloning and genetic engineering was a mind-numbing lecture trying to be a play as she deluged an audience with fact after repetitious fact. Having a fake sheep and a teddy bear impart information about scientific matters was nothing short of ludicrous.

Corthron illustrated her thesis through identical twin sisters (Tonye Patano and Cheryl Freeman) whose 15-year-old mother kept one and gave the other up to another woman. Now after almost 36 years the sisters meet again, and one wants to clone her dead 10-year-old daughter.

Trepidation Nation was the great title bestowed on the "phobic anthology" commissioned by ATL as a showcase for its 22-member Apprentice Company. More than 500 phobias have been documented, according to the theatre, and it was sometimes difficult to know which ones--sometimes multiple ones--were being dramatized in individual pieces, the quality of which varied widely. Best of the lot in writing and acting were Bridget Carpenter's Euxious (which isn't in my dictionary) vividly performed by Megan Ofsowitz as a flustered Los Angeles producer who claims a cell phone call from God caused her to run a red light and hit a minivan; Michael Hollander's Naked Lunch with carnophobic Jenna Close forced by boyfriend Dimitri Meskouris to eat a piece of steak, and Julie Marie Myatt's Photophobia (defined as a morbid fear of developing a phobia) milked for all possible laughs by Richard Furlong as a traffic cop whose cowed and eager-to-please wife is directed to hand him each item he needs as he puts on his uniform for his first day on the job.

This year's 10-minute plays, despite good acting, were for the most part unmemorable. Dan Dietz's Trash Anthem, directed by Jennifer Hubbard, packed a wallop in Rebecca Wisocky's off-the-wall dialogue with the cowboy boots of the faithless lover she killed. The boots, voiced by Michael Laurence, offered a rebuttal. Jordan Harrison's Fit For Feet, directed by Timothy Douglas, provided some goofy moments as soon-to-be-married Greg McFadden gave in to the idea he was Nijinsky and went into his dances, causing shock and dismay to his future wife.

Describing the talented "Rhythmicity" people who seemed to be everywhere during the festival--performing singly or in conversation with one another in the theatre's lobbies and public spaces as well as appearing on panels and on stage--is daunting. Curating the seven-member collective were the electrifying singer/performer Mildred Ruiz and Stephen Sapp of New York's Universes.

Joining them, in the words of ATL, were poet/playwright Gamal Abdel Chasten; Rha Goddess, with her trademark style called Flowetry; Regie Cabico, National Slam champion and comedic wordsmith; Willie Perdomo, considered by many to be the "Nuyorican Poet Laureate", and reg e gaines, poet/playwright and writer of the Tony Award-winning musical Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk.

The theatre's claim that their "thrilling rants and rhythms range from the personal to the political and everything in-between" was well substantiated. Individually and collectively this group is spellbinding.

LINKS
Humana Festival Report--2001
Humana Festival Report--2002


Mendes at the Donmar
Our Review


At This Theater Cover
At This Theater


Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide


Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam


Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers


The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century


metaphors dictionary cover
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.



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