Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Let's Talk About Sex... And Talk... And Talk

Threesome might be the least sexy ménage a trois ever. The sex talk is theoretical, not dirty, and  foreplay involves establishing context. But at 59E59 through August 23, Yussef El Guindi offers intellectual stimulation.
Photo caption: Hunter Canning
El Guindi delves into issues of gender equality and cultural identity through an Egyptian-American couple--Leila (Alia Attallah) and Rashid (Karan Oberoi). In an attempt to work out their relationship issues, they've invited a stranger--Doug (Quinn Franzen), who they met at an office party--into their bedroom. As the characters talk their way around any actual sex, they sometimes feel more like mouthpieces than real people, but the debates not often heard on stage are worth hearing. 

Full-frontal nudity is used twice in the show, very effectively. First, Doug is introduced completely naked (bravo Franzen for being game to bare all for such a long period of time) and it's refreshing to see male nudity used as comic relief. Later, it is used as an act of empowerment. Nudity, like threesomes, doesn't always need to titillate.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Girls and Boys

Feminist. Body image. Cougar. Needy. Pushy. Family. Biological clock. These words--which immediately make one think of women--are written on a white panel on the left side of the set on which Howard Korder's Boys' Life and Rebecca Gilman's Boy Gets Girl are playing in rep through August 2. On the right of the stage is a similar panel with labels like narcissism, player, bro-mance, weakness, chiseled, testosterone, and nice guy. And in the middle is vocabulary for what happens when men and women interact--hope, friend zone, awkward, fear, marriage, and compromise. Different terms resonate in each scene in The Seeing Place Theater's thoughtful productions, directed by Erin Cronican (Boys' Life) and Brandon Walker (Boy Gets Girl).
Natalie Neckyfarow, Logan Keeler, and Brandon Walker in Boys' Life. Photo credit: Russ Rowland
In Boys' Life, the words on the male panel draw attention to the way Jack (Walker), Phil (Logan Keeler), and Don (Alex Witherow) want others to see them and the ways they are afraid of being perceived. Written in 1988 and nominated for a Pulitzer, the play presented as a series of vignettes probably felt more groundbreaking at the time. It hasn't aged well and might make more sense as a period piece (characters in this production have iPods and cell phones). It's hard to have sympathy for any of these men who behave in deplorable ways as a means to sex or the women, who let themselves be treated poorly. Sure, people like this still exist, but Boys' Life on its own doesn't say anything that interesting about them. So it is smart of The Seeing Place to pair it with a better play.
Daniel Michael Perez and Erin Cronican in Boy Gets Girl. Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Boy Gets Girl premiered in Chicago in 2000 and is still terrifying and relevant today. Journalist Theresa Bedell (Cronican, giving one of the evening's most powerful performances) goes on a decent blind date with Tony (Daniel Michael Perez) and agrees to a second date. After she realizes that there is no chemistry there, she tells him politely that work makes relationships impossible. He doesn't take no for an answer and continues to call and send flowers, even show up at her office. Gilman, with believable dialogue, hits on something really troubling in society about what is thought of as normal male behavior. It takes Theresa's coworkers some time to be seriously concerned, at first thinking Tony is sweetly persistent.

One of her coworkers, Mercer (Walker), has a theory that men are conditioned from the movies that women will reject them and then have to be chased before being won over. Though the characters in Boys' Life aren't as insane as Tony, it sets up this idea. Clearly the company has thought a lot about how the two works can have a conversation with each other, which should extend to conversations after the shows.

Boys' Life is 90 minutes and Boy Gets Girl is 120 minutes. Neither has an intermission, but there is a 30 minute break in between the two. Tickets are only $15 for each.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Drinks and Shakespeare

I love Shakespeare. I love seeing his plays performed classically. And I'm also always down to see a modern interpretation. Drunk Shakespeare caters to both the Shakespeare buff and the theatergoer who would rather see anything else than a Shakespeare play.

The space at the Lounge at Roy Arias Stages at 300 West 43rd Street is set up like a library, so if you're a nerd like me, you'll feel at home as soon as you arrive (and the complimentary shot is a nice way to kick things off). At every performance, an actor is selected as the "drunk actor." He/she starts with five shots of whiskey, and continues to drink throughout the performance of Macbeth, occasionally bringing up volunteers from the audience to join. Luckily, no one is forced to participate, but if you love being part of the show, then you might want to be the King or Queen. That means you sit in a throne during the show, drink champagne, eat caviar, and get to make decisions during the play. It's priced at $500, but if no one reserves ahead of time, it's auctioned off to the highest bidder, starting at $15.

My only complaint would be that I would have preferred a play that isn't performed as often as Macbeth, since I've seen it so many times recently, but at least I'd never seen it like this. As the actors point out, Shakespeare plays have a lot of references to alcohol, so it just makes sense. The scenes are performed using Shakespeare's original language, but actors interrupt to clarify things in the play or bring up pop culture references. You can order drinks throughout the 90 minutes and they will be brought to the table. But this is a show that can be enjoyed sober. Shakespeare really is for everybody.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

I Saw Entourage And That Doesn't Make Me A Terrible Person

According to many posts on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, the Entourage movie is the worst thing to happen in the history of cinema. Maybe even in the history of the world. I don't remember ever seeing so much hate for the release of a movie. There's nothing wrong with not wanting to see it and expressing that on social media. But what I found strange was the disbelief that anybody would have any interest in seeing it except maybe bro-y douchebags. I am a woman of reasonably sound mind and this weekend I paid (matinee price, of course, because who can afford to pay full price for movies anymore) to see Entourage in the theaters. I don't think anyone is asking me to defend myself or that anyone needs to defend the entertainment he or she chooses to consume, but with all the negativity surrounding the movie, I just wanted to throw out another perspective.

Entourage only opened at number four at the box office and it got terrible reviews. That's pretty fair. It wasn't a great or, let's be honest, even good movie. It was a movie for fans of the show. And it succeeded on that level. That's all I expected from it. Like most Entourage fans, I really enjoyed the first few seasons and then continued to watch out of a completist's need. That's also why I saw the movie, which was basically an extended episode, no better or worse than the episodes towards the end of the series.

I smiled as the familiar theme song played. Nostalgia is a powerful thing and it had been so long since I'd heard it. I was happy to see each of the characters again as they appeared, at least at first (in truth, I really only always loved Drama and tolerated the rest). All the recurring characters made appearances and acted pretty consistently with the way they acted on the show. Yes, it sucks that the female characters aren't written better. But I have other shows I watch for well-written female characters. And I think it's ok to be entertained by a show or movie with sexist characters. It's not the same as condoning the behavior. The show was always escapist, and as a woman, I can be disgusted by some of the conversations and also drawn to the fantasy of living in a huge house, eating extravagant meals, and telling people off the way Ari does.

Creator Doug Ellin has said that he would do 20 Entourage movies and I hope he gives up on that plan. It should end with this movie. But if he does make another one, I'll probably see it.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The New Group is on A Roll

To tell you the truth, The New Group has always been pretty hit or miss for me. But this 20th anniversary season has made up for all the misses with Sticks and Bones, Rasheeda Speaking, and now, The Spoils, Jesse Eisenberg's third play.
L to R: Jesse Eisenberg, Erin Darke, Michael Zegen, Annapurna Sriram, Kunal Nayyar
Photo credit: Monique Carboni
Eisenberg has once again written himself a character who is spoiled, sexist, racist, and thinks he's superior to everyone. That probably doesn't sound like a guy you want to spend two hours with, but it's impossible to look away from Eisenberg's fidgety performance, even while you cringe at the words coming out of his mouth.

Ben (Eisenberg) lives in a nice apartment (Derek McLane's set makes me jealous that I don't live there) paid for by his father. He was kicked out of film grad school, so now he spends his days working on his movies although it doesn't seem like he's ever actually made one. He lets his Nepalese roommate, Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar), stay rent free, but he treats him terribly. According to the program, Kalyan is based on Eisenberg's Nepalese friend and I hope Eisenberg treats him better in real life. It's hard not to wonder if Eisenberg is trying to ease his own guilt with his writing, but I'm not here to review the person, just the play, which is getting an excellent production directed by Scott Elliott.

Ben runs into an old classmate from grade school, Ted (Michael Zegen, mastering the art of the awkward laugh), who it turns out is marrying Ben's old crush, Sarah (Erin Darke). Ben invites Ted, Sarah, and Kalyan's girlfriend, Reshma (Annapurna Sriram), for a dinner party. The writing is sharp and funny and actually sounds like how young people talk, especially when spoken by this fine cast of actors. You might find yourself simultaneously laughing and sighing in recognition.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Marathon Theater + Sugary Cereal = A Good Way To Spend a Sunday

Madeleine Bundy as Kapow-i GoGo, Photo credit: Crystal Arnette
I often joke that the perfect run time is 75–90 minutes with no intermission. But as much as I love getting home at a decent hour, I honestly think that a show should be as long as it takes to tell the story well. I also love marathon theater. There's something fulfilling about spending the day with the same audience members, getting to know characters over a long period of time. So I happily sat through four-and-a-half hours of Kapow-i GoGo on Sunday. Based on anime and video games, Kapow-i GoGo is broken down into three parts (each is about 60-75 minutes, so it falls into my perfect run time), each further separated into three episodes. There are three-minute breaks between each episode and fifteen-minute breaks between each part, enough time to grab some free sugary cereal and candy, so you can really feel like a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons.

The saga starts with our blue-haired heroine, Kapow-i GoGo (Madeleine Bundy), at 14 as she heads with her brother, Hiccup (Michael Axelrod), and teacher, Master Masterwhiskies (Hank Lin), to a tournament to determine the World's Greatest Fighter. She even has a kick-ass theme song, written by Brian Hoes. The episodes get darker as she grows into adulthood and continuously has to save the world. She also falls in love, and not to give away too much, but it's refreshing to see a love story between two women treated so naturally.

Although I've played a lot of Super Mario Bros. in my day, I'm not as well-versed in anime and was worried that I wouldn't understand a lot of the references, but it didn't really matter. It helped that my plus one is a Pokémon fan and explained a lot of the inside jokes I missed, but the story by Matt Cox works on its own. As solely a parody, it would probably get old after an hour, but I grew to really care about the characters. A lot of this is in the writing, but also in the multi-layered performances that co-directors Kristin McCarthy Parker and Joel Soren get out of the entire cast.
Karsten Otto and Matt Cox as Mr. Smiles and Mr. Snuggles, better known as Team Trouble
Photo credit: Eleanor Philips
Bundy is both sweet and tough as Kapow-i and believably plays every age. Josh Boerman and Soren's perfect costumes also subtly change as she gets older. It truly is an ensemble piece, but I had particular affinity for Team Trouble, made up of Mr. Smiles (Karsten Otto) and Mr. Snuggles (Cox), often the comic relief, but also surprisingly moving in their friendship. And Evan Maltby broke my heart a few times as Tuxedo Gary, Kapow-i's insecure "rival since they were both babies."

Your next chance to see Kapow-i GoGo is Sunday, June 20th at 1 p.m. at the PIT. Tickets are $30 for the whole marathon and are available here, so go (go).

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Two Shocking Plays Written 400 Years Apart

In December, I wrote a blog post for Theasy.com about how I was unsettled (in a good way) by a lot of theater I had been seeing. This week I have two plays to add to the list of shows that shocked and disturbed me and they were written nearly 400 years apart: John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and Belarus Free Theatre's Trash Cuisine. (It's a good thing I split them up with the lighthearted Something Rotten! You can read my review of that show on Theasy.com.)
Amelia Pedlow, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, and Matthew Amendt in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore
Photo credit: Richard Termine
If you've never had a chance to see 'Tis Pity, Red Bull Theater's production at The Duke on 42nd Street is worth checking out. This play written in the 1630s has more incest and gore than an episode of Bates Motel. Giovanni (Matthew Amendt) and Annabella (Amelia Pedlow) are in love, but they happen to be brother and sister. The press release asks, "What if Romeo and Juliet were brother and sister?" Similarities to the work of Ford's predecessor William Shakespeare extend past the star-crossed lovers plot and include poetic language and a foolish comic relief character, in this case Bergetto (Ryan Garbayo). Jesse Berger's direction makes it easy to follow the various twists and turns (Giovanni and Annabella live in Parma surrounded by a lot of questionable people).

As fascinated as I was by the play, I felt detached from it--observing it from a distance but not able to connect to the characters. Still, I had to shield my eyes from the bloody bodies piling up at the end. And that is light entertainment compared to what the audience at La Mama has to endure during Trash Cuisine.

Belarus Free Theatre was founded in 2005 by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, who conceived this play, the company's first English work. In 2011, they found out that if they returned to Belarus, they would be imprisoned. They sought political asylum in the U.K. and now have permanent residence in London and Minsk.

Belarus is the last continent in Europe where capital punishment is legal and Trash Cuisine uses food to tell various stories about capital punishment from around the world. It is an attack on the eyes, ears, and nose. For example, we smell meat cooking as one actor describes an extremely horrific act during the Rwandan genocide and in another scene we hear a horribly loud sound simulating an electric chair. In contrast, there are moments of genuine beauty by choreographer Bridget Fiske.

I am in awe of the cast and honestly have no idea how they perform this show. I know they are acting, but some moments of brutality felt so real. They all deserved to be mentioned by name: Victoryia Biran, Kiryl Kanstantsinau, Siarhei Kvachonak, Esther Mugambi, Stephanie Pan, Pavel Radak-Haradnitski, Maryia Sazonava, Philippe Spall, and Arkadiy Yashin.

As much as I wanted to leave the theater at times, I'm glad I stuck it out. Sometimes we need a reminder of the horrors going on in the world.

'Tis Pity She's a Whore runs through May 16. Trash Cuisine runs through May 17.