Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Some Dialogue In Small Mouth Sounds, But The Rest is Silence

"Each time we invite you to Ars Nova, we go all out to deliver an experience like no other," reads the program note from Jason Eagan and Renee Blinkwolt, artistic and managing directors. They are succeeding. Where else can you find a working Jacuzzi on stage or a play with almost no dialogue? The latter is the case with Bess Wohl's Small Mouth Sounds, which takes place at a silent retreat.
Foreground: Marcia DeBonis and Sakina Jaffrey; Background: Jessica Almasy and Erik Lochtefeld
Photo credit: Ben Arons
Wohl, director Rachel Chavkin, and the cast do a remarkable job of creating compelling narrative with very little talking. We know, for example, that Joan (Marcia DeBonis) and Judy (Sakina Jaffrey) are together, but something is going on between them, from their ease in holding each other but also their distance. Or that Rodney (Babak Tafti) loves to show off his body and expertise in yoga. Tilly Grimes's costumes and Noah Mease's props also go a long way to establish characters, like a bedazzled phone and Trader Joe's grocery bag for the frazzled Alicia (Jessica Almasy) or a child's backpack that Jan (Erik Lochtefeld) carries or even a package of tissues that Ned (Brad Heberlee) is constantly trying to pass off to those in need of comforting.

The audience is seated on either side of the action, so close that it feels as if we are also on the retreat. When the teacher (Jojo Gonzalez, who does speak, but is never seen) says to breath in and out, I found myself doing it as well. Though not all the characters leave healed--some have more problems than when they started--as an audience member, I did leave with slightly lighter baggage and new hope about what theater can be.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Want Discount Tickets to The Lion?

I recently wrote a story about how Benjamin Scheuer turned his life into the musical The Lion with the help of director Sean Daniels. You can read it in TDF Stages. If you haven't seen the show yet (or if you want to see it again), you can use the promo code LOVETHELION214 for 50% off tickets. I'm not trying to be a shill here. I'm just spreading the word about a show that I like. If my recommendation isn't enough, listen for yourself:

So, Why Was The Baker's Wife A Flop?

Fans of musical theater history have the rare chance to see The Baker's Wife, the troubled 1976 musical that played a pre-Broadway tour but never made it to Broadway. I figured there was a reason this musical didn't succeed, but The Gallery Players' production, directed by Barrie Gelles, makes a pretty strong case that it just didn't get its due.

Maybe it's because I just finished my Gilmore Girls rewatch, but the small village in 1935 Provence, France where the play is set reminded me a bit of Stars Hollow, with everybody in everyone else's business and constantly bickering. When the baker dies, the village is tragically left without bread. But finally a new baker, Aimable (Charlie Owens) arrives with his young wife, Genevieve (Alyson Leigh Rosenfield). Everything is great for a while, until she runs off with the town Don Juan, Dominique (Jesse Manocherian).

If you've ever seen a Broadway leading lady in concert, you're probably familiar with the ballad "Meadowlark." The rest of Stephen Schwartz's score is just as lovely and is served well in the capable voices of this cast, especially the songs performed by Manocherian. When he opens his mouth to sing, it becomes immediately clear why he was cast, though he could use some more of that passion in the dialogue scenes. There's also a lot of unexpected humor in both the lyrics and the book by Joseph Stein, but that's not to say the book isn't without its problems--cliché dialogue and subplots about the villagers that are not as fully developed as the love triangle.

But these are issues with the musical itself, not the production. The Gallery Players always does a lot with a small theater's budget. Ryan Howell's set--separated into a cafe, the baker's home, and the rest of the town--is charming. The only time when budget is an issue is that nobody ever eats the bread (presumably so it can be reused). It just takes you out of the moment when everyone is going on and on about how happy they are to have warm, fresh bread without ever tasting it. Still, the show is going to make you crave carbs, so be sure you have some stocked at home for afterwards.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Long Story Short at 59E59

If you're meant to be with someone, you'll know. That's what Hope (Pearl Sun) and Charles (Bryce Ryness) were raised to believe. She was told the Chinese legend that a red string tied to your ankle leads you to the one you will marry. He was taught bashert, the Yiddish word for "meant to be." But finding that person doesn't mean everything will be easy. Long Story Short, playing at 59E59 through March 29, follows the ups and downs of their relationship over the course of 50 years (or 90 minutes; time works differently here, the program states).
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy
Married team Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda based the musical off of David Schulner's play An Infinite Ache. The songs and dialogue are fluid, the way time is in this show. Sun and Ryness seamlessly transition from speaking to singing that you may not notice. Likewise, David L. Aesenault's bedroom set slowly evolves with the addition of photographs and other items (Sara Slagle is the props master) showing the passage of time.

Cultural differences are addressed, such as what religion to raise the children, but race isn't the central issue. That's not often the case with interracial relationships onstage and it's nice to see. The story is universal, but the downside is that sometimes it's a bit too general, with not enough details about these two people. Still, Sun and Ryness are so likable that it's easy to look past any issues and go along their journey.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

The Seeing Place Takes on Othello

The mission of off-off-Broadway theater company The Seeing Place is one that I think everyone can get behind--to make theater approachable and affordable (all tickets are $15). Its sixth season explores gender warfare, victim shaming, racial bias, and police corruption. What better play to kick off those themes than William Shakespeare's Othello? This production, directed by Brandon Walker and Erin Cronican, updates the play through the lens of current relations between the Middle East and America  using modern dress and music, but retaining Shakespeare's original language.
Brandon Walker (Iago), Ian Moses Eaton (Othello), Logan Keeler (Cassio), Photo credit: JHoch Photography
Things are going pretty well for Othello (Ian Moses Eaton), a black Arab, at the beginning of the play. He's recently been made a general and has just married Desdemona (Cronican), a white senator's daughter. But as you probably know, trusted friend Iago (Walker), fueled by jealousy, devises a plan to destroy Othello, convincing him that his wife is having an affair with Cassio (Logan Keeler). If you've seen the play, it's still worth checking out. The actors delivered their lines in a way that I was able to understand them more clearly than I have before. I could quibble with overuse of contemporary touches--the cell phones are sometimes distracting--but for the most part, the staging is exciting, especially during the booze-filled, raucous scenes. For anyone who wonders why Shakespeare plays are still so frequently performed, this production proves why they continue to be relevant.

Othello runs through March 15 at the Clarion Theatre in Kips Bay. The Seeing Place is currently in the middle of a fundraising campaign to make the space its permanent home.