Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Review: Slices of Intense Feeling

By Ed Malin

At the Brick Theater, The Festival of Lies continues from June 5 through July 5.
I saw Sweet Little Lies, which, as its title implies, is a thought-provoking program of short plays by talented regular artists at the theater.
Up first is Ruth: An Apology, written and performed by Bob Laine, directed by Maryanne Olson.  This is a moving solo piece about a man’s relationship with his mother—who has some of the supportive characteristics of the Biblical Ruth—as well as a woman named Ruth whom he dates during high school.  The young man liked boys more than girls, which, over time, turned out to be not just a phase but his identity.  Ruth was a year older, and wanted to be with him, and took on his interests, but this wasn’t the recipe for a healthy relationship.  From “Bartholemew and the Oobleck” to Billy Joel to the Atari game Pitfall and things you can do with a joystick, Bob Laine takes you down memory lane.
The second piece is The Three by Erin Bregman, directed by Maryanne Olson, with music by John Glover.  Ariana (Silvia Dionicio) sits at the center of a triangle of clicking metronomes.  Three observers (Jessica Marza, Clara Francesca and Roger Nasser) echo and critique in unison every word Ariana says. As the sound builds to a fever pitch, Ariana yells that it doesn’t matter, to which the replies is yes it does. Eventually, the three other voices cut out and Ariana can collect herself. For me, this is a piece about the oppressive nature of time.
The third piece is I Do Not See You by Richard Lovejoy, directed by Paige Blansfield. The Target (Morgan Zipf-Meister) tells us about how, as she ages, she believes that people actively try not to see her, except when they are looking for someone to blame. Perhaps it is true that babies get the most attention and it’s all downhill from there. In any case, she claims that a museum guard damaged an artwork and blamed her, which is why she went and broke something else in the museum.  If you’re going to get blamed, you might as well have done something, her logic goes. The other characters (Linus Gelber, C.L. Weatherstone and Daryl Lathon) loudly assail her for other minor things, like accidental littering. Finally, she is framed and carried off and beaten by two of the others, while the third tries to get some attention for himself.  He is ignored, and has to face the beaten woman in the end. Wouldn’t it be better for people to treat each other as equals?
The fourth piece is I [heart] Facts, written and performed by Alexis Sottile. The host of our presentation works as a fact checker for various publications. This important job is revealed to be a funny mixture of invention and harassment. We wouldn’t want the things we read to be inaccurate, would we? A few years ago, monologist Mike Daisey garnered some attention for his show about oppressive conditions in Chinese factories; at the same time, there was controversy about how much of the story was interview-based and/or fact-checked. Alexis’s adventures give some hope in a world where elected officials stray from the facts.
photo by The Brick
The fifth piece is Foxing by Greg Romero, directed by Maryanne Olson.
Beatrice  (Silvia Dionicio) is a bit of a personal trainer, complete with a whistle and furry animal ears.  Aaron (Linus Gelber) and Charlie (Bob Laine), two men not dressed for the gym, are put through a variety of aerobic exercises to dance music. Thus warmed up, they then sit and have a conversation, with the help of note cards which Beatrice hands out.  They apparently know each other, and raised a son who died.  It is so hard for them to talk to each other and find any kind of resolution that they try the exercise again until they can brave it all and go unscripted. Don’t knock drama therapy; it works!
The sixth piece is Level III by Erin Bregman, directed by Paige Blansfield
Anna (Morgan Zipf-Meister) and Lea (Anna Ty Bergman) are talking about their views of mirrors. Using stylized language, they explore some fears of the sun bouncing off a mirror and setting the house on fire. What is the difference between reflected and refracted? What do you call a lot of cracked pieces of glass? Versailles? Together, they are able to find their way to some very empowering resolutions.
The seventh piece is Hunkerpuss: The New Adventures, with words and sound by Chris Chappell, directed by Jesse Edward Rosbrow. Late at night, Polly (Rocio Mendez) is discovered watching those cartoons starring Hunkerpuss (Timothy McCown Reynolds), the cat who can never seem to stop chasing the lovely otter, Olivia Otterford (Clara Francesca). These cartoons combine several cute and awkward old cartoon characters such as Snagglepuss from Hanna-Barbera. Polly’s girlfriend Clare (Lex Friedman) joins her and offers a mixture of empathy for what is keeping Polly up and confusion about the appeal of an arguably sexist cartoon. As the two talk on the sofa, their roommate Brandon (V. Orion Delwaterman) appears from behind the sofa to offer his chock-full-of-semiotics perspective. On the other side of the stage, the adorable, lisping Hunkerpuss is seen reminiscing about the making of the classic cartoon. Eventually, not unlike some kids commercial, Hunkerpuss creates an energy portal to Polly, Clare and Brandon’s apartment. When the young fans (these appear to be the children of today, who are having this discussion 10 or 20 years from now) interrogate Hunkerpuss, he tells a fantastic story about his life as a cat, a very rich cat who could have invested in a progressive new Artificial Intelligence project but did not.  When Hunkerpuss died, he found himself alive again inside of the virtual world of the cartoon—which is controlled by the A.I.—continually forced to chase an otter. He moans that he doesn’t have a choice about such base desires. As technology permeates our world, are the animalistic traits of humanity refined away, or are they used against us?  It's a super-dramatic, finely-crafted and hilarious tale.
This show was delightful and ambitious.  Short plays, like cartoons (especially the one which mixes the two together) are magical sparkplugs which can launch a debate about human nature. Kudos to the versatile ensemble which brought to life so many interesting characters, and to the directors, some of whom worked on two or three plays of vastly different styles. Morgan Zipf-Meister’s lighting provides the intimacy that these works require.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Block Talk: Episode 67- Broken/Tired

I'm joined by Broken/Tired hosts Sarah Hill and Gunner Streitzel to discuss the latest edition of their show Broken/Tired at the legendary Stonewall Inn!

To listen to the episode, visit iTunes or SoundCloud! And leave a 5 star review while you're there!

And consider becoming a patron today by visiting patreon.com/theaterinthenow

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Block Talk- Episode 66: RuPaul's Drag Race Season 10 RuCap Episode 11

Elise Navy-Dad and I, and our inner saboteurs, are here to breakdown episode 11 of RuPaul's Drag Race season 10!

To listen to the podcast, visit iTunes or SoundCloud!

Plus, check out patreon.com/theaterinthenow to learn about becoming a patron today!

Monday, June 11, 2018

Review: Look Over Here

By Ed Malin

Blessed Unrest is presenting the compelling new play This Is Modern Art written by Idris Goodwin and Kevin Covall, directed by Jessica Burr.  We experience a dramatization of a clandestine graffiti bombing of the Art Institute of Chicago which took place in 2010.  You will certainly gain new perspectives from the debate on what art is and who decides who gets to make art.  This piece was commissioned by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater (where it premiered in 2010) and was developed by New Voices/New Visions at The Kennedy Center in 2014.  The performance I saw was followed by a talkback with the show’s Scenic Artist, veteran graffiti writer KEO XMEN.
It is Chicago in the winter of 2010. Selena (Nancy McArthur) is a young woman who hangs out with a crew of graffiti writers. In her words, "I can't draw, but I DO have a car."  As will become clear, those who don't have their own space to create and exhibit art must work very carefully together.  Selena helps keep a lookout for the police and takes her friends to safety after they put up a "piece" (i.e. a planned work, or masterpiece) on someone else's wall. Their work is often noticed and removed within a few hours, but brings immediate joy (in contrast with decades-later art appreciation) to many dispossessed people (and consternation to wealthy property owners). The Look Over Here (LOH) crew is made up of J.C. (Andrew Gonzalez), who took his new name from sports and religious personalities and Mexican populist muralists he admires, Seven (Shakur Tolliver), who is inspired by Chinese numerology, and Dose (Landon G. Woodson) who thinks MC Escher is a rapper and who doesn't see himself doing safe projects like invitation walls. LOH do not use their government names or spend much time in the "respectable" art world (which is ingeniously represented from time to time by Ashley N. Hildreth and J. Stephen Brantley as a variety of art snobs, passersby and tweeters); mistreated by the law and with racially-biased arrest records, they could never lead the carefree life Selena does.
photo by Maria Baranova
Graffiti artists, prepared for any outdoors survival situation, prefer to work at night and in fog and snow conditions.  LOH's efforts have become more and more ambitious, like the "chi" energy that reminds you of Chicago. J.C. discovers that patrol cycles and a busted security camera could give LOH enough time to piece the wall of the modern wing of the Art Institute.  They will have 14 minutes. If you've seen Blessed Unrest's work, you might be prepared for wild and crazy transformations of ordinary scenic objects.  For this show, the set is dominated by dozens of plain-looking brown boxes. During the dramatic scene outside the Art Institute, J.C., Seven and Dose turn and rearrange all of the boxes to create a very colorful work of art. They all escape with Selena and settle down to dinner (one of the boxes is opened to produce a table cloth), where they learn from TV news that their masked activities were caught on security camera.   Since we still don’t know the identities of the graffiti artists, the play ensures that they separate and lie low for a while.  Selena is even pressured by her parents to talk to a lawyer and find a way to protect herself, lest she is sued for $1 million.  While these characters find new horizons to pursue, their success is bittersweet.  Art is still largely the domain of white, elitist institutions and graffiti is hurriedly removed at taxpayer expense.
This play is well-written and fast-paced.  The excellent ensemble under Jessica Burr’s direction examine many viewpoints about art and culture which often enough are not heard in the mainstream media.  Matt Opatrny’s scenery, Heydee Zelideth’s costumes and Miriam Nilofa Crowe’s lighting keep things very real, focusing less on the urban environment than on the crew’s ability to reshape their surroundings. Things came into sharper focus thanks to the talkback with KEO XMEN.  He began writing graffiti in Brooklyn, NY in 1979, and nowadays is in demand as artist and consultant for detailed 1970s and 80s period pieces such as “Vinyl”.   His stories of the 1970s show us a time when New York City was falling apart and, perhaps, spray paint was the only thing holding some subway cars together. Urban children whom the bankrupt city couldn’t afford to educate were drawing masterpieces by age 9-15.  Such artists, who could turn urban decay into pockets of beauty for their neighborhoods to enjoy, could, working together in crews, cross areas controlled by different gangs and achieve surprising things.  Gangs might be seen guarding a graffitied handball court.   The transformative power of this art made a big impression on me.  If KEO XMEN senses the authenticity of storytelling in This Is Modern Art, I’m sure that you will, too.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Spotlight On...Ryan Wesley Stinnett

Name: Ryan Wesley Stinnett

Hometown: Army Brat (Although I’ll hit 10 years in NYC this August… so here!?!)

Education: MFA in Acting: University of Virginia

Select Credits: LOCKED UP BITCHES (Dir. Michael Raine), The Nomad (Dir. Elizabeth Swados), Take Care (Dir. Niegel Smith)

Why theater?: The community. The community of the people it takes to put a show on and the community of the audience that attends it. Nothing beats the energy of a live performance. An entire theatre breathing and experiencing the same emotions in unison, how could you not want to be a part of that?

Who do you play in the hollower?: Pigman

Tell us about the hollower: Without giving too much or not enough away, I would say that the hollower is a kind of modern ghost story. It’s not a ghost story in the traditional sense at all. The things haunting the characters of this play are all real-world occurrences. These characters are haunted by societal expectations, misogyny, gender roles and all the other systemic things that affect people daily. The play also has a lot of humor and each individual audience member is likely to connect to the show differently.

What is it like being a part of the hollower?: It’s definitely been a ride. This is the kind of play that opens itself up to you more and more every day. I’m still constantly understanding and learning new things about this show. I can’t wait until we have audiences because they will teach me even more about what is happening in the world of this play.

What kind of theater speaks to you? What or who inspires you as an artist?: I am not a fan of theatre that beats the audience over the head trying to educate them. To me, theatre pieces that set out to educate generally wind up feeling self-congratulatory and the message gets lost, no matter how good their intentions are. However, I am a huge proponent of entertainment for entertainment’s sake because I firmly believe that when theatre is done correctly you should always be learning something new about the world and your place in it. I like my theatre to have a point and a purpose, but I don’t particularly like it when it makes its mission known. I like difficult plays that take risks with form, subject matter, storytelling, and language. I also like really, really silly and over-the-top things. When I do my own writing I tend to gravitate towards an absurd, accessible humor that celebrates universal themes and is appropriate for audiences of all ages. When I perform other people’s work I tend to gravitate towards much darker themes and subject matter.

Any roles you’re dying to play?: I would love to play any character in American Idiot or Hair (Don’t even get me started on how they are companion pieces and should be performed in rep), Andre in Three Sisters, and either son in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Really I’ll do anything. I’m not that picky. I’d also kill to just be a factory worker in Kinky Boots or a parent in School of Rock. But let’s be real: the role I am most dying to play is anything that will get me my Equity Card. You could even get me to do a George Bernard Shaw play for that.

What’s your favorite showtune?: See above. Anything from Hair or American Idiot.

If you could work with anyone you’ve yet to work with, who would it be?: I would absolutely love to work with Charles Busch. I’m a huge fan of his work and fun fact: the only play that I ever won an acting award for [so far] was a production of Psycho Beach Party that I did in North Carolina. As you may have already guessed, I played Star Kat, the most handsome surfer on the beach. I just love how silly and over-the-top his work is but how they also have a very strong kindness to them. They are never mean-spirited in their humor. I am also such a fan of the Youngblood Playwrights at Ensemble Studio Theatre. Past and present, I have always found them to be super top-notch. I would love to work with any of them. I am consistently impressed by the work happening at EST.

Who would play you in a movie about yourself and what would it be called?: At this point in my life I would probably be played by the newest, quietest, and most lonely freshman at Marymount Manhattan. The film would be called NON-EQUITY GREENROOM. They would do a fine job with the role, but they would become so frustrated with NYC that after the filming they would drop out of school and move back to Topeka, KS.

If you could go back in time and see any play or musical you missed, what would it be?: Easy: Passing Strange. Thank God Spike Lee filmed it.

What show have you recommended to your friends?: I have been such a bad theatregoer this year. That is, I suppose, the biggest problem of being lucky enough to be cast in back-to-back shows: you have no time to make it out to see what else is being produced around town. What I can say, though, is the show I am most excited to see and the one that is being recommended to me the most right now: Clare Barron’s Dance Nation at Playwrights Horizons. Hopefully I will be able to snag a ticket to see that before they are all gone. Better yet, hopefully Playwrights will offer me a complimentary house seat because I just plugged their show.

What’s your biggest guilty pleasure?: The Voice. And I do not feel bad about that at all. Wait. What is a guilty pleasure?

What’s up next?: Unsure. Having just spent my entire 2018 thus far working on projects that couldn’t be more different from each other, a hip-hop parody of a certain Netflix show called LOCKED UP BITCHES and the super dark haunt-comedy the hollower, I’m don't even know what the next natural progression would be. Maybe a show that mixes upper-case and lower-case lettering in its title? Perhaps it will be getting my Equity Card for doing a Shaw play after all. Most likely though I will take a bit of time to give some much-needed love to some writing projects that I have been a bad parent to lately. I’d also like to get back into comedy for the summer so if anybody needs a timeslot filled on a character night, hit me up.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Spotlight On...Liza Birkenmeier

Name: Liza Birkenmeier

Hometown: Olivette, MO

Education: BA Washington University in St. Louis. MFA Carnegie Mellon

Favorite Credits: Tragedy in Spades: A Crime Documentary with Katherine Brook as part of the Artist-in-Residence program at University Settlement.

Why theater?: I’m not exactly sure, but I think it has something to do with wanting to be able to physically participate in the film "A League of Their Own."

Tell us about the hollower: It’s meant to be about how we perform gender and sexuality in our moralist patriarchy! So it’s a horror and a comedy, I hope. 

What inspired you to write the hollower?: I heard a podcast about a seventeenth century colonizing program where Parisian women were sent to New France Canada to help populate the invaded territory. I was curious about how femininity has been shaped by imperialism. This seemed to demand a piece that was formally anti-Aristotelian.

What kind of theater speaks to you? What or who inspires you as an artist?: I love almost all theatergoing experiences in some way. Performances featuring human bodies in real time are so exciting. Visual art, Suzan-Lori Parks, novels.

If you could work with anyone you’ve yet to work with, who would it be?: I would love to write the book for a St. Vincent musical.

What show have you recommended to your friends?: "Dance Nation" by Clare Barron.

Who would play you in a movie about yourself and what would it be called?: Kathy Najimi would play me as a child; Kathy Bates would play me as an adult. Title: "Magic Kathy." It probably wouldn’t be about me at all.

If you could go back in time and see any play or musical you missed, what would it be?: Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill, 1979. 

What’s your biggest guilty pleasure?: Naming cats and children I don’t have.

If you weren’t working in theater, you would be _____?: Naming my cats and children.

What’s up next?: radio island at NYSAF Powerhouse at Vassar: June 28-July 8.

For more on Liza, visit http://www.lizabirkenmeier.com/

Block Talk: Episode 65 (RuPaul's Drag Race Season 10 RuCap Episode 10)

Miz Diamond Wigfall and I become social media moguls as we break down the latest episode of RuPaul's Drag Race season 10!

To listen to the podcast, visit iTunes or SoundCloud!

And check out Patreon.com/theaterinthenow to become a patron of the podcast today!