Sunday, October 2, 2011

It's Fucking Great to Be in Theta Pi

As I walked in the frat house, I was greeted by the fraternity's chaplain, who introduced us to a bunch of the brothers. We just happened to be there for... oops. Did I call it a "frat"? We were later reminded never to abbreviate "fraternity" as "frat." After all, we wouldn't abbreviate our country the same way, would we?

This is the tone of The New Colony's hilarious hit show Frat playing at The Apartment Lounge, a nightclub above Chicago's Lion Head Pub. Evan Linder's play brings us into the Theta Pi Psi fraternity house during the week before initiation (known as "Hell Week") and introduces us to a group of fraternity pledges, the brothers who are initiating them and their respective girlfriends. The new pledges are roommates Fleet (Will Cavedo) and Ross (Joel Kim Booster), legacy Kevin (Quinn White) and Todd (Patriac Coakley) who just wants to see if he can make some new friends.

Determined to make life dificult for them--at least until they become full-fledged brothers--are Jerry (Gary Tiedmann), Benjamin (Steve Gensler) and Blake (Jared Fernley), despite the better efforts of some of the gentler brothers like Michael (Alexandr Lane) and Steven (Wes Needleham).

The girls in the play are Sara Catherine (Meg Johns) Blake's girlfriend whose tits are the reason most of the new pledges signed up, Natalie (Thea Lux) Benjamin's girlfriend who has already slept with most of the Theta Pis, Amy (Tara-Jayne Sissom) no one's girlfriend and the frat house DUG--Designated Ugly Girl--and Katie (Caitlin Chuckta) Todd's girlfriend who doesn't understand why Greek life is so important to her boyfriend and his friends.

Rounding out the cast are playwright Evan Linder, Benno Nelson, Kevin Stangler, Brandon Ruiter, Sophie Gatins and Nick Delehanty.

Andrew Hobgood's direction utilizes the entire space and the actors encourage the audience to walk around the room, following the action of the play (often to the tune of "Dude, you gotta see this!" or "You don't wanna miss this!"). We walked around the room as the lights changed or as we heard a scene begin somewhere else, we sat on the couches and chairs with the characters as we watched scenes unfold, and in some cases, if we were in the way, we had to interact with them. Maneuvering a cast of this size is no easy task, but Hobgood accomplishes it with ease.

The play moved seamlessly from scene to scene, location to location. Many of us had to be coaxed early on to get closer to the action (I was told at one point, "Go ahead, sit on the couch"), but as the play went on and we all got more comfortable with how it would work, we were eager to get ourselves to the next playing space when a new scene would begin.

This was also due to the wit and humor with which playwright Evan Linder allowed us to get to know his characters. We got to laugh with them and learn their jokes, like when Natalie describes the difference between Theta Pi and some of the other fraternities on campus ("Theta Pi, helluva guy! Sigma Chi, rapists.") or when Ross yearns for the kinds of girls he'll be able to get once he's initiated ("I wound up making out with a Gender Studies minor, Tech Theatre major.").

But the play is not just a fun romp through sophomoric nostalgia. It's a searing look at what one will go through to make friends, the kind who will presumably "stand next to you at your wedding" and whatever major life event should follow, including your funeral. Hell Week finally takes its toll on all involved during the night before the final initiation. Rifts between friends begin when Lux as Natalie and Johns as Sara Catherine drop the humor which had characterized them as they expose each other's more embarrassing sexual exploits in front of the brothers. Gensler as Benjamin questions Natalie's fidelity to him and takes his anger out on his least favorite of the new pledges. Coakley as Todd navigates through the difficult decisions of where to place his loyalty while Chuckta as Katie urges him to be faithful to the real friends whose loyalty has been tested rather than those who put him through hell testing his. If the play's ending is not as jovial as the opening promises, it leaves us with more to consider and chew on than a neatly wrapped up comedy.

Frat is the kind of theatrical experience one rarely finds, and even more rarely done as well as this one was. Anone who finds themselves in the Chicago area should definitely head over and check out The New Colony's Frat. After all, "it's fucking great to be in Theta Pi!"

Frat runs at The Apartment Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm. To buy tickets, click here.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Good, Old Fashioned Italian-American fairy Tale

I was delighted to see a brand new musical comedy playing at the Prospect Theatre Company recently. Maybe because old-fashioned musical comedies make me giddy, or maybe because I love all things Italian-American (except for Jersey Shore). But this new musical is actually a product of New Jersey, not just a Staten Island import. It's called Once Upon a Time in New Jersey and it's the story of Vinnie, a nebbish Italian deli clerk who falls for Angie, who has fallen for Rocco, as have all the other women in town. Alas, one of the women who has fallen for Rocco is the local dance teacher, Celeste, whose husband is not only jealous, but also a mob member. So, while Rocco lays low, Vinnie gets to be Rocco.

The music by Stephen Weiner, is infectious and romantic and the lyrics by Susan DiLallo are often very clever and always full of heart. Particularly fun, for me, was the second-act comedy song "Quando Scungili," in which Rocco translates faux Italian phrases for lovebirds Vinnie and Angie.

In the central role of Vinnie, David Perlman was equal parts adorable and awkward. And it wasn't difficult to see why he'd fall for a girl like Angie, especially as portrayed by Briga Heelan who's sweet smile and silver voice won everyone over. As Rocco, Jeremy Cohen brought a beautiful sensitivity to a role that could easily have been played as Danny-Zuko-lite. Also worth mentioning are the hilarious and high-kicking Catherine LeFrere as Celeste and Jonathan Gregg as her thuggish but equally hilarious husband Billy. Samie Mounts, Darcy Yellin and Mishaela Faucher brought a beautiful blend of humor and harmony as Rocco's gaggle of girlfriends, Conchetta, Lorretta and Etta.

All in all, it was a wonderful evening at the theatre that left me with a huge, silly grin on my face. It was sweet, fun and romantic. Everything you'd want out of an old-fashioned Italian-American fairy tale!

One Upon a Time in New Jersey is no longer running.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Manhattan Rep's Trifecta

I got to see three new one-act plays in Manhattan Repertory Theatre's fall play series. Manhattan Rep's home is in a very intimate black-box theatre in the Times Square Arts Center building. This is an advantage for some of the plays, though unfortunately not all.

The first of the three was called Family Business, written by, produced by and starring Julia Genoveva. The play centers around a family owned funeral home, run by three sisters. Elizabeth (Alex Celeste Muniz) wants to honor the promise she made to their parents and keep the funeral home running. Jessica (Genoveva) is fed up with the home and, it seems, her sisters. Jules (Cherish Monique Duke) doesn't seem--at first--to care about anything. Until Angel (Lodric D. Collins) appears. Jessica falls in love at first sight, but Angel asks Liz out instead. Suddenly Jules, seeing her family slipping apart, feels the urge to keep her sisters together, at any cost, no matter how melodramatic. The script doesn't offer much and Mia Anderson's direction does not help, particularly in the case of the play's writer/star, who has created Jessica to be whiny and self-centered with little perspective on how ridiculous she sounds with almost every line. The main problem, though, is the play which is inconsistent and doesn't seem to be about anything except petty problems of petty people. Muniz and Collins rose to the occasion, offering not only the most realistic acting, but also the most honest relationship. Still, the play seemed like the round table cloth placed on the square table in one scene. Everything was in the right place, yet nothing really fit.

Next up came Pervert, written and directed by Dean Preston, which was certainly several steps up from its predecessor, though not without room for improvement. Pervert at least has something to say, though exactly what it is gets a little lost somewhere within the play. Still, the play raises some serious issues, and though it doesn't answer all of its questions, it attempts to tell a story that matters. The plot somewhat mimics David Mamet's Oleanna, a college campus story of the clash between a teacher and his female student when his actions are percieved as sexual harassment, though the male and female in Preston's play are both students. Kaitlyn (Jesikah Murray) likes to track down sickos in chat rooms and tempt their perversions. But when an online chat leads her to a conversation with classmate Eddie (Charlie Solis) she decides to take action and expose him in the school's newspaper. Her article, intending to warn female students against perverts, defames Eddie. His attempts to find out why she targeted him escalate until both students find themselves in the Dean's office. Solis is an honest actor, though his energy doesn't always match that of his cast-mates, especially Murray, with who he shares most of his stage time. Victoria Curtain and Emily Rupp bring a nice air of humor to the mostly grim play as Kaitlyn's friends Emma and Rebecca, and Brandon Peker is delightful as Eddie's friend, would-be womanizer Walker. The necessary grounding and maturity is provided by Bobbi Owens in the role of Dean Hodstern. The biggest difference between Oleanna and Pervert is that where Mamet makes it difficult to discern who is right and who is wrong, Preston has clearly marked Kaitlyn as manipulative and dishonest in her indecent exposé. I look forward to seeing where this play goes. At the moment, there are three endings and it's difficult to tell exactly what the play wants to be about, but it raises topics that deserve the scrutiny the play gives them: What exactly makes a pervert? When does a perversion become a danger? And who are you actually talking to in that internet chat room?

The final play that I saw was entitled Chinatown is Full of Rooms or (Kiss)(Kiss)(Purr). This remarkable play by Seth Moore seemed to be two plays in one. One one side of the stage a man and a woman, named only + (Leigh Adel-Arnold) and -- (Sean Tant), are together in bed under accidental circumstances for the first time since their relationship ended. She needed somewhere to stay because of something that happened. He found himself at the same bar she was at for some reason or other. Moore makes it very clear that the actual reasons that brought them together aren't important. It was their need that brought them together. As they talk, mostly about how much they dislike each other, they slowly disrobe and climb into bed. Simultaneously on the other side of the stage a character named LuvR (Jessica Hendricks) has breakfast with a man she just spent the night with, and regales him with stories of her past lovers, particularly the one who died the same day a charcoal etching of him faded, in an attempt to... endear him? Warn him? Scare him away? Directed by Alex Bisker, the production is simple and honest, willing the audience to hang on every word, not in order to find the story, but in order to feel the need of all three characters. Tant is beautifully scruffy and rough around the edges as he attempts to woo his ex, not quite sure if the same lines will still work. Adel-Arnold presents herself as cold-as-ice, but every refusal she gives is filled with yearning and every glance back towards her ex is the glare of self-restraint. Hendricks finds ways to make the most absurd lines (for example, "I'll never forget it, it was so timeless") seem completely natural, so that you not only believe every story she tells, you want to hear more Most remarkable about all of the performers is their ease with language, as they navigate through a play that seems to move seamlessly between naturalistic dialogue and slam-poetry, rhythms and rhymes intertwining like music as the lovers explore each other, be it for the first time or the last. As the young woman finishes her muffin and makes her new lover an etching of his own, the ex-couple's failed attempt at sex comes to a halt with a cry of pain. She doesn't remember the things he wishes she did and he's not as drunk as she wishes he were. And it starts to snow.

The Manhattan Repertory Theatre's Fall Play series is no longer running. Visit for information on upcoming festivals.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Environmental Dance for 'Scherzo'

Something very exciting happened the other night at Alice's Teacup on the Upper East Side. Then again, the most exciting things tend to happen in unconventional theatre spaces.

When I walked into Alice's after hours, one side of the room had been lined with chairs where a long table normally sat, and the other side had been shifted so that it was as though the audience were peering into the window of a cafe, almost like Alice's. Upon arrival, the actors were already in place at their tables, checking phone messages, listening to music, sipping iced coffees and picking at scones and croissants. Some of them were practically in our laps!

Then the action began for the first installment of what is to be a series of environmental theatre pieces by David Alex Andrejko called Scherzo. It started, appropriately enough, with music which set the tone for a tightly choreographed evening of glances into the lives of seemingly unrelated people in a cafe.

At first the server, named Capacity (Melissa McNerney), seemed to be the only link between the customers, though her main interest seemed to be in a scruffy blue collar worker named Man (Adrien Saunders) who appears, at least inwardly, to reciprocate her interest. At the opposite table sat a young woman named Our (Jillian Mason) a compulsive eater waiting to hear back from a man she'd been seeing. And in the middle sat two friends, Maid (Molly Groome) and Create (Zac Walker), discussing rifts between friends, co-workers and lovers, without ever really listening to each other.

At many points during the action Andrejko has the characters talking simultaneously, as would happen in a real cafe, forcing the audience to catch glimpses of all the conversations, focus in on one, or else let the symphonic cacophony speak for itself.

Ellen Orenstein's direction, alongside Anna DeMers' choreography, help to guide the audience's eye where it needs to go, and also let us know when it's okay to just soak everything in. The connection of movement to dialogue to character to sound is impeccable. At moments the entire cafe will go into slow motion, focus on one or two character for just a moment, before rushing back into the noisy hustle and bustle of daily life. We get just enough to glimpse those moments of true human interaction before a cell phone buzzes or a car horn honks.

Groome and Walker, as the friends in the middle, seem completely in tune with each other, their rhythms both balancing and battling each other as they talk, but don't hear. Mason's ferocity is kept in check by extreme discipline, which shines through in her quieter moments. McNerney's honesty, through all the stylized choreography and staging, makes the absurdity of her character's actions come across as always sincere. In fact, all the actors live in a world of stylized motion and absurdity, which is tempered by emotional truth. The most down to earth of the bunch, without losing the style completely, is Saunders as the hard working Man.

The soundtrack to this ballet comes from Alex Winston's recently released EP album Choice Notes, with additional music by Kevin Becker. The score, designed meticulously by Chip Rodgers, is central to the piece. The term "scherzo" comes from music, a jaunty comical refrain to be played as a part of a more serious whole. Indeed, the term "scherzo" is directly translated as "joke."

Throughout the piece, each character has a chance to talk to each other character in the piece, and yet, through the text interruptions, the phone calls, the bathroom runs, the cigarette breaks, we get the impression that no one has actually communicated with another person onstage. The last few moments of the show left the audience watching the characters solitary, disconnected from each other, focused only on their own issues, plugged into their electronic devices. So, who's the joke on?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Surprising 'Cabaret' from Brooklyn

I will admit that when I was invited by a friend to join her to see a production of Joe Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb's Cabaret in the tiny upstairs space at The Players Theatre on MacDougal Street, I was terrified at the prospect. Terrified to see what would be--no doubt--a glorified concert with a small cast and an upright piano. Terrified to see what would be--no doubt--another rehash of the Sam Mendes production which I loved upon first viewing, but have grown tired of. Terrified to see what would be--no doubt--an oversexed bastardization of a show I love dearly.

Boy was I wrong.

There were a few elements of the Brooklyn Theatre Arts Project's production of Cabaret, directed by Carlo Rivieccio, that didn't sit so well with me. This production had more girl-on-girl action than I've ever seen in any production which, while titillating, was dramatically questionable at points. Some of the performances, particularly the sweet-voiced Alex Amarosa who gave us his best Jackie Mason impersonation as Herr Schultz, left me cold if not cringing. And the Nazi death dance at the end was simply unnecessary; I'm fairly certain everyone in the audience was aware of what happened after the Nazis rose to power.

But overall, this production had a lot to boast about. Josh Iacovelli's design for the show--both sets and lights--is stark, spare and very flexible, allowing the small space to serve as a boarding house, a fruit shop and the Berlin train station, seemingly without ever leaving the Kit Kat Klub. The lights often add eerie red glows and even illuminate the audience at points, reminding us of our roles in the action. Taking this a step further, director Rivieccio often has the Kit Kat girls and boys seated in the house as audience members during scenes outside of the Kit Kat Klub, holding a distorted mirror up to the audience. One thinks of the myriad people who sat back and watched while the Nazi Party grew more powerful.

Janine Molinari's choreography is often inspired, flowing more from the material itself than the oft-seen urge to imitate Bob Fosse's choreography from the film. There are a few clever homages, but overall it is refreshingly creative. Molinari's routines for the opening numbers of both acts were high points of the show. I was sorry to see that "The Telephone Song," listed in the program, was omitted from the production. It would have been fun to see what Molinari could do with that far-too-often cut dance.

The program promised a few numbers that were, unfortunately, not delivered. One of these is my personal favorite song in the show, "Why Should I Wake Up?" which was replaced by the seldom heard and very charming "Don't Go," which was a lovely showcase for Stephen Elkins as Cliff Bradshaw, who had not had much of a chance to show off his lovely tenor voice. Mr. Elkins did a terrific job providing the eyes of the audience in the character of Cliff, allowing us to first be seduced and along the way fall in love with Sally Bowles as he did.

Which brings us to the central character of the piece: Sally. Played by Vivienne Cleary, this was a Sally unlike any Sally I can ever remember seeing. And somehow, this was the truest Sally I can remember seeing. Perhaps it's because of the stamp left by Liza Minelli from Fosse's film version (in which a number of elements about her character were changed from the stage version) that has caused so many actresses to play her a little too glamorous, a little too talented, a little too worldly wise. Cleary portrayed Sally Bowles as all of those things--within the confines of her own mind. Sally Bowles is whatever Sally Bowles decides to be, but Cleary made sure we were aware that it was all a fantasy. Mix that with her strong dancing and stronger voice and you've got a performance that deserves to go down in the records as one of the best performances of the role--at least that I've had the pleasure of seeing.

Also worth noting: Christopher Semidey danced the you-know-what out of his role as the Emcee and sang a beautifully sleazy rendition of "I Don't Care Much." Jackie Wolter brought tears to my eyes as Fraulein Schneider during "What Would You Do?" Johanna Telander played Fraulein Kost with just the right mixture of sex and guile. And I mentioned my fear of seeing Cabaret accompanied by one upright piano, right? Well, their tiny band, consisting of baby grand, percussion, bass guitar, violin and trumpet filled the room with sound beautifully.

Bravo to the Brooklyn Theatre Arts Project for their stunning production of Cabaret. I'll be sure to be on the lookout for more productions from them, and I'll be sure to post them here.

The Brooklyn Theatre Arts production of Cabaret is no longer running.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Collaborative Double Feature

I've been remiss in my posting, particularly in regards to Collaborative Stages, a small company which has been bringing full productions of established and new plays, as well as concerts and special events, to the New York theatre community.

Most recently they produced the double feature of Somewhere in Between by Ryan Sprague and Deflowering Waldo by Adam Szymkowicz.

The contrast, for those of us who spent the entire evening with Collaborative Stages, was beautiful, and beautifully orchestrated.

We started off our evening with an intimate look at relationships. Blood vs. water. It's blood that brings that characters together and blood that ultimately bonds them.

Greg (Erik Gullberg) and Joshua (Jeffrey A. Wisniewski) are brothers who come together for this first time since their mother has passed away. And also for the first time since Joshua has married Lissa (Ariel Woodiwiss), a conservative Christian. Greg is rebellious, confrontational and a disruptive force in what he sees as false happiness in his brother's home. Lissa wants him out until they are forced to spend a day together, during which all of the secrets come out. Both Joshua and Greg have secrets about their past and the death of their younger brother, and each will tell the story differently. Though these secrets bring Lissa and Gr
eg closer together, Greg acts rashly when he fears it could come between him and his brother.

The stark design by Elise Handelman showed us the structure of a home with no real walls, no real doors, and no real roof. The semblance of a home which, when struck by Michael Megliola's lighting design, proves to be nothing more than a shell. The cast, under the direction of Collaborative Stage's Artistic Director Brian Letchworth, was well up to the challenges of the play, and wide open to the questions posed by it. It was good to see that no one involved was afraid of the insecurity posed by the play's grisly end, nor to embrace that which is grisly in all relationships.

Ariel Woodiwiss and Erik Gullberg

After this rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows, they brought us into the life of Waldo (Jordan Levin), an agoraphobic, misanthropic, manic-depressive virgin who--at 24--is still afraid of the monster under his bed. If Somewhere In Between was a rollercoaster of emotions which rang true for its audience, Deflowering Waldo was a rollercoaster of stylized hilarity. Waldo's psychologist, the brilliantly uninhibited Heather Dudenbostel, must visit his room to analyze him, since he will not leave. Convenient for her, since her only real plan is to de-virginize him. There are problems, though. Waldo's mother (Cheryl Lynn Crabtree) has dinner on the table and his father (Robert Eigen) wants him to mow the lawn. (Waldo's father has also recently adopted a Scottish accent.) To make matters worse, his newest girlfriend (Megan Sass) is pounding down the door to know why he stood her up on their date. The cast is rounded out by Danielle Strauss as Waldo's ex-girlfriend and Erin M. Callahan as the Monster under Waldo's bed.

Levin, as Waldo, is the axis on which this frightening carousel revolves, and he is up to the task. He provides a mania that fits into the stylized nature of the show, but never loses the honesty we need to believe in his fears. The rest of the cast follows suit to bring a sincerely touching conclusion to the frantic evening, tightly directed by Jeff Crosley.

From the divine to the absurd (and back again) Collaborative Stages' double feature of Somewhere In Between and Deflowering Waldo made for an evening of tears, both of laughter and catharsis.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Great Comedy (via the Back Door)

I've stumbled upon a comedy duo that I need to recognize here. Not only are they hilarious, they're also running a terrific stand-up show every other Monday night at Bar Nine where comedians of all stripes come to try out their new material and tickle the audience's collective funny-bone. They are Kelly and Lindsey and they are the brassy, beautiful and always blunt hostesses of Back Door Comedy.

Kelly Wallace-Barnhill and Lindsey Gentile

An evening with Kelly and Lindsey can range from stories about pinworms to the history of their dating lives (Lindsey has a new boyfriend named Micah and 2010 is looking to be a repeat of what Kelly refers to as "The Year of the Dry Vagina"). In fact, sex--or the lack thereof--seems to be a common thread in the act. Kelly even put an ad out on Craigslist to find a new man... not so much for the sex, but so she'd have someone to take on double dates with Lindsey and Micah. They even video-taped the test-date they went on with their three finalists:

Kelly and Lindsey also bring along with them a slew of talented comedians, including Harrison Greenbaum, Trevor Williams, Ali Wong, and many others. Their next show is February 15 (the day after Valentine's Day) when these two lovely ladies and their friends will regale us all with tales of the worst dates of their lives. It should be fun!

Back Door Comedy's next show is Monday night, February 15 at 8:00pm at Bar Nine on 9th Avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets.