Nicholas Viselli is the Artistic Director of Theater Breaking Through Barriers, New York City’s only Off-Broadway theater company dedicated to advancing the work of professional artists with disabilities. He joined TBTB in 1997 and has performed in over 30 TBTB productions, as well as directed and helped out every way he could for the past 23 years. He has attended nine International Theater Festivals for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Zagreb, Croatia as an actor, producer, director and key coordinator for the company during their festival appearances in 2009, 2011, 2015 and 2019. He orchestrated, developed, produced and directed three special performances by TBTB, commissioned for the United Nations to commemorate the International Day of Disaster Risk Reduction and The International Day of People With Disabilities. In 2019, he organized and coordinated TBTB’s appearance at the United Nations’ Department of Disaster Risk Reduction’s Global Platform in Geneva, Switzerland. In 2014, he produced and coordinated TBTB’s 1st visit to Japan, when the company was invited to attend both the BIRD International Theatre Festival and Japan’s National Festival for People With Disabilities. In 2017 and 2018, Nick orchestrated two subsequent tours to Japan, performing in several major Japanese cities during each visit. He is currently coordinating TBTB’s 2021 International tours to Croatia, Uganda and Japan (during the rescheduled 2021 summer Olympic/Paralympic games).
Nick studied at the Royal National Theater in London with Richard Eyre, Patsy Rodenberg, Stephen Daldry, Simon McBurney, Stephen Warbeck and Sir Ian McKellan and is a graduate of Hofstra University.
Ann Marie Morelli has been a core company member of Theater Breaking Through Barriers since 1997. She has been part of many TBTB productions contributing in various roles. She has served as an Actor, Stage Manager, Assistant Stage Manager, support staff and House Manager. She currently serves as TBTB’s Apprenticeship Program Director, overseeing operations of TBTB’s new program to train disabled arts professionals skills in theater management. She has represented TBTB at the International Blind In Theatre Festival in Zagreb, Croatia 5 times, where she has performed for international audiences. She has also toured to Japan and has performed multiple times for the United Nations both here in New York and in Geneva, Switzerland. She studied abroad at the Royal National Theatre of London, and is married to Nicholas Viselli.
T2C: How did you first hear about Manhattan Plaza and when did you move in?
Nick Viselli: I actually heard about Manhattan Plaza before I even moved to New York City in 1988 from an actor friend. He urged me to try to get on their waiting list. Once I arrived, I discovered that the waiting list was closed and I had to wait until it opened again before I could even apply. Ann Marie moved to New York in 1992 and we lived together in a 2nd floor walk-up studio apartment on 10th Avenue between 34th and 35th Street. It wasn’t until 2003 that we were able to get on Manhattan Plaza’s waiting list. Fortunately, we drew a low number in the waiting list lottery and were able to move in three years later in 2006.
Ann Marie: Actually, Manhattan Plaza saved our lives. I was officially diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1995. I was still walking at the time, but it was becoming increasingly difficult for me. By 2003, I was having a great deal of difficulty climbing the stairs to our apartment and it became clear that we needed to move. We couldn’t find an affordable apartment with elevator access in Manhattan. If we were forced to move outside of the city, the commute would have made it virtually impossible for me. We were at the tipping point where we needed to decide whether or not to abandon our careers and leave New York, when the Manhattan Plaza waiting list opened and we were able to apply. The three years between when we applied and actually moved in were challenging, but it was worth the wait! If it wasn’t for Manhattan Plaza, we probably would have left New York years ago.
T2C: You are both people who have broken barriers and dealt with disabilities. How has Manhattan Plaza addressed those issues and what has it helped you to accomplish?
Nick Viselli: Moving into Manhattan Plaza was a game-changer for us and it truly saved our lives. For the first time since moving to Manhattan, we were living in a safe, centrally located and fully accessible building. But the best part was the fact that we were now living among an incredible community of friends, colleagues and fellow artists. We already knew a lot of friends and colleagues who were living at Manhattan Plaza, but now they were our neighbors! There’s truly nothing better than living in a community, where there are common interests and everyone cares and supports each other. I feel that living in this incredible community inspires us and feeds our creativity. Pursuing a career in the arts is tricky proposition. While the pursuit drives us, we usually need to make many sacrifices and are forced to take side jobs to stay afloat. When you live in a great place surrounded by an incredible community of people who are all doing what you are doing, it fuels you and keeps you from falling into a trap of despair. Living at Manhattan Plaza, I knew that Ann Marie was safe and could get around by herself. We are close to everything. Most auditions and performances are within walking distance and everything we need — banks, grocery stores, restaurants, pharmacies — are all less than one block away! Living here has given us an incredible peace-of-mind and has enabled us to pursue our careers with confidence and without fear. If it wasn’t for MP, our lives would be radically different today.
Ann Marie: From the first day we moved here, Manhattan Plaza went out of its way to make our apartment fully accessible for me. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the West tower. It was wonderful, but it wasn’t ideal for a wheelchair user. They encouraged us to apply for a larger one-bedroom, but they modified the apartment, adding grab bars, adjusting the saddle in the doorway, etc. Less than two years later, they offered us larger apartment in the East tower, which made a huge difference. The kitchen was now fully accessible and I could navigate the apartment in a wheelchair without a lot of sharp corners.
Once again they modified the apartment, even adding a wooden deck onto our terrace so it would be level with our apartment floor and I could roll out without any difficulty. The building itself is fully accessible and I can navigate pretty much anywhere without assistance. I am so lucky to call Manhattan Plaza my home!
T2C: Who have you make friends with in the building and have those relationships lasted?
Nick Viselli: We were fortunate to have formed many great friendships with Manhattan Plaza residents long before moving here. Some of our earliest friends were actors. Jerry Lee, Adam Michener, Stage Manager, Michael Biondi, who we met through our work with Theater Breaking Through Barriers. In 1989-1990, I had worked on a Yiddish Musical Revue with actors, Bruce Adler and Joanne Borts, years before moving here. I met Sal Biagini while working one season for Mattel during the New York City Toy Fair and I booked that job through Casting Director, Lesley Collis, another MP resident. I had studied in London with actor, Paul Hamilton long before I actually met and became friends with his wife, Anita Hollander, and I had met choreographer, Heidi Latsky, years before becoming her neighbor. Once we became residents, our circle of friendships truly flourished. I think a lot of this community’s spirit is truly generated by the staff. When we first moved in, we became friends with former MP Director, Richard Hunnings, former Application Coordinator, Susan Bernstein, Paulette Woodside, and former Rodney Kirk Center Coordinator, Jim Kelly. Their warmth set the tone, made us feel welcome and helped us to settle in.
Ann Marie: The community at MP is truly unique. It’s very warm and welcoming and it’s very easy to become enmeshed here. Everyone is so friendly. There are many residents that we don’t know by name, but because we see each other in passing, we’ve become friendly and often stop to chat. The best part is that the community continues to grow. Several of our friends who were on the MP waiting list have now become residents and are currently living here, including Actor/Musical Director, Ben Rauch, Dancer/Choreographer, Satoshi Haga and his wife, Rie Fukuzawa and Actor/Director, Tonya Pinkins. The performing arts community in New York City is actually quite connected and the longer you work in it, the more you discover how close we all are. This becomes magnified at MP, since so many of its residents work in the arts. Last season, TBTB presented the world premiere Bekah Brunstetter’s new play, Public Servant. We cast actor, Chris Henry Coffey, as the male lead and it was only after he started working with us when we realized that he was our neighbor and lived one floor above us with his wife, Jennifer Mudge.
T2C: What shows did you do while living in the building?
Nick Viselli: Since becoming a resident, I have performed in over 18 TBTB productions, including: Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Cocktail Hour, The Rules of Charity, A Nervous Smile, Bass For Picasso, Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest and The Fourth Wall. I’ve also directed several productions for TBTB and coordinated several international tours to Europe and Asia. In 2015, following the passing of TBTB’s founding Artistic Director, Ike Schambelan, I became TBTB’s Artistic Director and have been working to build on our company’s success ever since.
Ann Marie: Like Nick, I had been a core company member of TBTB since 1997, so we were very lucky to have established roots with a company that had been around almost as long as Manhattan Plaza (TBTB was founded as Theater By The Blind in 1979). Our first production with TBTB was in 1999: Maxim Gorky’s Vassa Zheleznova, which performed at the old Becket Theatre on Theatre Row. As my disability progressed and I became a full time wheelchair user, I started doing more stage management work for the company. In 2007, I was cast to play Hermia/Titania in TBTB’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was the first time an actor in a wheelchair had appeared on an Off-Broadway stage. The significance of this was underscored by the fact that, at the time, TBTB was known for working primarily with blind/low vision artists. In 2008, TBTB decided to expand its mission to include artists with all forms of disability and the company changed its name from Theater By The Blind to Theater Breaking Through Barriers (maintaining the TBTB acronym, by which we are still known today).
T2C: What has been the biggest changes to the neighborhood and your business?
Nick Viselli: I remember when I first moved to New York in 1988, Ninth Avenue was still pretty dicey, though not nearly as rough as it was in the late ’70’s, early ’80’s. There were a lot of small restaurants and family owned businesses when we moved here, but the neighborhood really started to transition in the 90’s and by the time we moved to MP in 2006 the neighborhood was at the peak of its renaissance. Ninth Avenue was a haven for small, affordable restaurants featuring all types of cuisine. A lot of small boutiques and coffee shops started popping up and the neighborhood truly flourished. Today, the west side of Manhattan is experiencing a tremendous development explosion with real estate prices skyrocketing. Many of the smaller shops and restaurants that made our neighborhood so special could no longer afford the price gouging that landlords were inflicting upon them. As a result, the neighborhood has taken on a more generic feel as chain businesses (that can afford the higher rents) move in. Through all of the neighborhoods changes, Manhattan Plaza remains a pivotal cornerstone in this community. What makes this place so special is our desire to preserve a tight community atmosphere. Hopefully, this will never change.
Ann Marie: When I first moved to New York City, I got a job working in guest services for The Sheraton New York on 7th Avenue. I remember telling our guests (in the early 90’s) not to wander past 8th Avenue after dark. At the time, we lived on 10th Avenue and 34th St. and while I didn’t mind the neighborhood during the day, it became very different at night. By the mid-90’s we started to see the neighborhood change and it suddenly became a much warmer, friendlier place. We were really lucky to move into MP when the neighborhood was at its best. When we first moved here, TBTB performed on Theatre Row, but when Theatre Row closed for renovations, we performed at other venues around town. It wasn’t until 2008 when we returned to Theatre Row and we haven’t looked back since. Like Manhattan Plaza, TBTB is an integral part of our community. It’s important for us to be centrally located because we must be accessible for all audiences. Theatre Row is a fully accessible space and happens to be right across the street from MP, so it’s truly ideal for us. We have also started producing at the new A.R.T./New York Theatres on 10th Avenue and 53rd st., so whether our shows perform on Theatre Row or at A.R.T./New York, we will always be a part of this community.
T2C: How has Manhattan Plaza addressed the needs to people who are disabled?
Nick Viselli: Manhattan Plaza has truly been a godsend and is a federally subsidized facility, that must comply with all state and federal standards. That said, the staff and management go out of their way to ensure that all disabled tenants needs are met to the best of their ability.
Ann Marie: New York City is probably one of the more accessible cities in our country, but that isn’t really saying much from my perspective. So many public buildings are older and cannot be retrofitted to accommodate ramps, lifts or elevators. In terms of theaters and rehearsal spaces, there are very few fully accessible venues in the city. Many theaters are accessible for audiences, but if you are a performer or Stage Manager, you cannot access backstage areas without climbing stairs or traversing narrow corridors. Manhattan Plaza was the answer to our prayers. Last year, they installed a new lift on the 2nd floor of the East tower, which allows wheelchair users to access the plaza and playground areas between the buildings. They also installed an automatic door to the Ellington Community Room so disabled residents can access it without assistance.
T2C: What was your greatest accomplishment thanks to living in the building?
Nick Viselli: For me, our greatest accomplishment is the fact that we were able to remain here in New York to continue pursuing our careers as artists. Manhattan Plaza was always the dream for us and we are SO LUCKY to be living here. Everything we have accomplished here in New York since 2006 is directly related to our residence and community at MP.
Anne Marie: Manhattan Plaza has made my life so much easier. I am able to live autonomously here. Because I live here, I am independent and can move about freely. I don’t think we could have accomplished this lifestyle anywhere else!
T2C: What would you change from your time living in Manhattan Plaza?
Nick Viselli: There were many friends who lived here who are no longer with us, some of whom I mentioned above I wish I could have spent more time with them and truly miss their friendship. Several of them were role models and had a huge impact on my life. I wish there was a way to speed up the waiting list process. It is a long journey, but it was definitely worth the wait!
Ann Marie: I can’t think of anything I would change about living here. It’s incredibly difficult to have a professional career as an actor. It’s virtually impossible if you are disabled. Having a disability does not diminish the quality or integrity of the art or the artist. Because we live here we are able to grow Theater Breaking Through Barriers’ incredible legacy and continue moving it forward.
T2C: What is your fondest memory of New York?
Nick Viselli: There are so many memories — some fond and some, not so much — but all memorable nonetheless. I think the strongest and most significant memories I have involve some of our city’s greatest struggles and how we have banded together as a community to endure. I’m remembering our spirit following 9/11 and how this big city hung together and everyone supported each other with one enormous heart. I remember the blackout in 2003 when everything stopped. Ann Marie and I spent the blackout with our friends, Jerry Lee and Adam Michenner at Manhattan Plaza’s solitude garden on the 2nd floor of the East tower. The Covid-19 pandemic shows how the true heart and spirit of our community is helping us to endure our most difficult trial to date. Although we are forced to isolate ourselves, remain physically distant and avoid contact, it is the pulse of our community at Manhattan Plaza that will get us through this crisis. Manhattan Plaza is not just a building or a physical location. Manhattan Plaza is a living, breathing entity and I am so honored to be a part of it.
Ann Marie: I will never forget our many friends who are no longer with us — Michael Biondi, Jerry Lee, Adam Michenner, Bruce Adler, Susan Bernstein and Jim Kelly. But I think one of my fondest memories was the day we officially became residents at Manhattan Plaza. Every time I look at the photo on my ID card, which was taken the day we moved in, I’m reminded of how happy I was to move here. This is truly a special place and living here has shaped our futures and brought us to this moment.
T2C: What would you like us to know that we haven’t asked you?
Nick Viselli: I would like to invite everyone to visit our theater company’s website, www.tbtb.org to find out more about us and to see our work. I was asked by the Theater Communications Group (TCG) to represent the United States by drafting the address for this year’s World Theatre Day (on March 27). The address was released and published on TCG’s website. I’m attaching a link to the address here: https://www.tcg.org/International/InternationalActivities/WorldTheatreDay/Message.aspx
Ann Marie: TBTB was forced to cancel the remainder of our season, but it’s important for us to remain visible and to continue working. We are the only theater working on an Off-Broadway contract that is dedicated to advancing the work of disabled artists, our work is so vital to our community. In May, we will be presenting an online workshop production of new short plays, written expressly to be performed online. TBTB’s 1st Virtual Playmakers’ Intensive, will be presented from May 18 – 23 and will be streamed live on FACEBOOK, YOUTUBE and INSTAGRAM. If you wish to learn more about this or if you want to make a donation to TBTB, Please visit to our website (www.tbtb.org). To donate, click the yellow DONATE button at the top of the page.
The documentary Miracle on 42nd Street, is available on Amazon and will soon be available to stream.
Jonah Off-Broadway at Roundabout Cracks Wide Open Trauma and Repair
The story that is being told is a complete page-turner. Back and forth, up and around, and deep within, flipping from now to back then in a light flash of repeated verbal moment and some lightning cracks in the time continuum. It’s a fantastically compelling unpacking, these articulate moments of disturbing wonder, playing with frameworks and fantasies that gnaw at our stressful hearts and imagination. We are pulled, sweetly, at first, into the world of Ana, played to perfection by the magnificently detailed Gabby Beans (LCT’s The Skin of Our Teeth), completely and within an instant, wanting and waiting for this tender kind of interaction to blossom, but also realizing she walks too fast and too forward. We want to hold on to this cautious, overly emotional tingling, and gigantically charming awkward fumbling. It can make a young man cry. Or a young woman lean in with hope and faith.
Roundabout Theatre Company‘s Jonah, a new play most vitally and inquisitively written by Rachel Bonds (Goodnight Noboby; The Lonely Few), asks us to follow in the quick footsteps of Ana, begging us to keep up, but falling through doorways with abstract oblivion at a moment’s notice. It’s the tenderest of beginnings, with a crack that opens up a world of problematic trauma and complex formulations. Those trapped constructs, and those “deep deep sick” feelings, sneak inside our senses and leave us wondering where we are moment to moment, and what should we believe.
As directed with clarity and vision by Danya Taymor (Broadway’s Pass Over), the effect is deliberately destabilizing, giving you tenderness and discomfort within moments of each other, with the changing of the guard brought upon by sharp cracks and seizures in the universe. The titular character, Jonah, delicately and dynamically portrayed by the sweetest of creatures, Hagan Oliveras (“American Horror Stories“; Players Theatre’s The Trouble with Dead Boyfriends), runs in pursuit of the electric energy of Ana, trying hard to keep up with this fantastical creature. What is she running to? Or from? It’s the most engaging of beginnings, drawing us forward with awkward longing and a supersonic unseared outreach. We couldn’t want this union more as we say “yeah, yeah, yeah” to their cross-legged flirtation with love and understanding, but there is something that just doesn’t feel real, or maybe right, in their outreach. And an uneasiness starts to sink in.
“I like you,” he says, with utter sincerity, and our hearts shimmer open a wee bit more. Jonah plays with our sensibilities and our own longing for this kind of thoughtful spring awakening, until that lighting crack and skipping occurs. Much like on an old-fashioned record player, courtesy of the stellar work of set designer Wilson Chin (MTC’s Cost of Living), lighting by Amith Chandrashaker (MTC’s Prayer for the French Republic), and sound design by Kate Marvin (MCC’s Wolf Play), a fracture comes into play, and we are thrown. Or is it he that is thrown? We are no longer in her dorm room, cozy and awkward, retelling our intricate fantasizes to a wide-eyed young man in love, but somewhere else, trying to survive the brutal hard world of before alongside her stepbrother Danny, played powerfully by Samuel H. Levine (Broadway’s The Inheritance). It doesn’t carry with it that same sense of authentic innocence and safety. It’s dangerous, and uncomfortable, even in the care and protective stance of her stepbrother.
“I do what I want,” is a refrain the young Ana keeps repeating to the lovestruck Jonah, and at first we believe in the bravado, until we see a different aspect of Ana’s existence, a parallel universe, in a way, where the trap has been set, not by her, but by the world of ‘have and have not’; ‘need and hunger’. “She just got trapped,” she says of her mother, “afraid of what he might do.” She knows this caged framework in a way that few of us can understand, yet maybe the third man that comes knocking on that door, later, in a different place and time, can ask the right question from the correct category of topics; the one that is now fixated on the flame of Ana; the very tall Steven, played to itchy delight by John Zdrojeski (Broadway’s Good Night, Oscar).
It is there in the third where something shifts, where protection and need come together, collide, and shatter on the floor. Ana is working hard to find something that resembles her fantasy, or push the thought away behind her writing and a closed door. But also, maybe she can discover at least a pathway for the opening up and the healing to begin. It’s the cleverest of constructs, looking at trauma and pain from a number of angles and vantage points, all at once, from up above, back and forward, and within such a detailed and unique lyrical unwrapping. Beans is absolutely ingenious in her complicated approach to the parallels, giving us a character worthy of the fixation. Jonah is the key, the ointment to stop the itch, and the pathway to healing.
For more info and tickets, click here.
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Jason Robert Brown’s The Connector Is Intelligent, Thought Provoking and Musically Seamless
“The truth is not about the facts – forgive me. The facts can always be manipulated, arranged, massaged – We are not purveyors of facts, we are tellers of truths.” …..Or are we?
The Connector now playing at at MCC’s Newman Mills Theater space, has twice been extended and in all honesty should move to Broadway this season. If it did it would stands a massive chance of being nominated or winning Best Musical, Best Score, Best Orchestration, Best Direction, Best Lead Actor and many of the technical awards. I wouldn’t be surprised if it sweeps the Drama Desk and The Outer Critics Circle Awards come award season.
Set in 1996 at a newspaper called “The Connector”, this unrivaled purveyor of “the truth and nothing but the truth,” is about to be put to the test. Enter Ethan Dobson (the remarkable Ben Levi Ross), fresh out of Princeton who’s arrived with talent, guts and a smarmy style.
Ethan has long admired and longs to work for the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Conrad O’Brien (welcome back to the fabulous Scott Bakula), who is being over run by new owners, who care more about circulation and the color turquoise, than facts.
The first person Ethan meets and the voice of a collective conscience is Robin Martinez (normally played by Hannah Cruz, but at my performance Ashley Pérez Flanagan). At first attracted to Ethan, Robin starts to see the cracks, as does fact checker, Muriel (a layered performance by Jessica Molaskey). Right from the start, she does not like or trust Ethan. Nor do we. In a strange way, this almost seems like a musicalized version of “The Talented Mr. Ripley”.
As Conrad takes Ethan under his wing, we see three of his stories, each done in a different musical style. The first is about an eccentric West Village scrabble player (the terrific Max Crumm). With a “Rhythm of Life” feel, Ethan becomes an over night success with circulation increasing and a fan by the name of Mona Bland (a memorable Mylinda Hull) who will end up being his downfall.
The next story is about the take down of the mayor of Jersey City, done in rap/ gangland style that gets him a nomination for the prestigious National Magazine Award. As his source Willis, Fergie Philippe gives his all, but the problem we soon find out, is that though the story is sensational, there are gaping holes in the facts, which Muriel, Robin and Mona glaringly see.
In the end who is Ethan really? What is truth and what is fact? Does the public really care or do they just want sensationalism? Has the world really gotten over its sexism? It’s racialism? Sadly, I don’t think so. Everything becomes the movie of the week and then goes away until the next big scandal.
The Connector was conceived and directed by Daisy Prince, who does a remarkable job and asks some really intelligent questions. She has also gathered a fabulous cast, who makes this show seem real, relevant and up to date.
Ben Levi Ross will remind you of Jessie Einsenburg. He is loaded with talent. Not only does he posses a vocal prowess that is unmatched, his nuances and phenomenal acting choices make him so watchable. He is like an onion slowly peeling away each delicate layer. He is seriously brilliant.
As Robin, I saw the understudy who is about to take over the role, Ashley Pérez Flanagan. She sings and acts well, but lacks some of the nuances that originally made me want to see this show. I fell in love with the song “Cassandra” in 2017 and either Jason Robert Brown rewrote some of the notes or they were different in the production I saw. This song is pivotal to the show, as the lyrics talk about how women writers are written off.
“Half the stories of the world are left unwritten, half the stories have been lost along the way. And so the people of the world will not encounter, anything but one perspective, one reflection, one directive, male and white and unenlightened, every day. It’s easy for you, it’s easy for you and I’m missing it”
These are the lyrics by Jason Robert Brown for “Cassandra”. Not only is his music rich in rhythm and style, but it reaches into your soul to take capture. His lyrics hit at the heart of pain, truth, anger and honesty. Each song is a playlet with character-driven narratives and stand on their own. Smartly his band is electric and musically I could sit through this show every night of the week and hear new emotional tugs. I am so excited to announce the album will be released in late spring by Concord Theatricals Recording, because I want to listen to these songs again and again. A plus is JRB is on the piano playing with his band.
Jonathan Marc Sherman’s book is funny, terrifying and taps on timely issues, however I did want more as to the why’s and psychology of Ethan, but maybe that’s the point, we don’t understand the why’s and never will.
Not only is the show wonderfully done, but the raw masterful set by Beowulf Boritt, lighting by and projection design by Janette Oi-Suk Yew and choreography by Karla Puno Garcia are shear perfection.
You will not be able to stop thinking about this show, that is full of thought provoking ideas on journalistic integrity and the difference between fact and truth. This is a show not to be missed and that’s a fact.
The Connector: MCC Theater Space, 511 W 52nd Street, through March 17th.
Opening Night of A Sign Of The Times
The York Theatre Company production of A Sign of the Times, opened officially at New World Stages. A Sign of the Times, is a new musical featuring the songs of Petula Clark, Lesley Gore, Dusty Springfield and other classic pop hits of the 1960s. It features a book by Lindsey Hope Pearlman based on an original story by Richard J. Robin. Directing is Gabriel Barre, with music direction and orchestrations by Joseph Church and choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter.
On the red carpet were Lindsey Hope Perlman,Gabriel Barre., Richard J Robin, Joseph Church (opening picture)
NYTW’s “I Love You So Much I Could Die” Asks A Lot From You. Are You Willing?
I’ve seen several one-person shows this past week, 3 to be exact (Grand’s Huff, Tarragon’s Guilt, & TPM’s As I Must Live It); sorta 4 if you don’t want to get toooo technical about it all (Soulpepper’s De Profundis). And each one engaged our emotional soul in differing and unique manners. I couldn’t help myself thinking about that theoretical construct as I watched Mona Pirnot, writer and performer of I Love You. So Much I Could Die, walk in from behind, down the stairs, and onto the bare minimalistic set at the downtown New York Theatre Workshop. She sits, facing away from us all, staring upright at the back walk of exposed brick, and turns on her laptop and types a few things in to get this exercise rolling. And I was struck by the abstractionism we were about to sit through for the next 65 minutes. It was clearly going to be a different experience than any of these other shows I experienced last week, and I couldn’t help but wonder how I was going to respond to this setup.
It’s a structural theoretical experience, one destined to play mind tricks with almost every person in the audience. Pirnot (NYTW’s Usual Suspect) never turns to face us with the story she wants to tell. It’s unclear why at the beginning, but as she unleashes her story, not with her own voice, but with the voice of her computer, Microsoft text-to-speech tool, the complicated, and frustrating, unwrapping becomes more and more clear. It’s a completely devastating tale of pain and tragedy that she has set out to detail, most effectively in her “cut to” tense listing of events. And she doesn’t have the voice to actually say it out loud. It’s too much. Too difficult to vocalize. She has the words, obviously, and the wit and strength, but not the voice. Unless she is singing a sad song of sorry, or love, accompanying herself with her trusted guitar that sits, oddly enough, facing us on the wide expanse of the stage.
The story is spoken out to us from that Microsoft voice, somewhat flat and awkward, distancing ourselves and her from the horribly sad and dark moments of an accident of some sort that incapacitated (to put it mildly) her sister during that complicated timeframe of the pandemic when visiting a loved one in the hospital was just not allowed. It seems she needs that disconnect to really tell us that tale; of that difficult and chaotic time in Florida where she spent months trying to survive her emotional self and the space she found herself with her husband; the playwright and ultimately the director of this show Lucas Hnath (Broadway’s A Doll’s House, Part 2). It’s an understandable predicament, one that I’ve always praised when an actor can tell us such a sad tale and maintain their voice, so I wrestled with that inside my head, somewhat distractively, during her unpacking, and somehow came out the other end understanding and sympathizing with the theory and experiment.
Using that flat computer tone and by staying turned away, she is able to unwind a story that may cripple her if she had to look us in the eye and tell us personally about her pain. I get that entirely, but I wasn’t convinced at the beginning (and maybe a little at the end as well) that this kind of confessional makes for good theatre. I soon discovered that there was little to look at on that stage after the initial few minutes, even with the fine work done by scenic designer Mimi Lien (Broadway’s Sweeney Todd), the fading lighting design mastery of Oona Curley (NYTW’s runboyrun & In Old Age), the simplistic but meaningful costume design by Enver Chakartash (PH’s Stereophonic), and the solid expanding sound design by Mikhail Fiksel (NYTW’s How To Defend Yourself). I could engage during the few musical interludes that filled the space with her lovely voice singing touching songs of sadness and love, but during the other moments, especially the “cut to” scenarios and a sad tale revolving around sickness and death, I could look away, stare at the floor or the wall of ladders that were to my left, and just dive into those flat words with abandonment.
It’s not the simplest experience to endure, and endear, but there is another level, maybe one that director Hnath has played with before in his experimental Dana H., which played both off-Broadway and on (and on a Toronto stage next month that I hope to see) where we have to pull out internal connections to our own pain and sadness to really engulf ourselves in this somewhat slim play. It’s the flatness and metallic quality of the voice that forces us to find what we feel about the tale she is telling. Not an exercise of taking on what an actor is somehow transmitting to us, in a way, telling us how to feel about the pain being described. I’m crying, so you should be too. I’m laughing at this part, so you should laugh too. No one is giving us a sign or direction in the way we should be experiencing this, so we must look deep inside ourselves if we are to really embrace it.
Or we don’t have to. That is the other option. We can let the computer voice give us permission to nod off, and not engage with this terrible event she needs to tell us, nor the love and care she experienced from her husband. Pirnot tells us flat out (in a NYTimes interview), that she “couldn’t find the strength to verbalize her feelings to [Hnath] or her therapist … she typed her thoughts into her laptop, and prompted a text-to-speech program to voice them aloud.” Makes sense, even to this writer (who is also a psychotherapist in his real day job). Does it make great theatre? That is a question that only each audience member can decide for themselves, inside and within that very moment, as they sit in the ever-darkening theatre listening to I Love You So Much I Could Die. Do I dig deep and engage with my own emotional self, led there by no other person but myself? Or do I decide to not go there? Both are credible options, with very different outcomes. You decide. Dig deep or go home. And I won’t judge you for which you choose. I chose one-way last night. I can’t tell you what I might have chosen on a different night. That’s pretty impossible to know.
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FIVE: The Parody Musical Meets The Press
Look out SIX, here comes FIVE: The Parody Musical. Henry VIII and his six wives had nothing on Donald, the 45th, and these five ladies. This morning they met the press.
FIVE is an irreverent musical comedy revue starring Anyae Anasia as Ivana, Gabriella Joy Rodriguez (The Color Purple) as Marla, Jaime Lyn Beatty (Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical) as Melania, Gabi Garcia as Stormy, Hannah Bonnett (Legally Blonde national tour) as Ivanka, and Jasmine Rice LaBeija as Hillary Clinton.
Featuring a book and lyrics by Shimmy Braun and Moshiel Newman Daphna and music and lyrics by Billy Recce (A Musical About Star Wars), directed and choreographed by Jen Wineman, the production features orchestrations and arrangements by Terence “T” Odonkor, music supervision and arrangements by Lena Gabrielle, scenic design by David Goldstein, costume design by Florence D’Lee, lighting design by Marie Yokoyama, sound design by UptownWorks, hair and wig design by Ian Joseph, and props by Brendan McCann. Mark Osgood is production stage manager.
FIVE begins its run Off-Broadway at Theater 555 February 15. Opening night is February 19, and the limited engagement will continue through March 10.
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