The time is 1896, and the ‘Separate But Equal Doctrine’ has just been upheld in the Supreme Court of the United States. This is the historic background of pen/man/ship, the live streamed latest from Molière in the Park, the same company that brought us the playful and good-natured Tartuffe back in June of last year. A Black American surveyor, steadfast in his convictions, has organized a ship’s crossing for him and his son to lead a secret expedition, one he doesn’t even want to talk about with his son. Bound for Liberia with his troubled son, he has rounded up a crew of men for the voyage, and much to his later surprise, a young Black woman named Ruby has been invited along by his son. The God-fearing father is clearly thrown off balance by this unspoken inclusion, but the son insists it was a necessary addition. She is in need, fleeing the oppressive American South in hopes of finding a new and better life in Liberia. She has decidedly boarded a ship bound for that breath of freedom that she so desperately wants, only she wasn’t aware that she would run into a different form of oppression and control onboard. The crew is skeptical of the goal, the journey, and the surveyor in charge, and because of all this, the sea air is tense with conflict. The shadows play out strongly before us with a cut-out intricity that only elevates the storyline, drawing us even further inside this inventive and complex live streaming of Christina Anderson’s riveting maritime drama, pen/man/ship. Within its wise reflective stance, the production finds its solid sea legs with confidence, strongly orchestrating the adventure using technology that both seems to reckon back to the time of shadow plays and puppetry, while also finding a modern seamless interactiveness that is both clever and refreshing, particularly in this complex socially-distanced time this production was created within.
The live streaming finds power in its process, closely engaging with this timely parable about violence, betrayal, faith, and freedom. It traps us inside the dark cabins on a ship that is flailing about in the open rough seas. The design ropes us in with its clever construction, with the convoluted clash of privilege and enlightenment forcing the dark and disturbing secrets that lay hidden in the hearts of all that are onboard into the light of the day. Played with a strong sense of self and purpose by Crystal Lucas-Perry (Public’s A Bright Room Called Day & Ain’t No Mo’), the strong willed Ruby clashes up hard against the unrepenting God-fearing dominate father, Charles, who never fails to find conflict within his congregation. He a formidable man, somehow maintaining a strong sway over his son and her tender and caring male companion, Jacob, the man responsible for her being invited onboard. This gin-drunk father figure, the immovable Charles, aggressively and finely portrayed by the focused Kevin Mambo (Broadway’s Fela!, Public’s Mlima’s Tale), demands obedience and passivity from his two companions, and nothing less, as they set forth on this mysterious journey that carry distant echoes to our troubling times in America. Charles shines darkly with self-righteousness, holding religious court over those around him, but it gives him little companionship. We watch, with tense anxiety, as the beautifully orchestrated shadow figures play out their roles against a painted backdrop, as if written by a hard toothed Sea God, scribbling and crying in their separate rooms by candlelight as the boat tosses and turns on the rough seas.
The young handsome Jacob, played with empathetic groundedness by Jared McNeill (HBO’s “We Are Who We Are,” TFANA’s The Valley of Astonishment), engages in a courtship that is steamed by heat and subtlety in the heavy sea air, but when Rudy, unwilling to sit passively below deck, befriends the disgruntled crew, the winds above begin to shift, and the movement forward is threatened with stillness and conflict. A mutinous uprising is at hand, putting all their lives, including one of its crew members, a sweet natured accordion player, tenderly portrayed by Postell Pringle (Broadway’s A Free Man of Color), who has bonded with Charles over gin and an unclear understanding. Ruby’s role has been elevated, and an impasse has been violently brought upon them all. The cast magnificently rises to the task as the sails are dropped in protest. The formulation on deck is at risk of being stilted and stalled when a stalemate strands the boat midway to its intended salvation. Secrets onboard are held tight, “like a miser holds coins“, as they turn their backs on an unfair America, sitting heavily on their souls while the ideas of home unravel before their travel-weary eyes.
It’s a captivating two hours (with one intermission), delivered with a strength of courage and conviction. Performed live with some beautifully enacted technology and crafty visuals, pen/man/ship sails its ideals through the choppy waters of the sea with expertise, seeking truth at all costs, even as the winds of change play havoc on their security. There is obvious danger in the hearts of the self-righteousness, that is clear, especially when locked inside the dark dampness of a tense father/son maritime sabbath. Such ignorance rocks the boat as sharply as the sea does on its determined journey to break-free, creating in the end a tightly wound pen/man/shipthat will engage and excite with each stroke of the pen. In a time when the thought of another Zoom play-reading makes me cringe with a dispassionate shudder, this Molière in the Park production finds its clear way through these stormy COVID waters to make landfall upright, intact, and with great impact.
Molière in the Park, in partnership with the Prospect Park Alliance and LeFrak Center at Lakeside, presents a full virtual production of the steadfast pen/man/ship, Christina Anderson’s riveting maritime drama. Embraced by its audience when it premiered online last winter, this will be your last chance to catch this production performed live for seven shows only with dates from April 16-24. Cleverly assisted by the solid and strong production team that includes Rocco DiSanti (Video Design/Engineer), Lina Younes (Production Design), Ari Fulton (Costume Design), Marie Yokoyama (Lighting Design), Victoria Deiorio (Original Music & Sound Design), Ursula Echeverria (Head Animator), Daniel Williams (Sound Engineer), Madison Lane (Production Stage Manager), Kaliswa Brewster (Community Liaison) and Lisa Lewis (Advertising & Marketing), pen/man/ship will transport you to the heart of this passionate and timely tale, with thoughtful grace and determined craftsmanship. Set sail with this crew. You won’t be Zoom-disappointed.
Performances (all ET) are Friday, April 16 at 2pm, Saturday, April 17 at 7pm, Sunday, April 18 at 7pm, Wednesday, April 21 at 2pm, Thursday, April 22 at 7pm, Friday, April 23 at 7pm, and Saturday, April 24 at 7pm. The running time is approximately 2 hours including a 5-minute intermission. Tickets are free. Reserve at https://www.moliereinthepark.org.
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Vineyard’s “Scene Partners” Gets Stuck Between Floors
“This is exactly how it happened “ we are told, followed by a big wide screen opening that descends upon us, but it does not quite land where it, and our leading lady’s character, most likely intended it too. Finally escaping the 11th floor on a folding chair and faulty pulley system, Meryl Kowalski, as portrayed as only the magnificently gifted Dianne Wiest (Broadway’s All My Sons; “Purple Rose of Cairo“) could, finds flight and falter inside this fascinating exploration of some sort of demented dream. Giving the “correct response“ to abstract questions and assignments, Wiest delivers a befuddled and determined performance that elevates a play that fractures realities every chance it gets. As written with a wild wandering spirit by John J. Caswell, JR. (Wet Brain), the play is an absurdity of utter invigorating complexity, playing with and sometimes delivering itself forward in a fascinating but distancing dementia. Is it a post-traumatic disassociation of epic proportions or a fractured descent into grief and mental illness, played for a laugh or a tug at the heart? Or is it something quite else that was lost on this avid fan of this Oscar-winning actress? And I don’t even know if there is a clear correct answer to this. But that is half the fun in this half-fun exercise in abstractionism and determination.
It’s big on ‘concept’, directed with a strong forward vision by Rachel Chavkin (Broadway’s Hadestown), obviously enjoying the ride and the wandering with glee. The visuals ride and slide in and about, thanks to the incredibly detailed and smooth work of video and projection design by David Bengali (Broadway’s The Thanksgiving Play), lighting designer Alan C. Edwards (Vineyard’s Harry Clarke), and scenic designer Riccardo Hernández (Broadway’s Indecent), giving depth and clarity to this otherwise meander into fractured and fantastical thinking. Supported by clever extravagances by costume designer Brenda Abbandandolo (Broadway’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window), the effect is a fevered dive into the mind of a woman beaten down hard to the ground by a now-dead husband whose death has freed her to her desire; her dream and determination to be a big famous movie star, and she’ll point the barrel at anyone who might stand in her way or say otherwise.
Scene Partners feels anything but safe and secure, as we join Wiest’s 75-year-old widow from the Midwest as she steadily abandons her needy mess of a daughter, played with clever calculations by Kristen Sieh (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit), to jet, train, or sled herself off to Hollywood to become a big gloriously famous movie star even before her now-dead violent abusive husband has been buried six feet under. The framing is slanted, with efforts to keep us off balance. Finding a flavor in its madness and splitting. The name of Wiest’s woman is Meryl Kowalski, and she’s not to be ignored. She is told quite clearly and quickly that she must change it if she really wants to be an actress, as that first name of hers has already been taken by that other, already famous and award-winning actress with the same first name that we all know and love. But this Meryl holds firm, inside and out of her first acting class somewhere out there in Los Angeles. It’s there, when confronted by her over-the-top acting teacher, played with wild abandonment by the perfect Josh Hamilton (Broadway’s The Real Thing), that she reveals another level of strong abstractionism. This particularly twisted Meryl’s dead husband was named Stanley Kowalski, and her Streetcar husband made Tennessee Williams’s character seem like quite the gentle nice guy.
At this point, the play stands shakily in some abstract parallels that are fun, clever, complicated, and a bit distancing, playing with fragments of trauma and grief that don’t fully come together. It pulls and pushes at about the same level of conflicted engagement, until Johanna Day (Broadway/MTC’s How I Learned to Drive) as Meryl’s half-sister comes into play, shifting the formula with a centered grounding that makes us sit back and question what’s really going on. When a doctor also enters the picture, played well by Eric Berryman (RT’s Primary Trust), a medical diagnosis once again adds a different framework that could alter the whole process. Where are we with these two half-sisters and their shared knowledge of a non-collaborated trauma of abuse? Especially after a (pre-recorded) interview with a very well-positioned Sieh asking pertinent questions that illicit praise from Hamilton’s pompous character and a disappearing act of a half-sister who might never been. It plays with the head, in both an engaging and disassociating manner that works, and doesn’t.
Scene Partners doesn’t play easy with our unpacking, leading us down blind endless alleyways decorated with an abundance of movie imagery that either leads us to brick walls or bottomless pits to fall into. Wiest’s Meryl has necessarily immersed herself in these vintage cinematic panoramas, probably to unconsciously avoid the abusive reality she found herself trapped in, and in that trauma response, Wiest has found the perfect embodiment for Mrs. Kowalski, bringing feisty and forceful complexities to the forefront as she shuffles and stabs herself into frame. And even if it doesn’t, in the end, add up to much, this Vineyard Theatre production is flavorful in its twisted construction and projections. The “Doctor Zhivago” impressions and pop-culture references overwhelm, not just our heroine, but also our connections to emotional clarity and authenticity, leaving us hanging halfway down and in between floors waiting for something to fully make an impact.
Make Me Gorgeous Tells Of One Man’s Authenticity
Make Me Gorgeous! playing at Playhouse 46 in a nut shell is about the life and times of LGBTQ+ trailblazer Kenneth Marlow. Embodying Marlow is Wade McCollum, who tells us how he was born in 1926 in Des Moines, Iowa, and how he became a hustler, private hairdresser, stripped in mob-controlled nightclubs, became a female impersonator, a madam of a gay prostitution ring, until in the 70’s when he became Kate, throwing a “Ball to End all Balls” to fund gender-affirming surgery. We learn how she documented her life in books. In between he was a private in the U.S. Army; a Christian missionary; a mortuary cosmetologist and a newspaper columnist.
In a sense Marlow was raised to be who he was dressed in girls clothes as a child, then became drawn to feminine clothes and his female relatives encouraged him. In high school he ran around in drag. in Iowa in the 30’s took some kind of guts. His father never showed him love and left, his mother was a raging alcoholic. He took to the cinemas populated by men to find what was missing in life, then to the church. When he is shipped off to California, he meets and hangs out with the transgender prostitutes finding feeling at home. He ends up with a sugar daddy who is unattractive, ends up in Chicago, ends up as a hairdresser and then a stripper in Calumet City as “Mr. Keni Marlo, Exotic Queen of the Boys” and that takes us to the 40’s.
In the end he ended up becoming the hairstylist to Phyllis Diller, Lucille Ball, and Gypsy Rose Lee, among others. His side job need up being documented in Mr. Madam: Confessions of a Male Madam, Cathouse Mother, Male Oral Love, and Around the World with Kenneth Marlowe.
I have loved McCollum’s work ever since Ernest Shackleton Loves Me. This man is a consummate actor, whose rich voice and glamours gams make him perfect to tell this story. He brings everyone he is talking about to life. You feel as if you know each character. McCollum’ has oodles of charisma, so the tawdry tale he is telling comes off less crass. With lines like “I liked that men paid to have sex with me. And those who appealed to me usually didn’t have any money…so I did a lotta pro-bono work” if you are not exactly open this may not appeal to you. A couple walked out the night I went. McCollum is a natural with Sally Rand’s Fan Dance and glorious performing a song Marlow wrote with jazz pianist Reggie DuValle. The most pignut part of the story comes when he is drafted and is raped by 14 men. There is however a disconnect as on a book cover he wrote “He was raped by fourteen men in his barracks — and enjoyed it!”
The theater is styled like a cabaret, with velvet curtains and bistro tables. Black and white photographs of drag queens hang on the walls. On the stage Walt Spangler’s set looks like a cross between Barbie’s house and cotton candy. I really want the black dress designed by Jeffrey Hinshaw and the lighting by Jamie Roderick’s and sound by Ien DeNio’s really help to enjoy the evening
Smartly directed and written by Donald Horn, I was on the edge of my seat the whole performance and definitely learned a thing or two or three about this culture.
Make Me Gorgeous! Playhouse 46, 308 W 46th Street, through Dec. 31st.
Here We Are Or The Search For The Meaning of Life
Let me just state that I love the Stephen Sondheim/David Ives musical/play Here We Are. It’s as if the genius, known as Sondheim was trying to resolve his life. The first act is cynical and the characters are hypocritical, while the second act is about coming to with grips with life’s choices and surrendering to the inevitable.
The music is like playing Sondheim jeopardy. His motif’s from other shows are blended into new songs that make you want to have a pen and paper to play the game. I can’t wait until the CD comes out. I’ve been told that it is being recorded in January.
The show is highly surreal, with life’s journeyIn question. Think “The Outer Limits” or “The Twilight Zone,” very Rod Serling.
Based on two Luis Buñuel films “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972) and “The Exterminating Angel” (1962). Act one has Leo Brink (Bobby Cannavale) a entitled tycoon whose opinion is the only one that matters, his wife Marianne (Rachel Bay Jones) who lives for beauty and is a bit on the vaped side, their friends Paul Zimmer (Jeremy Shamos), a plastic surgeon celebrating his 1,000th nose job, his wife, Claudia (Amber Gray), an agent who lives for the celebrity of it all, Raffael Santello Di Santicci (Steven Pasquale), an ambassador from Moranda who lives for the number of notches on his belt and Fritz (Micaela Diamond), Marianne’s younger sister, who wants a revolution, while also wanting to live the good life, searching for brunch. It turns out Leo, Paul and Raffael run a drug cartel. As the day goes down the hill Marianne keeps asking Leo to “buy this perfect day for her.”
Act two is a little more dark. While they finally find food, the consequences of their choices keeps them trapped in purgatory. Enter a colonel (Francois Battiste) whose parents were killed for $26.15, a soldier (Jin Ha) who has feelings for Fritz due to his dreams and a bishop (David Hyde Pierce) who wants another job, has a shoe fettish, and plays piano, until there is no more music. This act is very reminiscent of Steambath. I love the homage to “The World According to Garp” and the bear.
Playing butlers and maids and assorted restaurateur’sare the incredible Tracie Bennett and Denis O’Hare. Kudos has to go out to the wigs by Robert Pickens and Katie Gell and the neon various establishments. white box set and costumes by David Zinn.
Joe Mantello’s staging is exquisite, allowing for each of these brilliantly talented performers to take center stage. This is true ensemble acting and I hope when the Drama Desk is giving out awards this wins.
Where many have criticized the lack of music in the second act, it makes perfect sense. The music stops. The concept very much reminds me of Davids Cromer’s Our Town, when Emily dies and suddenly things are in color and have smells. It makes complete sense that once you are trapped the music would die.
Natasha Katz’s lighting really helps the shinny set take shape, Tom Gibbons’s sound makes the inner world come to life and Sam Pinkleton’s choreography is just enough to make this move seamlessly.
Alexander Gemignani, and Jonathan Tunick, make Sondheim’s music an art and I for one appreciate the subtlety and musicality. Many may not know that Sondheim was a game master and in this it is like he won the final game of “putting it together”.
Here We Are, is intelligent, witty with so much to say and if you ponder the meaning of life you to will walk away extremely fulfilled.
Here We Are, The Shed, 545 West 30th through January 21st
Jerusalem Syndrome at Off-Broadway’s York Theatre Company
The Jerusalem Syndrome is a real psychological phenomenon that affects approximately 200 tourists per year who visit Israel. They come to believe that they are iconic figures from the Old and New Testaments.
Just in time for Chanukah is The York Theatre Company’s world-premiere musical The Jerusalem Syndrome. The book and lyrics are by Laurence Holzman and Felicia Needleman, with music by Kyle Rosen.
The show follows Phyllis/Sarah (Farah Alvin) who is hoping this trip will reunite her and her cell phone workaholic husband Alan. In the opening number “El-Al Flight,” we also meet an awkward rookie tour guide Eddie Schlosser (Chandler Sinks), whose alter ego becomes Moses, gay resort tycoon and furniture designer Charles Jackson, who takes on Jesus. Mickey Rose (James D. Gish) is the hunky and vain daytime actor who becomes Abraham. There is also a barbie-esq nurse Rena (Laura Woyasz,) who falls for Rose and sings an energetic number called “Room Seventeen.”
The standouts are Ms. Alvin who has always been a talent with her fabulous vocals and comedic touches, which show her vulnerability at the core. Mr Green who knocks it out of the park and Gish, who I expect will be able to propel this role into more.
The cast also consists of Dana Costello, Danielle Lee James, John Jellison, Karen Murphy, Jeffrey Schecter, Jennifer Smith, Curtis Wiley and Lenny Wolpe.
Directed by Don Stephenson and choreography by Alex Sanchez, this show moves at a nice pace.
The six-piece orchestra (Aveion Walker, Sean Decker, Kate Amrine, Jessica Gehring and Nicholas Urbanic under musical conductor and keyboardist Miles Plant, bring the music to life. Memorable songs include “The Power of Israel, ” “I’m Sorry,” “Doing It,” “Is It Crazy?” and “Daddy Loved Jesus.”
James Morgan’s set, Caite Hevner ‘s projections, Fan Zhang’s costumes, sound by Josh Liebert and and Rob Denton’s lighting all service the show.
The Jerusalem Syndrome, is a show that should uplift you for a pleasant night out.
The Jerusalem Syndrome: York Theatre Company, Theatre at St. Jean’s, 150 East 76th Street, until December 31st
‘Til Death in Need of a Epitaph
It is so obvious Elizabeth Coplan’s ’Til Death, being presented by the Abingdon Theatre Company on Theatre Row is a vanity production by Ms. Coplan. Sadly the play stars Judy Kaye and Robert Cuccioli, who are saddled with this bitter melodrama.
The plays about death follows a well off Mary (Judy Kaye), who is dying from ovarian cancer, and wants to end it all. She is married to her second husband, Michael (Robert Cuccioli), who her daughter Lucy (Amy Hargreaves), resents. Well actually, this rather miserable girl is none too happy about anything, as she takes her mothers pills, drinks and turns down offers for a better job by a prestigious law firm. Her hotshot lawyer brother Jason (Dominick LaRuffa Jr.), has set this up for her, but she’d rather stay put. The most redeeming part of Lucy is her teenage soccer star son, Nick (Michael Lee Brown). Telling the story is the stand in for Ms. Coplan, Anne (Whitney Morse), a photographer who was the black sheep of the family and my guess still is.
Anne and Michael do not want Mary to kill herself, however Lucy seems gung ho. During the course of this Michael is constantly reminded by Lucy that he is nothing and has no claims to the house, even as Mary is dying. Why he doesn’t slap her is beyond me. I wanted out of my seat to do just that.
This play is kept on life support for 75-minutes but seems more like an eternity with these rather nasty characters.
Kaye is warm but has very little to do. Cuccioli’s role requires him to deliver completely lame jokes while emasculating him, to boot. Hargreaves does well in the bitch role. LaRuffa Jr. has nothing to do nor does Morse or Brown. The “secrets” that disclosed, in this day and age are blah, blah, blah..
Chad Austin’s direction keeps this monstrosity going like the energizer bunny.
The most confusing part is Lisa Renkel’s projections, which appear to be Ms. Coplan’s photography of her family. They do not resemble one person on stage.
What is even more confusing, is why some playwrights insist on dragging their audiences through their therapy.
‘Til Death: Abingdon Theatre Company at Theatre Row , 401 West 42nd Street until December 23rd.
Vineyard’s “Scene Partners” Gets Stuck Between Floors
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Make Me Gorgeous Tells Of One Man’s Authenticity
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