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The Object Lesson Review: If Proust Were A Packrat

the-object-lesson-by-me

Geoff Sobelle, self-declared “maker of absurdist performance art,” is credited as the creator and performer of “The Object Lesson,” but it at least co-stars thousands of boxes. These are boxes that fill up the floor of the New York Theatre Workshop, and are stacked up to the ceiling. Some of the boxes are empty, with scrawled instructions: A fellow playgoer handed me one such box, which said: “Give this box to someone who looks nice.”

Many of the boxes are filled with all sorts of items: On one table, I picked through boxes containing:

An old cassette recorder and old cassettes, but mostly those Styrofoam packing peanuts
Votive candles
A pile of old trophies, with plaques such as “Mayfair Shamrock Tournament Champion” and “Holy Terror 1999 Hoiday Classic Under-10 1st Place”object-lesson-2-by-me
A sculpture of a horse either laughing or screaming
Day-glo wigs fit for drag queens
several diaries, which seemed too extensive to have been filled out just for this show. One began: January 22, ‘97. So two weeks and a broken tibia later, I start this journal.”

There were also boxes that indicated they were suitable for seats, and that’s what most of the playgoers eventually did, when a man (which we learned only after the show was Sobelle) started taking objects out of boxes – a lamp, a chair, and end table, a beautiful Persian rug, an old-fashioned record player – to create a cozy little room for himself amid the sea of literal box seats.

Thus began the performance part of this performance art installation. This can be divided into about a dozen scenes (more like unrelated sketches) and involved lots of audience participation, and imaginative weirdness, some of it clearly improvised.

At one point, a barefoot Sobelle scaled a mountainous pile of boxes in almost complete darkness, using only a flashlight, then found a box with a lamp, and a box with a working microphone, and then, atop this lamp-lit mountain of cardboard, began to tell a story about his experiences as a teenager on a trip to France. He told us about a goat herd, and then found a box with some goat cheese, which he passed down to the audience, complete with a baguette. He said on his last night in a little village called Carbused, he saw a strange red light in the darkness, and then a green one, and then a yellow one. He eventually realized, he told us, that it was a traffic light, which got a laugh, and then he rummaged through a box, and took out a huge, working traffic light, which bathed us first in red, then green, then yellow.

At another point, Sobelle invited a woman to dine with him, presumably just a random member of the audience. He sat her at a table from which he had cleared off the boxes, and put a plate before her; then he rummaged through various boxes to take out a head of lettuce, sticks of carrots, etc. He climbed atop the table, and, having donned a pair of ice skates, did a fairly accomplished tap dance, serving as a human Veg-o-matic, delivering the chopped ingredients expertly on her plate. He asks another audience member to hold up a chandelier so that they can dine in style.

An extraordinary effort went into creating “The Object Lesson,” most of it, I imagine by Steven Dufala, who is credited with the scenic installation design. There are moments, jerry-rigged with makeshift lighting and some surprise stagecraft, that are both funny and, quite improbably, beautiful. It feels like the kind of show designed to give bragging rights to aficionados of way-out theater such as myself. But it also inspires a contemplation of the meaning of objects in our lives, how an evocative old box of memorabilia – even if not your own – can provoke a swift stream of memories.

If Proust were a packrat, if Felix the Cat were a dramatist, they might have created something like “The Object Lesson.”

The Object Lesson
New York Theatre Workshop
Created and performed by Geoff Sobelle
Directed by David Neumann
Scenic Installation Design by Steven Dufala
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission (but get there early to go through the boxes)
Tickets: $69
“The Object Lesson” is scheduled to run through March 5, 2017.

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Party People Review: The Black Panthers and Young Lords,Viewed 50 Years Later

“Party People,” a look at the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords, is powerful and intelligent documentary theater — although the documentary theater part struggles for attention amidst all the other elements of this lively, sprawling, overlong play/musical/multi-media hip-hop performance art piece.

Although we’re told in the program that “Party People” is based on dozens of interviews with former members of the two activist organizations from the 1960s, the characters we meet are fictional, and the play is framed as an imagined 50th year reunion of the activists at the opening of an art show – called Party People – put together by two young hip-hop artists who grew up long after the organizations’ demise.

Malik (Christopher Livingston) a videographer who goes by MK Ultra, is the son of a member of the Panthers who is in prison for life. Jimmy (William Ruiz) is a rapper known as Primo the Clown, whose uncle Tito (Jesse J. Perez)  was a member of the Young Lords. But, despite their familial ties and their interest in the movement, it soon becomes clear that they are skeptical of the older generation.

As Malik puts it, their aim vis a vis the movement and its legacy is to be unafraid “to look deep in its eyes, deconstruct it, analyze, optimize, finalize, cut and paste it, Photoshop it back together again and then click share.”

Clara (Gizel Jiménez), the daughter of two Young Lords, who was raised by an aunt, puts her skepticism more simply and more personally: “You sacrificed everything, even us, and still you failed,” she tells her elders.

Indeed, a major theme running through the show is the conflict between the 60’s generation and today’s. The criticism doesn’t all flow in one direction.

“You think wearing a hoodie and calling yourself Trayvon means something? Or throwing on a t-shirt that has a great tag line, like Hands Up,” Amira (Ramona Keller) tells them. “There were no ‘hashtags’ then.When there were issues of people being hungry, we fed the people. When we saw people needed health care we started our own free clinics. So action is the real thing.”

But pride is not the only emotion the characters feel. When we meet them one by one as they prepare to attend the reunion, we learn that they all joined as teenagers, inspired by Malcolm X and Puerto Rican independence fighter Don Pedro Albizu Campos, but that they now distrust and resent one another, blaming each other as much as the F.B.I’s infiltration,  dirty tricks and outright killing for the organizations’ destruction, and for so many of its members winding up in prison, in exile, in drug dens, in the cemetery.

Nevertheless, few of the survivors we meet regret having been involved. “Here’s something I do know,” Tito says at one point. “The Party may have failed, but the struggle for justice is always worth it.”

It is to the credit of the show’s creative team – the theater collective Universes, and director Liesl Tommy (Eclipsed) – that, like Malik and Jimmy, “Party People” itself doesn’t shy away from the mixed legacy of the parties and their members. One of the most compelling scenes in the play is the confrontation between Donna (Robynn Rodriguez), the widow of a murdered police officer, and Blue (Oberon K.A. Adjepong ), one of the Panthers imprisoned for his death

“My conviction was overturned because of evidence that was withheld by the prosecution,” Blue says.

“You may have fooled some people, maybe even convinced yourself, but you will not fool or convince me,” Donna replies.

“Party People” is full of intriguing historical tidbits, exciting choreography, rhythmic singing and chanting, clever spoken word poetry, stirring speeches, galvanizing fist-pumping, suspenseful encounters and poignant moments – too full, actually. It’s overstuffed and unfocused. One can sympathize with the creative team’s resistance to trimming such rich material, but still wish they had done so.

“Party People,” which the Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned for its U.S. History cycle and was first produced there four years ago, has abruptly gained new relevance in the past week, acknowledged by an obvious update in Amira’s last speech in the play:

“The Party was a continuation of the first slave uprising, and we are still fighting that fight! It’s my only fight. Why do you think that the FBI and the CIA unleashed their dogs of war on us. Why do you think Donald Trump is the president? This country has never wanted us to be free.”

 

Party People

Public Theater
By UNIVERSES: Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, William Ruiz aka Ninja
Composed by UNIVERSES with Broken Chord
Choreography by Millicent Johnnie
Developed and Directed by Liesl Tommy

Featuring Oberon K.A. Adjepong (Blue);  Michael Elich (Marcus, FBI Agent); Gizel Jiménez(Clara); Ramona Keller (Amira); Christopher Livingston (Malik); Jesse J. Perez (Tito); Sophia Ramos (Maruca); Robynn Rodriguez (Donna, Fina); Horace V. Rogers (Solias); William Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja (Jimmy “Primo”); Mildred Ruiz-Sapp(Helita); and Steven Sapp (Omar).
Scenic and Lighting Design Marcus Doshi
Costume Design Meg Neville
Sound Design and Vocal Direction Broken Chord
Projection Design Sven Ortel
Wig Design Cookie Jordan

Running time: two and a half hours, including an intermission.

Tickets: $30 to $100

Party People is scheduled to run through December 11.

A 24-Decade History of Popular Music Review: Taylor Mac’s Epic Queer Americana

I’ve only sat through nine hours of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, Taylor Mac’s outrageous, outlandish, offensive, embarrassing, raunchy, insightful, inspired, clever, sometimes hilarious, sometimes moving, sometimes thrilling, once-in-a-lifetime theatrical event.I feel deprived for having to miss the other 15 hours worth of concerts. The term “concert” feels inadequate – just as calling Mac a drag act doesn’t get anywhere close to describing the artist’s extraordinary talent and breadth of theatrical ambition . The Mac voice is a flexible instrument that serves all genres, the body a canvas for fabulousness, the mind a weapon against mainstream complacency.

“A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” has been running at St. Ann’s Warehouse since September 15 in three-hour segments (actually closer to three and a half hours), each covering three decades. The shows will culminate in a continuous 24-hour performance on October 8th and 9th in which Mac will perform all the songs from 1776 to the present. There are no intermissions, for the three-hour concerts or for the 24-hour marathon. Audience members are encouraged to leave whenever they have to.

A copy of Taylor Mac's pink costume for 1956 to 1966, by Machine Dazzle, on display on a mannequin in the lobby of St. Ann's Warehouse

A copy of Taylor Mac’s pink costume for 1956 to 1966, by Machine Dazzle, on display on a mannequin in the lobby of St. Ann’s Warehouse

Taylor Mac has been putting this project together for years, with director Niegel Smith (now artistic director of The Flea) and a stellar design team that includes MacArthur “genius” fellow Mimi Lien as the set designer and the costume designer known as Machine Dazzle, whose costumes are so intricately flamboyant that a facsimile of them are on display in the St. Ann’s Warehouse lobby, as if at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I saw the work-in-progress 1900s to 1950s concerts at New York Live Arts in January, 2015, and this past weekend caught the 1956 to 1986 concert, which has proven to be the most popular.

“A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” is as much an American cultural and political history – and the weirdest fashion show this season — as it is a history of the nation’s music. It is decidedly a queer history, if there is room in that label for other marginalized groups beyond LGBT.

The first decade of the three I saw over the weekend, 1956 to 1966, was focused on the March on Washington and the civil rights movement. Mac came out dressed in a pink dress suit and pillbox hat reminiscent of Jackie Kennedy’s, with an American flag undergarment, and a shawl of Campbell soup cans – as well as sundry accessories I couldn’t quite identify. Mac first sang “Turn, Turn, Turn,” the 1950’s Peter Seeger song whose words come directly from the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. Then Mac ordered  all the white people in the center section “to stand and move to the suburbs” – the seats at the edge. He welcomed the people of color to take their place at the center. This was a pointed illustration of segregation, and amusing, if only because it’s not your usual concert patter. But it went too far when Mac spotted a white man still in the center, and ranted until the man was more or less chased out of his seat. This turned out to be one of the tamer examples of audience involvement, although the others were more outwardly affectionate. Theatergoers not familiar with his work should be aware that Mac’s aggressive commitment to novel audience participation seems to be a full-fledged part of the artist’s boundary-crossing aesthetic.

The songs selected from the decade were by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, The Supremes, The Staple Singers, Bob Dylan and several from Nina Simone, concluding with her “Mississippi Goddamn.” Mac introduced the song by observing that “My three favorite singers can’t really sing. Nina Simone always sung slightly above or below pitch.” But her singing was deeply effective, because she was singing her rage. I suspect rage motivates Mac’s art as well.

For the next decade, Machine Dazzle came on stage to undress Mac. Bald, wearing nothing but beige underwear and some glittery makeup, Mac resembled a cyborg from a science fiction series, or at least a warehoused mannequin.

Mac, re-dressed in a tie-dyed miniskirt, a psychedelic light show of a bra, and a hat that looked like a disco ball, launched into 1966-1976, and a focus on the Stonewall riots and what led up to them. The theme of gay oppression and liberation gave a new meaning to the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”

Stripped once again, Mac was re-dressed as a feathery, glittery disco diva all in purple, and sang some disco anthems, as well as “the greatest make-out song ever written” – Prince’s “Purple Rain.” The subject of this decade was sex – specifically, backroom sex. “I like anonymous sex,” Mac said at one point. “I get you’ve never heard anyone say that from a stage….unless you went to one of those progressive schools.”

The decade, and the evening, ended with what Mac called “a bummer,” Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” written in 1979, a year before the band’s lead singer and lyricist, Ian Curtis, committed suicide. Mac said nothing about that, but didn’t have to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Walk. Elastic City’s Exit, Wistful and Weird

TheLastWalk12So here we are, on our hands and knees in a public square as if we’re religious penitents, but most of the people crawling up the steps of Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn are poets and performance artists, or at least secular theatergoers, in this latest 0f Elastic City‘s “Walks,” which is also the last of Elastic City’s Walks.

Since 2010,  poet Todd Shalom has brought adventurous participants on more than 100 of these wild walks,  often in collaboration with Niegel Smith, who took on the title of Elastic City’s associate artistic director. I described some of the walks in which the two collaborated in a profile of Niegel Smith for American Theatre Magazine when he became the artistic director of the prestigious Off-Off Broadway theater The Flea last year.

In one, entitled Selfies, the participants walked naked through the basement of the City University of New York Graduate Center. In Monumental Walk, which took place in both London and New York,  the participants were asked to talk to public statues and sculptures, acting out the way they imagined these monuments would move, and then led them to “create new monuments with our bodies.” Visual AIDS commissioned Smith to organize a Walk entitled Spread, in which participants, contemplating the virus, “spread” their clothes, condoms, and well-wishes to passersby, and then entered an adult video parlor and “spread” messages, food and money to the customers.

I went on one in 2014 in Greenwich Village that was a tad more of a traditional walking tour, although not entirely:  We were asked, for example, to write anti-gentrification quotations on blank bookmarks and then slip them surreptitiously into the books for sale at BookMarc, the bookstore by fashion designer Marc Jacobs.

In Elastic City’s most ambitious Walk, entitled Total Detroit, Smith and Shalom brought a dozen people from New York to Detroit, where Smith had spent some unhappy childhood years, for three days and two nights. Among the stops on the walk was a white-framed house where he had lived with his mother and brothers and where, he told them, his mother’s boyfriend had sexually abused him. Then he asked them to share their own traumatic events, if they wished. Afterwards, Smith remembers, “We lit candles and stayed on the sidewalk until the candles burned away.”

But the walk in Prospect Park this week is the last walk of Elastic City’s last season. Proof of the impact of Elastic City on at least a segment of New York City may be demonstrated by the news articles generated by their announcement that Elastic City will be no more.

The reason why they’re ending it, in a nutshell: Shalom wanted to move on. He explained his reasoning in a group e-mail last November with his usual thoughtfulness — containing perhaps a lesson for other arts groups:

“In thinking about the future, the options we saw were: that Elastic City continue with a new Executive and Artistic Director or that EC institutionalize within a museum or larger organization. Well, we’re a small but strong org (grrr) but we don’t have the financial infrastructure to pay an ED and Artistic Director a livable wage. If we joined a larger organization, it’d provide more financial security but would compromise the urgency, form and presentation of the work. One reason we started making walks outside was so we didn’t have to answer to anyone other than you, the public.

“But above all, we feel like Elastic City has met its mission and has explored this form well. We’ve developed a method. This is a project in poetry, really, and we’re gonna go out with a celebration.”

And so the dozen or so of us who gathered at the Bailey Fountain near the entrance of Prospect Park engaged in some dozen activities over 90 minutes, some of which paid homage to past walks. We broke into pairs and “sculpted” each other (provided a pose to be a monument.) We crawled (knee pads and work gloves provided.) We played with our shadows. We were asked to do a 360-degree look at our surroundings, voicing  sounds for the different objects — landmarks, trees — that we spotted. (Not a single passerby, not even a passing police car, took notice of the odd cacophony. This is New York, after all.)  We were asked to pair off again, and listen silently while our partner engaged in a four-minute monologue, as we took notes with magic markers. The notes were then clipped to tree branches in the park. (but not left there.)  We were each asked to walk to a roadway in a way that revealed our character. And then, for the finale, we stood under an ancient tree, and belted out for all to hear every verse of the song that begins:

The sun’ll come out

Tomorrow

Bet your bottom dollar

That tomorrow

There’ll be sun

 

We were handed a printed program with the lyrics on the back — and on the cover, it said “In Loving Memory. Elastic City. April 25, 2010 – July 28, 2016.”

Winter Theater Festivals in New York 2016

WinterFestival2016logocollageA liberal has a respectful conversation with a white supremacist in “Confirmation,” while a feminist artist interviews ‘the Internet’s most infamous misogynist’ in “Tightrope Routines.”   In “Germinal,” four performers construct the world from scratch, while in “Dog Days,” a man dressed as a dog begs for food in a world that’s fallen apart.  These are some of the theater pieces in the more than dozen New York festivals this month.

January became the month for theater festivals in the city — more than at any time other than the summer – because of the presence of thousands of members of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters here each year for their convention. But with some of the festivals going back a dozen years, and new ones springing up all the time (2016 being no exception), they are now welcomed each year anew by local theatergoers, who are more than fine with the experimental, mixed-genre, multimedia approach and international flavor of much of the work. The cheaper ticket prices are nice too: Most are $25 or under; some are free.

Below are a selections of festival shows, organized chronologically by each festival’s starting date.

Coil Festival

January 5 – 17

Twitter feed: @PS122

Coil16logo

Now in its 11th year, the  Performance Space 122 festival is offering 16 productions, only a few of which should probably be considered theater pieces as opposed to dance or music concerts or art installations. The artists hail from Australia, Austria, England, China, France, and Norway, as well as the United States, and their works are being presented in some dozen venues throughout the city while PS 122’s East Village home continues to be renovated.

Here is a PDF of the COIL 2016 brochure , which includes a calendar of performance times.

Confirmation

Chris Thorpe interviewed a British right-wing political activist and now re-creates those conversations to explore the psychological phenomenon of confirmation bias.  The show is directed by Rachel Chavkin, who is making her Broadway directorial debut later this year in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

COILGoForth

Go Forth

In seven vignettes inspired by the Egyptian Book of the Dead and by the sudden death of her own father from malaria,  Kaneza Schaal explores through performance and photographic installation both burial rites and “the intimate relationship between black people and death around the world.”

The Holler Sessions

Frank Boyd plays a radio dj obsessed with jazz.

Yesterday Tomorrow

Humans and computer algorithms work together to gradually break down the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and then reconstruct it as “Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie.”

 

Under the Radar


January 6 – 17

Twitter: @UTRFestival

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The 12th annual festival at the Public features 18 works by artists from Chile, France, Belgium, Rwanda, and Japan, as well as the United States. A third of these are works-in-progress that are part of the second annual “Incoming” festival-within-the-festival by the Public’s Devised Theater Working Group.

Germinal. Defoort-Goerger -¬ Alain Rico-4

Germinal

Starting on an empty stage, with a mix of visual art, theater, music, and sociology, four performers construct the world, along with its “laws of physics, philosophy, music, language, and social interaction.”

Samedi Detente

Samedi détente was a popular Saturday radio program in Rwanda.  Dorothée Munyaneza was 12 in 1994 during the Rwandan genocide.  Twenty years later, she invents her own Samedi détente. Accompanied by Ivorian dancer Nadia Beugré and French musician Alain Mahé, she returns to thememories of her childhood with music, movement…and testimony.

Escuela

In Chile in 1987,  a group of young left-wing activists wearing ski masks to shield their identity from one another gather in a drab living room to receive paramilitary instruction aimed at overthrowing the military dictatorship.

The Institute of Memory (TIMe)

Featuring archival wire-tap transcriptions, the missives of communist spies, and MRI brain scans, The Institute of Memory (TIMe) conjures a portrait of director Lars Jan’s enigmatic father — a Cold War operative

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The Art of Luv (Part 1: Eliot)

On May 23, 2014, Elliot Rodger killed 6 people and injured 13 in a rampage motivated by his lack of success with women. Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble (i.e. theater artists Sean McElroy and Tei Blow) responds with a multimedia lip-synched, ritual-performance piece using love stories found on old VHS videotapes.

Prototype Festival

January 6–17, 2016

Twitter: @Prototypefest

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Billing itself as the “premiere festival of opera-theatre and music-theatre,” the Prototype Festival, now in its fourth year, will feature seven works.

Dog Days photo_by_James_Matthew_Daniel

Dog Days

a man in a homemade dog costume, who seems convinced he is a dog, begs for food from a family who has collapsed in a post-apocalyptic world.

Angel’s Bone

A couple nurse and then enslave two angels who were injured in the long journey back to earth. The opera “melds chamber music, theatre, punk rock, opera, cabaret, and electronics, exploring the dark effects and motivations behind modern-day slavery and the trafficking industry.”

The Good Swimmer

Heidi Rodewald, co-composer of Passing Strange, has written the score for this piece that recast “Antigone” as a team of young lifeguards on a beach during the Vietnam War. Librettist Donna Di Novelli has put together the song lyrics from found texts (historical quotations, defunct manuals.)

American Realness Festival

January 7-17, 2016

Twitter: @AmericanRealnes

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Primarily a festival of dance now in its seventh  year at Abrons Arts Center, American Realness features 20 works. Many of the pieces shade into performance art — and isn’t performance art theater?

Erin Markey & Becca Blackwell - A Ride On The English Cream

Erin Markey & Becca Blackwell – A Ride On The English Cream

A Ride on The Irish Cream

Written and starring Erin Markey, this musical presents “the thrills and terrors of a relationship between Reagan (Markey), a vainglorious self-made girl, and Irish Cream (Becca Blackwell, her actual life partner), her family’s pontoon boat/horse. They are in love, but when their relationship is tested by dust ruffles, sex for money, severe T-storms, and a secret cellar, the only way to stay together is to remember all the parts of themselves their bodies tried to forget.”

#NEGROPHOBIA

“Part social commentary and part self-critique,” Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s piece looks at “the erotic fear associated with the black male body” and features the “UK based model, performance artist, and night-life personality IMMA/MESS.”

The Exponential Festival

January 13 – January 30

Twitters: @Bricktheater @BushwickStarr @CloudCityb @TheSilentBarn

TheExponentialFestival

This is the first year of this festival, which makes two boasts, both of which motivated the organizers to found it in the first place: 1. All four of the venues/partners of the festival are in Brooklyn: The Brick, The Bushwick Starr, Cloud City, and Silent Barn. 2. Several (but not all) of the seven shows being presented at the festival had recent runs in New York – runs too short to accommodate everybody who wanted to see them.

01EXPONENTIALLongYarn

LongYarn

At the Bushwick Starr, a “shaggy-dog folktale of the adventurous and long-lived “Mother”, a character based on strong, peculiar and compelling women from history. The outlandish poetic adventures of her youth include tales of riverboat piracy, a stint as a professional wrestler, lost days as a crack addict and being raised by a family of cows…”

ExponentialBiter

Biter (Every Time I Turn Around)

A reprise from last year, now at the Silent Barn, this acclaimed exercise in fierce and comic anarchy and violence is really two plays, Biter, described as “a sincere slapstick gore-fest ” and then an abrupt shift into Every Time I Turn Around.

Sara Hylton

Toilet Fire

In a reprise of a (more or less) solo show, now at The Brick, Eliza Bent celebrates “the one thing that unites us all: our need to go. “Using the structure of an ancient religious ritual to talk about matters of digestion, philosophy, and faith, Toilet Fire, performed by Bent and Alaina Ferris, explodes with song and audience participation.” I’ll admit this description is off-putting, especially that “audience participation,” but it turned out to be less embarrassing than it sounds.

Circus Now

January 14- 16

Twitter: @CircusNowUSA

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Circus acts from Canada, Sweden, England and the United States at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.

Special Effects Festival

January 15-17, 2016

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Five of the 10 “experimental performance works” in the third year of this festival are grouped together under “Gray Spaces.” One of these is Happy To See You, in whichaudience members will act as subject and spectator as they are watched (and watch themselves being watched) by cameras, an audience and a drone.”

In Steve of Tomorrow , which uses video puppetry and toy theater, a sci-fi blogger gets visited by a time traveler from the future, but he turns out to be shlub.

TightropeRoutines

Tightrope Routines is based on seven months of exchanges between Angela Washko and the author of books about how to pick up women.

LA MAMA’S SQUIRTS

January 15 – 24

“New voices in queer theater.” Each of the six evenings features a different “guest of of honor” — Kate Bornstein, Holly Hughes, Carmelita Tropicana, et al — and a couple of “guest squirts.”

The Fire This Time Festival

January 18 – February 6

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Now in its seventh year, this festival is a a platform for new work by rising playwrights of African and African American descent

 

Climate Change Can Be Fun: Where Have All The Glaciers Gone Theater Review

 

Climatechangeart

On the same weekend that 195 nations reached an unprecedented agreement to take action on climate change, a dozen or so theatergoers were dancing the Climate Change Macarena. Guided by choreographer Phoebe Rose Sandford, we danced the seven rhythmic steps repeatedly, set to a tropical beat – we changed a light bulb (twisting our wrists above our heads), bicycled (pumping our legs in place), planted a tree (crouching down and then rising up with our arms in the air as if growing), brought our mug with us, turned down our thermostat, composted – and then patted ourselves on the back.

This dance of carbon emission reduction was one of 15 clever monologues, dances and scenes in “Where Have All The Glaciers Gone,” a collaborative theater piece that was part of the Climate Change Theatre Action. As its organizers explained, this was a series of performances and readings created “by writers from all six livable continents,” and presented in at least 70 venues around the globe – an ambitious, well-meaning and, let’s face it, intimidating project.

What a relief, then, to find that one of these shows was actually entertaining – fun and funny.

Yes, “Where Have All The Glaciers Gone?” was informative as well. The first scene, written by director Erin B. Mee, presented Colin Waitt as a climate scientist giving a lecture. In front of slides showing such current effects of climate change as a polar bear clinging to the last little piece of ice of a melted iceberg, the lecturer informed us that by 2020, just five years from now, “water stress” caused by climate change will affect upwards of 750 million people around the world; that rising sea levels could cut in half the food available to Bangladesh in five years and completely obliterate The Republic of the Maldives by the end of the century.

But the show drove home the point in more theatrical ways as well, with pieces written by a half dozen playwrights and performed by a cast of three. Some of the scenes were well-placed snark: “The Ten Best Things About Global Warming” included “1. No more pesky weeds. In fact, no more pesky plants.” And “9. Three thongs and you’re dressed!” Some involved audience participation. In addition to the “Climate Change Macarena,” another, “Walk the Walk,” had us literally measuring our green commitment: e.g.

“If you learned about recycling in school, and practice what you learned, take a step forward.”

“If you’ve thrown something away that you knew could be recycled, take two steps back.”

“If you’ve ever checked the box on Grub Hub saying no plastic forks, stay where you are, because you still ordered from Grub Hub.”

Skeptics – either those who don’t “believe” in climate or don’t think that an individual can do anything about it – were humorously taken to task, in August Schulenburg’s The Reasons ( “Because a bigger car makes me feel safe when I’m driving with my kids.”; “Because we have bigger problems to worry about.”) In Colin Waitt’s “A Question from The Audience,” Caitlin Goldie portrayed “Ashley” who said to the climate scientist played by WaittEverything you’re doing is great. Really creative…[But] what can we do as individuals do to actually make a difference?” and then blabbered on without allowing the scientist to answer.By the end of “Where Have All The Glaciers Gone?”, the stage at 244 Greene Street was covered with trash. The magazines, receipts, unused napkins, packaging had been heaped on the floor during “The Day Wasted,” a look at one person’s trash from a single day. But the issues surrounding climate change felt less cluttered.

Eve Review: The latest “dance theater immersion” and no-sneeze “experience,” at Gym at Judson

Eve 3a by Tom Kochie

I will keep an open mind, I write three times in my notebook before the first scene in the first room of “Eve,” which its creators describe as “a dance theatre immersion experience.” It’s running at the Gym at Judson through October 1.

I have learned to be wary of any show that calls itself an “experience,” especially a theatrical experience, thanks to shows like Queen of the Night.

On the other hand, I do still like Jimi Hendrix, and I’m drawn to the Neo-Political Cowgirls, or at least the name. That’s the Hamptons-based company, founded by Kate Mueth seven years ago, that is responsible for “Eve.”

So I waited with the other theatergoers in the hallway of the Gym at Judson, which in honor of the show has been newly decorated with plastic female torsos on the wall, each covered with unique graffiti; one says “I’m glad I run the path to fruition” with the “fruition” cleverly ending at the plastic vulva.

A member of the company gives us each a choice of mask to put on, and tells us we are required to keep the mask on for the duration of “Eve.”

I’m horrified.

I will not sneeze, I write. The last show that required me to wear a mask was “Sleep No More,” the site-specific, immersive, interactive, mute adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I was apparently allergic to the mask, because I kept on sneezing, and the sweat quickly formed on my face beneath the mask, and I really, really needed to rip off the mask and get the hell out of the place. But it was dark and confusing and the ushers, or whatever they were called – Guards? Minders? Noblemen? – weren’t allowed to talk, so it took me 20 minutes to find the exit – literally 20 minutes. The entire experience – “experience”? – made me feel like the least hip person on the island of Manhattan.

EVE8a by Tom KochieI will not sneeze, and I will stay to the very end.

“Eve” begins in a room wrapped in red cloth. A dancer sits atop scaffolding in the middle of the room. She has long straight black hair and is dressed all in black. She writhes elegantly to the loud, pounding music, until she takes out a bird cage. Three dancers wearing gossamer outfits flutter into the room. Eventually the first dancer joins them. Meanwhile, on the scaffolding, something huge encased in brown wrapping paper starts writhing, then jumping up and down, up and down, until it eventually…hatches. A crazy-looking bearded man emerges, wearing a doctor’s white lab coat stained in blood, and a surgeon’s light attached to his forehead.

This first scene has taken about 20 minutes, and now the doctor leads us into a second, much smaller room, where an unconscious woman with her private parts clad in what looks like duct tape lies on what appears to be an operating table. The doctor smears silver body paint on her, and bops her with a mallet, and apparently drags her into life. Standing in the corner of the room, looking somewhat catatonic, or perhaps just cool, is a man dressed only in Calvin Klein underpants. Suddenly, it all comes together – the show is called “Eve,” that must be the newly conscious woman, the man in the underwear is Adam…and the blood stained doctor must be….God?

Later, this diagnosis seems to be confirmed, when Adam and Eve pick an apple from a tree hanging with boxes of Dunkin Donuts and old Vanity Fair magazines, and then go to the kitchen (which has a quite credible looking modern stove and refrigerator) and set up house, chopping the apple, and reading the New York Times at the kitchen table.

“Eve” then is a site-specific, immersive, interactive, mute adaptation of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve?

Except it doesn’t stop there. Over the course of two hours, the nine members of the cast — impressively lithe and committed — dance and otherwise move and interact and emote in some 10 or 11 makeshift rooms constructed for the show. Eve (whom we learn later is portrayed by Ana Nieto) goes through any number of metamorphoses, at one point getting new breasts and lip implants, and a pair of high heels that seem to defeat her. A cocktail waitress brings her a tray of medications. Adam (whom we learn later is just “Man” and is portrayed by Sebastiani Romagnolo, a veteran of “Sleep No More”!) puts on a suit over his Calvin Kleins (presumably Armani) and goes to a room with a desk and starts typing. They both eventually liberate themselves. All this takes place to a soundtrack that leans heavily on the art rock group Dead Can Dance, Nine Inch Nails and Grace Jones,  but also occasionally the sound of crickets.

Often visually arresting, as these photographs attest, at points tedious, “Eve” is rewarding for those who have the patience and the innate hipness to appreciate it.   I know this because I stayed for the entire experience, without once sneezing.


Eve
Gym at Judson
Conceived/Directed/Original choreography by Kate Mueth
Choreographed by Vanessa Walters
Cast: Ana Nieto (Eve), Lydia Franco Hodges/Josh Gladstone (The Maker), Brinda Dixit, Vanessa Walters, Jennifer Sydor (Chorus), Sebastiania Romagnolo (Man), Emi Oshima (Shadow), Leslie Cuyjet (Lilith), Brinda Dixit, Kasia Klimiuk, Vincent Cinque (Host/Hostess), Margaret Pulkingham, Kasia Klimiuk, Irina Thompson, David Wornovitzky (Voids)
Note: This is the E Cast, which is the cast I saw. There is also an M cast. At the M cast, for example, Julia Motyka portrays Eve and Jeffrey Lyon portrays Man
Running time: 2 hours, no intermission
Tickets: $35
“Eve” is scheduled to run through October 1, 2015

Theatre for One: The Smallest and Most Unsettling Theater in the World

TheatreforOneboothThe woman is speaking directly to me, an arm’s length away, as if we know each other: “I’m not blaming you for missing anything, I know it’s not your fault,” she says, looking right into my eyes, and she starts talking about her mother dying in the hospital, in intimate detail. “Aren’t you glad you asked?” she said, sardonically. (But I didn’t ask!) “Sorry I just ruined lunch.”

We are in downtown Manhattan, inside a small booth, whose walls are covered in a quilt-patterned red material, with a red seat, stage lights, a raised curtain; the performer (Marisol Miranda) is seated on one side of the curtain; I’m on the other. This is the interior of what is surely the smallest working theater in the world.

I’ve just seen “Lizzy,” written by Jose Rivera, one of seven short scripted plays by established playwrights in “I’m Not The Stranger You Think I Am,” all performed in a booth in the corner of the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place, the latest production of Theatre for One.

Theatre for One is the brainchild of Christine Jones, the award-winning set designer (American Idiot, Spring Awakening) and director (Queen of the Night), who’s been carting her custom-designed booth around to public spaces for years, overseeing free performances for the public, one by one. For each performance, there is one member of the cast, and one member of the audience.

Lynn Nottage, one of the seven playwrights of "Theatre for One: I'm Not the Stranger You Think I Am"

Lynn Nottage, one of the seven playwrights of “Theatre for One: I’m Not the Stranger You Think I Am”

I first attended Theatre for One in 2011 when Jones parked her booth on Father Duffy Square in the theater district, attracting long lines and repeat customers. You never knew what show you were waiting to see, but none lasted longer than a few minutes. While some of the performances were just songs or magic tricks, there were also emotional monologues by characters on the edge. It was the most unsettling experience I’d ever had as a theatergoer. And I am not alone.

“I found it to be an intense, a little frightening and absolutely amazing experience,” says Lynn Nottage, the Pulitzer-winning playwright. “It felt more like an intimate conversation with a stranger on the bus than a performance.  At first I struggled and resisted the experience,  but once I committed to making eye contact and exchanging energy with the actor, I found that the piece really came alive and touched me in unexpected ways.”

Nottage has gone from patron of Theatre for One to one of its playwrights in the current production, which (unlike the past) is all monologues. In “#Five,” a man (portrayed by Keith Randolph Smith) is talking to a job interviewer (i.e. the audience member), explaining the ten-year gap in his resume. His circumstances are “not for the reasons you probably imagine.”   He was the victim of a horrendous shooting.

“I decided that I wanted to create a piece that toyed with the audiences expectations,” Nottage says.

The other playwrights in the current production also do some toying with the disconcerting set-up. In “Late Days in the Era of Good Feelings,” a play by Will Eno that doesn’t last much longer than the title, the performer (Erin Gann) says: “Awkward, awkward, awkward… I’m not supposed to ask questions. …I guess the organizers don’t want people feeling, like, stressed out, or like they’re part of the show or something…Nerve-wracking, right? “

If it’s true that the performers are not supposed to ask questions, Thomas Bradshaw violates that rule in his untitled play. “What’s your name?” performer Andrew Garman asks, and waits for you to answer. “I’ve been in a lot of movies. Do you recognize me?” he asks later. But those questions are nowhere near as uncomfortable as when he starts talking about sex (“I came across this article that said that the average American has sex 118 times a year! And I was like, holy shit! That’s a lot of sex. Do you think that’s a lot or does that sound right to you?”)

Not all the plays press buttons. Zayd Zohm’s “Love Song” is a sweet and funny recollection of the character (Kevin Mambo) writing a song for a girl when he was 16.

“The Theatre for One really demands that the audience be an active participant, which at first can be jarring: By in large, audiences are used to passively sitting in darkness and watching the action from afar,” Nottage observes. “I like the tension of an intimate space set in an open public space. I love that people enter the booth with no idea of what they were going to encounter, and leave having had a visceral experience.”

Theatre for One: I’m Not The Stranger You Think I am, runs for free from noon to 7 p.m. at

Winter Garden at Brookfield Place (230 Vesey Street) until May 24

Zuccotti Park (Broadway and Liberty Street) May 27-31

Grace Building Plaza (1114 Avenue of the Americas), June 2-6.

La Mama’s perfect storm in getting foreign artists on its American stage

Performers from more than 70 countries have had gigs at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Company since it began in 1961, but one could be excused for seeing this season as the perfect storm for performances from abroad: This is the year the East Village playhouse presented three separate productions of The Tempest, by companies from different nations.

As with almost any shows by foreign artists in America, though, the storms began way before they were depicted on stage. Just getting the troupes here can cost many months, thousands of dollars, much headache.

In my article for American Theatre Magazine, Bringing Foreign Companies to the U.S., One Visa Application at a Time, I talk about the general problem of getting foreign artists to America, and offer as the main example, the experience of La MaMa.

Mia Yoo, artistic director of La MaMa

Mia Yoo, artistic director of La MaMa

“There has to be a way that artists can move more freely,” says artistic director Mia Yoo, who took over the leadership post from the theater’s late founder Ellen Stewart. Stewart made international cultural exchange part of La MaMa’s basic mission, and Yoo owes her very existence to the relative ease with which artists from abroad were once able to work in the United States: Her Korean father, a director, met her mother, an American employed in children’s theatre, while studying and working at the Dallas Theater Center.

The idea for the Tempest 3 series at La MaMa came shortly after Hurricane Sandy, when Yoo says she got three telephone calls: one from Karin Coonrod, who had workshopped an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play with composer Elizabeth Swados while both were at La MaMa’s summer cultural center near Spoleto, Italy; one from the MOTUS company of Italy, which had created Nella Tempesta, incorporating the play Une Tempête by Aimé Césaire and infusing the work with contemporary political commentary; and a third from the Mokwha Repertory Company of Korea, which set the play in 5th-century Korea and incorporated one of the oldest existing Korean texts, “Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms.”

It struck Yoo as more than a coincidence that they were all exploring Shakespeare’s text at the same time. “I feel there was probably an unconscious connection that all these artists were making. The Korean peninsula, for example, has gotten a lot more flooding lately.”

The idea of grouping these three productions into a series interested Yoo in part because it would make them easier to market, thus helping to address LaMaMa’s No. 1 problem with presenting international productions: getting an audience for them. “We are not bringing in artists who are well known,” Yoo explained.

Once they decided on a series, La MaMa aimed to present it two years later—which they actually considered something of a rush job, knowing as they did all the steps involved.

“The first step is the visa,” pointed out Denise Greber, the La MaMa staff member in charge of helping foreign companies with the visa application process, which is long and expensive, costing as much as $6,000 “if nothing goes wrong.” Before she even began the application, Greber was in communication for months, via Skype and e-mail, trying to bridge the language barrier, gathering the necessary information and material to describe the planned program in detail and make the case that the companies are “culturally unique.” After filling out the forms, adding a packet of press clips, a half dozen or so letters of recommendation (“from other artistic directors, the minister of culture, etc.”), the companies needed a letter of approval from an American union, either Actors’ Equity or the American Guild of Musical Artists.

Noted Greber, “They have to attest the artists are not taking any jobs away from Americans. It’s a little bizarre, but we have to do it.” This requirement can be waived for some positions that have no direct input into the creative content of a show, or for artists for whom there is no applicable union.

Once the applications were completed, La MaMa sent them to the Vermont Service Center of the Citizenship and Immigration Services—and waited. Once approved, the next step involved personal interviews with each member of the company at a designated U.S. embassy. Since the KoreanTempest had 20 actors, that meant 20 appointments, at a cost of $190 apiece.

“It seems to me a lot of work for artists who are just going to be performing in the U.S. for two weeks,” Greber allowed.

For a relatively small cultural institution like La MaMa, which presents as many as 20 productions by international artists each year, the necessary steps can feel overwhelming—but never prohibitive. “It has been challenging,” Yoo concedes, “but we’re going to do it whether it’s difficult or not. We’re going to find a way.”

 

 

Elastic City Walks Festival: Walking as Performance Art

In their walk around Greenwich Village – the last artist walk of the Elastic City Walks Festival, which has a closing night benefit tonight – theater director Niegel Smith, playwright and novelist Sarah Schulman, and poet and walk artist Todd Shalom asked us to do things that, it is safe to say, no participants in a walking tour of Greenwich Village have ever been asked to do before — which was ok, because this was not a walking tour.

“We don’t call them walking tours,” said Shalom. “They’re artist walks.” And they come with assignments for the participants. We were asked to write quotations on blank bookmarks and then slip them surreptitiously into the books for sale at BookMarc, the bookstore by fashion designer Marc Jacobs that replaced Biography Bookstore on Bleecker Street. (I chose a quotation from Jane Jacobs: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”) We were asked to gather into pairs, and each duo choose a stoop on Perry Street to walk down as if an owner or tenant of the brownstone. We snuck into Patchin Place, one of the private cul-de-sacs in the Village, and were asked to create a scene between a long-time Village resident and a newcomer, feeding lines to the two walkers who had volunteered to portray them.

Since 2010, when Shalom founded Elastic City, some 80 artists have led walks like this all over the world (but mostly in New York), intended to make the “audience active participants in an ongoing poetic exchange with the places we live in and visit.” At City Island, the walkers were given such assignments as “ear-cleansing exercises,” and asked to smell around and report back, as recounted and sketched by Roz Chast in the New Yorker.

The Village walk was more grounded in history — especially LGBT history, and class history. Schulman explained how the Village was created as a neighborhood of mixed economic classes — rich people fled to the bucolic setting after several epidemic scares in the city proper, but a penitentiary built in 1797 also lured both families of the inmates and prison workers to settle there.  Niegel Smith introduced John McPherson, a young man he’d met at the pier, who read a personal essay about how the piers “offered the comfort I was deprived of” at home. Schulman introduced Jim Fouratt, a long-time gay activist who pointed out where the four lesbian bars were when he arrived in the neighborhood in 1960 (“You can only find two lesbian bars in the neighborhood now”), described his early life as a bohemian and “cultural bum,” and retold the story of the Stonewall riots. We ended the walk listening to a guest discourse on the Gay Liberation sculpture in Christopher Street Park by George Segal, and to an uninvited guest babble incoherently but with great passion.