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Inanimate Review: Loving Objects at The Flea

 

“Inanimate,” a new play by Nick Robideau about a young woman who falls in love with a Dairy Queen sign, is most noteworthy for being the first play to be presented in the new building that houses The Flea, the Off-Off Broadway theater founded by Sigourney Weaver and her husband Jim Simpson 20 years ago, with the motto “Raising a Joyful Hell in a Small Space.” Now under the leadership of Niegel Smith, The Flea’s small space has gotten larger: “Inanimate” is playing in The Siggy (named after Sigourney Weaver) one of the three new theaters in the new complex on 20 Thomas Street, four blocks further downtown from its old digs.

“Inanimate” reflects The Flea’s tradition of being untraditional, its eagerness to experiment and explore the outrageous – in this case to dramatize an actual psychological phenomenon that’s been labeled Object sexuality or Objectophilia, which describes people who do not just obsess about an object, but have sexual feelings for it. An article in Psychology Today cited real-life case studies such as Erika LaBrie, “who ‘married’ the Eiffel Tower in 2007 and now calls herself Erika Eiffel.”

In “Inanimate,” Erica (Lacy Allen) is in love with Dee, which is what she calls the sign at the local Dairy Queen in her hometown. She also has the hots for a can opener, which gets her fired from her job as a grocery store clerk when a customer complains. Her behavior also jeopardizes the downtown renewal project planned by her politician sister Trish (Tressa Preston), who is so concerned with Erica’s behavior that she schemes to have Dee demolished.

“It’s not sanitary,” Trish says. “Think of how many dogs have

probably pissed on that sign.”

“So what, I should fuck a guy instead?” Erica holds her own. “Dicks are the literal source of pee. “

“Inanimate” is full of humor, but, much to his credit, playwright Robideau is never mocking. He makes Erica not just sympathetic and credible, but the winner of every argument; he even gives her an ally – Kevin (Maki Borden), an old high school classmate who works at the Dairy Queen. Like Erica, Kevin has just turned 30, and he too has a secret sexual attraction that is looked down upon by the people in their small Massachusetts town – he is attracted to both women and men. Erica is reluctant to confess to Kevin: “…we barely even know each other, no offense…”

“Do six months of daily Blizzards mean nothing to you?” he replies.

When she finally reveals her secret, Kevin is initially confused. If Erica is enamored of Dee because of the way his light hits her, it “hits, like, dozens of people on a nightly basis”

“Sure. And I touch lots of objects every day. Monogamy’s kind of impossible in a relationship like this, so we don’t really get hung up on it.”

Director Courtney Ulrich corrals three “chorus members” to portray the literal objects of Erica’s affection, with special attention to Dee (Philip Feldman) in spot-on multicolored jacket and neon green hair. (Costumes are by Sarah Lawrence.)

But if some of these object personifications are inspired (I was partial to the can opener dressed in sexy black lace and leather), the director also has to take the hit for the highly uneven seven-member cast, selected from the Bats, the resident company at the Flea that is mostly made up of recent graduates. The play could probably benefit from some trimming in any case, but the acting makes the 90 minute running time feel way too long.

Even so, “Inanimate,” intentionally or not, is a pitch perfect choice to inaugurate 30 Thomas Street, since I am surely not the only one who is turned on by the new Flea.

 

 

INANIMATE

The Flea Theater

Written by Nick Robideau and directed by Flea Associate Artist Courtney Ulrich.

Cast: The Bats, the resident acting company at The Flea, including Lacy Allen, Maki Borden, Philip Feldman, Artem Kreimer, Tressa Preston, Michael Oloyede, Nancy Tatiana Quintana, with understudies Marcus Antonio Jones and Alexandra Slater. Creative team: Yu-Hsuan Chen (Scenic Design), Sarah Lawrence (Costume Design), Becky Heisler (Lighting Design), Megan Culley (Sound Design) and Claire Edmonds (Assistant Director)

Inanimate runs through September 24, Thursday–Monday at 7pm, with Sunday matinees at 3pm. (Note: no performances Aug. 31 – Sept. 6 for the Labor Day holiday weekend). Tickets start at $15 with the lowest priced tickets available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Update: Inanimate is now running through October 16, 2017.

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Fulfillment Review: Thomas Bradshaw’s X-Rated Modern Day Job

Fulfillment5 GAkinnagbeandSFlood

Gbenga Akinnagbe and Susannah Flood in “Fulfillment.”

“Fulfillment,” Thomas Bradshaw’s latest in-your-face play, which has opened at the Flea, offers much the same ironic moral lesson as the inspiration behind “Answered Prayers,” the title Truman Capote used for his posthumously published novel: “Answered prayers,” the saying goes, “cause more tears than those that remain unanswered.”

Just mentioning Bradshaw and Capote in the same sentence might cause the universe to implode. So explicit and vulgar are Bradshaw’s plays that they make even the foulest moments in Mamet feel like a scene from The Odd Couple. Bradshaw doesn’t just use four-letter words, he asks the actors to enact them. “Fulfillment” presents the most graphic sex scenes I have ever seen on a New York stage, with the exception of the last Bradshaw play I saw, “Intimacy,” which focused on amateur pornographers in the suburbs.

If Bradshaw’s signature X-rated touches feel gratuitous in “Fulfillment,” the play is nevertheless fulfilling in many ways– a well-acted (bravely acted!), smoothly directed, smart, at times funny, more often horrifying and ultimately thought-provoking glimpse into our pursuit of happiness.

As the play begins, Michael (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a well-paid senior associate at a law firm where he has been working for nine years, is about to buy a hip new condo apartment in Soho, and has started an affair with a younger colleague at the office, Sarah (Susannah Flood), which he describes to his best friend Simon (Christian Conn) in lecherous detail.

It soon becomes clear that the very steps Michael has taken to find greater happiness result in the opposite. “Fulfillment” is a chronicle of one man’s relentless descent into hell on earth.

It would be a spoiler to go into much detail, but one example is such a classic New York story that it’s hard to resist mentioning. In a problem that many, many New Yorkers will find familiar, Michael’s perfect new apartment (albeit a bit small and overpriced) turns out to be downstairs from unpleasant neighbor Ted (Jeff Biehl), whose young daughter likes to stomp on the floor at 5 in the morning. Ted refuses to curb his daughter’s behavior nor put down the carpeting that is required by condo association rules. The escalation between Michael and Ted is true enough to New York living to be at times almost amusing.

But it turns ugly and surreal, one of a series of such excessively brutal reversals and betrayals that one could liken Michael to a modern-day Job (which Bradshaw adapted for The Flea several years ago.) But there is one crucial difference: Michael is not the completely upright and blameless figure of the Biblical Job. He has self-destructive personal problems, character flaws and off-putting attitudes.

Still, as with Job, we are left to wonder why Michael – and by extension the audience – is subjected to such cruelty.

There are several moments in the play that help us to ponder this question.

Michael justifies his rude behavior towards waiters because, he says, they no longer take pride in their work, which he did when he was a waiter. He observes:

“Everyone thinks they should be famous nowadays. No one is happy with the lot they’ve been dealt. Every bagger in the grocery store, the baristas at Starbucks, people who work in hotels, and garbage men. They all think that they should be on American Idol or America’s Top Model…”

Sarah gets Michael involved with her spiritual group, the kind that chants to attain inner peace and get what they desire. At one point, she tells him:

“A new house is not going to make you happy, a new car isn’t going to make you happy, neither is a new bathroom or a new kitchen, neither is sex or a relationship. Peace of mind comes from within. We can’t control our external environment. We have no control over the things that people do. The only thing we have control over is how we respond to the obstacles that are placed before us in this life. “

Is any of this true? Does our response really make any difference? Michael’s friend Simon doesn’t buy the philosophy that he calls “reap just what we sow or some shit like that”:

“All of us are feeling our way through this world day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, and it’s all a fucking shitstorm! No one can escape it! Rich, poor, good parents, bad parents, doesn’t matter! For some reason we’re all meant to suffer.”

For all his coarse confrontational theatrical style, and what appears to be his pessimistic world view, Thomas Bradshaw is not directly forcing us to decide which (flawed) character is correct. In “Fulfillment,” he is asking us, impolitely, to think about it.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.

Fulfillment

At The Flea

By Thomas Bradshaw; directed by Ethan McSweeny; sets and lighting by Brian Sidney Bembridge; costumes by Andrea Lauer; music by Mikhail Fiksel; sound by Mr. Fiksel and Miles Polaski; fight choreography by J. David Brimmer; sex choreography by Yehuda Duenyas.

Cast: Otoja Abit (Delroy), Gbenga Akinnagbe (Michael), Jeff Biehl (Ted/Leonard), Christian Conn (Simon), Denny Dillon (Bob/Agent/Waiter), Susannah Flood (Sarah) and Peter McCabe (Mark).

Running time: 90 minutes no intermission

Tickets: $15 – 105

Fulfillment is set to run through October 19.

Honeymoon is Over. April Avalanche Begins. Bowie! The Week in New York Theater

Of the 14 shows opening on Broadway in April, the most anticipated, according to my poll so far, are

1. Fun Home

2. Something Rotten

3. The King and I

Last week, Skylight opened. This week, it’ll be:

Hand to God

Gigi

Wolf Hall, Parts 1 and 2

And we’re only getting started. I’ll be reviewing them all, which makes me a theater critic, although I don’t say things like the critic depicted in Birdman:

Confrontation between Broadway director Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) and New York Times theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman

Confrontation between Broadway director Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) and New York Times theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman

Why are critics villains? — which links to my larger piece in Howlround:

Are Theatre Critics Critical? An Update

Below, news about a new musical by David Bowie, a new play about Maya Angelou, a stage adaptation of a Bill Murray movie

The Week in New York Theater News

Rob McClure: But I LOVE Betsy

Rob McClure: But I LOVE Betsy

Honeymoon in Vegas ends its run today, Sunday April 5, less than three months after it opened

gene-saks

Gene Saks, actor and director of 33 Broadway shows, best-known as Neil Simon’s director, has died at age 93.

NiegelSmith

New artistic director at the Flea Theater, replacing founder Jim Simpson: Niegel Smith, long Taylor Mac’s director. (I went on one of his unorthodox “Elastic City” walking tours.)

Cory-finleyCory FinleAR Gurney By Gregory Costanzoy is the first playwright to be awarded the Flea Theater’s new Gurney Playwrights Fund, a $100,000 annual prize funded by playwright A.R. Gurney, who has a longstanding relationship with the theater. (He is also one of this season’s Signature Theater playwrights.)

3c

“3C, ” playwright David Adjmi’s parody of the sitcom “Three’s Company”, does not violate copyright, a federal judge rules, permitting any and all future productions.

TheWiz

The Wiz” will be the next NBC live musical (December 3), in partnership with Cirque de Soleil, and directed by Kenny Leon.  Then it’s on to Broadway! This is not normal. (Cinderella did that, sort of, but different productions 56 years apart) Harvey Fierstein will create new material for the production, which originated on Broadway in 1975, winning seven Tonys, including best musical, then was turned into an all-star, widely ridiculed movie in 1978 (pictured.)maya-angelou-stamp

Kenny Leon is also working on a play about Maya Angelou, a stage adaptation of Tavis Smiley’s new book, My Journey with Maya

 

themanwhofelltoearth

 

Lazarus,by David Bowie and Enda Walsh (Once), inspired by The Man Who Fell to Earth,  and directed by Ivo van Hove, will be presented by the New York Theatre Workshop sometime before the end of 2015.  Bowie played the lead character in the 1976 movie director Nicholas Roeg made of the novel by Walter Tevis, a humanoid alien who comes to Earth to get water for his dying planet. Lazarus will feature new songs composed by David Bowie as well as new arrangements of his old songs.

Actors Equity has created a new website to determine if a “Broadway tour” employs the cast under the Broadway Equity contract. The website is: AskIfItsEquity.com

groundhog-day

Groundhog Day, a musical based on the Bill Murray movie, put together by the Matilda team, including Tim Minchin, is heading to Broadway in 2017

 Week in Theater-Related Developments

2015 Lucille Lortel Award Nominations

New reality series on Discovery Family to feature animal trainer William Berloni, whose animals have been in 19 Broadway productions

Week in Theater Arguments

It’s time for a better Sound of Music, writes Lawrence Downes, which emphasizes its cruelty and carnality.

March2015Quiz

March New York Theater Quiz

 

The Mysteries: The Flea Takes On The Bible, Epically, Irreverently

 Click on any photo to see it enlarged

Ed Iskandar talked with God. Then it was Lucifer’s turn. Now he was addressing Adam and Eve.

“The audience has just paid $50 to watch the Bible, so bite the fuck out of the apple and eat it, eat it all” he said dramatically to them, emphasizing the epithet in his crisp British accent.

Iskandar was presiding over a rehearsal in his loft, which is located, aptly enough, in Hell’s Kitchen. He is directing “The Mysteries,” a six-hour work of epic theater about the greatest story ever told – the Bible – but told in a decidedly unorthodox way.

For the show, with performances April 3 to May 25th,  48 playwrights have contributed new short plays adapting Bible stories. David Henry Hwang (M Butterfly) has reworked the story of Cain and Abel. Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) has written a play about The Last Supper.  Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, Light on the Piazza) contributed two plays, one of them about the Crucifixion. Even Billy Porter, the Tony-winning star of Kinky Boots, is trying his hand at playwriting.

Right now, Iskandar was rehearsing the plays from Act I, including Madeleine George’s 10-minute piece about the Fall of Man, which she gives the elaborate title,  “A Worm Walks Into A Garden or The Fall of Man, an experiment in motive and comedy.”  In it, Lucifer tells dumb jokes to Adam and Eve, as a way of seducing them. Adam finds them funny. Eve doesn’t.

“You’re missing a crucial part of your anatomy,” Lucifer says to Eve. “The funnybone.”

Lucifer is being played by Asia Kate Dillon (“I’m delighted Lucifer is a woman,” Iskandar said later. “There are so few women characters in the Bible.”)

Dillon was writhing and entwining herself around Eve.  Suddenly Chase Brock, the show’s choreographer, got down on the floor and started to writhe on the floor along with Lucifer. Brock had researched the earthworm, and showed some pictures of earthworms to Dillon on his laptop to suggest other moves she could make.

Brock is delighted to be part of “The Mysteries” and its many challenges.

“The parting of the Red Sea, the Flood  – enormous iconic events in a small space, “ said Brock, who has some practice in theatrical upheaval: One of his previous choreography gigs was on “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.”

In one way, “The Mysteries” is certainly theater on an enormous scale. It features a cast of more than 50, most playing multiple roles.  Seventeen associate or assistant directors are assisting Ed Iskandar.  But it is being performed from April 3rd to May 25th at The Flea, an Off-Off Broadway theater whose main stage contains just 74 seats.  Jim Simpson and his wife Sigourney Weaver founded The Flea 18 years ago with the motto, raising a joyful hell in a small space.” Of the many shows the theater has done, “The Mysteries,” its most ambitious work to date, may be taking the slogan most literally.

 The Latest in Marathon Theater

“The Mysteries” continues a tradition of marathon theater that has experienced something of a resurgence lately in New York. Recent epic-length works for the stage include “Gatz,” the Elevator Repair Service performance of the verbatim text of The Great Gatsby over six and a half hours;  “The Great Game: Afghanistan,” the Tricycle Theatre Company’s presentation of nineteen works of theater over eleven hours; Mike Daisey’s 29-part “All The Faces of the Moon,” performed over 29 successive nights; and “These Seven Sicknesses,” playwright Sean Graney’s adaptation of all seven surviving plays by Sophocles presented in a single evening.

Like “The Mysteries,” “These Seven Sicknesses” was performed at The Flea, and it was directed by Ed Iskandar – his first gig at The Flea.  Iskandar punctuated the Sophocles plays with interludes for dinner and dessert, served at the theater by members of the acting company.  To the director — inspired by the theater marathons of Ancient Greece, which took place at day-long festivals full of food and drink — these amenities were not just a convenience, but at the core of his interest in theater.

“I see theater as an act of service,” Iskandar says. “I’m very interested in long-form social engagement. The experience of going to the theater has to be revitalized as a social engagement, in my mind. “

The director’s idea about theater,  says Jim Simpson, the artistic director of The Flea, “is really out there.  It’s not commercial at all. It’s not like the movies where the lights go out, and ‘please be quiet.’ He sees the esthetic experience as drawing people together, forming a relationship between the audience and the performers.”

Iskandar followed the success of “These Seven Sicknesses” with “Restoration Comedy,” Amy Freed’s play based on 17th century theater that the director turned into a “marathon bacchanalia” (in the words of one critic.)  Lasting a mere three and a half hours this time, the show interlaced the onstage action with actors dressed as fops and tarts serving cocktails before the show,  singing Mariah Carey songs as part of a variety act during intermission,  and inviting the theatergoers onstage after the play for a dance party.

Shortly afterward, The Flea’s producing director Carol Ostrow called Iskandar up with a new idea. “She wanted a Christmas show with multiple playwrights.” He had a different idea.

 Iskandar: From Buddhism to The Bassoon to The Bible

Iskandar was born into a Buddhist family in Indonesia.  When he was just seven years old, he won a music scholarship and was shipped off to England to study piano and bassoon. As a condition of his scholarship, he played in a church, attending chapel service three times a day. By the time he was a teenager he had fallen in love with theater – “theater offered me a great community” – and it was then that he discovered the series of 48 medieval English plays known as the York Mystery plays, based on the Bible, which were performed at festivals in the English city of York beginning in the 12th century.

When they were created, Iskandar says, “the principal aim was not dramatic coherence or dramaturgical excitement, but instruction.” Still, he considers them “the literary bridge between the Greeks and Shakespeare.” After Carol Ostrow’s phone call,  Iskandar, now 31, decided to adapt the York Mystery plays for what he believes is their first professional production in the United States.

“This is an opportunity for some 50 playwrights to explore the salvation of mankind, and Christianity as mythology, and to have a conversation about faith in America today.”

Iskandar enlisted Jill Rafson, the literary director of Roundabout Theatre, as his dramaturg, and the two of them  put together a list of American playwrights “we’ve been excited about,” which grew to 500. To whittle it down, they focused on having diversity in everything but geography; they wanted New York-based playwrights, in order to involve them as much as possible in the process.

They wrote a synopsis of every one of the York plays, which  go from creation to the Last Judgment, and commissioned each of the playwrights they chose to adapt one into a play of one to ten minutes long.

The playwrights were free to adapt the original plays any way they thought appropriate.

Jesus As A Puppet, the Virgin Mary as a Valley Girl

In The Building of the Ark by Trista Baldwin, Noah delivers foul-mouthed rant against human behavior that’s caused climate change

The Moses Story by Ann Marie Healy is told from the point of view of Pharoah’s daughter Vanessa.

Jesus is a 12-year-old prodigy (played by a puppet) In Doctors in the Temple by Erin Courtney.

Pontius Pilate is a Hollywood-style sheriff from the Old West in The Conspiracy by Yussef El Guindi.

Mary – who appears in more of the plays than any other character —   is a Valley Girl that a matchmaker is setting up with Joseph in Joseph’s Troubles About Mary by Kate Gersten; a pregnant teen who tells a doctor she wants to graduate in “The Annunciation”  by Jordan Harrison; and a resident of a nursing home in The Death of Mary by Lillian Groag and Beth Blickers.

In Jorge Ignacio Cortinas’s “Expulsion,”  Adam and Eve are interrogated by two guards who are immigration agents or Customs officials. It’s a play for which the director has a particular affinity, as an immigrant who came to the United States to study at Stanford when he was 18, and says he is routinely detained at the airport on return flights from abroad. “Jorge grew up with Cuban parents in Miami; his whole childhood was talking about a place they couldn’t get in,” Iskandar told the cast during rehearsal. “It’s a beautiful play: You never relinquish the hope that you’ll get back to Eden.”

To cast “The Mysteries,” the creative team relied on the Bats, the mostly young unpaid actors who form the resident company of the Flea, but they also held auditions to recruit new members into the company for some of the principal roles.

God, Short and Flawed

For God, Iskandar cast Matthew Jeffers, a recent college graduate who calls himself a small-stature actor – he is 4’2” tall.

“Being cast as God was a good first step for me,” Jeffers said.  “So many of us have these preconceived notions of what God looks like and sounds like (deep voice, long gray beard etc). At least that’s what our pop culture has portrayed Him as. What Ed and the playwrights are doing is completely turning those ideas on its head. In this show, God is not this omnipresent, benevolent being. He’s deeply emotional, flawed, and insecure.”

He makes his first of many appearances in The Mysteries in “The Eighth Day (Creation Hymn)” by Jason Williamson, painfully facing Chaos when the angel Gabriel interrupts

Gabriel: God

God: Don’t take My name in vain

Gabriel: I was literally addressing You

God: Do I look like I want to be addressed?

Gabriel: No

God:Then it was in vain.

 

After He creates Day and Night, Gabriel asks Him

 

Gabriel: What’s up for day number two?

God: Oh, you know…getting rid of Chaos

Gabriel: All of it?

 As any theater-maker knows: No, not all of it.

“This is a literal act of creation,”  Ed Sylvanus Iskandar told the cast after rehearsing the play. He could have been talking about their ambitious theater piece on which they were all collaborating, but he merely meant the Universe.

 

Photographs by Jonathan Hollingsworth

Sigourney Weaver Breaks Ground Off-Off Broadway With The Flea Theater

Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray in The Guys, about 9/11, in 2002 at The Flea

Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray in The Guys, about 9/11, in 2002 at The Flea

Before she portrayed an action hero, an astronaut, an activist or an alien on the screen, actress Sigourney Weaver says, “I was always doing new plays Off-Off Broadway. The spaces were always terrible; they were unheated, there were no bathrooms, no dressing rooms; the walls were crumbling.”
NewhomeofTheFleaTheaterThat is why she and her husband, the director Jim Simpson, created The Flea Theater 17 years ago – and why on December 5, they attended a ceremonial groundbreaking for the new $18 million home of The Flea, which is in a  building constructed in 1791 on 20 Thomas Street, four blocks further downtown from their current rented building in Tribeca.

TheFleaexteriorWhen the building is completed, which is scheduled as early a the Fall of 2014, it will house three theaters: The Sam, named after agent Sam Cohn; The Peter, after playwright A.R. (Pete) Gurney, who has had eight world premiere productions of his plays at The Flea; and The Siggy…named after Sigourney Weaver.
In the video, Weaver talks about the importance of small venues, which “are like a little greenhouse where everything germinates, and feeds the bigger theaters….and the cultural landscape.”

But, befitting an action hero, she also dons a hardhat and knocks down a wall

Click on illustration to see it enlarged

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