Monday, May 29, 2017

15 (2017-2018): Review: THE BOY WHO DANCED ON AIR (seen May 28, 2017)

"Dancing at Af-gay-nistan"

It’s probably safe to say that most Americans consider Afghanistan among the world’s most socially repressive countries. If so, they’d probably be surprised to learn that, while this 99% Muslim country frowns sharply on typical homosexual activities, Afghanistan actually has a tradition of kidnapping or purchasing good-looking young boys from poor families to serve the needs, sexual and otherwise, of well-to-do older men.

Troy Iwata, Deven Kolluri. Photo: Maria Baranova.
If you saw the film version of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner you may recall its inclusion of this pedophiliac tradition as represented by the illegal Northern Afghanistan practice of bacha bazi (“boy play”).  Here, the boys are trained to dance in female garb for the pleasure of their otherwise sexually restricted master and his friends, and even engage in competitions. Afghan women, whose raison d'etre is to raise families, could never provide similar services.
Troy Iwaga. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Bacha bazi is the foundation of an unusual, if flawed, new Off-Broadway musical, The Boy Who Danced on Air, itself inspired by PBS’s 2010 Frontline documentary The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan. For the show, which premiered last year at San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre, composer Tim Rosser and book/lyric writer Charlie Sohne—who won the 2017 Jonathan Larson and Mary Rogers/Lorenz Hart awardshave imagined a situation in which a man named Jandahar (Jonathan Raviv) purchases a teenage boy, Paiman (Troy Iwata).
Troy Iwata. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Jandahar—whom we assume is married although it’s never clearly stated—trains him to dance, uses him as a sexual companion, and, eventually, when Paiman begins sprouting facial hair, is forced by “tradition” to replace him with a new boy. His decision to marry Paiman off is actually a kindness in a system that normally sees the boys discarded to survive on their own. Jandahar firmly believes his behavior is morally appropriate. As he explains to Paiman in almost laughably ironic terms:

But, Paiman, men have needs.  That’s why we have dancing boys—boys who we train to dance but also to bring into our homes and tend to our desires. It’s what allows us to maintain moral relationships with women.  It is a sacred role, one that’s now yours to fulfill.

Paiman becomes friends with another dancing boy, the slightly older Feda (Nikhil Saboo), who dreams of one day being a famous singer. He’s owned by Jandahar’s jovial but callous cousin, Zemar (Osh Ghanimah), who works with Jandahar at an American-built power plant, and has a lustful eye for Paiman. Jandahar is kind enough, even paternal, to his “boy,” whom he has come to love, but will not stand for any disobedience or disruption of tradition; to dismiss tradition as a foundation for life is to be “dancing on air.”  
Troy Iwata, Nikhil Saboo. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Troy Iwata. Photo: Maria Baranova.
The threat of disruption happens soon enough when Paiman and Feda fall in love and consider running off to find freedom as they sing “In the City.” It’s one of the few songs that stand out in an otherwise dull, melodically uninteresting (despite hints of the Middle East) score played offstage by a five-piece band. 
Troy Iwata. Photo: Maria Baranova.
There’s also an unnecessary subplot: for all his arguing against breaking rules, Jandahar himself will break some. Angry that the American power plant has failed to produce the electricity needed for local development (he has an entrepreneurial vision), he decides to subvert a CNN documentary seeking to present a rosy picture of its success. 
Troy Iwata. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Throughout, a mysterious, bearded guy, “The Unknown Man” (Deven Kolluri), appears and reappears, commenting on the action and playing minor roles as needed. Toward the end we discover who he is although some may find themselves as unsure of his identity then as they’ve been all along. A sheer, backlit curtain allows several scenes he introduces to be performed behind it in shadow-style silhouette, sometimes arranged so one of the actors can appear as a small boy sharply contrasting with a tall man, emphasizing the power dynamic in these man-boy relationships.
Jonathan Raviv, Troy Iwata. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Afghanistan is so rarely represented on stage it makes for an automatically intriguing locale. Oddly, The Boy Who Danced on Air mentions neither the war, the Taliban, nor Al Qaeda; it barely talks about religion; shows no prayer mats; and, with an all-male cast, displays no burkas.  
Nikhil Saboo, Troy Iwata. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Instead, we get authentic male costuming (designed by Andrea Lauer), the unit set of a partially bombed-out mud and brick interior (artfully designed by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader and dramatically lit by Wen-Ling Liao), and close-enough-to-the-real-thing choreography of Nejla Yatkin. 

Troy Iwata, Nikhil Saboo. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Nonetheless, director Tony Speciale’s earnest, physically agile production never convinces us we’re not on W. 36th Street but in rural Afghanistan. Partly, this is because the dialogue and accents (especially of the boys) sound so American.
Deven Kolluri, Jonathan Raviv, Troy Iwata, Osh Ghanimah. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Iwata and Saboo dance and sing with grace and sensitivity; Iwata has a particularly difficult number (“Paiman’s Dance) where, with an injured foot, he tries to fashion a routine out of his disability. Raviv, who sings well in numbers such as “Kabul,” is a believably controlling patriarch; he manages to make Jandahar sympathetic despite his capacity for cruelty. Ghanimah has several effective moments when he shows off his penchant for telling jokes but Kolluri, with blurry diction and a look of sorrow always pasted on his face, can’t avoid the curse of monotony. 
The Boy Who Danced on Air. Photo: Maria Baranova.
The Boy Who Danced on Air is to be applauded for dramatizing the nasty practice of bacha bazi in a way that finds tragic beauty in its victims. But provocative subject matter, even when sensitively presented, doesn’t necessarily make great theatre. When I attended, the elated audience was moved enough to practically dance on air during the curtain calls. For me, though, the air had gone out of this sluggish, unfulfilled musical long before its two hours and 20 minutes were over.


Abingdon Theatre Company/June Havoc Theatre
312 W. 36th St., NYC

Through June 11

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Friday, May 26, 2017

13 (2017-2018): Review: ROTTERDAM (seen May 25, 2017)

“How Deep Is Your Love?”

Two years ago I posted a mostly negative review on Passport Magazine’s The Broadway Blog about a new play by John S. Anastasi called Would You Still Love Me If . . . , directed by and starring Kathleen Turner. My lead paragraph said:
Stories about the fluidity of gender identity seem currently to be the coin of the media realm, and not only because of Caitlyn Jenner. Ever since 1970, when Myra Breckinridge introduced mainstream cinema to a leading character who had undergone a sex change, theatre, films, and TV have found slow but steady inspiration in gender-bending stories, with characters ranging across the spectrum from cross-dressers to people choosing sex reassignment surgery. Current interest, including Broadway and Off Broadway shows, seems especially high. The newfound celebrity of several transgender actors has even led to criticism of cisgender actors like Jared Leto (Dallas Buyer’s Club) for taking roles away from them as indicated in stories that appeared on The Huffington Post and, among others.
Alice McCarthy, Anna Martine Freeman. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Would You Still Love Me If . . . was about a lesbian couple who play the game indicated by the title, during which the big question one asks the other is “Would you still love me if I were a man?” Just how would a lesbian (or a gay man, for that matter) in a committed relationship with a same-sex partner respond to the latter’s decision to have a sex change?
Anna Martine Freeman. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Anastasi’s play failed to effectively dramatize this relationship dilemma, where one partner feels herself to be a man trapped in a woman’s body and the other finds herself bonded to someone she didn’t bargain for. Essentially, though, the same quandary faces anyone whose life partner undergoes a radical transformation, such as the result of a physical or mental disability. As the Bee Gees ask: “How deep is your love?” 

With regard to the transgender issue, a far more successful treatment than in Would You Still Love Me . . . can be found in Jon Brittain’s Olivier Award-winning Rotterdam, part of the Brits Off-Broadway season at 59E59 Theaters.
Ed Eales-White, Alice McCarthy, Anna Martine Freeman. Photo: Hunter Canning.
British expats Alice (Alice McCarthy), conventionally fem, and Fiona (Anna Martine Freeman), boyishly butch, have been living together for seven years in Rotterdam, Holland. Sharing their apartment is Fiona’s ultra-supportive brother, Josh (Ed Eales-White), who originally came to Holland as Alice’s boyfriend and stepped aside when Alice and Fiona became a thing.  
Ed Eales-White, Alice McCarthy. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The sole outsider is Lelani (Ellie Morris), a flamboyant young Dutch lesbian who works at the same shipping company as Alice. The devil-may-care Lelani, with her multicolored hair, brash makeup, and form-fitting fashions, has her lustful eye on Alice.

The first and weaker of the play’s two acts is preoccupied with expository matters, taking up a lot of time with the women’s insecurity about coming out to their families back home. Alice has written her mom an e-mail but can’t bring herself to send it. Then, after Fiona drops her bombshell about wanting to become a man (named Adrian) on the unsuspecting Alice, she fearfully lets her own parents know about her decision.
Ed Eales-White, Anna Martine Freeman. Photo: Hunter Canning.
In Act Two, things get much more interesting as the ramifications of the new sexual dynamic begin to work themselves out. Alice must decide if love conquers gender, if her feelings for Fiona/Adrian are strong enough to overcome her antipathy for a female-male relationship.
Anna Martine Freeman, Alice McCarthy. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Meanwhile, Fiona/Adrian becomes obsessed with how successfully she’s able to present as a man in the eyes of strangers. We watch with voyeuristic fascination as she flattens her breasts with a binder. When things go sour, she expresses her rage and disappointment in a viscerally explosive, tragicomic scene during which, to pounding rock music, she pours down the booze as she discards her macho gear for a flimsy dress and spiked heels.
Anna Martine Freeman, Alice McCarthy. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The situation becomes even more complex in the wake of Lelani’s aggressive pursuit of Alice, who finds her rather repressed personality opening up to new, exciting possibilities in Lelani’s button-pushing company. It, therefore, takes a somewhat melodramatic plot contrivance for the Alice/Fiona situation to be satisfactorily resolved.

Rotterdam packs a strong emotional punch but it also includes a number of savvy laugh lines, some of them tied to scenes where the feelings of people in sexually sensitive arrangements are discussed. For example, Josh answers Alice’s question, “How can we ever know who we’re really attracted to?” with, “Well, that’s easy. It’s whoever you think about when you masturbate.”
Ellie Morris, Alice McCarthy. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Director Donnacadh O’Briain does a marvelous job of keeping the action lively and engrossing, using a terrific background of European pop rock tunes and original music (by sound designer Keegan Curran) to comment on and highlight the action. Still, her preshow staging, with the actors miming various bits of business to bouncy Dutch pop music, leads to the inevitable clash of energies when the music stops and the dialogue begins.
Anna Martine Freeman, Ed Eales-White. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Ellan Parry succeeds beautifully at defining the characters with her costume choices; she also designed the flexible unit set (a closet serves as a somewhat inconsistent metaphorical centerpiece), which, aided by Richard Williamson’s versatile lighting, serves nicely for multiple locales; the actors—most notably Eales-White—handle the shifts with musically coordinated precision.  

The acting is gripping. Freeman and McCarthy partner perfectly, each offering performances of vulnerability and strength. Given the close confines of 59E59’s tiny Theater C, their ability to play with such heartbreaking intensity is commendable. In the two supporting roles, Morris and Eales-White are both excellent, her over-the-top Lelani being precisely balanced by his grounded Josh.
Ed Eales-White, Anna Martine Freeman. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Rotterdam’s power is a bit dissipated by its overlong two and a half hours; its situation simply isn’t complicated enough to warrant such a lengthy telling. But it’s a better spent two and a half hours than you’ll find at most other recent Off-Broadway offerings.


59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through June 10

Thursday, May 18, 2017

11 (2017-2018): Review: THE LUCKY ONE (seen May 16, 2017)

"Oh, Brother!"
For my review of The Lucky One please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

10 (2017-2018): Review: HAPPY DAYS (seen May 17, 2017)

"End of Days"

Happy Days, Samuel Beckett’s minimalist exercise in existential angst (originally called Female Solo), first written and produced in French and then given its English-language premiere at Off Broadway’s Cherry Lane in 1961, is not unlike a piece of classical music. Everything in the stage directions is fastidiously laid out, every i dotted and t crossed, but each artist interpreting Winnie, its principal role, nonetheless finds something new, something personal, something nuanced that makes its performance unique.
Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Numerous international actresses of renown have tackled Winnie, which some consider a “Hamlet for women.” In 2014 New York saw Brooke Adams (with Tony Shalhoub as Winnie’s rickety husband, Willie) play the role. Currently, two-time Academy Award-winner Dianne Wiest (with the excellent Jarlath Conroy) has buried herself in the role, so to speak, for a production that opened last spring at the Yale Rep and is now at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center under the aegis of Theatre for a New Audience. The skilled director is James Bundy, dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Rep.
Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Winnie is an incredibly difficult role, requiring the actress to be immersed in a mound of earth on a brightly lit stage (lighting by Stephen Strawbridge) from the waist down throughout Act One, and to play the entire second act further embedded in the mound, with only her head showing. Izmir Ickbal’s set, a sprawl of scorched earth under the vast expanse of a palpably artificial blue sky lit by a “blazing” sun, is subverted by a false proscenium, hanging velvet curtain tabs, and scallop-shell footlights suggesting a music hall ambiance. 
The design, perhaps, was inspired by Beckett’s words calling for “a pathetic unsuccessful realism, the kind of tawdriness you get in a 3rd rate musical or pantomime, that quality of pompier, laughably earnest bad imitation." In Beckett’s early thoughts, he considered a place that had been struck by missiles. Given the state of today’s world, it might not be long before someone places Winnie in a missile crater. End of Days, anyone?
Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Winnie’s garrulity, while seemingly straightforward, simple, and concrete, is nonetheless shrouded in ambiguity, with only vague hints about her past and present circumstances. Her stream of consciousness chatter is delivered to the mostly uncommunicative Willie, whose role has a mere 47 words. Usually (except for a sequence shortly before the final curtain) Willie, who lives in a cave, remains hidden or partly hidden behind the mound, where he reads an old, yellowing newspaper. There are numerous opportunities for laughs in Winnie’s lines, including references to sex and personal hygiene.
Jarlath Conroy, Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Winnie, “a woman of about fifty,” in a black bodice (costumes by Alexei Visel), her shoulders and arms bare, wakes up each day and goes to sleep to a loud bong. In Act One she gets through the eternal day, on which the sun never sets, with no shade to protect her. When she opens her parasol, it bursts into flames. Her actions are limited to a ritualized sequence of behavior involving a specific assortment of hand props taken from a large bag. Most are for her personal grooming but there’s also a revolver, whose presence suggests a way out of her situation. Meanwhile, In Act Two, although she’s not free to use it any longer, it’s only inches from her face.
Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Despite her debilitating condition, Winnie does her best to remain composed and optimistic, remembering bits and pieces of her life, sometimes recalling a snatch of poetry, sometimes praying, and finding enough inspiration from even the slightest hints of positivity to cheerfully announce what a happy day it is. In Act Two, when Bundy’s staging hides her neck and has only her head showing, she seems little more than an insignificant blond raisin drying in the sun, as she imagines that the unresponsive Willie might be dead. Regardless, she maintains her bright (now aged) face while fighting more evidently than before to restrain her sorrow and suffering.
Jarlath Conroy.Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Apart from that of the less impressive Brooke Adams’s performance, described here, memory and the relative similarity of each performance prevents me from accurately comparing Wiest’s Winnie with the four or five others I’ve seen. Hers, naturally, is as good as any. It does seem, though, that Act One’s pacing, with so many long pauses, is a bit draggy and that Wiest, as my companion also noted, seems more concerned with her moment by moment thoughts than any ultimate objective; the same problem also affected Adams’s portrayal. However, Wiest, faithfully carrying out Beckett’s detailed business, perfectly matches her own winsomeness to Winnie’s struggle to maintain an upbeat attitude in the face of the inevitable. Lovers of Beckett and Wiest will have little to complain about.
Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Wiest's voice is marvelously musical, and she sometimes seems to sing her lines, giving them a metric regularity. She uses her instrument with considerable variation, especially when changing it rapidly to mimic someone she remembers, like Mr. Shower (or Cooker), or to shift from one emotional level to another, beautifully capturing each subtextual inference, comic and poignant.
Jarlath Conroy, Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Toward the play’s end, Willie appears in formal attire, “dressed to kill,” says the script, wearing a “Very long bushy white Battle of Britain moustache.” He struggles on hands and knees to reach Winnie. Or is it the gun he’s after? Beckett himself said he didn’t know. On the night I went, Willie’s mustache, its glue having failed, drooped precariously from the motionless actor’s face. Was it an accident or a directorial nod to some existential enigma? With Beckett you never know.


Theatre for a New Audience
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
Through May 28