Friday, September 30, 2016

71. Review: THE ENCOUNTER (seen September 28, 2016)

“Hearing Is Believing”
Stars range from 5-1.

Every now and then a band of brave producers risks breaking the expectations of a Broadway audience with something so strikingly unconventional it would seem more likely to be found in an Off-Broadway environment. Such is the case with The Encounter, an hour and 45-minute, one-man show (with lots of help from unseen friends) co-conceived (with Kirsty Housley), directed, and starring Simon McBurney. He’s the brilliant, 59-year-old artistic director of the innovative British theatre company Complicité, which is responsible for this production, originally seen in Edinburgh and then at London’s Barbican.

Simon McBurney. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Inspired by Romanian novelist Petru Popescu’s Amazon Beaming (1991), an account of American photojournalist Loren McIntyre’s (1917-2003) memorable adventures in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, The Encounter could be viewed as a remarkably well-staged radio play or audiobook. It tells of how, in 1971, McIntyre got lost in the forest, 400 miles from civilization, while searching for the presumably extinct Mayoruna, an indigenous people threatened by loggers and drillers.

Simon McBurney. Photo: Joan Marcus.
During his search McIntyre gradually loses his material possessions, including his watch and camera, experiencing a spiritual journey in which his Western values are transformed and his states of consciousness altered (as may be those of many theatregoers). He even finds himself able to communicate with the Mayorunan shaman, Barnacle, without knowing his language. McIntyre’s imbibing of certain substances found en route creates hallucinogenic breakthroughs. Meanwhile, we’re exposed to metaphysical thoughts on the meaning of time and descriptions of unusual physical experiences that may affect our own corporeal responses. Again, this isn’t your usual Broadway fare.
Simon McBurney. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Deceptively simple looking, it’s a complex and exceptionally well-conceived presentation in which McBurney—playing both himself, McIntyre, and others in the story, with additional voices supplied by unseen speakers—speaks to us while mingling self-created Foley effects with multiple prerecorded ones. McBurney--speaking in a friendly, everyday manner, despite the depth of his anthropological and philosophical subject matter--reminds us of our complicity (as per his company’s name) in creating the play’s existence through the artificial means employed.
Simon McBurney. Photo: Joan Marcus.
What’s most unusual is that each seat in the John Golden Theatre is equipped with a headset. The audience is instructed over the PA system to make sure they hear equally well from both the right and left sides. As becomes clear, this is essential because of the binaural nature of the experience. You hear not only the narrative but the direction from which the voices and ambient sounds—including music—are coming; the sounds seem so close you may instinctively turn around or to your neighbor to see what caused them.
Simon McBurney. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In effect, The Encounter—performed on Michael Levine’s set resembling a recording studio with a giant soundproofed wall—is a dramatic concert in which you allow the very carefully calibrated, rhythmically orchestrated voices, music, and other sounds to wash over you. The visuals boil down to McBurney dashing hither and thither as he ably uses his lithe physique to act out his story, enhanced by the expert lighting of Paul Anderson.
Simon McBurney. Photo: Joan Marcus.
McBurney, wearing a body mic and using several other mics—including a binaural one suggesting a human head (it’s actually known as Fritz)—constantly alters his tone (or has it altered technically), volume, and accent; much is prerecorded. Often, he speaks to his little girl, whose presence is voiced by someone else and whose interruptions help relate what happened in Brazil to our own, modern reality. Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin should be frontrunners for whatever sound design awards will be presented when the season ends.
Simon McBurney. Photo: Joan Marcus.
At one early point, McBurney asks you to close your eyes as he explains something, thus allowing a sound picture to form in your head of something not actually happening. There will be temptations during the performance to close your eyes again, especially when the narrative, regardless of how interesting much of it is, begins to wear thin. Which it definitely does. I’d advise against this because you may find yourself drifting off, overwhelmed by the convincing aural landscape into losing the thread of the storytelling. This tendency for the drama’s contents to be subsumed by its form is The Encounter’s most significant weakness.

Otherwise, this is a theatrical encounter you may not want to miss.


John Golden Theatre
252 W. 45th St., NYC
Through January 8, 2017

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

69. Review: UNDERGROUND RAILROAD GAME (seen September 21, 2016)

"Game of Throes"
Stars range from 5-1.

There was a lot of “breaking news” on TV last week, including a major federal corruption investigation concerning Gov. Cuomo’s top aides, the New York bombing, and just about everything concerning the presidential race. However, sucking up just as much air time was what was happening in Charlotte after another police shooting of an African-American citizen. Coupled with a presidential candidate declaring that he’s in favor of reinstating racial profiling as an acceptable police practice, the Charlotte (and Tulsa) events make it clear how ludicrous is the notion that America is “post-racial."  

Scott Sheppard, Jennifer Kidwell. Photo: Ben Arons.
Thankfully, there are theatre artists seeking insightful, innovative ways to rub our faces in the subject of our racial attitudes and make us think, feel, and laugh about them. A good example is the avant-gardish, often funny, two-character Underground Railroad Game, devised by and starring African-American actress Jennifer Kidwell, and white actor Scott Sheppard. Cleverly directed by Taibi Magar, it boasts a “production design” (which I’m assuming means costumes) by Tilly Grimes, scenic design by Steven Dufala, lighting by Oona Curley, and sound by Mikaal Sulaiman, all of them excellent. A production of Lightning Rod Special company of Philadelphia, where it premiered, it’s now at the adventurous Ars Nova. 
Scott Sheppard, Jennifer Kidwell. Photo: Ben Arons.
I admit upfront that I don’t especially favor some of the methods Kidwell and Sheppard employ in their 70-minute examination of American racism and the legacy of  slavery, but it can’t be denied that they’ve found a provocatively original way to bring their subject to the table. The play’s premise was inspired by Sheppard’s own experience as a fifth-grader in Hanover, PA, a town near Gettysburg, just above the Mason-Dixon line. Hanover played a role in the Civil War system of helping runaway slaves, called the Underground Railroad (au courant in books like Colson Whitehead’s eponymous novel, the just-opened Off-Broadway play Nat Turner in Jerusalem, and the forthcoming movie, Birth of a Nation).
Jennifer Kidwell, Scott Sheppard. Photo: Ben Arons.
The teachers at Sheppard’s school, using immersive techniques designed to excite the students about learning by getting them personally involved in the escape-from-slavery story, divided the mostly white students into two groups: one represented Union soldiers, the other Confederates. The game involved the Union soldiers trying to smuggle to “Canada” dolls representing the slaves, while the Confederates’ were assigned the task of recapturing the runaways. A point system was used to determine who won the war.
Jennifer Kidwell. Photo: Ben Arons.
In Kidwell and Sheppard’s play, the Underground Railroad Game is led by Teacher Caroline and Teacher Stuart (who sometimes seem to be Kidwell and Sheppard themselves), she wearing a Union general’s blue hat and he a rebel general’s gray one; with the teachers using direct address, the audience is treated as if it were a class of Hanover fifth graders to whom they speak with precisely the right patronizingly pedagogic tone; when a problematic word is spoken, an actor holds up two fingers to “quote” it as the other offers a definition. The meaning of words plays a significant part in the thematic substructure. Irony pervades the dialogue, like the comment that the Underground Railroad was slavery’s “silver lining.”
Jennifer Kidwell. Photo: Ben Arons.
Scott Sheppard, Jennifer Kidwell. Photo: Ben Arons.
But we don’t get to this point until after the melodramatic scene that opens the play when a Quaker farmer saves a runaway slave hiding in his barn. Following this they reveal themselves as the teachers and instruct us in the fundamentals of the game we’re about to play. (I’m happy to report that audience participation is minimal and anonymous.) Each audience member is provided with a tiny toy soldier, either blue or gray, placed under their seat (my companion and I were sadly overlooked), these signifying which side of the war they’re on.
Scott Sheppard. Photo: Ben Arons.
Transitions from one level of reality to another, and from the fantasized past to the present and back again, occur throughout, intended as lessons directed more toward us as adults than as children; the scenes alternate between the everyday world of the classroom (including cheers for the school team) to a mélange of scenes in which Stuart and Caroline employ a range of theatricalist techniques—including a romantic pas de deux (choreographed by David Neumann) straight out of a 50s Hollywood movie—to satirize our subliminal racial antipathies, even among lovers. The evolving personal relationship of Caroline and Stuart, who become both romantic partners and antagonists, introduces acts of sex and violence, inextricably tied to one another and taken to be essential aspects of our race-related behavior.
Scott Sheppard, Jennifer Kidwell. Photo: Ben Arons.
This brings into play situations involving gender and power that some may find uncomfortable, such as when Stuart sucks the bare breast of Caroline, costumed and lit in profile to resemble a large, iconic, Mammy-like house slave, or when Stuart, treated by the dominatrix-like Caroline as a slave, is forced to strip naked and stand facing the audience for a long time as she abuses him with a ruler. (Press kits include both a ruler and a pack of gum. I get the ruler, but the chicklets?  “Chew on this!” I guess.)
Scott Sheppard, Jennifer Kidwell. Photo: Ben Arons.
There’s no question that such button-pushing situations help underline thematic ideas; however, it’s fair to wonder just what the audience is receiving. For example, the naked man certainly makes us more aware of what slaves in auction rooms endured, with an ironic take on the power dynamic, but is that what most people are thinking as a male actor continues to stand totally exposed only a few feet from their faces?
Scott Sheppard, Jennifer Kidwell. Photo: Ben Arons.
Underground Railroad Game is filled with artistic and intellectual conundrums; you may even leave the theatre asking your companion, “Now what was that all about?” But, while watching, its preoccupations, even if not easy to articulate, are likely to seep into your consciousness and stay with you after you get home.
Scott Sheppard, Jennifer Kidwell. Photo: Ben Arons.

Ars Nova
511 W. 54th St., NYC
Through October 15

Friday, September 23, 2016

68. Review: I LIKE IT LIKE THAT (seen September 18, 2016)

"You'll Like it Like That, Too"
Stars range from 5-1.

For my review of You'll Like it Like That please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.
Shadia Fairuz, Ana Isabelle, Gilberto Velazquez, Tito Nieves.Photo: Marisol Diaz.

Josef 'Quique' Gonzalez, Chachi del Valle. Photo: Marisol Diaz.

Company of I Like it Like That. Photo: Marisol Diaz.

Company of I Like it Like That. Photo: Marisol Diaz.

Rear: Chachi del Valle, Rossmery Almonte, Shadia Fairuz. Front: Ana Isabelle. Photo: Marisol Diaz.
Company of I Like it Like That. Photo: Marison Diaz.

Company of I Like it Like That. Photo: Marisol Diaz.

Shadia Fairuz, Tito Nieves, Angel Lopez, Rossmery Almonte. Photo: Marisol Diaz.
Company of I Like it Like That. Photo: Marisol Diaz. 


I Like it Like That
Puerto Rican Traveling Theater
W. 47th St., NYC
Through December 30

Thursday, September 22, 2016

67. Review: A TASTE OF HONEY (seen September 20, 2016)

"Not Sweeter than Wine"
Stars range from 5-1.

For my review of A Taste of Honey please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Monday, September 19, 2016

Thursday, September 15, 2016

64. Review: BEARS IN SPACE (seen September 14, 2016)

“Grin and Bear It”
Stars range from 5-1.

It was a slow theatergoing summer so I used much of my newfound time to binge watch all 60 episodes of the astonishing HBO series Game of Thrones, which I’d never seen before. I was thus revved up to see one of its principal players, Jack Gleeson, the interesting young actor who plays the deliciously evil King Joffrey Baratheon (killed off in season 4), in Irish writer Eoghan Quinn’s silly piece of ursine juvenilia, Bears in Space. The show is now at 59E59 Theaters after sold-out runs in Dublin, Edinburgh, and London that have given it a cult-like status. 

Aaron Heffernan, Eoghan Quinn. Photo: Idil Sukan.
Although he gets to do the wicked ruler thing again, among his other roles in this 80-minute nonsensical farrago produced by the Irish company Collapsing Horse, Gleeson turns out to have considerable comedic talent. Unfortunately, the play he’s in, while prompting many gusts of laughter, only rarely cracked my stone face (or those of certain others I was able to observe.)
Aaron Heffernan, Jack Gleeson. Photo: Idil Sukan.
It’s not advertised as such, but Bears in Space, produced as part of the annual 1st Irish Festival, resembles the kind of collaborative work usually labeled “devised theatre,” which director Dan Colley’s bio cites as one of his strengths. There’s a “found” quality to everything, from the makeshift scenic units and shabby costumes to the tattered rod puppets (designed by Aaron Heffernan) the actors use to play most of the characters. The bizarre situations and jokey dialogue (with comic accents, puns, unexpected metaphors, and the like) seem the kind of thing a band of freewheeling young actors might have created during a series of improv-based workshops (the script actually has places where actors are asked to “riff”); it’s a bit like the mayhem of the early Marx Brothers but absent anyone having anything like those guys’ distinctive personalities.
Aaron Heffernan. Photo: Idil Sukan.
The premise is that a Story Keeper (Cameron Macauley), whose favorite author is Jane Austen, has chosen (from his “infinitely large library”) to tell us the story of the SS Quickfast, an interstellar spaceship whose crew of three, all bears, have been in cryogenic hibernation for 700 years (“That’s a long nap,” one notes). Using crude puppets, the story is enacted by the Story Keeper’s three moronic sons, Bertram, Darcey, and Lady Susan Vernon, each named for an Austen character. (The sons are Gleeson, Aaron Heffernan, and the playwright, Eoghan Quinn; the program doesn’t list which roles they play in the story.)

Two crew members, Officer Volyova, a Scot, and Officer Bhourghash, a Russian rescued in space by the Quickfast, wake up one day in 300,000. The other, Captain Lazara, remains frozen because she’s got a fatal disease that has spread through the Seven Sectors and is in need of a cure; to unfreeze her now would risk further spreading the disease. Volyova is desperately in love with her. Meanwhile, a lonely, bumbling Hal-like computer (Gleeson, if you want to know) reports that the ship is running low on energy.

The captainless crew is invited to a party at the Social Club of the city-planet Metrotopia by its wicked, communistic mayor, Premier Nico (Gleeson, of course); Bhourghash goes, pretending to be the captain so he can get energy for the ship, but is in danger because Nico seeks to imprison undesirables on “The Jungle Planet of Jungolia.” This takes us further and further into the muddy whirlpool of a childish fantasy, with nutty, off-the-wall characters, that snatches every opportunity to make fun of itself, but fails to make any meaningful commentary on the equally crazy world we live in. Fun for fun's sake, you might call it.
Cameron Macauley. Photo: Idil Sukan.
It’s all well done, the actors are expert comedians and puppeteers, and there are effective shadow projections and Macauley’s amusing music, so, if you’re up for this kind of prankish theatre, Bears in Space may prove a pleasant enough diversion. Moreover, surprisingly for this kind of show, it doesn’t depend on smut for its laughs. I generally love nutty stuff like this but Bears in Space hit my funnybone so infrequently all I could do was grin and bear it.


59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through October 2