Thursday, November 30, 2017

120 (2017-2018): Review: THE WINTER'S TALE (seen November 28, 2017)

“Baby, It's Cool Inside”

It’s already remarkable that the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit annually brings one of the Bard’s plays to a wide variety of conventionally non-theatergoing New York City audiences, free-of-charge, and in remarkably accessible, imaginatively conceived, socially relevant, bare-bone stagings; even more remarkable is that it does so with such consistent assurance.

Justin Cunningham, Nicholas Hoge. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The tradition continues with The Winter’s Tale, lovingly staged by Lee Sunday Evans in a stripped-down, hour-and-40-minute production that recently played at community centers, shelters, libraries, social service organizations, prisons all over town.

The Winter’s Tale is considered by some a “problem play” because of the shift in tone between the darkly serious orientation of its first three acts and the romantic comedy tone of its last two; scholars are not even sure which Shakespearean category to place it in. Regardless, audiences, young and old, will have no problem appreciating this thoroughly enjoyable, excellently spoken revival, from which numerous characters, like Autolycus, Mopsa, and Dorcas, have been excised with little damage to the narrative.

Ten vibrant actors, around half of them doubling, wearing straightforward, modern-dress designed by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene, perform in an unadorned, intimate, theatre-in-the-round space. Its only scenic units are four, portable, white pillars and a couple of small, movable wood and metal pieces that serve as platforms and seats. Mariana Sanchez is credited for the simple look but no one gets credit for the unvarying white lights that shine on both actors and audience, linking them as partners sharing the same experience.

A brief but excellent speech by Stephanie Ybarra, the Public’s director of special artistic projects, introduces the performance. Like a good high school teacher, she asks the audience to raise its hands in response to several questions pertinent to the play’s themes. To paraphrase a couple: who has ever been absolutely sure of something? Who has ever admitted being wrong when they made a mistake?

Then, the play begins with a capella singing coming from the actors standing behind the seats after which we’re quickly immersed in Shakespeare’s fanciful tale: Leontes (Justin Cunningham), King of Sicilia, for no good reason, is suddenly overwhelmed with jealousy of his good friend, the visiting King of Bohemia, Polixenes (Nicholas Hoge, resembling a young Sam Shepard), whom he suspects of having impregnated Leontes’ wife, Hermione (Stacey Yen). 
Stacey Yen. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Although the courtier Camillo (Sathya Sridharan) saves Polixenes, by fleeing with him to Bohemia, tragedy strikes when Leontes and Hermione’s son, Mamillius (played by a bunraku-like puppet and voiced by Chris Myers), dies, followed by Hermione, after which her newborn daughter is abandoned on the coast of Bohemia.
Patrena Murray. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The latter is accomplished by the husband of noblewoman Paulina (Patrena Murray), Antigonus (Christopher Ryan Grant), who is soon chased and eaten by a bear (thus the famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear”). When Leontes realizes how wrong he was, he spends his time lamenting his actions. The baby, of course, is rescued by an Old Shepherd (Grant) and his clownish son, the Young Shepherd (Nina Grollman, who also plays the lady-in-waiting, Emilia); they name her Perdita (Ayana Workman).
Stacey Yen, Chris Myers, Nina Grollman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
A chronological jump of 16 years is introduced by a character called Time (Murray); Perdita has grown up and become the lover of Polixenes’ son, Florizel (Chris Myers). Various plot devices transpire, including a statue of the supposedly long-dead Hermione coming to life and reuniting with her joyful, repentant husband. All’s well that ends well, as another Shakespearean play would have it.
Chris Myers, Ayana Workman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
While the play introduces several thoughtful themes, its multiple illogicalities, exaggerations, and far-fetched developments require a particular lightness of touch; it has to maintain an essential level of believability while also providing room for broad comedy and moving sentiment. All this is accomplished far more successfully in this production than many more elaborate, star-studded ones.*

The use of a puppet for Mamillius (designed by James Ortiz) helps establish the fairy-tale nature of the proceedings, a device that also is humorously used for the huge bear that chases Antigonus, a creature built in five sections, head and legs, each handled by another actor. Bohemia is conceived of as a world of Stetson-wearing farmers and cowboys; there’s even line dancing to Heather Christian’s banjo and fiddle music during the sheep-shearing festivities.

Casting the Young Shepherd with the overalls-wearing Nina Grollman, her long, blond tresses undisguised, is another clever touch, and inspires several strong laughs based on the actress’s awareness of the gender confusion she represents. There’s also an applause-generating highlight when Grant’s Antigonus is pursued by the bear only to reappear a second later as the Old Shepherd.
Christopher Ryan Grant, Chris Myers. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Not a single weak link appears in the excellent company, with particularly memorable work coming from Stacey Yen’s Hermione, Patrena Murray’s Paulina and Time, Christopher Ryan Grant’s Old Shepherd, Nina Grollman’s Young Shepherd, Justin Cunningham’s Leontes, and Nicholas Hoge’s Polixenes.
Nicholas Hoge, Stacey Yen, Ayana Workman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Yen’s trial scene shows the actress’s remarkable ability to express Hermione’s tragic situation with an impassioned voice whose resonance and expressive clarity is never overwhelmed by the powerful emotions she projects. Murray has a clarion voice matched by concentrated conviction that deserves to be heard and seen more often. Grant and Grollman, making good use of a shepherd’s crook, are a rare example of American actors making Shakespeare’s rustics really funny. Cunningham brings authenticity to Leontes’ obsessive jealousy and devastating guilt. And Hoge’s scene of anger at Florizel is among the production’s most vital moments.

There’s nothing wintry about this The Winter’s Tale but it’s still a pretty cool revival.  

*Theatre buffs might find the credits for the first ever production of The Winter’s Tale at the Public’s Delacorte Theatre in Central Park interesting.


Public Theater
425 Lafayette Ave., NYC
Through December 17

119 (2017-2018): Review: INDIANS (seen November 29, 2017)

“Buffalo Bill Get Your Gun”

In 1968, when America was in the thick of the political turmoil stirred up by the Vietnam War, Arthur Kopit’s Indians, a play about Buffalo Bill and America’s genocidal slaughter and betrayal of Native Americans, was produced by London’s Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1969, a much rewritten and fully restaged version had its American premiere at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage (where it was done in the round), and, later that year, an even further revised Broadway production arrived; it reached only 96 performances but garnered three Tony nominations.   
Michael Hardart. Photo: Victoria Engblom.
Now, the tiny Metropolitan Playhouse, ill-equipped physically and financially for eye-popping productions, has chosen to revive the play by paring back the spectacular visual and aural effects that many thought were superior to the play itself. The Broadway production had a cast of 40 (16 of them playing unnamed Indians) but the Metropolitan commits actorcide by having only 10 actors play all the roles, occasionally crossing genders to do so. The Goliath of Kopit’s play wins before the David of this theatre can even draw its slingshot.

Company of Indians. Photo: Daniella Santibanez.
Perhaps, given our never-ending conflicts in the Middle East, Indians is being revived for reasons similar to those that inspired its creation. The following is from a revealing interview with Kopit by critic John Lahr included in the published version of the script:

LAHR: What prompted you to write the play?
KOPIT: I wanted to express the madness of our involvement in Vietnam. I had believed for some time that what was happening was the symptom of a national disease. I saw Vietnam as an area of great political confusions, both on the governmental and public level. What were we doing there? What were our purposes? What were we fighting for? To deal with these questions dramatically I had to approach them somewhat obliquely. To write about Vietnam specifically would have had no impact.
Erin Leigh Schmoyer, Ryan Vincent Anderson, David Logan Rankin, Michael Hardart. Photo: Victoria Engblom.
Most critics in 1969 assumed the play was primarily about the Indian genocide, not Vietnam. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times even wondered if the theme could be applied to the “black/white confrontation.” Thus the question of whether it was wiser to write “obliquely” rather than directly about the war can certainly be debated. What Kopit himself says he wanted to do was not so much to criticize American military policy in Southeast Asia but to illuminate the issue of how we mythologize American history, finding patriotic values that justify its nastiest excesses.
Jamahl Garrison-Lowe. Photo: Victoria Engblom.
To achieve his goals, Kopit avoids a linear narrative, choosing instead a free-form, amorphous, mosaic-like, 13-scene structure, mingling fact and fiction in a panorama narrated by and participated in by Buffalo Bill Cody (Michael Hardart). Bill is a confused individual, helping the Indians once he's come to sympathize with them yet cashing in on them by putting them on display.
Erin Leigh Schmoyer, Ryan Vincent Anderson, Charles Jeffries. Photo: Daniella Santibanez.
Michael Hardart, Jeff Canter, David Logan Rankin. Photo: Victoria Engblom.
Buffalo Bill, of course, capped his career as a remarkably deadly buffalo hunter (thereby depriving Native Americans of a key food source) and scout by becoming a master showman touring the nation with his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. These rodeo cum circuses gained much of their popularity by both exploiting and sentimentalizing the now downtrodden Indians.
Ron Moreno. Photo: Victoria Engblom.
David Logan Rankin, Jef Canter, Ron Moreno (obscured), Erin Leigh Schmoyer, Michael Hardart (turned away), Charles Jeffries (hands raised), Jay Romero (with club), Joe Candelora, Thomas Daniels. Photo: Daniella Santibanez.
Kopit’s play introduces a panoply of historical figures (some familiar from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun), including dime novelist Ned Buntline (Ryan Vincent Anderson), gunslinger Wild Bill Hickock (David Logan Rankin), sharpshooter Annie Oakley (Erin Leigh Schmoyer), and chiefs like Sitting Bull (Jamahl Garrison-Lowe), Geronimo (Garrison-Lowe again), and Chief Joseph (Rankin, again). 
Jamahl Garrison-Lowe. Photo: Victoria Enblom.
For all the promise dormant in those iconic Western figures, the play is essentially a progression of scenes with a static dramatic arc and a persistently polemical purpose. It seeks to both demonstrate and satirize the atrocities (land robbery, food deprivation, killing, treaty breaking) and treachery committed by the American government and its Great Father—the real Indian givers—on Native Americans. This was a violent past whose guilt was expunged by presenting it as a heroic necessity, with its victims crassly romanticized.
Michael Hardart (foreground), Erin Leigh Schmoyer, Jay Romero, Joe Candelora, Charles Jeffries, Ryan Vincent Anderson. Photo: Yupin Pramotepipop.
Alex Roe, whose dully paced direction lacks propulsion, stages the play within a set designed by Michael LeBron to suggest we’re in a canvas tent. The audience sits in four banks of seats surrounding a slightly raised wooden platform into which a reddish, mulch-filled pit has been cut to serve as the main acting area. Patrick Mahaney makes what he can of his limited lighting apparatus while Sidney Fortner’s costumes do nicely on a limited budget to represent late 19th-century Western wear. There are a few symbolic props, including masks, but the effect is inescapably cheesy.
Jay Romero and Michael Hardart. Photo: Caroline De Vries.
Anyone attempting to stage an expansive play like this in such a physically spare version using only 10 actors to play all the roles is playing with fire sans the benefit of a brilliant conception and the finest actors available, and I don’t mean stars. Only the night before, I saw the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit production of The Winter’s Tale, also performed by 10 mostly young actors, with not one of whom I was familiar. Moreover, that show is even more bare-boned than Indians. Yet the result is magic.
David Logan Rankin. MaryRose Devine.
The Metropolitan's actors range from competent to amateurish. They create no magic, though. The Metropolitan deserves praise for being ambitious but, in this case, its ambitions outdoes its capacities, which are much better suited to its revivals of forgotten American plays in more standard modes. At the risk of being another Indians-giver, this is one I’d like to give back.
Michael Hardart, Jamahl Garrison Lowe, Ron Moreno, Ryan Vincent Anderson, Charles Jeffries. Photo: Ed Forti.

Metropolitan Playhouse
220 E. 4th St., NYC
Through December 16

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

118 (2017-2018): Review: WHO'S HOLIDAY! (Seen November 27, 2017)

“It’s Not Easy Being Green”

Full disclosure: I’ve been suffering from a bad case of Grinchitis since 1966. That’s when, after winning on “Jeopardy” I followed up during my second appearance by brain-freezing on a “Final Jeopardy” question about Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It didn’t matter that I’d only recently read the story to my preschool daughter; I can still remember my wife in the studio audience, seeing my desperation, urgently trying to send the answer to me by ESP. Ever since, mention of the Grinch makes me feel as if my skin were turning green. 
So maybe that’s why I found Who’s Holiday! A New Comedy in Couplets—a satirically campy take on the 1957 Seussian classic that recently won a fair use lawsuit against the Seuss estate—much less funny than those around me. Matthew Lombardi’s hour-and-15-minutes long, shaggy beast story, written, like Seuss’s book, in rhyming couplets, is notable mainly for giving the ultra-talented Lesli Margherita (Matilda, Dames at Sea) a one-woman platform to demonstrate her arsenal of physical, vocal, and comedic weapons. Directed by Carl Andress, some of it is definitely laugh-provoking but too much is sophomoric, failing to do her larger-than-life persona the justice it deserves.

Margherita plays Cindy Lou Who, a sweet, little girl in Seuss’s original, now a bleached-blond, roots-showing, tackily-dressed, big-bosomed, substance-abusing sexpot in her mid-40s. This flashy dame lives in a tchotchke-packed, holiday-decorated, cruddy old trailer (terrifically created by David Gallo) on top of snowy Mount Crumpit in the town of Whoville.

Seeing us in the audience, she excitedly tells us of the Christmas party she’s happily planning, despite being persona non grata in Whoville. She recounts the story of her encounter with the green, gross Grinch when she saw him stealing her family’s Christmas gifts, and of how his multiple burglaries were resolved when he was moved by the town’s spirit and gave everything back.

She recalls growing up to become the “ugly old fart’s” best friend, fall in love with and marry him, and bear his green child. Cindy wants us to see the need to accept “a mixed marriage of color”: “Just love who you want,” she raps. Meanwhile, her guests—like Thidwick, the big-hearted moose, and Yertle, the turtle—keep bailing on their visits with lame excuses.

Cindy Lou’s story grows increasingly grotesque and pseudo-weepy, as per the subplot about her estranged, green daughter, Patti, whose ironic fate some will guess; this is Christmas, however, so a sentimental twist—there’s no place like home for the holidays, after all—warms our hearts before we leave. 
During her potty-mouthed chronicle, Cindy Lou, who often steps out of the trailer onto the forestage, frequently turns her wickedly comic tongue on various audience members, including latecomers, while taking hits on a bong, sloshing down booze, or smoking cigarettes. At one point she brings a volunteer up from the audience, makes fun of him (nearly calling him a word that rhymes with “tag”), and mock-ridicules him throughout the show. Raunch is persistent, as when we’re told that what Grinch gave Cindy Lou for her 18th birthday grew three sizes in one day; kids, it wasn’t his shrunken heart.

The constant rhyming, which teeters on tiresomeness (this isn’t Richard Wilbur translating The Misanthrope), is hit and miss; some of it is clever, as when Cindy Lou takes a hit of hash and says “One quick puff then I’ll see what my plan is./Just give me a sec . . . oh, this shit is bananas”; some of it is clunky,  like rhyming prescription” with “conniption,” or “depression” with “impression.”
Cindy Lou is so colorfully outrageous, her voice so big, and her manner so flippantly flamboyant that Margherita, voluptuous as she is, could almost be mistaken for a drag artist. Her vocal chops rock the joint in two numbers, one proving that white girls can indeed rap. She wears two glitzy, holiday-colored, bare-shouldered outfits, designed by Jess Goldstein, one a flared, red, polka-dotted number and the other a bustier with high heels and red tights tighter than skin. The lighting, by Ken Billington and Jonathan Spencer, paints everything with vibrant glitter.

Who’s Holiday! didn’t cure my Grinchitis, I’m afraid, but it seems to be a holiday bonbon that many others are happy to be tasting.


Westside Theatre
407 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through December 31

Monday, November 27, 2017

117 (2017-2018): Review: HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (seen November 24, 2017)

"Not All I Want for Christmas"

For my review of Home for the Holidays please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

116 (2017-2018): Review: A DEAL (seen November 25, 2017)

“When Worlds Collide”

It’s a pleasant surprise to find a New York theatre offering a play written in English by a bilingual, contemporary, female Chinese playwright, especially one as interesting as Zhu Yi’s A Deal. And even more of a surprise that it’s not being presented by one of the town’s leading Asian-American companies but by Urban Stages, a noteworthy Off-Broadway venue whose longtime artistic director, Frances Hill, is increasingly focused on new international work.

Seth Moore, Wei-Yi Lin. Photo: Ben Hider.
Yi’s well-performed, prize-winning play (in both China and Taiwan), representing her Off-Broadway debut, covers a few too many bases within its episodic, roughly 90-minute format, preventing it from going very deeply into any of them, but it manages to be consistently entertaining and informative. 

Like so many plays about immigrants striving to make it in America, it deals with issues of assimilation faced by foreigners seeking to blend into this country’s mainstream culture; it also confronts the clash between the values of old world parents and their new world offspring. In addition, it introduces issues of currency war, rapidly changing exchange rates, communism versus capitalism, corruption on high and low levels, classism, money smuggling, media exploitation, the 2015 surge in Chinese buyers of American homes, and so on.
Wei-Yi Lin, Lydia Gaston, Alan Ariano. Photo: Ben Hider.
Most of this is offered on a lightly satirical platter, creating a tone more sitcom than serious dramatic exposé. My plus-one was a middle-aged Chinese theatre scholar whose father is a leading scene designer in Beijing. As we briefly chatted after the play, he commented that the playwright’s basic facts, especially the numbers mentioned in dialogue concerning currency changes, were accurate but he felt she might have gone further into some of her core economic issues. To do so, however, would have required a less diverse set of targets than the play now offers.
Alan Ariano, Pun Bandhu. Photo: Ben Hider.
That thematic smorgasbord is made even more varied by having the heroine, Li Su (Wei-Yi Lin), called Susu, be a struggling, lightly-accented, Columbia-educated, Chinese-born actress trying to get cast in her first Off-Broadway play. This raises problems related to the obstacles faced by a novice Asian actress in getting stage work in New York. It also introduces a white playwright with whom Susu becomes involved so it can comment on the difficulties even a successful writer has in maintaining a theatre career. Even the potentially provocative idea of a white American writing a play about the Chinese is briefly questioned. Self- as well as other-directed deceptions figure in each of the play’s multiple thematic threads.
Lydia Gaston, Helen Coxe, Alan Ariano. Photo: Ben Hider.
When we first meet Susu she’s auditioning for a role she’s desperate to land in a play about Chinese society by famous playwright, Josh Haley (Seth Moore). Susu’s the daughter of well-off, non-English-speaking parents, Mr. Li (Alan Ariano) a self-made Chinese millionaire, and Mrs. Li (Lydia Gaston), a former actress.
Lydia Gaston, Wei-Yi Lin, Alan Ariano. Photo: dBen Hider.
Mr. Li is a proud communist (despite his wealth) obsessed with how he was able to rise from poverty and become so successful that he was able to give his daughter an expensive, Ivy League education. Despite being the child of such highly-placed parents, Susu gets the role only after making up a story about a tragic Chinese childhood mirroring that of the character she wants to play.
Helene Coxe, Seth Moore, Wei-Yi Lin. Photo: Ben Hider.
Although the phrase isn’t used, this example of “fake news” hurtles Susu into the media spotlight where her political views are exaggerated at the expense of her homeland’s reputation. When she finally tries to fess up about her fibbing, though, she’s met with ironic indifference. Everybody does it, so what’s the big deal? 
Wei-Yi Lin. Photo: Ben Hider.
The many other plot elements include Mr. and Mrs. Li’s desire to buy a luxury apartment for Susu in Manhattan for $1 million from a dishonest American real estate saleswoman in Shanghai; their connecting with Peter (Pun Bandhu), Mrs. Li’s onetime lover, now a New York real estate broker, who still carries a torch for her, and helps the Lis look for an affordable apartment ($1 million being enough for a bathroom in the New York market); and an affair between Susu and Josh, who, earlier, asks her to do something that sounds as if it were ripped from recent headlines about sexual harassment.
Wei-Yi Lin, Helen Coxe. Photo: Ben Hider.
Too many themes spoil the focus; for example, a tighter script might have done without such extraneous subplots as Peter and Mrs. Li’s youthful romance, when they played Romeo and Juliet opposite one another. The jealous rivalry this creates between Peter and Mr. Li is encapsulated in an extensive slow-mo slugfest reflecting their political and personal differences. It’s fun but it’s distracting.
Wei-Yi Lin, Alan Ariano, Lydia Gaston. Photo: Ben Hider.
Director John Giampietro keeps the action, which occurs in multiple locales, flowing smoothly on Frank J. Oliva’s simple but flexible gray set of basic furniture and movable seating units. Ryan Belock’s projections of painting, photograph, and video images establish specific places in Shanghai and New York—including during several driving scenes—on three contiguous upstage screens.
Seth Moore, Wei-Yi Lin. Photo: Ben Hider.
Audrey Nauman’s costumes are helpfully character-defining, especially when the same actors (the versatile Helen Coxe among them) play several roles, and John Salutz provides suitable lighting and sound design.

Wei-Yi Lin makes a fine impression as the daughter torn between her parents’ values and her goal of American success, and she’s capably backed by the supporting company, especially Ariano and Gaston as Mr. and Mrs. Li.

This is a comedy with perhaps too much to say, but it says it with enjoyable panache. If you can get over its title’s resemblance to a certain billionaire’s book, you might approve of the art in Zhu Yi’s A Deal.


Urban Stages
259 W. 30th St., NYC
Through December 10

Sunday, November 26, 2017

115 (2017-2108): Review: THE BRIEFLY DEAD (seen November 25, 2017)

“Alcestis, Part 2”

Stephen Kaliski’s hard-to-love The Briefly Dead, being given its world premiere by the Adjusted Realists at 59E59 Theaters, is in the long tradition of purposeful retellings of ancient dramas, a tradition in which even Shakespeare played a part. Premodern examples normally retained a classical setting but modern examples, like Anouilh’s Antigone, to cite a famous example, often contemporize the dramatic world, emphasizing its relationship to current concerns. The Briefly Dead attempts to do this with flimsy results.
Mia Isabella Aguirre, Ben Kaufman. Photo: Mia Isabella Photography/Brandon Saloy.

Inspired by Euripides’ unusual tragicomedy Alcestis (438 BC), The Briefly Dead is intended as a sequel to that “problem play,” much as Lucas Hnath’s recent A Doll’s House, Part 2 is a sequel to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. But Kaliski’s far less successful and far more anachronistic effort takes a great many more liberties with his source material than Hnath’s; given the general unfamiliarity of Alcestis, however, this will bother scholars more than most theatregoers.
Paul Hinkes, Jenna Zafiropoulos, Sarah Wadsley, Kristin Fulton. Photo: Mia Isabella Photography/Brandon Saloy.
What will concern them, however, is the play’s uneven style, its confusing, episodic narrative, its thematic vagueness, its unconvincing, meandering dialogue, its feeble humor, and its jumpy, episodic structure.

Elizabeth Ostler’s direction, aided by the choreography of Katie Proulx, gives the play some distinctively theatrical moments, with stylized movements, freezes, shadow puppets (designed by Ostler), and supernatural lighting and sound effects (thanks to Jessica Greenberg). But the play’s structural issues aren’t helped by her frequently lethargic pacing and lack of dramatic thrust.
Jenna Zafiropoulos. Photo: Mia Isabella Photography/Bfandon Saloy.
In Euripides’ play, Admetos is a king whose life was extended when the god Apollo arranged it with Thanatos (Death); when his time to die arrives he’s allowed to find someone willing to substitute their life for his. The only person to agree is his wife, Alcestis, mother of their children, who’s preparing for death when the play begins. Before passing, Alcestis extracts from Admetos a vow of faithfulness to her memory and resistance to partying. Then, Admetos’ friend, Heracles, arrives. Reluctant to disturb his guest by telling him what’s happened, Admetos carouses with Heracles, thus breaking his vow. When Heracles discovers the truth, his guilt drives him to wrestle Alcestis back from Death, reuniting her with her husband.

In The Briefly Dead, the time is now, the costumes (by Peri Grabin Leong) a fusion of classical Greek and contemporary, and the dialogue colloquial, with references to everyday life, like sushi. Kyu Shin’s set, which covers one corner of Theater C’s small room, consists of square, gray pillars, with the most noteworthy prop a chaise longue; the audience sits on the two remaining sides of a stage floor painted in Greek motifs.

Death (Mia Isabella Aguirre), affecting a mildly ironic tone, is a black-garbed businesswoman with a headdress of feathers and butterflies; an amplified God voice calls her “boss.”  Nearby corpses are actors in white sweatpants and hoodies with barcodes on them.
Paul Hinkes. Photo: Mia Isabella Photography/Brandon Saloy.
Admetos (Ben Kaufman) convinces Death to return Alcestis (Jenna Zafiropoulos), but he neglects to retrieve a box containing her memory. He, his faithful assistant, Avra (Kristin Fulton), and Alcestis’ three companions endeavor to help Alcestis regain her memory. The chorus-like trio are Zena (Katie Proulx), Alcestis’s sister; Kyra (Sarah Wadsley), her best friend; and Phyllis (Sofiya Cheyenne), her neighbor. Also assisting is Heracles (Paul Hinkes, all 6’8” of him), a grungy, country-style guitarist/singer who performs a cool solo by Steve Smith.
Mia Isabella Aguirre. Photo: Mia Isabella Photograpy/Brandon Saloy.
Admetos rules over an unnamed place where the people are rising up and war is breaking out, painful facts he insists be kept from his wife. Although it’s mentioned in passing that he’s responsible for “atrocities,” no explanation of the political background is offered, nor is Admetos shown as a tyrant. This is just one of the writing’s many distractingly unclear features that suggest they derive more from arbitrary choices than carefully thought-out ones.
Jenna Zafiropoulos, Ben Kaufman. Photo: Mia Isabella Photography/Brandon Saloy.
Why, for example, is it hinted that Alcestis killed herself (there’s even a reference to Sylvia Plath)? Why, after Admetos retrieves her memories, does Alcestis change so radically, acting ruthlessly toward others on the slightest pretext? Why, seeing the comforts she enjoys, does she want to be dead again? Why, after experiencing what appears to have been a benign experience in the afterworld, does she caution Admetos to “be careful” when he’s preparing to go there? Why, as Alcestis’ memory sharpens, does Admetos’ own memory show signs of slipping?
Sarah Wadsley, Jenna Zafiropoulos. Photo: Mia Isabella Photography/Brandon Saloy.
The cast--including four proud graduates of the Brooklyn College MFA program (like the playwright and director)--offers generally creditable work. Most impressive are the performances of the exquisite, widely expressive Zafiropoulos and the charmingly appealing Cheyenne. I hope to soon be seeing them again.  
Ben Kaufman, Sofiya Cheyenne, Jenna Zafiropoulous. Photo: Mia Isabella Photography/Brandon Saloy.

As one of Kaliski’s earlier plays, Gluten!, reviewed here exactly two years ago, reveals, he enjoys adding a satirical edge to off-beat, unusual subjects. Eccentricity and the ability to rouse the occasional laugh, however, are not enough to offset incoherence in plotting, character depiction, and point of view. Only a Heraclean effort could rescue The Briefly Dead from becoming the permanently dead.


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