International Actress, Sue Bevan, takes a break from her own show to review another.

WHY I KILLED MY MOTHER – Midtown International Theatre Festival, New York

 

You may not think that sitting in a tiny black box theatre watching an Israeli solo show about the holocaust, alcoholism, domestic violence and child abuse ranks as number one in your options for a beautiful summer’s afternoon in New York City. You would be oh so wrong. I’ve just walked out into the new York sunshine and it’ll take a long, cool beer or two before I get anywhere near back to my equilibrium. What a show!

Why I Killed My Mother by Israeli Dor Zweigenbom is described as ‘physical theatre/puppetry/storytelling’. The autobiographical tale of a man being asked by his dying mother to kill her, it was awarded First Prize at the Theatronetto Solo Show Festival. Justly so. That the overwhelming tone of the piece is funny is a tremendous credit to this extraordinary storyweaver, and if you ever get a chance to see it, then beg, steal or hijack a ticket to be one of the bums on the seats.

I was asked as I left the space whether I was staying for the next show. I couldn’t. Honestly, I couldn’t. A couple of years back I had the immense privilege of seeing Mark Strong playing Eddie Carbone in the Young Vic’s quite remarkable production of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge. He and the show were electrifying. When I left the theatre that night, stunned in that way which only live theatre can do, I sent a quick text to the friend who had insisted I absolutely must go and see Strong in that role. ‘Just left AVFTB,’ I texted. ‘Can’t speak.’

She replied almost immediately with a lengthy text delighting in the fact that I’d gone. I couldn’t read it. ‘Can’t text.’ I replied, and turned off my phone. That particular performance of this American classic left me unable to take the tube, catch a bus, hail a taxi…I couldn’t be around people. All I could do was walk. One foot in front of the other. All the way from The Cut in south London to King’s Cross heading north. I simply couldn’t have anything to do with anyone else. And this is exactly what Dor Zweigenbom’s show did to me yesterday. I found myself profoundly moved, touched at some extraordinary level by that one hour of storytelling, and able only to check in with myself and what it is to be human, what it is to survive.

So I sit here outside the Pennsy Food Hall, in what someone called yesterday ‘the armpit of New York’, noise, people, music, laughter, shouting, chaos all around – and I cannot see or hear any of it. All I see is the beautiful little dancing-shoe puppet of a baby sister, and the big brother converse, abandoned in a rat-infested motel by a drunk of a mother who’s out for yet another night with yet another man and probably earning the five bucks the kids need to eat. And all I hear is Dor’s tender voice delivering If You Go Away as the curtain falls on this desperate woman’s life and his beautiful, life-affirming show.

And I am reminded why we make theatre.

Dorian Palumbo reviews “This Gonna Be A Test, Miss?”

IMG_2934Ronna Levy has had quite a ride.  Her father did his best to subvert her desire to become a theatre professional, and for a while she tried to follow their well-meaning but ultimately provincial instructions.  But when she finally got the opportunity to pursue her dream of becoming an actress, she had no sturdy foundation of psychological support.  Without support on which to gain some traction, Ms. Levy, instead, partied away a few years with some good coke and some bad boyfriends until, at last, she landed on a money job teaching, and an affair with a fellow teacher.

With the support of her lover-colleague, Levy got through the first year of teaching and found that this was something she was good at that she hadn’t expected to be good at.  I think we’ve all been there.  And then, New York City, in its infinite wisdom, laid her off and set her adrift once again.  She pulls up in Los Angeles, the dream of being an actress still will not die, but bad auditions and waitress-gigs begin to give way, once again, to teaching students that don’t seem to want to be taught.

And here’s the thing – Ms. Levy is the perfect person to teach people who don’t want to be taught, because it takes her quite a while to learn, herself, that her calling has nothing to do with Nestle commercials and fine dining.  Ms. Levy moves back to New York, takes up her place in the Community College classroom, and fights stubborn with a good deal of stubborn of her own, discovering, at last, that a teacher is not what she’s good at pretending to be but what she authentically is.

This one-woman show about a teacher teaches the audience a good deal about what’s happened to the educational system in the past 20 years, a situation which Betsy DeVos and her ilk are certainly unlikely to help.   While the culture weaves dreams of becoming Kardashians or Trumps, kids from poor families have to contend not even with trying to attain an education but with trying to figure out why they need one in the first place.  In a culture that glorifies idiocy and accidental glory, why go to class?  Why study?  Why bother?

At 60 minutes, the show, which somewhat resembles a TED talk, is engaging, informative, and, funny.  There is also a sense of pathos – this is, after all, not a Hollywood movie.  I came away feeling very glad that for, perhaps, those few who manage to improve their lives by way of a community college education, at least at first, that Ms. Levy is there for them when perhaps no one else is.

This Gonna Be on the Test, Miss? was part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival.

Dorian Palumbo reviews “Caught Dreaming” @ NYSummerFest

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There are a lot of plays in the canon about navigating mental illness.  Even limiting ourselves to the contemporary ones, you find quite a few.  “Next to Normal” is even set to music.  But playwright Ryan Dancho is not just interested in examining what it’s like to live with mental illness so much as he’s asked us to explore, along with him, how someone might be expected to cope with someone else’s mental illness as well as their own simultaneously.

Mentally ill people will often find themselves, through group therapy or simply the laws of attraction, in the company of other mentally ill people.  Depressives find each other accidentally as well as on purpose; recognizing each other from across a crowded room the way alcoholics do.  Indeed, Jude, (Nick Webster) the mentally ill man around whom the action revolves in this play, is alcoholic in addition to having schizoaffective disorder.  Skilled actor that he is, Webster makes Jude compelling to watch, though the character as written doesn’t seem to have many pleasant attributes.

Some research has suggested that there are five genetic markers present in people who express full-blown paranoid schizophrenia, but if someone has four of these markers, or even three, they may still exhibit quite a complicated mental illness that is often misdiagnosed and which often leads them to self-medicate with alcohol, marijuana, various other drugs, or sex-addiction.  This seems to be the case not only with Jude, as schizoaffective, but, to a lesser degree, with Angelo (Jarvis Dewayne Griggs) a sex-addicted member of his therapy group, with bi-polar girlfriend Elle, who’s odd obsession with chronicling Jude’s illness is played with sad grace by Gabrielle Greer, and with 22-year old Brady, a suicidal Romeo played by Ryan Wesen.  Rounding out the cast is Aaron Morton, playing therapist Dr. Weir, Alice Renier as Julianna, Jude’s ex-wife and mother of his daughter, and 12 year old Hailee Drew as Jude’s daughter Cindy.

I did find it a little odd that Morton’s character disappears three quarters of the way through the play – even though his patient ends the play back in a psych ward, there is no visit from Dr. Weir, and that abandonment seemed a tad unprofessional.  There is an interesting device used where the two ostensibly sane characters, Julianna and daughter Cindy, are also playing hallucinatory versions of themselves as part of Jude’s disorder.

The central question the play seems to be asking is, when there is a “crazy person” in your life, what is the line that cannot be crossed?  What would they need to do, or say, or be, that would cause another person to separate from them?  And at what point are they not to be trusted to walk around in the world on their own recon?  The play suggests that that line, for each person, might be in a different place, and where it’s drawn might even change over the course of knowing the patient.

Caught Dreaming will be performed again at the New York Summerfest in the Hudson Guild Theater, 441 West 26th Street, on Sunday, 7/30, 6:00 pm

Dorian Palumbo reviews AN AUDIENCE WITH SHURL at MITF

AnAudienOne of our more mature responsibilities as human adults is to take our experiences of the darker side of life and transmute them into something we find useful, perhaps even telling stories about those things.  Rather than pour pink paint onto the memory of a tragic event, pretending it didn’t happen, or taking refuge in some sort of denial, we can use the recollection to communicate something about survival, or conquering fear, or being emotionally present for new sets of people even when you’ve been used badly by people in your past.  Ironically, writer/performer Sue Bevan has taken a personal tragedy and written a show and, by doing that, has shown that she can skillfully transmute an actual experience of her own by telling the story of a character who couldn’t quite do the same.  Bevan has perhaps staved off a bit of madness for herself by creating Shurl, whose madness might just be charming and funny, or, then again, might not.

We meet Shurl as soon as we walk into the theatre and look for a seat – she greets us cheerily, dressed in a bathrobe, and engages us in friendly conversation in her melodic Welsh accent.  Shurl asks us where we’re from and how we are like a kindergarten teacher on the first day of school, trying to make her charges feel welcome and comfortable.

Once we’ve settled down, we’re treated to a series of anecdotes about Shurl’s direct and indirect experiences as a child growing up in post-WWII Wales; tales which are visually evocative, funny, sweet, strange, and even horrific.  Shurl uses her own avatar to tie these tales together – Singer Shirley Bassey, known to Americans, if she’s known, as the singer who popularized the song “Goldfinger” from the James Bond film of the same name back in 1964.

When the warm front of Shurl’s Bassey-worship meets the cold cruelty of being forced to give a baby up for adoption at fifteen, it creates a perfect storm in the mind of sweet, loopy Shurl that ultimately propels her from her home in Tiger Bay, Wales and around the world, following Bassey from concert to concert.

There’s no triumphant tale of self-empowerment, though, for poor Shurl.  She’s done a bit of mild stalking of Ms. Bassey, sending her thousands of creepy postcards, and, ultimately, when she tries to meet her idol, it all goes pear shaped.  Perhaps Shurl expects that Bassey will acknowledge some common ground – after all, Bassey herself gave up a child at 19.   Bassey was also far from a jet-setting sophisticate; she was quoted once saying leaving Tiger Bay was “the worst thing (she) ever did.”  But Bassey, according to Shurl, rebuffs her super fan, gives back all the postcards, and sends Shurl into a tailspin, from which it’s pretty clear she’s not going to recover.

I do hope that audiences will choose to spend some time in the company of Ms. Bevan, as Shurl or otherwise, because she’s a storyweaver extraordinaire, and a terrific presence onstage.  Americans may not really know who Shirley Bassey is, or was, but they don’t really need to, and they’ll certainly know a talented writer/performer when they see Ms. Bevan doing her thing as a a part of this fest.

An Audience with Shurl will be performed again at the Midtown Theatre Festival on Friday, July 28th at 7:00pm, and on Sunday, July 30th at 2:45pm.

Dorian Palumbo reviews LOCKER ROOM TALK at MITF

Just about everything these days seems to be getting politicized.  According to playwright Jason Paris, even high school sports isn’t spared being skewed in either a blue- or red-state direction.

fullsizeoutput_57f6The one-act play begins when former student Taylor pays a visit to his former coach while Taylor is home on winter break from college.  He’s there ostensibly to use the gym facilities while high school is out of session, but he’s clearly also there to check in with a trusted mentor about a life choice or two.

Coach, played by writer Paris, is at a point in his life where being a liberal-leaner in a Bible Belt environment is just too much to take, and his conversation with Taylor soon reveals that he’s about to make a life choice of his own and resign his position.

The rest of the play allows the two characters to delve deeper and deeper into just what, precisely, they’re willing to do to walk the liberal walk, rather than just talk the talk.  Taylor has decided to dive into the world of pundit blogging, rather than navigate four years of undergraduate work in the hopes that a small percentage of it might turn out to be relevant.  This sacrifice of an opportunity gives his old Coach pause, but ultimately Coach knows what it’s like to sacrifice something in order to maintain his liberal bona fides as well, and the revelation of what, precisely, that entailed is both disturbing to Taylor and understandable.  I wouldn’t dream of spoiling what that sacrifice turns out to have been, as I would definitely recommend you seeing this work if you have a chance to.

I do have a bit of a pet peeve when writers reference other works overmuch – in this case, there are a few too many references to the nerd canon – Star Wars and Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are all mentioned when showcasing just one of them would have perhaps made the point that these two characters share a sensibility.

Other than the sci-fi reference quibble, which not everyone would have, the play is written with great confidence and humor, performed with sincerity and depth, and it reminded me that not everyone who grows up liberal in Texas or Oklahoma or Alabama ends up fleeing to the big city when they’re 20 – some simply choose to fight the good fight in the home town they otherwise love.

Not so scary.

Turan Koyuncu reviews Into the Bayou Madame Marie’s Shop at the Midtown International Theatre Festival 

 

IntotheBayouInto the Bayou Madame Marie’s Shop is a good old thriller and mystery. Unfortunately, not all the mystery seemed solvable. We start with a candle ritual thus implying paganism, how we meet Maria, an enigma herself, proprietor of a beauty salon which houses dark secrets – ala American Horror Story of a few years ago. Voodoo dolls, ancient legends, even vampirism is implied. A formulaic ending tied things up but not very exciting.

Marlene Villafane who played Maria was animated and energetic but not engaging; Isobella Caroline Boucher, who played Caitlyn, also had potential but just didn’t hit their mark. A sense of inexperience seemed to hover over the production. Volume, diction, and further use of suasion was needed all around. The well-dressed set only proved a hindrance as the actors kept dropping the atmospheric props.

Sound effects and music were also clumsy. They seemed not synchronized with the staging, The music was sometimes too loud and we cannot hear Caitlyn and the other actors speak. Into the Bayou Madame Maria’s Shop is the type of play where it gives the audience the puzzle pieces and let the audience solve the storyline. I quite enjoy these type of shows in this case we need more pieces.

Dorian Palumbo reviews A Difficult Transition at MITF

There comes a moment, in the course of dating someone, when confessions happen.  Perhaps the end of the second date is the time to discuss the divorce, introduce the subject of kids from said divorce, confess that one or the other of them is in recovery.  At the end of their second date, the characters in Kevin Clancy’s “Difficult Transition” began to address the transition of “Woman”, played by trans actress Mariana Genesio, and the play begins when we meet them on the morning after their first attempt at becoming physically intimate.

This is an exciting and interesting premise for a play. The transition that’s referred to in the title is actually the transition taking place in the mind of the male protagonist, referred to as “Man”, as his experience of Genesio’s character evolves from intellectually exciting proposition, to emotional connection and, finally, to physical and visceral confirmation.  Woman has not had complete sexual reassignment surgery, nor does she plan to at the stage when we meet her.  We of course know that many trans folks, in fact, do not choose bottom surgery for various reasons, and their partners respect and celebrate that choice just as they celebrate their partners’ sense of humor, their patience, their beauty, warmth, or any of a thousand other characteristics that help define love and connection and facilitate intimacy.  But as Man, and not Woman, is the protagonist in this play, I found myself wondering, aside from his hesitancy to relate to Woman’s legacy genitalia, what kind of person he was.  35 minutes isn’t a long time at all to get to know two characters.  We know Woman a bit better only because Man is allowed to describe her back to herself.

Woman speaks, near the end of the piece, about not wanting to explore dating apps that cater to trans people, because she wants to be loved, not fetishized, and that deserves an “amen” for sure.  And as an audience member I find myself wondering what Woman would like her potential partners to wonder too … who is she?  What does she do for a living?  Who is she as an individual, irrespective of the fact that she’s trans?

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Though this one-act is certainly self-contained, if playwright Clancy does decide to explore the subject in a longer piece, it will be interesting to see what he comes up with.

Dorian Palumbo reviews Ian and his Body at MITF

There is an interesting premise behind the one-act play “Ian and his Body”, written by Michael Ricotta.  A young man prepares to go on a tinder date, but his body, embodied by another actor entirely, has other ideas.

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Ian, played by Evan Brechtel, is trying to confirm details for a meetup with Jessie (Rachel-Ann Giambrone).  Ian’s Body, played by Mario Morales, is more concerned with reuniting Ian with his coke dealer (Palmyra Mattner).  When the four of them meet up at a local bar, it becomes clear fairly quickly that Ian is going to end up being a bad date story that Jessie will tell at dinner parties later in life.

It would be unfair to expect a playwright to completely and thoroughly explore cocaine addiction in 30 minutes.  Rather than do that, Ricotta’s instinct seems to be to take one incident in a young man’s life and try to examine, moment to moment, how that man’s decisions are made and what behavior results from those decisions.  Ricotta also tries to flip the expected trope, the healthy young man led astray by his addicted physical body, by having Body voice a wish to be healthy and sane, allowing us to see Ian, the real man, as Jessie and the rest of the world see him – self-absorbed, addicted, and thoughtless.

I think what I might have wanted to see more of here was a sense of why the audience was expected to care about Ian, and about his Body.  At times, Ian seems to merely be pursuing a hookup with Jessie, which makes Jessie the more sympathetic of the pair.  At times, we even question why Jessie is still sitting in the bar talking to him, and we’re not surprised at all, about 20 minutes in, when Jessie is seen shooting the breeze with Ian’s dealer, bonding with dealer Sandra in a way that seems unlikely with Ian, who is a bit all over the place.

Sandra, the dealer, has the clearest agenda here – to re-establish her income stream from Ian.  Jessie is next, wanting to see if Ian could be someone she’d want to date, and finding that out in no uncertain terms.  Morales lends a lot of charm to Body, who simply wants to continue to exist, and Body’s agenda of getting high again morphs into wanting not to get all THAT high, not wanting to COMPLETELY ruin Ian’s life and, instead, counseling a bit of junkie-style balance.  This makes Body a bit more interesting than Ian, who simply seems to be delighting in the purity of Sandra’s new supply and not really giving much of a thought to Jessie, to his own health, or to consequences.  While this seems fairly typical of junkies we’ve seen portrayed on stage before, I’m not sure why I’m meant to connect, as an audience member, with Ian.  Perhaps Ian is just meant to be a cautionary tale.

Dorian Palumbo reviews MAD MEL at Midtown

Mad Mel at the Midtown International Theatre Festival

Some of us grew up on the Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Written by Richard O’Brien, who also played the character of Riff Raff, the musical was campy, raunchy, and had a standout performance or two that made the whole thing the price of the popcorn.  Even without the famous audience participation that evolved over time, RHPS holds a place in the hearts of many a weird kid from the suburbs.  But as a film it really can’t be compared and contrasted to other films.  The rules don’t apply.  The camp factor makes it tonally dissimilar to other filmed musicals.

 

mad-mel-saves-the-world-festival-logo (2)On Tuesday, I was in the audience for a musical comedy called “Mad Mel Saves the World”, and Rocky Horror was uppermost in my mind, although it did remind me a bit of Rankin Bass’ “Mad Monster Party” or even 2009’s “Toxic Avenger.”

Like Rocky Horror, Mad Mel is just meant to be a bit of fun.  The premise is that Mel, played with a certain goofy charm by Slovenian actor Michael Green, is a half-human hybrid who has accidentally killed the dictator of a distant authoritarian world, and now wants to make it a two-fer by overthrowing his brother, Chancellor Jony (Mary Chesterman), who is really a sister and sometimes disguises herself as a cleaning lady just for yuks.  Helping him with his not-all-that-nefarious plan is Lady Vesselika, played with evil glee by the talented April Armstrong.

The rules for musicals usually go something like this – the lyrics of the songs serve to advance the plot, the musical styles tend to be somewhat consistent with each other, and if you want to understand what’s going on, you follow the love story.  There is often an “I want” song in the first act to kick the story into gear.  None of these rules seem to have been paid much attention when Mad Mel was put together, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone in the cast or in the audience much.

A good example of trying to wedge story information into a song is a long number in the first half about Mel picking out his special dress to wear to a function (yes, half-aliens in the future seem to wear a lot of chiffon, and accessorize with your Mom’s earrings from 1976).  The mannequins all come to life and do a bit of choreography, all to help Mel get dressed. Also helping Mel get dressed is Roni (Sage Melcher), the love interest.  It’s quite a ways into the show, and we haven’t seen or heard much about Roni, so we’re waiting for a few tidbits.  But the exposition isn’t really woven into the lyrics – rather, the song pauses for a bit of dialogue, the audience registers the information, and then the song continues.

The musical styles are very mixed in Mel – there is a bit of jazz here, a bit of Europop there, and even some rap.  One of the songs was actually written by one of the cast members, a sweet ballad called “Galaxy” sung by its composer, the abovementioned Melcher.  I have to say that though there were other cast members giving the show their all, Sage Melcher was a standout, and I can say I’m looking forward to seeing more of her.  Her singing voice is more Spotify than it is Broadway; more Lourde than Menzel, and that’s a great thing in this case.  When her album comes out, I’ll definitely buy it.  I’m also looking very much forward to the next time I see Nicholas DeSibio, who played “Grem”, father of Roni and owner of the nightclub in which a good few of the numbers were set.

In the end, as you can imagine, Mad Mel does manage to save the world, defeating the alien overlords, taking song and dance breaks and even shots at Donald Trump along the way.  Not everything makes sense but, as I said, not everything has to, and like Rocky Horror, this show provides a bit of respite from the more serious issues we have to deal with in our outside lives.

Give till it hurts.

Ashley Khan reviews The Gay No More Telethon
at the Midtown International Theatre Festival

gaynomore2 (1)This magnificent parable of a man named Vernon Jackson and his “The Gay No More Telethon,” was an eye-opener.

The plot: Vernon Jackson feels if you do not attract the opposite sex you will not be sent to heaven. He raises forty million dollars to change all the homosexuals. Being so against it he would do anything in his power. As well as being religious he believed God told him to make it happen. After realizing all the change and hurt in this world he then came to realize he was wrong. Vernon Jackson came to a conclusion that love is love. No matter the gender. There is too much chaos in this world that getting rid of love would only make it worse. We need more love!

Seeing The Gay No More Telethon made me realize exactly that, there isn’t enough love. It is an eye opener because no matter who you are at the end of the day love is love. This plays tops my list of MITF productions this year. The abundant talent – both as actors and singers – was top-notch.