Apparently, ‘March Madness’ has something to do with basketball. I’d have as likely used it to describe the wild and wonderful past four weeks of my life. It started off in Dallas with David Parr’s A Most Happy Stella, in which I played two roles and sang a jazzy version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ Before even leaving Texas, I was writing for New York Madness’ latest installment of shorts, this one curated by Daniel Talbott on the theme ‘Spiritually Blue Balled’. My play God Head was directed by Roberto Cambeiro and featured Ron Bopst, Todd Flaherty, and Colleen Kennedy. That same day I began another Talbott-related project (see below) and a week later rehearsed and performed a reading of Kathleen Warnock’s lovely That’s Her Way with the exquisite Danielle Quisenberry. This Wednesday I’ll start work on Chris Weikel’s latest, Dead Man’s Chest, in which I play Captain Kidd - a pirate! (You had me at ‘Ahoy.’) And somewhere in there, That Uppity Theatre Company of St. Louis produced my Shiny Pair Of Complications and LCT published an excerpt of Jackson Heights 3am. Madness! March has been leonine both in and out, ides and all. So, speaking of Daniel Talbott, it was just over a year ago I first wrote about the amazing work his Rising Phoenix Rep was doing with their Cino Nights new play series at Jimmy’s No.43. Inspired by the legendary Caffe Cino’s do-it-yourself aesthetic that gave birth in the nineteen-sixties to what became Off-off Broadway, the RPR team have produced some of the best shows I’ve seen these past thirteen months. Their dedication to new plays and the people who make them attracts some of New York’s most dynamic playwrights, directors, and actors, and the excitement surrounding their monthly events has made Cino Nights one of the hottest tickets in town. Everything about what they do inspires me. And this past week I was blessed to be a part of it. I played the role of Captain Nick, a (twisted memory of a) children’s television personality, in Charlotte Miller’s favorites, directed by John DiResta. I love nothing better than being in rehearsal, except for being in rehearsal with brave and generous actors like Jimmy Davis, Addie Johnson Talbott, Seth Numrich, and Amelia Pedlow. Oh my dog, are these guys good. Cino Nights shows are fully mounted plays, usually about an hour in length, designed, rehearsed, and teched in a single week (or less) for one performance only. So there is hardly time for ego-driven proprietary bullshit (not that there'd have been any with this kindhearted crew). Bold choices are made very quickly. The tiny space leaves no room for actors to hide. And a shoestring budget encourages innovative staging and design. It’s an amazing and potentially terrifying ride. I was weirdly calm from beginning to end. I loved being there so much, I guess there just wasn’t room for fear. In Charlotte’s Miller’s favorites, siblings Margaret and Travis’ return to their recently deceased mother's home to clear it out but find themselves trapped there by childhood memories. It’s screamingly funny at times, but also deeply disturbing as old wounds are reopened and nightmares are revived. Captain Nick was one of those nightmares, and I had a blast playing him. Being in a rehearsal room with a playwright as generous as Miller, a director as sharp as DiResta, and a company of such extraordinary actors was, for me, at once humbling and thrilling. I had as much fun watching the others work as I had doing any of my own bits. It was inspiring and challenging and edifying to watch the way Addie and Seth and Jimmy and Amelia worked together. It was magic. Each and all of them gave me chills, made me laugh, and inspired tears. As my fellow Texan Charlotte might say, I was just, like, ‘…gaw!’ The experience made me all the more grateful for the community of theatre people with whom I work and play, and I was already feeling pretty lucky. On this World Theatre Day 2012, I’m reflecting on what it is we do, and how far-reaching the effects may be. It seems so often that we are toiling away in anonymity or, at best, preaching to a proverbial choir. (I recently produced a show in which one performance was absolutely packed – with comps. Sigh.) But if you believe, as I do, in the power of art and the ripple effect of transformational sharing, then there’s really no show too small. Look at something like Cino Nights. That little room at Jimmy’s holds maybe 40 people - if you pack them in and don’t crowd the playing space with more than three or four actors at once. One performance. Little publicity. And yet Rising Phoenix Rep is making a noticible impact on New York theatre. It is encouraging playwrights to try new things, to tackle new subjects, to collaborate in challenging new ways. I love listening to people talk about these plays in the bar afterward – wheels turning, fires igniting. They pass it on. If you were to play Six Degrees Of Rising Phoenix, you’d soon find yourself connecting dots across the country, if not around the world. When I started Hard Sparks, I had a lot of big ideas, and I guess I still do. I start plays with big ideas. I play characters with big ideas in mind. Like a lot of artistically bent types, I do want very much to change the world in great big ways. But when I look at the people I know who are doing it – Daniel and Addie at RPR, Ari Laura Kreith at Theatre 167, Martin and Rochelle at Indie Theatre Now and Joan Lipkin's That Uppity Theatre Co. in St Louis... and even when I think of international companies that face challenges as immense as Belarus Free Theatre did this past year, or Theatre For A Change in Malawi, or Instant Café in Malaysia, or the premier of Doric Wilson’s A Perfect Relationship in India, or the work of slain Palestinian director Juliano Mer-Khamis' Freedom Theatre… I see that it’s all built on tiny moments. Emotional connections. Mucking in. Sharing something deeply personal on an intimate level, each of us a spark. On World Theatre Day, we celebrate the power we share to ignite change, to empower artists, to cross cultural and geopolitical boundaries with an international vocabulary of live performance. On one hand, it’s big heady stuff. I’m dizzy at the thought of it, and awestruck by those who’ve blazed the trails I now humbly, worshipfully follow. But I am also tremendously proud to be part of something so vibrant, so alive, so irrepressibly bad-assed. It would be silly to say I love theatre, it would be like saying I love the hair on the back of my hands. Making plays is simply a part of who I am. Metaphysical DNA. But it is right to say that I love the work and the people with whom I do it. I love rehearsal. And today of all days I am filled with love and gratitude for my fellow theatre-makers. May every month be as mad as this March. ''May your work be compelling and original. May it be profound, touching, contemplative, and unique. May it help us to reflect on the question of what it means to be human, and may that reflection be blessed with heart, sincerity, candor, and grace. May you overcome adversity, censorship, poverty and nihilism, as many of you will most certainly be obliged to do. May you be blessed with the talent and rigor to teach us about the beating of the human heart in all its complexity, and the humility and curiosity to make it your life's work. And may the best of you - for it will only be the best of you, and even then only in the rarest and briefest moments - succeed in framing that most basic of questions, "how do we live?" Godspeed.'' - John Malkovich, International Message delivered to UNESCO in Paris, 22 March 2012.
Seth Numrich and Noah Galvin
Let me make something very clear: Rattlestick Playwrights Theater is a perfectly comfortable and well-heated space in which to see remarkable new plays like Daniel Talbott's Yosemite. I have no doubt that the temperature inside the theater was well above that out-of-doors. Still, one look at Raul Abrego
's wintry set, and there was no way I could take off my coat. Combined with Janie Bullard's ambient sound, it felt positively frigid in there.
And then four extraordinary actors - Kathryn Erbe, Noah Galvin, Seth Numrich, and Libby Woodbridge - entered with ruddy cheeks and running noses. Even bundled in winter gear ( A wonderfully detailed design from costumer Tristin Raines), none broke a sweat under the stage lights except for the amazing Seth Numrich, whose very physical role demanded it. Either director Pablo Pascal kept them all outside in the January air until the calling of 'places,' or they are really really good.
Yosemite is the story of three siblings played by Numrich, Galvin, and Woodbridge, who are sent into the Sierra Nevada foothills to dig a hole deep enough to bury a family secret. Jake, Jer, and Ruby are entrenched in something more than snow, and thicker than the woods around them. Of course the play is not about being cold. Nor is it about National Parks, though I do think it significant, and poetic, that this portrait of poor America is set on a Federally maintained wildlife preserve. Yosemite is really about poverty and the desperate acts it may inspire.
While so many writers struggle to respond to our era's socioeconomic issues in a profound and absolute way, Daniel Talbott simply tells us a compelling story about one very lost family. Other playwrights might attempt something more sweeping, would aim to make some grand statement by showing us a formal portrait of people who've fallen through some proverbial crack. But Yosemite ventures deeper, into an icy crevice. The folks here don't contribute to exit polls. They don't feed statistics. They don't make the headlines. But they do give us a cold hard look at today's America.
And it’s not pretty. Despite the gorgeous surroundings – and even Numrich’s fed-up character notes the beauty of the woods (It’s the ironic timing of his observation that makes it meaningful) – there’s no romancing the brutality of nature, within or without. Things get ugly, and not in an endearing ‘aren’t the country-folk adorable’ kind of way.
I hate that. I hate hearing an overeducated Manhattan audience chuckle knowingly at the charming eccentricities of non-New Yorkers acting wacky, folksy, or just plain dumb. Maybe it’s because of where I’m from, but I don’t like it when a play depicts the darker or less sophisticated parts of rural or suburban America, and then judges, or pities, or makes fun of people for their lack of urbanity. You know what I mean – plays written to point up all that’s wrong with America - ‘America’ being anyone that didn’t graduate from insert-exclusive-conservatory-training-program-here. I sit through those shows thinking ‘This is why they hate Obama.’
Yosemite doesn’t do that. For one thing, these are really complex characters, no stereotypical hillbillies here. They are written to be taken seriously, with great heart and dignity. Talbott doesn’t allow us to feel superior to them. In fact, one of my favorite moments of the play comes when middle sibling Ruby, heartbreakingly played by Libby Woodbridge , goes on a vaguely racist and rather classist rant against the behavior of some local ‘trash’ that prompts her brother Jake (Numrich) to drop his shovel and scream "We're not better!" In fact, he tells her, soon enough they'll be just the same. The story of Yosemite reminds us that with one small misstep, maybe the failure to read a faded blaze, anyone can get avalanched. You are not better than trailer-dwellers who sport Goodwill’s latest. In fact, you’re not really any different.
Having had a taste of the American dreamsicle, Talbott’s characters long for Disneyland. They’ve become disconnected from their own greatest desires. These kids aspire to the commonplace – anonymity, hourly wages, and a bunk in the back of the store. It’s the handiwork of the slightly younger of endemic poverty’s twin offspring, Disease and Despair. It kills.
So, in context, the sibling’s big secret is really less consequential than the circumstances that bore it. In fact, the scandal itself is far less shocking that the matter-of-factness with which it's dealt. It sets a tension in the way the play's characters are knit together, making the whole dynamic ripe for unraveling. That's an absolute banquet for brave actors. Yosemite’s fearless performers quite willingly hurl themselves from icy silence to full-throttle meltdown. (Please pardon all the seasonal analogies, but doing this play must feel like a ski jump or a four-man luge; once the gate comes down, you are gravity’s bitch.)
Now back to me shivering in my front row seat. I was close enough to see all the strings. I could touch the 'snow'. I could have unlaced Libby Woodbridge’s battered pink boots, so it’s not that I actually thought I was in the freezing cold Sierra Nevada Mountains. In fact, it bothers me when people say things like “It was as if I was there!” (Especially if the play is about war, ethnic cleansing, genital mutilation, or Les Miserables. Don’t lie, you did not really think you were in France circa 1788 with people singing, in English, about a bloody revolution - you’d have freaked out and strangled an usher with your commemorative 24601 souvenir t-shirt.)
It bugs me because I think it actually diminishes the work it means to compliment. It explains away the wonder, the mystery and impact - not to mention the very hard work - of what plays can do for people. I don’t want theatre to be ‘real’; I want it to be theatre. I want it to be truthful. (Which is why I bawled when what’s-his-name sang ‘Bring Him Home’ despite the fact that I was well aware of sitting in a cushy chair, in a Broadway theater, wearing an ugly tie.) The onstage replication of real life is not interesting to me. I mean, it’s cool, it’s okay, but it’s the revelation of the soul of a thing that gets me hot.
So why did my teeth chatter through this show? Was it the production’s ‘realness’ – the flawless design, the remarkably dynamic direction, some incredibly complex and nuanced performances, that snowball quality in all of Daniel Talbott’s stuff – a sense of inevitability, even in the silences, that makes an audience at once dread and long for whatever comes next…? Yeah, it’s all of that.
But, put simply, Yosemite has truth enough to make me shiver. It was the combination of a gorgeous set (which ought to be permanent displayed somewhere as art unto itself), powerfully drawn characters, passionate performances, and innovative staging that makes Rattlestick’s latest such a memorable experience. Taken all together, there’s an aching honesty in this show that I think is really exceptional. It’s not comfortable. It’s not cute. It’s really, no, it’s truly cold. And beautifully true.
Yosemite runs through February 26th at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. Info and tickets here.
In March of 2011, I saw a magical piece of theatre called You Are Now The Owner Of This Suitcase. It was staged in the cafeteria of a primary school in Queens by a company called Theatre 167, and it was unlike anything I’d seen in years. The energy of this collaboratively devised play, its mash-up of styles and the calibre of its performers, made me miss the kind of DIY work I did years ago at the Experimental Theater Wing. So when artistic director Ari Laura Kreith asked me to help write the final installment in their epic Jackson Heights trilogy, I jumped. Now just weeks away from the premier of Jackson Heights 3am, I spoke to Ari by phone during our holiday hiatus from rehearsal. As I've also taken a role in the show, I should have been learning my lines. I typed up our conversation instead.J.Stephen Brantley Having done a few of these shows, I guess you’ve got it mastered by now. It’s all clockwork, right? Easy as proverbial pie?Ari Laura Kreith There are those moments - trying to coordinate twenty-one actors, some flying in from LA, and seven writers working on a single script, and we’ve got holidays and two venues and Equity rules - when it all seems a little impossible! But one of the things that’s amazing is that it really is an ensemble effort—there’s something about this sort of project that really draws in people who think of making theater as “our production” rather than “this is my piece.” So you made the posters, which are amazing, for example, and Jenny Lyn (Bader, company playwright) has done so much to bring our huge unwieldy script into legible and unified form. And finding a TD, Ross DeGraw, who really embraces this adventurous sort of process, has made so much of this possible.JSB I am totally having a bromance with him.ALK Ross is great! And so many other folks like him have helped out. Even relative strangers hear about the project and offer to help out. Plus the logistics do get easier—this time we know how to light the space, which was a huge challenge at first. I knew I wanted to work in three-quarters, and in a found space, because it feels really important for the audience to see one another as they’re sharing this experience. But figuring out how to bring lights into a low-ceilinged venue in a way that didn’t blow circuits and blind the audience and still allowed for creativity and control in the lighting realm was huge. That’s a challenge that Nicole Pearce solved beautifully last year, and knowing how to do it this time, feeling like we have a bit of a rep plot, makes it easier now.JSB Not that you’re replicating what you’ve done before…ALK No, but it’s certainly easier to explore a few new elements at a time, so this year we’re incorporating Andrew Lazarow’s amazing video work, and that feels like a new-yet-manageable piece.JSB Found spaces, shared spaces, non-traditional spaces – I think we’re going to see more and more of that, but it comes with its own challenges.ALK Yeah. Last year we bought chairs, which was crazy—transporting seventy chairs from IKEA. And yes, I brought my kids to IKEA with me to buy the chairs, so I was rolling them on a dolly with a two-year-old and a four-year-old…so anytime I get overwhelmed I focus on things like that, and remind myself that this year all we have to do is bring chairs up from the basement!JSB The trilogy is like an epic love poem to Jackson Heights. How did it begin?ALK Almost as soon as I moved to Jackson Heights, I started thinking about how to express some of the magic of the neighborhood in theatre. I love the way so many cultures come together here, and I wanted to celebrate and share that magic, both with people in the neighborhood and people outside it. For a while, just after Dashiell was born, I was artistic director of a company called Jackson Rep, and I developed and directed two solo shows that felt like they explored specific aspects of the neighborhood—one was Leslie Harrell Dillen's piece about a white woman who traveled to India for her stepdaughter’s wedding to a Sikh man, the other was an interactive show by comedy writer Carl Kissin where he involved members of the audience in his storytelling. And I was really interested in the ways each of these writers explored something specific about the neighborhood, and so I wondered what would happen if more writers got involved and if it became sort of a conversation. That summer, I was in Boulder, Colorado, trying to describe what it feels like to live in Jackson Heights, and it started to feel very urgent to me to create a piece that captured some of these things. So the first piece we created this way, 167 Tongues, was while I was still with Jackson Rep. Such a clear artistic ensemble coalesced around that project, and such a passion for a particular way of working, that it felt right to build a company dedicated to this kind of work. Though we’re ever re-defining what ‘this kind of work’ actually is! So that’s how Theatre 167 was born.JSB There’s something inherently dramatic about the mix of cultures in Jackson Heights. We all felt it that first night when we hit the streets for raw material.ALK I’m in Maryland right now, and it strikes me that our life-on-the-streets and subway time in New York is really a gift.JSB I’m in Texas. The population here is so diverse, and yet people still don’t ‘mix’. I think it has everything to do with cars. With drive-thrus.ALK Right. But in a place like Jackson Heights, we see one another’s lives so constantly and with such taken-for-granted intimacy. We overhear each other’s most intimate conversations. How can we fail to grasp everyone’s fundamental humanity? And I don’t think of that as just a question about cultural difference-or-not, but that we have the opportunity to see deeply into the lives of others on a daily basis.JSB This installment is much darker than the previous two. In some scenes, we see an uglier side of the neighborhood. How do you think it will be received by local audiences?ALK Certainly we deal with some really dark topics—sex trafficking and drug-fueled violence are two of the most obvious. But we aren’t telling those stories in a gratuitous way—we’re looking at the need for connection and love, which are pretty basic and beautiful human impulses. And we’re exploring what happens when those needs aren’t or can’t be met, and how that can twist people.JSB What we kept talking about in meetings was loneliness. I think it was important to all of us that we portray that kind of desperation honestly, but that we also transcend it somehow, that there is connection or at least the potential for it.ALK Ultimately, I think this piece takes us to a place where, for the most part, those needs are met, often in unexpected or unlikely ways. And that will hopefully inspire the audience to think about the humanity of people they might otherwise choose to ignore, and possibly think about how they might have some sort of deeper connection to people they would otherwise look away from. So the journey to those dark places is necessary, I think, so that we can explore ways of moving toward the light.JSB I think people will get that, whether they live in Jackson Heights or not.ALK It’s funny, I guess I haven’t thought too much about how the story will be received, with the exception of clarifying that it’s not appropriate for kids.JSB Yeah this is definitely not You Are Now The Owner Of This Suitcase.ALK No. But these stories need to be told too, and hopefully even if someone is offended – and I imagine we will have a few walk-outs – they will be inspired to think about these things and explore why they were offended and what it is about that particular story that they think is untellable or unhearable. Part of our company’s mission is to give voice to people whose stories often go untold, and sometimes I think those stories aren’t told because a few vocal audience members are afraid to hear them or are offended by them. And it just seems like an obvious and necessary choice to honor our commitment to the people whose stories are often hidden out of deference to a few.JSB Many directors would balk at the notion of wrangling ten overlapping storylines by seven different playwrights – as would many playwrights. In fact, there’s one who visibly shuddered when I told him about it. So what do you love about working this way?ALK It’s like a huge party with amazing artists! Really! I love working with writers, and I think there’s something beautiful and challenging for writers in this process. When I first became interested in working this way, it was about the stories being told in the piece and how important it felt to truly reveal multiple perspectives on an event. But I’ve really fallen in love with the way it inspires writers to work out of their comfort zone, to explore things that they’ve never written and possibly felt they wouldn’t be allowed to write about because of people’s expectations of their work based on race or culture or sexual orientation or previous style-JSB Or language. I never would have done anything in Bengali were it not for this show, that’s for sure. I was really nervous about writing characters outside my own cultural sphere. It took a lot of help and encouragement from other members of the company, a lot of mutual trust all around.ALK And it takes a particular kind of writer—or a writer at a particular point in their relationship to writing—to embrace that process. It’s about being very generous with one another, being flexible with each individual piece in the service to the whole. We have one character who has changed ethnicity three times as he morphed to contain characters from several scenes. We have central events that have disappeared or moved offstage to allow the overall plot to build. We have scenes that have been written by three people together, with elements and characters from everyone’s stories. And I’m really grateful that everyone allows me to muck about and ask questions and suggest relationships. It’s really magical!JSB There’s been a lot of synchronistic thinking from the very start. I think it’s because we all appreciate each other enough to allow that ‘magic’ in.ALK The respect that everyone has for everyone else as artists, in building and developing and changing…it’s really about finding, together, what works for the piece. And the fact that there’s a shared perspective about how theatre can be a catalyst for a deeper cultural perspective and true compassion is central to allowing that to happen.JSB I love your certainty in that. In fact, you seem pretty fearless, all the way round. Does anything about this work ever frighten you?ALK I suppose I should feel scared bringing everyone into the room together for the first time and being the person who stands up in front and says, “In ten months, we’re going to have a show.” But I’m mostly just curious and excited about what’s going to happen. I tend to be very intuitive about who the collaborators for a particular project need to be, our collaboration being a case in point: I knew you understood and had an affinity for this kind of work and had read some blog entries you’d written, and I knew you were someone who brings great collaborative energy into a room, but I really didn’t know anything about you as a playwright, except that I just knew. And John Keller, who is one of our core actors, he and I laugh about how when he came to audition, he was in and out in three minutes and thought “Well, that did not go well,” but we ended up casting him and creating a role around what he’d brought into the room that day.JSB I thought you’d known him forever. It seems like your sudden instincts lead to long-term collaborations.ALK Yes, balancing out those intuitive, seemingly reckless choices are some truly amazing artistic relationships that developed over time; Jenny Lyn Bader and I have worked together almost since I arrived in New York, and I feel like she knows what I’m thinking better than I do sometimes, or like I can be in rehearsal with one of her scenes and know what she’d say about something even when she’s not in the room. And there are people like Rajesh Bose and Arlene Chico-Lugo, for example, who have been in all three plays in the trilogy and I just can’t imagine working without. It’s been so exciting on this particular project to be able to create roles for them that are really inspired by them as people, and I feel like their depth as people and as actors have really led us in creating that arc.JSB I wanted to write for Rajesh right from the start. And I am just in love with what Arlene is doing as Adela. As a playwright, it’s so exciting and gratifying to have such amazing actors saying your stuff. I know, for me, it’s much less scary when that happens.ALK If there’s one thing that scares me about these projects, it’s just the moments when I think about the hubris of it all—trusting my gut to know who belongs in a particular piece before it even exists, and then as the project evolves, shaping the stories and trusting that ultimately we will be telling something that needs and deserves to be told. Except that I really think the work has its own magnetic pull to it, that it draws the right people and stories together, and truly I’m just another person drawn to serve these stories in some way.JSB How do you get there? What in your background prepared you for making collaboratively devised pieces like JH3am?ALK I did my undergrad at Yale, and really struggled with the town/gown divisions—being at an Ivy League school in the midst of a decaying inner city. I spent my senior year creating an interactive theatre event, working with Yale actors and non-actors, as well as actors and musicians from the New Haven community. We created all these scenes that audience could walk through, exploring ideas of work, play and ritual, and staged the piece off-campus so it would be accessible to all. The experience was amazing: two hours of interactive theatre culminating in a huge dance party with an African dance band. The heartbreaking thing for me was that not one of my professors came. And then, when I did talk to a faculty member, he read me a list of names including Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Jesus, and told me I was walking a dangerous path because I should look where they all ended up.JSB Um, yeah, cause those guys all totally wasted their time…ALK Looking at it now, it seems pretty ludicrous, but as an about-to-enter-the-world college senior, it terrified me about my identity as an artist making community-based theatre and made me question whether there was a true home for this kind of work or, indeed, for me, in the theatre. After that, I was an actor for a while, did my MFA in Acting, and while I was in school I started a summer theatre company because I felt like my classmates weren’t being challenged in the ways I thought they should be. And so I started directing there, really to encourage friends to take artistic risks. We did new plays, because I thought it was really amazing that you could do new plays!JSB It is! ALK And I assumed I would stay there building that company and doing that. But then Jeffrey Carlson, an actor who had been one of the original company members before moving to New York to go to Juilliard, he came back and we did a season together and he pushed and challenged me. I loved it, and I realized that was what I needed to grow artistically, was to be in an environment where my collaborators were pushing and inspiring me like that. I never really thought of it that way til this moment, but there are all the things I loved then – community-inspired theatre, new plays, and truly collaborative and challenging artistic relationships – in the work that Theatre 167 is doing now. JSB What’s the most challenging part of running a company like Theatre 167? ALK I think it’s all the stuff that’s challenging about running any small theatre, really. The boring stuff. Where does the money come from, how to find affordable rehearsal space, who wants to go out and hang posters in the cold. Really not worth complaining about. JSB Duly noted. Next question: Your two adorable kids frequently end up in rooms full of all kinds of people, from various countries and of many ethnicities, speaking multiple languages, all getting along. They don’t think it's normal, do they? ALK Of course they do! Don’t you? JSB Well, now, yeah. ALK Part of raising kids in New York is that they get exposed to so much—when my daughter was three, we found a man lying in the street on a freezing cold night and called 911 and she talked about it for weeks after. Sometimes it scares me. But I think it makes them more compassionate people when they understand that life is complicated, that they’re lucky to have a home, that sort of thing. And one of the things my kids are lucky to experience, both growing up in Jackson Heights and growing up around this particular theatre company, is a really glorious, very diverse and joyous culture. JSB Now for the important stuff: Is my horribly offensive, half-naked performance as Leo going to cost you donors and get you banned from using PS69? ALK I’m sure we’ll offend someone. JSB It’s what I do. ALK But your performance isn’t offensive! And Leo is very important. As we look at people whose stories aren’t told or are ignored, Leo is a prime example of someone we want to look away from because he’s in so much pain and doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s so easy to judge people like that, and yet the trajectory of the play reveals the ways that we’re all truly connected. And isn’t that something that we want people to think about, and want our children to learn? I don’t want to give the story away, but things might have turned out very differently if someone had been able to see and reach Leo that night. And I have a deep interest in the Leos of the world, and how we can pull them back from the void. JSB I do too. And it seems possible in theatre, in that arena of what-if. I know bitchy, cynical plays are very fashionable right now, but I still believe in the power of theatre to bring people together. ALK So do I. JSB I mean, this show is hardly sunshine and roses, but if seven playwrights can all get along… ALK And, not to be melodramatic or cheesy, but I feel like there’s something about walking the streets of Jackson Heights that expresses how we can live together as a global community—how we can be celebrate cultural difference and experience commonality. When Elodie was four, she was looking at a photo on the cover of the New York Times magazine; it was an article about a principal who had turned around a low-performing school in the Bronx, and he had been photographed with a number of his students, who were all African American and Latino. Elodie was very curious about the picture, and when I asked her why, she said, “These kids are all different from me.” There was a pause and then she said with admiration, “They’re older.” I love it that this is her world. Theatre 167’s Jackson Heights 3am opens January 13th at PS 69 in Jackson Heights Queens. It will also play two weekends at Queens Theatre in Flushing Meadows Park. For tickets click here.
Alternatively: Gorgeous Torture, or, "I love the smell of White Shoulders in the morning."
In David Adjmi
’s Elective Affinities
, a resplendent Zoe Caldwell
as Mrs. Alice Hauptmann welcomes guests into a beautifully appointed parlor as a Chanel-clad spider might a fan club of flies. It's not merely a show but an afternoon tea
, gorgeously produced by Soho Rep
, piece by piece
, and Rising Phoenix Rep
. It was absolutely one of the highest lights of my 2011.
‘Staged’ in a brownstone on the Upper East Side, this is sight-specific performance at its most intimate. There was some wonderful, powerful, alternatively-spaced stuff this year - The Tenant
and Sleep No More
especially. Complete with Earl Grey and candied ginger, Elective Affinities
appears on the more naturalistic side of that spectrum, delightfully so.
Alice’s house is gorgeous, of course. Crystal. Lilies. Nineteenth century portraiture and an appropriately somber staff to take your coat and serve your tea. You’re also greeted by an enormous abstract sculpture, black and roiling, that I’d liken to a giant lava foot. It dominates a mahogany-paneled living room, dwarfing a marble fireplace and a grand piano. From the start, the whole thing is at once lovely and sinister. I was all in.
Upstairs we were greeted, one at a time, by Mrs. Hauptmann herself. When it came my turn, she took my hand and leaned in, looking a bit concerned. ‘I don’t know
you,’ she purred. After I’d introduced myself, she proclaimed my surname a very
I’m fascinated by the idea of the savage inside, and how deeply a surface need be scratched to release it. Alice Hauptmann is certainly the picture of gentility. But one need only introduce the subject of government-sanctioned torture (or a bit of Animal Planet, which Alice gleefully proclaims ‘almost pornographic!’) to bring out her inner brute.
David Adjmi’s script is so sly. The way in which his Alice rationalizes brutality, the coolness with which she excuses, even embraces cruelty, sneaks up on you. It’s seductive, and by the time you realize you may share more of Mrs. Hauptmann’s world view than you’d care to admit, it’s too late. You’re pinned. When she rhapsodizes about the moment in which a gazelle gives up to a predator, she may as well be talking about the audience seated about her, well within striking range. Before I knew it, the teeth of Adjmi’s script sank in deep and I was done for. (I wanted to tell him so afterward, but he has such a smile that I turned shy, sure that I’d say something stupid.)
Mrs. Hauptman talks of having resigned herself to a certain fate. Her Germanic husband thinks her monstrous, as does her (possibly alcoholic) friend Dierdre, simply for speaking her mind. She might have you believe that she’s a doyenne in a doll’s house but I think she’s more like the big savannah cats she admires on the television. She’s patient that way, practically welcoming prey to a watering hole she’s secretly stalked for decades. Alice lacquers her nails blood red.
I was so lucky to have seen this piece, and to be there for a closing night toast. Ms. Caldwell spoke movingly about the passion and dedication of the team behind Elective Affinities
, and it was obvious that everyone involved had tremendous love for the project. Hearing her speak, and talking with people from Rising Phoenix and piece by piece, I was inspired by the generosity with which this show was built. This is no-agenda artistry - no one is out to elevate themselves above anyone else. Instead it’s about creating something meaningful, building and sharing something really special. Ms. Caldwell asserts that it’s not really up to us to designate ourselves artists anyway, that it’s not our call to make. The opulence of the surroundings in which she spoke these words pointed up the willingness of a hardworking team of theatre craftsmen to muck in for the greater good of live performance. For me it was humbling and hope-filled. In a year that brought us ego-driven debacles like The Spidish Play
, I say more power to artists
And it is the power of art itself on which Elective Affinities
finally hangs. The play begins and ends with Alice talking about that hulking sculpture she’s commissioned for the second floor. Her husband thinks it’s growing, and Alice has to admit that it does have a certain terrible power. It lurks and looms, always there like a desperate measure, just the other side of a beautifully paneled pocket door. It’s like survival. Whether a Manhattan dowager or a doe in the jaws of lioness, some instincts simply will not be denied.
Alice eventually admits the sculpture is horrible, but asserts that it is art, nonetheless. It is, paradoxically, beautifully cruel. As with war and torture and plays like Elective Affinities
, you can but define your own life in relation to it, and take your lumps.
One or two?
I’ve been thinking a lot about ensemble lately: what makes a company, why I want to be in one, and why I feel compelled to write for one. It’s a wondrous thing to behold, the coming together of one-time strangers for the common goal of making cool theatre. And when it happens to you, when you find yourself inside a tight-knit group of dedicated artists, it’s such a gift. For two delightful hours this past Saturday afternoon, I was treated to some beautiful work by what seemed to me a true ensemble. It was Boomerang Theatre’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, staged by Daniel Talbott in Central Park. Daniel has worked on something like seven hundred and fifty different shows since the start of this calendar year, and there’s little sign of his slowing down any time soon. He's a dynamo and his energy seems to be infectious. His Much Ado is intensely physical, joyously so, with a big enthusiastic cast running, leaping, dancing on and about a stone outcropping near the park’s West 69th Street entrance. There is something so very New York about Shakespeare in Central Park, no matter who’s doing it. I’ve seen a number of companies Park the Bard over the past twenty years, but this one is definitely among my all-time favorites. I think I loved watching it because the actors loved doing it. It’s truly an ensemble show – maybe all good shows are? – but I’m going to single out a couple of my favorite players. I loved seeing Nate Miller (Benedick) and Laura Ramadei (Hero) fresh from their run in Lesser America’s Squealer, where their characters could not have been more different than those in Much Ado. As an actor myself, I sometimes cringe when people remark on my being able to play, you know, different characters. As in, during Slap & Tickle, “You were like all feminine as the feminine character, and then, when you were the masculine guy, you were like really masculine!” Yeah, it’s my job. And yet, from the other side of the footlights - or in this case, a row of brightly colored plastic flowers – it is rather astonishing to see Miller and Ramadei go from Squealer’s modern mid-America to Shakespeare’s sixteenth-century Sicily so fully and so freely. They’re both so good. Another one I like is Edward Carnavale. I saw him in a Cino Nights production of Emily DeVoti’s unforgettable play The Upstart. In that one, he gave a really dynamic and complex performance as a rough, racist Brooklyn butcher. In Much Ado he's constable Dogberry’s slapstick sidekick Verges, complete with a duck call. He and Colby Chambers are really comical. And Sara Thigpen is great as smack-talking Beatrice. She’s tough and beautiful all at once, and her performance is not only funny but ultimately really moving. Actually, that was the great surprise in this comedy. It was so emotional, so deeply romantic. In fact, at one point, I had the sort of response I’d more likely expect from a Shakespearian tragedy. I totally teared up watching the Hero’s wedding fall apart when Claudio accuses her of being unchaste. It was actually very much because of what Jelena Stupljanin was doing in that scene, and not with any spoken dialogue. Watching her response to what was unfolding before her was just heartbreaking. It was all so…connected. And maybe that’s what company means. It is connection we’re looking for, as artists, as audiences, as human beings. So it’s no wonder that everyone with a BFA in Acting wants to start a troupe. It’s no wonder that so many of us, myself included, belong to multiple companies. One of those companies is TOSOS, with whom I’ve had the recent pleasure of performing Doric Wilson’s Street Theatre. Some of my cast mates have been doing the show in one form or another since 1983. This year’s Gay Pride performance at the LGBT Centre was my first time as NYPD vice cop Seymour. Doric had asked me to do it last year but I was off with another show. A couple weeks before he died, at a PBS broadcast of Stonewall Uprising, I promised him that this year I'd do it. I’d only known Doric a couple years, and we’d only recently become friends. I was fortunate enough to be in readings of his A Perfect Relationship and The West Street Gang. My experience is that there is something in Doric’s work that inspires an irresistible spirit of cooperation among artists. Maybe it’s because he so often writes about groups of disparate (and desperate) individuals coming together for a common cause. Maybe it’s because as artists, gay or straight, we can strongly identify with being up against it. Whatever it is, I felt it in a major way last Thursday night at the Centre. I did not expect be so moved – after all, I’m the villain in the piece. But I was deeply stirred and so inspired by the generosity of spirit of the actors around me. Many of us had had only had a few rehearsals together. Some had never done a full run of the show. But we were very much united in the spirit of the play. Everyone agreed that something special happened this year. No one expressed a wish that Doric had been around to witness it. We all knew he had. That night after Stonewall Uprising, Doric and I shared a cab downtown. We talked about Stonewall and civil rights. We talked about all the notable homos he’d slept with. (Hollywood A-list and European royalty, if you must know.) And I confessed my not-so-secret fetish for redheads. By the time I got home, he’d emailed me a photo of himself taken in 1967 with a head full of ginger curls. And a dirty caption. Knowing Doric made me feel like I was part of an extraordinary ensemble of artists, gay and straight, whose revolutionary work had spanned decades. He made me feel that I was connected to a legacy, and I am deeply grateful to him for that. Knowing Doric Wilson, however briefly, put me in very good company indeed. Tonight we did an excerpt from Street Theatre for the Spirit Of Pride Celebration at St. John The Divine. I’m not sure how well it went over. Something about gothic architecture makes stuff less funny. But watching Chris Andersson and Michael Lynch work the sanctuary as drag queens Ceil and Boom Boom made me realize how right it was that we were doing queer theatre in a church. As the dean of the Cathedral said in his opening remarks, pride is not just one of the seven deadly sins. It is also that which brings us together to fight for human dignity. Being prideful can be, in the face of injustice, an act of true faith. Taking part in tonight’s event, along with my fellow actors Andersson and Lynch, Christopher Borg, and Bradley Wells, I felt truly proud. I hope the actors in Boomerang’s Much Ado About Nothing feel proud too. I hope they know how fortunate they are. I think it’s really important that actors, and all theatre artists, take a moment now and again to recognize that what we do is nothing short of miraculous. How beautiful it is to be in the business of creation. Much Ado About Nothing continues in Central Park on weekends at 2pm through July 17th. I recommend bringing a blanket as the patch of park where the audience sits is rather spare of grass. And do bring a few bucks to toss in the Boomerang’s hat after the show. Free Shakespeare in the Park really isn’t. It costs these artists more than you might think to bring you such high quality work for no charge.Of course, it takes an audience to complete an ensemble. I don't see nearly as much theatre as I want to. I'm going to try to remedy that this summer. I will look forward to seeing you there!JSB
I had a weird experience with Black Swan. I sat through at least half that movie thinking it was one of the most clichéd, pretentious, inaccurate portrayals of the performing arts that I’d ever seen. I kept thinking of other films about artists made crazy by their dedication to craft, about dancers driven mad by passion, and rolled my eyes at what unfolded before me. And then, suddenly, I realized. Wait. She’s really crazy. Actually! She’s a complete nutter! It turned out that Black Swan was not a dance film at all, but a horror flick. If I’d known that going in, I would have missed being surprised. But I also might have viewed the first half differently, and enjoyed it much more. So I am glad I had some idea of what to expect from Lesser America’s Squealer, written by Jonathan Blitstein and directed by Daniel Talbott. Cause I had a blast. If I’d gone to see Squealer looking for a profound commentary on the sociopolitical climate of recession-era America, I might have been disappointed. The play doesn’t really carry a significant social message. I mean, you could make a case for one: small town America is choking on disposable culture, with disastrous results. Like, thangs is gettin’ real bad out there. And it does explore some of the cultural and economic desperation in our heartland, particularly with regard to the challenges (still) faced by women. It also touches on the damage that agribusiness has done to our once-thriving farm communities, and the devastating impact of big boxes on small towns: WalMartyrdom. But, ultimately, Squealer is a horrorshow. And a beautifully executed one, at that. From my first glimpse of Eugenia Furneaux-Arend’s incredible set, I had a feeling of being overwhelmed by junk. This is a world where the landfill is spilling over, as if Blitstein’s characters have constructed a society in the same way dung beetles build their homes. Lawn chairs, farm tools, half a car…it’s amazing they even got all this crap into the space. And the artful way in which Furneaux-Arends has assembled this installation is extraordinary. For scene changes, actors drag pieces from the debris to assemble a diner, a living room, a parking lot, a bar. They do it very quickly, athletically, to classic rock and drunken country tunes – sound designer Janie Bullard expertly layers radio tunes and sonic trash in a hot mesh of cultural noise in a way that amps up the sex and violence onstage. And then there are the remarkable performances by an awesome cast of six whose work is hardly rubbish. The characters they play are brash, abrasive even. Loud and sloppy. They are what would commonly be called trashy. (Okay, more commonly, white trashy.) Sarah Lemp screeches. Nick Lawson talks with his mouth full. And both of them are effing brilliant. I want them to be in my plays. The passion of the entire cast is tremendous. Every one of them seems quite willing to get ugly, dirty, bloody - both emotionally and in some cases very literally. These are balls-out performances – Squealer is not really about subtlety. And yet, under Daniel Talbott’s direction this company provides rich inner lives for characters that might have seemed stock if penned by a lesser writer, or if acted with less guts. The last thing I saw of Talbott’s was the stark, elegant, and very sweet The Umbrella Plays. Squealer could not be more different. His staging is aggressive like a mean drunk, lurching, staggering, slamming doors. But it is anything but haphazard. It takes great precision to create something that looks this wild. It takes a ton of rehearsal, and I happen to know that this show had tech for days. Full disclosure: Daniel Talbott and at least half of Squealer’s design team will be working on a production of my play Eightythree Down this summer. So I’m a little biased. In fact, I wanted to cheer every light change. (Wow, Brad Peterson. You rock.) When a detail of Tristan Raines’ costume design became instrumental in a delightfully surprising and totally integral part of Squealer’s plot, I actually got a little hot. It was great moment beautifully executed by Laura Ramadei. I love it when elements come together like that. It rushes my blood. Anyway, I have heard it said that Lesser America’s Squealer breaks no new ground. That its characters are small-town archetypes we’ve seen a hundred times before. No shit. But maybe this is what is revolutionary about ‘pop theatre’: it is meant not for aesthetes and elitists, but for people who really loved Scream 4. Here’s a radical notion – what if as many people came to see plays as downloaded Kesha songs? What if they had a really kick-ass time? What if you didn’t have to take a damn college prep course to know what the hell you were looking at? Okay, so we have a pretty good idea that Lawson’s pig farmer is going to become violently unhinged as soon as we see him. (The bloody primary-colored Porky Pigs on the show’s poster provide a clue.) And the other characters: Jamie Law’s high school cheerleader having an affair with her English teacher, her single mother, played by Sarah Lemp, Nate Miller’s repugnant chauvinist country boy, Laura Ramadei’s foul-mouthed pregnant diner waitress all hail from pretty familiar territory. (The teacher sleeping with his student, played by Daniel Abeles, is weirdly more complex for seeming simpler. He’s actually a nice guy whose only skeleton is well out of the closet.) Okay, we know the types. Very well. In fact, at intermission my friend David turned to me and joked. ‘I’m feeling homesick’ to which I replied ‘Me too!’ I come from a small town in East Texas where any and all of Squealer could and likely does happen all the time. (I can’t say more in print, but trust me.) Is Squealer over the top? Yeah. So is life in Hunt County. Hell, these are my people. So I appreciate that Blitstein and Talbott don’t judge these characters. There’s no moralizing, just storytelling. It’s refreshing and it feels, in a way, generous. It feels like Squealer was created at least in part to give actors a great gift in allowing them to really ‘go there’. All the way. It’s a joy to watch them do it. They seem to be on a great adventure. It’s so exciting and satisfying to see actors really sink their teeth into roles, and this crew leaves theirs a twisted bloody heap. By curtain call they all looked drained, even a little devastated. Except for Nick Lawson, who still just looked completely psychotic. So here’s the thing about Black Swan. Or House Of A Thousand Corpses. Or Motel Hell. They are beautifully executed as exactly what they are – pulpy pop horror, American style. To evaluate Squealer as anything else is to miss its point entirely. Also it wouldn’t be much fun, neither. Sometimes, theatre can be, like, fun, ya’ll.
I can’t stop thinking about Locker No.4173b
. This remarkable piece, produced by New York Neo-Futurists, is created and performed by Christopher Borg and Joey Rizzolo. The pair purchased the contents of two foreclosed storage lockers last year, with the intention of writing a play based on what they found inside. Under the direction of Justin Tolley, Locker No.4173b is both the story of creating a performance piece and the tale of the people to whom the contents of its titular container once belonged. It took more than a year to create and produce, including several months just spent cataloging thousands of items that would otherwise have been garbage. At first glance, it’s all just landfill-destined detritus. But if you look closely, as Borg and Rizzolo do, it all gets very personal. And a little weird. The pair play cultural anthropologists, unearthing the contents of several crates of someone else’s stuff. As they piece together the stories of these strangers’ lives, they find it increasingly difficult to maintain an unbiased scientific distance from their subjects. To say they’ve opened a Pandora’s Box of socioeconomics would be clichéd if it weren’t so very true. Here’s another one: truth is stranger than fiction. The show is full of surprises, brought to light like unburied treasures. It’s built for maximum suspense. And knowing that we’re looking at the evidence of real lives, of actual people, is both delightful and unnerving. When Joey Rizzolo gives us the etymology of words ‘voyeur’ and ‘theatre’ we’re forced to look at our ourselves as well. It’s clever. It’s creepy. It is at times rather heartbreaking. And it’s all done quite slyly. Borg and Rizzolo are really funny. There are ukulele songs. The writing is remarkably quick and smart, delivered in a style that is nearly vaudevillian. But something happens as Borg and Rizzolo delve deeper into the crated contents of other people’s lives. Their over-the-top explorer personae fade and they become more and more themselves. The lines between art and reality, always dotted, become blurred and, eventually, disappear entirely. Which I personally love. I say bring on the Brecht. I love theatre that exposes itself as such, and insists that an audience engage on both an emotional and intellectual level. I find escapism mostly boring, and while Locker is a ride, it’s no merry-go-round. It’s not about peering undetected through a window onto others’ private lives – no kitchen table drama, this. Borg and Rizzolo get up close, look right in your eyes, and ask hard questions about what makes our lives…ours. Are we our stuff? When we’re gone, what story will we leave behind? During intermission, I overheard a woman in the audience ask Christopher Borg if everything had actually happened as maintained during the performance. Borg explained that he and Rizzolo had set up certain rules for creating the play, including the maxim that every word spoken onstage must be true. They, like their audience, can’t have known all the twists and turns their performance would eventually take. Locker No.4173b is playing at The Monkey West on 26th Street. The very industrial twelfth-floor space is perfect, beautifully utilized by director Tolley. It feels a lot like a storage facility, albeit one equipped with state of the art A/V gear and a great view. There is some fantastic use of film clips – a combination of stock footage and faux-vintage recent footage presented as an outdated educational documentary. It’s funny stuff, to imagine how future generations might look back at our age based on what we leave behind. But it’s also a bit disturbing. Which brings me to the third member of Locker’s cast, Yeauxlanda Kay. She provides the voice of one of the former owners of a storage locker, reading from the journal that Borg and Rizzolo discovered there. The narrative this journal describes, and the dynamic ways in which Kay delivers it, has haunted me. I can’t say much more without spoiling it. Indeed it’s hard to know what to say about Locker No.4173b without giving away its secrets. And it is a show about discovery. I had a surprisingly emotional response to the whole thing. I was really stirred, even choked up, in part because of the very moving story unfolding before me. But I also felt my heart swelled by the feeling that I was witnessing something special. There’s not another show out there like this one. Borg, Rizzolo, Tolley, and Kay are doing something unique. That almost never happens. It made me ache with love and pride for my fellow theatre artists. So, while this is not meant to be a review, I must recommend that everyone check out Locker No.4173b. Not everyone will get it, or love it, or gush about it like me. But it is one of the most original and enjoyable shows I’ve ever seen – clever, timely, surprisingly moving, beautifully designed, and passionately performed. I’m now completely captivated by the idea of Locker’s creative process. I wonder if, as a playwright, I can play spelunker as well. What if, as artists, we are explorers as well as creators? Maybe what I do, as both a playwright and an actor, is not so much making up my characters as it is uncovering them. Instead of struggling so hard to think outside of proverbial boxes, I’m going to look deeper inside them. One man’s trash may be, as they say, another artist’s treasure.Locker N.4173b runs through May 21st at The Monkey West, 37 West 26th Street, 12th floor. Info and tix here.See also: Christopher Borg answers 7Questions for Hard Sparks.
I don’t like blackouts. Most often, they’re unnecessary, time-consuming, and not actually black. They’re usually bluish, and feature the moving about of set pieces in less than theatrical ways for long enough that I can come up with a number of much more compelling ways the director might have transitioned from one scene to the next. In my own work as a playwright, I’ll allow myself one blackout per ninety minutes, and it better come at a crucial moment: the death of a major character, or a significant shift in plot or theme. There is a moment n Theatre 167’s new show You Are Now The Owner Of This Suitcase when the stage goes well and truly dark. And when the lights come up again, the audience is treated to one of the most delightful surprises I have ever experienced in a theater. It’s just one of many magical moments in the play directed by Ari Laura Kreith and written by Mando Alvarado, Jenny Lyn Bader, Barbara Cassidy, Les Hunter, Joy Tomasko, Gary Winter and Stefanie Zadravec. The playwrights’ pieces are inspired by locally told folktales originating from around the world and intertwined in a single play with overlapping storylines. Very cool."If art reflects life, it does so with special mirrors." - Bertholt BrechtYou Are Now The Owner Of This Suitcase (or YANTOOTS) takes place in the enchanted land of Jackson Heights, Queens, NYC. It is in many ways an old fashioned fairy tale, even as it makes mention of the most contemporary of objects and issues, including the very building in which the show is performed. Magic takes public transportation. It arrives in suitcases, sits on park benches, and dwells quite literally in cell phones. Early on, there’s a speech by an electronics store owner (Rajesh Bose) who gives a hilariously over-the-top hard sell of a mobile device. His phones will actually transport you to any nation on earth and enable you to converse in its native tongue. To a cynical New Yorker, it seems at first a send-up of storefront shysters hawking overpriced, sub-par products with outrageous claims. It’s not. YANTOOTS is creatively mounted in the cafeteria of PS 69. Being assembled in the lunchroom of an elementary school put me and my friends in a playful mood (even if the tiny urinals in the restroom made us feel a little funny). The ripped storybook pages and twinkling lights of the set evoke a decidedly urban fairyland backing into ‘wings’ of upended cafeteria tables. Staging a devised piece in this space speaks to the mission of Theatre 167 to create and promote art for and about the local community. The audience surrounds the action of the play, and actors enter through the impromptu ‘house’ created by sectioned seating. The whole set-up seems microcosmic of the neighborhood around it. The play is a wild pastiche of styles, sometimes naturalistic, in other moments quite avant-garde. Subtly nuanced performances give over to charmingly garish puppetry. Many scenes combine simple contemporary vernacular with heightened, even poetic dialogue. The fourth wall comes and goes. Somehow, it’s all done with great precision, ease, and speed. The whole thing is remarkably dynamic. I don’t think there’s a moment of stillness in either act. What makes it all work is a group of highly skilled and absolutely committed actors who seem to really love what they’re doing. Saying of a show that it ‘has heart’ is often code for ‘good-try-A-for-effort’. But in this case, the company’s skill and talent is matched only by it’s passion for the material. Every member of the cast seems completely given to creating something magical and meaningful. They also happen to have some real chops. Don’t think for a second that all the great acting happens in Manhattan. (Aside from blackouts, the other thing I find boring onstage is watching people talk on the phone. But John P. Keller made a truly moving moment of it.) If you go see YANTOOTS, give yourself enough time to have dinner first. There’s all manner of great food in Jackson Heights. We went with Indian at a neighborhood classic, The Jackson Diner. Don’t let the name fool you, they do a delicious and authentic curry. (At 6:30 there was plenty of room but by the time we left for the show, the place was nearly packed.) I have a thing for Indian sweets so I stopped off at a shop for burfi and patisa and chamchams. Pink coconut chamchams are the perfect intermission snack for this show. It didn’t occur to me until the train ride home that the one thing you don’t really see depicted on the multicultural platform that is Theatre 167’s stage is racial tension. Yes there are villains in YANTOOTS (Ross DeGraw’s Hector is pretty vile) but racism doesn’t seem to factor into their agendas. Characters of every color, from every continent - yes, even Antarctica - seem to get along just fine here. Of course, it is a fairy tale… Or is it? The audience at last night’s show was the most diverse crowd I have ever seen at a play. Not a huge crowd, but a very happily mixed one. Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, gay, straight, old, young. From where I was seated, I could see two families enjoying the show together. One family was Caucasian, the other Indian, and both included kids no older than eight. All were delighted by a work of art that is decidedly optimistic, refreshingly so in our cynical times. “Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.” – Bertholt Brecht Brecht felt that artists must pay close attention to the possibilities their work promises. He said that the greatest thing that theatre could do was to provide the pleasure of knowing the world could be remade. While the title of Theatre 167’s latest play refers to a mysterious note discovered in a lost valise, ‘You are now the owner of this suitcase’ is actually a very loaded statement. To me, it’s a reminder that we have a responsibility, as both artists and citizens, to shape the world in which we live. Putting something onstage conjures up a potential reality. Audiences may even replicate in the real world what the encounter in art. In YANTOOTS, a Roumanian bruja (it is Jackson Heights) played by Kim Carlson advises recent Equadorian émigré Patricia Becker to take seriously her charge of a lost piece of luggage. To think carefully about how she’ll fill it. It turns out that our baggage touches the lives of others in ways we can hardly imagine. If YANTOOTS reflects the community that inspires it, it also reminds its residents of the magic that makes urban geography meaningful for its inhabitants. It urges us to cherish our interesting differences even as seek to create a unified whole. Of course we can all get along. Why in the world wouldn’t we want to? My friends and I walked out into the twinkle and color of bustling Jackson Heights with smiles on our faces. It was one of those great evenings that inspires you to look at New York City with a fresh perspective. And one of my favorite things about YANTOOTS? Kreith and company take us from one part of Jackson Heights to the next by simply whisking in a table, a window, or a couple of chairs, playing the scene even as they set and strike its elements. No blackouts! Like the neighborhood around it, You Are Now The Owner Of This Suitcase is a work of constantly shifting light, always moving, transforming, reinventing itself. Absolutely delightful.YANTOOTS has been extended through April 3. Get your tix here.
I must be mad.
Completely insane. Absolutely certifiable. Starting a theatre company is risky business no matter the economic climate, but in times like these? It’s nothing less than demented. And yet that is exactly what I've done in creating Hard Sparks
My goals for Hard Sparks
are lofty (read: insane) indeed, at least by most local standards. In addition to offering high-quality productions of edgy new plays for an Off-off Broadway audience, I have three primary objectives:
Affordable tickets. I’m interested in interesting the next generation of theatre goers, young people who don’t have a lot of discretionary cash. And, let’s face it, I make art for artists. So whether I am co-producing with a company like Horse Trade
as I am on Eightythree Down
, or working in a great big fancy place with multiple bathrooms and everything, there will be a way for everyone to enjoy a Hard Sparks show.
Paid personnel. It’s astonishing how little and how infrequently theatre artists are paid for their very difficult work. Very often, the best paying Off-off Broadway gigs work out to less than minimum wage. Money gets poured into venue rental, festival fees, and expensive sets but the whole point of performance - live people sharing meaningful experiences - gets lost. Hard Sparks
can’t pay its companies much, but I am absolutely determined that everyone in our shows get something. In addition to respect, admiration, and gratitude, I think artists deserve a bit of dignity and at least one good dinner as well.
Charitable partnerships. Now here’s where it really gets bonkers. As a not-for-profit organization, I want to partner with other not-for-profit organizations for mutual benefit. I’m talking about raising awareness of, and money for, community-based organizations working to improve people’s lives in very direct ways. Whenever possible, Hard Sparks
will mount issue-oriented plays and donate a portion of box office receipts to a local CBO working on that issue.
Every time I tell someone of my harebrained scheme, they smirk. Their eyes either narrow (producers) or widen (actors) and they ask me if I have an angel, a DeMedici, a secret backer who’s as much a nutter as I am to contribute to such an obvious debacle. I don't. But this doesn’t concern me. I see miracles happen every time I walk into a rehearsal, and I have absolute certainty that these goals are obtainable and sustainable.
Interesting new works of theatre, created by fairly compensated artists, that make an appreciable difference in the local community?
Yeah, that’s just crazy.J.Stephen Brantley
Artistic Director, Hard Sparks