August 29, 2015

"Informed Consent" Asks Smart Questions

Are we humans the creation of a Supreme Being or just the product of genetic mutation? Should a benefit for the larger good supersede the rights of a small group? Is race just a construct or do cultural differences separate even those who love across color lines? These are just some of the questions that Deborah Zoe Laufer asks in Informed Consent, her compelling new play which is running at Primary Stages through Sept. 13.

Laufer explores these conundrums through the lens of a real-life case in which the Havasupai Indians, a Native American tribe that has lived for centuries at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, sued Arizona State University for violating the tribe’s beliefs by using samples of their blood for purposes for which the tribe had not given its permission (click here to read more about the case).

Although she has based her main characters on the female geneticist who conducted the disputed studies and a native woman who becomes a spokesperson for her people, Laufer has given her fictional stand-ins attributes that underscore the fact that each woman is fighting to preserve a fundamental sense of who she is. 

Arella, the Havasupai spokeswoman, is one of her tribe’s few college-educated members and she is torn between her devotion to the ancient beliefs of her people and an intense desperation to find a way to fight the diabetes ravaging her community. This causes her to urge the tribe members to donate the blood they consider sacred to the university research project with the hope that it will find a remedy for the disease that is killing them.

But Jillian, the scientist in the play, has other plans.  She is driven by the knowledge that she carries the gene for early-onset Alzheimer’s which killed her mother at just 34. She so desperately needs to believe that science has the power to cure all diseases that she ignores the advice of her mentor to respect the wishes of the tribe and also puts her work ahead of the husband and daughter she loves.

Informed Consent was spawned by a program, co-sponsored by Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, that commissions plays about science and technology. Laufer sticks close to the basic outline of the real case but her decision to change the focus of Jillian's research from schizophrenia to Alzheimer’s emphasizes the pivotal role that the stories we remember and tell about ourselves play in defining who we are (click here to listen to an interview about her process).

Laufer and her able director Liesl Tommy have also made sure that the intercultural conversation that defines the play carries over into its casting. Their five-member cast is the most racially inclusive I’ve seen in a longtime but the attention to diversity doesn’t seem at all self-conscious or heavy-handed.

Delanna Studi, a Native American actor whose family walked the Trail of Tears in which the Cherokee people were forced to migrate across the Mississippi River to present-day Oklahoma, brings a refreshing and resonant authenticity to the role of Arella.  

Similarly, Pun Bandhu gives some backbone to the beta male character of Jillian’s Asian-American husband, Myra Lucretia Taylor manages to stretch outside the stereotype of the no-nonsense black woman as the university dean and Jesse J. Perez is poignant as the mentor whose carefully cultivated relationship with the tribe is jeopardized by Jillian’s behavior.

But it is Tina Benko, a blonde beauty who has the heart and chops of a character actor, who anchors the show in a brilliant performance as Jillian. She nails both the intellectual arrogance that makes this single-minded woman a real pain in the ass and the social awkwardness that makes it a challenge for her to read a simple bedtime story to her child.

There are at times too many threads to keep track of in just a 90-minute show. And the presentational style of storytelling occasionally saps the tension out of the drama (having all the actors sit onstage all the time is becoming a theatrical cliché) but the genuine respect with which Laufer treats both sides of the faith vs. reason debate makes Informed Consent a smart choice for smart theatergoers.

August 22, 2015

An Up and Down Day at The Fringe With "Schooled," "Little One" and "Loose Canon"

Quentin Maré and Lilli Stein in Schooled
The New York International Fringe Festival prides itself on being eclectic. Which means you never know what you’re going to get when you attend one of its 200 or so productions, ranging from one-person shows to mini-musicals and performed at all levels of skill from shows ready-for-a-professional run to those that will be appreciated only by family members and very close friends.

As we’ve done over the past few summers, my theatergoing buddy Bill and I sorted through the list of the offerings, which play in rotation at venues around the East Village, and whittled them down to three whose descriptions intrigued both of us—and that we could comfortably see in one day.

Our mini-marathon started off with a winner: Schooled, a smart play by Lisa Lewis, who graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, spent six years in the movie business and sets her drama at a New York film school. 

Her three-hander focuses on Andrew (Quentin Maré), a one-time hot screenwriter now in his 50s who teaches there, and two of his young students, Claire (Lilli Stein), a talented working class girl from Atlantic City who’s writing an intimate family drama; and Jake (Stephen Friedrich), her equally talented but far more affluent boyfriend who writes in a more commercial vein.

When Claire seeks Andrew out for extra help with her script their working sessions become increasingly flirtatious even though he is married and she's thinking about moving in with Jake. Things get even more complicated when both Claire and Jake seek Andrew's recommendation for the same prestigious grant.

Aided by the sure-handed direction of James Kautz, the artistic director of the Amoralists Theatre Company, Lewis has created an engaging 90-minute piece that wrestles with art and ambition, class consciousness and gender politics. In the opening scene, the men fail to take Claire seriously, by the play's end, they have to.

Schooled, which has been picking up a lot of good word of mouth, is scheduled for two more performances, tomorrow and Thursday (you can check out the specific details by clicking here) but it’s worthy of a longer run and a much wider audience.

The next show we saw, Little One, will probably have more narrow appeal. Developed by the Alley Theatre in Vancouver, it’s an unsettling psychological thriller with two story lines that eventually converge, although not in the way you expect them to.

One plot centers on the marriage between a geeky white guy and his beautiful mail-order bride from Vietnam. The other focuses on a sibling relationship between an orphaned boy and an abandoned girl who are adopted by a well-meaning couple.

The boy Aaron overcompensates and becomes a star athlete, straight-A student and obedient son. The girl Claire makes a less successful adjustment; she throws tantrums, kills the family pets and behaves, even as a child, in sexually inappropriate ways.

Much of both these tales is relayed by a now grown-up Aaron, who speaks directly to the audience, although some of his memories are illustrated with short, pungent scenes between him and Claire.

I’ll confess I’m not exactly sure what playwright Hannah Moscovitch wants us to take away from this 60-minute tone poem but director Amiel Gladstone has created a suitably creepy atmosphere and Marisa Emma Smith and Daniel Arnold do a fine job of portraying the perverse allure of a psychopath and the helplessness of those related to her.

I can’t say that I liked this show but I will that say that it continues to haunt me. You’ve got three more chances (on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday) to see—and judge—it for yourself.

Loose Canon, the last show we saw, also has three more performances but I can’t recommend it. The show attempts to combine a critique of consumerist society with a satirical look at the theatrical canon, stretching from Sophocles to Mamet.

But the humor here turns out to be the kind of sophomoric fare that goes down best after a couple of glasses of cheap beer. “Oh Roku, Roku. What’s Tivo  worth if not for you,” goes a line in the not-as-funny-as-it-thinks-it-is Shakespeare takeoff; meanwhile, the homage to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is set not on a debt-burdened Russian estate but in a sales-challenged Taco Bell.

The performances don’t help. The six-member cast, several of whom seem to be recent graduates of Tufts University, as is the show’s director, is game but too variously talented. Still, a lively crowd of supporters, including the proud grandmother of one of the actors, cheered them on loudly at the performance Bill and I saw. 

And, of course, that’s the thing about the Fringe; there’s something for everyone.

August 15, 2015

"Cymbeline" is a Mess, But Still Merry

Shakespeare scholars say that Cymbeline is one of the Bard's problem plays. That's in part because it’s perversely named after a secondary character and is classified as a tragedy even though, as in Shakespeare's comedies, all loose ends are happily tied up by the final curtain. So, Cymbeline is rarely performed compared to Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear. Which is why I was looking forward to the production that is playing at the Delacorte Theater through Aug. 23 as the final production in this year’s Shakespeare in the Park series. And I’m glad I got the chance to see it but you shouldn’t feel too badly if you don’t.

The production directed by Daniel Sullivan is entertaining but I’m not sure how true it is to the spirit of the play. Although, to be fair, Shakespeare himself didn’t seem to be sure of what that spirit was. For Cymbeline is the 34th of the 38 plays credited to the Bard and it unspools like one of those highlights reels that get put together for awards shows. The resulting story is a hodgepodge.

Here, in two chunky paragraphs, is the plot: Cymbeline, an English king in rebellion against the Romans, is angry that his daughter Imogen has secretly married a commoner named Posthumus Leonatus because the girl’s twin brothers were kidnapped as infants and she is now her father’s sole heir. So Cymbeline banishes Posthumus from the kingdom and, spurred on by his conniving second wife, tries to marry Imogen to her distasteful stepbrother Cloten, who hatches a plan to win her by raping her.

Meanwhile, Posthumus flees to Italy, where he is tricked into a wager with the unscrupulous nobleman Iachimo who boasts that he can get Imogen to bed him. When Iachimo fakes evidence of the seduction, Posthumus not only disowns his true love but puts a hit out on her. Disguised as a young man, Imogen escapes and finds refuge with a mysterious peasant and his two sons. Eventually, they all end up on the battlefield against the Romans. And in a barrage of last-minute revelations, true identities are disclosed, confusions untangled and comeuppances meted out.

There is some fun to be had in identifying the familiar bits from some of Shakespeare’s other plays: the-foolish-father-wise-daughter dynamic from Lear, the misdirected lovers from Romeo and Juliet, the dastardly villain from Othello, the cross-dressing heroine from Twelfth Night and the missing twins from just about every comedy he wrote. But stitching those motley pieces into a smooth narrative proves messy.

Like others before him (click here for my review of Mark Lamos' 2007 production at Lincoln Center) Sullivan tries to camouflage the rough thread by trimming some of the unwieldy plot (the character of the Roman god Jupiter is entirely cut out in this version) and gussying up what’s left with lots of comedic business, music and other assorted merriment, including participation from some audience members who are seated onstage (click here to read about how he came up with it all).

But there are moments when he tries too hard. When Posthumus and Iachimo make their bet about Imogen’s chastity, they do it over a too on-the-nose casino table. And the costumes are a real grab bag of styles that range from Rat Pack suits for Iachimo to Elizabethan gowns for the queen and contemporary hipster slip dresses for Imogen.

But I’ve no complaints about the wonderful cast. The plummy-voiced Patrick Page, always one of my faves, plays Cymbeline with regal authority. Raúl Esparza, making his first stage appearance in three years, is deliciously malicious as Iachimo and is, of course, terrific when performing a couple of songs. Meanwhile, Kate Burton has tons of fun as the nefarious queen.

But the evening belongs to the show's leads: Lily Rabe as the proud and virtuous Imogen and Hamish Linklater, who plays both Posthumus and, with great relish, Cloten. This is the third time the pair have appeared in one of these summer productions. Both grew up in theatrical families and apparently took in the ability to speak and act Shakespeare with their mothers' milk. They're excellent.

Linklater and Rabe are also a couple in real-life (click here to read more about that) and the connection between them is palpable. You don’t always see the chemistry onstage between real-life couples but you sure do see it here. It would be fun to see what they might do with The Taming of the Shrew.

August 8, 2015

"King Liz" Pays Tribute to Strong Women

Strong, successful women don’t fare well in most contemporary plays. As I've complained before, something always seems to come along to cut them down to size. And so at the risk of violating my usual no-spoilers policy, I have to say that it was refreshing to see the dynamic title character still standing at the end of King Liz, the new play by Fernanda Coppel that is playing at Second Stage Theatre’s McGinn/Cazale Theatre through Aug. 15.

Black, brainy and ballsy, the titular Liz Rico grew up in the projects in Brooklyn, got a scholarship to an Ivy League college and then over the next 20 years worked her way up from a secretary to the top agent in a testosterone-heavy sports agency that represents the biggest stars in the NBA and NFL.

As the play opens, the head of the firm is about to retire and the leading contenders to succeed him are the hard-charging Liz and a white guy with whom the board members enjoy playing golf. But Liz believes that she can win the top spot if she can sign Freddie Luna, a teenage basketball phenom (charismatically played by Jeremie Harris) who’s been blessed with Kobe Bryant-level talent but burdened with a questionable past and an uncontrollable temper.

Most critics have looked at King Liz primarily as a show about the sports world and there is plenty of jock talk. But Coppel clearly has other things on her mind as well. Perhaps too many.

Like many young playwrights afraid that they may not get another chance to have their say, she crams all of her concerns—the stereotyping of young black men, sexism in the corporate world, the celebrity culture and the price of success, among others—into her two-hour play. Luckily, Coppel’s writing is brisk and funny. And director Lisa Peterson has given her play a slick production.

But it’s the compelling character of Liz that makes this show. And Karen Pittman, power dressed by costume designer Jessica Pabst in form-fitting outfits that cling to her Pilates-toned frame, gives a fierce performance, strutting across the stage in stiletto heels, spitting out one-liners with the raw bravado of a gangsta rapper (click here to read a Q&A with her).

Although she is a little over-the-top in the opening scenes, Pittman is remarkable in the second act as, with a change in the inflection of her voice or just a look in her eye, she reveals the deeper emotions behind the ferocious mask that Liz shows to the world. This Liz is aware of the tough choices she’s made to succeed but unlike her peers in other plays, she refuses to make excuses for them or to let them get the best of her.

That makes King Liz not only an entertaining show but a substantive one.  And it could have been even more so if given a few more drafts. Even Coppel seems to think so. In a fascinating interview for the Maxamoo podcast (click here to listen to it), she says that Second Stage, eager to get in on the current conversations about race, skipped some of the usual development process and moved the production up on its schedule. 

It’s an understandable decision but also an unfortunate one because with a little more time this promising contender could have been a real winner.

August 6, 2015

BONUS: A Special Tribute to "Hamilton"

There'll be no regular post until Saturday since I'm on my summer schedule but I'm writing now to let you know that I've set up a special Flipboard magazine in honor of Hamilton's official arrival on Broadway tonight and you can check it out by clicking here.

August 1, 2015

Shifting Into Summer Vacation Mode

The dog days of summer are really here. Big show openings are slowing down and I am too. Which suggests it’s time for a break. So while I’ll still see a few things here and there, I’ll only be sharing my thoughts about them once a week instead of the usual twice until the season kicks back up to speed in September. However I will continue searching out great articles about theater and posting them in the B&Me Magazine on the Flipboard site, which you can check out by clicking here.