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Theatre Review: Speak No Evil at the Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo, NY

Speak No Evil-100dpiTry not to make someone else’s world crappy, goes the main theme of Sonya Sobieski’s Speak No Evil.

Explored through the lens of Tricia (Emily Yancey) and Steve’s (J oey Bucheker) relationship – which has just ended – the piece is a through-the-looking-glass/absurdist farce about an institute which aims to eliminate the possibility of hurting the feelings of others. From microchip implants to its very own martyr (David C. Mitchell as Silent Guy, who so wants to stop causing offense that he’s stopped talking entirely), the Institute of Right Things to Say feels like it exists like a surreal setting from mid-century science fiction, complete with call-outs to Ray Bradbury.

While Tricia and Steve provide a pat through-line, the evening’s most engaging moments often take place between other members of the ensemble, most of whom play at least three characters. From Bethany Sparacio’s dead-on, hilarious caricature of a secretary or her portrayal of a hooker-slash-reiki-healer, to Joyce Stilson’s visitor to the institute and her aggressive nastiness towards both another visitor to the Institute and Silent Guy himself, to James Cichocki’s turn as the kind of co-worker everybody has and everybody wants to slap, the supporting cast bring necessary depth and color to the stage. The pacing, which director Neal Radice mentioned was altered somewhat by omitting the lowering and raising of lights between each scene, is snappy and quick – all the more impressive considering that one member of the original cast had to drop out just days before the show opened. On the whole, the ensemble helps elevate the piece beyond the text.

According to Sobieski, inspiration for the play came during a silent writer’s retreat/residency and its message is primarily aimed at personal interactions, with any political readings being unintentional (though she acknowledged the idea of the personal as political). Given this, it’s astounding how clearly the text seems to want to comment on society’s current obsession with political correctness, and to some degree this made it seem confused at times; every time one tried to determine whether the message was that society is or isn’t overdoing it on the whole “political correctness thing” the water got muddy and it felt as though something was missing. It’s not that a playwright necessarily needs to lay out clear, black-and-white points of view (I’d argue that it’s generally more effective if they don’t), but there are junctures in the story where you want it to go down this road: for example, during Tricia’s discussion with her boss (Melissa Leventhal), she comments on what she perceives as the ideals of the program. Leventhal seems to (nonverbally) communicate that the boss may know something Tricia doesn’t. Given how straightforward and direct much of the rest of the play is (even as it talks about avoiding saying hurtful things), the lack of a more elucidating response is somewhat frustrating.

Speak No Evil deals with both very concrete and very conceptual opposites, and at times I felt as if we were only wandering in the lighter end of the play’s potential emotional range. If you’re going to have an underground speakeasy in protest of the Institute of Right Things to Say, and it’s selling itself on the basis of being a place where anything – no matter how raunchy, no matter how cruel – can be said, then limiting the extreme language to a few “fucks” and other run-of-the-mill insults falls short of expectations. I expected darkness on the order of a Michael Richards outburst from the raunchy ventriloquist’s dummy, but the insults never reached a point where I believed they’d have the effect they’re shown to have here. In a politicized reading of the piece, you could argue that an anti-P.C. viewpoint might be well-served by a club where the most offensive thing anyone says is “fuck”, but the play didn’t seem to be attempting to make that argument. Truly shocking the audience in the lead-up to a tragic on-stage event might have made for both a higher surge of energy in the lead-up and a bigger reaction for the event itself. That said, some of the dialogue simply sparkled – a line about a worm on a sidewalk after rainfall (“It didn’t want to drown, but the only place it had to go was just as bad” or a discussion of prehistoric humans who lacked language (“Don’t eavesdrop with your eyes”).

With its introspective vantage point and prioritization of words from one person causing ill feeling in another, however, the scope of the narrative feels artificially limited. By opening it up a bit more, and either making it more specific to the portrayed relationship or universal enough to take a wider political agenda into account, Speak No Evil could pack a hell of a punch as both comedy and a commentary on today’s society.

As Radice said during the post-show talkback, it’s getting harder and harder to find scripts that are truly theatrical, and not just episodes of television that unfold on a stage.  Sobieski’s alternate reality is dreamily disconnected from our own, and this blended with the play’s apparent metaphysics and the set lends a dream-like quality to much of the piece. Radice’s sparse set (full disclosure: my first play, 1999’s POST, featured a set by Radice) is made up of a handful of chairs and desks, with few props. Most of the play’s visual personality comes from the costumes, designed by Stilson (more disclosure: she was the director for my first Edinburgh fringe festival play, PLAYING IT COOL, and also involved in POST’s production). They’re bright, colorful and vary dramatically from one character to the next.

In the end, Speak No Evil seems to succeed in what it set out to do, but one wishes it had set out to do a bit more. For a play with a poster that recalls both the Rolling Stones and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it is – overall – surprisingly straightlaced.

Speak No Evil runs from now through February 13, 2016 at the Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo.

ACT ONE REACTION: Slaughterhouse Five

 

Sometimes, one leaves a theatrical experience and the foremost thought in one’s mind is, “That’s X hours I’m never getting back.” When attending plays as a reviewer (i.e. with free/comped tickets), I always stay through to the end. However, when I’ve paid for my ticket – as in this case – I no longer feel it necessary to sit through an entire production once I’m convinced it’s not getting any better. Please bear in mind, while reading, that for all I know the production takes a massive upswing in the second act and I missed out on something truly brilliant – though this writeup in The Buffalo News makes me doubt that was the case. Here’s my reaction to the production.

From The Buffalo News: Tim Joyce and John Kennedy star in Subversive Theatre's season-opening production of "Slaughterhouse Five."

From The Buffalo News: Tim Joyce and John Kennedy star in Subversive Theatre’s season-opening production of “Slaughterhouse Five.”

ACT ONE REACTION: SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE BY THE SUBVERSIVE THEATRE COLLECTIVE

Subversize Theatre Collective
Great Arrow Building
Manny Fried Theatre
Directed by Michael Lodick
Adapted by Eric Simonson

Saturday night, I left Slaughterhouse Five, produced by the Subversive Theatre Collective, at intermission. While the presentation was competent, it wasn’t compelling enough to keep me and my parents in our uncomfortable seats — or the overheated auditorium.

If you haven’t read Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece, the story of Slaughterhouse Five revolves around a man named Billy Pilgrim, who has become “unstuck” in the space-time continuum. The novel itself is disjointed, offering a broken narrative – the book incorporates parts of Vonnegut’s own time in the service and as a POW. While the script seems faithful to the story, even setting up Vonnegut’s narrator conceit, something about the production meant it never really seemed to offer much spark.

Tim Lane’s set is colorful and visually engaging, and its versatility allowed the players to move seamlessly from scene to scene. The brightest moment of the play’s first act came from Rick Lattimer, whose performance as Elliot Rosewater suddenly came to life during a conversation with Pilgrim (Shane Zimmerman) and his fiancee (Brittany Gabryel as Barbara). Suddenly animated, Rosewater describes the book he’s reading to Pilgrim, ranting about an alternate view of reality. For a few moments, there was a sense of welcome tension from the audience. Then it passed.

As the narrator, Tim Joyce kicked the play off with a one-man scene that set the stage. There were times when some mannerisms began to feel affected, veering more towards Mark Twain than Kurt Vonnegut, and smoothing those moments over would help the audience forget that they’re watching a performance. Generally speaking, there was very little about the performances that was notable.

One of many huge challenges inherent in mounting a production where each scene is only a few minutes long is that it’s difficult for the audience to remain emotionally engaged without a connection to each scene.  After nearly an hour of story, no one in my party felt a strong enough connection to the show to stay and watch the second half.

Fan of Vonnegut looking for new insights/perspective on your favorite author and one of his most famous works? You might very well enjoy this production. Casual theater-goer looking for a thought-provoking experience that also entertains? This might not be the show for you.

Haggis & Highland Games

wpid-0815151233.jpg

Smoked haggis! And no, i do not know what the sauce is, they called it “Scottish sauce” and I think it might have been vaguely related to HP sauce.

For as long as it’s been since I visited Scotland (too, too long!), I didn’t expect that the next time I watched Highland games it would be in Western New York. And yet, the weekend before last, I stuffed myself full of haggis and watched grown men send tree trunks flying through the air.

I heard about the Buffalo Niagara Scottish Festival from my mom, who had read about it in the Amherst Bee. A couple moments of hyperventilation and many frantic Facebook messages later, I was on my way to Buffalo with plans to meet up with a friend and her family for an afternoon of fun and a mild dose of Celtic spirit.

wpid-0815151419a.jpgThe festival was held at the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village, which is a pretty cool place way out in the swampy wilderness of Amherst. I haven’t visited the village aside from this trip, but what the museum has done is take old houses from around Western New York and preserved them on a plot of land where they can be toured and enjoyed. It was a fantastic backdrop to the afternoon, and at some point I want to try and go back to check it out on its own.

wpid-0815151320.jpgAfter filling up on haggis and a pint of Belhaven, my friends and I wandered over to the caber toss – the aforementioned throwing of giant, tree-trunk sized pieces of woods, each weighing (if I recall the announcer’s description correctly) just under a hundred pounds. As each beam was flung through the air, the crowd held its breaths, waiting to watch it go end over end. Once we’d watched both the caber toss and the hammer throw (done by professional exhibition athletes, not just guys who walked in off the street) for a while, we wandered through the vendors and checked out what they had for sale. Wares ranged from cookbooks and kilts to the skulls of mythological creatures. I managed to hold myself back from making a purchase; my friend picked up a Nessie soup ladle and a cookbook with a recipe for haggis that sounded a lot more appetizing than the one in my miniature Scottish cookbook wpid-0815151342.jpgfrom my grandmother’s house. (Hint: mine calls for bits of the sheep that are not included in my friend’s recipe. I’m hoping to get a copy of hers, authenticity be damned.) While I’d planned to get my hands on a scotch egg as a snack, by the time I was ready to eat again (that haggis was pretty filling) it was hot enough out that I went for a gelato, instead. By that point, the stage had filled up, and a band of kilted musicians was in full swing. There was an area for ceilidh dancing, but alas – my back was getting a bit sore by this point, so I decided not to risk incurring its wrath.

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Okay, fine, not ALL of them are wearing kilts.

Instead, I wandered around a bit more with my friends, people-watching and trying to stay out of direct sunlight, as I could feel my fittingly pale skin starting to warm up. (For those who don’t remember, I learned my lesson about staying in the sun too long a few years ago in St. Martin.) Finally, it was time for me to go. We said our goodbyes and I headed back to my car, thankful for the paved walkways that kept my feet above the waterline from the previous night’s storm.

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The view from the paved walkway – it’s easy to forget that the area is basically built on a swamp! Added nicely to the atmosphere, though.

I had a terrific afternoon, a great time visiting friends, some delicious food, and I left feeling more connected to Scotland than I have in a while. Next year, I’m hoping to get myself organized enough to go to the kickoff ceilidh – hopefully, I’ll see some of you there!

THEATRE REVIEW: Why Torture Is Wrong and The People Who Love Them

Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them
By Christopher Durang
Directed by Thomas LaChiusa
Subversive Theatre Company

Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them by Christoper Durang, has a plot that unfolds – at first – quite neatly. A young woman (Felicity, played by Andrea Andolina) wakes up in bed with a man (Zamir, played by Michael Votta) who she doesn’t know. Who, as far as she can tell, she’s married by accident. As the action develops, it begins to take a strange veer away from reality, heading into an absurd – yet frighteningly possible – world.

Feicity is, throughout the first act, constrained by the barely-restrained violence of combating Alpha males Leonard (her father, played by Victor Morales) and her new husband Zamir. Her mother Luella (Christopher Standart) has disassociated from the world, relying on absent-minded discussion of Broadway hits (Wicked, A Chorus Line) and is at odds with her daughter’s desire to tackle problems in the here and now. Namely, the problem of Zamir. He might be a danger. Or a terrorist. He’s already shown some tendencies toward violence – if not physical, yet, the certainly verbal – and while Felicity wants her parents’ help in getting an annulment, she also doesn’t want Zamir hurt. It’s a pretty morally admirable decision, given Zamir’s actions towards her early on. Still, one cheers a little when he and Leonard stand off. The delicious whiff of mutually-assured destruction is in the air.

The play strikes the same cheery, sick satirical chords as something like Torben Betts’ The Unconquered, or (if I’m giving his an even darker comparison) Sarah Kane’s Blasted (if Blasted were played for laughs without any on-stage violence). Some cultural force has warped our male leads, and one almost hopes the dystopia of the outside world is bad enough to justify the chill that runs through Durang’s script when it comes to his character’s brutality. One suspects that world might be reality, while hoping that isn’t the case.

Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them is a funhouse-mirror post-9/11 dark comedy. The metaphors for punishment without trial, racial profiling and next-generation “patriots” (the kind who take selfies flanked by flags and guns and government conspiracy theories) and domestic violence are present. It asks us, as viewers: how does a person cope with all that? Can we, as society, stand our ground and demand the ability to effect change (Felicity’s stance, in the first act), or disassociate into a disengaged enjoyment of our Marxian opiate of choice?

Luella, we see, has chosen the latter. While her husband waxes poetic about “Father Knows Best,” exploring the taste of calling his daughter the pet names from the kids in the classic TV show, Luella wears matching floral house dresses and insists on lighthearted conversation about the Theatre and French Toast. While she develops into an ally for Felicity as the play moves on, one can never be sure of when Luella’s small-chat fog may be sliced open by razor lucidity.

As for Leonard, everything we hear about his contact with the government? We hear it from him, or from one of his co-conspirators. In other words, it’s not hard to imagine that his Shadow world is, just like Luella’s also turtles all the way down. It might as well be self-contained. If Luella has floated away, maybe Leonard and his fellow nutjobs aren’t far behind.

If so, then what can be made of the final movement of the script, where Felicity’s compassion for Zamir – a man who has threatened and intimidated her – allows her to finally wrest away control of the situation’s swiftly deteriorating violence? She takes charge and the axis of Durang’s play starts to twist. A voice that’s been speaking to the audience throughout the play – Becky Globus, who also takes on several other roles – smashes through the 4th wall, and Felicity wills a feat of metatextual narrative timetravel. Her drive to change what’s happened drags the whole cast, including a pornographic priest (James Cichocki) and one of Leonard’s whackadoo comrades (Mike Seitz), back to a point before the play even started: the night Felicity and Zamir meet.

Conjured back to their ground zero, Felicity searches for a way in which the best aspects of herself and Zamir can be together – while also setting clear and entirely reasonable boundaries about what she wants as the end result: a world where things turn out differently. She directs the conversation carefully, laying out boundaries and guidelines, until she’s coached both herself and Zamir to what might be their “best aspect”. Zamir wonders if this even leaves him as the same same person, but Felicity’s insistence carries the day. Have they truly time-traveled, and will they now create a better future? Or has Felicity just experienced just had a disassociative snap, her mind creating a false reality to protect her from the world’s harsh truths? Has Felicity just found her delusional opium?

That I’m left with questions like these (and more) is a testament to the quality of Durang’s script, Thomas LaChiusa’s direction, and the cast’s ability to seamlessly integrate the two. Subversive’s production is tight and focused, an achievement for a show gets farther “out there” than normal. It’s easy for a play that toys so much with fantasy and reality (including metatextually) to drift aimlessly, but Why Torture Is Wrong…keeps its feet on the ground. And that makes a huge amount of difference in its ability to hold the audience over the course of two hours, as well in its ability to spark thought afterwards.

While John Kennedy and Michael Lodick’s set doesn’t quite evoke the luxury the script indicates, it’s unclear if that’s because the wealth isn’t translating physically, or if – like Zamir’s insistence on being somehow Irish – it’s yet another place where character’s perceptions and reality diverge.

Why Torture Is Wrong… is at the Subversive Theatre in Buffalo, New York through April 12, 2015, and I hope you make the time to see it.

Tickets were comped for this production.

Also of interest:

Theater Review: BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON at ART of WNY in Buffalo

Bloody Bloody Andrew JacksonBloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
American Repertory Theater of Western New York
Written by Alex Timbers
Music & Lyrics by Michael Friedman
Directed by Jeffrey Coyle

 

 

A couple years ago, the original production of this show was taking downtown NYC by storm. While I missed it there, the production currently taking place on Linwood Avenue in downtown Buffalo was an opportunity to see a skilled, professional and hilarious regional premiere. Told with enthusiasm and precision, this is a production worth buying tickets to immediately.

Like now.

While the idea of America’s seventh president as an “Emo Rock God” might seem incongruous at first, with cast members entering the performance space in ripped tights, black netted shirts and enough eyeliner to kill an elephant (if elephants ate eyeliner and eyeliner was poisonous, that is), the rockstar nature of Jackson’s DGAF frontiersman ‘tude and the often tongue-in-cheek style of delivery bring this story screeching into the 21st century. In a skillfully-observed marriage of styles, the style of Michael Friedman’s music and lyrics compliment the rage and emotion of American politics.

The talented cast delivers on all scores – even when technical malfunctions took a headset mic out of play, Steve Copps (as the titular Jackson) didn’t miss a beat. Between asking whether audiences wanted to see his “stimulus package” and taking part in bleeding rituals (“it’s a real 19th century medical practice!”), it’s easy to see Jackson in the role of band frontman a la Panic at the Disco and other emo trendsetters of the early 2000s.

The show says a lot about how America has changed, and how it hasn’t. Jackson’s determination to rid the country of the native population and the wink-wink comparisons to modern-day populist movements are disconcerting. There’s one line in particular where he points out that he’s making the changes the American people want to see made which is disturbing in that it grasps the precise conflict between majority rule and the protection of minorities: where is the protection for disadvantaged, harassed and discriminated-against groups when leaders serve the general will of the people?

Not that Jackson’s predecessors are portrayed as having made much of a contribution in this area. The menacingly hilarious quintet of elder statesmen: Van Buren (Steven Brachmann), Monroe (Matt Kindley), John Quincy Adams (Matthew Mooney), Calhoun (Christopher Parada) and Clay (Rowlins) and the rest of the founding fathers mentioned in the book are portrayed as wig-and-lace wearing toffs, right down to the hilarious New England accents they wear. The show portrays the quintessential American dilemma of civilization vs. frontier by following Jackson as he takes Florida from the Spanish, Georgia from the Native Americans and more: to Jackson’s friends, family and neighbors, the threat from these groups is immediate and deadly. To the federal government, however, the logistical and legal issues at stake leave no room for understanding the actual plight of those on the ground. The resentment this breeds is unsettling in that audiences will immediately be able to track the political commentary to today’s world, quickly realizing that while the names of the “enemies” have changed, American tactics for dealing with those who encroach on this great land of ours (emphasis mine) have not.

This Buffalo production is rife with talent, from the specificity of Coyle’s direction to the management of a stage ensemble nearly 20-strong to the obvious control and focus of each performer. Some specific delights: Priscilla Young-Anker does much to set the tone as the Storyteller, who emerges in a motorized scooter to fawn lasciviously over Jackson in his early days and winds up taking one in the neck when her interjections become too intrusive. The angry, disaffected attitude thrown up by so many of the shows movers and shakers – particularly the dead, passionless tone taken by Jackson’s mother in her early scenes (the actress, a member of the ensemble, is sadly not noted for this role in the program, though if anyone from the company would like to provide her name I’ll add it here later) – set a tone for the mix of hilarity, resentment and angst that pursue Jackson throughout the show.

For audiences concerned about the production’s edginess, the play is so skillfully executed and so fast-paced that the bawdy humor avoids becoming awkward for, say, an audience member who brings her parents along. All three members of my party were laughing hard throughout the production; most of the time, I was laughing so hard I had to wipe tears from my eyes to be able to watch the show.

With tickets at $25 for regular audience members and $15 for students, this fast-paced, intermission-less production leaves nothing to be desired; it’s a thrilling professional production of a meaningful and politically-charged play.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs select evenings through October 12, 2013 at ART IN THE BOX, 16 Linwood Avenue, Buffalo. The Broadway cast recording is available on Spotify. Tickets for this production were purchased by the reviewer.

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Sunday and Monday: Kindle Select Promo Days!

Cover art for PLAYING IT COOL

This Sunday and Monday (September 16th and 17th, 2012) you can download my first Edinburgh Fringe play, Playing it Cool for free on Amazon. (Apologies to those who’ve been patient since Friday night – a glitch in scheduling meant the promo didn’t go live as planned on Saturday).

Playing it Cool (a snappy romantic comedy) was written in 2003, and was my first produced play since 1999’s POST (a surreal tale about gun violence).

If you don’t own a Kindle and want to check out the play,  you can download apps for almost any platform on Amazon’s home page.

And as I said last time:

Playing it Cool is a one-act play about two friends, subtext and communication. It’s a two-hander that takes place in an apartment and a cafe, so might be of interest for those looking for audition scenes to read with a partner.

No big monologues here, I’m afraid, although both my later Fringe plays, Stuck Up A Tree and Mousewings (particularly Mousewings) will deliver on that front.

I’m listing Playing it Cool with Kindle Select for at least 90 days, so if you’re a member of Amazon Prime, make sure to put it on your list for a free read.”

Reviews of Playing It Cool:

Playing it Cool may not be the most ambitious play, addressing only a single issue. However, it contains much humour and is very well written. It will be very interesting to see a longer and more intricate play from the very promising Rachel Lynn Brody, at some time soon.”

– Philip Fisher, The British Theatre Guide, regarding the play’s premiere.

If you want to find out about awesome stuff like this ahead of time, subscribe to my Mailchimp mailing list. I won’t send stuff often, and won’t sell your email info, but I can promise at least a few promos ahead of the curve. And who knows what else.

But first, download Playing It Cool.

There is SO MUCH going on today.

1. HAIKU OF THE LIVING DEAD is currently being uploaded to Kindle. Miranda will be managing the Smashwords upload, which will be where the coupon code for contributors, friends and family will be applied. More news on this over the weekend. Partial profits from this project will be donated to Doctors Without Borders.

2. A very, very special shoutout to Sare Liz, my favorite priest, who got married yesterday at the upper rapids in Niagara Falls. She was a beautiful bride and she trusted me to hold the rings for her and her lovely husband (!!!!) and I did not lose the rings. 😀 Edit: On the down side, I now have some kind of horrible throat infection and am missing the formal reception. 🙁

3. Later this afternoon, I will be on the #99report to talk about Hot Mess and the recent heat wave. It’s been almost a year since I first approached the other writers (my first post about it was from January of this year) about putting together that collection, so it’s kind of amazing to me that it’s come so far and is doing so well since then.

4. If my brain isn’t total jelly once all this is sorted, I’m working out ideas about a multi-part post about Amanda Palmer’s new music video, WANT IT BACK, and what it says about the evolution of the feminine gaze. She says some things in the Guardian article (other end of that link, includes video) that contribute to my central thesis, so who knows…I might just go there.