Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of Walter Michael DeForest's Van Gogh Fuck Yourself at 64E4 Underground by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Walter Michael DeForest's Van Gogh Fuck Yourself at 64E4 Underground was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Van Gogh Fuck Yourself
Adapted & Performed by Walter Michael DeForest
Directed by Laurence Lowry
64E4 Underground
64 East 4th Street
New York, New York 10003
Reviewed 8/28/15 

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853 in Groot-Zundert in The Netherlands. He was the oldest surviving child of Theodorus van Gogh, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. His brother Theo was born May 1, 1857 (he had another brother and three sisters). In a 1883 letter to Theo, he wrote, "My youth was gloomy and cold and sterile." In July 1873, his uncle Cent helped him obtain a position with the art dealer Goupil & Cie in The Hague. He was transferred to London where he fell in love with his landlady's daughter. After she rejected him, he became increasingly isolated and fervent about religion. He was sent to Amsterdam to study theology in May 1877 but failed the entrance exam. In January 1879, he took a temporary post as a missionary in the village of Petit Wasmes in the coal-mining district of Borinage at Charbonnage de Marcasse. Van Gogh lived like those he preached to, sleeping on straw in a small hut at the back of a baker's house. He was investigated and dismissed for "undermining the dignity of the priesthood." The baker's wife heard him sobbing at night in the hut and this is the first time his father made inquiries about having Vincent committed to the lunatic asylum at Geel. In April 1881, he moved with his parents to the Etten countryside. That summer, he took long walks with his recently widowed cousin, Kee Vos-Stricker, who was seven years older than Van Gogh and had an eight-year-old son. He proposed marriage, but she refused with the words, "No, nay, never." Her father objected mainly on the grounds that Van Gogh was unable to support himself. 

Van Gogh settled in The Hague in January 1882. Van Gogh's uncle Cornelius, an art dealer, commissioned 12 ink drawings of views of the city, which Van Gogh completed soon after arriving, along with a further seven drawings in May. In June, he spent three weeks in a hospital suffering from gonorrhea. Van Gogh began a domestic relationship with Clasina Maria "Sien" Hoornik, who he met in January when she was pregnant. On July 2nd, Sien gave birth to a baby boy she named Willem, although it is unlikely Vincent was the father. He let Sien, her five-year-old daughter, and her newborn baby boy stay with him. Vincent's father put pressure on him to abandon Sien, which he eventually did since he had no sustainable salary that would enable him to make his own choices. Sien returned to prostitution and eventually drowned in the River Scheldt. In autumn 1884, in Nuenen, Margot Begemann, a neighbor's daughter ten years his senior, fell in love with him, and he reciprocated, though less enthusiastically. They decided to marry, but the idea was opposed by both families. As a result, Margot took an overdose of strychnine. She was saved by Van Gogh, who rushed her to a nearby hospital. On March 26, 1885, his father died of a heart attack and he grieved deeply at the loss.

In November 1885, he moved to Antwerp where he had little money and ate poorly. His teeth became loose and painful, and he began to drink absinthe heavily. Despite his rejection of academic teaching, he took the higher-level admission exams at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, and in January 1886, he matriculated in painting and drawing. For most of February, he was run down by overwork, a poor diet, and excessive smoking. He traveled to Paris to live with his brother Theo in March 1886. By the end of 1886, Theo found that living with Vincent was "almost unbearable." In November 1887, Theo and Vincent befriended Paul Gauguin, who had just arrived in Paris. 

By February 1888, Van Gogh moved to Arles, hoping for refuge at a time when he was ill from drink and smoker's cough. A hundred years later, Van Gogh was remembered by 113-year old Jeanne Calment - who, as a 13-year-old, was serving in her uncle's fabric shop where Van Gogh wanted to buy some canvas - as "dirty, badly dressed, and disagreeable," and "very ugly, ungracious, impolite, and sick." Paul Gauguin accepted Van Gogh's invitation to visit him in Arles and arrived on October 23, 1888. Van Gogh greatly admired Gauguin and desperately wanted to be treated as his equal but Gauguin was arrogant and domineering. They quarreled fiercely and Van Gogh felt an increasing fear Gauguin was going to desert him. On December 23, 1888, Van Gogh's ear lobe was chopped off under questionable circumstances. Gauguin left for Paris and Van Gogh was diagnosed with "generalized delirium" and later, he suffered from hallucinations and delusions he was being poisoned. In March 1890, the police closed his house after receiving a petition by 30 townspeople, who called him "fou roux" (the redheaded madman). Two months later, he left Arles and entered an asylum (at his own request) in Saint-Remy-de-Provence. He left Saint-Remy and moved to Auvers-sur-Oise for the last 70 days of his life. On July 27, 1890, aged 37, Van Gogh is believed to have shot himself in the chest with a revolver (although no gun was ever found). There were no witnesses and the location where he shot himself is unknown. He died of an untreated infection caused by the wound.

In just over a decade, Van Gogh produced more than 2,100 artworks, including 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 watercolors, sketches and prints. The most comprehensive primary source for the understanding of Van Gogh as an artist and as a man is the collection of letters between him and his younger brother Theo, who provided his brother with financial and emotional support. There are more than 600 letters from Vincent to Theo, and 40 from Theo to Vincent. Theo died on January 25, 1891, six months after Vincent did, of dementia paralytica, a syphilitic infection of the brain. The letters between them were first annotated in 1913 by Theo's widow, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, who later said she published with "trepidation: because she did not want the drama in the artist's life to overshadow his work." Walter Michael DeForest, who very much looks like the portraits of Vincent Van Gogh, wrote this one-man show based on the contents of the Letters of Vincent and Theo Van Gogh and on the Memoirs of Vincent's stay at Auberge Ravoux in Auvers-sur-Oise, written by Adeline Ravoux. 

In this entertaining and engaging one-man show, Van Gogh Fuck Yourself, Walter Michael DeForest brings to life the humanity and inner motivations and struggles of Vincent Van Gogh. Mr. DeForest speaks to the audience at various times in the voice of Adeline, who shared three meals a day with Vincent at Auberge Ravoux, the prostitute Sien, his brother Theo, and Theo's widow, who was left with 300 of his paintings and all the letters he wrote. The title comes from the fact that he exchanged paintings with other artists, which is sort of like selling them (so don't say he never sold a painting in his life). 

The show also raises some very serious questions regarding his ear lobe being chopped off and the circumstances of his death. It is suggested that Van Gogh was angry at Gauguin for sleeping with the prostitute that was his favorite (i.e. Rachel), and that Gauguin may have sliced his ear lobe off with a blade mistakenly thinking that Van Gogh was attacking him with a weapon, which, in fact, was only his pipe. Gauguin and Van Gogh certainly had a pact not to speak about the incident perhaps to prevent Gauguin from being arrested. It also matters, in terms of motivation, whether Van Gogh left the earlobe at the brothel to show Rachel how much he would be willing to suffer for her, or with the doorman for Paul Gauguin, to make him feel guilty about leaving him for Paris. As for the suicide, perhaps Van Gogh did do it since he was obsessed with the thought that his paintings would be worth more once he was dead. An alternative story is also told where a boy's rifle accidentally fired and hit him. Van Gogh may have forgiven the boy and told him to run and throw the gun in the river before the police arrived. In this version, Van Gogh wished to save the boy from punishment for an unfortunate accident (even though, for his whole life, similar boys "threw cabbage and rocks at the ginger who painted in the fields").

Clearly romantic love was not in the cards for this man, nor was sanity. He could not support himself and was not marriageable material. He was also prone to manic-depressive interludes. as well as delusions and hallucinations. Consequently, he put his love into his painting and chose to love prostitutes instead of reputable women. He respected the life of every creature and was deeply moved by the conditions of the families and children he ministered to in the mining town where he worked ("I sacrificed and was a friend of the poor like Jesus was"). In the school he founded for the children of the miners, he taught them to love God and not to fear Him. In this non-linear presentation, Van Gogh also wants to make clear he was never locked up because he was a "danger to society" but only to prevent him from "becoming a danger to society." Other times, he voluntarily committed himself.

In this fascinating show, you will learn many things about the life of Vincent Van Gogh. You will also leave feeling as if you spent an hour in his presence. You will understand that he felt every living thing, including prostitutes, were worthy of respect and had a need for love and affection. This entry was part of the 19th Annual New York International Fringe Festival. Our Van Gogh impersonator relays a story about how a 9-year-old Vincent made an elephant. Everyone admired his work after which he smashed it to smithereens, saying, "I did not make it for your adoration!" What a guy! For more information on Van Gogh Fuck Yourself, visit http://www.vanGoghFuckYourself.com 

Applause! Applause! Review of Susan Hodgdon's CD I Could Go On Singing by George Strum

This review of Susan Hodgdon's CD I Could Go On Singing: Susan Hodgdon Sings The Songs Of Judy Garland was written by George Strum and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

I Could Go On Singing: Susan Hodgdon Sings The Songs Of Judy Garland
Recorded Live on March 5, 2015 at Don't Tell Mama
Written & Produced by Susan Hodgdon
Musical Director & Piano by Daryl Kojak
Arrangements by Bill Zeffiro & Daryl Kojak
Directed by Tanya Moberly
Recorded by Peter Millrose/Millrose Music
Reviewed 9/1/15 

To perform the songs of Judy Garland, one of America's, dare I say the World's, greatest entertainers in a tribute CD is to tread on ambitious and dangerous ground. It takes a lot of chutzpah taking on Judy Garland but it is with a courageous heart and loving spirit that Susan Hodgdon brings us her first CD. Susan rises to the challenge of capturing the "essence" of Garland. She manages to surpass her gift infusing each song with her own style of newness that may resonate with the listener.

The CD begins with the song If You Feel Like Singing, Sing with Susan singing in a very lyrical soprano style but her tone changes with each song getting grittier and jazzier. At times, she even sounds like Judy herself. Some of the selected songs may only be marginally associated with Judy either from her recordings or from her television show while more famous ones get short changed in a fast-paced medley. I was disappointed that "The Man That Got Away" and "Get Happy" didn't get to be sung fully. An obscure song, "I'd Like To Hate Myself In The Morning," sung on her television show in 1968 never got to be recorded by Judy so without Judy's hand prints on the song, Susan was able to put her own stamp on it. In between the numbers are biographical tidbits and Susan matches happy songs with her triumphs and sadder ones with Judy's disappointments. Daryl Kojak, the accompanying musical director, did an amazing job. 

Through Susan's interpretations, we experience the songs of Judy Garland in a new light. My personal favorites were: "Alone Together," "What Now My Love," and "I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues." This CD needs to be a part of your collection, right next to the ones you have of Liza and Judy herself. To purchase it, go to http://cdbaby.com/cd/susanhodgdon

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of The Absolutely True Science Of Nerds at Drom by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Shyaporn Theerakulstit's The Absolutely True Science Of Nerds at Drom was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Absolutely True Science Of Nerds
Created, Produced & Performed by Shyaporn Theerakulstit
85 Avenue A
New York, New York 10009
Reviewed 8/26/15 

Shyaporn Theerakulstit is an actor, writer, lecturer, and new media content creator specializing in comedic video sketches, social media, blogging, and the occasional fake science lecture. The Absolutely True Science Of Nerds was first performed at the Nerd Nite lecture series at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn, New York in 2009. It has since been seen at Global Nerd Nite at the 92nd Street Y, TEDx, C2E2, in Toronto, and as the closing presentation at the Smithsonian Institution's 2014 Future Is Here Festival. In this show, he has combined a comedic series of three "scientific" lectures on "How To Become Batman," "Star Wars vs. Star Trek," and "Godzilla," which are all presented with slides, video clips, singing, dancing, music, and Q&As. Shyaporn is a graduate of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts acting program, where he studied at the Stella Adler Conservatory and the Classical Studio. Most importantly, he plays Lt. Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek: New Voyages. Shyaporn was a part of the very first Fringe Festival in 1997 and is proud to now have an entry in the 19th Annual New York International Fringe Festival. He is particularly excited because he has been told that "having a show at the Fringe Festival is a clear path to fortune and glory!" 

The first lecture Shyaporn gave was "Batman: Origins and Training Secrets of the Dark Knight Detective." He required the audience to take a Batman Oath wherein they swore not to reveal what they were about to hear. Caught up in the moment, I took the oath so I cannot reveal any of Batman's origins or training secrets. All I can say is that Batman is Bruce Wayne, he is 6'2" tall, weighs 210 lbs., has an IQ of 192, and that, in a fight, he would kick the shit out of Superman. The second lecture was entitled Star Wars vs. Star Trek: Modern Perspectives of Past Future and Future Future Technology. Basically, the question presented was who would win if The United Federation of Planets and the Galactic Empire fought a war against each other? The technologies, size, propulsion, maneuverability, weaponry, robot technology and resources of each were examined in great detail, each earning a point when they had an advantage over the other. Even the powers of Yoda vs. the Q Continuum were compared, and in the end, the Federation won in a landslide. On a side note, Shyaporn told us that in the 24th Century, the Holodeck is used primarily for porn and prostitutes. The third and final lecture called Godzilla: History, Biology and Behavior of Hyper-evolved Theropod Kaiju goes into great detail regarding the origins, intelligence, and behavior of Godzilla and extensively quotes from reports issued by the Center For Advanced Hypothetical Kajiu & Mutant Research, as well as from the United Nations Godzilla Countermeasures Center. The two most important things to remember are that "Godzilla is not the least bit afraid of you" and that you should never "trade Godzilla to aliens" because it will come back and bite you in the ass one day. The best countermeasure and defense is "to run."

Shyaporn sang a rap song and tap danced after every segment diligently taking questions from the audience and providing answers. The promised final exam was printed in the program for the show. The special surprise we were treated to was a rarely seen alien striptease act, during which Clara Coquette (as Admiral Ackbar), a vintage vixen, nimble nerd, and cunning chameleon who trained at the New York School of Burlesque, took it all off (minus pasties) before an amazed and appreciative crowd. After she completed her "guest lecture," Shayporn said, "Excellent Points Admiral! Thank you for your remarks and for your service!"

If you are a fanboy or fangirl interested in Batman, Star Wars, Star Trek or Godzilla, then this show was written and is being performed with you in mind! It is clever performance art delivered with deadly seriousness. A guaranteed crowd-pleaser with enough humor and current events included to keep even the partner of a sci-fi geek interested until the last boob is freed! For more information, visit www.shyaporn.com or www.scienceofnerds.com  

Applause! Applause! Review of Beatrice Arthur: Astral Dame at The Laurie Beechman Theatre by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Beatrice Arthur: Astral Dame at The Laurie Beechman Theatre was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Beatrice Arthur: Astral Dame
Performed by Jason B. Schmidt
Director: Amy Anders Corcoran
Music Director: Mason Griffin
The Laurie Beechman Theatre
407 West 42nd Street
New York, New York 10036
Reviewed 8/26/15 

Jason B. Schmidt, who has been impersonating Beatrice Arthur since 2010, is a New York City-based actor, voice over talent and one-half of The Parodivas, a musical comedy group. He played Dorothea in the Golden Girls parody, Thank You For Being A Friend: The Musical. In Beatrice Arthur: Astral Dame, Bea comes back from heaven as an Astral Dame to perform one last show for her fans. Her Astral Stage Manager, Jimmy Durante, has given her the following very sage advice, "Make them laugh. Make them cry. And then Get The Hell Out Of Dodge." Bea Arthur has legions of fans out there, who love her for her work in the theater, and for her roles in movies and on television. People admired the 5'10" Tony and Emmy Award-winning star of Maude, Mame, and The Golden Girls for her brassy, outspoken personality. Everyone knew that Bea Arthur wasn't the kind of woman who would take crap from anyone! (Little known fact: Bea Arthur worked as a truck driver and typist in the United States Marine Corps during World War II receiving an Honorable Discharge in September 1945) It is a pent-up desire to see her again that is filling the seats of this audience-pleasing show.

The creative minds behind Beatrice Arthur: Astral Dame know how to throw "red meat" at Bea's devoted fans. Jason B. Schmidt opens with a medley of The Man In The Moon and Thank You For Being A Friend. Channeling her spirit, Mr. Schmidt then sings a parody of "Let's Get This (Dinner) Party Started," "What'll I Do," and the full Maude television theme, sung intentionally with many dropped lyrics. There are a few jokes in this light-hearted show, none of which brought down the house. She had a dating game skit looking for "single sisters of Dorothy" and lamented that after "working a hundred years," she "ends up doing Dinner Theater." Finally, audio clips from the Golden Girls television show were played where our Bea Arthur impersonator spoke the punch lines that had been edited out. So Dorothy said, "All we have in common is under the sheets." Rose then asks, "what's under the sheets", to which Jason B. Schmidt, as Dorothy, says, "His Cappuccino Maker, Rose!" In another clip, Dorothy relays a story about how she drank champagne but later discovered she had swallowed her engagement ring which turned up two days later. Rose asks, "Where did it turn up?" to which Schmidt, as Dorothy, responds, "On the Home Shopping Network, Rose!" 

The worst skit in the show was when she was allegedly reading quotations from Justin Bieber's memoirs and the most entertaining piece was when she was interacting with an Uncle Arthur (from Bewitched) hand puppet. The hand puppet told two Paul Lynde-style jokes. The first being, "Beauty is only skin deep. But ugly is all the way to the bone!" and "I have very little to say about sex except Yes and Where?" The star of the show was special guest Sutton Lee Seymour (Prescott Seymour), who did the Bosom Buddies duet with Bea Arthur with some changed lyrics (SS: How old are you really? BA: I don't know. SS: Well, how long have you been dead?) During a costume change, Sutton Lee Seymour performed Don't Tell Mama dancing and singing her way into the hearts of the audience. The crowd went wild, which revealed a stark contrast between the electrifying performance of Sutton Lee and the mildly entertaining, relatively mediocre numbers and skits brought to the stage by our impersonator. Sutton Lee Seymour is a charismatic performer with a great stage presence and tremendous energy. Be on the lookout for her! 

In an interview given to Mark Dommu of Next Magazine (published on July 10, 2015), Jason B. Schmidt said this regarding his Bea Arthur impersonation, "She and I aren't really that different. It's just sort of Jason in a wig and then I have to change a couple of vowels - it's not that much of a stretch." In that short quotation, Jason clearly explained what is wrong with this show. He did not do extensive research into Bea Arthur's career, he probably never read or saw her interviews, he spent little time trying to get her intonations and hand gestures down pat (although the wigs and gowns were on target), there is very little biographical information about her in the show and the skits aren't particularly funny. It is simply not a well-researched or well-written show. Still, I have no doubt Bea Arthur fans left the show having enjoyed what they just saw. However, as a critic, I have much higher standards. For more information, visit www.JasonBSchmidt.com 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of Endless Air, Endless Water at the Flamboyan Theater (at the Clemente) by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Endless Air, Endless Water at the Flamboyan Theater (in the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural & Educational Center) was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Endless Air, Endless Water
A Play by Robert Shaffron
Directed by Michael Damico
Scenic Design by Rory Mulholland
Costume Design by Karen Boyer
Flamboyan Theater (at the Clemente)
107 Suffolk Street
New York, New York 10002
Reviewed 8/24/15 

Endless Air, Endless Water by Robert Shaffron was originally a one-act play that participated in the Manhattan Class Company's 6th Annual Class One-Acts Festival in 1994. The work was later taken on as a project of The Blue Comet Company (http://www.bluecometco.com/) where it was revitalized, and reimagined. James David Adelman, who is the Artistic Director of Blue Comet, plays Fred, the veteran astronaut on lunar mission Zodiac 1. Patrick Judd, who is Chief Executive Officer of Blue Comet, plays Ditch, a bright, young, media savvy upstart on his first mission. Michael Damico, the Director, was primarily responsible for changing the tone and message of the play from what it originally was (according to David Richards of The New York Times, "a dopey sketch...where the astronauts are hoisted off their feet by wires and dangle helplessly in space") to one that is relevant today. It raises the important question of whether America is ready to acknowledge and celebrate gay heroes. The play is still set in 1994 but in an alternative universe where many lunar missions have already placed advanced life support and terraforming equipment on the moon to the point where a team of astronauts could stay and live there indefinitely. They would have access to endless air and endless water, in part due to an advanced pee conversion system. Hence, the name of the play.

The set for Endless Air, Endless Water, designed by Rory Mulholland, is realistic and a masterpiece. The costume design by Karen Boyer is equally impressive. All of the actors in this production were top-notch and extremely enjoyable to watch, whether we liked their characters or not. Deon Frank, as Les, the homophobic, name-calling, Mission Control specialist we see on screen (who actually received a kidney from Fred) was absolutely hateful (he even checked with his doctor to see if receiving a kidney from a gay man could cause him problems). There is no doubt, though, that he nailed his role, as did Piper Rae Patterson, as Sheila, Ditch's fiancee. She suspected her bow wasn't straight but fully intended to marry him anyway, for her own purposes. James David Adelman (Fred) and Patrick Judd (Ditch) are both two fine actors, but I didn't feel they had the chemistry to sell the complicated relationship we were exposed to in the Zodiac capsule.  

Fred is not open about his sexuality at work. He was President of his debate team and got married, but is now divorced. Ditch is a young, charismatic guy who was Captain of his High School football team. On liftoff, Ditch supposedly tells Fred he loves him (I didn't hear that over all the noise). Is this hero worship? A confession in the face of possible death? Or an expression of his true feelings? Fred gives Ditch his souvenir moon rock and some flirting ensues (Fred says to Ditch, "Good night my sweet Prince," and Ditch tells Fred, "You are not authorized to imagine my little tingle, Space Trash!") but when Ditch proposes to Sheila in a broadcast from space, Fred gets upset and angry. Ditch tries to explain he is getting married and has an agent in order to advance his career, but Fred believes he has been lied to and encourages Ditch to be "in the moment." Ditch doesn't want to be labeled ("If you label me, you negate me") but in order to show Fred his feelings for him are real, says "Oh my sweet baby Jesus. You want to see now, I'll show you now!". He then pulls Fred close and kisses him, said kiss which is accidentally caught on national television.

Space Control cuts them off with no communication for 18 hours. Fred reflects, "This is just like the boys in the locker room. No difference. Nothing changes." When Les comes back, he spews hateful epithets, calling them faggots and asking them to pray with him to reject their perversity. Les also says he wants them to read a statement to the effect that they were part of a "gay space chimp-like experiment" where the company always knew they were gay and that they were part of an experiment testing the effect of space on resistant homosexual hormones. Unexpectedly, the reaction of the public to the gay astronauts is positive and the kiss is featured on the cover of many magazines ("Love Among The Stars"). Fred doesn't wish to be famous at all and certainly not as an oddity and refuses to make any statements. He suggests he and Ditch just go to the moon and stay there indefinitely, but Ditch tells Fred he is a hero to him and that in his book "heroes don't run away." He asks Fred to trust him and to turn over control of the ship, which he had taken away from Mission Control. Ditch, a moral relativist, who believes "perception is reality" and "what seems is more important than what is", agrees to make a statement on national television and does. To find out what he says, you will need to see the play.

Endless Air, Endless Water is a work in progress. There needs to be a further development of the motivations of the characters and some additional updating of the material. There is great potential here and this current production was entertaining and enjoyable. In fact, it was astronomic! If you want to contribute to the advancement of this project, visit The Blue Comet Company's current Indiegogo Campaign at http://igg.me/at/bluecomet/x 

Applause! Applause! Review of Straight Faced Lies at Teatro Latea (at the Clemente) by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Straight Faced Lies at Teatro Latea (in the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural & Educational Center) was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Straight Faced Lies
A Play by Mark Jason Williams
Directed by Andrew Block
Teatro Latea (at the Clemente)
107 Suffolk Street
New York, New York 10002
Reviewed 8/24/15 

If you are in the mood to witness an extremely dysfunctional family that I guarantee will make you feel better about your own, then this is the play for you. Straight Faced Lies takes place the night before and on Thanksgiving. Mark Ryan, the father, is being let out of prison and is coming home just in time for Thanksgiving dinner. Cathy Ryan, his wife, is hosting the dinner at her home in his honor and wants nothing to interfere with that. Her two children, Melissa and James (who lives with her), will be there as will Melissa's boyfriend Joe (who was invited) and James' boyfriend Kip (who was not invited). Marie, who is Cathy's sister, will also be in attendance. 
Early on, we hear the line, "We tell lies to others and ourselves," and every character in this play with the exception of Kip and Joe, the two non-family members, tell big, straight faced lies to themselves and each other. 

Marie, the mother's alcoholic sister, has just been dumped by her latest boyfriend. She hid from her niece and nephew that she once had an abortion "that screwed up her insides" making her unable to bear children. She is man-crazy ("Guys are like dicks. One is never enough.") and hates God for giving her ex-husband cancer and allowing him to suffer ("God made my husband suffer. Now he is making me suffer. So maybe God is a bit of a dick.")  Melissa, the daughter, has been hiding the fact she is pregnant and doesn't really love her boyfriend Joe. While they were having sex, she was texting and when she got bored, she told him, "I'm done!" and selfishly expected him to get off her. She had no problem saying to her mother, "You are a real cunt!" and "You are a deeply disturbed woman!" James, the son, is lying to himself and everyone else about his being gay and having been in a one-year relationship with Kip. He denies he loves Kip straight to his face and is resentful his mother made him "man of the house" as a teenager after his father went to prison for selling illegal drugs to his sister's girlfriend, who died as a result. Cathy, the mother, knew about the father's drug-selling activities but never told the children because they had a lot of bills piling up that needed to be paid.     

Absurdity reigns in this production. Cathy, the psychotic mother, receives a phone call that her husband Mark has killed himself. She explains she told the police to drop off his dead body at their home because she intends to prop him up at the table to have that one last dinner together with her family. The police supposedly agreed (which is completely ridiculous) and when her family members suggest they are leaving, she pulls a loaded gun on them and forces them to eat dinner at gunpoint (When she asked how the turkey was, Kip responded, "I'd rather talk about the elephant"). The mother, who was Miss Poughkeepsie three years in a row, shoots a buffet into the ceiling to prove it was really loaded, but when it's all over and Melissa suggests to James they consider having their mother committed to a mental institution, he inexplicably responds, "No, she's fine." The daughter's boyfriend Joe then ends up making out with his girlfriend's mother and finally, to cap off the absurdity, the police do eventually show up, first to arrest Marie for using her ex-boyfriend's credit card, and later, to drop off the father's corpse ("Daddy's home!")

Some of the best lines in the play come from discussion of James' secret. Marie catches Kip kissing James "on his tulips." Melissa asks, "Have you told mom yet." and when he says no, she says, "Too bad, Too bad. News like that might kill her." James then learns Melissa is pregnant and says, "It seems we both have a big fat secret." Kip says, "who are you calling fat?" In another exchange Kip admits he is "constantly rubbing off on James," and when the mother is concerned with James' behavior and asks, "What has gotten into that boy today?", Kip responds, "Not me! Not me!" Cathy, the mother, says "who cares what someone else does as long as I don't have to see it," and once James is finally outed, she confronts her own son over his not telling her by saying, "if you can't stand up to me, how are you going to face up to the rest of the world."

The two strongest actors in this production were Cindy Marchionda, who played Marie, and Curtis Wiley, who was Kip. Both truly embodied their characters and brought light to the stage by their very presence. Jacob Thompson excelled in the role of James if the goal was to make him into an unsympathetic asshole who the audience hoped would die. By the last scene when he tried to make up with Kip, the audience was rooting against him and secretly cheered when Kip pushed him away and knocked him onto the ground. Geraldine Librandi (Cathy), Dana Domenick (Melissa), and Joey Collins (Joe) all did fine jobs bringing their characters to life.

Straight Faced Lies is supposed to be a comedy, and while I will admit there are a few funny lines in the show, from the perspective of the audience, it is more like being trapped on a ride descending into hell. There are no likeable characters in the Ryan family and none have any redeeming qualities. It is a complete downer and once the mother pulls out a gun with the intention of forcing her guests to have Thanksgiving Dinner with the corpse of her dead husband, the play goes too far in my opinion. Realism is thrown out the window and I was not inclined to give the play a pass by suspending my disbelief. Nevertheless, if you have recently complained about the bad relationship you have with your parents or siblings, save money on therapy and just see this show. It will instantly make you feel better!   

Straight Faced Lies premiered as part of New York City's Planet Connections Festivity in 2013 where Mark Jason Williams won the Outstanding Playwriting for New Script Award. The show I saw was part of the 19th Annual New York International Fringe Festival, and the play has already been accepted as an entry in the 2015 Capital Fringe. For more information, visit www.straightfacedlies.com   

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of Inspector Descending at The Secret Theatre by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Eddie Aronoff's Inspector Descending at The Secret Theatre was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Inspector Descending
Written by Eddie Aronoff
Directed by Thomas G. Waites
Produced by Shelley Molad
The Secret Theatre
44-02 23rd Street
Long Island City, New York 11101
Reviewed 8/23/15 

Inspector Descending is loosely based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Crime & Punishment," written by Eddie Aronoff from the perspective of the Inspector. In the original book, Raskolnikov, a conflicted former student, lives in a tiny, rented room. He refuses all help from his friends and plans to murder and rob Alyona Ivanovna, an unpleasant elderly, pawnbroker and money lender. His motivation comes from the overwhelming sense that he is predestined to kill the old woman by some power outside of himself. After much deliberation, he sneaks into the woman's apartment, where he murders her with an axe. He also kills her half-sister, Lizaveta, who happens to stumble upon the scene of the crime. Shaken by his actions, he manages to steal only a handful of items before he flees unseen and undetected. Raskolnikov then falls into a feverish state and begins to worry obsessively over the murder. As the fever comes and goes in the following days, he behaves as though he wishes to betray himself. He shows strange reactions to whoever mentions the murder of the pawnbroker. In his delirium, he wanders about, drawing more and more attention to himself and his relation to the crime. Raskolnikov eventually meets detective Porfiry (the Inspector in this play), who begins to suspect him of the murder purely on psychological grounds. As they continue to meet, Porfiry becomes increasingly certain of the man's guilt but has no concrete evidence or witnesses with which to back up his suspicion. Furthermore, another man has confessed to committing the crime. Porfiry confronts Raskolnikov with his suspicions and assures him that confession would substantially lighten his sentence. He eventually admits to committing the crime and is sentenced to eight years of penal servitude in Siberia.

In this play set in Moscow in 1868, the Inspector is having an affair with Lizaveta, the younger step-sister of Alyona Ivanovna. Lizaveta has just told him she is pregnant with his child and although the Inspector once loved her and promised to marry her, he is no longer inclined to fulfill his commitment. The Inspector has a dream of Alyona and Lizaveta being axed to death and the audience is strongly led to believe the Inspector did it, because when he "woke up," he is found to have blood on his coat. He is also observed covering up evidence and waiting for an unidentified student to confess. In addition, Lizaveta has no defensive wounds so it appears she knew her assailant. Even the Inspector's assistants suspect him of the crime even after Nikolai, who tried to hang himself and was caught trying to pawn a pair of Lizaveta's earrings, confesses. The noose seems to be tightening around the Inspector's neck until, in the last scene, similar to what happens in the book, Raskolnikov, the conflicted former student, confesses to having committed the crimes.

Inspector Descending is supposed to be a comedy but except for the Flock of Cocks and the opinion that asking a prostitute for permission seems a bit unnecessary (like asking your horse if you can saddle it), I didn't find anything in this play particularly funny. In fact, I perceived it to be a serious drama and was surprised to learn it was intended as a comedy. The added element of allowing the recently deceased to speak and interact with the living, I thought to be quite a clever technique that advanced the story line. Following up with the playwright after the show, he explained he never intended to suggest this play was a "comedy" in the traditional sense of the word. He used the word "comedy" in contrast to "tragedy" as explained on page 142 of Harold Bloom's book on Eugene O'Neill, where it is explained that with respect to comedies, a play has a "comic structure insofar as characters project a mask that shows one image and hides another (as in the case of the Inspector projecting an image of professionalism and piety when in fact he is probably "guilty of everything" in the play except the murder). In tragedy, however, the characters glimpse the underside of their own masks, while comic characters seldom have to confront an unmasked image of themselves." 

Included in this work are some philosophical words of wisdom dispensed by the various characters. For example, the Inspector said, "We are at the mercy of everything we haven't experienced and don't know." and 'Happiness is elusive - I'm unhappy with you or without you, but less unhappy with you." The General Prosecutor said, "The question of our age is how to be relevant, how to matter." and "The truth is simply a lie better told." Finally, Zamyatov reflected that you have to admit that "when you do a favor for another person, it's only natural that there is a slight tipping of the balance."

All the actors in this UNFringed Festival 2015 entry at The Secret Theatre were talented and above par in every way. However, the standout performers in this cast of fifteen were Jake Minevich (Zamyatov), Dennis Wit (General Prosecutor), Nicholas Bonaparte (Nikolai/Workman), Cathie Boruch (Alyona), and Hannah Wolfe (Lizaveta). I give the playwright credit for trying to breathe new life into this classic tale. Since this is the first of his works to be publicly staged and produced, I offer him encouragement to continue to get his plays out there before audiences. It is only in this way that Eddie Aronoff will be able to see what works and what doesn't. I wish him well.