Saturday, November 18, 2017

Applause! Applause! Review of Susan Gross' Ruby at The Bridge Theatre (Shelter Studios) by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Ruby at The Bridge Theatre (Shelter Studios) was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Ruby
Written & Performed by Susan Gross
Directed by Jake Lipman
Stage Managed by Angeline Nortz
Featuring Song "Hudson Ferry" by Clayton Colwell
The Bridge Theatre (Shelter Studios)
244 West 54th Street
New York, New York 10019
Reviewed 10/22/17

Susan Gross is amazing in Ruby, a solo show which explores the emotional and intellectual reactions a woman may have after losing a baby. Many people have miscarriages but nobody talks about it. This show explores the topic from the perspective of the would-be mother. Ruby opens with Susan Gross sitting alone in an upscale restaurant eating a $15.00 salad. She is being annoyed by a baby who won't stop crying and eventually asks the mother to take the baby outside. When the mother resists and tells her she will understand when she has a baby, Susan loses it and calls the mother an "asshole" acknowledging to the audience her recognition that she is a bitch. But the problem, we learn, is that Susan has just had a miscarriage, losing a baby at 10-weeks she intended to call Ruby. This was an emotionally traumatic experience for her and she is hypersensitive to things her friends and strangers say to her. For example, it drives her nuts when someone tells her that her unborn baby is now "in a better place." Statements, actions, and situations that never bothered her before now get on her nerves. She finds it difficult to sleep and recognizes she is having thoughts and feelings she never anticipated having, such as her reaction to that crying baby.

Susan's character has a very petite frame. If she eats a big breakfast, she may show in a way others may perceive as evidencing her being pregnant. People have commented on this so many times, she is thinking of having a tee shirt made that reads, "Not pregnant but I shouldn't have had that everything bagel with cream cheese." Some people are even more aggressive placing the palm of their hand on her stomach and saying, "Are we pregnant?" What she wants to say in such instances is, "Take your fucking hands off me!" reflecting the rage she feels within. Instead, she just says no but warns the audience they should never, under any circumstances, "comment on a woman's stomach." Another thing that really bothers her is when a friend may ask her, "Susan, why don't you have kids? You'd make a great mother." What is she supposed to say besides thanks? Is she supposed to go into detail and tell everyone how hard she has tried? Perhaps she should reveal that she has never tried to avoid a pregnancy using Plan A or Plan B but has always been forced into using Plan D & C (Dilation & Curettage).

Women who have babies now annoy her. As she said, "My neighbor just had a baby so I hate her!" At night, when she hears that baby cry, she fantasizes she might be able to hold and comfort that baby better than her neighbor but at the same time, is concerned that if Ruby had been born, she may have inherited whatever genetic disorders she suffers from - such as celiac disease. She also hates women who appear to "push one out after every episode of Law & Order" and gets especially angry when a friend tells her, "You just have to wait and see what God has in store for you." Instead of waiting, she sometimes has thoughts of snatching someone else's baby after which she will say, "Yes, Jesus, I'm blessed. He's now mine!" Intellectually, she realizes she is not the only woman to have had a miscarriage but she shares with the audience that recognition hasn't helped her adjust to the reality of her situation. As she reflects on the future, she believes she may try again. For now, she has locked the door but hasn't put a deadlock on it. 

Susan Gross reflects that "we all struggle but we live and move along - we keep going" so for now, she is going to have "a glass of wine and look at the city" through her apartment window. I was extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to see the very talented Susan Gross perform this show - and I did so while having a glass of wine myself. For more information about Ruby and Susan Gross, go to www.nycsusan.com 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Applause! Applause! Review of Valerie David's The Pink Hulk at The Bridge Theatre (Shelter Studios) by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Valerie David's The Pink Hulk at The Bridge Theatre (Shelter Studios) was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Pink Hulk
One Woman's Journey To Find The Superhero Within
Written & Performed by Valerie David
Directed by Padraic Lillis
Stage Managed by Angeline Nortz
The Bridge Theatre (Shelter Studios)
244 West 54th Street
New York, New York 10019
Reviewed 10/22/17

The Pink Hulk is Valerie David's autobiographical story about her journey to become a two-time cancer survivor. A serious, depressing topic, no doubt, but Valerie David retrospectively finds humor in the situation relaying her desperate struggle to get laid before she "loses the girls." In 1999, she beat back Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Cancer free for 15 years, the experience gave her a "lust for life," which contributed to her ignoring a 3-month old lump she felt in her breast. Encouraged by her friends, she went for a mammogram and biopsy in 2014 only to learn she had breast cancer and would require a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. She faces friends who distance themselves from her, extreme loneliness (especially since she no longer had a boyfriend), and eventually comes to a point where she made a commitment to herself to go through this latest challenge stronger than she did the last time and on her own terms.

The funniest part of this one-woman show is when she describes the many men she contacted trying to get them to sleep with her prior to her going in for surgery. Her blunt honesty turned off a number of men and others she was attracted to, unfortunately, played for the other team. Valerie David finally found solace performing improv for the Cronuts at the Peoples Improv Theater, which allowed her to transform herself into anyone but her. Still, the horrible and painful consequences of the chemotherapy and radiation could not be ignored even though the lumpectomy was a complete success. She lost all her hair, prematurely went into menopause, and gained 30 pounds. She decided not to harvest her eggs so she had to additionally deal with the fact she was never going to have children. She describes how breast cancer was a direct attack on her status as a woman. As Valerie David put it, "The results of the cancer treatment damaged my self-confidence as a woman and destroyed my ability to feel attractive."

Two months after the last cancer treatment, she decided to train for and enter a bike marathon, which she viewed as an opportunity to show she had prevailed over this latest attack on her body. She summoned her strength and focused all the rage and anger she felt within (just like The Hulk) to finish the race, after which she proclaimed, "I beat you cancer! I won." Of course, there still remained her insecurity regarding her attractiveness but that was resolved by a campsite encounter with a younger man who told her her breasts were beautiful. Confidence restored, Valerie David, who has the talent of a Broadway star, decided to write this show to share her experiences with others and to help people understand and empathize with what their friends diagnosed with cancer may be going through. 

The Pink Hulk began touring the country in 2016 and Valerie David began accumulating awards for this extraordinarily moving, candid, and insightful show. She was awarded the Queen's Medal For Valour by the Sara-Solo Festival, and the Best Survivor Award in the Pittsburgh Fringe. I highly recommend you see this show when it comes to your city. The Pink Hulk is a 60-minute experience you will not soon forget. For more information, go to www.PinkHulkPlay.com 

Applause! Applause! Review of Lizzie Sider & Friends at The Triad Theatre by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Lizzie Sider & Friends at The Triad Theatre was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Lizzie Sider & Friends
Starring Lizzie Sider
Musical Director: Joe Vulpis
Keys & Vocals: Joe Vulpis
Acoustic Guitar: Jim Gateley
Cajon: Tyler Killer 
The Triad Theatre
158 West 72nd Street
New York, New York 10023
Reviewed 11/4/17

Lizzie Sider, a native Floridian who was born and raised in Boca Raton, was originally scheduled to perform at The Metropolitan Room but due to its closure in anticipation of re-opening at a new location, her show, Lizzy Sider & Friends, was hosted at The Triad Theatre. There was no cover charge and all monies collected or donated went to benefit Lizzie's Anti-Bullying Non-Profit Organization called Nobody Has The Power To Ruin Your Day, something said to her by her father when she was a young girl being bullied herself. Those who were lucky enough to be in attendance got the opportunity to see this wholesome, talented, charming, charismatic, 19-year-old rising star who is becoming increasingly well-known and already has a huge following worldwide. She sang an eclectic mix of songs including her debut single, "Butterfly" (written by Lizzie along with renowned artist and songwriter Jamie O'Neal, lyricist Lisa Drew, and Jimmy Murphy), which has received over one million views on YouTube. She was also named an "Artist To Watch" by Country Music Association's Close-Up Magazine and a "Top 5 Female Country Newcomer." She has appeared on Entertainment Tonight, Access HollywoodFox News, Crook & Chase, The Better Show, the Queen Latifah Show and Hallmark's Home & Family. Lizzie finished off the day performing at the 111th Annual Beaux Arts Ball held at Terrace On The Park, where she sang "Butterfly" and performed a duet with Charlie Romo, a local rising star out of Staten Island, who was recently named a Distinguished Artist of the Beaux Arts Society, a non-profit arts organization founded in1857.

Lizzie has personally taken her Bully Prevention School Assembly Tour to more than 500 schools throughout the country reaching over 250,000 students. Her latest project is an on-screen video adaptation of her live assembly that is offered to schools for free and stresses the importance of everyone standing up to stop bullying. To date, more than 5,000 schools, representing over 3,500,000 children from all fifty states and beyond, have requested the video package. Lizzie is committed to being a positive role model for kids and is proud to be a spokesperson for organizations such as PACER Teens Against Bullying, GWEN (Global Women's Empowerment Network) and Hatebreakers.org from whom she has received the "Peter Yarrow Hatebreaker Award" for her work in bully prevention. In her spare time, she has performed over 20 National Anthems at Major League sporting events (including for the Nashville Predators, Miami Marlins, Florida Panthers, Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers & Boston Red Sox), and her second single release and music video, "I Love You That Much" (music and lyrics by Joe Vulpis), charted in the Top 40 on Nashville's Music Row Chart. Because of the immense connection she feels towards young children, Lizzie has performed at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital, the Ronald McDonald House, and the Children's Hospital Los Angeles. In Nashville, she has performed at the famous Bluebird Cafe, Hard Rock Cafe, Bridgestone Arena, and City Winery.

Original songs and covers were featured during her extremely entertaining show. Joe Vulpis, her musical director, provided backup vocals and even performed himself during a costume change break. Lizzie Sider can sing in a variety of different styles and carried each off without a hitch. If you catch one of her shows, you will hear everything from Ain't No Sunshine to Walking After Midnight. She even added a medley of Carole King songs. Her love of country-western music came from spending her summers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Besides being a singer/songwriter, Lizzie Sider is also an actress and dancer. During the 2015 Summer Season at the Jackson Hole Playhouse, she played Martha in Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, and most recently, she closed out the 2016 Summer Season as Cat Ballou in the original musical adaptation of The Ballad Of Cat Ballou. Also in 2016, her original song, "Summer Love Song," also performed in this show, was featured as the opening track of the Hallmark Original Movie, A Time To Dance, starring Jennie Garth and Corbin Bernsen.

Lizzie Sider was impeccably dressed and fed off the positive energy of the audience in this sold-out show. She utilized the small stage to great effect moving around on it and off it when appropriate. She played the guitar and the piano and sang solo and duets with Joe Vulpis, her supportive long-time musical director. Lizzie brought positive energy and an optimistic attitude into the room leaving everyone with a smile on their face and the belief that even you may be able to spread your little butterfly wings to achieve your own dreams. She reminded everyone that "we are all so beautiful and confident at our core." Never give anyone the power to ruin your day! To see where Lizzie Sider is performing next, visit her website at www.LizzieSider.com. For more information or to donate to her Anti-Bulling Charity, visit www.NobodyHasThePowerToRuinYourDay.org.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Schoenberg Spotlight Review of Murder On The Orient Express by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg

This review of Murder On The Orient Express was written by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg and published in the online edition of The Schoenberg Spotlight.

Murder On The Orient Express
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay by Michael Green
Music by Patrick Doyle
Cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos
Edited by Mick Audsley
Release Date - 11/10/17 (United States)
Reviewed 11/10/17

On opening day, I watched the latest cinematic version of Murder On The Orient Express. I viewed the movie only to discover I liked the movie trailers better than the film itself. The only part of the picture I liked was the cinematic portrayal of the train in all its glory leaving Istanbul and speeding through the countryside. I asked myself why I was disappointed with the current motion picture. 

First, I ruled out that occupations and nationalities of some of the characters had been changed to reflect the more multicultural nature of the audience. Leslie Odom's logical connection to the Armstrong family was well-explained although he is an African doctor who was not original to the novel.

Rather, there was a major change of the interplay between the characters. Hercule Poirot lacked the doctor and director of the Orient Express railroad company at his side where he had interplay with them as he investigated the case and explained some of his findings. As a result, there was no tension as he interrogated his suspects.

The 2017 celluloid had as almost a distinguished cast as the 1974 film but alas their performances were not as convincing as their counterparts a generation earlier. The 2017 crew gave wooden performances in which you did not quite believe who they were in contrast to the 1974 actors who really gave smashing performances. Although Kenneth Branagh's version of the Belgian detective spoke a more understandable English and had a better mustache in the 2017 picture. Albert Finney gave the more credible performance in 1974. I felt that the 1974 cast of well-known international actors such as Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery were far more believable than the 2017 roster of superstars headed by Johnny Depp and Judi Dench. I also felt that Sidney Lumet in 1974 had a better version of how to do the novel as a movie than Kenneth Branagh did in 2017. 

I am not going to give away the ending but the 2017 resolution was different than that in the 1974 movie and Agatha Christie's novel. The 2017 ending simply does not work. You don't feel justice has been served or that the moral sensibility of Hercule Poirot has been satisfied. Although Roslyn Sulcus in her New York Times review praised the epic, she did write that English critics felt quite different from their counterparts in America. "Despite its credentials - and impeccable styling -  this Orient Express never gets up a head of steam," Robbie Collin wrote in The Telegraph, adding, "a shade more playfulness would have gone a long way."

In short, you believed you were traveling on the Orient Express in the 1974 movie but not in the 2017 film. You simply aren't able to suspend your disbelief that you were on a train in the current version. In the end, I felt the 2017 Murder On The Orient Express was not worth watching.

Applause! Applause! Review of Valerie David's The Pink Hulk at The Bridge Theatre (Shelter Studios) by Christopher M. Struck

This review of Valerie David's The Pink Hulk at The Bridge Theatre (Shelter Studios) was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Pink Hulk
Written & Performed by Valerie David
The Bridge Theatre (Shelter Studios)
244 West 54th Street
New York, New York 10019
Reviewed 10/24/17

Valerie David performed her frank, direct, and vibrant one-woman show excellently. As she discussed her path to beating a second bout of cancer, we are reminded of the major milestones of life and the importance of forging strong personal relationships. Unfortunately, in Valerie David's case, some of those relationships dissolved while others were strengthened as she transformed from a frightened, though defiant woman struck by cancer, into a strong, determined fighter who feeds off her anger like a "Pink Hulk."

Through a loose connection to Mark Ruffalo, the current Marvel green man, David gained strength to fight with her anger at having been struck with this deadly affliction a second time. She talks about the disruption that cancer caused, the damage it did to her physically and how it altered her life. When she once had a promising career as an actress and friends she thought were there for her, things changed drastically after the onset of cancer. Her career and friendships took an entirely different route. The physical parts were stark and real. The pain and loneliness were understandably striking and uncomfortable. Her story will move and inspire you.

What resonated the most was her intense drive and desire to participate in a bike marathon even though her body was still suffering from the effect of her "cure." She made the decision to race as an "FU" to the pain and weight gain that came with the disease for her. She was determined to handle things better the second time around, and she definitely did. That moment when she crossed the finish line was a victory for her and for cancer patients everywhere. The courage it took was a testament to the strength of an individual.

Her vulnerability and ability to share and communicate clearly the worries of love and life associated with her struggles made this one-woman show a worthwhile venture. I would recommend it to anyone but especially to women. A large part of the show does seem to be more relevant to the opposite gender, but the struggle to become a cancer survivor is something all people can relate to. If you want to see how someone successfully transforms tragedy into metamorphosis, this is the perfect opportunity.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Applause! Applause! Review of Arden/Everywhere: The "As You Like It" Project at Baruch Performing Arts Center by Christopher M. Struck

This review of Arden/Everywhere: The "As You Like It" Project at Baruch Performing Arts Center was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Arden/Everywhere: The "As You Like It" Project
Written by William Shakespeare (As You Like It)
Conceived, Adapted & Directed by Jessica Bauman
Produced by Lico Whitfield
Stage Manager: Kristine Schlachter
Set Design: Gabriel Hainer Evansohn
Lighting Design: Christina Watanabe
Sound Design: Matt Otto
Costume Design: Nicole Slaven
Props Design: Zach Serafin
Movement Director: Brandon Powers
Fighting Scenes Director: Carmen Lacavita
Casting Director: Judy Bowman
Baruch Performing Arts Center (BPAC)
55 Lexington Avenue
New York, New York 10010
Reviewed 10/20/17

Arden/Everywhere: The "As You Like It" Project appeared at first glance to be an original production about immigration, but it is, in fact, Shakespeare's As You Like It with some additional scenes involving refugees also living in the Forest of Arden. The classic comedy about people who find themselves exiled and living in the forest is expanded to take a broader look at the world of dislocation to discover resilience, reconciliation, and love. The immigrant experience is portrayed in sidebars taking place during scene changes. The eventual climax is a Tower of Babel "happening" at which time multiple immigrants tell their individual story in different languages at the same time. The ensemble cast of immigrant actors who play the refugees who live in the Forest of Arden, include Ali Arkane (Lebanese-American), Murodilla Fatkhullaev (Uzbekistan), Ale Mesa (Cuban-American), Denisse Jimenez (Columbia), Anton Kurdakov (Russia), Jorge Pluas (Ecuador), and George Tarr (Liberia). They bring to Arden a unique world that includes their own individual cultures (dress/music) as well as the international language of soccer. Their days are spent filling jugs at a water pump and checking a Bulletin Board in the hope that some country has decided to allow them entry. 


For the most part, this was a straightforward production of Shakespeare with little deviation, except at the end, when only the nobility gets visas to return to Court. This being my first viewing of this particular Shakespeare Comedy, I was interested given the fact that this is the play that features the soliloquy which includes the famous "All the world's a stage" line. This was delivered effectively and enthusiastically by Tommy Schrider, whose character otherwise didn't seem to play a significant role in the play. Unfortunately, his lamentations as one of the "parade" of interesting characters living in the forest are undercut to some extent by the influx of refugees that interrupted the natural fluidity to that particular aspect of the play. Fortunately, this cast included a number of talented actors, even though some of the performances were lackluster.

The acting duo of Helen Cespedes as Rosalind and Liba Vaynberg as Celia was fun to observe. The two of them made this play worth watching as they laughed with each other and interacted wonderfully. Basically, the play is about Helen's Rosalind (the daughter of a banished Duke) running off to the Forest of Arden dressed as a man with her childhood friend Celia after being banished by Celia's father, the "New Duke." Similar to Candide, the play makes fun of the way leadership changes often took place without the death of the rival leader leaving opportunity for rebellion. 

Complicating things is the character and parallel story of Orlando (Anthony Cason Jr.) who defeats the New Duke's champion fighter and coincidentally follows them into the forest when he must escape his brother's wrath. I wasn't as enthused by Cason's performance as Orlando, but he enunciated clearly and performed adequately. Part of it was that beside the fantastic Cespedes, he just didn't shine. Having fallen in love with Orlando, Rosalind, dressed as a man, convinces the infatuated Orlando to act like he is winning her hand while believing she is a "he." The whole "love affair" captured the audience, because Cespedes did a fantastic job lamenting on the travails and trials of love. Even more so during her cross-gender portion, Cespedes raised the level of this production. However, Cespedes and Vaynberg weren't the only actors giving impressive performances. Dennis Kozee played the role of Touchstone, the fool, very well, and Kenneth De Abrew made a convincing impression as Corin, a merchant in the forest. The combination of these two balanced out the cast which otherwise seemed overshadowed by the strengths of Cespedes and Vaynberg. Additionally, Dikran Tulaine made a fun combination of New and Old Duke. 

From my perspective, Arden/Everywhere: The "As You Like It" Project was worth the time to see. The set and lighting were of the highest quality and the revised play made important points regarding refugees and their collective experiences. Jessica Bauman has been developing Arden/Everywhere: The "As You Like It" Project for almost three years. For more information about The "As You Like It" Project, visit www.ardeneverywhere.com  

Applause! Applause! Review of The Elephant Man at The Gallery Players by Christopher M. Struck

This review of The Elephant Man at The Gallery Players was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Elephant Man
Written by Bernard Pomerance
Directed by Mark Gallagher
Executive Producer: Mark Harborth
Director of Production: Scott Cally
Production Stage Manager: Katelyn Kocher
Lighting & Video Designer: Heather Crocker
Costume Designer: Joey Haws
Scenic Designer: Matthew S. Crane
Props Designer: Roxanne Goodby
Original Music Composition: Jacob Subotnick
The Gallery Players
199 14th Street
Brooklyn, New York 11215
Reviewed 11/5/17

The Gallery Players strikes the right note with this production of the recently successful Broadway revival. The Elephant Man originally premiered at the Hampstead Theatre in London on November 7, 1977. It opened on Broadway at the Booth Theatre in 1979 where it ran for 916 performances and won the Tony Award for Best Play. A Broadway revival at the Royale Theatre in April 2002 ran for 57 performances. A 13-week run of The Elephant Man starring Bradley Cooper opened at the Booth Theatre on December 7, 2014, earning Cooper, who appeared as John Merrick, a Tony nomination for Best Actor. The story is based on the life of Joseph Merrick, referred to in the script as John Merrick, who lived in the Victorian Era and was known for the extreme deformity of his body. The role of John Merrick in the play is a challenging and emotional one as the actor is tasked with contorting his body, throwing his voice, and delving into a character whose deformities have left him devoid of meaningful human contact. M. Rowan Meyer excels in the role, shining amongst an impressive cast.


The Elephant Man, John Merrick, a horribly disfigured man, was found by Frederick Treves, a promising young doctor, at a freak show. Adam Unze was simply awesome as this internally torn individual who finds himself both Merrick's only champion and protector but also put into a morally compromising position by the fame Merrick later gains (for both Treves and himself). After enduring being cast out and savagely beaten, Merrick is eventually reunited with Treves and after a successful fundraising campaign is allowed to live a life of comparable peace in the London Hospital with Treves as caretaker.

Dr. Treves has difficulty finding someone who will assist in helping him take care of Merrick who despite being cleaned up, even scares off a nurse who has worked with plague victims across the world. It is up to the wonderful, loving actress, Mrs. Kendal, brought to life by the equally talented real-life actress, Elisabeth Preston, to bond with Merrick. This is really where the emotional toll of the earlier sequences of the play develop further as Preston, Merrick, and Kendal pontificate on the construction of identity, the search for meaning in life, and the stark reality of Merrick's impossible search for normalcy. Perhaps most moving is Merrick's discussion of selflessness and love as he contemplates his own loneliness compared to the vanity of youth in Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. Eventually, the story comes full circle with the unavoidable death of Merrick in 1890, only four years after his return to the hospital. The afflictions he has borne since birth eventually kill him through suffocation as his head collapses his neck.

The three actors already mentioned were supported by the talented group of Daniel Damiano, Alfred Gingold, Christopher Romero Wilson, Brooke DeAnna Robinson, and Jesi Mullens. Most memorable of these characters is, in my opinion, Gingold's representation of Francis Carr-Gomm, Treves' employer, the chairman of the London Hospital. Carr-Gomm is such a key character at every moment that he joins the stage because he appears at key turning points and simultaneously creates a perspective of respect for life and contriteness about death. Despite these positive attributes (including his having led the fundraising campaign that allowed John Merrick to live out his days in the safe environment of the London Hospital), the cast, during the after show talk-back, gave him (the character) a hard time for his efficient (though not emotional) letter written on behalf of Merrick after his death. I am not certain I understood their perspective, but Gingold plays the role well. 

If you get a chance to see this or any play put on by The Gallery Players, I am sure you will enjoy it. Tickets, $30.00 for adults, and $20.00 for seniors/students can be purchased online at http://galleryplayers.com/box-office/ or by calling 212-352-3101. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Applause! Applause! Review of The Mecca Tales at The Sheen Center For Thought & Culture by Christopher M. Struck

This review of The Mecca Tales at The Sheen Center For Thought & Culture was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Mecca Tales
Written by Rohina Malik
Directed by Kareem Fahmy
Set Design by David Esler
Costume Design by Teresa Snider-Stein
Lighting Design by Devorah Kengmana
Sound Design by Fan Zhang
Technical Direction by Anthony Ross
Stage Managed by Keri Landeiro
Choreography by Theara J. Ward
The Sheen Center For Thought & Culture
18 Bleecker Street
New York, New York 10012
Reviewed 10/29/17

The Mecca Tales shares the five very divergent, diverse, and humanizing perspectives of unique, but representative Muslim women participating in a Hajj Pilgrimage. While the tensions among them rise and each woman came to this holy journey for a significant and particular purpose, nothing was beyond normality. These were five very normal stories of five very normal women from around the world who just happened to be Muslim. I think that was largely the point of the entire project: to show people that Muslims are just people too. What was nicer about the play was that it was relatable and entertaining to watch. Yes, there were some moments when the actors were limited by the boundaries of unrealistic or uncreative dialogue. Regardless, they were thoroughly convincing to the point that I believed all the actors must be doing this play out of a religious desire to absolve the religion of the misconceptions of secular evil. It turns out only one of the cast members was actually Muslim or of Islamic origin. Kudos to everyone for being a serious actor and acting the part.


The five women included Grace (Kimberly S. Fairbanks), the group's New York-based organizer and guide; Maya (Mariam Habib), a refugee from an undisclosed Middle Eastern country; Malika (Jade Radford), a medical student from a single-parent household; Alma (Cynthia Bastidas), a woman from Argentina whose husband is British; and Bina (Gulshan Mia), a well-off Pakistani housewife married to a successful neurosurgeon. Each of these women has their own reasons for having decided to join this travel group, which the audience learns about through flashbacks. They all hope to return "purified" from this "pilgrimage" and while they are no doubt devout Muslims making the journey for religious reasons, it doesn't prevent them from sporting "2017 Pilgrimage Tote Bags." From being turned away from their pre-paid tents by Saudi Arabian authorities to the final gesture of having a believer cut a lock of their hair and burying it in the sand, The Mecca Tales projects an air of authenticity as the group struggles with emotional issues of grave concern to them.

The Hajj Pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam and is meant to be performed once in the life of every Muslim. Every year, millions make the annual trek to see Mecca, which can be physically and financially demanding. Obscurity about the event and the required religious elements exists only because the specifics of the significant aspects of the trip are rarely highlighted in a brief summary of Islam. The Mecca Tales does a good job of describing or at least highlighting the various religious traditions that are meant to be completed while undertaking the Hajj. The actresses also emphasized that there should be both a purpose for undertaking the Hajj as well as a focus on the purity of one's intentions and faith for it to be "accepted."

The main dramatic arch of the play focuses on the acceptance of the ladies' Hajj. Their guide on the trip, Grace (Kimberly S. Fairbanks) is tasked with helping the women find their way while undertaking her own Hajj for the 10th time. While the women work through their various challenges, it becomes clear that Grace has some unfinished business on the Hajj. Her own business is probably the most "painful" given that it is the main one that dwells on death. Still, while most of the women's experiences are not excruciatingly painful, they are still important life challenges. Things such as never kissing a truly significant loved one or whether life will go on if one accepts her husband's divorce proposal are for some characters as serious as losing one's lover after the end of a three-hour armistice.

Grace, on the other hand, never finished her first Hajj, because she lost her son on the trip. He died giving her a message to carry on, and it took the other women on this particular trip to make her realize that she could set aside those demons of the past by completing the pilgrimage. If nothing else, it was a touching moment. The cast had me convinced that they were serious and devout Muslims, but the definitive best performance was put in by Gulshan Mia as Bina. She played a tough character very well and brought a lot of needed energy to the early scenes.

In the end, I would hope that this play continues to be performed. I think even as a piece of contemporary women's fiction, it provides a platform for engaging conversations as exemplified by the discussion panel afterward.  Otherwise, it is a very easy way to learn just that little bit more about Islam. The Sheen Center is great at consistently bringing together solid performance pieces. The set and costume designs for this play were phenomenal. Keep on the lookout for more information about The Mecca Tales.