Sunday, August 31, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of Revolution In The Elbow Of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter at the Minetta Lane Theatre by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Revolution In The Elbow Of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter at the Minetta Lane Theatre was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Revolution In The Elbow Of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter
Minetta Lane Theatre 
18-22 Minetta Lane
New York, New York 10012
Reviewed 8/29/14

This Icelandic, surreal, multimedia, indie rock musical is set in the small nation of Elbowville, which is located in the elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson, a Furniture Painter, who loves watching Robert Redford films. Most of the citizens of Elbowville make a humble living fishing lobsters out of Ragnar's lymphatic system and praying to their god Robert Redford (Praise Bob!), whose movies can be seen up in Eyesockette. If they save enough money, the tiny people of Elbowville might be able to afford a vacation to Knee York, Texass or even Penisylvania. However, the status quo is not enough for Elbowville's leader, Manuela, who seeks to bring increased prosperity to Elbowville through the use of a Prosperity Machine that prints an unlimited number of promissory notes the country can then loan out to people at little or no interest. Revolution In The Elbow Of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter is a cautionary tale about the invention and ultimately predictable collapse of the modern financial system. While the musical may have been inspired by the 2008 economic crash and recession that hit Iceland, the relevance to the United States cannot be understated. The Federal Reserve now prints money out of thin air backed by nothing other than the full faith and credit of the United States, government guarantees cause banks to loan out money to risky enterprises and people who are unable to repay the loans, and the result is inflation and defaults that cause people to lose their life's savings.

When you arrive in the Minetta Lane Theatre, you see a video of a schlubby, oafish, unattractive working man projected on the back wall of the stage, who is presumably Ragnar Agnarsson. He moves around in his chair and occasionally scratches himself. The set and projections were expertly and innovatively designed by Petr Hlousek. The set consists of industrial steps on either side of the stage leading to a high bridge on which some of the action takes place. Bright tubing has been installed and/or projected onto the walls to evoke the veins and arteries of the human body. Much of this state-of-the-art production design is used to move the story forward, such as when the bloody revolution is mostly projected onto the walls instead of being acted out on stage. Stunning, imaginative costumes were designed by Hrafnhildur Arnardottir and Edda Gunmundsdottir. Exciting, innovative choreography was composed by Lee Proud and the show was expertly directed by Bergur Ingolfsson.

The musical's three main characters are Manuela, Elbowville's ambitious, power hungry Mayor, convincingly brought to life by Cady Huffman, a veteran actress who won a Tony Award for her performance in The Producers; Peter, played by Marrick Smith, a talented actor, singer and dancer who, in my opinion, is a hot, new Broadway bound rising star on the path to super stardom; and Alex, Peter's brother, sympathetically portrayed by Graydon Long, a charismatic, attractive actor with an excellent stage presence. The entire cast is top-notch and could easily follow the show to its Broadway debut. The Book, Music and Lyrics of Revolution In The Elbow Of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter are by Ivar Pall Jonsson. The band, which appears on stage, is the impressive Revolutionary Cellular Orchestra. I also need to give kudos to Carl Casella, responsible for the Sound Design, who made certain all the microphones were in perfect working order so the audience could clearly hear every word spoken and/or sung. 

Ivar Pall Jonsson and his brother Gunnlaugur Jonsson are jointly responsible for writing the story and this is where I feel the show deserves some criticism. With respect to the financial issues raised, there is a difference between fiat money and the issuance of promissory notes. If the government was merely issuing fiat money, people would have been angry over the devaluation of the currency and not the fact that the promissory notes could not be redeemed. There are also problems in the story as to the dynamics between the characters and the internal logic of the fantasy world the characters live in. Peter, the entrepreneurial, young man trying to do good for his country by creating the Prosperity Machine, need not have been written as a morally bankrupt asshole. The brothers Jonsson would have done better to write Peter as a sympathetic character, who was just trying to bring prosperity to his fellow citizens without realizing the consequences of his actions. This would have made his ultimate fate more understandable. His brother Alex could have been written as someone who foresaw the potential financial crisis and who left to take a job elsewhere, only to return when he heard the financial collapse had endangered the life of his brothers and their families. Elements of this scenario are already in the script as when Alex says Peter "acted in good faith" and only "wanted everyone to have the good life." As for the internal logic of the fantasy world, why do babies have such a long gestation period, why did the Mayor bronze her uterus and hang it on the wall, and why do some men want shoulder implants while others prefer cuddles? Those aspects of the story need to be better explained and made more internally consistent. It is not enough to be outrageous just for the sake of being outrageous or for a cheap laugh. All that takes place must occur in the context of a well-written story.

The Prosperity Machine enables the government of Elbowville and its banks to give out loans to just about anyone who wants cash and for a while, the country rises on a wave of borrowed wealth. Everyone becomes instantly rich through the magic of easy credit until the tide turns. Inflation causes everything to become more expensive because of all the cash out there chasing a limited number of goods. Mandrake, an out-of-town Bank Examiner, hilariously played by Rick Faugno, then arrives to audit the books and eventually announces that Elbowville's credit rating has been severely downgraded. The government of Elbowville can no longer honor the promissory notes it has issued and they are placed in the position of having to borrow money at a high interest rate to pay off a small portion of its debts, a situation described by Manuela as "needing a loan to pay a loan to pay a loan to pay a loan." Citizens start defaulting on their loan payments resulting in repossessions and general civil unrest. Some pray to Robert Redford (Oh, dear Bob of Hollywood, Protect Us!) while others take to the streets in a bloody revolution. 

At this point, in the last ten minutes of the show, it is very unclear what the ultimate message is. On the one hand, there is a democratic election, where the winner appoints former Mayor Manuela, the cause of the past financial crisis, as Financial Regulator of the new revolutionary government, which looks quite fascist, with flags and security and Manuela standing on the high bridge looking like Eva Peron. Is the message that ignorant citizens will be fooled and will elect leaders from the very same class of professional politicians that caused the financial crisis in the first place or is the message that a right-wing nationalistic government will arise from the ashes as Hitler rose out of the failed Weimar Republic? Even a third scenario is suggested when Alex decides to leave Elbowville given the new fascist government that has taken power. Where is he heading? Galt's Gulch? It is unclear what was intended but the end does leave the audience unsatisfied with respect to outcome and fails to give them closure. 

Revolution In The Elbow Of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter features a cast with extraordinary talent and an excellent soundtrack. This rock musical is artistically and intellectually smart with a message that is insightful and relevant to many financial problems our country faces today. I strongly encourage you to see this show. You will have an enjoyable evening and will leave with a number of interesting questions regarding our current financial system that may haunt you, as well as provide you with insight, for years to come. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of The Normal Heart at The EastLine Theatre by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of The Normal Heart at The EastLine Theatre was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Normal Heart
The EastLine Theatre 
2123 Wantagh Avenue
Wantagh, New York 11793
Reviewed 8/22/14

Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart was first produced by Joseph Papp Off-Broadway at The Public Theater on April 21, 1985 and ran for 294 performances. There was a 2004 Off-Broadway revival at the Public and on April 19, 2011, the show had its Broadway premiere for a limited 12-week engagement at the Golden Theatre. It won a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. A film adaptation debuted on the HBO premium pay cable channel on May 25, 2014. 

The play focuses on the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York City between 1981 and 1984 and the struggle of some early gay activists to obtain funding for research and treatment. The Normal Heart is a largely autobiographical play by Larry Kramer, who helped found several AIDS-activism groups, including Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) and AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). After most performances of the 2011 revival, Kramer personally passed out a dramaturgical flyer detailing some of the real stories behind the play's characters. Kramer wrote that "the character 'Bruce' was based on Paul Popham, the president of the GMHC from 1981 until 1985; 'Tommy' was based on Rodger McFarlane, who was Executive Director of GMHC and a founding member of ACT UP and Broadway Cares; and 'Emma' was modeled after Dr. Linda Laubenstein, who treated some of the first New York cases of what was later known as AIDS." It was clear the character 'Ned' was based on Kramer's own experiences.

The Normal Heart clearly reflects the pain, frustrations and loss suffered by those who had or knew someone who had the as yet undefined virus that attacked the immune systems of mostly gay men. The struggles for recognition of their plight and to obtain funding for research is interesting all on its own. But for me, this play succeeds best in showing the divisions within the gay community with respect to strategy and historical perspective. While Ned, the Larry Kramer character, wants to warn the gay community to stop having promiscuous sex, Mickey, who works for the New York City Board of Health and is a veteran gay activist, argues that after being closeted for so many years, gay liberation means having gay sex without shame and that it is "the only thing that makes us different." Ned, on the other hand, argues that the culture gays have brought to this world for thousands of years since Socrates and Aristotle is very substantive and that "we need to be a proud united community willing to fight back" and that "gay culture needs to be defined by something more than just our cocks." There are other strategic differences featured in this play such as those activists who want to be more accommodating and work within the system versus those willing to take to the streets. Perhaps, as the character Tommy says, "all movements, to succeed, need both." Larry Kramer's character Ned told his brother the new organization, Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), would be a cross between the League of Women Voters and the United States Marines.

There are no weak links in this cast. All the actors performed admirably and put their heart and soul into their respective roles. Most impressive were Michael H. Carlin, who played Mickey, and Matt Rosenberg, who was Tommy Boatwright. Both accurately portrayed the perspectives and mannerisms of their characters so well that I felt I had met individuals similar to them many times throughout the years. Excellent performances! Evan Donnellan was so strong as Ned that he gave me new insight into Larry Kramer's motivations and activism. His performance is a tour de force. Kevin Kelly was Felix, Ned's lover, and Kevin Shaw played Bruce, Ned's nemesis at GMHC. Both handled their roles extremely well. Other cast members contributing to making this play a delight to watch were Michael Schlapp, Lisa Meckes and Patrick A. Reilly.  

EastLine's The Normal Heart is a top-notch, high quality production. It features an extremely talented cast. Whether or not you have seen other productions of this play, I highly recommend you make time to see this show at The EastLine Theatre. You will be moved by the thought-provoking dialogue and impressed with the acting abilities of the performers. The time will fly by and you will be enriched by the experience. Visit EastLine Productions' website at for more information.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of The Boston Tea Party Opera at The Loretto (Sheen Center) by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of The Boston Tea Party Opera at The Loretto (Sheen Center) was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Boston Tea Party Opera
The Loretto (Sheen Center)
(18 Bleecker Street, NYC)
Reviewed 8/13/14

Matthew Zachary Johnson composed and produced The Boston Tea Party Opera, which is a part of this year's New York International Fringe Festival. It is a very well researched piece of theater featuring an extremely talented cast. It is also a cautionary tale that the same governmental abuses of excessive taxation, illegal search and seizures, and the lack of respect for the liberty and individual rights of the colonists exhibited by the British Crown may have parallels in some of the same challenges we are facing as a society today. 

I am not certain which version of The Boston Tea Party Opera I saw. It was entered into The New York International Fringe Festival as a three and one half hour production. By opening night, it shrank to two hours and twenty minutes and by the time I saw the show, it had been cut to under two hours. Clearly, songs were being added and dropped right up to the last minute and it appeared more changes were being made every day. There were no sets to speak of and only half the cast members were in colonial outfits. The latter may have been intentional in order to drive the point home that there were analogies you were being invited to draw between then and now. In case you were completely dense, the British officials were outfitted in modern S.W.A.T. gear colored black, red and white. 

The Boston Tea Party Opera covers the period of time from when King George III of England in 1763 sought to tax the American colonies as a way of recouping the war costs of obtaining victory in the French & Indian War through to the Boston Massacre in 1770 and eventually the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Well-known historical figures appearing in the opera include Sam Adams, John Hancock, Governor Thomas Hutchinson, James Otis, Richard Clarke, Crispus Attucks and Paul Revere. The libretto covers the tragedies, victories, acts of defiance, acts of patriotism, and even the romances that might have taken place during this period. The best description of the events contained in The Boston Tea Party Opera is in the Synopsis, printed in the program, which I will quote here in full: In the sweep of events leading up to the America Revolutionary war, loyalist Boston Governor Thomas Hutchinson seeks to clamp down on the increasingly rebellious Sons of Liberty. He seizes tea smuggler John Hancock's ship, the "Liberty." Orator James Otis gives a passionate courtroom speech against such arbitrary exercise of power, only to be attacked by British soldiers. Sam Adams leads the colonists in a boycott of British goods -- which the town's women support with their own efforts. Mrs. Adams is forced to house a threatening group of soldiers. In an incendiary outbreak of violence, colonists are fired upon by the soldiers in a horrific massacre. A great debate, with the leading agitator Sam Adams fervently defending the Rights of the Colonists, leads to an impasse. And finally in the inevitable climax of open rebellion, Paul Revere leads the epochal event that initiated the American Revolution -- the act which preferred the destruction of the tea cargo to the principle of colonial subjugation -- the act that no longer bore, but instead began to cast off the mounting injustice. 

The entire cast was inspiring in light of the talent each possessed. My favorites were Kerry Gotschall, who was particularly strong as Elizabeth Adams, a role intended to encompass the two wives named Elizabeth that Sam Adams married. Colette Boudreaux tenderly played Molly Pitcher, who may not have been a real person but instead a composite image inspired by the actions of a number of women who carried water to men on the battlefield and who, occasionally, may have picked up a musket themselves. In this opera, Molly Pitcher is smitten with Captain James Scott, a smuggler charismatically portrayed by Scott Joiner. Ms. Boudreaux and Mr. Joiner sing a memorable duet together entitled Smuggling Men Can Be So Fine. Finally, Charles Armstrong did an amazingly good job portraying the very pressured Richard Clarke, consignee of the tea that was thrown into Boston Harbor. I am told his background lies in musical theater instead of opera but his presence on stage caught my eye because he gave complexity and depth to the historical character he played.

Matthew Zachary Johnson has said The Boston Tea Party Opera straddles the line between opera and musical theater. He has said he feels future productions will more likely be staged in an off-Broadway setting than in Opera Houses throughout the world. That may very well happen since this show should be able to obtain pro-liberty investors and has a core group of potential patriotic audience members eager to be supportive of the underlying message of the show. For me, however, The Boston Tea Party Opera doesn't work well in its current form as either opera or musical theater. The audience members I spoke to during intermission and after the show were not at all pleased with the production and shared with me criticisms and opinions with which I was in agreement. Having actors playing dual roles was confusing. The sets don't need to be elaborate but the show certainly needs more than a British flag, a desk, two milk cartons and some blue and red ribbons. The costumes need to be all colonial or all modern. I would favor all colonial but I would keep the British authority figures in their S.W.A.T. gear to make the point that the challenges faced by our colonial ancestors are universal in all times and countries.

I think the show needs to be re-imagined as Boston Tea Party: The Musical, a non-operatic piece of musical theater produced with a book or distinct vignettes. The opera singers need to go and the show needs a director to pull things together more tightly. The length of the production is not the issue. It can be two hours or three and a half hours as long as it's good. Only in this new format can the quality of the writing and composing be best evaluated. The underlying story is worth telling and I commend Matthew Zachary Johnson for attempting to tell it. The show portrays a part of history with relevance to the citizens of our country and suggests we need to be on guard against a government not fully respectful of our individual rights and liberties. That's a message everyone needs to hear. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Nick Di Iorio, Republican Party Nominee for Congress (CD12-NY), Speaks On Rising Action Radio About His Background & His Positions On Foreign & Domestic Policy Issues

Nick Di Iorio, the Republican Party nominee for Congress in the 12th Congressional District (New York) who is running against incumbent Democrat Representative Carolyn Maloney, was interviewed by Dr. Tom Stevens on two 30-minute shows on Rising Action Radio regarding his background and his positions on foreign and domestic policy issues. Many substantive and complex issues were discussed and I encourage you to listen to both broadcasts. A brief and incomplete summary of what was discussed follows.

During the first show, Mr. Di Iorio revealed he grew up in Providence, Rhode Island and from 2004-2010 studied to be a Catholic priest in a Jesuit Seminary in Boston, leaving and moving to New York in 2010 because of a continuing attraction he had to being married and having a family. When in New York, he lived in the Bronx and attended Fordham University (Rose Hill Campus) where after two years he obtained a Master's Degree in Philosophy. He considers himself to be a practicing Roman Catholic but personally disagrees with the positions of the Catholic Church on contraception and homosexual acts. He agrees with the Catholic Church that the Devil is real and not just a mythological personification of evil and that women should not be ordained as priests. On the issue of miracles, he said, "There are undeniable moments where things have happened in the created and natural order which cannot be explained by nature, which cannot be explained by science. I do believe in miracles." Regarding prayer, Mr. Di Iorio does believe God answers prayers, but "in His time, not in our time."

Regarding foreign policy, Mr. Di Iorio said he is a strong supporter of Israel and he believes "its survival and stability is crucial for the development of Western Democracy." He does believe our current level of financial support for Israel is probably too high and said, "Israel has done a great job of maintaining economic stability. We should really question how much we give to Israel based on its own economic stability." He opposes Israel trading "land for peace". Regarding that issue, he said, "The Palestinians and Hamas are really concerned with Killing Jews and no matter how much land Israel gives back will not change that mindset." He would be open to Jerusalem and all other Holy Sites "being governed or being at least secured and maintained by a third party, an independent entity that would secure Jerusalem and allow the followers of all three major religions a legitimate opportunity to worship at their Holy Sites." With respect to Russia, Mr. Di Iorio would not use military force to defend the sovereignty of the rest of Ukraine should Russia take it over but he would use military force, even if it meant going to war with Russia, to defend the sovereignty of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. To hear the full recording of this first segment, go to       

During the second show covering domestic policy issues, Mr. Di Iorio said he would oppose efforts to make Washington, D.C. a state and would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned so each state could decide whether to make abortion legal or not within its borders. He would also oppose any federal definition of marriage and would want each state to decide whether or not to recognize same-sex marriages. Ideally, he would like the government to get out of the marriage licensing business and would end all tax advantages granted to married couples to the disadvantage of single individuals. He would decriminalize marijuana but legalize it for medicinal purposes. He also believes the Federal Government "should not be making decisions about what you can or cannot use in the privacy of your own lives" and "shouldn't be telling people what is and is not good." 

Regarding taxation, Mr. Di Iorio would establish a 25% corporate tax rate, end loopholes and lower but broaden the base of those paying taxes so everyone has some "skin in the game." He is very much a proponent of free trade and believes it allows our values of human dignity and democracy to be spread throughout the world. He opposes the Federal Reserve printing money out of thin air and said, "Every time the Federal Reserve prints a dollar, the value of a dollar in New York State goes down. You cannot print money you don't have." He would fast-track naturalization for law-abiding immigrant families and would consider supporting the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (D.R.E.A.M.) Act but not until we have fully secured our border. To hear a full recording of the second segment, go to   

To learn more about Nick Di Iorio's campaign, visit his website at