OFF-BROADWAY REVIEWS

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Twelfth Night (or what you will)

Twelfth Night (or what you will)

March 30, 2015: Every so often, evidence arises that acting might just be the most satisfying profession on the planet. Take the company called Bedlam, which is putting on not one but two inspired productions of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” in a small and airless room in the garment district that seats about 50, and making you feel like its members are the luckiest people alive. The actor-envy inspired by the five-member cast here isn’t of the usual order. It’s not because these performers are more glamorous, more famous or richer than the common herd. You don’t see their egos being stroked into tumescence by mass admiration. And I seriously doubt if any of them have swimming pools or personal chefs. But in the two productions in which they appear on alternate nights at the Dorothy Strelsin Theater, these five individuals allow you to experience vicariously the heady delight of becoming other people, and then other people who are pretending to be other people altogether. And, oh, the insights and uncommon pleasures to be gleaned from such acts of transmutation.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Washeteria

Washeteria

March 30, 2015: In recent years, Soho Rep has offered dramas like “Blasted,” “Born Bad,” “An Octoroon” and “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation” — tough, turbulent, troubling. But in the new show, “Washeteria,” the company is running on a much, much gentler cycle, with lots of fabric softener, too. The theater’s first all-ages play, staged in a formerly vacant storefront in South Williamsburg, “Washeteria” is the loopy creation of the terrific set designer Louisa Thompson, who developed it with the directors Sarah Benson and Adrienne Kapstein and the students of Brooklyn Arbor P.S. 414. The storefront sits on a fairly cheerless block just beyond a highway overpass. But when you step past the smashed glass door and on to the scuffed linoleum, you’re overcome by warmth and light and the fresh and gladdening smell of soap. A lightly absurdist take on a laundromat, “Washeteria” has a couple of cruddy washers and dryers, a cave of detergent bottles and a pile of unclean clothes stretching up to the ceiling. There are signs that say “Please Let Us Wash and Fold Your Cellphones” and “Please Keep Off the Grass Stains.”

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Living Here

Living Here

March 30, 2015: There were only two dozen people in the audience when the folksy balladeer Gideon Irving performed “Living Here: A Map of Songs,” produced by the Foundry Theater, on Wednesday. But this was definitely a sold-out show. Listeners crammed the snug living room of a prewar apartment on the Upper West Side, which was decorated, like the other rooms, with so many examples of Soviet Nonconformist art that you could barely see the wall behind them. We sat on chairs and sofas and something that was probably a piano bench. Our gracious hosts offered red wine and white wine, tidbits of melon on toothpicks, a bowl of tangerines, a stack of focaccia and what looked like a homemade cake. Sound nice? Too bad. Mr. Irving will probably never perform there again. A strolling player — to be fair, he also bikes, drives and skates — Mr. Irving offers his songs and stories in a different home every night. He’s played 306 places on a couple of continents and said that he very much enjoyed 303 of them. He asks for a bed, though a floor or a futon will do. He often gets dinner and breakfast, too, and donations from audience members that cover further travels.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Camp Kappawanna

Camp Kappawanna

March 27, 2015: No one, you’ll be relieved to learn, sings “Kumbaya.” Arts and crafts haven’t made the list of activities. And neither, oddly, has theater. But Camp Kappawanna, the primary setting of the fresh and funny new musical of the same name from Atlantic for Kids, part of Atlantic Theater Company, still resembles real institutions: Campers’ baggage includes more than outfits and bug spray, and insecurities flourish here as much as at middle school. Gina (Lydian Blossom), Kappawanna’s director, embraces the rundown camp with the scruffy enthusiasm of her former life as an amateur rocker. (You can bet that the Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter Lisa Loeb, who collaborated on the music and lyrics with Michelle Lewis and Dan Petty, lets Gina display her inner Joan Jett.) But the camp initially horrifies Nick (Wes Zurick), a video game geek, and Veronica (Faye Rex), a fashion-obsessed elitist who wonders how she ended up here. “I’m guessing Daddy made some bad investments,” Gina responds, displaying the sly wit that characterizes much of the book, by Cusi Cram and Peter Hirsch.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: New York Spring Spectacular

New York Spring Spectacular

March 26, 2015: Well, at least the Rockettes get to take the final bow. Those glamorous chorines, with their skyscraper legs flapping away, are a New York institution worth cherishing. So the prospect of a few more weeks of work for the hard-working, high-kicking women in the line makes you want to root for the “New York Spring Spectacular,” a lavish new tourist-baiting entertainment being presented at Radio City Music Hall, itself another cherished city institution. When those beautifully poised women with lithe legs and supersize smiles came forward for their final bow, I was as pleased as anyone else to pay them their due. Sadly, little else in this gaudy orgy of civic hype made me smile. On the contrary, this numbingly overblown 90-minute infomercial for the city that never sleeps threatened to send me into a waking coma. Imagine having the Empire State Building stuffed down your gullet, floor by floor, and you’ll get some sense of this production’s relentless promotional fervor. Aside from a few brief appearances by the Easter bunny, and a finale set to Irving Berlin’s “Easter Parade,” the titular season doesn't feature very prominently in the show, which is probably just as well, since spring doesn't seem to be grabbing the spotlight too vigorously itself this year in New York.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Lonesome Traveler

Lonesome Traveler

March 25, 2015: “Lonesome Traveler” is full of familiar songs prettily sung, a sort of jukebox folk musical. Too bad it didn’t aspire to be more; still, it sounds great. The play, written and directed by James O’Neil, gives a drive-by history of folk music in the last century, or at least the largely white version as embodied by groups like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary. It serves up songs that anyone over 60 and many younger than that know by heart — “Guantanamera,” “Midnight Special,” “Tom Dooley” and more than 30 others, played and sung by a skilled cast that encourages the audience at 59E59’s Theater A to sing along. A sparse narrative accompanies the songs, which are arranged roughly chronologically, beginning in the 1920s and ending in the mid-1960s as the folk revival was being nudged aside by electric guitars. The cast members become personifications of various singers and groups — Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Almanac Singers, the Weavers, the Limeliters, Odetta and so on. It’s not a particularly inclusive definition of folk music. The show’s two black performers, Anthony Manough and the fabulous Jennifer Leigh Warren, often seem sandwiched in as afterthoughts. And the song selection is virtually surprise-free, sticking almost exclusively to folk’s greatest hits. Does anyone really need to hear “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” again?

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Small Mouth Sounds

Small Mouth Sounds

March 23, 2015: A half-dozen troubled souls find that enforced silence doesn’t necessarily bring inner peace in “Small Mouth Sounds,” an enchanting new play by Bess Wohl presented at Ars Nova. As funny as it is, uh, quietly moving, Ms. Wohl’s play is also a model of ingenuity. During its 100-minute running time and with one exception — the (unseen) guru running this spiritual retreat — the characters hardly ever speak. Both the humor and the pathos spring mostly from wordless interaction, which is testimony to Ms. Wohl’s intrepid writing, to the superb acting and to the precise work of the production’s director, Rachel Chavkin. The setting for this weeklong silent soul-spa is rural, as can be gleaned from the murmurs of rustling woods and wildlife (courtesy of Stowe Nelson’s nifty sound design) and the panels depicting slices of the bucolic surroundings (more expert work from the inventive set designer Laura Jellinek). Rain is thundering down as the participants assemble for their orientation talk. A disembodied voice, soothing and with a tinge of an accent (Indian?), welcomes the participants and sets the ground rules, after beginning with an allegory about a pair of frogs that inspires befuddlement in most of the guests. Clothing is optional at the nearby lake, although all “nudity must be in the spirit of respect, community and adventure.” Cellphones are verboten “except in the parking lot, inside your vehicle, with all doors and windows closed.” No refunds, no exceptions. And, of course, no talking.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Feast

The Feast

March 20, 2015: Ever had a leaky faucet? Or a clogged drain? Cory Finley’s “The Feast” at the Flea is the sort of play to make you grateful for such mundane plumbing problems. Matt’s wonky W.C. is a whole lot eerier. Screams and groans emanate from deep within his toilet. “Like a man, tied up down there,” a plumber (Donaldo Prescod) explains. “Water streaming over his mouth. All day. Not quite a human. Almost like a dying whale. Full of sorrow. Like it was whispering the experience of its own slow death into your ear.” Is there a Roto-Rooter in the house? (That the Flea’s downstairs space adjoins its musty lavatories makes the production practically site-specific.) Maybe Matt (Ivan Dolido), a painter of postcard-size canvases, is truly harassed by a haunted commode. Or maybe relationship troubles and creative stagnation have triggered a psychotic break. Or maybe the screams in the toilet are some sort of vaguely unsanitary metaphor.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Hierba Mala Nunca Muere

Hierba Mala Nunca Muere

March 19, 2015: The old bird is understandably confused. When he was a boy, Havana was sometimes called the Paris of the Caribbean. He thought he had put an end to that capitalist decadence, but now that he’s in his late 80s, some guy is suddenly trying to open Cuba back up again. And the guy is black. That is just one of the threads that make up the antic “Hierba Mala Nunca Muere” (“Weeds Just Won’t Die”), a topical deathbed farce receiving its world premiere at Repertorio Español. The old bird is Fidel Castro, and the thorn in his increasingly feeble side is President Obama, whose efforts to normalize relations have his head spinning. It’s spinning so much, in fact, that he barely realizes two people in his hospital room are debating how best to kill him.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Hunchback of Notre Dame

March 18, 2015: Granted, I didn’t actually tally them up, but the words “Kyrie eleison” — that’s Greek for “Lord have mercy” — seem to be sung more frequently in the musical version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at the Paper Mill Playhouse here than they are in many a Mass. Which is saying something, if you’ve heard a few Masses in your day. This is a telling indication of the surprising self-seriousness of this polished but ponderous musical, with a book by Peter Parnell, music by Alan Menken (“Little Shop of Horrors,” “Newsies,” many a Disney film) and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (“Pippin,” “Wicked”). The veterans Mr. Menken and Mr. Schwartz wrote the songs for the lighter-toned animated Disney movie of the same title, collaborating for the first time. Most of those songs are included here, of course, but Mr. Menken and Mr. Schwartz have amply augmented the score with songs that didn’t make it into the movie and others. The musical is billed as being “based on the 1831 novel by Victor Hugo and the 1996 Disney film.” (Strictly speaking, the novel’s title is “Notre Dame de Paris.”)

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