OFF-BROADWAY REVIEWS

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Mighty Real

Mighty Real

September 21, 2014: A disco ball the size of a small house twirls over the stage at the Theater at St. Clement’s, where Mighty Real, a slender but musically vibrant show about the androgynous pop star Sylvester, has audience members shaking their booties in their seats. There are two more disco balls, of slightly more modest size, shaking their own booties above the audience, speckling the auditorium with dizzying dots. Can a show about a pop-funk star in his prime whose songs “Do Ya Wanna Funk” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” remain standards of any disco-themed party night really have too many mirror balls? I think not. An assertion of Sylvester’s glamorous divadom, fated to fade too soon when he died of AIDS in 1988, drives this flimsy but glitter-drenched bio musical. The subtitle announces “Mighty Real” as “A Fabulous Sylvester Musical.” But fabulousness, like much else, is a subjective matter. And I can only second this subtitular self-endorsement when it comes to the musical portions of the show, which fortunately make up most of it.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Valley of Astonishment

The Valley of Astonishment

September 20, 2014: Everything comes wrapped in silence in The Valley of Astonishment, Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s wonder-struck contemplation of the enigma of the human mind, which opened on Thursday night at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. A shimmer of stillness seems to surround every word spoken, every gesture made, every note sounded in this essayistic work about extraordinary sensory perceptiveness. What’s created is not exactly a barrier between the audience and the stage, but what might be called a zone of thoughtfulness. An implicit request fills this silence: Think about how you think. Try to feel out, if you can, the way you feel. Long before mindfulness became the watchword du jour, Mr. Brook, perhaps the most influential of all living stage directors, was exploring theater as a means of magnifying the essential elements of daily existence and to find the vastness within. In an interview in 1995, he said his goal was to make audiences “look at something they’ve taken for granted since they were born, which is a mind, as if it were a great dawn or Everest.”

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Teach, Teacher, Teachest

Teach, Teacher, Teachest

September 19, 2014: David Koteles makes bold claims in the program notes for Teach, Teacher, Teachest. His script, inspired by Eugène Ionesco’s The Lesson, is a work that “bends the rules of communication” and explores “the breakdown of language.” Sure, some of that may have happened. But all I know for certain is that I laughed quite a lot. In Mr. Koteles’s version, as in the original, a naïve student meets with a professor for a round of tutoring. The lecture goes awry, with absurd speeches and constant non sequiturs, until everything that’s said seems to hold double or triple meanings, or maybe none at all — so much can be projected (or not) onto both plays. While the original, from 1951, is seen as a condemnation of totalitarianism, Mr. Koteles attacks big business, government and religion with a babbling professor whose blind adherence to dogma is both comical and disturbing. The teacher extols “job creators” and big business, while condemning the poor and immigrants. Judged against current political discourse, his circular reasonings and hyperboles sometimes don’t seem so exaggerated.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Rock Bottom

Rock Bottom

September 18, 2014: You’ve heard it before. Maybe you’ve said it before. New York is so over. It’s just a big shopping mall for the hyper-rich. Luxury apartment towers are sprouting like crystalline fungi all over the formerly funky East Village. A vibrant street culture has given way to wall-to-wall carpeting by Duane Reade and Citibank and Starbucks. As a bracing antidote to this prevailing attitude, check out the raw and riotous new Bridget Everett show, Rock Bottom, a Public Theater production that opened at Joe’s Pub on Wednesday night in a blast of brash vulgarity and true rock ’n’ roll transgression. Who says the city no longer produces artists who challenge, provoke and even, on occasion, dare to disgust? Ms. Everett, a downtown cult figure, has a big voice, a big body and a mighty capacity for testing boundaries — both her own and the audience’s. Now she’s hitched herself to some more uptown folk: the songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, whose credits include Hairspray and the backstage-on-Broadway television series Smash.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Ndebele Funeral

Ndebele Funeral

September 17, 2014: Daweti (Zoey Martinson), a former university intellectual moldering in a Soweto shack, takes an unusual approach to home décor. She calls the dirt and trash littering her floor essential elements of feng shui, and used some government-supplied wood to build a coffin. “I deserve a good coffin while I’m dying,” she tells her friend Thabo (Yusef Miller). “You deserve a good roof while you’re living,” he urges her. But Daweti, with AIDS but refusing medication, has given up on life. Ms. Martinson’s vigorous and disturbing Ndebele Funeral, at 59E59 Theaters, presents a grim portrait of contemporary South Africa, a place of false hopes and bleak realities. Neither Daweti, once a hotshot debater, nor Thabo, who hoped to become a writer, nor even the clerk from the Department of Housing (Jonathan David Martin), are living lives anything like those they’ve dreamed. Indeed, dreams are the only solace Daweti finds.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: To The Bone

To The Bone

September 17, 2014: Olga, Reina and Juana spend their days in an upstate factory, knifing breasts from chicken carcasses. At night they eat and pray and take Motrin to soothe their aching arms, still wearing layers of sweaters. After the factory’s chill, they can’t get warm. It’s difficult and sometimes dangerous work, disgusting too, but as Lisa Ramirez’s To the Bone at the Cherry Lane Theater suggests, these immigrant women have little choice. When Olga (Ms. Ramirez), a legal resident, suggests that they defend their rights, Reina (Annie Henk) dismisses her. “Not all of us are as lucky as you,” she says. “It’s easy to say no when you have a green card.” As part of this year’s Theater: Village festival, Ms. Ramirez has created a play about women hoping for a better life, but too cowed to ask for even a morning bathroom break. A distaff answer to Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes, which centers on busboys and finishes its run at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater on Saturday, To The Bone explores the toll low-wage work exacts from the spirit. The play observes how this houseful of women — which includes Olga’s daughter, Lupe, and Reina’s niece Carmen — support and betray, protect and harm one another.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Solitary Light

Solitary Light

September 16, 2014: You might think an hourlong musical is an inadequate vehicle for capturing the Triangle garment factory fire of 1911, a horrifying and shameful episode in American history involving the deaths of 146 garment workers, most of them female immigrants. And you might be right. But Randy Sharp’s Solitary Light, playing at Axis Theater as part of the Theater: Village festival, offers inadequate evidence either way: though ostensibly focused on the devastating conflagration that helped galvanize the labor movement, this production is, in actuality, only vaguely moored to that event. And that’s fine, I suppose. Truth in advertising only gets you so far in the arts. But what exactly is Solitary Light about? A difficult question to answer, but here are some elements: lots of singing about light and love and flying away, and lots of bodies roving about a relentlessly underlit stage, muttering intensely to themselves like the people you avoid in the subway. Talk of fireflies, beautiful girls and the romance of the big city at night.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Fatal Weakness

The Fatal Weakness

September 16, 2014: Sometimes a play is more interesting in the future than in its own time. The Fatal Weakness, a domestic comedy with a drama at its core, was apparently unloved in its day; its 1946 Broadway premiere ran for only 119 performances despite having Ina Claire, a prominent stage actress, in the lead role. But here in 2014, the Mint Theater Company is making this George Kelly work an amusing, affecting reminder that the institution of marriage has been under siege for much longer than we tend to think. Kristin Griffith channels Katharine Hepburn as she brings to life the skittish central character, Ollie Espenshade. Ollie is a bundle of upper-middle-class nerves in a daffy opening scene in which she and a confidante, Mabel (Cynthia Darlow), review the evidence that Ollie’s affable husband, Paul (Cliff Bemis), might be having an affair. Today Ollie would fit into any reality TV show with “Housewives” in the title. The couple’s daughter, Penny (Victoria Mack), might be the creator of another breed of reality show, the kind that exploits alternate forms of courtship (Naked Dating) and couplehood (Sister Wives). With marital issues of her own, Penny spouts unorthodox theories on love, marriage and child-rearing that remind us the questioning of male-female dynamics did not begin in our time or even with Gloria Steinem.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Bedbugs!!!

Bedbugs!!!

September 15, 2014: “A theatrical blast of fresh air” might seem an odd way to describe a show in which large quantities of (fake) insecticide are sprayed about the stage, but that’s just the right phrase for “Bedbugs!!!,” at the ArcLight Theater. This audacious rock-’n’-roll concoction about mutant bedbugs that terrorize New York City never stops surprising, with its performances, its choreography, its props and special effects. The subject matter may leave you feeling itchy, but with the delirious sensory overload the show provides, you’ll quickly forget the discomfort. Carly (Grace McLean) has a very personal reason for wanting to develop a pesticide to wipe out bedbugs: They were responsible for the death of her mother (Gretchen Wylder). But the compound she comes up with, instead of killing them, turns them into giant bloodsuckers that feast on humans. The resulting gang, or swarm, or whatever a group of bedbugs is called, is led by a glam god named Cimex, played by Chris Hall with such strident panache that of course Carly is going to fall for him. So far, this probably sounds like every other rock musical about bedbugs and exterminator-insect romance that you’ve ever seen. But Fred Sauter (book and lyrics) and Paul Leschen (music) tossed in a little something extra named Celine Dion. Oops, sorry; that name is actually Dionne Salon, and how she and her tacky divahood figure in the plot is too ridiculous to describe here. The performances by Ms. McLean and Mr. Hall are spectacular, so to say that Brian Charles Rooney’s Dionne steals the show is saying quite a lot.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Nico: Underground

Nico: Underground

September 14, 2014: The dark eyes, peering from just under a fringe of blond bangs, wander the room before seeming to fix on some odd vision. The mind, too, tends to flit freely, moving from cogent reminiscence to random non sequitur like a needle skipping across a record. And the voice, a husky, German-accented drawl that seems to sigh with every syllable, suggests some serious inner disengagement with the world, or maybe just disgust with it. In her remarkable — and howlingly funny — portrayal of Nico, the 1960s chanteuse and muse to musical greats of the time, the singer and performance artist Tammy Faye Starlite is both vividly present and somehow barely there. Nico: Underground, at Theater for the New City, resurrects both the title character and some of the zonked-out mood of the psychedelic era. Although Ms. Starlite can only pretend to smoke a cigarette in the basement space in which the show is staged, I began to feel I was inhaling fumes from something stronger, or had somehow been transported back to the late 1960s, when Nico was in her mythic prime. The show ostensibly takes place much later. Written by T. D. Lang (a.k.a. Ms. Starlite) and directed by Michael Schiralli, it’s a blend of concert, with Ms. Starlite performing a dozen songs closely associated with Nico, and a fictionalized version of a radio interview from Melbourne in 1986, just a few years before Nico’s death. (The text is primarily drawn from that interview, as well as several others, with some poetic license taken.)

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