All About Love – Thoughts on One Love

Love is a complex emotion. Whether it’s platonic, romantic, or something in between, the path to finding love is fraught with misconceptions, both from within and without. The perceptions/illusions one has about themselves relative to those around them is and can be a stumbling block along that path, and the task of letting go of those preconceived notions is its own journey towards  self-discovery. These themes are explored in One Love, the latest play written by Peter Zachari, which recently ended its run at the Theater for the New City.

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[Disclaimer: Those who have followed this blog will know that I’m good friends with Peter Zachari and Joey Mirabile; who I met 5 years ago when Peter’s first show Parker & Dizzy’s Fabulous Journey To the End of the Rainbow premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival. Since then, I’ve been a (minor) investor to Peter’s subsequent shows, and have written (independently) my musings for all the shows that have played in NYC.]

The play centers on Hunter, an overweight gay man, and his journey of finding (and accepting) love into his life. Due to the emotional baggage he carries from a relationship gone wrong, mixed with a kind of self loathing stemming from his physical appearance, he denies himself any chance of pleasure – even in his fantasies. His roommate Bryce is the antithesis of Hunter, indulging in pleasure wherever he can, with no (apparent) emotional baggage. An impromptu dinner with friends Brett and Tyler, coupled with the unexpected appearance of Logan (Tyler’s cousin) serves as the catalyst for Hunter to reexamine his self-imposed perceptions. He (eventually) learns to confront the demons keeping him from accepting the fact that he is worthy of love and being loved, with the help of Aftodite, an omnipresent and (seemingly) omniscient presence in Hunter’s life.

While I’ve been quite the fangirl for Peter’s shows, One Love is the first play for which I was an unofficial dramaturge, reading an early draft (originally written a few years ago) and providing some (useful) feedback (and pointing out some spelling/grammatical errors (as an aspiring writer, editing was second nature.) The themes set forth in the play are universal and touch upon the media fixation (obsession?) on perpetuating the image of “perfect” (i.e. thin, “beautiful”) people, and the insecurities faced by those who don’t fit the “socially accepted” definition of beauty.

There’s a quasi-meta aura in the set design, as it was modeled (loosely) on Peter’s own apartment, with the walls dotted with photos of Judy Garland, and glitter pop art pieces (created by cast member Joey Mirabile). Other pop culture (and topical) references are sprinkled throughout as well, with notable pop songs (and an original song written by Peter and his long time collaborator Damon Maida) adding to the overall feel of the play. The cast was fantastic, inhabiting the social stereotypes their characters represented, then gradually stripping away that façade to show their true self and learning to be comfortable in their own skin (so to speak). Kudos to Alex J. Moreno as Hunter and Russell Norris as Bryce for the emotional range they traverse, from comic to dramatic (and back), revealing their insecurities before finding a kind of happy ending.

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One Love is a play about love in all its forms – platonic love between good friends, romantic love for another person, and love for oneself, overcoming obstacles, both real and perceived. Everyone is worthy of love and being loved, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or religious beliefs. In a way, love is blind – blind to prejudices of every kind. Or at least real love should be – the trick is to let go of the preconceived assumptions created (and perpetuated to some degree) by what media (social and otherwise) has deemed “normal” and “beautiful”.

Only then can there truly be One Love.

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The Complexities of Love: Thoughts on Burning – February 27, 2016

A modern adaptation of classic plays is a mainstay across all entertainment mediums, and sometimes the subtle changes in the adaptations can bring forth a new interpretation of the original source material as the core themes remain intact. The story of Cyrano de Bergerac is a familiar one, probably best known in popular culture as the Steve Martin film Roxanne, but while that modern adaptation is a mostly humorous (as was the original play), Burning, the modern adaptation written by Ginger Lazarus and presented by the Resonance Ensemble, is somber and thought provoking. I became aware of this adaptation through a friend of mine, who knew one of the actors in the play (which had its world premiere at the Theatre at Saint Clement’s), and asked if I would be interested in going. While I did not have a chance to see the Resonance Ensemble’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac, performed in rep with Burning, I had seen the most recent Broadway production of Cyrano, and so I was already familiar with the nuances of the story.

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Burning is set in an unnamed American town located near an Army base, circa 2008, and the “twist” in this adaptation is the titular character is female, and the external deformity from which the classic Cyrano’s insecurities derived transforms into an internal struggle this modern Cyrano, renamed Cy Burns, carries within her due to her experiences as a gay soldier. Another addition to the adaptation is the discussion and disclosure of the mistreatment of female soldiers in the US Army before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, which accentuates the solemnity of an otherwise romantic comedy. Like the original titular character, Cy is adept at using her words (in this case via blog entries) to provoke her enemies and to help the tongue tied soldier Cole woo Rose, a local painter with whom she is also enamored. The antagonist of this adaptation presents itself in the form of Dulac, a high ranking Army officer with a belligerent history with Cy. The overall narrative follows the same story structure of the source material, with unexpected twists at its conclusion.

The set design is minimalist, contained mainly in the general store Cy owns and runs, with the requisite props that entails. The cast of five was amazing, most notably Catherine Curtin as Cy, who balanced her rage at Dulac for disregarding the mistreatment of female soldiers within the Army system with her awkwardness with Rose whenever Rose talks of Cole, as well as her maternal care for Sammy, a young man wishing to escape the small town world in search for a purpose. Also notable was Chris Ceraso as Dulac (parallel to the Comte de Guiche in the original play), whose adherence to duty provides added fuel to Cy’s cause; his interest in Rose comes across subtly and is all the more menacing in context to the action that occurs towards the end of the play.

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There wasn’t so much of a stage door experience, this time ‘round, as there was a talkback moderated by Rachel Reiner, managing director of the Resonance Ensemble with Eric Parness, the play’s director, and the cast after the performance (unbeknownst to me) discussing the origins of the play, its journey from workshop to stage, and the issues imparted within the play. The director and the managing director were alumni of Brandeis University, and there were many other Brandeis alumni in attendance; after the talkback many of the alumni gathered onstage, and I didn’t feel like intruding on that (or waiting afterwards, not knowing how long that would last).

The transformation of a French romantic comedy into an American drama deserves another life after this run, which ends today (February 28, 2016), having performed in rep with Cyrano all this month (yesterday was my only opportunity to see the show). It’s a different yet familiar take on the story of an outspoken yet insecure soldier yearning to find love and acceptance despite the self-perceived obstacles that stand in the way.

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Clowning Around: Musings on Old Hats – February 6, 2016

Comedy is subjective.

What is funny to some might be offensive to others; one needs to take into account cultural, ethnic and religious context in which the humor may be taken. On the other hand, there are some things that are universally and eternally amusing for all, regardless of age, race, and political sensibilities. Old Hats, currently playing on the Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center falls in the latter category. I obtained tickets via the TDF ticket raffle table at the BC/EFA Flea Market & Auction (the final pair from last year’s batch), anticipating a enjoyable afternoon of hilarity.

I was not disappointed.

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Old Hats harkens back to the days of vaudeville, with master clowns Bill Irwin and David Shiner performing a series of skits, many of which were performed in mime, with a the off stage band providing the necessary (percussive) sound effects to accentuate the action. Between skits were songs written and sung by Shaina Taub – oftentimes she interacted with the pair, as both a comic foil and as a catalyst. The stage was designed to resemble a traditional vaudeville stage, with a gold fringed red curtain and show card displaying the skit title, situated on the right. In conjunction with the traditional props is the inclusion of technology – the use of visual projections with which Irwin and Shiner use to brilliant effect. Audience interaction and participation is another component of the show, with the actors interacting with (those fortunate enough to be) sitting in the front row, and bringing audience members onstage for a bit of improvisation.

The stage door experience was relaxed – as the show was playing at one of the many stages within the Signature Center, there was one area from where all the actors exit, which spills into the café / lobby area on the second floor of the building. A small throng gathered haphazardly around this area, with playbills and other items to be signed; the cast were affable, chatting with those waiting, signing playbills and posing for photos.

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Needless to say I highly recommend seeing the show – it appeals to all ages and is a welcome tonic to the political correctness of most comedy shows and refrains (for the most part) from including any overt innuendo that might come across as offensive. Old Hats is playing from now until April 3, 2016. For more information, visit: http://www.signaturetheatre.org/tickets/production.aspx?pid=4307

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The Bard and the Booze: Thoughts on Drunk Shakespeare – October 31, 2015

Shakespeare’s plays have existed for hundreds of years and have been adapted in a myriad of ways and performed in (almost) all media genres. The interpretations have ranged from the literal to the metaphoric, the serious to the surreal – his works have been translated into every (living) language in the world, and performed by men and women of all ages. Some interpretations are of the complete text (as they were written/transcribed), and some are reductions or adaptations of the aforementioned complete text. But for all the brilliant performances given by countless actors over the centuries in all the various incarnations of the text all over the world, there was something missing from those productions.

Alcohol.

Well, at least the overt inclusion of alcohol during the performance – I’m almost certain that covert intoxication has been a component of an actor’s performance of Shakespeare (and perhaps other plays) since they were first conceived. Drunk Shakespeare, as performed by members of the Drunk Shakespeare Society, sets to fill this void, and with great spirit(s) [pun well intended], currently playing at the Lounge at the Roy Arias Stages on West 44th Street (near 8th Avenue). I obtained these tickets via the TDF ticket raffle table at the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS [BC/EFA] Flea Market & Grand Auction, and was intrigued by the premise of one actor downing (at least) 5 shots of whisky before attempting to perform a Shakespearean play.

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[Disclaimer: As their site www.drunkshakespeare.com/ states, “We do not condone excessive drinking. Our actors have a regular rotation system and are carefully monitored at all times. Drinking in moderation can be fun. Drinking to excess can ruin your life.  We promote healthy drinking.”

So these are professional drinkers of (American) legal drinking age – DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.]

As alcohol is a vital component of the performance, theatergoers have to be 21+ (and they do check IDs) – indeed upon entering the performance space, which is surrounded by bookshelves with chairs all around, patrons are handed a complimentary shot (on the night I went, it was a Tequila Sunrise). As it was Halloween, the Shakespeare play performed was (appropriately) Macbeth, and performed within 90 minutes, with five actors – four men and one woman, one of whom has the aforementioned multiple shots of whisky. At the performance I attended (with my friend Kelley, who was dressed up as Neil Diamond, circa 1970s), the five actors were Whit Leyenberger, Julia Giolzetti, Tim Haber (who also acted as the Host of the proceedings, explaining the overall premise), Brandon Carter and Josh Sauerman (the designated drunk actor). In the spirit of Halloween, several audience members (and the cast) were dressed in costume, and they held an informal costume contest, for which the first prize was a bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne – my friend Kelley won the contest, so thus we were bestowed said bottle of champagne.

 The overall concept of Drunk Shakespeare is a kind of mash-up of the ethos of The Reduced Shakespeare Company, with a healthy dose of improv, reminiscent of Second City and Whose Line is it Anyway? The spirit of reduction abounds (skipping the “boring” parts and getting right to the sex and the killing), with periodic flourishes of pop culture references and audience participation/interaction, as well as challenges for the actors to incorporate throughout the performance, assigned by their fellow actors. There was definitely a sense of camaraderie (chemistry?) among the quintet – they reacted to one another not so much as a troupe of actors but more as a group of longtime friends putting on a (Shakespearean) play.

There wasn’t that much of a stage door experience, as the performance space was sparse (yet effective), and the cast (and audience) dispersed quickly after the performance, and I didn’t have the wherewithal to ask for a group photo with the cast (which may or may not have been impaired by the free champagne and Tequila Sunrise), I did manage to snap a photo of some of the cast with the costumed audience members (among whom was my friend Kelley).

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It’s a brilliantly entertaining evening (or in my case, late afternoon) to watch a (literal) handful of actors perform the essence of a Shakespeare play, and to watch how (well) the intoxicated actor fares throughout the performance. Each performance is of a different play, with a different actor designated to partake in the “nectar of the gods”, so theoretically, there is a near infinite combination of possibilities and a high probability of a uniquely different performance every time. I highly recommend seeing this show, and to experience Shakespeare as it (probably) was performed back in Elizabethan times: with a healthy (moderate) dose of alcohol.

For more information, including performance schedules, visit: http://www.drunkshakespeare.com/

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Hilarity and Suspense: Musings on The 39 Steps – October 3, 2015

Mention the name Alfred Hitchcock and the first thought that comes to mind (usually) is his signature silhouette profile; the second thought is of horror in relation to how his films often feature scary and suspenseful moments/themes (Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, etc.).  Based on the film of the same name, The 39 Steps strives to “break” this stereotype by infusing moments of hilarity amid the action and suspense. I obtained tickets via the usual way I obtain my autumn tickets – through the TDF ticket raffle table at this year’s Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Flea Market & Grand Auction – and was looking forward to seeing this revival production. Currently playing off-Broadway at the Union Square Theater, I saw this play years ago when it played on Broadway and thoroughly enjoyed the overall concept and execution of this adaptation to the stage.

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Set in 1935, the plot revolves around Richard Hannay, a seemingly bored and directionless English gentleman bemoaning the lack of excitement in his life; a trip to the theatre sets into motion a sequence of events that draws him into a world of intrigue. The production scale is quite minimalist, to the point that there are only four members in the cast (three men and one woman), two of whom play a host of minor characters of both genders and of varying ages throughout. The set design is sparse yet effective – the actors’ actions (and reactions) enhance the scenes, along with the use of proper sound effects and other clever visual effects. There is also a quasi-meta quality to the production, with a multitude of references to other Hitchcock films and moments of almost-breaking-the fourth-wall.

The 39 Steps cast list

The four member cast was astounding, especially Billy Carter and Cameron Pow, the aforementioned two actors (listed respectively as “Clown #1 and Clown #2 in the playbill) who play over a multitude of minor characters, all with their own unique personality quirks with expert timing. Brittany Vicars was en pointe as all the female characters, giving each their own unique (often comic) spin. Robert Petkoff, whom I’ve seen several times on Broadway in Spamalot and Ragtime, was fantastic as Richard Hannay, exuding the perfect balance of obliviousness and astuteness as the events around Hannay complicate themselves.

The stage door experience was fine, as they always have been, though I was really the only one waiting outside the lobby (there isn’t a formal stage door area at the Union Square Theater – I was told by the lady working the merchandise area that the actors enter and exit the same way the audience does). Nevertheless, I did meet Cameron Pow and with Robert Petkoff, and briefly chatted with them, as I attended the matinee and they were running out to grab a bite to eat before their second show.

Me and Robert Petkoff

Me and Robert Petkoff

Me and Cameron Pow

Me and Cameron Pow

In conclusion, I highly recommend seeing The 39 Steps, which is an open run down at the Union Square Theater, It’s hilarious, it’s dramatic and it’s suspenseful, and it might (slightly) alter your view of Hitchcock films – there’s even a complimentary “nosie” to emphasize the comedic aspect of the play.

The 39 Steps playbill

Quasi-obligatory "nosie" in the theater lobby

Quasi-obligatory “nosie” in the theater lobby

Revisiting The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady – April 10, 2014

Everything old is new again, or at least it seems that way – these days, most of the TV shows, movies and musicals mine their source material from the past – remakes or “reboots”, with varying degrees of (financial and critical) success; another consistent trend is to reinterpret various Shakespearean plays and set them in modern-day (well, comparatively modern). The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady, written by Stephen Garvey, uses these two well established methods of storytelling and mashes them together, and the end result is a hilarious and inspired production that will please fans of The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family as well as devotees of Shakespeare of all varieties.

As mentioned in a previous blog, I’ve been following the journey of this fantastic show (which is ending its spectacular sold out four-week run at the off-Broadway venue Theater at Saint Clement’s tonight) since its initial run at the New York International Fringe Festival three years ago, and its slow (but steady) trek uptown. This revised and expanded version retains the masterful blending of Shakespearean text and recognizable one-liners, and inserts standout musical numbers – the same songs featured in the two aforementioned TV shows – for several of the characters, so that amid the humor and horror, there are moments of poignancy. Essentially, The Bardy Bunch tells the tale of what (might have) happened to the Bradys and Partridges after the end of their respective shows: a tale of star-crossed lovers, vengeful plots and counterplots, and cases of mistaken identity, with a whole lot of singing and dancing (the updated finale features fantastic choreography by Lorna Ventura)

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The cast was astounding, many of whom reprised their respective roles from the initial production and continue to shine (among those were Erik Keiser as Keith Partridge, Annie Watkins as Jan Brady, and Cali Elizabeth Moore as Marcia Brady) as well as newcomers who brought their interpretation to their respective roles (among those were Sean McDermott as Mike Brady and Zach Trimmer as Greg Brady). Each actor captured their respective character’s trademark tics and catchphrases with ease, to the amusement of the audience, recognizing something familiar from their upbringing (or in my case, from frequent reruns on TV).

Bardy Bunch Cast 2014

In that previous blog (written almost a year ago), I had stated that I hoped this show would find an off-Broadway venue in the near future, and considering the Theater at Saint Clement’s is located on 9th Avenue and 46th Street, technically speaking, this run was off-Broadway (albeit for a limited run). Hopefully, word of mouth from its nightly sold out performance will garner the attention of Broadway producers (or perhaps non-profit theater organizations) and lead The Bardy Bunch a few avenues east to Broadway.

Bardy Bunch Playbill