Principles of Uncertainty: Thoughts on Heisenberg – October 8, 2016

Like death and taxes, there is a level of certainty in the existence of uncertainty in all aspects of life. No one really knows how situations will turn out until they unfold, and random encounters can lead to unexpected relationships. The theme of uncertainty is explored in Heisenberg, written by Simon Stephens, currently playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre from now until December 11, 2016.  I obtained tickets via my usual source (the TDF Pik-a-Tkt table at the BC/EFA Flea Market & Grand Auction), and were actually the only “real” tickets I won that day (the rest were vouchers); it was also my first time seeing a show at the Friedman, a theater associated with the Manhattan Theatre Club.

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Heisenberg explores the interactions between two people – Georgie and Alex – and how an impetuous, random act binds them together, with unexpected results and unintended revelations. The premise is based upon (and indirectly refers to) the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states “the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa” (description pulled from Wikipedia, which had the most straightforward, not-too-technical definition I could find). The notion that there is an inverse relationship of knowing about different aspects of someone (as it is in this play) is interesting in that the honing in on one facet of a person obscures the ability to see the “big picture”. Truth becomes subjective upon the perspective and perception of what is revealed, bringing forth doubts on the validity of the revelations and the motivations behind them. The prospect of the unknown looms throughout, as the interactions between Georgie and Alex play out as expected, until it doesn’t. There are levels of ambiguity about what actually happens throughout the play and how it ends, but in light of the Uncertainty Principle, that’s probably the intention of the play – to spotlight the nature of uncertainty that is life.

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The overall scenic design of the play is inventive and fitting, given the subject of the play – while the theater has a traditional proscenium configuration, there is onstage seating – about ten rows seating 200 people on stage. The actual space from which the actors perform becomes a narrow strip, with minimal set pieces and occasional props; there are no real costume changes per se, aside from the addition of jackets worn at several points during the play. With the onstage seating and small theatre space available for the actors to tell their story, it makes the play all the more intimate, with the ability for the audience to view the story from different perspectives. Mary Louise Parker and Denis Arndt were phenomenal as Georgie and Alex, respectively; their interactions, mostly through quasi-rambling monologues were revelatory as their relationship grew from mild annoyance to a kind of co-dependency. Aside from a brief snippet of music about which the pair conversed, there was silence – awkward pauses in between the verbal exchange which enhanced the scenes between the unlikely pair.

The show is currently in previews (it open on October 13th) and after the matinee performance there was a talk back with the associate director about the themes proposed in the one act, hour and twenty-minute play. During the talk back, the audience members who remained had contrasting opinions about the characters and their motivations, based on their individual perspectives and (probably preconceived notions), which further enhances the impact of the play. With the talk back (which I didn’t know they had until it was announced before the show’s start), I didn’t have an opportunity to stage door (though the security person at the stage door did inform those who did try that the two actors would not be coming out to sign playbills and such – also, it was a rainy afternoon, so I can’ really blame them for not wanting to “brave the elements”, as they had another performance that evening).

In conclusion, Heisenberg is an interesting play that makes you wonder about the essence of uncertainty and examine the consequences to even the most random of actions. Uncertainty will always exist, and the more attention you focus on one aspect of a situation, you might get blind-sighted by something else, which could (and just might) change your perceptions about the situation as a whole. Or at least that’s my own perception of it all. It’s a worthwhile play to see, and the very notion of uncertainty is highly relevant in these uncertain times.

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The Old Razzle Dazzle: Thoughts on Takarazuka Chicago – July 23, 2016

Music is often called the universal language, with its unique ability to invoke emotions and / or memories (good, bad or neutral) shared by a wide cross section of people, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity. Musicals have that similar pull, even if the score is sung in a different language that one’s own native tongue; while some of the lyrics might not be exactly the same, the overall theme remains intact. I don’t often get an opportunity to see familiar musical performed in different languages (though I have listened to non-English cast recordings), I was intrigued by the production of Chicago performed by Takarazuka Revue, a Japanese, all female theatrical company, finishing its limited run today at the David H. Koch Theater, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.  More information about Takarauka can be found on their website: https://kageki.hankyu.co.jp/english/

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The overall design was the same as the current Broadway revival, which is now the longest running American revival in Broadway history, celebrating its 20th year on Broadway. Its minimalist set design, limited use of props and practical costumes allows the actors’ performances to shine and the songs to be the centerpiece. The story of Chicago is about the trials and tribulations of Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, two “merry murderesses” and the hoopla around creating celebrities from known criminals. The show’s themes have a such a timeless quality and omnipresent relevance that it’s revelatory that the original production was four decades ago – John Kander and Fred Ebb were certainly visionaries in that respect (of course, all their collaborations are brilliant).

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The all-female cast of the Takarazuka Revue was astounding, and the choreography meticulously synchronized; stand outs among the leading cast were Natsuki Mizu as Velma Kelly, Yuga Yamato as Roxie Hart and Saki Asaji as Billy Flynn. As the entire show was in Japanese, there were super titles above the stage so the non-Japanese speaking audience could follow along, though I was quite familiar with the songs (and much of the spoken dialogue) that I focused more on the performance and less on reading the super titles. Per their tradition, after the curtain call, there was the “Takarazuka Encore” – a spectacle wherein the cast performs a medley of songs (in English and in Japanese) with lavish costumes and brilliant choreography.

 

Overall, it was a different yet familiar experience of a story that serves as a reflection of society today and reminder of the fleeting nature of celebrity and the power of the press. I would love to see other productions from this amazing troupe of performers, and hope they will return to New York in the near future.

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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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On a Magic Carpet Ride: Musings on Aladdin – October 31, 2015

Disney animated films have always masqueraded as movie musicals, especially those that were released in the 1990s. The majority of them have transferred from the screen to the [Broadway] stage, albeit with varying degrees of success (and if this pattern continues, I sincerely hope there will be a stage adaptation of Mulan or Hercules on Broadway sometime in the near future). The most recent screen to stage adaptation is Aladdin, currently playing at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Per usual, I obtained tickets via the TDF ticket raffle table at the BC/EFA Flea Market & Auction, and quasi-continues a tradition of my seeing a Broadway show on Halloween night, though this year I managed to schedule a double header (i.e. two shows in one day, though technically speaking it wasn’t the “traditional” matinee and evening performance, as the first show was the already blogged about Drunk Shakespeare, whose performance started at 4pm). I’ve always been a fan of Disney animated films (who hasn’t?) and had enjoyed the screen to stage adaptations (or at least the ones I had an opportunity to see), and while I know the stage adaptation can’t be “just like” the film (for the obvious reasons), it’s always interesting to see what changes (additions, omissions and adjustments) are made, and what remains the same, and how it effects the story.

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While it’s been several years since I last watched the animated film, the overall look and spirit of the story remains intact: the tale of a princess and the “street rat” yearning to be more than what society expects them to be, the villain wanting ultimate power and the genie who just wants to be free. The stage adaptation has a handful of new songs, with the music by Alan Menken (who wrote the songs for the film) and lyrics by David Zippel, Stephen Schwartz and Glenn Slater, as well as new characters (Babkak, Omar and Kassim, three of Aladdin’s friends, presumably to compensate for the loss of Abu, Aladdin’s monkey sidekick in the film). There’s an additional (emotional) subplot revolving the memory of Aladdin’s mother, highlighted in “Proud of Your Boy” (one of the new songs). And of course, there’s a lot more singing and dancing in the stage adaptation, which is visually stunning, and expertly performed. I’m not quite as enamored on the new subplot/sidekicks, while it brings about a good deal of character development and (some) exposition, it seems out of place with the overall story, with some of it is reminiscent of other Disney animated films. The same can be said of most of the new songs – they don’t seem to live in the same “sound world” as the songs from the film, and faintly reminded me of other (recognizable, Alan Menken-penned songs).

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That being said, the standout moments came in the form of the Genie, expertly played by James Monroe Iglehart, with just about the same amount of pizzazz and sassiness as the late, great Robin Williams (who played the role of the Genie in the film). The energy he exuded was palpable and his numbers nearly (literally) stopped the show – ‘twas a Tony-worthy performance. While I was miffed that Jonathan Freedman (who originated the role of Jafar in the film) was out, his understudy, James Moye, was fantastic, with just the right amount of villainy without making it too campy, well supported by Don Darryl Rivera as Iago, (a nice change that he was played as a human rather than as a parrot, as that character was in the film). The rest of the cast, including leads Adam Jacobs (in the titular role) and Courtney Reed as Jasmine, were great. The choreography was stunning as was the overall set design, with its warm, lush colors. “A Whole New World”, complete with the flying carpet did not disappoint and was as magical as it was in the film.

The stage door scene was not as busy per usual – I’m not sure if that was because it was Halloween night and the departing audience wanted to partake in the various Halloween festivities, yet the cast came out, chatting amicably with those who were waiting at the stage door, taking photos and signing playbills.

Clockwise from top left: Adam Jacobs, Courtney Reed, James Monroe Iglehart and James Moye

Clockwise from top left: Adam Jacobs, Courtney Reed, James Monroe Iglehart and James Moye

Despite my somewhat mixed impression of the show, I had a great time, and would recommend it to those who enjoyed the film and also enjoy the previous Broadway adaptation of Disney animated films. It’s always a magical experience seeing a Disney show on Broadway.

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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/

Drunk Shakespeare flyers