The Neurology Of The Soul

Artistic director Eric Einhorn describes his Untitled Theater Company #61 as a “Theater Of Ideas: Scientific, political, philosophical, and above all theatrical.” In the capacities of producer, director, and especially playwright, Einhorn has a strong background in theatrical work that pursues these ideas. A keen interest in neuroscience and its theatrical possibilities also saw him contribute heavily to the “emergence of neuro-theatre.” Hot off the success of his last intellectual dramedy on Gertrude Stein, Einhorn pens The Neurology Of The Soul, which sees this love of neuroscience explore the neuroscience of love.

“I love you,” says Stephen, a cognitive neuroscientist, as his wife Amy lies in the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagery). “Sexy,” he continues, watching how each of his words lands in his wife’s mind. It is a live experiment conducted on the brain to determine the patterns and circuits of love “reactions”; to find out how people, or at least how Amy, ticks.

Enter Mark, the smooth-talking head of a neuro-marketing firm, who convinces Stephen to take a job applying his research to advertising. Mark sees the marketing potential in quantifying love way beyond Stephen understanding Amy, but that doesn’t mean he’s completely overlooked her. When Amy, an artist whose career has stalled, is inspired to make multimedia art from her brain scan records, Mark steps in to help jumpstart her career, to growing suspicion from Stephen.

Eric Einhorn’s dissertational script demonstrates copious research on the matter of cognitive neuroscience. Neuroscientist Stephen Macknik spoke in his talkback about the scientific nature of fMRIs, in which blood oxygenation is studied for trends. Which is about as precise as it gets; blood oxygenation occurs based on the movement of neurons, at which level very little discernible change happens—which means these trends are far from conclusive. That Stephen makes such concrete interpretations of Amy’s brain definitely leans more towards fiction than science. Which corroborates Einhorn’s intent of “filling the gap between pure scientific analysis and what it means to us all as humans.”

That said, the play may hold up to scientific scrutiny, but from a theatrical standpoint, Neurology feels like Einhorn coloring in a thesis with a narrative, and the drama he tries to infuse to it makes for an uneven blend at best, and in some moments even undermines the science. It is appreciably difficult to write love triangles, but they require three-dimensional and authentically motivated plots and characters. All four of Neurology’s talented cast struggle to accordingly flesh out soulless roles. Mick O’ Brien, whose Mark’s main function in the narrative seems to be a mouthpiece for Einhorn’s marketing research, affects a convincing corporate air, but is too often reduced to “talk, talk, talk,” even if his Powerpoint presentation monologues sometimes lend exposition to Amy and Stephens’ lives. His own character is obscured until the third act. Matthew Trumbull’s Stephen similarly lacked a human element, but for Trumbull’s acting chops, it follows that Stephen still has his moments. Ashley Griffin, a character actress known for bravura performances in nuanced female leads, is stuck here in a plot-driven drama with a plot that barely drives, and affords her character even less agency. Yvonne Roen’s Claire is an interesting exception: Though written as a caricature, the fact that her character does not contribute to the stagnation of the plot gives Roen much more freedom to excel in scenes, and she does. Her timing and delivery were always conducive to the energy of the scenes she occupied, and there are glimpses of a subtle empathy in her towards the end for which I credit the actress alone.

Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention the architects of Neurology, in which much of the show’s soul is found. Big points to Jim Boutin, Magnus Pind Bjerre, and Jeff Nash for set, video, and lighting that yields a product of alchemic cohesion, which sound designer Sadah Espii Proctor contributes to with the most creative of choices.

The Thanksgiving Play – “It Doesn’t Piss Off The Funders”

Sicangu Lakota playwright Larissa Fasthorse, after being told repeatedly that her plays featuring Native American characters were uncastable, decided to take matters into her own hands and write a play about Native American issues…featuring four white characters.

There’s the overly earnest high school drama teacher Logan (Jennifer Bareilles), her street yogi/actor boyfriend Jaxton (Greg Keller),  the awkward academic Caden (Jeffrey Bean), and the guileless and beautiful LA actress Alicia (Margo Seibert). Logan, dead set on pushing the envelope and creating a “culturally sensitive” Thanksgiving play for her school, uses Native American Heritage grant money to hire Alicia, only to realize too late that Alicia’s headshot (in Native guise) was merely a headshot capturing her “super flexible” ethnically ambiguous look, and Alicia was white. Logan is left with the task of creating her woke play without any actual Native American input.

And this play is very much about performative woke-ness. Logan and Jaxton, careful to a fault, spend the better part of the rehearsal second-guessing themselves and tiptoeing around potentially faulty approaches to a subject they don’t feel ethnically qualified to address, with no help from Caden’s encyclopedic knowledge of the dire history of Thanksgiving.

To that extent, the play is comically self-referential and self-effacing from the start, from the mishandling of the Thanksgiving narrative and the erasure/perversion of Native American history to the excruciating sterility of the wokeness. Fasthorse is searingly funny, and her dialogue, in the hands of four exceptionally talented and cohesive farceurs, lands like thunder. The play is pure in execution, and paces well from start to finish.

But in its self-referential nature also lies the problem: What is the play about? It asks questions, pokes fun, but is it fair to expect an answer? It’s described as a biting comedy, but if you ask me, only inasmuch as it is taking a bite out of itself, and then pondering the nature of its now-missing mass. There are interludes between scenes wherein characters perform real American classroom Thanksgiving skitsobviously in ridicule, giving their often offensive nature—which are funny, but only further muddle the tone. The ending itself is that, amidst a chaotic climax, a near apoplectic Logan has a new, brilliant idea: That an “equitable emptiness” serve as their play. Perfectly harmless, perfectly nothing, offending no one.

I found it a brilliant ending given the narrative and structure, and it’s as funny as anything. But I looked for some closure regarding the many issues and themes I had seen in the play, and found the ending to mirror the play’s aftertaste.

Still, that’s AFTER not having been able to catch my breath throughout its runtime due to incessant laughter.

Screlton McNodes And His Search For Transcendence Through The Act Of Putting On Musicals In The Barn With Stray Cats Amidst A Life Full Of Pain, Abuse, Murder, And Insanity

Yeah, forget my usual attempt at a quirky touch-up to the title this one time. It really does speak for itself. As does its eponymous star.

They say it takes a really good singer to sing really badly. That meta comedy sensation Screlton McNodes should grace Feinstein’s/54 Below comes as no surprise to anyone, then, even if he “didn’t get the 7:30 slot.” Born of a spring break gag, a sleeper hit Youtube video, and creator Martin Landry‘s desire to take his career into his own hands, Screlton McNodes is your typical cat-musical-producing comedic-screlting deep-South victim of child abuse.

And it sucks so very, very good. McNodes lays both claim and waste to the entire musical theatre canon straying more from the melody than Mariah Carey and screeching enough to make Chuck Shuldiner blush. His setlist includes many perennial favorites such as “Defying Gravity,” “Let It Go,” and “Tomorrow,” but trust me, they are like nothing you’ve ever heard before.

Landry’s screlting (an amalgam of “screaming” and “belting”) technique is well-honed and curiously methodical. In the hands of a lesser performer, the act of comedically singing poorly might seem straightforward, but McNodes’ is a controlled chaos: His register, his enunciation, and his modulations are all to some extent deliberate. The patterns he sows, he later reaps with repetitions. Clear example: His habit of frequently ending verses with an “o” vowel no matter the rhyme. And it lands like thunder; the audience eats it right up.

Of course, it’s still something of a relief when the guest vocalists were invited onstage (The screlting, however masterful, became somewhat obtrusive after long periods). And McNodes has assembled an impressive roster: The supremely talented Christina DeCicco and Hannah Elless stepped in for some real Broadway-caliber belting, and each delivered or participated in a bit between songs. Special shout-out to Janice Landry, who stood in last-minute for an absent Sara Jean Ford (citing babysitter troubles), and still delivered an airtight rendition of “Let It Go.” And of course, to expert musical direction and accompaniment by James Dobinson, who even managed to sneak in a little characterization for himself.

The real juice of the guest appearances, though, was in the duets. Watching McNodes jointly sing and even harmonize with his guests was like witnessing an impossible combination of sweet and savory. The blend of ironic and unironic good creates a peculiar, but ultimately tickling and pleasant effect.

That said, McNodes is still here to give a show, and not just a concert. Despite the success of the other factors, the comedy was definitely the strongest part of the evening. Aside from his remarkable command of humor and physicality, Landry’s natural charisma and quick-wittedness allows him to establish a unique rapport with the audience as a character (McNodes) who possesses neither.

The narrative itself is of, as the title suggests, a Broadway-loving Screlton McNodes growing up in rural Alabama with abusive parents. His only solace was the cast recordings of Broadway musicals he listened to, and then proceeded to produce in his barn by casting the neighborhood cats as the characters. Thus Landry, as McNodes, tackles familiar and beloved works of musical theatre for the bulk of the show. A hairball of an endeavor they turned out to be: The almost always ill-fated productions were the source of many antics, and yielded strong laughs from the audience even as the tone grew darker and the ending tragic (in how McNodes ultimately responds to his household situation).

Which is my only real reservation about the show. Landry proves adept at the Dave Barry-esque principle of using laughter to express the “anxiety of knowing [we] in a world devoid of reason.” He is very careful in his use of self-effacing dark comedy to address the tragedies in his narrative, and in managing the tone of his performance with which he handles them. Overall, McNodes’s account is defiantly uplifting despite that which befell him, and it’s no surprise that real victims of abuse have remarked to Landry the therapeutic and cathartic qualities of the show. Furthermore, his exploits as a quirky musical theatre lover from a humble background with big dreams and an uneasy path to realizing them bears an emotional core that’s no doubt relatable to much of the show’s target demographic. However, the story does run the risk of tonal muddles between the comedy and the tragedy, in which case it might elude some audience members, and even disturb others.

Which, for the record, did not seem to be a problem at all at 54 Below. On Thursday November 15 of 2018, as the renowned supper club welcomed Screlton McNodes in a special one-night re-engagement of his solo show, New York City welcomed the abrupt return of heavy winter snow in a one-night preview of its incipient baby blizzards.

But McNodes, the indomitable, was matched in dedication by his fans and supporters, who with the exception of Sara Jean Ford all made it to the performance, and from a variety of origins for which (I heard) the journey made was less than smooth, especially in that weather.

And the ovations that night could’ve rivaled those at a Bette Midler concert. Rightly so, says I.

 

 

 

 

Special thanks to the producer Ashley Griffin, without whom the show might not have been possible, but without whom this review DEFINITELY would not have been possible.

Hey, Look Me Over – Yeah, Do Just That!

For 25 years, Encores! at New York City Center has been giving new life to rarely heard American musicals. In celebrating its 25th anniversary, artistic director Jack Viertel and music director Rob Berman created Hey, Look Me Over!: A smorgasbord of said obscure shows. Or rather, selected numbers and scenes from them. Pulling the hits from the misses, if you will. It bears one notable difference from the traditional revue: Bob Martin as the Man In Chair (see Drowsy Chaperone). Martin plays an opinionated Encores! subscriber leading a tour of ten “shocking omissions” from the series, which he cites as “perfectly respectable shows that never made it to this stage for unknown reasons.” After all, as any good urologist will tell you: “Longevity is not the definitive measure of worth.”

Ironically, a show that was meant to unite viewers through a shared love of musical theatre ended up leaving both audiences and critics divided in opinion.

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Bob Martin

That the show doesn’t sit well with some people is understandable. Though marketed as a musical, Martin’s Man In Chair makes for a thin, insubstantial glue that feels more like the MC of a concert. To Martin’s credit, he is an excellent host, but that still doesn’t give it a plot. On the other hand, what little is elaborated of the premises of the selected musicals often betrayed tastelessness and/or irrelevance in their content that rendered them unfit for presentation in the first place. Furthermore, the caveat of meandering from show to show, covering only selected portions, is that momentum built by one show or number is quickly dissipated to make room for the next, often an entirely different mood. As such, it also runs into some pacing issues: Opening the second act with Greenwillow was slightly underwhelming, and though it had potential, Vanessa William’s interlude of songs from Jamaica felt as contrived and gratuitous as it’d seemed to Bob Martin onstage.

Truthfully, most complaints about Hey, Look Me Over! feel subjective, and don’t detract from what made Hey, Look Me Over a massively delightful and unique experience. All the performances were top form. The 30-piece orchestra played Berman’s revised orchestrations flawlessly and were a fitting backdrop to the intense dance breaks. The overtures were as much a highlight as any scene with actors.

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And the actors: Never again will a stage see the same buffet of so many perennial Broadway favorites, each of whom gave linchpin portrayals to rival and even surpass their original counterparts. It was a good night for young male ballads, most notably Clifton Duncan singing “Never Will I Marry” from Greenwillow (Frank Loesser). It was an even better night, however, for belters: Carolee Carmello and Britney Coleman carried the banner for the production in an unforgettable rendition of “Hey, Look Me Over!” from Wildcat (Cy Coleman). Judy Kuhn, who had excellent chemistry with both Reed Birney and Mark Kudisch, respectively, tugged at my heartstrings every time she sang. And I would argue, having seen Bebe Neuwirth sing “Why Do The Wrong People Travel,” that it alone warrants a Sail Away (Nöel Coward) revival as a vehicle for the hard-driving star. A definite favorite of the evening, though, has to be Mack & Mabel. Douglas Sills is superbly hard-driving as Mack, and Alexandra Socha absolutely shattered expectations in a dazzling act one finale. Frankly, I can’t remember the last time the curtain fell and I felt the evening had blown by.

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L-R: Douglas Sills, Alexandra Socha

One thing to note: The selected shows in Hey, Look Me Over!, all from or bordering the social and cultural cornucopia that is the 60s, touch on many American themes, such as entrepreneurialism, wanderlust, Hollywood, and immigration. Encores! hammers the point home at the end by having the company sing “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” to the tune of an un-lyricized Irving Berlin Song. One can derive a dual interpretation of this warm, inviting number and its words: Just as America is emphasized as a sanctuary for all, so is Broadway, with its quintessentially American book musical, a haven for theatre-lovers of all manner of people. Despite the homogeneity of the affluent middle-aged (and above) at Hey, Look Me Over!, theatre is becoming decreasingly esoteric, and Encores! doesn’t forget that.

It wasn’t a bad idea. Encores! is welcome to try something like this for the next anniversary, as long as it remains true to itself about what it is: A celebration of the little guys—not with full scenes, but full numbers, that ask audiences to simply look it over and enjoy.

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Fire & Air – All Fire And No Air

By the principle that history, the human condition, and art itself are some of the deepest  subjects addressed in the arts, it stands to reason that a work about a historical figure with significant artistic shrewdness is as high-risk-high-reward as theatre gets. Creating and executing such a work is a matter of provocation and sustenance. Or, in other words, of fire and air. Precisely what the Classic Stage Company aims to do and is celebrated for. Fire & Air, about Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes, draws from a rich history of a man whose contributions to the arts cannot be overstated. A veritable dream team of artists was responsible for presenting this work, penned by playwriting luminary Terrence McNally.

So why does it fall short from its great promise? Short version: The building blocks, though individually brilliant, don’t complement one another.

Fire and AirCAST & CREATIVE  for Fire and Air Cast Massine Jay Armstrong Johnson Misia Marin Mazzie Diaghilev Douglas Hodge Dima John Glover Dunya Marsha Mason Nijinsky James Cusati-Moyer Creative Written by Terrence McNally Director and Designer John
L-R: Marsha Mason, John Glover, Douglas Hodge, Marin Mazzie

The biggest clash comes between the writing and the direction. The play is paced like a racehorse, moving relentlessly and unceasingly. McNally can wax as poetic as he wants; one barely absorbs the nuances of one monologue delivered rapid-fire before the next one comes on. The play loses much of its literary merit to the cosmos when the audience isn’t given room to breathe. In this sense, it is all fire and no air.

As wondrously as it’s worked in other cases, director John Doyle’s trademark minimalistic style is simply out of place when dealing with the splendor of the Ballet Russes and its larger-than-life characters. The wooden floor of the CSC’s stage is set only with four chairs that offer multiple combinations for different locations, along with a mirror in the back like that of a dance studio, and another on the ceiling tilted towards the audience. They are, for one, insufficient in capturing the play’s various settings, exacerbated by the scene changes. It’s not that these transitions weren’t smooth, it’s that they were imperceptible. The audience is transported at one point immediately from a Venetian beach to the ballet studio with only an abrupt change in the topic of dialogue. The minimalism in both set and staging means the contrast in atmosphere between one scene and another is left almost entirely to the actors (and maybe the sound designer on a few occasions), but it’s an overreliance. Each act feels like one long scene. It does not help that, during some sections of the play, the actors don’t fully exit but remain in the background.

Fire and AirCAST & CREATIVE  for Fire and Air Cast Massine Jay Armstrong Johnson Misia Marin Mazzie Diaghilev Douglas Hodge Dima John Glover Dunya Marsha Mason Nijinsky James Cusati-Moyer Creative Written by Terrence McNally Director and Designer John
James Cusati-Moyer

Which begs mention of the acting. The cast is stacked only with the finest actors, but their compatibility with this work is at times questionable. Dialogue-wise, Diaghilev (Douglas Hodge) is the lone driver of the plot, which would matter less if the play didn’t stand solely on his shoulders. McNally writes beautiful, witty lines, but they become tertiary if not gratuitous for any character other than Diaghilev; the play feels like an extended Diaghilev monologue with the other actors interjecting every now and then. True, Diaghilev is in a world of his own while those around him live on Earth, but the adverse effect on the rest of the cast is that they become like a supporting ensemble. And one doesn’t bring in talent like John Glover (Dimitry “Dima” Filosofov), Marin Mazzie (Misia Sert), and Marsha Mason (Dunya) to appear disconnected. All three gave stellar yet underutilized performances, anchoring Diaghilev both to and from his lovers. James Cusati-Moyer (Vaslav Nijinsky) and Jay Armstrong Johnson (Leonide Massine) were strong casting choices for their respective roles; both embodied the drive and poise of their characters and even their mythic roles in the ballets without doing much dancing. Douglas Hodge as Diaghilev, though brilliantly acted, is difficult to evaluate: On the one hand, his Diaghilev is driven, obsessive, and even at times morbid. The character visibly feels strongly about his work and his lovers, which for him are one and the same. On the other hand, perhaps too strong—his is a very zestful, almost Nathan Lane-ish Diaghilev at times, and whether he should dial it back depends on whether one considers this to be an acceptable interpretation of the character. If not, then the clowning in his tantrums is certainly at risk of overshadowing his depth. 

Fire and AirCAST & CREATIVE  for Fire and Air Cast Massine Jay Armstrong Johnson Misia Marin Mazzie Diaghilev Douglas Hodge Dima John Glover Dunya Marsha Mason Nijinsky James Cusati-Moyer Creative Written by Terrence McNally Director and Designer John
L-R: Marin Mazzie, John Glover, Douglas Hodge, Marsha Mason

NoëI Coward once said “I will accept anything in the theatre, provided it amuses or moves me.” Fire & Air by all means should move its audiences— but it falls flat. Despite its rapid pace, the play feels low-energy, aa problem of “too much tell and no show.” Diaghilev’s relationships with his lovers are the lifeblood of his work, yet they feel like an afterthought. His moment of climax seemed equally unemotional. For all of Diaghilev’s accomplishments, one couldn’t feel that this portrayal was of the visionary impresario who revolutionized the arts forever, nor, for the most part, that he was driven by love.

Overall, Fire & Air needs to be, as all good CSC productions, more than the sum of its individually glittery parts. That said, it bursts with potential worthy of its title, and just a glimpse of it at this current stage of its development can still be interesting. As such, it comes recommended.

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FIRE AND AIR – by Terrence McNally

Director/Scenic Design: John Doyle

Cast: Jay Armstrong JohnsonMarin Mazzie, Douglas Hodge, John Glover, Marsha Mason, James Cusati-Moyer

Costume Designer: Ann Hould-Ward

Lighting Designer: Jane Cox

Sound Designer: Matt Stine

Wig/Hair/Makeup: J. Jared Janas

Moonlight Cocktail – Moonlit Blessing

Errolyn Healy’s dazzling benefit concert for gun safety at Feinstein’s/54 Below.

So I was recently invited to Moonlight Cocktail, a benefit concert at Feinstein’s/54 Below featuring vocalist Errolyn Healy, accompanied by Cris O’Bryon and a train of other guest artists. The benefit refers to Everytown For Gun Safety, an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to understanding and reducing gun violence in America. As a movement, it works to end gun violence and build safer communities. 100% of the concert’s proceeds (up to a maximum of $15,000) were donated to this cause.

Perhaps my fascination with my surroundings at 54 Below was coupled with it having been my first time at such a venue, but I immediately understood how it earned its reputation as the ultimate platform for guest artists and benefit concerts like this one. The decor gave the room an exclusive air, and leaves the “invitational” part of the atmosphere to the performer. There was a decent amount of noise; people were chatting comfortably as they seated and ordered for the evening. All this, of course, to contrast what happened next.

I remember the lights dimmed, and in walked the moon. At least it might as well have been the moon—when Errolyn Healy entered, the room became instantly silent and wholly attentive, as if arrested in the same manner as people are with the rising moon on a quiet night. Then she opened her mouth, and we regained our senses, only to be transported once more.

Now, I’m no expert on benefit concerts or supper clubs, having never attended either, but I was at no risk of being a fish out of water; Healy’s presence made me feel right at home. She proves an immensely talented vocalist fluent in a range of styles. One could hear the moon not only in her repertoire for the evening—all of which featured the moon in some respect—but in her voice itself, which was equal parts dazzling, mellifluous, yet also nurturing. When appropriate, it was also backed by strong support and clean delivery. This, coupled with her seasoned performing skills and natural charisma, made her the whole package as a 54 Below guest artist.

I would’ve also complimented her chemistry with the other guest performers, namely musical director/accompanist Cris O’Bryon and Michael McCorry Rose, but in this respect she was outshone by none other than O’Bryon and his one-time duet partner, Siri. As Healy took a mid-show break, the stage was ceded to the pair, who indulged the audience with a comical break by performing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” O’Bryon’s chops on the piano and anxious persona were the perfect match and foil to Siri’s monotone speaking of the lyrics and occasional Google-search-infused gibe at O’Bryon, which gave the AI a strange but hilarious degree of personality.

I liked the moon as a subject. Though it has nothing to do with gun control directly, one thing that I believe ties the two subjects together is Healy’s motherhood. Between singing the moon through the maternal softness in her vocals, she took a moment to reflect to the audience about the personal significance of gun control to her as a mother. This moment aside, audiences were invited to “bring [their] sweet dreams and leave [their] worries behind them,” and thanks to Healy’s masterful stewardship, we were able to do just that. With perennial favorites from both Broadway’s moonlit past and the Great American Songbook like “Moonglow,” “Dream A Little Dream Of Me,” and a surprisingly well-done lyricized rendition of Claire de Lune, Healy takes us through each of the moon’s phases and intricacies in a journey that leaves us comforted, dreaming, and no doubt musing on both.

Special mention to the guest artists: Michael McCorry Rose is a veritable Corey Cott to Healy’s jazzy Laura Osnes, though significantly younger, with a more boyish charm. Young singer/actresses Gracie Beardsley and Anna Forget also stepped onstage as backing vocals for one or two moments. Both were competent, though Forget was noticeably nervous onstage, which is pardonable given her age and experience. Special mention also to Ashley Griffin, who put the whole thing together: Though I am predisposed to trust any production under Griffin’s auspices, Moonlight Cocktail was another success of organization and pace to add to her belt. Lastly, a shoutout to whoever designed and worked the lights for the show: A small but essential part of the ambience is owed to the lighting, and it was done just right.

Through the efforts of all those listed above, Moonlight Cocktail was a night to remember, hopefully also as far as gun control efforts are concerned.

 

 

 

Writer’s Note: The concert took place on February 6th, 2018, and I’d written this not long after, but I accidentally saved this as a draft instead of publishing it. Welp. I hope to never in my life be this careless (and this late) ever again.

Trial – Mercy Is Twice Blessed

Ashley Griffin’s Trial. Where do I begin? I recently had the privilege of catching this play in its limited run workshop at the American Theater of Actors, which succeeded readings done at Manhattan Theater Club and The Red Fern Theater Company. Like Griffin’s other plays, Trial lives off an extra helping of suspension of disbelief, but in turn delivers an intense and inimitable theatergoing experience.

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Trial is set in the judicial department of the afterlife. In this world, when the eternal placement of one’s soul is in question, they are held in trial arbitrated by the person to whom they did the most harm in life. To call this scenario bureaucratic hell would be redundant if it weren’t slightly erroneous: The protagonist, Arcadia Evans, commits suicide at the age of 15 from being abused physically, emotionally, and sexually by her father, Richard. After waiting in the celestial room for twelve years, Richard finally dies, and Arcadia’s status quo in the celestial waiting room ends when she is chosen to be judge and jury at a trial determining his salvation or damnation.

The guilt of Richard’s abuse and of it indirectly causing Arcadia’s death is open-and-shut and quickly determined, but the matter of the suicide itself (and subsequently Richard’s fate) remains in question. As the forces of good and evil fight tooth and nail for the soul of the defendant, the line between the two is both blurred and elucidated, and so the plot thickens. The play explores the externalities of Arcadia’s suicide from beyond the grave with enough perspective to make Kant turn over in his grave (given the play’s setting, he really might have). Trial tells us that the quality of mercy is not strained, but more importantly, mercy is twice blessed.

There is, I believe, ample evidence already of Ashley Griffin’s consummate storytelling abilities. She has exhibited appreciable talent for all creative aspects of theatrical work, namely writing, directing, and acting. What strikes me as most prominent, though, is her ability to create worlds. Owing to a rich heritage of stories past and present, Griffin’s work reflects the best elements of storytellers past and combines them in her own style. Just enough detail for the imaginations of her audience to take over.

 

Bright Colors And Bold Patterns – Where On The Rainbow Is Khaki?

Drew Droege returns in his uproarious solo show, directed by Michael Urie.

Note to aspiring wedding planners: If there are gay men on your guest list, don’t run the risk of asking that they “refrain from dressing in bright colors and bold patterns.” The spiky reaction of one affronted invitee just might sow the seeds for a solo show that is the tragicomedy of the season.

Enter said invitee, Gerry Howard: A motormouthed fireball of an Angeleno whose wit is as forthright as his titanic presence. Armed with cocaine, margaritas, and his encyclopedic knowledge of 90s pop culture, this life-of-the-party wedding guest is ready to brighten, color, and embolden the fastest 80 minutes of any audience member’s life.

“Honey, we celebrate things and make fun of them at the same time.  That’s called gay.” Bright Colors does the very same thing. Arriving the evening before a gay wedding in Palm Springs, Gerry takes the wedding invitation’s discouragement of flashy attire as a personal affront, and is not afraid to dispense pure shade at those he deems responsible, especially when the wedding itself is between two men. And you better believe that with a guest list including his ex-boyfriend, the latter’s new young lover, and “that fuckbag Neil,” Gerry is going to be a fountain of drama.

Drew Droege, photo credit - Russ Rowland (5)

What’s most special about Bright Colors And Bold Patterns is that Gerry is the only one onstage—the only character out of four that is seen or heard. The audience gleans the dialogue of the other three by Gerry’s responses to them, and it is to Droege’s immense credit as a playwright and actor that the play runs so smoothly. Remarkably, it feels blocked and run as if it had its full cast of four; the audience can tangibly feel the emotions of the nonexistent characters. That’s an incredible feat: When dialogue is constructed so immaculately that even nonspeaking invisible roles are fully fleshed, three-dimensional characters.

Drew Droege is delicious as Gerry, and there is no mistaking that both actor and role love being the center of attention. He has total control over the audience, and his delivery is such that they are with him at every step. No moment in the show is empty; the audience is ready to fill any silence between lines with raucous laughter, applause, and even heavy anticipation during some of the more nuanced parts. To add to an already naturalistic performance, Droege engineers comedy and drama on the fly, and as both actor and playwright he is able to take that license on his own material without inhibition. This talent is of no surprise, given his experience with improv and sketch.

Drew Droege, photo credit - Russ Rowland (7)

Behind the hilarity, however, lies poignancy. We eventually see that Gerry’s outer rainbow and prickliness shields the insecurities of an aging man wounded by heartbreak and censure, but more importantly, who fears the obsolescence of his pride in a world that’s begun to normalize it. Gerry’s spirited advocacy of bright colors and bold patterns when faced with a gay wedding that avoids them evinces a deeper worry that the road to normal is the road to beige. In this sense, the interaction between Gerry and his ex’s new boyfriend (who is decades younger) is symbolic.

I personally welcomed the play’s admission that Gerry is a flawed man. To me, he represents the best and worst of us, of what we’ve been through, and what we want. One cannot ask more of a protagonist, especially in a comedy.

Drew Droege, photo credit - Russ Rowland (8)

The black stage of the SoHo Playhouse (where Bright Colors is currently running) is decorated as the poolside patio of a Palm Springs house, and although the unpainted black background might’ve precluded some comprehension of the passage of time, it is all irrelevant given Droege’s performance. It is through him, not the set, that I can imagine the different times in which the play is set.

That said, this fit achieved between Droege and his stage isn’t owed exclusively to Gerry’s relentless extroversion in conversing with chaise lounges, but also to Michael Urie’s direction. According to an interview with BUILD Series, Urie saw the production in its infancy at Ars Nova, thought it was brilliant, and felt it needed a full production. My verdict, having seen the show, is that Droege creates the world, and Michael colors it.

Truly, this show is a delight to behold, and Drew Droege plays Gerry with unending panache. Let’s all have some more bright colors and bold patterns in our lives.

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BRIGHT COLORS AND BOLD PATTERNS – by Drew Droege

Director: Michael Urie
Starring: Drew Droege (u/s: Tom Detrinis)

Scenic Design: Dara Wishingrad

Press Representative: Dan Fortune

Producer: Zach Laks, Riki Kane Larimer, Jamie Deroy, Keith Boynton/Mike Lavoie, Jim Kierstead, Drew Desky/Dane Levens

Associate Producer: Tom Detrinis, Amanda Bohan

Production Stage Manager: Jonathan Castanien

Company Manager: Hannah Woodward

Advertising/Marketing/Social Media: ABM

Technical Director: Joshua Kohler

Photos by Russ Howland.

Presented by Soho Playhouse through January 7.

https://www.brightcolorsandboldpatterns.com/

 

Snow – Reframing Grimm In Triplicate

Ashley Griffin’s profound revision of the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White in three new parallel storylines.

 

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Ryan Clardy, Gracie Beardsley

All art by some essence tells a story, and storytelling has as much potential to provoke reflection as it does to entertain. While fairy tales as we know them, or knew them as children, are a break from the quotidian, their themes are often timeless and universal. “Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten” is only a more specific and goal-oriented rephrasing of “art is the lie that leads to the truth,” a theme quintessential to playwright/actor Ashley Griffin’s Snow.

If storytelling—as put by Griffin—is a dying art, then she herself is in the vanguard of its resuscitation. Following a 2016 summer premiere at Under St. Marks, her brainchild Snow was brought back by A.N.O.N. Productions for another run at The Producer’s Club, where it played to riveted audiences. Fluently acted by a versatile cast, Snow explores common themes of love, the human condition, and storytelling itself via a medium aptly chosen by Griffin for its relevance and ubiquity—fairy tales.

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L-R: Ryan Williams, Ashley Griffin, Leslie Alexander

Snow is set in three separate storylines revolving around the tale of Snow White, with a cast of six actors playing corresponding archetypes in each. The first is a historical account of the Brothers (Jakob and Wilhelm) Grimm’s attempt to save Germany from cultural subjugation by collecting and preserving its fairy tales, and how they clash over the dilution of the details. The second concerns a family of thespians during the Victorian era whose exploits begin to mirror the events of Snow White as the (step)mother grows jealous of being supplanted by her daughter’s success. The third and final is the story of Astrid, an abused modern-day girl who is rendered comatose—but for her, waking up is a choice, and a difficult one at that.

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L-R: Ashley Griffin, Ryan Clardy, Leslie Alexander

The three stories, staged seamlessly by Sage Barrie, illuminate tiny but important aspects of one another. As a motif is discussed and mused upon by characters in one world, it is transpiring in another. The frequent transitions during the scenes are, as put by Griffin, “little poems”: The set pieces are few and versatile, and all six actors are dressed in a base of “actor black”; a prop or a costume piece are all that separate one identity from another, making feasible the mere seconds an actor has to turn from English to German, from malevolent to timid, from being in full view to being part of the background.

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L-R: Ashley Griffin, Ryan Clardy, Ryan Williams, Gracie Beardsley, Jay William Thomas

This is done very efficiently by the actors, whose performances themselves are nothing short of laudable. Although Leslie Alexander’s lines as Isadora/Donna were occasionally rushed (to the detriment of their gravity), she is powerfully detestable and vulnerably paranoid as the evil queen. Ryan Williams draws praise for being both the selfless, paternal Jakob and the domineering, amoral Jack; the latter seizing everything in his path with a lustful verve that makes one’s blood curdle. Jay William Thomas balances a boyish charm as Tate and Arthur with a nationalistic zeal as Wilhelm Grimm. And Gracie Beardsley, in the words of reviewer Seth from TheatreArt (I couldn’t top this): “…showed poise and intelligence beyond her years as all of the little girls in the show…Charm, innocence, vengeance and grace pour from her as she captivates our heart.”

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Ryan Clardy

Special mention must be given to Ryan Clardy’s Shadow: As a personification of death, or Vernichtung (German: literally “destruction), Clardy gives life to an immaterial force that quite literally pervades the entire play, tying the three storylines together. Summoned to deliver the kiss of death to any character that draws close to it, Clardy’s imposing stage presence is the veins and arteries of this show. I find his character a refreshing take on death; a fairy, a forgotten celestial who, after eons of struggle, is neither fully naive nor resigned, who with all his witness and wisdom still possesses a somewhat childlike spirit, and is still caught off guard by Astrid.

And Astrid is, in the hands of her architect Griffin, a tragic and arresting centerpiece to the story. Astrid is a physical and emotional challenge for any actress, and Ashley Griffin plays her roles with the commitment of one who created them, but more importantly, understands them. Her electric chemistry with Clardy’s Shadow is as inimitable as the fantastical circumstances of their bond. Astrid, deprived of love and trapped in abuse, is quite literally in love with and flirts with death, desperately wanting him to take her. Shadow is entranced by a disposition he’s never received from a human, and cares deeply for Astrid, but knows that to consummate it—by a kiss—would be to kill her. Their love climaxes in the final scene tremblingly, but intimately. It is a section written entirely in stage direction, but to the audience member, it simply defies description.

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Ashley Griffin, Ryan Clardy

Arguably the most resonant part of this show is the writing. Drawing from a line within: “Storytellers take words and make order out of the chaos of life. They must be able to look at everything in the world and find the sense in it” (funnily enough, this bill also fits critics). The characters in Snow are, to Griffin’s immense credit, fully fleshed out and not the impersonal caricatures on whom they’re based. They also, when taken out of larger-than-life settings and pantomimic portrayals, face and respond to situations not so different from our own. Griffin’s visceral reframing of Snow White and its more traditionally-sourced elements (abuse, incest, and murder) is a harsh reminder of how desensitized we are to such darker things in fairy tales. This is compounded upon by the Grimm brothers, who become their own greatest enemy as they edit the stories they’ve compiled. Love, however, remains the prevalent theme of Snow as in its fairy tale predecessors. Love is the common denominator in the characters, be they in search of it or in resignation from it, in faith or neglect of it, or acting for or in spite of it.

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Jay William Thomas, Ashley Griffin

One of my favorite examples is the tale told by Shadow in the first scene. It spoke of a good and wise king whose daughters competed for his affection. One thought she could do so by becoming beautiful, the second by becoming good and kind. Eventually the first became cruelly jealous about her beauty, and the second became self-righteous and cold. The king tearfully responded thus:

“My daughters, you did not need to make yourselves beautiful and good to earn my love. Do you not understand? You were beautiful already, and might have been truly good if you had known in your hearts how much you were already loved. If love could be earned I fear no one would ever obtain it, for we are none of us as pure and good as we ought to be. Beauty will fade, and goodness will not protect you from trials. Therefore, be joyful. And love others, not to get a reward, but to honor the love that has been so freely given to you. Put your hope in love.”

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L-R: Leslie Alexander, Ashley Griffin, Ryan Williams

This significantly foreshadows the paths of the two “archetypes” concerned. Leslie Alexander’s queen/stepmother roles are all concerned with beauty: The aging actress Isadora fears her loss of it and becomes jealous in the incipience of it in her daughter, and Astrid’s mother Donna blames her for the loss of youth and beauty that come with pregnancy. Ashley Griffin’s Snow White roles, on the other hand, pursue goodness: Isadora’s daughter Clara grows up around the idea of being a good, obedient girl, while Astrid doesn’t think she’s good but wants to be, for the same reason she wants to be loved. None of these characters believe they deserve love inherently, and not as a reward for their achievements of beauty and goodness. The final choice presented to Astrid of believing in love despite her resignation is exemplified in the other choice she has to make: That of waking up from her Snow White slumber to a mortal world she must then continue to face. The play ends as Astrid opens her mouth to answer, making hers the only storyline out of the three that isn’t completely wrapped up. It is gripping, it is suspenseful, and it is poetic.

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Ashley Griffin, Ryan Clardy

Of course, Snow is not without its flaws. The transitions are flawless, but sometimes the action during the scene is a little artificial, liable to break the flow of an exchange. Moreover, its two-hour runtime as a one act play isn’t for the faint-hearted (or, for that matter, for the small-bladdered). It is a heavily worded and themed piece that, while infinitely quotable with its many musings, is probably lost in no small degree to the audience member that isn’t giving full, unblinking attention. That said, Snow’s didacticism is only half-way to being Brechtian, stopping close enough to still resonate emotionally; Griffin has achieved a tentative balance between the two. In conclusion, her presentation of this material is in no way contrived. At its core, it is beautiful, ambitious, and original, and I would be neither chagrined nor surprised to see it produced again in the future.

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For more information on Ashley Griffin, visit her website.

All photos here courtesy of Micah Joel

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