Category Archives: Theatre

Higher Tech

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The Sex With Robots Festival

Presented by Caps Lock Theatre

November 5–10, 2013

The Secret Theatre
4402 23rd St, Long Island City, NY

We’re already the progeny of humanity and technology, inseparable from our peripheral tablet memory and satellite-guidance visions and virtual video adventures and the voices in our earbuds, and The Sex With Robots Festival, an evening of eight short plays and a musical prologue, reintroduces us to the heritage of machinery that advanced our imagination in the first place and the human feelings that drive it all.

Existence itself begins in sexuality and every human invention and entertainment is porn before it’s art; festival originators Danny Bowes and Natalie Zutter (with producers Mariah MacCarthy and Leta Tremblay) are conscious of all this unashamed necessity and transcendent possibility. Like the best robot fiction from Isaac Asimov to Greg Pak, these plays about sex with robots are really about love among humans, in all its miracles and malfunctions and missed signals.

The evening starts and ends on affirmations of the organic, bookended by an acoustic song-cycle by Nat Cassidy at the beginning and a passionate, tender bedside discussion (etc.) at the finish.

Cassidy’s Sparks Will Fly, like several of the episodes, draws on the rustic future of mid-20th-century cybernetic chic, in a tale of a lonely man who engineers suburban bliss the only way it can really never go wrong, by literally building a family. Sung in a catalogue of cocktail-croon voices to the original locomotive techno of blues and folk, it’s a small masterwork of the human mind making of others what it will.

Simon Says (by Richard Lovejoy & Eric John Meyer, who also star) is a tense carnivalesque tableau of an abusive prig dominating his mechanical-manservant, a macabrely humorous natural extreme of the 99-to-1 equation.

Sasha by Mac Rogers is a devastating tragedy of ill manners, cracking open the schematics of human emotional damage the way Rogers never fails to. A divorced man, played by Stephen Heskett with morose Don Draper mastery, is shopping for the simulated wife who will really give him what he wants, and the truth of what that is says much about the voluntary torture of bad marriages. Catherine LeFrere as the deceptively subordinate Stepford-wife and Daryl Lathon as the mod-Mephistopheles salesman are also fascinating, with cracklingly somber direction in an epic of menacing restraint by Pete Boisvert.

Girlfriend Repair by Micheline Auger constructs a hilarious technical metaphor for males deciphering the mechanics of female desire, while Just Right by MacCarthy is a terrifyingly truthful portrait of domestic abuse between a woman and her robotically re-created ex-girlfriend, pushing each other’s buttons in a nightmarish loop.

Taisetsu Na Hito by Leah Nanako Winkler reboots this as farce, with a soured straight married couple rediscovering their fire for each other in the cold reflection of their programmed housekeeper — until being in danger of actually getting to know her disenchants them all over again.

Zutter’s A Real Boy, with its data-crunching, jealousy-generating android gigolo tallying his patron’s flesh-and-blood partners, is a perceptive parody of the scores we keep on lovers, while Make Your Bed in Hell by J. Julian Christopher, about a sheltered geek’s literal technophilia, is a concept underdeveloped yet remarkably performed, especially by Natasha Yannacañedo conveying a lifetime of hurt and exasperation in a few minutes of conflict with a disappointing loved one.

My Fantasy Sex Robot Came in the Mail Today by Bowes belies its literal title with layers of delicate feeling and honest eros. Bowes is touching as an isolated but reflective fanboy, and Jennifer Harder is an elemental presence as his transitory lover, her motions writing a kinetic treatise on the expectations programmed onto women in her character’s assumption of roles and poses for his pleasure and her sad uncertainty when he makes the most baffling of demands, that she be herself.

The breakdown of our devotions in Sex With Robots’ ensemble of disillusioned intimates and the sanction of solitude in our embrace of technology are the tragedies at the heart of this evening — but in such sad understanding we repair connections and unlock the formula to know ourselves.

3000

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Iphigenia in Aulis
by Euripides
Adapted and directed by Edward Einhorn
Music by Aldo Perez
Art by Eric Shanower
Sets and masks by Jane Stein
Costumes by Carla Gant
Lighting by Jeff Nash
Choreography by Patrice Miller
Vocal Coach: Henry Akona
Fight Choreography: Dan Zisson

At La MaMa’s First Floor Theatre
74 E 4th St, NYC
Feb 14 — Mar 3, 2013
Thursdays — Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sundays at 2:30pm

Tickets www.lamama.org

Iphigenia in Aulis is a study in pretext without principle. Nations and leaders lean on prescribed values like the characters in this ancient Greek drama lean on the staffs holding up ceremonial masks that project their larger- (yet less-) than-life official presence to the world. But both of these are often a consensual delusion — a dispiritingly unoriginal observation of mine that proves how fresh this play of Euripides remains.

The elopement of Helen with her lover Paris to Troy from her husband King Menelaus’s realm triggers an honor-war in which city-states pledged in a mutual support pact are obligated to overrun the offending territory. Menelaus’ brother King Agamemnon is in turn obligated to lead the expedition, and finds himself manipulated by a prophet (and then pressured by a restive army) into pledging his own daughter, Iphigenia, as a sacrifice to gain favor with the gods in battle.

The anguish this causes Agamemnon is a portrait of the blame that buffers our ethical decisions; the king feels at the mercy of greater powers and grand concepts that we can recognize as really the limits of his own moral imagination. And this distortion of private conscience by public piety and militarist imperative is renewably timely in our own era teetering on the ledge of theocracy and “generational” conflict.

But that’s not the only way in which the antique and modern collide in this production. The beautifully wrought, eerily impersonal masks which intervene between the characters’ feelings and their obligations are designed by Jane Stein from Age of Bronze graphic novelist Eric Shanower’s images, and the commenting chorus is transformed into a punky pair of power trios on instruments and collective vocals (composer Aldo Perez plus Matthew Brundrett and Mike Strauss as the band, and Jenny Lee Mitchell, Sandy York and Emily Clare Zempel to sing the unspeakable).

The latter, thought jarring by some viewers, is as disruptive as rock was once meant to be, and is perhaps the feature of the production most in tune with the combative rabble our “civilization”’s founding figures of legend really were.

The characters themselves are more high-minded, in debates which are compelling as drama and plain speech turned to insistent artistry by director Edward Einhorn’s translation. His treatment is a new standard text of language unadorned but not austere, the straightforward arguments of state and dialogues of moral dilemma almost entirely free of poetic ornament but elevated to distinguished oratory and elemental outcry by the external pressures and expressive necessities the characters face.

Those public and personal spheres clash in the conflict of Agamemnon and his Queen, Klytemnestra, who tries everything to counter her husband’s mad myopic plan. The compact between wife and husband in a decidedly pre-feminist culture is implicitly paralleled to the uneasy understanding between leader and citizenry at the points when Klytemnestra reminds him of her sexual deference in return for domestic peace, and when she insists (still thinking that Iphigenia has been called to the staging area for a wedding rather than a burial) that the home — and the family in it — are hers to direct and protect while the patriarch of the clan ranges the wider world. But this is an epoch of men who will destroy their own house to save someone else’s village.

The way the wretched of a society can be enlisted in the cause of their oppressors is portrayed with ghastly — which is to say almost unremarkable — inexorability as Iphigenia becomes convinced that Troy, if punished with the massacre to come, will forever forebear coming into “civilized” Greece and “taking its wives.” And so high principle ends up hinging entirely on possession, with the psychologically coerced consent of the dispossessed.

The message of disapproval for the paternal pattern of the society ours is said to be based on is a message still in transmission some 3000 years after these supposed events, and the last, laudatory lines about the nobility of Iphigenia’s sacrifice are delivered not even through the prescribed mood of the masks but the backs of standards held up by a heraldic chorus, between their faces and us — banners as blinders.

The vocal resonance, moral hollowness and unexplored depths of Michael Bertolini and Eric Emil Oleson as Agamemnon and Menelaus are frightfully magnetic; the emotional bravery of Ivanna Cullinan’s precarious balance of obliged social surface and embattled inner character is unforgettable; the burdened dignity and urgent humanity of Lynn Berg’s Old Servant, a man who seems literally stooped by the pressures both divine and royal upon his constricted frame, is bleakly moving; and the radiant decency and contained charisma of Paul Murillo as Achilles and the humanitarian conviction and emotional immediacy of Laura Hartle’s Iphigenia round out an essentially flawless ensemble.

The masks, accurate to the origins of Greek theatre and appropriate to our own age of social artifice and selected avatars, are discarded at moments of uncommon honesty and insistent feeling. This tragedy is a text we’ve been going through for as long as can be remembered, perhaps even inscribed in our very molecules over the repetition of millennia. But with collective knowledge and moral perception like we see the playwright, his interpreter, some of their characters and each of the cast attempt, perhaps we can at last go off-script and into a future that all of us can survive.

Season Finale

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The Ultimate Fate of the Solar System and Other Plays Without Words

Directed by Jeff Lewonczyk

Created by Lewonczyk and the cast: Hope Cartelli, Jennifer Harder, Stephen Heskett, Cara Moretto and Stephanie Willing

Ich Liebe Jesus! (A Christian Musical)

Written, composed & directed by Robert Honeywell

November 29—December 9, 2012

The Brick Theater, 575 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn, USA

Director/writer Jeff Lewonczyk is second to none in his cross-genre fluency (see: Theater of the Arcade, his survey of note-perfect great-playwright styles with texts inspired by videogames). In The Ultimate Fate of the Solar System and Other Plays the sheer essence of stylistic environments is delved into, in a wordless review of tableaux told in motion and created with the cast.

The title segment is a to-the-death gradeschool presentation on the planets, in which juvenile animosities are played out in a grudge-match of dinosaur-killing comets, alien attacks and eventual supernova (score!).

“Cut Me Sideways” is a lurid pink-spotlit gang-dance sequence from some hipster crime-sploitation flick left on West Side Story’s switchbladed cutting-room floor.

“Bereft” is a living musicbox-figurine meditation on funereal loss, with haunted-house Victorian mourners in a pavane of fading communion that was one of the most truly beautiful visions I’ve ever seen in the indie theatre, a moving lamentation of how the living are ghosts of the time they had together with those who have gone.

Costume designer Juliann Kroboth outdoes herself with very economical means; in what is essentially a dance piece where character is setting, the crazed arts-and-crafts of the kids’ cardboard celestial bodies are the inner lining of an overworking id, the patterns of the street fighters’ designer sheaths are a cocoon of bygone chic spun straight from the neon, handbilled alley walls, and the draperies of the Victorian bereaved are a gauzy silt of sorrow and centuries.

In this empathetic ensemble none are more favorite than others, though if I had to choose this time the manic elegance of Cara Moretto and the tragic courtly grace of Stephen Heskett do stand out, or step forward. But all have taken a leap for the oldest and newest forms of theatre we can know.

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I stayed on to see Ich Liebe Jesus!, a tuneful onslaught through the bloody millennia of combative Christendom, framed as a profoundly uncomfortable Weimar Christmas pageant. It took a long time for something to scare me more than an old Andy Williams holiday special, but Ich Liebe has taken the territory.

There’s a star in the East and I think it’s Amanda LaPergola, who sings like a diva and moves like a sugarplum fairy possessed by Cthulhu and plays out a 256-color palette of hysteria, especially in a prolonged, lmao epilogue as the “Tea Party Girl” (yes, that Tea Party), when, after the production’s survey of history is all taken care of, it’s time to just start making shit up, in a tyrannical kids’ birthday presided over by LaPergola as the most grotesque and cathartic caricature imaginable of recent rightwing politics.

It’s sobering to think this brat almost became Vice-Fuhrer. But, like creator Robert Honeywell’s hilariously grueling act of dramatic sabotage overall, history never really ends, and Christmas is a season for every kid to get what they want.

East Coast/West Coast Fugue

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World Gone Wrong/Worth Gun Willed (Necropolis 1 & 2)

Created and Directed by Ian W. Hill; Assisted by Berit Johnson

December 1-18, 2012

The Brick Theater, 575 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn, USA

Nightmares are made to recur, which is why there was no point not getting swept up in the restaging of Ian W. Hill’s World Gone Wrong/Worth Gun Willed, a collage of setpieces and dialogue drawn from toughguy fictions as old as the film-noir canon and as new as Don Rumsfeld’s collected speeches.

Originally from 2005, the Dadaist double-feature has its characters lipsync-in-tongues to each one’s pre-recorded lines, as if haunted by their own ghosts while they’re still alive.

Hill, as the onomatopoeically disappearing detective William B. Mist, and Ken Simon as the anonymous all-powerful patriarch Thomas Arnold, are especially good at making their faces a ballet of expression, a kind of secret semaphore to smuggle out some comment on the words being put in their mouths.

Hill’s found-text script highlights the obsessive wordplay and endless forced metaphors of film-noir patter; a free-association slam of postwar anxiety, as if some safecrack tumblers of understanding are being nervously fidgeted as fast as they can be.

The play’s existential lawmen and survivalist femmes fatales are racing against a future they don’t realize is barreling toward them like an uncontrolled elevated train, and it’s significant that the beleaguered heroes are the ones delivering pronouncements of civic virtue from old movies we don’t remember, while the assured villains are the ones spouting cynical policy from a new world order we know is coming next.

The more things change the more they get worse, and the characters are trapped in their own remake when the play’s double title clicks over and the scene switches midway through the action from New York to LA, the glaring and shadowy capitals on each end of film-noir’s workaday dystopia.

At that point Hill has been replaced with his “partner,” the homonymically dependable Ned Daley (Adam Swiderski), whom we haven’t seen ’til now but who is seamlessly trying to find out what happened to Mist while serving as his archetypal replacement, amid characters who don’t notice they are replaying the events of the preceding hour with minor variations in incident and escalated drab despair and demonic foul play, like the other side of an inkblot not recognizing itself.  The hero’s journey runs in a circle, and we’re not sure if anyone is worth betting on.

The mise en scène is Hill’s best ever as a designer, with a painterly palette of lighting, muralistic old-photo projections and a sculpture-garden-like clockwork of motion from the actors. The overpowering cities are embodied by attitudinal architecture, Hill and Gavin Starr Kendall (as a congenital fallguy) bearing the weight of the world in epic slumps and Swiderski a literal pillar of authority (and loneliness). Roger Nasser is magnetic as a motormouthed stooge; Amy Overman and Josephine Cashman were born for their roles as Darwinian social climber and indomitable double-agent waitress, two strong women tenaciously waiting out history; and V. Orion Delwaterman’s ghoulish shtick as a trash-talking enforcer is unforgettable (as hard as you try).

Pointedly plotless and texturally riveting, WGW/WGW is about the foggy backdrop of dread that shadows modern life, defined not by what happens but by what you don’t know.

Twenty years past the play’s events, in a world of both wider freedom and more efficient official evil than these characters could ever conceive of, Hunter S. Thompson would use the mounting alarm of detective-drama voiceover to lampoon conventional society’s unfounded calm and his own exaggerated anxiety alike, and ever since then it’s been a stock device of self-important crime-show spoof.  But in Hill’s and his absorbed, committed cast’s conception, it’s repeated as tragedy first time and every time.