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Helen Shaw

Helen Shaw

Articles (33)

Stunning sunset images from the Battery Dance Festival

Stunning sunset images from the Battery Dance Festival

The last of the major dance festivals this summer, the Battery Dance Festival finished its outdoor programming with a night that included Alison Cook Beatty Dance’s work Banshee’s Lamentation, Tina Croll + Company’s Ancient Springs, Mari Meade Dance Collective’s Cog, Jennifer Muller/The Works’s Flowers and Alchemy and Battery Dance’s own newest work, choreographed by Tadej Brdnik. A week that also boasted the impressive Evening of Colombian Dance, has finally finished—and with it a wonderful season of outdoor dance in New York. An impressive fall season is just ahead, so be sure to continue checking out the best dance shows in New York!

Check out pictures of the Evening of Colombian Dance in Battery Park

Check out pictures of the Evening of Colombian Dance in Battery Park

The outdoor Battery Dance Festival (once the Downtown Dance Festival) has always been one of the best places to catch international companies, so it came as no surprise that this South American lineup was full of delights. The bill was split between New York company Pajarillo Pinta’o—founded by Limón Dance Company vet Daniel Fetecua—whose works you see here spanning traditional folk forms and Latin-inflected modern dance, and the Colombian company Sankofa Danza Afro, whose chair-brandishing work “La Ciudad de los Otros” segued from traditional Afro-Colombian forms into pulse-pounding contemporary hip-hop. If you missed it, you should be sure to catch the Jose Limón International Festival this fall and, as always, stay abreast of the best dance events this week!

Mac attack: A helpful guide to the Mac Wellman festival at the Flea

Mac attack: A helpful guide to the Mac Wellman festival at the Flea

If you look at theater in the U.S. today, you’ll notice that a lot of it is weird. Annie Baker’s John, Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, Will Arbery’s Plano, Amina Henry’s The Great Novel: All of them contain eerie, restless, Lovecraftian energies. Before them came the influential playwright Mac Wellman, a fixture of downtown experimentalism since 1979 and the longtime head of the Brooklyn College playwriting program, where his students included Baker, Barron and Henry. (He retired this year.) Wellman’s linguistically complex comedies, pitch-black at their hearts, worked out how to put that uncanny throb of horror onstage, and a Wellmanian sense of unease pulses through American theater even now. To celebrate Wellman’s contributions, the Flea Theater—which he cofounded in 1996—is throwing a festival called Mac Wellman: Perfect Catastrophes. Cast with the Flea’s non-Equity company the Bats, the plays run the gamut from absurdist adventure to political satire and back, with detours into sheer, language-drunk, poetic nonsense. Which ones are right for you? Here is our easy-to-use guide to the series, with a Mac-derived ratings system to help you find your algorithmically determined match. BAD PENNY (August 24–October 7)Wellman scale: Desiccated Chicken WingOf all the offerings, this encounter play—It will forcibly remind some fans of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story—is the most accessible. Two people meet in a park; strangers kibitz; a soul is destroyed. Originally performed on a bridge

Future legends of New York theater (slide show)

Future legends of New York theater (slide show)

Prognostication is a mug’s game. No New York theater critic or pundit knows which obscure play (like Young Jean Lee's Lear) will be remembered a century from now, or which box-office hit of today will be forgotten by the next generation (we're looking at you, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark). And when it comes to people, predicting long-term success is no more of a science. Still, we can say with confidence that these 19 actors, writers, directors and designers have made enough of a cultural impact that they’re bound to be the ones we’ll be talking about in 2043 and beyond. This is more than your typical assortment of fresh talent or promising up-and-comers. We know that New York has already been altered by their work; we’re saying that these are some of the people who will shape the theater of the future. RECOMMENDED: 50 reasons to love theater in New York Annie Baker Annie Baker has pulled off a very neat conjuring trick: She’s rescued realism from the trash heap of the uncool. In seemingly naturalistic works like Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens, Baker has grafted her staggering talent for dialogue onto lovely classical bones. Her plays are humanistic and slightly optimistic, making her the perfect person to adapt Uncle Vanya, a major hit at Soho Rep last year. (If Chekhov has a kindred spirit, she is it.) Baker’s works seem not so much written as overheard—perhaps her current piece, Playwrights Horizons’ three-hour The Flick, wasn’t actually a massive effort, but

Jackie Sibblies Drury looks at West Indian caregivers in Marys Seacole

Jackie Sibblies Drury looks at West Indian caregivers in Marys Seacole

The rehearsal room is giggling. For reasons known only to himself, a booted and jacketed fireman has stomped loudly through a room of women in hoopskirts practicing a scene from Marys Seacole, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s latest brain-bending tragicomedy. This interruption turns out not to be part of Drury’s impressionist portrait of Mary Seacole, a real-life Jamaican nurse-hotelier-businesswoman who tended soldiers during the Crimean War. But with a Drury play, you need to check; just because the fireman is clearly not from the 1850s doesn’t necessarily mean he doesn’t belong. The plural “Marys” (all played by Quincy Tyler Bernstine) are multiple Afro-Caribbean caregivers tending to many white patients: sometimes a nurse during a 19th-century cholera epidemic, sometimes a West Indian nanny watching a child in modern-day Manhattan, sometimes a health aide in an old-age home. Time slips and interweaves. Florence Nightingale (Lucy Taylor) snipes at nanny Mary from a Central Park swingset, jamming her unwieldy skirt into a swing. Then the skirt knocks over a lantern. Are they sure they don’t need a fireman? Anyone who has seen a Drury play knows that she is more in the business of setting fires than putting them out. Her work is often funny but always dangerous, with a lightning-fast wit cracking over dry, parched earth. In her breakthrough show, 2012’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Südwestafrik

An inside guide to NYC's January theater festivals in 2019

An inside guide to NYC's January theater festivals in 2019

‘Tis the season, performance lovers! Just after the ball drops, the champagne pops and the novelty 2019 glasses fall to the floor on New Year's Eve, we abruptly find ourselves amid the Off-Off Broadway January festival maelstrom. Prompted by the presence of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference—when programmers from all over the world come to town to talk shop and find their next season—every major player in town throws a showcase. In a few short weeks, you’ll be able to see more experimental theater, international glitter-freak movement work and innovative new-music opera than you could see in an entire year of diligent show-going. However, the sheer quantity of choice might make you a little anxious. To alleviate your fears, we talked to the artistic directors of the four major performance festivals to get their top tips. Here's how to find the best at Under the Radar, Prototype, American Realness and the Exponential Festival.  RECOMMENDED: The best Off-Off Broadway venues in NYC     [50/50] old school animation // Photograph: Courtesy Maria Baranova Under the Radar (January 3-13) UTR is the biggest and oldest festival in the fight, centrally located at the Public Theater and at a few satellite locations like the Skirball Center at NYU and BRIC House in Brooklyn. Shows run the gamut from fancy international productions to the Incoming! offerings, which are in-development works by exciting new talents. The festival turns 15 this year. Artistic dire

Young Jean Lee shakes up Broadway with Straight White Men

Young Jean Lee shakes up Broadway with Straight White Men

What in the sweet, smoking hell is Young Jean Lee doing on Broadway? Lee is the downtown avant-gardist who wrote a riff on King Lear that had a cameo by Big Bird. She is the bomb-throwing ex-academic whose feminist manifesto featured performers dancing nude. She is the Korean-American playwright so sick of identity plays, she wrote one just to stake the vampire in its heart. “It’s weird, right?” says Lee, laughing about having her play performed across the street from Hello, Dolly! Having spent her career whacking sacred cows, Lee may actually have found a way to spank the Great White Way itself with her latest subversive work. Originally mounted Off Broadway at the Public Theater in 2014 (pictured below) and then at Chicago’s Steppenwolf, Lee’s comic drama Straight White Men will open at Second Stage’s recently acquired Helen Hayes Theater in July, with a cast that includes Call Me by Your Name’s Armie Hammer. It’s a conventional family story about a dad with grown sons; there’s lots of good-natured roughhousing. Is Lee tricking us? Where’s the transgression in that? Photograph: Blaine Davis “I basically do site-specific work for whatever audience I’m working with,” Lee says, “And so, since I was doing a play at the Public in 2014…” She trails off. Indeed, that’s the land of the straight-white-subscription audience right there. Lee evades the question of whether or not she’s deliberately goading that audience. In some ways, she’s considering their own comfort. (“Why put up

January theater festivals guide

January theater festivals guide

While most theatergoers spend January waiting for the spring season, with all the Tony Awards hoopla it brings, folks who attend the best Off-Off Broadway shows have other plans. Yes, festival season has rolled around; it’s Carnival for performance lovers, the Saturnalia of theater nerds. Some of the best NYC events in January are happening in Under the Radar, Coil, Prototype and other festivals. The best approach is simply to dive in: if you concentrate, you can hit your avant-garde quota for the year, rub shoulders with Scandi-glam presenters shopping for their European seasons and widen your artistic horizons as far as your brain can stand it. I’d argue that the scattershot approach is best—drop in for some radical-queer dance here, dabble in Australian performance there—but we’ve also provided this small guide, if you prefer to approach the festivals with a bit more...aim.

The best free outdoor dance events this summer

The best free outdoor dance events this summer

Every summer, everyone realizes that New York is exactly what Walt Whitman said it is: a “city of orgies, walks and joys.” No doubt Walt was thinking—just like us!—of the way that includes tons of great events you can't miss in NYC this summer; it’s the great secret of all who live here that everything is even more delightful under the urban sky at events like Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Even better, there’s a good chance that if you’re a dancer, a dance-lover or simply dance-curious (check out our great list of dance events this summer for more ideas), you’ll find a way to indulge yourself, for free, under the stars. So if you crave some plein air modern dance or have a midsummer yen for al fresco tap, check out this list and head outside. RECOMMENDED: Full guide to things to do in the summer in NYC

The best NYC weekend and day trips for theater, opera and dance

The best NYC weekend and day trips for theater, opera and dance

New York live performance doesn’t exactly evaporate in the summer. In fact, between Lincoln Center Festival, various other summer festivals and the usual Broadway and Off Broadway openings, there’s plenty to choose from. And yet, we all like to get out of the hot, sticky metropolis, if only for a weekend. Here are the best NYC weekend and day trips to satisfy culture vultures who are hungry for plays, dance performances and operas outside the city limits. RECOMMENDED: All of the best day trips from NYC

Beautiful photos of the National Ballet of China’s The Peony Pavilion

Beautiful photos of the National Ballet of China’s The Peony Pavilion

The Lincoln Center Festival continues to set the bar high for amazing things to do this summer when they bring The Peony Pavilion and The Red Detachment of Women to a hungry uptown audience. The tale itself is old: The Peony Pavilion is the Ming Dynasty’s Romeo and Juliet, a headlong, highly symbolic romance in which a woman first finds love in a dream, then pursues it even after death. But Fei Bo’s choreography makes the story exquisitely modern: Our heroine is so love-stunned she seems to dissolve into alternate selves, though this may simply be an excuse to parade more lavish costumes by the incomparable Emi Wada. Lose yourself in the flood of images, and if you missed this outing, check out more of the best dance events this summer. RECOMMENDED: See all Lincoln Center Festival coverage

Twyla Tharp tells us about her 50th Anniversary Tour

Twyla Tharp tells us about her 50th Anniversary Tour

The superstar choreographers who make the leap into the pop culture stratosphere can be counted on a hand and a half. In that way, Twyla Tharp is a throwback: She's our Jerome Robbins (famous for her Broadway razzle-dazzle like Movin' Out); she's our Agnes de Mille (taking serious dance to the masses in film after film); she's our Martha Graham (an iconic revolutionary who suffers no fools). But after having choreographed nearly 150 works, winning a Tony, a Kennedy Center Honor and 19 honorary doctorates, she's not resting on her laurels. In fact, she’s on fire—for her 50th Anniversary Tour, the 74-year-old Tharp has built another pair of works that ask her customary questions about the interrelatedness of dance forms: Preludes and Fugues (set to Bach) and Yowzie (set to jazz titans like Fats Waller). The “Tharpian” is a melting-pot style, characterized by precision and vaudevillian showmanship—the liquid hips from jazz seducing the elegant lines of ballet. How will the mix work this time? The only thing you'll know to expect: The dances will be ebullient, contagious, athletic. Tharp herself speaks with a wry growl. She makes you back up if you give her a compliment—“Let's hear that again”—and she has a wonderfully tart way of making you feel like an unproductive snoozer. Tharp still works out for two hours every morning; she doesn't really understand why you don't too. She spoke with us from Chicago, from the tour. What inspired the two shows that make up this 50th Anniversa

Listings and reviews (182)

The Patsy

The Patsy

4 out of 5 stars

If the clamor to revive the sweet 1925 Barry Conners romance The Patsy was never very loud, we must be glad that performer-adapter David Greenspan and director Jack Cummings III listen so much more intently to history than we do. Greenspan moves like origami that knows how to fold itself. Turning the play into a virtuosic solo spree, he whisks mischievously through the comedy, playing histrionic mother, viperish sister, heroine Patricia and the boy she loves. In the process, Greenspan transforms the work into a bouquet, and makes us, the audience, his surprised and grateful sweetheart.—Helen Shaw [Note: This is a review of the 2011 production of The Patsy, which was presented at that time in double bill with Greenspan's Jonas. Transport Group is bringing The Patsy back for an encore run as a stand-alone in 2022.]

Lunch Bunch

Lunch Bunch

4 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Helen Shaw [Note: This is a review of the 2019 production of Lunch Box in Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks Festival. The show now returns for a full production, courtesy of the Play Company, with original cast members Ugo Chukwu, Keilly McQuail, Julia Sirna-Frest and Paco Tolson joined by Tina Chilip, David Greenspan, Mel Krodman and Olivia Phillip.] Hey, here’s a dare! Try seeing Lunch Bunch, Sarah Einspanier’s excellent workplace comedy, when you’re hungry. Its characters are overtaxed public defenders (the script suggests they might be in the Bronx), and their lone joy is a co-op lunch agreement shared by five proud members. In rattling, lickety-split dialogue, the lawyers tell us about the sustainable homemade delicacies—like sesame-encrusted kale chips and jackfruit barbecue—that they bring in to share with fellow Bunchers. (My notes here read: “Buy jackfruit.”) Membership in the Lunch Bunch is jealously guarded, so when rookie cook Nicole (Julia Sirna-Frest) subs in for a vacationing Tal (Eliza Bent), we have the whisper of plot. But there’s little room for a story, because Einspanier has crammed every second with marvelous character studies and syncopated conversations that reveal the topsy-turvy stakes of a life lived in service. Everybody in the office is tightly wound: Jacob (Ugo Chukwu) is one bad salad away from a breakdown, and Tuttle (comic superwoman Keilly McQuail) keeps wondering if her misery means she’s making a difference. Behind its giddy sur

A Hunger Artist

A Hunger Artist

4 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Helen Shaw [Note: This is a review of the 2017 production of The Hunger Artist. The show returns to the Connelly Theater in January, 2020, for an encore run.] In Franz Kafka’s jet-black 1922 fable “A Hunger Artist,” one of the last stories he wrote, the title character is both a sort of holy man and physical freak, a fame-hungry ascetic who can starve himself for 40 days straight. Sitting in a cage, this living skeleton hypnotizes paying audiences with his extreme self-denial; but when abnegation falls out of favor, he withers away for good. As a metaphor for life in the theater this is almost too perfect, and it’s hard to come away from the story unscarred. But at the Connelly Theater, where the physical-theater company Sinking Ship is presenting a surprisingly lovable version of it, any scarring is light. Josh Luxenberg’s sweetly drawn bouffon adaptation of Kafka’s parable is full of jokes and sudden sympathy. It’s a one-man show, but there’s a communal feeling to it; the athletic Jonathan Levin plays the starving artist and a plump impresario and the artist’s eventual circus master with just a little quick-change magic. And there are helping hands, too, first through audience participation and then from a pair of overcoats, which Levin’s deft puppetry turns into cloth giants. Director Joshua William Gelb and the company use “poor theater” conventions of making much with little—props emerge from battered suitcases, a big set reveal involves four strings o

The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical

The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical

2 out of 5 stars

Broadway review by Helen Shaw In order to enjoy the The Lightning Thief, a myth-filled musicalization of Rick Riordan’s first Percy Jackson novel, you’ll need to read the book. Many of the show’s current attendees obviously have: Secondary characters get entrance applause. But while those young theatergoers can fill in any missing details from memory, the challenge of turning a YA bildungsroman full of epic battles and road trips and snake-haired monsters into a musical has overwhelmed the creative team. In staying faithful to the novel, they’ve wound up with a mess. Young Percy Jackson (Chris McCarrell) can’t figure out why he’s such a troubled kid or why demons are assaulting him on field trips—until he’s sent to Camp Half-Blood. There, he learns that he’s a demigod, the son of an Olympian, and destined for mighty works. He must sort himself into a cabin, where he meets a tough know-it-all girl, Annabeth (Kristin Stokes), whose clear heroic qualities play second fiddle to his own. Riordan’s debt to Harry Potter is, as you can see, extreme. Those old patterns work. In its original incarnation as a scrappy TheaterWorks/USA show, The Lightning Thief’s connection to Riordan’s book was its core strength: At a nonprofit aimed at young audiences, it was manifestly meant to trigger interest in the page. Now that the lightning’s supposed to strike on Broadway, however, this sweet, small project seems out of place. Much of Stephen Brackett’s production doesn’t work in the bigger room

Soft Power

Soft Power

3 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Helen Shaw  Notwithstanding its huge dance numbers, roller-skating chorus boys and big 11-o’clock breakdown number about democracy, the best scene in Soft Power is… a panel. Halfway through David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s jam-packed satire, the curtain rises on a row of academics in the not-so-far future, talking about the musical we’ve been watching. Chinese experts discuss how the musical “originally” captured the gun-crazy United States in its twilight years, and note, in particular, how accurate it was. Accurate? It includes a 2016 Hillary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis) campaigning in a Wonder Woman leotard and falling head over heels for a Chinese musical-theater producer, Xūe Xíng (Conrad Ricamora), who then convinces a quartet of high-kicking Kellyanne Conway look-alikes to cede control of the U.S. to China. Maybe it’s more about the feeling of the 21st century? The academics nod and contextualize and condescend to the panel’s token American guy, who has been brought in only so that “the second world” can be represented. This short panel scene is Soft Power at its tartest: It’s turnabout Orientalism as fair play. Hwang’s language eviscerates racist Western discourse about Chinese art; it makes its points swiftly but with a cleaver. The rest of Hwang and Tesori’s piece, though, keeps tripping on the narrative frames that are hung around its neck. For one, there’s the story of playwright Hwang himself (Francis Jue), trying to write a musical for the

Heroes of the Fourth Turning

Heroes of the Fourth Turning

5 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Helen Shaw  The stage is so dark at the beginning of Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning, it’s hard to see anything at all. There appears to be a sweep of predawn charcoal sky and a backyard firepit, but we can’t be sure. We’ve certainly missed the man sitting silently with his back to us—until he reaches for his rifle. It only takes the barest lick of light to make the barrel glint. The man fires, then walks into the brush. He heaves the body of a deer onto the cement slab beneath his back door; he prepares to gut it. For the rest of this intermissionless show—more than two hours of torrential speech among friends and ex-friends—we know there’s blood on the threshold. It’s a powerful invocation: an old image of sacrifice and stain, and a reminder that soil remembers.  And that’s just what the play manages to say before the dialogue starts. It’s hard to talk about Arbery’s play, in a way, because there’s so much talking in it. (He describes it as a fugue.) It’s a structure of interweaving voices that never devolves into noise, and the voices aren’t ones we hear often Off Broadway. They are deeply religious, profoundly Catholic, proudly conservative, sometimes messianic.  We’re in deepest Wyoming, where Gina (Michele Pawk) has just been named president of Transfiguration College, a Catholic university that teaches its students theology, submission, rhetoric and survival skills. Four old friends have reunited in the same backyard we saw in the prologue,

Adrienne Truscott's (Still) Asking For It (A Stand-Up Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else!)

Adrienne Truscott's (Still) Asking For It (A Stand-Up Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else!)

4 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Helen Shaw  When Adrienne Truscott premiered the first version of Asking For It, rape-joke discourse was piping hot. Truscott’s searing one-woman performance piece began in 2013 (the year of Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke” poem) and it was still touring in 2015 when it came to Brooklyn for the COIL Festival. Wearing a jean jacket, a wild blonde wig and a nothing from the ribcage down, Truscott held up a picture of comedian Daniel Tosh—who had responded to a heckler in 2012 with “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?”—and told rape joke after scathing rape joke. She made sure her crotch was right at your eyeline. Then she did shots. I mention this history because Truscott’s updated and inclusive multi-performer iteration of the show, (Still) Asking For It, is strongest when it makes you remember its roots. If your first thought at seeing Truscott brandish that Tosh photo is “Ugh, old news,” then imagine that Tosh were still on Comedy Central, still one of its signature faces, embarking on his eleventh season. Wouldn’t that be hilarious? It turns out it isn’t. And if you think you’re tired of this conversation, imagine how women must feel. Truscott gives us enough of the original material to make us to seethe a bit, and then she cedes the stage to a series of similarly costumed collaborators: Mari Moriarty, Jenn Kidwell, Shamika Cotton and a rotating list of visiting comics. Kidwell in particular, wearing shit-stomping boot

Mothers

Mothers

4 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Helen Shaw  Three moms, a dad and a nanny stand around at a Mommy-Baby Meetup, making loaded conversation. High-flying Vick (Jasmine Batchelor) is overworked and defensive in a room of stay-at-home parents; queen bee Ariana (Maechi Aharanwa) dominates with her rock-solid confidence and regal contempt for vaccines; diplomatic, indecisive Meg (Satomi Blair) tries to keep the peace between them. They’re nervous, bitchy, addicted to taking pictures of the kids: It’s recognizable, right? In its long first section, Anna Moench’s Mothers is tart and bristling satire. It accelerates into hilarity when white dad Ty (Max Gordon Moore) tries to chat with the central trio—all women of color—since they can’t help making the poor guy feel awkward. Stop there and you’ve got one of the brightest comedies in town, but Moench is up to more than another satire about competitive mommyhood and casual racism. Little clues start to nag at the back of our minds. Why is the director Robert Ross Parker, cofounder of the action-theater group Vampire Cowboys? That seems suspicious. And what’s with the constant sound of airplanes, flying dangerously low overhead? There’s so much crispness and bite in Moench’s long first act that the smash-and-grab of the second comes as a wrench. Her vision turns dark, and then to pitch black. Ty’s funny first-act monologue about penis size turns out to be foreshadowing, and the much-ignored nanny Gladys (Tina Chilip) steps forward to rock, as it were,

Antigone

Antigone

3 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Helen Shaw  The first image of Satoshi Miyagi’s Antigone is exquisite. Not pretty, not lovely, but exquisite—the kind of beauty that hurts a little. Before the play begins, white robed actors wander ankle-deep through a shallow, rock-studded black lake. In the dimness, they glow like lanterns set loose on a river. This goes on for what seems like ages: The show waits, we wait, as the actors drift through the singing dark. How this watery world will translate to Sophocles’ high-walled Thebes, we don’t know, but for a little while we dream somewhere between life and death, where the shades gather and remember their past. The preshow can’t go on forever, unfortunately. Soon the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center’s slow-moving production (hosted in New York at the Park Avenue Armory) has to get down to the ancient business of Antigone, her uncle Creon and their struggle over whether to bury a traitorous relative. Miyagi splits the action: Mute dancers embody the characters in carefully choreographed movement up on the rocks, while speaking actors shout their lines from down in the water. Eventually, most of the two dozen company members resolve into a band, standing behind the lake to play Hiroko Tanakawa’s drum-filled score, which has moments of riotous intensity. But the doubling drains the production of crucial tension, and the show becomes less dreamlike than sleepy. It feels aimless and often baffling; Sophocles’ vivid arguments become simple rants, since the

Sunday

Sunday

2 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Helen Shaw In a large apartment, somewhere in the city, strivers in their twenties are convening a book club. On the docket for the evening: a passionate quarrel about Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Wait—what year is it? The program for Jack Thorne’s Sunday insists that it’s today, that it’s New York, that we’re looking at contemporary reality. But something feels off. First, a 22-year-old tells us that she’s already finished graduate school and spent 18 months in the workforce. Later, another young woman tells a stranger, who has been lightly stalking her, that she often leaves her apartment door unlocked. Roommates Marie (Sadie Scott) and Jill (Juliana Canfield) let men speak to them like it’s 1988; Keith (Christian Strange) and Milo (Zane Pais) yammer about toxic masculinity but never mention politics or work or the world outside. The logic keeps falling apart; the people don’t seem real. I mean, Anne Tyler? In this economy? Sunday is listless and out of joint, full of redundant arguments and, when it wants to make points with crashing clarity, third-person narration. It creates a kind of miasma of anxiety, which—to wax charitable—might be Thorne’s way of making us feel the discontents of modern young adulthood. But there’s too little assurance for that: The bad pacing and dated conversations merely feel like the products of a play that hasn’t found itself. Director Lee Sunday Evans tries to inject some energy via choreography in the brea

Novenas for a Lost Hospital

Novenas for a Lost Hospital

3 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Helen Shaw When St. Vincent’s Hospital closed in 2010, a 160-year-long history of inpatient care came to an end. The sprawling Roman Catholic complex, which had been welcoming to the poor and the excluded, collapsed under its billion-dollar debt, leaving a hole in the West Village. During its long operation, the hospital treated many plagues—cholera, typhoid fever, AIDS—but if Cusi Cram’s mournful Novenas for a Lost Hospital is right, it was our particular brand of laissez-mourir capitalism that managed to kill the place in the end. A playwright who lives in the Village, Cram has double reason to think about ephemeral and vanishing things. Novenas for a Lost Hospital pays tribute to St. Vincent’s in a quasi-religious dreamplay, a fragmented epic that scrolls through images from Catholicism, neighborhood communalism and the history of a busy hospital. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton (Kathleen Chalfant) and 18th-century hairdresser-philanthropist Pierre Toussaint (Alvin Keith) discuss the Church; a nervous 19th-century doctor (Leland Fowler) practices his surgical cuts; an AIDS patient (Justin Genna) dances while dying; Kelly McAndrew and Natalie Woolams-Torres play nurses from many eras. Director Daniella Topol meets this overflowing, hectic, sometimes frustrating structure with her own superabundance of gestures, including an outdoor prologue, a sound installation, a candlelight vigil and a parade. Be warned: The evening is long. All told, it’s two and a half hour

Dust

Dust

2 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Helen Shaw  Milly Thomas’s one-woman show Dust is a contradictory experience: an attempt at explosive emotion—it climaxes with a first-person account of a suicide—that is also strangely constrained. A sensation at the Edinburgh Fringe, and well received in the West End later, it seems to have damped its fuse at the East Village’s small 4th Street Theatre. As lights strobe and the speakers throb with low electronic tones, Alice (Thomas) wakes up on a table at the morgue. Wearing a seamed, flesh-colored bodysuit that makes her look like an unclothed doll, Alice’s spirit roams a world that is reeling from her death. As she spies on her friends and family, and flashes back to memories of desperation, Thomas switches characters—playing, say, both Alice and her boyfriend as they have terrible sex. Alice is both furiously perverse (her first move as a ghost is to stare up her body’s vagina) and perversely furious. (“I look ready to suck a dick not be laid to rest,” she grumbles about the picture chosen for her funeral.) Everyone is witnessed at their devastated worst or their most erotically vulnerable; two separate oral sex sessions have the voyeuristic Alice nosing right into the bone zone. Thomas’s insistence that every moment be set at maximum intensity overtaxes the short show’s engines, and puts it beyond her reach as a performer. She has earnestness but not grit or power, so the play has a distant quality. It’s like watching a student give a report on a cata

News (73)

January theater festival reviews 2018, Part III

January theater festival reviews 2018, Part III

The January festivals are almost over; quiet has returned the Village. We’re in the twilight period now: Most of the big boys like Under the Radar have finished; the Euro-curators have headed back to Groningen and Paris. But a few offerings linger on. The Exponential Festival is still going hard, for instance, and Coil has short-run offerings into February. But while we’ve still got a few more shows to see, this will be our third and official dispatch. The main surprise of the last weeks was how unified much of the work seemed. Despite a wild array of genres, the same two themes emerged again and again: 1) the mechanics of making art and 2) political resistance. At the American Realness fest (full of experimental dance, glitter-radicals, avant-queer aesthetics), at the Exponential Festival (full of plays and near-plays) and at the dance-theater work I saw at Coil, it seemed as though those issues were uppermost in almost everyone’s mind. The hand-wringing question that unites them—does art make anything better?—made these last weeks a kind of superstorm of creative self-doubt. Several pieces in American Realness found material in the struggle of their own making. The droll Relational Stalinism started with an offer: If there were any curators in the audience, the performers announced, each of the scenes could be sold to museums separately. Choreographer Michael Portnoy alternated quite charming sequences with dancers—a series of “big entrances”—with complaints about the art w

January theater festival reviews 2018, Part II

January theater festival reviews 2018, Part II

There comes a time in the glut of January theater festivals when sheer quantity kind of becomes the point. Did you see four shows today? Five? Honestly, I love this sensation; to those of us who worry that the ecology of New York is strangling experimental performance, this onslaught is comforting. It might not be great for the work, though. Images of the brooms from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice dance in your head: Each show marches up cheerfully bearing its two buckets of art, spills them in front of you and moves on. That’s can be a tough environment when a piece needs space and quiet. Under the Radar programmed two quite grave shows that looked raucous but actually demanded some time to think through, and the bazaar atmosphere did abrade them slightly. The visiting Cuban production Antigonón, Un Contigente Epicó contains lots of burlesque swagger—but it also has a mystery in it, which I never managed to figure out. Four nude actors do a simple dance, then put on a series of costumes that are like Carnival versions of the tarot: a bare-breasted woman draped in thousands of gold beads; another bedecked in aluminum cans like a recyclable Queen of Cups. Most of Rogelio Orizondo’s baroque text is composed of serial monologues, which, taken together, form a dark, multi-voice poem about the way that young people die for their elders. The performances are strong, and director Carlos Díaz’s image of a drag-queen Cuba is mesmerizing. Still, I wished it hadn’t been part of the Radar scr

January theater festival reviews 2018, Part I

January theater festival reviews 2018, Part I

Week one of the January performapalooza has been good to us. With the weather in the subzero range, every indoor performance seemed like a lovely warm cozy gift, since the alternative was essentially death. But how were the pieces themselves? After a weekend at Under the Radar and a bit of time at Prototype, here’s my first dispatch. The one unmissable show I’ve seen so far was Acquanetta, the sublime horror-opera that opened the Prototype Festival. Mounted at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center (on the former site of St. Ann’s Warehouse), Acquanetta is composer Michael Gordon and librettist Deborah Artman’s trippy exploded-view treatment of a single scene from the 1943 B-movie Captive Wild Woman. The eponymous starlet Acquanetta (real name: Mildred Davenport) became the exotic dish du jour in Hollywood in the early '40s, then quickly walked away. What, the opera asks, was she thinking? Director Daniel Fish turns this 2005 stream-of-consciousness piece into an extraordinary nightmare, with massive-scale cinematic revelations unfolding out of a seemingly empty space. The show begins with an extreme close up on Acquanetta (the transfixing Mikaela Bennett), her giant eye flinching and staring from a huge screen. While things gets progressively mind-bending from there, you’ll find you can’t escape her 12-foot gaze—not after the camera pulls back, not later that night, not the next day. The other piece I’ve seen so far at Prototype, Elle Kunnos de Voss and Mikael Karlsson’s The Echo D

A guide to New York’s explosion of performance festivals in January

A guide to New York’s explosion of performance festivals in January

Every year, January in New York brings a storm of experimental performance festivals. Suddenly, the downtown arts scene seems like a frantic bazaar: Everybody’s wares are on display, with artists and companies hoping to catch the eye of curators visiting NYC for the annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. If you coordinate your schedule right, you can see a year’s worth of avant-garde work in two weeks. Let us hold your hand and guide you through this frightening and exhilarating time. RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best of 2018 Under the Radar (Jan 4–15)The Public Theater’s smorgasbord is the mama bear of the January fests, with the biggest budget and reach. Its international offerings in 2018 include the Italian company Motus and a Cuban Antigone by director Rogelio Orizondo, but it’s also the place to catch big downtown names like Split Britches, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, shock-cabaret star Erin Markey (doing a collection of greatest hits) and the deft Andrew Schneider, whose AFTER blends technology and performance with his customary precision. Roger Guenveur Smith returns with a tribute to Jimi Hendrix; Toshi Reagon’s soon-to-be-blockbuster opera Parable of the Sower is already sold out, but there may be standby seats available. My top pick, though, is Julia Mounsey and Peter Mills Weiss’s terrifying [50/50] old school animation, a rattlesnake-fast two-hander about female betrayal; give them 50 minutes and they’ll take a year off your life.

Mark Rylance extends his rule over Broadway in Farinelli and the King

Mark Rylance extends his rule over Broadway in Farinelli and the King

Back in the early 20th century, when Harry Houdini was famous for his vanishing-elephant trick, the architect of the Belasco Theatre assumed that a greenroom should be able to handle a visiting pachyderm. The resulting basement lounge still vaults high above you, but these days the elephant in that cavernous room is Mark Rylance’s talent: You speak to him while carefully not mentioning that he’s one of the greatest actors in the world. The Oscar, Olivier and (three-time) Tony winner is currently back on Broadway to play King Philippe V of Spain in Farinelli and the King. Written by Rylance’s wife, Claire van Kampen, the play is a historical drama about a castrato singer who, in 1737, gave up superstardom to sing exclusively for the Spanish monarch, whose madness was soothed by his otherworldly voice. When he speaks about his character, Rylance often refers to Philippe as “I.” He tries not to have any distance between himself and a part. “From drama school on, the artists that have intrigued me were not in control,” he says. “They had taken the idea of mirroring nature deeper and further.” We talked with him after a recent rehearsal. How does a sane man play someone who is mentally ill?When I’m being critical of myself, I remember that the most disturbing moments are when someone is having a rational conversation with you, and they’re not jittering or making funny faces, but then you see they are in a totally different reality. My mother was a gestalt therapist, and she once s

Theater review: Mysterious raconteur Edgar Oliver haunts Attorney Street

Theater review: Mysterious raconteur Edgar Oliver haunts Attorney Street

      Edgar Oliver's storytelling performances move in stages. First, they are hilarious. That voice! Oliver speaks in exaggerated loops and dives—think Family Guy’s Stewie doing a Boris Karloff impersonation. Gesturing slightly in a faint spotlight, Oliver caresses each syllable, emphasizing it and then sliding it all the way down the octave. “When I was in the sixth grade, my voice changed,” he tells us, and we giggle. But Oliver isn't doing a bit. A childhood in Savannah, Georgia and then decades as a downtown habitué have somehow burnished his voice into a baroque instrument that only plays largo. As Oliver relates a series of small stories from his life (standing disconsolate on Delancey Street, overwhelmed by a playdate when he was small) the strange voice becomes familiar. By the end of Attorney Street, all its initial weirdness has evaporated, leaving only a sense of melancholy behind.Oliver has made several of these autobiographical solo pieces; for those who have followed them, Attorney Street is where Oliver moved after living in his (famous to a few) 10th Street rooming house. Oliver and his director Randy Sharp keep things to a bare minimum, just the pitch-black of the Axis basement space and Oliver's mannered gestures. The piece is a brief anthology of farewells, to a bakery in an earlier New York, to a lost poem, to a father he never knew. There's a feeling of suspended time: Oliver sometimes seems like a time-traveler buffeted by our too-noisy world. Trying to

See a massive outdoor production of As You Like It in Central Park

See a massive outdoor production of As You Like It in Central Park

“All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” says Jaques in Shakespeare's As You Like It. Those usually cynical words will ring with optimism in September at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. As it has for the last four years, the Public Theater follows its Shakespeare in the Park summer season with a blowout Public Works musical: a spirited mass-participation pageant with a hybrid ensemble of professional actors and community-cast performers. Broadway stars like Darius de Haas and Joel Perez lead a gigantic company of citizen-artists from every borough, drawn from partner groups like Fortune Society, DreamYard and Military Resilience Project. Shakespeare's language remains, but the action is cut to a speedy 90 minutes and sprinkled with jazzy original songs by Shaina Taub. “We'll get you in and out,” promises Taub. This world turns quickly.RECOMMENDED: Time Out's complete guide to Shakespeare in the Park Taub and director Laurie Woolery say As You Like It was an obvious choice for a Public Works adaptation. It’s a love-drunk comedy about an exiled duke who lives with his retinue in the woods, and for New Yorkers, Central Park is like the play’s Forest of Arden: nature all groomed and pleasing, full of tidy glens and picnics with cute shepherds. Appropriate for a play that deals with the progress of generations, the company of this As You Like It ranges in age from 3 to 90. And the production finds deeper and more contemporary resonances, too. The play

Theater review: Frontiéres sans Frontières finds dark laughs in a refugee camp

Theater review: Frontiéres sans Frontières finds dark laughs in a refugee camp

★★★★☆Before you read any description—heck, before you read this review—let me assure you that Phillip Howze's Frontiéres sans Frontières is a comedy. You might get the wrong idea when you see that it's about refugee kids playing in rubble, learning to beg, gaming the World Health Organization and succumbing to any number of predators. You might expect a downer. But Howze's exciting piece is actually a savage burlesque, a clear-eyed bouffon treatment of war. That WHO worker (Ceci Fernandez), for instance, brandishes a giant prop needle that she probably got in clown college.When we meet them, three plucky children—Win (Emma Ramos), Noon (Mirirai Sithole) and the “baby” Pan (Tony Vo)—have found quite a bit of joy in their dangerous, ramshackle surroundings. (Don't try to figure out if we're in Congo or Calais. “Here is here.”) Chatting in a pidgin language we don't always understand, the three enjoy the parade of moronic foreigners who swan through on the misery tour: a faux-Bieber (Mitchell Winter) doing charity concerts, a mime (Winter again) here to cheer up the war-torn masses. They find “gifts” everywhere, whether by pickpocketing them or getting them from swarming adults. A teacher (Sathya Sridharan) offers tea; a terrifying militiaman (Rachel Leslie) offers a gig as a child soldier; a creepy developer (Reggie D. White) offers candy. They don't see that many of these presents come with a cost. Instead, “I speak Eng-a-leesh!” crows Win, the Peter Pan of the little lost tri

Theater review: The Moors pokes fun at the Brontë sisters and English literary clichés

Theater review: The Moors pokes fun at the Brontë sisters and English literary clichés

★★☆☆☆Jen Silverman's misfire The Moors does, in truth, take aim at an interesting target. This black comedy unfolds in the thick of the English literary landscape, deep in the territory of High Victorian imagination. It's a spoof on the Brontë sisters, who are (bless their corsets and side curls) ripe for it. Silverman likes their atmosphere, but she's not wild about the baked-in man-woman stuff, so she queers the sisters' Romantic style. While the playwright deploys the standard pseudo-Gothic elements (governesses, attics, hectic lusts, etc.), she uses them for a different set of small-r romantic fantasies—ones in which boys are forcibly sidelined.The plot's a kind of Victorian gumbo. The stern, rather terrifying Agatha (Linda Powell) has sent for a governess, but when Emilie (Chasten Harmon) arrives at Agatha’s spooky estate, she finds no child to care for. There is, however, an unstable sister Huldey (Birgit Huppuch), a grumpy housemaid Marjory (Hannah Cabell) and somebody wicked has been stashed upstairs. Silverman wants to invoke the mystery of the titular Yorkshire fens, where the soul can be “hewn,” as Charlotte Brontë once wrote, “in a wild workshop.” But the play keeps sabotaging itself. When it tries to be mystical, its jokiness undoes it; when it tries to be warm and silly, the story's fog of cruelty chills the air. The play's lowest moments are—as is often the case these days—forced injections of magic realism. The house's dog (Andrew Garman) has fallen in love wi

Theater review: Guillermo Calderón's Villa explores political crimes and memorials

Theater review: Guillermo Calderón's Villa explores political crimes and memorials

★★★★☆ The hammer blow of Guillermo Calderón's Villa doesn't fall at once; it doesn't even fall at the same time for all audience members. It fell for me hours after the show was over, when admiration for the piece veered abruptly into blank horror. There was a physical, jarring sensation to it—like missing my step off a curb.Calderón is a Chilean dramatist-director whose work (most recently Escuela) has been a consistent highlight of the Under the Radar festival. He's now based out of New York, and Villa (like Neva a few years ago) has been filtered through a local cast. A masterful realist with a talent for scene selection, Calderón has an effortless way of devising a concrete conversation (a family reunites, actors rehearse, a committee meets) that bleeds red with political and metaphysical implications. He has also figured out a trick of centripetal structure: We aren't merely convinced there's a universe beyond the play; the offstage world actually feels more real and more dense than what's happening in front of us.A typical Calderón play emphasizes that any room is a bubble—a box of momentary light surrounded by inrushing dark. Villa is the same. This time the room is where a committee has gathered: Three women, all called Alejandra, have been selected to make a decision about a proposed memorial. They gather around a little model of the titular villa, a government torture site that some survivors want to reconstruct. As one Alejandra (Vivia Font) argues, if visitors can

Review: Aging Magician casts a bleak but beautiful spell at the New Victory Theater

Review: Aging Magician casts a bleak but beautiful spell at the New Victory Theater

★★★☆☆There's a disconnect at the heart of Rinde Eckert, Julian Crouch and Paola Prestini's collaboration Aging Magician—although, to its credit, that heart is a passionate one. The trio's nontraditional opera is essentially a bleak monodrama, performed by Eckert, backed by dozens of members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. So, is it for children? Or is it an adult-oriented meditation on death? Those two don't have to be exclusive categories, of course, but it is striking that a work at the city's best children's theater seems so awkward an offering for kids.Still, as a grown-up, I can say it's a pleasure to hear Eckert's tenor again. His ecstatic 2000 masterwork And God Created Great Whales juxtaposed his weird-inventor-from-central-casting look and soaring voice to often wonderful effect. There, he was a composer racing against his deteriorating mind, trying to finish an opera of Moby-Dick. In Aging Magician, Eckert uses a similar nesting story-structure. Here, he's Harold, a watch-maker with a passion for writing—a lonely man telling a story about the titular stage conjuror.In its textures, Aging Magician is often quite beautiful. Prestini's compositions (liquid, amelodic phrases) complement Eckert's voice, and director Crouch—one of the great designers working today—makes lovely spectacles out of sheets of paper (which the children hold up to make a projection screen), those same papers crumpled up (which can be made into birds or a man-sized puppet), and, a wire-and-wheels m

Theater review: Is David Mamet trolling us with The Penitent, his latest dud?

Theater review: Is David Mamet trolling us with The Penitent, his latest dud?

★☆☆☆☆It would be disingenuous to ask how on earth David Mamet's latest under-conceived, underwritten play came to be produced. We know. First, Mamet's early dramas (Speed the Plow, Glengarry Glen Ross) were wonderful enough that people are still willing to watch his work—even though he has long since coasted to a creative stop. And second, The Penitent is up at the Atlantic Theater Company, which he co-founded in 1985. What, they're going to say no? Poor things.The Penitent, ironically, is about what it means to be good. (It has been too shoddily constructed to actually gel around this idea, but it does point at it.) Is Charles (Chris Bauer), a psychiatrist, being good when he refuses to testify for his patient, a psychopath who just shot ten people? He invokes his Hippocratic Oath to stay silent. Is Charles good when he won't accept a newspaper's apology after it libels him? It claims he described gayness as an “aberration,” and he refuses their offer of a correction. And is he good when he dodges questions about his Judaism whenever a lawyer (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) asks him to explain if it affected his care of the homicidal boy? Certainly his wife Kath (Rebecca Pidgeon, struggling with basic tasks here) and his own lawyer Richard (Jordan Lage) believe in his moral uprightness, although they keep advising him to give in to the constantly changing “them.” As Kath insists, “You're better than I!” This attitude is—given the information offered by the play—ridiculous.It feels w