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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Live review: Peter and the Starcatcher breathes irreverent new life into a story told many times

Posted by on Wed, Mar 11, 2015 at 3:57 PM

Peter and the Starcatcher - PHOTO BY SCOTT SUCHMAN
  • photo by Scott Suchman
  • Peter and the Starcatcher
Peter and the Starcatcher
Broadway Series South at Memorial Auditorium
Tuesday, March 10, 2015

There’s been a truly ridiculous number of Peter Pan revivals and reboots recently, from December’s uneven TV musical with Christopher Walken as Captain Hook to the children’s cartoon Jake and the Never Land Pirates. More are on the way: See the upcoming film Pan with Hugh Jackman and the movie-based stage musical Finding NeverlandAnd that’s not counting the recurrence of the boy-who-never-grew-up theme in countless other movies, pieces of popular culture and even foodstuffs.

It’s not too surprising that there are so many variations on the original story—Pan’s creator, J.M. Barrie, even wrote a few different versions of the character, starting in his book The Little White Bird. Beneath the theme of rejecting adulthood and the simple joys of a colorful adventure with flying and pirates, there’s all manner of subtext, even tragedy and horror, to be examined and interpreted again and again.

For proof, look no further than Peter and the Starcatcher, an adaptation of a Pan prequel that succeeds by both embracing and subverting the original story. Based on a series of YA novels co-written by humor columnist Dave Barry, it sets up the events of the Barrie tale by diving head-first into Pan’s frequent stage interpretations while rigorously parodying their narrative and theatrical conventions.

Using two minimalist sets, a dozen actors and clever lighting, props and sound effects, Starcatcher stages shipwrecks, chases, monstrous creatures and near-death experiences in a way that favors imagination and irreverence over large-scale theatrics. No one sets flight via harness, but whether it’s model ships being carted around, ropes rippling to convey waves or a couple of lit orbs and a roll of banner flags creating the enormous crocodile, there’s a certain homemade feel that’s more Our Town—and more effective—than the massive ship and painted Neverland from NBC’s Pan production.

The narrative is based on an elaborate voyage to a remote island in 1885. The goal is to dispose of a mysterious, magical treasure on the order of Queen Victoria. Among the passengers are Molly Aster (Aisling Halpin), the intellectual, determined daughter of the scientist in charge (Andy Ingalls), and three orphans, the most significant of whom is known only as “Boy” (Bryan Welnicki). There's also the pirate “Black Stache” (Joe Beuerlein, giving the standout performance, with manic verve and Gomez Addams-style prosthetic facial hair), a flamboyant captain, prone to puns, with a desire for an arch-nemesis. Soon, familiar tropes begin to fall into place.

The story, with its deliberately overcomplicated explanations of the various Neverland elements, plays as both a straight adventure and a ridiculous farce in the hands of adapter Rick Elice (Jersey Boys). All the actors play numerous background roles, narrate, comment on each other’s actions and, at one point, do a mermaid-themed musical number in drag, with mustard containers serving as one’s bikini top.

In one sequence, Molly fleeing from room to room on the ship is depicted by the rest of the company standing with their backs to her, each representing a door, with a creaking sound effect as the “door” opens. Then the cast jumps into completely different roles, representing scenarios in the different rooms she enters. It all climaxes with a very long sequence where Black Stache utters every possible variation and intonation of the phrase “Oh my God!”, one of those scenes that goes from funny to tedious to funny again.

There’s also a fair amount of pun-filled wordplay, much of which is impossible to explain out of context (I particularly liked it when Stache complained about “splitting rabbits." Think about it ...) The goofy, self-aware quality should be painful, but somehow it works, capturing the makeshift, seemingly improvised style of a bedtime story. Even when the narrative threatens to collapse on itself, as in the exposition-dump during the final moments, there's still an involving quality to the story that makes the emotions shine through the ridiculous wordplay.  

The story might be too involved for some audience members. Multiple attendees sitting near me opening night left complaining that they couldn’t figure out what was going on. And there were some sound problems that night with microphone feedback and voices projected a bit too loudly for those in the orchestra seats. Yet there’s a rollicking, even poignant quality to this version that reminds us why so many people (authors and audiences alike) have found this story so enduring. The world might have one too many versions of Peter Pan already, but the unique Peter and the Starcatcher definitely isn't that one.
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    The story of Peter Pan plays as both a straightforward adventure and a ridiculous farce in this inventively staged adaptation.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Joseph Haj is leaving PlayMakers—and North Carolina

Posted by on Wed, Feb 18, 2015 at 10:33 AM

Outgoing PlayMakers artistic director Joseph Haj on set in 2010 - FILE PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • file photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Outgoing PlayMakers artistic director Joseph Haj on set in 2010
Joseph Haj is leaving PlayMakers Repertory Company to become Artistic Director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, starting in July.

Haj has been Producing Artistic Director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s professional theater company since 2006, presiding over Shakespeare and Sondheim as well as helping establish a more adventurous second-stage series, PRC2.

"We are enormously grateful to Joe for his deep-rooted contributions to PlayMakers," McKay Coble said in a PlayMakers press release. Coble is a UNC Department of Dramatic Art faculty member and PlayMakers designer. Praising Haj’s vision and leadership, Coble said that PlayMakers is “beginning the search for new leadership as we approach this milestone [40th] anniversary in 2015–16.”

The announcement that Haj would replace the retiring Joe Dowling as the Guthrie's artistic director was met with "waves of acknowledgment and praise" in Minneapolis,  wrote the Star Tribune. Founded in 1963, the Guthrie has 1,800 seats between its main and side stages, compared to PlayMakers' 500 in Paul Green Theatre. 

Look for next Wednesday's INDY to learn more about what this step up for Haj means for PlayMakers and the Triangle's theater community.

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    Haj will become Artistic Director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Raleigh Little Theatre cancels Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Posted by on Tue, Jan 13, 2015 at 12:13 PM

Raleigh Little Theatre announced yesterday that it has canceled a scheduled May production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, replacing it with a run of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

The company reports making the decision on the basis of conversations with the region's Native American community over the fall.

The musical satire based on the life of the seventh American president won awards for best musical and book during a run at the Public Theatre before transferring to Broadway in 2010/11.

But the controversial work, which recasts American history as a scathing satire in the vein of South Park or The Book of Mormon, has seen increasing criticism over its depiction of Jackson's treatment of Native Americans while in office.

Jackson advocated for and carried out the Indian Removal Act, which led to the forced relocation of tens of thousands of Native Americans in the 1830s along the Trail of Tears.

After Native Americans criticized the original off-Broadway run, public protests accompanied a June 2014 production in Minneapolis. After that, students at Stanford University cancelled a production in November following on-campus protests.

The musical was selected for the current Raleigh Little Theatre season prior to the arrival of new artistic director Patrick Torres. Shortly after starting last fall, Torres initiated a series of conversations on the work with the regional Native American community.

"I felt it was really important to rally support around it, and get Native American voices involved in the production," Torres told the INDY on Friday. He said that through those conversations, he found no way to continue the production with Native American support.

"No matter how the play is executed, the Native American community feels that it comes at the expense of historical facts and atrocities that [Jackson] instigated against their ancestors and family. There was no accurate and clear way to engage them in the process; as an institution, we would be excluding them from the production."

"No matter how great the production was, what [the conversations] ultimately said was there was not a way to do it that is not potentially hurtful to them," Torres said.

Torres and company president Charles Phaneuf said that Raleigh Little Theatre experienced no direct pressure to cancel the play. Both denied that the move constitutes censorship, external or self-imposed.

"In our community, where there's such a vibrant Native American community, part of our mission is to be a welcoming place that enriches and engages the community," Torres said. "So it's not really an issue of censorship. It's more an idea of living out our mission."

The satire depicts Jackson as a populist rock star and includes lyrics like "We're gonna take this country back for people like us." New York Times critic Ben Brantley called the work "a rowdy political carnival" whose 2010 run felt "unconditionally (and alarmingly) of the moment."

Brantley characterized Bloody's Jackson as "a sort of moonshine shindig equivalent of a Tea Party candidate." Professor Jeffrey Matthews, who directed a 2014 production at Washington University in St. Louis, noted, “By the end of the musical, you’re meant to ask yourself, ‘Was Jackson actually the American Hitler?’"

But in an open letter published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, playwright Rhiana Yazzie of New Native Theater wrote, "The truth is that Andrew Jackson was not a rockstar and his campaign against tribal people ... is not a farcical backdrop to some emotive, brooding celebrity. Can you imagine a show wherein Hitler was portrayed as a justified, sexy rockstar?"
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    Citing concerns from Native American groups, Raleigh Little Theatre will replace the controversial show with Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

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Friday, October 3, 2014

Performance review: Taylor Mac's 1910s is a bubbly, serious delight

Posted by on Fri, Oct 3, 2014 at 10:33 AM

  • photo by Kevin Yatarola / courtesy Carolina Performing Arts
  • Taylor Mac
Taylor Mac: 1910s
UNC Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill
Wednesday, Oct. 1 2014

I hadn’t expected the first time I heard the folk standard “Man of Constant Sorrow” during IBMA week would be from the mouth of a drag performer. But it wasn’t a part of those formal festivities in Raleigh. Rather, this rendition was the rousing second-to-last song performed by gender-bending critical darling Taylor Mac as a part of the 1910s section of the performer’s ambitious 24-decade, 24-hour music project premiering in New York in 2016.

1910s was commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts and tied in with its World War I Centenary programming, but it had almost none of the grim reverence that is the hallmark of war retrospectives. Instead, Mac—whose preferred gender pronoun is "judy"—and company delivered a musical and theatrical program that ran from hilarious to pensive.

Mac began spectacularly, strutting out in gold heels, a baffling contraption of a dress and a massive deep magenta muff. An enormous hat festooned with feathers and fabric fortune cookies teetered precariously on Mac’s head. Mac explained the journey we’d be on: the band would play popular songs around the themes of pre-war, mid-war and post-war life. The pre-war section meant Memorial Hall (which was disappointingly not packed) rang with peals of laughter and joy at the outlandish performance.

Audience participation in the show began almost immediately when Mac called up some members to act as props during a love song. Mac later said about audience participation, “When I ask you to participate, it’s because I want you to feel uncomfortable.” This discomfort was amplified for one male audience member, who was brought onstage and serenaded by Mac and the UNC Clef Hangers with “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” What is often hokey forced participation was ultimately silly and fun.

But the bubbly, giggly glee of the first act quickly sobered as Mac dove into life during the war. Male audience members between ages 14-40 were brought to the orchestra pit area in front of the stage to pretend it was a trench, a nod to the ages of men who actually were in the trenches during the war. Mac’s songs moved from rollicking romantic tunes to dark, poignant ones. “K-K-K-Katy” was particularly striking, as was Mac’s version of “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” and Irving Berlin’s “When I Lost You.”

Though this was the world premiere of 1910s, the performance roared through its two hours with few hiccups. There was a section of the show honoring bull dykes that felt like a non sequitur, but it was entertaining all the same. Mac’s improvisation and early audience antagonizing actually seemed to put the audience at ease. Performance art can be a tough pill to swallow, but 1910s was nothing short of a delight.
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    Performance artist portrays life during wartime and pre-war fun through an evening of period music

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Monday, September 29, 2014

Theater review: Rude Mechs bring live-action role playing to Duke Performances

Posted by on Mon, Sep 29, 2014 at 4:26 PM

  • photo by Patrick Bresnan / courtesy of Duke Performances
  • Rude Mechs in Now Now Oh Now
Rude Mechs
Now Now Oh Now
Sheafer Lab Theater, 7 p.m., Sept. 26

Rude Mechs’ Now Now Oh Now is an interactive play about playing—about the transformative potential of playing, to be exact. As a roleplaying game fan and designer, this theme resonates with me. I was curious to see how the Austin, Texas-based theater company would incorporate it in this show, which Duke Performances advertised as being largely based on LARP, or live action role play.

LARP represents a continuum of games with strong performative elements. You get up and wave your arms around. Sometimes your fellow players are a sort of audience, but it remains a deeply insular activity. Tabletop roleplaying games, like Dungeons & Dragons and its many strange offspring, are even more grounded personal improvisation. The only people watching are the people tossing dice with you. While these games have wonderful theatrical elements, there isn’t a one-to-many relationship—you are your own audience. How would Rude Mechs mash up this experience with theater?

The show consists of three parts: a short performance by the whole cast, a puzzle-hunt activity for the audience and an extended monologue with limited interactive elements. It’s a comment on creativity, collaboration and loss, predicated on a shared roleplaying world that we, as the audience, get to experience before it is definitively wrecked forever. I can relate to this because it’s an almost universal story among gaming enthusiasts. A gaming group is a fragile thing, balanced on five or six competing creative agendas and, occasionally, a few raging egos. When broken, these groups are not easily repaired, and all the love and effort that goes into building a shared imagined space can be lost in an instant. Sometimes, the results are tragic. Now Now Oh Now frames its narrative with just such a story, and the result is beautiful and deeply melancholy.

I knew Now Now Oh Now would have some game-like elements, and being required to choose a six-person “clan” to join when I got my ticket increased my excitement. Waiting to be escorted into the performance space, there was an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty. One woman I chatted with confessed to being nervous about what was to come. As we were led backstage through a series of twisting corridors to a space that definitely wasn’t the Sheafer black box theater, there was a real sense of mystery. The whole thing was very grubby and theatrical in the best way. We picked up cast members as we went, and it really felt like we were crossing some liminal threshold.

I was ready. If there were characters to play or magic missiles to cast, I was in.

As it turns out, Now Now Oh Now doesn’t contain that sort of game. Its middle section consists of a puzzle evocative of locked room mysteries—an audience of 30 is divided into six groups, each of which must complete a task that involves exploring the elaborate set for clues and, eventually, solutions. It’s full of fun surprises. The game is carefully tuned to be mildly challenging, workable in groups of five and accessible to a wide range of participants. As a game designer, I could sense the wheels turning in the background to make the whole thing elegantly resolve itself in about 15 minutes. 

As a piece of theater, Now Now Oh Now is simultaneously a little ridiculous and thought-provoking—opposed poles that seem to be Rude Mechs’ hallmark. The scenery is alternately austere and baroque, but always beautiful. As an avid gamer who was promised an interactive experience, I loved what was offered, but I couldn’t help wishing there was more to it—something that tied the game into the narrative frame more tightly, perhaps, furthering the overarching story in a way that the central puzzle really didn’t. Guiding 30 random people through such an exercise might be a fool’s errand, but Rude Mechs’ assured performance, technical flair and idiosyncratic storytelling made it seem worth reaching for.

Jason Morningstar is an “analog game designer” who is deeply involved with the tabletop roleplaying game scene as well as the short-form live action roleplaying scene. He plays tabletop RPGs twice a week. He doesn’t usually glue on elf ears but he totally would. His company is Bully Pulpit Games.
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    Instead of sending a theater critic to write about roleplaying games, we sent a roleplaying gamer to write about theater

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Monday, July 21, 2014

And now for something completely fan-tastic: Monty Python Live (mostly)

Posted by on Mon, Jul 21, 2014 at 5:15 PM

Monty Python Live (mostly)
Rebroadcasts on July 23 and 24, 7:30 p.m.
Regal Brier Creek Stadium 14, Regal North Hills Stadium 14, Regal Crossroads 20
★★★ (general public)
★★★★ ½ stars (Monty Python fans)

The sound cut out a minute into the opening number of Sunday’s real-time worldwide broadcast of Monty Python Live (mostly), the elaborate London stage show celebrating the reunion of the legendary comedy troupe. The sold-out crowd at the Brier Creek movie theater let loose a collective groan of frustration as an epic orchestration of “Sit on My Face” played out silently on the screen. “Oh come on,” someone in the audience yelled after a beat, “everybody sing! We all know the words!”

Indeed, you wouldn’t have been at this special live-streaming of Monty Python’s final appearance together unless you were a hardcore fan and knew all the words to the Dead Parrot sketch, the Argument sketch or the Penguin sketch, or could sing the lyrics to ditties such as “The Lumberjack Song” and “The Philosopher’s Drinking Song” (all of which made appearances during the three-hour-with-intermission production).

While the Pythons have been honest about their reason for staging the 10-night London event—“Of course it’s for the fucking money!” said Eric Idle in a recent Newsweek interview—fan service was clearly the order of the day. Not only were favorite skits trundled out, the five surviving members (Eric Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam) paid homage to the late Graham Chapman and fêted Carol Cleveland, who appeared in a majority of the BBC episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Long considered an honorary member of the troupe, Cleveland was frequently placed center stage during Live (mostly) even though she had little to do.

The six members of the (mostly) British group weren’t known for their live comedy: Their fame came from carefully polished absurdity, tightly edited wordplay and non-sequitur satire that simultaneously embraced high-concept and lowbrow. On stage, the Pythons got around this with a variety-show approach: big dance numbers, celebrity appearances and audience sing-alongs. A cheat? Hardly. Let’s just say you haven’t heard “The Penis Song” until you see it performed with a full orchestra, a chorus line and two giant penis cannons spewing foam over the audience in London’s O2 arena.

All of this vaudevillian mayhem was interspersed with snippets of Gilliam’s classic animations and clips of favorite skits from the TV show. This not only gave the cast and crew time to change costumes and sets, it was a reminder of why Monty Python was so influential in the first place.

Live (mostly) only stumbled a few times. Most of the celebrity appearances fell flat, with the exception of a brilliant cameo by Stephen Hawking(!), and the Pythons themselves sometimes got lost trying to remember their old material. John Cleese in particular was less interested in giving rote dissertations of fan favorites than trying to crack up his fellow troupe members. In the end, though, this was far more entertaining than hearing a perfect rendition of the Dead Parrot sketch for the 500th time. That’s what YouTube is for. And if this was truly the last time Monty Python ever performs together, it was better to see them off as old friends trying to make each other laugh.
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    After Sunday's live broadcast, the legendary comedy troupe's alleged swan song reruns in Triangle theaters on Weds. and Thurs.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Design flaws bedevil Death by Design

Posted by on Wed, Jun 25, 2014 at 2:08 PM

★★ 1/2
NCSU TheatreFest
through June 29

Since frames and red herrings are par for the course in mystery novels, the genre’s aficionados were mostly unfazed when amateur detectives Jane Marple and Jessica Fletcher were recently arrested in a coordinated sting operation. (Miss Marple’s exploits have long been immortalized in the novels of Agatha Christie; Fletcher sleuthed on TV's “Murder She Wrote.”) But thriller fans were shocked—shocked!—when the pair subsequently confessed to heading a sophisticated murder-for-money scheme over much of the last century.

“Oh, we didn’t do the first few in,” Marple said in a press conference hastily arranged by her attorney H. Rumpole. “But once we got good at solving murders, we noticed that there wasn’t exactly enough supply to keep up with our demand.”

For her part, an unrepentant Fletcher stated, “What
were the odds that two retired busybodies would happen upon a dead body—and just keep happening upon them after that? Whodunnit? Who in blue blazes do you think dunnit, you idiots?”

“It was right there in front of you,” Marple noted. “We had the motive, the opportunities. And, after those first few novels, we certainly had the means.”

After Fletcher chalked up their serial killings to “the high price of entertainment,” Marple primly observed, “You
do have to break a few eggs, dear.”

Gus Allen, JoAnne Dickinson, Chris Bernier & Lynda Clark in DEATH BY DESIGN - NCSU THEATREFEST
  • NCSU TheatreFest
  • Gus Allen, JoAnne Dickinson, Chris Bernier & Lynda Clark in DEATH BY DESIGN
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Bridgit, the amateur detective—and maid—doesn’t kill Walter Pierce, a more off-able than affable conservative British politician in the murderous comedy DEATH BY DESIGN. (The butler didn’t do it either—there isn’t one.)

With actor JoAnne Dickinson, who has ably explored similar characters in previous TheatreFest seasons, director John McIlwee keeps the central character entirely faithful to the time-honored model of bush league skullduggery. Dickinson’s Bridgit is arch, imperious and the true ruler of the roost in the country home of Edward and Sorel Bennett (Michael Brocki and Lynda Clark). Those two are West End habitués—playwright and diva, respectively—laying low after their latest show tanked on opening night.

Playwright Rob Urbinati tries to marry Nöel Coward with Agatha Christie in this backstage whodunnit, and partially he succeeds. With the chips down, Edward and Sorel have predictably turned on one another, hurling amusing barbs along with Chinese vases and assorted glassware. For their part, Brocki and Clark handle the verbal ballistics with panache.

Elsewhere, however, the wordplay, characters and plotting turn clunky. After Pierce drops in for a botched assignation with Sorel, a poorly written student revolutionary character, a boorish modern dance doyenne (the game Sandi Sullivan) and an ill-defined late arrival mainly show up to provide more suspects. Gus Allen fares a bit better among supporting roles as stand-up chauffeur, Jack.

The production has guilty pleasures aplenty, particularly for those who enjoy backstage catfights. Knowledgeable theatergoers will be amused by the update on Shakespeare's sendup of Pyramus and Thisbe in mid-show. McIlwee’s sets and costumes, as always, are sumptuous, and Julie Florin’s introductory and intermission pianistry is tasteful and elegant. But given the labored plot mechanics, this outing lacks the zip of earlier murder mysteries in this summer series. Unfortunately, there’s a design flaw—or three—in Death By Design.

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    Despite guilty theatrical pleasures, writing and plot mechanics slow DEATH BY DESIGN.

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Thursday, June 5, 2014

Theater review: Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo

Posted by on Thu, Jun 5, 2014 at 7:57 AM

Tarantino's Yellow Speedo - PHOTO BY ALEX MANESS
  • photo by Alex Maness
  • Tarantino's Yellow Speedo
Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo
Little Green Pig at Manbites Dog Theater
Through June 7

May was a big month for Durham’s Monica Byrne. On May 20, Crown Publishing Group
 issued her speculative fiction novel The Girl in the Road, which came armed with big-time blurbs by the likes of Neil Gaiman. (See our review.) Just two days later, Byrne’s latest play, staged by Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern and directed by Jay O’Berski, opened at Manbites Dog Theater.

Both works are connected by the theme of polyamory, which, in the bawdy and anarchic Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo (no relation to Quentin), fuels an untidy exploration of the relationship between borders and safety. The playwright’s point about polyamory comes across a bit murky, but perhaps that’s deliberate. Even if you wholeheartedly believe monogamy to be a trap, it doesn’t make the alternatives any easier to navigate.

The spectacle revolves around an international group of Olympians—a German wrestler, a North Korean field hockey player, a Ukrainian badminton player, a Bosnian boxer and a married couple of American trapshooters—recruited by a secret organization to save the world with “sexual diplomacy.” They will do so by sleeping with each other in the hopes of making it into “the zone,” a sort of pan-amorous, non-possessive state of Zen. Those who do will be awarded the yellow speedo of the title, which was once worn by Arturo Tarantino, the vanished Italian diving champion who founded the philosophy and the organization.

If all of this sounds rather baffling—well, it is. INDY readers got a sneak peak at the outlandish scenario in a humor piece Byrne wrote in these pages in 2012, inspired by a news report of a surfeit of free condoms being distributed at the Olympics. Anyone who left the theater scratching their heads might find it clarifying. 

Though it’s initially unclear why the Olympics should be the setting for this partner-swapping roundelay, we realize that it’s an apt setting as Byrne’s concerns gradually emerge from the whirlwind of raucous dance numbers, TV doc-style video bios, surrealist set pieces and explicit assignations. The Olympics are a place where nation-states compete for finite resources across imaginary borders, in the same way that individuals do for sex and love. The difference is that love, unlike medals or minerals, is theoretically an infinite resource—why, then, do we hoard it?

This is the central question the play continually circles without quite hitting the target of an answer. Even so, some deep notes are sounded, especially in versions of the refrain “what makes you feel safe?” tolling through the script like a dark bell. Byrne’s script, well written and often funny, is full of passionate screeds against monogamy. At the same time, unhappy outcomes seem to play against the brave words. Byrne manages to condense an affecting conclusion from the pandemonium and, without spoiling anything, we can say that “the zone” is discovered to have borders of its own, separating those inside it from those without.

The most engaging performances come from the serene, likable Nicola Bullock and the high-strung Caitlin Wells—who ably portrays her character's eager, nervous energy—as the married American trapshooters, though the deck is heavily stacked in their favor. As their theoretically open marriage is tested by actual openness and the jealously that ensues—which Arturo Tarantino holds forth on in one of his ghostly appearances behind the projection screen—they shape up as the most richly, realistically drawn characters, with the clearest developmental arcs. This relatable anchor is especially welcome because the other roles, though gamely played, are all so outlandish.

Many of the international characters speak in atrocious accents (to be fair, Bullock’s Louisiana drawl is equally improbable), and they verge on milking ethnic or national stereotypes for laughs. Cameron McCallie’s lurid cross-dressing German wrestler has to stand naked on a pedestal and sing about how sexy he is over Erik Satie music. Kana Hatakeyama’s virginal North Korean field hockey player gets a video bio in the style of a propaganda film. These characters are too baroque a surface to portray the increasingly, and surprisingly, emotional payload of this play. That said, one sex scene between Jess Jones’ Bosnian boxer and LaKeisha Coffey’s Senegalese archer puts a revealing twist on the concept of borders, showing how they reside in privilege and class, as expressed by clothing, as well as love and war.

By the end of the play, we do get an explanation for Tarantino’s antipathy toward borders, but the clarification of his motivations doesn’t extend to whatever the play is trying to show us. As if acknowledging this, Byrne has multiple characters ask the instructors how their methods will accomplish their ends, never receiving satisfactory answers. All the ideation and excitement seems to conceal a somewhat unformed core. “Love must flow in its proper channels or it will destroy society,” Tarantino proclaims with confidence. But what are they? We don't get much of a clue, only multiple troublesome options.

Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights are your last chances to discern for yourself, and while you might leave confused, we promise you won’t be bored. 
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    Monica Byrne’s peculiar polyamorous play at Manbites Dog Theater closes this weekend

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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Theater review: PlayMakers' Hold These Truths

Posted by on Thu, Apr 24, 2014 at 7:59 PM

Joel de la Fuente in Hold These Truths - PHOTO BY LIA CHANG
  • photo by Lia Chang
  • Joel de la Fuente in Hold These Truths
Hold These Truths
PlayMakers at Kenan Theatre
Through April 27

PlayMakers concludes a season remarkable for its thoughtfulness on big topics, whether timely or timeless, with a PRC2 Series production. Hold These Truths spotlights a particularly sordid, shamefully little-known episode in 20th-century American history, and offers a lens through which to look at more immediate concerns.

In the nationalistic war fever after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the racism of western states toward Japanese immigrants and their American children turned rabid. It was only intensified by the U.S. government’s decision to strip Japanese-Americans in states along the Pacific coast of all their property, their livelihoods and their rights, corralling them into desolate, isolated camps.

Desperate and longing to prove their loyalty to the U.S., nearly 100,000 Issei (first generation immigrants) and Nissei (American born citizens of Japanese parents) compliantly packed their two permitted suitcases and journeyed to America’s internment camps to live under armed guard behind barbed wire. Only three Nissei fought back with legal challenges.

One was Gordon Hirabayashi. Actress Jeanne Sakata, herself of Japanese ancestry, stumbled onto his story as an adult and spent years crafting it into a one-man, one-act play, meanwhile crafting herself into a playwright. She interviewed Hirabayashi repeatedly, and researched his letters and other materials held at the University of Washington, where he had been a college student when war with Japan was declared and the infamous Executive Order 9066 was issued, allowing the Secretary of War to designate “military zones” and exclude or evacuate any persons—in reality, those of Japanese birth or ancestry.

A young man of unusually tough moral fiber, Hirabayashi believed that as an American he should not, and therefore could not, comply with this forced extirpation. So began his journey through the legal system, in defense of an American ideal that America’s own government was trampling.

Sakata’s play is deeply particular—an intimate telling of a heroic story lived by a captivating person. But its outlines fit other stories. For instance, one cannot help but think of Edward Snowden today. But that comes later, because actor Joel de la Fuente, under the direction of the remarkable Lisa Rothe (who directed last season’s powerful Penelope), fully engages your attention for a fast-moving 85 minutes.

The show was first performed in 2007 in Los Angeles, but in 2012, it had an off-Broadway New York premiere at Epic Theatre, with Rothe directing and de la Fuente creating the 30 or so characters that people Hirabayashi’s life. PlayMakers’ associate artistic director Jeffrey Meanza saw it there and promptly began lobbying to include it in PRC2, where it provides a coda to the company's year-long consideration of the many forms of power madness—and the many forms of forgiveness possible, once even the shouting is over.

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    In the remarkable true story of one man's fight against WWII internment camps, actor Joel de la Fuente fully engages your attention for 85 minutes

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Theater review: a threadbare Lily at Temple Theatre

Posted by on Thu, Mar 27, 2014 at 3:55 PM

Betsy Henderson and David McClutchey, in SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE CASE OF THE JERSEY LILY.
  • Betsy Henderson and David McClutchey, in SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE CASE OF THE JERSEY LILY.
Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily
Temple Theatre
through Apr. 6

All right, I’m convinced. There is an absolutely ripping yarn to be made from the convergence of the following characters. The first three are historical; the latter three, fictive:

  • Lillie Langtry, d.b.a. “The Jersey Lily,” renowned Victorian actress (and paramour to future King Edward VII),
  • her confidante, Irish playwright Oscar Wilde,
  • Abdul Karim, a controversial, enigmatic and decidedly personal Indian attendant to Queen Victoria,
  • arch-fiend Professor James Moriarty,
  • detective Sherlock Holmes, and 
  • his faithful, long-time associate, Dr. John Watson.

I only wish I was nearly as convinced that playwright Katie Forgette’s Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily is it. Published in 2009, one year before writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss gave the beloved Doyle detective a rich new life in contemporary London in the celebrated BBC series, Forgette’s thoroughly workmanlike efforts in this occasionally comic melodrama rarely rise above the level of fan fiction.

Instead she coasts along here, relying heavily upon character conventions already well-established for Holmes, Watson and Wilde while adding precious little to them. Such paper-thin characterizations grow tiresome well before Forgette abandons logic entirely in the low-grade skulduggery of Lily's second act.

When talents of the caliber of actors David McClutchey, Betsy Henderson and Pauline Cobrda, all long-respected, familiar names in this community of practice, cannot rescue an enterprise, it can only be considered particularly ill-advised.

Certainly we will see these stalwarts again on the regional stage. When we do, we also hope to see newcomer Jeffrey McGullion, whose sharp-eyed take on the evil Moriarty entertained as well.

Temple Theatre frequently presents dramatic work well worth the trek to Sanford. Hopefully, this threadbare Lily will prove only a momentary exception to the rule.

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    Good actors can't gild low-grade skulduggery in a fanfic script in Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily

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