Monday, October 20, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of Theatre Time Productions' Night Watch at the Colonial Church of Bayside by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Theatre Time Productions' Night Watch: A Play Of Suspense In Two Acts by Lucille Fletcher at the Colonial Church of Bayside was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Night Watch: A Play Of Suspense In Two Acts
Theatre Time Productions
Colonial Church of Bayside (54-02 217th Street, Oakland Gardens, NY)
Reviewed 10/18/14

Night Watch: A Play Of Suspense In Two Acts was written by Lucille Fletcher, who also wrote Sorry, Wrong Number, one of the most celebrated plays in the history of American radio, which she adapted and expanded for the 1948 film noir classic of  the same name. Night Watch appeared on Broadway in 1972 and was made into a movie in 1973 with Elizabeth Taylor in the lead role. The play is not your traditional murder mystery where you are presented with some dead bodies and need to figure out who the killer or killers are. Night Watch is more of a "who's doing what to whom and why mystery" with many twists and turns along the way. Is Elaine Wheeler, the rich heiress with insomnia who lost her first husband in a car accident where he was found with his 20-year-old mistress, simply losing her marbles on the downhill road to "crazyville" and treatment in a Swiss sanitarium or is this apparently unstable woman "crazy like a fox"?

The play is set in a fancy apartment on East 30th Street in the Kips Bay section of Manhattan in 1972. Elaine Wheeler is an heiress. Her husband, John Wheeler, works on Wall Street. They have a German maid named Helga and an intrusive gay neighbor, Curtis Appleby, who writes for the Kips Bay Tattler, the neighborhood newspaper. Staying with the Wheelers before heading out to work at the Mayo Clinic is Elaine's best friend Blanche Cooke, a nurse, who appears to be doing all she can to help Elaine get through what seems to be a particularly difficult time in her life although it is unclear what has been triggering the recent backslide in her mental condition. We learn that eight years ago, after personally coming upon the accident that caused the death of her husband and his mistress, she lost the child she was carrying, attempted to commit suicide and went into a deep depression. But two years later, she married John Wheeler and seemed to be getting on with her life. Now, six years later, she claims to have seen a murdered man in the window of an abandoned tenement on East 29th Street and then claims she saw a murdered woman in the tenement as well. The police investigate and find no evidence that any crime has been committed and so the mystery begins. Is Elaine seeing things or is Blanche, and perhaps her husband, singly or jointly, trying to drive her over the edge, confirm her deteriorating mental condition with the help of psychiatrist Dr. Tracy Lake, and cart her off to a clinic in Switzerland? If so, what are their motivations? Flowers, broaches, and wigs Blanche brings home to the Wheelers' home seem to remind Elaine of the trauma she previously went through. Perhaps her husband has been working with Sam Hoke, the Deli owner on East 29th Street, found trespassing in the tenement, to make his wife think she was seeing things that weren't there? This becomes all the more likely when we learn that a real estate holding company John Wheeler and his wife own, recently bought the very tenement where Elaine has been seeing dead people.

To say more would ruin the ending for you. So I will stop here but even after you see the play, there will still be some unresolved mysteries. What role, if any, did Sam Hoke (the Deli owner and face of the man Elaine claims to have seen murdered in the tenement window), and Curtis Appleby, the gay neighbor, play in the machinations? Did Blanche, who was familiar with the work of Dr. Tracy Lake, recommend her to John Wheeler? Did Helga "ask" for $500.00 from John Wheeler to go back to visit her mother in Germany because she thought she knew something that Mr. Wheeler wanted to keep secret? To what extent was John Wheeler in on the plans Blanche Cooke seemed to be cooking up and finally, what did Blanche see across the alley in the boarded up tenement that caused her to scream before any gun shots were heard? If you consider yourself an amateur sleuth, you will love this story.

Night Watch is another home run for Theatre Time Productions. There isn't a weak link in the entire cast. Everyone performed beautifully. Mary Lynch and Frank Freeman played Elaine and John Wheeler. Stephanie Lenna was Blanche Cooke. Cecilia Vaicels appeared born to play Helga, the German maid. Jim Haines was particularly impressive as Curtis Appleby. Joanne Engfer was Dr. Tracy Lake. Rene Bendana made a brief appearance as Sam Hoke, as did Paul Robilotto as Det. Vanelli, and Michael Zurik as Lt. Walker. 

The play is being presented "in the round" and is expertly directed by Kevin C. Vincent. There were some glitches out of the sound booth that caused an underlying "ringing" sound during the first act but that problem was corrected during the second act. The cast joined the audience for a dessert buffet after the show but only decaf coffee and soda were offered so if you preferred tea or caffeinated coffee, you would have been out of luck.

I highly recommend you see Theatre Time Productions' Night Watch: A Play Of Suspense In Two Acts while you can. You will be thoroughly entertained. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of Chip Deffaa's Theater Boys at the 13th Street Repertory Company by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Chip Deffaa's musical Theater Boys at the 13th Street Repertory Company was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

"Theater Boys" - Book, Music & Lyrics by Chip Deffaa
13th Street Repertory Company (50 West 13th Street, NYC)
Reviewed 9/28/14 at 3:00 p.m.

The world premiere engagement of Theater Boys took place at the Kaufman Theater in the summer of 2008 as part of the Sixth Annual Fresh Fruit Festival. It has now returned for a run at the 13th Street Repertory Company and although a cast album is scheduled to come out in two weeks, Chip Deffaa still introduced the musical "as a work in progress." While that may be so, the cast in this production is extraordinarily talented, the writing is crisp and funny with many references to well-known local cabaret artists, and the music is upbeat and entertaining. 

The flyer for the show says, "In Theater Boys actors auditioning for a gay musical are asked to bare their souls...and a bit more. They share coming-of-age stories both comic and heartfelt." While this description is literally true, I was shocked that even in "an off, off, off, off, off Broadway" gay musical in Greenwich Village, there was no full-frontal nudity. As cast member Joris de Graaf (who played Casey) said in the talk-back, "nudity is common on stage in the Netherlands." Yet somehow, in 21st century puritanical America, full frontal nudity was intentionally avoided in a show promoted as a "gay musical" where the actors were "to bare their souls...and a bit more." As for the "coming of age stories both comic and heartfelt," the show is divided into two very distinct acts. The first act is primarily an audition for a gay musical where the sets and script are "still in the director's head" and so each of the actors tells their own story by singing about some aspect of their life in the theater or of the struggles and obsessions they have faced in their private lives. This act is a satire of the theater and the directors, auditions and actors that are a part of it. The second act is basically a flashback dealing with the first sexual experiences of the Director and Kipp, the boy who the Director "discovered" as he just got off a bus from Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada (Note: In Halq'emeylem, the language of the Sto:lo communities, chilliwack means "as far upriver as you can go before having to switch to a pole."). Then there is a desert musical finale where the cast first performs wearing bed sheets and then finishes off dancing in their underwear.

Nearly three-quarters of the musical deals with issues of sexual seduction, sexual experimentation, denial and the importance of self-labeling. It is in these areas where the show shines the most and I believe Chip Deffaa needs to make a full commitment to bringing the musical in that direction. The elements are there. The show starts off in a most promising manner. The Director, a self-described "visionary" who claims to know everything and everyone (including having known Joan of Arc), has just convinced Kipp, a young actor from Canada, to come to his 5th Floor walk-up apartment for an audition and in the first musical number suggests Kipp take off his clothes "For The Theatre." The fact that Kipp can't memorize lines or dance doesn't deter the Director. But Kipp is too resistant. Even if he were straight, he probably would have given in with all the convincing arguments the Director made. Similarly, when Nathan LaChance is suggesting hypnotism as a method of his own seduction in "Tell Me Why," Chris (the Director at age 16) takes an eternity to get the message. Timing is everything and in certain scenes the resistance goes on too long. In others, the story line moves too quickly. If Chris's friend gets horny while smoking pot and somehow convinces Chris to give him a "helping hand," we need to know the actual lines he used to successfully complete the seduction. Another example would be the need for a deeper exploration into Braden's psyche and how two "straight" friends might convince each other they were in a straight bromance instead of a gay romance (No Homo!). Perfect timing was exhibited in the scene where bad boy Reese Brock convinced Kipp to take off his white briefs on a raft in a lake because it might attract snakes. Still, even that scene seemed incomplete because we never saw any sexual interaction between the two boys, even though that was clearly Reese Brock's goal.

The very attractive and talented actors in this production captured the audience's attention resulting in a relaxing and enjoyable experience. Future stars of stage and scene are in this cast! Michael Czyz, who played Kipp, is a fresh new face making his New York City stage debut in this show. With his innocent, boy-next-door looks, he was perfectly cast for the part of a young man from Chilliwack but perhaps that is the case because Mr. Czyz "is a proud Western Canadian afflicted with OCD and UW (Ukelele Withdrawal)." Daniel Coelho, who played Nathan La Chance, is also acting in his first New York production, having previously performed with the Papermill Playhouse Show Choir in Millburn, New Jersey. I feel Mr. Coelho struck just the right balance between playing a character who was, on the one hand unseducible pledged not to have sex until marriage, and on the other hand, a boy eagerly looking for an opportunity to allow his hormones to fly free. Daniel Coelho is a very talented actor with a great future in the theater. Sam Donnenberg was excellent in the role of Reese Brock, the brooding bad-boy who was best friends with Kipp back in Chilliwack. Although his part was a small one, he made a big impression on me. Philip Louis Calabro was very charismatic in the role of Rocky Kreeger, the actor who formerly performed as a scantily-clad French maid in the fictitious show Naked Maids Dancing and was inspired by his brief interactions with columnist Liz Smith. Mr. Calabro exhibited exuberant energy and has a strong stage presence. Taylor Martin played Braden Walker, the "straight" former child star willing to appear in a gay musical as long as it involved an artistically challenging role. Mr. Martin hit a home run portraying a man willing to engage in a sexual bromance so long as no one perceived him, or the relationship, to be gay. This perspective and attitude has a long history and Mr. Martin nailed it with his performance. 

The part of the Director was played by two actors. Joseph Spitale was the Director as an adult, and Andrew Lanctot, played Chris, the Director at age 16. Both actors executed their respective roles flawlessly. From a psychological viewpoint, I found it fascinating how Chip Deffaa wrote the book so as to clearly exhibit how the behavior of the Director at 16 seducing his less experienced friends continued to be reflected in the adult Director's efforts to use his position to seduce young, inexperienced actors eager to make it in the theater. The Director's sexual modus operandi is unlikely to change, which makes the ending of Theater Boys and the new relationship between the Director and Kipp one that is very unlikely to last. Joseph Spitale is a very accomplished actor who was a pleasure to watch. Andrew Lanctot has great versatility and an abundance of raw talent. I look forward to seeing more of him in the future. 

Chip Deffaa, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for Theater Boys, was also the show's director. Mr. Deffaa is the author of 15 published plays and eight published books. He is an extremely talented individual. This show, Theater Boysoffers many laughs, extraordinarily talented actors and some toe-tapping musical numbers, many of them that deal with the moon. There was "The Moon Montage" (a medley of moon songs), "Under The Chilliwack Moon", and the finale "Under The Mellow Arabian Moon", which literally ended with the cast full-mooning the audience. Theatre Boys plays Thursday nights at 7:00 p.m. and on Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through October 26, 2014. Tickets cost $25.00 for adults and $18.00 for students/senior, which you can purchase athttp://www.13thstreetrep.org/

If you are looking for a fun, upbeat show featuring some of the best actors New York theatre has to offer, then I highly recommend you see Theater Boys!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of Ray Allen Durand in Let The Little Boy Dance at The Duplex by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Ray Allen Durand's Let The Little Boy Dance at The Duplex was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

"Let The Little Boy Dance" - Ray Allen Durand
The Duplex (61 Christopher Street, NYC)
Reviewed 9/21/14 at 4:30 p.m.

Ray Allen Durand stars in this autobiographical one-man show entitled Let The Little Boy Dance: From 'Bayou Baby' To 'Broadway Baby' - An Odyssey Told In Song, Dance & Drama, which traces his life from his birth in Hammond, Louisiana on March 6, 1943 to his current status as a retired High School Drama Teacher. Mr. Durand presents the key incidents of his life in chronological order as part of a fictitious speech he is giving at the 50th Annual Reunion of Hammond High School's Class of 1961, said event that was being held at the Columbia Theatre, a significant cultural venue in Hammond's Historic District. Ray Allen holds nothing back and is as honest about his family as he is about himself. If you know and love Ray Allen Durand from the UFT Players or as a former teacher at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn, this show will be a revelation for you.

Mr. Durand starts his story at the beginning - his birth, when anticipating his future career in show business, was silently saying, "Push mama! It's time for me to make my entrance!". While his alcoholic father, who just came back from the war, was not at all pleased with his son's delight in dancing and singing, his mom took comfort in the fact that their parish priest called him "his little ray of sunshine" for reasons not fully disclosed. However, he did admit that when he was twelve years old, his uncle "seduced him" and that he "liked being wanted". In retrospect, he didn't like the fact he didn't have much say in the matter. Ray Allen took on a paper route that delivered to homes in a black neighborhood where he sometimes hung out. The other boys in town called him "Nigger Lover", "Mama's Boy", "Sissy", "Homo", "Faggot" and "Queen". Despite all the obstacles, Ray Allen Durand continued performing being named Bayou Baby Of The Year and winning a Jitterbug Contest. He eventually attended Southeastern Louisiana University and spent a good deal of his time in New Orleans where he was introduced to "Gay Life in the Quarter". One of the bars he frequented was Dixie's Bar on Bourbon Street, where Miss Dixie (Yvonne Fasnacht) had him perform as a stripper in drag telling him to "be yourself" and to "take these feathers and fly!". In New Orleans, he met an older gay man named Bob who invited him up to New York City after he graduated from college in the summer of 1966. Ray Allen accepted the ticket to paradise and stayed with Bob for two years while modeling, acting and taking dance lessons. He performed in a naked male revue, which his parents came to New York to see. His father, who by this time had accepted the obvious, told him after the show, "you gotta do what you gotta do".

Once in New York City, the little Southern Boy from rural Louisiana went hog wild, flittering from bar to bar and from man to man. One night, a handsome man named Dale asked Ray Allen what song he would like played on the jukebox. He responded Respect by Aretha Franklin, which Dale played before offering to buy the young man a drink. After four or five drinks, Ray Allen went home with Dale but it turned out they had a long and lasting connection with one another. Ray Allen moved out of Bob's home and spent the next 45 years with Dale, formalizing their marriage as soon as it became possible under New York State law. By 1976, acting and modeling work had dried up so he accepted a position with United Cerebral Palsy entertaining adults and kids for 10 years. He was then hired as the Drama Teacher at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn. At the time, he was described as being "very theatrical". He rapped an introduction to his mostly minority students and told them to call him Mr. D. He said if they didn't like Mr. D, they could call him a "Southern Redneck Son-Of-A-Bitch". From then on, he got along well with his students. They eventually referred to him as "Mr. Johnson", which he later came to understand was the highest possible compliment they could pay to him since it meant they thought he was "a black man in a white man's body".

Eventually, Ray Allen Durand realized he ended up exactly where he wanted to be and that it was the total fulfillment of all his dreams. He finally understood that he was able to keep sharing with the students what he had been learning over the years. Some of that advice included: "No matter what environment you come from, you can rise above it." "There is no right or wrong with an artistic project. And there are no unwanted people here." "Keep your dreams alive. There is gold at the end of the rainbow." Pick yourself up, Dust yourself off, and Start all over again." "Keep it simple. One day at a time." Ray Allen Durand then finished with the observation that: "It took a while, but it dawned on me. I was finally in the long running hit that had always eluded me, with a large and generous supporting cast. In the best part of my career - a teacher!"

Ray Allen Durand's Let The Little Boy Dance was directed by David Brunetti with Bob Goldstone at the piano. Mr Durand lays his life out for you on stage in just short of an hour. The show is an inspiration for all who seek to overcome adversity and make their mark in the world. The story he told reminded me of the message portrayed in the movie Mr. Holland's Opus with the exception that Mr. Durand's one-man show is brutally honest and tells you exactly what he had to go through to get to this point in his life. With respect to that life, all I can say is "Well Done!" 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of Thomas Adair Rossman's The Synthesis Revolution: New Thinking For A New Era Of Prosperity by Andrew Clunn

This review of Thomas Adair Rossman's book The Synthesis Revolution: New Thinking For A New Era Of Prosperity was written by Andrew Clunn and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Synthesis Revolution: New Thinking For A New Era Of Prosperity
Author: Thomas Adair Rossman
Publisher: Eudaimonia Publishing, LLC
ISBN-13: 978-0985659608

The Synthesis Revolution: New Thinking For A New Era Of Prosperity by Thomas Adair Rossman falls firmly into the genre of political manifestos. At just over fifty pages it's a quick enough read, which is perhaps its greatest weakness. It reads as a text that would have been profoundly insightful during the early Renaissance, but seems an introduction more than a real road map for revolutionary thinking. Where detailed explanation was called for, only summary was found. The greatest weakness of this book is not what the manifesto says, but rather what it does not.

The text is broken up into four parts. The first seeks to make clear that ideas have a profound impact on societies and nations, and that some ideas lead to better outcomes and greater economic prosperity for citizens of those  nations when compared to others. A fairly non-controversial point to be sure, though the text does strongly imply that the purpose of political philosophy is to maximize prosperity among citizens (a point that certain pro-undocumented immigrant activists, animal rights advocates, and others may disagree with). Leaving that aside, many political manifestos make this assumed assertion about this goal, so simply put The Synthesis Revolution in with all other collective nationalistic political philosophies.

The book then attempts to show why a reform is needed (specifically in the United States, as this is a very American-centric text). It outlines various failures of modern political action, and claims that America has faltered from the original values instilled in it by its founding fathers (so make that collective nationalistic originalism). It points to tribalism and uncritical dogmatic thinking as the main sources of our failure as individuals, and corruption and special interest influences as the main detractors at an institutional level. As it outlines these weaknesses in human thought and our current political system, the text proclaims that, "...the Synthesis Revolution is the engine for propelling this fundamental change." A bold claim, but half way through the text I still had no clue what the Synthesis Revolution is supposed to be. The book consistently says that it's "reasonable" and "objective," but these words mean nothing without examples or details.

It is in the third section that Rossman begins to delve into contemporary policy, beginning with a brief summary of his views on the divide between the left and right in modern American political thought. He describes the left as being "top-down" and the right "bottom-up", with President Reagan serving as the great example of a uniting force between the two. He points to statistics concerning regional landslide political victories as evidence of how much more polarized America now is. He also points to the 2008 financial collapse, which he claims was caused by deregulation of the banking industry, as an example of ideology effectively undermining a lesson that was learned back during the Great Depression.

And so finally we are given a glimpse of what the Synthesis Revolution is supposed to be, though not directly, but rather only through inference by assuming his positions serve as an example thereof. Landslide elections at local levels have more to do with gerrymandering than political division among the people, as evidenced by the much greater number of registered independents. People can have their opinions about the legacy and presidency of Reagan, but to say he united people across the aisles requires an ignorance of history. Also, his analysis of the financial collapse is so sparse and summarized, that were it submitted for a high school report, the teacher would likely mark, "Give more details," on the side. Apparently  the Synthesis Revolution is a view that accepts the single axis approach to classifying political thoughts, views history through rose colored glasses, and over simplifies issues. While claiming to rise above political rhetoric, it fully embraces political narratives repeated by party establishment figures and media talking heads. I can only assume this is done uncritically because no in depth analysis of any issue is actually done in this book.

The last section attempts (and I stress the word attempts) to answer the question of how to implement this Synthesis Revolution. Within three paragraphs, Rossman glosses over the difficulty of controlling for variables in the social sciences by stating that we need to break down our observations of society and political policy to their most basic core. Oh if only it were that simple. The Synthesis Revolution continually calls for "reasonable" and "common sense" policy making, as though critical thinkers are unaware that those are just buzz words used to emotionally manipulate people who can't be bothered with asking for specifics. When the entire point of your political philosophy is supposed to be that we need to rise above ideology and think critically and objectively about issues, then the details are non-optional.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of Revolution In The Elbow Of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter at the Minetta Lane Theatre by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Revolution In The Elbow Of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter at the Minetta Lane Theatre was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Revolution In The Elbow Of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter
Minetta Lane Theatre 
18-22 Minetta Lane
New York, New York 10012
Reviewed 8/29/14

This Icelandic, surreal, multimedia, indie rock musical is set in the small nation of Elbowville, which is located in the elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson, a Furniture Painter, who loves watching Robert Redford films. Most of the citizens of Elbowville make a humble living fishing lobsters out of Ragnar's lymphatic system and praying to their god Robert Redford (Praise Bob!), whose movies can be seen up in Eyesockette. If they save enough money, the tiny people of Elbowville might be able to afford a vacation to Knee York, Texass or even Penisylvania. However, the status quo is not enough for Elbowville's leader, Manuela, who seeks to bring increased prosperity to Elbowville through the use of a Prosperity Machine that prints an unlimited number of promissory notes the country can then loan out to people at little or no interest. Revolution In The Elbow Of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter is a cautionary tale about the invention and ultimately predictable collapse of the modern financial system. While the musical may have been inspired by the 2008 economic crash and recession that hit Iceland, the relevance to the United States cannot be understated. The Federal Reserve now prints money out of thin air backed by nothing other than the full faith and credit of the United States, government guarantees cause banks to loan out money to risky enterprises and people who are unable to repay the loans, and the result is inflation and defaults that cause people to lose their life's savings.

When you arrive in the Minetta Lane Theatre, you see a video of a schlubby, oafish, unattractive working man projected on the back wall of the stage, who is presumably Ragnar Agnarsson. He moves around in his chair and occasionally scratches himself. The set and projections were expertly and innovatively designed by Petr Hlousek. The set consists of industrial steps on either side of the stage leading to a high bridge on which some of the action takes place. Bright tubing has been installed and/or projected onto the walls to evoke the veins and arteries of the human body. Much of this state-of-the-art production design is used to move the story forward, such as when the bloody revolution is mostly projected onto the walls instead of being acted out on stage. Stunning, imaginative costumes were designed by Hrafnhildur Arnardottir and Edda Gunmundsdottir. Exciting, innovative choreography was composed by Lee Proud and the show was expertly directed by Bergur Ingolfsson.

The musical's three main characters are Manuela, Elbowville's ambitious, power hungry Mayor, convincingly brought to life by Cady Huffman, a veteran actress who won a Tony Award for her performance in The Producers; Peter, played by Marrick Smith, a talented actor, singer and dancer who, in my opinion, is a hot, new Broadway bound rising star on the path to super stardom; and Alex, Peter's brother, sympathetically portrayed by Graydon Long, a charismatic, attractive actor with an excellent stage presence. The entire cast is top-notch and could easily follow the show to its Broadway debut. The Book, Music and Lyrics of Revolution In The Elbow Of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter are by Ivar Pall Jonsson. The band, which appears on stage, is the impressive Revolutionary Cellular Orchestra. I also need to give kudos to Carl Casella, responsible for the Sound Design, who made certain all the microphones were in perfect working order so the audience could clearly hear every word spoken and/or sung. 

Ivar Pall Jonsson and his brother Gunnlaugur Jonsson are jointly responsible for writing the story and this is where I feel the show deserves some criticism. With respect to the financial issues raised, there is a difference between fiat money and the issuance of promissory notes. If the government was merely issuing fiat money, people would have been angry over the devaluation of the currency and not the fact that the promissory notes could not be redeemed. There are also problems in the story as to the dynamics between the characters and the internal logic of the fantasy world the characters live in. Peter, the entrepreneurial, young man trying to do good for his country by creating the Prosperity Machine, need not have been written as a morally bankrupt asshole. The brothers Jonsson would have done better to write Peter as a sympathetic character, who was just trying to bring prosperity to his fellow citizens without realizing the consequences of his actions. This would have made his ultimate fate more understandable. His brother Alex could have been written as someone who foresaw the potential financial crisis and who left to take a job elsewhere, only to return when he heard the financial collapse had endangered the life of his brothers and their families. Elements of this scenario are already in the script as when Alex says Peter "acted in good faith" and only "wanted everyone to have the good life." As for the internal logic of the fantasy world, why do babies have such a long gestation period, why did the Mayor bronze her uterus and hang it on the wall, and why do some men want shoulder implants while others prefer cuddles? Those aspects of the story need to be better explained and made more internally consistent. It is not enough to be outrageous just for the sake of being outrageous or for a cheap laugh. All that takes place must occur in the context of a well-written story.

The Prosperity Machine enables the government of Elbowville and its banks to give out loans to just about anyone who wants cash and for a while, the country rises on a wave of borrowed wealth. Everyone becomes instantly rich through the magic of easy credit until the tide turns. Inflation causes everything to become more expensive because of all the cash out there chasing a limited number of goods. Mandrake, an out-of-town Bank Examiner, hilariously played by Rick Faugno, then arrives to audit the books and eventually announces that Elbowville's credit rating has been severely downgraded. The government of Elbowville can no longer honor the promissory notes it has issued and they are placed in the position of having to borrow money at a high interest rate to pay off a small portion of its debts, a situation described by Manuela as "needing a loan to pay a loan to pay a loan to pay a loan." Citizens start defaulting on their loan payments resulting in repossessions and general civil unrest. Some pray to Robert Redford (Oh, dear Bob of Hollywood, Protect Us!) while others take to the streets in a bloody revolution. 

At this point, in the last ten minutes of the show, it is very unclear what the ultimate message is. On the one hand, there is a democratic election, where the winner appoints former Mayor Manuela, the cause of the past financial crisis, as Financial Regulator of the new revolutionary government, which looks quite fascist, with flags and security and Manuela standing on the high bridge looking like Eva Peron. Is the message that ignorant citizens will be fooled and will elect leaders from the very same class of professional politicians that caused the financial crisis in the first place or is the message that a right-wing nationalistic government will arise from the ashes as Hitler rose out of the failed Weimar Republic? Even a third scenario is suggested when Alex decides to leave Elbowville given the new fascist government that has taken power. Where is he heading? Galt's Gulch? It is unclear what was intended but the end does leave the audience unsatisfied with respect to outcome and fails to give them closure. 

Revolution In The Elbow Of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter features a cast with extraordinary talent and an excellent soundtrack. This rock musical is artistically and intellectually smart with a message that is insightful and relevant to many financial problems our country faces today. I strongly encourage you to see this show. You will have an enjoyable evening and will leave with a number of interesting questions regarding our current financial system that may haunt you, as well as provide you with insight, for years to come. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of The Normal Heart at The EastLine Theatre by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of The Normal Heart at The EastLine Theatre was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Normal Heart
The EastLine Theatre 
2123 Wantagh Avenue
Wantagh, New York 11793
Reviewed 8/22/14

Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart was first produced by Joseph Papp Off-Broadway at The Public Theater on April 21, 1985 and ran for 294 performances. There was a 2004 Off-Broadway revival at the Public and on April 19, 2011, the show had its Broadway premiere for a limited 12-week engagement at the Golden Theatre. It won a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. A film adaptation debuted on the HBO premium pay cable channel on May 25, 2014. 

The play focuses on the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York City between 1981 and 1984 and the struggle of some early gay activists to obtain funding for research and treatment. The Normal Heart is a largely autobiographical play by Larry Kramer, who helped found several AIDS-activism groups, including Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) and AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). After most performances of the 2011 revival, Kramer personally passed out a dramaturgical flyer detailing some of the real stories behind the play's characters. Kramer wrote that "the character 'Bruce' was based on Paul Popham, the president of the GMHC from 1981 until 1985; 'Tommy' was based on Rodger McFarlane, who was Executive Director of GMHC and a founding member of ACT UP and Broadway Cares; and 'Emma' was modeled after Dr. Linda Laubenstein, who treated some of the first New York cases of what was later known as AIDS." It was clear the character 'Ned' was based on Kramer's own experiences.

The Normal Heart clearly reflects the pain, frustrations and loss suffered by those who had or knew someone who had the as yet undefined virus that attacked the immune systems of mostly gay men. The struggles for recognition of their plight and to obtain funding for research is interesting all on its own. But for me, this play succeeds best in showing the divisions within the gay community with respect to strategy and historical perspective. While Ned, the Larry Kramer character, wants to warn the gay community to stop having promiscuous sex, Mickey, who works for the New York City Board of Health and is a veteran gay activist, argues that after being closeted for so many years, gay liberation means having gay sex without shame and that it is "the only thing that makes us different." Ned, on the other hand, argues that the culture gays have brought to this world for thousands of years since Socrates and Aristotle is very substantive and that "we need to be a proud united community willing to fight back" and that "gay culture needs to be defined by something more than just our cocks." There are other strategic differences featured in this play such as those activists who want to be more accommodating and work within the system versus those willing to take to the streets. Perhaps, as the character Tommy says, "all movements, to succeed, need both." Larry Kramer's character Ned told his brother the new organization, Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), would be a cross between the League of Women Voters and the United States Marines.

There are no weak links in this cast. All the actors performed admirably and put their heart and soul into their respective roles. Most impressive were Michael H. Carlin, who played Mickey, and Matt Rosenberg, who was Tommy Boatwright. Both accurately portrayed the perspectives and mannerisms of their characters so well that I felt I had met individuals similar to them many times throughout the years. Excellent performances! Evan Donnellan was so strong as Ned that he gave me new insight into Larry Kramer's motivations and activism. His performance is a tour de force. My only criticism is that if his character must take off his socks and shoes, he should make sure his socks don't have holes in them and that he gets a good pedicure before exposing that part of his body to the audience. Kevin Kelly was Felix, Ned's lover, and Kevin Shaw played Bruce, Ned's nemesis at GMHC. Both handled their roles extremely well. Other cast members contributing to making this play a delight to watch were Michael Schlapp, Lisa Meckes and Patrick A. Reilly.  

EastLine's The Normal Heart is a top-notch, high quality production, directed with a minimal set (table, folding chairs, newspaper, magazine) by Daniel Higgins. It features an extremely talented cast. Whether or not you have seen other productions of this play, I highly recommend you make time to see this show at The EastLine Theatre. You will be moved by the thought-provoking dialogue and impressed with the acting abilities of the performers. The time will fly by and you will be enriched by the experience. Visit EastLine Productions' website at www.eastlineproductions.com for more information.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of The Boston Tea Party Opera at The Loretto (Sheen Center) by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of The Boston Tea Party Opera at The Loretto (Sheen Center) was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Boston Tea Party Opera
The Loretto (Sheen Center)
(18 Bleecker Street, NYC)
Reviewed 8/13/14

Matthew Zachary Johnson composed and produced The Boston Tea Party Opera, which is a part of this year's New York International Fringe Festival. It is a very well researched piece of theater featuring an extremely talented cast. It is also a cautionary tale that the same governmental abuses of excessive taxation, illegal search and seizures, and the lack of respect for the liberty and individual rights of the colonists exhibited by the British Crown may have parallels in some of the same challenges we are facing as a society today. 

I am not certain which version of The Boston Tea Party Opera I saw. It was entered into The New York International Fringe Festival as a three and one half hour production. By opening night, it shrank to two hours and twenty minutes and by the time I saw the show, it had been cut to under two hours. Clearly, songs were being added and dropped right up to the last minute and it appeared more changes were being made every day. There were no sets to speak of and only half the cast members were in colonial outfits. The latter may have been intentional in order to drive the point home that there were analogies you were being invited to draw between then and now. In case you were completely dense, the British officials were outfitted in modern S.W.A.T. gear colored black, red and white. 

The Boston Tea Party Opera covers the period of time from when King George III of England in 1763 sought to tax the American colonies as a way of recouping the war costs of obtaining victory in the French & Indian War through to the Boston Massacre in 1770 and eventually the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Well-known historical figures appearing in the opera include Sam Adams, John Hancock, Governor Thomas Hutchinson, James Otis, Richard Clarke, Crispus Attucks and Paul Revere. The libretto covers the tragedies, victories, acts of defiance, acts of patriotism, and even the romances that might have taken place during this period. The best description of the events contained in The Boston Tea Party Opera is in the Synopsis, printed in the program, which I will quote here in full: In the sweep of events leading up to the America Revolutionary war, loyalist Boston Governor Thomas Hutchinson seeks to clamp down on the increasingly rebellious Sons of Liberty. He seizes tea smuggler John Hancock's ship, the "Liberty." Orator James Otis gives a passionate courtroom speech against such arbitrary exercise of power, only to be attacked by British soldiers. Sam Adams leads the colonists in a boycott of British goods -- which the town's women support with their own efforts. Mrs. Adams is forced to house a threatening group of soldiers. In an incendiary outbreak of violence, colonists are fired upon by the soldiers in a horrific massacre. A great debate, with the leading agitator Sam Adams fervently defending the Rights of the Colonists, leads to an impasse. And finally in the inevitable climax of open rebellion, Paul Revere leads the epochal event that initiated the American Revolution -- the act which preferred the destruction of the tea cargo to the principle of colonial subjugation -- the act that no longer bore, but instead began to cast off the mounting injustice. 

The entire cast was inspiring in light of the talent each possessed. My favorites were Kerry Gotschall, who was particularly strong as Elizabeth Adams, a role intended to encompass the two wives named Elizabeth that Sam Adams married. Colette Boudreaux tenderly played Molly Pitcher, who may not have been a real person but instead a composite image inspired by the actions of a number of women who carried water to men on the battlefield and who, occasionally, may have picked up a musket themselves. In this opera, Molly Pitcher is smitten with Captain James Scott, a smuggler charismatically portrayed by Scott Joiner. Ms. Boudreaux and Mr. Joiner sing a memorable duet together entitled Smuggling Men Can Be So Fine. Finally, Charles Armstrong did an amazingly good job portraying the very pressured Richard Clarke, consignee of the tea that was thrown into Boston Harbor. I am told his background lies in musical theater instead of opera but his presence on stage caught my eye because he gave complexity and depth to the historical character he played.

Matthew Zachary Johnson has said The Boston Tea Party Opera straddles the line between opera and musical theater. He has said he feels future productions will more likely be staged in an off-Broadway setting than in Opera Houses throughout the world. That may very well happen since this show should be able to obtain pro-liberty investors and has a core group of potential patriotic audience members eager to be supportive of the underlying message of the show. For me, however, The Boston Tea Party Opera doesn't work well in its current form as either opera or musical theater. The audience members I spoke to during intermission and after the show were not at all pleased with the production and shared with me criticisms and opinions with which I was in agreement. Having actors playing dual roles was confusing. The sets don't need to be elaborate but the show certainly needs more than a British flag, a desk, two milk cartons and some blue and red ribbons. The costumes need to be all colonial or all modern. I would favor all colonial but I would keep the British authority figures in their S.W.A.T. gear to make the point that the challenges faced by our colonial ancestors are universal in all times and countries.

I think the show needs to be re-imagined as Boston Tea Party: The Musical, a non-operatic piece of musical theater produced with a book or distinct vignettes. The opera singers need to go and the show needs a director to pull things together more tightly. The length of the production is not the issue. It can be two hours or three and a half hours as long as its good. Only in this new format can the quality of the writing and composing be best evaluated. The underlying story is worth telling and I commend Matthew Zachary Johnson for attempting to tell it. The show portrays a part of history with relevance to the citizens of our country and suggests we need to be on guard against a government not fully respectful of our individual rights and liberties. That's a message everyone needs to hear.