Review: A Strange and Separate People

Jon Maran’s play The Temperamentals, about the formation of the United States’ first gay rights organization, the Mattachine Society, was one of my favorite gay-themed plays of the last few years. So I was excited to hear about his new play A Strange and Separate People which deals with homosexuality among 21st Century Orthodox Jews on the Upper West Side. It doesn’t have the epic breadth and power of The Temperamentals, but is, nonetheless, an engrossing play on an intriguing subject.

Dr. Stuart Weinstein, a newly Orthodox gay doctor, befriends Phyllis, a housewife with a side business as a caterer. As he gets to know Phyllis and her husband Jay – a psychiatrist who sometimes performs reparative therapy on his gay clients – things get increasingly complicated. Things all three of these intelligent people love – religion, learning and each other – come into ferocious conflict.

Once again Marans deals with very compelling ideas, and has created well spoken characters with a sense of humor that comes to their aid even in their most wrought moments. Director Jeff Calhoun has done a terrific job creating fluid and expressive staging, but hasn’t quite modulated the plays strong emotions and intense arguments to the acoustics of the tiny Theatre Row Studio. It’s not as though the actors are shouting throughout the entire production, but they do it often enough to be a bit grating.

What I most appreciate, though, is Maran’s willingness to look so unsparingly at the need for change in communities that are having a hard time adjusting to homosexuality, or even the modern world in general. I didn’t love A Strange and Separate People with the same intensity that I loved The Temperamentals, but I like it well enough, and find it to be a truly thoughtful play that deserves attention.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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News: I’m directing “Jeffrey Dahmer Live” at FringeNYC

Photo Credit: Dixie Sheridan

This August, I will be directing Avner Kam’s Jeffrey Dahmer Live at FringeNYC.

Jeffery Dahmer Live combines personal stories and hummable songs as it explores disturbingly mundane and human behind the extreme actions of the infamous title character. The setting: the jailed Dahmer, struggling to understand what has happened, creates a solo show with the aid of the prison drama club.

In 2011 it is 20 years since Dahmer’s “big reveal”, but he is still present, mentioned daily on the web; last year, Ke$ha, released “Cannibal” where she name-checked Dahmer, reaffirming his position as a cultural brand.

The show examines the case from various angles. The stories are factually correct, but the internal thought process and songs are creative extensions of the actual confessions. The character is placed in the cultural context of his time and prior, though the humor is, naturally, current.

Stories, songs and performance are by Avner Kam; he previously mashed his personality with those of Roy Rogers and Britney Spears. His previous solo show, The Singing Cowboy and His Invisible Backup Singers, played off-off Broadway, and the award-winning video for his signature song “I Want to Be like Roy Rogers (Yee Haw!)” played on MTV. Mr. Kam has honed his storytelling skills at The Moth where he won story slams. He is currently developing his next solo show: Helen Keller Live. Avner Kam is involved with FringeNYC behind the scenes. He is serving as their International Ambassador for the last 8 years, and his column, The Personal Shopper, humorously summarizes the yearly trends within the festival for their Propaganda publication.

For exact dates and venue for Jeffrey Dahmer Live, please consult FringeNYC.org or www.JeffreyDahmerLive.com.

For more information on my directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

News: Announcing the Full Cast of my production of Tennessee Williams’s “Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws”

As I reported earlier, Mink Stole and Everett Quinton are set to star in the production I’m directing of one of Tennessee Williams most wildly creative plays, Now The Cats With Jewelled Claws. Casting has been completed for the upcoming production, and a full creative team assembled.

Now the Cats will be premiering at the 6th Annual Provincetown Tennessee William Festival, September 22-25, 2011, before opening the 50th Anniversary Season at The Club at LaMaMa ETC, for a run from October 27-November 6, 2011.

The opening stage directions read “A luncheon table at the window of a restaurant. Outside the window, there is a deserted street, with the marquee of a cinema visible. The feature playing at the cinema is Defiance of Decency, which is followed by four stars.” Conversations in a restaurant between two socialite women friends, a roughed up pregnant waitress, two young gay hustlers with pink leather jackets emblazoned with “The Mystic Rose”, and a lecherous, prophetic restaurant manager. Apocalyptic, funny, musical, physical, wild, futuristic, shamanistic. Tennessee Williams at his experimental best.

Regina Bartkoff has been cast as Bea (opposite Mink Stole’s Madge), Joseph Keckler and Max Steele have been cast as the young hustlers, Erin Markey will be playing the waitress and Charles Schick has been cast as the Hunched Man. Music will be by Trystan Trazon. Set design will be by Jonathan Collins, lighting by Yuriy Nayer and costumes by Ryan J. Moller.

Regina Bartkoff is a painter and actress, and was born and raised in New York City, the daughter of a subway motorman.

Joseph Keckler is an interdisciplinary performer, actor, and classically trained singer. His original performance pieces and concerts have recently been presented at venues such as SXSW Music, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, The Stone, and Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater, among others. His debut EP, “Featured Creatures” was released by Transeuropa in Italy last year. Joseph recently completed residencies at Yaddo and MacDowell Artist Colony, and his performance texts have been explored at Lincoln Center Directors Lab. Joseph has also had the privilege of appearing in numerous operas, new performances, and plays. In April he played a hallucination named The Boss’ Wife in Aaron Jafferis and Byron Au Yong’s music-theatre piece Stuck Elevator at the Sundance Theater Lab. Joseph has also been a member of composer John Moran’s theater company, last playing the part of Death in Saori’s Birthday. Other recent roles include the soldier Demetrius in Dan Fishback’s You Will Experience Silence and a cameo as Rolf, a weird balladeer, in Tina Satter’s Family. Joseph’s most recent play, Jobz, directed by Josh Hecht, premiered in May with soloNOVA at PS122. His previous full-length piece, Human Jukebox, directed by Elizabeth Gimbel, enjoyed successful runs at La MaMa ETC and Dublin Fringe in 2008-2009. This summer Joseph will appear in Kevin Malony’s staging of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke. Joseph’s forthcoming solo-opera-weirdo-experiment, A Voice and Nothing More, will premiere at Amsterdam’s Bellevue Theatre in September. Joseph is a member of Actor’s Equity Association.

Max Steele is a performer and writer. He has presented work at the New Museum, Deitch Projects, Dixon Place, Envoy Enterprises, PPOW Gallery, and the Queens Museum of Art. In addition to writing the psychedelic porno poetry zine Scorcher, his writing has been featured in Dossier Journal, Spank, Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, East Village Boys and Birdsong. He performed in Dan Fishback’s You Will Experience Silence at Dixon Place in 2008, and played Becky on the Logo sitcom “Jeffery and Cole Casserole”.

Erin Markey is a Brooklyn-based writer/performer. She recently starred in the NYC premiere of Tennessee Williams’ Green Eyes at the Hudson Hotel. She is a series regular on LOGO’s Jeffery and Cole Casserole TV show. Her solo musical, Puppy Love: A Stripper’s Tail played and extended at PS 122. She is a company member of Half Straddle and her work in FAMILY was heralded as “the scariest performance of the year” in 2009 by Time Out NY. As a playwright, she was invited to the Lincoln Center Director’s Lab and is currently developing her newest work, The Dardy Family Home Movies by Stephen Sondheim by Erin Markey, to premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival’s Kinotek Series in the Fall of 2011. As a cabaret and performance artist, she regularly presents work at Our Hit Parade with Kenny Mellman, Bridget Everett and Neal Medlyn at Joe’s Pub (The Public).

Charles Schick is a painter and actor, and was born in Chicago, the son of a U.S. Civil Service employee.

For more about my directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Zarkana

Cirque du Soleil is at it again, this time taking over the legendary Radio City Music Hall for Zarkana, an acrobatic rock opera. The story follows Zark, a magician who has lost his powers – and the love of his life – in an abandoned theatre populated by a motley collection of off-the-wall characters and stunningly talented acrobats. And why not…

One thing the Soleil folks do very well is design, and Zarkana is no exception. Stéphane Roy’s set and Raymond St-Jean’s projected imagery often harken to the kind of extravaganzas they used to do all the time at Radio City (and other places like the long-gone Hippodrome) in the early years of the 20th Century, while also pulsing with a distinctly 21st Century edge.

As usual, the circus acts are world-class; that’s a good thing, because without them Zarkana would be truly lousy. Just imagining the rock opera side of Zarkana (Nick Littlemore, music, and François Girard, lyrics) staged for its own sake makes me shudder. In the words of Betty White as a much younger funny old lady: “Stinky!” I’m not saying that Littlemore’s music is as bad as all that – as incidental music for circus acts it’s solid but unremarkable – but as a stand-alone music drama it is beyond awful.

Soleil shows used to have librettos that were in some kind of “exotic” fake language. That was actually preferable – the few times I could make out Girard’s ultra-jejune English lyrics, I sincerely wished I hadn’t heard them. Thankfully, they still don’t matter enough to get in the way of the excitement of the circus acts or the eye-popping spectacle. The clowns do successful work in a very traditional clowning vein – they repeatedly made the kiddies squeal with delight, which in a way is the highest praise a clown can get.

Zarkana is everything you’d expect from Cirque du Soleil, for better or worse. If you’ve enjoyed their shows before (as I have), you’ll enjoy this. In spite of all of the pretension, all you have here is great circus acts in gorgeous settings, nothing more and nothing less.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Master Class

Terrence McNally’s Master Class makes robust drama out of a class taught by revered opera singer Maria Callas, in which she reveals a little about the art of singing opera, and a great deal more about “art” in general and the art of living well (an art which, it seems, sometimes eluded her). It’s a meditation on art-making by one of the country’s leading gay playwrights – right up my alley. I like the play very much, and think that director Stephen Wadsworth’s well-appointed Broadway revival production makes a terrific introduction to both McNally and Callas.

At a couple of points in the play McNally takes us out of the classroom and into Callas’ inner monologue as her students sing: some memories of her rise to fame, some less happy memories about her turbulent affair with Aristotle Onassis. Wadsworth has staged these scenes – dialogue “arias”, really – with great inventiveness and clarity. As Callas, Tyne Daly charismatically conveys what an exciting woman she was, what it was about Callas that allowed her to create legendary larger-than-life performances.

I was most interested in the way McNally explores the difficulty Callas had as a teacher: how do you teach inspiration or transmit what is in the end a very unique and personal gift. Provocative questions, in a play and production that are both artful and richly entertaining. As Sophie De Palma, the student one feels gets the most out of Callas’s tutelage, Alexandra Silber makes an extraordinary Broadway debut, successfully concealing her glamorous good looks behind Sophie’s awkward geekiness. Tenor Anthony Candolino is supposed to deliver a musical performance so beautiful that Callas is left speechless – and as Anthony, Garrett Sorenson more than delivers.

Master Class will be of greatest interest to opera fans (like McNally himself), but it is an engaging drama on in its own terms, and this revival hits all the marks. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Spider-man Turn Off the Dark

It’s not that bad! I was a good boy and stayed away until the actual, much-delayed press opening, so I did not see ousted director Julie Taymor’s original vision for Spider-man Turn Off The Dark. As one of my friends observed, however, her fingerprints are still all over the show. In particular one truly stunning sequence early in the show about the spider-woman demigoddess Arachne is pure Taymor, and ravishing.

Spider-man is easily one of sthe most eye-popping spectacles ever to appear on the Broadway stage, and that is only partially due to the much-hyped aerial stunts. Fantastically complicated and flashy as they are, they are still aerial stunts largely as we have known them – visible wires and all. It’s Kyle Cooper’s projection design that truly steals the show, bringing fresh, welcome rock-show razzle-dazzle to the Broadway stage.

I had heard that the score by U2’s Bono and the Edge was disappointing, but I’d call that an exaggeration. It has tremendous theatricality and grandeur – much like the Bond theme they wrote, “Goldeneye” – and generates the energy to drive the evening along. A fairer criticism would be that only a few of the songs have enough character to stand alone like U2’s hits do.

What is still definitely off (in spite of reports that the composers have been focusing on it), is Jonathan Deans’s sound design. I had a devil of a time making out too many lyrics beyond the choruses. And there are certainly some places where the composers do Deans no favors; a song called “Pull the Trigger” is almost entirely rap-sung by a quartet – no chance of ever making those lyrics out no matter how crystal clear the sound design. As far as I’m concerned one of the hard and fast rules of lyric writing for the theatre is this: if it is important that lyrics be understood, then you must have them sung first by an individual. That rule is broken with distressing regularity here.

In the final analysis, though, Spider-man Turn Off the Dark actually doesn’t suck. In fact, I’d definitely recommend it as a teenager’s first musical – its story, while predictable, is briskly engaging, the show’s undeniably a treat for the eyes, and certainly not lacking for visual and musical excitement. It’s not quite worth what it cost to make it, but it would certainly be worth the ticket price for somebody new to the theatre. Not deeply satisfying, but an okay time.

For tickets, click here.

Review: The Judy Show

Out lesbian Judy Gold has a long history as a successful stand-up comedian, but in the last few years she has turned to evenings that combine a stand-up vibe with a more theatrical structure (with help from Beebo Brinker Chronicles co-writer Kate Moira Ryan). Her hit show 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother focused, as you would expect from the title, on Jewish motherhood – Judy’s relationship with her mother, her relationship with her own kids, as well as broader questions asked of any Jewish mother that would take the time to answer (which was plenty of mothers).

Her new piece The Judy Show sketches a broader autobiographical story, using the lens of her lifelong obsession with sitcoms. Early in the show, Judy reflects on what classic sitcoms taught her about the world, and what desires they stirred in her. As we approach the present day, those desires transform into a mission for Judy to get her own sitcom, and she hilariously and poignantly re-creates the many ill-fated pitch sessions she’s had with networks over the years.

Judy sings a number of sitcom themes (including the ones she’s penned for her own show), accompanying herself on piano, with subtle multimedia by designer Andrew Boyce. Before and after everything else, however, Gold is among the funniest stand up comedians working today, and she’s at her best when she’s scoring bulls-eyes with piercing observations (with colorful additional material by funny gay male Bob Smith and Rosie O’Donnell and Bette Midler scribe Eric Kornfeld). I’ll just put this plainly: Judy Gold is fucking hilarious, and can also be very touching. The Judy Show is tons of fun and I can’t recommend it enough, you really should see it.

For tickets, click here.