Previous Issues:

November 15, 2002

October 15, 2001



Stage Pages


Issue:  December 18, 2002

Constructive Critic
by Sherry Braun

New Years greetings to all.  New York's Off-Off Broadway scene has always been the true breeding ground for art and theatrical projects which edify and make us evolve as a generation.  It works as well as good literature, in the span of one and a half hours -- as in the case of the festival environment.  I have never seen Off-Off Broadway as busy as it is now. 

Nor have I seen a better festival in terms of its overall standard than the recent Spotlight On Festival.  I commend all of the participants because I can't find one production which might be considered embarrassing.  I hope you enjoy my feedback in the current mini-reviews.

The play is written by Edward Crosby Wells and directed by Sean Cassels.  It is a new comedy in a film noir style concerning America and Nazi Germany.  The present production shows a very fun script with extremely campy possibilities.

CURSE OF THE SNAKE WOMAN is a good guy versus bad guy story wherein Dick Palmer (Tommy Barz), P.I., and Velma Lombard (Andrea Hoffman) fight it out with Baroness Von Cobra (Natasha Yannacanedo) and company, Adolph/Kongo (Michael Dulev), Frau Schnapps (Breana Murphy) and Otto Python (Scott Petche) -- with a few surprises such as a snake, a gorilla and questionable loyalties, which neatly wrap up by play's end.

The acting across the boards shows great promise and is fully realized by Hoffman as the rising actress and ingenue.  Other stand-outs are Petche in a kinky comic role and Dulev whom, although hidden as a snake and a gorilla, shows great technique in timing.  Barz is perfectly cast as the P.I. with deadpan delivery, although more animation and sharper reactions to the clowns around him would better connect him from moment to moment -- and make his comedy keener too.  Murphy proves herself a delightful character actress with many gems of comedy, although she wastes much of it by not being heard.  Yannacanedo is beautiful, talented, likeable and, yet, almost not villain enough to be Snake Woman,  Rather than speaking, walking across the room, and then talking again,  more walking while she talks and talking while she walks will help her to rule and, therefore, fully hone her comic timing.

Director Cassels gets his addled comedy perfect with a chase sequence involving the whole cast; and it is here that I see where he is aiming.  The hilarity must have been rehearsed many times because the actors fully commit to it.  I wish much of the rest of the play did not seem under-rehearsed.  For example, if Cassels had asked these talented actors for more projection and faster delivery, I think they would have been up to it.
Lighting errs on the side of plenty rather than risking too little -- which a shadowy film noir effect might bring.  The sound (perfectly engineered by Peter Vipulis), which sometimes creates a period atmosphere, is usually blatantly anachronistic.  Costumes, make-up and hair (Amanda Wade) achieve a sense of humor, although the tango dress doesn't help one to believe that Von Cobra is a baroness.  The unit set functions well except for an awkward last-minute entrance of the empire state building for a visual reference to King Kong.  Comedy is "surprise."  Sorry, but I was way ahead of this joke when I literally saw it coming.

The new play is based on the life of Sor Juana de la Cruz, a major Baroque literary figure recognized to be one of the most extraordinary people to come from the Spanish-American tradition.  The setting is New Spain, Mexico, in late 17th Century.  This absolutely beautiful play by Susan Tammany shows Juana (Agnes Tsangarido) and her relationships with the misogynistic (victim of his times?) Father Antonio (Michael DiGioia) and a loving supporter, Countess Maria Luisa (Carmela Marner).  Their lifetimes pass before our eyes, and we are compelled onward through each logical phase as if voyeurs to an inevitable conclusion.  One can easily see this play, and this very production, on a Broadway stage.  The Helen Hayes is just the right size to appreciate every nuance of poetic and theatrical acting.  The fine roles already mentioned are backed up by the powerfully solid Sor Iris (Betsy Johnson), Sor Barbara (Margaret Stockton), and Ma nuella (Nancy Wilcox).  These supporting actors play it so straight-forwardly that all theatrical and poetic moments are left to the three principals, as they should be. 

And moments do they have: of prostration to whip themselves for guilt and punishment; of love; of dance; of the lifting of the spirit and the dream.  Director Joel Froomkin succeeds in more than raising the acting like a phoenix.  Scenes are cleverly punctuated and re-set with the simple movement of a bench.  Sound ( David Gilman) is exquisitely haunting.  Froomkin deftly uses the festival's side-illumination (repertory plot by Alex Warner) in such a subtle way that it appears magical.  A slow disclosure of feelings on a face lets the audience slip into the tale. 

The writing symbolically devolves the Father as he shows his Dark Ages mentality by literally going blind.  Desires and actions are bold and large as the love triangles evolve.  The language is as sophisticated as good drama gets and contains enough comic relief to make us relate.   Tammany "invites me in" so well that tears come to my eyes.

Costumes (uncredited) are stunning.  A cross in the shape of a phoenix hangs around the neck of Antonio.  There are other fine details very economically used (such as the framed portrait) in this wonderful production. Stage Manager:  Drew Van Diver.  Prop Manager:  John D. Alfone. 

Bravo to Cassandra Productions and Spotlight On Productions for having selected such a lovely, sensitive work which is relevant to the lives of women, of men, of artists, of feminists, of religious fanatics, and of lovers.

"Physicke" presents three little love stories about misery, confusion and death.  They are one-acts under the title of UNTENDER, beautifully written and helmed by Emily Steele.  I say "helmed" because Steele only directs the second piece.  Justin-Michael Youron is credited with direction of the first and the third.  (Think I'm going to tell you what happens in these plays?  Naw.  I'm feeling a bit of the fun rebel, as I have learned from Physicke -- as demonstrated by the fact that this troupe didn't include bios nor post headshots.  They did, however, draw and color child-like pictures of themselves and hang them in the reception room!)  

The first piece is "love in a bed of roses."  Colin Ryan and Emily Steele engage us very well as He and She.  This is the way a relationship goes, with Everyman and Everywoman.  This is about as straight-forward as Steele gets.  Youron directs nicely.    

The second piece is "boy meets girl."  Steele increases the irony and the humor with twists, turns, surprises and a tight pace.  Featuring a charming Justin-Michael Youron and Elise Rovinsky (who does not even open her mouth and somehow gets a laugh), Also very good are Heather Murdock, Thomas Westphal and Colin Ryan.

The third piece is the longest, "little play about sex and death."  In it, Steele and Murdock are the girls who talk about having killed a boy.  The piece is strangely sexy and sick.  They invest in the story very well, while Murdock even betrays a real tear on her face.  Thomas Westphal is the boy and tells his story too.  They take their time; and there is a surprise pay-off!  Interestingly, Youron has only staged the three performers in three chairs in the shape of a triangle, with the boy at the apex.  My first reaction is, "How static."  My second is, "How alone they are; how separate; how unconnected."  My third reaction is, "I wonder if he chose it because of some philosophical/ psychological reason (that might be labeled Theater of Alienation) or simply because they rehearsed the monologues separately and not together?"  Well, the piece is certainly minimally rendered, in the best sense. 

This group has a great "studio feel," reminding me of graduate school experimentation and playfulness.  And there is still a lack of theatricality.  Apparel does not appear to be costumes, but street clothes.  The set just appears to be chairs and tables.  The illumination just comes and goes unnoticed like natural lighting.  Interesting.  And, yes, I think they succeeded  in their mission to create "engaging theatre with quite a lot less of the bullshit."

Produced by Loan Star Productions, and written by Elias Stimac, CLOSIN' TIME is a sensitive and spiritual journey in The Last Stop Inn, set in the present.  Stimac efficiently paints a story of a group of people who drink of a bottle of champagne and consequently are visited by spirits and messages that are needed.  It isn't so much the variation of a theme that we may have seen before which impresses -- but the way that Stimac goes about it.

The production, which marks the play's East Coast premiere, starts strongly with a "musical guest" (called The Ghost of Elvis) performing live in the empty bar room.  No patrons, no audience, no tips.  The bartender, Mark, kicks him out and invokes, "Next time, bring some friends."  As soon as the musician leaves and Mark (played with charm by Vance Clemente) starts to lock up, a string of poignant guests arrive.  Notably, Terry (Sean Dill) and Jenna (Marci Occhino) have a sentimental  scene as a father and daughter.  Gregg (sensuous Carl Owens) is another standout, almost in more ways than actor (when he sheds all clothes and is only covered by towels from the bathroom on his front- and back-side).

All of the other actors are good:  Jennifer Bachman, Cate Bottiglione, Dawnn Carpenter, Cory Heath, Sandra Holguin, Nicole Paradiso and Valentina Zamora.  However, sometimes the director (Dana Letowsky) allows some of them too much time to pick up their cues.  And occasionally some actors are not even looking at each other nor actively listening -- but looking off into their own thoughts.  Many times the actors are too soft spoken to be heard by the last row.  These moments fight the progression and through-line of the script. 

Letowsky has staged the production well.  The bar, tables, chairs and "found" doors create a logical set; and sound design (Nitin Srivastava) includes a rainy underscore.  However, there are distractions in the lighting (Lisa McCree) which seem out of control.  An attempt is made to create a lighting effect when the champagne is imbibed and the magic is forthcoming.  There are also sloppy moments when the lights simply dim in an area of the stage because..., well probably because, ...an actor is not there any longer.  These moments don't seem to be motivated by Mark, or anybody, flipping a switch.  They are there just because....  And they become tiresome to keep straight.
Perhaps Maritza Puello (Dramaturg) helps Stimac keep track of the various entrances and exits of Mark alone which enable his customers to have their own moments with significant others and mentors.  The writing and development of the property are successful on that account.  Stimac has a beautiful play.




Issue: November 15, 2002

Constructive Critic
by Sherry Braun

Frank Calo, Producer Extraordinaire, has tapped me as a Spotlight On Awards Voter and also invited me to cover as many of the shows in the Halloween Festival as possible.  So, here is my first effort at reviewing for Spotlight On Festivals, Inc.  There will be two other installments of my coverage as soon as I get them typed up.  I hope you enjoy "the read" as much as I enjoy the outings at Raw Space.  There is great work being done by a great many individuals, which I know will add to the collective health of the craft.

Written and directed by Steven Gianturco, VAMPIRES SUCK is the story of a dysfunctional vampire seeking a wacky shrink to fix his inability to suck.  As produced by Gianturco and Stuart Parsons, a talented cast is headed by Gianturco (Dr. Gloob) and Parsons (Frank, the vampire).  Parsons hisses humorously and dons clown white to let us know just what kind of a comedy we are watching.  Likewise, Gianturco hams it up by starting his scenes by napping upside-down and off the furniture.  (And this is a normal human in this alternate world.)  A handsome police officer (Jean Paul San Pedro) looks at a girlie magazine until a beautiful Lady (Jenny Greeman) gets his attention.  The fine cast is rounded out by Ryan Maloney with great comic timing as Jingo the clown and a fey television director.

Throughout this satire in two acts, the company invites audience participation, a real sense of play, and improv -- even when the wrong set comes out.  This makes it impossible for the audience not to have fun too, even if the production could benefit from an objective technical director.  Could not a unit set have sufficed to avoid changing it after every scene?  For example, a desk stage left (or right) could represent the police station.  A love seat and chair center stage:  Gloob's office.  Far stage right:  a street.  Tighten this tech show up; and have a nice cult following and a longer run somewhere.

Lanie Robertson's  play is an intense drama based on fact.  Mrs. Stephen Girard (Klaudia Kovacs) is institutionalized by her husband in an era (1790) when even American women are at the mercy of their masters/men.  (Methinks this theme is relevant today.  One needs only to look at the cultures which still teach that women should remain subjugated.)  Mary's reality is surreal, like a dream, as she remembers people and encounters them in the present -- all the while being strapped to a chair and tortured by fellow inmates, or Furies (William Greville, Marilyn Duryea, Lora Goldman, Jason C. Decker, Kathryn Alexander).

Kovacs portrays Mary beautifully with a great range, from subtle to tragic.  Other stand-outs are, well...frankly, everybody.  As I try to pick out my favorites, I realize that they are purely subjective ones.  Jason Decker plays multiple roles, dramatically switching physical gesture and speech pattern.  John Rengstorff is sensitive and commanding as Stephen Girard.    All of the rest have great performance technique too.  This cast is an ensemble, quite literally, as they finish each other's sentences with the greatest of ease -- ease that only comes from many rehearsals and a strong director (George Adams). 

Costumes are rendered appropriately to period, with attention paid to details:  fineries for the upscale, a saddle bag for Mr. Philips, peasant blouses and knickers for the furies, etc.  For the props, I liked the wooden spoons and bowl.  However, I have a minor quibble in that the warder only pantomimed placing food in the bowls; and the half-starved inmates did not eat.  My suspension of disbelief left me for just a moment.  Then, I allowed that perhaps "I'm being too literal," especially when a festival atmosphere doesn't allow much time for cooking gruel.

WHO AM I is produced by Cuchipinoy Productions, written and directed by Rodney E. Reyes.  (This team members are very talented; and I would like to know more about each and every one.)  In the program notes, the premise is presented.  "What would you do when given a chance with your creator?" 

In art, there is very little that is completely original.  The important thing is HOW one goes about telling a story.  A tale about God looking like an ordinary, sexy latino has been done in summer stock productions of GOD'S FAVORITE.  What makes this effort special is Reyes' multi-telling of the creator story.  There is:  the writer and his creation; the guy and his female alter-ego; the mother and daughter; and God and Human.  There is the sensitivity, humor and poetry in the writing. There is the terrific acting of the overlapping pairs of seekers. 

The acting includes a range from humorous to fiercely emotional.  The most obvious comedy is demonstrated by God (Mario Corrales) and Human (Patrick Annelli). Human is the comic character, and God is the straight man.  Guy (Dennis K. Philbert) and Girl (Abena Asamoah Duodu) play different sides of  the same person.  Philbert has my heart, and Duodu's performance is the "fierce" of which I spoke.  One rise-able actress!  Marv (Jonathan Calindas) and May (Daniela Tedesco) are lovely as the writer and his creation.  Finally, Daughter (Michelle L. Santiago) and Mother (Liza Hataf) are sensitively portrayed.

The staging was very simply done in three areas.  No time was wasted on scene changes.  Costumes (Anna Payumo) are perfectly appropriate and understated.  The lighting (Gabriel Martinez) is probably the best of any show in Space M during the festival.  The three pools of light subtly moved as if they were another character in the play. 

The Peyari Dance Project (Artistic Director:  Jen MacQueen) presents FEAR OF..., written by Dan Puckett, a wildly funny and creative performance!  It is first-rate dance and performance art, eclectically rendered -- with professional voice-overs of a female patient and a male analyst.  One quickly learns that the good doctor is cuckoo and the patient is the "straight man." 

The entire company gave us original pieces which are emblematic of fears, and irritations, that we manifest in real life.  The group piece ("Watched") was especially appealing and ripe with truth and comedy.  "Das Insect" was biting.  "Beneath the Boards" was especially strong and  surreal -- matching appropriately the Festival theme of Halloween creepiness.  The duet ("Favorite Mistake") with Austin Marolla and Sara Herrera was sexy and deft.  "The Dove" was sensitive and beautiful.  Everything was fabulous and juxtaposed just right.    

The device of the dancers, in plain sight, placing colored gels over the dance lights was an inventive mood changer and transition opportunity.  However, if this production moves to a commercial run, it might benefit from a smidge of trimming in the voice-overs. 

The costumes (by Jen MacQueen and co.) were just right -- crisp and colorful and filled with character.

Choreography by Melanie Furjanic, Sara Herrera, Jen MacQueen, Lynn Mancinelli, Tripp Pettigrew, Jenn Weddel, Paige Worsham.  Other dancers:  Brittney Jensen, Jennie Karr, Martha Madison, Austin Marolla, Paige Powers, Anissa Wiley.  Company Manager:  Jonathan MacQueen.

FINDING CENTER THREE is the bill for three one-acts by Sharon E. Cooper.  Briefly, they are about finding one's center with the help of somebody near you -- somebody close to you, or even a stranger. 

The evening is completely successful with lovely acting from three couples:  Jenni Tooley (Mother), W. Emory Rose (Son) in "New Witness in Wonderland"; Sean Doran (Michael), Natalia Fisher (Miranda) in "Directly After"; and Daryl Lathon (Man), Schnele Wilson (Woman) in "In the Midst."    The third piece strikes a universal chord with New Yorkers, revealing two people from different backgrounds discovering what they have in common and starting a friendship together.  Given the writing and the chemistry between Lathon and Wilson, it is the best drama that I have personally seen come out of September 11th.

Composition and Sound Design (Nick Moore) added measurably to enjoyment of this charming production, which was seamlessly directed by Christopher Romero.  Stage Manager:  Charmian Creagle.

Written by H.C. Lugo, YET, ANOTHER FAIRY TALE is a new play inspired by A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM.  This is the way I like to see Shakespeare -- fun, quick-paced and seamless in transitions (Direction by Steven Thornburg).  Lugo's take on the classic story is set in Central Park and the offices of Fairyland Models, Inc. -- owned by Oberon (Lawrence Merritt) and Tatania Tinker (Ann Chandler) and managed by Petunia Goodfellow (Cornelia Lorentzen).  Puk (Michael Rivera) shows up to buy Oberon's soul.  And there is an ensemble of "method" actors who are preparing a play for a Halloween Festival at Raw Space -- Off-Off Broadway!  Sound familiar?  The cast members are fabulous, all in their own right. 

Rivera is a star in the making -- athletic, commanding, swashbuckling, and forever the comedian.  Lorentzen matched her leading man with sex appeal and tons o' charisma.  Merritt and Chandler made me laugh heartily, at first, and then say, "Aaahh!"  Then, there were the lovers, each played to perfection by Kim Prentice, Lynda Green, Michael Shattner and Mark Cirnigliaro.  Each had show-stopping moments, choreography and  hysterical delivery.  Just when I thought that the entrance of the comic relief foursome couldn't possibly relieve anything already so high, enter Carol (Randi Sobol), Midge (Dana Letowsky), Maxwell Cute (Larray Grimes) and Bobby (Kenny Rials).  They are instantly more real than anything that has come before them; and we know them!  There is the affected director, the mugging actor, the annoying actress who wants her own way, and the stage manager who threatens, "Max, I have 25 headshots in my backpack right now!"&n bsp; They deliver great ensemble work.  Finally, the Mayor's right hand man is Egeus (Michal G. Charpentier).  This actor brings in a quirky comic character.  One can't rationally explain why  even his twitching leg is funny.

There are no sets other than tables, chairs and benches.  Costumes by Robert Strong Miller are bright and theatrical, such as Petunia's pink and the hysterical displaced heads on the ghouls.  Alan Kanevsky's  lights look fine as executed by Gillian Felix, although there are dark spots from a festival lighting plot by Alex Warner.  Sound as executed by  Liz Valentin is playful, including a recorded voice-over of a very funny cyclops.

YET, ANOTHER FAIRY TALE is filled with high jinks, campy writing, and clever character actors, making it one of the major highlights of the season.

Robert Patrick gave author Edward Crosby Wells a quote for THREE GUYS IN DRAG SELLING THEIR STUFF.  He can be paraphrased this way.  "Wells faces the facts of the decline of the west with hilarious completeness, and therefore is able to be both funnier and more tragic than Beckett ever was."

There is something wonderfully "theater of the absurd" about the current production.  Even the economy of prop usage serves the actors.  They seem, now more than ever, to be universal figures.  Yes, comic...and yes, tragic.  Lillian (David Dotterer), Diva (Anthony Valbiro) and Tink (Myles Cohen) are having a yard sale to raise funds for a Faberge Egg in which to place the ashes of Diva's dearly departed husband.   The week-end goes into a downward spiral as the customers buy nothing and simply imbibe the free punch.  The actors portray the women sincerely as women and make the stakes very big.  This is stuff rich with the tradition of the Ridiculous Theatre Company and also of Charles Busch.  And these three actors are just as good.

Dotterer is extremely funny as a plain Jane with no bosom.  I would like to see, however, a touch of another "voice" in addition to the current Lillian voice (e.g., something akin to a duality split: the "lady" and the "frustrated girl" underneath that Lillian is hiding from the world).  That girl could come out on razor-sharp lines such as, "Thinks with her twat, she does."  The sudden switch would make Dotterer even funnier than the straight delivery.  Valbiro rules as a control freak diva with every hair in place.  The persona is masterful.  Sorry, mistressful!  And Cohen, the incapacitated older lady, delivers many comic surprises as she awakens from sleep and coma, including the excellent musical number with the other two.  The trio score a bull's eye with the musical harmony. 

The staging by Frank Calo is simply eloquent; and the choreography by Anthony Valbiro is campy fun.  There is something about grown women -- even if played by men -- dancing in perfect time with the fervor of children.  Sound design is even humorous.  The lights look very sunny, appropriately.

Costumes (Calo and Valbiro) are stunning as an overall design.  When the interval is over, and the actors return in completely different garb, the moment is truly applause-worthy in its own right.  Linda Evans and Joan Collins, eat your hearts out.  You don't have anything on these ladies. 

White Rabbit Theatre and FHB Productions have produced a very funny play, by Andrew Rothkin, with music and dance.  The writing is by one of the best new playwrights.  It is light and entertaining on the surface, but backed up by characters who want something desperately.

The place is St. Claire's School for girls.  Melissa (Cameron Peterson) is one mischievous child, to say the least.  Peterson plays her to perfection.  There is an assortment of others, including the kiss-ass, Betsy (Shelley Ray).  The class sings off key so well and dances perfectly in sync except for Rita (Ahrum Claiborne), the awkward girl.  Boy, Claiborne is a great comedienne in her physical work. Most of the cast members -- even those playing adults -- get in on the dancing and double as fantasy characters out of Melissa's imagination.  The other dynamite cast members are:  Ray Wiederhold (Principal Heckner), Anita Wlody (Aunt Marge), Gretchens S. Hall (Mrs. Beckson), Tony Harry (Caleb), Deborah J. Green (Stephanie), and Tonye Briggs (Kim).

Director Glory Sims Bowen has crafted one hysterical, perfectly paced production.  From the start, one notices that the children are played by relatively short people; and the adults are played by relatively tall people.  Not only is this casting visually humorous; but we instantly start thinking of these girls as real children -- a bit horrifying when all is said and done. 

There is good fight choreography by Stephen Heskett.  The set (Ryan Scott) includes a backdrop to establish the school.  Costumes are funny, from the school uniforms to the cheesy Halloween outfits.  The seamless sound design is by Christopher Brooks.  Lighting (Sean A. Doyle) works well with good use of the amber and blue.  Design choices are light and comic, which compliments the psychopathic child theme.  

This play in three acts (by Jonathan Calindas) is a gorgeous portrait of three men's lives as they come together at their usual meeting spot, the tracks of the 4am Elizabeth.  The writing is absorbing, credit to the fact that Calindas creates his jumping off place in 1995, then flashes back to 1991, and then goes forward to 1999.  We are introduced to testosterone-filled beer guzzlers; then we see their young and vulnerable selves; then we see the outcome of their choices.  The device not only works but invites a haunting denouement.

The characters in question are high school buddies Jay (Marlon Correa), Jerry (Rob Moretti) and Eddie (Anthony Go).  The acting is equally sublime in all three cases, which enables the audience to fall for these guys, care about them, and sense their support and love for each other.

The director, Mario Corrales, has shown us what can be done in a festival with ingenuity.   He has an indication of train tracks, littered with beer cans, and a projection of slides on the back wall of the small stage.  During the brief pause between acts, he re-adjusts the track and gives the actors a little variation for their staging.  Meanwhile, the actors adjust their costume changes.  And off we go again.

Credit should be given where it is due.  This talented company deserves it.  Set Design:  Corrales and Sarah Darnsteadt.  Projection Design:  Jonathan Calindas.  Scenic Artist:  Rachael Barba.  Graffiti Artist:  Dadisi DuBose.  Sound Engineer:  Eric Johnson.  Lighting Engineer:  Rodney E. Reyes.  House Manager:  Liza Hataf.  The Spotlight On Halloween Festival In Association with Cuchipinoy Productions