A Funny Review Of That Musical About The Forum

Fortunately, you still have a whole weekend of performances left in which you might behold A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, a uniquely uproarious musical farce. The show was produced by MNM Theatre Company, a group that can be distinguished by its live music and its practice of showcasing exclusively Florida-based actors, which made the musicals’ more or less perfect casting and the sheer caliber of everyone onstage all the more impressive. 

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum also happens to be the first work for which my beloved Stephen Sondheim wrote both the music and the lyrics. Though it is one of his more accessible shows, so accessible in fact that even my rare theatergoer of a father came along with me voluntarily, it is not devoid of the composer’s trademark wit and wordplay. This was especially evident in songs like “Impossible,” that rhyme “impassible” and “irascible” while pitting father Senex against son Hero in a battle for the lovely Philia’s affections.

Johnbarry Green served as the memorable and capable centerpiece of the show: Pseudolus, the slave whose quest for freedom set the rest of the play’s cascade of capers and mistaken identities into motion. He drew us in right away in standout opening number “Comedy Tonight,” and easily maintained our attention show-long with his playful antics.

(Fun fact: the show was in danger of closing until the aforementioned number replaced an earlier opening song; the play then ended up running for 964 performances (more than two and a half years!)

J. Savage and Meg Frost as young lover and ingenue Hero and Philia both exuded an innocence and earnestness so endearing that you couldn’t help but root for them as a couple despite their characters’ apparent shallowness and idiocy.

Then there was the incredible Sean Williams Davis, whose booming voice immediately made a huge impression when he appeared as Miles Gloriosus midway through Act 2. His hugely dramatic reactions to his character’s unfortunate circumstances led to plenty of drollery. 

Aaron Bower as Domina also nailed her one major song and exuded a strong presence throughout the play, serving as a worthy opponent to the formidable Troy Stanley as her husband Senex. Even Stephen Eisenwasser, Frank Francisco, and Elijah Pearson-Martinez as the three Proteans, who had the unenviable task of shape-shifting into a variety of characters in order to fill out all the play’s minor roles, provided more than their fair share of hilarious moments.

If I had to find something to nitpick about Forum, it might be less the folly of MNM than of the script itself. Despite the cast’s excellent delivery of it, I couldn’t help but be put off by the blatant lecherousness of “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” by the fact that the character Philia had no aspirations or personality traits besides being “absolutely lovely,” or by the fact that Hero falls for her unquestioningly simply because she is.  I also thought the costuming of the courtesans skewed a little male gaze-y and I would’ve appreciated if, well, any of the female characters had had a little more agency, but you know, no show can have everything, and it was written nearly 60 years ago. Forum had more than enough going for it to add up to an incredible evening.

On Stories/Some Thanksgiving Thoughts

So, I plan on reflecting on the experience of attending and speaking at New City Players CitySpeaks towards the beginning of this month— procrastinated a little on this one since it wasn’t as urgent as the play reviews I’ve been working on, but it’s kind of a good Thanksgiving fit nonetheless!

I also plan on seizing the broader topic of “storytelling” as an opportunity to ramble about some of my writing and some general experiential stuff, so get ready for a pretty wild ride!

New City Players’ CitySpeaks is a monthly gathering that offers community members the opportunity to share and listen to each others’ powerful true-life stories, in the spirit of more well-known storytelling events like those hosted by The Moth.

Now, though I am an introvert with an absurd amount of social anxiety, I’m also a bit of an adrenaline junkie and can have quite the exhibitionist streak — does any writer or actor not? Plus, there was at work the same force that routinely draws me to improv, a kind of exposure therapy ideology: me thinking that if I just force myself into enough uncomfortable situations th discomfort might eventually start to fade. So when a New City Players member asked if I’d be interested in telling a story at the next CitySpeaks, it was a relatively quick road to: well, why not?

In contrast to NCP’s more formal Forums, City Speaks is a pretty freeform affair; storytellers are actually encouraged not to have something strictly prepared, only a loose idea of the story they are going to tell onstage.

 But since I wasn’t sure if I could handle quite that much impulsivity, I decided that, instead of working off the top of my head, I was going to try and condense the ideas in the 300+ page memoir I’m basically-finished writing into a pre-written 8-minute speech.

I put together this speech the day of the event and ended up running slightly over nine minutes, so I’d say I did pretty well, especially considering that I felt a bit overwhelmed by the task, partially because a defining thread of that memoir is the fallibility of narrative itself.

To quote its opening chapter, “Stories can be our prisons and our motivators, our elixirs and our poisons, our diseases and our cures. They can help us make meaning and sense of tragedies that first appear vast and random and indecipherable, but they can also distort the simplest of things to the point that they are unrecognizable. The stories we tell ourselves can save, but they can also, quite literally, kill.”

There are times when our stories can strengthen us, help us hold onto who we are and what we believe at times when all else seems lost. Yet if we start believing the wrong story, get sucked in by some sort of flawed dogma or even just start thinking the wrong things about ourselves—not good enough, not strong enough, not pretty enough—the walls of our stories can close in around us and start to cut us off from the world, from truth itself.

For example: if an otherwise rational person genuinely believes a “story” in which they will not be happy unless they are thin, they may take some pretty absurd or even dangerous actions in an attempt to achieve that goal.

One of my fatal flaws is my tendency to make things and people into more than they are. Letting my obsession with being a certain weight entirely eclipse my capacity for rational thought on and off for a good 10 years is one example of this (semi-starvation also has a way of physically precluding people from thinking rationally, especially about food and weight, but that’s a 40-page tangent for another time); getting so attached to my view of how things ought to be and how people ought to feel that I completely disregard their actual feelings is another.

In a way, I think my tendency to see unlikely connections between unrelated things, my capacity for passion and obsession, and my inclination towards experiencing the world at such a high pitch is part of the reason that I ended up a writer, since writing is both an unexpected application of these traits and a surprisingly useful coping mechanism for them.

After all, the very act of telling a story can be healing. In addition to the anecdotal reports of artists worldwide, many formal studies have shown that expressive writing can have significant positive psychological effects.

Some of this evidence was in fact so strong that it spawned a whole field called “narrative therapy,” which helps patients “rewrite” their life stories and revise their self-conceptions in a way that helps them envision a better future.

Which brings me to the bizarre point that I think my journey from my most eating-disordered moments to my current state of semi-sanity was defined less by any sort of conventional mental health algorithm than by a long winding road of making sense of it by writing stories, first in the form of a slightly autobiographical theatrical script and then in the form of this aforementioned memoir.

Weirdly enough, I wrote the bulk of both of these things during periods where my behavior ranged from incredibly disordered to… well, still pretty disordered. Yet I found myself writing strangely hopeful, strangely radical, and strangely impassioned anti-eating disorder and anti-diet-culture manifestos before I ever consciously allowed myself to consider that I might actually believe what I was saying; that perhaps I’d been arguing in favor of health so unambiguously less for any as-of-yet abstracted reader than because some part of me wanted to justify it for myself.

Of course, in line with my penchant for overthinking everything ever, I then went for another meta-loop and made that process of discovery and how it related to my self-invention as an artist part of the narrative of my memoir itself.

(I promise, it makes sense in context.

Um, maybe. Anyone wanna read it and let me know?)

Yet things still are seldom as linear as we’d like them to be, especially not things as deceptively complicated as eating disorders. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that certain conceptions of eating disorders dominate the cultural sphere, while those with less visible or straightforward presentations are less acknowledged.

When someone is asked to imagine someone with an eating disorder, they’ll probably envision the skeletal anorexic, the off-to-the-bathroom bulimic, or the obviously overweight binge eater.

There’s less of a template for someone who, for instance, vacillates between periods of bingeing and periods of restriction often enough to maintain a normal weight but is so preoccupied by these behaviors and compulsions that she cannot maintain a normal mind or life, or a “bulimic” who compensates for binges solely through over-exercise and fasting rather than the behaviors we typically think of as “purging.”

I won’t say that I’m free of every disordered thought or behavior today, but that the formerly maddening extremes have become a lot less extreme, and that I am slowly regaining my capacity to give my full attention to the things and people around me rather than being entirely preoccupied by my neurotic insular world.

I want to believe that this upswing will continue, that I can make peace with my entirely normal weight rather than spend the rest of my life chasing some improbable ideal. I want to believe I can eventually become one of those sincerely body-positive people I so admire and have the confidence to start… posting bikini pictures on Instagram or something. (For that matter, be able to wear a bikini…buy a bikini?)

I want to abandon the physically and mentally limiting beliefs of diet culture entirely so that I can obsess instead about theatre and books and politics and climate change and human rights and animal rights and everything else in the wider world that is more important than goddamn calories.

Now, all of the above is true, but it is also true that I was fully committed to a hare-brained weight loss scheme less than a month ago. (Now, that’s yet another story…..)

So maybe that makes me a hypocrite; or maybe life just isn’t linear, and maybe, in some ways, realizing how much better it feels to be in weight-loss limbo than to be on some stupid diet might be one of my most important realizations yet.

But I was supposed to be talking about Cityspeaks!!!

Perhaps thanks to one nerve-steadying glass of wine before I was called up to the mic, I was able to accomplish my basic goal of reading my full story in a relatively understandable fashion. My four fellow storytellers also happened to have some amusing and amazing stories; I won’t go into detail about those stories here since I’m not sure whether the readers intended everything they said to propagate beyond the evening and that particular audience, but to Rafael Martinez, Nick Valdes, Meaghan Richter, and Shannon Adams; bra-freaking-vo.

So, now, bringing things back to Thanksgiving: I’m grateful I got the chance to speak, and maybe even more grateful I got the chance to listen; got a chance to have my perspectives questioned and my horizons broadened, and to be reminded of some of the ways in which I wasn’t alone.

Hearing stories, after all, can sometimes, be as healing as writing them. It can be a great relief to know that you aren’t the only one who experiences anxiety, or has experienced injustice, or has felt betrayed by their own body or mind. The understanding and empathy that can emerge from stories can help raise awareness and start a dialogue; and that could well be the first step to change.

And so to finish off this sweeping Thanksgiving day proclamation: I’m grateful that the world has so often and so efficiently saved me from my own idiocy, and I’m grateful I have such amazing friends and an amazing family who have consistently supported me despite it.

I’m grateful I live in an incredibly privileged sector of the world and of the country, even if it doesn’t always feel like I do. I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to see some incredible theatre, and participate in some incredible theatre, and learn, over the years, from some of the best theatre and writing teachers around.

I’m grateful that the collective consciousness of my generation is changing, and widening, and exploding, that awareness of so many issues is expanding so quickly, for how much more open things are now than they were even when I was growing up. I’m grateful that I can publicly admit to things like having autism, or being bisexual, or even having an eating disorder without feeling the world will (necessarily) come crashing down around me if I do. And I’m grateful that whenever I’ve almost totally lost faith in the world’s goodness, something—or someone—will most always materialize to restore my hope.

The next CitySpeaks is on December 5th, if any of ya’ll feel like checking it out. In the meantime, everyone, happy Thanksgiving, and enjoy this video of my “story!”

A Look At “Andy And The Orphans”

The play Andy and the Orphans, currently onstage at Sol Theatre courtesy of Primal Forces Productions, was originally titled Amy and the Orphans. This version of the play was gender-flipped to accommodate the casting of Edward Barbanell, a Coral Springs resident who actually understudied the role on Broadway last year and shares his character’s diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome.

Barbanell’s casting is a huge win for authentic representation, and the actor gave a nuanced and moving performance as the movie-obsessed Andy, a character who was heavily based on the playwright Lindsay Ferrentino’s real-life aunt Amy. Like the title character of the play, the real Amy had Down’s Syndrome and spent most of her life institutionalized. Amy and The Orphans was thus Ferrentino’s way of grappling with the more unpleasant aspects of her aunt’s life.

The inciting incident of the play is the death of Andy’s father Bobby, which prompts his newly “orphaned” siblings Maggie (Patti Gardner) and Jacob (Jeffrey Bruce) to make a rare visit to their brother Andy in order to tell him what has happened and take him on a road trip to the funeral. What they didn’t count on was Jacqueline Laggy as Andy’s caregiver Kathy being required to join them or being confronted with a devastating revelation about their brother’s past.

Though some criticism of the show focuses on the fact that Ferrentino seemed to put Maggie and Jacob at her story’s center rather than Andy himself, I did not get the impression that the playwright focused on them unduly. After all, the character of Andy has a somewhat inherently limited perspective, and the experience of the loved ones with disabilities can certainly be as complex, interesting, and stage-worthy as the stories of those who are disabled themselves.

I definitely think this play explored both sides of the story and presented Andy’s siblings as relatively sympathetic characters, since the most horrific events of the play happened when they were children and couldn’t conceivably intervene. I also viewed their efforts to reconnect and make amends with Andy as sincere ones, and may too have been skewed by Bruce and Gardner’s wonderful performances. Their humorous road trip antics and laughably pedestrian concerns (like Jacob’s obsession with juicing and Maggie’s skittle-related health scare) did much to balance out the story’s darker aspects, as did Laggy’s Kathy’s no-nonsense exasperation with the two.

The parents of these three “orphans,” on the other hand, portrayed in flashback by Joey De La Rua and Amber Lynn Benson, came across as somewhat less likable, and I’m not sure how much of that to put down to the writing and how much to the performance. Though Benson showed some considerable comedic chops as Sarah during the couples’ lighter moments, she definitely came off as a little too casual and self-assured when making the wrenching decision to institutionalize Andy (especially in comparison to the character of Tami in Falling earlier this season, who wholeheartedly resists making a similar decision about her own son).

De la Rua as Bobby seemed somewhat more genuinely affected by the gravity of the situation than his wife did, but it is implied that both are complicit in surrendering Andy to what we would eventually learn was a horrifically abusive environmentit cost him his teeth and a chunk of his leg! It’s also, unfathomably, implied that Bobby and Sarah knew exactly how horrific that this environment was.

Fortunately, Andy seems to have found some happiness in a more caring institutional environment by the play’s present, and found even a job and a girlfriend, and I was glad to see him assert his desire to stay there even after his guilt-ridden siblings presented him with an alternative.

Still, Andy’s woundedness is expressed in a surprisingly moving closing monologue in which he uses movie quotes to express his complex feelings about his family and his past. The incredible work of Barbanell in the role lent credence to play’s conviction that his character, too, may have been able to live a more productive and fulfilling life—if only anyone had ever given him a real chance, Andy “couldda been a contender” indeed.

A Visit to “Visiting Mr. Green”

I got a chance to see Jeff Baron’sVisiting Mr. Green this past weekend at Bob Carter’s Actor’s Repertory Company in West Palm Beach, and found the script so old-fashioned that I was initially surprised to find out it was written only in 1996—a little over twenty years ago!

Speaking of old-fashioned, it was pretty refreshing to see an elderly actor playing an elderly character instead of a younger actor made up to look old: Allan Myles Heyman as Mr. Green walked with a noticeable hunch and otherwise looked to be within a decade or so of his character’s 86 years. He gave a superb performance, nailing both the comedic bickering that defined the first half of the play and the more serious moments that arose in the second.

His acting partner in the two-character play, Nani Edry, was also earnest and likeable as young businessman Ross Gardinier, if maybe a little too likable and light-hearted; his initial irritation with Mr. Green could’ve been played more strongly to give the character more room for transformation, and the inner conflict about his sexuality he describes during the play’s second half could’ve used a slightly darker tint.

The two’s strange relationship begins when Ross accidentally runs over Mr. Green with his car and is then, in a pretty unrealistic turn of events, sentenced by a judge to make weekly visits to the old man as his form of community service. Neither Ross nor Mr. Green are very happy about this arrangement, and the ensuing conflict between them offered quite a few laughs—though it was also plagued by some overlong scene changes. The bond that begins to develop between the two after Ross finds out more about Mr. Green’s past and Mr. Green softens a bit was also genuinely moving.

However, things take a turn for the heavy-handed after Ross reveals his homosexuality to Mr. Green at the end of the Act One. When Mr. Green vehemently states his distate for Ross’s orientation, repeatedly calls him by the Yiddish slur “fagela,” then reveals that he disowned his daughter for marrying a non-Jew, I stopped seeing the character as a crochety but sympathetic old man and began to grow frustrated with him.

Additionally, the script dragged even more once the drama began to overtake the humor, so I was more than ready for the play to conclude when it arrived at its ending. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that Mr. Green’s long-held prejudices against non-Jews and against homosexuals were too-quickly and too-neatly resolved. Before final bows, Ross successfully convinces Mr. Green to reinitiate contact with his previously estranged daughter, and it looks as if some happiness is finally in store for the senior. However, after 80some years of bigotry, I’m not sure if Mr. Green quite deserves it.

A “West Side Story” Well-Told

The “story” of West Side Story is a timeless one.  In fact, the story is so timeless that Shakespeare told it a good few centuries before Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music), and Stephen Sondheim (music) did when the show premiered in 1957.

For those who don’t know, West Side Story was based on the Bard’s equally timeless Romeo and Juliet, which, incidentally, is one of the Shakespeare plays that it’s become trendiest to hate, mostly because of the apparent boneheadedness of the teenage leads. West Side Story is also playing at the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center (hosting their first Broadway At The LPAC production) until this December 1st, and I was lucky enough to catch it on its opening night!

West Side Story also reminds me a little of South Pacific in that it’s one of those shows that’s become such an integral part of our theatrical canon that we can often forget how revolutionary it was when it first came out. Now that musicals routinely explore everything from teenage suicide to the AIDS epidemic, it can be hard to remember that topics as dark and political as West Side Story explores were once revolutionary.

Today, parts of West Side Story, set in the 1950s, come off as positively quaint, particularly the censoring of curse words to phonetically similar bastardizations. One might also reflect on how many of the characters’ misunderstandings could have been avoided if only they’d had access to cell phones. Yet the core of the story, which pits love against the formidable forces of racism and gang warfare, is still all too relevant in an era that may be even more saturated with violence than was the era in which it came out.

Perhaps West Side Story’s biggest flaw is the same flaw that afflicts its centuries prior predecessor: the fact that it represents the whirlwind star-crossed courtship between Maria, a young recent Spanish immigrant whose brother Bernardo is a ringleader of a gang called the “Sharks,” and Tony, who is a Caucasian member of their rival group the “Jets,” as “true love.” It certainly stretches believability that any two people could go from “strangers” to “willing to run away with each other” within only a day, and that this affection persists even after Bernardo’s demise at Tony’s hands.

Yet once you accept that the two characters are genuinely in love, the rest of the story makes perfect emotional sense. After all, who, when properly infatuated, isn’t as earnestly eager to murmur the name of their beloved as Tony is when he sings “Maria”? Who wouldn’t, under the influence of enough raw passion, forgive their loved one even unfathomable crimes?

Photo Flash: First Look at WEST SIDE STORY At The Lauderhill Performing Arts Center

Besides a few questionable wig choices for the Jets’ girlfriends, the set and costume design of Lauderhill’s production was pretty on-point. One highlight was the balcony scene, in which the stage was memorably lit by a backdrop of stars, and Ron Hutchins’ choreography also shined throughout the production.

I also found few flaws with the performances. Alexa Lopez, an American Heritage high school senior making her professional debut, brought a nice balance of innocence and sensuality to the part of Maria. Her singing voice, an absolutely stunning soprano, also had me trying not to count down the minutes until her next song. It’s not hard to see how she ended up in callbacks for the part on Broadway (as per the show’s press release), and I’m certain her theatrical future will be an exceedingly bright one.

Jacob Tarconish was also quite good as her counterpart Tony, if maybe not quite so awe-inspiring — I could occasionally hear him struggling vocally over some particularly difficult notes— and the leads’ chemistry was especially apparent in moments like their playful dress shop “wedding” scene. Peter Librach made a big impression with relatively little stage time as Doc, especially during the scene late in Act Two when he is tasked with delivering some unpleasant news to Tony.

This could be nothing more than me being bored by the mechanics of a story that I already knew the plot and beats of, having seen the play before, seen the movie at least once, and heard most of the music more times than I can count, but I do think the hour-and-a-half Act One eventually got a little tedious; without the incredible, soaring songs, many of which are now bona-fide classics, I don’t think the dialogue alone would have made this show one for the ages.

Act Two, though, was a lot more engaging and contained most of the show’s highlights: The Jets hilariously hamming it up in “Gee Officer Krupke,” Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita’s heartfelt “A Boy Like That,” the earnest sentiment of “Somewhere,” and the lyrical dance that accompanied it. The production was more of a well-done rendition then a particularly new or striking interpretation, but I doubt any fan of the play would be disappointed by the talent and dedication on display.

West Side Story has a happy ending only in comparison to the ending of the play it’s based on, and I won’t spoil it for the uninitiated besides to say that the final image was a striking one. While I doubt the tentative peace shared by the dueling factions will last, the play’s concluding monologue will certainly be haunting my thoughts for a while.

The Weird and The Wonderful In “The Wolves”

I knew from my first glimpse of the set of The Wolves, the Pulitzer Prize finalist of a play by Sarah Delappe playing through the end of this weekend at Zoetic Stage, that I was in for something a little different. Instead of your typical raised stage, I found myself looking down on a huge curved platform covered in Astroturf!

A group of young actresses playing a high school soccer team then emerged, identified throughout the play only by their jersey numbers rather than given names. They then immediately launched into some of the most naturalistic dialogue I’ve ever seen onstage, spoken with near-perfect chemistry and at lightning speed. Characters frequently talked over each other and non-sequiturs abounded, and the result sounded remarkably like life.

This fast paced style led to a lot of comedic moments throughout the play, and it was also refreshing to see young women immediately start talking frankly about traditionally unlady-like subjects like periods, abortions, nervous vomiting, and who took that huge dump in the port-a-potty. 

Every scene took place on the girls’ soccer field, but the scope of The Wolves stretched far beyond it; the girls’ dialogue touches on issues as weighty as the immigration debate, the Cambodian genocide, and sexual harassment by coaches. However, I use the phrase “touched on” for a reason; as interesting as the play’s conversational style was, it also fostered a leaping from issue to issue too quickly to explore any of them in much depth.

I also wonder if the 90 minute and 9-person show would have been better served by fewer characters who were more developed rather than a whole team given only surface characteristics. For example, we get glimpses of #2’s eating disorder and #25’s exploring her sexuality without really diving into the psychological complexity of either.

Nor do I think the play had a particularly suspenseful or technically well-crafted plot, with tension mostly coming from the subtly shifting relationships between the characters and the minor drama of whether the team will win and who will get scouted. I can see how it might’ve been off-putting to those who came to the theatre in search of more conventional narratives, but in my mind the story’s awkwardness and aimlessness was part of the point

This was most evident near the end of the play, when an emotionally harrowing twist seems to come completely out of nowhere. Yet sometimes, that’s just what tragedy’s like. Not forecasted or foreshadowed, and not necessarily congruent with what came before; just sudden and devastating and so regrettably real. 

Much as I hate naming standouts in such an ensemble-driven piece, especially one featuring an absolutely fierce cast made up entirely of women, I did take note of Katherine Burns’ vivacious energy and consistently brilliant comedic timing as #8. I also noticed the dramatic abilities of Tuesline Jean-Baptiste as #00 In a heartrending scene showcasing the characters’ visceral reaction to grief. Elena Maria Garcia as an unnamed soccer mom also absolutely nailed her intense singular scene near the end of the play.

Finally, I have to once again commend the whole cast for mastering the physical demands of the play, which included keeping control of a soccer ball onstage and multiple high-knee and butt-kick runs across the stage. Though the show’s writing is probably a little too spotty for it to warrant a spot in my all-time favorites, it’s probably worth seeing for the remarkable performances alone, and I’m definitely glad I got the chance to behold something as theatrically weird and wonderful as The Wolves.

Honoring The Spookiness of the Season At “An Evening With John Wayne Gacy Jr.”

I never harbored a particular fear of clowns, but after spending a theatrical Evening With John Wayne Gacy Jr., my predilections just might have changed. The show was produced by Infinite Abyss and staged at the Wilton Theater Factory, and Ronnie Larsen both wrote the play and stars as Gacy.

The character makes his first appearance on the circus-like set in clown garb and full face make-up, introducing himself as “Pogo The Clown.” That Gacy himself often donned similar clothing to entertain children at a local hospital is one of the many chilling biographical details expertly folded into the script.

It’s thanks to these startling particulars that I have now become inordinately curious about the life of this John Wayne Gacy Jr., the notorious serial killer who famously raped and murdered at least 33 young men and buried most of them in the crawlspace beneath his house. (A few others ended up in the river.)

My preliminary research indicates that the play doesn’t seem to have deviated too far from actual events, and turned up enough other morbidly fascinating information about Gacy that I’d actually be curious to see how the 75 minute show would fare if it were expanded into a longer, more developed piece that incorporated more of it. Then again, maybe one act of this harrowing examination is all most people can take.

In terms of structure, the show reminded me a little of “columbinus,” which also used unconventional theatrical devices to explore the whys of a seemingly unfathomable crime. The show is framed by Gacy’s impending execution, but takes place less in his cell than in his head, alternating between flashback scenes of Gacy’s life and monologues by him and other characters who were affected by his crimes. Absurdly, Gacy claims he is the “34th victim” of his actions and almost completely denies that he has done anything wrong.

In Gacy’s mind, the boys he raped all wanted it, even if they didn’t say so, and the boys he killed were all degenerates with no futures. Gacy also “didn’t” brutally choke one of his victims with his own underwear; the victim just wouldn’t shut up, and somehow the underwear just ended up stuffed down his throat.

Rather than take responsibility for his crimes, Gacy attempts to divert attention to the copious amount of volunteer work he did, or to trivialities intended to attest to his character, like the fact that he was once photographed with First Lady Rosalynn Carter and once named the Springfield Junior Chamber of Commerce’s Man of the Year.

While these details don’t win Gacy much sympathy, they do enhance the pathos of his situation by painting him as someone who at least had the potential for goodness. Perhaps his thirst for approval could have been channeled into something positive had he not been brought up in such an intolerant and punishing environment, one that we learn through flashbacks was dominated by an abusive and homophobic father.

As Gacy, Larsen utterly mastered his character’s bizarre psychology, which was so foreign to me that I couldn’t help but find it darkly compelling. His frantic, fast-paced dialogue betrays his disturbed and unstable thought processes along with his deep desperation to justify and deny what he has done.  Larsen also occasionally allows Gacy’s vulnerability and guilt to shine through his almost air-tight defenses, particularly when the character finally must face his execution head-on.

Most of the non-Gacy characters in the play (from what I recall, Larsen doubled just once, as Gacy’s father) were played by the actress Bridgett Haberecht and, on the night I attended, the actor Khail Duggan, who is alternating with actor Richie Stone in the role.

Both performers had a strong presence and broad emotional range, though they perhaps could have made more effort to differentiate the multiple roles they played. Then again, Gacy’s personality is so overwhelming and so alien that maybe the supporting players had to stay a little flatter and more conventional by necessity.

The two nonetheless played a part in some of the play’s most affecting moments, such as when Haberecht, playing Gacy’s ex-wife, realizes that the boys Gacy hired to dig mysterious holes on their property were “literally digging their own graves.” Another particularly harrowing sequence occurs when Duggan recounts and, with help from Larsen, partially reenacts an incident in which Gacy raped and brutally tortured his character before improbably setting him free.

The play’s double casting also lead to an interesting moment during a mournful monologue by Haberecht about the loss of her son, a son who had been such a good kid and had had so much potential. I initially assumed she was speaking as the mother of one of Gacy’s victims, but it later became clear that Haberecht was speaking as Gacy’s mother, there to remind us of the almost unfathomable fact that the demonic creature we had just witnessed tormenting Duggan’s character was, too, somebody’s son.

The play ends with Gacy’s execution, and though there’s absolutely no circumstance under which Gacy should have been let out of prison once his crimes were discovered, I’m not quite sure that he actually deserved to lose his life. To put a human face on the issue of capital punishment, even such an undeniably awful face, brings out the sheer barbarism of the practice. Given the atrocities human beings are capable of, should we really, ever, trust them to play God?

An Evening With John Wayne Gacy Jr. plays only for rest of this weekend, so feel free to check it out if you think you can handle it! Along with offering great performances, a well-crafted script, and some noteworthy theatrical innovation, it’s guaranteed to make you think, if perhaps about things you’d rather not consider!

In other news, I have finally decided I was important enough to take the “WordPress” out of this blog’s URL, and will be telling a story about something or other (theatre, probably) at the New City PlayersCity Speaks event this Thursday. Hope everyone had a good Halloween and enjoys their remaining Day Of The Dead festivities!

Dispatch From Day 1 Of The Delray Beach Playhouse’s Playwright’s Festival

For the period of slightly over a month that this blog has as of yet been in existence, I have not had the chance to report on a theatrical event that I was actively involved in. However, since the first night of the Delray Beach Playhouse’s inaugural Playwrights’ Festival was far too interesting to leave unexamined, I suppose there’s a first time for everything!

The event presented staged readings of a selection of unpublished and unproduced new short plays by local playwrights. Marianne Regan had the massive responsibility of helming the festival and directing nearly 30 actors in staged readings of eight different short plays staged across two performances. Though we convened for only a few rehearsals, I very much enjoyed getting to work with her and with the many other experienced and talented performers involved in the production.

First in the evening’s lineup was Todd Caster’s courtroom thriller Burden Of Proof, in which a young woman named Rhonda Knox is on trial for the cold-blooded murder for her boss. I played key witness Trish Aikens, whose secret relationship with the defendant throws one of many wrenches into the investigation.

I will not, of course offer any opinions on my own performance, but I will say that my castmates certainly held their own as attorneys, a judge, the defendant, and the rest of the eccentric array of witnesses called on for testimony, all of whom were Rhonda’s coworkers at futuristic startup ARTPAT.

There was plenty of humor in the engaging script as well as plenty of suspense. In Caster’s masterful set-up, at least two of the witnesses questioned have plausible motives for the crime themselves, and the slow accumulation of facts and evidence definitely seemed to keep the audience on their toes.

However, I wasn’t entirely sure whether the play’s ending comes across as a genuinely foreshadowed twist or a gimmick chosen mostly for shock value. I also doubt it was entirely realistic, but it certainly drew some big laughs from the audience!

Since I was off-duty as a performer after this first play of the night, I was allowed to retreat to the back of the house for the other three shows of the evening, which was the first time I was able to watch all three in full.

Next up was A Good Night, which was written by Bob Lind and starred John Zambito and Laurie Tanner as a “man” and a “woman” who are revealed to be Santa Claus and his wife. She wants him to retire from his yearly gift-giving duties in order to spend more time with her, and he just wants to keep doing the work he loves. This play contained a few zingers in its dialogue and explored an interesting concept, but the pair’s debate occasionally got a little repetitive and both characters seemed relatively flat.

The work may have been more dimensional if the “Santa Claus” character had been given much of a personality besides his passion for his job or the shrewish Mrs. Claus character had been a little more fleshed out and motivated by something besides her blinding selfishness. As it is, it’s hard to fathom how or why Santa put up with her for their many years of marriage!

After a brief intermission, director extraordinaire Marianne Regan briefly returned to the stage to share some somber news: that Lisa Bruna, one of the playwrights whose work was to be featured that evening, had passed away only the previous weekend. Thus, it was both fitting and a bit heartbreaking that her play, Godwise was probably the highlight of the night.

The play was set in the early 1960s and portrayed the story of a housewife named Connie, well-played by Jill Brown, who gets the shock of her life when her garden-variety dissatisfaction with her adulterous scumbag of a husband is much enlivened by some divine intervention.

Clad in a striking and shimmering black blouse, Victoria Goulet materializes as the Greek goddess Hera after Connie unthinkingly wishes for some heavenly help, and from the moment that she appeared, the charismatic actress sparkled both literally and figuratively.

Hera is uniquely equipped to advise Connie given her own experiences with her famously philandering husband Zeus. She also brings along actor Don Squire as the famous blind seer Tieresias as her sidekick. It’s he who concludes the encounter by predicting the upcoming feminist revolution and letting Connie know about the upcoming advent of no-fault divorce, which will allow her to leave her marriage without her husband’s consent and spare her many of the financial consequences of leaving the union.

The play’s dialogue was both funny and quite insightful; in only a twenty-minute play, Bruna managed to build an affecting arc for Connie and a touching relationship between her and Hera. Especially given such lamentable offstage events, I was more than happy to spend some time in a well-built world where we could count on benevolent celestial forces to have our backs.

Then, in one of those peculiar “acts of god,” the presentation of a short play colored by a real-life tragedy was followed by the performance of a play where death was front and center. Some might have called such a juxtaposition poor taste, especially considering that some of Bruna’s family members were in the audience, but there’s no way anyone involved in the production could’ve foreseen such unusual circumstances. We can’t all be as intuitive as Tiresias!

Miranda Schumes’ Pulling A Carlos takes place at a “funeral” for Rose, whose granddaughter Jesse decided to plan the ceremony in advance after hearing from her grandmother’s hospice workers that Rose would be dead in a week. Everything would have worked out perfectly, if Rose hadn’t failed to kick the bucket!

Schumes aspires to be a television writer, and the zany slapstick of her script definitely wouldn’t have been out of place on many a mainstream sitcom, though it’s hard to tell how it will fare theatrically without seeing its physical comedy enacted in a full production.

Luckily, cast members Dawn Mason and Graham Brown brought more than enough energy and verve to carry the somewhat superficial and occasionally trite script as protagonist Jesse and her best friend Chris, who got some of the biggest laughs of the night when he imitated a Rabbi to conduct this “funeral” at Jesse’s behest.

However, I’d say that the true stars of the show were Joyce Rasmussen as the “deceased” Rose, who makes a splash when she crashes the ceremony, and Victoria Goulet making her second appearance of the night as Rose’s arch-nemesis Betty. The pair’s well-orchestrated bickering was outright hilarious!

Anyhow, it was nice that the evening ended on such an amusing and high-energy note despite the somewhat unfortunate timing. After all, I suppose, when faced with such weighty matters as mortality, sometimes all we can do is joke.

The performance was followed by a short talkback with the writers of Burden of Truth, A Good Night, and Pulling A Carlos; Lisa Bruna’s son also made an appearance to answer questions about Godwise. Feel free to swing by for the second and last show of the festival this afternoon, which will feature four completely different short plays by four other promising area playwrights, though I and quite a few of the other versatile actors featured in Day 1 of the festival will return as cast members. Catch ya after the show, comrades!

Two Promising Plays-In-Process At Theatre Lab’s Playwright’s Forum

When we go to theatre, we’re used to seeing plays in their final, perfected form, so it’s somewhat easy to forget all the hard work and revisions a play goes through while its making its way towards that hallowed state. 

Fortunately, we sometimes get a rare glimpse of what happens behind the scenes thanks to programs like the Theatre Lab’s 5th annual Playwright’s Forum, which provides nationally recognized playwrights with the opportunity to develop their works-in-progress via staged readings starring experienced actors. Tickets to these readings are available for purchase to the general public, who then get the chance to offer their feedback on the work in a post-show talkback.

Each featured playwright also offers a 90 minute masterclass on the craft of playwriting. I was lucky enough to be able to attend the first two of this year’s reading-and-seminar pairs, the first of which highlighted the work of award-winning playwright Jaqueline Goldfinger

Goldfinger spoke about how she strategically works to illuminate a grand-scale theme or issue by first creating developed and compelling characters. Each of these characters must be motivated by a desire, however small, and a fleshed-out and cohesive set of interior and exterior traits. However, finding our way towards such well-constructed figures ought to be an enjoyable journey rather than an arduous one. 

“I don’t want to say you’re doing something ‘wrong,’ but if you’re not having fun, you’re doing something fucking wrong,” Goldfinger suggested about first drafts, which she also believes could include “everything but the kitchen sink” and be whittled down to something more refined later during the writing process.

Her play, Babel, which is set for a rolling world premiere in 2020, delved into the “big topic” of eugenics by zoning in on the experience of two couples who struggle with weighty ethical dilemmas in a near-future world where genetic testing can tell prospective parents a staggering amount of information about their impending offspring before they are even born. This has led to the creation of a class system reminiscent of the one found in Brave New World, in which only those who are genetically pure can get “PRE certified” and access to basic societal privileges and opportunities.

Niki Fridh and Betsy Graver star as Dani and Renee, a lesbian couple who have had trouble conceiving (with the help of a newly invented egg-melding process along with some donor sperm) but are finally expecting their first child. The play kicks into gear is Renee discovers that the child she is carrying has a genetic makeup that predisposes him or her to sociopathy.

As Renee and Dani grapple with how to proceed, we also get to know their best friends, a seemingly perfect heterosexual couple consisting of Jeanine Gangloff Levy as Ann and Alex Alvarez as Jamie, a wonderfully conflicted character with some genetic secrets of his own.

The futuristic intellectual thriller that then ensues was both hilarious and harrowing. The play’s title refers to the Biblical tower of Babel and the human propensity to screw things up once we have acquired the kind of power formerly reserved for Gods, and the script adeptly delved into the psychological and philosophical complexity of an absurd world that, as per the play’s talkback, actually might be closer to conceivable possibility than we’d like to think. 

The plot was replete with twists that were surprising but not incongruous, such as when what at first seems to be a surrealist touch is revealed to be futuristic technology and a shocking scene that suggests just where Renee and Dani’s baby may have gotten her psychotic genes. Aside from perhaps a fresh-off-the-press ending that felt a tad too conclusive, it’s hard to imagine that this superb script actually needs much rewriting.

A week later commenced masterclass 2, which was led by accomplished Miami playwright Christopher Demos Brown, whose American Son recently appeared on Broadway. Brown’s lesson focused on dialogue, which, we would learn, is an entirely different animal than conventional “speech.” Though dialogue must sound naturalistic, it should also contain “heightened language, cadence, and poetry,” and ensure that the play as a whole moves with the correct pacing and rhythm. His play, Coral Gables, is both a prequel and sequel to his “Captiva,” which appeared at Zoetic Stage in 2011, and the prequel to a TBA new play that will join the pair to form a trilogy. 

Few better examples of “heightened language” could be imagined than the gorgeous metaphysical monologues given throughout Act One of Coral Gables by the character Emily Cestar. Though she outwardly appears to be suffering from dementia, her inner world as revealed in these soliloquies is shown to be more illuminated than ever. The abstract, cosmic quality of these asides reminded me a bit of Harper’s eerie rambles in Angels in America, and actress Lourelene Snedecker dazzled both during her character’s delirious moments and her lucid ones.

Meanwhile, the dialogue of Emily’s middle-aged children, who gradually make their way towards their childhood home when they discover how much their mother’s condition has deteriorated, was sharp, fast-paced, and frequently hilarious. The act actually had a fairly light and humorous tone despite the pathos of Emily’s descent into delirium, at least in comparison to a much more dramatic second act, which, fascinatingly, took place 30 years earlier.

Whereas Act One had taken place in present day, Act Two  took us back to the 70s, when Emily was pregnant with youngest child Val and Val’s two older brothers were toddlers. This act had a higher emotional pitch as a family secret that had been cleverly hinted at during Act One was gradually and painfully revealed. Perhaps because this half of the show seemed more plot-driven, I enjoyed it a tad less than Act One, where there had been more room for the play’s complex characters to bicker and connect and Brown’s ingenuity to shine. 

I’m incredibly excited to see where Coral Gables’ revisions take it, as well as relieved that I will presumably get to spend even more time with these rich, interesting characters and learn more about their tormented history in “Captiva” and an eventual play 3.It’s only because I have theatre business elsewhere that I won’t be attending the last reading of this year’s series, which will take place this Sunday and feature the Theatre Lab’s first commissioned play, titled After All I Did For You and written by Patricia Cotter. Especially considering that Babel director Matt Stabile is returning to take charge and that Jeni Hacker, whose performance I found so amusing in Grindr Mom, is among the cast, I’m sure it won’t be one that any curious theatre-goer would want to miss!

Revisiting An Old Favorite At “The Glass Menagerie”

Before I say anything about Maplewood Playhouse’s production of The Glass Menagerie, which opened last night at the small Delray Beach theatre usually occupied by Improv U, I suppose it’s my duty to preface this review with the fact that

  1. I got approximately 2 hours of sleep last night and
  2. I am categorically incapable of being at all objective, given that The Glass Menagerie is the play I usually name as my favorite of all time.

Additionally, the fact that I’ve also performed in a production of The Glass Menagerie (as Amanda, undergrad theatre troupe, lonnnng story…) made the experience of revisiting it somewhat surreal. Fittingly enough for a play that is referred to by its narrator Tom as a “memory play” in its opening monologue, the phenomenal set by Rebecca Loveless of Tradition Tattoo instantly sent me into a tailspin of nostalgic recollections the moment I walked into the theatre.

The blue roses that framed the stage, a reference to a memorable nickname of Laura’s that gives the play one of its most touching moments, gave a nod to the play’s impressionistic nature, and to the fact that what we are seeing is not intended to be lived experience but Tom’s overly poetic recollection of that experience, an offering from his dreamy, interior world where “everything seems to happen to music.”

Because of my familiarity with the show, there were some bizarre moments where I laughed before the punchlines of some of the play’s jokes because I knew they were coming or perceived the fact that some dialogue was just a little bit off from what I remembered, though there were also a few line stumbles that were noticeable enough that even Glass Menagerie novices probably could have picked them up.

Yet there was also plenty to appreciate in this charming production of an old standard, ably directed by first-timer Alex Lohman. For those of you who don’t know (well, if any of you don’t know), The Glass Menagerie takes place in Depression-era Saint Louis. Because his telephone man father “fell in love with long distance” and left the family, 20-year-old protagonist and narrator Tom has taken on an unsatisfying job at a warehouse in order to provide for his mother Amanda and his sister Laura.

Amanda is a magnetic but fading “southern belle” who regrets marrying beneath her and who tends to be irritatingly domineering towards her children, largely due to her concerns about their uncertain futures. Meanwhile, Laura is a young woman whose insecurity about her slight limp has led her to become painfully shy and to retreat into her own private reality.

Despite her mother’s prodding her towards independence, she is unable to conquer her social anxiety long enough to make it through a course at business college or secure any other form of employment. Instead, she spends her days playing old records and polishing her glass collection.

Meanwhile, the chronically dissatisfied Tom escapes his unadventurous reality by “going to the movies” nightly; it’s implied that he is actually out drinking himself stupid. Naturally, this is a continual source of tension between him and his mother. Seeing the show in such a small theatre made the claustrophobia of Tom’s confinement in his family’s tiny, disheveled apartment newly visceral to me, and thus his overpowering desire for freedom more relatable.

Given that The Glass Menagerie is understood to be strongly autobiographical, one popular subtextual interpretation of Tom’s emotional desperation and unexplained escapades is that the character may, like Tennessee Williams himself, have been a closeted homosexual and out having secret liasons with other men. Um, in case any non-obsessives are actually curious about such details.

Having seen the show before, I’ve gathered that the first act usually seems to pass a tad slowly, but this may in fact be part of Tennessee William’s strategy in illuminating the Wingfields’ plight. The plot doesn’t really kick off towards until towards the end of Act One, when Amanda tells Tom that he is free to strike out on his own once he ensures that his sister is provided for by finding her a nice young man with whom she can settle down.

Since so much time and energy is spent establishing the idiosyncratic characters and their strained family dynamics before we really establish a narrative center, by the time Amanda offers Tom this escape route, we are near as desperate for something to change as the characters are.

Susan Burke Giganti, who played Amanda, well conveyed her character’s elegant southern charm and motherly obtrusiveness, but I ultimately found her performance slightly too subdued, perhaps lacking in the outsize charisma and emotional range that can really make the role shine. She did, however, have great parental chemistry with Harry Richards as Tom.

The two’s fraught relationship is painfully realistic and painfully relatable, and their constant bickering is the source of both much of the play’s pathos and much of its humor. Despite these amusing moments, though, both actors seemed to stop just short of truly inhabiting their roles. Though Richards brought an appropriate intensity to the play’s most dramatic moments, it occasionally felt more like he was going through the motions line by line than portraying a cohesive character.

On the other hand, I was quite impressed by Hannah Rosenberg’s portrayal of Laura. She maintained an impressive stage presence and energy despite the introversion of her character, and she wasn’t afraid to make her Laura as truly peculiar as the script indicates rather than merely demure.

It may also be worth noting that Laura, like A Streetcar Named Desire’s legendary Blanche Dubois, is a character who we know to be partially based on Tennessee’s Williams sister Rose, who was lobotomized in 1943 after being diagnosed with schizophrenia and who haunted her brother’s work from then on. This real-life subtext brings a whole new resonance to the use of blue roses as a key motif in Act Two, as well as to a moment where Laura imagines that a unicorn without a horn may have “had an operation” so that he would feel less “freakish” and fit in better with all the hornless horses.

 It may also be worth noting that some scholars believe that Tennessee Williams’ sister Rose probably wasn’t actually schizophrenic at all, and likely would have been instead labeled autistic if she had lived during more enlightened times. Or maybe absolutely none of this is worth noting, and I simply know far too much about The Glass Menagerie and the life of Tennessee Williams. I wrote this term paper once…

Ok, back to reviewing. The show really came alive when gentleman caller and “emissary from the world of reality” Jim O’Connor appeared on the scene early in Act 2, which may owe as much to actor Chris Cimorelli’s performance as anything else.

He ably balanced both the comedically buffoonish aspects of Jim’s character and the genuine kindness and charm that allows us to invest in him and Laura’s courtship. The two’s implausible moment of connection was by far the most engaging and enjoyable scene in the play.

Chris Cimorelli as Jim and Hannah Rosenberg as Laura

I’m going to avoid directly revealing any spoilers in case there is anyone out there who’s never seen The Glass Menagerie, but I was also struck by how sincerely Cimorellli’s Jim seemed to regret not being able to do more for the Wingfields. In fact, the impossibility of the position that Tom has put Jim in seemed so burdensome that I briefly felt almost sorrier for him than for the main characters!

Though I’ve come across plenty of Jim O’Connor haters in my day, I would argue that his one major mistake with Laura doesn’t make him a villain, much as Amanda’s nagging doesn’t make her a villain, Laura’s withdrawal doesn’t make her a villain, and, I would even argue, Tom’s questionable choice at the end of play doesn’t make him one either.

I’m going to go ahead and unrepentantly steal an insight from the director of my production here, but what makes The Glass Menagerie so heartbreaking is that it’s story without any villains. It’s only a story about people, people doing what they feel they should or what they feel they must, and somehow shattering each other in the process. The play’s lyrical and devastating concluding monologue never fails to strike me right in the heart, and the rendition I saw yesterday evening was no exception.

It may also be worth noting that I have tattoo of a blue rose on my right shoulder.

If you’ve seen The Glass Menagerie but never read it, it might be worth picking up the script sometime for the stage directions alone, which are full of impossibly poetic flourishes. However, you’d probably be far more entertained and far more moved by Maplewood’s version, which plays only until this Sunday the 27th.

If you’re interested in another 25 pages or so of me rambling on about The Glass Menagerie, I probably still have that old term paper somewhere. Meanwhile, I’m off to finish editing a post about the Theatre Lab’s Playwright’s Forum, which I have quite predictably managed to avoid completing until the latest acceptable minute, then to try and remain semi-functional enough to appease my family for a few hours, then hopefully take some semblance of a nap before I have to be conscious enough to perform at night 1 of The Delray Beach Playhouse’s Playwright’s Festival. Happy weekend and happy theatre-going, everyone!  

Ok, this one is just for fun….