Monday, December 3, 2007

Recent Backstage Reviews

Black Nativity

December 03, 2007

By Christopher Murray

The Classical Theatre of Harlem's new adaptation of Langston Hughes' 1961 gospel version of the birth of Jesus Christ imagines what it would be like if Mary gave birth in the middle of Times Square in the sordid days of the early 1970s. And that's a pretty good conceit. But a better one is, What if the adult Jesus Christ had the strut and flash and twinkle of Broadway's veteran showman André De Shields? Now there's a theological question worth pondering.

Decked out in a blood-red suit with black-and-white calfskin high-heeled pointy-toed shoes, DeShields as the Narrator/Pastor locks the audience in his mesmeric gaze and doesn't let go for the 90-minute breakneck revue of songs that follows. He's a crowing rooster delightfully full of both himself and the spirit of the Lord as he plays pater familias in this exciting and often moving holiday presentation.

That's not to say that the ensemble isn't rocking as well — they are. There is ample showcasing of some wonderful young vocal talent, including in particular the angel-faced and -voiced Melvin Bell III and a dulcet Nikki Stephenson. The tiny members of Nairobi's Shangilla Youth Choir make up in cute for what they forgivably lack in pitch.

The production is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears; costume designer Kimberly Glennon must be the hardest-working member of her profession this season, decking out the ensemble in a cornucopia of fantastically colorful '70s outfits made of what the three wise men probably would have brought in 1973: upholstery, spandex, and polyester. The wigs and platform shoes deserve to be credited as full members of the cast.

But ultimately it's De Shields' world; the Heavenly Host is just allowed to share it with him. After playing Caligula and Lear for CTH, De Shields cements his fruitful collaboration with the company, sharing with it a muscular, intelligent, and fearsomely entertaining sensibility.

Presented by the New 42nd Street at the Duke on 42nd Street, 229 W. 42nd St., NYC.Nov 30-Dec.30. Tue.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 1 and 6 p.m.(646) 223-3010 or

A Christmas Carol

December 03, 2007

By Christopher Murray

Vortex Theater Company rounds out its ambitious 2007 season having explored the ghost of musicals past (H.M.S. Pinafore), musicals present (Kiss of the Spider Woman), and now a vision of the kind of musicals yet to come with director Kris Thor and composer Joel Bravo's intense and satisfying new version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Set in North Carolina during a holiday heat wave, this collaboratively created Carol re-imagines Scrooge as an ethically challenged environmental entrepreneur of the Bill Gates ilk. As played by downtown music-scene icon Jason Trachtenburg, Scrooge is an über-nerd cipher, his flat delivery and ironic sangfroid enough to bring a chill to the humid Southern air.

Richly layered scenic elements, including Super 8 home movies screened by the ghost of Christmas past (here called the Archivist and played by a cheery Kelly Eubanks), surround the audience, as does the cast before the show starts. The hipster vibe sometimes verges on preciousness when the company seems a wee bit full of in jokes and uncommunicated backstory.

The gist of the updating, however, is that Scrooge lost his love, Belle (Tracy Weller), to his mentor Jacob Marley (Joe Ornstein) and now returns home on the occasion of the mysterious sickness of the Carolina ash tree he planted in memory of his mother.

"People don't change; they tend to stay the same. That's just the way we work," states one of the lyrics to the haunting and catchy guitar-based songs. The music subtly captures the thematic concern of the piece: If we rush through life consumed with ambition and work, do we forget to have regrets?

Trachtenburg leads an intelligent and charming company of actors and musicians working in true ensemble fashion in a complex and thought-provoking show that harnesses some of the philosophical wistfulness many find in the holiday season.

Presented by Vortex Theater Company at the Sanford Meisner Theater, 164 11th Ave., NYC.Nov. 29-Dec. 22. Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. (No performances Sat., Dec. 8, and Sun., Dec. 9; additional performance Mon., Dec. 17, 8 p.m.)(212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111 or

The Sordid Perils of Actual Existence

December 03, 2007

By Christopher Murray

"I'm finally ready to take the next step," declares the young man. Marriage? Nope, bigger: real estate. David (co-playwright Andy Reynolds) is looking for a little emotional support from his real estate agent, Carla (Crystal Field, Theater for the New City's founder and doyenne). She's happy to oblige, dispensing grimaces and advice in equal measure in this slight new comedy.

David, who works in the accounting department of Unabible (a company looking to translate the Bible into every existing language), had thought he was dying of a brain disease, but, oops, he's not. So now he wants to get busy with living, buy a co-op, and settle down with his caustic girlfriend, Daphne (Laura Wickens, who also plays Carla's amanuensis, Polish immigrant Zoya). But Carla has other ideas.

You see, Carla does have a fatal disease: twinkle-eyed, zany, oddball wisdom. This sort of illness used to be epidemic in plays like Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns and many of the comedies of Neil Simon. Carla's a loveable meddling yenta who knows from whence she speaks with her injunctions to carpe the diem: She lost her beloved husband several years ago — never mind that his slightly bemused ghost (Dick Morrill) keeps popping out of closets for conversation and cuddles.

The Sordid Perils of Actual Existence does have some serious fish to fry in questioning stock beliefs such as religious faith or cynicism that people hold on to in order to anchor themselves even at the cost of their own happiness. But this is an uneven, overly speech-laden, sentimental play in an uneven if well-intentioned production directed by co-playwright Tom Gladwell.

Presented by and at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., NYC. Nov. 23-Dec. 2. Thu.-Sun., 8 p.m. (212) 254-1109 or

Home James

November 19, 2007

By Christopher Murray

The Secret Theatre opened in September in the Long Island City Art Center as a new center of operations for the Queens Players. Until then, the formerly peripatetic company relied on a series of restaurant event rooms for performance space. The plucky little group's second production, a picaresque comedy called Home James, was directed and adapted by Artistic Director Richard Mazda from the original British production in which he acted, as he does here.

The play follows young Jamie (the deadpan and droll Robbie Rescigno) as he comes to New York from Poughkeepsie to stay with his kooky cousin Crystal (the likeable Christina Shipp) following the death of his beloved father from bowel cancer. He meets a number of eccentric types in a series of vignettes that switch locale from New York to Tijuana and back.

The play is rescued from cliché by a very charming and game group of comedic actors in multiple roles. Each character seems to have a brilliantly individual laugh, from a bark or a chortle to a giggle or a scream. It's kind of delightful.

BarbaraAnne Smilko is amusing as a subway poet-panhandler but really nails a caricature of a bored phone receptionist imitating a voice mail message. Robin Cannon, Ali Silva, and Yarida Mendez also bring idiosyncratic zest to their parts. Richard Mazda, wearing all his various hats (including a really shocking canary green and yellow sombrero at one point), wisely keeps the production values simple and the pace muy rapido.

Robbie Rescigno brings more than a dash of Buster Keaton to bear as he gloomily observes all the mayhem around him. But his fey portrait of a young man's grief drawing him towards adulthood is alternately moving and quite funny. He's somewhat miscast in this role, but an actor to watch.

Presented by the Queens Players at the Secret Theatre, 44-02 23rd St., Long Island City, NYC.Nov 14-Dec. 1. Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.(212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111 or

Gay Psychic Interview

Dishing Out 'Tuff Love'

With psychic Hank Hivnor, it's all good, so put away the garlic.

If you are terminally hip and need some advice on whether to move forward on that kooky installation project you've been planning or just give in and become a corporate drone, maybe you should take a break one Wednesday night and head out to Williamsburg's Sugarland where Thain Torres hosts the weekly Tuff Love party. There you can slurp up some Pabst Blue Ribbon for cheap, ogle the go-go boys, and consult with the event's resident psychic, Hank Hivnor.
Thirty-nine years old but still with the enthusiasm and spunkiness of a recent art school transplant to the city, Hivnor, who actually grew up here, offers advice and insight based on his being "in tune with the infinite" as Professor Marvel told Dorothy Gale. Hivnor is also the creative force and writer behind "Emerald Crest," a serial performance event in the mold of Jeff Weiss' "Hot Keys." Originally performed at the Art Land Bar and Dixon Place, the soap opera is in development for its next series of episodes.
CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: So what does the resident psychic at Tuff Love actually do?
HANK HIVNOR: I read auras, energy. People always ask me where are the cards - no cards here! I just read people, It's so much fun doing readings at parties because it feels like a party when I'm giving readings, it's a happy affair. I help people to focus on their passions and find clarity, so that's my intention. Aside from that, I can look at your former lives, and make predictions. I'm also a medium, I can talk to the folks upstairs!
CM: How did you realize you were psychic and how is your track record?
HH: You know what? I didn't realize I was psychic, I realized how to control the energy, because I just thought I was hyper-sensitive and crazy. I luckily met some great mentors who taught me how to ground my energy and make my gifts available to myself and others. My track record is good because people come back and say, "It did happen like you said and, oh yes, my grandmother did have three red dogs that were always with her," and lots of details like that.
CM: Is a gay psychic different from a straight one?
HH: I think that many gay people are more psychic than straight people, you have to be. I grew up in a pretty straight world and it's not just about finding action, like with gaydar, it's often about survival and recognizing danger. But regardless of your sexual orientation, the process is the same, and the spirits wouldn't judge, they are just loving energies that provide information.
CM: What's the one thing that gay hipsters want most to hear a psychic say to them?
HH: I don't tell people what they want to hear, I answer their questions, and that's usually better. I will tell you what the majority of people are concerned about - love and career - and my intention is matched with a very loving universal energy that desires that they completely succeed and have the best of everything.
CM: What's the scene like at Tuff Love? Is it tawdry and louche?
HH: Hold on, my mom gave me a dictionary for my birthday. Louche? Maybe when it gets cold enough we can do some louching off the roof deck. Tuff Love is a really fun scene, it reminds me of the East Village of the '90s - fun, wild, and weird - a place you can be yourself in. It's not boring, and you know New York has gotten a little boring!
CM: Do people drink beer while they are being "read," and isn't that dangerous, like they could get possessed or something?
HH: No, no, only possessed with the desire to dance naked on the bar! It's all good. I create a sacred space and uphold that energy. Bars can be ghost magnets but I've never felt anything strange at Sugarland, and who has the time? We're there to have fun! Sometimes people project what they think a psychic is supposed to be at me and freak out when they find out I'm just me. Look! It's me Hank, and I have these abilities and this is a cool resource for you, so put away your garlic and relax!
CM: What's up with the soap opera and when is it coming back?
HH: "Emerald Crest?" It's in the shop but it's going to start again soon. That's kind of you to mention that. Yes folks, I also write comedy!
CM: You come from a Salinger-esque family here in New York. Your dad was a code breaker for the Brits during World War II and then a playwright and there were snakes and raccoons running around the house when you were a kid. Then you grew up and marched in the Mermaid Parade last summer as a giant jellyfish. Now you are a Williamsburg gay psychic and comic auteur. So are you a complete creature or a just down-home kinda guy?
HH: I'm kinda all over the place, I'm happiest when I'm involved in a creative project with other loonies, but at the end of the day it's really nice to snuggle on the couch with a movie and a buddy. I'm really pretty normal, but I had thought of being a cactus or sea anemone for Halloween!
You can consult Psychic Hank at the Tuff Love Performance Salon and Party on Wednesdays from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. at Sugarland at 221 North Ninth Street between Driggs and Roebling Streets, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. For more information, go to

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