Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Recent Backstage Reviews

Cat's Cradle

February 25, 2008
By Christopher Murray

Untitled Theater Company #61's adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's 1963 novel Cat's Cradle is subtitled "a calypso musical," but that's not quite accurate. This ingenious production, adapted and directed by Edward Einhorn, is more accurately described as a play with music (by Henry Akona) performed by an enthusiastic 22-member company. It also makes diverting use of a small camera focused on an intricate series of models (designed by Tanya Khordoc and Barry Weil), with the resulting images projected onto a beige curtain along the upstage wall to indicate various settings.

The complexity of the production is matched by the convoluted plot. Vonnegut's deadly serious satire concerns a writer (Timothy McCown Reynolds) playing detective to unravel the mystery of a famous scientist's strange and dangerous discovery, ice-nine, a compound that causes water to freeze at room temperature and may be able to wreak havoc globally.

The trail the writer follows leads him to the dead scientist's grown children and the tiny imaginary Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where he becomes embroiled in machinations of state, religion, and the heart. The potentially dangerous amalgam of unfettered ambition, ingenuity, and creativity is shown to have disastrous consequences for both families and communities.

The creators' ambitions are characteristic of Untitled Theater Company #61's mission to produce "a Theatre of Ideas, political, scientific, and philosophical." While the different elements sometimes compete with each other in a confusing mélange, the overall effect is bracing and makes for intriguing theatre. The adaptation remains incompletely dramatized, but the actors' commitment to the storytelling keeps things focused and energized.

The company makes full use of its somewhat limited musical ability, and several actors stand out in featured parts, among them John Blaylock in dual roles as a laconic model-store owner and a cynical foreign-service attaché and Sandy York as a chirpy denizen of Indiana with big hair and replete with zeal for any Hoosier she encounters.

Presented by Untitled Theater Company #61
at Walkerspace, 46 Walker St., NYC.
Feb. 23–March 15. Tue., Thu., and Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 8 p.m.
(212) 353-3101 or (866) 811-4111 or www.theatermania.com.

Ghost on Fire
February 25, 2008
By Christopher Murray

It's not quite clear to me why Oberon Theatre Ensemble chose to revive Ghost on Fire, Michael Weller's 1986 play about a disillusioned film director named Daniel Rittman (Don Harvey) who is facing the serious illness of his onetime collaborator and the potential breakup of his marriage. The play is creaky, to say the least, and replete with characters stuck in a perpetually dyspeptic mode as they wrestle with the disappointments and torpor of middle age. "You ponderous bastard," Rittman's old cameraman Toomie (Brad Fryman) shouts at him. But the play itself is a ponderous mediation on coming to terms with the loss of youthful dreams and optimism.

Oberon's production, directed by Eric Parness, is a little creaky itself, unfortunately. A series of monologues by the main characters is upstaged by actors setting up for the next scene, the blocking frequently seems unmotivated, and often the actors seem a little vague about their position in a scene, sometimes staring aimlessly into the ether during another's speech.

That being said, Harvey, with his deep-set eyes, communicates the essential loneliness of a man who has walked away from his life's passion. The most energy, however, is stirred up with seeming ease by Brianne Berkson, who plays several roles and excels as the trophy wife of an Israeli businessman. She slaps suntan lotion on her legs with a disdainful mixture of boredom, intelligence, and erotic charm and slaps down the dithering men around her in much the same way.

Presented by Oberon Theatre Ensemble
at the Lion Theater, 410 W. 42nd St., NYC.
Feb. 21–March 9. Schedule varies.
(212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Robert Espinoza Interview

Poet and Go-To Guy
With his background in labor union work and LGBT philanthropy, Robert Espinoza just completed a study on the funding needs of queer people of color groups.
With his background in labor union work and LGBT philanthropy, Robert Espinoza just completed a study on the funding needs of queer people of color groups.

A few weeks ago, an organization dedicated to encouraging financial support for the queer community released a groundbreaking report on the work done by LGBT people of color institutions, how they see their efforts, and how they survive.

The report was penned by Robert Espinoza, who is the director of research and communications at Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues. Espinoza, 31, has developed a strong national voice in the philanthropic world on issues related to queer people and people of color. In his work, he has also pressed grant-making organizations to think generally about how to share power and become more inclusive.

The former communications director for the Denver Service Employees International Union local, Espinoza was appointed by that city's mayor to the Public Safety Review Commission in 2002 and was on the founding staff of the communication department at the Gill Foundation, a philanthropic organization that supports LGBT and HIV/AIDS initiatives. He serves on the Queer Youth Fund of the Liberty Hill Foundation in Los Angeles and for four years was one of six panel members of the OUT Fund, at New York's Funding Exchange. A published poet,Espinoza recently moved to Brooklyn's Sunset Park and is working on a series of poems about superheroes.

CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: What does Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues do?

ROBERT ESPINOZA: We work with foundations around the country to support their institutional giving to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer [LGBTQ] organizations. We produce research reports on foundation giving to lesbian and gay communities, and we bring together funders from around the country to collaborate and to strengthen each other's giving. The goal is to spur more foundation dollars to our various communities, notably groups working on racial, economic, and gender justice.

CM: Why was the new report on LGBTQ people of color organizations undertaken?

RE: We wanted to understand how to better support groups led by and for LGBTQ people of color, many of which work at the local level and are more obscure to mainline foundations. The report helped identify about 84 autonomous LGBTQ people of color groups across the country, spanning 20 states, plus DC and Puerto Rico. This report also helps launch our Racial Equity Campaign, a multi-year effort to increase foundation giving for racial equity among our communities.

CM: What were the major findings?

RE: We found that most of these groups represent a pretty diverse spectrum of racial/ethnic populations and are generally local, based in urban or mixed settings, rely largely on volunteers, and survive on small annual budgets, typically raised through community events and individual donors. Also, few of these groups rely on foundations for support. In fact, our research shows that of the roughly $65 million that US foundations gave to LGBTQ causes in 2006, only nine percent went to LGBTQ communities of color.

CM: Were there any surprises?

RE: One notable finding is that these groups have shaped their organizations to address economic inequities and poverty, which isn't surprising given how entwined race and class are in this country and around the world. For example, we found that 35 percent explicitly work with poor and low-income people and many of them work on a range of socioeconomic issues such as immigration, the criminal justice system, employment, housing, and so on. When we support an autonomous LGBTQ people of color infrastructure, we're also helping people of color deal with economic injustice and all its ugly by-products.

CM: Since LGBTQ people of color organizations have largely functioned without much governmental or philanthropic support, how will they grow and should they become more mainstreamed?

RE: Many of these groups could benefit simply from multi-year, general support grants, allowing them the breathing room they need to strengthen their infrastructure and become more resilient. Others have remarked how they also want technical assistance. Our grant-maker challenge is to not assume that because a group is small or doesn't reflect the traditional structure of larger organizations, that it can't handle a grant or that it's fragile and ineffective.

For me, mainstream speaks to the ways in which an organization understands power and its relationship to the mainline institutions that govern our country. Many groups often grow in size, budget, and programming and, in order to sustain this growth, or to meet the mainstream values of its larger donors, take on a character that becomes less about building a strong base of community members and then holding those same institutions accountable. Do these larger groups continue to operate in clear, principled ways that reflect our communities and not the narrow interests of the governing elite? I think our own organizations are a microcosm of a much broader democratic tension among money, politics, and civic engagement.

CM: As a Latino gay man, how do you understand the intersections of your various identities?

RE: I see them as a source of strength and understanding. Growing up queer and working class in a Mexican immigrant family taught me a lot about the insidiousness of racism, classism, and homophobia, as well as how interrelated they are in everyday life. I came of age in a mostly Latino, Southwestern town in southern Colorado yet was tracked through the public school system in advanced courses with mostly white students. Many of my family members struggled financially and held deeply embedded homophobic attitudes about queer people. And the more I've moved within policy circles, or now in philanthropy, I'm reminded how few progressive queer people of color are represented as decision-makers.

Popular discourse prefers simplicity when it comes to identity. You see this in the Hillary/Barack debate, where the public insists on debating which side has it worse, erasing all of us who live multiple identities, or forgetting how the right [wing] targets many of us in multiple ways. Our political movements have to recognize that we share the same opponents and that we live complex, multifaceted lives.

CM: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges for gay people of color in their individual lives and as different groups?

RE: I think we face ignorance, hostility, and discrimination, across our various identities, in all parts of our lives - our homes, our jobs, on the street, and in legislation. Yet so often the "solutions" that policy makers devise or the programs that practitioners create assume that a one-fits-all remedy will suffice, as if all LGBTQ people experience inequities in the exact same ways. Many LGBTQ people of color groups are making up for the void in our movements that has left unaddressed the cultural specificity of our needs.

CM: What would you like to change about the LGBTQ community?

RE: In activist circles, I'm disappointed by the ways in which mainline, often national, LGBTQ organizations have crafted policy agendas that minimize the racial, economic, and gender dimensions of our rights. You can advocate for relationship recognition and nondiscrimination laws without turning the other way on policy questions of race or economics. I want a queer movement that speaks out on labor rights, or against the war, or for transgender inclusion, without believing that such stances distract from its goals.

CM: Why do you write poems about superheroes?

RE: I like the creative tension of comic icons and everyday life. I'm fascinated by thinking about how our culture makes sense of extraordinary people, and what superhero means in a world ravaged by war, poverty, global warming, etc.

CM: What's going on in Sunset Park these days?

RE: Typically, they involve quiet evenings and weekends. It's a great neighborhood and comforting to be back in a largely Mexican environment.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Recent Backstage Reviews

Blue Coyote's Happy Endings

February 15, 2008

By Christopher Murray

Blue Coyote Theater Group asked nine playwrights "for their take on the sex-worker industry." The entertaining result, Blue Coyote's Happy Endings, presents nine short pieces of great variety, all of which in some measure wittily explore questions of how we see each other in the context of our desires.

A tatty red velvet curtain frames the performing space for a succession of vignettes featuring go-go boys, peep show habitués, lonely hearts, and lovers. Theatrical serial Burning Habits author Blair Fell's piece, Beauty, begins the evening with a voyeur in a black raincoat (David Johnson) waxing eloquent on the charms of an exotic dancer (Joe Curnutte).

The usual dynamic of the watcher and watched is flipped, however, in Christine Whitley's strangely tender and moving Peep Show, in which a woman (a beautifully vulnerable Laura Desmond) pays for the privilege to be ogled and objectified by a brusque but oddly tender man (Robert Buckwalter).

Various kinks that help people grow closer to or stay distant from their erotic fascination are explored in John Yearley's Whenever You're Ready, about an artist's nude model (Tracey Gilbert), and in Matthew Freeman's The White Swallow, about a radio announcer-voiced husband (Matthew Trumbull) with a strange predilection picked up from watching snakes swallow their prey on Wild Kingdom.

But the most successful pieces, appearing last in the evening, poke gentle fun at our yearning for connection. Boo Killebrew's winsome Pulling Teeth imagines a suburban coffee klatch at which a fey Easter Bunny (the talented comedian Phillip Taratula) tries to convince his pal the Tooth Fairy (R. Jane Casserly) to stop turning tricks to earn money and assuage her loneliness. In David Johnston's Yes Yes Yes, a nerdy reader of James Joyce (Jim Ireland) finds surprising shared interests with a literate go-go boy (again, tow-headed Joe Curnutte, providing pitch-perfect irony in his portrayal).

Presented by Blue Coyote Theater Group and Access Theater at Access Theater, 380 Broadway, 4th floor, NYC. Feb. 12-March 1. Tue., 9 p.m.; Wed.-Sat.., 8 p.m. (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.

The Wild Party

February 12, 2008
By Christopher Murray

"Queenie was a blonde/And if looks could kill/She'd kill twice a day/In vaudeville." So begins the opening song in Andrew Lippa's musical version of the literally banned in Boston 1928 poem by Joseph Moncure March.

The jazzy, sung-through score concerns a crisis in the troubled relationship of Queenie (a platinum blond-wigged Nicole Sterling) and her comedian boyfriend Burrs (the cherry-cheeked Jonathan Hack). Queenie has decided that "I'll raise my skirt and make him hurt" by publicly humiliating Burrs when they throw a bathtub-gin party for all their eccentric friends, including a love-weary lesbian (the delightful Tauren Hagans), a pugilist and his moll (Theis Weckesser and K.C. Leiber), and two flamboyant piano-playing brothers (Justin Birdsong and Zak Edwards). Things get violent when Queenie's attentions are caught for real after their friend Kate (Julia Cardia) brings a dapper newcomer, Mr. Black (Michael Jones), to the wild party.

The Gallery Players revival of this 2000 Off-Broadway musical (not to be confused with George C. Wolfe and Michael John LaChuisa's Broadway version from the same season) features what has become standard for this group, a distinct and committed ensemble cast that seems to be having a terrific time. The leads are the workhorses in this piece, driving the slight plot forward while the mayhem swirls around them.

The company's vocal talents aren't quite up to the demanding score, but their enthusiasm in evoking a cartoon of Roaring '20s debauchery is infectious, especially in Summer Lee Jack's sexy and stylish if somewhat overaccessorized period costumes. Director Neal J. Freeman and choreographer Brian Swasey provide clarity, a sense of mischief, and clockwork precision in moving the 18-member cast around a postage stamp-sized stage.

Presented by and at the Gallery Players, 199 14th St., Brooklyn, NYC. Feb. 2-24. Thu. and Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111 or www.theatermania.com or wwwgalleryplayers.com.