Monday, February 11, 2008

Recent Backstage Reviews


February 11, 2008

By Christopher Murray
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater's powerful American premiere production of acclaimed Swedish playwright Lars Norén's War, sensitively directed by the capable Anders Cato, explores the impact of ethnic cleansing on an individual family in an unnamed conflict. Nontraditional casting of a multiethnic company increases the resonance of the portrait as a global parable of destruction.

With her husband presumed dead, a mother and two daughters have done what is necessary to survive as the fabric of life has unwound around them. Suffering the horrors of poverty, hunger, rape, and torture, they live in a delicately balanced unit, alternating between indulging in fantasies of romance and leaking excoriation and despair that reveal how the violence of war seeps remorselessly into the domestic sphere.

At one moment, the daughters, Beenina (Ngozi Anyanwu) and Semira (Flora Diaz), can be playing like children, full of giggles and shared secrets; the next they are threatening each other in language of startling brutality. "Remember, she's a child," the mother (Rosalyn Coleman) cautions, to which Beenina chillingly replies, "There are no children here."

The family's fragile stability, with Beenina prostituting herself for money to keep food on the table and her mother keeping her soul alive through the companionship of her missing husband's brother (Alok Tewari), threatens to fall apart when the father (Laith Nakli) returns, disabled and embittered by his time in a forced labor camp.

Nakli gives a devastating performance as a haunted yet still furiously hopeful man who doesn't realize that his family has already been destroyed. The other four actors are equally excellent in this intermissionless 90-minute play that can seem relentless in its depiction of the collision between the quotidian poetry of family life and the horrors of war. The characters' faces seem drained of emotion, as if exhaustion and hopelessness have blunted their ability to express the tumultuous feelings inside them.

Presented by and at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater,
224 Waverly Place, NYC.
Feb. 11-March 2. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.

Under Milk Wood

January 28, 2008

By Christopher Murray
"From where you are you can see their dreams," recites one of the two narrators in Dylan Thomas' lyric paean to small-town life. Originally created as a radio play and performed at the 92nd Street Y two months before his death in 1953, Under Milk Wood is a loving evocation of a fictional small Welsh town called Llareggub, which is "bugger all" spelled backwards.

Following the reminiscences, daydreams, and petty foibles that make up the "salty individuality" of the town's characters, the piece begins before dawn one day and has the flavor of Our Town in its gentle humor. Captain Cat (John Mervini) falls into reveries about his seafaring days; Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard (Amanda Kay Schill), twice widowed, doesn't let death stop her from bossing around the spirits of her two husbands; and Reverend Eli Jenkins (Owen Panettieri) recites his original poems to the rising and setting sun.

The narrators (Lyle Blaker and Elizabeth Bove) move among the townspeople reading the lyrical language that binds the piece. In Intimation Theatre Company's production, directed by Michelle Dean, the absence of Welsh accents flattens the poetry. The actors, each playing several of the townspeople, rely instead on funny voices and silly walks to draw out the humor. Despite their obvious affection for the humanist portraits, the company members lack the ability to get under the skins of the various townsfolk, and the result is caricature.

Presented by Intimation Theatre Company at Theater 3, 311 W. 43rd St., 3rd floor, NYC. Jan. 25-Feb. 10. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.

Save the World

January 22, 2008

By Christopher Murray
Accurately described in press materials as "a superhero adventure play," Save the World by Marvel comic-book author and playwright Chris Kipiniak is slavishly loyal to its genre, following the crackup of a self-appointed cadre of heroes called the Protectorate and replete with nifty electronic sound effects.

Formed in response to an extraterrestrial threat to the city of Denver (shown in flashbacks), the group finds itself in danger of self-destruction, plagued by betrayals, petty squabbles, and character flaws that match its superpowers in magnitude. A series of attacks on international cities proves to be a setup to eliminate the group's leader and deliver a fatal blow to the team's hubris in appointing themselves overseers of Jerusalem and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Irony is not entirely absent in the comic-book universe, nor is it in Save the World. Musing on the potential of a coordinated attack, the group's administrator, Stagger (the mannered but likable Stephen Bel Davies in a candy-apple-red suit), says, "Great. That means a super villain. Of all the days. I better put on a pot of coffee."

But the theatre is perhaps less well-suited to a literal translation of the superhero sensibility than the movies. The intricate but still somehow mundane backstories and gee-whiz intensity of the characters is wearying and instigated some titters in the audience. That being said, the company makes its way through the plot's machinations and manipulates the silly plastic prop weapons without winking and with considerable energy. Kelli Hutchinson stands out in dual roles as a disaffected member of the team and a cynical television reporter.

Ultimately, this study of the breakdown of a team hews too closely to the conventions of the comic-book form even as its ultimate resolution hints at dissatisfaction with any artificially superimposed ethos.

Presented by the Roundtable Ensemble at the American Theatre of Actors, 314 W. 54th St., NYC. Jan. 19-Feb. 9. Thu. and Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 and 8 p.m.

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