Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Scandal in Manhattan

July 21, 2008

By Christopher Murray

Playwright and director Bobby Holder's comedy Scandal in Manhattan, part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival, tells the tale of two Southern sisters (Brittany Bell Spencer and Elizabeth Phillipp) caught in a rivalry for the affections of a handsome young wannabe troubadour with a secret (Evan Dahme). Following the mysterious death of their father from roach poison placed in his coffee instead of sugar, the sisters decamp to a midtown New York hotel where they encounter a cast of zanies.

Prime among the kooks they meet is the Hotel Royale's front-desk manager, the flamboyant Fred Fontaine (Joe Iozzi), and his ditzy new assistant, April (Kelly Kemp). Added to the mix like extra ingredients to a stew are an aggressive rose seller, a pair of newlyweds, and a robber with a passionate relationship with a stuffed animal, among others.

Screwball comedy is a difficult form to master. Silliness and complications galore must be balanced against a performance style that exaggerates reality without completely breaking with it. In the case of Scandal in Manhattan, the cast of 12, despite a great deal of energy, falls short of creating a delightful chaos and manages only a mostly shrill, forced, and frankly exhausting 90-minute juggernaut of pratfalls, smashups, and shouting.

When broad comedy fails to catch fire, it can be hard to assess the reasons, but in this case a flaccid script and sloppy direction leave the cast adrift, forcing them to fill in unmotivated behavior and nonsensical plot with formless and uncomfortable posturing.

Presented by the Actor's Project NYC as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival at the WorkShop Theater, 312 W. 36th St., 4th floor, NYC. July 20-30. Remaining performances: Sat., July 26, 3 p.m.; Wed., July 30, 8:30 p.m. (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.

Ain't Misbehavin'
July 21, 2008
By Christopher Murray

This beloved revue of Fats Waller's immensely appealing songbook was performed originally in 1978 on Broadway by a company of three women and two men. In this revival by Harlem Repertory Theatre, the show has been expanded to a cast of almost 20 enthusiastic young performers, directed and choreographed by Artistic Director Keith Lee Grant. Harlem Rep makes clear its association with the City College of New York's Department of Theatre and Speech but still purports to be a professional theatre. On the basis of this production, despite flashes of potential, it must be said the quality remains strictly amateur.

That being said, it's moving to hear Waller's feisty, flirtatious, and flamboyant tunes sung just across St. Nicholas Park from where the composer grew up at 107 West 134th St. And despite a curtain speech that alerted the audience that there is no plot in the show, each number encapsulates a dramatic world of its own, full of delightful detail and dramatic potential.

Several of the performers make the most of the opportunity, notably guest artist Jimmy Mike assaying 1934's "The Viper Rag" with much style and charm, the honey-voiced Danyel Fulton delivering 1929's "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling," and the powerhouse Alexandra Bernard and sassy Nathaly Lopez teaming up on 1929's "Find Out What They Like."

The barnlike but elegant Aaron Davis Hall is decorated by set designer Marcel Torres as a cabaret space with a banner emblazoned "Cotton Club" and a hanging triptych of images of Waller with his trademark impish grin and wagging eyebrows. But the supporting cast of over a dozen performers struggles to fill the space in dark patches of lighting by Brian Aldous and Jason Boyd and uneven amplification by Kane Chaing.

However, the seven-piece band, led by pianist and musical director Andre Danek, provides a strong platform for some lovely harmonies by the cast — in particular evidence during 1929's "Off-Time" — and ample enjoyment in the sheer joy of singing Waller's insouciant lyrics and unforgettable melodies.

Presented by Harlem Repertory Theatre at Aaron Davis Hall, 150 Convent Ave., NYC. July 18-Sept 14. Schedule varies. (212) 650-5960.

Friday, July 18, 2008

WALL-E is Gay

(In fact -- surprise! -- he's me!)



Okay, the gay gaze sees gays everywhere. We can turn the most innocent phrase into a sexual innuend0 - including even "innuendo" yuk yuk. We can insist for years that Tom Cruise is gay - really! I know a friend of a friend of a friend who did him in his trailer! Really! We can even almost reasonably imagine Bert and Ernie as the classic co-dependent gay couple, endlessly arguing over the curtains.

But to turn this sweet, lonely, Clutterers Anonymous robotic wannabe turned megastar at the megaplex into a closet case just strains credulity, doesn't it?

Heck, no! It's as clear as the lack of a nose on his cute little binocular face, he's a big homo-robo if ever there was one!

Let's run the numbers:

- I don't care if Babs doesn't make an appearance in any of the clips, he's obsessed with "Hello, Dolly," isn't that enough? He recreates the choreography, for Crissakes! (Full disclosure - I recreated the tearful goodbyes from the song "Anatevka" from "Fiddler on the Roof" in my teenaged bedroom.)

- He's a card-carrying fetishist, fondling objects obsessively and creating altars to display them. Let's not even talk about the scene with the brassiere. (Full disclosure - it was my older sister's baby blue one-piece bathing suit and I looked fabulous!)

- The damn movie opened Gay Pride Weekend. Duh!

- He knows lighting. All those little twinkle lights he puts up to create a mood? You go, Ms. Thom Filicia 2.0!

- His best friend is a cockroach with a penis-shaped head to rival that of Darth Vader.

- He has a speech impediment, the electronic version of a lisp.

- He's a lonely, deformed little gnome-atron dutifully carrying out his assigned tasks with a masochistic fervor while pining away for the unobtainable beauty to whom he slavishly devotes himself. (FD: Daniel Oberholtzer, track team Adonis, I still love you and I always will!)

- He doesn't want to shtup her, he just wants to hold hands. 'Nuff said.

So. Do I make my point clear? If not, the mewling sobs of the queens in the back row of the movie theaters might clue you in. We've always had a special place in our hearts for the quasi-human Pixar characters - that big sexy bluish bear-thing in "Monsters, Inc.," the prissy Ty Rex in "Toy Story," Ellen Degeneres' ditzy Dory, the fish in "Finding Nemo," Monica Lewinsky in "The Intern." Oh, sorry, she hasn't been pixilated yet. But I can't WAIT!

Yet what's clear from a queer reading of "Wall-E" is the reality that gay male self-image is still, even in these late, marriageable days, inextricably bound up in deep-rooted feelings of exclusion, unacknowledged valor, and the transcendent, redemptive power of being able to distinguish an unrecognized treasure from garbage. And showtunes, glorious, glorious showtunes.

WALL-E, you're my hero, you trashy little stud. Why won't you return my text messages?

©GayCityNews 2008

"Can I Help You?" Backstage Review

Can I Help You?

July 18, 2008

(photo by Jared Slater)

By Christopher Murray

"Alphonse, you are going to feel a big needle." Nine words blandly spoken but likely to strike terror in the heart of poor Alphonse — and a typical moment in the experimental collaborative Exploding Moment's new work.

Can I Help You? takes as its source material footage from an unnamed medical reality television program that focuses on patients admitted to a trauma center after various car accidents and mishaps. Five actors — Shea Elmore, Johnny Lops, Sharla Meese, Katherine Sullivan, and Katherine Wessling — painstakingly directed by Catharine Dill, re-enact different snippets of footage in a deliberately deconstructed manner. A transcriber upstage sits keying in the shoots, ostensibly for editing purposes, while varying perspectives are presented in the foreground.

Sometimes the actors gather around and meticulously pantomime a procedure in an operating theatre; additional sequences mimic medical personnel narrating surgeries or commenting on a patient's prognosis. Yet other moments are more clearly theatrical expressions, as when actors playing a doctor and patient engage in a pas de deux of pain to the "music" of a newly admitted patient crying out, or when closed-circuit video shows sides of meat being poked to replicate the often graphic shots of operations shown on television.

This postmodern presentation of the cable-ubiquitous images of real-life distress is often captivating in its technical sophistication, but the work's greater purpose is to reveal often unintentionally ironic shifts in perspective and purpose, in this case among medical staff, patients, and videographers.

The subject matter couldn't be more dramatic or, oddly enough, banal. Life and death moments alternate with the snide, self-protective sang-froid of nurses in cutesy scrubs and the often callous utilitarianism of a TV crew performing a surgery of its own to get the footage needed for a program.

The iris of the piece keeps opening wider, however, with increasing and disturbing poignancy as it reveals more of the backstory of some patients, particularly one Lisa Campbell, played with devastating bovine candor by Meese. Hospitalized after a car accident that might be concealing another, more sinister trauma, Lisa is drunk and belligerent when first admitted, howling in pain, then coy and self-congratulating days later as she prepares to be released back to the stresses of single motherhood and intones, at a cameraman's suggestion, "I will never drink alcohol again."

Such complicated albeit incomplete stories rely on the viewer to connect the dots and make interpretations and elevates Can I Help You? from an obsessively detailed theatrical experiment into a moving short story in which the audience is seduced into the role and responsibility of narrator.

Presented by Exploding Moment at the Bushwick Starr, 207A Starr St., Brooklyn, NYC. July 17-26. Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m. (212) 352-3101 or (866) 86118-4111 or www.theatremania.com.

Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project

I'm totally jazzed that my dear friend director Chas Brack's new film, Dreams Deferred, about the horrible 2003 bias murder of 15 year old Newark queer youth Sakia Gunn is being shown August 22-24 at BAM's Rose Cinemas, following it's successful premier last month as part of the NewFest, New York's annual LGBT film festival.

Go here for times and info and check out the project's website here. It's a tremendously important documentary. I was proud to support it and encourage you to see it!

The Nonprofit Career Guide

Take a look at my friend Shelly Cryer's just published book, The Nonproft Career Guide, which outlines employment opportunities for young people looking for a job that makes a difference in the world.

Chapters focus on practical assessments of nonprofit employment options, advice on interviewing and resumes, and a few dozen profiles of people working in nonprofits across the country, including me!

My profile focuses on the work I did during my time at New York City's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. I'm pleased to have it included.

For more information, check out the book's webpage here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Ryan Green Interview

Ms. Green Sings the Blues

Bringing order by day, Ryan Green offers mournful tunes by night.

"Ms. Green - Assisted Suicide"
Dixon Place
258 Bowery, btwn. Houston & Prince Sts., 2nd fl.
Jul. 15, 22 & 29 at 8 p.m.
$15; $12 for students, seniors
dixonplace.org or 212-219-0736

By day, Ryan Green sits behind that queer spacepod of an elevated desk just inside the front door of the LGBT Community Center on West 13th Street. There he oversees a staff who welcome more than 5,000 Center users each week, a responsibility that includes the Herculean task of keeping the place safe for everyone. That might mean smoothing ruffled feathers, calming frayed nerves, talking down a drama queen, setting some limits, and occasionally even calling an ambulance.

When he found out his son's job description, Green's dad, an undercover drug cop in Cincinnati, said, in mock shock, "You're in charge of cupcake security!" Thank God someone is.

By night, Green, 28, is an up and coming gender-indifferent chanteuse of the Justin Bond school. His new show, "Ms. Green - Assisted Suicide," runs Tuesday nights in July at Dixon Place as part of the queer HOT! Festival, where he is artist-in-residence for the summer. The show, a series of songs and monologues musing on mortality, emerged largely in response to his father's death from cancer in December.

Ryan has made a name for himself singing moody and sometimes mournful bossa nova numbers - including a Brazilian version of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." Trust me, it's brilliant. In order to master the form, he learned to play the guitar, the pandeiro (a type of Brazilian tambourine), and to speak Portuguese. He recently released a bossa nova CD, "Tive Razao" ("I Was Right"), with guitarist Scott Anderson, available on iTunes.

CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: What's the show at Dixon Place about and why does it have such a cheery title?
RYAN GREEN: It's about being alive and the problems that arise as a result. It's about surviving bad things that happen. The title is cheery, isn't it? Well, I think everyone has thought about killing themselves at one point or another. Or thought about asking someone else to kill them. I think it's all part of human nature. And I really feel like none of this would be happening were it not for my director, Michael Cherry, who has, in the words of the Divine Miss M, "taken chicken shit and turned it into chicken salad."

CM: What special privileges come with being the Dixon Place Hot! Festival's artist-in-residence? Do you get free popcorn or anything?
RG: I think just free cold cream.

CM: Who else is in the festival that people should know about?
RG: Well, there's so many great people. There's [monologist] Laryssa Husiak, who is just so good. And there's [operatic sexpot singer] Joseph Keckler and his pal [writer] Erin Markey. [Kiki & Herb's] Kenny Mellman and [Liverpudlian cross dressing stripper] LaJohn Joseph. And, of course, the amazing [dancer/choreographer] Rose Calucchia, who also works at the LGBT Center with me.

CM: Where did your interest in Brazilian music singing in Portuguese come from?
RG: Well, I was working at this restaurant in the West Village while taking French lessons from a Parisian in East Harlem. One day while waiting tables, I overheard some women speaking the most beautiful language I'd ever heard. It turned out they were from Brazil speaking Portuguese. It was in that moment that I said, "The hell with French."

CM: Are you Latino? How do you manage all your identities? Which ones take precedence?
RG: I am not Latino. I'm actually a half-breed. Half white and half black. Just a mulatto girl really. You know, like Mariah Carey. People always ask me if I felt like I had to choose. I didn't. I just was what I was. But when I think about, you know, childhood trauma, I think about being called a fag and all of that - walking the hallways of my middle school - my eighth grade social studies teacher, Mr. Zimmerman, a white man with a jerry curl, making fun of me in front of the entire class. That kind of abuse sort of overshadowed everything else. The bi-racial stuff was more of a side issue.

CM: Do you consider yourself to be working in any specific gay performance tradition?
RG: I would consider what I'm working on as sort of progressive gay cabaret. Storytelling and song singing.

CM: What songs make you weep at home alone at 3 a.m.?
RG: Oh God. Well, when my aunt died in 2000, I would just sit in front of the television in my dorm room and watch Bette Midler sing "Stay With Me" from "Divine Madness," over and over and over and just cry and cry. It was all very gay. Also, when Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman do "Moments of Pleasure," that really gets me.

CM: So running the front desk at the LGBT Center - that must be trippy. How do you wrangle and intimidate everyone from Larry Kramer on a rampage to dozens of homeless drag queens every day?
RG: Intimidate! I love that. Well, it's a wonderful job. I love the people I work with. The girls of the front desk are a special lot. I'm very proud to be a part of the Center and I really do feel like I help people.

CM: From your vantage point as the welcome wagon lady for the gay community, how are the homos changing these days? Are we getting better or worse?
RG: Oooh, what a question. Well, I think lesbians have always had their shit together more than us faggots. I think we're a real mess. I can't believe how internally homophobic we are with each other. Its like, the lesbians have, at least from my perception, this openness and acceptance of butch/ femme identities - but the faggots all want to be "straight acting" which is such a screwed up term and I can't believe people use it as a compliment. It's like the N-word to me. I don't get it. I think we need a faggot revolution where femme faggots, off stage, are valued as much as the butch ones. Am I right? I mean the Center has a lesbian group called "Butch Femme Society." Would gay men ever have a group like this? Well, why the hell not?

CM: You used to wear a big droopy, funereal purple silk flower in your lapel at the front desk. Why, and where is it now?
RG: It's actually navy blue with purple accents. It's in a drawer under my vanity. I wore it to draw attention to my chest area. I think I have a nice breastbone. But then I started to notice that every time someone showed me a picture from a work thing, or a night out, I had that goddamn flower on. I thought, "Lady, it's time to move on." It was really heavy anyway. Plus, it always caused such a scandal with the girls on the A train every morning. Especially when I wore it with my Daisy Dukes.

CM: What's the new musical frontier for Ms. Green?
RG: I'm very into world music: bossa nova, French chanson, and now fado, this really depressing Portuguese music. The word fado means fate - "the inexorable destiny that nothing can change." The fado singers, know as fadistas, are backed by two guitarists. They wear black shawls and sing about death and loss. I had my first fado gig last weekend on the day of the Gay Pride Parade. I thought it was a wonderful idea. I mean, come on, suicidal Portuguese music sung by a homosexual in an Italian restaurant. What better way to spend Gay Sunday?

©GayCityNews 2008