Archive for the Indie Theatre Category

Opera on Tap: New Brew

Posted in Classical, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, Music with tags , , , , , , , on April 5, 2014 by travsd

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Just a quick note to say we stopped by Barbes last night to catch an installment of Opera on Tap’s developmental series New Brew. We were particularly impressed by the work-in–progress The Hat, based on the play by Zsuzsanna Ardo (who also wrote the libretto for the opera), and composed by Karen SiegelThe piece is about the unlikely romance between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. That these two great academic minds would come together is no thunderbolt, until we recall the obvious fact that Heidegger collaborated with the Nazis and Arendt was a Jew and the author of the seminal On Totalitarianism. This marvelous tension is more than enough to hang a play on, but last night we also found that Heidegger’s existential and ethical formulations (frequently sloganlike) are marvelous things to hang LYRICS on. Last night’s scene was the perfect one to present as a showcase, with student Arenbdt approaching professor Heidegger after class and tentatively trying to start a conversation with the star teacher even as he upbraids her for her tardiness. I found the scene endlessly clever and funny, early steps on a journey I imagine will take us eventually to touching, sad and cruel. Siegel’s music seemed on the same page, both intellectually and emotionally, and best of all (a rarity, I find) I could hear and understand the words! At any rate, I look forward to seeing and hearing the whole opera some day, if that should come to pass…

This show was free, by the way, apart from non-mandatory drinks. If you know how to play the angles in New York, you can wind up a very rich person.

Vaudephone #29: Keith Nelson 2

Posted in Contemporary Variety, Indie Theatre, Jugglers, PLUGS, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on April 2, 2014 by travsd

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Hello and welcome again to Vaudephone, your one stop shopping for all the best contemporary variety acts, viewed through our patented retroscope.

Today we feature the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus’s Keith Nelson as rocks as his classic bowl spinning feat. Look for the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus at the Bindlestiff Open Stage at Dixon Place next Monday, April 7.

And please note as always the swell theme music, by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. Don’t miss Vince and his swingin’ band for dinner and dancing every Monday and Tuesday at Iguana.

Vaudephone is a co-production of Travalanche/ the American Vaudeville Theatre, and Vaudevisuals.com.

For more on the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Candide Opens Tonight!

Posted in BROOKLYN, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, PLUGS with tags , on February 14, 2014 by travsd

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The Simple Stories

Posted in African American Interest, Blackface & Minstrelsy, Indie Theatre, PLUGS with tags , , , on February 13, 2014 by travsd

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“Hard Times”, featuring the music of Stephen Foster

Posted in AMERICANA, Indie Theatre, Music, PLUGS with tags , , on January 24, 2014 by travsd

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R.I.P. Dan

Posted in Indie Theatre, OBITS with tags on January 22, 2014 by travsd

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Unless the news I received about a couple of hours ago is some kind of sick prank, a good friend has passed away.

Dan Jagendorf was as good as they come. In a very short time he became a trusted friend and adviser, the kind of person who would come in and save your bacon time and time and time again, without a word of admonition or complaint.  In the most fraught and tense of situations, the extent of his ruffled feathers would be a small, ironic laugh. In my three years or so of getting to work with him off and on I really began to feel that that would have been his reaction to any set-back , any crisis. You’ve been marching through the desert, you’re dying of thirst and the oasis has turned out to be only a mirage? A small shrug – - and keep walking then. Where’s the logic of a big to-do? He was good at what he did, he knew it, and he liked helping people. Also, I think he would have been the first to agree (and admit) that it can be awfully entertaining to watch other people lose their cool.

I first met him at NY Fringe in 2010; he’d long been a pillar and an aid to CR, and he became that to me, as well.  The following year he was combination set/prop/lighting designer, production manager and tech director for my vaudeville show in the Fringe Festival. After that, he bailed me out many a time in much the same capacity, most recently our show in in the Burlesque Blitz at the Kraine Theatre last summer.

What’s particularly poignant is that he was working towards a very specific goal, working to get a Masters Degree through a combination of classes at CUNY and City Tech, as though he weren’t already indispensable with his existing skills. Still he was beefing up his resume. He was moving in a definite direction, and now that’s over.

Ultimately, he was just a nice guy to be around. He was dry and funny and pleasant, and (a word that doesn’t get used enough — because it doesn’t exist enough) he was decent.  It really hurts to lose someone like that.

The day I met him he was wearing a bicycle helmet and sunglasses with small rear-view mirrors attached — a striking first impression. Subsequently I’ve always pictured him with that gear on his head, because he almost always WAS wearing it. He rode his bike EVERYWHERE. It’s unthinkable to me that he wouldn’t be riding it right now, wherever he’s headed.

Requiscat in Pacem, Topsy

Posted in Animal Acts, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Circus, Coney Island, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, Indie Theatre, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on January 19, 2014 by travsd

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We were induced to take a break from our moratorium on reviewing indie theatre shows by a variety of factors in the case of Edison’s Elephantnow at Metropolitan Playhouse through January 25. There’s the subject matter (circuses, early cinema, 19th century American culture, Coney Island, etc), there’s the venue (a favorite of mine), and a number of the artists involved; but there’s also the synchronous coincidence that I read the book it seems largely based on only last week.

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Former Daily News columnist Michael Daly’s Topsy is a masterstroke idea for a book. Essentially Daly used that famous 1903 Edison film of the public electrocution of an elephant at Coney Island as a touchstone for the investigation of all the forces that made that appalling moment happen. After all, the mindset that made the event possible appears (on the face of it) to be so alien to ours…but is it? We’ll return to this question! You can see the footage for yourself if you choose. It’s available on Youtube. I won’t insert it here out of respect for people who don’t want to look at such things. Daly unravels the context for us, starting with the self-evidently relevant and radiating outward. We thus get not just Topsy’s story, but the entire history of performing elephants (and their treatment) in America, previous elephant deaths and tragedies, the broader human and animal rights landscape at the time (including human slavery and the use of corporal punishment), the corporate history of commercial electricity, and (where it all comes together) the development of electricity as an instrument of death.

While Daly does gets a little carried away by tangents sometimes, he does a splendid job of getting us close to the reality of these particular events by making us experience the personalities of the elephants. He humanizes them. I won’t say “anthropomorphizes”, which implies the superimposition of human qualities on a beast that doesn’t have any. Elephants mourn their dead, they paint pictures, they make friends. And dogs (which an operative working for Edison killed by the dozens in barbaric experiments) are similarly smart and sensitive creatures. For us, knowing what we now know about elephants, their high intelligence, their social natures, their rich emotional lives — treating them with an indifferent cruelty seems unthinkable, until you remember how some people treat other people.  The main value in a book like this is in raising awareness, not necessarily about any particular political issue, but in treating all creation with responsible humanity. The issues Topsy brings up can hardly be said to be behind us, no matter much we want to pat ourselves on the backs for certain systemic reforms and improvements.

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There was a time when I was under the spell of Wilde, when the idea of all didactic theatre was anathema to me. It usually is bad, after all. I can’t think of anything worse than television movies about one or another particular social or political issue. But ultimately, like all Americans, I’m a sucker for all sorts of naked preachifying when it is effective, and above all when it is not stupid. I watched Twelve Angry Men at three o’clock in the morning the other day. I like to sit there and go, “Which guy would I act like?” (I feel like I’ve behaved like all of them, except maybe the old man, at one time or another. And the old man is creeping up on me).

And then there’s this, and it’s something I touched on a little bit in No Applause. Among the secular institutions, I don’t know what else we have but theatre to effectively arouse sympathy in people. Cinema, while uniquely able to show evil in documentary form, must be artfully assembled  in order to communicate that what we are seeing IS evil. A case in point is that Edison film of Topsy’s execution. Most of us look at it and are sickened. It could even produce nightmares. But as presented by the filmmakers the event is morally neutral. You just know it’s porn for somebody. They can look at this heinous act and feel free to like what they see. The theatre, by contrast is, social. A playwright, a director, and actors all interpose their points of view, and we are privy to the reactions of the audience members around us. The theatre was born in a church. It awakens social instincts. But that still doesn’t ever give it license to be stupid.

Edison’s Elephant never is. Playwrights Chris Van Strander and David Koteles appear to have made Topsy their Bible, and they quote it chapter and verse. They’ve adapted it much like certain other non-fiction books (e.g., The Right Stuff, A Prefect Storm) have been adapted, by focusing in on a few key players rather than trying to transpose the entire universe to the stage. Structurally they’ve made an interesting choice, weaving together a rope of three separate strands: those of Edison himself (John Thomas Waite), Topsy’s last keeper Whitey Alt (Kevin Orton) and a hapless, fictional typist who has the unpleasant chore of typing up the notes of the Edison lab’s dog electrocuting experiments (Lynn Berg). The play takes some liberties (Alt’s part is a composite and greatly exaggerated here for the sake of story; so, too, for that matter is Edison’s). The play relies far too much on inactive first person narrative and could stand to be trimmed back by as much as a quarter or a third. But, much to its credit the writers don’t shy away from the richness of 19th century language, and I only caught 2 or 3 glaring anachronisms, and those seemed there for intentional theatrical effect.

I was also impressed with David Elliott’s direction, which struck the right note from the very instant you walked into the theatre (or should I say “nickelodeon”): a rag time piano player (Sean Gough) accompanies a show of Edison film shorts: acrobats, boxing cats, Native Americans on display — this is the context of the real life horror show, it’s all show biz.  (It’s easy for someone with a roving mind to make the equation to reality tv). I found Elliott’s work with the actors to be impeccable, from the aptness of the casting right through to the finished performances. Alyssa Simon, who plays two very different characters, in wildly divergent styles, was a particular stand-out. The guy who plays Edison, John Thomas Waite, sort of made my jaw drop. He really looks just like one’s idea of Edison. And there’s a kid! (CJ Trentacosta). We never get to see kids in downtown theatre; it’s almost as great a production value as a performing elephant.

And we watch all these characters grope their way towards some truth about their common experience; all are uncomfortable about it, though some are in denial. (And one little old lady, played by Wendy Merritt, is clearly a psychopath!) And in the end, he gives us that film (how could he not?) thus making us complicit in this crime, making us feel a little dirty for what we’ve just seen. And it kind of makes you wonder what atrocities we’re contributing toward with our time and our talent and our money in 2014. That is, if you’re the kind to worry about such things.

Edison’s Elephants resumes performances tonight as part of The Guided Stage Festival. For information and tickets go to metropolitanplayhouse.org

“Edison’s Elephant” Opens Tonight

Posted in Animal Acts, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Circus, Coney Island, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, PLUGS with tags , , on January 16, 2014 by travsd

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Kiss Beneath the Camel Toe!

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, HOLIDAYS, FESTIVALS, MEMORIALS & PARADES, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE with tags , , , on December 15, 2013 by travsd

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Last night I thrilled to brave a Superstorm of Santacon and Snowpocalypse to see Dandy Darkly’s Kiss Beneath the Camel Toe at the new Celebration of Whimsy (or “COW”) Theatre. If I had not done so, it is just the kind of thing I would delight in saying I WOULD do in the abstract. “Dandy Darkly, Carla Rhodes, Jenny Lee Mitchell, Killy Dwyer and the Amazing Amy all in the same show? Why, I’d crawl across the Gobi Desert, legless, on a skateboard, to see that!” One follows such performers like the North Star, across the shifting wastes that intervene. Not a one of them doesn’t bring me delight, like, ALWAYS. They are what gamblers call sure bets.

Last night’s romp was a travesty on the Nativity myth with the illimitable Dandy as God, Carla as Mary, Jenny as an Angel, Killy as “Little Miss Drummer Girl” and Amy as a Camel. Comedy singer/ songwriter Ben Lerman, a performer who is new to me, was Joseph. Oh, and Cecil Sinclair was the Baby Jesus, who unexpectedly turns out to be Adolph Hitler. Each not only played his/ her part, but got a chance at a solo turn in their specialty: Dandy hosting and telling a story, Jenny singing “Papa Don’t Preach” as opera, Amy doing her Indian rubber lady contortions, Killy and Ben doing original funny songs, and Carla of course making Cecil say naughty, naughty things. Done in the approved Art Star manner, the show was loose as a goose, intimate, spontaneous, irreverent and nasty and made me homesick for the old Surf Reality and Collective Unconscious days. Is there a regular home for this kind of show now? One hopes the COW will be that kind of venue. (It is located, by the way, in the Living Theatre’s old space on Clinton Street. One is sorry of course that La Living couldn’t make a go of it, but then their’s was an ambitious operation. It’s hard to pay the bills with experimental theatre. We’ll see what kind of milk the COW gives. I have no idea what that means.)

Nutcracker Rouge

Posted in Burlesk, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Dance, HOLIDAYS, FESTIVALS, MEMORIALS & PARADES, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, STEAMPUNK/ VICTORIANA with tags , , on December 14, 2013 by travsd

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I’ve attached two pictures above because, though I have looked at about a dozen official photographs of Company XIV’s new holiday show Nutcracker Rouge, NONE adequately conveys the beauty of it. The one on top captures something of the color; the one on  bottom gets something of the motion. To get them both, I encourage you strongly to get thee to the Minetta Lane theatre as quickly as possible.

I would call Company XIV my favorite dance company in New York but that would be dishonest. I rarely attend dance, so that wouldn’t be fair to all the hard-working companies out there. But this is my fourth Company XIV production, and their pull on me won’t surprise you in the least once you discover this company’s work. Artistic director and choreographer Austin McCormick draws heavily from history for his inspiration.  He is especially interested in the Baroque era, when ballet was young and still populist and sexy, and this is his jumping off point in  terms of movement style, scenic and costume design, subject matter (fairy tales and classics), and presentation (unlike the modern ballet, text and song play a role). McCormick trained in this specialty at the Conservatory of Baroque Dance Theatre. See my 2010 article on him in The Villager here. But in maintaining the spirit of that era, he playfully invokes much that came since, mostly movements that echo the decadence of that earlier period, such as the can-can of the Moulin Rouge, and American burlesque.

That’s the background. So if you’re Nutcrackered out, have no fear, this is neither your mother’s nor your daughter’s Nutcracker, but more like a kaleidoscopic, hallucinatory collage that uses Nutcracker as a leaping off point in the vaguest of ways. (The actual ballet The Nutcracker didn’t even come into being until a couple of centuries after McCormick’s favorite time period.) Here the girl Marie Claire (Laura Careless) is given a nutcracker by the Drosselmeyers (Jeff Takacs and Shelly Watson) and then taken through a dream-like fantasia of dances based on sweets: licorice, chocolate, candy cane, cake, macaroon, etc etc. It thus has the structure of a burlesque show, and while each turn is sexy, each also has some amazing additional skill-based element that takes this production into the realm of the dazzling: contortion, acrobalance, trapeze, the playing of castanets, the cracking of whips. This is over and above the beauty of the dances themselves which excite admiration for reasons both aesthetic and athletic.

The Drosselmeyers become ringmasters. Takacs is the company’s traditional narrator. He composes his own droll doggerel in close collaboration with McCormick; onstage he always strikes me as some sort of cross between Charles Perrault and Jim Morrison, with sprinklings of Silenus and de Sade, all cod-pieces and tri-corner hats. The ample and commanding Shelly Watson evokes bordello madams from a dozen eras, and regales us with tunes ranging from lullabies to opera to the blues. Sophie Tucker by way of Versailles. And I assure you it would be madness not to give high praise to set and costume designer Zane Pihlstrom whose command of a thousand Western and “Orientalist” idioms matches McCormick’s own. The show is an explosion of sensory pleasure. (And with sweets as the theme we can add “tasting” and “smelling”  to “seeing” and “hearing” on the list of senses attacked; as for “touching”, we live vicariously through the bodies of the dancers.

General audiences will leave the theatre supremely, buoyantly charmed and entertained (the cast received a standing O the night we attended; I’m sure they get one every night). Artists who attend will walk out invigorated and inspired, head full of ideas, determined to hit McCormick’s very high mark of achievement. The beauty part is that this is a company. They have been at this since 2006, and God Willing they will be at it for a good long while to come. So if you miss this particular production (though you’d better not, it’s their best yet), you will most certainly have future opportunities to see their genius in action. I for one intend to follow this company until it — or I — cease to function.

Company XIV’s Nutcracker Rouge will be at Minetta Lane Theatre through January 5. Info and tickets here: http://companyxiv.com/productions/?view=nutcracker-rouge

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