Archive for the Indie Theatre Category

“Mad Jenny’s Weimar Girls” is Back Tomorrow Night!

Posted in Contemporary Variety, Indie Theatre, PLUGS, Women with tags , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2017 by travsd

Tomorrow night: run, don’t walk, to see Mad Jenny’s Weimar Girls at the Slipper Room! It’s your last chance, at least during the present run, and the Slipper Room is the perfect, magical venue for this absinthean elixir of a show.

I have watched Mad Jenny (Jenny Lee Mitchell) marinate this delectable suaerbraten over a period of several months and it’s just gotten richer and more rewarding as she continues to develop it. Ostensibly a revival of Weimar Era Berlin cabaret, she’s tweaked what once might have been Hitler patter into Trump patter with disconcertingly little strain. We live in scary times. But the beauty of her show, and the beauty of the environment: you begin to understand escapism, even if she’s constantly making sure you don’t forget.

She’s also got a full band behind her now (trombone, piano, drums and bass, I think?) and Jenny herself plays clarinet. And (much like Company XIV, another favorite outfit of mine) she’s found a way to integrate neo-burlesque in a way that is true to her historical vision, elevating popular art to something that seems very elevated indeed (literally, in the case of Miss Ekaterina’s aerial act). Faux Germanic Jenny sings throughout, sometimes drawing from the historic songbag (Brecht/ Weill and Mischa Spoliansky mostly) and sometimes she twists modern stuff like Blondie or the Eurythmics into a post-modern pretzel. Jenny is a world class clown and mime herself, so she has her own physical bits that accompany the songs, and on some of the numbers she accompanies her talented terpsichoreans. My favorite thematic numbers in the show were something called Milk Maids, devised by Djahari Clark, which seemed like one part Von Trapp Family, one part Russ Meyer; and another number that evoked silent German Expressionist horror films. Tomorrow I imagine she’ll have more of the same, and I hope she (metaphorically) kicks Donald Trump Jr good and hard in the balls. “Ve must vip you mit ze riding crawp, Dawnald, Ja?”

Tickets and info here. 



Willi Carlisle: There Ain’t No More

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, Music, PLUGS with tags , , , , on June 30, 2017 by travsd

You’ve got one chance left to see the amazing Willi Carlisle in his solo show There Ain’t No More! Death of a Folksinger before he blows town for parts north (Maine and New Hampshire, I understand). In an age when even our “folksingers” tend to be narcissistic careerists, Carlisle is traditional beyond your great-grandfather’s wildest dreams, dedicating himself to the Voice of the People rather than road maps of his own navel. He is a kind of folk music superman, both scholar and showman. He plays fiddle, banjo, guitar, harmonica (while he plays guitar, using a harp-holder like Dylan and others), and accordion (or some kind of sub-accordion squeeze-box, which is impressive enough). He sings like an angel. And he dazzles with tricks — he can dance while he plays, and even does crazy juggling tricks with his banjo without missing a chord during the tune. He’s also a first rate poet, story teller, and actor, with a presence more than a little like Victor Buono.

That said, There Ain’t No More is strongest as a concert, by several orders of magnitude. The production has ambitions beyond this, but the other theatrical elements (script and direction, in that order) lag far behind Carlisle’s pure, honest and exuberant brilliance as a musical performer. He’s well worth seeing on the strength of that alone, in spite of some Brechtian aspirations that lard the overall evening down. But Carlisle himself makes me extremely hopeful. 40, 50 and 60 years ago, New York city was full of hundreds, maybe thousands of performers like him, devoted to keeping the old cultural folkways of the past alive.  But then the weathervane changed direction and everyone began penning their own songs. I ran an open mike night for two years and I can tell you that while the performers are often great (this is New York, after all) their songs are frequently dreadful. In my 30 years of living here and paying attention, he’s the first guy I’ve come across who’s making it about the FOLK. (For a couple of related essays about what I think that is, go here and here).

Carlisle is playing at Ryan’s Daughter on the Upper East Side tonight. For my recent Chelsea Now article about him and his work go here. 

What’s Indie Theater? (Part 2)

Posted in Indie Theatre with tags , on June 20, 2017 by travsd

How’s this for reverb feedback circularity?

mdd speaks

brickTrav S.D., who is one of the great Renaissance men of contemporary indie theater (actor, composer, author, playwright, critic, director, impresario, et al), recently posted the following on Facebook (emphasis mine):

I have a large family of friends I have been collaborating with on theatre for close to 20 years. I think of them as my “Brick” friends (after the Brick theater in Williamsburg), and we tend to call ourselves that, although we all work in dozens of locations besides the Brick, many of us were already collaborating years before the Brick was even born, and most of us work with other people in other settings, and so forth. For example, though I just did a play there, it had been at least a half-dozen years since I had last done so. Still, no matter where any of us go the Brick is “home”, and it is what…

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“Three Way” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Posted in BROOKLYN, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , , , , , , on June 19, 2017 by travsd

In “Safe Word”, Eliza Bonet and Matthew Trevino demonstrate that you can’t keep a good man down

Just a few words of laudation for Three Way by composer Robert Paterson and librettist David Cote, staged by John Hoomes, co-produced by American Opera Projects and others, which we caught at the Brooklyn Academy of Music yesterday. Pride Month was the perfect occasion on which to experience this sex-positive triptych of operatic one acts. I’d heard snippets at our Opera on Tap evening a couple of years ago, but this was the NYC premiere of the whole musky magilla, the entire libidinous libretto, from soup to nut-sack.

The title is of course a bit of wordplay referring not just to a multi-partner sex encounter, but also to the fact that the show consists of a bill containing three separate but related works. In the best comic opera tradition, each seemed to draw from and engage with popular culture. The Companion is a science fiction tale about a busy woman (Danielle Pastin) and her dissatisfaction with her love robot (Samuel Levine), emerging with a life-lesson that would not be out of place on Fantasy Island. The SM thriller Safe Word comes with an O. Henry twist and musical passages that occasionally summoned the spirit of Bernard Herrmann. Masquerade most obviously evokes Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, while also (to my mind) conjuring Elizabethan comedy (it’s about strangers pairing off at an orgy). And the anthology format, each with racy, funny, sex themes — how could it not make those of us of a certain age to think of Love American Style?

Inevitably, Three Way’s “edge” will shock people more in the hinterlands than in NYC, the jaded Belly of the Beast. (I imagine a domme dungeon, a swingers club, and sex with a mechanical surrogate all happening a stone’s throw from BAM, even at the very moment the show was happening. I once went to an art opening where a woman named “The Countess” beat a man’s testicles with a metal rod and no one looked up from their champagne). But the carefully wrought storytelling and generous, open and inquiring spirit of the work, its depth of character and its wit, are the farthest thing from quotidian and much to be prized. Three Way put me in a good mood, and while not as enjoyable as sex itself, at least it put sex into an opera. Those of us who have experienced operas without sex can attest to how valuable that is.

BTW! The show is a co-production of the Nashville Opera, which presented it earlier this year at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (a venue I got to a visit when I covered the Nashville scene for American Theatre magazine about fifteen years ago). The producers and artists are looking to make a cast album down in Nashville and now have a kickstarter campaign under way to raise the necessary funds. Help ’em out here:

Celebrating 50 Years of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company

Posted in Drag and/or LGBT, Indie Theatre, ME with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2017 by travsd

Nick Viselli and Everett Quinton During Our Recent Interview at the Tick Tock Diner

This summer will mark the 50th anniversary of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Our most avid readers know this is a subject near and dear to my heart. I have blogged previously about the company’s founder Charles Ludlam; about frequent Ridiculous collaborator Ethyl Eichelberger; about the company that Ludlam’s broke with, John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous; about performance artist Penny Arcade, who got her start in Ridiculous productions; and about Charles Busch, who had an early affiliation with the company. The Ridiculous cast a long shadow; major artists who acknowledge the company’s influence include Bette Midler (who is also not incidentally a vocal fan of my book No Applause); John Waters, and his core cast members, such as Mink Stole; as well as Jennifer Miller’s Circus Amok; and Dick Zigun of Coney Island USA.

And yes, your humble correspondent. Most of my plays owe something to Ludlam and the Ridiculous and I usually give a shout-out where its due. (I confess I even got involved with a woman once, seduced largely by her former ties to the legendary company). It was the thrill of a lifetime when Everett Quinton, Ludlam’s successor as company artistic director and long time company member, appeared in my play Horse Play, or The Fickle Mistress at La Mama two years ago. Everett was generous enough to join me recently, along with Nick Viselli of Theater Breaking Through Barriers, to discuss their 50th anniversary celebrations and revival of Ludlam’s last play The Artificial Jungle for Chelsea Now. Read my article here.

We’ll likely be blogging lots more about this auspicious occasion, so stay tuned!

John Vaccaro and the Playhouse of the Ridiculous

Posted in Indie Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2017 by travsd

I attended an amazing edition of LaMama’s Coffeehouse Chronicles yesterday, devoted to the memory of John Vaccaro, founder of the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, who passed away last August. For someone whose cultural reach was so great (and who looms so large in my own imagination), Vaccaro’s footprint in the internet age is shockingly small. He doesn’t even have a proper Wikipedia entry. I won’t bother asking why, I’ll just try to contribute to redressing the omission. After all, the public at large is ignorant of art anyway…let alone theatre…let alone non-commercial theare…let alone the Absurd…let alone the Ridiculous…let alone the schism within the Ridiculous. But that stuff all matters a great deal to me. Just as with old time vaudeville, I get vexed, intrigued, tantalized, obsessed by LEGENDS. You HEAR about something, you get piecemeal testimony, but the whole story ain’t there. Worse, it’s in the past. You’ll never get the full story. You’ll never live it. And it sounds like it was so amazing. It’s maddening.

So where? How? Well, you end up working backwards a lot of the time. In my formative years and beyond, I’d collect and read lots of old paperbacks about underground film and theatre in the sixties. Sometimes books of published plays, or reviews, or other sorts of accounts. Plays by people like Ronald Tavel, Taylor Mead, Ron Rice, Frank O’Hara, etc etc. You’d hear accounts by people like John Waters and his Dreamlanders. You certainly learn a bit from the much better documented splinter movement led by Charles Ludlam. I watched a great documentary about The Cockettes, a San Francisco group who claimed to be influenced by Vaccaro.

But now, for your sake, let’s work chronologically. As with so much that happened in the late 20th century, it all starts with Warhol. Warhol wasn’t just a painter, but a catalyst, almost a cult leader, with a large community of people around him: a the gaggle of artists, performers, models, and hangers-on called The Factory. In 1963 Warhol began to branch out into films. Ronald Tavel wrote some of them. In 1965, Tavel had a screenplay called Shower that had been rejected by Warhol’s then-reigning star Edie Sedgwick. He decided that it and some of his other writings might work onstage as plays. So he approached Vaccaro, a friend of a friend, who’d performed his own poetry in beatnik coffeehouses, and who’d acted in some Jack Smith films, and in some productions of the New York Poets Theatre. At the time, Vaccaro had never directed and was no longer even acting; he was simply working in a bookstore. But after he read the script, he agreed to do it.

There seems to be disagreement (both in the written record and in direct testimony) whether it was Vaccaro, Tavel or Jack Smith (who initially was in charge of costumes for the first production) who named the movement “Ridiculous”. Vaccaro’s group “The Playhouse of the Ridiculous” was the original one. In 1967, company member Charles Ludlam had a blow-out with Vaccaro and went off to found his own “Ridiculous Theatrical Company” which was to become better known in time, essentially co-opting the name and the movement. But there were clear differences between the two splinter groups. While both were largely connected to queer culture and drag, Ludlam’s version (centered almost entirely on his own original plays) privileged camp, comedy, and classical formalism. The archetypal Ludlam work was his version of Camille. The Vaccaro version was much more anarchistic and grotesque, much more avant-garde in the ’60s senseLudlam was a trained professional, as were many or most of his company members. Vaccaro took in street urchins, runaways, hustlers and drug addicts and then browbeat them into giving them performances he wanted.

Vaccaro rehearsed his plays in his Great Jones Street loft. He first presented his productions in art galleries, only later transferring to actual theatres. People from the Warhol constellation like Mario Montez, Ondine, and Jackie Curtis were in the productions, as were people who went off with Ludlam, like Lola Pashalinski, Black-Eyed Susan and John Brockmeyer. And it was with the Playhouse of the Ridiculous where the teenager who became Penny Arcade got her start in 1967.


Full house! (photo by Travis Chamberlain) 

Penny organized yesterday’s tribute, and an amazing experience it was, packed to the rafters with old hippies, queers and freaks, and a few rubberneckers like me who came hoping some of their magic would rub off on us. Among the most memorable takeaways for me was old videotape of actual productions — so mind-blowing, documentary footage of sixties rock and roll and dance and performance in its natural habitat. I couldn’t help thinking, “This is as close as I’m ever gonna get.” Penny was a wonderful moderator, sharing her own memories as well as Vaccaro’s biographical history (he grew up in his parents’ grocery store in Steubenville, Ohio, was obsessed with sports, didn’t discover art until college, served in the navy, and spent two years in a mental asylum). Penny never shies away from anything difficult, and so a recurring theme of the afternoon’s program was Vacarro’s reportedly difficult and cruel personality as a director. The main theme of the afternoon was respect and love for his legacy, while acknowledging that he could also be an S.O.B.

Vintage Ruby

Other presenters included Ruby (Ruby Lynn Reyner) who appeared in 40 Vaccaro productions and is the subject, with Robert Feinberg of the 2008 HBO documentary Finishing Heaven), Lola Pashalinsky who spoke about the “Great Upheaval” which occurred during the productions of Conquest of the Universe a.k.a When Queens Collide; Crystal Field of Theater for the New City (via pre-recorded video); playwright Ken Bernard, whose plays for the company included The Moke Eater, The Magic Show Dr. Mag-ico, The 60 Minute Queer Show and Fin du CirqueChris Rael of Church of Betty; and LaMama’s own Nicky Paraiso. 


Panel (L-R): Penny Arcade, Ruby, Don Arrington, Agosto Machade. Photo by Travis Chamberlain

Sadly missing from the line-up was playwright and teacher Bill Hoffman, who’d passed away himself just a couple of weeks ago and was scheduled to participate. (I’d seen and reviewed Theatre Askew’s production of Hoffman’s Cornbury a few years ago, and seen Hoffman himself in conversation with critic Randy Gener at a live taping of a tv show up at Lehman College). NY Times obit on Hoffman is here.

Another amazing artifact was a later clip (showing the plain curatorial hand of Penny Arcade) from a few years ago in which Vaccaro was interviewed by theatre historian/ film-maker Joe E. Jeffreys about the fact that the historic building containing his loft was going to be razed to make room for a high-rise. The building had previously been home to theatres called the Alhambra and the Majestic, not to mention all those historic rehearsals for Vaccaro’s productions. Vaccaro appeared oddly unsentimental about the destruction, merely glad that the developers were giving him a sweet deal on rent in the ugly new building.

Will the past be buried? Paved over? Plowed under? Not while I have something to say! I walked away from the program re-energized, re-committed, inspired. It ain’t over yet! If you missed it, here’s the NY Times obit on Vaccaro. Let’s spread the fame of this work a little farther.

“Dead End” at the Axis Company

Posted in Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2017 by travsd

Last night, we got to check out Axis Company’s exciting revival of Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End. I’d gotten to see a portion in rehearsal for my feature about the show in Chelsea NowIt whetted my appetite for more.

This was the twelfth Axis show I’ve either seen or written about over the past 17 years, the others being: Frankenstein, Woyzeck, the American premiere of Sarah Kane’s Crave (which featured Debbie Harry!), Hospital, Seven in One Blow, A Glance at New YorkEdgar Oliver’s East 10th Street: Self-Portrait with Empty Housetrinity 5:29, Down There and Evening 1910. And there are several others of their’s I’ve kicked myself for missing, including more than one show about Houdini. The company has come to be one of those in NYC whose work I know the best. I never set out to make that happen, and sometimes, a few years pass between my visits. But artistic director’s Randy Sharp’s combination of passions (an apparent obsession with oddball, often murderous, American history mixed with an aesthetic of avant-garde modernism and a love of technology) is close enough to mine, though parallel, to constantly intrigue me.

Dead End is a wonderful example of how she works. The original play was the height of realism for its time, considered documentary-like, and was produced by the Group Theatre, the original American cult of Stanislawski’s Method. While it possesses some antiquated elements like stock characters and situations, hangovers and conventions from the melodrama era which folks in the 30s either didn’t see or didn’t mind since they were so close to it, Dead End was originally laid out to be very “here and now”, anchored to its own time (the 1930s) and a very particular place (the slums of the East Side of Manhattan).

Sharp’s instinct in the current production is to abstract and universalize the setting. Probably drab and grey to begin with when they originally mounted it on Broadway, Sharp and her designers have dialed the entire color scheme all the way up to black: every set piece, costume, and prop (including things like newspapers, dollar bills and a shine box). The dock pilings which are a major element of the setting (a gang of poor kids hangs out there, jumping off it occasionally to swim in the polluted East River) is represented by three highly stylized (simplified) black cylinder shapes. This hellish scenography transplants the story to some more timeless place that adds existential juice to the play’s title: Dead End as No Exit, or “the neighborhood” as The Village in The Prisoner. The kids in the gang wear hood-like head pieces which resemble early aviation helmets, or perhaps something a medieval monk or nun might wear.  These kids (Emily Kratter, Jon McCormick, Regina Betancourt, and Lynn  Mancinelli) are at once the element that anchors us the most to the purported time and place (the slang, the accents), but they are also formalized into a chorus, often chanting lines in unison, or underscoring the action with percussive sounds, literally “banging a can”. The resetting of the production into limbo makes certain lines pop as being as much “now” as “then”. A character’s monologue about the neighborhood being disrupted when a fancy high rise was recently put up in their midst could have been written yesterday.

Disruption seems to be the leitmotif overall: The entire cast remains onstage for the duration, edgily roiling and twitching with discontent and agida. There is nothing to do and nowhere to go — even for those who’ve left, like the gangster Babyface Martin (a terrifying Brian Barnhart) and the cripple Gimpty, who studied six years to be an architect (George Demas). Both have returned to the birthplace of their misery as though they’d been tethered there with bungee chords. Tommy, the leader of the gang (McCormick), is wanted for a crime, but insists on hanging around the neighborhood, unable or unwilling to flee even if it means freedom. Trapped like animals in a cage, the characters devour each other, squabble, demean, and cut each other up (both literally and figuratively). Some have visions and express hope, but there’s no agit-prop here, no magic recipe to make it all go away. It’s what makes the play modern, easily adaptable to Sharp’s aesthetic, and relatable to our own experience.

“Life sucks and then you die”? Something like that. But somehow people do go on, and, as Camus might say, I guess that’s the point. And the SHOW doesn’t suck! You should see it. It’s up through May 20: here’s the Axis web site for more info and tix. 


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