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A taste of New York Theatre August 2009

at Various venues, Wellington
From 12 Aug 2009 to 17 Aug 2009

Reviewed by John Smythe, 26 Aug 2009

Two Off-Broadway shows, one freebie in Central Park and five Fringe shows sweetened my too-few days in the Big Apple.


Way To Heaven (Himmelweg) by Juan Mayorga
Equilicuá Producciones at Teatro Circulo

Played in the traverse on an oblong of dried leaves, this extraordinary play by Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga is inspired by true events. In June 1944, when the Red Cross wanted to inspect the German concentration camp Theresienstadt (in what is now the Czech Republic), where Danish Jews had been incarcerated, the Nazis responded with 'Operation Embellishment'. They deported many prisoners to Auschwitz, so the camp would not seem overcrowded, got the Czechoslovakian workers to build fake shops and cafes to create the illusion of comfortable living, and set up sports and cultural events.

Mayorga's play starts years after the event, with the Red Cross Representative (Shawn Parr) trying to come to terms with how easily he was deluded. What follows is the inspector's take on how this was achieved. The Nazi Commandant (Fransisco Reyes), with Gershom Gottfried (Mark Farr), the prisoner cast in the role of Mayor of their little 'town', give scripted lines to the inmates - boys, girls, men and women -and rehearse them to 'perform' for the inspector ...

The vision is of a world where everyone speaks the same language and marches to the same beat ... Just don't think too much about the trains you hear in the night. A ten year-old Girl (Samantha Rahn) is talked into singing and performing as well as she can "so many will come back in the train".

But Auschwitz is the final destination for all, no matter how well they played their roles.

My First Time by Ken Davenport and real people just like you
New World Stages

'Let's Talk about Sex' is the intro song and that is exactly what the four actors do in My First Time, a la The Vagina Monologues but without the range or socio-political bite of that seminal show. In this production the actors stay pretty well stuck to their stools and bring a bland sameness to the anecdotes they share (from the thousands posted on, despite the actual range of experiences on offer.


Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen
Gorilla Rep at Summit Rock, Central Park

Despite being performed in the open, in an erratic circuit of settings with the audience moving from site-to-site and settling on the grass to watch each scene, Gorilla Rep's approach to Ibsen's Peer Gynt is very conventional: simple Norwegian dress of old; a clear rendition of the text in a declamatory style with much direct-address. Humdrum (it has to be said) compared with the John Bolton-directed Toi Whakaari graduation production of 2006 [link to review].

As the first Peer Gynt (up to and including the death of his mother), Morgan Harris betrays little understanding of the role. Remembering his lines, hitting his marks and finding his light seems to be his key objectives. Robert Berliner inhabits the role much more convincingly in the subsequent scenes.

The ensemble does a good job of covering the multitude of other roles. It has to be noted that, presumably as directed by Christopher Carter Sanderson - who sits reverently at the feet of each scene and offers the odd sound effect or prop (e.g. a model sailing ship) - each scene starts immediately the actors are in position, mostly well before the audience has caught up.

This new translation by Laura Lynn MacDonald, receiving its world premiere in this production, has the Troll motto (an antidote to Polonius's "To thine own self be true") as "To thine own self be you", which I find meaningless. The Kenneth McLeish translation (used by Toi) has it as "Be true to yourself-ish" which works OK. But I have to say I prefer the earlier Peter Watts translation (in the 1966 Penguin Classics edition): "To thyself be - enough." This utter complacency, this total lack of interest in anything beyond the known, still chills me to the marrow.

A chap dressed as Mozart with his gear in a shopping trolley offers original modern recorded music which rarely enhances the action and is mostly an impediment to our concentration and understanding.

In all, competent but uninspired, unchallenging and unexciting.


The surprise overall is that the Fringe fare we saw was mostly mainstream (conservative?) in form and content; nothing touched the creative innovation we've come to expect in NZ Fringe Festivals or much of our non-mainstream fare throughout the year. While I realise five from a full slate of 201 Fringe shows is not a sample that validates wild generalisations, I do have a theory as to why this might be so.

It appears a major role of Fringe NYC is to trial and/or showcase new work by new writers in the hope it will attract the attention of agents competing for up-and-coming talent and producers looking for exciting new product. Likewise green-carded actors (by arrangement with Actors Equity) and directors will work at this level to keep in trim and be noticed. (I don't mention designers because we saw nothing of note in that regard but it may be true for them too.)

The point is, there is fully professional Off Broadway and Broadway work to aspire to - not to mention career paths in TV Drama and Comedy, and Feature Films. And in NYC (indeed across the USA), the trajectory for homegrown work is ever upward. At any given time the entire 'Theater District(s)', across the full spectrum of venues, will be staging 90+ percent American plays. There is a clear incentive, therefore, for those with the urge and the talent to give it a go. 

In New Zealand, however, the more resourced a theatre company is, the less likely they are to be producing a New Zealand play. Hence there is little incentive for writers to pursue playwrighting as their medium. So scripted plays seeking a relatively mainstream audience are less likely to appear in NZ Fringe Festivals.

Most Fringe venues, it seems, are either two floors up, in a studio, or down in the windowless bowels of often non-descript buildings dotted around the East Village and Greenwich Village. The choice, usually, is to have one's hearing impeded by a noisy air conditioning unit or two, or to swelter in relative silence. 

Face the Music and Dance
, produced by Rachel Routh, directed by Tina Croll
The Center for Creative Resources at The Robert Moss Theater

Five pieces by different choreographers, danced by a total of 26 dancers, comprise Face the Music and Dance (which has nothing to do with the similarly-named Irving Berlin song) and the street band that entertained us outside turns out to be part of the show too. In fact they introduce it, and themselves, establishing a relaxed and friendly atmosphere.

Degas duck dag (excerpt), choreographed by Noa Sagie, claims to be inspired by the paintings and sculptures of Edgar Degas. While a bikini-clad woman lolling in a brightly coloured plastic paddling pool is not immediately redolent of his 'Woman in a Bath' series, it is somewhat more evocative of his 'The Tub' bronze sculptures. The languid exploration of self-as-woman - expanded to involve four dancers (Madelyn Biven, Meredith Blouin, Hyosun Choi and Sarah Genoves-Sylvan) - is nevertheless pleasant and a little poignant to watch.

Using Portished's 'Only You' Julian Barton's Wooden Heart explores an evolving male-female relationship ("it's only you, who can turn my wooden heart"), which Barton dances with Jocelyn Tobias.

Barnett also joins Maura Nguyen Donohue in her Jet Stream (excerpt) which employs the live Japanese flute players in their celebration of cultural diasporas.

Heidi Latsky's What Would You Have Done? is inspired by the ending of Bernhard Schlink's The Reader and uses two men (Jeffrey Freeze and Luke Murphy) to explore "humanity and unity in response to hate". This appears to be a progression from Latsky's celebrated solo performance of the same name, unless both are different excerpts from her larger piece entitled Worst Case Scenario (the programme is unclear on this).

The Stamping Ground (excerpt), choreographed by Tina Croll who also directed the whole programme, is subtitled with a Sanskrit saying, Sanghe Shakti Kalau Yuge: in this dark age strength is in unity. Seventeen dancers coil and swirl to happily negotiate their ways in what could be an over-crowded space. When everyone else joins in, including the musicians, the potential for chaos is greater and the achievement of unity through mutual respect for each other's right to be there becomes more significant.

Fortunately, given the content of Way To Heaven (above), the work just manages to avoid suggesting that unity can only be achieved when everyone is doing the same thing at the same time.

In terms of cohesive theme, Face the Music and Dance progresses from individual self, through a primary partnership to a wider community of diversity, before confronting us with the question of personal responsibility for others then celebrating the power of togetherness

Compared with the muscular intensity and often dark themes of much contemporary NZ choreography, it all flows quite gently.

Terranova by Pamela Monk and Dennis J Loiacono   
Monreale Productions in association with StageFace Productions at The Lafayette Street Theater

This is a play we should hear more of. Based on a true story, circa 1906 in New York City, it uses the classic structure of a murder trial to reveal the circumstances that brought Josefina Terranova (her married name) to stab her uncle and aunt to death. Her particular story of being used and sexually abused, within her own Sicilian migrant community, resonates with truths shared by all migrants - making her new name somewhat serendipitous, if rather ironic (and ideal for the title).  

The progressing trial segues into re-enactments of the key scenes tracking the domestic and sexual enslavement of teenaged Josefina (Laura Lamberti) at the hands of Gaetano (Joseph LaRocca) and Concetta Reggio (Lucia Grillo); her supposed liberation into marriage with Giuseppe Terranova (Emeilio Tirri), only to have him declare she has stained his honour and family name by not being a virgin; her return to her former 'home' to confront and stab to death her abusers.

Famed New York journalist Dorothy Dix (Raissa Dorff) covers the trial for the New York Journal, owned by William Randolph Hearst (John Gazzale), who takes a paternalistic and somewhat manipulative interest in the way defence attorney John Palmieri (Steve DiNardo) conducts the case, ensuring the trial is extended as much as possible to increase newspaper sales.

Hearst - who embodies the assimilation ideals of Teddy Roosevelt (a hyphenated American is not an American at all") and the belief that "in America anyone is free to do anything!" (provided they have access to the relevant power and privilege structures) - employs an Alienist (Joseph Mancuso) to help secure an acquittal by reason of temporary insanity. The he offers to give Josefina a new start in California.

Here the playwrights have Palmieri challenge this attempt to more subtly obligate Josefina to those in power: if this truly is the land of the free, should she not be free to choose to stay in New York? (In fact she did go west and settled in San Francisco Bay, reconciled with her husband).

In Sicilian terms, Josefina did no more than defend - or rather avenge - her honour, according to the same lore that made her husband reject her. As a woman writing to the Journal pointed out, defending the honour of the home was already an inalienable right in America, hence no man had ever been prosecuted for killing an intruder, yet women were being tried for defending their own honours.

In an age where we celebrate cultural diversity and value the right to preserve old cultural practices in the 'new worlds', while questioning other long-held rights (to bear arms, for instance, and defend the home with lethal force), Terranova brings powerful focus to a timeless debate. 

Directed by Theresa Gambacorta, this premiere production is riveting, not least for Laura Lamberti's stunning performance and despite Joseph La Rocca's weak sotto-voce performance as Gaetane. He does prove, right at the end, that he does have a strong voice, so why do a film performance in this challengingly cavernous venue (see my concluding comments)? The remaining cast is excellent.

Eli and Cheryl Jump by Daniel McCoy
Ignited States & Crosstown Playwrights at The Player's Loft

Presumably provoked by the riveting images of 9/11, Daniel McCoy has invented a story that conjures with the 'what ifs' and 'maybes' behind a couple's jumping hand-in-hand from a burning World Trade tower. 

Eli (Charles Linshaw), from the Southern States, has led life both charmed and cursed: every time he escapes from the jaws of doom, someone (or thing - e.g. the dog) ends up dead. His mother has infused him with a faith in his magical prince-like status and he carries this into adult life and (after her death) onto the train the New York, on which he meets corporate lawyer Cheryl.

It's a fine Fall morning when they meet for breakfast high up in one of the towers ...

Tightly directed by Nicole A Watson, Eli and Cheryl Jump is an intriguing tale well told.

Clemenza & Tessio Are Dead by Gregg Greenberg
Gregg Greenberg Productions at Manhattan Theater Source 

Maybe obsessive aficionados of The Godfather would get more from this "unauthorised parody" than I did. It wants to be the Mob equivalent of Tom Stoppard's side-room take on Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead but lacks the existential wit and universal recognition offered by that great play.

This reduces the main entertainment factor to in-jokes that may be understood by the afore-mentioned aficionados. While Clemenza (Frank Senger) and Tessio (Dennis Wit) present as a comedy duo in the vein of Laurel and Hardy or Abbot and Costello the rather pedestrian production (directed by the author).

Antarctic Chronicles written and performed by Jessica Manuel
at The Player's Loft

Self-confessed "middle-everything" American gal Jessica Manuel (a NIDA graduate) re-enacts her story in this upbeat solo show, directed by Paul Linke, with a bright cheer-leader energy.

She always wanted to be remarkable. After making it as a Homecoming Queen and surviving such initiations as the Frat Party Beer Bong, she gets a job in Antarctica. Her training session in Christchurch is marked (and marred) by an attempted Kiwi accent that sounds cod-Australian.

Fun, games and challenges aplenty ensue at the McMurdo Sound, not least when Wilson, the boyfriend she left behind, turns up with a job that will see them winter over together, despite her having fallen in love with Nicholas ...

We get to learn quite a lot about how things work on the ice but although she relentlessly maintains an entertainment factor, Manuel has not penned a piece that resonates beyond itself with human insight.

Concluding comments

A strange malaise appears to have afflicted many male stage actors in New York, born I suspect of certain teaching and theatre workshop styles. It's like there's a competition to see who can speak the quietest and still be heard (or not). Maybe they think doing screen performances on stage will help them get screen roles. Or it could be an ego-trip attempt to make their performances seem more compelling than the others.

Whatever their reasoning, I don't buy it. Our straining to hear them detracts from our ability to become immersed in the story they and their colleagues are trying to engage us in. Let's hope the fad doesn't spread to NZ!

On the evidence of this brief sojourn I can add my voice to the many who return from overseas to say we are very well served in our professional and fringe theatres, with high standards at all levels (apart from the consistent and comprehensive development of homegrown drama in a way that attracts the best possible playwrights to theatre as a vocation).