Friday, November 29, 2019

Review of The Passage Theatre's Happy Birthday Mars Rover

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Happy Birthday Mars Rover. It was by Preston Choi and it was directed by Alison Thvedt. It was a compilation of politically-, historically-, and socially-driven scenes and snippets about humanity, exploration, and nature. There are six actors (Sarah Lo, Vic Kuligoski, LaRose Washington, Cory Hardin, Liz Cloud, and Em Haverty) in this show who each play many different roles of different ages, genders, and species in the scenes. There is a full scale of tones, demographics, and messages. It is about the future, love, and extinction. This was an absorbing and enthralling show with really amazing performances and a non-preachy, funny, heartbreaking story of existence.

The vision of the future in this play made me think about how much I value life, and I hope life can be preserved for humans, but ultimately it is okay that humans will eventually go extinct. It is not just human life that is beautiful and important. The play both starts and ends with an absence of humans, and I think that was super effective. There is a really interesting through-line, in many of the later scenes, of people commemorating the dead with pieces of their hair in jars. It is supposed to keep someone alive in your memory to have a piece of them--having something more than a memory. The hair is proof of uniqueness and existence. It is a tradition from the past that is seemingly carried on in the future. It tells us that humans are sentimental and want to be remembered. Humans have an evolution but they stay remarkably the same. There was a scene in the play where it was, as the title suggests, Mars Rover's birthday. The Mars Rover sings happy birthday to itself, but the engineers back on earth have programed it to sing happy birthday to itself. This scene has an evolution in the play, where it is again the Mars Rover's birthday, but this time as it is singing it starts to malfunction and dies. The feeling that I had at this time perfectly exemplified what the play was saying earlier about how the Rover is an object and the engineers should not get emotionally attached or sing happy birthday, but I did care that it was dying. That is the human problem, that they get attached to things but also don't know how to take care of them. It is because humans love things but also destroy them, that the future looks dark for humans.

The play looks at a lot of different types of love, from sexual to parental, crushes to life-long partnership. There is an insanely cringe-y and hilarious sex scene about royalty having bad sex even though one of them is definitely gay and the other is mostly hoping not to be beheaded. It does seem like they love each other, just not the way their parents want them to. They both know they have to make it work even if they don't want to. We also see love between inanimate objects, which is very sweet, between Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. The first scene is just Voyager 1 transmitting its hopeful message until it can't any more and keeps saying "please flip to side B," but there is nobody there. But then another Voyager comes by and flips it to side B, and for one moment it feels like someone else is there. It is sweet to see this symbol of hopelessness (because there is no one there listening) find something to help it. It is like love because it is helping someone when they can't help themselves and letting them know you are there for them. It is hope in the face of hopelessness. The smallest things can have the biggest impact, even if you'll never see that person again. There was this very lovely scene called "Under the Sea" that featured a father trying to record a voiceover for a documentary on jellyfish, but he was interrupted by his daughter who was delivering messages from her mother that were not considerate and criticized his work. But then he learns that his daughter really does love his work and care about what he does. It was very heartwarming to see how much this meant to him. This scene is a good reminder of why people have children, so they have something to look forward to and something they can love unconditionally. In another scene called "Housewives," they make the counterpoint that parenting can be painful because of your undying love for your mortal child.

This play talks a lot about extinction and different attitudes towards it. There is this series of extinction reports done by a cast of middle-school-age characters. One kid did an extinction report on the T-Rex, and he was talking about how he wanted the world to go extinct except for one other girl in his class whom he was in love with. He also seemed very upset about another kid's project, because he saw the kid as an obstacle between him and his one true love. This also exemplifies how humans want to destroy the things between them and love. This entire scene was hilarious because he kept getting distracted by his hatred for his rival and his love for the girl. And he was such a dorky and passionate kid that it was more adorable than terrifying. There was another humorous but dark reality check--I think this play did that sort of thing very well--that was a game show featuring a husband and wife who were having some marital problems but also trying to find places humans could live other than earth. They are facing the harsh realities of their marriage while facing the harsh realities of earth's impending extinction. This is a double whammy that you can't not laugh at because of how dark it is while also being paired with two people trying to make it seem like everything is fine when it is very clearly not. Since these two people have to deal with the fact of extinction every day as well as the impending extinction of their relationship, it is funny to watch in a way that is more of a coping mechanism than flat-out comedy. I feel like this is smart to have this subtext-filled discussion of extinction where it means two things.

People who would like this show are people who like subjecting objects to human emotion, follicles of memory, and love-fueled extinction reports. I think this is a gorgeous show with amazing performers. It made a lot of points that made me think about my own life in ways I hadn't before. It was an absolutely transformative piece of work and I definitely recommend seeing it. I loved it.

Photos: Evelyn Landow

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Review of Porchlight Music Theatre's Sunset Boulevard

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Sunset Boulevard. The book was by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, based on the film by Billy Wilder, and the music was by Andrew Lloyd Webber. It was directed by Michael Weber, choreographed by Shanna Vanderwerker, and music directed by Aaron Benham. The story follows Joe (Billy Rude), who is a screenwriter in Hollywood in 1949. He is running away from people trying to repossess his car when he finds himself in an extravagant house owned by silent movie star Norma Desmond (Hollis Resnik). When he is hired to help finish her screenplay, he finds himself in a difficult situation because of her extreme loneliness and delusions. He discovers an elaborate plot to keep Norma in the dark about her own irrelevance, headed up by her butler Max (Larry Adams). He also ends up falling in love with his friend Artie's (Joe Giovannetti) fiancee, Betty (Michelle Lauto), while trying to write a script with her. It's about fame, ambition, and manipulation. I really love the story of this musical and the performances were great.

There were a lot of different versions of romantic relationships of various degrees of dysfunction portrayed in this show. The relationship between Joe and Norma is very dysfunctional and manipulative from both sides, even though the relationship begins because of Joe's manipulation of Norma's wealth and desperation to serve himself. The first time they actually kiss, Joe's motivations are not sincere, and it begins to unravel different layers of lies in Norma's life. Joe and Betty's relationship is also built on deception because they are both in relationships, one that they both know about (Artie and Betty) and one that Betty is unaware of (Joe and Norma). They both have similar interests, they work well together, and they listen to each other, so that could make a good relationship, but because they aren't dealing with their problems so they can be together, the consequences of their deceptions plunge them into the deep end. The relationship between Max and Norma is the most dysfunctional but also features the most genuine love. This relationship shows when you are as devoted to someone as much as Max is to Norma, undying love can lead you to do things that are not good either for your beloved or yourself.

I have never really been a huge fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber's music, but I thought the performers did a great job with what they were given. One of my favorite moments was the song "The Greatest Star of All," which was sung by Max about Norma. I was totally absorbed in the story of this song, and the performance seemed insanely effortless. He sounded so broken; it was really effective and I wanted to hear more. It was painful to hear him sing about the love he felt for her every day. I also liked "Too Much in Love to Care," the song where Betty and Joe confess their love for each other and learn how much they have in common. It was very sweet and well-performed. Their voices blended nicely together--it sounded like one voice. I like how Betty was not just the girl next door; she was actually smart and complicated, and she cared about the work she did. I think Michelle Lauto fully conveyed that in a way that was really intriguing to watch.

Even though the story was narrated by Joe Gillis, it seemed like the story was actually written by Norma Desmond, and the production elements reflected that. When you first walk into the theater, there are spotlights on posters (projections by Anthony Churchill) of Norma's films like Her Husband's Trademark and Bluebeard's 6th Wife. It is immediately obvious on whom the focus is. Also, Norma has a bunch of ballads that make up her inner monologue about how amazing she is. Everything in the production is excessive and elaborate, just like Norma's movies. The movie that Joe writes is based in sincerity and realism; it is a simple story of boy meets girl. But that is not Sunset Boulevard. Norma's movies feature extravagant characters that are dramatic and tragic. The costumes (by Bill Morey) showed very distinct characters and felt heightened, poised, and elegant. The set (by Jeffrey D. Kmiec) reflected a movie soundstage because it was able to be many different locations, but it also reflected the tone of the play because it had elaborate details and seemed larger than life.

People who would like this show are people who like extravagance, captivating performances, and drowning in deception. This is a really well-executed production with an amazing cast and beautiful production elements. I enjoyed it.

Photos: Michael Courier

Friday, November 8, 2019

Review of The Gift Theatre's Kentucky

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Kentucky. It was by Leah Nanako Winkler and it was directed by Chika Ike. It was about a woman named Hiro (Emjoy Gavino) who is coming back to her hometown in Kentucky for her little sister Sophie's (Harmony Zhang when I saw it, usually Hannah Toriumi) wedding--to talk her out of it. Sophie is now a born-again Christian and is marrying the pastor's son Da'Ran (Ian Voltaire Deanes). She feels guilty for leaving her sister and her mother, Masako (Helen Joo Lee), with an abusive father and husband James (Paul D'Addario), so she returns to try to get them to come to New York with her. It is about what home is, lost connections, and different types of love. I think this is an insanely well-written show with fantastic actors and great direction. It was overall an amazing show.

At first I thought that this was going to be a play about the damage that religion has done to families and the world and that I would be rooting for Hiro to rescue her sister. But instead it has a highly respectful view of religion even if the main character doesn't agree with religion as a concept. It shows how some people need religion in their lives to survive and some people don't find comfort in that and how these two types of people can cohabitate and love each other. I liked that the minister, Ernest (Michael E. Martin) and his wife, Amy (Jessica Vann), despite the usual stereotypes, were genuinely nondiscriminatory and kind Kentucky Christians. The Christians in this play, their religion is based on love and forgiveness. So even when Sophie's father lashes out and yells at his own family and his daughter's new family, they forgive him because that is what they believe is right.

I really like this playwright's dark humor, and I especially liked it in this show. When Masako found out that her beloved cat Sylvie (Martel Manning) had died, she was so devastated that she carried around the body in a Cheesecake Factory bag from the rehearsal dinner. This at first seemed funny because it was a callback to two separate things--the cat dying (which was, at first, performed as a comedic bit) and going to Cheesecake Factory (which everyone except for Hiro was much too excited about). But then it becomes a depressing scene of her cradling and singing to her dead cat because she felt like Sylvie was the only living thing that loved her. It shows really layered writing, which gives the audience multiple things to hone in on. There is also one section where Hiro and her high school friends (Emilie Modaff and Maryam Abdi) are out at a bar and start counting how many people at their school died in motorcycle accidents and from drug overdoses. But then when Hiro actually encounters Adam (Manning), whose friend died from a drug overdose, she sees him as a real person instead of this faceless victim. This play has dark humor, but it also uses a character's realizations about dark humor to further her development.

This play tackles trauma and the effects of "life-ruining" people. James, the father, had abused his wife and children for years, but his wife has stuck with him this whole time and forgiven him. There was a moment that made the strength of Masako's choice clear, when she talks about how when her husband has Alzheimers and she is changing his diaper, he will finally love her and say thank you for everything she has done. She has been waiting for him to love her for so long and has this light at the end of the tunnel she is hoping will happen. But of course that is not guaranteed; she is feeding herself lies and hurting her daughters through that. This creates a distance that she is painfully aware of. Every time she sees something that reminds her that her daughter is getting married, she says, "I'm losing her," which is absolutely heartbreaking. This role was played beautifully and I think Lee fully captured the pain and love Masako had, while still letting her have comedic moments which are needed for a character like this. (The rest of the paragraph may be a spoiler, so skip it if you are worried about that.) Hiro ends up walking her sister down the aisle in the place of their father. But before she decides to, it seems like she might refuse to do it. That shows how Hiro is scared of becoming her dad. But her choice to do it in the end shows that she has learned from the trauma of how her father has treated her how to change to be what her sister needs in that moment. In the end, their father shows up and sees what role he has truly played in his daughters' lives, but of course, since he is who he is, he never apologizes and says he thinks the whole idea of walking your daughter down the aisle is stupid. At the same time, Hiro lets herself let her sister have her own life the way she wants to do it, which really ties together that relationship in a way that is not neat but fully realizes that relationship which i think was the exact right thing to do.

People who would like this show are people who like good Kentucky Christians, the fear of becoming your parents, and Cheesecake Factory caskets. I think this is the perfect dark family dramedy. The relationships within the show are amazing, the play is performed wonderfully, and it is written and directed perfectly. I love it so much.

Photos: Claire Demos

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Review of WildClaw Theatre's Hell Followed With Her

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Hell Followed With Her. It was written by Bill Daniel and directed by Josh Zagoren. It was about a woman named Willow (Sophia Rosado) who comes to the town of Dodge, Texas looking for a criminal on the run, Glanton (George Zarante). The people in the saloon she has walked into notice that she is a bit unusual, but they all have secrets of their own. As a zombie plague infects the town, the saloon-goers slowly notice the strange happenings and become more involved with them than they ever wanted. The show is about strangers, revenge, and having to make difficult choices. I think this is an intriguing concept with some unforgettable characters.

The atmosphere at Wild Claw shows is always very immersive. From the second you walk into the space you really feel the dread and terror that is to come. By the time you walk through the hallway into the onstage saloon, many of the actors already were on stage drinking and talking. The set (co-designed by Rachel Watson and Greg Williamson) had a natural chaos about it. The tables didn't seem to be in their original places but everyone seemed used to it. Maybe there had been a bar fight three years ago and all the tables got pushed to the side and no one ever put them back because they didn't care about it. The lighting (Conchita Avitia) was very dark and natural to the location. The costumes (Satoe Schechner) seemed very lived-in which was perfect for the outlaw vibe of every character. Even if they weren't all technically outlaws, they sure dressed like them.

One of my favorite characters was Shelby (Nora King), who was part of Glanton's clan. She frequently had witty interjections that I was always looking forward to. This character was blind and was a lot smarter than people took her for. She knew a lot about being a criminal and guns and it was funny to see everyone's reaction to her extensive knowledge. Another character I really liked was Cole (Josh Razavi when I saw it, usually Ardarius Blakely). He was a very stoic man; he didn't talk or move for a good chunk of the first act. He seemed to have a soft spot for Willow and he didn't seem to want to hurt anyone, despite coming off as a tough guy. Denton (Gregory Madden) was the sheriff and genuinely seemed like a good person. He was the only person who from start to finish seemed to be doing everything for the greater good. In a show with zombies and outlaws, I think a stable presence whose motive is keeping peace is something that is welcome. I wish I had known more about these characters; I would have enjoyed more in-depth explorations of a few characters instead of having little bits about a very large cast of characters.

This show had gender-blind casting, which is something I usually like in a show because it gives opportunities to gender nonconforming folks and women in shows with largely male casts, which are a lot of shows in the history of theater. I think this play wanted to be feminist and inclusive. It features a strong female central character and a majority non-male-identifying cast. But the majority of the characters in the show were male-identifying, even when played by women and people who were gender nonconforming. They are not telling many female stories, and the one major female story that they tell ends up turning into a straight romance, when the story didn't need it. It would be an interesting town if the characters who had traditionally male pursuits in the time period (and were played by non-male actors) were women and nonconforming characters. I know sometimes scripts can't be changed, but since this was a world premiere, maybe it could have been revised to better reflect the casting or clarify why most of the characters had to be male.

People who would like this show are people who like westerns, immersive atmosphere, and zombie bar fights. I think this is a cool show. It is perfect if you are in a spooky mood.

Photos: Clark Bender/WildClaw Theatre