Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Everything Goes Right, Delightfully, After Frau Loses Her Underpants

From: The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Date: March 8, 2004

Author: Tony Brown

The Underpants” is exactly the kind of entertainment the Cleveland Play House has been searching for: a play smart enough to be considered literature and slam-bang funny enough to qualify as slapstick.

It’s an unbeatable combination that gives us a fun and funny night out that will also satisfy a theatergoer’s hunger for just a little substance.

Although the pacing is a tad slow — the Cleveland production runs about 10 to 15 minutes longer than the zippy, 90-minute version seen off-Broadway in 2002 — the Play House gets just about everything right in this comedy about sex and sexual politics.

The play, about a neglected housewife, Louise Maske, who loses her underpants in public one day and suddenly finds herself pursued by strange men, began life in 1910. It was one in a series of social satires by German playwright Carl Sternheim, who saw his job as poking fun at the grim culture that would someday produce both Adolf Hitler and the Volkswagen Beetle.

Steve Martin, the wild-and-crazy guy who proved himself a playwright in 1993 with “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” takes Sternheim’s already very funny play and sticks a comic arrow through its head.

The resulting play has a quaint, old-time comic feel with a hip, post-feminist edge. There are a couple of clunkers among the flood of jokes, and the story at brief intervals feels a little like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch that is about to go on too long. But the play just barrels ahead, and you can’t help going along for what turns out to be a happy ride.

Most significantly, Martin adds a twist to the ending, introducing a Molieresque deus ex machina to the dramatis personae, a royal character who allows our heroine, she of the fallen bloomers, to triumph over all those exasperating men.

The Play House production, directed with invention, if not always with alacrity, by Artistic Director Peter Hackett, starts off right, from the first instant we see set designer Bill Clarke’s witty take on Dusseldorf’s industrial/suburban landscape.

As Louise’s thoroughly shocked and selfish husband, Theo, Chaz Mena looks like a roly-poly, barbershop-quartet version of a pipsqueak Hitler, the kind of guy who enjoys scolding his wife for being beautiful: “You are much too attractive for a man in my position.”

Happily, Tanya Clarke’s Louise proves him absolutely correct, with her blond ringlets and her cheeks rouged liked a doll’s, not to mention the frilly underthings costume designer Kristine Kearney provides her with. Louise endears us with her innocence while at the same time agreeing to engage in an extramarital affair as a series of men suddenly start showing up, ostensibly to rent a room from the Maskes.

It’s an illicit affair that never takes place, thanks to the flustered urbanity of Sam Gregory as Frank Versati, the poet who is too in love with his words to actually make love to Louise.

Louise gets encouragement from upstairs neighbor Gertrude, played with a randy brand of nosiness by Johanna Morrison. Brad Bellamy works tirelessly as Benjamin Cohen, a shaggy barber who denies his Jewish heritage with the same fervor with which he attempts to protect Louise’s virtue from Versati.

And, as an oddball scientist named Klinglehoff, who really does only want to rent a room and knows nothing of the underpants incident, cutely hapless Ron Wilson brings an extra dose of eccentricity to the proceedings.

Hackett and company play Martin’s surprise addition to Sternheim’s original script with fanfare and blinding light and fog, which may at first seem like a bit too much.

But all the hoo-ha proves just the thing to go out on. And “The Underpants” proves to be just the thing the Play House has been desperately in search of: a bit of a laugh, along with a bit of something to think about on the way home with your own spouse.

The rabbi has something to say

From: The San Diego Union-Tribune

Date April 2, 2001

Author: Anne Marie Welsh

Like the wisdom of the Meister Eckhart or Lao-Tzu, the tales of Rabbi Nachman, the last Jewish mystic, come down to us as sayings: "Through joy the spirit becomes settled; through sadness it goes into exile." So what's the meaning of a 225-year old enigma in the age of information? Everything, it turns out, for Elliott Green, the San Francisco nebbish who leaves word processing behind when he meets the rabbi and his creations during Yehuda Hyman's wild and raw music-and-dance fable, "The Mad Dancers."

The quirky and surprisingly funny work-in-progress opened Friday at the Lyceum Space as the kickoff to the Lipinsky Family Jewish Arts Festival. Don't worry, be happy, "The Mad Dancers" doesn't require much historical knowledge of the rabbi from Breslov, impersonated here by John Campion, in a wizardly shape-shifting performance as sweet as it is sharp. Philosopher Martin Buber, who compiled and commented upon Nachman's 13 published tales, said the nature-loving mystic told his Hasidic stories in response to questions from his disciples. How to rejoice in the midst of sorrow? The answer to that one came in "The Seven Beggars," the only tale the rabbi did not finish and the one that inspired Hyman's still-in-process musical.

It opens with Nachman and four followers gathered for one last story-telling session, a confab that rises magnificently into song, before the beloved rabbi fades away from consumption. Stroking the cheeks of his dear friends, his eyes lit with love, Campion's Nachman pulls us into the narrative, himself becoming some of the beggars, speaking cryptically, time-traveling to meet Elliott, the IBM-er chosen to become a prince of the soul. "May you be as I am," the rabbi-as-blind man tells Elliott, planting a big wet one on the baffled crack typist's cheek.

The nerdy anti-hero meets other beggars bearing messages, his strange journey punctuated by comedy sketches, some so hilarious they could play "Saturday Night Live." Leaving his cubicle behind early on, Elliott heads out onto San Francisco's Market Street for the compulsive ritual of his morning break. Sip, Bite, Read. A latte, a chocolate croissant, the Chronicle. Sip Bite, Read. Madonna. Britney Spears. Johnny Depp. Writer/choreographer Hyman plays Elliott with a bewildered innocence that's part Bill Murray, part Candide.

A later sketch is the comedic high point. Elliott has almost made it to the allegorical garden planted by a deaf, sign language-speaking farmer (Jaye Austin-Williams). Instead he chooses the seductions of the Cafe Torrero where a belly dancer undulates, pillows cushion his generous behind and a manic waiter (Chaz Mena) describes the oiling, spicing, rolling, and baking of a chicken with sex-chat gusto.

There's a wonderful Yemenite song for Steve Gunderson, the local musical comedy pro who's thoroughly convincing in the curls and robes of a disciple. And playing multiple tempters and villains is Dimiter D. Marinov, sleek, sly, and insinuating.

Director Todd Salovey has managed to unify an evening of many conflicting strands and styles, mostly by the strength of his cast, though also by the simple imaginative power of the staging. The ensemble often performs, whether dancing or not, with the unanimity of a dance company.

Still, there's a flatness to the action as its sprawling, fairy tale-like narrative circles around a couple of themes rather than gathering momentum and moving forward. Elliott Green is a satiric creation and as he moves deeper into the mystic tales, we expect a soul-revealing discovery, a kind of emotional sea change. Instead the ending relies on external dramatic events, and feels tacked on rather than organic.

Performances, however, are tiptop. Campion has been here often in tough, scary roles, including Yank in "The Hairy Ape" at La Jolla Playhouse, and the sicko womanizer Menelaeus last year at the Old Globe. The range of his talent is quite amazing in "The Mad Dancers." As Elliott Green, Hyman brings sharp timing to the Yiddish humor and infectious moments of abandon.

If the slow-going second act could find the more effective rhythms of the opening scenes, the show might be more consistently compelling. With some deepening of Green's character, and an ending that feels more organic, Hyman and Salovey's revised piece could have a joyous theatrical impact that exactly parallels its life-giving mystical message.


From: The Miami Herald

Date: November 2, 1993


You might assume that a play about Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, those two great and decidedly unconventional 19th Century British romantic poets, would be arty and full of more poetry than you've heard since freshman English. That it would be a literary history lesson, probably a little on the dull side.

Wrong. Oh, I'm sure you could dramatize the Shelley-Byron relationship that way, but British playwright Howard Brenton certainly defies all those expectations in Bloody Poetry, his 1984 play now being given a thrillingly acted revival by the Florida Shakespeare Festival.

With its second production since Hurricane Andrew's destruction led to a change of both venue and administration, the Coral Gables company further demonstrates its commitment to excellence, staging a provocative play that probably wouldn't otherwise be seen here -- and doing it very, very well.

Bloody Poetry IS a play of ideas, but it also is as juicily lusty a script as you could want. It's a ready-made romp for good actors, and the six in Florida Shakespeare's company dare to play it big. Under John Briggs' intelligent, many-layered direction, they vividly convey the story of reformer-dreamers who inevitably left sorrow in their wake.

Bloody Poetry, whose title is both a curse and a vivid evocation of the poets' duality (artistic genius coupled with spiritual chaos), spans the time from the first meeting of Shelley (John Baldwin) and Byron (Chaz Mena) at Switzerland's Lake Geneve in 1816 to Shelley's drowning in Italy in 1822.

Along for the exhilarating/misery-filled sojourn are Shelley's common-law wife Mary (Liz Dennis), then working on Frankenstein, and her charismatic sister Claire Clairemont (Blaine Dunham), the unapologetic mistress of both men. Also on hand are Byron's biographer, Dr. William Polidori (Adam Koster), to serve as a scandalized narrator; and, first as a guilt-inducing spirit, then as a ghost, Shelley's legal wife, Harriet Westbrook (Stephanie Heller).

The actors artfully convey the discrepancy between philosophy and action. When Shelley receives word of Harriet's death (pregnant by another man and long ignored by her husband, she drowned herself in a shallow lake), Mary's first reaction is to ask the distraught Shelley to marry HER, though they have both disdained the institution of marriage. Free-loving Claire, pregnant with Byron's daughter, schemes fruitlessly to wed the overweight, alcoholic, syphilis-ridden poet, who freely admits he prefers making love to boys. These four are unconventional in the extreme and, for all the pleasure it affords them, it also leads to misery and the deaths of their illegitimate children.

The acting, as noted, is wonderful.

Baldwin, often seen with the Acme Acting Company, is strikingly handsome in his frequent agitation, and he artfully conveys the disparity between Shelley's political idealism and his careless amorality. (You should know that the script calls for him to moon the audience, but the moment is brief and tastefully done.)

Mena, one of South Florida's best and most versatile actors, brings a detailed wantonness to his Byron, giving the man a slight hobble and a drunken expansiveness. His is the most over-the-top performance, but it works.

Dennis' Mary initially seems much too restrained, but her cool logic and wounded spirit makes the choice work, as well as providing a contrast to the flamboyance of the others. Dunham is a revelation, making Claire a husky-voiced yet childlike seductress who actually seems to glow. What an alluring performance!

Bloody Poetry is really a kind of ghost story, so David Trimble's classic and simple set -- white curtains, behind which spirits can be outlined in shadow -- is a striking and effective design choice.

If you see Bloody Poetry -- and you should, if you love good acting -- you will most certainly hear some of the verse that made Shelley and Byron literary legends. But you will also get lost in the far more complex and less orderly lives of geniuses who couldn't shape their lives with anything close to the skill they brought to their poetry.

Havana: Self-Indulgent Destination

From: The Cincinnati Enquirer

Date: September 29, 2002

Author: Jackie Demaline

Playhouse in the Park's Shelterhouse embarks on theatrical adventure this season, inviting audiences to places they haven't been before.

First stop: Havana, an attempt to discover identity by revisiting the past, a tentative and complicated gay love story (featuring some brief, heavy necking).

The play, in fact, opens with Federico (Chez Mena) in bed (alone), speaking what, to a melody, would be the sappiest of love songs with gushy rhymes and overly rapturous allusion. This love song isn't to a longed-for partner, it's to a long-lost homeland.

Look a little more closely at the largely bare stage and, inlaid in a Caribbean blue floor the silvery shape of Cuba slashes a diagonal across the playing space.

Federico (clearly a stand-in for playwright Eduardo Machado, who is in part inspired by personal experience) was one of the 14,000 Cuban children sent to the United States back in 1960 on now-controversial Pedro Pan airlifts, as parents tried to save their children from a life under Fidel and Communism.

Federico has been consumed by that rupture in his life for three decades. The play's topic is his eventful first return trip to his homeland even as the issue of a new lost boy, Elian Gonzalez, rages around him.

Under the sure hand of director Ron Daniels, Mr. Machado's drama gets a far better production than in its world premiere two years ago at the Humana Festival of New American Plays (under the title When the Sea Drowns in Sand).

Federico and his "straight" best friend Fred (Paolo Andino) and their Cuban driver Ernesto (Antonio Edwards Suarez), play off each other beautifully as they explore definitions of identity, friendship - even patriotism.

The topic "embargo" is intermittently dropped into the conversation, usually with the grace of a lead balloon - Mr. Machado doesn't blend the personal and political with ease.

The performance is flavored by the underscoring of Richard Marquez, playing a variety of Cuban drums on a tiny balcony overlooking the stage.

But Havana is also underscored, far more monotonously, by the "me-me-me" of Federico's self-involvement.

Mr. Mena does a terrific job of making Federico, an essentially egocentric, self-concerned intellectual, likable.

But his gleeful, ongoing self-torment - "Did I abandon my country? Did it abandon me?" - gets old, in large part because, as a 9-year-old, it wasn't his decision to stay or go.

I couldn't help thinking the playwright is as self-indulgent as his central character, whom he has romanticized even as he avoids the scariest questions - and most pertinent - dramatic questions like "Why can't I let go?"

Leading off a Shelterhouse season that is going to be risky business compared to the recent past I wish the risks were being taken for a better play.



From Richmond Times-Dispatch

Date: May 20, 2000

Author: Roy Proctor

Early in TheatreVirginia's uneven production of Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," the young Albert Einstein (Richard Ruiz) examines a drawing on a scrap of paper.

"I never thought the 20th century would be handed to me so casually," he muses after a long pause. "Scratched out in pencil .*.*. tools thousands of years old, waiting for someone to move them in just this way."

The audience silence is appropriate and profound.

Even though the 1904 happenings in the real Paris bar in Martin's play are fictional, we have that spine-tingling feeling that we're standing on the threshold of modern history.

That drawing was made by the young Pablo Picasso (Chaz Mena), who will arrive soon at his favorite Montmartre haunt.

Picasso was beginning to attract a following in his "blue period." He was only three years away from painting his revolutionary cubist masterpiece, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," which turns into an emblem at the back of the stage before the final fade.

Albert Einstein was totally obscure in 1904 - he worked in a patent office in Switzerland - but his moment would come even sooner. He was only a year away from publishing "The Special Theory of Relativity," which would revolutionize science as thoroughly as "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" would upend art.

Einstein apparently never set foot in Paris - much less the Lapin Agile, which still exists - in 1904. But Martin's fictional situation is a clever conceit for a play that is philosophical, absurdist, sophisticated and cornball by turns.

At bottom, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" is a comedy on the edge of farce. Call it a happy valentine to the 20th century.

Some of those profound silences have their effect.

Too often in George Black's staging, however, they are symptoms of legitimate laughs missed in a production that often runs short of energy, lacks a compelling directorial vision and is finally a matter of each actor fending for himself for shine.

Martin is at his best in extended monologues, and some of the actors run with these to great effect.

Listen to Picasso's art dealer Sagot (Allan Hickle-Edwards) hold forth on the reasons people won't buy paintings picturing either sheep or Jesus.

It's a hoot.

Hear Einstein expound on the virtues of baking an E-shaped pie.

In Ruiz's telling, it's delectable.

Or revel in several company members as they speculate on changes the new century will bring and hit on everything from Hiroshima being "completely modernized" to "a craze for automobiles" that will pass.

Martin also springs some nice surprises toward the end.

A "time traveler" (Scott Duffy) arrives in blue suede shoes and proves to be about as startling as the transformation of the pharaoh in "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat." The bar's walls finally break away to reveal a starry sky full of promise for the young century.

Picasso may be in the title, but this is much more Einstein's show. Ruiz plays the physicist as a fastidious man with self-assurance in reserve. His laid-back portrayal is not nearly so colorful or interesting, however, as Mena's macho take on the womanizing and occasionally flamenco-dancing Picasso.

Kate Konigisor makes something of the bartender's mistress, but Jana Thompson has difficulty creating three distinct characters in the other female roles. David Sennett, as a zany inventor, and David Bridgewater, as the bartender, do the expected. Jim Hillgartner's character tag - continually retreating to the bathroom - soon wears out its welcome despite Hillgartner's efforts to make it fresh.

Sarah Eckert's tellingly detailed paneled-bar setting is warmly lighted by John Carter Hailey, but one can question whether it's not all a bit too dark to set and maintain the mood for comedy. Eckert's period costumes are more than serviceable.


From The Miami Herald

Date: October 5, 1996


Passage, Loretta Greco's moving and deeply felt play about Cuban rafters who risked life itself for freedom, has found a brief new berth at Miami's Coconut Grove Playhouse, where it runs through Sunday.

The play's journey from the tiny, 49-seat Area Stage on Miami Beach to the comparatively vast expanse of the Grove has been a lengthy one -- spanning almost six months, involving much shaping of the piece's stories, adding or changing cast members, earning Passage an incredibly warm embrace from Miami's Cuban exile community. Drawn from Greco's interviews with dozens of Cubans in exile and some still in Cuba, this theater-of-testimony is -- after all -- a story that so many in the play's audiences have lived.

Moved to the Grove to benefit Facts About Cuban Exiles (FACE) and the Guantanamo Refugee Assistance Project (GRASP), Passage has been physically broadened, with J.C. Rodriguez adapting James Faerron's artfully run-down set. Two musicians have been added, as have several actors. And since Passage originally opened at Area, the gifted Chaz Mena has assumed the part originated by Carlos Orizondo.

Director John Rodaz has, necessarily, reworked his staging for the Grove's much broader stage. Time and fine-tuning have tightened the piece, and several performances have grown stronger. Yet curiously, given all the tinkering, most of the flaws and virtues evident in Passage last May remain.

Understand, if you haven't seen Passage and have a desire to understand what hundreds of thousands in South Florida have endured -- or if you're one of those who endured it -- Passage will make that pain, hope, spirit and fear vividly real.

You won't soon forget Emiliano Diez, as a veteran of Brigade 2506, voicing his frustration at taking in tiny children at Stock Island. You'll hold your breath as Nattacha Amador tells a mother's story, of watching a huge shark shadowing the spot where her son sat on a raft, and of the vision of a Chinese man who guided those rafters to safety. You will exult right along with Iris Delgado as she shares a young girl's tale of plunging into the ocean clad in a black lace dress and satin shoes. And, far more than before, you will feel tears welling as Mena and Delgado tell the story of rafter Eddy Gonzalez, forced to leave his wife and sick baby behind in Cuba.

Still, Passage is political theater that could benefit from broadening of the points of view it represents. It needs more honing, more shaping, stronger focus in some of its stories. You trust that Greco, an astute and gifted ex-Miamian, will achieve that before Passage finds its next berth.


From: The Miami Herald

Date: November 14, 1992

Author: Christine Dolan

So you say your wife never has dinner on the table when you get home, and when it comes, it looks like burnt mush. And your husband pays you a romantic courtesy call maybe once a month, if you're lucky. And your mother-in-law has more gas than Chevron, a fact you're reminded of over dinner every damned Friday. And you're panic-stricken at accepting a dinner invitation because if you do, oh God, you'll have to reciprocate and you just can't handle that!

Calm down already. Steven Berkoff understands.

Berkoff's Kvetch, which has just opened at Miami Beach's Area Stage, is a kind of owner's manual of free-floating anxiety. Hilarious and deliberately offensive, it bridges the vast chasm between what we say and what we think.

There's no easy way to describe the plot of Kvetch,
because the absurdist play constantly stutters back and forth between interactive scenes and monologues revealing the hysterically agonized tapes constantly playing in the characters' heads.

Frank (Chaz Mena) is a Jewish salesman, a blustering basket case who's never, ever happy. His wife Donna (Karen Gordon) is a nervous wreck as she anticipates Frank's next tirade, which should occur in two seconds from whenever. Donna's mom (Ellen Davis) comes to dinner once a week because she thinks she should, not because she wants to, and her daughter's lousy cooking provokes a symphony of belches and worse. Hal (Dennis Hall), Frank's soon-to-be-single co-worker, reluctantly comes to dinner, erroneously imagines Frank and Donna to be a charming couple, and drives himself mad with feelings of withering inadequacy. George (Mike Benitez), a cigar-chomping businessman who shows up later, takes pleasure sticking it to Frank and Donna, in different ways.

Berkoff's stylistic device, which admittedly wears thin now and then, must have been a real killer for director John Rodaz and the cast to master. The playwright rapidly flips from words to the thoughts behind them. Whenever someone voices his or her inner thoughts, the others freeze, the focal character goes nuts, then the action resumes. It requires split-second timing and concentration, and Rodaz has coached his actors to near- perfection.

Mena, Gordon and Hall give the key performances, and they're a fabulously matched trio. Mena, who just won the Carbonell Award as last season's best actor for Lisbon Traviata at Area Stage, speaks in a kind of Cuisinart accent (Jewish New Yorker, lapsing into vaguely British speech) but clearly articulates Frank's constant, frenzied rage. Gordon plays a princess turned bitter, and her deft delivery of two sex-fantasy monologues makes the speeches simultaneously funny and erotic. Hall, with popping eyes and a fixed grin, just looks hilarious, and he makes Hal a man who can barely conceal an ongoing, lifelong nervous breakdown. Darin Jones' set design is as unorthodox as the play: a giant, crimson-lipped screaming mouth that spews forth these kvetching characters.

A word of warning: If you can't take nasty humor about Jews, "shiksas," blacks, old people, bodily functions, gay urges, sex and so on, stay away from Kvetch, 'cause you'll be enraged. But if you can, go for it. Area's got another hit.


From: The Miami Herald

Date: July 21, 1989

Author: Christine Dolan

The spirits of Indians -- and of Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard and David Mamet -- are alive if not entirely well this week in the Acme Acting Company's world premiere production of Janyce Lapore's Dolores Rain.

The play, which is the first offering in Acme's three-week new play festival in its performance space at Miami Beach's Strand Restaurant, combines Mamet's penchant for obscenity, Shepard's love of myth and violent confrontation, and a maddened and emasculating Williams-style mama -- but the result is only sporadically intriguing.

Dolores Rain (Kathleen Emrich) is a tough-talking, middle- aged mama who is loath to cut the umbilical cords, much less the apron strings, that bind her two grown sons to her.

She has managed to keep the stuttering, slightly dim Cassie (Gino Cabanas) close by and under her crushing thumb. But Johnny (Chaz Mena), who seems the reincarnation of the drunken Indian husband who long ago got wise and abandoned Dolores -- well, Johnny's gone off and got himself hitched to a silent Southern gal who does nothing but sit in their bedroom and paint her toenails scarlet.

Johnny has brought his bride (who is much-discussed and who ultimately perishes without ever making an appearance) back on the bus to beg Mama for $400 to get set up in his intended career as a novelist. (Sure, he could have saved the dough he spent on two bus fares and avoided the whole incestuous quagmire that is his mother, but then Lapore wouldn't have had a play.)

Dolores, however, has other ideas. Though she's a poor- woman's Hugh Hefner -- her favored attire is a tattered blue terry cloth bathrobe, even for takeout trips to Burger King -- Dolores is determined to seduce Johnny back into her life on a full-time basis, little scarlet-toed wife be damned.

I don't envy any actress the challenge of breathing credible life into such a lunatic, but Emrich is wildly out of control. Her Dolores finds and strikes every false note the playwright has composed for her, and rather than being seductive, she seems in need of being sedated. At least she's already dressed for the trip to the psychiatric ward.

Mena and Cabanas are less interesting when acting with Emrich than when they're on their own. Director Juan F. Cejas has guided Mena to a charged, highly physical performance that would be at home in Orphans or almost any Shepard play. Cabanas is funny and twitchy, his work full of subtle and appealing touches. The production is classic Acme -- loud, flashy theater for the rock-and-roll generation. Lapore, a Pittsburgh playwright who now lives in Hollywood, has done some of her loveliest, most poetic writing in the characters' pre-recorded monologues. She's a woman with talent, but her own voice seems too muffled by the echoes of others in Dolores Rain.

From: The Miami Herald

Date: May 31, 1993

Author: Christine Dolan

T Bone and Weasel are two petty South Carolina crooks who keep going back to the pen as reliably as the buzzards return to winter atop the Dade County Courthouse.

It's not that T Bone (James Samuel Randolph) and Weasel (Jon Elliott Matchen) especially like prison life. It's just that, as lawbreakers, the only thing they seem to do really well is get arrested.

Jon Klein's darkly funny T Bone N Weasel, first done at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., has now burrowed into Miami Beach's Area Stage. In cramped quarters against walls sporting a giant South Carolina map, T Bone and Weasel undertake a peripatetic and star-crossed crime spree, with a few boxes and prop guns and the wonderfully chameleonic Chaz Mena as their only companions.

Mena, voted South Florida's best actor by the area's critics last season, plays all the characters the hapless pair would love to victimize, unfailingly turning the tables on them.

He's Mr. Fergus, the proprietor of a country store (called "De Sto"), who just happens to be cleaning his rifle when the guys walk in with robbery on their minds. He's also Happy Sam, the used car dealer who smugly refuses to pay T Bone any more than $105 for a stolen Buick worth $5,000. And "Reverend Gluck," a homeless "preacher" who demands an offering at gunpoint. Also Verna Mae Beaufort, a less-than-attractive steel magnolia ("That woman could gag a maggot") who demands real special service from her new employee Weasel. And so on.

It can't be easy to do nine variations on redneck types, but Mena pulls it off zestfully and convincingly. His versatility is a large part of the fun in T Bone N Weasel.

As the oddball buddies, Randolph and Matchen are well cast and thoroughly believable.

Randolph is an accomplished classical actor and drama professor, yet he's got all the rhythms and attitudes of T Bone -- a cynical African-American graduate of the prison system who rightfully sees racism wherever he turns -- down cold. He brings just the right understated tone to lines such as, "Ain't too many black folks name they kids Bob."

Matchen makes Weasel a whiskey-voiced Creedence Clearwater Revival fanatic who has obviously pickled a few thousand too many brain cells. Yet, for all the jail time, he's a genuine innocent who really doesn't see the color of T Bone's skin, which leads to recurrent problems for them both and gives deeper meaning to Klein's twisted comedy.

T Bone N Weasel is something of a technical horror, since the guys are never in one place for long, but director John Rodaz and designer Darin Jones have solved the problem with spotlighted titles announcing locale ("A Stolen Buick on U.S. 21," for instance).

Very early in its run, T Bone N Weasel needs to get tighter technically and lighter in spirit. Still, it's another appealing production from Area Stage.


From: The Miami Herald

Date: June 10, 2003

Author: Christine Dolan

Showbiz gets its due, and then some, during City Theatre's Summer Shorts 2003, the company's annual smorgasbord of bite-sized theater.

Theater-as-hell, tres gay cable access TV, lives played out from an actual script, an aspiring poet-performer's life cut short - all flow from the imaginations of playwrights delving into write-what-you-know territory.

Grouped into two programs, this year's 15 short plays (now at the University of Miami's Ring Theatre, next month at the Broward Center) run the gamut from artsy theatricality to naturalistic warmth to hilarious parody. The deftly versatile eight-person acting company - Chaz Mena, Stephen Trovillion, Elizabeth Dimon, Kim Ostrenko, Brandon Morris, Gary Lee Smith, Lauren Feldman and Jenny Levine - is a joy to watch, even if that doesn't apply to every single one of the plays, staged by eight different directors.

Program A begins with Mark Harvey Levin's Scripted, in which a couple (Trovillion and Levine) wakes up to discover a script containing every word they'll utter throughout the day. It's a look at free will and boredom, the latter applying to the play itself.

In Bret Fetzer's Capsule, a cosmonaut who has never been alone (Mena) freaks out as he prepares for a space walk. Frightened into silence, he responds only to the voice of his German lover (Levine). A ground communicator (Smith) and narrator (Dimon) are the other voices in this so-so theater-as-high-art piece.

William Mastrosimone's 5 Minutes offers a vulgar, funny, tender look at a dying man (Trovillion) who makes a last request of his best friend (Mena), exacting a promise that will benefit both his buddy and his soon-to-be widow.

Hell becomes an audition, with Lucifer (Mena) as a superstar director, in Jon Robin Baitz' Show People. Though it's an inside-theater piece - the man in the very hot seat, Jerry (Smith), is modeled on Shubert Organization chairman Gerald Schoenfeld - it's a furiously funny play, with Mena sparkling as a self-satisfied, almost pixieish devil.

Susan Miller's The Grand Design at first seems a dullish lecture by a scientist (Morris) on the subject of images sent into outer space. But after his down-to-earth mother (Dimon) appears, the play finds its human connection and tenderness.

Popcorn Sonata by Jenny Lyn Bader speaks to the perfectionist, having-it-all moms (Ostrenko in this case) who find managing their difficult little darlings nearly impossible, though a teenage sitter (Feldman) makes it look maddeningly easy.

José Rivera's Impact, which might have been heart-rending, instead is a bafflingly calm recitation of treasured memories by co-workers leaping from the burning World Trade Center - though you could be forgiven for missing the context entirely.

In My Name is Leslie, customers (Trovillion, Morris, Feldman) declare war (and utilize the conventions and clichés of war movies) on a waitress (Ostrenko) who blithely promises to take their orders - then smilingly ignores them.

Program B, also with more treasures than duds, begins with Shel Silverstein's One Tennis Shoe, in which a middle-class man (Smith) confronts his wife (Dimon) about her not-so-inner bag lady tendencies. It's followed by the bizarre Merge from Neil LaBute, whose characters inevitably act out our worst fears. This time, a woman (Levine) returns from a business trip, and on the drive home slowly (and nonchalantly) confesses to her husband (Mena) the details of a drunken group sex experience. Ugh.

In Louis Felder's Flight of Fancy, a seasoned salesman (Smith) and hot-shot young ``marketing'' rep (Feldman) explore the commonalities and differences in closing a deal. Marco Ramirez' lovely Pipo and Fufo: 1969 considers the easy, mock-insulting friendship of two Cuban men (Morris and Mena). Mary Gallagher's First Communion, in which a woman (Dimon) remembers the pure ideal and dispiriting reality (including a rampaging nun) of that experience, will mean most to those who have lived through it, little to anyone else.

Feldman stars in her own soaring play Asteroid Belt, juxtaposing a doomed woman-child dreamer and her worried parents (Trovillion and Ostrenko). And Paul Rudnick's outrageously funny Mister Charles, Currently of Palm Beach is the gem of both programs, giving Trovillion the chance to dazzle - tastefully, of course - as the droll Mr. Charles, host of his own gleefully gay cable show.

Design-wise, the festival similarly ranges from terrific (Steve Shapiro's evocative sound) to tepid (Michael M. Williams' rolling metallic grids, a distracting and cheap-looking background). But on the whole, Summer Shorts 2003 is one of City Theatre's meatier efforts.

From: The Miami Herald

Date: September 26, 1994

Author: Christine Dolan

And you thought David Mamet's plays were dirty.

Heed this warning: If you're offended by the foul poetry of Mamet's writing, you'll probably require hospitalization should you stumble into Arthur Kopit's Road to Nirvana, a satire of both Mamet and Hollywood that's turning the air inside Area Stage blue.

Deliberately and relentlessly offensive, Nirvana is a kind of gloves-off version of Mamet's Speed-the-Plow; indeed, when it premiered at Louisville's Humana Festival, the Kopit play was called Bone-the-Fish.

In Kopit's Hollywood, noses sport more white powder than a baby's bottom, and the only certainty is that the other guy is lying -- usually while assuring you of his sincerity as he does a major kiss-up. Nirvana tracks the deliberate debasement of Jerry (Chaz Mena), who has slid from moviemaking's fast track to making sex-education films. Nevertheless, he's been summoned by his former partner Al (Dave Caprita) and Al's ladyfriend Lou (Elle Maslanova) to see if he's got the right stuff for another try at the brass ring.

The prize, fame and fortune, hangs on the success of Al's new property: a biopic of Nirvana (Ariane Nicole), America's hottest female rock star. (The similarity of "Nirvana" and "Madonna" is deliberate.) So what if the script is a bad rewrite of Moby Dick, with Nirvana as Ahab and a giant penis as the whale? Her fans will love it.

You must, by now, get the drift. Outrageousness is like breathing in Road to Nirvana. To demonstrate his loyalty, Jerry is asked to slice his wrists and to act upon the vulgar expression "eat s---." His ultimate sacrifice would give John Wayne Bobbitt flashbacks. But Jer? Takes it like a mensch.

Despite its title, Road to Nirvana is as far in tone from a Hope and Crosby road picture as Madonna is from Debby Boone. And it is no real surprise that Area would hire Joseph Adler to direct it. Adler's extensive experience includes both Mamet and more than a few productions that incorporate elements that are loud, violent, shocking or sexual: Who better in these parts to stage a play involving toplessness, castration and repeated use of the "F" word? That said, Adler has elected to emphasize what's real and truthful in Kopit's script rather than its over- the-top outrageousness. The choice may blunt some of the satire, but it allows the actors to achieve far more complex performances.

And that is the real thrill of Area's Road to Nirvana: an absolutely killer ensemble.

If you've only seen Mena do his multiple-character stuff at Area, you won't believe how subtle, moving and multifaceted he is as Jerry. Caprita, perhaps better known as the morning guy on Love 94 radio, brings out the unalterability of Al's character -- he's a mean-spirited sycophant -- but also depicts his struggle to give up drugs and booze. Maslanova's Lou is a deadpan wonder and far more complicated than she initially seems. And Nicole makes Nirvana both victim and savvy bully. In terms of design, Road to Nirvana is another stunning Area achievement. Darin Jones fits not one but two Hollywood palaces inside the theater's narrow space, and his lighting is California bright for Al's place, movie-star mysterious for Nirvana's. Steve Shapiro's thumping music and Stephen Simmons' striking costumes are similarly impressive.

The Road to Nirvana is a wild one. Travel it at your peril. Or pleasure.

NY Theatre Archive
2002-03 Theatre Season Reviews: O Jerusalem

From: NY Theatre Online: NY Theatre Archive

Date: March 20, 2003

Author: Aaron Leichter

We are a nation in search of answers. Our leaders act cocksure and other countries revile their overconfidence. But we ordinary citizens, switching channels between a barrage of embedded reporters and the usual junk food of sitcoms and reality shows as we brood on that thought that if it happened once, it will happen again, we ordinary citizens want answers and may fear that there are none. Theatre can no more answer our questions than television, but it can phrase them so that we ourselves can begin to. For most of O Jerusalem, now at the Flea Theater in Tribeca, A.R. Gurney inquires into the nature of the politics of the Middle East, in a manner at once simple and complex, spurring the audience to think carefully about global politics. But in the last scenes, he mewls platitudes. Because of this failure of nerve, O Jerusalem is a thudding disappointment.

Set in some Vonnegut-style future, where a book-length essay called "O Jerusalem" has transformed the world into a utopia, the play flashes back to the summer and fall of 2001 and the events that led to the revolutionary book. Gurney parodies the discursive structure of many nonfiction adaptations by relating events through a talky chorus. The actors break character and skip scenes. Within the action itself, O Jerusalem is a kind of postmodern Shaw play, where people argue as if their lives depend on it because their lives do depend on it: it’s discussion as action.

In the play-within-a-play, Hartwell (Stephen Rowe), a self-centered mid-level American diplomat in the Middle East, meets an old flame, a Christian Palestinian idealist named Amira (the superb Rita Wolf). Her son has heard rumors of a large-scale terrorist action still in the planning stages, an attack by air somewhere on the US eastern seaboard. Hartwell desperately tries to pass this grain of intelligence on to his superiors, but the State Department won’t listen, the White House won’t listen, the CIA won’t listen, even another ex-lover, Sally (Priscilla Shanks) won’t listen. When the towers fall, he steals away to a New England cabin to write out his thoughts. Those writings are the ideas that will change the world.

It’s these post-9/11 scenes that sink the show. Hartwell’s obsession for blowing the whistle on the calcified American policy doesn’t track with his earlier character, while his conversion to activism lacks a basic dramatic foundation. Most damningly, his ultimate

message—and the play’s—is ridiculous and simplistic: “We’re all in this thing together.” Beware political plays that can be summed up in one sentence.

The impression given is that Gurney didn’t polish his play past a rough draft. Small plot holes and extraneous information—why is Amira a Christian Palestinian?—don’t ladder the play’s fabric until the final scenes tear it apart. O Jerusalem provokes frustration because it could’ve been so much more. Despite his occasional sloppiness, Gurney goes further than the authors of other political plays running Off-Broadway today in teasing out the horrifying complexity of the present situation. He makes some very good points about how water rights are as important as oil rights in the Middle Eastern deserts. And the triangle of Amira-Hartwell-Sally gives the play a sexy edge that dramatizes the intellectual subject matter (it’s worth mentioning that Gurney’s previous plays have tended to be wry dramas populated by mandarins; here, the politics give the relationships a welcome heft).

For their part, director Jim Simpson and his design team approach the script playfully by stripping the stage to essential elements: locations are suggested through large photographs on easels; only a few props appear onstage. A LED strip, like the newsribbons in Times Square, announces the date of each new scene, adding suspense as the play moves closer to September 2001 and then past it. Clever references to the past bring the play alive in the present (as opposed to the future where it’s set): to show Hartwell’s stops in the Mediterranean, the Chorus refers to a map of the Roman Empire.

And throughout, there’s an ad hoc quality to the ensemble’s performances. Actors-playing-actors-playing-characters directly address the audience with hilarious effect, filling latecomers in on what they’ve missed. Chaz Mena, as one of the pair of choral members who plays several roles, steals the play in a great scene as an Israeli cabbie who can’t help arguing with Amira. Their interaction, both in dialogue and in performance, captures the nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian bond of fraternal hatred: when she hears that her son has been killed, it is this minor character who comforts her.

O Jerusalem has several such scenes that are both dramatic and intellectual, that raise as many questions as they answer. And through most of the play, Gurney uses a deft theatrical touch. But his ending squanders the goodwill that he’s built up. Audiences may remember the first hour and a quarter, or they may recall the last fifteen minutes. Their reactions will rest on which of those two sections lingers most in their minds.

'Mad Dancers' turns on absurdities: The odd story focused on a typist for IBM has its roots in modern Jewish comedy.

From: The Riverside Press-Enterprise

Date: April 4, 2001

Author: Jim Trageser, Special to the Press-Enterprise

It's a tale the Marx Brothers would have loved: An 18th-century European rabbi who is dying without a son to succeed him as leader of his ultra-Orthodox community uses his mystical powers to travel to the future in search of an heir. His ultimate choice? A portly, balding, gay -- and very secular -- typist for IBM.

If Yehuda Hyman's "The Mad Dancers" sounds a bit odd, well, think about some of the story lines at the heart of the Marx Brothers' -- or even Woody Allen's -- movies. As the centerpiece of the San Diego Jewish Arts Festival, the world premiere of "Mad Dancers" at the San Diego Rep is firmly rooted in modern Jewish comedy. By turns dark and uplifting, it also mixes the absurd with the everyday. Or the absurd from the everyday.

Playwright Hyman -- who also portrays the portly, balding, gay and secular Elliott Green -- breathes a spirited life into his characters. While the outside world may not be able to see beyond the forelocks and black robes of the Hasidic community, Hyman delves into the very human joys of dance and song at the heart of their religious celebrations.

And in following the seven trials of prince-elect Elliott Green, the audience also gets a chance to immerse itself in Jewish mysticism, in the larger-than-life status given to a rebbe in some Orthodox communities.

Chaz Mena, who portrays one of the rebbe's followers who also turns up in Satan's restaurant as a waiter, gives a comedic introduction to the chicken dish worthy of Groucho himself. Jaye Austin-Williams does fine in multiple roles ranging from Elliott's IBM boss, Brenda, as well as the deaf-mute gardener and the rebbe's follower, Liebowitz.

In John Campion, Hyman has the perfect rebbe -- Campion projects a leader who is charismatic, passionate, and able to carry his burden of leadership by leavening it with huge doses of humor.

But Hyman is also the perfect Elliott Green -- a modern, narcissistic American worried only about his own happiness. He's not particularly enamored of the tasks presented him by the rebbe, but when events spin out of his control, he does find new resources of strength and community he'd never imagined he possessed.


From: The Palm Beach Post

Date: May 6 1994

Author: Hap Erstein

The theater has addressed the AIDS health crisis in a variety of eloquent ways, but only recently has it gotten around to the comic response. But laughter can lead to understanding too, as Paula Vogel demonstrates in her funny, cathartic play, The Baltimore Waltz.

Named for the city in which her brother died of the disease, the wildly imaginative work is her elegy to him in farce form. It is performed with an aptly manic frenzy by a nimble Area Stage cast that captures Vogel's comic punch and poignance.

Actually, AIDS is never mentioned in the script. But such is the pervasiveness of its plague that Vogel merely has to put Carl, a young, gay male librarian from San Francisco, onstage with a doctor hovering in the background and she knows the audience will make the connection.

Vogel attacks her subject obliquely, from a satiric distance, by making Carl's sister Anna the patient. According to her doctor, who spouts mouthfuls of medical gobbledygook, she has contracted the dreaded ATD - Acquired Toilet Disease. It is a fatal syndrome that seems to afflict mainly single elementary school teachers who contract it from using the potty seat of their students without taking proper precautions. The government has no answers to the disease beyond the cautionary sloganeering, ``Squat, don't sit.''

So, off go Anna and Carl on an escape through Europe, from Paris to Amsterdam to Berlin to Vienna. She takes her first and probably last trip to the Continent as an opportunity to give in to repressed sexual escapades as well as to seek a miracle cure from the elusive experimentalist, Dr. Todesrocheln. He has a purported treatment for ATD, as well as an uncanny resemblance to Dr. Strangelove.

Film references abound, as Carl goes in search of Harry Lime, The Third Man, in a loopy spy-vs.-spy plot involving something mysterious and sinister in Carl's childhood stuffed bunny.

The production succeeds at establishing its cinematic pace and transitions, thanks to John Rodaz's playful direction, his film noir lighting and surreal set design, as well as a vigorous, versatile performance by Chaz Mena as all the men Carl and Anna encounter on their odyssey.

Vogel paints these characters in broad national stereotypes, from amorous Frenchmen to brusque Germans to the fabled Dutch boy of dike-plugging fame, now at middle age. Yet when Carl pauses to shows us his travel slides, it seems possible that they never left for Europe at all. At many junctures, just as The Baltimore Waltz seems headed for sheer silliness, Vogel sidesteps that fate with several disquieting speeches and ultimately with a stunning final twist.

As Anna, Phebe Finn has a sweet, earthy quality and is both comic and moving racing through the generic mental stages of a terminal patient. Jerry Pacific's Carl is a caring helpmate to his sister, a man of considerable mystery and, when we first see him, someone with a droll capacity for anger. Ultimately, though, it is Mena who walks off with the production with his quick-change tour de force, some dozen separate, vivid and continually amusing roles.

The Baltimore Waltz is a highly individual, heartfelt response to AIDS, but delivered through the funnybone.

From: The Palm Beach Post

Date: October 4, 1994

Author: Hap Erstein

What highly personal sacrifices would you be willing to make to produce a movie that could reap untold fortunes? That's the question of the day in Arthur Kopit's Road to Nirvana, a raunchy, overtly comic stage sendup of Hollywood deal-making and spiritual values. It is an amusing entertainment, but not for the tame of heart or tender of ears and not to be taken too seriously.

The theater loves to snipe at the movie world and Kopit does so with a gleefully outrageous and foul-mouthed verve here. True, he doesn't have much to say beyond moviemakers are incorrigibly two-faced vermin who will do anything for a box office blockbuster. But he expresses the unoriginal notion with such unabashed excess that - for the first act, at least - he is able to sustain the trashy merriment.

It would help your enjoyment of Road to Nirvana and the very hip, free-wheeling Area Stage production if you were familiar with David Mamet's dig at Hollywood pomposity and duplicity, Speed-The-Plow.

Kopit is both satirizing and paying homage to that tug-of-war scenario, as well as trying to outdo the master's obscenity output. Lest we miss the parallels, Kopit originally named his prank play Bone-the-Fish.

He reunites two former producing partners - Al, a successful packager of big feature flicks and Jerry, whose conscience and taste removed him from the studio fast lane and onto the dead-end track of educational films. For motives not entirely clear, Al offers Jerry a chance to team again on a hot property written by and starring egocentric rock star Nirvana (who has more than a coincidental resemblance to Madonna).

But first, Jerry's commitment must be tested. Does he want the project enough to slit his wrists? To eat excrement? To give up a highly personal part of his anatomy? Ah, the big issues of show biz.

As he escalates the tests, Kopit also raises the comic stakes. He has a been-there command of Hollywood meetings and of the movie executive's smiling insincerity. He spoofs the mind-set by giddily expanding on the patter and patois, which renders the verbal exchanges at least as comic as the loyalty tests. Unfortunately, he stretches the fun too far with a repetitive second act that - worst of all - begins to take seriously what he had just savaged.

The good news is the Area Stage cast, directed with an assured, inventive hand by Joseph Adler, remains on course even when the play goes south. Chaz Mena (Jerry) and Dave Caprita are wonderful comic foils for each other, getting impressive variety from their cat-and-mouse mind games.

Elle Maslanova gives a canny spin to the role of Lou, Al's seemingly dimwitted business partner. Her deadpan sarcastic line readings are very much on target and her nonchalant toplessness in the play's opening scene certainly sets the evening's tone effectively.

Darin Jones cleverly manages two visually stunning sets - Al's palatial patio and Nirvana's temple-like digs - on a shoestring. Kopit has stretched his Hollywood joke beyond the breaking point, but Area Stage fulfills his scabrous vision and keeps the laughter coming longer than it deserves to.


From: The Miami Herald

Date: May 7, 1994

Author: Christine Dolan

Paula Vogel's The Baltimore Waltz, a work born of guilt and sorrow, is one of the two funniest AIDS plays ever written (Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey being the other).

John Rodaz's production of Waltz, newly opened at Area Stage on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, isn't just amusing. It's riotous. And without going into details (because the moment defies description), anyone who sees Area's Baltimore Waltz will never again be able to hear the word "encore" without smirking.

When Vogel's brother Carl asked her to go with him to Europe in 1986, she turned him down, saying she couldn't afford it. What she didn't know was that Carl had learned he was HIV- positive. By the beginning of 1988, he was dead.

The Baltimore Waltz is the trip the brother and sister never took, an extravagantly imaginative allegory that Rodaz has his three actors play in a fevered frenzy. Though it begins and ends realistically -- the play's Carl (Jerry Pacific) meets the same fate as Vogel's brother -- the bulk of the play is a role- reversed romp.

In this wild dream, Carl's sister Anna (Phebe Finn), an elementary schoolteacher, discovers she has a fatal illness called ATD -- Acquired Toilet Disease, a growing epidemic among single female teachers. She also learns that the disease can't be transmitted sexually, so when Carl takes her to Europe in search of a cure, Anna vows to give herself over to every appealing sexual opportunity that comes her way.

And do they. She beds a snooty French waiter (who pronounces "Diet Pepsi" so that it comes out "Dee-it Bep-see"), a virginal German bellboy, the former Little Dutch Boy (gone soft with middle age), and a German radical, all played lustily (and with perfect accents) by Chaz Mena.

Mena also plays the mysterious Harry Lime (there are a number of allusions to Orson Welles' The Third Man, all pretty meaningless if you're not up on the film) and the insane Dr. Todesrcheln (the name translates as "deathgasp"), a quack who makes ATD patients drink their own urine. In the showiest acting assignment, Mena is fabulous.

Finn and Pacific are both strong, funny and very sympathetic. No matter how absurd the turns of Vogel's script, the two actors never let you forget the life-and-death struggle that underlies it.

Rodaz, who has directed sensitively and with a wild comic touch, also did the colorful lighting and the Magritte-inspired set, which communicates instantly that the journey you're about to take involves fantasy. Steve Shapiro's sound and original score (with its homage to The Third Man ) make the journey much more vivid.

Laughter, at the very least, offers a necessary respite
from sorrow. The Baltimore Waltz is no dance of death, but rather a celebration of a bond that transcends time and mortality.


From: The Palm Beach Post

Date:January 29, 1999

Author: Hap Erstein

In 1976, Argentinian Manuel Puig wrote a powerful novel about two prisoners in a squalid, inhumane jail cell, reaching out to each other for their mutual survival. Called The Kiss of the Spider Woman, it later became an Oscar-winning movie and, even more unexpectedly, a Tony Award-winning musical.

It is a story whose dramatic punch is undeniable, regardless of the adaptation. Still, Puig is not much of a dramatist and his own stage version of the political saga - translated by Allan Baker - is rudimentary, at best. Now at the Coconut Grove Playhouse's renovated, intimate Encore Room, the production's saving graces are the performances of cellmates Tomas Milian and Chaz Mena.

Milian, an international film star, invests the role of apolitical homosexual window dresser Molina with an ethereal delicacy, conveying the man who escapes the harsh realities of prison with his vivid memories of the movies. Mena is aptly brutish as rabble-rouser Valentin, for whom the political cause is everything. Although the weak-willed Molina agrees to spy on Valentin for the warden, he finds himself falling in love instead. Initially, Valentin has no use for the effeminate queen, but Molina's movie narratives help the time pass and ultimately Valentin gains a lesson about tenderness from him.

There are advantages to Puig's adaptation approach of keeping the focus tight on the two main characters, but also disadvantages. It lacks a sense of the world outside - the police lurking just beyond their cell, Molina's dying, doting mother, Valentin's guerrilla confederates and his girlfriend.

Just as important and just as missing is some theatrical representation of the movies in Molina's mind, a romanticized image to contrast with the sordid conditions of their reality. This Kiss of the Spider Woman still works, even though Puig seems to have narrowed his own creation.

That abstract lyricism that is absent on the page is certainly present in Milian's performance. With a blond wig tucked under an arty beret and a draped feather boa for gestural effect, he visually captures the anomaly that is Molina. Early on, he sweeps the air with his masculine hands and hairy arms, flailing flamboyantly, sucking in his cheeks for histrionic poses. Gradually, he lets Valentin - and us - see the smaller, pitiable man behind the mask, an achingly honest act of openness.

It is probably inevitable that Molina overshadows the more conventional Valentin, but Mena manages to hold his corner of the stage with his bold characterization. Spider Woman is a study in contrasts, and Mena is most memorable when he is at his most vulnerable. Weakened by tainted food and unable to take a shower, he goes into an itching fit that will have theatergoers scratching in response.

Although director Roberto Prestigiacomo's production is not elaborate, Eric S. Nelson's lighting design is starkly mood-setting, notably with a film flicker effect which frames the evening and helps transitions between scenes. Also a plus is Steve Shapiro's sound design, an aural dimension that adds to the bleak atmosphere.

Ultimately, though, despite the flat, by-the-numbers adaptation, Kiss of the Spider Woman spins a web of the triumph of the human spirit.


From: Miami Herald,

Date: August 11, 1992

Author: Christine Dolan

The voice that binds them, a sound they consider divinity in female form, is the impassioned soprano of the late Maria Callas. The flamboyant Mendy (John Felix) and tormented Stephen (Chaz Mena) are gay men with little else in common, but their devotion to Callas -- as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of opera and a gift for the bitchy remark -- have led to a friendship that sustains them both.

Dining and dishing on a stormy night full of hilarious digs, a night underscored by loneliness and worry, Mendy and Stephen seek escape. And in Terrence McNally's The Lisbon Traviata, now being given a terrific production at Miami Beach's intimate Area Stage, the men sweep us right along on their bumpy, rollicking ride.

McNally, the author of such plays as Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and Lips Together, Teeth Apart, wrote The Lisbon Traviata in 1985, and revised it -- for the better, critics said -- in 1989. It remains a schizophrenic work, with a funny first act and a pathos-filled second; if this were opera, it would be a double bill of opera bouffe and tragic grand opera.

The linking character is Stephen, a witty editor whose soaring career at Knopf has lately gone into a tailspin because of his disintegrating relationship with Mike (Carlos Orizondo), a once-married doctor who has been Stephen's lover for eight

years. Because of their agreement about an "open" relationship -- an arrangement Stephen actually loathes -- Stephen has been cast out for the night so that Mike can romance Paul (Richard Jason Ascher), a social work grad student at Columbia.

Edgy and annoyed, Stephen is engaging in the mental equivalent of thumb-twiddling over dinner and the Diva at Mendy's opulently baroque apartment, awaiting a call for a late date of his own. The men engage in a game of operatic one- upsmanship, testing each other's knowledge of productions, dates, conductors and singers. Then Stephen "gets" Mendy by revealing a pirated recording of Callas singing La Traviata in Lisbon (hence, the title), a recording Stephen possesses, a recording Mendy decides he must have this very minute.

This first act is more typical McNally, which means it is sometimes riotously funny. Stephen, reminiscing about Mike, comments, "There's something beyond masculinity." To which Mendy replies, "I know. Me." And though McNally's opera references are extensive, you needn't know much about the art form to appreciate, say, the labeling of Joan Sutherland as "the Beast
from Down Under."

Act Two switches to Stephen and Mike's minimalist modern flat on what is literally a sad and sober morning after. Stephen comes home early to find the living room strewn with the remnants of pizza and passion. A nude Paul emerges from the bedroom to collect his clothes, then makes a surprised retreat. Later, Stephen smilingly torments his young rival, "sharing" graphic Polaroids of himself and Mike in the early days, when passion consumed them. Exit Paul and, after a confrontation that is painful both physically and emotionally, Mike.

Area Stage's production, directed with sensitivity and an engaging theatricality by John Rodaz, is a wonderful example of how imagination and talent can more than compensate for a limited budget. For instance: The transformation of the tiny stage from Mendy's extravagant digs, framed by Lazaro Amaral's paintings of bawdy "angels," to Stephen's stark space is breathtaking.

Mena, one of South Florida's best actors, displays his depth and range in The Lisbon Traviata, infusing his performance with rich physical detail and making Stephen's emotional immolation deeply affecting. Felix demonstrates his versatility by gleefully digging into every one of Mendy's campy lines. Ascher is quite good and understated as a "victim" who can more than hold his own against Stephen. Only Orizondo, at this point, falls short; playing Mike more like a street kid than a youthful doctor, he focuses so relentlessly on the character's problem that he seems dour and humorless.

Perfection in anything is rare -- even Callas, Stephen and Mendy would reluctantly admit, could "flat" a note. But Area Stage's lively, turbulent production of The Lisbon Traviata is just about as good as it gets in South Florida's burgeoning small theater scene -- which is very good indeed.

Biting adaptation of German farce at Play House

From: Cleveland Jewish News

Date: March 12, 2004

Author: Fran Heller

To be honest, farce, with its silly pratfalls, madcap humor, and preening
puns, has never been my play of choice. But, despite my misgivings, I found myself chuckling through much of "The Underpants," Steve Martin's witty adaptation of Carl Sternheim's 1911
German comedy, "Die Hose." It's at The Cleveland Play House through March
28. "The Underpants," about a pair of lady's bloomers that accidentally fall
down in public, is a bawdy sex farce with bite. For Jewish audience
members, that bite is particularly menacing. What keeps the silliness from being completely insubstantial, especially for the Jewish viewer, is a painfully sardonic sense of history. What is
merely hinted at in the turn-of-the-20th-century piece, becomes, in hindsight, a chilling reminder of a horrifically tragic fact.

Director Peter Hackett's frolicsome production emphasizes the humor, but
with an ominous undercurrent that is unmistakably clear.Presented without an intermission, the play loses comic steam and runs 15 minutes longer than its projected 90-minute length. Theo Maske is a boorish, middle-class civil servant concerned with appearances. When his comely wife's undies fall to her ankles during the king's parade, he is mortified by the prospect of scandal. Those witnessing the event, including an aspiring poet and a hypochondriac
barber, are smitten, and both are eager to take up lodgings in the room for
rent at the Maske household.

The absurdist plot becomes the vehicle for a satire on bourgeois morality
and topics ranging from sexual hypocrisy (married men can have affairs, but
not their wives) to antisemitism. Carl Sternheim, a prolific writer and playwright, was the son of a wealthy Jewish banker and a Protestant mother. According to sources, throughout his
life, Sternheim struggled with his confused religious identity. Sternheim used "The Underpants" to tweak the monolithic and unimaginative society that would eventually promote the rise of Hitler; his works were banned by the Nazis. Between the laugh lines, the references to Germany's political future are unmistakable. Theo himself is the perfect German bureaucrat who doesn't rock the boat or question the system. "I do my duty. I blend in," says the
stolid clerk, who eats, sleeps and works and does what he is told.

Bill Clarke's surreal cartoon setting includes a gigantic leg encased in a
stocking ("Die Hose") studded with red valentines. A cuckoo clock with a
distinct personality announces each segment change. Robin Heath's sound
effects and Richard Winkler's lighting add to the allure.

The action takes place in the kitchen/living room of the Maske flat. A bird
in a cage symbolizes the tight leash with which Maske keeps his pretty
young wife in tow. Tower-like walls and a high window emphasize the wife's
imprisonment, like the storybook character Rapunzel, who must climb a tall
ladder to see the outside world.

The squat, mustached Chaz Mena is perfectly cast as the priggish Theo
Maske, whose clownish character is part Charlie Chaplin and part Adolf
Hitler, whom Chaplin satirized in his 1940 film, "The Great Dictator."
(Chaplin also played a Jewish barber in the movie; in this play, there is
also a Jewish barber.) With a tangle of Shirley Temple curls and a wide-eyed naïve ingenuousness to match, Tanya Clarke charms as Theo's exceptionally pretty wife, Louise. The love-starved hausfrau daydreams about sexual adventure and romance
while burning her husband's dinner, with real smoke emanating from the
kitchen stove. Johanna Morrison titillates as the sex-starved middle-aged woman and
meddlesome neighbor, Gertrude Deuter, who lives vicariously through Louise
while lusting after her husband. "I am 42," says Gertrude, to which Theo
replies, "Blood still courses through rusty pipes," drawing an especially
loud guffaw from the audience. The humor wears thin in spots, including a stretch of toilet humor that is neither funny nor tasteful.

Cloaked in costumer Kristine Kearney's elegant tails and high-hat, Sam
Gregory has the looks and grandiloquence of the debonair unpublished poet,
Frank Versati. Versati finds his muse in the beautiful Louise, but his
sexual ardor is smothered in verbal bombast. Brad Bellamy hams it up as the sickly barber, Benjamin Cohen, who competes with the poet for Louise's affection. "That's Cohen with a K," says the Jewish hairdresser, whose slip-of-the-tongue Yiddish expressions are hastily concealed in response to the antisemitic Theo. With split-second timing, Bellamy hilariously switches gears from lecher to mouse when the husband unexpectedly appears. Ronald Thomas Wilson suits the elderly Klinglehoff, the unexpected third suitor who is not above a leer or two of his own. There's a lot to laugh at in "The Underpants." But what stays with me,after the laughter fades, is the crescendo of goose-stepping boots.

A feast of Lorca. (Federico Garcia Lorca's plays performed in several countries in commemoration of his 100th birth anniversary)

From: American Theatre Magazine

Date: July 1, 1998

Author: Mona Molarsky

Plays by the Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca are being performed by various theater groups around the world in commemoration of the artist's 100th birth anniversary. His controversial play entitled 'El Publico' will be performed for the first time in New York by the Repertorio Espanol. Lorca's plays that are being performed in other countries include 'Blood Wedding,' 'Yerma,' 'Buster Keaton's Bike Ride in Barcelona' and 'The House of Bernarda Alda.'

A spate of international productions serve up the passionate depths of Garcia Lorca's plays

Three days before opening night, New York's Gramercy Park Theater is dark inside. It's so black you have to feel your way down the aisle. Then a soft, dream-like spot appears upstage left and gradually brightens.

"A little more, just a little more!" calls director Rene Buch from the depths of the balcony. "Yes. Perfect. Que bonita!" he laughs, shifting into Spanish. A young man walks downstage, draped in white chiffon. "Do you like it, Flor?" he asks Buch, doing a slow turn. "No. No quiero! It looks like Carole Lombard," Buch complains to the costume designer. In a minute she's up on stage, snipping and pinning the fabric.

Tonight is the pre-dress rehearsal for a long-overdue New York premiere. Written in 1930 by Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, El Publico has had to wait almost 70 years to get produced in the same city where it was conceived. Dubbed by Lorca his "impossible theatre" because of its technical difficulties and then-taboo theme - homosexual love - El Publico "disappeared" after Lorca's 1936 execution by Fascists during the Spanish Civil War. When it reemerged, 20 years later, the play stayed unperformed for another whole decade. El Publico has since been published, translated and performed numerous times, but never - until now, that is - in New York. This year, to honor the 100th anniversary of Lorca's birth, Buch, and the company of which he is artistic director, Repertorio Espanol, is producing the still-subversive play.

Lorca has been a mainstay at Repertorio, which over the last 30 years has produced all his major works, including Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba, his three tragedies set in the Spanish countryside. Staging El Publico is clearly an act of love for the company - and a way for it to be judged in the international arena during Lorca's centennial year.

Throughout the world, from Buenos Aires to Tokyo, theatre groups are mounting tributes to the playwright, who was born in on June 5, 1898, in Granada. Every one of his 15 plays is currently in production somewhere - including Madrid, Brussels, Havana, Cairo, Lyon, Moscow and New York, among other cities. Even his lesser-known plays - the comedies, tragicomedies, puppet shows, and "experimental" works like El Publico - are finally getting the attention they deserve.

This year, Spain alone is hosting a vast array of events to commemorate Lorca, who remained censored there from the Civil War until Franco's death in 1975. There are festivals, poetry readings, dance performances, concerts, exhibitions and lectures dedicated to Lorca, offering the chance to see unusual productions like Lorca's short, experimental piece Buster Keaton's Bike Ride in Barcelona. In the spirit of La Barraca, Lorca's traveling theatre group that brought classics to the poor during the early '30s, several companies are now touring rural Spain. An unprecedented number of puppet productions are scheduled, too. Lorca was fond of puppetry and wrote several puppet plays, including The Billyclub Puppets and The Puppet Play of Don Cristobal.

Lorca's work has long been venerated in the Spanish-speaking world. As Buch puts it, "When he published his poems, The Gypsy Ballads, in 1928, he became a torero, a bullfighter. Everyone in Spain knew his poems and quoted them." At this time, as Lorca was being hailed "the people's poet," he was also working on various experimental theatre projects, plans for a traveling puppet troupe and an avant-garde magazine. His friends and artistic collaborators included painter Salvador Dali, filmmaker Luis Bunuel and composer Manuel de Falla. In 1930, Picasso designed the costumes for Lorca's comedy The Shoemaker's Prodigious Wife, which premiered in Madrid with Spanish star Margarita Xirgu in the lead role. By 1933, when he arrived in Buenos Aires, where Blood Wedding was a hit, Lorca had become a celebrity in Latin America as well. He remains beloved there to this day.

But Lorca in translation is another matter entirely. In 1935, the same year that Waiting for Lefty catapulted Clifford Odets to fame, Blood Wedding opened at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse to bemused reviews. What could Americans make of a play that included among its characters the Moon, personified as a woodcutter, and Death as a beggar? Plain-talking actors from the land of Jimmy Stewart found themselves speaking lines like "with a knife/with a tiny knife/that barely fits the hand/but that slides in clean/through the astonished flesh."

In the six decades since, Lorca has never become a staple of the American theatre, but south of our border and in much of Europe, he's mentioned in the same breath as Synge, Brecht, Pirandello and Genet. Some American directors have been frightened off by supposedly difficult works like El Publico, and translation problems have dogged his plays. One critic, reviewing Ted Hughes's version of Blood Wedding in London two years ago, said, "Its poetry - at once flinty and florid - is damnably hard to make work in English."

But Lorca's troubled relationship with Anglos involves more than just language. The author, whose American visit in 1929 compelled him to write Poet in New York, a book containing poems like "Landscape of the Vomiting Multitudes," has an emotional temperature many on these shores find unnerving. Once famous for declaiming his writings at the drop of a hat, Lorca is vibrantly theatrical and emotional to the core. What might read like "The Surrealist Manifesto" on paper reveals a potently visceral force on stage.

That much was clear when I returned to Repettorio on opening night. From the first moment when veteran actor Ricardo Barber made his entrance down the center aisle, the house was spellbound. A ghostly light, the sound of whispers and wind blowing - little in the way of costumes or sets was necessary. Director Buch had stripped El Publico down to its essentials - actors on a stage, engaged in wild, intense, free-flowing dialogue. The play, like so much of Lorca, attacks the conventions of theatre and gender, arguing for a more flexible, profound reality. Early on, two men fall into a lover's quarrel:

A: If I turned into a cloud?

B: I'd turn into an eye.

A: If I turned into caca?

B: I'd turn into a fly.

A: If I turned into an apple?

B: I'd turn into a kiss.

A: If I turned into a breast?

B: I'd turn into a white sheet.

A: And if I turned into a moonfish?

B: I'd turn into a knife.

Actors Edward Nurquez-Bon and Chaz Mena batted the images back and forth as if they were so many humorous little insults. Their grace and inimitable timing had the audience roaring. Deep in this modernist text, Repertorio Espanol has located Lorca's soul, subversive and passionate as ever.

Mona Molarsky, a New York-based arts and travel writer, has written for The Nation and the Los Angeles Times. She is deputy editor at Glamour magazine.

'Anna' in Tampa: End of Stogie

From: The Washington Post

Date: October 11, 2004

Author: Peter Marks

The only thing that catches fire in Arena Stage's disappointing "Anna in the Tropics," the story of a family of cigar makers in sultry, Depression-era Tampa, is the tobacco.

Nilo Cruz's 2002 play has had a privileged childhood: a Pulitzer Prize, a star-powered Broadway production, mountings at highly regarded regional theaters across the country. Such a glittering rollout suggests a work of more than embryonic promise. But what director Jo Bonney presents on the stage of the Kreeger Theater is a surprisingly static piece of drama, one that fails to instill even a scintilla of urgency in the combustible relationships it recounts.

Prettiness here is an affliction. The factory in which the Cuban immigrant family stuffs and wraps its cigars is oddly immaculate, and so is Cruz's poetry. The people of "Anna in the Tropics" speak in exquisite-sounding allusions, and no one more reliably than Marela (Michele Vazquez), "Anna's" ingenue, who is given to dewy declarations like "A bicycle dreams of being a boy." The more burdensome freight on the play's literary manifest has to do with the interweaving of themes from Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina," which figures heavily in the plot; the novel is narrated daily in the factory by a "lector" (Jason Manuel Olazabal), who has been hired to read stories to the illiterate workers.

You'd think that all these bookish conceits would lend the piece an air of intense cerebration, but the schematic "Anna in the Tropics" actually plays as if it has not been rigorously worked out. This is especially the case after intermission, when the dramatist makes a disastrous foray into melodrama, resorting improbably to a rape and some gunfire to invigorate the play's resolution. The report of a pistol may have been a stunning stage effect in the time of Ibsen and Chekhov; in 21st-century theater, however, gunpowder smells a lot like desperation.

Cruz's subject and setting certainly provide rich material for atmospheric drama, in the style of Chekhov. It is 1929 in Ybor City, a section of Tampa where many Cubans have come to live and work, and where the traditions of their native island do not always mesh with their polyglot adoptive culture. The cigar factory owned by Santiago (Mateo Gomez) and his brother Cheche (Chaz Mena) is a petri dish for the clash of values: Santiago and his wife, Ofelia (Marian Licha), are advocates of the old, elegant way of doing business, including the employment of the urbane lector; Cheche is equally set on change, on sweeping out antique methods and importing the tools of the more modern society they've joined.

The shopworn roles of men and women are also under attack in "Anna in the Tropics." Santiago and Ofelia's older daughter, Conchita (Yetta Gottesman), bristles at the inequity in her marriage to Palomo (Felix Solis); she yearns for the freedom to look for love outside her marriage, as Palomo has done. It is Olazabal's dapper lector who is the flash point in both the romantic and economic themes of the story, and it comes as no great shock to learn which of the characters is the victim of the crushing blows that jealousy and modernity can deliver.

Cruz's gift is the decorous turn of phrase; language is what seems to interest him, and as a result his characters are all artfully articulate. You can see, too, why the notion of a dreary world of piecework immeasurably uplifted by the words of Tolstoy or Dickens would tickle his fancy. While he's able to write his way into the heart of a miserably unfulfilled wife, however, he struggles to write himself out of a scene, and so time after time in "Anna in the Tropics," a dramatic situation tends to drift off in wispy clouds. We're dragged, rather than propelled, through events, and the result is an evening that slogs along to an uncertain conclusion.

Bonney doesn't add sinew or muscle to Cruz's character-driven narrative, and the production is not deeply evocative. Set designer Loy Arcenas does a serviceable job of taking us inside the factory, conjuring a dark interior of brick and timber, and Ilona Somogyi's costumes are handsome and bland. The snippets of music between scenes, in fact, are the liveliest indication of the time and the place to which "Anna" is supposed to take us.

The actors all succeed in the essential task of seeming of the period; in some cases, however, they're confronted with characters whose identities do not evolve in stimulating ways. Licha's Ofelia, for instance, has a big part and is a warm creation, but also evinces little vital function in the story. Possessed of the most nuanced of the roles, Solis and Gottesman also offer the most incisive portrayals. Gottesman, in particular, gives a voluptuous credibility to a woman in search of a more potent way of satisfying a need for attention and affection.

That's all the slow burn that this "Anna" has to offer, unfortunately. The rest is just slow.

'O Jerusalem' a Thrilling Journey

From: AP Online

Date: March 18, 2003

Author: Justine Glanville

Dateline: NEW YORK It's true that "O Jerusalem," an exhilarating new play by A.R. Gurney at off-off-Broadway's Flea Theater, seems especially timely because of its subject matter.

After all, it touches on many of the issues now preoccupying people around the world: the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East, American foreign policy, terrorism.

But at least in this expert production, Gurney's play manages to reach beyond its topical premise to pack a big, heartbreaking wallop. This is not a story about anything so cold as politics. Above all, it's about a man struggling to balance his ideals and personal relationships against a high-pressure career.

Although it lasts only 90 minutes, "O Jerusalem" feels like an epic, partly due to its unusual structure. It opens sometime in the future, when a theater troupe has discovered a lost play set around the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. They perform only excerpts from the work _ described as "long, rambling and tormented" _ and summarize the parts they consider boring.

The play-within-a-play structure allows Gurney and company to cover an astonishing amount of ground. With the flip of a scenery card and an announcement by one of the actors, scenes switch from Washington, D.C., to Tunisia to New England and back.

At the center of all that globe-trotting is Hartwell Clark (Stephen Rowe), a backslapping oil magnate appointed to be a U.S. envoy to the Middle East. His job exposes him to anti-U.S. sentiment abroad, and he begins to turn against capitalism. As Hartwell's new convictions take root, he gives in to his long-repressed love for Sally (Priscilla Shanks), an information officer.

Gurney works with a wider geographic and cultural lens than usual. His previous plays have dealt mostly with domestic turmoil among white, upper-class Protestants; here, although the conflicts are still personal, they have global repercussions. And one of the main characters is decidedly nonwhite: Amira (Rita Wolf), a Palestinian activist, completes a kind of love triangle with Sally and Hartwell.

Wolf, Rowe, Shanks and two swing performers (Chaz Mena and Mercedes Herrero) all deliver vital performances, helped in no small part by Gurney's crackling dialogue. Each scene pulses with life _ the sign of a playwright, a cast and a director (Jim Simpson) working in complete unity.

Like anything truly alive, "O Jerusalem" isn't always tidy. The relationship between Sally and Hartwell isn't fully developed, and the play ends on a preachy and falsely tragic note.

But like Stephen Adly Guirgis' "Our Lady of 121st Street," it has a scattershot energy and an ear for emotionally charged situations that make it totally engrossing.

When a play has those assets, it doesn't need current events to be relevant.