Vinyl Love Affair

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Vinyl Love Affair, Theatre Yin Yin’s sensual dance theatre piece, made its debut this season at the Producer’s Club in midtown. This refreshingly simple duet, a collaborative creation of director Candis Jones, physicalizes the downward spiral of the end of a love affair, a romance as dusty as an old LP. The first of possibly several revised editions, this production was perhaps a little rough around the edges, but boasts a promising future, supported by detailed performances and a coherent design.

Joe Faustine’s scenery and lights set the mood for this sultry theatrical jaunt. Soft yellows and pinks hazily illuminate a web of gauzy fabric delicately spotted with baby’s breath. The design is so effective because it rarely changes; romantic whimsy dominates the dancing couple’s highs and lows alike, evoking an eerie nightmare of a love perpetually trapped in the honeymoon phase. The ugliness of this slowly unravelling affair is left to the sound design, a bit of auditory genius uncredited in the show’s program. A sparse, muffled repetition of a sexy R&B tune sets the clock at late-night and leaves us there. Rather than indulge the timeworn cliche of breakup tears, the audio employs a wider and more realistic emotional palette. The small song sample undergoes all manner of distortions, leaving a cold, electronic sound that pulses with the foreignness of newly unpaired life and the terror of loneliness.

Tucked away in this diaphanous world, we meet Glenda [Carolyn Emery] and Griffin [Toussaint Jeanlouis], the two lovers, dancing a tender, simple phrase of choreography. Tableaux of the lovers dancing, flirting, and joking are woven together by quick, seamless, and often surprising physical transitions that have the delightful effect of skipping through a home video, fast-forwarding sections and pressing play on the favorite memories. Once completed, the tableaux are played through again, this time with a not-so-subtle hint of dissatisfaction among the lovers. I can’t help but share in their dissatisfaction as I predict how the piece will turn out: resentment will grow into an inevitable breakup, and we’ll be watching the same dance over and over again to boot. This is what happens, but, thankfully, it is much more compelling than I had imagined. The third time through the choreographic pattern, the dancers perform their same duet, this time with several feet of space between them. Rather than rely on the banal image of two lovers held apart by emotional distance, this team of artists takes the distance rather literally- with brilliant results. Lovers’ palms touching, now spatially separated, become a rigid symbol to “Stop!”. Where once Emery leapt into Jeanlouis’ arms, she now jumps towards him with a desperate grasp, an uncomfortably needy outburst. The final repetition of the choreography begins normally, seemingly a wishful memory sequence of good times gone. But suddenly, Jeanlouis’ head rolls out towards the audience, a mechanized grin frozen on his face, proving the memory to be nothing but a glitchy mental program, a futile attempt to recreate reality in the mind.

The choreography of Vinyl Love Affair shows a lot of promise, but feels at this point like a garment with no stitching. Transitions between repetitions of choreography consist of quasi-poetic monologues peppered with bits of overly specific, pedestrian language. The writing is largely unnecessary, a self-conscious filling-in of a beautifully abstracted relationship with quotidien details that would better suit a Netflix romantic drama. The actors seem to struggle with these pieces of text, but it is clear that the writing is merely difficult to perform. Emery and Jeanlouis are actually superb dance theatre performers who inject choreography with just the minimum amount of character. A subtly questioning look of dismay spreads across their faces with each change in the dance, with each small sign of the relationship’s downfall. Thus, despite the repetitive nature of the piece, the two are never boring to watch.

The piece of writing that says the most, and the only bit of text that this show needs, is the title. Together with the dreamy, fogginess of Faustine’s design, the words “Vinyl Love Affair” evoke a love that can only exist the memory space of old R+B records; a love that doesn’t hold up, doesn’t stand the test of time; a love as cheap as song lyrics. This superbly chintzy romance imagery is what this show has done wonderfully right. Keep your eyes out for Vinyl Love Affair in a revised edition this coming spring.

Blasted

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It’s been proven yet again: Sarah Kane’s explosively graphic play, Blasted, is not impossible to stage. Director Will Detlefsen and company have managed a respectable feat by even selecting the play, which includes Saw-worthy depictions of rape, eye-gouging, and baby-eating. But the team’s most significant accomplishment is not the successful execution of gory stage-tricks (though they were pretty damn good). The true artistry lies in their keen exposure of the real blood-and-guts of Sarah Kane’s play, the psychosocial manifestations of violence.

Detlefsen represents Kane’s violence thoroughly and completely. There is no sex with pants on or conveniently-covered stage combat, and every orgasm is reached in due time. Perhaps the most disturbing bit of stage action is actor Logan George’s hurried eating of two full English breakfasts with one bare hand, simply because he performs the action fully. But Detlefsen’s direction, while thorough, is also simple and minimal, staging the text sans flourish or unnecessary abstraction. And the simplicity is a rich simplicity, replete with sharp textual understanding. A deep current of palpable emotional trauma courses steadily through every violent scene, leaving no empty displays of horror. The Soldier [Logan George] extracts and eats character Ian’s eyes, avenging his dead girlfriend who had been tortured the same way. Having finished, the Soldier becomes engrossed by a wave of empathy for his girlfriend’s murderer, and in one very delicately treated moment, George bellows, with Medean agony, “Poor bastard. He ate her eyes!”

There is nothing in Blasted more tender and revolting than Logan George’s performance. George alternates masterfully between the Soldier’s straightforward apathy and wild passions, all through the filter of a very consistent spoken accent, the origins of which are left intriguingly vague. Actor Marié Botha also has several shining moments as Cate. Botha’s performance is an emotional banging-on-prison-walls, hands ever poised to kill her abusive lover, yet frozen by conflicted empathy. Botha cries on a dime, a useful skill for a text with so many demands for tears, but she excavates much sensitivity and variety from the role despite the constant watery eyes. When sandwiches are delivered to the lavish British hotel room that she shares with her older lover Ian [Jason de Beer], Botha’s Cate, a vegetarian, cries softly at the discovery that they are all filled with meat, a wonderfully tender picture of a young girl in adult surroundings, hungry, and far away from home. On the whole, performances are strong and grounded, with the occasional bit of shallow, not-fully-digested Cate/Ian dialogue. The only unfortunate choice is Cate’s recurrent uncomfortable giggle, which is in this version a manic, inhuman cackle that smacks somewhat too much of cheap horror films in an otherwise rich production.

Blasted owes much of its richness to its incredible team of designers. Jason Sherwood’s chic hotel room set brilliantly incorporates the gorgeous early 20th century interior of the Duo Theater. Cate enters and marvels at the ceiling decor and the sumptuous painted murals on the theatre’s walls. Gold-stained moldings mirror the theatre’s antique gold-stained proscenium. Sherwood’s sleek wall of glossy black tile amidst the Duo’s old-fashioned luxury, therefore, is cleverly suggestive of a modern renovation to a turn-of-the-century hotel. The famous scenic challenge of the second half of the play, the hotel room obliterated by an unexplained blast, is successfully tackled, with only a mildly long scene change. The post-explosion set is particularly well-lit by designer Marika Kent, who evokes morning light and sun streaming through debris with admirably few instruments. Aidan Zev Meyer’s electronic tones provide a simple and effective sonic landscape, and Olivia Hunt delivers shockingly real special effects. Overall, a solid design.

Detlefsen’s Blasted is a successfully executed staging of a difficult play. But, more importantly, it’s a keenly relevant one. Detlefsen subtly accentuates the unsettling satire underneath this seeming horror flick of a play. The Soldier’s harrowing monologue, a lengthy list of atrocities he’s witnessed, draws into the theatre vivid images of contemporary international conflicts that a Western audience might rather put out of mind. Ian, a wealthy Briton, responds predictably, shrinking away from the Soldier’s verbalized experiences with repetitions of phrases like “Enough!” In that moment, Ian feels uncomfortably familiar, a posterchild of privilege who turns off the TV before the depressing nightly news. And the Soldier, with Logan George’s mysterious accent, becomes a ‘foreigner,’ a man from some country where violence happens daily- somewhere far away. Detlefsen and team, with shrewd dramaturgical understanding, seem to suggest that the true horror of Kane’s violent landscape is its placement, not ‘somewhere else,’ but ‘here.’

*Critic’s Pick: Trevor Bachman [Table and Chair Take the Air]

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The genre of music theatre has met its redeemer, and his name is Trevor Bachman. A young composer as well as music director and performer, Bachman eschews cookie cutter song structure for a uniquely fresh sound. Yet the novelty of Bachman’s sound is achieved sans highly intellectual abstraction. The result: an inescapably visceral body of work that prefers genuine storytelling to empty belter ballads. Bachman’s 10 minute Table and Chair Take the Air, a musical adaptation of a poem by Edward Lear, proved to be a tremendous crowd pleaser at Boxed Wine Productions’ “Uncorked: a New Works Festival.” The festival featured several smart new pieces including Kaela Garvin’s wonderfully bizarre satire “Imelda’s Children,” but Bachman’s Table and Chair takes the cake, proving itself worthy of much more than a festival of workshops in a 99-seat theatre in Queens.

Table and Chair opens resplendently, with a driving, deeply exciting tenor line and accompaniment. This tenor is the character of Table (Zachary Infante), on a bright, steaming day, moaning aloud to his friend Chair (Andrew Martin), “I am so deathly hot, how are you not?!” Overwhelmed by the sensation, Table screams, which is in actuality an expertly sustained high C that melts into a chocolate-smooth and very difficult vocal run. Moments like these are a trademark of Bachman’s: virtuosic tidbits of musicianship so grandiose that one laughs at how perfectly they fit into the action of the story. And virtuosity is in plentiful supply. Bachman floats amongst several styles, one minute soulful pop-rock, the next a jazzy gospel sound, and all of it smooth. But it’s the difficulty of this young composer’s vocal writing that puts him at the forefront of the next wave of music theatre. Bachman writes for expert singers. His harmonies are fresh and sexy, and certainly challenging, well outside the harmonic sound of most musical theatre pieces. Plus, he is one of few composers to notate vocal runs in their entirety, runs that are both rangy and highly specific, yet incredibly satisfying. Above all, Bachman has an acute understanding of the human voice and its boundaries, its possibilities, and the different character inherent in each of its registers. Hence, Bachman’s writing can purposefully live at the edge of the voice, placing melodies and harmonies at the highest peaks, the places where the voice nearly cracks and is at its most vulnerable. The resulting sound, so raw and desperate, sends a physical chill through the body. Unlike the typical music theatre belt, normally slapped on the ends of songs as an egotistic show of talent, Bachman saves this vocal technique for his stories’ most emotionally charged moments, almost as a stand-in for a scream or wail.

Bachman, like any good music theatre composer (though not like most), favors story over spectacle. And in Table and Chair, like all of Bachman’s pieces, the story is remarkably simple, though not simplistic. Table and Chair is a roller coaster ride, sweeping the audience along in its constantly driving momentum. Bachman excels at the one kernel of writing (and adaptation) technique that so many writers fail to learn from Sophocles and Shakespeare: argument-based, action-driven dialogue. Bachman wastes no time with empty language, and as a result, his pieces are- literally- constantly entertaining. And this clever adapter’s clear storylines are only bolstered by the soaring emotion of his music. Table and Chair blazes with so much joy. This is not just joy that we watch actors pretend to feel in a brightly-lit ensemble dance number. This is palpable joy that the audience directly experiences in shivers up the spine. The play is as devastating as it is enlivening, diving just as deep into pain as it does humor, with just as much reverance and time.

Bachman’s enchanting, idiosyncratic music obviously contributes to the emotional reaches of his plays. But the key to Bachman’s success, and what separates him from some of his predecessors and many of his peers, is sincerity. Here is, finally, a young artist devoid of irony, of sarcasm, of insult, and of apathy. He spins his tales with the innocence of a children’s author, yet their deep poignancy is all-too-appealing to adults. The Table and Chair production team is a perfect match for Bachman’s vibrant authenticity. Director Ryan Amador tells Edward Lear’s story of a table and a chair who learn to walk with physicalized animation. Table, Chair, and their friends are brought to life with a delightfully tragic, incredibly funny clown-like performance style. Infante’s and Martin’s bodies morph magically like cartoons as their rigid Table and Chair poses crack, warp, and stretch into walking beings. The awkward first steps of these astonished furniture friends bring gleeful audience giggles. Collective heartbreak takes the room when Chair fearfully reassumes his wooden rigidity. By the end of the our fable, an adventure completed, exhaustion droops into the faces of Table and Chair, who yawn with adorable sagging mouths and wilting eyes.

The two actors’ physical lives are consistently specific and larger than life thanks to Amador’s imaginative eye, but the performances are expertly developed by Infante and Martin. These young men are not the standard fare of musical theatre. These are fearless, vulnerable actors who happen to also have uncommonly capable voices. Infante and Martin dive fully into every moment, with full sincerity and zero actor ego. The two are exquisite clowns, but they are actors too; when Chair loses Table and withers in fear, tears glisten in his eyes as well as ours.

And of course, one cannot ignore the divine voices of every member of Bachman’s cast, including Bachman himself, who appeared in a small role. Any actor who can conquer Bachman’s intricate runs and soaring vocal heights is automatically talented. But this cast (particularly Infante and his limitless tenor range) is exceptional. All five of these singers, including Stevi Incremonia and Gerianne Perkins in smaller roles, have full, healthy, soulful, flexible, pop/rock/music theatre voices that garner far more emotional response than their weaker, less daring counterparts on Broadway. Plus, unlike so many singers in theatre, Infante and Martin especially seem to understand the voice as an emotional channel, ever marrying the depth of the story to the quality of their sound. This fearless musicianship draws an uproarious audience response, as it undeniably did at Boxed Wine’s festival, where audiences were far more vocal and engaged than I have ever experienced in a theatre.

The brilliant, 10-minute kernel about Table and Chair is actually part of a larger work of adapted Edward Lear poetry put to music, which comes highly recommended, even to those who think they have sworn have music theatre forever. This piece, called Coromandel, makes its full-length premiere at Dixon Place on July 29th, 7:30 PM. Or catch excerpts from the show (as well as some of Bachman’s other work, MT and otherwise) at Joe’s Pub, 7:30 PM August 12.

Not Your Average Downtown extends a special thanks to Boxed Wine Productions for doing the admirable and facilitating the work of friends.

*Critic’s pick: Amanda Hunt and Alex Romania [If I Were]

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If I Were, a dance installation created and performed by Amanda Hunt and Alex Romania, is the best piece I have encountered by young artists of this newly-graduated generation. I even arrived late and missed the heart of the performance, the short dance piece If I Were from which the whole show gets its name. But what I did see was a consistent, brilliantly-crafted, thought- and heart-provoking duet of two artists and best friends. These two dancers are fluid improvisers and fiercely vulnerable performers, but they are also solid multimedia artists, fluent in many forms. If I Were is a thematic kaleidoscope, ever-shifting amongst ideas of queerness, intimacy, human essence, and personal identity.  Free of the task of looking past mediocrity or inexperience to find redeemable elements, this was truly the first piece made by artists in their early 20s in which I was able to lose myself and wholeheartedly enjoy.

When one enters the space at The Glasshouse in Brooklyn, one finds onself in a detailed, laboratory-clean, yet warmly ethereal installation. On the first floor, one may first notice the clothes hung on a rack and on the walls, humanity’s predominant tools of gender expression, now displayed as such, as merely expression. Hunt’s delicate, sweeping drawings are on the walls; bones, hair, men, women, pregnancy, sagging skin, lack of definition, formlessness are seen in them, furthering this question of the boundaries of sex and gender and the places where they blur. Microscope slides pepper the walls of the lower level, displaying cells, blood smears, bacteria, words on newspaper, keys of different types, each a minute piece of artistic research. And at least fifty percent of the show is accompanied by a poignant, otherworldly soundscape. Yet every 15 minutes feels like a brand new installation, as Hunt’s and Romania’s bodies shift around the space and themselves become visual art. The installation exhibits general virtuosity of composition and craft, a testament to the many talents of these two dancers.

And the two are, of course, incredibly well-versed in the world of dance, as is evidenced by their free and eclectic style. Hunt and Romania utilize their own method of contact improvisation, one that seems to maintain its integrity through physical contact and distance alike. The dancers naturally employ the Viewpoints technique in their spatial relationship, and one sees Trisha Brown echoing in their physical life. The first dance I witness (as I walk in, regrettably, late) is my first chance to experience the gorgeous interplay of these performers and their brilliant video designer, Kyler Zee. This piece, coined by Hunt and Romania as their “4D dance,” is an improvisation recorded in live feed and projected on a large wall. Zee’s design, as is often the case in the show, is a crucial participant in the artwork, blurring, overlapping, and superimposing the captured feed of their dance, truly making the piece an improvisation through space and time. All of Zee’s work in the show displays incredible mastery of his art; his videos are crisp and clear with mesmerizingly rich color, an exciting and welcome contrast to the trend of distorted, indiscernible analog video in the gallery world.

If I Were, however, is certainly more than the sum of its parts. The piece’s greatest strength is its conceptual unity, its unfolding of each performance and artwork as an evident piece of research in the artists’ creative experiment. “Watch us try to merge ourselves!” recite Hunt and Romania in a singsongy voice. Then the two performers launch into the most hysterical metaphor of the show. A goofy track begins to play. Both performers, standing on either side of the projected image, attempt to read the ‘lyrics’ to this song off the screen karaoke-style along with the track’s quick beat. The lyrics, consisting of different combinations of ‘he,’ ‘she,’ and ‘me,’ go by much too quickly for the performers (and the audience!) to read correctly. The words themselves begin to be said at once; indeed, they begin to merge, and the result is a brilliant, performative metaphor for the inability to define oneself, or to place oneself on a binary system of gender.

If I Were is a study in divergence as well as convergence. At several points in the evening, the two perform solo on separate floors of the installation, allowing the audience to experience each artist on their own, sometimes as dancers, sometimes storytellers. While much of the performance examines the intricate levels on which humanity is related, these intimate one-on-ones highlight irrefutable individuality. Yet, Hunt and Romania maintain a gossamer interconnectedness. Romania builds a poignant, otherworldly soundscape on a sampler upstairs; Hunt improvises to it downstairs. Romania setting the sonic canvas, Hunt painting the music in space with her body, the two facilitate a gorgeous image of divorced interdependence.

This recurring bittersweetness, this painful elegance, is undoubtedly part of Hunt’s and Romania’s shared artistic imprint. Much of the performance emanates delicate, loving intimacy: pale colors, whispers in microphones, casual nude bodies, shirts as handtowels in the restroom. In one deeply moving moment, this intimacy expands past the boundaries of installation, engulfing the audience in its glow. This moment is unassuming at first. Arbitrarily walking downstairs, leaving Hunt’s solo performance behind on the upper floor, I discover Romania with a small group of people, playing with a truly magical instrument that I have never encountered, a digital microscope. Now himself among friends, yet still with a performative gleam in his eye, Romania guides the small group in a molecular exploration of their bodies. With much laughter and awe, spectators discover the invisible world contained in their hair and their skin, under their feet, and within their wounds, projected as an image several times larger than the human body. These projected images make inconceivably beautiful video art. Slowly, the room becomes full of friends and strangers; a stirring, empyrean soundscape plays; glowing colors and braided fibers whizz by on the screen; and I am at the point of tears, deeply moved not only by the ineffable beauty of the human body, but by this rare moment of profound sharing and vulnerability amongst strangers in a room, humbly facilitated by a handful of young people.

If I Were is a science experiment. It puts bodies behind glass (sometimes literally, with Hunt and Romania duetting behind plexiglass screens), questioning what is essentially, physically human and what merely social construction. And like any good science experiment, If I Were has a very simple central question (can two people merge?), extensive research, and, importantly, a strong, honest conclusion. In this case, the conclusion is a beautiful, image-rich dance improvisation. Hunt’s and Romania’s bodies transform in this dance, one moment cells merging and splitting, another moment themselves, plummeting through space and time. Their physical language, combined with Zee’s compilation of our digital microscope video, reads somehow beyond the laws of physics. One can see atoms flying everywhere, their bodies stretching, falling apart, dissolving, expanding, and morphing; their bodies seem to converge. Yet, If I Were complicates itself with all the ways in which they cannot merge: their different bodies and sexes, their personal histories, their own desires not to merge simultaneous to their desires to try. In this way, If I Were is an emotional science experiment. It zooms in to the cells of a body and sees pain and history woven into their fleshy fabric. It takes the wish to be another person, the wish to be another gender, or the wish to be intertwined, and pushes it to the limit of possibility. But If I Were also leaves behind the faults of science, forgoing black and white and definition and the “fragile objects of heterosanctity [we] pray to.”  Rather, it celebrates the liminal, the queer, the choice to be separate, the choice to be oneself.

Amanda Hunt and Alex Romania set the bar for artists in their early 20s. The two duet smoothly across media, incorporating audio, video, and three dimensional art in their dance work with an elegant ease. Yet, for all that is planned, pre-made, pre-filmed, and choreographed, their work is largely improvised, a risky choice fearlessly made to allow for the beauty of the unpredictable. These two may be just out of school, but there is nothing ‘student’ about this work. Professional and refreshingly honest, Hunt and Romania represent the best of New York’s newest generation.

Check back soon for the dates of their summer show.

Gianfranco Settecasi [Future Tense]

Gianfranco Settecasi is known among friends as being a man of many hats. One might think of him first and foremost as a musician. A proficient piano player and composer of cabaret-style songs, Settecasi is a veritable Cole Porter reincarnation with a 21st century kick. The popularity of “Uncle Giff,” a persona created by Settecasi that melds contemporary humor with Hollywood’s Golden Age, is testament to the young artist’s performative strength and subtle comedy. He’s a fun-loving collaborator and an exacting director, yet for this most recent production, Settecasi decides to try something new.

Future Tense, a tragicomedy written as well as directed by Settecasi, opens with the most expertly written dialogue of the show. Collegiate lovers John (Thomas Hedlund) and Meaghan (Moira O’Sullivan) come in from a downpour, having just escaped the rained-out wedding of some distant high school friends. From the finely-crafted, mundane, naturalistic chatter about towels and cell phones left in the car, we begin to witness the seemingly agreeable nature of John and Meaghan’s relationship, John mouthing off endlessly, Meaghan’s gentle monosyllabic responses. Yet one can sense that something is awry. “Kiss me,” says Meaghan sweetly, and John’s response is the first subtle, brilliant suggestion of what is to come; distantly, in a minutely maniacal way, John responds, “Yeah, sure.” The entrance of the other two characters, John and Meaghan’s estranged high school best friends (Olivia Caputo and Samuel Bellows), heralds even more hysterically perfect realism. Settecasi covers every standard conversation filler, from “you look so cute!” to updates about the last few years that quickly run dry. The four old friends fade in and out of familiarity, finding common ground in high school gossip, but losing their footing in everything else, a delicate, awkward dance that Settecasi’s writing makes heartbreakingly recognizable.

A small contribution to the realism of Future Tense is Carolyn Emory’s minimal set design. Emory’s living room captures the essence of vapid suburban decor: fake flowers, a book basket, grey-blue. But all in all, the production value is unimpressive. This 4th year production at NYU’s Playwrights Horizons Theatre School certainly feels as such; the design and direction fall a step short of feeling fleshed out or complete. However, this sense of inexperience comes mostly from the student actors. While Hedland and O’Sullivan nail the opening realism, the performances generally fall short of Settecasi’s writing. Fight scenes and breakdowns feel whiny and unjustified, and each actor has at least one prominent hangup. However, O’Sullivan and Bellows particularly have refreshingly honest, if meager, presences onstage, and, oddly, the four actors’ performative habits often seem fitting to the roles. This is particulary the case with Thomas Hedlund. His role, John, who at first plays a pleasant, effusive host to friends, quickly devolves into an disturbingly belligerent gossip. Hedland is somewhat of an awkward actor, but his self-conscious posture and over-aggressive vocal quality contribute almost perfectly to his role, foreshadowing his alarming transformation.

Though the performance quality unravels, Settecasi’s thrilling conceit becomes clear throughout the downward spiral of the play’s second half. The old friends, Carrie and Alex, attempt to escape John’s aversive behavior, but are forced to stay as the torrents outside have become a flood. Trapped in this powder keg, sparked by past tensions, the room ignites. Settecasi’s highly-realistic dialogue suddenly explodes into a delightful, unexpected fury of acrid insults as characters rehash and reveal suppressed high school drama. Characters become as absurd as they are animalistic, blatantly laughing as others are insulted, desperately embracing people they have every reason to despise. Alex and John, just moments ago ferociously at odds, sit on the couch together in lull of apparent peace while the women argue. Yet their bubbling rage is palpably present; Alex binges on potato chips while John pokes at him incessantly like a mischevous five year old, a bizarre, childish, terrifying expression of almost inhuman emotion.

Thus, Future Tense is veritably this generation’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, though not short of imperfections. Future Tense is perhaps underwritten as of yet, lacking much of the lead-up to extreme emotional proportions that is so geniusly smooth in Woolf. Settecasi instead cops out somewhat with a love triangle, allowing romantic passion to serve as the primary motivator. This feels largely unsatisfying, particularly as he almost achieves the same effect without the romance by exploring the unavoidable allegiances that form in groups based on personalities alone. Future Tense also tends toward a somewhat too-patterned, murder mystery-like structure, revealing each character’s major secret one by one. Yet, the structure simultaneously seems deliberate, a calculated argument that an unraveling John follows to his own destruction.

The true ingenuity of Future Tense lies in this young artist’s unforgiving satire of his generation. “You were supposed to be so much more,” John exclaims to his friends, “responsible, stable, mature.” But these statements are not so much high expectations as they are a hatred for humanity, whose emotions and imperfections are the sole obstacles to what John holds most dear: ambition. In a powerfully written monologue about college degrees and the road to success, Settecasi exposes the monster behind the ladder-climbers, behind the self-starts, the educated entrepreneurs. He paints a piercingly resonant worst case scenario: the college graduate, John, devoid of a soul, whose social interactions are reduced to criticism, his most loyal tool. Settecasi also paints the others, the ‘failures,’ the creatures who prefer occupational mediocrity to social isolation. He shows us, with unrelenting honesty and unabashed vulnerability, a point of view that is largely underrepresented. He shows us young adults whose past lives have withered to superficiality, whose present is empty and anxiety-filled, whose futures, by one misstep, are made irredeemable.

Future Tense

I Think I’m Falling

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When I first read the description of the NYU Experimental Theatre Wing’s most recent mainstage show, I was sizeably intrigued. Something about an experimental concert piece and the music of pop artist Prince, and it was called I Think I’m Falling. When I sit down in the theatre with my program, I read director Richard Armstrong’s program note, which again stresses that the piece would be more of a concert than a play or musical, and that the cast has simply tried to find the essence of each Prince song they’ve utilized, blending in their own memories and attitudes. My confidence in the concept of the show is only strengthened by Daniel Dabdoub’s quirky set and costume design, which is a brilliant mashup of Prince concert, royal court, 90s club kids, and Alice in Wonderland. The basis of the design is the black and white checkered chess board floor, with staircases heading off the board in every direction. The whole set is subtly trippy, with the checkerboard floor and general ground plan set at strange, subtle diagonals, and with some audience members seated essentially onstage, blurring the line between a proscenium and thrust. The gorgeous centerpiece of the set is a white staircase that climbs to the top of the theatre, tapering off gradually, appearing eternal and ether-bound.

As the actors emerge one by one, it is revealed that Dabdoub’s costume design is even more genius. Boasting an evident awareness, if not knowledge of high fashion, Dabdoub designs several actors in complex, unique faux-runway pieces (for a school show budget, anyway). The best example is his costume for actress Alex Salame. Salame is given a gorgeous black dress, with a stiff, high bodice, uneven skirt length, and long, thin flap in the front reminiscent of ancient Egyptian fashion. The piece is uniquely angular and unusually sexy. Yet Dabdoub shows mastery in several other styles as well, from Matt Phillips in gold-and-sparkles go-go drag, to Ian Lockwood in re-envisioned Clockwork Orange. And he’s still unafraid to throw Molly Horan in a trashy Queen Elizabeth Halloween costume with a short, puffy skirt under a long transparent tulle layer. Plus, all the characters are mesmerizingly made up, with fully-sparkled lips and intimidating makeup masks around the eyes. The whole design, including Zach Blane’s lighting, is detailed and constantly entertaining.

Which was fortunate because the rest of the show was not. Failing to embody the raw, emotional honesty of a concert and lacking the clear story of a theatrical narrative, I Think I’m Falling falls mushily between concert and play. If the piece had maintained the simplicity of its opening, it would have had much more potential for success. Starting with the simple image of a metronome in a metal lunchbox centerstage, the first two performers emerge from backstage with guitars, slowly plugging them in to their amps, seemingly delighted by the resulting scratch of electrical noise. The two performers make the metronome’s click their percussion as they start a simple, but groovy vamp-like jam. Actors filter out one by one, standing within one of Dabdoub’s painted chessboard squares, staring out at the audience with comical expressions, showing off their unexpected costumes. But after this, all semblance of fun, clear abstraction falls away and the audience is left with a flaccid, mildly present, uninteresting story. Actors are clearly playing ‘characters’ depicted in Prince songs, but what is not so clear (or so necessary) are their responses to one another. Characters regularly express admiration/love/disdain for other characters, but the responses offer no information to the audience; it is an acting school exercise onstage. Lacking the musical integrity of a live concert, the piece is more like a high school Prince revue than anything else.

The high school-level production quality is largely due to the performances, many of which are unspecific and weirdly guarded. But then there is Georgia King. A strong performer, she generally excels in any role she’s given, drawing in the attention of the audience rather than desperately and pathetically reaching out for it. King has an unusual, though not at all unpleasant, voice; one can tell that she is concerned with far more than merely ‘sounding good’. King is fearless: her facial expressions are over the top, her body moves freely. Though costumed as a terribly provocative waitress, she never indulges in her own attractiveness. On the contrary, she is unafraid to be a clown in hot clothing, which makes for a hilarious and unsettling performance of The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.

The more successful numbers in the show are those like King’s Ballad of Dorothy, the numbers that, in line with a major goal of the production, find a way to theatricalize the emotional essence of a song rather than simply reproduce it poorly. The number Hot Thing is another of these. Hot Thing is terrifying and humorous, screechy, tense, intimidating. The song concludes with a collective nails-on-a-chalkboard vocal fry and scream uttered by the whole cast; instruments slide up and down; drums roll; voices rise and fall and scrape inhumanly. The arrangement and interpretation of the song are utterly bizarre and unique, and yet capture something of the aggressively sexy Prince original. Another exciting arrangement, the most successful in the show, is Housequake. John McClean rips on the drums, while the cast slides in and out of a tap number. Yet, it’s not a tap number; the formation of the dancers is loose and free. The tap shoes serve as rhythm alone, feeding in and out of the drums and in and out of the cast’s shouts as they jump around the stage and jam. And this time, for the first time in the show, the collective energy is truthful. The shouts of support and excitement, which in every other number were uncomfortably actor-ly, seem to come out of a group of performers having a blast onstage. The cast is in its element and is having fun; thus, it is a delight to watch and a respite amidst innumerable conventional and boring choral arrangements.

Musically, I Think I’m Falling falls apart. This musically-reliant piece meant to showcase and challenge ETW students is irresponsibly chosen for a cast largely made up of non-musicians. Pitch is a mess. There is never a sense of groove, of tight ensemble work or togetherness. Many cast members play instruments, but too many at a beginner level. Out of this chaos shines Jake Brasch, a solid keys player and a heavenly tenor. His voice on Toni Mitchell’s ballad Case of You is gentle and lilting, and his classical training is evident, yet Brasch also comfortably navigates the blues/rock realm, with a clear, healthy tenor belt. Best of all, Brasch is an anti-actor, one of those who allows a delicate smile and truthful soul to tell a story, devoid of forced character and feigned emotion. Brasch’s style is outwardly the opposite of King’s eerie clownlike one, yet both are exciting and appropriate interpretations of character in this Prince concert-world. Other performers succeed in moments, but no one with as much consistency as Brasch or King.

The tragedy of I Think I’m Falling lies in one line of Richard Armstrong’s director’s note, which proudly reads, “I told the cast that my first priority was to celebrate each one of them in the fullest way possible.” Ironically, the cast appears pushed beyond their limits, out of their element, humiliated rather than celebrated. Armstrong, a fulltime ETW faculty member and expert on vocal technique ignores his role as teacher, allowing students to sing past their physical limits into evident vocal tension, and past their stylistic strengths into weak, empty imitations of pop and rock singing. Co-director Jonathan Hart Makwaia is also disappointingly hands-off. One of Makwaia’s previous NYU pieces, Ovid in the Dark, featured incredibly strong vocal composition and technique, manipulating the voice to become both concrete and abstract sound design and storytelling. Yet this piece includes a majority of weak, uninteresting vocal arrangements, indicating nothing but Makwaia’s lack of instruction as, undoubtedly, most students would have been new to arrangement and composition.

I Think I’m Falling entirely lacked a sense of the gestalt. The story, perhaps tied loosely around actor Ian Lockwood’s character, was vaguely present. Performance styles were inconsistent from actor to actor and song to song. Luckily, the piece was made tolerable by Daniel Dabdoub’s eye-catching and fun design, whose disparate good-and-evil, high-and-low fashion elements were barely out of place in his trippy, Tim Burton-esque world. Thanks to sparkly makeup and a good performance here or there, remarkably, I made it through alright.

Pop Roulette

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Last Saturday, I rolled into the PIT ready to see some comedy. A lightup board outside the theatre proclaimed the evening’s lineup of sketch and improv comedy acts. Inside, a rowdy throng of theatre-makers and comedy fans chattered loudly at the ever-crowded bar. Amidst the drunken buzz, I seated myself for sketch troupe Pop Roulette’s weekly show.

Pop Roulette, devised by a team of unusually strong performers, is a musical sketch show with a cultural-satirical bent. Once their show begins, I find myself the singular sober member of an audience full of drunk twentysomethings, laughing perhaps a little overzealously at almost every punch line. The comedy writing is quite hit or miss; at least a third of the sketches in the set fell somewhat flat. Some were over-the-top, some uselessly crude, others predictable or overly-spelled-out: the usual pitfalls of comedy.

However, that’s not at all to say that there weren’t several shining moments. In a favorite skit of mine, an actor is seated at a restaurant with her boyfriend, distressed over being told to lose weight for an audition. Resigning herself to a diet, the couple’s tiny, bitchy waitress approaches and recommends the french fries, followed by, roughly, “I eat them every day. They’re like my guilty snack.” Quips like these are a specialty of Pop Roulette, the subtle, rarely addressed moments of New York life, from the ‘sexy’ club girls struggling in their stilettos, to the middle-class, Whole-Foods-going gay always seen wearing one (or three) thick circle scarves.

Another strength of this ensemble’s is music composition. The group’s original musical numbers are explosive oases of performative energy. The melodies are clean, thematically appropriate, and appropriately ironic. And like the best musical comedy writing, the punch lines are worked seamlessly into the structure of the songs. The closing number, an uproariously funny spoof of young professionals in New York City’s Murray Hill neighborhood, shows off well the group’s clever lyricism; with bugged out, deranged eyes and choppy, Frankenstein-like choreography, the group chants to the music, “I LIKE TO RUN. YOU LIKE TO RUN TOO. LET’S LIVE IN MURRAY HILL.” They perfectly capture New York’s upper middle class, making for a relevant, hysterical closing number.

Though Pop Roulette addresses several of the political and cultural items that one might expect from a sketch troupe (the Oscar contenders, Hilary Clinton, Glee), the ensemble is best when they stick close to home. In general, the strongest pieces are those like Murray Hill that detail the quirks and annoyances of 20-something life in New York. In another solid ensemble sketch, the group runs out, chants “STUFF! STUFF! ‘90s STUFF!” and begins to list in rhythm beloved television shows, music groups, and consumer goods from the decade, a beloved pasttime familiar to anyone raised in the 90s. However, the group’s list is disrupted by one person’s repeated contribution of newsworthy disasters from the decade, which the group humorously rejects each time. This sketch is simple and smart in its pop culture subversion, undermining the tender, consumerist love of the 80s and 90s that is rarely criticized beyond the realm of hipster silkscreen hoodies. Thus, in several sketches does Pop Roulette fit the bill of a successful satirical sketch troupe.

However, where the group is truly unique is in its fierce ensemble of performers. While some of them are more accustomed to comedy than others, it’s evident that many are powerful actors and singers on their comedy off-nights. Amanda Shechtman is one of these. Shechtman, in a pre-filmed faux documentary, plays a dysfunctional, fictional Adele fed up with motherhood. The sketch itself is alright; we watch baby-abusing Adele in her home environment, singing re-written versions of her billboard hits. What’s impressive about the skit is Shechtman; even through laughter it is hard to overlook her impressive voice as she sings circles around Adele at her own songs. Suffice it to say, Shechtman also pulls off an admirable celebrity impression, capturing the essence of Adele’s soulful vocals and accented English. Another company member of note is Lauren Ireland, a remarkably genuine, incredibly animated comedian who nearly steals the show each time she appears. Sadly, this solid actor had very few major appearances, but was a crucial addition to the ensemble regardless; it is impossible not to watch her when she is onstage.

Truly, though, each Pop Roulette performer has evident talent. The ensemble prizes tightness and clarity, two qualities so often missing from sketch comedy shows. Though every skit may not impress, the group promises ample laughs and a night full of energy.

Grab a beer and laugh with Pop Roulette this coming Saturday, 9:30 PM, at the People’s Improv Theatre, 123 E. 24th St. Get yo’ tix: https://www.facebook.com/events/510159949024169/

Or, just facebook stalk. https://www.facebook.com/PopRoulette?fref=ts

The Undiscovered Countries Festival

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I often find myself lamenting over the lack of artistic community in the Big Apple. Tales of Hemingway’s Paris and Warhol’s New York taunt me with visions of tabacs crowded with writers and and warehouse walls lined with silkscreen. I’m sure those good old days were not the collaborative bohemias that sparkle in my imagination. Yet I can’t help but yearn for a creative community, one eclectic and unpretentious, exchanging ideas and cigarettes, paintings, songs, scripts.

One Monday night a month, at the Undiscovered Countries Festival, I can live my dream. This so-called “infinite festival,” founded by Joe Faustine, puts up an evening of brand new work one Monday night a month, at a hipstery joint in Bushwick appropriately called Goodbye Blue Mondays. Anything goes in this festival: musicals and readings, solo works and music, all of which span a wide range of style and talent. But in that regard, it is a true festival of new works, offering a home to both the rough and the refined. Submission is simple, devoid of politics, and the whole thing is free of charge for performers and audience alike. What more can you ask?

The Infinite Festival’s history is a true Brooklyn dream. Faustine, a Bushwick resident, noticed a great stage in his local bar and asked for one night a month. New art gets a free venue; a small business makes money on a Monday night: the perfect arrangement. And this bar is an ideal spot for an evening of casual performance. The walls are covered with strange sculptures and vintage bric-a-brac and the beer is cheap enough by New York standards. It’s chic. It’s grungy. It’s the New York Parisians dream about (take that, Hemingway).

What makes this festival incredible (and sadly, what makes it unique) is its complete lack of arrogance. There is no critique, analysis, or judgment clouding the air. Rather, Undiscovered Countries is, at heart, a gathering of friends with a desire to witness and celebrate one another’s newest works-in-progress. The Undiscovered Countries team of organizers (Barbara Begley, Kaela Garvin, Joe Faustine, Kirsten Frisina, Amy Yourd) has started something truly unusual and laudable amongst New York’s fiercely self-promoting artistic landscape. Rarely does one encounter young, start-of-career artists willing to invest time in cultivating the art of peers. Yet these five theatre makers, understanding the value of this exchange, have the humility and maturity to pull it off.

Check in with the festival’s facebook page for next month’s lineup. Or, submit yourself…

https://www.facebook.com/undiscoveredcountries

Taylor Adamson [The Cyclops]

Sometimes you’re in the mood for theatre. Sometimes you just want a beer on a Monday night. Or, you can get both at Goodbye Blue Monday, a Bushwick bar that ironically offered pretty lame Monday nights until the Undiscovered Countries Festival took up residence there (more about this incredible festival later). A week ago Monday, I caught this month’s installment of the festival: one of playwright/performer Taylor Adamson’s new plays, The Cyclops. The casual, though fully-staged reading was everything I would’ve expected from a goofy, weeknight show-at-a-bar, yet Adamson would never let an audience off that easy- not even a drunk one.

First of all, Taylor Adamson will never cater to an audience of lazy listeners. He requires an effort of attention that few writers demand anymore; even I fell short of the challenge. Adamson lands one intricately detailed image, one pop culture reference, one joke, one insult after another with no useless repetition or exposition, and if you missed that line: well, it was funny and important, too bad. Secondly, this playwright has a Merriam-Webster vocabulary which he knows how to use and will use, a phenomenon sadly lost in our TV-over-books generation. Adamson floats through the English language with uncommon fluency, smacking phrases like “all up in this bitch” next to Shakespeare quotes, and generally outwriting many of his contemporaries who, for some reason, fail to employ juicy, complex, thought-provoking, many-syllabled Words.

Adamson has also created his own interesting derivative of the too-familiar Brechtian awareness-of-the-theatre. A character calls for ‘line’ when he’s caught short of something to say. Another whines about being killed off before she has done anything significant in the script. Adamson uses this familiar trope not only to blur the line between ‘play’ and ‘life,’ but to poke fun at theatre-making itself, to mock bad writing, the process of making a show, and even himself as an artist, lending yet an extra layer of seriocomic self-consciousness to his text.

The one catch to most Adamson plays is their length. If not their actual length (The Cyclops wasn’t all that long), then their sense of it. While some scenes shoot jokes and wisdom like lightning blots, others feel as though they could lose 3 or 4 pages. Sometimes it’s silly moments that seem to have turned from comedy to inside joke. In other scenes, characters preach pedantically about the themes of the play. Through a couple of these huge speeches, I gleaned something about god and our country, something about church and state maybe that I guess I tuned out after a while. But that’s not to say that some of the themes of The Cyclops didn’t hit home; in fact, I think this satire of American culture was particularly sneaky.

“This is not a Greek satyr play. This is a goddamn All-American satyr play,” reads the program. And that statement couldn’t be more accurate. The Cyclops is truly about the American ‘satyr,’ the bigoted, violent, horny, drunken, foul-mouthed (sorry:) man. We’re used to seeing these characters ridiculed: in ‘bro movies,’ on sitcoms, etc. And The Cyclops obviously joined in the fun, costuming these familiar good-for-nothing dudes in thick, furry shorts complete with giant, erect phallises. But in true Adamson style, though you may laugh for 90 minutes, he’ll slam you at the end, and this he does once again. Adamson himself, an actor in his own play, sits on the edge of the stage at the end of the piece, now devoid of any character but his own. He talks to the audience (much of which, he knows, are friends of his) about alcohol, giving a brief, intensely honest discourse on his relationship to the substance, which he admits he does not drink. Taylor’s speech makes me realize, beer in hand, that while we laugh at caricatures of the lazy, American, alcoholic renegade, there is a certain identification behind our laughter, and even a certain self-conscious approval. That is the touchy realm of American culture in which this play bravely dwells: the drunken, shallow, terrified part of ourselves that hides its vulnerability behind crude humor and a mug of beer.

This production of The Cyclops, under Joel Grossman’s direction, was pragmatic and clear, and the performances enjoyable. Brian Mason’s and Jason Cohen’s music was goofy and catchy, but they also inadvertently wrote a bluesy gem of a song that seemed just thrown in near the end. The chorus, which started “Gimme, gimme, gimme the girl who don’t want me,” was a rousing jam that had the audience clapping without prompt. Mason invited the audience to sing the last chorus and almost everyone did. There we were, a whole crowd of people joyously singing together about unrequited love and how much it sucks; that, folks, is a quality moment of theatre, and rare. The song was made entirely more awesome by Mason’s gritty, earnest rock vocals which made an appearance just once for this song, but were awesome nonetheless.

So each performer may have had a shining moment here or there. Yet, no one can perform Taylor Adamson’s text quite like Taylor Adamson himself. Somehow no one else can master equally the fully-committed slapstick, completely flat line delivery, and moments of intense depth and truth that are all called for in Adamson’s plays. Typically, his actors are masters of well-delivered comedy, but no one in this production was as able to dig deep as the playwright himself. It is that moment I always wait for in Adamson’s performances, the moment when the humor is stripped away, when he sits before the audience under no guise but some pre-written words, talking earnestly about the pain we daily ignore. No acting. No laughing. Just him.

Check out Adamson’s next big deal in San Francisco (ooo!): his uproariously funny play, Robot Hand, produced by Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre Company this coming season.

Updates to be found here within the next few weeks:

https://www.facebook.com/BTaBTheatreCo

Shaina Taub [The Daughters]

 

If you haven’t yet experienced the writing of Shaina Taub, well, it’s time, and here’s your chance: a workshop of Taub’s first full-length piece, The Daughters, performed by current NYU students under the leadership of director Sam Pinkleton. This badass musical tale of Zeus’s three daughters and their ultimate rejection of immortality has already gone through several different incarnations, including one at CAP21 in New York and another at the Yale Rep. This stage of The Daughters‘ development is by no means the most emotional or intricate, but it’s a good chance to hear some of the show’s strongest numbers simply presented in a very bare-bones workshop performance.

Taub’s voice is a necessary one in the musical theatre scene, drawing inspiration from the world of music, rather than the world of theatre. So many musicals, labeled “rock musicals,” “folk musicals,” “rock operas” or whatever else somehow come short of the genres of which they claim to be a part. Time and time again, they fail to escape that ever-recognizable musical theatre sound, whose lame imitations of instrumentation and vocal quality force it to forever only hint at songs we actually hear on the radio.

Taub is one of the only writers I know to evade this phenomenon. How she does it is simple: she just writes music. Taub writes good songs first and worries about the story and characters in workshops like this one. And because she’s a veritable singer-songwriter outside the theatre, the music we hear in The Daughters is real soul, recognizable indie rock, blues, and R&B that we’d buy as such.

Beyond stylistic fluidity and mastery, the most exciting element of Taub’s writing is powerhouse vocals. I don’t mean a final high F heralding the end of a belter ballad. This is ferocious 4- or 5-part harmony written in the rafters of the female voice, not slammed at the end of a song to impress, but scattered throughout, used, appropriately, as an expression of human need/desire/desperation/joy in musical bursts that are loud, resonant, piercing, and immediate.

Taub’s instrumental writing certainly deserves mention as well. Taub blends fierce contemporary vocal styles with detailed, unexpected nuances in instrumentation. This workshop may only have keys, a piano, and percussion, but there’s a lot going on in that small band. The most notable example is Aphrodite’s chilling second ballad “Brave Enough.” Aphro (Sylver Wallace) riffs delicately around her jaded self-depracation, but the accompaniment tells a different story. While Wallace spends much of the song in her vulnerable female falsetto, the keys plod along darkly and heavily, revealing the ever-present current of terror that courses through a young woman facing unexpected motherhood (as well as unexpected mortality). The percussion, however, is what makes this song so uncomfortable. Percussionist Hiroyuki Matsuura utilizes several different pieces throughout this song and the show, but his eerie, jarring cymbal slices in “Brave Enough” are like musical shots of adrenaline. Fun instrumental details are peppered throughout the show, and tightly executed by both Matsuura and Trevor Bachman (keys/piano/music direction).

Old Daughters favorites from earlier drafts including “Brave Enough” and Athena’s rebellious “Child” steal the show this time around. It’s these tried-and-true numbers that carry the mystery, depth, and heart that was characteristic of the concert-style, more nonlinear previous incarnations of the piece. The goal of this workshop at NYU seems to be the development of a clearer story. While the workshop succeeds in this, the fascinating, loosely-tied-together, deep character analysis that was The Daughters, sadly, no longer exists.

The workshop certainly is a workshop in every sense of the word. It’s not terribly clean or tight. The students feel very young in their roles, which adds a dramaturgically intriguing immaturity to each of the characters, but also leaves one craving the adult darkness hinted at within the music. However, this is not true of actor Michelle Berry, a third year at NYU in the role of Artemis. Berry is constantly “on” and constantly aware of her body in space, which can’t be said of every young actor in this piece. Her dialogue is fierce and powerfully directed. She has an inherent, genuine sexiness and strength in this role, but none of the self-awareness or haughtiness that often accompanies those qualities. She’s simply a mature performer. In a particularly strong scene with the youthful Orion (Angel Lin), Berry says, “I can’t take care of you!” and in that voice you hear a woman wise enough to know she is too young to be responsible for another.

Each young woman, however, has at least one laudable moment of performance, and each one undeniably has an unstoppable voice.

This incarnation is indeed a mixed bag, but just remember it’s a workshop, jam out, and have fun.

The show runs through this coming Friday at Tisch School of the Arts. Tickets are probably limited at best, but even if the show is sold out online, it’s worth a visit to the theatre to try to get in.

Click below for tickets, dates, time, show details:

http://www.tisch.nyu.edu/object/dr_stageworks_thedaughters.html

Michelle Berry (Artemis) and Meagan Reyes (Athena)