*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.

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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

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