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.

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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.

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