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

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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.

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)