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.’

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.