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

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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)

A little history to start with…

Anyone familiar with New York’s downtown theatre is aware of The Wooster Group’s significant place in its relatively brief history. If their best stuff was before your time, never fear: catch the occasional video clip from the extensive Wooster Group archives on the “dailies” section of their website. But don’t skip over the delightful slices of Wooster Group life that make up the majority of the “dailies;” hysterical and informative, the short videos are veritable pieces of art in themselves.

Watch a few:

http://thewoostergroup.org/blog/dailies/all-dailies/