Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Crotch Tiara: Keigwin Kabaret stuffs its strut on the down low under Symphony Space, NYC

By guest blogger Joey Lico

At 8:30 pm at the beginning of the weekend, a hush falls over the candle-lit Leonard Nimoy Thalia.  Over a microphone, a female flight attendant encourages passengers to order drinks: sex on the beach, rim jobs, panty rippers, buttery nipples. Blue papers rise from the audience to call the bartenders.
Enter the cast of Keigwin Kabaret, gliding around the stage with the angular fluidity that Larry Keigwin has perfected since his days dancing backup on Club MTV with Downtown Julie Brown. The performers, led by Ying-Ying Shiau, humorously pantomime airline safety instructions; buckling safety belts, pointing to exits and securing oxygen masks while the audience laughs with familiarity. The dancers’ depiction of flight attendants is the only subtlety of this sexed-out variety show.
What can you say about a performance that ends with a naked, voluptuous, blonde woman, who also happens to be a female-impersonator spread out on stage like a star fish? “The World Famous Bob” turns to show the audience her jewel-encrusted vagina and the theater explodes into thunderous applause. Keigwin Kabaret has kept its promise to entertain. 
With guest appearances by Ambrose Martos, the clown-haired, sex-centered Master of Ceremonies; Bradford Scobie-a lasso wrangling, chicken- violator and Scott Lyons a paraplegic cross dressing version of Disney’s Ariel; Keigwin Kabaret is a show with a distinct sense of humor.   Trying to make sense of it all ruins the spectacle. Between the sex, glitter and hip-hop aura that is characteristic of Keigwin’s choreography, these random acts segue between the dance pieces.

Keigwin Kabaret photo by Matthew Murphy

At one point Martos takes up an entire 2 minutes teasing the audience by taking off fourteen pairs of underwear. Is this a clever way to kill some stage time or a well-crafted comedic interlude of Keigwin’s design? Either way, this mélange works and we’re all fascinated eagerly awaiting the next carnal display.
Dancer Ashley Browne moves with such a smooth funk during a rendition of Unk’s chart topping, “Walk it Out” that it’s almost shocking when she unfolds and extends her leg next to her ear in the following piece, moving with utter grace and classical control. Nicole Wolcott shines throughout the entire show; her perfectly toned body dancing each movement with ferocity. She makes tongue wagging as captivating as Keigwin’s intricate footwork.

There are delicate moments as well.  Shiau brings an unrelenting tenderness as she is softly passed from the arms of one beau to another. She’s so endearing that you almost forget the scene has been set with her rise from among a circle of men, bathrobes open, as though she has just finished giving each of them a blowjob.
Only one moment seemed out of place. Liz Riga’s solo comes across as a downer among the slapstick pieces we have otherwise been presented with. Although she moves with command and obvious talent, her angularity and severity foil the fun. The woman who walked out in the middle of the brilliantly sung lyric “one mans omelet is another man’s son” might have appreciated Riga’s homage to the choreographer’s alter ego as the head of Keigwin + Company.
Perhaps the intent is to remind us that not everything is fun and games. But the audience isn’t prepared and people let out only singular stifled chuckles in support.
But grin and bear it all with laughter we do for the entire 2 hours. By seamlessly blending contemporary, hip-hop and comedy under the umbrella of sexual promiscuity, Keigwin manages to put together a well-crafted work. On balance, it feels like a great way to spend a Friday night.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

"Vice (with Mary Kay)" at the Tank on 45th St, NYC: Cakeface eats out

A small pink plastic globe of a television monitor above an empty stage greets the audience as it makes its way into the theater space on the evening of May 8. Hanging from a chain above the corner of the playing space closest to the right side front row seats, it flickers silent black and white images of the vegetarian cartoon hero Popeye the sailor, and his carnivorous foil, the aptly named hamburger-mooching Wimpy.
Suddenly we find ourselves confronted by the performance trio Cakeface, standing shoulder to shoulder across the front of the stage and sporting bike shorts and black bras under sheer neon tunics (costumes by performer Elle Chyun). They each hold white sheets of paper from which they begin to read, with the self-conscious aplomb of third graders, a text that might have been written by second graders. The audience begins to giggle. Then the readers stuff their scripts into their mouths and begin to chew.
(l to r:) Amanda Szeglowski, Jeso O’Neill and Elle Chyun of Cakeface*
Thus begins Vice (with Mary Kate), a 28 minute opus that has been, according to a program note, “inspired by grating encounters with ‘preachy vegans,’ [which] probes that which makes us feel ‘badass.’” Wimpy, the note intimates, should receive script credit as a “motivational badass,” and the source of the piece’s “vocal samplings.” 
“The work delves into the behaviors we adopt despite knowledge of their negative implications, including but not limited to ruthless carnivorous indulgences.”  Hence, it would seem, the paper chewing.
The remainder of the behavior depicted onstage consists of passages of spoken text, cheeky interaction and fierce full out dancing in the tiny space. Intermittent recorded music by DJ Tony Conquerrah, Matmos, Figurine, and The Knife sets off or accompanies these episodes. The costumes change, adding brightly colored shrugs here, day-glow fanny packs there, from which emerge prayer shawls to be worn around the performers necks.

Of these elements, the dancing makes by far the strongest positive impression. In fact, the work's most cogent moments of manifestation come in the form of a rap recording calling out the hypocrisy of holier-than-thou vegetarians to which the trio adds its muscular hip hop and modern dance flavored movement.
Each of the character/performers (Jeso O’Neill and Amanda Szeglowski, alongside Chun) has her moments of strong presence, with the bemused-looking Chun the most consistently appealing. Cakeface, fond of written declamations, announces its mission in the program as “commercial abstract art.” Under the heading “vision,” the collective states that it “wants to push abstract art out of its incestuous circle and into the mainstream. Tactical collaborations, socially powered work and pop art are the ingredients of the cakeface brand.”

Except perhaps for the music, and maybe the fanny packs and Mary Kay reference, I find little of pop art in evidence in Vice beyond the Popeye animations. Were the work to be viewed as an extended sketch on Saturday Night Live it might easily be seen as of better than average quality. Certainly the intimate audience reacted to its absurdist humor as any reasonably excitable SNL crowd might have.
But if Cakeface wants to go the distance in realizing its larger ambitions it might do better to dig deeper into the culture it seeks to satirize or critique and wear a bit more of its heart on its gossamer sleeve.  For real human warmth and engagement, and a dialogue with popular culture it need look no further than its own post-performance champagne and cupcake theater lobby reception for a start.

*photos by Florence Baratay

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Hip Obscurity's "Maybe, Tomorrow": polymorphous diversity @ Sonnet Theater of The Producer's Club, NYC

Having spent her college and first post grad years focused on directing, Andi Cohen set out to write her first drama as “the most direct-able play possible.”  She chose romantic love as her theme, and handed her opus Maybe, Tomorrow (an experiment in love and chance encounters) to three teams, each consisting of a director and two actors to have at it.

The resulting trilogy, as seen on May Day, makes for an interesting and engaging exploration in spite of some unevenness in the writing, and more in its direction and performances. Cohen manages to create a kind of music in her dialogue that has inspired each of her initial directors to musical choices of their own. And even when the text seems elliptical or awkward as human speech, it achieves in its spare repetition the kind of poetic potency that has the ring of emotional truth.
Besides the obvious variations in the characters’ sex: the first act features a hetero pair, the second two women; the third two men, Cohen has inserted a short divertissement in the script for each unique pair.  These provide modulations that spice each retelling with a specific flavor in mood and tenses.

Chris Hale and Sarah Kinlaw (above)

We encounter the fetching Sarah Kinlaw cradling and strumming a ukulele while perched on the park bench that serves as the major set element for all three versions of the play. Presenting the first of the three characters named Taylor, she soon finds herself joined by her Syd (Chris Hale). The first several of their episodic scenes revolve around his inability to deploy the love bomb, and end with one or another of the pair putting off the consummation with the line that gives play its title. After a sometimes melodramatic 15 minutes, which includes her rather unconvincing attempt at menace with a pistol, the act concludes with the flashback scene that will round off each pair’s journey in the moment of its inception.

Above: Debra Disbrow (left) and Janie Nutter

If Eric Hunt’s naturalistic direction of this first explication seems most solidly rooted when the appealingly present Kinlaw plays her instrument and sings, director Jeremy Williams stylized rejoinder literally never quite finds its feet. This has much to do with the demands his choreography places on Debra Disbrow’s Syd and Janie Nutter’s Taylor in their not-so-comfortable medium-heeled shoes and skirts over tights. The clarity and economy of the actors’ vocal performances and of the director’s set re-arrangements, blocking, and sometimes whimsical textural ideas crash repeatedly against a sense of physical unease. This adds an unwelcome level of discomfit to the relationship’s already intense underlying sense of lyrical negotiation, and seems to undermine strain his actors’ committed attempts at emotional honesty.

Brian Murray (left) and Amir Wachterman (below)
Morgan Gould’s direction of the gifted Amir Wachterman (Syd) and Brian Murray (Taylor) caps off the production with a queer and antic tragicomic bang. The actors’ ability to go from spraying each other with super soakers to moments of vulnerability and tenderness provides the audience with an intriguing glimpse of the kind of theatrical tour de force that Cohen may have locked up within her tight-lipped script.  One wonders, for instance what couples or directors of different ages or cultural or ethnic types might bring to a dip in this fondue, even within the gender differentials.
Gould and her cast have gone the farthest in pushing the envelope of both the play’s comic and dramatic possibilities. Watching Murray’s and Wachterman’s characters suggestively pump up their super soakers, cavort in various drag, sport with whipped cream and become emotionally naked and present with each other allows the pain and joy at the heart of the piece to fully emerge. Whether  each exegesis could sustain this level of invention in the hands of a single director remains a question for another day.

Brian Murray (left) and Amir Wachterman (right)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Talking to Myself: My inner critic and choreographer contend over Catherine Gasta’s " A Piece of Humanity"

Choreographer/director Catherine Gasta, in a program note, describes her A Piece of Humanity as “a sketch of the human existence, from birth to childhood into education and working and on and on.”  And if this  “first incarnation” of the piece comes across on the whole as, well, sketchy, it also has among its several saving graces that of going on and on only intermittently.
How clever (and how damning-with faint-praise)! Now you’re going pick up on that metaphor?  It’s her first production in NYC for crying out loud. Doesn’t she get a break?

From left to right:
Mi Sun Choi, Morgan Miller, Amy Jones, Michael Freeman, Joseph Brown, Michelle Silvani, Ebru Yonak, Halley Cianfarini, Raven Pease in Catherine Gasta's "A Piece of Humanity"

Beginning at the edges of the stage in a dispersed circle, the black clad cast moves towards an ovum of light on the floor like slow motion ninja spermatozoa. Here they mime repeated repulsions by an invisible kung fu until one breaks through.
The maculate conception that follows takes us through a sequence listed in the program as “Chromosones; Childhood to Working; Sedating; Electronic Devices; and War to Restart” over the course of the following 35 minutes.  Along the way, Gasta alternates and sometimes integrates sophisticated choreographic arrangements involving the entire group with more individualized mimic characterizations.
The “Sedating” sequence, for instance combines a compositional quality reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch with the kind of miming that one might expect in a game of charades, depicting tippling, pot smoking, and semi-erotic spanking.  “Electronic Devices” recalls the ovum bubble of the opening sequence by insulating individual characters from their fellows within force fields of mimed texting, computing and cell phone screaming. Despite their relatively brief duration, these scenes lacked dramatic or choreographic development beyond their introduction.
Russel Burton’s commissioned score seems to be driving things during these sections, often continuing a theme beyond the choreographer’s need or desire to embellish.  I recognize this trap. When one runs out of time in a rehearsal process, imagination sometimes seems to vanish as one falls back on the supportive comfort of collaborators and the familiar.

Gasta revels in a strong instinct for shaping stage space through the use of collective movement. Her often exquisite designs for nine weave in and out of each other with a sense of seamless and continuous flow. She has also managed, in collaboration with her dancers, to create a glimmer of the kind of committed and disciplined ensemble technique necessary to the work’s ambitions.
Those ambitions, however, far outstrip her ability to deliver at this stage of the game. Gasta seeks to stretch and fuse her formidable and extensive training in dance, theater, specific mime and new pantomime to embrace a universal vision. She yearns to address human existence in all its wonder, complexity and contradiction from the microbiological and neurophysical to the technological and geopolitical.  But she seems to lack the time and space to attend to the detail of her embroidery.

If Gasta, as director, has come a long way in instilling a sense of cohesion within her dancers’ body movement, she seems to have focused far less on their facial characterizations. These ranged widely among a cast diverse in shape, size, ethnicity and performance background and often seemed more like mugging than formal masking, setting them at odds with her choreographic accomplishment. In the performance I attended, Joseph JB-Ezee Brown and Amy Jones seemed to provide the most effortless models for an assimilation of the competing demands of Gasta’s physical and presentational elements.
I hope my friend Raven doesn’t end up disappointed that I didn’t also single her out here. Sometimes it feels awful to sit in this seat.
Gasta closes her long director’s note in the show’s program with a wish to develop the piece further.  “I hope to add more people and create an overwhelming presence of people onstage that move together and at random as humanity does.”   More attention to detail and development and a longer incubation period with a cast no larger than this might go farther toward realizing and refining a vision that, no matter how ambitious in its scope, already seems a bit overwhelmed.
Now comes the formal talk back. A row of chairs appears across the stage. We stare at them and they stare at us, and I feel sorry for everyone. Do we all wonder about the point of such exercises?  They so often feel as stilted and awkwardly polite as a blind date. Finally its over, and the real give and take in spirited imbibing and exchange can begin.