Futurity: A Thrilling Indie-Rock Brechtian Fever Dream

Futurity

Caption: César Alvarez and the cast of Futurity (Photo: Ben Arons)

I had difficulty connecting with Futurity at the start. I liked that it was quirky but thought it was maybe trying too hard to be “different” or “out of the box.” Then again, there were these pearls of wisdom that kept multiplying as the show progressed, and I found myself getting more and more involved. This is a show that gets you talking. Jenn and I spent the whole walk from Avenue B to Broadway discussing the issues brought up: slavery, war, fighting for change, progress, changing people’s minds, using art as a weapon, if art makes things better, if it even makes a difference. Pieces like this spark conversation and hopefully forward movement.

But let me pass you over to our guest blogger today, Jenn Haltman. Jenn is my uber-talented friend and partner in crime (well, art). I got excited by the idea of Jenn sharing her thoughts rather than I as she clicked with the show in a more significant way. I think I got there; I was just a little late to the party. Here’s Jenn and her very own doodle (note: she looks just like me but with longer hair).


Jenn Stick Figure

Soho Rep and Ars Nova have combined forces to co-produce Futurity, which makes a lot of sense. Soho Rep perennially produces bold new theatrical voices, and Ars Nova has a very heavy musical component to its programming. They were smart to look beyond their respective, intimate home theatres and present this work at the Connelly Theatre to allow for the space needed for the breadth of this story. I went in knowing nothing about the production except that it was originally produced at A.R.T. in Boston in 2012 (there is even a concept album on Spotify).

Futurity opens with The Lisps (an indie, experimental band) coming out on stage in front of a traditional velvet curtain, riffing about things they talked about backstage and setting up the characters of the show, causing us, the audience, to wonder what we are about to see. Is this a concert? A musical?

They go on to tell a fictional story about the real Ada Lovelace, a 19th century mathematician known as the first computer programmer. We follow her correspondence with fictional character Julian Munroe, a young Civil War soldier. Ada and Julian are played, respectively, by The Lisps band members Sammy Tunis and César Alvarez. Through letters, the two forge a relationship based on their shared love of math and science, and they develop the “steam brain,” a thinking machine intended to improve society and eliminate war. Together they examine the idea of collective conscience, morality, and the question of whether or not a machine would think ceasing war and slavery is in fact the ultimate moral choice.

Alvarez also wrote the book and lyrics, and he co-wrote the music with Tunis and the incredibly talented percussionist Eric Farber (also a member of The Lisps) who plays various “contraptions” in the piece. They are joined by a wonderfully diverse cast of ten actors who play the ensemble of soldiers in addition to providing the impressive live accompaniment.

Since Futurity is framed as a musical within a concert, I was able to step back and appreciate the craft of it alongside the storytelling. As I watched the advancement of Ada’s invention against the ever-growing Civil War, it forced me to think about how each person plays a role in “advancement.”  It allowed me to value the inventor with the same weight as the soldier and how we all contribute what we can to a cause. One song in particular called “How Much” movingly shows the cost of war. The inimitable Karen Kandel plays The General, and her rallying of the troops about why they need to fight shows us both how far and how little we’ve come as a country. The set design by Emily Orling and Matt Saunders is subtle yet transformative (especially the reveal in the second act!), and David Neumann’s choreography is simple yet evocative. Director Sarah Benson (a favorite of mine) expertly shapes this sprawling vision with heart and intellect.

Tunis and Alvarez periodically step out of character to remind us of the construct of the evening, and this is where the Brechtian influence is most clear. German director Bertolt Brecht believed that plays should provoke self-reflection and action by the audience to improve the world around them. If everything is tied up in a neat bow at the end of the story, then the audience is left feeling complacent and not compelled to act. In true Brechtian style, Becca and I left talking about how the play reflects the world around us and what that means. With so many plays I’ve seen of late, I’ve walked out of the theatre thinking about my laundry or to-do list than what I just witnessed. Futurity will likely not leave me for a very long time. It’s proving to be a hot ticket, so if you can get your hands on one before it closes November 22nd, do it!

***
Futurity
Music by César Alvarez with The Lisps, Lyrics and Book by César Alvarez, Directed by Sarah Benson
Connelly Theatre, Closing November 22nd
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Cast: César Alvarez, Andrew R. Butler, Fred Epstein, Eric Farber, Eamon Goodman, Karen Evans Kandel, Kristine Haruna Lee, Mia Pixley, Jessie Shelton, Kamala Sankaram, Darius Smith, Storm Thomas, and Sammy Tunis

Credits: Choreography: David Neumann; Set Design: Emily Orling and Matt Saunders; Percussion and Contraption Design: Eric Farber; Lighting Design: Yi Zhao; Costume Design: Emily Orling; Sound Design: Matt Tierney; Props: Noah Mease; Fight Choreography: J. David Brimmer; Music Direction: César Alvarez

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The Humans: A Hilarious and Haunting Family Portrait

Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Cassie Beck, Sarah Steele, and Arian Moayed (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Smile Option 1

This, y’all. What a well-made play. A Roundabout Theatre Company production currently running at the Laura Pels, and now expected to transfer to Broadway in the spring, The Humans is a new play by Stephen Karam, whose play Sons of the Prophet (a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist) was also staged at the Roundabout back in 2011.

Thanks to the fantastic direction by Joe Mantello (you can always count on him) and an extremely strong cast, everything about this piece feels so…real. That’s the only word I can think of to describe it. Time and time again, I keep coming back to that one – real.

First let me give you some context. The Blake family has gathered together for Thanksgiving dinner, this year at their younger daughter’s new apartment in lower Manhattan. Brigid has moved in with her older boyfriend, Rich, and the place isn’t bad by New York standards. It’s a ground floor apartment, and they have a second floor in the basement of the building, both fully executed by set designer David Zinn (see photo below). Sure, there are bars on the windows, and the trash compactor is crazy loud, and who knows what the hell the neighbors are doing upstairs, but hey, it’s home! They’ve just moved in, and their stuff hasn’t made it to the apartment yet, so it’s a very bare bones Thanksgiving, adding to the creepiness vibe of the place as the thumps get louder and louder upstairs. Brigid’s older sister Aimee is there, and their parents, Erik and Deirdre, have trekked in from Pennsylvania with their grandmother “Momo” who is suffering from the beginnings of dementia. The evening is full of prepping for dinner, exchanging gifts, complaining about the noise, and getting to know the boyfriend (watch a clip here). Because it’s a play (and we all know how plays work), we can guess from the start that this isn’t going to be the smoothest of family dinners, but the way in which the plot unfolds is so seamless that it doesn’t feel the least bit contrived. Nothing in the entire 90 minutes seems false or forced. Things unravel like a sweater as old reflexes kick in, snide comments are exchanged, and secrets are revealed.

Whatever these actors did to prep for these roles worked. It’s as if they really grew up together in the same home. The dynamic of each relationship has been so well developed. As tensions rise and fall, each character alternates taking on the role of mediator or instigator. It’s so familiar it’s almost like watching your own family up there – maybe not the same relationships or secrets but in the way they speak to each other. The history between them is just as strong as what’s being said in the moment. Whenever Brigid makes a rude comment toward her mother, I didn’t sit there thinking, “She’s a mean person.” Rather I saw the layers of their relationship and understood that they have a history to which we are not privy. We may not get the whole story in this play, but we know it’s there, and the actors definitely know it. AH – all of them are so good! I don’t feel the need for other adjectives! All I’ve got is GOOD and REAL.

Oh, also, don’t let me give the impression that this is a heavy, all-intense family drama. That’s definitely part of it, especially as we build to the haunting climax, but this play is crazy funny. Other things I loved? It’s told in real time. The characters overlap and interrupt each other the way people really talk. They overhear one another’s conversations, but it doesn’t feel like a convention. We are truly flies on the wall witnessing raw, real moments between family members as they snap at each other and love one another hard. The Humans is so relatable it’s painful at times, and when I wasn’t laughing, I was struck by the inner workings of this family. I found myself continuously surprised as other elements were looped in toward the end of the play, even moments of pure terror. And when the lights went out, my hair was standing on end.

The Humans
Written by Stephen Karam, Directed by Joe Mantello
Laura Pels Theatre, Closing January 3, 2016
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Cast: Cassie Beck, Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Sarah Steele, Arian Moayed, and Lauren Klein
Credits: Set Design: David Zinn, Costume Design: Sarah Laux, Lighting Design: Justin Townsend, Sound Design: Fitz Patton

Top: Cassie Beck, Sarah Steele, Bottom: Reed Birney, Arian Moayed, and Jayne Houdyshell (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

Top: Cassie Beck, Sarah Steele, Bottom: Reed Birney, Arian Moayed, and Jayne Houdyshell (Photo: Sara Krulwich)


Cloud Nine

Cloud Nine

Smile Option 1

The last time a major production of Caryl Chuchill’s Cloud Nine was seen in New York was in 1981 so I was very pleased to catch the revival at Atlantic Theater Company. This lovely, touching performance is running through November 1st, and I do think it’s worth your time.

Cloud Nine was a popular play to study back in college, especially in my Contemporary British Feminist Playwrights class when I studied abroad in England. How does one sum up this play? It’s about family, love, and sex. Even more so, it’s about oppression and putting people in boxes, forcing them to meet certain expectations, particularly gay people and women.

The first act is set in colonial Africa during the Victorian era, and then the second act jumps forward to 1979 in London. However, the characters have only aged 25 years, something my older seatmates across the way had a little trouble grasping, but don’t worry, we talked it out during intermission. This storytelling twist provides a unique opportunity to view this set of characters in two contradicting worlds, yet ironically, the standards and expectations of society seem not to change much between the two time periods. And as we watch this in the year 2015, we find that the topics of LBGT rights and feminism are just as ripe.

Cloud Nine is point blank and subtle all at once. It’s controversial and ordinary. It’s goofy and serious. Done in the round, this production, directed by James MacDonald and featuring a smart, excellent ensemble, accomplishes just what I think the play intends. I would love for you to go and tell me what you see. Do you think it makes a point? Do you think the point has been made before and it’s becoming trite? Or is this old play still bringing something new to the table?

The older folks sitting by me asked, “Is Caryl Churchill a feminist?” “Yes,” I replied. “Ohh, did she hate men?” I hope they are able to come away from this piece recognizing that those are two different things.

Note: the seating is not very comfortable. The bleachers that were constructed to allow for a more intimate, in-the-round performance are not ideal. The Atlantic is encouraging audience members to bring a pillow or small cushion to make their seat more comfortable. Usually I’m the first to complain about bad seating (my back issues makes me an easy target), but I did okay! It’s not a reason to skip the show.

Cloud Nine
Written by Caryl Churchill, Directed by James MacDonald
Atlantic Theater Company, Closes November 1st
Photo Credit: Doug Hamilton
Pictured: Lucy Owen and Chris Perfetti


Fun Home

Fun Home

We interrupt our normally scheduled programming (aka the chronological order of the shows I’ve seen) to first talk about Fun Home because it’s too important. I’ve been waiting for this show all season. I know this might sound a little over-the-top, but I can’t help myself: it’s flawless. End of story. A musical like this only comes around once in a while (you can see highlights here). Consider me officially obsessed.

Some backstory: Fun Home is based on the graphic novel “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by cartoonist Alison Bechdel about her relationship with her closeted father. The name Bechdel might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the Bechdel test or the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” Nevertheless, you’re about to get to know Alison and her family very well as she looks back on her childhood and teenage years, building a timeline and attempting to unlock (and draw) the mystery of her father. We meet her at three different stages: Young Alison is nine or so, Medium Alison a freshman in college, and current-day 43-year-old Alison.

Present-day Alison doesn’t quite narrate; rather she excavates her past with the audience in tow. As she sifts through her dad’s old things, she pieces together memories to literally draw from them and make a cartoon. And then she captions the different moments, casting a new light or interpretation on them whenever possible. “Caption: Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay.” Through her eyes, we quickly fall into this world of memories. It’s additionally effective because the production is performed in the round; company and audience, we’re all in this together. The set pieces spin and shift and disappear through the floor as we move through time. Like the recent production of The Glass Menagerie, the design does an excellent job of creating a memory piece (shout-out to Associate Scenic Designer Tim McMath who designed our gorgeous Summertime set).

And within the in-the-round theatre, we meet fully developed, three-dimensional characters, and the fact that they’re based on a real family makes the experience all the more visceral. Each performance is more fantastic than the last. The chillingly good Tony-nominated Michael Cerveris loses himself in Bruce, Alison’s father – his inner pain radiating from every move, every smile or outburst, every awkward attempt to connect or push people away. The same goes for Tony-nominated Judy Kuhn’s poignant, understated performance as Alison’s mother, Helen. And the three Tony-nominated women who play Alison each bring something unique and beautiful to the role. Eleven-year-old Sydney Lucas plays Young Alison, and all I want to know is where did this girl come from?! She’s stellar and changes everything when she sings THIS (it will also be the Tony performance on Sunday). Emily Skeggs brings an infectious, wide-eyed joy to Medium Alison as she discovers her sexuality. And Beth Malone as adult Alison is the center of this show, keeping everyone and everything grounded. From the moment she starts speaking, you know you’re in good hands.

Here is one of my theories about musicals. If it has a bad score, it dies, it’s forgotten. If it has a great score and not the strongest book, it’s forgiven. As long as it’s got that score, people let the bad, typically contrived, book slide. So when a musical comes along with a book that’s just as strong as the score, if not stronger, it leaves a mark. Shows that meet this criteria stand out (think Sweeney Todd, Next to Normal). So bless you Lisa Kron for this book and lyrics, and Jeanine Tesori – whose music doesn’t always click with me – for writing a beautiful score that I’ve been listening to nonstop since Monday evening. The story weaves seamlessly in and out of song and spoken word (hear the nominee hopefuls discuss the music and lyrics here).

And just a quick word about the subject matter and gay characters. I won’t delve into this too much because I fear I’m not eloquent enough to discuss how important and enormous it is to have a lesbian character be the lead of a musical. It’s unheard of. So instead I’m going to quote an LA Times interview I just read with Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director at the Public Theater where Fun Home began Off-Broadway:

Fun Home, Eustis believes, has the potential to do for lesbians what Angels in America did for gay men: “Take a marginalized group and say, ‘No, you are actually center stage.’ The art form…depends on empathy. It has been magical watching Broadway audiences at Fun Home. No one is thinking, ‘Oh, I know a lesbian.’ They are identifying themselves with the story, and that changes you. Once you’ve identified with someone, you can’t think of them as the other anymore.”

As for Sunday’s awards, there are legit races this year with no clear frontrunner in multiple categories. And as far as Best Musical goes, Fun Home wins in my book, hands-down, but An American in Paris (truly gorgeous, review to come) may have the edge. We’ll have to tune in to find out how the chips fall. Regardless of who wins, this is an intimate, heart-wrenching, funny, true-to-life story of love, self-denial, self-discovery, and above all, family.

Caption: Get your tickets, and come on home.

Fun Home
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron, Based on the Graphic Novel by Alison Bechdel, Directed by Sam Gold
Circle in the Square Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus and Jenny Anderson
Pictured: Sydney Lucas, Beth Malone, Emily Skeggs, and the Cast of Fun Home

Fun Home


Something Rotten!

Something Rotten

I gotta say, Something Rotten has Best Musical written all over it. Admittedly, I have yet to see most of the new musicals this season as they’re all coming out right about…now (pre-Tony time is busy, friends!). So it’s true, I might change my tune after seeing Fun Home or Finding Neverland or It Shoulda Been You. Lots of new musical potential this year (update since I wrote those last two sentences: It Shoulda and Neverland did not do too well with the critics).

But Something Rotten knows what it’s doing, and it’s got Casey Nicholaw at the helm (you can view highlights here). Now Casey and I don’t always see eye to eye. I couldn’t quite get on board with his productions of Aladdin and Elf, but then there’s the hilarious The Drowsy Chaperone and underdog The Book of Mormon. And now he’s back delivering a brand new (that’s right! NEW!), yet deliciously old-school musical full of big shtick, big comedy, and big musical numbers. And Shakespeare references!

Wait, hold up – this show is about Shakespeare? Don’t run off just yet! It’s not all uppity with super insider-y jokes (although there are plenty for the big Shakespeare fans out there). Here’s the basic premise. All the Bottom brothers, Nick (Brian D’Arcy James) and Nigel (John Cariani), want is to write a hit of their own, but they can’t get a word in edgewise because William Shakespeare (Christian Borle) is all anyone can talk about, and his new play Romeo and Juliet just premiered at the Globe. Nick will do anything to top his rival, so he goes out in search of a soothsayer (Brad Oscar) to find out what the “next big thing” might be. And what does he learn about? Why, musical theatre of course! So he dives headfirst into creating the world’s very first musical. Cut to countless hit musical references. I mean, so many you won’t catch all of them in one viewing.

Now sure, there are some easy jokes that drove me a little crazy (a woman guarantees there will be gender equality in no more than five years – get it?!), but on the whole, it’s a silly ball of fun. I don’t know the last time I laughed that hard at a musical. The score is packed with catchy tunes that you will actually leave the theatre humming. And to top it off, you have the impeccably talented cast.

Led by D’Arcy James and Borle, right off the bat, you know you’re in good hands. D’Arcy James is steadfast in everything he touches. He plays a solid straight man amidst all of the craziness but still gets his chance to cut loose. As the Bard, it’s so much fun to once again see the cockiness of Black Stache mixed with the bravado of Tony winner Borle himself. Brad Oscar is insane and hilarious, and Cariani and Kate Reinders are adorably charming and funny as the young will-they-won’t-they-couple. Oh, and Heidi Blickenstaff – I could listen to her sing all day. I wish there were more to her character, but sadly it’s not her show. This is very much about the Bottom brothers and Shakespeare, and the women unfortunately are left in the sidelines. I guess that’s what happens when a show takes place in 2015 – sorry, I mean 1595.

So. A musical chockfull of Shakespeare AND musical references? It sounds like this was made for me. How can you go wrong with a musical that’s an ode to musicals? I’m eager to see what the critics will be saying after the opening tonight, but honestly? I’m not the least bit worried about this show. Nothing’s gone rotten here.

Something Rotten! A Very New Musical
Music and Lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick, Book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, Directed by Casey Nicholaw
St. James Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Christian Borle and the cast of Something Rotten


Hand to God: A New American Play

Hand to God

All I want to do is tell you everything about this play, but I won’t. I’m actually barely going to review it. I don’t want to spoil anything about this new show. Well, not so new; Hand to God has had a long journey to Broadway. First it ran at Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) in 2011 and then last year Off-Broadway at MCC Theater. I remember hearing about it both times but never made the effort to see it. Now it’s made the leap to Broadway, and I encourage you to make ALL of the efforts.

I’ll tell you a few things to whet your appetite. Hand to God takes place in the small town of Cypress, Texas. A teacher there is trying to help the kids connect to Jesus and religion through puppetry. Then we meet the soft-spoken Jason, one of the students, whose hand puppet Tyrone may or may not be possessed by the Devil. Yup.

It’s a first-rate cast: Geneva Carr, Marc Kudisch, Michael Oberholtzer, Sarah Stiles, and the mind-boggling Steven Boyer as Jason (and Tyrone). I hope he wins all the Tonys. The set is spot-on; the script fresh and laugh-out-loud hilarious. It’s a cross (ha) between The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, but it’s not a musical. A word to the easily offended: like in Mormon, there is some outrageous humor. It can be crude, sexual, and full of cursing. But man oh man, is it funny. You won’t believe some of the stuff you’re seeing and hearing. You may just blush in your seat.

This new Broadway play will make you laugh. It’ll make you think. It might make you squirm a little bit. It’ll definitely make you appreciate good theatre. Just trust me – you’ll enjoy it. Hand to God.

Hand to God
Written by Robert Askins, Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Booth Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Steven Boyer


Fiasco Theater’s Into the Woods

Into the Woods

Talk about the opposite end of the spectrum from this year’s blockbuster movie “Into the Woods.” The film, with its starry cast, lush sets, and special effects, may leave you thinking that this is the production value required of such an epic piece. But what you can witness at the Roundabout Theatre Company right now makes a strong argument for simplicity. By returning to its core – cutting the expensive costumes and even a full orchestra – we see these characters, raw and available, for all their faults, dreams, and wishes.

This is Into the Woods stripped bare. Fiasco Theater has gone back to basics with a much beloved show, throwing away the many interpretations we’ve seen over the years and starting from scratch. What do these characters want? What are they really saying/singing? The company takes the book scene by scene, lyric by lyric, and re-approaches them as if it were new material. And the hard work shows (highlights here). As someone who knows ITW very well, I heard lines in new ways, saw things I’d never noticed before, and to top it off, didn’t find myself missing the old ways. With a minimal set and only a few instruments, this small ensemble creates an entire world for us to behold, and like a fairy tale, many things are left up to the imagination. Take all the prop stand-ins: the hen is a feather duster, the cow a man (an absolute stroke of genius), the horses toy sticks, Rapunzel’s hair a yellow yarn hat, and so forth. Most of the accompaniment relies on Musical Director Matt Castle on piano, but the cast also doubles as the pit, stepping in to play cello, xylophone, bassoon. A few also play multiple roles: Rapunzel is Little Red, Jack’s Mother is Cinderella’s Stepmother, etc.

The orchestrations are unique and beautiful. In an odd way, losing the full orchestra highlighted the music even more. Who knew I’d been craving Sondheim music played only on guitar? The staging is also full of surprises. You never know what’s going to be transformed next. The set is stunning, the stage basically the inside of a piano. Up the proscenium sides are keys, along the wings are the insides of actual pianos, and the back wall is filled with strings that turn into the woods (no pun intended) themselves.

The cast is not that strong vocally (except for a few stand-outs), but it’s actually a testament to the innovation behind the production itself that this doesn’t take away from the show. Of course I missed having a certain power behind a few voices, but they make up for it. There is heart behind each and every performance. Nothing feels glib or mocked; it’s genuine and full of love for the story.

[SPOILER ALERT in this paragraph] This production also serves as a defense of what I wrote about in my movie review. Rapunzel’s death is so, so, so key to the plot, not just for the Witch’s arc, but the arc of the show in general. When that scene is done correctly, it changes the air in the room. Her death, and Jack’s Mother’s, sit in the space, the weight heavy on us, as the two actresses leave those costume pieces behind and move back into roles that live on. These deaths drive the characters, they drive the remainder of the second act, and they drive the message of the show.

It’s likely you’re not interested in seeing a show you’ve already seen or one that you can go see for $15 at a movie theatre (or on DVD soon enough), but I assure you, despite being an old favorite, this Into the Woods is brand new.

Fiasco Theater’s Into the Woods
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Lapine, Co-Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld
Laura Pels Theatre, Closing April 12th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: The cast of Into the Woods