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


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


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


Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult

Tristan & Yseult

You can always count on Kneehigh Theatre for a whimsical treat for the soul.

When I first heard St. Ann’s was presenting the theatre company Kneehigh’s production of Tristan & Yseult, I jumped at the opportunity to go. Plus I got to see it with Shannon, one of my favorite people, who was visiting from Chicago last week (to launch Brontosaurus Haircut Productions!). Kneehigh’s style is right up our alley so we were eager to drink in the performance. I’m sorry to say that the run ended on Sunday night, so unfortunately I can’t recommend that you go see it (slash I’ll keep this brief). But here’s the trailer to give you a taste.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to Kneehigh is their seamless threading of storytelling with dance, music, and physicality. It’s consistently innovative, exciting, and unexpected. I got to see Brief Encounter at Roundabout Theatre Company in 2010, and while I don’t recall specifics (except the swinging on chandeliers), I definitely remember how it made me feel. I remember being awed, thrilled, and challenged by the acrobatics, ideas, and designs. It was simply beautiful (here’s the clip reel).

Their newest production is the story of Tristan and Yseult, your classic case of star-crossed lovers. We are greeted by a group of self-declared “Lovespotters,” who also introduce themselves as the unloved in this world. They are all dressed in uniform track jackets, hoods up, carrying around notepads and binoculars as they search for signs of love (this ensemble also doubles as the characters of the main story). I loved the unloved. They were like the minions in “Despicable Me” – working in unison, saying random things, singing and stomping around, and called names like Steve and Kenneth. They’ve also been known to croon sappy love songs and modern pop songs with the kick-ass band at the Club of the Unloved.

Even though I can’t recommend this particular play, I can tell you to keep your eye out for Kneehigh shows. We went on a journey of love, heartbreak, song, and dance as these characters sailed on ships, battled, and flew in the air. The storytelling is quirky and light until you realize just how heavy-hearted things can be.

Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult
Written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy, Adapted and Directed by Emma Rice
St. Ann’s Warehouse, Closed December 14, 2014
Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich
Pictured: Dominic Marsh and Hannah Vassallo


Found

Found

I cannot get over the new musical down at the Atlantic Theater Company. If it doesn’t get extended or picked up somewhere else, what a crime that would be. I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw something this original and simultaneously this good. Sadly, the two things rarely go hand in hand anymore.

So. Some background. Found: A New Musical is based on FOUND magazine and how it got started (ahem, founded), from its humble beginnings to later successes. The magazine is a collection of found items: notes, love letters, lists, anything you might find on the ground somewhere. Davy Rothbart started gathering said stuff and building a portfolio if you will. And now, Tony nominee Hunter Bell ([title of show]) and Lee Overtree have turned Davy’s story (and these real found notes) into a musical.

How does one do this, I hear you ask? The story itself is familiar; we’ve seen this trope before, but not told in this way. Found notes are interspersed within FOUND’s origin story – imagine that the notes serve as the subtext. An ensemble member will jump out and share a little blurb or sing a quick one-liner (which will also be projected on the walls) commenting on the scenes at hand. For example, if two characters are speaking and you can tell there is a spark between them, someone is going to interrupt with a love note written by a 7th grader. These moments are seamlessly weaved into the plot and vice versa (the plot going where it needs to at times in order to share top-quality finds). The letters also serve as the lyrics to the majority of the songs. How amazing is that? Except for a few original numbers (all wonderfully written by Eli Bolin), the remaining songs consist of new music but words from these found items (click here to hear a ballad from the show). The notes are for the most part hilarious, some tender, others heartbreaking. And they’re all so relatable. Much of the joy from the show comes from the fact that these items were written by real people. It’s also refreshing to see the notes themselves in the set/projection design. Who writes things down anymore? Here we can remember a time of passed notes in class instead of texts, to-do lists instead of a phone app, a break-up letter instead of an email. The musical has miraculously found a way to match the varying tones of these letters, lists, and scraps of trash – turning the mood on a dime.

Found features a fantastic talented ensemble, led charmingly by Nick Blaemire as Davy. Barrett Wilbert Weed plays Denise, Davy’s roommate, and damn, girl can sing. I would list the standouts among the cast, but they all get a chance to shine so I’ll list them all instead: Christina Anthony, Andrew Call, Daniel Everidge, Orville Mendoza, Betsy Morgan, Molly Pope, Danny Pudi (Community fans out there?), and Sandy Rustin.

Wrapped up in this extremely funny, modern, fresh musical is also a touching, honest message – one that is not pushed. It’s there for us to pick up on throughout the piece and is only directly addressed briefly in the second act. One of Bell’s strengths has always been sharing an idea that’s simple and true but often forgotten in our day-to-day-life craziness, without hitting you over the head with it. On the chance this production doesn’t have a future here in the city, I suggest you become one of the lucky few to catch it before November 9th.

Found: A New Musical
Book by Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree, Music and Original Lyrics by Eli Bolin, Directed by Lee Overtree
Atlantic Theater Company, Closing November 9, 2014
Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich
Pictured: Christina Anthony, Danny Pudi, Nick Blaemire, Molly Pope, and Sandy Rustin


Scenes From a Marriage

Scenes From a Marriage

What a fascinating, innovative, different type of play experience. Of course, I’d expect no less from an Ivo van Hove production. The Flemish director often revisits New York Theatre Workshop to reinvent plays as we’ve come to know them. When I saw Hedda Gabler starring Elizabeth Marvel in 2004, it completely changed my view of theatre. He’s also directed A Streetcar Named Desire, The Misanthrope, and The Little Foxes there. Ivo strips plays down to the characters’ most primitive instincts and then heightens them all over again, leaving you with a very different approach than the original you had come to expect. Scenes From a Marriage is his newest project, based on the 1973 Ingmar Bergman TV mini-series.

As the title hints, we bear witness to different scenes from the same marriage. During Act I, the stage is split into three separate sections. When you arrive for the show, you’re given a colored wristband determining which room you enter first. Within the three rooms are three different sets of actors playing the same couple, Johan and Marianne, at different stages of their marriage, from its more promising beginnings to later struggles. In the first room, timeline-wise, are Alex Hurt and Susannah Flood, 10 years into their marriage. A half hour later you move into the next room to see Dallas Roberts and Roslyn Ruff playing the same couple later on, and lastly are Arliss Howard and Tina Benko working through the remains at the end. Meanwhile, the scene(s) you already watched are replaying beyond the thin walls. You can hear the fights, ones you’re familiar with and ones you have yet to hear – the echoes of past and future battles that resonate throughout the story.

The majority of the second act is absolutely thrilling. The theatre is transformed into one large open space, and as the six actors enter (together this time), the audience begins to prep itself for the roller coaster ride they expect is coming. The scene begins as the characters alternate lines, and soon the three pairs begin doing the same scene at once, overlapping and moving about the entire space. Three different interpretations, three different deliveries, all happening at the same time. It requires active listening from both the audience and the actors. I sat on the edge of my seat, eyes darting back and forth, catching key phrases here and there, and latching on for dear life. Hearing the same scene layered on top of itself made the words more vibrant and charged.

Despite this intense engagement, I did struggle with the latter half of Act II as my attention wavered (there were dips in Act I as well). I should note here that the play is three and a half hours long (including a 30-minute intermission). It doesn’t feel that long, but certain scenes weren’t as engrossing for me. Although this may have been because they were such a stark contrast to the times when there was so much going on. It was an odd thing bouncing back and forth between being overly engaged to not totally present. The play is well acted, but I was most partial to Susannah Flood’s performance as Marianne 1. She is moving, spontaneous, and a joy to watch.

To sum up, if you’re interested in seeing a piece of theatre that will challenge you to listen and work your brain, I do recommend Scenes From a Marriage. If nothing else, it’s always a good idea to be introduced to Ivo van Hove’s approach to theatre.

Scenes From a Marriage
Written by Ingmar Bergman, English Version by Emily Mann, Directed by Ivo van Hove
New York Theatre Workshop, Closing October 26th
Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich
Pictured: Tina Benko, Dallas Roberts, Roslyn Ruff, Alex Hurt, Arliss Howard, and Susannah Flood