REVIEWS

Our Place in Time

Reviewed by Karl Levett

Presented by Women's Project & Productions and New Federal Theatre, at the WPP Theatre, 424 W. 55th St., NYC, Feb. 6-20.

As the title indicates, Clare Coss' play attempts to provide an American history of the last half-century seen through women's eyes. Two bookend scenes (1955 and 1999) of the romance of two concerned citizens, Lynn and Dan, frame the author's version of the half-century's most significant happenings. Thus the parade of scenes includes a lesbian coming-out, the Cuban Missile crisis, racial integration, the 1963 March on Washington, Vietnam-during and after, female contraception, the onset of AIDS, and the Anita Hill hearings. The ambitious intention is to show private moments shaped by public events, but it soon becomes apparent that playwright Coss is much more comfortable with the truly private than with the importantly public.

The liveliness and humor of the personal coming-out and contraception scenes totally vanishes in the big public set pieces. Glowing with good intentions, these become placard dramas becalmed by slogan dialogue. Thus we get cries like "Black and white together!" and "I am a mother washing the country's laundry!" Also there's no genuine connection between all these Significant Scenes except for the hardworking and talented actors in multiple roles. Fittingly enough, the female performers are given more opportunities to shine than the men. Both Jacqueline Knapp and Elizabeth Hess are wonderfully versatile throughout, while Gena Bardwell brings a winning grace to every scene. Norman Maxwell convinces as romantic Dan, Keith Randolph Smith is best as "An Out of Order Man" and Daniel McDonald is able to be truly touching in an otherwise hackneyed AIDS vignette. Bryna Wortman directs all this history with pleasing efficiency, aided by Narelle Sissons' starlit-windowed set design and Gail Cooper-Hecht's appropriate costumes.

Each scene of the play is introduced by a popular song of that specific period: the device again demonstrating No"l Coward's maxim, "How potent cheap music is!" The evocative music easily proves its potency over the placards that follow.

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Edward II

Reviewed by Dan Isaac

Presented by the Jean Cocteau Repertory at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, 330 Bowery, NYC, Jan. 24-April 10.

In an appealing production directed by Karen Lordi, the Jean Cocteau Repertory has just opened a rare and difficult work, Bertolt Brecht's "Edward II." In truth, the play is by two playwrights; for Brecht's play is a version of Christopher Marlowe's "Edward II," written in 1592. Further complicating the authorial problem, the script used by the Jean Cocteau is a translation by Eric Bentley from the German that skillfully captures the power of Brecht's nihilistic vision in English verse.

"Edward II" is about a weak king who would rather spend time with his male lover, Gaveston (Jason Crowl), than govern his country, resulting in the banding together of feudal lords to demand that Gaveston be removed from a position of power and sent into exile. When Edward's forlorn wife, Queen Anne of France (Elise Stone), becomes the mistress of Mortimer, King Edward's nemesis, the plot nicely thickens; and veteran actor Craig Smith, who 20 years ago created a young Tennessee Williams for JC Rep with Williams at rehearsals, delivers a career performance with his portrayal of Mortimer as a tough and cynical warrior-politician.

But the back-and-forth of many battles turns the first act into a series of bewildering events. Only after Gaveston is killed does "Edward II" come into focus as a metaphoric struggle between the empowered Mortimer and a sexually self-indulgent king. Harris Berlinsky so artfully performs Edward, that the more his character is persecuted, the more sympathetic he becomes.

Scenic Designer Robert Klingelhoffer has created a golden Gothic-nouveau throne so dominant that nothing more need be said about place; while Robert Martin has designed costumes that mix royal with modern, Stone wearing a rich floor-length robe that never quite conceals a daring sleek black evening-dress just beneath.

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Small Potatoes

Reviewed by Victor Gluck

Presented by Moonlake Productions at the John Houseman Studio A, 450 W. 42nd St., NYC, Jan. 27-Feb. 20.

Ever heard of a farce that wasn't funny? Or a satire that had no sting? Bob Rogers has updated Nikolai Gogol's classic political farce, "The Inspector General" and reset it in upstate New York today. Unfortunately, Gogol's originally eccentric creations are now one-dimensional and their crimes are all clich s.

"Small Potatoes" takes place in Plainville, New York, where the local officials are growing rich from a phony military contract with the local factory and other scams. When two strangers come to town talking of calling "Washington" and knowing "important people," the bureaucrats believe that the newcomers are government inspectors. Panic ensues as the culprits try to hide their crimes or buy off "the officials."

Neither Rogers' powers of comic invention nor his dialogue holds any surprises. There are only two laugh lines in this entire 90-minute play. Martha Pinson has directed in an artificially mannered style that gives away all of the jokes long before their punchlines and makes the corruption too obvious. This makes all of the actors uniformly unfunny and flat as characters. None of this is fast enough to be good farce or comedy. The set designs by Meganne George require a good many tiresome scene shifts. Kathleen Scupp's costumes miss all chances for satire.

None of the actors is believable or humorous, but they work very hard for very little results. All are stereotypes without any particularly unique quirks or foibles. For the record, the strangers to town are played by Carla Bianchi and Eric Taylor. The corrupt officials are (in alphabetical order) Bob Adrian as the judge, Dan Anderson as the chief of police, Christopher Benson Reed as the fire chief, Michael Fegley as the parks commissioner, Jinn S. Kim as the factory manager, Lee Moore as the senator, Genevieve Schartner as the bank president, and Anthony Spina as the mayor.

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Spermegga

Reviewed by Mark Druck

Presented by the New Federal Theatre at the Hudson Guild Theatre, 441 W. 26th St., NYC, Jan. 12-Feb. 20.

Clarice Taylor is a trouper. Her energy and charm keep the pot boiling from the first moments of her one-person show, when she performs a two-person exchange between a judge and a two-week-old infant.

The show follows the growth of the child, named Spermegga (a mix of her mother's name-Eggna-and her father's-Sperman). At age six, she lives with her beloved granmommy, an old woman whose wisdom and humor spark all her scenes. Later Spermegga evolves as a bright, talented child who draws, writes, and asks a lot of difficult but insightful questions about the adult world. As a teenager, when the girl's emerging personality brings her into conflict with her mother (and charms her father), Taylor skillfully switches personalities and voices with the dexterity of a youngster. She is especially wonderful at the end of Act I, when four personalities on stage would demand the very best of any actor. The scene crackles with wit and insight.

In the second act, Spermegga loses her grandma and, when Sperman gets out of jail, goes to live with Eggna and Sperman. They make a home for the girl, which lasts until Sperman leaves and the relationship between the daughter and mother gets increasingly difficult. Ultimately, Spermegga ends up pretty much as her mother did-deserted by the boy she was in love with-but with new wisdom and maturity.

Taylor, under the direction of Walter Dallas, is a joy to watch. Nick Embree's functional split-level living room and kitchen set gives the impression that it was created with a lot of TLC, but little money. Peter J. Jakubowski's lighting was most valuable in setting the scenes, as the story moved from point to point in the girl's life story. Sound design by Peter Ryberg was very effective.

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Sizwe Bansi Is Dead

Reviewed by Jeanette Toomer

Produced by and at the 78th Street Theatre Lab, 236 W. 78th St., NYC, Jan. 20-Feb. 13.

"Sizwe Bansi Is Dead," produced by the 78th Street Theatre Lab, was a taut intermissionless drama with two finely tuned actors and expert direction. Doni C. Comas' incarnation of the title character was at times desperate and at others deeply angered. Comas and Enrique Fonseca, Jr. were the lightning rods of emotional intensity that charged this compelling revival of Athol Fugard's short play, co-written by John Kani and Winston Ntshona.

Director Thomas Bullard brilliantly captured the brutal realities of apartheid and the coping strategies of these archetypal characters. Clearly, Bansi, Bantu, and Styles, as portrayed with expansive reaches by Comas and Fonseca, were projecting the stories of faceless thousands. Bullard built upon the original imagistic style of the play to bring home the impact of the abuses on the South African people.

This revival was wrapped in telling expressiveness, and direct addresses to the audience made for the uncomfortable feeling of being there. Racially oppressive apartheid South Africa-now a part of history-was here emphatically brought to life in the impoverished, claustrophobic set provided by Kwang Soo Kim.

Lighting designed by Ji-Youn Chang was often stark in order to highlight the characters' effusive faces. Bansi's suit was the most distinctive attire provided by costume designer Eakapotch Thantanacharoen; the rest of the wardrobe seemed appropriately ill fitting or used.

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It's Good Enough for Me

Reviewed by Elias Stimac

Presented by Dixon Place, at Vineyard 26, 309 E. 26th St., NYC, Feb. 3-26.

The Peculiar Works Project is living up to its name with its latest offbeat offering, "It's Good Enough for Me." The play, written by PWP artistic director Barry Rowell, combines religion, sex, philosophy, and slapstick in an evening that defies categorization.

The play begins with an introduction of the narrator, a homeless person named Faith (Catherine Porter) who also serves as the voice of God. The character has her omnipotent sights set on a small congregation of churchgoers who live in a seemingly prim and proper town. Naturally, there is very little primness or propriety among this dysfunctional group, which includes a naive choir singer (Judith Annozine), a mistreated secretary (Suzi Takahashi), a repressed alcoholic (Rae C. Wright), the preacher's neglected wife (Janet Bryant) and mother (Nomi Tichman), a tough-talking thug (Terrell Tilford), a makeup-wearing man (Derrick McGinty) and a misguided minister (John Marino). There is plenty of intrigue brewing behind closed doors among this gathering of less-than-pious parties.

The ringmaster in the middle of all this madness is the Reverend Chester K. Tackleberry (Christopher Hurt), who sermonizes his flock by day and seduces its female members by night. Loping about like an evangelical Groucho Marx, Hurt delivers his physical and verbal sidestepping with hilarious results.

He and his fellow actors adeptly perform theatrical acrobatics to keep up with the quick-changing scenes in Rowell's script, which include comedy routines, confrontational scenes, projected film flashbacks, and melodramatic hymns.

Director Julia Whitworth does wonders keeping the focus of this clerical circus equally divided among the three rings of thought-provoking comedy, social satire, and all-out farce. The technical elements cleverly contribute to the shenanigans, including Ray Neufeld's stylish set, Peter Nigrini's versatile lighting, Karin Eckert's period costumes, and funny silent film footage by Manoiseca. Charles Eversole offers stalwart musical direction, using arrangements by Daniel T. Denver.

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Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company

Reviewed by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Self-presented at Theater of the Riverside Church, 91 Claremont Ave., NYC, Jan. 21-22.

It was the performance of choreographer Eleo Pomare's "Tabernacle" that redeemed the Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company's otherwise trite program, presented at Theater of the Riverside Church.

To a driving Steve Reich score of relentlessly repeating chants of worship, Pomare's dancers dash and writhe about the stage as if propelled, and at times possessed, by the energy of the Lord. There's a point high up in space, above the down-left corner of the stage, from which a divine energy emanates, inspiring all forms of humanity-represented by the intentionally multi-typed ensemble cast-to dance in awe and longing. The bodies sometimes pull together and move as a unit, skittering with excitement or bravely reaching their limbs outward and expanding their torsos to receive the blessed energy. Just as often, individuals break free of the group and rush independently to the sacred corner, catching forces that make them leap with glory or cower with wonder. The frenetic ecstasy that fills the stage is raw and magnificent.

The program's other choreographic highlight was "Se˜or Blues," created by Andy Torres, the company's former artistic director. This winsome character piece is loosely based on the physicality of an old, be-bopping bum hanging out by a lamppost. The work is built of cool and lazy, Carol Haney-style jazz movements danced to the snazzy sounds of Horace Silver. As a solo piece performed by an expert jazz dancer who could embody the contrasts inherent in the style-the easy sustained phrases interrupted by sudden explosions of percussive punctuation-it would have been fabulous! However, probably in fulfillment of the company's original mission-to develop student dancers into a professional company-Torres made "Se˜or Blues" an ensemble piece. Performed by this troupe of young artists whose kinesthetic understanding of the jazz dance style is immature, the work becomes simply cute and entertaining.

Completing the evening's offerings was an uninteresting quartet choreographed by Roberto Villanueva (a promising dancer), and three pieces created by the company's current artistic director, Enrique Cruz DeJesus, whose choreographic method seems to involve nothing more than stringing together popular jazz technique-class moves.

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The Stuttgart Ballet

Reviewed by Phyllis Goldman

Self-presented by City Center Theater, W. 55th St., NYC, Jan. 19-22.

The Stuttgart Ballet charged into the City Center with a brand-new, sleek company. The women have legs that lengthen from ear lobes to pointe shoes, and the men look like Calvin Klein models. All have astounding technical facility and musical sense. But the big vacancy is emotional nuance-the very essence that John Cranko, the founder, sought to nurture.

In "Initials R.B.M.E." (Richard Cragun, Birgit Keil, Marcia Haydee, and Egon Madsen), Cranko choreographed a truly magnificent homage to the friends who were once the memorable stars of his company. Those of us who remember the debut performance of this ballet in New York were teary eyed. The brilliance of this work's structure and dazzling musicality almost made up for the rest of the program.

The path that Reid Anderson, the present director, is taking is one of innovation. While Cranko chose Brahms and Tchaikowsky for his work, Anderson (not a choreographer) brought in choreographers who have an affinity for clanging pots and pans. "Delta Inserts," set to John King's score (no music here) and choreographed by Kevin O'Day, bordered on boredom. The piece presented the company members with every foot arched, every porte-de-bras correctly drawn as they swarmed about the stage to the mind-bending noise.

"Kazimir's Colours," choreographed by Mauro Bigonzetti, began with a stabbing arabesque and continued in a parade of dancers caught in mid-flight, hurling themselves through space in leaps and successive turns-legs pointed so far heavenward that they were surely to come unhinged from the pelvis. Led by Sonia Santiago and Alexander Zaitsev, the company members virtually killed themselves with athletic feats. It was impressive, but unmemorable.

Uwe Sholz choreographed a 10-minute solo, "Notations," for principal dancer Vladmir Malakhov that perfectly suited his "look at me do this" stage persona and accentuated his "wannabee Nureyev" mannerisms. Malakhov has a perfect dancer's anatomy (Nureyev did not), but Nureyev had a direct connection to his audience (and to partner Margot Fontyen) which was the key to his legendary success. Malakhov must get over being impressed with his own arch and high extensions if he is to fully uncover his soul. Unfortunately, Sholz was no help to him here.

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Lula Washington Dance Theatre

Reviewed by Phyllis Goldman

Presented as part of the Altogether Different series by The Joyce Theater Foundation, Inc., at The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave., NYC, 175 Eighth Ave., NYC, Jan. 11-30.

The Lula Washington Dance Theatre, imported from Los Angeles, celebrated its 20th anniversary as part of the Altogether Different series this year. At her curtain speech, Washington, the choreographer and director, flashed an endearing smile during her pitch for AIDS (part of Dancers Responding to AIDS' successful yearly solicitation, in which each audience member is asked to contribute just one dollar). Would that such a sparkling smile had extended to Tamica Washington's prolonged solo "Tasting Muddy Waters," replacing the grimacing facial expressions that seriously marred the piece. Black dance today is classier than it was in the past. It has moved beyond shaking your bottom and clucking over your shoulder at the audience, but this progress was not in evidence here.

Program notes indicate that the work was a woman's reflections on memories of her past that crowded into her present life. However, Washington's choreography was not clearly defined, and it was overblown with mannerisms that bordered on being irritating and offensive. Can a woman who is violated ever simply get up, put on a clean skirt, tie up her hair, and in a matter of minutes shimmy offstage as if nothing happened?

Washington had a zany take in her choreography for the closing piece, "Mahal Dances," to music by Taj Mahal, with a rhyming text spoken by the dancers. Keisha Clarke, a fit and striking dancer, was a knockout in her duet with a compliant Bernard Brown. More finger-pointing, bottom-wiggling, and scooping arms permeated the choreography, but in this setting it worked.

A perfectly ridiculous as well as embarrassing duet was sandwiched between the above two pieces. "01997-8," danced by Kim Borgaro and Jeremy Tatum, seemed to be a competition between two technically strong dancers. Both assumed an "I Can Do Anything Better Than You" attitude, assuming snooty countenances that were anything but flattering.

The program opened with an early piece by Donald McKayle-"Songs of the Disinherited"-and its risk-taking movement was danced with great gusto. Since the piece is dated 1972, the splayed fingers, jazz layouts, and high kicks had their place, but Alvin Ailey has brought black dance along to another level. Lula Washington has not quite reached that level.

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The Merry Wives of Windsor

Reviewed by Eric Grode

Presented by the Pearl Theatre Company, at the Pearl, 80 St. Mark's Place, NYC, Jan. 7-Feb. 27.

It's hard to tell exactly when the Pearl's no-frills "Merry Wives of Windsor" becomes so much fun. The aimless, clunky crowd scenes early on promise a long, unfunny evening. Before long, though, the entrance of Dan Daily's charismatic Falstaff, along with an overall adeptness at unearthing the play's often-scarce humor, results in a surprisingly enjoyable production.

The early exposition is remarkably uninspired by Shakespearean standards. Falstaff contrives to woo several wealthy wives in the hopes of funding his dissolute lifestyle; two of the wives find out and decide to turn the tables on him. Their machinations, along with those of their husbands, result in a series of expository setups as flabby as the "damned Epicurean rascal" who sets the lusty wheels in motion.

The Pearl, known for its straightforward, unadorned productions, might have benefited from some directorial frippery here; James Alexander Bond gets some good work out of several of the leading actors (and sees to it that the diction is refreshingly clear throughout), but the crowd scenes are dismayingly static. Except for a few scenes involving Falstaff in drag or hiding in dirty hampers, Bond and set designer Mark Fitzgibbons conjure up little to engage the eye.

Daily's Falstaff brings a touch of charm to his ill-fated seductions, dragging his rear leg coquettishly and adopting a suave, hangdog quality. Jay Russell and Carol Schultz are quite good as one of the two couples embroiled in Falstaff's wooing, as are Susan Pourfar and David B. Heuvelman. Ray Virta and Shona Tucker are much less compelling as the other main couple; unfortunately, theirs are the meatier roles. The cast is also large for the Pearl, and the quality drops considerably in several of the smaller roles, especially early on. But despite these hurdles, the Pearl has once again zeroed in on a classic's most timeless qualities, this time giving us the unlikeliest of leading men.

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King John

Reviewed by Dan Isaac

Presented by Theatre for a New Audience at The American Place Theatre, 166 W. 46th St., NYC, Jan. 30-Feb. 20.

Shakespeare's "King John," generally thought to be a weak play about a weak embattled king, comes vibrantly alive in an imaginative production directed by Karin Coonrod and presented by Theatre for a New Audience.

The question of who has the right to inherit is introduced in the opening scene, when a French ambassador threatens war if King John (Ned Eisenberg) does not surrender his land to France and his throne to young Arthur, a legitimate claimant. Moments later, King John, sympathizing with a bastard who has lost his right to inherit his father's land, grants him the nobility of knighthood. Known only as the Bastard, this character becomes a choral figure whose cynical wit and passionate patriotism color the action. Derek Smith's engaging portrayal of the Bastard keeps the audience in the world of the play, even when too many scenes takes place "on another part of the battlefield."

The stunning event of this production comes when the imprisoned Arthur (Michael Ray Escamilla) makes a perilous decision to escape by jumping from a high wall. Standing on the top girder of the American Place Theatre, Arthur steps into the void and floats down to the stage, helped by ropes tied to hand and foot that make him look like a puppet. But their removal, by those who find him, signal Arthur's death.

Is Shakespeare putting a spin on a 13th-century assassination? Jumped indeed! Earlier King John commands a confidante, Hubert, to kill Arthur. Performed with compelling passion by Michael Rogers, Rupert spares Arthur and promises protection. Nevertheless, Arthur dies!

This is a flashy production, for the light man (Christopher Akerlind) has all the lines. Follow-spots track the Bastard in the dark-then suddenly the stage is flooded with light for the scene that follows fast upon.

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This Is a Test

Reviewed by Elias Stimac

Presented by George DeMarco and John V. Fahey in association with At Long Last Productions, at the Sanford Meisner Theater, 164 11th Ave., NYC, Jan. 17-Feb. 6.

Writer-performer Michael D. Conway shares with audiences his own personal "wonder years" in the one-man show, "This Is a Test." The actor has written a script filled with warm and witty observations about his life so far. He offers an intimate portrait of a young man who, while awaiting the results of his HIV test, looks back on his past and ponders the possibilities ahead. The end result is frank, funny, and fascinating.

It is also a multimedia miracle. Conway, a graphic designer and artist as well as an actor, has created an entire series of computer-generated "backdrops" that accompany him on his journey of self-discovery and reflection. From the opening moment when the image of a full moon floats through the starry night sky and ends up being viewed from the other side of a window frame, the visual images that Conway has cleverly concocted are simply breathtaking.

But it is Conway's mental images that strike closest to home. There is so much about this Texas boy's tale that is universal and yet unique. His comical memories of childhood, his compelling remembrance of a friend lost to AIDS, and his spiritual perspective on everyday events are insightful and inspiring. Directors Melinda McGraw and Charlie Otte deserve full credit for crafting this polished piece with Conway. Their staging keeps the 90-minute show always involving and in motion.

Conway's computerized creations are magical, seamlessly transporting the performer and the viewers into each new location. The colorless bedroom setting by Otte and Ron Malott is an ingenious invention, a blank canvas upon which Conway's panoramic projections play. Otte is also behind the masterful lighting design, which illuminates the actor without disturbing the beautiful backdrops.

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33 Fainting Spells

Reviewed by Phyllis Goldman

Presented as part of the Altogether Different series by The Joyce Theater Foundation, Inc., at The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave., NYC, Jan. 11-30.

The 2000 Altogether Different series got underway with a thoroughly different troupe under a decidedly different title. The three women who make up the cast of "33 Fainting Spells" presented an hour-long piece called "Sorrow Sisters"-a tale of irreparable sadness that unfolds in a sparse, gloomy room filled with an odd assortment of props. Everything about the scene, including the maidenly black oxfords and unadorned black dresses worn by the women, suggests hopelessness. It is wartime. The ominous sound of airplane overhead interrupts the score of recognizable classical music.

A surprise birthday party for one is an attempt to elevate the doom and gloom. One roller skate (circa early 1940s) is the gift for the birthday girl, while the other two fuss with a small cake affixed to a festive hat. Symbolism runs rampant. There is a whole dance with potatoes as the three cavort in tricky, stylized, often fidgety choreography. A sense of futility and despair is underscored as the potatoes are finally sliced and stirred into an apparently distasteful gruel.

Dayna Hanson and Gaelen Hanson (not related) are the co-directors of this unique company, and Peggy Piacenza is the fabulous third dancer who is sent out from the apartment, perhaps in search of food. She returns mortally wounded into the caring arms of the other two. As the second act unfolds the story takes a concrete narrative shape. Piacenza lies motionless on her bed as the others cope with her delirium. She drinks the few remaining drops of milk and is rejuvenated for a moment as she enters into a deranged dance-her last output of energy before dying. As the sisters cover her face with a sheet they come to terms with their only alternative-to leave the apartment and the body. They pick up their suitcases and exit. It is a somber, yet carefully thought-out, finale to a compelling dance-play.