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Since he is not alive to defend himself, Shakespeare's plays are frequently a target for offbeat and, at times, outrageous interpretation. This time around, the Looking Glass Theatre has chosen the route of gender reversal for "The Taming of the Shrew." Every male role is played by a woman, every female role by a male actor.

But to what purpose? Does this new spin on the classic add new insights? We think not. According to Looking Glass's program notes, the company is dedicated to exploring the role of women in theatre. In this production they use gender reversal to consider what Shakespeare's male-dominated world would have been in the hands of women.

The goals are worthy, and the actors themselves may have gained new understandings from role reversals, but not so the audience. There is enough inherent confusion in a piece where every one pretends to be somebody else without injecting gender confusion. The result is a veritable maelstrom--or femalestrom.

This approach has worked, we acknowledge, in the past. And it might have worked in the hands of consummate performers, which are in short supply this time around. Nor is it ever clear what director Kenneth Nowell wants from his players.

Yet several performers do stand out, particularly Veronica Watt as Petruchio. In a unisex, but sexy, portrayal she struts across the stage with assurance and command. She would have made an equally fiery, magnificent Kate as she does a Petruchio. And Anna Kelley gives a believable performance as Baptista, providing a solid base in this dizzying world.

This is not a drag show, since women wear women's clothes and men wear men's clothes, but speak the lines written for their opposite sexes. Had the production taken that further step into the improbable, it might have offered a more interesting evening.

Presented by and at the Looking Glass Theatre at 422 W. 57th St., NYC, Sept. 4-Oct. 13.CASUALTIES



Joe DiMiceli's "Casualties" tackles the subject of the effects of Vietnam on a group of former nurses. It deals with a number of topics--the relationships among those thrown together during wartime; the nurses' denial of the long-term effects of what they saw during the war, and funding for veterans' hospitals--but never fully develops any one of these in a credible way.

The focus is never quite clear. The main character is ostensibly Dr. Jean Mercer (Inger Tudor), a counselor of ex-combat nurses. A former nurse herself, she served with Terri (Jenny Kravat) and Meg (Maureen Hayes) who was killed in action. But it is Terri's story that leads to the climax in which we discover what caused Meg's death--a memory Terri has suppressed. But we don't know for what purpose this revelation occurs. There is little in the way of an emotional or psychological payoff. It all seems too pat when, at the very end, Jean notes that hitting bottom is just another starting point--far too much has been left unexamined and unexplored. The therapy sessions in particular suffer from a lack of professional behavior on Jean's part.

The ensemble tries hard to create believable, fully-developed characters. As the patients, Kravat, Laura Johnston, and Susan Walker fare best, particularly Kravat who stands out as a woman who has spiraled downward in an attempt to forget a memory that will not go away. But for the most part, the script suffers from characters that rarely seem anything but stereotypical.

Tom Herman's direction keeps the play moving with the transitions between past and present occurring smoothly. However, he fails to convey the gravity of the characters' problems.

Produced by Studio Season '97 at Pulse Ensemble Theatre, 432 W. 42 St., NYC, Sept. 3-6.




Famed Irish playwright and folklorist John M. Synge (1875-1909) got his plots from talking to peasants. Two of his one-act plays have just opened Downtown, with mixed results.

"Riders to the Sea," a work in which the predicted death of a young fisherman at sea is fast followed upon by a portrayal of his mother's grief, is dull and dreary in both form and performance--though Synge's language, the rough poetry of Irish farm-folk, energized everything he wrote. On the other hand "In the Shadow of the Glen," which we'll cover here, is a comic masterpiece, cast and performed with exquisite care.

"Glen" begins with a strange scene that will only get stranger. An old man's body is laid out on a bier. Angelica Torn, who delivers a beautifully calculated performance as Nora, the dead man's young wife, enters the room with quiet grace. In the silence that ensues, her face registers measured grief mixed with a grateful sense of a second chance at life. As a storm begins to whip up outside, a wandering walker of the Irish countryside peeks in, sees the corpse, knocks on the door and asks for shelter. Playing this character listed only as Tramp, who anachronistically seems to have strayed in from a Beckett play, is actor Kricker James. Indeed with his weather-worn face, James looks much like Beckett himself.

As the Tramp and Nora talk, it becomes obvious that he is interested in something more than bed and breakfast; and when Nora leaves the room, the corpse of her husband suddenly sits up and begins to talk confidentially with the Tramp. Frank Natasi plays the husband with crusty anger, later confronting his wife and threatening to send her away to beg for her food. There is also a neighbor (Tim Williams) who is interested in Nora, but surprisingly she scorns him, describing in considerable detail how ugly and scabrous he will look when he is old. When Nora finally leaves, she takes one of these men with her, providing a perfect resolution.

These two plays have been directed by Tony Torn; and the evening is co-produced by Rip Torn's Sanctuary Theatre. The first play features a fourth Torn--Danae Torn--along with Holly Bush Wilkinson, Jill Larson, and Conn Horgan.

Set Designer Tom Glisson has created the interior of a country cottage that looks just right--sparse and clean.

Presented by the Sanctuary Theatre and Chain Lightning Theatre at the Cornelia Connelly Theater, 220 E. Fourth St., NYC, Sept 10-28.




The Pearl Theatre opens its 14th season with a superb adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Hard Times." Dickens' indictment of 19th-century industrialism and Victorian education has been turned into a highly dramatic piece that mixes performance with narration.

His 1842 novel focuses on the imaginary Coketown, where weavers toil long hours under intolerable conditions. It gives Dickens the opportunity to spell out his own view of management-labor relations. Using a simple mill hand as his spokesman, he expounds the idea of harmony between the factions--each giving a little, each recognizing the humanity of the other.

"Hard Times" also deals with a schoolmaster who has raised his children to put head before heart, facts before feelings, with disastrous results. This is a morality tale that hammers at injustices. But given Dickens' genius, it could not help being a whopping good story as well.

Given the author's usual gallery of sharply etched and numerous characters, adaptor Stephen Jeffreys, director Lou Jacob, and the performers are faced with a formidable challenge. But adaptor and director know what they are about, as they keep a tight rein on the proceedings that hurtle forward. Discipline and imagination are the key words.

Moreover, performers Robin Leslie Brown, Carol Schultz, Joel Leffert, and Richard Thompson manage to create 19 characters, moving from one to the other in a flash. Each portrayal is crisp, sharp, unmistakable. One cannot single out a star among these gifted players, since the four work together as a flawless ensemble.

The result is a work of art in its own right, based upon another work of art. Like many another company, The Pearl Theatre's goal is to bring renewed life and vibrancy to the classics. But with this company and in this production, it really works!

Presented by and at The Pearl Theatre Company at 80 St. Mark's Place, NYC, Sept. 8-Oct. 5.




One of my favorite episodes of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" features Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie attending a performance of an Off-Off-Off-Off-Broadway play called "Waiting for an Armadillo." The imaginary show is a parody of early 1960s avant-garde theatrical pretentions.

While watching the Ground Floor Theatre Lab's production of "Lucky Man," my mind wandered back to that "DVD" segment. Just as with the preposterous "Armadillo" play, Anne de Mare's garbled script attempts to unravel the mysteries of life, love, sex, and death through absurd symbolism. We're following the slapstick adventures of a Candide type ironically named Lucky Man. First, life is an airport, then a doctor's office, a circus, a ride on a rocket, and finally a desolate asteroid.

Each segment is progressively more ridiculous, as Lucky Man is given wads of cash by The Very Odd Man, meets The Strange Woman who is literally at the end of her rope, encounters a freakishly violent nuclear family, and so on. Eventually, the mind shuts off as aburdity piles on top of absurdity. Yes, it's meant to be a wild, unrealistic comedy, but even a totally outlandish farce must have some sort of inner life to make the audience care. Lucky Man and his cohorts are merely symbols, so their fate is of no interest.

Alfred Preisser infuses a sense of manic energy in his direction, and he has some clever ideas. I enjoyed his vision of a spaceship crash with the victims flailing about in slow motion while strobe lights flash and styrofoam body parts are thrown in from offstage. Preisser also designed the bizarre set.

The cast seems to be operating on the principle Louder and Faster Is Better. Only Colleen de Salvo as The Strange Woman emerges amid the shouting with a trace of humanity. She comes across as a real person in a totally goofy production.

Presented by the Ground Floor Theatre Lab at the CSV Cultural Center, 107 Suffolk St., NYC, Sept. 4-27.




John Astor-Kaye's comedy "Down Under Darling" opens the Wings Theatre Company's Gay Plays Series, to be followed later this season by four other new plays. The playwright has attempted a spoof of the pirate genre, complete with buccaneers (male and female) and adventure on the high seas. Lots of same-sex romances and high artistic aspirations add to the mix. But the story meanders about the globe as aimlessly as the good ship Ganymede. There are plot twists and turns aplenty, though to what purpose we are not sure.

Astor-Kaye sets his tale during England's Industrial Revolution and Empire expansion. It was a time when debtors were exiled to Botany Bay, Australia, and pirates roamed the seas. The playwright makes his points about oppression and class distinction, but "Down Under" proves to be a less-than-satisfactory piece, rescued only in part by Astor-Kaye's witty lines and sharp observations.

The production itself, under Astor-Kaye's direction, also leaves much to be desired. Off-Off-Broadway houses can compensate for limited budgets by way of imaginative staging. Not so in this effort, which is one step removed from a staged reading. (Advance notices that made reference to "lavish staging" were, indeed, optimistic.)

Several performances, however, were delightful. Lorinda Lisitza, in particular, is delicious as the obnoxious Lady Camilla Mockingbird, and Michael Hirschhaut is great fun as the drag performer Rolinda Haye. And at the heart of the production are James Lahmer and Robert Armstrong. Lahmer, with his commanding stage presence, and Armstrong, with his blond good looks, are sexy and believable lovers.

But despite these diverting performances, the production proves to be less than the sum of its parts. One hopes for better work down the line from Astor- Kaye, who is clearly a writer with promise.

Presented by and at Wings Theatre Company, 154 Christopher St., NYC, Sept.

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