An unexpected off-off Broadway sleeper hit has returned for a repeat off-off Broadway engagement at the Flea Theatre on White Street. It’s Invasion! by Jonas Hassen Khemeri, a playwright of Swedish-Tunisian extraction (deft English translation by Rachel Willson-Broyles) and it’s very difficult to describe without giving away its amazingly clever and provocative game. Even to describe the opening few minutes is a spoiler of, I think, major proportions. The best I can do sounds like boilerplate blurbage: the play is a satire—starts as comedy of the not-quite-absurd, gets darker and veers at the very end into drama—and the subject is a rumination on identity, nationality, racial profiling and political paranoia. Though it may sound like something of an assignment, it is, instead, something of a roller coaster ride; the wheels are language and the track is free association, as the name of a young man’s uncle, Abulkasem, takes on its own life and its own mythical personae, each particular one determined by the eyes of the beholders taking stage at the moment, and their perception of reality and context. Under the briskly efficient direction of Erica Schmidt, the cast of four, quick-change chameleons all (Francis Benhamou, Nick Choski, Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte and Bobby Moreno), ricochet from scene to scene with an intensity that is almost dizzying, and a sharp sense of comic timing to rip the lid off some very serious stuff.
A birth-of-Israel story that has gone largely unheralded and little-told, according to the blurbage, is that of Harry and Eddie, Harry being the S. Truman of United States “Presidentry” and Eddie being Jacobson, his former business partner in haberdashery. Mostly it’s about how, due to their continuing friendship, Truman allowed Jacobson to nudge, cajole and argue with him about taking some crucial meetings and listening to some important people. In other words, for the most part, Jacobson was a facilitator. Dramatically it doesn’t make for much of a story, but it’s interesting enough that a gifted playwright might well find riches in the relationship between the two men. Unfortunately, that scribe is not Mark Weston. His script is delivered as a reminiscence from Jacobson (Rick Grossman) to a B’nai Brith group, in which he invokes the personae of his wife (Lydia Gladstone) and Truman (Dan Hicks), more or less in the flesh. As dramaturgy it’s pretty leaden, the narration over-explained, with paragraphs of reaction and editorialization that could be slashed easily, for being entirely implicit as subtext; the dialogue between characters is utilitarian, stiff and nakedly expository; and the general tone—and understand I’m Jewish—the worst kind of Jew-to-Jew patronization. It hits every bit of temple basement patois and sentimentality, from oys and gevalts to just-an-average-Jew false modesty (“How could I, just an ordinary haberdasher, influence the President?”) to jokes about there being no good deli in the Midwest. The direction by Bob Spiotto matches the script for drabness and lack of energy. And as to the performances: Grossman (as Eddie) delivers his lines, when he isn’t stumbling over them or pausing as if he momentarily can’t remember them (which may in fact be the case; they’re highly unmemorable), with the hangdog sound of a faded Marvin Kaplan, without the charm or the timing. Ms. Gladstone as his wife could not be less impressive if she performed under a tarp, and Dan Hicks as Truman…well, he’s not great, but he’s not bad. Stiff as hell, but to some degree at least that’s a character choice and in the absence of a script worth playing, it’s useful as the defining contrast between the two men. In brief, Harry and Eddie pretty much hits the trifecta for amateurville, writing direction and most of the acting. Oy it should only plotz from shame. Better the story remains untold if this is how you tell it. (Ironically, perhaps, it’s one of the offerings at the Theatre at St. Luke’s Church.)
The gentiles don’t fare much better with The Wood, at the Rattlestick, about renowned New York City columnist and reporter Mike McAlary. His story would seem to be stageworthy, as McAlary was an obsessed, driven crusader for the truth, his breaking stories often going to “the wood” of the title, an archaic newspaper term meaning “front page headline”—and the play by Dan Klores dramatizes his last big battle, to expose a brutal racial attack by cops, before he succumbed to cancer at the age of 41. The script, unfortunately, is randomly non-linear in time-line terms, which ultimately makes it almost insensible. There are a few riveting scenes (mostly when McAlary is questioning his subjects), but the direction by David Bar Katz is so spectacularly clumsy, the casting is generally so sub-par, and John Viscardi’s performance as McAlary so without spark (bordering on listless) that the supposedly heart-rending drama barely has a pulse of its own.
I must not have been paying enough attention when I accepted the invitation to see Arias With a Twist at the Abroms Arts Center (a very groovy not-so-little theatre on Grand Ave, beyond Chinatown near FDR Drive), because I didn’t realize its star, the Joey Arias of the title, was a famous underground drag queen personality; though I wised up very quickly as I clocked the near-constant screaming approbation of my (mostly male) fellow audience members. This is not to denigrate Arias or his (her?) followers, merely to state that she and the show cater to a sensibility that ought to be regarded on its own terms—and those are terms for which I have little qualification; and often just as little patience. So I don’t know what to say about the endless penis allusions (meant both ways), Arias’ bad acting (of what I assume is a signature character, a slut clad in scanty leather), or the plotless kaleidoscope of locales that start with a spaceship, in which madame is being probed by aliens, switches to a jungle, in which she is ignominiously dropped, and then on the flimsiest of impressionistic pretexts, morphs into the heavens, hell and the big city. What I can say is that Arias is an interesting song stylist (favoring jazz) and that the show features some eye-popping projections and spectacular puppetry—those created by Basil Twist. (Hence the title: Arias with a Twist.) I suppose the best way to describe the show neutrally—a word I employ cautiously—is as low-brow high camp surrounded by high gloss fine art. And you’ll know if it’s for you far, far better than I will.
Finally, there’s the hit Korean musical Hero, that played at Lincoln Center for a few weeks in August. Though the product of an entirely different creative team, its historical saga picks up pretty much where The Last Empress, the previous hit Korean musical we saw in New York—at the same theatre—left off. That one followed the life and reign of Korea’s last empress of the title, Queen Min, who was assassinated by the invading Japanese at age 41 in 1895. Hero takes place in 1909, and follows An Chungan, a rebel who gathered a team of like-minded patriots to assassinate in turn Ito Hiribumi, the Japanese dictator who spearheaded the invasion of Korea. Koreans love their musicals—most of which they import from the US, plus the few obligatory sung-through epics from the UK—though they do try to create their own too. However, as Hero demonstrates—yet again—they really haven’t developed the tool kit or sense of craft that would allow for sturdy musical theatre construction. The book’s structure is often misfocused, the placement of songs is often naively undramatic. Indeed, the Korean musical theatre “technique” recalls nothing so much as Sondheim’s song “Someone in a Tree” (from Pacific Overtures), in which he presents an Asian perspective that doesn’t perceive the over-arcing general outline of an event, but rather the nuances of detail that create mood and aesthetic. Commensurately, what they do is take stylistic tropes of American musical theatre and put them through a Korean filter, piecemeal, often making literal associations that lack irony, which leads to some odd recontextualization. For example—a group of Japanese enforcers, a hit squad, if you will, bent upon destroying An Chungan and his compatriots, explosively dance through the city in a manner absolutely beholden to Jerome Robbins’ choreography for the Jets and the Sharks. Another example: a serious-minded ceremony featuring Japanese soldiers on the march attains some odd syncopation and idiosyncratic steps that are likewise a bizarre emulation of Graciella Danielle’s comic choreography for the police force in the Public Theatre version of The Pirates of Penzance, complete with Tony Azito’s loose-limbed, wooden-puppet flourishes. Musically too, even at its most attractive, Hero is built upon the influence of other western scores.
allow Hero this much, though. Its
production values are much more sharply delivered than those of The
Last Empress, its casting and direction are
far more accomplished…and its sense of character continuity is more
coherent—even if those characters are archetypes who represent political
and philosophical viewpoints more than personalities. But this latter quality
may be endemic to the show’s function within the Korean culture. Hero,
very clearly, is a paean to nationalism.
And that, to them, is sober stuff.
I wonder what they'd make of 1776…
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