Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Retro Two Gents is Great Outdoor Fun

Krystine Summers as Launce
and Lola as Crab
By Georgina Young-Ellis

The music of Styx and some crazy 1980s fashions sent me sailing away into the past, as the sun set over the East River, Friday, August 12th, 2011. I was enjoying Curious Frog Theatre Company’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona in Astoria Park. This quick, hour and a half version of Shakespeare’s light-hearted comedy of love letters and disguises grabs your attention from the first moment and never lets go. There is some wonderful new talent on the Curious Frog (CF) stage, and some company members that I was pleased to see there again. Many of the performers do double duty in their roles, as is director Renée Rodriguez’s way: make the most of what you’ve got and keep the cast small. One stand out is the irrepressible Krystine Summers who we enjoyed last summer as Puck in A Midsummer night’s dream, bringing her quirky physical comedy and wry interpretations to her roles as Launce and the Third Outlaw in this production. Let me just say this: if you can manage to be onstage with an adorable Chihuahua (the lovely Lola who played the part of the dog, Crab) as Ms. Summers is so much of the time, and not be upstaged, you’re doing your job as an actor. 

Angela Sharp as Julia
and Umi Shakti as Lucetta
Another returning member of the company, Bushra Laskar, plays Silvia, the irresistible love interest to Proteus and Valentine. While snooty and self-centered, parading around the grass in her "Candies," she manages to enchant the audience with her expressive eyes and ease with the language. The "gentleman" in Verona are all exceptional actors: Justin Maruri, riveting as Valentine, Emilio Aquino engaging and funny as Proteus, and Antonio/Duke played by James Ware, an exciting new presence at CF, whom, I learned, will be playing Caesar in that simultaneously running Curious Frog production. I loved seeing Robert Dyckman on the Astoria Park stage for the first time; an exceptionally versatile and energetic actor, he plays the roles of Speed, Eglamour and the Second Outlaw. Angela Sharp is a standard at CF, and though I have enjoyed her performances in the past, she tends to be a little shrill in her role as Julia as she works to project in the open air venue.

Justin Maruri as Valentine
and Krystine Summers as 3rd Outlaw
The production is non-stop action and laughs, the kind of spectacle that has children from around the park running to check out, and staying to watch (however, it's not specifically a production for kids as it contains some rather bawdy humor). The fight choreography is precise and original, something Ms. Rodriguez is particularly adept at, a hallmark of all CF's Shakespearean productions.  The color blind casting that is part of their overall mission as a theater company also makes for interesting visual dynamics. But though the '80s theme is a good gag, I wasn't sure it really added to the story in any necessary way. All in all, if you're a fan of cool, innovative Shakespeare with bare bones sets but complete attention to acting, language, physicality and spirit, you won't want to miss either of Curious Frog's productions this summer. You can catch them at these locations and dates:

Two Gentlemen of Verona: Fort Greene Park (8/22 7pm); Central Park/Cherry Hill (9/3 6pm); Inwood Hill Park (8/27 4pm); Waterside Plaza/Manhattan (8/30 7pm); Pelham Bay Park (9/4 4pm). 

Julius Caesar: Prospect Park (8/20 4pm); Fort Greene Park (8/23 7pm); Central Park/Cherry Hill (8/26 6pm); Inwood Hill Park (8/27 6pm); Battery Park/Castle Clinton (8/29 6pm; 9/1 6pm); Queensbridge Park (8/31 7pm); Pelham Bay Park (9/4 6pm); Waterside Plaza/Manhattan (9/10 4pm).

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fabulous "Fabulous Darshan"

by Georgina Young-Ellis

Workshop Theater Company's production of Fabulous Darshan, written by Bob Stewart and directed by Susan Izatt, is an extremely funny and terribly moving play about friendship, loss and celebration of life. A concentrated 90 minutes on a minimal but elegant set, Fabulous Darshan is really all about the acting.

Tim Cain plays Ken Satchel, an aging Broadway veteran of color who befriends a young, confused actor, Stu, played with fitting intensity by Evan Bernardin. Cain has an appealing physicality, and flawless comic timing that drives his character's self-deprecating gay jokes straight home. Ken's long-time friend and ex, Edmond, played with spectacular flair by Spencer Scott Barros, is the person Ken turns to when he needs someone near his own age to appreciate his references to old movies and Broadway shows. However his middle aged friend also shares the disease that the young men in the story do not yet understand or fear quite enough.

Mike Smith Rivera plays "Actor 1," taking on various characters including the Indian god Ganesh, a flamboyant talent agent, and a couple of Stu's promiscuous heartthrobs. Each character is so distinctly different, and each so entertaining, his presence on the stage assures plenty of laughs, as well as a thrillingly heightened tension.

It's clear that Ms. Izatt is an actor's director, equally clear that Mr. Stewart writes for them. The dialogue is sharp and fluid, the kind that actors can really dig into. There's high emotion as well, and each of these well-cast performers maneuvers it beautifully. Fabulous Darshan is a fun and joyful evening of theater; also a heart-wrenching one - well-balanced, well-produced and handled with love and expertise by all involved. The show runs through June 25th; go to for times and reservations.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Curious Frog's Ropes of Sands Hits Home

By Georgina Young-Ellis

I first saw Ropes of Sands as a staged reading at Curious Frog Theatre Company’s gala fundraiser back in May, 2011. I was impressed overall at playwright Toni Seger’s ability to dabble in the surreal and the ironic, as in the three short-short one acts we saw that night, and the straight-forward realism of Ropes of Sands. Now featured in Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, the forty-five minute play shows us a slice of American family life in the weeks after a tragic death. We cringe at uncomfortable exchanges between repressed father and self-righteous son as they try to take the chill off of the night and the situation with small talk and copious amounts of brandy. When the free-spirited cousin drops by to try to gain some perspective on the tragedy, and to share with the others her particular method of dealing with it, the sparks really fly. I cannot say it is a happily spent forty-five minutes, but it’s a meaningful span of time in which the audience is forced to look at family dynamics, and the ways different people deal with grief. The actors are well cast in their various roles, and further interest is added by Curious Frog’s famous color-blind casting (though it certainly isn’t unrealistic to think that there can be white and black cousins in the same family). The father and son, played respectively by Barry Phillips and DeSean Strokes, portray their straight-laced characters to perfection, while Angela Sharp as flighty cousin Meredith provides a jarring contrast. Directed by the strong and sure hand of (Artistic Director) Renée Rodriguez, the play makes a strong impact and leaves us with much to think about. You can see Ropes of Sands in conjunction with dark comedy The Stranger to Kindness, June 14th at 6:30 PM, June 15th at 8:45 PM and June 18th and 23rd at 4:00 PM. Proceeds from the Theatre Festivity benefit various charities.

APAC’s The Human Comedy – Satisfying on Many Levels

By Georgina Young-Ellis

The Human Comedy, Astoria Performing Arts Center’s musical offering for its tenth anniversary season, opened to a sold out house Thursday, May 5th. Set designer Michael P. Kramer has worked his usual magic, transforming the space into the mythical town of Ithaca, California, circa 1943. The inviting wooden set perfectly depicts a telegraph office and a modest front yard, while an enormous Service Flag (the official banner for families who have loved ones serving in the armed forces) occasionally serves as a scrim through which we witness flashback scenes. A small band dressed in World War II uniforms sits on stage as orchestra. In the opening number, the cast marches in singing, “In a Little Town,” and proceeds to seat themselves on risers facing the audience – a kind of mirror for our emotions as the play unfolds. They also serve as chorus and alter ego for the characters center stage.

Written by Galt MacDermot (Hair) and William Dumaresq, and based on a story by William Saroyan, the play tells the story of the impact of World War II on the good people of Ithaca, focusing mainly on the Macauley family, who has already lost their father in the war. In the tradition of rock opera, nearly every word is sung, and even has a certain rock edge that is not unexpected from the writer of Hair though the score is also infused with Swing era songs and some beautiful anthems.

There was one aspect to the show that remained unclear to me. In “Hi Ya, Kid,” the second song of the first act, Ulysses Macauley (played by adorable eight-year-old Anthony Pierini), waves to a trainman, (Douglas Lyons) and as he wonders where the man is going and why his home is far away, he learns from his mother that, because the trainman is black and the Macauleys are white, their homes are far apart. It is a small moment, seemingly insignificant in the scope of the story, which is not about race or racism. However, it set me up for confusion later on. We see both black and white soldiers go to war and end up in the same platoon. Together they sing a song, “My Sister Bess,” in praise of Marcus Macauley’s sister, and Marcus expresses a wish that his comrade, who happens to be black, could meet her and date her. But I couldn’t forget that the army was definitely not integrated in WWII, nor would there be such a nonchalant acceptance of an inter-racial relationship, especially in a small town. I don’t think the racial harmony was part of Saroyan’s story nor Dumaresq’s libretto, and so I left feeling perplexed: why would director Tom Wojtunik ask us to accept a color-blind reality when the script pointed out a distinct difference between black and white? Did he intend to slip in a subtle message of love and understanding between the races, or give us an optimistic preview of the Civil Rights movement to come? I found the lack of explanation distracting.

Though occasionally the music requires strange transitions and possesses atonal qualities that some of the singers had trouble with, overall, the excellence that is the hallmark of all APAC productions is infused throughout The Human Comedy, and for this I applaud Wojtunik. From the gorgeous, period-perfect costumes designed by Hunter Kaczorowski to the subtle and effective lighting by Dan Jobbins, the show is delightful on so many levels. The cast of singers and actors are top notch, especially Aaron J. Libby as Homer Macauley, Rachel Rhodes-Devey as Mary Arena, Jonathan Gregg as Thomas Spangler, Rayna Hickman as Diana Steed, and Marcie Henderson as Beautiful Music. The show runs until May 21st, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00 and Saturday afternoon at 2:00. You can reserve tickets at but don’t wait because, if APAC’s history is any proof, these performances will sell out fast!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Astoria Performing Arts Center Kicks Off 10th Season with Sensational and Surreal Piece

 By Georgina Young-Ellis

Jennifer Harder, Nikole Beckwith and Andy Phelan
It’s hard to find words to describe Astoria Performing Arts Center’s production of MilkMilkLemonade; yet, brilliant, hysterical, surreal and mind-blowing are a few that come to mind. To be more specific, it is a performance piece that defies all expectations and preconceived notions of what theater is or should be. Fortunately, the narrator, or, as the program informs us, the “Lady in the Leotard,” who steps out at the beginning to introduce the play, gives us fair warning of what’s in store by her shell-shocked demeanor. It’s as if she’s been living in the reality of the play all too long and has somehow been traumatized by it. She informs us that she’ll be translating for the talking chicken. Talking chicken? Yes. Our protagonist, Emory, an eleven-year old boy, played by grown-up actor Andy Phelan, lives on a farm with his infirm grandmother, and his refuge is Linda the chicken, his best friend in whom he confides his heart’s desires. She is the one who understands him and supports his dreams of Broadway and reality-show fame. Not so the case with his oxygen machine-bound, chain smoking Nanna, who takes away his favorite doll and tells him it’s wrong to be effeminate, to be “different.” She predicts that he’ll never get off the farm; and she murders chickens (it is, after all, a chicken farm). She’s happy to discover, however, that he’s friends with the scrappy, tough kid down the street, Elliot, played by Jess Barbagallo. Elliot torments Emory while secretly in love with him. Together, they “play house:” bizarre, Tennessee Williams-esque parodies of sad adults stuck in hum-drum realities. They also share some kind of sexual relationshipto what extent it isn’t quite clear even though they appear “nude” together at one point, little fake genitalia sewn on to their underwear. Elliot is ashamed of his sexual tendencies – equally a bully and a lover. Ultimately, he is also betrayer and redeemer.

The versatility of the five actors who make up the cast is remarkable. Andy Phelan as Emory effortlessly transforms from sweet, joyful young boy to tragic housewife in his play-acting with Elliot. Ms. Barbagallo is so convincing as a male, my theater companions had to look twice at their programs to confirm the reverse. Her character is alternately twitchy and tortured, tough and tender. Michael Cyril Creighton as Nanna is eerily precise as a bitter, dying woman. Jennifer Harder, who won the 2010 Innovative Theater Award for Best Supporting Actress in her role as Linda when she portrayed it in the original production, is astonishingly bird-like in her body movements one minute the next, she’s a bawdy, Brooklyn stand-up comediennethe chicken’s alter ego. She’s funny and heartbreaking, riveting us every moment she’s on stage. Finally, our narrator, chicken translator, sound effects provider, and portrayer of evil ghetto spider, Lady in a Leotard Nikole Beckwith, exhibits the most wonderful physicality. She seems at first so stiff and awkward, then in her many incarnations, becomes flexible and freaky in myriad ways.

MilkMilkLemonade is completely unpredictable and utterly unlike anything you’ve ever experienced in the theater. As fellow audience member Teresa Barile concisely commented, “It was the best play I’ve ever seen.” APAC Executive Director Taryn Sacramone remarked that in its brief run at UNDER St. Mark’s Theater last year audiences were turned away. Now, there’s a chance to see it under the direction of newcomer to the show, José Zayas, as well as to experience it on the colorful, child-like and fantastical set designed by Jason Simms. Tickets are available at or at 212-352-3101 and the show runs through November 13th, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm and Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm. Please be advised that due to the mature content of the play, no-one under the age of sixteen will be admitted.

The program notes carry a quote from Artistic Director Tom Wojtunik who chose MilkMilkLemonade for APAC’s tenth anniversary season. “I’m thrilled for APAC to bring this terrific new play, with the original cast, to Astoria audiences, and to give it a much-deserved extended run in New York City.” Referring to the gay youth who all too often feel disenfranchised from society to tragic results, he continues, “I beg you, please, let’s work together to make sure the Emorys of this world have an opportunity to dream big.”

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Astoria Performing Arts Company Brings a Challenging New Work to Astoria

By Georgina Young-Ellis

Imagine an eleven-year-old gay farm boy with a talking chicken for a best friend; he’s having a relationship with the bully down the road, and being raised by a grandmother who’s desperately trying to undo his effeminate ways. This is all a part of Astoria Performing Arts Center’s (APAC) new production, MilkMilkLemonade, “a bitter, hip, edgy, satirical, very funny and moving play about a person growing up in the wrong home,” says APAC Executive Director Taryn Sacramone (until her recent marriage, Taryn Drongowski).  Ms. Sacramone stressed that it is a play for adults, performed entirely by adults, with mature content; no one under sixteen will be admitted. She went on to explain that, though not at all autobiographical, the story came out of playwright Joshua Conkel’s nightmares. The set is “surreal,” as Ms. Sacramone describes it, “dreamlike and non-realistic;” a reflection of the “imaginative and fantastical” story.

When asked why the play was chosen as the first show of their 2010/11season, she remarked, “APAC is a theater company that is growing artistically; we don’t want to limit the selections. We want to challenge ourselves and tell a broad range of stories. We asked ourselves, ‘can we do a small, intimate, hip play along these lines?’”

MilkMilkLemonade was done in 2009 for a nine performance run at the forty five-seat UNDER St. Mark’s Theater. Ms. Sacramone stated that so many people wanted to see it at the time, audiences were turned away. She added that it got great reviews, and was named best Off Off Broadway Play by NYPress. APAC’s Artistic Director Tom Wojtunik was drawn to it, partly, she said, because he didn’t get to see it at UNDER St. Mark’s either. “The great thing about theater,” she remarked, “and the tough thing about it, is that it’s a moment in time. You either get to see a production or you don’t.” For those who didn’t see it, APAC is bringing back the original cast, including Jennifer Harder, 2010 Innovative Theater Award Winner for Best Supporting Actress for MilkMilkLemonade, as well as many of the original designers.

Other than the run at UNDER St. Mark’s and subsequent productions that “caught fire” around the country, the Executive Director stated that the play is considered a new work, stressing that new works are exactly what APAC wants to do more of.  “Part of the appeal of doing new works is the relationship the company gets to have with the playwright,” she stated. “With a revival, you don’t get that.”

Mr. Wojtunik also had something to say about his choice of MilkMilkLemonade. He said that he wanted to give audiences a new opportunity to see it, especially as it’s being directed by José Zayas, the first gay director the play has ever had. Equally, he remarked, since APAC’s space at the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church on Crescent and 30th Road is so ample, it gives the designers, “a chance to dream bigger and to prove the play can be done on a bigger scale.” “It’s not just a play for the East Village,” he added. Though Wojtunik has directed APAC’s last few main stage productions, he opted not to direct MilkMilkLemonade, stating, “I want to do the musical this year, but the intention was not for me to direct every main stage [piece]. It’s healthier for the organization to have other directors, bring in new people. Also, if I’m not directing, I can help produce it.”  About Zayas he remarked, “José is a very exciting and talented up and coming director. He is a 2009-11 recipient of the NEA/TCG Career Development Program for Directors.”

Finally, Mr. Wojtunik commented on the timeliness of the piece. “Something interesting has happened since the play first ran. It’s more relevant now. It’s become at the forefront of the news in a sad way and the play addresses that.” At the same time, he remarked, “It’s frustrating: is it that suicides [among gay youth] are increasing or are we just paying more attention now? It’s something that the playwright is passionate about.” He concluded, “What’s inspiring is that the main character, Emory, still has so much hope. Even though he experiences bullying, he still has hope.”

MilkMilkLemonade opens October 28th and runs through November 13th, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm and Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm. For tickets go to or call 212-352-3101.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry - Not for Bedtime

After The Time Traveler's Wife, one of my favorite books of all time, I was a-tingle at the prospect of reading Her Fearful Symmetry. The build-up was exquisite. My husband gave it to me for Christmas, but, as we celebrated out of town, the gift I opened on Christmas day was a poem he'd written that spelled out the title of the book in the first letters of each line, while the hardback copy lay at home on my pillow. Symbolic, because I always read at bedtime. But Her Fearful Symmetry is so creepy that it was hard for me to get to sleep once I was immersed in it. As a matter of fact, it literally gave me nightmares - well at least one. I woke up one night frantic because it felt like my spirit had left my body and I was fighting and clawing to return. I was sobbing and my husband had to soothe me back into sleep. I attributed the experience to the book's theme, which in my opinion encompasses the idea of the tenuousness of the soul's connection to the physical plane.

This book is not your typical scary: there's no bloodshed, hacking or stabbing, simply a back-of-the-neck prickling, goosebump-producing, ghostly good read. It is also touching, sad and sensitive, with vividly drawn characters and an incredibly unique plot with mind-blowing twists. Ms. Niffenegger forces you to shift your sympathies more than once as her characters surprise and shock. It is a book by a master-storyteller, but not one who follows a formula or conforms to the convention of genre. Just as The Time Traveler's Wife defies category (though the film seemed to relegate it to romance) Her Fearful Symmetry transcends it.