Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Romeo & Juliet and Greek Comedy - Great Theater in the Park By Georgina Young-Ellis, Photo by B. Josh Young

What could be more appropriate entertainment for Astoria than a really good Greek comedy? How about a really great Italian tragedy? This summer we get both for free, outdoors, courtesy of Curious Frog Theater Company’s Summerfest. The Greek offering is Plutus, by Aristophanes, and the tragedy is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, famously set in the town of Verona, Italy.

Plutus, directed by Whitney Aronson, is a wonderful one hour romp that I saw performed at the Astoria Park Water Walk on August 9th, its opening day. Actors in togas and sneakers, banging rough hand instruments and strumming blues guitar, opened the show before a backdrop of cardboard columns. A Greek chorus in drag then greeted us with a Beyonce tune, after which the story began. It is about how Plutus, the God of Money, regains his sight and endows a Grecian city with all the riches of their dreams, though the Goddess of Poverty warns that they’ll regret the God’s favors, and how her prophecy ultimately comes true. The tale is punctuated with Music Director Alvin Chan’s inspired use of modern musical references including a sing-a-long to the tune of American Pie. There are also countless bawdy jokes, endless gags about breaking wind, well-executed pole-fighting (courtesy of choreographer Rocio Mendez), crude but engaging puppetry, and a visit to a wellness spa.

Using broad gestures, loud voices and uproarious slapstick, the actors had everyone from toddlers to hipsters in the palms of their hands. Allen Hope Sermonia stood out with his borscht-belt-comedian style Plutus, as did Larissa Dzegar’s ferocious Poverty. Jodie Pfau, as the slave Cario, was adept with physical comedy, using dance and yoga to great effect, and Sergio Castillo, Lauren Ashley Smith and Derby Thomas rounded out the cast in various roles, all demonstrating amazing skill with song, dance, and comic timing.

Beware: though young and old alike will love it, anyone over the age of 10 will probably understand all too well the steamy sexual references. All in all, however, it is great fun and I encourage you to check it out on Sept. 19th at Queensbridge Park, 4:00p.m. It will be in the other boroughs until then, and you can find out where at

A week later, on August 16th, I was on Astoria Park’s great lawn near the train bridge, cooled by a breeze off the river and shaded by giant trees, amongst which was nestled the staging area for Romeo and Juliet. I call it a “staging area,” rather than a set, because the only set was a string of lanterns and a rustic chaise lounge. The only other stage dressings were the trees, and the only backdrop the rushing river.

After a masked dance illustrates the prologue, young men clad in jeans and t-shirts hurry onto the scene. They have ipods and cellphones in hand – they might be any guys out roaming the streets of Astoria, but their restless energy tell us that they are looking for action: a fight, a girl, a good time. Juliet and her nurse/pal skip in soon after with laptop in tow and join a Facebook group for an upcoming party, while updating their “status.” It is the only moment, really, when director Reneé Rodriguez takes liberties with Shakespeare’s language, other than cutting away large swaths of the work, in order to trim it down to the sleek ninety minutes that the show runs.

We are then plunged into the familiar story: the Montagues and Capulets are enemies, but the young lovers from the two different families oppose all odds, and marry. The mortal battle of their friends and family members result in Romeo’s banishment, and a series of miscommunications take their toll. Juliet takes a potion that makes her appear dead so she won’t have to marry her mother’s choice for her, a man named Paris. Romeo rushes back to town thinking Juliet is indeed deceased, and finding her in the tomb, kills himself with poison. Juliet comes to, sees her love lying dead and uses his knife to end her own life. The family comes on the bloody scene and they learn the ultimate lesson: parents can’t choose who their kids will love, but should trust the choices they make and not pass on their own prejudices.

The miracle of this production is that six actors play all the roles. Leo Giannopoulos as Romeo, and Elizabeth Spano as Juliet, are the only two who play no other parts. Giannopoulos is a sexy, vital Romeo and the adorable Spano displays a slightly goofy charm in an untraditional type of Juliet. She’s grossed out by the thought of marrying some guy her mother has set up for her, and embarrassed by her first kiss with Romeo. Both of them exude the epitome of adolescence on the brink of the discovery of love. Reneé Rodriguez does triple duty as director, Mercutio, and Lady Capulet, and she works magic in all three roles. As Romeo’s friend Mercutio, she’s a randy punk, a tough girl in every sense. As Juliet’s mother, she’s a shrill, drunken housewife, abusive to her child. Though I wasn’t completely convinced by Shannon Pritchard’s Nurse, her dual role as Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, was electrifying. When she and Rodriguez get into it with knives drawn, it is a cat fight like you’ve never seen. They spare each other nothing, rolling in the dirt, jabbing and sparring, leaping and darting with unbelievable agility, owed to their own physical prowess and the masterful fight direction of Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum. When Rodriguez’s Mercutio is finally slain, her death is one of the best I’ve ever seen portrayed on stage. Similarly when Romeo and Paris (played by Nick Maccarone) duel with rapiers, it is a riveting and dangerous dance infused with martial arts. Maccarone, who also plays the level-headed Benvolio, has a natural quality with the language that connects us with his characters and Allen Hope Sermonia as Escalus and Friar Laurence brought me to tears at the end with his final observations on the tragic events.

I’ve seen and read this play many times and didn’t think it was possible to be moved so deeply by a story I know so well, but Curious Frog’s interpretation made it new for me. All of the clever touches, Romeo delivering his “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks…” speech from in the midst of the audience, Juliet languishing behind a tree instead of on a balcony, actors handing out fliers and posting them around the park to advertise the Capulet party, are representative of the theater company’s creativity and originality – something evident in every production of theirs I’ve seen. You can catch Romeo and Juliet again in Astoria Park on September 20th, at 4:00, and it is playing on several other dates around the city. Go see it, and fall in love with Shakespeare all over again, or perhaps even, for the very first time.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Greek Cultural Center Asks, “Are You a Prime Number?”

by Georgina Young-Ellis

Modestly tucked away at the back of a garden walkway, the Greek Cultural Center has been bringing great performances to Astoria and the world for more than thirty years. Currently, they are presenting the international premiere of Prime Numbers, an intriguing, avant-garde theater piece by Fulbright Scholarship recipient Gianni Skaragas. Though the play is in English, the Director, Set /Costume and Lighting Designers all hail from Greece. The multi-cultural cast reflects one of the main purposes of the Greek Cultural Center (GCC), as Board President, Demetres Beryeles, expressed, “to blend with the greater community and bring cultures together.”

To summarize the plot, Eddie, the main character, played by Stephen Lundberg, has written a novel about an author trapped in his own work with the characters he’s created. Eddie wakes up after an accident to find himself in a Tijuana motel during a hurricane with an odd collection of individuals: Julietta (Tereza Grimani), an attractive but troubled young pharmacist, Marguerite Gautier (Stacey Salvette), a former torch singer with a likable, cynical edge, Oedipus (Andreas Tselepos), a math genius with a big heart, Medea (Kalliope Koutelos), a transplant from Iraq trying to escape from her anguish, and Cain (Ceasar Nixon), the landlord, a tough guy with a swagger straight out of 1950’s Film Noir. When Eddie finds his lost manuscript, he realizes that the five characters are of his own creation; now he must kill them before they kill him.

Through-out the play, each character exposes some tragic or terrible truth about themselves in a series of well-interspersed monologues. Most notable are the two stories borrowed from the ancient Greeks: Oedipus, complete with complex, who is searching for the tender love he knew with his mother, and Medea, who rails against the country that has wreaked havoc in her own, and who reveals that in her desperate attempt to escape from her Marine husband, has inadvertently killed her children in a car accident. All the actors handle the challenging material with great power and energy while they adeptly change the sets, and control the lighting by use of pull chains attached to overhead lamps.

Projections are used to suggest different locations within the motel, and in order to change the mood. By employing slides and shadows, it seems that Director Fotini Baxevani was trying to suggest experimental film on stage, and did so with success, aided by expert lighting designer Orpheas Emirzas. Petros Sakelliou’s eerie music added to the overall effect.

Prime Numbers is the latest one of hundreds of productions that the Greek Cultural Center, located at 27-18 Hoyt Avenue South, has shared with the world since 1974. Well-known abroad, in many parts of the U.S. and throughout New York State, they are famous for their dance, music and puppetry presentations, as well as the classes they offer in traditional dance from the various geographic areas of Greece, instrumental instruction, and singing workshops led by renowned performer Christos Alexandrou. The center has participated in events in many of the major venues all around New York City and the East Coast, winning numerous, prestigious awards for their work, and, as Program Coordinator Fotis Michelioudakis pointed out, regularly receives invitations to perform at colleges, universities and cultural institutions far and wide.

President Beryeles stressed the charitable work the GCC participates in, such as blood drives and benefits, as the organization strives always to “reach out and help all the people of the community.” He noted that the GCC is about collaboration with everyone, not just within the Greek Community, and that their space is shared with many other cultural and ethnic groups.

Prime Numbers runs until April 5th , Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 and Sundays at 7:00. The Center is a little hard to find, but signs on the sidewalk point you toward a pathway that leads to the basement theater. Tickets are $20.00, or $15.00 for students, seniors and children and can be purchased by calling 718-726-7329 or via e-mail at It is an evening that requires you to think, analyze and explore the depths of human emotion; all in all, a fascinating theatrical foray.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Curious Frog's Theater Co's True West - a Thrilling Experience

by Georgina Young-Ellis

Last summer I made the wondrous discovery of Curious Frog Theater Company when I stumbled upon their production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in Astoria Park. As summer 2009 approaches and I eagerly await this season’s outdoor Romeo and Juliet, I made a point to catch their current offering, True West. Staged in an East Village apartment, the audience is as immersed in the play as the actors. The theater-goers are seated within the set of this Sam Shepard classic, some less than two feet from the rambunctious unfolding of the plot. It is not a complicated one: Two brothers confront each other in their mother’s California suburban home. Austin, played by Alvin Chan, appears to be the level-headed screenwriter. Lee, portrayed by Edward Chin-Lyn, is his twisted, petty-criminal brother. Austin is trying to finish a script for which he has almost secured a deal. Lee barges into his solitude, demanding to borrow Austin’s car so he can go thieving around their mother’s neighborhood while she’s out-of-town. He’s come from spending months in the desert and the first thing on his mind is getting his brother’s car keys while disrupting his peace and concentration in the process. Lee meets Austin’s producer, Saul Kimmer, played by John Gardner, and convinces the man to fund Lee’s own half-baked idea for a Western movie rather than invest in Austin’s project. This infuriates Austin, who considers his brother an idiot, and his frustration drives him to drink. Slowly the tables turn as Austin feels the urge to flee civilization and run away to the desert himself, while Lee, who’s barely literate, much less able to operate a typewriter, struggles to bring his idea to fruition. The situation has devolved into a bread-flinging, typewriter destroying, knock-down, drag-out fight nearly to the death, when Mom walks in, a fragile flower steeped in denial, played by Mami Kimura. She resigns herself to the destruction of her home and leaves her sons to settle their issues. We are left not knowing how it will turn out, only that the two brothers have somehow started to inhabit each other’s insanity.

I had forgotten how funny Sam Shepard could be – this play is possibly one of his most humorous - made even more-so by the brilliance of Chan and Chin-Lyn and their remarkable fraternal chemistry. Though we are laughing, we are terrified by Chin-Lyn’s Lee from the moment he walks in (the entrances were made from the front door of the apartment). His quirky vocal cadence and his continual physical tics fascinate like a train wreck. Chan’s Austin draws us in at the outset with his calm ability to listen and respond to the barbs and ravings from his brother with cool detachment. We admire his patience as he attempts to stay focused on his work – the big brother putting up with the younger, the one that has fallen far short of ever becoming a productive member of society. Yet this younger brother is a physical menace, and our nerves are set on edge as we wonder when he’ll snap. Therefore, it’s even more surprising when it is Austin who snaps first, Chan having so thoroughly established his character as the stable one.

The acting throughout is what we always hope for when we venture out to see theater in New York. We want the best and that’s what we get here. John Gardener’s portrayal of Saul Kimmer is delightfully smarmy. Kimura’s “Mom” floats surreally above the chaos. Because of her bizarrely detached perception of what has happened, we’re almost able to understand why her sons have turned out as they did.

The wonderfully detailed set was designed by David Ogle, with props by Chelsea Chorpenning. Nothing is present on the stage that wouldn’t have existed before 1981 when the action takes place, and the actors make use of it all. The subtle and cleverly placed lighting, designed by Ross Graham, is mostly what would already be inherent in the average home. Sometimes, it’s only candlelight. Every aspect of the production lends itself to the intense realism that is, in essence, Sam Shepard.
The decision of Artistic Director Reneé Rodriguez and Director Isaac Byrne to cast the main characters as Asian was an interesting one, reflecting a racial reality as basically American as the iconic playwright himself. The choice was in keeping with Curious Frog’s mission: “… to present new, modern and classical works with the goal of showing a new, multicultural perspective through non-traditional casting…” In this case, it added another fascinating layer to the timeless script and the actors’ craft.

True West can be seen at 181 Avenue B until May 31st. Tickets are $25.00, Thursday, through Sunday. Wednesdays’ admission is $10.00 cash and a regular-sized loaf of bread. You can make reservations at Though its headquarters are in Astoria, with strong ties to the community, Curious Frog seems prepared to go anywhere to bring an excellent caliber of uniquely-envisioned theater to New York City. I urge you to go and have the experience.