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.

Friday, August 6, 2010

A Magical, Marvelous Midsummer Night’s Dream from Curious Frog

By Georgina Young-Ellis

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a Shakespeare favorite for many theater-goers and, when done right, is among the bard’s funniest and most charming stories. Fortunately, Curious Frog Theater Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The Scavengers gets it right and then some. July 31st in Astoria Park, under the trees, with no stage and almost no set, a sign announces a “Greek Scavenger Hunt” and actors come into the performance space wearing tee shirts that sport the names, in Greek, of a fraternity or sorority. We understand that they are college kids about to compete in a scavenger hunt, a brilliant premise on behalf of director Renée Rodriguez.

The frat boys and sorority sisters open the show shouting decidedly non-Shakespearean cheers to get themselves pumped for the competition. One of the girls, Hermia, is in love with frat boy Lysander, who adores her, though Hermia’s father forbids the union. He has chosen for her Demetrius, whom sorority sis’ Helena loves, though Demetrius only has eyes for Hermia. Hermia and Lysander run away into the woods, followed by Demetrius, followed by Helena. When fairies enchant both the men to fall in love with Helena, they become enemies, and the women, once fast friends, become rivals. There follows a knock-down, drag-out, wildly funny fight, the likes of which I’ve never seen in any production of Midsummer. All four of the lovers are fully committed physically and vocally to the high emotions they experience. Brandi Bravo as Helena is a real standout, teetering around the park on giant platform shoes in a mini-skirt and sunglasses – the ultimate girly-girl, her big eyes and expressive face drawing the audience’s attention like a magnet. Alex Gould as Demetrius is the perfect ditzy, dopey match for her.

Then there are the “Mechanicals,” a group of dimwits who are rehearsing for a play to put on for the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Athens. Bottom, an egotistical idiot who wants to perform every part in the “play” that his group is preparing for the Duke, is portrayed by Brent Yoshikami as a smarmy jock in tiny yellow shorts and black knee socks, abusing an obnoxious whistle. He is pure magic on stage, an actor of incredible comic abilities. Tai Verley, playing Petra Quince, the much put upon director, never loses her commitment to playing straight woman to Bottom, her character every second invested in the seriousness of their endeavor. A brilliant choice for Snug is Sora Baek, whose character plays the “lion” in the play within a play. Snug is afraid to speak; therefore Ms. Baek’s heavily accented English lends the character an attribute of adorable, frightened innocence. Flute, played by Manuel de la Portilla, is forced to play a girl in the performance for the Duke. Flute is an hysterically bad actor who at the end of the Mechanicals’ little drama suddenly commits to his part in earnest, causing the lovers, looking on, to weep tears of sorrow, while we, the real audience, weep tears of laughter.

Krystine Summers, as the mischievous fairy Puck, is so quick and agile she convinces us that she could “put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes,” as her character claims. She expresses herself with wry wit, her lines delivered with natural ease. Somewhat weaker verbally, though not physically, are Edie Monroy and Michael Kennen Miller who play the king and queen of the fairies, Titania and Oberon, respectively. Though both beautiful of face and body, I feel that, at times, they fail to do justice to the exquisite poetry that their parts require. During one of Titania’s principle speeches, truly some of the most beautiful verses that Shakespeare ever wrote, her physical gymnastics diminish the power of the words. The only other weak point in the play is Matt Casteel as Egeus, Hermia’s father, who opens the story with a monologue and, in this first performance, doesn’t seem to yet know his lines. But the play soars thereafter and keeps going at break-neck comic speed until the two hours seem to fly by.

All in all, there is magnificent attention to detail in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The Scavengers, thanks again to Ms. Rodriquez and her vision. The show will be in Astoria again Sunday, August 8th at the Astoria Water Walk. It then runs in parks throughout the city until September 5th; the schedule can be found at Take the kids. They will love it; you will love it; it is simply not to be missed!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Children of Eden Soars

by Georgina Young-Ellis

Photo by Kate Northern

My jaw literally dropped when I walked into Astoria Performing Arts Center's space on May 7th to see their latest production, Children of Eden. APAC has mastered the art of transforming the church gymnasium that is their venue into fantastical settings for their various productions. But this one, designed by Michael P. Kramer, is the most astonishing so far in the two years they’ve had their home at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church on Crescent Street. The stage area stretches from one end of the enormous room to the other – entrances are made in the front, at the back, on the sides, upstairs and downstairs, while the seats for the audience run along the sides in a kind-of elongated three-quarter round with those in the front row a scant two feet from the action.

The set has a rustic quality: stones and wood that appear to be from an ancient time – appropriately enough, since Children of Eden is the re-telling of the iconic stories from the book of Genesis, in musical form. The music and lyrics were written by Broadway legend Stephen Schwartz, who gave us such shows as Wicked and Godspell, and the Disney movies Pocahontas and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The book is by Les Miserables' John Caird, and is based on a concept by Charles Lisanby.

Beginning from the beginning of biblical time, Father is the first character to appear onstage, and he brings with him light to illuminate the earth. He is soon joined by what seem to be the bringers of night, stars, water, etc., and together they create the world with a lively opening song, "Let There Be." These elemental characters later evolve into the show’s chorus and are responsible for transforming the set into the Garden of Eden, the wasteland beyond Eden, and Noah’s Ark. Each of these performers are versatile singers, dancers and actors, of every color, size and shape. Some of them later take on roles such as Cain and Abel and Noah’s sons and daughters-in-law.

But of course, the first human characters to appear after Father are Adam and Eve, who in the second act become Noah and his wife. I was glad for their continued presence on stage because they are each so delightful in their respective parts. Emmy Raver-Lampman as Eve is as enchanting as the first woman ought to be. Physically beautiful, with an equally beautiful voice, she infuses her character with a combination of exuberant innocence and earthy sensuality. Joseph Spieldenner, playing Adam, is charming in his seeming naiveté, a powerful singer and actor as well. His Adam is as obedient, and slightly dumb, as Eve is curious, questioning – a problematic child to her Father. Still, we cannot blame her when she finally succumbs to the temptations of the serpent – brilliantly enacted as an ensemble character by the chorus members. The sexy dance number, "In Pursuit of Excellence," is a highlight, the chorus writhing and gyrating as one giant snake.

The first act takes us through the expulsion from the Garden, to the story of Cain and Abel, to the appearance of Adam's third son, Seth, and to Adam’s death. Eve’s final return to her Father, with whom she’s had such a difficult relationship, had the entire audience in tears at the end of the first act with the beautifully delivered title song by Ms. Raver-Lampman and Company.

The second act brought us the family of Noah obediently building the ark, though not knowing exactly why or what would ultimately happen. Miraculously, the animals begin to appear two by two - a show-stopping romp. The wonderful physicality of the chorus members who portray the folksy animal puppets in the song, "The Return of the Animals," is as hilarious as it is astonishing - equally so the reaction of Noah’s family as the animals come aboard. As the deluge comes, and then continues unabated for so long, the family questions why God would punish them in such a way. Yonah, lovingly portrayed by the gifted Stacie Bono, is a daughter of the tribe of Cain who has stowed away on the boat at the behest of Noah’s son, Shem. When the family discovers her, they blame her for bringing God’s wrath upon them. But finally the dove comes to bring them a sign of land; the flood is abating. It is at this moment in the show that we are made to think about the earth's fragility. Is it because of God that destruction and calamity occur or is it our doing? My interpretation: we have the free will to stop the man-made disasters, but perhaps the natural ones are in someone else's hands. The song "Ain't It Good," a Gospel-type number, is one of hope and liberation, gloriously led by Ms. Raver-Lampman.

The final piece, "In the Beginning," is sung by the remarkable James Zannelli, who plays Father. His moving performances through-out the show bring us face to with a parent who wants the best for his beloved children and cannot understand why they would want to rebel against his loving protection. We do not need to be religious to relate - either as children or parents or both. The themes of this show are universal: will we destroy the gift of the planet that we were given or will we honor it? Will we live obediently as part of a family unit or will we strike out on our own to see what the world holds?

Director Tom Wojtunik assisted by a team of technicians and artists that outnumber the seats in theater, in particular Choreographer Christine O'Grady, Musical Director Lilli Wosk, Costume and Puppet Designer Erica Steiner, and Lighting Designer Dan Jobbins, have created an exquisitely unique theatrical experience that should resonate whether you are a lover of musical theater or not. Reserve tickets now at The show runs only until May 22nd, and is sure to sell out before you know it.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Two Coves Community Garden Benefits from Bike Tour Leftovers

By Georgina Young-Ellis

The booming voice of Master Composter Stephanos Koullias resounded throughout the parking lot of Astoria Park on Sunday, May 2nd, the morning of the TD Bank Five Boro Bike New York Tour: “Orange Peels, Banana Peels!” This odd cry was an attempt to encourage the bike riders to conscientiously contribute their fruit rinds to the composting efforts of the Two Coves Community Garden (TCCG), rather than allow them to go into the landfill. The mountains of peels piled up in the TCCG bins, but so did the mounds in the overflowing trash cans as the unaware deposited their fruit peels in the trash receptacles, along with food wrappers, napkins and other garbage. Mr. Koullias pointed out, however, that the Queen Botanical Garden was also hosting a composting station near the Con Ed plant on Vernon Blvd., and that last year, at the end of the 2009 Bike Tour, Bike New York volunteers, under the direction of Emily Crotty, sifted through the garbage there to reclaim six times as many fruit peels as they did at the TCCG station at Astoria Park. He hoped that similar efforts would be made this year.

The Two Coves booth was also bagging up as many water and juice bottles as they could get a hold of for recycling, but it was evident that a strong recycling effort was also being made by the Bike New York volunteers. Geoff Cohen, a Bike New York Transportation Captain, was confident that the huge pile of gallon-sized water jugs would be flattened and recycled, as would the stacks of cardboard boxes that the supplies were delivered in. He stressed that this year the emphasis was on having the riders use refillable bottles, rather than supplying them with individual water bottles or plastic cups.

As the riders began to filter out of the Astoria Park rest station, Bike New York volunteers scurried about, gathering up the fruit rinds that had been scattered on the ground, and delivering them to the TCCG bins. The community garden folks were careful to specify that no plastic bags or other non-organic waste be put into the bins, as compost, the breaking down of vegetable matter into fertilizer-rich soil, must not contain any meat, dairy, oils or household trash other than bio-degradable things like tea bags, coffee grounds and egg shells. It is generally accepted that all components of fruits and vegetables make good “green” compost, as long as they’re not cooked in oil or with meat, but in order to break down efficiently, must be layered with “brown” matter, generally dried leaves, dried lawn clippings or shredded newspaper.

Leaves for the brown layers were collected to the tune of around two thousand pounds by TCCG last fall, according to Master Composter Shirley Chai, who pointed out an enclosed area near the parking lot where the leaves are stored. With the assistance of Greenshores/Astoria Park Alliance, a total of four thousand pounds were ultimately collected from Astoria households and NYCHA's Astoria Houses in 2009.

The Western Queens Compost Initiative helps manage the composting effort at TCCG and is working on collecting green compost material from local Greenmarkets, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and the other annual bike events. They are also accepting donations towards purchasing a work trike, a human-powered vehicle capable of transporting one thousand pounds of compostable waste from these various sites to the compost bins at TCCG, and also to help collect fall leaves in the years to come. (See:

Mr. Koullias was eager to point out that composting not only creates beautiful, organic gardens and delicious vegetables for individual gardeners, but keeps vegetable waste from entering the landfills – waste that contributes to greenhouse gases and polluting run-off that flows into water sources. As the Bike Tour riders continued on their route, fed and sustained by an army of Bike New York volunteers,
Mr. Koullias expressed his satisfaction that almost triple the amount of fruit peels had been collected that day than the previous year’s TD Five Boro Bike Tour, with the help of TCCG volunteers Eric Mathews, Kristen Magnini, Shirley Chai, Matt de la Houssaye, Leanne Spaulding, Brian Monteverd, Mark Messer and Jules Corkery. He hopes that as a result of all their efforts, future events, the Two Coves community and the earth will benefit.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"The Maids" Lives Up to Curious Frog's Usual Level of Excellence

By Georgina Young-Ellis
Photo by Sam Hough

As with many of Curious Frog Theater Company's productions, "The Maids," by Jean Genet, begins before it begins, with a character making herself at home in the space while the audience members wander in and take their seats. That space, designed by Laura Taber Bacon, a pink loft, rose bed in the center, fuschia Betsey Johnson garment bags plastering the walls, is as much a character as the actors. We, as spectators, are an afterthought, taking up only a quarter of the area while the actors roam the length and width of the room. There is no stage. Nothing divides us from the action. The lighting, designed by Michael Megliola, is incorporated into the set by use of lamps which only the actors control. To me, that level of realism in theater is exhilarating. It indicates that people are living in the space, rather than merely reacting to it.

The realism pretty much stops there. The play opens with a kind of dance, representing the characters' relationships to their "Madame" and to their surroundings. They then play out their own melodrama of servant and mistress. The beautiful language in Genet's piece (translated from the French) is poetry, and we must interpret as we follow the plot. We are not always sure what is real and what is in the characters' minds. This creates levels of surprise throughout the show: some of the playwright's making, some of the director's. They are surprises that make you gasp.

For the most part, the acting was strong. The ability of all the actors in regard to movement and how it was used to define character was fascinating, and executed to perfection. The director, Tracy Cameron Francis, obviously had a strong hand in choreographing where and how the actors would move, which left them free to explore the depths of emotion that their parts called for. Iracel Rivero, as Claire, was by turns regal, haughty, subservient, groveling, and pathetic. Bushra Laskar portrayed her sister Solange as a frighteningly deceptive minion - able to transform from submissive to dominatrix in a flash. Alex Runnels, as Madame, was a wonder. The character seemed the personification of aloof upper class, so caught up in her world that she could not conceive of her servants as human. All three actors more than accomplished, in my opinion, what the playwright intended, and that is no easy task given the language. I was a little distracted by one sister having a British accent and the other American, though their difference in race was of no consequence.

Curious Frog's productions always surprise, delight and challenge convention. "The Maids" fulfills the theater-goer in all those ways. It runs April 30th, May 1st, 2nd, 7th and 8th, shows starting at 7:30. Go to to purchase tickets. Be advised that they tend to sell out fast because the seating is quite limited, so reserve your tickets now if you're up for a gorgeous, unusual and unsettling theatrical experience.