ArticlesA Review of Strange Sun Theater’s “Wickedest Woman”

Photo credit: Braddon Lee Murphy

(This piece was originally published on Manhattan with a Twist on January 22, 2019.)

A modern audience that sees the world premiere of Wickedest Woman during its run at the WP Theater will know abortion as a controversial topic. The morality of the medical procedure is frequently contested as states introduce laws to restrict access to abortion.

This narrative would be familiar to the real Ann Lohman, aka “Madame Restell,” the midwife and abortionist whose life story is told in this electrifying new play by Jessica Bashline. Lohman lived through a time where abortion was legal until it wasn’t, and would likely look at the years between Roe v. Wade to a 2019 Supreme Court dominated by conservative justices with a sense of knowing dread.

While abortion remains a hot topic of debate in modern America, there is no “both-sidesing” of the issue in the narrative of Wickedest Woman. Every character, save for an unseen mob at Madame Restell’s door, and a proselytizing district attorney at her trial, treat it as a fact of life that some women will want or need to terminate their pregnancies as naturally as other women will want to give birth to and raise children. Ann herself remains confident in the morality of her actions, but is not immune to the toll that anti-abortion rhetoric takes on her business and personal safety.

As the protagonist, Jessica O’Hara Baker gives a fierce, intense performance that carries the show. She’s electrifying to watch, and her presence is missed in the few moments she’s offstage for a costume change. She’s aided by a strong, gender-bending supporting cast that steps fluidly in and out of the multiple characters they play, most memorably Evan Daves and Luke Zimmerman as two women in different stages of their pregnancies who need Ann’s help. The minute they begin to tell their stories, their pain and vulnerability shines through, and any socialized instinct to guffaw at the sight of a man dressed as a woman immediately dies.

The production is thoughtfully directed by Melissa Crespo whose team uses subtle music and lighting cues to transition between set changes and the different periods of Ann Lohman’s life. There were a few minor hiccups (a cue missed here, a line flub there) in the opening night performance, but nothing that diminished the enthusiasm of a very engaged audience. Wickedest Woman is a play worth braving the cold weather for, to see the story of an exceptional woman whose modern relevance is, at once, depressing and inspiring.

Wickedest Woman is playing at WP Theater at 2162 Broadway through February 2nd. 

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ArticlesReview: “Life x3,” the Universe, and Everything

Photo credit: Hunter Canning

(This piece was originally published on Manhattan with a Twist on November 30, 2018.)

In the new production of Yasmina Reza’s Life x3 by the New Light Theater Project, the host of a disastrous dinner party (Henri) laments the insignificance of human beings and their personal lives in comparison to the universe. One of his guests (Ines) counters that human beings and their personal lives are what make the universe interesting, asking, “Where would the universe be without us?”

This question hangs in the balance throughout the production as we see three versions of the same evening play out. A married couple, Henri and Sonia (James Patrick Nelson and Claire Curtis-Ward), are visited by their dinner guests Hubert and Ines (Dominic Comperatore and Leah Curney) a night earlier than expected. They scramble to entertain them with leftover snacks, a seemingly endless supply of wine, and tense conversation that turns too honest, too quickly.

Some elements of the dinner party – particularly the mood of Henri and Sonia’s unseen, offstage six-year-old – is different in each version of the evening, as ephemeral as the temperament of a real child. Other dynamics between the characters, such as Ines’s frustration with her husband’s disrespect, remains the same in each version, but manifests differently each time. The differences lie not with the characters’ relationships and their myriad attractions or resentments, but with how polite they choose to be in expressing these emotions.

The various dramas play out in a stylishly cold living room against a backdrop of a curtain of stars, the set design highlighting the debate started by Henri and Ines that becomes one of the main questions of the play – arehumans insignificant compared to the universe, or do humans add significance to the universe?

The entertaining nature of the production seems to prove Ines right. The character interactions are fascinating to watch as their personalities bounce off of each other, manifesting in different ways depending on the external factors of the night. The cast is uniformly strong, and James Patrick Nelson has the hardest job, as Henri changes the most in each version but still needs to feel like the same person, and he’s more than up to the challenge.

Each version of the night leaves us at the edge of our seats, wondering how and if everything will fall apart. The drama is helped along by the music composed by Janet Bentley, best described as tense elevator music, highlighting the absurd banality of the situation and the characters’ boiling resentments. Version three, the most polite one, feels lighter in a forced way, as if luring us into a false sense of security and waiting for another ball to drop with a version four that never comes.

Ines asserts that humans add poetry to the universe, but if poetry is four unhappy people forcing themselves to be polite before reaching their breaking point, then maybe Henri is the one with his finger on the ball, and these people imagining that their petty dramas have meaning are the ones fooling themselves. Regardless of who is right (and their is evidence to support both of their points of view), Life x3 is a thrilling way to spend an evening.

Life x3 is playing through December 8th at Urban Stages, 259 W 30th Street.

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ArticlesA Review of “Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon”

Photo credit: Michael Kushner

(This piece was originally published on Manhattan with a Twist on November 27, 2018.)

Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon, playing through December 2nd with the Strangemen Theatre Company at 59E59 Theaters, is the first full-length play by Scott Aiello. A note from Artistic Director Val Day mentions that the play is inspired by Aiello’s relationship with his sister, who has a disability. The story’s roots in personal experience is hardly surprising, because the play’s scope of understanding of the particular struggles and joys affected by disability is rarely found in fiction.

The play is a simple slice-of-life story about the Vincolos, a working-class Italian-American family with two adult children, Mikey (Forrest Malloy) and Bernadette, called “Bernie” (Stephanie Gould). Bernie has an intellectual disability, and her parents’ and brother’s lives center around ensuring her care and well-being. This is a familiar note in stories that center on disability, but what makes Bernie and Mikey special is the level of detail it explores in addressing the hard questions that arise when a person with a cognitive disability becomes an adult in the eyes of the law. What will happen to Bernie when her parents (Jordan Lage and Margo Singaliese) pass away? Is Mikey prepared for dealing with the hygiene needs of a disabled adult woman who menstruates and needs help wiping herself after a bowel movement? How do they cope with the knowledge that, despite some of her childlike behaviors and limitations, Bernie has the full scope of adult feelings, including sexual desires?

The play addresses these issues without being didactic, showing how each member of the Vincolo family keeps Bernie’s best interests paramount, but clash over what those best interests are. They argue, they hurl accusations, they work through their pain against an impeccable set design by James Ortiz that feels like a real home down to every small detail, including the stickers decorating the side of the oven.

While the whole family lives and loves and struggles, the most important relationship in the play is between the two title characters. Forrest Malloy is excellent at showing Mikey’s deep, fierce love for his sister, his anger at being left out of the decisions involving her well-being, and his resentment and accompanying sense of guilt. Stephanie Gould, who has cerebral palsy, inhabits Bernie as a woman who adores her brother unconditionally, shrugs off her mother’s nagging, and keeps an icier front with a father who often leaves her out of the conversation. They light up in each other’s presence the way they don’t with other people, and when Mikey pulls out all of the stops to make Bernie laugh, we can see that he needs her as much as she needs him.

Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon reminds us of the importance of letting actors with disabilities play disabled characters. Having Stephanie Gould play Bernie and Benjamin Rosloff (an actor on the autism spectrum) play Jeff, Bernie’s persistent suitor, leaves no room for caricature or stereotypes. The play, from the writing to the direction to the performances, treats people with disabilities respectfully without preaching from a pulpit. This important and moving show has only one weekend left in its run, but I predict bright prospects for its future.

Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon is playing at 59E59 Theaters through December 2nd.

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ArticlesReview: Controlling the Narrative in “Escape”

(This piece was originally published on Manhattan with a Twist on October 31, 2018.)

“I’m a person.” This line is said by all three female characters in Escape, a new play that just completed its run at the 2018 New York International Fringe Festival. The context is different each time, but each woman has the same plea and the same demand: to have her humanity respected and taken seriously. It’s a request that neither male character has to make, because their humanity is accepted as a given and their mistakes and flaws are held under less scrutiny. In this respect, the world of Escape is much like the real world, but the male characters here take a backseat to the three women of the story, flipping the script and centering the people who usually exist on the margins.

Escape takes place in the aftermath of an emergency plane landing after a flight attendant, Lucy Marks (Marlowe Holden), restrains a man causing a disruption and endangering the other passengers. Controversy immediately follows, the public torn on whether Lucy was a hero who saved more than one hundred people, or a villain who abused her power and used excessive force. Hoping to avoid a scandal, the CEO of Global Airlines, Renee York (Rhonda Ayers), offers Lucy a contract and large sum of money to keep her quiet and sweep the story under the rug. But Lucy has other ideas, and she and her roommate and fellow flight attendant Dina (Deya Danielle Drake, also the playwright) decide to take ownership of her story and into their own hands.

Lucy’s goal of self-promotion and controlling her narrative clashes with Renee’s goal of self-preservation. Both women have carefully crafted images of themselves to survive in the world, but Lucy plays up her conventional attractiveness and femininity to use to her advantage, while Renee downplays her womanhood to fit in with her male colleagues and be “one of the guys.” They both know, however, that the game is rigged against them no matter what stereotype they try to reclaim in their favor. Dina, meanwhile, is the sidekick in her friendship with Lucy, a role she seems to embrace and resent in equal measure, viewing her friend with a mix of hero worship, jealousy, and fear.

Photo credit: Sarah Escarraz

Photo credit: Sarah Escarraz

It’s understandable why these characters are tempted to stay in the roles they’ve created for themselves; the punishment for stepping out of line is severe. Chuck (Jim Thalman), the board liaison for Global Airlines who probably has several #MeToo stories about him waiting to be exposed, treats Lucy like a sex object and turns on her when she has a mind of her own, dismisses Dina as the less attractive friend, and undermines Renee’s authority whenever he has the opportunity. Jack (Chris Wight), the attorney of Global Airlines, is the “nice” guy who’s not really that nice, and only seems decent in comparison to Chuck. The court of public opinion is fickle and no less forgiving, changing their opinion of Lucy’s actions based on her and Dina’s social media videos (projected on a screen on the back of the stage) and rumors about the identity of the passenger.

The tension in the play rises gradually and uneasily thanks to director Lynnsey Ooten’s sharp sense of pacing and the quick, smart cues from the lighting and sound designers (Jennifer Folk and Jessica Hart, respectively). The entire cast is strong, with Deya Danielle Drake pulling an impressive double duty of actor and playwright, but the highlight is Marlowe Holden as Lucy, in a gripping portrayal of a woman who seems like she could completely unravel or defiantly persevere at any moment.

The play is never clear on how we’re supposed to feel about Lucy’s actions towards the passenger on her flight. At first, this ambiguity is an asset to the story; from Lucy’s own account, we’re left thinking that she took the right course of action but went too far in trying to correct the situation. An important revelation near the end of the play leaves a different impression, an uncomfortable feeling that we’re meant to believe that the ends justify the means. Despite that, the final scene is intriguing, suggesting promising futures for these women. Unlike the Global Airlines flight, Escape hit the landing.

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ArticlesReview: Divisive Politics and Dead Presidents in “The War Party”

Photo by Martha Granger

(This review was originally posted on Manhattan with a Twist on October 19, 2019.)

In a century where American citizens are bitterly divided over politics and uncharacteristically laser-focused on the upcoming midterms, The War Party (playing for five performances in The New York International Fringe Festival) couldn’t be more timely. Playwright Vincent Delaney chooses an intriguing protagonist for his portrayal of this contentious era: an incumbent Republican Senator suffering a crushing defeat to a Democratic challenger, getting drunk with one of her interns in her campaign war room.

A theater audience in New York is likely to be dominated by people who identify with liberal beliefs, and the idea of a Republican incumbent toppling to an insurgent Democrat is catnip to eager and worried progressives counting down the seconds until November 6th. But The War Party complicates this initial thrill by making Laura Smith (a fearless Jennifer Piech) arresting to watch. Storming across the stage in her pantsuit and hair twisted in a tight bun, swearing, and grabbing every cheap champagne bottle she can find, she is a woman who officially has no f**** left to give. Bitter and angry, bitingly funny and caustic, the soon-to-be-ex-Senator (of which state, we’re never told) is a protagonist who wins the audience to her side, even those who would find her politics repugnant.

The War Party is careful not to embellish on Senator Smith’s specific policies and beliefs. She sneers at her “tax and spend” colleagues in the opposing party and baldly uses some Latinx stereotypes when trying to bait her intern Jessie (Odelia Avadi, bursting with energy), but her votes and core issues are only alluded to. Also alluded to is a recent personal tragedy in Laura’s life, which she and Jessie reveal later in the play, leaving me wonder if the playwright thought a sad backstory was necessary to make a conservative woman sympathetic.

The extended conversation between Laura and Jessie is interrupted by Laura’s diabetes-induced hallucinations of FDR (William Youmans). Despite being on the opposite side of the political spectrum, this imagined FDR has a lot in common with Laura – filled with regret, longing for a time when hatred didn’t dominate political discourse. These interludes have a quieter intensity than the main action with Laura and Jessie, allowing the audience time to linger on important questions while creating the unsettling feeling that something isn’t quite right…and not just because Laura’s bonding with a Democrat.

Several important scenes in The War Party take place when characters are sitting and lying on the floor, whether under the influence of alcohol or simply exhausted. Unfortunately, the seats in the audience are clustered together where only people in the first two rows can witness all the action. Even craning my neck, I couldn’t see the actors during several key dramatic moments.

The War Party struggles with fitting life-altering epiphanies for its characters in a ninety-minute run time. Some of their choices, particularly Jessie’s, feel too abrupt to be plausible. Without spoiling the ending, one of her decisions may have worked better if the story had more time to breathe.

Despite some of the restrictions built into the play’s run time, The War Party is an exciting play with a strong voice that seems inspired by the playwright’s personal views without being didactic. The show is definitely worth seeing, as long as you’re sitting in the first two rows.

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ArticlesA Review of Renee Taylor’s “My Life on a Diet”

(This review was originally published in Manhattan with a Twist on July 27, 2018.)

On the night I saw Renee Taylor’s one-woman show “My Life on a Diet,” my plus-one texted me ahead of time to ask if she should “save some calories” for a drink or a snack after the performance. “Trying to adhere [to my calorie budget] as much as possible from July-August,” she explained.

She was referring to a meal plan that she’s been attempting, with various successes and plateaus, to adhere to for several years, involving eating almost anything she wants in small portions with an eye on the number of calories in each meal. It’s a lifestyle plan I’ve struggled with, finding more success and satisfaction in basing most of my meals around plants, reserving fatty indulgences to one or two meals a week, and drinking eleven glasses of water a day. (Eight is for amateurs.)

While I watched Taylor recount her life as a “diet junkie,” sharing various meal plans she’s tried throughout the years to make herself fit a thinness standard expected of Hollywood actresses, I was reassured by how reasonable our own meal plans were.

As an actress and a writer, Renée Taylor has never had the luxury of relying on charm and humor alone, but both charm and humor shine in her retelling of important parts of her life, punctuated by a slideshow of images. Sometimes these images are pictures of herself in various stages of her career, of her delightfully fame-seeking parents, and other famous performers she knew over the years. Sometimes the slides show the different diets she and her colleagues have tried, and she describes some of the amusing and disturbing side effects of, say, eating nothing but grapes for several days. (And that’s one of the less restrictive diets mentioned during the show.)

The revelation of each list (and which celebrity followed which diet) soon becomes a predictable part of the show, but we still wait in equal parts anticipation and dread to see the specific details of each set of guidelines for disordered eating. Taylor doesn’t show any bitterness, or even mild snark, about the pressures put on her and her fellow working actresses to be impossibly thin. She approaches her story from the perspective of a woman settled in her career, happy in her longtime marriage and creative collaborations with co-writer Joe Bologna, and old enough where restrictive diets and beauty and thinness standards no longer apply to her.

While “Diet” uses different celebrity meal plans as a framing structure, the show is about much more than eating habits. Taylor’s anecdotes about her family and colleagues in the entertainment industry reveal more than eighty years of interactions with larger-than-life people, Taylor herself included. Occasionally, these anecdotes are slightly meandering and seem to lose the plot, but sometimes they’re the best part of the show. Her stories about one particular actress are touching, revealing the gentle and insightful side of the legend we know as Marilyn Monroe. Taylor imbues each one of her “characters” with this humanity, and the result is a lovely way to spend with the performer I first knew as Sylvia Fine from The Nanny.

My Life on a Diet can be seen at the Theatre at St. Clement’s on 423 W 46th St for a limited 6-week engagement.

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ArticlesReview: Gay Pioneers and Preservationists in “The Pattern at Pendarvis”

Photo credit: Dennis Cahlo

(This review was originally published in Manhattan with a Twist on July 24, 2018.)

Straight people have a tendency to view gay people as breakers of tradition, or rebels against the status quo. Whether this perspective manifests itself in bigotry and discrimination or in a positive appreciation of gay culture, it effectively categorizes gay people as “other.” With their vibrant subculture, they are seen by straight people as changing or challenging tradition.

Gay people are rarely portrayed as preservers of tradition, which makes The Pattern at Pendarvis so remarkable. An understated drama playing through the New Dog Theatre Company at Streetsigns Center for Literature and Performance, the play is adapted and fictionalized from interviews with Edgar Hellum, a curator who helped restore the homes of Depression-era migrant Cornish miners in Wisconsin. Edgar (a wonderful Lawrence Merritt) recounts his memories working and living in Pendarvis, one of the restored houses, and his life with his partner, Bob (historically, Robert Neal).

In this context, “partner,” is a loaded word with more than one meaning, a nuance that interviewer Rich (Gregory Jensen) is as eager to explore as the head of Pendarvis historical society Norm (David Murray Jaffe) is to obscure it. As Edgar shares his wistful memories and amusing anecdotes about Pendarvis and Bob, Rich sits with pad and paper in hand, at the edge of his seat in the admiring posture of a man interviewing a role model, while Norm sits forward just as upright, ready to stop the interview if the subject wanders too much into the area of Edgar and Bob’s unconventional relationship. Merritt has the lion’s share of dialogue in the first half of the play while Jensen and Jaffe have to communicate mostly through body language; they do so admirably well, creating dramatic (and some light comic) tension with their posture and facial expressions.

Edgar’s monologue is accompanied by etchings and drawings of Pendarvis projected on the back of the stage in monochromatic light, creating a visual reference point for his stories while casting a shadow of memory, an excellent set and lighting design by Daniel Ettinger and Joseph Amodei. A play that goes into great detail about its description of a setting while taking place entirely within a man’s living room shouldn’t work so well, but it does.

The major accomplishment of The Pattern in Pendarvis is how Edgar’s life story comes across as extraordinary and ordinary all at once, and how each character views his work in preserving the culture of a small, working-class American town. Rich is eager to portray Edgar as a pioneer, a role model for other gay men. Norm would prefer no attention be called to Edgar’s sexuality at all, seeing it as an aberration in an otherwise admirable man. Edgar, meanwhile, is grateful for the opportunity to talk about Bob, whom he misses and loves, but doesn’t want too much attention paid to his “sex life,” seeing it as unimportant in the greater story of Pendarvis or his life in general. He rejects being categorized as an “other,” whether for positive or negative reasons.

Written with great affection and care by Dean Gray, The Pattern at Pendarvis is a play whose effect sneaks up on you slowly. At first, it seems like a pleasant enough way to spend eighty minutes, but it gradually becomes something special, and concludes with a beautifully understated ending that respects the nuance that came before.

The Pattern at Pendarvis is running through August 5, 2018 as part of SubletSeries@HERE, on 145th Sixth Avenue (entrance on Dominick Street).

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ArticlesReview: A Colorful Romance in “First Love”

Photo credit: Monique Carboni

(This review was originally published in Manhattan with a Twist on June 25, 2018.)

First Love, currently playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre, takes place in the surrealist world of Magritte, where a young woman (a magnetic Taylor Harvey) wears a top hat that appears in many of the Belgian painter’s pieces and smokes a pipe reminiscent of the one featured in “The treachery of images.”

But a background in art history isn’t necessary to appreciate the charm of First Love. The stage design, with set pieces painted in colors so bright that they seem to have been dipped in liquid candy, creates a world with a slightly altered reality. The characters can have lengthy conversations about the nature of romance with stylized, lovingly crafted dialogue by playwright Charles Mee, that’s sometimes hard to imagine coming from the mouths of real human beings who aren’t professional writers. On this brightly colored stage, where slightly fantastical elements come into play but the emotions are always real, Harold (Michael O’Keefe) and Edith (Angelina Fiordelissi) can be simultaneously analytical and poetic without suspending disbelief.

The premise of the play is simple: two people meet and fall in love, both for the first time in their lives. It’s a classic meet-cute with a twist, because the protagonists are both much older than the typical leads in a romantic comedy. Harold and Edith are in their sixties. They’ve both been married before – Harold more than once, and has had children – but Edith shares that she’s never truly been in love until now. Harold never repeats that sentiment, but it’s implied that he feels the same way, and that’s exactly what terrifies him. Their love story develops under the eye of the Young Woman who takes on many forms as a waitress, a flower seller, and mostly a Cupid figure who observes their romance with an amused eye, sometimes intervening to help them. (She’s noticeably absent when conflict arises between them.)

As an independent woman who has lived an adventurous life with few regrets, Fiordelissi shines as Edith in the flush of new love, and immediately wins the audience to her side in her openness and spirit. O’Keefe has the harder job as Harold, who is far more beaten down by life, and sometimes speaks so harshly to Edith that we’re left wondering what exactly she sees in him. Occasionally, it’s hard to tell whether his performance is detached, or if Harold the character is detached, forcing himself to hold back emotion to keep himself from being hurt again. That said, few actors can portray a scene of a man beating up an inflatable kiddie pool in a fit of petulance, followed by a teary monologue that opens a window into his pain, with all of the humor and heartbreaking gravity that the scenes require.

First Love runs just under ninety minutes and is a play that feels like it doesn’t know how to end. I could have used ten more minutes to resolve the story, or at least get a peek at how, or if, Harold and Edith could manage to build a life together. Perhaps this feeling is another part of the mystifying nature of romance – are we ever really ready for a love story to end?

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ArticlesReview: the Beautiful Intensity of Female Friendships in “Let’s Get Ready Together”

Photo credit: Ashley Garrett

(This review was originally published on Manhattan with a Twist on June 5, 2018.)

Let’s Get Ready Togetherwritten by Lizzie Stern and directed by Lily Riopelle, is a story about the friendship between three young women navigating their first semester of college. It is a story about daughters separated from their mothers for the first time, and the young women’s need for continued closeness with their mothers, conflicting with their desire for independence. It is a story about the way women talk with one another and past each other, and how the need to be heard can clash with the responsibility to listen.

It is an ambitious play, exploring multiple layers of different relationships in only ninety minutes’ time, capturing essential elements of the college experience in a way that leaves the audience feeling as though they’ve been transported back to their own dorm room.

An early scene depicts the three main characters (Ella, Nina, and Clara) taking part in an RA-mandated “getting to know you” game: Two Truths and a Lie. Within minutes, the young women (played by Rachel B. Joyce, Marieta Carrero, and Arielle Goldman) lay out some of their deepest insecurities and fears with buoyant energy. They come from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, but their relief in sharing their secrets creates an instant bond between them.

This bond carries them through the social challenges universal for college freshmen – navigating parties, fretting about Parents’ Day, negotiating new romantic and sexual experiences, creating the perfect BFF selfie – until a hate crime on campus upends their relationship. Nina, suddenly, can no longer focus on the day-to-day college experience or even her declared major (she’s the only one of her friends who has one), because an ethnic slur carved in a dining hall table has shaken her to her core. She can’t find comfort in her new best friends, who care deeply about her but can’t understand the depth of her pain. The differences between the characters, once a complementary force in their friendship, are thrown into focus and become a source of interpersonal and internal conflict.

Most of the drama takes place in the middle of a dorm room in the center of the small stage. The room sometimes belongs to Ella, sometimes to Nina, and sometimes to Clara. The fluid way in which the room becomes one character’s room, and then another’s, highlights the universal experience of being a confused first-year student, while simultaneously giving their individual struggles room to grow. Ella is secure in her sexual identity but uncomfortable with exploring sexual pleasure. Nina, in addition to finding her place as a first-generation Latina student on a white-dominated New England campus, tries to balance her excitement of pursuing her lifelong dream and her homesickness for her mother. Clara struggles to manage her social anxiety and explore the confusing identity of being a Jewish woman in America (declaring once, innocently and a bit defensively, “I’m Jewish – I’m not that white!”).

The last scene between Nina and her mother (Ruth Aguilar) feels a bit abrupt, as though the play doesn’t quite know how to end. Perhaps this is intentional to show how little of life can be resolved after two months of college. Or maybe the play is just reluctant to say goodbye to these complex, beautifully crafted characters portrayed by a universally strong cast. I was left wanting more time with Ella, Nina, Clara, and the other women in their lives. I wanted to see the people they would become at the end of their first semester. Anyone who goes to The Tank for the run of Let’s Get Ready Together is likely to feel the same way.

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ArticlesReview: Collaborative Energy Shines in “Martyrs”

Photo by Theo Cote

(This review was originally published on Manhattan with a Twist on May 8, 2018.)

Martyrs, a new play at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club written by Romana Soutus, raises a question regarding plurals. The press release and website advertise the play as “a convent slumber party turned upside down as tensions rise and relationships erupt. Cats and Kittens let you in on midnight whispers between sisters.”

The play itself has three actresses (Lindsay Rico, Kayla Jackmon, Madison Fae) as the Cats, the leaders of the group of women gathered in a space that looks like a comfortable room in the midst of an underground bunker surrounded by barbed wire. Six actresses play their respective Kittens, younger women who look to their Cats for wisdom, affection, and nourishment of the mind and soul.

In the program, the characters are listed as “Cat 1, Cat 2, and Cat 3,” and the same format is used for the six Kittens. Yet the play leaves a question in the audience’s mind that is never answered – are there nine women in this bunker, or two? Are the Cats three separate women or three sides of the same person?

When a Kitten slaps one Cat in the face in an act of anger and defiance, all three Cats react to the pain. If a Cat asks a Kitten a question, more than one might answer. But every Cat and Kitten uses the word “I,” not “we,” when referring to herself, and when Cat 2 tells the story of Creation, one Kitten eagerly adopts the role of the Serpent, three other Kittens listen with varying levels of interest, and two turn their heads and fall asleep during the performance.

The three Cats also have clearly defined personalities. Rico’s Cat 1 is a fierce general, the clear leader of the three, managing to be both cold and passionate at the same time. Jackmon’s Cat 2 is the most maternal and warm, inviting her brood of Kittens to share her experience. Fae’s Cat 3 seems least prepared for the responsibilities of leading a group of younger women, easily flustered and frustrated, as though she were a big sister thrust into the role of a mom. Yet all three Cats react in sync when the Kittens disobey them, and they all have the same desire: to be “lifted,” and achieve enlightenment.

In another play, this ambiguity could lead to frustration and confusion on the part of an audience member. The question of the characters’ identities lingers throughout Martyrs, and while it is occasionally distracting, the ambiguity is largely a feature of the production rather than a bug. Whether each Cat or Kitten represents multiple women or one woman each, the play still works as a rich, emotional portrayal of the relationships women have with one another, with themselves, and with their bodies.

The strength of the play lies in the collaborative nature of the production. Martyrs was written by Romana Soutus and developed with and directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh, and imagining the conversations between playwright and director to develop the story is worthy of its own play. The actresses have a natural, effortless chemistry, encompassing all of the intense emotions inherent in relationships between women.

The most surprising part of Martyrs is the twist on the mentor/student dynamic. The Kittens alternate between disobeying the Cats and begging for their approval, but they also worry about the Cats more than their older counterparts worry about them. The daughters are encouraging their mothers to eat when the mothers refuse food; the little sisters reassure their big sisters that they are “good enough” and worthy of love. Living in a world where women are socialized to be hard on themselves, I wondered if Martyrs was a hopeful statement about the power of the younger generation – how today’s teenage girls and young women will grow up to be more accepting of their bodies and less hard on themselves for failing to achieve perfection.

There were moments during Marytrs where I wished the script was less vague in its purpose and in its dialogue. I wanted the play to be more direct about why these women were having this slumber party and what they hoped to achieve from it. I wanted to know more about their relationships before they entered this bunker. I wanted less time with karaoke machines and looking for double meanings behind Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” and more time focusing on the uncomfortable parallels between the language of a devout, fasting nun and a teenage girl with an eating disorder.

Mostly, however, I wish I had taken a friend to see the show so we could have spent the train ride home talking about it. There would have been a lot to say.

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