CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater Uncategorized

A Dazzling New “Government Inspector” Shows That We Might Just Be Living In Gogol’s America

In a way, the premise behind The Government Inspector couldn’t be simpler. Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 satire of Russian small-town politics centers on Mayor Anton Antonovich (Michael McGrath) and his corrupt gang of municipal cronies, who learn that an undercover inspector from the czar has arrived in their village to scope out government abuses. As bumbling as they are venal, they wrongly assume the incognito snoop is Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov (Michael Urie), a dandyish, cash-strapped bureaucrat who just happens to be passing through town while chasing gambling wins out in the provinces. Initially confused by the flattery and bribes he starts getting from the town leaders, Hlestakov soon realizes he can play along, take them for a ride, and make some quick cash.

In short, The Government Inspector is a drama for our times. It exists among a handful of canonical plays that 2017 has made critically relevant again, all of which demonstrate the ease with which politics and civil society can be debased; one thinks of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Brecht’s Arturo Ui, and Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. It’s a dark syllabus, to be sure, but Gogol’s is the funniest of all these, hands down — particularly in Jeffrey Hatcher’s witty, withering, endlessly entertaining (and super loose) adaptation, currently playing in a new production at the Red Bull Theater.

It’s a play and a rendition that deserve to be seen. Director Jesse Berger taps straight into the grotesque veins in Gogol’s writing, coaxing stylized performances from his expert cast of clowns. The acting style is deliberately broad and cartoonish, almost mock-melodramatic throughout, with actors sawing the air at every turn — yet, miraculously, never descending into mere scenery-chewing. Pretty much every member of the cast is delightful to watch, though a few deserve special praise: Arnie Burton very nearly steals the show twice in a pair of bit roles (as a servant and, even better, the town’s postmaster); McGrath makes an appealing blowhard as Mayor Antonovich; and Mary Testa shines as the mayor’s pompous, salacious wife, Anna Andreyevna. When she first shows up onstage, looking outrageous in a larger-than-life hoop skirt, her husband asks bluntly, “Why are you dressed like a lamp from a whorehouse?” The rest of this production lives up to Andreyevna’s wardrobe.

At the center of it all, in the role of Hlestakov, Urie gives a performance that is close to flawless. Lithe and limber in voice and movement, and physically precise in each expressive detail, he seems to dance the part as much as he acts it, doing so with evident, mischievous glee. Whether Hlestakov is contemplating suicide, getting wasted — in a hilarious turn of stage drunkenness — or bursting into a song-and-dance routine, Urie commands the stage with each mercurial movement of the face, hands, and legs. It’s so easy to get lost in the enjoyment his performance generates, one could almost forget that it’s not really Vladimir Putin’s America we live in nowadays: It’s Gogol’s.

The Government Inspector
The Duke on 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street
Through June 24


With “Indecent,” Paula Vogel Pens A Love Letter To Theater History

After decades of writing powerful works for the American stage (The Baltimore Waltz, How I Learned to Drive) and fighting on behalf of women in the theater, Paula Vogel has finally made it to Broadway. (She also earned a Lifetime Achievement Obie last week, occasioning a profile in these pages.) Her latest, Indecent, imagines the production history of Sholem Asch’s 1907 Yiddish drama, God of Vengeance, as it tours the world to great acclaim — before being closed at its own Broadway debut on obscenity charges stemming from its frank depiction of same-sex desire. Treating Asch’s play as a prism, Vogel refracts a larger history of American and European Jews in the theater, raising questions about how oppressed peoples can represent themselves during shifting and dangerous times.

Despite its notoriety, Asch’s play is still largely understudied and underappreciated in America, apart from specialists and researchers of Yiddish theater. To this end, Indecent takes its audience on a welcome, half-imagined trip through theater history. Vogel herself apparently discovered God of Vengeance almost by accident, while a Ph.D. student at Cornell in the Seventies. Eager to read plays depicting lesbian love, she followed a tip from her adviser, Bert States, to look it up. In her program note, she claims she “raced to the library, found a yellowing copy of an out-of-print translation,” began reading right there in the stacks, and “couldn’t put the play down.” Her co-creator, Indecent director Rebecca Taichman, had a similar conversion to Vengeance some twenty years later at Yale.

One doesn’t need to know Asch’s writing to follow Vogel and Taichman’s work, but Indecent will inspire you to get acquainted. Against a spare backdrop, the cast of seven performers and three onstage musicians spin the story of Indecent into one of tragedy and survival, full of clarity, tenderness, and warmth. Six of these performers appear in the playbill as portraying unnamed “Actor” roles, and they take on a variety of historical characters over the course of the evening. Max Gordon Moore and Tom Nelis share the part of Asch at various stages of life as he composes the play and skyrockets to fame. Anchoring the action, however, is Richard Topol as Lemml, the play’s artless stage manager through all its productions — from Berlin to the Bowery to Broadway — and the only character who appears with a fixed name in the show’s dramatis personae. Topol gives a touching performance, growing into the role with each scene, lending Lemml depth and gravity en route to the play’s somber conclusion.

The production’s supporting cast members do similarly outstanding work. Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, and Adina Verson all embody their roles with richness and pathos, particularly when Lenk and Verson re-create Asch’s allegedly “indecent” lesbian love scene under rainfall. But just as Indecent traces the story of Vengeance through its many different collaborators, the cast of actors and musicians assembled by Vogel and Taichman stands as their production’s great strength: The group creates its vividly bittersweet narrative together, as a team. Though Vogel deserves credit for crafting a sensitive play and for her overall achievement in the theater, a still greater message is meant to resonate in this ensemble structure. In dark times that threaten artists and oppressed minorities alike, collaboration is not only a reprieve — it’s a means of resistance.

Cort Theatre
138 West 48th Street
Through September 10


“Six Degrees”: A Witty Con-Man Classic Picks Apart Bourgeois Complacency

In John Guare’s celebrated comedy of manners Six Degrees of Separation, currently being revived on Broadway in a vibrant new production directed by Trip Cullman, everything seems shot through with the possibility of transformation. Written and set in 1990, between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid, it depicts a rapidly changing world — one hurtling forward in time even as it appears outwardly stable.

The play begins in a comfortable Upper East Side apartment, home to the well-off Kittredges: private art dealer Flanders (John Benjamin Hickey) and strategic partner Louisa (Allison Janney). Preferring the Waspy nicknames Flan and Ouisa, the two make an endearing, somewhat ludicrous couple, almost drawn from the pages of Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic. Suddenly, a handsome young black man named Paul (Corey Hawkins) bursts in at their door, a knife wound bleeding through his Brooks Brothers shirt, and their solid world’s foundation begins to shake.

Paul tells the Kittredges that he attends Harvard with their children, that he is the son of Sidney Poitier, that he was mugged in Central Park, and that, in the kerfuffle, he lost the only printed copy of his senior thesis, a study of The Catcher in the Rye. It’s an unbelievable story, he admits, “in this age of mechanical reproduction,” but the Kittredges eat up every word, alongside a delicious Mediterranean dinner Paul prepares in their kitchen once his bleeding settles. Over supper, he waxes romantic about his thesis’s concern with the death of imagination: “To face ourselves. That’s the hard thing. The imagination. That’s God’s gift to make the act of self-examination possible.”

In a queer twist of delicious plotting, however, it quickly becomes apparent that Paul is not who he claims to be, and what follows for Ouisa in the wake of that revelation is precisely the work of difficult, imaginative self-examination. The ultimately mysterious Paul blazes through the Kittredges’ lives like a meteor, vanishing almost as quickly as he arrived, but before he disappears he illuminates a deep poverty within them, gnawing away at the secure pillars and boundaries of their existence.

More than a quarter-century after its premiere, the play feels newly critical in our current neo–Gilded Age, built on debts and speculation, hollow imaginations and empty experiences. In the memorable monologue that gives the play its title, Ouisa asks us to consider what connects us, what separates us, and what we owe to one another, questions that resonate afresh in our present political climate. As an analysis of the fault lines surrounding race in America, it also bristles today with a renewed urgency. When Paul faces arrest by the police, Ouisa tries to reassure him that they won’t kill him. His blunt response: “Mrs. Louisa Kittredge, I am black.”

As Ouisa, Janney commands the stage with a calibrated mixture of poise, vulnerability, and bluntness. Hawkins scintillates in the role of Paul, lending the character a fiery intensity, occasionally to a fault in the play’s first few scenes. In describing his undergraduate research on Salinger, he channels the history of black pulpit oratory, but sometimes descends into a ranting register when he might otherwise use the language to enact a more subtle seduction. But Janney and Hawkins soon find their stride together, and as the play reaches its climax, they seize the rhythm of Guare’s drama like a pair of virtuoso musicians.

Six Degrees of Separation
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street
Through July 16



Eugene O’Neill’s Hallucinatory “The Emperor Jones” Contends With Racial Sins

The last time the Irish Repertory Theatre staged Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play The Emperor Jones, an expressionist one-act on racial themes, Barack Obama had just been elected America’s first black president. That 2009 production is currently being revived downtown, and though director Ciarán O’Reilly doesn’t stress the work’s topicality, there’s no denying its double-edged content has only grown sharper as our national dialogue about race has morphed to include Black Lives Matter, Jeff Sessions, and Dana Schutz.

The play’s black protagonist, Brutus Jones, a former Pullman car porter, starts the show as the tyrant emperor of a small Caribbean island where he washed ashore after escaping a chain gang in the States. He has seized power only recently, but his subjects have already tired of his corruption and are preparing his overthrow. Jones attempts to flee his enemies by night through the jungle, but suffers mounting exhaustion and delirium until the forest transforms into a terrifying memory theater of sorts. Hallucinated visions of his violent past and America’s racist history rise like ghosts from beyond the grave, pursuing him to his fateful end.

O’Neill’s script has courted controversy since the beginning for its use of “black” racial dialect. Having learned early on the cruel conundrum that petty thefts earn men jail time while massive thefts earn them power, Jones attributes this cynical knowledge to overhearing wealthy American capitalists chatting on the train: “If dey’s one thing I learns in ten years on de Pullman ca’s listenin’ to de white quality talk, it’s dat same fact.” The role’s originator, Charles Gilpin, so objected to this racial coding that he parted ways with O’Neill, while his replacement, the famed Paul Robeson, tried to downplay it. But if Emperor Jones calls to mind minstrel-speak, the play also aims to depict Jones as a figure of staggering humanity — a conflicted character on the order of Othello or Lear — struggling against American slavery’s long afterlife.

The Irish Rep production avoids critiquing O’Neill’s text but still gives it an insightful, disturbing reading. As Jones, Obi Abili stalks and rasps about the stage with mesmerizing focus and intensity, increasingly bathed in sweat while he undergoes the tyrant’s extended passion, a trial as harrowing psychologically as it is physically. In scene one, he recalls subduing the island’s natives by cracking his whip; he repeats the gesture over and over again with unhinged ferocity, throwing his entire body into the act. It’s an unnerving image that crystallizes the drama’s central themes and the character’s contradictions at once: a black man who has known the sting of the white man’s lash, repeating that violence, inflicting it upon others, but only after having internalized it.

Through the rest of the show, Abili gives an unflinching performance as O’Neill’s splintering sovereign. O’Reilly’s production surrounds him with a whirlwind of scenic effects that externalize his tortured mental state — stick puppets, marionettes, and masked bogeymen, all of which make the show feel more like a haunted house than an expressionist parable. But Abili shines through all this distracting cheesiness, creating a troubling portrait of Jones that sticks in the mind — and the gut.

The Emperor Jones
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Through May 21



Flaming Out: A New Musical About Joan of Arc Oversells Its Timeliness

The new musical Joan of Arc: Into the Fire begins with an unmissable message, hand-painted on the curtain of the Public’s Newman Theater: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Mitch McConnell’s now notorious complaint about Elizabeth Warren is your first clue that this show wants to be very relevant.

What that relevance might be is anybody’s guess, though, even after ninety minutes of high-octane rock from David Byrne and energetic staging by Alex Timbers. A clear bid to follow on the heels of 2013’s Here Lies Love, Byrne and Timbers’s widely praised first collaboration at the Public, Joan misses the mark by a wide margin. Despite impressive vocals and dancing by the show’s young and athletic ensemble, this show suffers from meager, often banal book- and lyric-writing (also Byrne), unwittingly raising the question of just how important Saint Joan’s story is to our time.

In the lead, Jo Lampert is, naturally, the main attraction. Appearing early on in a muslin frock with long, Meredith Monk–style braids, she quickly jumps into a faux-hawk and head-to-toe leather gear to diva-belt Byrne’s unremarkable lyrics: “Take my dress and take my hair/Sword and fire be my prayer/I’m not a boy and I’m not a girl/The King of Heaven rules my world.” But Joan doesn’t know what to make of its protagonist’s radical butchness — what queer theorist Jack Halberstam calls “female masculinity” — and struggles to get off the ground from there.

For a famously tormented icon, Joan shows little internal struggle or uncertainty; in her campaign to oust the English occupiers from France, she wins support from her countrymen with no real resistance or dramatic conflict. “Have faith, be strong” is her earnest mantra, repeated throughout the evening, but her insights don’t get any deeper. It’s unclear what makes her so compelling to those around her — or what elevates her above mere fanaticism. Meanwhile, the show trudges from one power ballad to the next, and Joan goes to her pyrotechnic death crying familiar but decontextualized slogans like “It’s the fire next time” and “You can’t kill an idea.” What exactly the big idea is remains unclear.

Of course, the problem isn’t that the underlying story lacks political meaning; Brecht, for example, adapted it three separate times between 1930 and 1952. It’s rather that Byrne and Timbers (who have been working on this show since well before the election) want to keep emphasizing the supposed timeliness with gestures that are flatfooted and superficial, like the ham-fisted curtain quote. Persist, have faith, be strong — of course, but we also need to think in deeper, more careful and specific terms about the world. That, not showy proclamations, is how we mount a resistance that doesn’t end up in flames.

Joan of Arc: Into the Fire
Newman Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Through April 30



Alternative Facts, Circa 1644: The Liar’s Unwitting Timeliness

Whatever the century, the world never suffers from a shortage of hypocrisy to lampoon. Still, when expert adapter David Ives tackled Pierre Corneille’s 1643 comedy Le Menteur (The Liar) for a 2010 commission in Washington, D.C., no one could have anticipated the show’s New York City opening would coincide with the rise of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” And yet here we are, with Ives’s brilliant “translaptation” running at Classic Stage Company against Kellyanne Conway’s frenzy over Bowling Green. Plus ça change, as they say.

Liar piles doubles and mistaken identities upon each other giddily. The gallant Dorante, a serial prevaricator, tries to win the love of the beautiful, brash maid Clarice — or is it her quieter, homelier gal pal Lucrece? Meanwhile, in Ives’s version, Dorante’s pathologically honest valet, Cliton, pines for Clarice’s saucy chambermaid, Isabelle, who herself has a dour, moralizing twin sister named Sabine. It’s a masterwork of baroque plotting, a little comic fugue in which the simplest of conceits leads to a host of convoluted entanglements.

The biggest surprise is that Corneille, one of French literature’s most revered tragedians, could be so funny. He plundered his Spanish source material to make Le Menteur more appealing and contemporary to his French audience, and Ives takes a similarly aggressive approach: In his hands, Corneille’s scenario skims forward on swift flashes of wit, erudition, and bawdiness, drawing laughter almost to the point of groaning. The rhymed couplets come raining down in torrents: Ives pairs “kiss” with “dentifrice” and “full spectrum” with “gaping rectum.” An expert dramatist in his own right and a delightful versifier, Ives is in top form.

A virtuoso script like this will flounder without a strong hand and strong performers, but this show handles it spectacularly. CSC’s vigorous production, directed by Michael Kahn, bounds forward with muscular, zany energy. Christian Conn lands his lothario Dorante somewhere between Tucker Max and a young Ethan Hawke in a limber, enticing performance. Also outstanding is Carson Elrod, who is quickly establishing himself as one of the best comic stage actors of our time. Though he plays Cliton as a rustic bumbler, he does so effortlessly, gracefully — a clown with the precision of a ballet dancer. The handsome cavalier-era costume design, with plush textures and vibrant colors by designer Murell Horton, keeps the play in touch with its seventeenth-century roots, even as the rest of the script and production leaps into the present tense.

While Liar is mostly a lighthearted romp, the epilogue finds Dorante hinting that he knows his skill for lying might be useful in the service of politics — a lone wink toward our contemporary crisis of public mendacity. The Liar does not have revolutionary aims, but as a breath of fresh air in a fog of factlessness, there’s no better show in town.

The Liar
By David Ives
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Through February 26


City Opera’s ‘Candide’ Is A Charming, Raucous Return To Form

Several years after New York City’s Opera’s departure from Lincoln Center with bankruptcy looming in the near future, the company is back onstage. It kicks off 2017 with a new production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, one of the most beloved scores in its repertory, directed by Broadway superstar Hal Prince. It’s both a strong and safe choice for the company’s first full season under new leadership: a crowd-pleaser of a show and a gemstone from the company’s history, in a new production by City Opera stalwart Prince, one of the leading lights of the New York theater. After its past few years, “strong and safe” is precisely what City Opera needs most, at least for now.

The lively new production is set on a vaudeville stage that brims with color, and Prince has assembled an all-star cast of Broadway actors, along with a few more traditional operatic singers of the caliber one expects from Lincoln Center. Despite vocally uneven results, the show radiates a high level of quality that recalls the now bygone Broadway of Prince’s past, before all the Disney and jukebox musicals moved in.

Adapted from Voltaire’s 1759 novella, Candide follows its titular youth who, exiled from his home in German Westphalia, traverses the globe seeking his long-lost love Cunegonde. Throughout their travels, the two take comfort in the specious optimism of their childhood tutor, Dr. Pangloss — Voltaire’s caricature of the German baroque philosopher Leibniz — who taught them, against all evidence to the contrary, that they inhabit “The Best of All Possible Worlds.”

As the title character, Jay Armstrong Johnson (known for his recurring role on the ABC series Quantico) grows into his role vocally over the course of the evening. His tenor is clear and light, with a tight and tremulous vibrato, but it struggles through some of the more demanding, expansive passages in Bernstein’s score. Still, he plays the part with brightness, sincerity, and good comic timing.

He manages to hold his own throughout the show against City Opera newcomer Meghan Picerno, in the role of Cunegonde. Picerno sets the audience ablaze with her Act One showstopper, “Glitter and Be Gay,” one of the most challenging and delightful coloratura arias in the canon. The song was written to showcase an extraordinary young voice — powerful, agile, wide-ranging — and beyond all doubt, Picerno’s got it.

Broadway veteran Gregg Edelman leads the company energetically in the demanding dual role of Voltaire and Pangloss; he’s joined by musical theater luminaries Chip Zien, Brooks Ashmanskas, and Jessica Tyler Wright in a handful of smaller parts. The Tony-Award-winning actress Linda Lavin is a more convincing comic actor than singer in the unforgettable supporting role of an Old Lady with one buttock. Rounding out the principal cast is Keith Phares, who wields a muscular, resonant baritone in the role of Cunegonde’s pretty and supercilious brother, Maxmilian.

Somewhere between operetta and musical comedy, Candide’s history mirrors its protagonist’s picaresque journey: It flopped at its Broadway premiere in 1956, but underwent numerous revivals and rewrites over the 1970s and ‘80s, leading to an “opera house version” that debuted at City Opera under Prince’s direction in 1982 to great acclaim.

Under the baton of Prince’s son, the conductor Charles Prince, the City Opera Orchestra interprets Leonard Bernstein’s score with richness, verve, and only a few missteps. (The Act One overture felt uniformly rushed and frantic.) The chorus soared to superb heights, particularly in finale “Make Our Garden Grow,” in which the characters abandon the traps of Panglossian optimism and dedicate themselves to the same project that City Opera faces in its new chapter: Building a new life through hard work.

Candide runs through January 15 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater.


Must-See Performance Festivals Kick Off 2017

The beginning of the year is always a highlight of the New York theater season, for its array of festivals featuring adventurous international and interdisciplinary work. The Public’s Under the Radar, P.S.122’s COIL, and American Realness, co-presented by Abrons Arts Center and Gibney Dance, are highlights, and this year’s offerings are as diverse as ever.

Participation through a technological filter is a clear theme: Yehuda Duenyas’s CVRTAIN (COIL), drops spectators into a virtual-reality world, while Top Secret International (State I), by German theater company Rimini Protokoll (Under the Radar), casts its audience members in the role of secret agents in a quest for classified intelligence.

So is the return of beloved regulars: choreographer Trajal Harrell (American Realness) never disappoints, and neither does Marga Gomez’s comedy (Under the Radar). But also make sure to look for artists fresh to the festivals: Celebrated choreographer Meg Stuart, who rarely presents work in the U.S., comes to American Realness from Germany, while Under the Radar offers a series of emerging artists’ work through its “Incoming!” program.

Then there are the locations making new appearances in the festivals: beyond theaters and gallery spaces, performance will inhabit the Brooklyn Museum and the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum at Pier 86, among other site-specific locations. Time to break out the map and explore. — Miriam Felton-Dansky


For Under the Radar, German theater company Rimini Protokoll is presenting Top Secret International (State I), a new site-specific, interactive performance about big data. Helgard Haug, one of the group’s artistic co-directors, spoke with the Voice about the piece.

How did the project originate?

It started with concerns about how government and intelligence — but also private people — are dealing with information. All of us are constantly creating and collecting data. We were wondering: What is an appropriate way to look at what intelligence is doing? Should [there] be secrets in a democratic state system? Is [that] a contradiction in itself?

How did you decide to stage the piece in the Brooklyn Museum’s Egyptian Wing?

We thought a museum would be great, because it’s a place of concentration: People are looking at stories, and we like that everybody’s equipped with an audio guide. We thought it could be thrilling to create a second layer on top of this and link the ancient art, which implies all the relevant questions, to the current question of the role of intelligence in a democratic state system. Fortunately, the museum was very open to the idea.

What is the audience’s role?

It’s a very personal experience. We equip people with headphones and a little notebook. This allows us to locate the visitor. Based on [their location] the visitor will receive different audio files, which are interviews with experts on the topic, covering all positions — from whistleblowers to ambassadors and even the former director of the German intelligence. Movement and certain tasks trigger the next situation.

Top Secret International (State I) runs January 5-8 and 11-15 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway. — M.F.D.


January 11-15
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street

In Marga Gomez’s twelfth — and, she says, final — solo show, the comedian reveals that both her prolific drive and her entertainment savvy are indebted to her father, Willy Chevalier, a Cuban immigrant polymath famous in the mid-century heydey of New York’s Latino variety shows. Staged as a “farewell concert,” Latin Standards uses Chevalier’s radio hits as a frame for Gomez to interweave her childhood memories with scenes from a comedy night she produced at the now-shuttered San Francisco Latino drag club Esta Noche. The result is an evocative love letter to, variously, her father, El Pico coffee, pre-gentrified New York, drag culture, and all the independent cultural spaces “that are essential to the joy” of marginalized performers and communities. — Jennifer L. Pozner


January 12-15
Tisch Shop Theatre, 721 Broadway

The bold and genuinely brave Belarus Free Theatre — formed in resistance to, and operating despite persecution from, a repressive political regime (the troupe’s leaders are currently in exile) — tells the stories of three real-life journalists: Iryna Khalip, Natalya Radina, and Nasta Palazhanka. All three women were jailed for their opposition to Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko around the time of his questionable re-election in 2010. Judging from the theater’s previous shows, this one promises to be uncompromising in its truth-telling and devastating in its emotional impact. (It’s also in Russian with supertitles.) — Zac Thompson


January 6-9
Public Theater

Calling this compelling play a solo performance is a bit of a misnomer: throughout, “actorvist” Keith A. Wallace is in direct conversation with theatergoers — “improvisational shit-talking,” he calls it — to inspire radical empathy about how police violence traumatizes African Americans. In this work, first performed on a San Diego basketball court for the LaHoya Playhouse’s immersive theater festival, Wallace and director Deborah Stein directly ask the audience urgent questions of our time: What does it mean to survive while black in America, and what will it take to ensure that black lives actually matter? — J.L.P.


January 5-9
Playwrights Downtown, 440 Lafayette Street

Recently, Under the Radar has begun complementing its lineup of major artists with a series showcasing the work of young, emerging ones. This year’s Incoming! works tackle themes from Chekhov to hip-hop. Trans performer Becca Blackwell presents They, Themself and Schmerm, a standup-style solo piece about growing up trans, while collaborative ensemble New Saloon stages a new version of Minor Character, a poignant re-envisioning of Uncle Vanya featuring multiple translations and performers in each role. Shasta Geaux Pop, a collaboration between director Charlotte Brathwaite and performer Ayesha Jordan, explores hip-hop and celebrity culture. See these artists before they’re celebrities themselves. — M.F.D.


For the 2017 edition of COIL, longtime P.S.122 artist and Emmy Award-winning experiential director Yehuda Duenyas is presenting CVRTAIN, a virtual reality experience that puts audience members in the starring role. It’s a mysterious piece, so he gave the Voice a little insight into what to expect.

Where did the idea for ‘CVRTAIN’ come from?

I was an actor for many years, but also once worked as a theatrical fireproofer. Once, on a break at 3 a.m. from fireproofing, I stood center stage in the empty Radio City Music Hall. It was so magical and beautiful, seeing all the empty seats and grand architecture stare silently back as I stood daydreaming, trying to fill the room with presence. CVRTAIN grows out of those experiences.

Tell us about the setup for the piece.

CVRTAIN puts you on a grand, 360-degree, 3-D virtual reality stage, a personalized stage for one. You then have to move and bow to get a VR audience to respond. It’s a game you play with the gestures of the theater. I like combining technology with emotional states, and I’m trying to see if feelings of adoration and love can be communicated in a digital environment.

What’s the connection to your last large-scale artistic project, 2012’s ‘The Ascent?’

In The Ascent, the participant uses their mind state to control machines that allow them to levitate through bioreactive light and sound. Both are about celebrating the participant and seeking to generate an ecstatic state. Both [pieces] allow you to be both audience and also participant. A lot of my work leverages new technologies to create experiences that delight and connect us to one another.

CVRTAIN runs January 3-15 at 151 Gallery, 132 West 18th Street. — Joseph Cermatori


January 4-8
La MaMa, 66 East 4th Street

If you thought becoming an artist would save you from the onslaught of robots, think again. Australians Anthony Hamilton and Alisdair Macindoe cede the noise-making aspects of their act to Macindoe’s 64 identical, metronome-like percussion instruments, which incorporate pencils tapping on hard surfaces, arrayed in a circle. Things heat up. The pair perform Hamilton’s compulsive choreography, described as “visual haikus,” to the complex ticking of the Tribble-like mechanical devices. Bosco Shaw designs the lights, Paula Levis the simple T-shirts, trousers, and sneakers. — Elizabeth Zimmer


January 7-10
Baryshnikov Arts Center,
450 West 37th Street

Molly Lieber, from Pittsburgh, and Eleanor Smith, from Raleigh, started dancing together a decade ago; this is their fifth evening-length work based in their longtime practice of improvisation in a feminist landscape. “We support each other, drag each other around; it has the physicality of a sport,” says Lieber, who recently won a Bessie for performance. James Lo contributes a sound score involving pop songs, the sublime Claire Fleury provides costumes, Thomas Dunn’s doing the lights, and Liliana Dirks-Goodman designs the set. — E.Z.


January 11-14
La MaMa

Australian performer Nicola Gunn was inspired to create this dance-theater piece after spotting a man throwing rocks at a duck along a canal in Belgium. Unsatisfied with her initial reaction (sputtering outrage) to this what-would-you-do moral quandary, Gunn has made it the premise of a digressive comic monologue touching on every conceivable issue raised by the strange encounter, including compassion, animal rights, cultural differences, and the absurdity of the everyday. She accompanies her tale with nonstop choreography (by Jo Lloyd) that’s by turns jerky, athletic, and fluid, in keeping with the story’s oddities and Gunn’s restless intellect. — Z.T.


January 15
Invisible Dog Art Center, 51 Bergen Street, Brooklyn

In what has become a COIL tradition, New York’s most delightful, most adventurous, and (best of all) messiest series of short performances and works-in-progress comes to the Invisible Dog. This year’s roundup promises to be as gleefully interdisciplinary as usual: There’s Aorta Films, a queer feminist porn collective, but also Kristin Worrall, an actor-slash-baker staging a form of live cooking show. Other artists slated to present work include experimental jazz saxophonist Travis Laplante, Jennifer Kidwell (co-creator of the recent, celebrated Underground Railroad Game) with Thomas Graves of the Rude Mechs, and performance duo Chelsea & Magda, staging a meditation on shame. — M.F.D.


Thomas Benjamin Snapp Pryor — Ben for short — founded American Realness six years ago, when he realized the dance world didn’t have a pipeline to the international community of curators. “Hundreds of curators [were] coming into town” for APAP, the annual performing arts conference, says the Long Island native, “and [we weren’t] throwing the right kind of party.”

So he threw his own, drawing upon studies at Marymount Manhattan College in queer theory, critical race theory, and dance and musical theater techniques. He threw together the first edition in two months, at Abrons Arts Center, and ended up with seven engagements — $100,000 worth of bookings — for Miguel Gutierrez, his first client. The next year Abrons offered him two of its three theaters; this year’s edition includes fifty-three performances of sixteen productions in ten venues over eight days.

While planning the lineup, Pryor accepted the position of director of performance and residencies at Gibney Dance, the remarkable conglomerate of real estate and cultural support assembled by choreographer Gina Gibney. He succeeds Craig Peterson, longtime program manager at Gibney, who took the top job at Abrons. As the city’s arts aspirants move to Brooklyn, the center of gravity of its experimental performance scene has shifted south, abetting the flourishing programs at Abrons and Gibney, both of whose offices are below 23rd Street.

What will Pryor make of his new gig? “I’m wrapping my head around it now. Our interest is to start a guest curator series. I’m another gay white man in a position of power in the arts, aware of how many people are not given that power. I want to open up space for other voices.” — Elizabeth Zimmer


January 5-7
Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street

One of the first American postmodernists to decamp for Europe, Stuart and her Damaged Goods company found in Brussels and Berlin support unavailable in New York. She fell in love with choreographing before she studied technique; the much-awarded dancemaker has craft to spare. This collection of her solos, supported by Flemish and German funders, ranges from the 1995 XXX for Arlene and Colleagues to the 2000 soft wear and the 2010 Signs of Affection, plus excerpts from full-length works. — E.Z.


January 5-10
Abrons Arts Center

Rawls, a choreographer and curator, expands on a 2013 work for The Planet Eaters: Seconds, a 55-minute reconfiguration of Balkan folklore set in an imaginary place between the U.S., Serbia, and an international space station. The piece combines dance, singing, rap-like storytelling, and arresting costume design by Sasa Kovacevic, and Rawls performs it in a duet with musician Chris Kuklis that Rawls calls “an intimate exchange of rhythms.” — E.Z.


January 6-10
Abrons Arts Center

The celebrated New Yorker returns to American Realness with an installment of Twenty Looks, or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church. Staging a speculative performance history, Harrell combines the minimalist moves of Judson Church’s postmodern choreographers with exuberant voguing drawn from the aesthetics of Harlem drag balls. What if, Harrell asks, the two dance cultures — separated by a hundred blocks and a cultural divide — had merged? The results, showing here in the “Small” version (other sizes include Large and Made to Measure), are not to be missed. — M.F.D.


January 11-12
Gibney Dance, 280 Broadway

Part of the festival’s “Process” track, the cryptic title of 17c refers to the 17th-century diaries of Samuel Pepys, a rowdy creative type who celebrated himself while leaving out the voices of the women in his life. The hour-long piece stars a bewigged Aaron Mattocks as Pepys, reading dance-focused material from the journals while offering some Baroque-ish steps. Paul Lazar, who’s acted in movies for thirty years, directs along with Annie-B Parson, a consummate collaborator with many people and in many forms, who also choreographs. — E.Z.


In These Terrifying Times, Reverend Billy Is a Preacher Heaven-Sent

“We’re living through a time of great… difficulty,” Reverend Billy intoned from the stage at Joe’s Pub last Sunday afternoon. “Do you know what I’m talking about?” Of course we did: Three weeks after Election Day, our country is still reeling. Not only from a campaign season of unfathomable ugliness and cynicism — a “year of living hate,” as the Reverend calls it — but from its aftermath, in which “living hate” is quickly becoming our new normal.

It’s what some might call a come-to-Jesus moment for the American left, but Reverend Billy is urging us to come together instead, to stop hand-wringing and start direct action. For nearly thirteen years, he and his Stop Shopping Choir have combined music and performance in protest of corporate evils like Walmart, Disney, and Monsanto. But they are not stuck in the Bush-era concerns that inspired their formation: Their most recent stop was at Standing Rock, to spend five days with the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance. Now they’re back in the city with GATHER!, a series of rollicking Sunday-afternoon church services continuing for the next three weekends.

Not content merely to entertain, they’re out to save souls the old-fashioned way. In just over an hour, the Stop Shopping Choir very nearly brought the house down with a handful of original gospel songs about climate change, mass extinction, consumer greed, and murderous racism. The performance I attended, which fell between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, included several liturgical rituals: an infant baptism, the canonization of an undocumented woman and her two American-born daughters as Saints of the Church of Stop Shopping, and the reading of a litany of names of slain black men, from Emmett Till to Eric Garner.

But it’s Reverend Billy’s homilies that bind the service together, just as they tie the protest movements of our time — Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, climate justice — into a dense, interconnected knot. Far from preaching to the converted with didactic, bumper-sticker-ready platitudes, he instead poses questions: What will you do now? How much would you risk to save others’ lives? What new forms of resistance can we imagine? His message resonates with the words W.H. Auden wrote on the eve of World War II, during another “age of anxiety” — “We must love one another or die.” GATHER offers a fresh injection of that radical love, reinvigorating its audience to continue the fight.

GATHER!… after the year of living hate
Performed by Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir
Joe’s Pub at the Public
425 Lafayette Street
Through December 18


Daniel Kitson’s ‘Mouse’ Is a Sticky, Entertaining Trap

In Daniel Kitson’s newest one-man show, Mouse: The Persistence of an Unlikely Thought, a fictitious rodent becomes the bait that draws two men into dialogue with each other, and the audience into Kitson’s intricately woven narrative universe. Kitson is a British “narrative theater” artist, solo performer, and stand-up comedian, and here plays William, a writer whose current project follows a strange encounter between an unnamed woman and the mouse caught in her household trap, whom she befriends and ultimately sets free. Kitson also plays the disembodied voice of Billy, a stranger who calls William’s landline, starting up speakerphone conversation that lasts until dawn.

Over the course of the night, a set of similarities emerge between the two men that grows increasingly uncanny. Their pasts mirror each other closely, and in unusual ways — both had flats above a chicken restaurant at one point, for example — but they now lead very different lives. They share a sense of creeping isolation, William in his day-to-day work as a writer and Billy in his busy life as a husband and parent. Each finding something of himself in the other, the two come to reflect on the choices large and small that amount to a life. Despite the characters’ mutual loneliness, the atmosphere of the play stays buoyant throughout. Kitson occasionally steps out of character to chat playfully with the audience and detail William’s backstory, adding yet another braided layer to an already complex script.

There are plot developments here that an intuitive reader is likely to guess, but though the script takes some predictable turns, Kitson’s performance is consistently delightful (if not always surprising). The general setup recalls the famous conceit behind Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, in which a 69-year-old man contemplates his life by listening and talking back to a taped recording of his voice from thirty years earlier. But the mood of Kitson’s script is lighter, closer to his roots in stand-up comedy than the sort of brooding melancholy Beckett made famous, with some especially sharp jokes cracked about parenthood, marriage, and conventional gender roles.

Only occasionally does this set of deftly interlaced shaggy-dog stories start to feel a bit too shaggy. Some more compression would help streamline things at the outset, to avoid the feeling of an overly drawn-out conclusion, but Mouse still manages to capture the audience’s imagination in a sticky, sweet, entertaining trap of a play.

Mouse: The Persistence of an Unlikely Thought

Written and performed by Daniel Kitson
St. Ann’s Warehouse
45 Water Street, Brooklyn
Through November 27