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Hot Lunch Apostles: The Sex and Crucifixion Road Show

If the relentlessly Glee-ful Jesus in the current Broadway revival of Godspell is too repulsively vanilla for you, then La MaMa’s got your cure. Their revival of Sidney Goldfarb’s Hot Lunch Apostles—first produced by the Talking Band in 1983—is bursting at the seams with wanton lewdness. Apostles is a nudity-packed, pull-no-punches take on a traveling horde of burlesque sideshow performers who fold Bible stories into their naughty repertoire (“hot lunch” is a euphemism for sloppy oral sex). The play may not have shock value going for it anymore, but its timeliness cannot be denied. Zeroing in on a 21st-century country facing startling unemployment rates and a precipitous rise in religious appetite, it seems a fine time for the piece’s resurrection.

Talking Band revives the show itself, with some of the play’s original members—Ellen Maddow, Tina Shepard, and Jack Wetherall, who’s touching as the Jesus stand-in, Rod. There’s also the welcome addition of singer Loudon Wainwright III as the burlesque performers’ potty-mouthed, brash ringleader. Having seasoned vets return to the very same material only amplifies the familial, wear-and-tear quality of the people depicted. They ground Goldfarb’s play, which despite controversial means, is anything but blasphemous. In fact, it may be a more searching effort about the subject of survival than many more sober renditions of same. There a few missteps: A live carnival before the La MaMa patrons reach their theater seats seems a gimmicky disconnect from the actual play, and random cell phones wielded by cast members seem like too conspicuous a nod to the here and now. But quibbles aside, Hot Lunch Apostles sure beats an umpteenth, Idol-ized rendition of “Day by Day.”


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JERSEY GIRL

How does a Jersey boy get to be a New York City stage star? Not by impersonating Frankie Valli. For Bianca Leigh, the journey from skinny kid from the ‘burbs to transgender theater actress came by way of an arrest for solicitation on the morning of the 1987 stock-market crash, Black Monday. In Busted: The Musical, Leigh shares her biographical tale about her downfall as a high-priced dominatrix and her eventual rise to nightclub and downtown stage fame. Taylor Mac, Ellen Maddow, and Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) are among the talent providing the score.

Mondays, 7 p.m. Starts: Sept. 26. Continues through Oct. 10, 2011

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The Walk Across America for Mother Earth Would Make Ellen Stewart Smile

I can’t guarantee this, but I firmly believe that on Sunday afternoon, January 16, while Ellen Stewart’s body lay at rest in the Greenwich Village Funeral Home on Bleecker Street, her spirit was hovering in the air above the audience assembled in the big, cavernous space recently renamed for her at 66 East 4th Street, where the Talking Band, a frequent La MaMa visitor, was launching press performances of its latest venture, Taylor Mac’s The Walk Across America for Mother Earth. I didn’t glimpse our Mama’s ghost or hear her jewelry jangling, but I’m quite sure she was there, and was smiling. She always wanted to be where the excitement was, and laughing over a warm-hearted, silly, fecklessly extravagant play like The Walk Across America is more exciting any day than watching your friends weep over a cold coffin.

Less historical than faintly hysterical, Mac’s Walk chronicles events ostensibly occurring on a nine-month hike in 1992, when protesters anti-celebrated the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival here by trekking from New York to a spot in Nevada once granted to the Shoshone tribe and then seized back for use as a nuclear testing site, so that it stands as a symbol of both U.S. government tyranny and the arms race. The participants—treated by Mac in a loose, kiddie-cartoon-meets-commedia style, and decked out in costumes by Machine Dazzle (with makeup by Darrell Thorne) that suggest an explosion in a Day-Glo T-shirt factory—represent a panoply of ages, attitudes, and grindable axes. As they tromp toward their inevitable arrest, their repeated caroms off one another, under Paul Zimet’s easy but steadily moving direction, accumulate little force but provide much continuing diversion.

Mac himself inhabits, fetchingly, the central role of an indecisive youngster; others whose presence registers strongly are Daphne Gaines, Steven Rattazzi, and Talking Band co-founders Ellen Maddow (who also provided the appealing music) and Tina Shepard. The work’s brash feel, merging a cheerful, try-anything party atmosphere with a fiercely centered determination to encompass a serious subject, evokes the ’60s spirit of La MaMa’s adventurous beginnings almost more intensely than the radical slogans in which Mac’s text is saturated. If Ellen Stewart’s era has ended, no sweeter sign could be found of its readiness to begin again.

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ON THE ROAD

In his first full-length play since last year’s five-hour epic, The Lily’s Revenge, downtown activist-playwright Taylor Mac is back with another tome melding politics and glitter: The Walk Across America for Mother Earth. The show, with music by Ellen Maddow of the Talking Band, is inspired by Mac’s participation in a trek from New York to the spot, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, where the government had been testing nukes since 1951. The program finally halted in 1992, the year of the nine-month protest walk, on which Mac met the hippies, anarchists, and radical faeries that became this play’s main characters. The Talking Band’s Paul Zimet directs.

Saturdays, 2:30 p.m.; Wednesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Jan. 16, 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. Starts: Jan. 15. Continues through Jan. 30, 2011

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TIME STANDS STILL

Bianca Leigh might be fresh off a killer season, as a core member of drag troupe Shim Mamsir and with starring roles in the Talking Band’s New Islands Archipelago and as the hourglass-figured Time in Taylor Mac’s epic The Lily’s Revenge, but she wasn’t always a commandingly gorgeous downtown theater actress. In fact, before she was an actress, Leigh was a professional dominatrix arrested for solicitation, and before that, she was a skinny boy from New Jersey with Shakespearean dreams. Leigh recounts how she got from one station in life to the next in her solo show, A Night at the Tombs. Mac, along with Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q), Ellen Maddow, and Barb Morrison, provides the original soundtrack.

Thursdays, 8 p.m. Starts: June 24. Continues through July 8, 2010

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New Islands Archipelago Rides the High-Tech Waves

“Why did you choose to go on a cruise?” asks the ship’s captain (Steven Rattazzi), during the Talking Band’s seaboard adventure New Islands Archipelago. “To get away?” he suggests. “To relax? I don’t think so. You chose to have an adventure—with other people.” We spectators choose live performance for similar reasons. Unlike reading a book or playing an MP3, in the theater we make our journeys accompanied.

The Talking Band has served as a tour guide for such journeys for 36 years, providing numerous good-natured, dreamlike, rather hermetic plays with music. The sweet and slightly dozy New Islands Archipelago is no exception. Two crewmembers and five principal passengers set sail on the S.S. Azure. (The audience is treated as additional guests.) When not enjoying shuffleboard or other on-deck activities, they march in and out of one another’s dreams, sequences rendered in video on 3LD’s stage.

The script—by director Paul Zimet, with music by Ellen Maddow—is a strange one, as if Freud had gotten hold of a ’30s shipboard comedy and made numerous alterations. Seafaring staples such as long-lost relations and incipient amours compete with some heavy-weather metaphors about lucidity and transformation. The cast—which combines regulars Maddow and Tina Shepard with newcomers Kristine Haruna Lee and Todd D’Amour—tackles the material gamely. Rattazzi, who executes a very troubling striptease, deserves special praise.

In this production, the Talking Band attempts a more immersive environment than usual, ranging from the interactive games—more shuffleboard, mini-golf—in the lobby, to the maritime murals, projections, and video effects that swathe the theater itself. As with the vast majority of shows at 3LD, I’m not sure what the technology adds to the proceedings. The play might prove just as seaworthy without it.

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ANCHORS AWAY

Discos, spas, hot tubs, boxing rings, waterslides, climbing walls, miniature golf courses, chocolate fountains, ice sculptures, and all-you-can-eat lobster mousse—is there any amenity a cruise ship fails to provide? (There are even plans to fit one with a roller coaster.) But on the pleasure boat at the heart of the Talking Band’s New Islands Archipelago, passengers are enjoying an unadvertised perk: They begin to enter one another’s dreams. Paul Zimet’s script, which stars Ellen Maddow, Steven Rattazzi, Tina Shepard, et al., concerns vacationers on the S.S. Azure who stroll the deck by day and each other’s dreams at night. Zimet directs the shipboard intrigues.

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Starts: May 20. Continues through June 6, 2010

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Flip Side, the Talking Band’s Latest, Ventures to the Waterfalls

In Flip Side, a raincoat-clad biddy comments: “Sometimes people are like advent calendars, full of little windows that open and open.” An advent calendar is a pretty good metaphor for shows by the Talking Band, a 34-year-old performance group. Each of their plays provides small and precious glimpses into various lives, but with Flip Side, the chocolates inside aren’t as delicious as usual.

A piece that follows a variety of attempts at romance and amity, Flip Side emerged from a peculiar method of theatermaking: In a reversal of the typical process, the Talking Band commissioned set and video design from Anna Kiraly, then structured the play around her offerings. This might have met with better success had Kiraly’s designs proved more inspiring. She creates a series of upright wooden platforms to which the actors affix scrims and plastic sheeting. From this landscape, playwright Ellen Maddow has conjured two contrasting spaces—the nearly uninhabited Drizzle Plaza and the cheerfully congested world of the Waterfalls. Various characters volley between them.

The story is sweet and the actors likable, Will Badgett, Sue Jean Kim, and Heidi Schreck especially. The bursts of a cappella singing, composed and arranged by “Blue” Gene Tyranny, actually charm—an almost unprecedented event. But there’s a whimsy and thinness to Maddow’s script and Paul Zimet’s direction that renders the sunny show rather wet.

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WET ‘N WILD

Of course set design’s important. It summons the scene, it gives the characters something to sit upon—and if the play’s really dull, you can amuse yourself by mentally rearranging the furniture. But in their new play, Flip Side, the Talking Band has given the set unusual importance—they’ve based the play upon it. The Band members commissioned designer Anna Kiraly to invent a visual environment and then Ellen Maddow wrote the script based on Kiraly’s creation. The result: Two separate, wet worlds that eventually intermingle. The cast, which includes Talking Band vets like Tina Shepard and Will Badgett, and newcomers Obie winner Heidi Schreck and Sue Jean Kim, play two sets of soggy characters. “Blue” Gene Tyranny supplies the tunes.

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Starts: Sept. 26. Continues through Oct. 19, 2008

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Imminence

Nothing is certain in this world—so the saying goes—but death and taxes. While the latter, generally, is not a cataclysmic event, the former is, and in Imminence, Paul Zimet’s sporadically engaging exploration of a family’s history over several decades, death figures prominently. So, too, do marriage and a host of more routine events. Zimet’s script unfolds in nonlinear fashion, giving fleeting, sometimes repetitive glimpses into the characters’ lives: An old man wakes nightly to take a leak; a mother and daughter drive cross-country, grieving the death of a relative. The action is accompanied by Peter Gordon’s pulsating, melancholy electronic score, Ellen Maddow’s jaunty acoustic music, and Kit Fitzgerald’s ravishing video, in which Coney Island’s Cyclone roller coaster figures prominently. Footage of the coaster rushing downhill, an earthquake that creates a chasm in the stage floor and rocks the audience (courtesy of sound designer Tim Schellenbaum), and talk of tectonic plates remind us of how precarious our physical world is, putting even life’s most major events in perspective: a welcome, if not always groundbreaking, rumination.