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Ankhst
Beyond

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Ankhst

Pyramids. Treasure. Mummification. Curses. With all this going for it, Egyptian archaeology should be impossible to make boring. So I must congratulate Clarinda Karpov for doing just that, to the most outrageous extremes imaginable, with her play Ankhst. While it's at the SoHo Playhouse for the Fringe Festival, it creates an atmosphere as lively (and an evening about as much fun) as the inside of King Tut's tomb a thousand years before Howard Carter discovered it. But for fear of inciting Tut's wrath and one of his legendary curses, I won't explain how he figures into the story.

That story, such as it is, initially focuses on renowned Egyptologist Dr. Alexandra Phillips, who's searching to regain her professional credibility. She finds an opportunity with one of her protégées, Dr. Judith Raban, who enlists her help decoding the mysteries of a recently discovered tomb that threatens to disrupt most of their contemporary knowledge of the rituals and significance of Ancient Egyptian burial. So far so good. But when the spirit of the tomb's occupant, Akhnaton, starts haunting Alex and terrorizing her with memories of his past in hopes that she can at last bring his tormented soul peace, the play spins out of control faster than a desert sandstorm.

Karpov is so lost in spinning her story that she eventually forgets about Alex and retreats some 3000 years in the past for roughly 45 minutes of stultifying stage time. This is followed by a too-predictable coda that could have been tacked on the end of first (80-minute) act with little effect as far as dramatic propriety is concerned. Karpov is trying to play Tom Stoppard-like games with the audience's perceptions, but lacks Stoppard's skill, subtlety, and devotion to juicy, theatrical detail; this makes her show slow paced, dreary, and almost impossible to follow.

As I'm guessing the members of the cast and creative team would prefer we all forget their involvement, I'll not mention most of them here. I will, however, single out Scott Westervelt for his truly exquisite costumes (based on original designs by Cathy Winklehake and Tammy Norton) that, in their excessive use of color, sequins, and fabric, would seem more at home in a painstakingly recreated historical re-enactment than a hysterical enactment that, at its best, is just painful.

Ankhst
Through August 27
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street (6th Ave & Varick / 7th Avenue)
TICKETS: 212.279.4488 or outside NY: 1-888-FringeNYC

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Beyond

Somewhere just after life but just before death exists Beyond, a piercing musical rumination from Helga Krauss (original text) and Danny Ashkenasi (music and English translation) that attempts to capture, in minimalistic theatrical terms, one's life flashing before one's eyes. Here the central figure is a decaying opera star (Catherine Gayer) who's met with gusto any number of triumphs and setbacks in her personal and professional lives, but who - as is so often the case - isn't ready to die yet. As one of her observing angels puts it: "Artists are always the worst - they imagine they are something special." Not all decisions are ours to make.

Beyond, which explores the options the diva does have in her current purgatorial state, is directed with a swirling sense of surprise by Ashkenasi; he manipulates each microscopic, whimsical hook in the libretto to inject lighthearted magic whenever he can. That, and gently winking performances from David L. Carson and Lance Olds as the two angels, help alleviate some of the darkness and gloom from this show, which generally has more time for pain and despair than the joy and passion, those equally crucial parts of life.

That's not entirely unsurprising, given the grandly operatic scope and quality of Ashkenasi's music, which allows for little but the heaviest sentiments. The score, which operates almost continuously (Nicholas Fox is the fine pianist), is by turns questioning, despairing, and sexual, and gives the woman plenty to sing about without letting her dissolve into more earthbound arias or recitative. This makes many of the compositions, despite being richly musical and gorgeous to the ear, challenging to assimilate dramatically on the first listen.

Gayer, for whom the role was written, has the surging soprano and staid stage presence one would expect from an opera star (which, in addition to playing, Gayer has been). But even the fiery red dress Gayer wears can't warm up her often cold and distant performance, which engages you with its fierce determination but is slow to inspire feelings. That's a serious - if not unfixable - problem in a vehicle of this nature, but the strengths of the text and Gayer at her best suggest that this story of learning to appreciate life while you're living it may someday find great appreciation of its own.

Beyond
Through August 21
Running Time: 1 hour 5 minutes
Connelly Theatre, 220 East 4th Street, between Avenues A and B
TICKETS: 212.279.4488 or outside NY: 1-888-FringeNYC