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Manfest: Program A

Theatre Review by Lindsey Wilson

If you’re a woman, and even the tiniest bit like me, you probably spend a lot of time wondering what men are really thinking about. If you’re a man, you’re probably ready to tell me the answer is pretty much “what you see is what you get.” Still, I am determined to cling to the belief that there has to be more to the male brain than what I initially perceive, even if it is left up to my own perspective to discover it. So does the New Georges Theatre Company, who is hosting MANFEST, a series of short plays accompanied by workshops, panels, and round tables, this September 12 through 25 at the HERE Arts Center near Spring Street.

Recognized for their commitment to uncovering previously overlooked or prohibited topics concerning women in theatre, the New Georges has vowed to “Ditch the niche!” and invite the men to come play with them. Six female playwrights were given the challenge of creating a piece with a man or men as the protagonist, and the results can be seen in repertory (Program A and Program B) with three shows per evening. Program B will be reviewed in a later column, but Program A has already poked a curious stick at some pretty unusual insights into what the “female’s male” brain believes.

First up is Betty Shamieh’s Again and Against, one man’s account of his inability to understand a father’s crime of tradition against his daughter, and stunned acceptance of his own moral and physical outrage toward his sister. Though the tale is often horrific in its facts — the man listens while a strict Arabic father murders his daughter for choosing to date — the protagonist is himself a victim of disjointed reality. Shamieh sets the audience up for an investigation into the case of the slain girl, only to discard the incident once it has served its purpose of propelling the man to his next assignment. It is that assignment that causes the man to confront his own cultural history and belief system and contest it against that of his supposedly feminist sister’s. Although there are many moments of dismayed silence, they are awkwardly juxtaposed against punctuations of attempted humor which come across as inappropriate more often than relieving. Blame cannot be put upon Arian Moayed, however, for he handles the entire piece (and about six different characters) with not so much as a missed beat. His characterizations are clear and varied, each with their very own assortment of voices, mannerisms, gestures, and stances. Toward the end of the piece the moments of humor are quickly glossed over, as if to admit that even director Meredith McDonough realized that amid stabbings, drugs, and abuse, now is not the time.

Every person who ever categorized a man as a skirt-chaser should see the men of Manilova. Their entire agenda while in Manila is to “score some whores,” and yet they are so oddly charming, bumbling, and hapless that they make even that seem endearing. This is not to say that Alice Tuan’s time-bending caper fueled by vodka and tropical juices presents its characters as nothing more than farcical cartoons, but they do enjoy enough absurdity to make their exploits seem believable. Skillfully told by director Alyse Rothman in three scenes backwards, Manilova begins at the end and rewinds itself periodically, planting clues for the audience to notice now and understand later. While in Manila, the three men (Benton Greene, Steve Cuiffo, and Orlando Pabotoy) each find gratification with native resident Felizabeth (J. Elaine Marcos) and either annoyance, indifference, or indulgence with Hana Moon as the “Asian-American Woman” in Manila for a global female playwriting conference. Accompanying (or perennially tagging along with) her is Abby Royle as the “Non Asian-American Woman”, the sort of person we all know and secretly want to smack when they launch into never-ending, self-righteous tirades concerning the state of the world and its many flaws. Including Regie Cabico as the Waiter, the cast of seven works extremely well together to blend their seamless comic timing and abandonment of anything politically correct where prostitutes, dwarfs, homosexuals, and sex are concerned into a wacky romp in a tropical paradise.

Finally, the evening ends with Still Waters, a musical offering from Sonya Sobieski (book and lyrics) and Jana Zielonka (music) on who the perfect man is and how he learned to be so perfect. Brenda has been dating George for three months when she decides to introduce him to her best friend Lily, and none of them are prepared for what this sparks inside previous Mama’s boy George. While Lily (Katie Barrett) wonders where her morals disappeared to when she contemplates kicking off an affair with George (Jim Stanek), Brenda (Nina Hellman) ponders the fact that in the three months she has been seeing him, she has never heard George speak (is it wrong that she enjoys the silence?). George, meanwhile, explores the scary new rumblings of macho testosterone threatening to be let loose when he’s presented with the opportunity to cheat on Brenda, quite literally under her nose. Prime moments come when Lily asks Brenda if she ever wonders what George is thinking (in his head, George is channeling the Hunter God), and Brenda appears content to just idolize her man, twitches and all. Another memorable slice occurs when the women try to convince George that it’s sensitivity that’s sexy, while he seems intent on committing acts of masculinity (“Should I kill something?”). This piece poses the all-important question: what is it that really defines a man?

It may be unclear whether the playwrights of MANFEST are writing to bare the souls of men everywhere by broadcasting their secrets, or simply to confirm the tried and true perception of men that can only come from the distinctly feminine mindset. Either way, it doesn’t affect Program A in the slightest, for each play agrees to accept that men cannot be defined by one person, let alone an entire opposing gender.

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New Georges Theatre Company
MANFEST
Programs A and B in repertory through September 25
HERE Arts Center, 145 6th Avenue
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444