The Siegel Column

Not To Be Missed!

There are very few must-see theatrical events during the course of a summer in New York, but Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise is one of them. An international hit out of South Africa, it has played to rave reviews in London and in Australia. And now it has come to New York – specifically, The Culture Project at 45 Bleecker – and we’re right behind those critics from overseas who praised this show. The content – the trials and tribulations suffered by five kids (now young adults) growing up under apartheid – is neither shocking nor even that original, but the staging is sensational!

Created and directed by Yael Farber with a soulful artistry, these stories, based on the experiences of the performers themselves, have been beautifully crafted into something that turns pain into a picture you can see and understand. The actors begin standing in large washing basins, each bathed in a pool of light. The image is arresting. More than that, it is an image the group will return to near the end of the show when they symbolically wash away the dust of their past. In addition to Farber and the five actors, credit must also be given to the original lighting designer, Tim Boyd, because his work plays such a fundamental part in the show’s visual impact.

What’s most impressive about this show is its remarkably effective mix of theatricality and content. Style serves meaning, and meaning inspires style. You realize how little that actually happens in the theater when you see how seamlessly and powerfully it is accomplished in Amajuba.

The Midtown International Theatre Festival – from slackers to clowns

One of the advantages of a small(ish) theater festival like the Midtown event is that one doesn’t feel as if the selection committee has picked up every piece of driftwood they could find on the theatrical beach in order to build the largest possible fire. Like any festival, Midtown has its wince-making moments, but in our own bit of dabbling in this season’s offerings, we’ve had more good-luck than we expected. In addition to LOL which we lauded in our last column, here are some of our more recent experiences ...

The Answer is Horse is unique and satisfying. A sort of dramatized documentary about our propensity to do evil, it’s a fascinating piece that’s put over with economy and piercing wit by Joya Scott who conceived and directed the play. It’s the work of The Emergency Theater Project, and especially Julia Holleman who wrote and adapted it with Katie Naka and the ensemble. The company features better and lesser actors, but the work itself carries the day. Not to oversell it, The Answer is Horse is a piece of raw theater done on a shoestring, but it delves into themes that are rarely addressed and it does so with a theatrical fervor. The fundamental issue at the heart of the play is personal responsibility. From the Holocaust to the infamous Kitty Genovese murder case, and from the ground-breaking experiments of Dr. Stanley Milgram to a bond trader on Wall Street thoughtlessly destroying the currency in Thailand in order to turn a profit, the show points a finger everywhere. At what point do we, as individuals, take responsibility for our own actions? Where do we draw the line? The Answer is Horse is that rare theater festival piece that is neither sophomoric nor self-referential. Simply put, it’s a thought-provoking standout.

A couple of slacker brothers rarely leave their apartment, but their comically mundane routines are upended when a sexy woman enters their world carrying the cupcakes (literally and figuratively) that might change them forever. The play by William Donnelly is called Remuda and it stars three very fine actors: Chris Mazza, Bradley Wells and Luciana Magnoli. The play works in large part because the two actors playing brothers, Mazza and Wells, create a relationship that, for all its contrivances, is as consistently real as it is nutty. Magnoli enters with a more clichéd part to play, but she blossoms as her character starts to take shape. The writing is dry, sharp and in a funny sort of way, rather poignant. The direction by Tzipora Kaplan, especially given the limitations of the space, is particularly worthy of praise. Remudais not going to be a play for every sensibility, but we were charmed and we laughed quite a bit.

A one-person show called Jews Don’t Join the Circus has a winning title – it sure got our attention – but it is very much a festival piece (if you catch our drift). The personal story of a young Jewish woman leaving her rich New York family to make her way as a clown in the circus, this show doesn’t transcend the personal to become universal. If her juggling and mime work are any indication, the writer/star of the work, Beth Kaplan Bongar, is clearly a very accomplished clown. She is not, however, an accomplished playwright. She plays a variety of characters with a reasonable degree of success but the play, itself, is heavy-handed.

Six yukmeisters going by the name of The Mistake are putting on a sketch comedy show called Muggy. Not to be confused with the weather, their series of comic scenes and occasionally funny songs offer a change of pace from the usual Festival fare. This kind of show is inevitably uneven but the troupe’s sensibility is amusing. Ken Scudder and Andrew Martin are the founding members of the group (the latter the creator and publisher of the fondly remembered CAB Magazine, one of the cabaret industry’s first newsletters).

Dear Edwina is ripe and ready

Heisler & Goldrich are a musical theater composing team standing on the precipice of major league success. They have a Broadway musical called Ever After slated for the 2007-2008 season with Doug Hughes directing. Most recently, they had a staged reading of their children’s musical Dear Edwina performed over three dates as a benefit for the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. It’s a show in development that we have seen before. As far as we’re concerned, it’s cooked and ready for serving. Dear Edwina has a charming book and a terrific score. Among the many delightful songs in this show, "Hola Lola" is about as catchy, tuneful, and unforgettable as they come. Here’s hoping that a producer will come along and snap this show up before Heisler & Goldrich become too expensive!

Barbara and Scott Siegel