The Siegel Column









A Clever Idea ...

There is a brilliant—and dare we say original—idea in the tiniest of shows located out in wilds of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, called Suspicious Package. This is a production, created and written by Gyda Arber, that takes the concept of interactive shows like Tony & Tina's Wedding, Tamara, Revenge of the Mob, et al, and goes one giant leap into new and uncharted territory. Suspicious Package is so interactive, there isn't even a cast. There is just an audience and the audience becomes the players. The catch: there is a limit—in fact a requirement—of four audience members per performance and each audience member plays a character in a forty-five minute noir drama. With a maximum number of only four paying customers, however, it's not what you'd call a commercial venture. Nor is this terrific concept particularly well executed. One might liken it to a theatrical equivalent of the first silent movies: hardly sophisticated entertainment but, wow, look at the potential!

The audience meets in front of the Brick Theatre on Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg, where each patron is assigned one of four characters: The Heiress, The Showgirl, The Producer or The Detective. Each character gets one prop to identify him or herself (a fedora for The Detective, a red boa for The Actress, etc.). Now that we've crossed the line from audience member to actor, we are given our scripts in the form of individualized iPods that are more-or-less synced to each other with instructions for each character plus our individual dialogue. As we follow the instructions we are sent, Treasure Hunt style, to different locations in the nearby neighborhood (a jewelry store, a gin joint, etc.), we not only perform simple tasks but also meet and talk with the other characters as the "story" unfolds. The story itself is simple tale of a Showgirl who may or may not be pulling a fast one on the Producer. A Detective follows her, while the Heiress may be asked to perform that night in the Showgirl's place. Of course, the point is not the telling of the story, it's about the heady experience of becoming a character.

There are lots of dead spots in the forty-five minutes the show runs, plus plenty of potential kinks that can crop up, but one hopes that the show's creator will get more adventurous in the future, adding many more characters and opportunities for interaction. Perhaps the cutest element of all is at the end when the play ends in a bar and Ms. Arber buys everyone a drink and you have, literally, a cast party!

Suspicious Package, Saturdays and Sundays at 4:00pm, at the Brick Theatre (and beyond) at 575 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn. $20 ticket includes a post-show beverage. Order tickets online at suspiciouspackageshow.com.

Tovah's Triumph

Irena's Vow is based on a true story that is both horrific and uplifting. As is often the case with holocaust memoirs of this nature, we discover the extremes of humanity. There are people who lose their moral compass, and there are those who remind us of the true meaning of heroism. Irena, an otherwise ordinary young Catholic woman, was tested in the fires of occupied Poland during World War II and proved to be not just a woman of character, but a woman of courage and principle when both commodities were in very short supply.

Tovah Feldshuh, that remarkable actress, begins by playing Irena as an older woman telling her story to an American school assembly many years after the war. After that somewhat awkward opening, an excellent cast of actors come to life in her memory and play out a literal life and death adventure in which Irena would eventually save the lives of a dozen Jews she daringly hid in the home of the highest ranking Nazi in her district. Feldshuh plays Irena at all ages, plus several other minor characters; she is never less than riveting. Michael Parva directs the show in bold strokes, and the projections (designed by Alex Koch) are, perhaps, the most effective use of this storytelling tool we have ever seen.

The underlying impetus is that, soon, first hand accounts of the holocaust will no longer be available to us. The real Irena died five years ago. Her story lives on in this strong narrative written by Dan Gordon that combines high drama and not a little tear jerking. Come to this production without tissues at your own risk.

Irena's Vow, through November 2 at Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Avenue. For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit www.TheaterMania.com.

Hattie McDaniel comes to life through Vickilyn Reynolds

There are two compelling reasons to trek up to the National Black Theatre on Fifth Avenue and 125th Street to see Hattie ... What I Need You To Know: A Musical Play. The first is the opportunity to learn the richly detailed story behind Hattie McDaniel, one of Hollywood's seminal Black actors and the first person of color to win an Academy Award (for Gone With the Wind in 1939). The second reason is to witness the fully committed and exciting performance by Vickilyn Reynolds who plays Hattie, and who also wrote the show and composed some of its songs. Reynolds is a better actress and singer than she is a writer and composer, but she sings like a house-a-fire and plays Hattie with such conviction that she often rises above the material to make the show flash with the integrity of her performance.

This is the first time we've been to the National Black Theatre with its expansive stage and excellent raked seating. Some of the show's technical elements, however, were not quite as professional as the generally fine supporting cast. In particular, the lighting was inconsistent and the sound design was sometimes muddy to the point of obscuring lyrics. On the other hand, the costume design by William Witherspoon is an integral and important part of the show. Director Lin Richardson could have sped up the pace of the show but, regardless of the play's flaws, it is still a good story anchored by an unforgettable performance.

Hattie...What I Need You To Know!, through October 4 at the National Black Theater, 2031-33 Fifth Avenue, at 125th Street, Harlem. For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit www.TheaterMania.com.


-- Barbara and Scott Siegel


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