Off Broadway Reviews
Shakespeare is Dead
Given the current proclivities many have toward comparing Iraq and Vietnam, it's surprising that Tom Peterson's Peace Now isn't more incendiary. But it's to the play's benefit that Peterson never overtly tries to shoehorn specific contemporary relevance onto this story of a bunch of students who protest the Vietnam War in 1970 by invading their campus's administration building. In that way, Peace Now serves as a solid reminder that the easiest and most effective way to make large points is to make small ones.
But if Peterson, who also provides gentle direction, knows not to push his overarching message too far, he's also too intent on micromanaging minute (and not especially original) details. To wit: There's a minor power struggle between the uprising's de facto leader Stubbs (Carter Jackson) and his one-time girlfriend Elaine (Cameron Blair); a militant protestor has invaded the otherwise peaceful group and must be rooted out; and the students are generally a collection of stereotypes, ranging from the sex-crazed ladies' man (Christian Pederson) to the drugged-out hippie (Cameron Peterson), and so on.
But it's playwright Peterson's willingness to experiment that makes his adherence to maudlin convention even more frustrating. He portrays the group not as a monolithic force standing against a faceless enemy, but as a collection of individuals whose attitudes and opinions on subjects from flag burning to military involvement all deserve respect. This is most cunningly realized in the character of Petrovich, a right-leaning former soldier (played with shrewd, hungry understatement by Matthew DeCapua) who acts as the group's knowledgeable voice of reason while protesting a war he, too, wants to end as soon as possible.
The company's 10 actors do a solid job of vanishing into 1970s personas, but their characters are ultimately too-familiar mouthpieces for too-familiar arguments that have been made more passionately elsewhere. Petrovich is a reminder that even among people who want peace, there can be very different opinions about the best way to achieve it; something that, today, is easily forgotten. That acknowledgment makes Peace Now unique and worthy of notice; little else about it does.
The allure of truth is no weaker than that of fame or fortune, and it can be an even more dangerous force. That's certainly the case for the three characters in Daniel R. O'Brien's Savior: Patrick (Jy Murphy), Katie (Hilary Howard), and Kevin (Jeff Barry) are all trying to get what they think will make their lives complete, and if they have to give up a little bit of themselves - or someone else - in order to get it, they're willing. After all, drastic circumstances often call for drastic measures.
Katie thinks she might be pregnant, but can't curb her spending habits; this irks her husband, Patrick, who does everything he can to make ends meet, but is having a hard time of it; Kevin's girlfriend tossed him out of their apartment, and now the former child film star is hoping that Patrick will be willing to bury many years of animosity and help him get his career back on solid ground. He thinks the surest way to do that is with a play he's written that he claims tells the whole, painful truth of his life growing up in an abusive household, though it doesn't much resemble the family Patrick recalls.
None of the stories is particularly well defined on its own, but when each collides with the others, barely controlled explosions of emotion occur. These outbursts are expertly marshaled by director Christopher Carter Sanderson, who knows how to channel the energy for maximum possible dramatic effect. Unfortunately, only Barry is completely in sync with Sanderson's rhythms, and he turns in an electric portrait of desperate, broken celebrity that's not matched here by Murphy's stilted Patrick or Howard's overly flighty Katie.
But if one character must seem in an alternate universe, Kevin is the obvious choice: He's adrift in a sea of fading notoriety that neither Patrick nor Katie can relate to, and his quest to retain it is, in many ways, the play's most desperate. O'Brien captures this beautifully, but he less compellingly explores what will save Patrick and Katie from the cycle in which they're trapped. All that's clear is that Barry and Sanderson are the saviors of this Savior, and make an otherwise run-of-the-mill experience one to remember.
Shakespeare is Dead
The journey to explore the relationship between truth and beauty is not one without pitfalls for playwright Orran Farmer. In the opening scenes of his play Shakespeare is Dead, when he's just introduced the Actress (Chelsea Lagos) and the Writer (Luke Rosen) who share a dingy New York apartment and a life, Farmer and director Chris Chaberski too eagerly present the characters with broad strokes and capital letters. She's a heroin addict who longs to ease her pain over her failed career and her lost child; he's a misogynistic drunk who despises life and love more with each rejection letter he receives. They spend their time shouting and barking in florid platitudes that don't accurately describe their problems or world as these two would likely perceive them.
But as their story develops and the performers gradually ease into their roles, they gain a strangely cohesive rapport and even a thoughtful subtlety that helps them strip away the bombast to reveal textured conflict and characters beneath. This allows you to invest more than just pity in them, and as the extenuating circumstances of their troubles come to light, the play becomes much more real and even, towards the end, genuinely moving. So well-constructed is the latter half of the show that by evening's end the resolution of their conflict is no longer the foregone conclusion it seems early on.
Even after the writing has matured, the play still moves in fits and starts, and takes too many familiar roads to reach its final destination; when he tries to subvert her newfound success, for example, you know it's only a matter of time until her brutal retaliation. But the actors do eventually help you look beyond that: Lagos and Rosen play their broken characters convincingly, and inject into the proceedings a disturbing cat-and-mouse quality that recalls the different - but no less violent - game-playing of Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Though Shakespeare is Dead starts as a predictable drama about two co-dependent, self-destructive artists barreling toward the inevitable resolution of their torrid seven years together, it ends as a devastating look at the way diverse influences like art, drugs, and love impact the way we see the world, our work, and each other.
Some musicals, like some plays, are aimed squarely at one gender. With the closing of the Broadway production of Steel Magnolias, theatregoing women still have at least one major call to solidarity with Dreamhouse, a song cycle comprising some two dozen poems from Barbara DeCesare that composer David Wolfson has set to music. But, like most solid shows, this one that Wolfson has conceived with Ari Laura Kreith doesn't discourage those who aren't a part of its target audience, and there's something in Dreamhouse that will likely appeal to people of either gender, at nearly every stage of life from adolescence onward.
Yes, the topics are from a strictly female perspective and are limited almost entirely to specific experiences as seen from a woman's viewpoint: what it's like being a mother, what it's like being a daughter, how one copes with the deepest maternal grief, and so on. But DeCesare's writing is clever and highly original, and in its rhythms and repetitions projects a true universality. Her wordplay delightfully ties up words, phrases, and ideas in bows and knots, and unraveling their meaning is as much fun as listening to the performers speak and sing them.
If Wolfson's music occasionally doesn't sit well on the lyrics, its wide span of styles - from country-western to Broadway ballad, from dissonant to anthemic - feels right for nearly every poem, and gives Dreamhouse a varied and constantly surprising landscape of musicality. Daniel Feyer's musical direction and accompaniment exhibit a strong sensitivity that resists showiness in favor of appropriateness, while Kreith's direction never forces unsuitable dramatic situations onto any of the songs. Jeri Sykes's lighting designs play a key role in keeping the transitions seamless from one thought and character to another.
The songs are beautifully performed by five singers: Jennie Eisenhower, Amy Hutchins, Maree Johnson, Gayla D. Morgan, and Suzan Postel. While each imbues her material with passionate feelings and strong vocals that caress DeCesare's carefully chosen syllables, what never emerges is a sense of these women's real personalities, what makes them different from each other, and that would be necessary for Dreamhouse to fully succeed as a theatre piece. What's most important, though, is that DeCesare's voice always rings out loud and clear.