06 August 2014
The end of summer is prime theatre festival season in NYC, and I kicked off my theatre festival escapades this year at the Midtown Theatre Festival (i.e. the only time you will find me anywhere near the hellish nightmare called Times Square if I am not headed to a Broadway theatre). With over 75 plays, musicals, cabarets and one-acts, the Midtown Theatre Festival has a diverse offering of avant-garde, quirky, serious, and developing shows. Despite my aspirational goal of seeing every show at the festival,* I managed to take in three diverse performances.
Occasionally, a playwright embraces a concept that calls out for more attention. He or she discovers a subject matter worthy of a play. Jung Han Kim has done just that with his new play Comfort. Unfortunately, while the premise is strong, Kim’s show does not adequately do justice to the story of the “comfort women” of WWII and fails to inspire the sort of thought-provocation and action that this story has the ability to inspire.
For those who are unfamiliar with the history of the “comfort women,” the phrase “comfort women” is a euphemism for the women of varying nationalities who were held (many after being kidnapped) and forced to have sex with the Japanese troops. Some of these women were raped between 50 and 200 times a day. Their story is one of government-sponsored sex trafficking, and it is not only a heart wrenching story from a historical point of view; it is incredibly poignant and relevant given the ongoing horrors of sex trafficking worldwide.
Kim’s biggest misstep is failing to fully focus on the plight of the comfort women. The play is about a documentary filmmaker and his efforts to get a documentary about the comfort womenproduced. While it introduces the history of the comfort women and the Japanese government’s repeated denials of their forced prostitution, the play spends far too much time focused on the neuroses of the filmmaker and his battle with insipid “industry” representatives who simply want to sell a product to entertainment consumers (“make a documentary about dolphins because everyone likes dolphins!”). In other words, the playwright compromised his subject matter to make room for self-indulgence – Kim made an artistic work about himself and not about his topic. The ongoing battle between “starving artists” who works for the sake of their art and their message and large corporations who promulgate art for commercial resale is an eye-roll inducing trope that pops up in countless plays. We get it. There is a frustrating philosophical divide between the artist and the industry. They have different motives and respond to different stimuli. Despite those personal frustrations, Comfort found an audience at the Midtown Theatre Festival – why not take advantage of that fact and showcase the plight of the women who experienced abuse, psychological torture, and atrocities that confound the soul and defy all logic?
Kim’s play is certainly not unwatchable, and it does have some strengths. For example, Kim, as writer and director, used complex and visually interesting staging reminiscent of modern dance to express the pain and internal turmoil suffered by the comfort women, to great effect. Moreover, when the plot focused on the filmmaker’s interactions with a comfort woman named Roksun, Kim is fairly successful at capturing the raw emotion experienced by Roksun as she is subjected to unimaginable brutality.
The performances in Comfort are uneven at best. Shannon Kelly generally handles the role of Roksun well, although her emotional outbursts do not always convey sincerity. The highlight of this show is the ensemble, which does an excellent job conveying Roksun’s emotional state. Unfortunately, the men in this cast are less successful than their female counterparts. Lucio Fernandez and Josh Tucker come across as caricatures of human-beings and fumbled lines throughout the show. Additionally, David Couter was troubling as the filmmaker, Peter. Couter’s portrayal of Peter as a writhing, drug-addicted maniac was, to put it in the nicest way possible, over the top. His performance was both puzzling and distracting. Most surprisingly, in a play generally about Asian women, the cast was disappointingly devoid of Asian cast members.
It is my understanding that a few of the surviving comfort women intend to see Comfort. It is my sincere hope that they enjoy it and see in it what I failed to see – a respectful and well-crafted story that sheds light on the horrors that they endured and calls for action to end sex trafficking worldwide.
*Disclaimer: not a real goal – I have a full time job that requires my attention from time to time.
Eddie and the Palaceades!
Fun, light, and upbeat musicals have been a staple in musical theatre since before the advent of Oklahoma!, and I have seen my share of nostalgic jukebox musicals traipse through New York City. The newest incarnation of an unabashedly fun and uplifting musical comes in the form of Roy O’Neil and Stephen Feigenbaum’s musical Eddie and the Palaceades. Self described as a “corny and square” “rock and roll musical” “with brand new songs that reek of nostalgia,” Eddie and the Palaceades is neither deep nor groundbreaking, yet it generally works and can likely find an audience among baby boomers.
Eddie and the Palaceades is the story of aging Eddie Doyle, who, together with his wife Gracie and friend Vinny Moriarty,* remembers the good old days when his band rocked the local Palace Theatre in Brass City (a blue collar town in Connecticut). Eddie finds himself at odds with evil Mayor Biggie Williams who wants to destroy the Palace Theatre and sell the land to Land Use Liabilities Unlimited for some less than savory construction projects. Meanwhile, Eddie’s daughter comes home from NYC to do a cover story on Brass City – the worst place to live in America. Eddie, having had enough of the judgment and efforts to destroy the town that he holds so dear, decides to take a stand – rising up against Biggie Williams and his own daughter to save his town. A story of personal growth, Eddie and the Palaceades captures both the feel good notion that a person can change his or her destiny and the cliché that home is where the heart is.
Stephen Feigenbaum and Roy O’Neil’s music and lyrics shine for a few brief moments throughout this play, but generally the music and lyrics struck me as generic upbeat musical faire without much personality. While catchy tunes like Meet Me At The Palace, Write About That, and C’mon Eddie You Can Do It get the crowd clapping, chuckling, and nodding their heads, and the requisite love song The Heart of the Story is appropriately sappy, there is nothing novel or revealing in the lyrics or score that merits discussion. Generally, I did not hate the music but I did not love it.
With one notable exception, the cast of Eddie and the Palaceades transformed this show from a one-note bubblegum piece to a work of heart. Bill E. Dietrich has an “everyman” quality about him that is necessary for the role of Eddie, but he also has quite an impressive voice. Sheila Egan’s Gracie is enjoyably feisty, and she and Kayleen Seidl, who plays daughter Mary, portray respectably strong and successful female characters with great poise and confidence. Other standout actors include Michael Indeglio who is ideal as the charming, “boy next door” and Marilyn Matarrese who, despite having very little stage time, steals the show with her upbeat rendition of the song Mangia. Although much of this cast is talented, Tony Triano may have been my favorite member of the ensemble as the lovable widower Vinnie Moriarty. Triano plays sidekick to Dietrich’s Eddie with an understated sense of humor and unmitigated honesty. He was delightful. Not all of the actors were quite so successful. Shelley Valfer was woefully miscast as Mayor Biggie Williams in large part because he struggles with the musical numbers.
In totality, Eddie and the Palaceades is a fun romp through one man’s nostalgic feelings towards his hometown and an innocuous call to follow your dreams. I’ve seen the same themes better written and better presented, but parts of this show are enjoyable.
*Characters named Doyle and Moriarty – my inner Sherlock Holmes fan is grinning.
Last time I visited my parents, my mom gave me an order: figure out which of my childhood toys I want to keep and get rid of the rest. It was an odd request. I had no idea what toys she was referring to. All of the Barbies were sold long ago. The Beanie Babies and baby dolls are no more. Anything remotely resembling a princess was destroyed or donated before I hit my teenage years. Thinking that she was perhaps referring to my microscope or telescope, which simply will not fit into my tiny NYC apartment,* I rummaged through the stacked boxes in the garage. Then I found them. I highly doubt that many girls collected Star Trek: The Next Generation action figures and play sets when they were kids, but the stockpile of Star Trek toys that I amassed from 1st to 3rd grade is unrivaled.** I cherished those toys and wore them out through years of play. With this confession out of the way, it should come as no surprise that I was looking forward to reviewing Warp Speed: A Sci Fi Parody Musical! by Clara Hoch and Eva Thorpe.
There is nothing inspired about a Star Trek parody. After all, everyone from Saturday Night Live to the Internal Revenue Service has created a parody of the original Star Trek series. It’s just so darn campy, how could you not? That being said, Hoch and Thorpe have solid comedic chops and have crafted a pretty hilarious, although admittedly imperfect, script filled with nods to the original series, references that only a Star Trek fan could appreciate, and a healthy dose of childish humor. The play is loosely (and, I stress, loosely) based on the episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” although the character Gary Mitchell has been replaced with a Khan-lite character. All of the classic characters are included: “strictly platonic best friend” Mr. Schlock, the capable and sassy Lt. Uvula, ship-obsessed Scotsman Scotchy, apparently gay swordfighter Mr. Hulu, beehive-wearing Nurse Apple, grumpy Dr. Tibia, quirky man child with an exaggerated Russian accent Yerkov, and a plethora of expendable red shirt crew members (complete with targets on their backs). Along with their inept Captain Jack T. Jerk, they battle evil and, as they sing proudly, endeavor to go where no man has gone before.
While the book is sure to make any Star Trek fan chuckle, the music and lyrics are often forgettable and, at times, I found myself wishing the play were not a musical. The sheer number of writers involved with composing the musical numbers may have had something to do with the uneven results. Certain numbers like I Am the Captain, Fight Like a Man, and Beam Me are well composed and advance the plot, while most others lack a discernible harmony, are disjointed, or are overlong. It’s a shame, really (although I confess that I left the theatre humming the closing number).
The greatest strength of this show lies in its cast, who, as a whole, do an absolutely remarkable job impersonating their respective Star Trek inspirations. Of particular note are Adrian Rifat with his spot-on, deadpan delivery as Mr. Schlock and Peter Perry Lam’s admirable take on George Takai. Greg Sullivan also deserves special mention both for launching himself wholeheartedly into the goofiest role of the show – Yerkov – but also for his impressive acrobatic work in the small performance space. DeAnne Stewart and Justin Ivan Brown also proved to be strong performers who crafted memorable characters. While all of these actors are talented, Collin Kessler stole the show with his take on William Shatner (aka Captain Jerk). Kessler is a marvelous vocalist and is positively hilarious both with respect to line delivery and physical comedy. If there are lowlights in this cast, they are John Edgar Moser who fails to leave much of an impression as Dr. Tibia and Dylan Libby who behaves strikingly silly and decidedly non-sinister as Khanrad Badguy.
Given budget constraints and the oddball nature of this particular show, Gabrielle Robinson did a lovely job developing a set design that was both appropriate and funny. Similarly, Anna Winter’s costumes are well-designed and demonstrated an appreciation for the absurdity of Star Trek costumes.
While far from perfect, Warp Speed: A Sci Fi Parody Musical! is an enjoyable combination of pop culture references, Star Trek nerdiness, and general mayhem. All in all, it made for a fun evening.
*Plus, I cannot come up with a reasonable explanation as to why a lawyer needs a microscope.
**I may have tested out the transporter to see if it still turned on. To my delight, my Geordi La Forge action figure vanished when I hit the “energize” button.