In Eliza Bent’s “Aloha, Aloha,” Exploring Cultural Appropriation with Verve

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Writer and performer Eliza Bent‘s latest play, “Aloha, Aloha or When I Was Queen,” premiered this past weekend at Abrons Arts Center. The one woman show, directed by Knud Adams, is a bright, thought-provoking personal journey that delves into her own history of unwitting white privilege, while boldly investigating many modern day ramifications of cultural appropriation.

Beginning with a home movie starring her 13-year old self as Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, Bent relays her childhood experiences — growing up with unrecognized bias in her white, upper middle-class suburb of Boston — as she examines their cringe-worthiness, in retrospect.

“In our research, if you can call it that,” she admits early in the show, “we had determined that Queen Lili-kalani was in fact kind of a bad seed. The main piece of evidence that led us to believe this, the only piece really, was a line we had read in an encyclopedia, which stated, ‘ “Queen Lili-kalani collected guns in private.” ‘

It’s not until a few years later, while watching a PBS documentary about “Hawaii’s Last Monarch,” does she discover that —  not only had they been pronouncing the Queen’s name wrong — but Liliuokalani was in fact, “trying to protect her island nation and fight against the “white tide” of colonialism.”

20 years later, these experiences lead Bent to a re-examination of the stories she grew up with, and the realization that they were drenched in unfortunate layers of cultural appropriation. Bent shares, with humor and a confessional undertone, all the voices and accents of the people in her life whom she used to pride herself in mimicking.

Photo by Knud Adams

Photo by Knud Adams

She paints the pictures from her childhood that lead her to an isolating experience at a conservative college, as well as the chauvinism that she is forced to reckon with once she begins her career as a journalist. She leads the audience through her forays into the white fashion industry and the surprising hypocrisy she encounters in the theater world (Bent is a former senior writer at American Theatre magazine.)

Challenging herself to reckon honestly with the complexities we all encounter, on a daily basis, in this current age of “Me Too” and “Black Lives Matter,” while keeping us entertained, results in an engaging and insightful evening.

“Aloha, Aloha or When I Was Queen” runs Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm at Abrons Experimental Theatre, through April 21st. You can buy tickets here.

New Yorkers of the Year: LES’ers Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz

Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Frazer on the set of, "Jack and the Beanstock." Photo by Laura Vogel.

Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Frazer on the set of, “Jack and the Beanstock.” Photo by Laura Vogel.

Two Lower East Side artists take center stage today in the New York Times’ annual series highlighting reader-nominated “New Yorkers of the Year.”

Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz just wrapped up their pantomime production of Jack and the Beanstock at the Abrons Arts Center. The couple was married in the Abrons theater back in 2012, live on Grand Street and produced an edgy version of Beauty & the Beast at the LES performing arts venue in 2014. Here’s part of today’s Times tribute:

This year, they decided they “wanted to spread the love and give something back to this place that has given us so much,” Mr. Fraser said. So for the first time, the couple broke from their repertoire of risqué theater and staged a show for families — and they filled the audience with inner-city children. Many were from the Henry Street Settlement, a social service agency that runs the arts center. By the final show on Saturday, more than 500 children who are homeless, living in public housing or at the federal poverty level had seen the show free.

…On opening night, a stranger from the audience, who was crying, approached Ms. Muz. She was a gay woman, whose partner was transgender, and had been struggling to tell her child how he could explain the relationship to his peers at school. “She was so grateful for the casting choices because her sons were able to see a drag queen, and a girl playing a guy, and have it be normalized and fun and not talked about,” Ms. Muz said. Mr. Fraser added, “We’re outsiders with inclusivity at the heart of what we do.”

Read more here. [You can also check out our preview of Jack and the Beanstock here.]

 

“Hot Meet” With Jack Ferver in the Abrons Garden Tonight

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If you’re looking for something interesting to do tonight in the great outdoors, here’s a suggestion. Abrons Arts Center will be hosting “Hot Meet,” an ongoing series meant to “draw back the elusive curtain between artist and audience.”

Downtown dance darling Jack Ferver is this evening’s guest. Participants will gather in the Abrons garden for an informal evening of artistic experimentation and conversation. There will also be cold beers and “sizzling slabs of something juicy off the grill.”

It’s a free event. Check out the Facebook invite here.

Abrons Art Center Artistic Director Jay Wegman is Moving On

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Abrons Artistic Director Jay Wegman (holding the Obie) with Henry Street Settlement Executive Director David Garza, Former Abrons General Manager Adrian Saldana and Operations Manager Rose Ortiz at the 2014 Obie Awards.

A big transition is ahead at the Abrons Arts Center. After 10 years as artistic director, Jay Wegman is stepping down to become senior director of NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.

Since his arrival in 2006, the center has developed a reputation on the Lower East Side and citywide for its cutting edge, boundary-busting and experimental productions. Abrons is part of the Henry Street Settlement. The center’s historic playhouse celebrated its 100th birthday last year. In a profile to mark that occasion, the New York Times wrote:

Mr. Wegman likes risk. And he likes surprise. He often brings in performance curators to program work he wouldn’t himself have chosen. He’s content to leave artists alone, though he’ll occasionally suggest a post-rehearsal margarita, and doesn’t worry about whether their shows will sell tickets. Abrons, he said, is “a place for people to succeed or fail or land somewhere in between.”

The New York Times reported that Wegman’s successor will be chosen in the fall.

Arts Watch: Talking With Mark Dendy, Prepping to Premiere “Labyrinth” at Abrons

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Photo by Marisa @RockPaper. Labyrinth – Heather Christian and Mark Dendy, Matthew Hardy (background)

Throughout Mark Dendy’s career, he has steadily defied expectations to work in defined categories. He is a choreographer/director/writer/dancer/performer. Or, as he puts it, “I have been working in this way–going back and forth between pure dance and opera and theater, what I call hybrid genre-fuck, nightclub, drag theater, music and showbiz, all mixed into one hybrid, for years.”

I met Mark back in the 80’s when he was performing in East Village drag clubs—as the disturbingly funny televangelist transvestite, Sandy Sheets. His dance company performed regularly at PS 122, Dance Theater Workshop and other cutting edge downtown incubators of contemporary performance art.

The work took him around the country to prestigious dance festivals and led to many accolades and awards. As a performer, Mark was a riveting force to watch in other people’s work, including that of Jane Comfort, Pearl Lang and the Martha Graham Ensemble, to name a few.

He artistry brought him to Broadway where he choreographed numerous shows like Boy George’s Taboo, The Pirate Queen and The Wild Party, among others. He has created dances for prominent ballet companies and recently he premiered an epic, site-specific piece for 80 dancers for Lincoln Center Out of Doors.

Tonight, Mark is premiering his newest work, “Labyrinth,” at Abrons Arts Center. A full-length, autobiographically inspired dance play based on the Greek hero Theseus.

I spoke with Mark about the piece in between rehearsals earlier this week:

TLD: Labyrinth mixes character portraiture, myth, autobiography, and fantasy. What drives you to create such a compelling work?

Dendy: It is definitely a calling. Since I was in college. My work has matured over the years to having more social responsibility and political responsibility to it. Even when I was doing commercial work on Broadway, this was always present. The Pirate Queen was a feminist story about woman in the 1500s who took charge of her life. Taboo, the Boy George story–was the queer show at that time.

I stick close to my heart, following this thread–a deeper peeling of the onion. I am getting into the center of the onion on this one. Into a deep, dark subconscious. There is a lot of psychotherapy and archetypical work in Labyrinth.

TLD: Theseus is a mythic hero. Considered to be the founder of Athens. These myths are huge ideas. How does that connect to your life?

Dendy: I am dropping my life and experience of my life into a myth and seeing and where it settles. The Minotaur–the monster, the self. The dark parts in each of us. The dark parts in our lives that that monster has to be. I feel like it is time to tackle these things because so much as stake. One can’t fight the demons of the world until you fight your own demons.

We look back on history, Martin Luther King, Ghandi, the Suffragettes–people who did these major things that moved society forward. Now we are all on our cell phones and computers, thinking we cannot do anything about it. Do people take plastics bags home or, make changes to help the environment? What are we doing about these things?

This piece tries to address this through a story of a mid-life crisis. An artist is having a breakdown in Times Square, and then being taken off to Bellevue. He feels helpless in a world that is spinning out of control.

TLD: Has your work always had political themes?

Dendy: It has always been about self-realization as a queer. I focused on sexuality when I was younger. The work still has a queer face to it. I am always looking through a queer lens, but it also branches out to larger issues, social, economic and political as well. What is the queer psyche and mentality that is inspiring people to make change?

Labyrinth is a phantasmagorical play filled with fantasy and real world issues. Theseus is having his dreams interpreted. One is that his father is a virulent racist. We follow this character through the 70s, 80s and 90s, and watch how he is preaching hate speech in Theseus’s life early on. The homophobia father touches on the natural shadow the country has–the Tea Party racist feelings around the country that have manifested since Obama has become president.  The piece is trying to get people to act, to become empowered in an earth goddess, Sophie Tucker vaudeville kind of way.

TLD: You spent two years making this work? What was that process like?

Dendy: We worked in different situations, at theaters across the country, in residence at Fourth Arts Block. Now in residence at Abrons. We had readings where we worked back and forth on the script–it is set in New York City and Theseus is from Athens, Georgia. We started with 126 pages and cut to 64. The piece is two thirds text and devised theater, and one third dance and movement. The dances are a psychological embellishment of the plot–a deeper wordless exploration of the themes.

There was so much exploration and experimentation, which I cannot do when I work on Broadway and in regional theater. But my ability to work fast from those experiences helped here. It has been a labor of love for all involved, and a very tight collaboration. Everyone in the piece is playing a different part of the personality of Theseus. We also have beautiful music by Heather Christian, who will be playing live. It is all pretty exciting.

TLD: Is it important for you as an artist to tell a story? Is it a cleansing experience to tell about your own life or scary?

Dendy: Is its scary and redemptive, the ability of the self to be proactive. The journey has a lot of darkness in it. A lot of these things have come up. I am 53 and lot of my memories have come back through this work. The overbearing father, the abusive alcoholic home. The vigilance for being on guard. Being able to manipulate through it. I matured through it as an artist. The anger will kill you if you don’t come out on the either side of it. Be willing to let go of the anger and hurt is key.

TLD: Do you want your audience to be able to distinguish between fact and fantasy?

Dendy: My life is a catalyst for the creation of the work. But I want the audience to experience it as a piece of theater. I don’t want them necessarily to come hear my life story, but to experience the show as a piece of art, entertainment.

Labyrinth // October 9 – 26, 2014 // Abrons Arts Center //466 Grand Street // Tickets $25.

See “The Mark of Zorro” at Abrons Tonight at Sunset

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The Urban Drive-In, a summer series from the Abrons Arts Center and the Friends of Gulick Park returns tonight with “The Mark of Zorro.” The 1920 Douglas Fairbanks silent classic will be accompanied by a Spanish and Latin-influenced live score from the “Not So Silent Cinema” band.  The film rolls at sunset in the amphitheater at the Abrons Arts Center on Grand Street.

 

By Popular Demand: ET at Tomorrow’s Urban Drive-in Screening

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Tomorrow night marks July’s second weekly Urban Drive-in event, the result of a partnership between Abrons Arts Center and Friends of Gulick Park.  Last Thursday, Charlie Chaplin aficionados gathered in the Abrons Arts Center Amphitheater for an evening of Chaplin shorts accompanied by original piano and string scores.  This week, movie watchers can haul their blankets over to Gulick Park to spend some free quality time with the ever-popular 1980s extra-terrestial, ET.

For tomorrow’s event, it was the movie goers themselves who chose the film of the evening.  Friends of Gulick Park set up an online survey in which anyone could vote for the movies they were most excited to see.

If ET isn’t exactly your cup of tea, don’t panic!  There are still two more Urban Drive-in events coming your way.  On July 24, there will be a screening of the 1920s film, The Mark of Zorro, accompanied by the live band, Not So Silent Cinema, which will take place in the Abrons Ampitheatre.  The following Thursday, the event will move back to Gulick Park for the final screening of the summer, the romantic comedy, Crossing Delancey.

Each free screening begins at sunset and takes place outdoors, so bring a blanket, get cozy, and get ready to watch some movies!

 

 

Thursdays at Sunset: Free Movies

Abrons, Gulick Park Offer Outdoor Movies; You Can Help Decide What’s Showing

You Can Help Create “Video Portrait” of the LES on Sunday

Join The Lo-Down to Talk About the “State of the Performing Arts” at Manny Cantor Center April 28

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In partnership with the Educational Alliance, The Lo-Down is continuing our series of panel discussions on interesting neighborhood topics at the new Manny Cantor Center (197 East Broadway between Essex and Clinton). We hope you’ll join the conversation! After kicking the series off with a lively discussion on historic preservation a few weeks ago, our next panel focuses on the “state of the performing arts” on the Lower East Side.  Guests include:

  • Jay Wegman, artistic director of Abrons Arts Center
  • Ellie Covan, founder and artistic director of Dixon Place
  • John Collins, founder and artistic director of the theatrical company, Elevator Repair Service
  • Nicky Paraiso, director of programming at The Club at La MaMa

We’ll check in with these esteemed programmers, producers and artists, and examine the current climate for the performing arts downtown. We’ll look at how audiences and venues have evolved over the years, and we’ll explore the idea of building and growing audiences in the future, as the neighborhood continues to transform.

There’s another conversation on June 2nd focusing on the Grand Street cooperatives – past, present and future.

The free event on Monday, the 28th, at 7 p.m. Local beer, kosher wine and snacks will be provided.  Click here to RSVP.  You can also check out some other events coming up at the Manny Cantor Center here.

Review: Beauty and the Beast Charms and Entices at Abrons

Beauty and the Beast

I went to see Beauty and The Beast yesterday at Abrons Arts Center.  A friend warned me it was “very very very very very raunchy. ” I know, that’s a lot of “verys.” After all, this was a Julie Atlas Muz (Beauty) and Mat Fraser (Beast) production. She of neo-burlesque fame (a former Miss Exotic World). He, a past winner of the UK’s Exotic Award for Best Male Striptease. So my expectations for a Disneyfied PG version (even an R rating) of their interpretation of this classic fairy tale of love and acceptance were low.

Any fears those of us in the audience might have had that we were going to possibly shed a tear for our lovers were quickly extinguished by Muz who early on plainly tells her Beast “there aren’t any fairy tales.” I can’t remember if this took place before or after she had us all join in and bark like dogs.

Was I disappointed? No. Was I surprised? Yes. In fact, I was moved. This Beauty, beautifully decorated in Gothic storybook style, sans shadow puppets, snarly rose bushes and wrought iron gates, was actually a very sweet interpretation. Ok, maybe sweet is not the exact word for it. Muz and Fraser are prolific conceptual and multi-disciplinary performers who have been shocking and delighting audiences around the world with their work, which is always filled with a “subervise lack of political correctness.”

Their milieu usually includes a sideshow style take on feminism, disability and entertainment; this production works in all of those elements (including a few clever moments with puppeteers and prosthetic arms) but it is even more lavish than usual.  I was completely drawn into the world they created, often rooting for the Beast to win over Beauty—at times wondering, each time Beauty spurned Beast’s advances, who was more beastly?

The show starts out with Fraser and Muz facing the audience directly and explaining who they are. Fraser, a British “Thalidomide  baby,” was born with short “seal” like arms (or “small and perfectly deformed arms,” as he calls them)– hence the Beast, and Muz, our Beauty, was just a restless and curious doe eyed American girl from the mid-west’s murder capital of the world, Detroit.

The pair continue in this style throughout the show as they break character to weave in stories about their own true-life fairy tale of how they met and fell in love, with the archetypical story of Beauty and the Beast.

The raunch?  It is there, but it’s sly and playful, from the minute the inevitable attraction to each other begins to the moment they consummate their love for each other. As for the end? Let’s just say, they both enjoy a very “Happy Ending” — in every position imaginable!

Through March 30th // Abrons Arts Center – 466 Grand St. // $35 // 8:00 p.m.

 

Arts Watch: Abrons Arts Center to Host Uptown | Downtown Benefit

Abrons is rolling out the red carpet for their annual benefit to support their arts center.

Sponsored Post: Unleash Your Inner Artist, Abrons Classes Open This Week

Abrons Arts Center’s classes and workshops offer progressive, experiential learning opportunities for students at all levels of artistic development.

The Cheaters Club Comes to Abrons Arts Center

Along with the NY Fringe Festival, it’s nice to know there’s still some theater to be found in the “dog days” of August here on the L.E.S.