Illustration by the Authors
This review is by Lo-Down contributors AndrewAndrew and John Sherer.
The Total Bent, a new musical by Passing Strange creators Stew and Heidi Rodewald, has debuted at The Public’s Anspacher Theater. Like its predecessor, The Total Bent tells of a young black musician’s artistic development, features a band onstage, and relies heavily on music for its narrative work.
Joe Roy and his son Marty, both blues/gospel musicians, compete for fame in 1960s Montgomery, Alabama. Marty is gay, to his father’s disbelief. He has written Joe’s songs since childhood, but now wants to use their platform to record protest music. Joe makes a series of bad career moves—first becoming a faith healer, then causing scandal by sleeping with a woman he has “healed.” A British con-man with a taste for black American music shows up and offers to produce the band, then has an affair with Marty before the father/son pair part ways and each find their own success. It changes their lives, but at a cost: their music has been subsumed into mainstream white culture.
If these sound like elements of a good story, you would be right. But in The Total Bent, these elements are overwhelmed by the music itself. The show felt more like a concert than a musical, as various storylines were drowned out by the increasingly longer tunes that did little to propel the plot forward, while other storylines were muted entirely.
Admittedly, the show boasts a rich, complex score with clever lyrics, and the musicians gave superb performances. Vondie Curtis Hall (Joe Roy) sang with swagger and heartache, and Ato Blankson-Wood (Marty) electrified the stage with the limitless energy of his singing and dancing. Some of the band members also play minor characters, most notably Kenny Brawner as Deacon Charlie. There are smart musical references to a host of sources, including the Beatles, John Coltrane, Tina Turner, and others.
That the show is heavy on music and light on story is a missed opportunity, since its various conflicts have the potential to perform, rather than gesture at, deeper thematic work. The British “producer,” Byron Blackwell (played by David Cale), is overjoyed to have discovered in Joe “a blues singer cloaked in religion and morality.” The show comments on the resemblance between blues and gospel not for musicological interest, but as a sociopolitical statement about how religion is often used as a tool for profit.
Blackwell has no problem exploiting this tendency (or the black musicians he stumbles upon) for his own gain, yet he also has enough well-meaning curiosity to ask, “Why do black people still believe in God?” After centuries of white people using Christianity as a means of coercion, it’s a fair question; the band members’ heartfelt response is a powerful demonstration of just how little Blackwell understands the culture he is appropriating. A major theme of the show is the musicians’ commitment to Christianity (despite its history) and to gospel music (despite its steady absorption into white culture). The most pointed example of this commitment is the refrain of the opening number, “That’s why he’s Jesus and you’re not, whitey.”
In one of the most remarkable moments, the now-famous musicians remark that their audiences are mostly white. Spotlights roam around the real audience in The Public’s Anspacher Theater to point out how true this is. The show presents a thorny problem—Marty has found fame by bringing black music to a larger, mostly white public, but would it be fair to accuse a musician who rose from obscurity of selling out? No. To suggest that mass culture (and the riches that go with exploiting it) should be enjoyed only by white people is the height of hypocrisy.
If you want to hear a hot band play sizzling blues and gospel music, The Total Bent is worth seeing. The story, however, has many loose ends. If only a few of these had been tied up, the show would have kept the crowd engaged in the plot, and not just tapping their toes.
THE TOTAL BENT runs through Sunday, June 26th, 2016 // Tuesday – Sunday at 7:00 p.m., Saturday matinees at 1:00 p.m. // $45 // The Public Theater // 425 Lafayette Street
David Greenspan’s new play “I’m Looking For Helen Twelvetrees” premiered on Sunday at Abron’s Arts Center. The reception after the opening was packed with New York theater insiders, including revered playwright Terrence McNally (It’s Only a Play, Lips Together Teeth Apart), playwright Lisa Kron (Well, Fun Home) and the amazing actress Jayne Houdyshell (Well).
The play, directed by Leigh Silverman, is a lyrical story of a young man’s pursuit of Helen Twelvetrees — a real-life star of the early talkies — during her run as Blanche DuBois at a summer stock theater in 1951. It stars Mr. Greenspan, Brooke Bloom and Keith Nobbs in strong performances. Mr. Greenspan plays multiple characters and travels back and forth through various time periods as he puts various pieces of Ms. Twelvetrees’ imagined life together.
Here are some photos from the reception:
Left to right: Writer/Actor David Greenspan, Brooke Bloom, Keith Nobbs and director Leigh Silverman.
Abrons Artistic Director Jay Wegman with playwright and actor David Greenspan.
Director Leigh Silverstein, actress Brooke Bloom and playwright Lisa Kron.
Photo by Richard Termine.
I wasn’t expecting a big, jolly, laugh out loud Broadway style musical when I went to see The Civilians’ new show about the porn industry, “Pretty Filthy,” at the Abrons Arts Center, but that’s exactly what I got — red curtain and all. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more human look into the “adult entertainment” industry. I can’t believe I am saying these things together, but I left having feelings for porn stars; they are real people after all — and I’m sure that was the point.
As is their usual approach, the company created the show in their singular ‘investigative theater’ style, immersing themselves in the subject matter and conducting extensive interviews and research. I wondered just how immersed they got on their trip to the Porn Capital of the World, California’s San Fernando Valley, i.e., “The Other Hollywood,” to find their cast of characters – the actors, agents, and producers who make up this industry. Let’s hope it was fun.
We meet the characters in an upbeat chorus line confessional dance number of sorts, where they reel off their chosen porno names like “Sunny Lane,” “Brown Sugar,” “Herschel Savage” (in keeping with his Jewish heritage), and a variety of takes on “Johnny Moorhead,” which elicited a lot of chuckles from the audience.
Becky (perky yet wholesome Alyse Alan Louis) is the spunky blonde ingénue from the Midwest who leads us into this world. She dreams of porn stardom and becomes “Taylor St. Ives” (after the apricot scrub — how wholesome) and sings about the hardships of earning seven bucks an hour, working weekends at Hardees. Her all-American boyfriend, Bobby, aka “Dick Everhard” (Marrick Smith), follows her into the business.
There is the veteran porn star and single mom, “Georgina Congress,” wonderfully played by Luba Mason, the hunky “Jimmy Wood” (John Behlmann) who just wants provide a great service to everyone, and the “Jew Hefner” agent with a big heart, Sam Spiegel, hilariously played by Steve Rosen.
The show, smoothly directed by The Civilians’ Steve Cosson, is not just all about laughs. Bess Wohl’s lively book and Michael Friedman’s sharp lyrics remind us that life on the other side of the 101 ain’t all sunshine and roses. The industry is struggling, no thanks to the Internet and changing tastes. We follow the characters through many porn guises as they try to stay afloat. These include gang-bang parody movies – Star Trek (my personal favorite), and Georgina’s “Porn House” reality show–one big happy family, living porn-fully together.
Georgina, whose star rose during the booming ’80s, talks about the ups and downs of life in the pornography industry and reminisces about the days when her cohorts were “The First Video Stars,” selling millions of videos for $80 a pop. Ricardo Montelban and Madonna were her neighbors. Now she is designated to the mommy ‘cougar’ roles, but takes pride none the less in her place as the “been there, done that” elder, helping to initiate the Taylor St. Ives of the future.
Maria-Christina Oliveras, playing a documentary filmmaker who couldn’t resist the temptation to make art out of porn – and get a fat paycheck doing so — tells us “These women chose to be here. When you say they are exploited it assumes they don’t like sex.”
A dose of realty sets in as we are reminded that “Pretty Filthy” is about porn, and that these are the words of real people. That is the touching part. When star couple “Oscar Gerhard” (Rosen) and “Holly Donovan” (Oliveras) address the audience, holding each other lovingly, and sing about their impending retirement to a quite little house and Holly’s new career making “applesauce,” we see the real people behind the names.
Is there life after porn someone asks? Well for Becky, now stuck in the live chat world of online porn, which is not exactly what she had in mind, her future is unknown. For the rest? Let’s hope so.
Pretty Filthy is directed by Steve Cosson with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. The book is by Bess Wohl. Through March 1, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm and 7pm. $55 at Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street.
Robin Schatell has lived in the Lower East Side for ten years, and has worked in the arts for over 20 years, developing innovative programs and events from concept to production, and presenting adventurous new work by emerging and established artists.
Jessica Almasy, Erin Markey, and Kristine Haruna Lee in “War Lesbian.” Photo Credit: Sasha Aleksandra Arutyunova
It took almost an hour to see any war in the harunalee company’s new musical, War Lesbians, at Dixon Place last Friday night. And by that time, I wasn’t sure what the battle was for. Our heroine, Sedna (Erin Markey), born out of a ‘thought’ of her mother, Womb (Jessica Almasy), yearns to break out of the ‘hole’ she is in, so to speak, and when she does get out, finds herself, well, miserable in the real world.
After losing her fingers to her bear of a father Mitch (Derek Smith) — this was no virginal birth — who chops them off when he expels her from her womb-ly home after he discovers that the son he thought he had is a girl, our heroine sets out on a Wizard of Oz like journey to find her place in the world. The story, written by Kristing Haruna Lee with music by Katie Hathaway, is based on an Inuit myth about a woman who is rejected from her family for being different and embarks on a journey, creating wars with others and within herself.
Along the way we meet a funny cast of characters that include a guitar strumming Moon God, Tatqim (Andrew R. Butler), and a cynical Beached Whale (Amir Wachterman) who act as Sedna’s guides, as she, battles with her demons — while wearing boxer-like bandages over her fingerless hands. Her fingers become squirmy pet seals who follow her around, getting into trouble if they are not walked daily. The Lesbian comes in the form of empathetic girlfriend, Qualertetang (Cyndi Perczek), who likes Sedna just the way she is—digitless hands and all.
The whole show is presided over by Ellen. Yes, that Ellen, portrayed energetically by Kristine Haruna Lee. The original music by Kathryn Hathaway performed live by a trio of musicians ( Julie Pacheco, Sophia Sun and David Su) and accompanied by a Greek chorus of Beautiful Hand Maidens (Stephanie A. Hsu & Preston Martin) adds a nice, eerily melodic soundtrack to Sedna’s life. And our heroine? Does she win her war? Let’s just say…there is no place like womb.
Presented by Dixon Place. (161A Chrystie St.) Featuring Erin Markey, Director Jordon Fein, Playwright Kristine Haruna Lee and Composer Katie Hathaway. Fridays and Saturdays through December 20th at 7:30PM, December 20th also at 10:00PM. Tickets are $16 in advance, $18 at the door, and $12 for seniors and students. Tickets can be purchased by visiting www.dixonplace.org.
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.
The New York International Fringe Fest (FringeNYC) kicks off their 17th season tomorrow. The legendary theater fest that turned in to one of the largest multi-arts events in North America offers a lineup includes more than 200 companies from all over the world performing for 16 days in more than 20 venues.
Tom Murrin Blue Glitter Dress. Photo: Jim Moore
If you recall, I wrote about the untimely passing of Tom Murrin, aka the Alien Comic, here on The Lo-down last March. Thankfully, his spirit lives on (not that it’s been forgotten) in PS 122’s Avant-Garde-Arama: New Moon tribute at Abrons Arts Center this weekend.
Tom was ‘avant-garde’ way before PS 122 popularized the phrase in its long running variety show. He was a first generation La MaMa playwright in the ’60s, penning plays with titles like “Cockstrong” and “Butt Crack Bingo.” In the ’70s and early ’80s he performed as “Tom ‘Trash’ Murrin” (often on the street for unsuspecting passers-by). Props were his thing—Tom could animate any object — hence the “trash” moniker. From this, the Alien Comic was born and soon Tom was performing his hilarious antics around town, including at many long lost East Village rock clubs and venues such as CBGBs, Max’s Kansas City, 8BC, and King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut. Ah, the good old days when a night out meant more than just a fancy meal and specialty cocktail.
The Perils of Obedience at Abrons Art Center.
The Lower East Side has long been a breeding ground for hopeful artists and dreamers. Now, Itziar Barrio’s The Perils of Obedience, at Abrons Art Center this past weekend, brilliantly harnessed that drive and made it into a fascinating performance. Following an open call held at the Henry Street Settlement, selected actors auditioned for four days with theater director Nigel Smith. The surviving seven actors performed their last two days of callbacks in front of a live audience. The entire process was recorded and will be included in a resulting video piece, in which the final four actors will also star.
Mike Daisey courtesy mikedaisey.blogspot.com
If you can make it to Joe’s Pub tonight, it will be worth the last minute trip. Mike Daisey is bringing his latest work to the intimate space, and it is the perfect setting to watch this masterful raconteur perform his monologues.
Tonight Daisey takes us through his unforgettable five-city tour of India in Five Technical Rehearsals in India. Leave it to Daisey to turn his experience living through five disastrous technical rehearsals in five different theaters across India, plus his journeys through the slums of Calcutta, India’s high-tech call centers, and Bollywood prop shops and curry houses, and time spent dealing with the political machinery of the American consulate into a story about the “illusion and enduring power of theatrical performance.”
Nancy Giles. Photo by Jim Moore.
February starts off with a theatrical bang this weekend as not one, but two shows will have their world premieres on downtown stages.
The first is Nancy Giles’ autobiographical show, The Further Adventures Of The Accidental Pundette, at Dixon Place. You might recognize Ms. Giles from her appearances on CBS News Sunday Morning where she has voiced her opinions on everything from politics and pop culture to the conspiracy of high heels for the past ten years (she was also part of the ensemble cast of the critically acclaimed TV series China Beach). But that is just her day job. Ms. Giles has been a downtown theater fixture for years, honing her craft at Dixon Place and other experimental spaces.
86 year old Judith Malina and the Living Theatre will be moving out of their home on Clinton Street next month, but not before putting on one last show for us. Their latest production, Here We Are opens tonight and will run through February. It promises to stay true to the spirit of non-violent, anarchist/experimental theater they have been producing for over sixty years.
In the show, the international (and multi-generational) company “visits the Anarchist collectives of France, Spain and The Ukraine for the 19th and 20th centuries, and finds (them)selves transported to an immersive and participatory underground outdoor/indoor crossroads of our present moment. The ensemble and the audience work together to manufacture and perform the potential creative possibilities for a post revolutionary world of beauty and non violence.”
Body Cartography Project with Zeena Parkins will premier at this year’s American Realness Festival. Photo by Gene Pittman.
2013 is off to an incredible “art start” here on the L.E.S. with three theater festivals kicking off this week. A few blocks north, The Public Theater’s annual Under The Radar Festival (UTR), now in its ninth year, opens on Wednesday and runs through January 20th. UTR is known for its mostly international lineup of new and experimental work by ensembles, solo artists and independent writers. If you want a crash course in exciting independent theater, The Public is the place to be this week. A highlight for me is the return of the remarkable Belarus Free Theatre, a radical human rights based company devoted to resistance of the current Belarus political regime.
Pascal Rambert – photo via Abrons Arts Center.
The French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF)’s Crossing the Line 2012 festival continues this week at Abrons Arts Center with the English Language premiere of Pascal Rambert‘s Love’s End, a story of a couple facing a broken relationship. The couple in question, portrayed by Kate Moran and Obie Winner Jim Fletcher, sit in a bare room, and through separate monologues and physical movement, revisit the unraveling of the relationship. Rambert’s script has been tailored specifically for these two performers.
The Residents - From "Sam's Enchanted Evening"
We spoke with Abrons Arts Center’s Artistic Director, Jay Wegman, as he was preparing to announce his 2012 Spring Season. We discussed some of the upcoming shows and what he would like to see for Abrons in the future. Wegman has been producing some very cutting edge performances over the last few years. In 2009, The New York Times noted that Abrons “is gaining a reputation as one of the last standing locations for avant garde performance downtown.”
TLD – Tell us what you’re excited about this season.
JW – Well the spring kicks off with John Cage – who used to be a music teacher here – and it’s the 100th anniversary of his birthday so Alarm Will Sound is coming. They are based in Chicago – and Carnegie Hall is bringing them here as part of their American Maverick Series, as well as the Jack Quartet – so those are two free events for the community.
The 15th Annual New York International Fringe Festival is under way and has happily taken over many Lower East Side venues for the next two weeks. The festival touts more than 200 companies from all over the world performing for 16 days in more than 20 venues. From edgy solo shows to avant-garde musicals to fun performances for the kids, there’s something to be found for everyone.
We are glad to see programming back at the Clemente Soto Velez Center, utilizing four of their theater spaces – Teatro SEA, Teatro LATEA, CSV Flamboyan and the CSV Kabayitos. Other LES venues include Dixon Place, The Living Theater and the Bowery Poetry Club.