Ice Factory '07
nytheatre.com review by Various reviewers
July 5, 2007
One might think that a play titled Vampire University would consist of nothing more than camp excess and B-movie Boos. In fact, the biggest surprise in this Ice Factory Festival presentation is that it actually has bite in its fangs—even if they are eventually revealed to be plastic.
A description of the plot reads like an '80s late night shocker like Fright Night or The Monster Squad. A dysfunctional clan of vampires from Romania move to America and settle near a Christian University. The Patriarch, Sposito, is shy and afraid of people and rarely leaves his mausoleum. To keep himself alive he injects himself in the neck with the blood of recently deceased humans. His estranged son, who has chosen a career as a doctor, acts as his dealer and brings him suitcases filled with blood. Matriarch Noelle is a type-A vampire: efficient and very effective at her job. But she has grown to resent her husband's weakness. Daughter Lydia is still in college and has been for over 400 years. Unwilling to settle on a major, she lumbers in academic limbo.
The proximity to a Christian University provides the vampires with a potentially inexhaustible source of nourishment. As the vampires make their way through the student body and faculty they begin to change—the reasons are never made clear—and develop human characteristics. An exchange of values between the Christians and the pagan monsters begins to occur. Of course mayhem—much bloodletting, crucifixions, mistaken personalities, and sex—ensues.
John Kaplan's ambitious but unfocused script departs from the tradition of vampire literature. The old tales played out the theme of modern revolution by dramatizing the death and overthrow of the aristocracy. Kaplan's Vampires exist in a post-Anne Rice universe in which we are invited to identify with the killers by seeing them as worldly, cultivated, European, and sophisticated. It is no accident that many of the scenes, especially between Sposito and Noelle, take their cues from the work of Noel Coward. Kaplan has much to say about faith and hypocrisy, about freedom and tyranny (both spiritual and physical), immigration, capitalism, assimilation, the nature of family, and the search for divinity. The ideas are rich but their potential to illuminate remains hidden in a diffuse and tonally confused production.
All of the actors do fine work. As the heads of the clan, Michael Frederic and Tamara Scott, do excellent comic work. Their scenes are fun and they handle the double entendres and groan-inducing puns with great skill, but they are never believable as killers. Their warmth as performers undermines the early domestic scenes where the monstrous and the banal have to be carefully balanced. As the estranged son, Tom, Mark Boyett deadpans to hilarious and chilling effect. And Ashley L. Goehring plays the potentially insufferable character of Lydia with great dignity and flair.
Director Desmond Mosley has not found the proper tone for the piece. The threat of the vampires is never fully developed; what should come off as chilling turns to comedy of the broadest type. And what should be hilarious is thrown away and wooden. He seems most at ease with living room drama—a family confrontation at the top of Act 2 sparkles with wit and tension, alas it is the only sequence in the show that carries such weight and finds the balance needed to make us care about these characters.
The play ends on a meta-theatrical note that actually manages to be both hilarious and pretty scary. But it only serves to remind us of what a more focused production could have achieved.
Rindfleisch, a Brooklyn-based modern dance ensemble, brings an hour-long dance piece to Soho Think Tank's Ice Factory '07 festival. 80% of Love, a vibrant performance about love and longing, incorporates a cadre of lithe dancers, a rock trio, snippets of text, and vocal stylings from three opera singers. It is based on Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami.
In an era when novelizations of CGI-laden blockbusters based on cheesy cartoons pass for acceptable subway reading, it is a relief to experience the evening of pure artistic protein that is 80% of Love. This brainchild of choreographer Elke Rindfleisch, musician Chris Woltmann, and playwright Joseph Gallo offers a visceral meditation on the many passions, convolutions, and sicknesses of love. The harmonious and discordant physical riffs of dancers Evan Copeland, Jean Freebury, Sarah Weber Gallo, James Graber, Elke Rindfleisch, and Michelle Vargo express an emotional vocabulary, frequently mirroring and counterpointing motifs, which leaves you equally drained and exhilarated.
When combined with the exceptional musicianship of The Czar Bomba, a trio that fuses prog rock, jazz, and surf guitar, and the eerie tonal incantations of Collective Opera Company, this dance soap opera/symbolist dream play boasts a virtuosity seldom seen. This composition is consistently performed with controlled abandon and will astonish you at every turn.
Special kudos to Rindfleisch's set and costume design and to Severn Clay's lighting. Internal and external environments are conjured subtly and effectively. See this piece before it goes away. The music is good enough to be on a regular rotation on your iPod. The dancing is a clarification of the unspeakable mess that love creates.
Finally, a toast to Rindfleisch's artistic resilience. Anyone who can survive Graham-derivative teachers calling her a fat cow (and she is anything but), create a company with enormous passion, and put a cow logo on the company's shirts, deserves respect.
One day, however, Johnny runs into the Beetles: Mr. Beetle, his wife Beulah, and their 11-year old daughter, Patience. He gets them and their neighbors drunk, dances wildly with them in celebration and, rather unexpectedly, falls in love with Patience. Their primary love scene—cleverly written, staged, and acted by Rachel Shukert, Stephen Brackett, and Frank Boyd and Audrey Lynn Weston respectively—culminates in an Edenic bite of an apple and their subsequent expulsion from the Valley.
Part of the play also takes place in the late 1940s where Walt Disney works through a serious conundrum: he cannot find an effective way of displaying the spirit of America in the newly conceived Pioneerland being constructed for his theme park. After discussing the matter with Nazi Doctor, an assistant with some interesting ideas about World War II, they decide to take a Mickey Mouse Hat shaped time machine back to the Ohio River Valley to conduct the necessary research. One of my favorite moments in the show came when, upon arrival, Walt pops his head up from between the ears of the time machine and announces with a smile, "Hi! I'm Walt Disney!" whereupon the townsfolk run away screaming. Given Disney's tendency to prettify fables and fairy tales, I found this a reasonable response.
And did I mention the first third of the play is a musical narrated by a raccoon and his band of merry forest denizens?
There's a lot happening in Johnny Applef?%ker and most of it is crazy, intelligent fun. The rest of the play follows Johnny and Patience's expulsion from the frontier and their journey to the Magic Kingdom, which challenges both Johnny's integrity as well as his legacy. Shukert's script throws a lot of ideas into the pot, some of which never quite develop, but she does a great job of highlighting the clash between past and present while recognizing that America's need to reinterpret and bottle the spirit of its past may have serious consequences on the country's future as well as its soul.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with special mention to Peter Cook's versatility, Audrey Lynn Weston's subtlety, and Van Hasis's cross-dressing. Sarah Pearline's set seems like something out of a Disney cartoon but with subtler edges and earthier undertones. Anjeanette Stokes's lighting does an excellent job of defining the various spaces and eras while imbuing the more abstract moments with meaning and clarity. And The Animal Band plays too well to leave so early. Please bring them back. Please.
If, as has been said, theatre holds up a mirror to nature, what happens if nobody bothers to look at the reflection? Kirk Wood Bromley's dark comedy No More Pretending is about the compact between artist and spectator: an uncompromising look at compromise. It asks what theatre is for and why its creators create it. It rails against indie ideals and commercial selloutism; it's at once a celebration of the impulse to make art and a cautionary allegory about the side effects of giving in to said impulse.
It takes place in a theatre, into which one-time indie theater star Alan Benditt has apparently wandered for a few moments of contemplation. He is surprised by his former colleague Matt Oberg, who hops onto the stage like a bunny (Bugs by way of Energizer) and lopes directly into seemingly nonstop patter about his enormous thespic success in film. Mobad, as he styles himself, talks in weird proto-hip-hop jive, and reminisces with Al about "the shit we used to do" in between cell phone calls from an assortment of players. The climactic call is from Al Casino, the famous temperamental movie star who, Mobad says, is a pal and associate (substitute a "P" for the "C" and you'll know who he's talking about).
Through it all, Al is at once appalled, enraged, and envious. He's a guy who did hundreds of plays for no pay and less recognition; he's left the business and now works in a bank. Mobad, 20 years younger, seems to have made it and to have it made. When Mobad tells him Al Casino wants to audition him over the phone, principles fly out the window; Al is ready to sell his artistic soul for a crappy movie part.
And then No More Pretending executes a very transparently deus-ex-machina maneuver as Meg MacCary appears, seemingly out of nowhere, to remind both Al and Matt of the reasons they do what they do (or, more accurately, why they did "the shit they used to do"). The arguments are never quite 100% convincing (and Al is never quite 100% convinced); I choose to view that as an artistic choice by the playwright rather than either cynicism or hedging on his part.
No More Pretending is not just throught-provoking; it's very funny and very entertaining, thanks in no small part to the excellent work of its three actors, all of whom portray characters bearing their exact names. The play is particularly a showcase for Oberg, who gets to be serious and to clown effusively; his Pacino impression alone is pretty much a riot. But Benditt and MacCary acquit themselves beautifully, too, as will not be a surprise to Bromley/downtown theatre fans. It all plays out smoothly under Howard Thoresen's careful, considered direction. And of course the language is what we should now start calling Bromleyesque: no one else writing today makes words sing, soar, pun, and puncture they way this playwright can.
It is, all in all, a propitious beginning to Soho Think Tank's Ice Factory 2007, and a harbinger, perhaps, of new shadings and attitudes from Bromley and his Inverse Theater Company.