Friday, October 19, 2007

Theater Reviews: SLAMMER / The Shadowbox

Every once in a while, I get to see some good theater, which is all the more special when a friend is involved.

SLAMMER: A New Women-in-Prison Musical, New York Fringe Festival, Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, September 2007
Previously, I had never attended the New York Fringe Festival. For those who don’t know, it’s the chance for independent playwrights to have a forum to get their works staged and noticed. My interest was definitely piqued when I had learned that “SLAMMER”, was one of the entrants.

While I haven’t met co-author Chan Chandler, the other half of the co-, Steve Adams, has been a good friend for over a decade. Hey, I even had the pleasure of reading a very early draft.

At the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, part of the NYU complex, I waited on line next to a couple of theater “critics” who were, at best, obnoxious, saying things like, “They BETTER have my tickets ready,” and sighing “This is the X Fringe show I’ve seen, and I STILL have to see X more.” Generally they were loud (“Look at me, I’m privileged.”) and abhorrent. I’ve been a performance reviewer for years, and have always taken it with graditude, acknowledging the graciousness of a free entrance. But I digress…

It was a Monday in September, opening night for the show. The theater was surprisingly large, with a good crowd; the stage was filled with bunk beds and moveable “bars”, on which held the “SLAMMER” logo on a banner.

Considering they had about two weeks to mount the play, the stage setting looked sparse, and very professional. As it was basically set in a women’s prison, a sparse set was intended and appropriate.

The initial set up of Tabitha (Merrill Grant), the main character, being wrongly sent to prison is summarily set during the early moments, so the action can get started. From this point, the play is like a sandwich; on one side, there is a vicious warden, a rapacious guard, and various levels of prisoner tension, and the other is the corporation and sponsorship of the privatized prison, and Tabitha is the fresh meat between.

Now, women-in-prison is a sub-genre of exploitation films popular in the ‘60s (e.g., “The Big Bird Cage”, “Terminal Island”, “Red Head”, “Reform School Girls”), and anyone familiar with the style knows that there are going to be fights, death, lesbians, and shower scenes. Yes, SLAMMER Has them all, though the shower scene is more implied than gratuitous.

From the start, we’re introduced to the key players, such as the uncaring, hard-nosed and sexually ambiguously warden, Eva Danka (Lannyl Stephens) and avaricious guard, Smiley the Screw (Saverio Guerra, aka Bob, lately of the TV show “Becker”). Then there is the protective Reverend Mama (the excellent Sandra Reaves-Phillips), her helper/protégé Caramel (Tammi Cubiette) who plays tough but with a heart-o-gold while doing what she can to survive, rival Cat (Tess Paras, who I’m guessing has some serious dance training), and lovers Tina (Courtney Wissinger) and Spike (Ariela Morgenstern). Of course, it will take newbie fish Tabitha to bring them all to the same side.

I know Steve and Chan have been writing for years, both together and individually, but musicals are something that is somewhat unfamiliar territory. However, one would never know that listening to the memorable tunes played here, such as “I Refuse to Live Without Love”, the powerful “What Country Is This?” (which could be a powerhouse with the right singer), “Different on the Inside”, and especially Reverend Mama’s moment to shine: “Along the Road,” which is a solid gospel raver.

Reverend Mama’s Sandra Reaves-Phillips is a gem, and a real coup for this production. She has a long history of performing at the likes of the Cotton Club, the Supper Club, the Village Gate, and other highly touted venues. Courtney Wissinger and Ariela Morgenstern are also standouts as inmates who start out being scary, but end up being a touching and heartbreaking focal point.

I’m not going to go deeply into the story because it is such sheer fun (and at times scary) so I am hoping the play gets into a regular theater run (perfect for Off-Broadway) once it is out of workshop mode.

* * *

The Shadowbox, Matthew Corozine Theatre, October 2007
Not too many years ago, my friend Joe, a Boston-based music publicist, sent me a CD of chanteuse/Broadway-flavored songs by actress Ingrid Saxon. I wrote a favorable review of it, and somehow, we ended up seeing Lesley Gore at Joe’s Pub together (my photos of the show: Recently, I saw on her MySpace page ( that she was going to be appearing Off-Off- in Michael Cristofer’s “The Shadowbox” at the Michael Corozine Theatre, on 8 Avenue and 43rd Street, NYC. An invite soon followed.

In a nutshell, the play takes place in a hospice on the West Coast, with three concurrent stories that take place in three cottages in 1977. Interestingly, the cause of dying is never discussed.

In one story, Maggie (Ingrid Saxon) is a wife who comes to visit her dying husband, Joe (Jacob Mirer). She is in denial, and refuses to enter the cottage because it would mean acceptance. Ingrid give a sensitive, strong and textured performance, howling against the darkness, sometimes literally, in contrast to Joe, who has an almost meditative quiet, though Mirer aptly conveys a fear and anger beneath the surface. They both play their roles as a dance between trying to maintain normalcy and what is lurking. JD Brookshire plays their young, guitar-playing son.

A second story concerns Brian (Lee Barton), his lover Mark (Ryan Link) and his high-strung/-maintenance party-girl ex-wife, Beverly (Robyn Kay Pilarski). Brian is close to both, but Mark and Beverly because, in their own way, they both love the dying Brian. And you know that there is going to be an explosion, and then some understanding between Mark & Bev, with some respect growing in the process. Barton plays the emotionally frail artist type with assurance, bouncing back and forth between trying to accommodate the two most important people in his life, and his own egocentricity. Link plays ex-hustler Mark as smoldering, torn between his distaste/jealously of Bev and his own feelings toward Brian. His slow emotional breakdown is played well with great restraint. Equally, Pilarski could easily let her character turn to caricature, but she admirably makes Bev into a sympathetic full-flushed person. Her training in comedy gives an additional inflection.

The final story focuses on a semi-senile elderly woman, Felicity (Heidi Zenz) and her overburdened caretaker daughter, Agnes (Jillian Prefach), who is pretty much ignored by her mom, who is waiting for a visit from her prodigal daughter. Zenz doesn’t have much to do in the play other than call out for her other child, but Zenz does convey hope and fear mostly through her eyes, thereby giving more substance and depth to her role. At first, the role of Agnes is subdued, much as is her character, but as the play progresses, her part becomes one of the strongest, including a powerful centerpiece monologue that Prefach absolutely nails.

The lynchpin to the three stories is an interviewer/therapist (David Lipman, who is also known as the arraignment judge on “Law and Order” – Ta-DEM), who at various times talks to the various characters. All of this is from the back of the theater, but his presence is also strong to the events.

Showcases can be iffy as actors try (and sometimes over-try) to impress, but none of that happened here, as every single member of the large cast in the small, cramped – yet intimate – theater was in top form. Much credit for this should be given to the director, Matthew Corozine (who employs the Meisner Technique, FYI) for getting such strong work out of his group, ably helped by AD Mark J. Paynter.

After the show, I stayed around to congratulate Ingrid for her fine performance, and had the opportunity to say hello to a number of the actors, including Ryan Link. He gave me a CD of his band, Kill the Camera, which will be reviewed at another time. Also Jacob Mirer and director Mathew Corozine were quite generous with their time and were gracious with their company.

Now, let’s see this play make it from Off-Off- to Off-.

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