Theater

People Are Wrong!
By the Loser's Lounge
P.S.122
150 First Avenue
212-477-5288
Through March 30

Julia Greenberg and Robin Goldwasser have never before written a musical, separately or in concert. Yet there is little unassured about their debut, a flowery tale of an alien cum cult leader cum landscape designer—the authors seem to the manure born.

People Are Wrong! dishes the dirt on a pair of city swells (Greenberg and They Might Be Giants's John Flansburgh) who purchase a lush spread in the Catskills. Their taunt: "We can't hear your car alarms/From our renovated farm!" But before they can enjoy their posh weekends and celebrate their nuptials, their garden must be groomed. So on the advice of the local staff at Agway, they hire Xanthus (David Driver). While Xanthus has an undisputed verve for vegetation, the Agway staff is in thrall to him for his New Age prowess—he has cured them of crack whoredom, morbid obesity, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Complications ensue when Xanthus discovers he hails from the sixth dimension and converts the homeowners' lot into a timber-based spaceship and launch pad.

People Are Wrong!: Julia Greenberg and John Flansburgh (of They Might Be Giants)
Dona Ann McAdams
People Are Wrong!: Julia Greenberg and John Flansburgh (of They Might Be Giants)

Silly stuff to be sure, and the play bears the insouciant earmarks of its origins in the Loser's Lounge—an occasional cabaret show paying eccentric tribute to established songwriters. Happily, the cast and creative team seem well aware of the absurd and occasionally cloying nature of their material, approaching it with enthusiasm and affection. Director David Herskovits certainly deserves some credit for this, crafting a brisk, casual, and likable production. (Pop quiz: How can you tell it's a Herskovits show? Because even the stage manager gets in on the singing.) Standout performances include Goldwasser as crafty Agway manager Joyce and Driver's hippie gone haywire. The Loser's Lounge backup singers as the Agway employees provide a joyful noise. Equally joyful is Louisa Thompson's clever and cordial set—a topiary backdrop enlivened with towers of Miracle-Gro and pyramids of garden tools. With such playfulness in evidence, the show deserves a pleasantly lawn run. People may be wrong, but the piece feels quite right. Alexis Soloski


YokastaS
By Richard Schechner and East Coast Artists
La Mama
74A East 4th Street
212-475-7710
Through April 6

Director Richard Schechner is never satisfied with one version of a story. A few years back, he and his company, East Coast Artists, staged Chekhov's Three Sisters in four different time periods, one for each act. In YokastaS, his latest deconstruction of classical source material, he's drafted four actresses to fill the role of Oedipus' unfortunate queen. Kilbane Porter plays Yoyo, the preteen Yokasta, who believes her fate can be avoided. Suzi Takahashi is Yoko, the unhappy, vindictive bride of lame old King Laius. Yono, the blissful, pre-plague wife of Oedipus, is created by Rachel Bowditch. Finally, Tracey Huffman embodies a sort of backward glancing, all-knowing composite queen.

It's Schechner's belief that Yokasta (to use the production's spelling) is an unfairly neglected figure in Greek tragedy. He has no affection for "those rats, Sophocles and Seneca," who confine her to a series of hand-wringing entrances and exits. To make his case, Schechner plunks her down alongside Medea and Phaedra as part of a lurid show titled "History's Baddest Mamas." It's a funny bit, but Yokasta's reputation only suffers in comparison to those willful child-killers. You can't shake the feeling that Medea's right when she says, "Nobody wrote a play for you. You don't count." Yokasta, for all her tortured track record with husbands, is not an instigator, but a pawn acting out the prophecy of an oracle; she's probably gotten all the stage time she deserves.

This realization, reached fairly early, erases the urgency behind Schechner's theatrical exploration. Still, the exercise (and that's the right word for the piece) remains frequently diverting. Particularly effective are the various Yokastas' encounters with the modern media. These are greatly buoyed by Christopher Logan Healy's delectably earnest and smarmy interlocutor. (Healy, ironically the strongest member of the cast, does nearly as well with Lauis and Oedipus). A hilarious and perfectly paced interview of Bowditch, who makes the "good years" Yokasta a slickly veneered but prickly model housewife, is the highlight of the evening. Also entertaining are some tongue-in-cheek musical moments that find Oedipus' ladies singing songs from West Side Story ("I Feel Pretty") and Chess ("I Know Him So Well"). An encounter between Schechner and ABBA is funny on its own terms.

But these are essentially comic riffs, and don't say anything profound about the subject, which, I imagine, had to have been Schechner's intention. When the director and cast do try to get serious, YokastaS turns deadly. The language takes on that stately and meaningful tone that detractors of avant-garde theater so associate with the genre (along with overtly clever punctuation). At those moments, you begin to wonder what Sophocles or Oedipus might be up to on some other stage in town. Robert Simonson


Empress of China
By Ruth Wolff
West End Theatre
263 West 86th Street
212-479-4200
Through April 13

Only one imagined character springs up among the well-documented historical personages in Ruth Wolff's Empress of China. A good thing. Without Shen Tai the Actor, this Pan Asian Rep production would lumber by at the pace of a coronation procession—with the same level of suspense.

Wolff sets us down in the court of the Dowager Empress Tzu-hsi in 1898. Walled off in the Forbidden City from famine, local unrest, and foreign invaders, the formidable Tzu-hsi fiercely resists change. A former concubine who rose to the throne through stratagems wily and bloody, she now rules through her weak nephew, the Emperor. A timid fellow incapable of impregnating either his detested wife or his adored concubine, he fears and obeys his aunt. Shen Tai shows up in the Empress's prison to answer for the "crime" of impersonating her on stage. She toys with him sadistically, then uses him as a spy and tool. Their dance of power mirrors that of the Empress and the segment of her society that will rise up violently in the Boxer Rebellion.

Didacticism and clunky exposition abound as courtiers debate politics. "We invented gunpowder," one adviser, for example, instructs the jejune ruler. The title character's lengthy monologues also impart great chucks of information. Apart from some atmospheric visual effects, Tisa Chang's direction only rarely escapes the piece's static quality. Characters harangue in place, gesturing stagily.

Actress Tina Chen's monomaniacal ruler can, however, be fun. By turns arbitrary and vengeful, knowing and witty, she laughs villainously. The first time her venom explodes, she feels like a force. But by her third tantrum, the exercise seems automatic. Struggling with unwieldy dialogue, the performers generally acquit themselves as well as they can. Arthur T. Acuna stands out as Shen Tai. We see him first writhing in a cage, a distorted welter of limbs in shadow. When he cleverly mimics the Empress and others, this supple player brings the stage to life. Shen Tai alone changes over course of the drama. As the Empress weaves her plots, we see him waver in his loyalties, then emerge as her spiritual and, in one striking scene, her visual double. Dressed in an identical kimono, flinging his long hair like hers, he presents a complex and intriguing picture. Here, Empress of China begins to play with the idea of illusion versus reality, and briefly aspires to become more than a dramatized historical record. Alas, only briefly. —Francine Russo

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