In the role of Chief, actor Lakpa Bhutia readies himself, then intones a rhythmic chant of “Heya, heya owa”—a nearly objectional burlesque of an Indian cry, like an outtake from Peter Pan. It’s a charming and peculiar beginning to a charming and peculiar endeavor: a CD entitled Showtunes Sung by the Original Artists, a collection of songs from plays by Downtown theater fave Richard Maxwell.
Maxwell, a writer and director who’s won acclaim for plays such as House, Cowboys and Indians, and Showy Lady Slipper, didn’t conceive of the CD himself. The disc gestated in the mind of his longtime collaborator Gary Wilmes. Wilmes has known Maxwell since junior high choir in Park Ridge, Illinois, where the two broke into public buildings together, organized strikes at the hot-dog stand, and fell in love with the bewitching Walsh sisters. Wilmes, currently starring in Richard Foreman’s Bad Boy Nietzsche!, has since acted—and sung—in most of Maxwell’s works: he’s best-remembered as the father in House. There, in a track included on the CD, he sang a soft-metal ballad to his son about the pleasures of an entertainment complex: “I saw Whitesnake play with Motörhead/Saw Kenny Rogers play with Sawyer Brown.”
Wilmes, who went into debt to produce the CD, imagined this love’s labor as both an archive of Maxwell’s ouevre and a chance to have some fun in a real recording studio. Wilmes rounded up the actors who had created the various roles, while Maxwell and musician Scott Sheratt supervised the orchestration—if a guitar and a drum machine can be construed as orchestration.
Though Maxwell contends that his songs suffer when taken out of context—”They’re melodic and tonal and pretty straightforward and they work best in the shows”—this oddball project succeeds. Yes, the instrumentation is minimal and the singing often mediocre or worse, but the songs have a strange appeal.
Maxwell and company have recently been in the studio recording a second volume, which will feature ditties from recent pieces such as The Boxing Play and The Caveman Play and the earlier endeavor Burger King. The first volume, meanwhile, can be purchased at Maxwell’s shows or by contacting Wilmes at firstname.lastname@example.org. —Alexis Soloski
All Hoppered Up
So New York can be a lonely place. This is no revelation. For all its people, all its action and opportunity, still its 8 million inhabitants are in eternal search of a dream—love.
Urban isolation is the theme of Lynn Rosen’s Nighthawks (Blue Heron Theater), a comedy inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper—a potentially original idea that Rosen has failed to make bloom. We can snigger at the irony of the New York fantasy every night on Seinfeld and laugh at the underlying neuroses on Friends. Unfortunately, Rosen’s characterizations and humor (one man mistakes a drunken actress for his mother and the crowd is supposed to laugh) breathe no more life into these ideas—the way theater, over television, should do.
Four scenarios are strung together by one lonely Lilah (Angela Nevard), waiting for love on her apartment stoop, but only spiralling downwards into the routine of this monster city—”yellow leaf, brown leaf,” she repeats to herself, in a self-conscious stream of urban images and lonesome cravings. In the three intertwining scenes, ordinary people look into and out of windows, day in, day out, romanticizing other ordinary people’s lives and making big deals out of little details.
Director Miriam Weiner casts a group of lively and competent actors but is unable to rescue the script from its mediocre self. The only saving grace is a background of city noise and a successfully evocative set—as Hopper’s masterpieces, the audience looks into sunlit spaces, refreshing in impression but haunted by the lonely souls who, amidst the pastel surroundings, bring a disquieting effect of solitude. This play, failing in its humor, is actually quite depressing. —Emma Pearse
Take My Wife . . . Peas!
When Georg Büchner died in 1837, he left Woyzeck famously unfinished—the need to assemble its pieces is a big reason why the play is so attractive to directors, especially the postmodern type. (That it’s kinda brilliant doesn’t hurt either.) The story of an increasingly disoriented soldier whose internal and external demons lead him to kill his wife, Woyzeck is a tale of delirium, a dream play perhaps influenced by Büchner’s fatal typhus.
The Axis Theater’s stage is a wide, molded sea of dirt (contrasting strongly with the lobby’s space-station gleam). The production begins with a film of Büchner’s final days—his death and the discovery of his manuscripts by his brother. The movie ends, and in a wonderful coup de théâtre, Woyzeck bursts up out of the earth, a man from the grave.
Director Randy Sharp takes a generally comic view of the play—part of what makes Woyzeck such genius is that it can support almost any interpretation along the tragedy-comedy spectrum. The actors are all dressed in white, setting them off against the murk of Kyle Chepulis’s stage. But while the production is visually appealing and ably performed, it fails to create the emotional claustrophobia necessary to explain Woyzeck’s degeneration and violence—you see it, but you just don’t feel it. Perhaps the show would have benefited from more actors like Sue Ann Molinell—her awkwardness as a performer creates the kind of unbalanced tone the play needs. Her version of the Grandmother’s speech about an orphan child wandering the pitiless Universe is perhaps the finest, most Beckettian moment I’ve seen on stage all year. —Brian Parks