When the Whip Comes Down
As the peep-show marquee twinkles its lights and the band launches into a jaunty tune (sounding like the Squirrel Nut Zippers on a fortified-wine toot), the cast of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus: Down & Out in NYC rush the Theatorium stage. Hookers strut, tourists shoot, businessmen scuttle, and bums bumble. Then a mean, nasty mayor storms out and shuts it all down—or tries to. But no! “You can’t stop the circus!” cry the revelers. Well, probably you can. But it’s lovely to note that, after six years, the Bindlestiffs and their anarcho-porno entertainments march proudly on.
Philomena Bindlestiff plays ringmistress. Though her patter could use a rewrite and her singing voice never soars above the adequate, it hardly matters. Philomena can bump, grind, and generally sex her way through any number of introductions—as well as her star turns with a pair of torches, a bullwhip, and an unlubricated condom. Ever magnanimous, we’ve even decided to forgive her for the wig of hot-pink ’80s metal hair and matching jumpsuit. Her partner in circus, Mr. Pennygaff, portrays a skid-row clown, busts out of straitjackets, swallows startling lengths of steel, and assists in the erotic fireplay.
Occasionally the two stars clear the stage, leaving room for simplistic social commentary (police: bad; circus: good) and variety acts. Unlike other low-rent circuses, the Bindlestiffs often abandon politics to lend stage time to highly skilled performers. Trick roping by Angelo Iodice and aerialism by Nick Kever prove particularly impressive. While we can’t say exactly why, we could watch Amy Gordon strum her ukulele and Baby Dee sing Shirley Temple songs all the day long. And we can’t stop dreaming of the Bindlestiffs’ adorably (and purposefully) incompetent magician, Magic Brian. As Philomena sings in her introduction, “He’s magic. He’s Brian.” Would he were ours. —Alexis Soloski
She’s With the Band
Sometimes less really is more. Take one actor, a bare stage, and a wooden chair—hardly a recipe for theatrical magic. Despite these constraints, See Bob Run (Red Room) is mesmerizing, thanks to the riveting presence of Susan O’Connor. As the teenage hitchhiker Bob (short for Roberta), O’Connor chats compulsively to a string of unseen drivers. By turns she’s chirpy, plaintive, and psycho—no wonder she gets kicked out every time. For variety, playwright Daniel MacIvor intersperses segments in which Bob stands before us, like a witness in the box, confessing her secrets: graveyard games of “who falls dead the best”; bingeing on doughnuts with her best friend, Tamara; hiding from the “big, weird animal” who lived in the closet and made her touch its “happy handle” when she was little.
It’s the last item, of course, that lies at the dark heart of the piece, yet MacIvor sketches the familiar story of child molestation in deft chiaroscuro, alternating between the diction of fantasy and realistic teenspeak—think Grimm’s fairy tales narrated by the daughter from American Beauty. As Bob grows up, she falls for the singer in a local rock band. Bewitched by his onstage persona, she enthuses, “Sometimes it was so pretend, it was perfect.” But the disjunction between pretend and reality sown by her childhood trauma poisons their romance, triggering the play’s final events.
While the climax seems too easy a resolution (nothing like a little violence to ginger things up), director Timothy P. Jones avoids both sensationalism and bathos. Instead, he builds dramatic depth layer by layer, drawing a remarkably nuanced performance from O’Connor. Whether she’s reliving the thrill of going dancing with Tamara or lost in some private nightmare, O’Connor constructs a moving close-up of one girl’s shattered life. By the end of the evening, it’s all too clear that Bob has nowhere left to run. —J. Yeh
The School for Scandal
When a breathless young lady stumbles into the forbidden confines of the teachers’ lounge at a Brooklyn elementary school in P.S. 69 (Walker Space), it’s not immediately clear whether this new arrival is an instructor or a student. Which is fitting, because Molly—the novice teacher at the center of Susan Jeremy’s sprightly one-woman show—has a whirlwind education in diplomacy, multitasking, and child management ahead of her. Just as Molly plays mother, mentor, and referee to her rainbow coalition of pupils, Jeremy flutters gracefully between a dozen-odd characters: sandpaper-voiced tenure holders, a Katherine Harris-like principal, and a rambunctious handful of trash-talking fourth-graders. Drawn to a promising hellion named Precious, Molly recommends that the bright but uncontrollable girl be placed in a “special” class. The new designation raises the ire of Precious’s mother, who’s a cop (performed as a kind of butch Rosie Perez). When cash-strapped Molly decides to moonlight as a go-go girl at the Vaginal Vault, the avenging mom busts her for indecent exposure, launching both a scandal and an unexpected romance between the two.
On paper, P.S. 69 might sound a bit, well, precious. But the script, co-written with director Mary Fulham, bubbles with diffident wit. Molly’s exploits double as dubious self-improvement projects (teaching “helps me with my assertiveness,” she reasons, while stripping “will help my chi”). And her splendidly inept attempt at striptease provides a giddy high point of ritual humiliation. Jeremy, who teaches playwriting to grade-schoolers, is an endlessly inventive shape-shifter, and her play is a relaxing tonic—sweet, disarming, and effervescent. —Jessica Winter