Extraordinary week of theater.
Saturday July 11: I’m a huge fan of Dave Malloy and Rachel Chavkin, the writer-composer/director team who created Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Ghost Quartet, and now Preludes, the spectacular production at Lincoln Center Theater’s tiny black-box space called The Claire Tow. The show, which Malloy and Chavkin developed together, was inspired by the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff and takes place, the program says, in Moscow 1900/the hypnotized mind of the composer. Apparently after early success starting at age 19 with his “Prelude in C# Minor, op. 3, no. 2,” Rachmaninoff experienced a major setback when his “Symphony No. 1 in D. minor, op. 13” premiered in St. Petersburg with a drunk conductor and an underrehearsed orchestra. The viciously negative critical reaction sent the 24-year-old composer into a three-year depression that stopped him in his tracks and ended with the help of a hypnotherapist named Nikolai Dahl summoned by his wife. Mimi Lien’s dreamscape of a set, Paloma Young’s costumes and the fine six-member cast fleetly and wittily straddle the historical time period and casual contemporary references. As the central character, named Rach, tall handsome Gabriel Ebert gives a performance that is impressive without being overly showy; I’ve seen him before but not in Matilda so I was bowled over by how nimbly he displayed his musical, physical, and acting chops – brooding artist who’s part dancer, part clown. He plays piano half-decently, though the show’s spritely musical director Or Matias mostly inhabits Rachmaninoff at the keyboard.
Nikki M. James is lovely as Rach’s piano-teacher wife Natalya (though she has to fake it when she sits down to play), and Eisa Davis brings the strong, confident, brainy presence we’ve seen before in Passing Strange and her own Angela’s Mixtape to the role of Dahl. (I loved Chavkin’s casting choices. Along with everything that’s impressive about Hamilton, I can’t help noting that the hip multiracial casting coexists with a square attitude when it comes to gender.) The score mashes up Rachmaninoff pieces – some well-known, some rare and exquisite — with Malloy’s original songs, many of them “suggested by” the composer’s work, with the occasional snatch of Beethoven or Mussorgsky. A short gorgeous section from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers (which moved Andy, an a cappella aficionado, to tears) was only one of numerous moments where the show took an unexpected turn. In the middle of the show, a trippy number called “Loop” suddenly transports us to a rave in Goa. And the climax of the show is a long (possibly too long) demonstration of Dahl’s work with Rachmaninoff, “Hypnosis.” Stories about blocked artists dangerously court all kinds of clichés, and afterwards I had some nits to pick about the story and the script. But while I was watching it, I was completely absorbed in the ingenious, frequently surprising unfolding of Chavkin’s staging.
Sunday July 12: The Chicago-based performance collective Manual Cinema has evolved its own fascinating funky original form of theater combining shadow puppets, live music, sound and visual design, and performance-art presence. Their first piece, Ada/Ava, was performed in a first-floor apartment window in Chicago in 2010. Since then it’s been performed at various festivals (including the Tehran International Festival of Puppet Theater, the first Americans to play there) as well as opening the show for a Bonnie “Prince” Billy concert. The company’s five founders – Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia Miller, and Kyle Vegter – came to NYC to perform Ada/Ava at 3-Legged Dog in the Financial District as part of The Tank’s Flint & Timber series. Presumably inspired by tech-savvy ensembles like the Wooster Group and Mabou Mines, Manual Cinema favors low-tech materials (overhead projectors, black construction paper, homemade masks) deployed with tremendous ingenuity and sophistication. The show tells the story of two elderly twin sisters, inseparable all their lives until one collapses dead at the chessboard, and how the survivor experiences her grief, depicted via crazy dreams, ghostly hauntings, and mysterious visits to a carnival sideshow’s hall of mirrors.
The eerie and poignant Hitchcockian hour-long wordless shadow play appears on a screen hung from the ceiling, and everything that the performers do to create their simple theatrical effects is fully visible to the audience. The performers operate four projectors while two musicians (Kauffman and Vegter) play a delicate, Daniel Lanois-like original score on guitar and keyboards and Maren Celest mixes in sound effects from a laptop.
Afterwards, the company invites the audience to stay, hang out, ask questions, manipulate the puppets, and take pictures, which turned out to be as charming and fascinating as the shadow play. The show has been extended twice (largely thanks to a deserving rave review in the New York Times) and plays now through July 26.
Tuesday July 14: The big event of the week was the three-night revival at the Kitchen of And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid, the notorious/legendary extravaganza created by masterful performer Jeff Weiss and his partner Richard C. Martinez that ran off and on for many years at various downtown venues (mostly the Performing Garage and P.S. 122), morphing into a show called Hot Keys and eventually Come Clean. Weiss and Martinez started out doing this and other shows at their storefront theater on East 10th Street. Some years ago (maybe 15?), Martinez started showing signs of Parkinson’s disease, Weiss suspended his acting career (he’d started getting gigs uptown, on Broadway and at Lincoln Center) to care for him, and the couple moved back to Weiss’s home town, Allentown, PA.
This revival of And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid was masterminded by director Brooke O’Harra, best-known for co-creating her own long-running lesbian comic soap opera Room for Cream with the Dyke Division at La Mama. For this occasion, O’Harra pulled together many of the performers who appeared in How the Rent/Hot Keys over the years (including the invaluable singer/actor/musical director/impresario/right-hand-man Nicky Paraiso, musical director emeritus Mark Bennett, Brenda Cummings, Dorothy Cantwell, Sturgis Warner, Christine Donnelly, Keith McDermott, Mary Shultz, and Kate Valk), invited other actors from the extended downtown theater world to join the cast (the likes of Greg Mehrten, Jim Fletcher, Jennifer Miller, Moe Angelos, and Tanya Selvaratnam), and rounded out the roster with a bunch of the next generation of cutting-edge/gender-queer hotshots (notably Becca Blackwell and Jess Barbagallo) and kids right out of college new to the scene. Each of the three nights featured more than a dozen scenes, most of them two-handers, none of them repeated. Between scenes, the Glee Club (a volunteer chorus of 20-odd singers) performed all kinds of music: Weiss-Martinez originals for chorus, some solos, and a few standards, including “the traditional opening number,” “Where or When,” and the closing number, “There’s a Kind of Hush (All Over the World),” which believe me, in this context, did not sound like either Herman’s Hermits or the Carpenters.
Jeff Weiss…And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid…Hot Keys…it’s hard to convey what these cultural phenomena mean and meant to anybody who wasn’t in New York in the 1980s and ‘90s. Jeff Weiss was a gay theater pioneer going all the way back to the early days of Caffe Cino and La Mama ETC. This show (Rent/Keys) has always been an outrageous live comic book/soap opera, really dirty, really gay, really un-PC. The basic story concerns Conrad (Connie) Burkhardt, a closeted married husband and father who cruises the streets in the persona of Bjorn, a Finnish gymnast, who lures guys into sex and then sometimes kills them. He is pursued with Javert-like avidity by detective Tom Persky, who’s always keeping tabs on Connie/Bjorn but can never quite pin anything on him. The action travels backwards and forwards through time, from gay bars and bathhouses in Manhattan to the Jersey shore home of jewelry merchants Sol and Vicki Sheisskopf. A lot like John Jesurun’s (somewhat more highbrow) Pyramid Club serial Chang in a Void Moon, the shambolic non-linear scenes were mostly a showcase for terrific, wild vaudevillean comic turns by downtown performers. The first time I saw And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid, at the Performing Garage in 1980 or ’81, Weiss played all the roles himself and Martinez ran the lights and sound and everything else. The next time I saw it, the original Wooster Group all-stars and extended fellow travelers played all the parts (alongside Weiss and Paraiso). I saw Hot Keys several times at P.S. 122. The shows were always long (three to four hours, sometimes more), sometimes tedious, sometimes amateurish, sometimes incoherent, and yet often riveting and surprisingly poignant, with unbelievably good performances. As I wrote in a 1996 review,
“The unabashedly queer sitcom sketches Weiss writes are perverse, filthy, and played for laughs… Eros rules in this universe. Every human action turns out to be driven by some sexual fetish, some humiliating desire, some outrageous passion. And yet the tone of the show stays unswervingly sweet, like an East Village version of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, complete with tall tales and special guests.”
When I showed up for the first night at the Kitchen (the whole run sold out as soon as tickets went on sale — thank you, Nicky, for organizing the tickets for me), I wasn’t expecting Jeff Weiss to be on hand, but there he was, in a comic crown, meeting and greeting. “I know you!” he said, hugging me (and every other familiar face in the crowd). It was not only an all-star cast, it was an all-star audience: I saw John Jesurun, Everett Quinton, Alisa Solomon, Robert Blacker, Jim Leverett, Neil Greenberg, Linda Chapman and Lola Pashalinski with Jim Nicola (the New York Theater Workshop crew), Cynthia Hedstrom…it was a kind of great, exhilarating reunion of a certain tribe from downtown theater. It was super-exciting, fun to be there with Andy (who had no file on Jeff Weiss whatsoever), great to see old friends…and yet I found myself unexpectedly emotional, sad, close to tears on and off throughout the evening. A lot of ghosts flying around. (To name just a few: Ron Vawter, Paul Schmidt, Charles Ludlam, Harry Kondoleon, John Bernd…)
Before the show began, Jeff (above) made it a point to introduce the oldest living lesbian drama teacher, a mentor of his from back home in her nineties, attending with the woman who was about to become her fourth wife. Jeff asked them if they had any questions for him. The “child bride” piped up: “Do you believe in God?” Jeff turned away, paused for a long moment, turned around and very evenly said, “Yes. He gives good plague.” His devastating, flip response hit the nail right on the head for me. This was a roomful of people who had lived through the horrible years of the AIDS epidemic that swept mercilessly through our community. For all the fun and festivity that this evening at the Kitchen would bring, for many of us it was also a gathering of grieving survivors whose experience of massive losses (not just from AIDS, but mostly from AIDS) we will never recover from. Ever.
Let me describe some high points from the show. It opened with an extremely provocative scene father-and-son sex scene with (very brave) Jim Fletcher as dad and Danny Ryan as his son, his drawers stuffed with an insanely huge Tom of Finland dick. When he came in his pants and dad demanded to see, Ryan called out, “Props!” and someone came running to empty two canisters of whipped cream into his underpants. Dad wanted a taste, then Jeff Weiss wanted a taste, and then the three of them went through the house offering anyone who wanted a taste of the boy-cream. In the Hot Keys tradition, every scene ends with an actor calling “Blackout!” After that first scene, a stream of audience members (all women) headed for the door, clearly not prepared for what this comic extravaganza had in store. What else? In scene 2, an actor described auditioning for a show called I Helped My Mother Die – the Musical. One of the early between-scene songs was sweet Brenda Cummings strumming her ukulele and singing the Petula Clark classic “Downtown.” Kate Valk commanded the stage playing Tom Persky (a role originally played at the Performing Garage by her Wooster Group colleague, the late great Ron Vawter) with lines like “Connie showed me the naked ass of evil.”
There were three and a half musical directors on hand to play piano and conduct the Glee Club: in addition to Paraiso and Bennett (above), there was a one-night-only appearance by Michael Roth, an old chum of Weiss and Martinez who now works mostly in theater and film in LA but flew in for the occasion, and a young protégé of Paraiso’s, Dane Terry, who performed a long intriguing spoken-word/song from a show he’ll perform at La Mama next season. Tanya Selvaratnam was an amazing Vicki Sheisskopf.
Weiss would introduce many scenes with reminiscences that sometimes wandered quite far into the weeds. He loves nothing more than jokes about sex, bodies, and poop. He announced, “My sphincter is a mess,” rummaged around in his pants for evidence of his frequent involuntary flatulence, and offered a sniff of his fingers to people in the front row. But then he suddenly launched into a rendition of “Just a Gigolo” that was both stylized Brechtian and scary desperate. Certain scenes between Connie and his mother and his sister pretty clearly lean into autobiographical material. The scene where Connie (played by the amazing Becca Blackwell) visits his sister in the state hospital pulled an astonishingly deep and emotional performance out of Dorothy Cantwell; during it, Weiss slowly circled the stage until he was standing against the back wall, and as Blackwell-as-Connie started reassuring Annie by singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Weiss started singing along – who knows if that was rehearsed, but it was a stunning example of upstaging as coup de theatre.
The likes of this show will not be seen again. And now I can’t get out of my head the lilting strains of the “love theme” from Hot Keys, “Please, Let Love Pass Me By.”