LATE NIGHT LAVENDER

LATE NIGHT LAVENDER

Sunday, January 17, 2016

ED ASNER in New York City: The Prostate Monologues

ED ASNER in New York City: The Prostate Monologues

"Ladies and gentlemen: The Metropolitan Room is proud to present... 'A Man and His Prostate'.  Playing the part of 'The Man' tonight-- Ed Asner!" (The audience soon learned that the "Prostate" of the play's title also had an, ahem... "big" role in the show as well-- which was exactly "the Man"'s problem!)


You may expect a one-man play starring showbiz icon Ed Asner to be an autobiographical piece about the actor's life and decades-spanning career in the entertainment world.  After all, the man who played Lou Grant must have some pretty amazing stories to tell (The celebrity name-dropping alone would be worth the price of a ticket!). "A Man and His Prostate" is based on one man's androgenic adventures, but it's actually the true story of another Ed: Edwin "Ed." Weinberger, an multiple award-winning comedy writer and frequent collaborator of Mr. Asner's for over 40 years.  Weinberger became very ill while vacationing in Italy, and he wound up spending seven days in a Florence hospital.  The life-changing week included a digital rectal exam, pubic hair shaving, enemas, catheterization, the fear of post-surgical impotence, and sex after 70-- all of which the audience gets to hear about in squirmish detail in "A Man and His Prostate".  Are you laughing yet?  You will be!  This is a seriously funny show based on a serious subject.  The new comedy came to New York City's intimate cabaret hotspot The Metropolitan Room for a two-night stop in January to test the waters before an anticipated worldwide run. 

Asner appeared on stage dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts, a backwards baseball cap, white socks, and casual step-in shoes-- looking every bit like the stereotypical American grandfather tourist.  He opened up with a warning: "To those of you who might find explicit descriptions of a man's body distasteful-- I'm sorry!"  We then hear about his character collapsing while vacationing in Italy's City of Lilies, in front of the Accademia Gallery (where, incidentally, the famously naked Statue of David is housed).  Now a patient in a foreign hospital, our poor hero has to pantomime his symptoms to a doctor and staff who don't speak English.  When Asner has to pantomime "waking up to piss eight times during the night", the play soon transforms into a live sitcom--with the audience serving as a very reliable laugh track.   It turns out that "the Man"'s problem, as you may have guessed by now, is his prostate-- now the size of a "fresh caught branzino". For those in the audience unfamiliar with where this villainous gland is located, we are treated to the male reproductive anatomy projected on a giant screen. (Yes, boys and girls, this is an anatomy lesson as well!).  The show now becomes a show-down: "Man Versus Prostate".  Who will emerge triumphant?

"A Man and His Prostate" gives the audience one hilarious "you-just-can't-make-this-stuff-up" scenario after another.  There are some priceless lines from the show that I'd love to repeat, but I won't.  It's not that I'm concerned about "offending" any readers(!), but more so because I'm convinced that those lines should ONLY be heard from Ed Asner's 86-year old mouth.  In fact, Asner is EXACTLY what makes "A Man and His Prostate" so gut-bustingly  funny.  His character is a mix of curmudgeonly and cuddly, and his telling of Weinberger's extended anecdotes about flatulence, urinary retention, and his own... shall we say, "Mr. Ed." is deliciously deadpan and saucily sardonic.  How can you resist hearing the 86-year old star declare, "Of course, as we all know, the difference between 'erect' and 'semi-erect' is the difference between eating a cheeseburger and licking one!"


Alongside the comedy, "A Man and His Prostate" throws in  a serious moment towards the end of the show, concluding with important statistics about prostate cancer as well as tribute to some famous men who have sadly been taken by the disease through the years.  The scenario of a digital rectal exam may be a perpetual source of humor for comedians throughout history, but if humor is a good way to get men over 45 to drop trou and bend over for a prostate check, then bring on the jokes!  And who better than a transgenerational pop culture icon to tell them?




Friday, January 15, 2016

MAD JENNY AND THE SOCIETY BAND: "LOVE UND GREED" at NYC's DIXON PLACE: A Review





MAD JENNY AND THE SOCIETY BAND: "LOVE UND GREED" at NYC's DIXON PLACE:
A Review



She may be mad, but she's perfectly good it at it! 


"Mad Jenny",  (AKA Jenny Lee Mitchell) brought her new show "Love und Greed" to New York City's famous Dixon Place for an unforgettable "one night stand" of sorts on Wednesday, January 13th.  This truly one-of-a-kind evening offered an astonishing selection of songs from Deutschland's underground cabaret scene from the Weimar era-- sung by Jenny in English, German, and sometimes both.  It's no mystery why this multi-talented performer would have an affinity for the songs and stories from this time period: This was the epoch when cities like Berlin were notorious for their no-holes-barred nightlife, when sexual and artistic freedom was idealized.   Sadly, as anyone who has studied history also knows, the Weimar era was followed by Adolph Hitler's rise to power and subsequent repression of the artistic scene.  Knowing that bit of dark history added something of a "forbidden fruit" vibe to the show. 

When Mad Jenny makes her first appearance in "Love und Greed",  she makes quite an impression before she even sings a single note of English or German.  Our heroine appears on stage in full Marlene Deitreich-inspired androgynous glam: a top hat and full tuxedo, with her flaxen hair illuminating her face like her own personal spotlight.  And, Jenny makes the tribute complete by giving a lucky gal a kiss on the cheek on her way to center stage... never letting go of her drink the entire time!  This was, as you may have realized by now, inspired by the scene immortalized in Dietrich's film "Morocco", which shocked and titillated movie audiences in 1930.  Being 2016, the audience at NYC's famous venue Dixon Place wasn't so shocked this time around... but they were indeed titillated!  There was much more titillation to come...

What came next was a hilariously hedonistic mix of cabaret and burlesque, complete with comedy, pageantry, sex appeal, and shrewd political and social observations throughout.  And of course, there's the music!  Adorned by her band (Ric Becker on trombone, Marty Isenberg on bass, and Maria Dessena doing double duty on accordion and piano), we were treated to a selection of musical gems just waiting to be reheard and reinterpreted.  Almost all of them are from the late 20's and early '30's.  The show's opener, "Life's A Swindle" by Spoliansky and Schiffer, holds a rhinestone-framed mirror to modern humanity's greatest love affair of all: the love of... money! (The song even name-drops Donald Trump!)  It shows that some love affairs are truly eternal.  "Das Gesellschaftslied", translated as "The A-List Song"  (Spoliansky and Schwabach) from 1931, is truly priceless: a timeless gem which, given our media's obsession with "image", is more relevant than ever in 2016. Other songs are a celebration of sexuality, feminism, and queer equality.   Even those in the know about GLBT history will probably learn some new cultural facts:  "Das Lila Lied" (translated as "The Lavender Song", by Spoliansky and Schwabach), from 1921, is considered to be one of the first gay pride songs ever written.  Later on, Mad Jenny turns "When That Special Girlfriend" (Spoliansky and Schiffer), from 1928, into a deliciously decadent lesbian love song.  "Raus mit den Männern" (Hollaender and Waldoff), translated to "Chuck Out the Men", from 1926, is performed with feminist gusto, albeit tongue-in-cheek:
"Men are the problem with humanity,
they're blinded by their vanity;
Women have passively embraced them,
when we could have easily outpaced them;
Yes we should have long ago replaced them,
or better yet erased them;
If we haven't made our feelings clear,
we women have had it up to here!"


Jenny even throws in two 1980's hits that galvanized their status in American pop culture: the Eurythmics' "Love Is a Stranger" and Blondie's "Heart of Glass".  You may even know most of the lyrics of these songs by heart, but chances are you've NEVER heard them done like Mad Jenny does them.  And lest we forget, the singer also brought some special guests along for her wild ride: Pandora (AKA Anita Berber), offered some "classic"  burlesque to the mix.  Her costume was little more than two strands of pearls!  Later on, Desert Sin offered their notorious "Milkmaids" number.  Oh my! You'll need to cool off with some ice cream after this one...


Many of the artists whose work is spotlighted (Mischa Spoliansky, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Claire Waldoff, and others) in "Love und Greed" were either exiled or interred by the new regime.  Still, thanks to the creative energies of artists like Mad Jenny, and the enduring power of music and lyrics, their work and artistic visions  live on as we enter 2016.  Perhaps taking a tip from one of her burlesque sisters, Mad Jenny never really gave it ALL away to her audience.  Despite her eye-popping gowns and bewitching presence, she always maintained an aura of mystery about herself.  This was a one night stand at Dixon Place that's worth a "second time around" (as well as a third, fourth, fifth, etc...!)  


You can learn more about Mad Jenny at www.MadJenny.com

"STILLWATER" RUNS VERY DEEP... The World Premiere of Jeffrey L. Richards' New Drama in NYC

"STILLWATER" RUNS VERY DEEP...
The World Premiere of Jeffrey L. Richards' New Drama in NYC


Jeffrey L. Richards' searing new drama "Stillwater" had its world premiere at New York City's Hudson Guild Theater on Thursday, January 14th.  The play, part of the Venus/Adonis Theater Festival, tells the story of Elijah "Eli" Haslip (played by Tim Rerucha), a deep and somewhat guarded forty-something man who returns to his hometown of Stillwater, Oklahoma after 25 years.  We learn that he had been "asked to leave" the family home as a teen after it was discovered that he was gay.  Now settled in Dallas, he's in a budding relationship with a boyish 27-year old man named Carl (Noah Mefford).  Eli is summoned back home by his mother Lette-May Haslip (Amy Losi), a "practical and efficient" (Or, put another way, "cold"...) woman who's now bedridden with end-stage cancer.   Aside from more residents of the town locking their doors at night, Eli is soon reminded that Stillwater, prophetic to its name, hasn't changed much through the years. Neither has Lettie-Mae's adamant disapproval of Eli's homosexuality.  Needless to say, the mother-son reunion isn't exactly warm.  In fact, it's barely cordial-- and at times, it  gets downright ugly.  Even the "small talk" between Eli and Lettie-Mae is simmering with a decades-spanning underlying current of conflict and mistrust.  But just why would this mother ask her excommunicated son to come back home?  The terminally ill woman wants Eli to do her a "favor"-- and two guesses may not be necessary as to figure out just what that "favor" is...


The play's pivotal mystery of whether or not Eli will fulfill his mother's request, however, is only one tense sub-theme of "Stillwater".  As the play progresses, several Haslip family secrets, as well as personal secrets of the characters, are revealed-- including one revelation that threatens the nascent relationship between Eli and Carl.  The resultant emotions seem to explode from the stage.  While the entire play is unyieldingly provocative, these moments of high passion-- including "Stillwater"'s astonishing climax-- are actually almost painful to watch.


Teresa Fischer's subtle direction of "Stillwell" really works to the play's advantage, allowing all four actors to perform the theatrical equivalent of "filling the frame" of a still photograph.  In a challengingly unsympathetic and unglamorous role, it's a testament to Amy Losi's acting ability that she gives a commanding performance even though her character Lettie-May never gets out of bed.  Noah Mefford's Carl starts out as a pleasant  sight for sore eyes, but his role becomes deeper and more nuanced as the play progresses.  As Saundra, the family maid who became Lettie-Mae's 24-hour caretaker, Monica Hope is an intensely delightful presence. As the only character in "Stillwater" who doesn't have to confront her personal issues, Hope's Saundra adds natural levity with her warmth, sass, and earthy attitude.  Lastly, as the haunted protagonist Eli, Tim Rerucha meets the challenge of being on stage the entire running time and conveying his character's substantial personal trials throughout.  It's a challenge he meets, the audience will agree, very well.

"Stillwater"
continues Saturday, January 16 at 1PM and  Sunday, January 17 at 6PM at The Hudson Guild Theater, 441 W. 26 St., NYC.  Visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2461158 for tickets and http://venusnytheaterfestival.com/the-theater/ for more info.

Friday, January 8, 2016

BABY JANE DEXTER at NYC's Metropolitan Room: This Time, "It's Personal"...

BABY JANE DEXTER at NYC's Metropolitan Room: This Time, "It's Personal"... 


One of the songs in Baby Jane Dexter's intimate new show "It's Personal" at New York City's Metropolitan Room is "Painted Lady on the Stage", an under-heard 1995 gem from iconic jazz legend Abbey Lincoln.  The song, about the synergistic connection between a female performer and her audience, should be a universal  anthem for ALL women in show business-- whether they be singers, actresses,  burlesque performers, et cetera...    Due to a series of health problems through the years, Baby Jane Dexter has faced limited physical mobility, which was quite evident as she made her way to the stage.  Once she took the spotlight, however, the singer compensated with a combination of  limitless spirit and a well-earned aura of confidence in her maturity and legacy.  And, of course, there's her trademark commanding, deep voice.   With her bullet-shaped nails painted blue and her apparent personal taste for vivid colors in her wardrobe , Ms. Dexter was indeed a "painted lady on stage"... and, like the heroine of the song, it was clear that this singer knows a thing or two about pleasing her audiences.  That aforementioned  commanding, deep voice has gotten Ms. Dexter much praise in her native New York.  She's been called the "Grand Dame of Cabaret", a Title which had also been bestowed upon her friend and showbiz peer, the late Julie Wilson (to whom "It's Personal" was dedicated).   A lot of Dexter's sound and take-no-prisoners persona is clearly influenced by the big, bold, and bawdy (mostly African-American) women of rhythm and blues.  However, she has persistently  refused to be "classified" throughout her career.  In this show, she gives the audience a variety of "genres" and takes on a lot of classic musical gems-- from Rodgers' and Hart's "Blue Moon" to Cole Porter's "Experiment".  The artist has been the recipient of seven major MAC Awards, including a MAC Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015.  She also won two Nightlife Awards and two Backstage Bistro Awards.  

Baby Jane  opened with the Cy Coleman/Peggy Lee fave "I'm In Love Again".  Listening to the lyrics, it was impossible not to interpret the song as an analogy to Dexter's love affair with her audience and with performing: "I'm in love again, and the feelings not new; Yes I know the signs, and I  know what to do.   It's a highway that I've travelled trough before; so i know all the curves, and I've come back for more".  Next up was Billy Roy's  "Bargain Day", surely one of the most idiosyncratic songs about heartache.   In the spirit of the season, Jane even threw in a joke about Black Friday.   Her version of "Do Right Woman" (Moman and Penn)was like a companion piece to Billie Holiday's "Do Your Duty"-- an unambiguous request for men to treat their women right.   Baby Jane's  version of the oft-covered "House of the Rising Sun" evoked quite a different mood from versions you may have heard from other artists, and it was intensely soulful.  Similarly, Dexter took on The Beatles' "Got to Get You Into My Life" and served up a raw, more cerebral incarnation... but the results were no less engaging than the original.    It was thrilling to hear Jane's take on the 1967 Young Rascals hit "How Can I Be Sure?", which I've always believed was one of the most feverishly romantic songs of that era.   In yet another delight, the singer transformed the giddy, schoolgirl-type crush memories of a young Judy Garland singing "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart" into a more womanly version, with buoyant joy to spare.  She closed that song on a killer note.   For some playful levity, Jane threw in A Great Big World's  "Everyone Is Gay", another song begging to become a cultural anthem.  And who better than Baby Jane Dexter, with her many gay fans, to usher it in? 

I won't give away the big encore/finale of "It's Personal", but let's just say that the show's closing song has become something of a staple for the singer in her live shows.  Making it a tribute to Julie Wilson, Baby Jane Dexter turned the songs' heart-wrenching lyrics into a climactic message of empowerment.  It was the quintessential culmination of an intimate show in an intimate space.  In other words: For Baby Jane Dexter and her fans, this event was truly "personal"!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

"MOTHERSTRUCK!" A Review

"MOTHERSTRUCK!" 
A Review

"Motherstruck!"-- the astonishing one-woman, biographical theater piece by Staceyann Chin-- doesn't waste any time getting started.  From the moment Ms. Chin enters the stage, her impact is like that of a 3-D graphic novel come to life on an IMAX screen.  She opens with the childhood recollection of  "The day I got my first period...".  Her no-nonsense, old-school auntie responded: "Keep your legs closed and your schoolbooks open.  God will take care of the rest!"  One of the young Jamaican girl's earliest fears, unsurprisingly, was that she'd become pregnant.  It's amusing, then, that Ms. Chin's later desire to become a mother would becoming an all-encompassing personal quest.  For a single, out-and-proud lesbian without health insurance, realizing that dream would be a challenge.  More specifically, it would be one challenge after another, some of them seemingly insurmountable.  Chin's determination, humor, and intelligence allowed her to face those challenges, and it's the dynamic stage presence of the performer combined with tight direction by Cynthia Nixon that makes "Motherstruck!"-- the animated version of that chapter of  Chin's life-- so successful.

The passionate desire to have a child will make many women, and some men too, relate to Chin's story on at least some level.  Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find a life story as unique as this Award-winning spoken-word poet, performing artist, and LGBT rights political activist.  Chin left her home country, largely for the fact that the repressive atmosphere in her Jamaica at the time didn't quite fit with her renegade artistic and humanistic views.  Thankfully, she came to the United States and found a new home and family in the famously dynamic arts scene in New York City in the late '90's.  It was also an era of her own personal sexual awakening: a time to experiment upon her self-described "explicit, unashamed fantasies".  As you may have guessed by now, Chin shares a LOT with her audience!   We feel all warm and fuzzy  inside when she recalls how,  in 1999, she fell in love with a woman (Here comes the kick...) who also fell in love with her!  We feel the heartbreak when she underwent the premature loss of a spouse who was taken way too soon.  We feel the urgency that Chin, now newly single, felt when searching for an appropriate "baby daddy".  And we are both amused and titillated at Chin's revelation of  "hormonally induced madness and lesbian dreams at the same time".  The climax of "Motherstruck!"-- Chin's, shall we say, realization of the goal established by the show's title-- is one of the most quietly moving moments you're likely to see on a New York City stage, enhanced by the intimacy of the small Lynn Redgrave Theater.  However, don't expect a force of nature like Staceyann Chin to consider her story tied up into a neat little package after this pivotal moment. That's only Act 1!   There are a LOT more climaxes on the way for the audience for the second half of the show...

Stacyeann Chin doesn't waste a single word or movement throughout "Motherstruck!", and her delivery hits her mark every time.  It's both comedy and tragedy-- sometimes even in the same scene.  One of those scenes made me realize that it takes an artist with true talent, stage presence, and an innate wit to make an audience break into laughter in the middle of a quiet, provocative moment.  We don't doubt that Staceyann has a lot more stories about her life to share, and we believe that regardless of any challenges she faces in the future, she will survive.  The question is:  Are we, the audience, strong enough to handle the emotions she provokes from us?  Well, we can't wait to find out!

"Motherstruck!" is now playing at New York City's Lynn Redgrave Theater, 45 Bleecker St, New York, NY 10012 through January 29th.  Visit www.CultureProject.org for tickets and more!