Pamela Payton-Wright and Laura Esterman in Duet(Photo © Rainer Fehringer)
Pamela Payton-Wright and Laura Esterman in Duet
(Photo © Rainer Fehringer)
Duet offers a glimpse into America's theatrical past, giving us a living history of that time when performance style changed from 19th-century declamation to a more internalized realism. A fantasized confrontation between Eleonora Duse (Pamela Payton-Wright) and the ghost of Sarah Bernhardt (Laura Esterman), this elegant evocation of theater life was written by Otho Eskin and directed with delicate intimacy by Ludovica Villar-Hauser.

Duse and Bernhardt were the equivalent of today's rock stars; they were also fierce rivals. The play takes place in Duse's dressing room as the dying actress hallucinates Bernhardt. We watch as these two great artists come to terms with each other, finding a common ground even as they go from fight to fight. Bernhardt is the greater diva, her claws out, ready to draw blood whenever she can. Duse is more reactive; besides, it's her image of Bernhardt that we're seeing, so it's only natural that she comes across as more of an innocent victim. Both of the women who embody these legends give star-turn performances. Esterman, an actress who tends to posture, is perfec as Bernhardt; Payton-Wright is equally well cast as Duse, bringing a smoldering fire to a woman who is about to expire.

In conjunction with set designer Mark Symczak, the director has created this production to be performed in the round. You are never more than three rows away from the stage. Besides drawing the audience closer to the action, it's also a clever device for keeping this three-person play from becoming static. (Robert Emmet Lunney plays a variety of characters in support of the two stars.) One or more of the actors is always circling around the others. They move like fencers in a duel, giving the audience a variety of views -- both literal and figurative -- into the lives of these two theatrical icons.

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The Taxman Cometh

Josh Kornbluth in Love and Taxes(Photo © Mark Leialoha)
Josh Kornbluth in Love and Taxes
(Photo © Mark Leialoha)
The word most often associated with "taxes" is "death." Perhaps the word least associated with "taxes" is "love," but the inimitable Josh Kornbluth has coupled these two words together like a floral arrangement in his new one-person show Love and Taxes at the Bank Street Theatre. But is this a verbal wreath for a funeral or a wedding?

Having grown up as the son of a communist (see Red Diaper Baby), Kornbluth did not give the U.S. government much credence. Failing to file tax returns for seven years, he found himself in serious trouble. Kornbluth sets his love story amidst mounting interest and penalties, with a tax advisor grabbing his greatest asset: his art. Meanwhile, his girlfriend won't marry him as long as the government is holding a sword over his financial head. And a clock begins to tick over all of this travail when Josh's girlfriend gets pregnant.

Kornbluth tells his story in a genial, self-mocking style. He's a very likeable guy, which helps him when his script goes through a dry patch on its way to an oasis of laughter. Happily, he finds comic watering holes often enough to keep you engaged. He also uses projections to help tell his story, most of which don't work except when they flash his ever-increasing debt load. Now, that has impact!

As an actor, Kornbluth is only a modest talent. He's no Tovah Feldshuh making quicksilver vocal changes to play one character after another; he's more of the Spalding Gray school, although his writing isn't nearly as complex or artful. Above all, he is endearing and natural on stage. Kornbluth's story is as funny as it is poignant, because not only must he face the taxman, he must also come to terms with his late father's teachings. This show is by no means a taxing experience.

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Rich Welmers in Ramayana 2K3(Photo © Rob Nava)
Rich Welmers in Ramayana 2K3
(Photo © Rob Nava)
Don't Myth This (if it Comes Back)

We hear that there are talks underway to bring Ramayana 2K3 back after its recent, triumphant three-week run at La MaMa E.T.C. Let's hope those talks come to fruition, because this remarkable, small scale spectacular offers all the exotic extravagance of a Cirque de Soleil production but with a much better book. And it has more flying monkeys than Wicked!

Ramayana 2K3 is based on a deliciously over-the-top Hindu myth. Writer/director Robert A. Prior has used the tale as a fulcrum for an equally madcap concoction of musical styles that ultimately fuse into an organic whole. Also thrown into the mix are dazzling costumes, inspired lighting effects, and Olympic-level acrobatics.

The production has a hip, downtown patina like that of the Blue Man Group's show Tubes. Another thing it has in common with that show is that it can (and should) play to an uptown audience.

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The Return of an Expert

Helen Baldassare
Helen Baldassare
The multi-award-winning musical comedy artist Helen Baldassare had not performed live for a great many years, devoting herself instead to teaching the art of cabaret. Her much anticipated return to the stage in a new show at Mama Rose brought us out to see her with the highest of expectations.

We were not disappointed; in fact, we were very pleasantly surprised. While approximately half of Baldassare's act did, indeed, consist of uproarious musical comedy material performed with masterful panache, the other half featured serious ballads that were sung with an equally masterful art.

Comedians are often extraordinary actors, and that can definitely be said of Baldassare. She put over her "straight" songs with such a strong emotional underscoring that, at various times during her show, one or both of us was moved to tears. Her run at Mama Rose just recently ended, but now that she has returned to performing, it's reasonable to expect that she'll bring this show back soon. Put simply, it's a must-see!