Ryan Knowles has a powerful presence and a fluidity with the spoken word that makes his solo show at the Gene Frankel Theatre, Dig and Be Dug: The Gospel of Lord Buckley, an entertaining experience, even if parts of the writer/performer's script could still use some work.
The piece, directed by David Kraft, begins with Knowles as a somewhat drugged out host welcoming the audience to his apartment for an homage to the comedian Richard Myrle Buckley (aka Lord Buckley), that is structured as a religious rite. This allows Knowles to fill the audience in on some basic expository details about Buckley, but it's somewhat of a clunky device, and the voice Knowles chooses for this narrating character is a little grating. The biographical information imparted also lacks depth, and could be fleshed out a little further.
Things pick up immediately the first time Knowles takes on the persona of Lord Buckley, who was well known for translating some of the greatest works of literature into the language of hip. The performer gives us a taste of this, with a short excerpt from Buckley's version of Marc Antony's speech in Julius Caesar, that starts out with "Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger-poppin' daddies / Knock me your lobes."
The remainder of Dig and Be Dug, which runs just over an hour, has Knowles singing a couple songs and performing his reinterpretations of some of Buckley's routines -- including a story about The Nazz (aka Jesus) and my personal favorite, "God's Own Drunk," a tale about a man, a bear, and a still. There's a lot of potential here, and Knowles' dynamic performance whets the appetite for a longer and more fully realized version of this show.
Kay (Misti Tindiglia) and Fritz (Marvin Starkman) are hosting an Obama party at their house, which serves as the local Democratic campaign headquarters. Among the attendees are Kay's sister Darnelle (Susan Wallack) and Fritz's brother Verle (Trip Plymale), who are married to one another. Prior to this night, the two couples had not spoken in four years, due to a conflict arising from their conflicting views on homosexuality and the fact that Kay and Fritz's daughter Sissy (Maureen O'Boyle) is a lesbian.
Verle and Darnelle are adamant about their love for Sissy, which they make sure to repeat when Sissy also stops by the party. But they are also conservative Christians, and are disapproving of both Sissy's lesbianism, and also Fritz and Kay's support of her on this issue. While everyone at the party starts out hoping they can avoid a conflict, heated words and impassioned speeches are inevitable.
While the playwright certainly has a pro-gay viewpoint, she takes care not to make Verle and Darnelle bigoted caricatures. Also, Sissy wants so badly for her parents and her aunt and uncle to make up, that she's eager to downplay any references to her sexuality so that it does not become a source of contention. She also becomes increasingly frustrated when the topic keeps coming up.
Plymale makes a strong impression in an understated manner, and has a particularly good rapport with Starkman, evidenced in a scene in which the brothers have a quiet but tension-filled conversation. Tindiglia pushes a little too hard at times, but is genuinely moving in a monologue in which Kay reveals the exact circumstances in which she left her church of 30 years.
The work of the remaining actors -- which also include Robin Madel and Barrie Kreinik as two more Democratic supporters at the party -- is uneven, as is the overall production, directed by Dianna Martin for Maieutic Theatre Works. However, it's good enough to show off the strengths of the script.
The title of Are You There, Zeus? It's Me Electra, at the Bleecker Street Theatre, proves to be the best part of writer/director Aliza Shane's new play, based on the ancient Greek story of Electra but told with a contemporary twist, and more than a little camp.
In the tradition of Judy Blume, Electra (Sierra Marcks) frequently poses her titular question within the piece, much to the chagrin of the all-female Greek chorus (Felicia Blum, Carley Colbert, Kate Dickinson, and Ashley Lovell), who have a tendency to strike purposefully pretentious poses while speaking.
In Shane's version of the tale, the chorus also blatantly asks Electra why she just sits around waiting for brother Orestes (Timothy Mele) to save her, rather than taking matters into her own hands. That proves to be the focal point of the script, as there's a distinct and welcome "girl power" subtheme that runs throughout the play, even if it's done on a fairly superficial level.
And in fact, that superficiality proves to be the downfall of the play, as all the characters become paper-thin creations, including Clytemnestra (a cross-dressed Cas Marino), an airheaded Chrysothemis (Kerri Ford), an even dumber Aegisthus (James David Larson), and a posturing Pylades (David Michael Brown). Moreover, the initial charm of the characters parodying Ancient Greek tropes and stylistic mannerisms wears thin quickly, and the one-or-two joke premise that the entire work is built around isn't enough to sustain the show's 90-minute running time.
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