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Midtown International Theatre Festival 2010 Roundup #2

Reports on Until We Find Each Other, Civil War Voices, and The Starship Astrov.

Chris Bannow, Abbi Hawk,
and Mara Kassin in
Until We Find Each Other
(© Elsa E. Sjunneson)
[Ed. Note: This is the second of two review roundups for the 2010 Midtown International Theatre Festival.]

Three cousins who were like brother and sisters as children find themselves questioning their identities and lives in Brooke Berman's quirky spiritual dramedy, Until We Find Each Other, playing at the Workshop Theatre's Mainstage. Gracefully directed by David Winitsky, the rapid-fire, episodic piece (which was originally produced in 2002 at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago) has a surprising pull, and its intellectual and emotional heft consistently engages.

The most intriguing aspect of the play is the psychic bond that the cousins -- Miriam (Mara Kassin), Justin (Chris Bannow), and Sophy (Abbi Hawk) -- share. They can "hear" one another and sense when the other is in danger or making bad decisions. As the play opens Miriam is driving cross-country to her childhood home in Ohio and Justin, who, along with eager-to-please shiksa girlfriend Tangee (a delightful Allyson Morgan), has taken up residence in the house Miriam grew up in, knows that she is on her way.

Both cousins have been sensing that Sophy, a one-time exotic dancer who has turned to Orthodox Judaism as an adult, needs their help. As the play unfolds, Berman reveals the cycle of abuse that has informed Sophy's choices as an adult as well as the guilt and emptiness that all three feel from the lack of any serious religious upbringing in their childhoods.

Under Winitsky's guidance, all three actors turn in strong performances, with Kassin proving to be a true standout as she imbues Miriam with a steely detachment that's matched by an almost insatiable joie de vivre. Hawk, whose work nearly matches Kassin, is particularly compelling during Sophy's softer moments, but when Sophy is acting the vamp, Hawk's turn becomes unconvincingly forced. Fine supporting work comes from Bryan Shany and Scott Raker as two men whose lives intersect with the cousins' worlds in surprising ways.

Dani Marcus, Stephen Trafton, and Danielle Lee Greaves
in Civil War Voices
(© Ellis Gaskell)
James R. Harris' Civil War Voices, playing in the June Havoc Theatre, brings the War Between the States to life in text and song, using diary entries and letters from both the men who fought in the conflict and individuals observing it, including the author's great-great-uncle, a plantation owner from Alabama. The show is not only beautifully sung; it is a promising premise that often succeeds. Yet, there are times that both the script and director-choreographer Dennis Courtney's production prove less than satisfying.

The disappointments come whenever Harris, who both serves as narrator and plays his uncle Joseph, comments on the text that he's selected. Cute asides and clichés diminish the impact of some glorious writing from the mid-nineteenth century. Similarly, when Courtney's otherwise intimate staging attempts to be grand, it too often resorts to flag-waving and a great deal of marching in place, making the piece feel like a wooden historical pageant.

Generally, though, it's easy enough to overlook the show's shortcomings and simply concentrate on the music and the stories, many of which prove to be quite touching. While some, like that of Harris' ancestor and that of a Texas couple Theo and Harriet Perry (the winning Stephen Trafton and Dani Marcus) are unfamiliar, others are most likely part of theatergoers' general consciousness.

A sizable portion of Voices comes from the writings of Elizabeth Keckley (played movingly by the powerhouse vocalist Danielle Lee Greaves), a freed slave who becomes dressmaker and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln. Audiences, too, are apt to know something about Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Michael Sample), whose exploits at Gettysburg ensured Union victory in that battle.

Elizabeth A. Davis in The Starship Astrov
(Courtesy Oberon Theatre Ensemble)
Duncan Pflaster's The Starship Astrov, playing at the Beckett Theater, is a mash-up of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya -- with slight nods to the Russian playwright's other works -- and Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek. While the idea of following lovelorn and bored Chekovian archetypes as they undertake a deep space diplomatic mission has the potential to be hilarious, it proves only fitfully amusing in director Eric Parness' uninspired production.

Pflaster has reimagined some of Chekhov's characters and plotting with aplomb. He is particularly clever with his reinvention of Elena, who holds Vanya and Doctor Astrov in thrall in Chekhov's original. In Starship, she's Celaria (imbued with sexy intelligence by Elizabeth A. Davis), an alien being who captures men's attention because she knows exactly what they desire and is willing to provide it with no questions asked. As in Vanya, the character is married to an aging professor (Ariel Estrada), who, here, is being taken by the crew of the starship to deliver a speech that will decide the future of space exploration.

Elsewhere, Pflaster's work is less inspired. He rethinks the character of Sonya, who's sweet and somewhat plain, as a vapid, self-important and pretty young woman (Jennifer Gawlik) and the ennui-filled, earnest Astrov becomes the pompous and slightly sniveling Dr. Michael Rosy (played as an Oxbridge snit by Philip Emeott). The other characters are simply amalgams or distillations from Chekhov's work.

Oddly enough, there's no counterpart to Vanya to be found in Starship, and many of the most famed moments from the original play, including his drunk scene with Elena and his attempted shooting of the professor, are split between a trio of characters for no readily discernable reason.


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