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07 NOVEMBER 2017
Dark Comedy in The House on Poe Street
By Theresa Perkins // Theatre (New York)
New Yorkers have a strong affinity for Halloween festivities, with the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade drawing spectators from around the world annually. Come the end of October, New York City looks a bit like the Ghostbuster’s ghost containment facility got shut down, unleashing frights on Manhattan. Contributing to the eeriness, New York theatres begin to fill with productions featuring all things grim and sinister. Amongst the offerings this year is Fengar Gael’s gothic tale The House on Poe Street, which finds humor in the macabre and tackles social issues in a spooky setting. While it is delightful to spend time with some of Gael’s quirky and oddly alluring characters, The House on Poe Street is at its best when reveling in the bizarre and supernatural and begins to meander only in its attempt to be socially relevant – spreading itself thin in discussions of privilege.
In The House on Poe Street, Mendel Steingold, a young and privileged real estate attorney, visits twin sisters Argonne and Flourine Seaborg to deliver their recently deceased mother’s will and the deed to her darkened New York estate – an estate rumored to be former home of Edgar Allen Poe and the place where the melancholy man penned The Raven. The twins quickly unsettle Mendel, revealing to him that their mother modified their genes before birth, which gave them uncanny eidetic memories and altered their biology in other surprising ways. While this disturbs Mendel, it is the late Mrs. Seaborg’s goal of identifying and suppressing the warrior gene that angers Mendel who likens her experiments to eliminate male anger and aggression to chemical castration. The twins assure Mendel that they do not care to continue their mothers work and are much more interested in transforming their new home into an Edgar Allen Poe museum. Mendel’s finance and friends soon grow enamored with the idiosyncratic twins, enjoying their musical melodies and joining a seance in the old home to summon the ghostly presence that appears to be inhabiting its walls. But, all is not as it seems in the Seaborg homestead and the entire group finds its conceptions, beliefs and opinions challenged both by the otherworldly and by the socio politics of their positions in society.
The splendidly peculiar Argonne and Flourine are two of the most bewitching characters I have seen in recent theatre. Simultaneously disturbing and riotous, Gael has crafted two characters who are intoxicating in their paradox. An air of comfortable disquiet laces their words. An uneasy joviality pervades the air. Their words and graces are charming yet off-putting. I could spend days with the Seaborgs and never get bored. The pair flourishes in Gael’s gothic setting, at home amongst the ghosts and skeletons of the past but not of them. In many ways, the very real advancements of the Seaborg women are perhaps more shocking and unbelievable than the spirits inhabiting the old homestead. Where Gael’s narrative loses focus is in its attempt to thrust realizations upon yuppie Mendel. Mendel and his fiancé have a significant falling out after he discloses his investments in weapons and war materials, which the twins elicit while presenting their argument for continuing their mother’s research. Rather than continuing to debate the moral, legal or ethical considerations involved with such eugenics, the discussion refocuses on Mendel’s possible indirect funding of devices that are used in war – leading to his eventual resignation from his investment club.* It is an unfortunate pivot from a truly engaging argument, as if Gael is not quite prepared to wrestle with the thornier issues pervading the tale. Moreover, Mendel and the other characters in the show fail mightily to stand up to the glorious creations that are Argonne and Flourine. Mendel has little dimension yet he narrates The House on Poe Street, effectively sanitizing the whole play through his banal gaze.
Atmosphere can be difficult to create on a small production budget, but Pei-Wen Huang-Shea’s foreboding set design transforms the space into a shadowy rundown loft, with Poe-inspired accents and phantasmal touches that transport the audience into an unsettling environment. Isaac Weisselberg’s lighting design compliments and accentuates the set design, highlighting key elements of the set while shrouding the rest in darkness. Alice Giacconi’s costume choices for the twins echo back to the 1800s but incorporate enough modern touches that Argonne and Flourine look both natural in the modern setting and slightly out of place, befitting their characters.
Much of the cast of The House on Poe Street flounders to find their characters, latching onto moments of exaggerated acting to compensate for their peripheral roles in the play. Gregory Jensen makes the most of the few moments in the play that permit him to break free from the mundaneness of the part of Mendel (a brief scene of possession is both hilarious and disconcerting), yet these moments are few and far between. Richarda Abrams is a scene stealer as medium Lithia Nickels whose methods are, shall we say, exuberant to the point of farce, much to the audience’s delight. However, the true stars of this cast are Olivia Nice and Eliza Shea as Argonne and Flourine Seaborg. Believable as close sisters, the duo plays well off of one another – with Nice’s authoritative and collected demeanor complimenting Shea’s quirky and bright-eyed unabashedness. Both have beautifully harmonious voices and impeccable comedic timing, and I can only hope that I have an opportunity to see them on stage again soon.
As a Halloween show, The House on Poe Street contains enough unsettled spirits and disquieting dialogue to make audiences both tremble with unease and ponder difficult questions about human nature and the lengths to which we can and should go to achieve social harmony. It is only when the playwright drifts away from the Poe-inspired plot and the lives of Argonne and Flourine Seaborg that the show stumbles.
*Because apparently Mendel has never heard of socially responsible investing.
The House on Poe Street, playing now at the 14th Street Y, strives to create humor out of pathos. It’s a tricky piece of work, living somewhere between black and romantic comedy. The challenge is intriguing, attempting to bring humor to a dark subject. The strength of the play lies in the biological science (somewhere between eugenics and transgender hormone therapy) that it begins to examine and to argue.
At the play’s opening we find the handsome, wealthy Mendel Steingold (played with charm by Gregory Jensen) speaking to us as if we are part of his firm. He’s a real estate lawyer with two clients, who we learn are twins. The twins, Argonne and Fluorine Seaborg (played with aplomb by Olivia Nice and Eliza Shea) have inherited the Edgar Allan Poe house from their mother and they wish to turn it into a museum. Their mother (who we come to learn is haunting Poe House) has changed their gender at birth from boys to girls to begin experimenting with hormones to make the world a safer place. The ghost-mother’s ultimate goal? To create a drink that might be used against extremely macho world leaders, creating compassion in them, instead of evil.
Mendel has a girlfriend, Samaria Silverman, played by Tamara Geisler who was a standout, with a vulnerable and warm performance throughout the evening. Samaria and Mendel seem to have an off-again on-again romance, with a happy ending, but there’s a catch. A séance is held to get to the bottom of things, and by the end of the play, Mendel and Sam are married, have inherited the house from the sisters and settle in to a new life together. However, Sam mysteriously develops the ability to play the harp as the lights dim. There’s a plot twist here that I won’t give away, it’s fun and spooky stuff for this season.
The core ideas in Poe House are fantastical and wonderfully idealistic. The playwright, Fengar Gael, has a wonderful facility with Poe's work. Poe is quoted often and sung throughout the evening to great effect. However, the play struggles to find its voice in the twin’s attempts to create compassion and empathy in a world gone mad with war and corruption. Mendel’s comment that if the twins' mother had been compassionate, she would not have changed the gender of her children without their consent, is right on point. He’s absolutely correct. The twins' conspiratorial and deceitful behavior is often not fully balanced by the comedy they convey. I enjoyed the play, but was uncertain of its intention at times. We learn the twins have been experimenting with their suitors' hormones, Gadi Rubin and Daniel Light (played winningly by Lawrence Silverman and Astin Rutherford) who then enter as flaming homosexuals. Having the twin’s love interests played as nice men who then become silly fops might make us laugh, but it also might make us feel unwelcome. This work has merit, but perhaps in another incarnation the playwright might strive to create more compassion for the characters presented to us here. Smooth direction by Katie McHugh and excellent set design by Pei-Wen Huang-Shea helped us digest the evening's more sombre overtones with relish and delight.
November 2, 2017
Yonder Window Theatre Company presents a delightful production of The House on Poe Street. While the finer points of the story are dubious, the show is beautiful, engaging and strange.
Estate lawyer Mendel Steingold (Gregory Jensen) meets an interesting pair of twin sisters, Argonne and Flourine Seaborg (Olivia Nice and Eliza Shea, respectively), while handling the estate of their deceased mother, Dr. Seaborg. The house is reportedly where Edgar Allen Poe wrote The Raven, and the twins discuss their hopes to turn the old house into a museum dedicated to Poe’s work. They also talk about their mother’s experiments to find an “empathy gene.” She hoped to find create or find a hormone that would rid the world of male aggression by injecting the hormone into world leaders, and men in general. Mendel of course doesn’t find this appealing, and the quirky sisters soon run him ragged with their peculiar demeanor. At their request, Mendel introduces them to his fiancé, Samaria Silverman (Tamara Geisler), and the three ladies become fast friends. Despite his reservations about the twins, Mendel also introduces them to Sam’s brother Lawrence (Gadi Rubin) and his friend, Astin Rutherford (Daniel Light). As they spend more time together, they discover the presence of a ghost who leaves a strange substance in tea cups at night. After an attempt to speak with the ghost through medium Lithia Nickels (Laura Johnston), Mendel’s world begins to crack as he is forced to examine his world view.
The scenic design by Pei-Wen Huang-Shea is lovely. It really brings the parlor of an old house to life – a lived in house full of character and story. In this charming setting, director Katie McHugh makes stage pictures that reflect the characters’ power and peculiarities as they tell their fantastic story.
Olivia Nice and Eliza Shea are the heart and soul of the entire performance. They are lovely to watch. Their timing with each other, and moving and speaking in unison was impeccable. They have such great chemistry, their singing voices are well matched. At several points throughout the show, Olivia and Eliza sing harmonies composed by Sheilah Rae. The lyrics are poetry by Poe and his wife, giving the gentle lilt of the melodies an eerie feel.
Gregory Jensen drives the play with ease, though it is a pity that his character has less and less to offer him as the action of the play moves forward. The rest of the actors do what they can with their two dimensional characters. Tamara Geisler fills out her character rather well. Laura Johnston and Daniel Light both have undeniable stage presence and a knack for the details of their characters.
Fengar Gael crafts an intriguing story and impeccable dialogue, however, most of the play is exposition. While the device she uses to tell the story is successful, it also means that we do not get to see all the action of the two stories we are being told. This feminist sci-fi is told through Mendel’s eyes, and Mendel is a man unaware of his privilege and power – the type of person the Seaborg sisters wish to eradicate. Naturally the characters clash, but because Mendel is telling the story, we follow his plot line. As a result, the climax of the twin sisters’ story takes place in the two months that Mendel is absent. It is odd that we learn so much about the peculiar lives of the Seaborg sisters, yet in the end the story doesn’t really seem to be about them.
Some moments of the play feel unfinished. For example, the result of the séance is the discovery of an oblong box that hold bones, potentially belonging to Virginia Clemm Poe; but this discovery does not propel the plot in anyway. It is like an empty Easter egg – it was so compelling to find it only to understand it doesn’t hold any meaning.
I rather enjoyed the story and the performance, yet I find a bizarre irony in the fact that a story about two very strong female characters surrounded by subpar characters is told from the perspective of a two-dimensional male character.
The House on Poe Street, Yonder Window Theatre Company, 14th Street Y Theatre, 344 East 14th Street. Closes November 12.
Time Square chronicles
NOVEMBER 3, 2017 VIRGINIA JIMENEZ @Jimenez824
Some plays are big, on the grand scale of an epic. Other plays are tiny, occupying the infinite and narrow space between two people. Party Play, an original production by Valerie Work and directed by Molly Marinik, is in the latter category -- placing the microscope on a small circle of friends, in a microcosmic world, for a narrow sliver of time. Playing at the Brick through tomorrow, it's a simple story of loss, quiet suffering, and human beings drifting apart.
Now Is The Party Of Our Discontent
As you might expect with a play of such specific focus, the plot is quite simple in scope. Two friends, Paul (Joe Gregori) and Carl (William Barnet) (pictured above), have shared a popular party apartment somewhere in Brooklyn. Now, the party is over in a larger sense -- Carl has run out of money and is going to move in with his parents in Rochester, NY. Paul is staying in Brooklyn, but moving to a small apartment where, sadly, the party will no longer be continuing. Their mutual friend Dustin (Greg Carere) has been handed "the party baton", but there are serious doubts as to whether he can live up to their raucous past.
The play takes place over the night of a single party, the last party, unfolding from end to beginning (Memento-style, if you prefer). The two are going through the motions, welcoming their usual cast of friends -- Kiki (Caitlin Goldie) and Janalyn (Charlotte Arnoux). And, talk of the evening, Tamar (Sarah Poleshuck) is making an appearance, having fallen by the wayside during her marriage... which has just ended in an uncomfortable divorce.
Tiny Tragedy Writ Large
Tamar, Paul, and Carl are each in transition to new homes, both literally (Tamar is also experiencing the stereotypical pains of NY real estate) as well as metaphorically (Janalyn candidly let's slip that when people are away for months it's like they've disappeared for years).
The experience is extremely laser-focused: it's a specific moment in history (it could only be this Millennial moment in Brooklyn, layered over with the pop music and references of our time), in time (unfolding backwards over one night, with the narrative focus almost solely on that night's experience), and in space (the only recognizable outside world referenced is the mythical Rochester, NY). It's told through a theatre-verite, moment to moment the conversations have an effortless unforced realness which, when they are not overburdened with forced meaning, feel like reality.
Unlike your typical, twentieth century "realist" play, this doesn't culminate in explosive monologues -- Tamar never explodes with rage or collapses in tears at the tiny, paper-cut-like slights that her awkward friends send her way, nor does anyone on stage truly speak aloud their fears or pains at any point. We assume that still waters run deep, although in fact all we are seeing are, well, still waters.
At Least We Had Fun
You may be distracted from the stillness of the waters by innovative use of direction, music, and design that keeps the play moving as its story unfolds. Lee Kinney's sound design keeps the flow moving, tying into the on-going party pulse that drives the narrative forward. Molly Marinik's direction finds new ways to use space to keep the play's low-key, realist dialogue from falling into a repetitive lull.
But most of all, Pei-Wen Huang's set design knocks it out of the park -- the set (large moveable stacks of cardboard boxes) provides a flexible, easily transformed use for the space -- rearranging to become the patio, or the dance floor, or the kitchen. It stayed within the realism of the space, while still giving the full theatrical flexibility for Marinik and the performers to work wthin. (And, to my producer's eye, a pretty effective use of budget...)
Distant Party People
This is where I caveat for a moment my relationship to a play called "Party Play" when I'm not someone who particularly likes parties or alcohol. So from where I sat, Party Play seemed like a dispassionate, almost anthropological assessment of the white American party culture in Brooklyn today.
If so, I would say that both the form and the content point towards something severe that's missing in these aimless youth's lives. (Boy howdy I'm about to get all old man up on this review). The big problem for Carl, for Paul, and for Tamar is that they've built a social circle around "having fun." Thus, when some non-fun things happen - Tamar's divorce, for example - the friends at hand can't seem to find any way to provide comfort, or to truly connect with this pain. Instead, it becomes a source of quiet shame.
The real doubt, hanging over the play, is whether any of the people we're watching are going to be in touch after the party ends. It's difficult to see what they have in common aside from shared memories of wedding parties and after parties, waterslide parties, pool parties. Once the party is gone, what will be left? Certainly, nobody wants to talk about it. And while the party is going, nobody has to.
Tellingly, the two moments when someone addresses the elephant in the room are both Carl, at the beginning and end at the play -- expressions of longing for the past, and fear of the future. A mournful goodbye to a pleasant adolescence.
Brooklyn College Theater Program Featured in Shanghai
Dec. 13, 2012
Associate Professor Victor "Kip" Marsh, chair of the Department of Theater, and M.F.A. theater design student Pei-Wen Huang present the work of Brooklyn College students at the Stage Design Exhibition of International Theatre Schools in Shanghai.
Victor "Kip" Marsh, associate professor and chair of the Department of Theater, and M.F.A. student Pei-Wen Huang travelled to Shanghai in October to represent Brooklyn College at the biennial Stage Design Exhibition of International Theatre Schools. Students from around the globe attended the weeklong conference, which aims to bring academic institutions together to share expertise on art and stage design.
"The works we brought to Shanghai were very energetic," says Huang, who hails from Taiwan. "All the pictures from the shows really express the range of American theater."
Huang, who is studying theater design, helped Marsh to organize the trip and secured a student travel grant through the college to cover her travel expenses. Her fluency in Mandarin was also a plus.
Brooklyn College was the only American school invited to participate in the exhibition, which was hosted by Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA) and held at the Shanghai New International Expo Center. STA is one of the largest universities for performing arts in the world.
"It is safe to say that our students' stage design work was among the best presented at this exhibition," says Marsh, who also gave a lecture on American stage design methods. "The event was a way to get people from across the world to analyze stage design from a global, social and political perspective."
This fall, Brooklyn College and STA formed a partnership that will provide exchange opportunities for students and faculty.
"The departments of theater, film, and television and radio all represent positions of excellence to Shanghai Theatre Academy," says Marsh. "Our master's programs in all areas are quite strong, and our direct access to the New York entertainment community is also attractive."
Marsh joined the Brooklyn College faculty in 2004. He is also a principal lighting and set designer with the acclaimed dance company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, and he has worked on a number of theatrical projects, including Nora Ephron's "Imaginary Friends" and "The Contract" at the National Ballet of Canada.
Huang has received numerous awards for her work in the arts, including the Frances Black prize in drama, Jack Hilton Cunningham Award in Scenery Design, and Friars Club Foundation Scholarship. After she graduates, she plans to pursue a career in set and costume design.
A VIEW FROM THE CLIFF: â€œA Bright Room Called Day at Brooklyn College
Posted:Thursday, March 1, 2012 9:00 am |Â Updated: 10:00 pm, Wed Feb 29, 2012.
BY CLIFF KASDEN
The cataclysmic events surrounding the Nazi takeover in Germany reach an agonizing crescendo in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner™s intense drama A Bright Room Called Day. Presented as theatre-in-the-round on Brooklyn College™s Whitman stage, the battle between the conservative right and the radical left is the unabashed theme of the production.
The line between harsh reality and bizarre fantasy is intentionally blurred by the author and reinforced by the actors. Emily DeSena plays Zillah, a 1980s protester who sits unseen with the 1930s activists. Her righteous indignation and frequent anti-establishment hyperboles are well played.
The Devil, or one of his incarnations, appears from the mist as Gottfried Swetts (Skyler Sullivan), an importer of Spanish novelties. He offers a unique gift to the stunned radicals.
The last mystical character is Die Alte (the old one) portrayed by Layla Khoshnoudi. She enters through the fire escape, bewildered and bedraggled. She represents the silent majority of 1930s Germans who were unwilling or unable to stop the flood of horrors triggered by Hitler™s henchmen. The playwright's parallels to the Ronald Reagan era seem somehow less potent in light of more current conservative movers and shakers.
Fiery Gotchling played by Sarah Poleshuck is quite convincing as a strong woman willing to take enormous risks. Equally persuasive is lovely starlet Paulinka (Amanda Holston) who is addicted to opium and psychotherapy. She stumbles into action defending her friend against Nazi thugs.
One eyed Husz (Marcus D. Harvey) explodes with anger when Gregor Bazwald (J.J. Condon) describes his chance meeting with Hitler. Husz rails, Why didn't you shoot him. You had a gun!â€ Both flee the country. Communist activists Rosa (Bree Klauser) and Emil Traum (Jordane Christie) also plan to escape.
Kristi Funk Dana plays Agnes, an actress who is sympathetic but not wholly committed to leftist ideologies. Ms. Dana is the hub around which all other characterizations turn. She sees and understands what is happening in her homeland but is helpless or unwilling to prevent the evil momentum engulfing her country.
Directed by Dave Dalton with outstanding set design by Pei-Wen Huang, the play runs until March 4. Call the Brooklyn Center at 718-951-4500 for tickets or check the webpage at http//depthome.brooklyn.cuny.edu/theater.
Brooklyn stages continue to bring light to dark wintry days. As always, save me a seat on the aisle.
'The Pearlfisher' review Published: Thursday, November 06, 2008, 1:00 AM
Updated: Thursday, November 06, 2008, 1:11 AM By James Yate
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- CSI's Department of Performing and Creative Arts' presentation of "The Pearlfisher" was a visual beauty.
The highlight was the river banks which was presented as an architectual gem in wood-framed multi-level-real-water banks in Pei-Wen Huang's design. Leaves on the trees cast a perfect shadow on the set and even change colors through the seasons with Michael Deegan's lights.
It all made for a gorgeous playing area for the five-member cast, Danielle Hernandez, Steven Hudacko, Alison Langleiben, Thomas Reilly and Omar Sattar, who are all convincing in their roles which also required they mix languages like farsi. Maurya Wickstrom directs a tender love story/struggle for preservation.
Iain MacLeod's Scottish play takes a look at life through nomadic Travellers who contend with nature, locals and stereotypes to earn a living. Presented in two acts, MacLeod sets up the story in 1948 and then revists the players nearly 50 years later.
Steven Hudacko is the Act I pearlfisher who finds tiny gems in the fresh water river to be sold. Hudacko, who also pulls double-duty as assistant director is quite capable as the respectful, honest and caring fisherman who befriends a young woman, Jess (Alison Langleiben) who appears to be in a loveless relationship with Roderick (Thomas Reilly) always ready to pick a fight and benefit from work he has not done. Joining the pearfisher as traveller is Etta (Danielle Hernandez) who sells flowers and Willie (Omar Sattar) who trades and rides horses.
Langleiben's Jess is a stage natural and falls in love with Ali and risks being shunned by family and likely suitors. She then fears for her future and the future of her offspring.
In the second act we see the off-spring who now live in trailers and still are in fear of their lifestyle and livlihood. Hernandez is the steady carry-over from act one who tells the story of what happened with the pearlfisher.
The biggest challenge was in scene changes that required crew members to carry on furniture and props. While the crew did a fine job in making changes quickly, their presence interrupted the flow of action and thus momentum, especially in the quick transition scenes.