Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Ave. at 36th St.
Friday, February 28, $25, 7:00
In conjunction with its current exhibit “Alfred Jarry: The Carnival of Being,” the Morgan is hosting a special event on February 28, bringing together a wide range of performers celebrating the vast influence of Jarry, the French Symbolist who died in 1907 at the age of thirty-four, having left behind an important legacy of plays (Ubu Roi), novels (Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician), essays (The Green Candle), illustrations, and more. The evening includes musical excerpts from actor Tony Torn and Julie Atlas Muz’s Ubu Sings Ubu, a mashup of Ubu Roi and songs by Cleveland art-punk provocateurs Pere Ubu; a screening of British speculative sculptor Lawrence Lek’s two-minute 2010 film The Time Machine, “a translation of surrealist science fiction into physical form” based on Jarry’s 1899 essay “How to Construct a Time Machine”; “Reading Jarry,” a collaboration between DJ Spooky and Belgian actor and producer Ronald Guttman; and live scoring by DJ Spooky to clips from the late Polish graphic designer and cartoonist Jan Lenica’s 1979 film, Ubu et la grande Gidouille. The program begins at 7:00, but ticket holders are invited to check out the exhibition, which continues through May 10, beginning at 6:00.
Gertrude and Irving Dimson Theatre
108 East 15th St. between Union Square East & Irving Pl.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 29, $45-$120
Searching for a way to tell a remarkable true story about his mother — at his mother’s request — playwright Lucas Hnath came up with an ingenious solution. In 2015, Hnath’s friend and frequent collaborator Steve Cosson, the artistic director of the New York–based “investigative theater” company the Civilians, interviewed Hnath’s mother and muse, Dana Higginbotham, focusing on her 1997 abduction by a man identified only as Jim, a dangerous, suicidal ex-con and member of the Aryan Brotherhood. Using a precisely edited version of the recorded interview, Hnath and director Les Waters (Evocation to Visible Appearance, Recent Alien Abductions) have created the mesmerizing Dana H., a seventy-five-minute play unlike anything you’ve ever seen — or heard — before.
The play takes place in a 1990s-era ordinary motel room, with bed, sink, bathroom, dresser, and a chair front and center. (The set design is by Andrew Boyce, with vivid lighting by Paul Toben and affecting sound by Mikhail Fiksel.) Obie and Drama Desk winner Deirdre O’Connell spends nearly the entire show sitting in the chair, wearing earphones. She lip-synchs everything that comes out of Higginbotham’s mouth through multiple speakers, every word, sigh, breath, stumble, and laugh. (She was coached on the lip-synching by Steve Cuiffo, who has worked with John “Lypskinka” Epperson.)
It might be a very serious topic, but Higginbotham, a minister, relates it with a certain degree of distance, often explaining what were likely deeply emotional events in an almost matter-of-fact way, recounting the story more than reliving it, which makes sense, given what she went through. O’Connell shifts her body slightly at times, imagining how Higginbotham might have been moving as she spoke with Cosson, occasionally reaching into her purse. Not missing the slightest sound is miraculous in itself, since live theater depends on a unique relationship between actor and audience, so she cannot adjust her performance based on the reactions of the crowd. She can’t even cough or sneeze without potentially losing pace with the prerecorded voice she is matching. It doesn’t take long before you think that O’Connell is Higginbotham; the novelty of the technology wears off and the two women have become one. (In fact, they did not meet each other in person until the play’s world premiere opening night in June 2019 at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, California.)
Higginbotham was a psych ward chaplain when she first met and treated Jim. When he was released and had nowhere to go for Christmas, Higginbotham invited him to stay with her and her second husband, Rick Hnath, Lucas’s stepfather. Jim tried to make it out in the real world, but his failures mounted and one day he kidnapped Higginbotham and took off on a crime spree. Her tale of what happened during the abduction, including interactions with police, is horrifying as she develops a hostage mentality. “You adapt to maladaptation,” she says.
Admitting that she suffers from PTSD, she is, of course, an unreliable narrator, though you have no reason to not believe her. Higginbotham has an innate gift for storytelling, filling in gaps and anticipating plot-driven questions to ensure a taut narrative structure, though you will still leave wondering about certain unanswered elements, including how Lucas, who was born Lucas Blanche in 1979 in Miami, fit in her life in the immediate aftermath of the events. Hnath (A Doll’s House Part 2, The Christians), who actually met Jim when he came home from winter break at NYU back in 1998, has chosen not to discuss his involvement in his mother’s story in various interviews he has given over the last year, but his presence hovers throughout the theater, both in the past and the present.
Coincidentally, Dana H. follows Tina Satter’s Is This A Room at the Vineyard, a play in which all the dialogue is taken verbatim from the FBI transcripts of the bureau’s interrogation of Reality Winner regarding leaked classified documents, as well as Hnath’s The Thin Place at Playwrights Horizons, in which one of the main characters is a woman who spends most of the show sitting in a chair, trying to contact her deceased mother via a medium. But Dana H. exists in its own universe. It is a superb, grandly unique work of art, a brilliant foray into trauma and physical and sexual abuse, as the brave Higginbotham, superbly portrayed by O’Connell (Fulfillment Center, Circle Mirror Transformation), shares her horrific struggle trapped in extreme, violent situations and ultimately survives. “A person who can be an empathetic witness can bring healing,” she says. It can also make for great theater, in the right hands.
The Pershing Square Signature Center, the Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday-Sunday through March 15, $55-$65
Back when pop music was released on actual records, artists in the 1970s would often put their best songs on side one of their albums, knowing that many people would rarely get off the couch, go to the turntable, and flip the disc to hear the other side. In Cambodian Rock Band, Lauren Yee’s play with music about the second-generation immigrant experience and the Cambodian genocide of 1975–79, it’s side two that is much better, but not quite enough to save the overall proceedings at the Signature Theatre.
Cambodian Rock Band was inspired both by Dengue Fever, a 2000s California band that resurrected the lost Cambodian psychedelic sounds of the 1970s, and the true story of Kang Kek Iew, aka Duch (Francis Jue), a math teacher whom the Khmer Rouge turned into the coldblooded head of Tuol Sleng prison, known as S-21. The end of pop music in Cambodia and the rise of war criminals like Duch are, of course, related, and Duch serves as a kind of host/narrator in the show, jovially introducing several scenes, watching from the wings, and joining the band before becoming a key figure in the story’s second half. Yee focuses on the relationship between Neary (Courtney Reed), a young American of Cambodian descent who works for the International Center for Transitional Justice in Phnom Penh, and her father, Chum (Joe Ngo), a Cambodian immigrant who has returned to his homeland for the first time in decades in order to bring his daughter back to the United States. But Neary is on a big case, attempting to take down Duch as she searches for the eighth survivor of S-21, an eyewitness who can help put Duch away for life, to make him pay for his vicious crimes. Neary is working and living with Ted (Moses Villarama), a Canadian of Thai and Cambodian background; he is surprised when her father’s unexpected appearance on Cambodian New Year’s Eve causes her to doubt herself. “You’re working to convict the first Khmer Rouge official to be tried for crimes against humanity. You are a rock star, Near,” he assures her. But it all starts making sense when she figures out who the eighth survivor is and the action flashes back to S-21, highlighting both the torture and the bravery under Brother Number One Pol Pot’s brutal policies.
The show moves between 1975, 1978, and 2008; in 1975, Chum is the guitarist in a Cambodian rock band known as the Cyclos that specializes in psychedelic surf garage rock, with Villarama as bassist Leng, Reed as lead vocalist Sothea, Abraham Kim as drummer Rom, and Jane Lui as keyboardist Pou. (Kim and Lui also portray minor characters.) The music they play are Cambodian rock songs that were discovered in the 1990s, mostly from bands from the 1960s and ’70s that did not survive the genocide; one of the first things the Khmer Rouge did upon taking over was to kill artists. The Cyclos, named for the three-wheeled bicycle that is pervasive in Cambodia, perform numbers by Yol Aularong, Ros Serey Sothea, Sinn Sisamouth, and Voy Ho, who were all murdered, as well as originals by LA-based Dengue Fever. Most of the songs are sung in Cambodian without translation, about love and heartbreak, but some have more relevant lyrics, so it’s too bad there are no surtitles. “The windy season makes me think of my village / I think of the old people, young people, aunts and uncles / We used to run and play, hide and seek / But now we are far apart far apart,” they sing in one.
Takeshi Kata’s effective sets range from a hotel bedroom with a view of the street (the sign about the piranha is purposefully misspelled, yes?) to one of the cells in S-21; Linda Cho’s costumes for the band are downright groovy, while Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design immerses you in the action. The music is excellent, but there’s too much of it; unfortunately, it makes you feel like you’re at a concert, which takes you out of the play. Yee (The Great Leap, King of the Yees) and director Chay Yew (Mojada, Low) have trouble establishing a rhythm; the setlist/narrative is a bumpy road that never quite comes together. Jue (Soft Power Kung Fu) has fun as the villainous Jue, and Reed shuttles smoothly between Neary and Sothea, but Ngo, whose parents are survivors and who helped develop the show with Yee, overplays Chum, who is often too goofy and too loud. A finalist for the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, Cambodian Rock Band has an important story to tell, but it ends up like one of those albums in your collection that has some great songs on it that you rarely listen to all the way through.
235 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 5, $49-$189
Don’t be misled into thinking that Jagged Little Pill is yet another high-profile jukebox musical about a famous entertainer. The mostly worshipful and misguided biographic whitewashes such as The Cher Show, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and even the best of the bunch, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, have been inundating Broadway over the last few years with, for the most part, a dreary mediocrity and predictability. Instead, Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody and Tony-winning director Diane Paulus have crafted a powerful narrative of suburban America inspired by the songs of seven-time Grammy winner Alanis Morissette, primarily from her smash 1995 breakthrough album, Jagged Little Pill, in addition to other tunes from throughout her career as well as a few new, previously unreleased ones, with music by her longtime collaborator Glen Ballard.
The show opens in the Healys’ home as Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley) is preparing the family’s annual Christmas letter. She brags about her husband, Steve (Sean Allan Krill), a partner in a law firm; their daughter, Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding), an artistic wunderkind; their son, Nick (Derek Klena), who has been accepted to Harvard; and even herself, focusing on how she has survived a car accident. “It’s amazing what you can get used to with a little discipline,” she cheerfully writes. “The mind and body are connected in ways we can’t even imagine. I’ve gotten to a point where I can’t feel anything!” She can’t feel anything because she’s hooked on opioids, which help her not face the reality of her life: Her husband is a workaholic, her daughter is a radical lesbian, her son is about to get caught up in a sex scandal, and she is a drug addict. When she later bumps into three vapid friends at the local coffee shop, one says to her, “M.J., you have to give yourself some credit. We all know you’re ‘Super Mom.’” But even Superman has his Kryptonite.
Her carefully created world threatens to come crashing down when she learns that one of Nick’s best friends, Bella (Kathryn Gallagher), might have been raped at a party and Nick might be involved in some way. But she’s not about to let the truth get in the way of her family’s success, even as the house of cards starts tumbling down all around her. “Whether you like it or not, how you present yourself to the world matters,” she tells Frankie, an African American child the Healys adopted. “People act like my parents are heroes or something just for wanting me,” Frankie explains to Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano), the new kid in school. “My mom always says she ‘doesn’t see color.’ But sometimes I wish she did. Is that weird?” Frankie is instantly attracted to the strange Phoenix, which does not make her supposed girlfriend, Jo (Lauren Patten), very happy. Meanwhile, Steve thinks it’s time for him and Mary Jane to go to marriage counseling. “I don’t want to be resented when I’m just trying to provide for you / I don’t want to be berated for simply doing my best to reach you / I don’t want to be controlling / I just want our life to be normal again,” he sings. But nothing will ever be “normal” for the Healys again, whatever “normal” even means anymore. As Bella later says to Mary Jane, “Tell me when I’m going to feel normal again.”
Jagged Little Pill has its share of jagged edges, occasionally dancing too close to clichés, hammering home its #MeToo message far too aggressively, Frankie’s affection for Phoenix is underdeveloped, and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography feels like it’s escaped from a different show as an ensemble of frantic dancers regularly get in the way. They almost — but thankfully don’t — ruin Patten’s dynamic performance of one of Morissette’s most famous songs, “You Oughta Know,” which rocks the theater to its foundations. Patten, seen previously in such shows as Fun Home, The Wolves, and Days of Rage, firmly establishes herself as someone to watch. Cody (Juno, Tully) has a lot of fun with riffing on “Ironic” (“Hold up, wait a second, that’s actually not ironic,” one of Frankie’s classmates argues) and cleverly exposes disturbing aspects of suburban America while tackling issues of race, addiction, and sexual abuse.
Tom Kitt’s orchestrations do justice to Morissette’s originals, with powerful versions of such familiar songs as “All I Really Want,” “Hand in My Pocket,” and “You Learn” in addition to tunes from such other Morissette albums as Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie and Under Rug Swept, delivered by a terrific cast and an eight-piece band (that really don’t need to keep rolling onto Riccardo Hernández’s set. There’s also a beautiful scene in which Mary Jane is joined by her younger self in a haunting dance. Jagged Little Pill might not be nonfiction, but it rocks with a poignant realism, since Morissette’s songs are often so confessional, based on painful events from her life. The story takes place over the course of a year, concluding with a very different Christmas letter. As Morissette so poignantly wrote, “You live you learn / You love you learn / You cry you learn / You lose you learn / You bleed you learn / You scream you learn.”
A SIGN OF THE TIMES
511 West 54th St.
Thursday - Tuesday through April 4, $51-$71
Writer-director Stephen Lloyd Helper’s A Sign of the Times was inspired by a twenty-second interaction with a road worker whose job was flipping a sign that said “Slow” on one side and “Stop” on the other. Helper (Smokey Joe’s Café, Syncopation) turned that into a poignant one-man comedy about depression and the state of the planet that is currently in previews at Theater 511. The ninety-five-minute play stars Brooklyn-born actor and activist Javier Muñoz, who brings his unique personal experiences to the show; Muñoz, who took over for Lin-Manuel Miranda first as Usnavi in In the Heights, then in the title role of Hamilton, was raised in East New York, is HIV-positive, and has battled cancer. “1st yr of conservatory I was asked why I chose this profession. I said cuz I wanted to help both light meet dark in us all. We exist w/in 1 another w/ every breath. Stand in defiance. Never stop listening to why you stand in defiance. There lay truth,” he recently posted on Twitter. In A Sign of the Times, his character references Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare, Greek mythology, theater, literature, and more as he searches for hope in a pain-filled world. The play features costumes by Soule Golden, lighting by Caitlin Rapoport, projections by Kristen Ferguson, and sound and original music by David Van Tieghem.
TICKET GIVEAWAY: A Sign of the Times runs through April 4 (with a February 27 opening) at Theater 511, and twi-ny has three pairs of tickets to give away for free. (At the March 2, 3, 5, 6, and 9 performances, the role usually played by Javier Muñoz will be played by Greg Brostrom.) Just send your name, phone number, and favorite play, television show, or movie with a star from Hamilton in it to firstname.lastname@example.org by Wednesday, February 26, at 3:00 pm to be eligible. All entrants must be twenty-one years of age or older; three winners will be selected at random.
PREMATURE (Rashaad Ernesto Green, 2019)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Opens Friday, February 21
From the first time their eyes meet, you know that Ayanna (Zora Howard) and Isaiah (Joshua Boone) are destined to fall in love in Rashaad Ernesto Green’s sweetly tender and moving Premature. A Sundance hit that was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards — the John Cassavetes Award for best film made for less than $500,000 and the Someone to Watch Award for Green, whose previous film was 2011’s well-received Bronx-set Gun Hill Road — Premature is an expansion of Green’s 2008 fifteen-minute HBO Grand Jury Prize-winning short that starred Howard as a Bronx teen facing a crisis. Ten years later, longtime friends Green and Howard, who live in the same Harlem neighborhood, teamed up to write the feature-length version of the story, which opens February 21 at IFC. (Green will participate in Q&As at the 8:20 shows on February 21 and 22, joined the first night by Howard.)
The film was shot on location in Harlem primarily around 145th St., where Ayanna, a poet, is spending her last summer before heading off to college. She hangs around with her close group of friends, Shonté (Imani Lewis), Tenita (Alexis Marie Wint), and Jamila (Tashiana Washington), some of whom already have children and who don’t share the dreams of independence that drive Ayanna. Meanwhile, her mother, Sarita (Michelle Wilson), shows only a mild interest in her daughter, instead taking up with a series of men, searching for her own love. Upon meeting the slightly older Isaiah, a music producer dedicated to the legacy of his late jazz musician father, Ayanna at first plays coy, then heads full steam into a relationship with Isaiah, who appears to be more honest and dependable than most of the other guys in the community, who like talking trash and getting it on with any woman in their path. But when Ayanna suddenly faces an unexpected crisis, she has to decide what she wants for herself, her once bright future now possibly in question.
Premature is beautifully photographed in 16mm by Laura Valladao, giving the film a kind of timelessness, both modern and a throwback to an earlier era, attempting to capture a Harlem that is quickly undergoing gentrification, losing some of its identity; in some ways it is reminiscent of Horace Jenkins’s recently discovered and restored 1982 indie gem Cane River, in which a young woman about to go to college falls in love with a slightly older man who wants to be a poet, although Premature is far more accomplished in both storytelling and acting, has a feminist perspective, and purposely steps aside from issues of race, politics, and the legacy of slavery. Instead, Green and Howard, a playwright whose Stew closes at Walkerspace on February 22, focus purely on the love story between two black people who are practically living in a private dream world, as if their relationship exists on its own plane.
Their Harlem is not the one you usually see onscreen; it’s not a spoiler to say that there is no crime or violence in Premature, no side plots of drugs, prostitution, clashes with law enforcement, or other stereotypical sociocultural elements that usually creep into such narratives. Yet the gentle, sensitively told Premature, with a lively score that features Dave Eggar on solo cello and a mix of song styles from diverse musicians, is as much about Harlem and its black community as it is about a man and a woman who might be destined for each other. The film slips as it reaches its conclusion, stretching the limits of credulity as it devolves into a sentimentality and cliché it wisely avoids otherwise, but it also includes an unforgettable scene when the dreadlocked Ayanna takes a pair of scissors to her hair, a defining moment for the character and the movie itself. Green and Howard sought to make a different kind of black love story set in New York City, and that’s exactly what they have done, to all our benefit.
ONCE WERE BROTHERS: ROBBIE ROBERTSON & THE BAND (Daniel Roher, 2019)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Opens Friday, February 21
The opening night selection of the tenth annual DOC NYC festival, Daniel Roher’s Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson & the Band is an intimate, if completely one-sided, look inside one of the greatest, most influential music groups in North American history. The film was inspired by Band cofounder Robbie Robertson’s 2016 memoir, Testimony, offering his take on the Band’s ups and downs, famous battles, and ultimate breakup. “I don’t know of any other group of musicians with a story equivalent to the story of the Band, and it was a beautiful thing. It was so beautiful it went up in flames,” Robertson, sitting in a chair in a vast, empty room, guitars hanging on the wall far behind him, says. The setup puts the focus on Robertson’s individuality, his alone-ness, in what others trumpet as a collection of extraordinary musicians. “There is no band that emphasizes coming together and becoming greater than the sum of their parts, than the Band. Simply their name: The Band. That was it,” fan Bruce Springsteen says. “I was in great awe of their brotherhood. It was the soul of the Band,” notes Eric Clapton, who says he wanted to join the group made up of singer-songwriter and guitarist Robertson, singer and bassist Rick Danko, singer and keyboardist Richard Manuel, singer and drummer Levon Helm, and keyboardist and accordionist Garth Hudson.
When Robertson, who was born in Toronto in 1943, talks about his childhood — his mother was born on the Six Nations of the Grand River Indian reserve, which had a profound effect on him musically, and his biological father was a Jewish gangster, although he was raised by an abusive stepfather — the film is revelatory, with archival photographs and live footage of Robertson’s early bands and his time with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. Robertson shares mesmerizing anecdotes about going electric with Bob Dylan, recording the Basement Tapes in a house called Big Pink, and discussing his craft. “I don’t have much of a process of like I’m thinking about this, and now I’m going to write a song and it’s gonna be about that,” he explains. “A lot of times, the creative process is trying to catch yourself off guard. And you sit down and you’ve got a blank canvas and you don’t know what you’re gonna do and you just see what happens.”
Hawkins speaks glowingly of his protégé Robertson, who wrote his first songs for Hawkins when he was only fifteen. Roher also talks to executive producer Martin Scorsese, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, record producer John Simon, road manager Jonathan Taplin, equipment manager Bill Scheele, photographer John Scheele, Asylum Records creator David Geffen, and musicians Dylan, Taj Mahal, Peter Gabriel, Van Morrison, and Jimmy Vivino, who all rave about Robertson and the Band. “They were totally in love with their music, and they were in love with each other,” photographer Elliott Landy says. “I never saw any jealousy, I never saw any arguments, I never saw them disagree. They were always supporting each other. They were five brothers, very clearly five brothers who loved each other, and I never saw anything but that.”
Of course, Roher cannot talk to Manuel, Danko, and Helm, who are all dead, and Hudson did not participate in the documentary. Robertson and his wife, Dominique, paint a harrowing picture of the Band’s severe strife as drugs and alcohol tear them apart. There’s really no one, aside from a brief point made by guitarist Larry Campbell, to offer an opposing view to Robertson’s tale, which puts him on a golden throne despite some very public disagreements, particularly with Helm over songwriting credit and royalties. Robertson speaks enthusiastically and intelligently throughout the film, but it’s clear from the get-go that these are his carefully constructed, perhaps selective memories about what happened. But Roher doesn’t disguise that conceit; the film is named after one of Robertson’s solo songs, and the second half of the title is, after all, Robbie Robertson & the Band, as if Robertson is separate from the rest.
One of the main surprises is Robertson’s claim that the Last Waltz concert at Winterland in 1976 was not meant as a farewell but just a pause; Roher and Robertson fail to point out that the group continued to tour and record without Robertson. On his sixth solo album, Sinematic, which was released last September, Robertson has a song about the Band, the aforementioned “Once Were Brothers,” that can be heard at the start of the film. “Oh, once were brothers / Brothers no more / We lost a connection / After the war / There’ll be no revival / There’ll be no one cold / Once were brothers / Brothers no more,” Robertson sings. “When that curtain comes down / We’ll let go of the past / Tomorrow’s another day / Some things weren’t meant to last.” It’s a sad testament to a storied legacy, packed with amazing photos and live clips that make it a must-see for fans of the group. Once Were Brothers opens at IFC on February 21, with music photographer Elliott Landy, who appears in the film, participating in a Q&A at the 7:45 show Friday night.