Bodypainting world champion and visual artist Trina Merry returns to the Oculus for a new project that is near and dear to her heart. Under the soaring white arcs of the shopping and transportation center, the Seattle-born, New York City–based artist has previously painted people’s bodies so they blend in with their surroundings as part of her international “Urban Camouflage” series. From December 12 to 15 at the Oculus, Merry is presenting “This Is Pain,” an immersive installation that details the compelling stories of eight men and women suffering from near-crippling chronic pain. Merry has built a vertebrae-like structure with eight large-scale video monitors that face inside and eight more that face outside, showing encounters in which the subjects talk about their injuries/illnesses, describe their terrible pain, and get their bodies painted by Merry, who is inspired by their tales, making each person an artwork as unique as themselves and as specific as their stories.
Merry became interested in chronic pain after being struck by lightning, leaving her with “crippling and continuous aches and pains throughout my body as well as a heightened sensitivity to electricity,” she explains in her artist statement. “I escaped to Yosemite to seek respite, and it is there that I was led to painting as a means of recovery. . . . My hope is that this exhibit can help generate understanding and compassion and show the world what living with chronic pain is really like.” She turned to bodypainting at the suggestion of her friend Amanda Palmer.
Merry, who was influenced by Yves Klein, Yayoi Kusama, and Verushka and studied with Robert Wilson and Marina Abramovic at Watermill, modeled the white structure to evoke a spinal column — the spinal cord is a major bundle of nerve fibers where severe pain can originate due to neurological damage — and to sit alongside the Oculus, Santiago Calatrava’s massive transportation hub entrance that resembles a bird in flight or a skeletal rib cage. Of course, it is also by Ground Zero, where so much physical, psychological, and emotional pain has occurred on and after 9/11/2001. Pushed past their comfort zones by Merry, the eight brave people who discuss their health situations and, in most cases, bare their bodies as they’re painted are Patricia from Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, who was injured doing yoga and feels burning pain that feel like electric lightning bolts; Cathy from LA, who believes in mind over matter; Cindi from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, whose pain feels like cactus splinters and who works with the American Chronic Pain Association; Tom from LA, a military veteran whose pain feels to him as if he’s wrestling a tiger on fire; Shannon from Austin, a wife and mother who indulges in simple acts of kindness and compassion to combat her pain (“My pain is like a tornado. It comes in and wreaks havoc on my entire body.”); Trish from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, who has battled joint pain for more than thirty years (“My pain manifests as fire in my knees.”); Al from Littleton, Colorado, who has had nearly two dozen surgeries, including twelve spinal fusions, to fight off pain that he says feels like hot lava; and Tony and Emmy winner Kristin (Chenoweth) from LA, who suffered an accident while on-set six years ago and has experienced kaleidoscopic, disorienting pain ever since, although she refuses to let it keep her offstage or off-camera. Sponsored by a pharmaceutical company, “This Is Pain” also gives people the opportunity to post their own stories here in the hope of bringing more understanding to a very real problem.
Who: Emily Flake, Kat Burdick, Amanda Duarte, Jean Grae, Porochista Khakpour, Kembra Pfahler
What: Live podcast taping of Nightmares: Good People, Bad Dreams
Where: The Red Room at KGB, 85 East Fourth St.
When: Sunday, December 15, free (two-drink minimum), 7:00
Why: Cartoonist-writer-performer-teacher-illustrator Emily Flake’s podcast Nightmares: Good People, Bad Dreams invites “the funniest and most interesting people around” to talk “about what messed up things go through their heads at night.” On December 15 at 7:00, the show will be taped live at the Red Room at KGB as Flake and her guest cohost, comedian Kat Burdick, are joined by writer-performer Amanda Duarte, hip-hop artist and polymath genius Jean Grae, writer-teacher-lecturer Porochista Khakpour, and performance artist, filmmaker, and the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black lead singer Kembra Pfahler for what should be a wildly unpredictable evening of laughs and scares.
Park Ave. Armory, Wade Thompson Drill Hall
643 Park Ave. at 67th St.
Monday - Saturday through January 10, $55-$195
In his 1936–37 work Judgment Day, Austro-Hungarian novelist and playwright Ödön von Horváth warns of the rise of fascism in Germany, comparing it to a speeding train approaching a station that has no idea it’s coming. That’s the central motif in Richard Jones’s admirable if uneven new production, adapted by Christopher Shinn, that opened today at Park Ave. Armory for a run through January 10. Jones, who presented a fierce version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape at the armory in 2017, once again makes unique use of the building’s vast Wade Thompson Drill Hall; Paul Steinberg’s set features oversized, flat, painted plywood trees around the back, sides, and corners and two giant, movable blocks of unpainted wood, like a child’s toys, one in the shape of an arch, the other flat and angled like a stray wall from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Mimi Jordan Sherin’s stark lighting creates distinct reflections on the shiny black floor, like the characters’ souls on display.
It’s the 1930s, and a lumberjack (Andy Murray), the gossipy Frau Leimgruber (Harriet Harris), and a traveling salesman (Jason O’Connell) are waiting for a local train. Stationmaster Thomas Hudetz (Luke Kirby) emerges only to ring the signal bell, standing at attention and saluting as the express roars by, thrillingly portrayed by Drew Levy’s immersive sound design and the actors’ dramatic reactions. After seeing off her fiancé, butcher Ferdinand (Alex Breaux), ingénue Anna (Susannah Perkins) teases the straitlaced Hudetz as his shrewish wife, Frau Hudetz (Alyssa Bresnahan), watches from above. Anna makes an unexpected and unwelcome move, beginning a chain of events that leads to the death of eighteen people, including a track worker (Jason O’Connell) and train driver Pokorny (Maurice Jones) but leaving a witness, stoker Herr Kohut (George Merrick).
A policeman (Charles Brice) and detective (Joe Wegner) arrive to find out what happened, but falsehood, deception, and long-simmering desires and grievances soon boil over. “I’m telling the truth! I swear to everything!” Frau Hudetz argues. Frau Hudetz’s brother, pharmacist Alfons (Henry Stram), becomes an outcast even after he disowns his sister. “Everything is connected,” he insists, but no one is listening to him. Guilt and mob mentality tear at the fabric of this small community, resulting in yet more death and destruction. “People are so fickle,” waitress Leni (Jeena Yi) says. “Who gives a shit about people,” Hudetz responds.
Jones’s staging often makes the characters look like little figures in a dollhouse, dwarfed by the two wooden blocks, as if they’re being manipulated by unseen forces. In his sharp uniform (the costumes are by Antony McDonald) and direct speech, Hudetz resembles a Nazi. “I was always a diligent official!” he says over and over, reminiscent of what would later become the Third Reich excuse “I was only following orders.” Judgment Day is a biting indictment of prewar German morality, written by Horváth after he had fled Germany and shortly before he died in Paris when struck by a tree branch during a thunderstorm at the age of thirty-six. The parable can’t quite carry the weight of the production through its ninety minutes, drifting between Expressionism and realism while evoking the style of Bertolt Brecht and a streamlined Robert Wilson, sometimes getting stuck in between. But there are numerous breathtaking moments as Jones (Into the Woods, The Trojans), Shinn (Dying City, Where Do We Live), and Horváth (Tales from the Vienna Woods, Youth without God) take aim at the spread of fascism and groupthink, in the 1930s and now.
Mexican East LA band Los Lobos, which means “the wolves,” named its second album How Will the Wolf Survive? after an article in National Geographic. “It was like our group, our story: What is this beast, this animal that the record companies can’t figure out? Will we be given the opportunity to make it or not?” founding member Louie Pérez told Rolling Stone in 1989 when the 1984 record was named the thirtieth best of the past decade by the magazine. Los Lobos has made it, and on their own terms, having released more than twenty records and toured relentlessly around the world for more than forty years (they started as a high school group in 1973), led by founding members David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas on guitar and vocals, Pérez on drums and vocals, Conrad Lozano on bass and vocals (since 1974), and newbie Steve Berlin on keyboards and woodwinds; he came on board in 1984. As is their trademark, Los Lobos, who come to the New York Society for Ethical Culture for a show December 14, is once again venturing into new territory with its first Christmas album, Llegó Navidad (Rhino, October 2019), a collection of eleven traditional Latin holiday tunes and one original.
“We’re not doing the typical ‘Silent Night’ and all that, which is fine,” Pérez says in a promotional video, continuing, “I mean, I wouldn’t mind doing that in our own kind of way. But there is such a wealth of traditional songs, songs that have been around for a while from all over Latin America.” The band explored more than 150 tunes before deciding what to record. “It took us a while to find the stuff we felt comfortable with,” Hidalgo said. The album includes such gems as “La Rama,” “Reluciente Sol,” “It’s Christmas Time in Texas,” “Las Mañanitas,” “Regalo De Reyes,” and “Christmas and You,” bringing Los Lobos’ unique flair and flavor to foster a feliz navidad for everyone. “Is this true to our ethos? I’d say absolutely,” Berlin explains. At Ethical Culture, you can expect a generous mix of old favorites (“One Time One Night,” “Will the Wolf Survive?”), cool covers (“Bertha,” “Volver, Volver”), and soon-to-be-classic Latin Christmas songs.
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 29, $81.50
New York City native Stephen Adly Guirgis has spent much of his career creating wickedly funny, socially relevant plays set in minority communities where the underrepresented, the underserved, and the marginalized confront religion, law enforcement, poverty, racism, systemic institutions, and family dynamics as they battle against a system set up to keep them down. Most of his plays, including Our Lady of 121st Street, In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings, and The Little Flower of East Orange, feature large ensembles that form tight-knit communities onstage. Such is the case with Guirgis’s return to the Atlantic, where his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Between Riverside and Crazy, debuted in 2014, with the world premiere of the fiendishly hilarious and hard-hitting Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, which opened last night at the Linda Gross Theater.
The three-hour LAByrinth Theater coproduction, which flies by with one intermission, takes place in Hope House, a government-funded women’s residence for addicts, the abused, the mentally ill, and survivors of domestic violence. It is run by the strict, serious Miss Rivera (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and Nigerian social worker Mr. Mobo (Neil Tyrone Pritchard). Among those who find shelter at the home are the tough-talking Sarge (Liza Colón-Zayas); her single-mother girlfriend, Bella (Andrea Syglowski); teenage poet Little Melba Diaz (Kara Young); the foul-smelling Betty Woods (Kristina Poe); ex-con Queen Sugar (Benja Kay Thomas) and her bestie, Munchies (Pernell Walker); the lonely, alcoholic Rockaway Rosie (Elizabeth Canavan); the wheelchair-bound rule-breaker Wanda Wheels (Patrice Johnson Chevannes); the trans Venus Ramirez (Esteban Andres Cruz); and the twentysomething Taina (Viviana Valeria), who takes care of her mentally ill mother, Happy Meal Sonia (Wilemina Olivia-Garcia). Also on the staff are eager white millennial social worker Jennifer (Molly Collier); ex-con janitor Joey Fresco (Victor Almanzar); and Father Miguel (David Anzuelo), who has a dark secret in his past. Seventeen-year-old Mateo (Sean Carvajal), whose mother is staying at the home, often helps out, allowed to hang around as the women share their often very private concerns about their troubled lives.
Narelle Sissons’s bilevel set consists of the main gathering room, a stoop, an outdoor bench, a dark alley, a balcony, and a concrete front space where the residents gossip and drink and smoke in defiance of the regulations. LAByrinth artistic director John Ortiz (Guinea Pig Solo, Jack Goes Boating) infuses the proceedings with tremendous vitality as Guirgis’s well-developed characters fight for survival. Taina has a chance to go back to school but is terrified of leaving her mother. Venus insists on staying even though several residents cruelly reject her claim to female identity, accusing her of unfairly invading their safe space. Father Miguel jostles with a man (Greg Keller) who demands to see his wife, who has a restraining order against him. Miss Rivera isn’t sure that Jennifer has what it takes to deal with the residents, who can be harsh and unforgiving. Wanda Wheels seems determined to drink herself to death. And at the center of it all is Sarge, superbly played by Guirgis regular and Tony nominee Rodriguez (Orange Is the New Black, The Motherf**ker with the Hat). A veteran with PTSD, Sarge is fierce and unrelenting, quick to brutally insult people, especially Venus and Betty, but she sometimes lets her more tender and loving side show through. She tells Bella, “I commanded a platoon. I survived combat. Kept my people safe. Took care of the villagers as much as I could. I looked death in the eye — twice — and I didn’t flinch. I can do this, Bella. I can do this with you. If you let me.” Sarge approaches her life like she’s embroiled in a never-ending war, which is true of many of the women living there.
The title comes from a poem Little Melba Diaz reads that sums up much of what the play is about, the difficulties and challenges these women can’t break free from: “Halfway Bitches go straight to Heaven / I ex-caped foster care and met a boy named Kevin / He was the apple of my eye but nigga turned into a lemon . . . No money in my pocket, I was feeling kinda low. . . . Words are turds and rhymes are crimes / Memories mere summaries, / Though I might some day share some of these,” she declares. Despite getting a little syrupy as it winds down, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is another deeply affecting, honest, and gutsy work that lays bare the lives of too many women who rightfully doubt there’s any light at the end of the tunnel for them.
59 East 59th St. between Park & Madison Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 29, $75.50
Writer-director Joshua Ravetch’s One November Yankee is literally and figuratively about flying, but the Delaware Theatre Company production, making its New York City debut at 59E59 with Harry Hamlin and Stefanie Powers, never gets off the ground. As the audience enters the theater, the sound system plays pop songs about air travel, and a small screen at the upper left shows videos of early, mostly comedic attempts to soar through the sky. Dana Moran Williams’s set is primarily the remains of a full-size yellow single-engine Piper Cub plane nose down, one of the wings badly damaged. Overwhelming the entire space, it leaves the actors only the cramped margins of the stage for their extensive dialogue and limited movement. In the first act, the plane is a MoMA art installation by Ralph Newman (Hamlin), an out-of-town artist and a favorite in Alaska and South Dakota who has yet to break through in New York. His older sister and agent, an aggressive curator named Maggie (Powers), is giving him a very hard time about it.
Ralph explains that the artwork, which he calls Crumpled Plane and describes as depicting “civilization in ruin,” is based on a real crash in which a brother and sister, and their plane, disappeared. In the second scene, Hamlin and Powers become those siblings, Harry and Margo Preston, respectively, who have crashed in the New Hampshire woods on their way to Florida for their father’s wedding. Like Ralph and Maggie, they are prone to dig at each other and throw hard-hitting barbs as they consider their chances for survival. In the third scene, it is sometime after the crash as hiking sibs Ronnie (Hamlin) and Mia (Powers) discover the plane in a vast forest and look around for clues about its destination, possible passengers, and pilot.
Throughout the eighty-minute play, Ravetch (Wishful Drinking, Chasing Mem’ries: A Different Kind of Musical) makes repeated references to time, smoke and fire, fish, dentistry, hypothermia, and needles in haystacks in a thickly veiled attempt to bring the stories together and make various points about art imitating life imitating art, but extracting compelling continuity and relevance from the narrative is like, well, searching for that proverbial needle in a haystack. Ravetch has made a career of working with older television actors in the theater; since 2006, he has written (and often directed) works starring Dick van Dyke, Shirley Jones, Robert Forster, Brooke Shields, Tyne Daly, and Holland Taylor. Powers previously appeared in Ravetch’s one-woman show One from the Hart in 2006, and Hamlin teamed up with Loretta Swit for the 2012 debut of One November Yankee in North Hollywood.
In this iteration, which opened today at 59E59 and continues through December 29, the sixty-eight-year-old Hamlin (L.A. Law, Mad Men), who made his Broadway debut in 1982 in Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! and was last on the Great White Way in 1996 in Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke, and the seventy-seven-year-old Powers (Hart to Hart, Die! Die! My Darling!), who has spent much of the last three decades onstage, appearing in such shows as The King and I, Applause, Looped, Matador, and 84 Charing Cross Road, in England and the US but not in New York City, are fine, both looking fabulous, but they are severely hampered by Ravetch’s often simplistic, repetitive dialogue, endless puns, and mundane plot. “The simplicity of the title is reflective of the simplicity of the art,” Ralph tells Maggie. “Tell that to your damn critics if you need something smart to say tonight. Watch my lips: ‘The simplicity of the title is reflective of the simplicity of the art!’ Would you like me to write it down?” Ralph, consider it done.