The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 23, $35 through June 9, $85 after
Dave Malloy’s Octet is a brilliant chamber choir musical about our obsession with technology, primarily the internet and smartphones. The Brooklyn-based Malloy, the Obie-winning, Tony-nominated mastermind behind Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Ghost Quartet, and Beardo, and scenic designers Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta have transformed the Signature’s malleable Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre into a church basement where eight addicts gather to share their personal dilemmas. The audience enters through a hallway with a bulletin board and announcements, then walks down a few stairs and across the stage, where several people are removing bingo tables and setting up a circle of chairs for the meeting. But it’s not alcohol, drugs, or sex that has brought these people together; it is their overdependence on digital connection with the rest of the world.
Their meeting begins with a hymn that poetically sums up their predicament, as they sing in unison, “There was a forest / One time some time / I walked through a forest / One time some time / The forest was beautiful / My head was clean and clear / Alone without fear / The forest was safe / I danced like a beautiful fool / One time some time. . . . But now / The woods are dark and cold / Clogged with nettles and roots / There is a monster / And I am a monster / Addiction, obsession / Insomnia, depression / And the fear that I’ve wasted too much of my self / On rapid and vapid click-clicks / Isolation, anxiety / Inability to assimilate with society / And the fear that the monster will find me / Infect me and blind me / Butcher my heart and distort my soul.” Next, each addict reads aloud one of the Eight Principles (“There is a deep emptiness,” “Content is not connection is not consensus is not conformity is not contentment”), each principle foreshadowing that character’s emotional state of mind. Over the course of the next ninety minutes, which unfold in real time, each of the eight addicts gets the opportunity to sing about their personal strife, all performed in gorgeous a cappella melodies arranged by Malloy, who also wrote the sensational book, lyrics, and music.
They have been invited to the meeting, which takes place at a different location every time, by the unseen yet apparently all-seeing Saul, who may or may not exist. Each song is introduced by a blow into a pitch pipe, preparing everyone for the next confession, another journey into the troubled mind, body, and spirit. Henry (Alex Gibson) can’t break away from Candy Crush; Karly (Kim Blanck) keeps swiping on sex and dating apps; Toby (Justin Gregory Lopez) is hooked on conspiracy theories; Jessica (Margo Seibert) is an ego-surfer; Marvin (J. D. Mollison) is a scientist who thinks the World Wide Web might be God; first-timer Velma (Kuhoo Verma) has gone cold turkey for two days; Ed (Adam Bashian) loves porn; and Paula (Starr Busby) is haunted by the “stale pale glow” of the screen while in bed with her husband.
Splendidly directed by Annie Tippe (Ghost Quartet, Cult of Love), who doesn’t allow the audience to let its guard down for even a second in the relatively tight, intimate quarters, Octet delves into humanity’s psychological makeup and the neurological circuits that tie us to our phones, desperate for the constant connection that we think will alleviate our deep-seated fear of missing out and of being trapped inside our own heads for any period of time whatsoever. Karly explains, “Well, I would love to pay attention to you / But I simply can’t / I might have an invite / I might have a coupon / I might have a snippet / There might be a morsel or a nugget / A factoid, a zinger / A recap, a blurb / Why, there might be a tidbit! / I simply must check my tidbits / What if there’s a pause? / What if there’s a lull? / At dinner, at a movie / My God, even at the theater!” (Thankfully, no cell phones went off during the performance I attended.)
But it’s not just about technological addiction; it’s about all our obsessions, the things that keep us up at night, the inner and outer elements that prevent us from reaching our full potential as individuals and as an interdependent society. “I feel my body stretched between two cliffs / One side is fantasy / The other reality / I feel my fingers start to lose their grip / And I can’t hold on,” Karly sings, a feeling everyone has experienced. In writing the libretto, Malloy researched scientific and religious texts, Sufi poetry, and online comment boards, going far beyond mere social media to take a look at who we are today, and how we got to be that way. Christopher Bowser’s lights never go all the way down, as if we are part of the group; in fact, some audience members sit on the floor, in the same folding chairs the actors do. Octet is a mesmerizing work of genius, the first of three plays Malloy will be producing for his five-year residency at the Signature — and the company’s first musical in its thirty-year history. I have my pitch pipe at the ready for the next one.
Level 2 Gallery in the Bloomberg Building
545 West 30th St. at Eleventh Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 2, four times daily, $25
The Shed, the new performance space at Hudson Yards, has made a rather inauspicious debut. The experimental play Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, inaugurating the five-hundred-seat black-box Griffin Theater, is a critical and popular flop, with bad reviews, walkouts, and lots of empty seats. The first art installation, an untitled work by Trisha Donnelly, initially cost ten dollars but was made free after a less-than-enthusiastic reaction to the exhibit, which consists of trees on gurneys in a dark room where Leontyne Price’s rendition of “Habanera” from Carmen repeats over and over. But the immersive Reich Richter Pärt is a bit more on track, though it too has its drawbacks. “We’re only getting started,” artistic director Alex Poots told me after a recent performance; Poots previously did wonderful things at the Manchester Festival and Park Ave. Armory.
Curated by senior program advisor Hans Ulrich Obrist and Poots, Reich Richter Pärt is a two-room, fifty-minute multidisciplinary collaboration between eighty-two-year-old American composer Steve Reich, eighty-seven-year-old German visual artist Gerhard Richter, and eighty-three-year-old Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. The audience is first let into an expansive white space with high ceilings; the walls feature vertical wallpaper and jacquard woven tapestries that emulate Rorschach-like strips that are supposed to resemble stained glass, as if the room is a cathedral. Visitors are given too much time to walk around and look at the images; many break off into conversations and take out their cell phones until a group of men and women starts singing, a flash mob performing Pärt’s lovely choral work “Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima,” about three Portuguese shepherd children who claimed to see an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1917. The choral work, which is dedicated to Richter and was inspired by Psalms 8.2 (“From the mouths of children and infants you create praise for yourself”), is performed by either the Choir of Trinity Wall Street Performing Ensemble or Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
The crowd is then led into a second large room, where people can grab folding chairs and sit wherever they like in the empty space between a wall on one side with a screen and a small orchestra on the other, either the Ensemble Signal or the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), depending on the date. (I saw the former, conducted by Brad Lubman. Poots suggested sitting very close to the musicians for the optimal experience, so I joined such visitors as Marina Abramovic and Francis Ford Coppola.) The orchestra plays Reich’s newly commissioned score, created specifically for an approximately half-hour film by Richter and Corinna Belz, which brings to life Richter’s algorithmic processing of his 2016 abstract painting Abstraktes Bild (946-3), using a computer to fold it in half and half again, dividing it into 1/4096ths and then proceeding in the other direction, creating a hypnotic, kaleidoscopic animation in which the painting morphs from bands of bold color, which also line two walls, into yet more Rorschach-like shapes and figures slowly marching across the screen until it all double back to the color strips. (The original work is on view as well.) The film follows the principles Richter employed in his “Patterns” series, which Reich adapted for his thrilling score. As with the first part of the presentation, the second goes on too long, but it’s still a wonder to behold, an example of the kind of fascinating promise the Shed holds.
Theater Company Kaimaku Pennant Race founder Yu Murai’s Ashita no Ma-Joe: Rocky Macbeth is silly fun, a goofy comic mash-up of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the late 1960s manga Ashita no Joe (“Tomorrow’s Joe”). Continuing at Japan Society through May 18, it’s a riotous twist on both stories that creates something fresh and new — and completely wild and unpredictable. The show takes place in and around a light-blue boxing ring onstage, open on two sides, along which the audience of no more than sixty sits. Inside the ring is a second, much smaller ring, with a malleable, flexible mat that occasionally is lifted to reveal various characters, bits of scenery, and video of a koi pond by Kazuki Watanabe. To get you in the mood as you enter the empty theater, audio plays of Steve Albert, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, and former champ Bobby Czyz calling the November 1998 championship bout between Ricardo “Finito” Lopez and Rosendo Alvarez. Beer, wine, and popcorn is available for purchase and can be consumed during the performance, as if you’re in a boxing arena. The three actors, Takuro Takasaki (Macbeth), G. K. Masayuki (Banquo), and Kazuma Takeo (Lady Macbeth), wear absurdly tight head-to-foot costumes that are a mix of wrestling uniforms and the sperm characters from Woody Allen’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex.
The dialogue can be seen on two monitors — unfortunately placed at angles that make it difficult to read and follow the action onstage simultaneously — but it’s not critical to catch every word, as there is a lot of repetition and exposition. The sixty-minute show features key plot points and quotes from Macbeth, including the witches’ prophecies and Macbeth’s rise to the top — to become both king and yokozuna — as he goes after King Duncan, Banquo, and Macduff; however, in this version, Lady Macbeth is not as central to his quest. There are also elements of Ashita no Joe, with such characters as Woolf and Joe, as well as tips of the hat to legendary sumo wrestler Kitanoumi and boxer Wajima Koichi. Along the way, Macbeth displays his boxing skills with the “back-spinning uppercut,” “triple cross counter,” and other punches and jabs and starts seeing apparitions of the men he has vanquished. “The boxing ring howls and calls for fresh blood,” one declares. There are also anachronistic pop culture references, a shaky-looking scaffold that serves as the castle (and where writer-director Murai runs things), and a battle scene in which six members of the audience need special protection. (We strongly suggest you sit in the seats warning about pebbles.) As with even the best boxers, not everything hits its mark, but more than enough does to score a knockout, a crazy, unusual immersive Shakespeare adaptation from a company that previously brought us Romeo and Toilet and King Lear, Sadaharu. There’s no telling what wonderful nonsense they’ll be up to next, but we’ll be there.
Who: Alina Das, Tahir Carl Karmali, Dr. Kevin Leo Yabut Nadal, Nancy Giles
What: New Group Now public forum
Where: The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd St. between between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
When: Monday, May 20, free with advance RSVP, 7:00
Why: In conjunction with Jesse Eisenberg’s latest play for the New Group, Happy Talk, which opens May 16 at the Signature Center with the stellar cast of Marin Ireland, Tedra Millan, Daniel Oreskes, Nico Santos, and Susan Sarandon, the theater company is hosting “Carefully Taught: Understanding and Interrupting Cycles of Oppression in Today’s Culture” on May 20 at 7:00. The free panel discussion explores the oppression experienced by exploited, vulnerable, and underrepresented people in America, specifically immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. (In the play, Ireland portrays an undocumented immigrant taking care of a sick elderly woman.) The talk features NYU School of Law professor Alina Davis, New York-based Kenyan visual artist Tahir Carl Karmali, and psychology professor Dr. Kevin Leo Yabut Nadal; writer, actress, and political pundit Nancy Giles moderates.
WALKING ON WATER (Andrey M Paounov, 2018)
209 West Houston St.
Opens Friday, May 17
Andrey M Paounov’s Walking on Water, opening this weekend at Film Forum, reveals a lot about large-scale installation artist Christo, and you can find out even more when the Bulgarian-born eighty-four-year-old curmudgeonly religious icon / rock star participates in Q&As with Paounov on Friday and Saturday at 7:00 and Sunday at 4:45. In 1961, Christo and his wife and artistic partner, Jeanne-Claude, started creating massive public works, wrapping fabric around the entire Reichstag in Berlin, placing hundreds of yellow umbrellas in Tokyo and blue umbrellas in California concurrently, and lining the pathways of Central Park with dozens of saffron-colored gates, among other impressive spectacles that gave a pop art sheen to land art, which had been the preserve of Robert Smithson, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria, among others. In 1969, Christo and Jeanne-Claude began trying to realize The Floating Piers project, an expansive walkway that would make visitors feel like they were strolling on the water itself. Jeanne-Claude passed away in 2009, and five years later Christo became determined to make The Floating Piers a reality.
The film follows him as he finds his location — Lake Iseo in Northern Italy — adamantly chooses his materials, meets with local politicians, and has something to say about each step of the process, giving Paounov near-total access as Christo experiences bumps and bruises and gets his eyelashes trimmed. He argues with his nephew and right-hand man, Vladimir Yavachev, over numerous details; gets frustrated with computers; complains about the cover of a catalog (“This is horror story,” he says); is thwarted by bad weather; and nearly has a meltdown when crowd control gets out of hand. He approaches everything with the exacting eye of an artist, taking in the beauty of nature while seeking perfection, and nothing less, from the large crew working for him.
Christo is worshipped everywhere he goes; not only does his name evoke Jesus’s but so does the purpose of The Floating Piers, inviting men, women, and children to traverse the lake on foot similarly to what Jesus did on the Sea of Galilee. Christo even has long (white) hair that flaps in the wind. His eyes light up when he visits the Vatican and marvels at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and when he takes a helicopter ride to survey the installation, providing filmgoers with breathtaking views. There is also a terrific score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans that ranges from sweet and gentle to percussive and pulsating. As ornery as Christo seems to be, he smiles when he needs to, like when he stops by a party loaded with rich collectors, is stopped by fans for selfies, or gazes lovingly at the rich natural landscape surrounding Lake Iseo; it’s all part of his genius.
Paounov (Georgi and the Butterflies, The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories) put the film together with seven hundred hours of footage that had already been recorded before he was hired in 2016, adding to that what he then shot, wisely eschewing talking heads and interviews and instead presenting Christo and his captivating world uncensored and unfiltered, which is a real treat. “Art is not a profession. You don’t work from nine to five,” Christo tells a classroom of small children in his broken English. “To be artist, you are all the time artist. There is no moment when you are not artist.” Walking on Water is an intimate fly-on-the-wall documentary about the creative process and one man’s intense determination to make the planet a better place, one work of art at a time.
Who: Colin Davey
What: Author talk and book launch
Where: Shakespeare & Co., 2020 Broadway at 70th St., 212-738-0001
When: Monday, May 20, free with advance registration, 7:00
Why: Scientist, martial artist, and software engineer Colin Davey celebrates the 150th anniversary of the American Museum of Natural History with the extensively researched, fully illustrated new book The American Museum of Natural History and How It Got That Way (Fordham University Press/Empire State Editions, $34.95, May 2019), written with Thomas A. Lesser. Davey (Learn Boogie Woogie Piano) will be at Shakespeare & Co. on May 20 to launch the book, which details the history of the museum in such chapters as “The Jesup Years (1881–1908) and the Seventy-Seventh Street Facade,” “The Akeley African Hall: From the Elephant in the Room to the Seven-Hundred-Pound Gorilla,” “The Golden Age of Spaceflight and the Hayden Planetarium,” “The Evolution of the Dinosaur Exhibits,” and “Robert Moses and the Norman Bel Geddes Report.” In the foreword, Kermit Roosevelt III, the great-great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, whose statue resides in front of the institution, writes, “What the museum has done, in different ways, through the different stages of its life, is to feed the human sense of wonder at the universe.” Among the figures who appear in the tome are “Boss” Tweed, Clyde Fisher, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Morris K. Jesup, Carl Akeley, Robert Moses, and many others as Davey, a regular visitor to the museum since he was a child, shares fascinating historical details about the museum from its beginnings on Manhattan Square through the Hayden Planetarium, the Rose Center for Earth and Space, and the future Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation.