Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Jessica Walker finds The Girl I Left Behind Me

The 59E59 Theater does a great job of bringing unique performers to its occasional Cabaret venue, and they have hit another solid winner with The Girl I Left Behind Me.  Performer / Co-creator Jessica Walker inhabits the spirit and songs of musical hall players who were male impersonators.
Jessica Walter in
The Girl I Left Behind Me
Ms. Walker tells the story of these women and the curious area they occupied as sexual beings, obviously women playing men – but singing about the joys, the beauty and the sexuality of the female form.  The practice was different and more complicated than lesbian attraction; although Ms. Walker makes clear there was some of that as well.  In societies that were uncomfortable with female sexuality, acting that same sexual tension out as a man, particularly an unconvincing one, was acceptable and often applauded.
The Girl I Left Behind Me explores the world of these women who were popular in Dance Halls and on stage from about 1860 through 1920.  This time frame means that most of these performers were unknown to most of the audience, particularly the British performers.  This unfamiliarity allows Ms. Walker to introduce the numbers and the performers to us. She gives out background details, theatrical histories and personal details that bring life and deeper meaning to the songs.
Joe Atkins plays the piano and the two work together beautifully, paring on everything from Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier to a reimagined Down By The Old Mill Stream.  The one misstep was a Harlem Blues number Baby Won't You Please Come Home, but kudos for including it with the history and story behind it.  Co-created and Directed by Neil Bartlett, the brisk show moves speedily, wrapping up with a poignant After The Ball Is Over.
Left unsaid are that many performers that have following in the tradition blazed by these trendsetters.  Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn followed many of the same paths, pushing to define a powerful female role model.  Grab a cocktail and enjoy a great little show at 59E59, The Girl I Left Behind Me.
It would be tragedy for me not to acknowledge a beautiful encore.  Ms. Walker and Mr. Atkins did a fantastic job on Take Me Home – a little heard Tom Waits number from the little seen movie, One From The Heart.  It was performed in a manner that left me a little breathless.  Bravo.
The Girl I Left Behind Me
Creators: Jessica Walker, Neil Bartlett
Director: Neil Bartlett
Cast: Jessica Walker
Pianist: Joe Atkins

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Bull Goes All In

Bull – The Bull Fight Play, getting its US premier at 59E59 theaters as part of Brits Off Broadway week, is a viscerally scarring play dealing with the fight for life.  In Bull, that “life” is viable employment, but it is truly a fight to the metaphorical death.
Staged in a high-tech boxing ring - even down to the water cooler in the corner, Bull lays out its sensibilities clearly.  Three gladiators enter, but only two will exit.  In this particular scenario, the three are current sales team employees at an unidentified firm in an unidentified industry.  Neither industry nor firm is identified because these aren’t the critical circumstances of the characters.  Survival is the critical circumstance.

Eleanor Matsuura, Sam Troughton and Adam James in the ring for Bull
The three people up for the job have stereotypical characteristics, but dont' fall into caricature.  Isobel is an icy, calculating woman who stalks the arena in stilettos and steely smile.  Eleanor Matsuura is frightening, funny and oddly erotic in the role.  Her Isobel is a very competent bitch, as she describes herself.  If hers was the only character so shrewish Bull might venture into misogyny, it does not because Tony matches her in ruthlessness, swagger and vanity.

Tony is an upper class toff with charm, wit and an ability to disparage others with rapier precision.  Adam James gives devilish life to this bullying sociopath.  Tony can, in the same moment and even the same sentence, be flirtatious with Isobel and yet painfully cutting to the other member of the team, Thomas.
Thomas is the low man on the totem pole, the man destined to be conquered at the end of the evening.  Sam Troughton gives voice to the frustrated Thomas, a man who knows he can’t win and yet can’t afford to lose.
Eleanor Matsuura & Adam James
Thomas seems at the mercy of Isobel and Tony from the moment they come together. Tony and Isobel feast on Thomas’ insecurities.  They tag team Thomas to reduce his self-esteem by methods both obvious and subtle.  Watching their work is like watching an emotional vivisection, where Thomas is the frog, helpless to stop the action.  When Carter, the manager, comes into to evaluate the results, there is no coherent argument left in Thomas, just the rantings of a punch drunk fighter. Neil Stuke plays Carter with a air of self-importance that is neither overpowering nor too subtle.
Bull is a swift 60 minutes, with much of the audience standing around the boxing ring.  It races by.  For a moment near the end, the Bullfight metaphor was too obvious, but it ends quickly and the hyper-stylistic theatrics returned. 
Beautifully directed by Clare Lizzimore, Bull isn’t realistic in a traditional sense, but it has crystalline clarity when defining the journey of Thomas.  Everyone has had their Thomas moments; being on the outside not understanding why.  Isobel eventually tells Thomas why she acts the way she does.  It is scary, painful and what we all fear in our darkest hour.
Mike Bartlett has written this exceptional piece, and it feels a companion his artful work shown here last year, Cock – the Cockfight play.  Both shows are a three-way tug of war, driving their participants to their most raw emotions.  The most obvious difference is that Bull – The Bull Fight Play has a very limited run here, go see it immediately.
Bull - The Bull Fight Play
Playwright: Mike Bartlett
Director: Clare Lizzimore
Cast: Adam James, Eleanor Matsuura, Neil Struke, Sam Troughton