Home Is Where The Heart Is, So Where Is Your Heart?

As originally published on MYSA.

Growing up in suburban Connecticut, nature constantly embraced me, whether that be with beautifully landscaped neighborhood lawns, winding trails to meander in my town’s park, or a microadventure getaway up North with my family. Now as a young professional, I find myself confined to cityscapes. Without surrounding natural beauty, I have to find a new way to define “beauty.” For a city, this is often by its character, or more specifically its characters.

When you’re new to a city everything feels fresh and exciting. Every corner brings something new – a woman in a sleek black trench and big sunglasses, a poodle in a particularly sassy sweater, or both. Gradually, as you become used to your neighborhood, these little quirks create the foundation of the feeling of being “home”.

Dog-sitting for my friend in Stuyvesant, New York, I walked out on a cold fall day, my exhalation white hot in the brisk autumn air. Leaves concealed beautifully manicured lawns beneath and squirrels busied themselves burying nuts for winter ahead. Butters, my friend’s petite beagle-dalmation mix, trotted along in his red booties and plaid coat, assuming a tense hunting pose each time he spotted a squirrel. We had a meeting at Thompson park with my friend, Townsend*, who I hadn’t seen in months – a catch-up long overdue.

Entering the park, Butters hesitated, stalling as I bent down to undo his leash. Looking at the Irish wolfhound and back at me, he gave me a “Is that really a dog?” look. In my hometown, the majority of dogs are labradors. New Yorkers seem to select a wide array of breeds, seeing their canine companion as an extension of their personality. It’s fun to play “match the dog with its owner,” guessing who might own the American bull dog versus the miniature greyhound.

“Go on,” I said, but he had no choice as the other dogs were already rushing to greet him.

Townsend arrived shortly after in a fawn green jacket with large brass snaps and sheepskin-lined gloves. “Long time no see,” he said, handing me a cup of coffee from Everyman Espresso. Settling in perched atop a park bench, we watched the dogs playing. Butters played with three blonde retrievers. The tall girls towered over him; he stared up, mesmerized.

“So how’s work?” I asked. He worked as a recruiter for one of the largest internet companies.
“Eh,” he said, looking away for a moment, “I’ve been living in New York for a few years now, and I don’t have the same feeling for it anymore. Maybe it’s time for me to find a new city.”
“We enter different phases, we look for different things,” I agreed, sipping on my coffee to stay warm.
“There’s just the smells, the pushing on the subway. People can be cold,” he lamented, a long trail of icy sigh following his statement.
“That’s true, but you do have the subway performers doing crazy poll dancing moves at Bedford Ave,” I added, trying to cheer him up.
“But you also get the beggars who fake a limp,” he said.

We chatted for an hour or so, letting Butters make friends. A large male husky had replaced the golden retrievers, jumping at Butters with a loud, aggressive bark. Butters circled over to me sheepishly.

“You ready, bud?” I asked. He tilted his head before hanging it, looking back at the husky. “Let’s go,” I said, hopping off the bench.

Walking Townsend back to the L Train, we continued our conversation, “Maybe you’re looking for something a little more low-key,” I offered. “New York can be very in-your-face, which is fun sometimes, overwhelming at others.”

Butters hung back on his leash. Glancing back, I noticed an embarrassed look on his face as he dragged his butt along the pavement.

“He’s got a dingleberry,” Townsend pointed and laughed.

“Oh no,” I said, grabbing for a plastic bag from my pocket. “What do I do?!”

As I fumbled with the plastic bag and Butters’ unfortunate little butt, I noticed the nasty smell of someone in serious need of a shower. Looking up, a man walking by flashed me a wide, mostly toothless grin.

“You know what they say,” he belted, pointing to the dingleberry. “Those things are good luck!” Without a break in his stride, the stranger continued on his way.

I tightened my lips, holding in a burst of laughter until he was out of earshot, cleaning up poor Butters. Townsend’s nose wrinkled in disgust. “Only in New York would a stranger say a dingleberry is good luck!”

“I mean, really!” Townsend shoved his hands in his pockets. Keeping my lips clamped, I pulled on Butters’ leash as he excitedly sniffed the pungent place by which the man had passed.

“Don’t smell that,” Townsend shooed Butters. Butters moved on, tail wagging, having found a cigarette butt on which to chew. I patted his rump. “There, there,” I smiled.

Who knows who really benefitted from the lucky dingleberry, but the following week, Townsend quit his job. He was unsure where he was going but he knew it was time. With Butters’ owner returning, I explained what fun Butters and I had and that he had a new girlfriend at the dog park. Taking the time twice a day for outings with Butters through the city had solidified my love for New York.

You can’t always identify or articulate what makes a place home, but you know it in your bones when it is and when it isn’t. In the end, whether it’s natural beauty, urban quirks, your favorite coffee shop, or a homeless man who dispenses good fortune, your experience of a place has to feel like home. Otherwise it’s time to keep searching.

*Names have been changed.

To read the original, click here.

Serious Money

As published on EDGE on July 10, 2013.

Champagne bottles hang upside down, organized in the shapes of chandeliers, phone cords dangling like streamers. One chair with a profound back sits under a ticker tape. Mumbled news clips discuss the financial market. Suddenly the stage fills with well-dressed traders, grabbing the phones off the champagne chandeliers and screaming towards the audience: “4 for 10. 4 for 10. Are you looking at me? 4 for 10!”

Caryl Churchill’s “Serious Money” at Atlantic Stage 2 recounts the financial climate in London in the late 80s post Margaret Thatcher’s Big Bang, in which deregulation led to increased opportunity within the financial sector. The sudden suicide or potential murder of Jake Todd, a well-connected banker played by Mathew Nakitare, creates peril for the takeover of Albion, a historical, British manufacturer, providing a platform for political debate as to big banks versus local business.

Scilla Todd, Jake’s sister who is played by Tara Giordano, seeks to find the murderer of her brother, using his address book to hunt down his enemies. But, her goals change as she realizes how much profit she could make by collecting her brother’s client fees post-mortem, as the Big Bang abolished fixed commission charges. Her thirst for revenge is overpowered by her shock that her brother would not share in the spoils of his semi-legal, financial activity.

Scilla is one example of every character’s prioritization of wealth as the ultimate thrill and achievement. The satire has no moral qualms, as driven characters fight for wealth. During this time of easy money, greed is not seen as a negative. For example, the media positions Billy Corman, played by Alex Draper, as an evil villain seeking the spoils of overtaking Albion.

To combat this perception, his PR executive, played by Dolcie Starr, advises him to downplay ugly greedy, but play up sexy greedy. In other words, a scandal with a prostitute to portray himself as a player to which the everyday man can aspire and as a highbrow, investing in the art to juxtapose the simplicity of Albion’s current management. The only unhappy characters are those no longer able to trade, mainly the ’old money’ crowd that has been replaced with the new trading floor titans.

“Yack, wack, what’s his name? Zach,” Merrisson, an old school banker played by Sten Dykes, exclaims in distaste of the new banker set. The Big Bang new regulations not only benefitted the financial sector as a whole, but also opened the doors of the well-coiffed, old money Oxbridge dominance to gaudy, thick-accented lower class that used their street smarts to thrive on the trading floor.

The clash of the tweed-on-the-weekend class with the new ill-mannered, scrappy market entrants provides an additional layer of comedy. For example, Scilla visits her father with such a character. Before exchanging greetings, the friend asks the square footage of the home, offers to buy it, and daydreams out loud of his future Rottweiler that would roam the estate.

The new lack of regulation also leads to a reliance on relationships to ensure trust within business dealings. Prior to his death, Jake acted as a go-between, aiding in the fundraising process for the buyout of Albion. Everyone trusts Jake’s contacts, although they, as all characters, should not be trusted due to their primary incentive of obtaining more money at any cost. For example, Jacinta Condor, a Peruvian businesswoman, in exchange for a guarantee to purchase Albion shares requests funds for ’hospitals in Peru’, but really her own pockets.

The main theme Caryl Churchill focuses on is not that being pro-business is bad, but that it is individuals who are bad. Every character is greedy and passionately driven by a want for more wealth. The new regulations aided the financial sector in exchange for campaign funds. Churchill explores the culture of this historic period through on-point ’trade language’ and witty rhyming dialog.

The characters effectively use a relatively simple set. The audience feels like insiders as the actors break the fourth wall to provide private anecdotes. But, in time with the financial environment, the dialogs are often very fast with overlapping speakers, making it difficult to follow.

Furthermore, many of the actors play multiple characters. Some, such as Alex Draper, skillfully differentiate their roles, while others less clearly enact a new role. Acts end with a breakout in songs that are quirky, but hard to understand.

This play is ideal for those interested in the financial culture and characters that breed booms and busts. The topics are timely, especially the use of debt as a form of control, in the 80s used by the IMF and today by stronger European countries over their less economically competitive brethren.

Churchill's "Serious Money"

Be the Death of Me

As published in EDGE on June 30, 2013.

Walking up a creaky, faded yellow staircase of a historic church, guests are handed maps and the quick instructions: “Head to the number of your station on the back. Mind 7 and 8, they are tricky to find.”

Map in hand, everyone scurries into a large, open room. A balcony surrounds the edges, providing an upstairs with a large open center. The room is rather empty except for a mattress with messy sheets, a bicycle, a chair with crayons and toy trucks, and a waiting room-style chair. Upstairs there’s a bar where people can grab drinks in preparation for a night of meetings with various death experts.

“Be the Death of Me,” an investigation, installation performance at the Irondale Center, was developed through months of interviews done by The Civilians creative team. The show covers various aspects of death.

The performance starts by visiting set-up stations in which an actor discusses his experience with death. Next, select monologues are given, with everyone watching a single actor followed by circles of light indicating specific performances, arranged in the main area like the game “Twister.” Guests decide to whom to listen, gathering on the floor around each actor. The show ends with a few additional monologues sporadically appearing one after the next around the theater.

One theme is the future of conscious meets body. For example, a man in glasses describes his obsession with efficiency, juxtaposed as he stands in a cramped stairwell, and how soon our consciences will be uploaded in “the cloud” so that if our bodies are ruined, we can upload our conscience, continuing to live as a robot.

Medical care and cost was another touchy subject as there are the combative forces of the extreme emotion of death and the practicality of this natural phenomenon. For example, one women’s child is born dead. The hospital encourages her to have her child buried on “Heart Island,” as is common procedure, but she feels betrayed to discover her child is buried in a grave of twenty babies.

To visit its “grave,” she may stand on an atrium, overlooking a field of buried dead babies. The theme of the commonality of death emerges again as a funeral house director’s son describes seeing bodies lined up and embalmed, one’s arterial wound flushing blood onto its suit.

The question of how someone should feel about death is also discussed. The women whose child died prematurely feels guilt and regret in not wanting to hold her lifeless baby in the moment following its birth. In another story, a family therapist mentions how a family asked her to speak to their child about the death of her brother. In the therapist’s game, she understood her brother was dead, removing the tube from a doll’s mouth.

At the end of the session, the girl skips out, not sad, but happy that her sibling is in a better place. The parents expected the therapist to make their daughter feel sadness as this is how they felt she should feel. But, children do not always react in the same way as adults.

The main theme is that we are in this life for a purpose and cannot leave until this is fulfilled. When the actors are in pools of light spread across the main floor, the director orchestrated all the characters finish early but one. This allows the audience to eavesdrop on the old man repeatedly asking: “But what is our purpose? Why are you here?”

All the stories originate from New Yorkers, creating an added level of empathy. For example, a graveyard tour director exclaims, “Let’s face it, if you don’t have a lot of money, you are going to have to be buried in Jersey!” In between scenes, a subway car rolling in and out of a station is projected on the wall, a metaphor for our transition through time and space.

The performance portrays various perspectives on death in a captivating way. The constant need to move breaks up the monotony and allows moments for reflection between intense personal stories. The actors effectively re-enact the dialogs, showing the true emotion of the characters and also their reflection on their intense encounters with death and the dying. They effectively portray the rationalizing of the emotional, life changing experiences.

The performance is ideal for all those curious about death. In the first portion and the “Twister” arrangement, there is not enough time to see all the actors, thus make sure to prioritize the scenes that look the most interesting.

For original, click here.

Be the Death of Me

Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance)

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David Skeist, Alenka Kraigher and Stephanie Hayes in ’Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance)’ (Source:Joan Marcus)

As published in EDGE on May 7, 2013.

The actors, positioned on stage, look off into the distance as someone states “Numero uno.” Suddenly the lights go out, there’s a sound of shattered glass, and a voice similar to the narrator in the horror films, “Saw” announces, “End of play.” This is the start of director Richard Foreman’s play, which follows young love between a coquette prostitute, Suzie, and a cerebral southerner, Samuel.

In a Brechtian form, the performance plays on the audience’s reflective detachment. With undimmed lights removing the fourth wall, a Michelin man smoking a cigar occasionally shining a mirror onto the crowd, and abrupt, unexpected flashbulbs directed at the masses, the audience is constantly on display and on edge.

The removal of melodrama demands a high level of acting skill, which is achieved by all the actors in “Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance).” Dangling from a bar on the side of the stage like a prostitute on display through a window in a red-light district, Suzie, played by Alenka Kraigher, embodies her characters personal strength and yet constant discontent.

To read more, click here.

Old-Fashioned Prostitutes

I’m a Stranger Here Myself

As published in EDGE on May 2nd, 2013.

“You are really beautiful, look at her,” a slick Mark Nadler, in a Paisley purple silk vest, grey striped button-down, and pinstripe suit coos, taking a woman from the audience’s hand and pulling her from her seat. Commanding her to twirl, she does, unsure what to expect, light upon her.

“Take your bag. Now hold it like this,” he states. As she turns to adjust it, he leaps into the seat next to her husband, and then into his lap. Nadler flirts with the unsuspecting gentleman as the audience laughs.

Photo credit: Carol Rosegg
Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

“I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” written and performed by Mark Nadler, discusses the expatriate experience during the Weimar Republic, recounting the worldwide cultural export as exiled Jews, stripped from their homes, joined creative and scientific communities elsewhere. Nadler parallels their experiences, relevant to his heritage, with his own childhood as an outsider. In a cabaret meets history lecture performance, he explains the context of relevant music of the time as a PowerPoint-style presentation displays black and white photographs of prominent Jewish exiles, popping out of geometric burgundy tiles. He jumps through the expat scenes – Hollywood, Bilbao, Paris, and Berlin – explaining how the Jewish artists established themselves in their forced new homes. At the piano, he sings in French or German, only to follow with a translation and an explanation of context. This string of descriptors makes it less of a concise, traditionally defined ’musical.’ The climax relates more to his personal life than a point in history. Within this framework, he discusses their (and his) difficulty in a want to assimilate, but a want to remain who they (and he) are.

To read more, click here.

I'm a Stranger Here Myself

Who’s Your Daddy?

As published in EDGE on April 22, 2013.

Source:Carol Rosegg
Source:Carol Rosegg

The room lightens from shades of blue to show a hooded form to the left of the stage as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” plays in the background. With sudden motion, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed O’Callaghan pops out of his hood and screams, “I’m being haunted! By my mother and father — and they’re not even dead!”

After finding his boyfriend with twin lovers, having his beloved dog run away and losing his driving safety job when his rocker-bound boss propositions him, he finds himself without companion or purpose in L.A. Departing on a suicide mission to Uganda in search of a dramatic way to die, he is shepherded by Andrew, a local who runs an orphanage, and Stella, a promiscuous actress who needs a cameraman for her documentary.

Arriving at the orphanage, he is struck by the dire circumstances of the children, who hardly have any food to eat, mold growing in their hair, and multi-colored mucus dripping from their noses onto ashy, scabbed skin. Of the children, Benson takes an instant affection to him, and O’Callaghan, seeing a map of Ireland birthmark in the white of his eye, knows this is his son-to-be.

Written and performed by Johnny O’Callaghan, “Who’s Your Daddy?” is the true tale of the actor’s search for purpose and his adoption of a boy from Uganda. Using his fighting Irish attitude, he battles the obstacles of the U.S. adoption and citizenship process and Ugandan guardianship legalities.

To read more, click here.

Who's Your Daddy

Khmer Arts Ensemble “A Bend in the River”

As published in EDGE on April 10, 2013.

“A Bend in the River” is based on traditional Cambodian folklore, exploring issues of morality, specifically, as put by the performance’s choreographer, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, “At what cost do we seek revenge?”

The Khmer Arts Ensemble  (Source: Khvay Smanang)
The Khmer Arts Ensemble (Source: Khvay Smanang)

The story is about Kaley, a young girl who is eaten (along with her father, mother and three brothers) by a giant crocodile, Moha, at a bend in a river near a Cambodian village called Kompong Vongkiri. Although Kaley is the main character, the story is told through the narration and point of view of her mother. Prior to her demise, Kaley promises to return in her next life as a larger and stronger crocodile to avenge the death of her mother.

Next, Vichek Moni, the local healer, finds a large egg in the reeds. The egg hatches into a crocodile, which Moni names, in honor of the original, Kaley, not knowing it is actually Kaley reborn. Moni teaches the creature how to transform into a human and swallow ‘him’ temporarily in order to easily transport the healer across the river to aid injured villagers. Once older, Kaley reveals her true identity to Moni, explaining her purpose of revenge. But Moni encourages Kaley to move on and enjoy her new life.

To read more, click here.

Khmer Arts Ensemble

Kafka’s Monkey

As published in EDGE on April 4, 2013.

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Source:Keith Pattinson

A bent-over Kathryn Hunter, dressed in tails and a bowler hat and swinging her arms like an ape, enters the stage. After assessing her surroundings, she reaches a white podium. Gripping the front edges of the podium with the tips of her fingers, she addresses the audience as “Esteemed members of the academy.”

“Kafka’s Monkey,” based on “A Report to an Academy” by Franz Kafka, adapted by Colin Teevan, humorously presents a monkey, Red Peter, describing to a group of academics its transformation from a wild jungle creature to the civilized being before them. In between swigs from a silver flask, the monkey describes being shot from a tree, sea vessel transportation, and its first encounters with humans.

Since it has been five years since the monkey departed from the “Gold Coast,” it apologizes for not remembering its “prior” life. Instead it focuses on its education in how to be a successful man. Thus, the play focuses more on what it means to be human than what it means to be ape.

To read more, click here.

Kafka's Monkey