Quotes and Reviews
Theater Pizzazz By JK Clarke
Because it is such a classic and revered work, Hamlet is one of those plays that we often take for granted. Parts of the story should, however, give us pause. For example—and Hamlet himself asks this early on (“frailty, thy name is woman!”)—how is it that Queen Gertrude so easily married her husband’s brother within a month or two of the King’s death? Weren’t there people in the court or the country who had substantial problems with that? Who is this Gertrude, and how is she so callous? That question is addressed in the US premiere of Howard Barker’s Gertrude—The Cry, at Potomac Theatre Project’s (PTP/NYC). Though alternate views of Hamlet have been posited before (most famously, Tom Stoppard’s existential Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), Barker’s inquisition is unquestionably one of the most radical and intense.
Gertrude—The Cry is many things: shocking, intense, puzzling . . . Most of all it’s difficult to analyze, which is exactly as the playwright would have it. England’s Barker is founder of the Wrestling School theater company which emphasizes forcing the viewer to struggle with ambiguous plays’ meanings alone (as opposed to collectively). It’s a rather complex and confrontational style of theater that requires the viewer to work more than he is accustomed and which offers no single “message.” Performances are public challenges with multiple allowable interpretations.
Gertrude—The Cry begins with her and Claudius carrying out the murder of King Hamlet just as Shakespeare described it, with poison poured into his ear as he napped in the orchard. But here they are doing so while straddling the king in flagrante delicto, she fully nude (perhaps this is why Horatio reports, in the original, to have seen the king’s ghost “with his beaver up.”).
Queen Gertrude, it seems, is a power-hungry nymphomaniac, most aroused by betrayal. So, naturally, following the ultimate betrayal of King Hamlet, she betrays her lover/brother-in-law Claudius, not to mention everyone around her. She is driven by lust, by power, by a mania of passion. Bystanders—her son, his wife, her mother-in-law, her child—are easily dismissed accidental casualties. Getrude is perhaps a neo-feminist: an empowered, powerful woman with sexual agency, but with lesser interest in social climbing. She is not as driven or motivated by a lust for power than in a traditional story line. She is somewhat indifferent to personal gain, motivated more by passion and irreverent behavior. Her story is the chaos and ruin she creates in the lives of those around her.
As usual, PTP/NYC’s cast and casting is stellar. The company has some of the most expressive, multi-dimensional, powerful actors in the city. Pamela J. Gray (Gertrude) is bold, fearless and stunning, cutting a sharp, confident and sexy profile. Her power is as evident to the audience as it is to the characters in her life. Robert Emmet Lunney (Claudius) is a lusty lad, another non-traditional figure of power, who is willing to do whatever (murder’s no big deal) it takes to satisfy his fetish, which is hearing the soul-searing moans of his lover, Gertrude. David Barlow as Hamlet is wry, clever, soul-searching, funny and introspective, yet exasperated by the horrifying people around him. He’s exactly the Hamlet we see in the original play, but with different action around him: a neurotic trying to get by in a mad world. It would be a rare treat to see him play Hamlet in the original play. There is no Ophelia in this play, but a substitute, Ragusa (Meghan Leathers), who, by eventually going mad in her own way, proves that anyone thrust into that family by marriage would not survive with their sanity intact. Also introduced here is Isola (Kathryn Kates), Claudius’s mother, who’s less a Danish mom than a Jewish or perhaps Italian mother, focused on her childrens’ advancement, but resigned to the fact that maybe they aren’t so good after all. All of the family’s eccentricities clearly come from her. Kates is comical and sly, adding the humor of a bad mom to the dysfunctional family. Special note should be given to Alex Draper, as the almost narrative-providing servant Cascan, but who is clearly a member and symptom of this mad family.
Mark Evancho’s set is simultaneously simple and complex, reflecting the play’s context. One sees traces of castle ramparts, but functionally chairs and mirrors serve to augment the angles and viewpoints within the text. Danielle Nieves’ costumes are highly stylish and powerful, featuring (and this is a rare mention in a review) the absolutely elegant hats from Natalya Bythewood Millinery.
Director Richard Romagnoli has once again (he directed last summer’s brilliant The Castle) taken a Howard Barker play and delivered it exactly as it was meant to be. These are complex, humorous pieces that entertain, yet force the audience into deep protracted thought. After seeing the incredibly entertaining Gertrude—The Cry, it is likely you will never again see Hamlet in the same light.
In the Now
Theater in the Now By Michael Block
The classics in the literary canon always contain characters that desire to be explored deeper. And many authors take on the oft-difficult challenge. PTP/NYC, the producing powerhouse of Howard Barker's work presents Barkers take on the Hamlet saga, bringing Gertrude, the titular character's adulterating mother, front and center.
In Gertrude- The Cry, Barker explores Gertrude's motives all the while painting other characters in a new light and creating new figures in Hamlet's world. Gertrude takes on a new persona as the puppet master, manipulating Claudius and going toe to toe against her mother-in-law Isola. Is it possible that Gertrude is a power hungry menace who manipulates her way to the top? Barker’s Gertrude seems to have shades of Lady Macbeth. By pulling focus on Gertrude and discovering her deeper side, Barker offers a new perspective to the source material. Sure, previous knowledge of the Bard's classic is helpful, Gertrude still has the ability to stand on its own. While some of the liberties Barker takes may confusion Hamlet aficionados, it's still an intriguing script, sexy and provocative and never afraid to shock.
PTP/NYC employs a majority of company favorites in the ensemble while integrating new blood in the mix. Pamela J. Gray as Gertrude brings a audacious new version to the previously quiet character. For the first time, we see her as perhaps a villain, using Claudius as her minion. Robert Emmet Lunney's Claudius is pained, like a puppy dog for Gertrude. His moments of unrequited love are the strongest, bringing a new humanity to the villain. Kathryn Kates as the strong maternal figure Isola is captivating and commanding. Her well-rounded performance is one of the best on stage. As Hamlet, David Barlow channels a Jim Carey-esque vibe. His road to insanity takes on a whole new meaning. Meghan Leathers as the Ophelia-like Ragusa is sprightly, shining with her physicality. Bill Army as Albert seemed to have been lost in a completely different world than his cast mates. Though the variance of acting styles made the overall intention a bit muddled, Richard Romagnoli's direction was lively and engaging. Even Romagnoli's transitions, aided by Cormac Bluestone's high octane music, were full of life. Mark Evancho's rep set, using elements in PTP/NYC's other production, works wonders for Castle Elsinore. Danielle Nieves’ costume design was sleek and modern with a cohesive color pallet, occasionally bringing the effective pop of color. Despite some actors unable to find their light and the occasional blinding of the audience via the mirror late in Act II, Hallie Zieselman’s lights set a distinct mood for the play.
Howard Barker's extensive catalogue of work is known for its vulgar language and themes, yet Gertude- the Cry may be one of his more accessible works. For fans of adaptations with a touch of intellect, this play is for you. I guarantee you will never see Hamlet's Gertrude the same ever again.
Theater Mania By Pete Hempstead
Howard Barker's dark and disarmingly funny riff on Hamlet, Gertrude — The Cry takes the moral world of Shakespeare's play and turns it on its head. In a compelling two and a half hours, Gertrude portrays the Dane's mother not as the guilt-ridden queen of Shakespeare's play but as a sexually voracious, society-defying mastermind behind her husband's murder. First produced in London in 2002, Gertrude is now receiving its U.S. premiere at Atlantic Stage 2 in an inspired production for Potomac Theatre Project.
As in Hamlet, the play is set in Elsinore Castle and its environs, but the time has shifted to the present. Smoke fills the air, and Mark Evancho's set of gray-stone masonry creates a modern Gothic atmosphere that looks like it's just waiting for someone to die. It doesn't take long for that to happen. In the first eye-popping scene, Gertrude (a statuesque Pamela J. Gray) and Claudius (Robert Emmet Lunney) come upon the sleeping king of Denmark (Gertrude's husband and Claudius' brother). Claudius orders Gertrude to remove her clothing — "Let me see why I am killing" — then pours poison into the king's ear. Seeing her dying husband, naked Gertrude utters a primal cry that is part nauseous wretch and part orgasm, and that drives Claudius mad with desire. As the king expires, Gertrude and Claudius copulate above the corpse.
At the funeral, Gertrude's prudish, petulant son, Hamlet (David Barlow), a poster child for officious morality, finds he cannot shed tears for his father, but he has no difficulty chiding his mother for her unabashedly sexual way of dressing. Claudius' mother, Isola (Kathryn Kates), is no fan of Gertrude's sluttishness, either, so Isola tempts Gertrude into seducing the duke of Mecklenberg (Bill Army). Gertrude does so, even after learning that she is pregnant. Distraught Hamlet marries Ragusa (Meghan Leathers), a young woman whom he detests, and a series of intrigues involving Gertrude's servant, Cascan (an understated yet mesmerizing Alex Draper), leads to a pileup of bodies reminiscent of the final scene of Shakespeare's original work.
Richard Romagnoli's smart direction makes Barker's thematically complex play accessible and entertaining. It's not always clear what Barker is getting at with his enigmatic plot twists and sometimes perplexing character motivations, but Romagnoli avoids the potential pitfall of letting Barker's language take itself too seriously. His actors effectively bring out the searing comedy hidden in Barker's dark words. Though the second act tends to get a little mired in its conceits, we're permitted a little schadenfreude while watching the lives of the play's self-indulgent characters unravel.
Gray plays Gertrude with an elegant ferocity, reveling in the ecstasy of instinct. (Danielle Nieves' costumes for Gertrude, complete with stunning hats, are fabulous.) She makes an excellent foil to Barlow's whiny, infantile Hamlet, who ambles about the stage like a spoiled moppet when etiquette is breached. Lunney's brilliant Claudius gradually withers as his longing to hear Gertrude's cry again transforms him into a puling whelp. And Kates is a riot; her Isola dislikes everyone, and she sounds like your scolding nana from Brooklyn.
You may wind up feeling confused at the end of Gertrude — The Cry. The play does not hew especially close to the plot of Hamlet, in the fashion of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Instead, Barker's play freely plots its own course as he meditates on the nature of morality, which makes for some heavy Act 2 philosophizing. Still, this production offers tremendous rewards as it considers the need to shatter moral codes in order to save civilization. Gertrude's cry, in Barker's words, is "the cry of a damaged world."
Theater Is Easy By Sarah Moore
BOTTOM LINE: Gertrude — The Cry is a twisted spin-off of Hamlet focused on Gertrude's sexuality, and may be worth seeing if you're tired of traditional Shakespeare productions.
Gertrude -- The Cry is playwright Howard Barker’s response to Hamlet, or rather, his rewriting of Hamlet focused on Gertrude’s sexuality. Produced in London in 2002, Potomac Theatre Project brings the play to New York for the first time in their summer repertory season at Atlantic Stage 2.
The Shakespearean characters that remain in Gertrude are Hamlet, Gertrude, and Claudius. Horatio, Fortinbras, and Ophelia have been replaced by a much more stable love interest, Ragusa (well played by Meghan Leathers) and Albert, Duke of Mecklenberg, as Hamlet’s buddy (played by Bill Army). Also new to the story are the mother-in-law Isola ("Orange is the New Black’s" Kathryn Kates, in a scene stealing performance) and servant Cascan (an also strong Alex Draper).
You are warned as you enter that the production contains female nudity, which they get right to in the first scene.
“Fuck me!” Gertrude cries to Claudius, as they stand over her husband’s body, shortly before Claudius pours poison into his ear. The plot focuses on the sexual relationship of Gertrude and Claudius and mostly Claudius’ desire to hear her titular orgasmic “cry” again. Ragusa pops in as the young female companion for Hamlet, and Albert as the friend who is obsessed with the idea of sleeping with Hamlet’s mom. Hamlet is barely at all concerned about the death of his father, not moved enough to cry, but more focused on his mother and the dysfunction of what’s happening in his family.
The cast of PTP’s production is excellent overall and provides dramatic depth to an uneven script. Pamela J. Gray brings charisma to her intense, committed performance as Gertrude and makes her quick shifts of emotion believable, and David Barlow brings an exciting manic energy to Hamlet.
The New York Times By Rachel Saltz
A fairly standard family drama lies at the heart of Ashlin Halfnight’s frustrating new play, “Balaton,” at the Theater at 30th Street. A student, Daniel, is torn between his overbearing mother and the woman he loves. Around that story, Mr. Halfnight has constructed a heavy carapace: most of the action is set in the afterlife, a place more hell than heaven, where people seem condemned to replay painful scenes from their lives.
Those painful scenes mostly take place against another backdrop: Hungary. Daniel (Daniel O’Brien) lives with his mother, Margit (Kathryn Kates), in Budapest. Margit dislikes Vivian (Jessica Cummings), Daniel’s girlfriend. That dislike grows when Vivian whisks Daniel away to America, where she has been given a job teaching at Duke.
Mr. Halfnight spent time in Budapest on a Fulbright, and “Balaton,” an Electric Pear production, is presented with the support of the Hungarian Cultural Center. But the play, directed with high seriousness by Kristjan Thor, never really demonstrates an imaginative engagement with Hungarian culture or its growing pains after Communist rule.
The details — the scarcity of bananas in the old days, the presence of McDonald’s in the new days — are so much decorative trim. Margit, Daniel and Vivian could just as easily live in Brooklyn. (“Balaton” kept reminding me of old-fashioned Jewish mother stories. Margit says: “I can tell when you’re lying, I’m your mother”; you eat at McDonald’s “and then you can’t find room for my soup”?)
Ms. Kates, the best actor onstage, makes Margit believably fallible. Mr. O’Brien and Ms. Cummings summon up a lot of intensity, but their characters remain one-dimensional. Then again, as presented by Mr. Halfnight, they’re already dead.
Setting the action in the afterlife contributes to the ponderous tone of “Balaton,” which is full of eulogies and intimations of loss. Mr. Halfnight’s modest story, about family and home, can’t bear all that weight. It’s too much ado about too little.
Heresy & Progress
NYTheatre.com By Martin Denton
Here are two provocative, emotionally-charged plays from foreign countries that are being presented in repertory by Immigrants' Theatre Project and Ian Morgan; they have little in common besides their intensity, their quality, and (in the broadest terms) their subject matter, which is the disintegration of families in times of crisis. They represent what indie theater does best—showcasing challenging, difficult drama that commercial/mainstream producers seem loathe to ever put before audiences, despite the fact that audiences crave this kind of work. Both are absolutely worth your time.
Heresy, by Mexican playwright Sabina Berman, is set in what was then the colony of New Spain (i.e., Mexico) in the late 1500s. Luis de Carbajal, a striving Spaniard, has been commissioned by King Phillip to found a colony in the New World. Luis brings a boatload of relatives with him, and they seem to adapt well to their new surroundings. But most of them have carried with them a secret: they are Jews, conversos, families who practice the religion of their ancestors privately and oh-so-discretely, while publicly claiming to be Catholics so as not to come to the attention of the Inquisition.
The play trades in a number of issues that feel resonant and timely, notably the awful dilemma of whether to inform on one's family members and associates (as the Inquisitors demand) in order to (maybe) save one's own skin. But my sense is that Berman is mainly investigating something even more fundamental than that here: she's probing the question of when (or whether) deep-seated faith can ever be cast aside for the sake of expedience or survival. Two of the characters in Heresy in particular—Luis's nephew, also called Luis, and his niece, Isabel—seem incapable of renouncing their religion, at any cost; for them, nothing in the material world is worth more than their souls. Are they irrational fanatics, as we sometimes wish to brand martyrs; or is their belief as real as the survival instinct that motivates so many others of us?
Director Marcy Arlin (who is the artistic director of Immigrants' Theatre Project) approaches Berman's complicated, dense play with a variety of interesting staging ideas, some of which work beautifully (e.g., having the actors remain on stage throughout most of the play, entering from the sidelines as they're needed) and some of which feel a bit heavy-handed (e.g., the use of masks for certain characters, such as the Inquisitors). To her great credit, though, Arlin lays bare the issues and themes of Heresy and yields them up for our contemplation. Her very large cast includes a number of standout performances, including Morteza Tavakoli as the younger Luis de Carbajal, Andrew Eisenman as a hapless victim of the Jews' deception named Jesús Baltazár, and Kathryn Kates in several roles.
The Word Progress On My Mother's Lips Doesn't Ring True was written in French by Romanian author Mátei Visniec; it's directed here by Ian Morgan in a potent, stark production that reminds American audiences, among other things, how fortunate we are not to live in an active battle zone like the Balkans. Progress is set in an unspecified country in that region of the world; a country that could be Bosnia or Serbia or Kosova because it has been in the throes of war for such a long and terrible time. Now peace has come at last, and the country is "free," whatever that means; Visniec begins the play proper with a remarkable monologue delivered by a soldier who seems to value the arbitrary white line on the ground that designates the newly-defined border of his country more than the lives and dignities of the refugees who are returning to live in it.
Two story lines thread through Visniec's play. The first concerns a young man who died in the war whose parents have returned from exile to their battered old farmhouse to find his remains. The story is sad and compelling on its own, but the playwright ups the ante significantly and surprisingly by having the dead young man converse with us and his parents: we're seeing the ruined country from his point of view, representing the unnamed thousands whose bodies lie heaped under the soil, victims of countless wars. Daniel Talbott is enormously affecting as this son, and his excellent performance is matched by those of Elizabeth West as his mother and James Himelsbach as his father.
The second tale recounted here is of a young woman from another country, who speaks some other language, who has taken up a life of prostitution to survive. Trouble is, she's picked a street corner that's the domain of a transvestite hooker named Caroline, who has a powerful pimp; eventually the pimp and another procurer sign up the strange young woman to work for both of them. But she crosses a line (I won't say what she does; it's a brilliant surprise) and eventually both of her bosses force her to leave. There is no happy ending. Andrew Eisenman (as Caroline), Aubrey Levy (the pimp), and Jelena Stupljanin (the girl) do splendid work bringing this group of characters to life.
Morgan's staging of Progress feels exemplary, again letting the play simply breathe and have its say, without explication or adaptation to make its foreignness feel less forbidding to the American audience. He solves one particular problem in Visniec's script—the need for one of the characters to dig a succession of holes in the ground—quite neatly and brilliantly.
Both Progress and Heresy use nontraditional theatricality to communicate with audiences intensely: these are plays that make us sad, but they also make us think and perhaps even compel us to discussion or action after they're over. We have much to learn from the drama created beyond the English-speaking world, as these two fine examples demonstrate. Bravo to Arlin and Morgan for bringing these to the New York stage.
Herman Kline’s Midlife Crisis
The New York Times
“…Kathryn Kates provides moments of real humor…crisply directed by Sherri Eden Barber.”
“...The show belongs to Kathryn Kates, who taps into deep paranoia and restlessness with ease, humorous and heartbreaking…..Kates' comic timing turns a touching scene into a laughing moment, and she gets the audience on this woman's side.”
“…Kathryn Kates’ portrayal of Liz Kline is sympathetic and real, hilarious one minute and heart-breaking the next….She illuminates the feminine midlife crisis. Her character’s honesty and candor reveal real issues that haunt women.”
“...Kathryn Kates provides a standout performance that is both funny and sentimental, and if she looks familiar, she is -- she played the recurring role of the Babka Lady on Seinfeld.”
“…Kates gives her character a range of emotions that run the gamut from amiable to suspicious, from biting to vulnerable.”
NYTheatre.com By Josh Sherman
Hermanas, a new work by Monica Yudovich, is the kind of warm-hearted, very polished situation comedy that one simply doesn't expect to see at the Fringe Festival. Despite some fairly stereotyped characters that populate the piece, ultimately the gentle direction and amiable cast make the experience a worthwhile diversion.
Billed as a Texas-based hybrid Latin-Jewish comedy, Hermanas successfully draws comparisons between the two backgrounds and shows far more similarities than differences. The script itself falls somewhere between a middle-of-the-pack Neil Simon play, an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, and the collected works of Joe DiPietro; which means that there are plenty of zingers and one-liners, some memorable characterizations and predictable plot twists—and there will be a crowd-pleasing ending. Fortunately, due to the casting of such a polished ensemble of actors, the production transcends some of the weaker scripted material and director Claudia Zelevansky (and casting director Michael Cassara) should be commended for that.
The plot involves a younger sister, Lisette Herman (performed by playwright Yudovich), who is attending the University of Texas in Austin and has just broken up with her overly preening Latin lover Eduardo (Paolo Andino). Her sister Claudia (Adriana Gaviria) returns from New York at her sister's doorstep and immediately proceeds to try to pimp her out to the too-good-to-be-true-boy-next-door Danny (Ryan Duncan). Danny is a Jewish mother's dream come true, and fortunately we get to meet Mrs. Telma Herman in the hysterical personage of Kathryn Kates, who pulls off an impressive trifecta of being Jewish, Latina, and completely endearing.
Claudia invents a dinner party that Lisette will host, to which she invites Danny. Danny arrives with Gabriela (Denise Quinones, the 2001 Miss Universe winner), and hilarity ensues when Eduardo also shows up. It turns out that Eduardo and Claudia shared a drunken romance earlier that week, and the curtain falls until Act Two. There is adequate resolution in the second act, despite some loose-end subplots that are rather irrelevant and seem to have been better left out entirely.
Yudovich plays Lisette straight and allows her castmates to shine around her protagonist, so she acquits herself well. Gaviria is excellent in the tricky role of the older sister Claudia who makes Lisette's life infinitely more complicated, and she gives the character depth and believability. Kates's Señora Herman is the emotional center of the piece, and the axis around which Hermanas revolves. Her voicemail messages alone are worth the price of admission, provoking serious belly-laughs from the entire room. Andino also makes a strong positive comedic contribution as Eduardo, a purveyor of malaprops that would do Yogi Berra proud. Andino's delivery is pitch-perfect and turns a character that, in lesser hands, could be a disaster into a bumbling, well-meaning charmer. The remainder of the ensemble serves the piece well under Zelevansky's direction, as she gets the actors to commit to their characters without overreaching and to overcome some of the thinner dialogue.
Most important, Hermanas has a soul to it, and it is a fully developed family comedy (not frequently spotted at Fringe). It charms its way beyond its flaws and lets one leave the theatre with a warm and fuzzy feeling, much like a member of la familia itself.
Off Broadway By Matthew Murray
If your average Jewish mother is a bulldozer, this one more closely resembles those landmark-leveling alien ships from Independence Day. Forget freedom, living life guilt-free, or ever having a moment's peace: This mother, Telma, isn't your average Jewish matron because she's not just Jewish - she's also Mexican. And, boy, when she lets go - which she does mercifully often in the new Fringe Festival play Hermanas - the sparks just won't stop.
As played by the gravelly ingratiating Kathryn Kates, Telma wields her influence over her two daughters, Lisette and Claudia, as though it were a riding crop and they were her false-footed mares. Leaving endlessly whiny answering machine messages, bursting in at all the worst possible moments, and loving them with an irresistibly suffocating completeness, this is a woman who demands that you not ignore her.
As just about anyone in New York knows, when a Jewish mother commands, you listen. And, better still, you revel in every minute of it. It's not just how Kates weds the most overwrought stereotypes of Mexicans and Jewish mothers, resulting in a performance that - vocally and physically - will likely rank as one of the year's brashest highlights. In fact, it's not even just Kates at all.
It's also Ryan Duncan (late of Altar Boyz), as Danny, aka Mr. Perfect, an OB/GYN with enough muscles, skills, and humanitarian bents to make any woman swoon. And it's Eduardo (Paolo Andino), the Enrique Iglesias knock-off whose dyslexia and heavy tongue create one of the most incomprehensible Latin Lovers ever. As for Angie (Bridget Moloney), a studying Texan psychiatrist and diehard Latinophile, and Gabriela (Denise Quiñones), Danny's stunning and too-interested acquaintance-of-uncertain-relationship... it's about them, too.
This delirious array of outsized personalities is so well realized by these amazing performers in Monica Yudovich's play at the Classic Stage Company that it would be a shame to have to dampen their fire. Yet for all the charismatic, unbridled unpredictability of this group, that the show isn't really about them doesn't exactly work in their favor.
Hermanas is supposed to be a gently comic love story between Lisette and Claudia (remember them?), respectively played by Yudovich and Adriana Gaviria, who need to learn to stop fighting over petty things like possessions and men and rediscover what's truly important. It seems that Lisette, returning for her final year of college in Austin, and Claudia, a photographer who abandoned her family for New York and now wants to return, both have eyes for Eduardo. Lisette broke up with him just before summer started, and Claudia apparently met him at some drunken party where, well, something happened between them. Now Claudia and Eduardo can barely keep away from each other, leaving poor Lisette without a sister or a boyfriend! Whatever will she do?
Unfortunately, neither half of the maudlin center of this crazy confection of a show is up to the unenviable task of making this play serious about anything. And with all that unendingly goofy support from mother and friends, Lisette and Claudia look less like sisters than the central characters of a sitcom pilot who are only there for respectability until audiences unearth the next Fonzie or Urkel. Well in keeping with this, they treat each other so amiably awfully, that even when you should hate one for one reason or another, you can't help but love them both.
This surfeit of syrup - partially redeemed only by Yudovich's graceful portrayal of the younger sister unable to escape her elder's shadow - does not make savoring the whole of Hermanas an easy task. Claudia Zelevansky's lemonade-crisp direction, equal parts raucous farce and considerate drawing-room comedy, gives the production the verve and fluidity it requires to sail effortlessly from one amusement to another. And when Yudovich slips in just the right joke for one of those subsidiary personages, expect a seven-car pile-up of laughs.
Were it not for those supporting actors investing their every line with sparklingly specific depth, there'd be too little here to view with the naked eye. As hilarious as Duncan is in innocently expressing his impossibly rich life, as smarmily clueless as Andino makes Eduardo, however many male hearts former Miss Universe Quiñones brings to a life-threatening standstill, as winningly dopey as Moloney is, and as outlandishly oppressive as Kates is in ruling the theater, no amount of fall-on-your-face funny can add sufficient substance to justify the paper-thin Hermanas as anything but an incredible character-acting showcase.
Yudovich can at least find some solace in the fact that few playwright-performers have ever dared make their costars look as good as she does here. But that they're all so look- and laugh-worthy, drawing attention away from what Yudovich was really trying to say, might be a problem worth addressing. Telma won't like it, but so what? Great theater - or even just better theater - is often worth the risk.
New York Post By Frank Scheck
“……a terrifically tart Kathryn Kates..”
Backstage By Nicole Villeneuve
“Kates' Elaine is the standout in this tightrope act of suppression. Strutting around the postage-stamp stage she seems to be the perfect department matriarch, by turns brusque and gentle but consistently poised. It makes the rare moment when she loses her cool a spine-tingling one.”
NYTheatre.com By Leslie Bramm
“Kathryn Kates is superb. She conveys a certain grand dame-ness as Elaine. Rough, raw and in charge. Think Mrs. Warren’s Profession. It was a pleasure to watch her act.”
Theater Mania By Andy Buck
“Elaine (the extremely delightful Kathryn Kates), a no-nonsense department chair, is steering two other professors through the torturous task of selecting graduate students for the next academic year. Dressed for the kill, Kates' Elaine carries herself with the air of a woman assured enough by her influence that she doesn't need to play the role of the leader. She just is one. Trifle with her at your peril. “
New York Theatrewire By Paulanne Simmons
“……..Kates triumphs as the wily Elaine……”
"...D. B. Gilles' three-person play spins a web of deceit and intrigue around the seemingly non-controversial process of deciding who will be admitted to a middling graduate theater program. Heading the admissions committee is Elaine, a faintly terrifying combination of dry world-weariness and tightly-wound ruthlessness played by Kathryn Kates (Seinfeld's Bakery Lady), a marvelously natural actress – the script simply disappears from view when she speaks her lines." In the end, this is a tale of scheming ambition, told sharply and winningly by a witty, smart writer graced with a fine cast in a production whose high standards belie the wee size of the Canal Park Playhouse. Cogently directed by Sherri Eden Barber"
One Big Happy Family
The New York Times By Wilborn Hampton
It’s been more than 17 years since Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed, freeing Romania from one of Communism’s most brutal dictatorships. But evil casts a long shadow, and the terror is not simply eliminated by a firing squad. “Waxing West,” Saviana Stanescu’s intriguing and entertaining new play at La MaMa E.T.C., is an attempt at exorcism, and it is perhaps a hopeful sign that the Ceausescus are ridiculed here as bloodthirsty clowns. Romania’s search for a national identity after the overthrow of the Ceausescus is mirrored in the story of Daniela, who a decade later is trying to decide her own future. A benefactor has invited Daniela to the United States to marry her son, Charlie, a computer technician with few social skills. Although reluctant to follow the advice of her mother, Daniela finally accepts the offer. “Maybe in America,” she says with hope, “it is just a little bit like the movies.”
The rest of “Waxing West” moves back and forth between Bucharest and New York over a 17-month period, from April 11, 2000, to Sept. 11, 2001. Surprises, of course, are in store. If Charlie turns out to be rather kinky, his sister, Gloria, may be even kinkier, and Daniela ends up cooking and cleaning for Charlie, who keeps postponing the marriage. But these disappointments are nothing compared with the nightmares that haunt Daniela. The ghosts of the Ceausescus, dressed as vampires in whiteface, keep popping up, singing and dancing and commenting on Daniela’s American odyssey while threatening her with a variety of tortures. And the date of the play’s final scene is not coincidental. Daniela is a free spirit. Certainly she, a sort of Holly Golightly of Bucharest, has foibles of her own, including a tendency toward kleptomania. She reads every self-help book she can find at Barnes & Noble, most of which she steals, and she befriends a Muslim Bosnian war refugee named Uros who was once a college professor and now begs from a wheelchair in Times Square, trying to save enough money to follow in the footsteps of Gilgamesh.
Marnye Young is captivating as Daniela, a resilient and resourceful young woman with a twinkle in her eye and a touch of larceny in her heart that are irresistible. Grant Neale and Alexis McGuinness are delightfully malevolent as the Ceausescus. The rest of the eight-member cast, under Benjamin Mosse’s brisk direction, are all good, especially Kathryn Kates as Daniela’s mother and Dan Shaked as her brother, Elvis.
NYTheatre.com By Martin Denton
My ancestors emigrated to the United States from Europe between 1863 and 1900; their experiences of leaving behind whatever it was they were escaping in their homelands and navigating/adapting/assimilating in their newly chosen country are remote and, as family members disperse and die, irretrievably lost. For so many of my generation, what it means to be an immigrant—perhaps the single most common thread among the citizens of this Melting Pot in which we live—is something we'll never fully fathom.Which is why a play like Saviana Stanescu's Waxing West is so important. Stanescu has gone through something like what my great-grandparents went through, only it happened to her within the past few years: she lived through the Ceaucescu regime in Romania and its chaotic aftermath, then came to the New York in early September 2001. In Waxing West, she tells her own and many of her compadres' stories, tracing a couple of years in the life of the fictional Daniela, a young woman who journeys from Romania to America seeking marriage and comfort and stability and finding, well, pretty much the opposite.Daniela's tale is fascinating in its own right: she's over 30 when her mother, Marcela, hatches a plan to marry her off to the son of a wealthy New York matron who loves Romanian culture and Romanian people. Charlie, the son in question, is willing to go through with this match to please his mother even though his heart is not in it. Stanescu cannily never gives us a single reason why Daniela agrees to the scheme; instead she feeds us enough information about what Daniela's life in Romania is like so that we fully comprehend a desire to leave it behind forever.Unfortunately, shortly after Daniela arrives in New York, Charlie's mother dies suddenly: the expected wedding is replaced by a funeral, and then by months of limbo as Charlie appropriates Daniela as maid/cook (the very last thing she wanted to be; Daniela is a cosmetologist by profession) without ever setting a date for their marriage. Charlie's sister Gloria makes occasional appearances in Daniela's life as well, and tries to seduce her into a sexual relationship. Here again, Stanescu is careful not to give away too much, leaving motivations and effects for us to decide for ourselves. A kind of rapprochement seems to be in the offing for Daniela and Charlie...and then suddenly 9/11 happens, and Daniela's life is once again thrown akimbo by events beyond her control.The untethering discombobulation of trying to create an entirely new life after having lived one for many years is at the compelling center of Stanescu's play; so, too, is the near-impossibility of actually achieving understanding (let alone true synchronicity) when alien cultures collide and coexist. Daniela's one friend in America, a Yugoslav immigrant named Uros who longs to visit Iraq because he wants to retrace the path of the legendary hero Gilgamesh, offers a contrasting yet similar example of the fundamental difficulties of relocation.Benjamin Mosse has staged Waxing West commendably, with a spare but very effective design and extremely sharp casting. Mosse keeps his actors on stage throughout the play, seated on chairs observing the action when they're not directly involved in it. For once, this device proves valuable rather than distracting, helping to reinforce the ties back home that constantly tug on Daniela as she tries to make her way in America—and, similarly, the temptations that pull her away from Romania in the first place. Among the former, by the way, are the ghosts of dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife Elena, who continue to haunt Daniela's nightmares even after she arrives in New York.
The ensemble is excellent, with particularly memorable work coming from Grant Neale as Ceaucescu, Marnye Young as Daniela, and Dan Shaked and Kathryn Kates as her brother and mother. Stanescu's writing is remarkable, shifting non-linearly back and forth through the parts of Daniela's story in a way that resembles the random patterns of memory, and constantly rooted in a laughter-through-tears absurdism that reminds us that Ionesco was also a Romanian emigre. (Note: Stanescu's play Aurolac Blues is published in NYTE's anthology Plays and Playwrights 2006).
The Village Voice By Gwen Orel
Romanian playwright Saviana Stanescu's intriguing, flawed play Waxing West demonstrates that freedom's still another word for "nothing left to lose." Ten years after the Romanian revolution, times are bleak in Bucharest: Daniela Popescu (intensely played by Marnye Young) is 32 and single. Her cosmetologist job (waxing) has no future. So her mother Marcela (a powerful Kathryn Kates) convinces her to emigrate to New York. There, she's to marry repressed engineer Charlie Aronson (a humane Jason Lawergren). But Romania haunts Daniela: In her nightmares the executed dictators, the Ceausescus, transform into singing vampires (portrayed flamboyantly by Grant Neale and Alexis McGuinness). Daniela shouts the date and place of each scene, but this shifting chronology unfortunately diffuses the story's impact. In New York, Daniela's sexual and spiritual confusion is familiar, despite Stanescu's poetic language. The scenes in post-Communist Romania, though, strike hard. They ask: After the revolution—now what? Daniela's brother Elvis (funny Dan Shaked), too young to have participated in the revolution, sulks vibrantly. Sharath Patel and Lucian Ban's sound design adds atmosphere to Kanae Heike's spare white set, but director Benjamin Mosse has, wearyingly, directed his cast to shout a lot. Still, on 9/11, Daniela discovers America anew—and so do we. It feels poignant, and nearly profound.