Thursday, October 13, 2022

Theater Reviews: The Off-Broadway Fall Season Starts With Three Ambitious Female-led Shows: “peerless,” “Weightless” and “I’m Revolting”

peerless (c) James Leynse

Theater: peerless 
At Primary Stages 

L (Shannon Tyo) and M (Sasha Diamond) are Asian-American twin sisters in high school, one grade apart with M as a senior (assuming she skipped a grade), hoping to get into her dream college with one early spot available. M believes she is a shoo-in until D (Benny Wayne Sully) gets the spot. And before you can say “Macbeth” with an assist from the class witch (Marié Botha), the sisters plan to take D out of the picture in order to grab his college spot. Playwright Jiehae Park has fashioned a rapid-fire tag-team dialogue for the sisters, which the two actresses handle with skill and aplomb, but the characters soon get overwhelmed by the Shakespearean plot, which doesn’t hold much surprise once it kicks into high gear. Sully, however, as the clueless, fun-loving nerd victim with (of course) a nut allergy is a hoot, making his eventual fate that much more painful. Director Margot Bordelon does a fine job building the suspense with Palmer Hefferan’s sound design doing most of the heavy lifting. Park doesn’t go into the deeper theme of the affirmative action aspect of college admissions (D is 1/16th Native American) but it hovers over the play and informs the motives of the sisters, who believe they figured out the formula of success until it doesn’t work out. Following the equally impressive “That Day in Amsterdam,” Primary Stages is the off-Broadway company to invest in if you want to be introduced to new, exciting playwrights who may be a bit unpolished. Polish comes later. 

I'm Revolting (c) Ahron R. Foster

Theater: I’m Revolting 
At Atlantic Theater Company 

Some subject matters would seem to be verboten for the stage, and yet we have riveting theater revolving around cancer (“Wit”), suicide (“’Night, Mother”) and end-of-life dignity (“The Shadow Box,” “Whose Life is It Anyway?”). So, I braced myself for Australian playwright Gracie Gardner’s “I’m Revolting,” which takes place in the waiting room of a skin cancer ward where we focus on four patients in various stages of treatment. Reggie (Alicia Pilgrim) is a black, shy coed who can’t believe she has an old white man’s disease; Clyde (Peter Gerety) is the old white man who gets checkups every year and believes in the doctors and their treatments; Toby (Patrick Vaill) is a former lifeguard who could have been more careful with his sunscreen, and last it’s Liane (Emily Cass McDonnell), who is the one in the ugliest throe of the disease, which her husband, Jordan (Glenn Fitzgerald), doesn’t seem to be able to handle. All four patients are looked over by the doctor, Denise (a regal Patrice Johnson Chevannes), along with her resident Jonathan (Bartley Booz). Working off the assumption that every audience member has been in this situation in some form, Gardiner gives us a pretty realistic swath of economic, racial, sexuality and philosophical diversity in her characters. Even with the backdrop of Marsha Ginsberg’s appropriately sterile and uninviting waiting room set, the actors do a wonderful job showing us humor and compassion toward each other even as their own fate is so unknown. The funniest character is Reggie’s workaholic sister Anna (recently minted Tony-nominee Gabby Beans) whose version of supportive is barely that. But despite the generosity of spirit, Gardiner ends the play in a realistic but dramatically depressing plot twist, even for a play about cancer. Thankfully, Knud Adams’ sensitive production keeps everything spinning in the right direction, again for a play about cancer. 

Weightless (c) Joan Marcus

Theater Review: Weightless 
At the WP Theater 

You would be forgiven if you thought the authors of the musical, a Bay Area pop group known as The Kilbanes, were Kate Kilbane and Lily Blue, the singers who play the sisters Procne and Philomela, respectively. But The Kilbanes are actually Kate and Dan Moses, the keyboardist, who wrote this rock opera based on a Greek myth about the deep bond between the sisters as a concept album. Director Tamilla Woodard has fashioned the show as a concert, leaving most of the beautiful and sometimes disturbing story (from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”) to our imagination. Kilbane and Blue have such a wonderful chemistry between them that it’s hard to believe they haven’t been bandmates for the last decade. The myth involves kidnapping and rape, mostly from Procne’s domestic partner, Tereus (Josh Pollock)–patriarchy being the real villain. But the sisters do have a little divinity on their side in the form of the goddess Iris (the indispensable Kofy Brown), who watches and narrates their story with detachment at first but then with more involvement. And like all Greek stories, I wouldn’t say the story ends happily, but things are set mostly right. The Kilbanes write catchy rock songs with the occasional folk ballad that keeps the story moving at a quick pace. The WP Theater is an intimate space, and I was worried that a rock concert would be overwhelming, but it felt perfect in the space, where I kept tapping my toes throughout even at the darkest moments of the story (think “Titus Andronicus”–level violence). Although “Weightless” (symbolically named for Philomela’s affinity with birds) spends too much time in the air instead of being dramatically engaging, you can’t fault the music. It seems The Kilbanes have been bitten by the theatrical bug, and I look forward to their next stage endeavor.

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