Queen of Hearts, currently playing through November 2, is everything I’ve come to expect from a Company XIV show, in the best way possible. Whenever I hear that Company XIV has a new show, I expect a stage filled with sexy people doing high kicks, acrobatics, and inventive covers of my favorite pop songs. It’s a few hours of escape from the real world into one of decadence and light-hearted debauchery. Queen of Hearts was all of it, but there was something more this time around that I wasn’t expecting.
The term “immersive theater” has been thrown around so much in recent years that it has lost much of its meaning and purpose as a storytelling device. Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More is an example of doing it right, letting the audience explore the story as they please and have different experiences on each visit. Mamma Mia! The Party is tourist-friendly, and it’s more of an excuse for audiences to drink and dance to ABBA songs. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) Even the newest Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, which is already unconventional enough, is serving corn bread and chili at intermission.
Just as audiences are starting to get immersive theater fatigue, writer Matt Cox and director Kristin McCarthy Parker (Kapow-i GoGo, Puffs) come along with a premise that is insanely ambitious, technically challenging to say the least, and gobsmackingly brilliant. Their new play The Magnificent Revengers, which is currently playtesting at the People’s Improv Theater, is a choose-your-own-adventure revenge Western. Using their phones, the audience votes on a wide range of decisions, including whether to kill or spare an enemy, buy a boat, and which of your companions will get a pretty flower. Some of these decisions may seem minor, but there are always consequences down the road.
A Modest Proposal, which played January 25 thru 27 at the Cherry Lane Theatre, imagines a dystopian future where a totalitarian government has taken extreme measures to curb the population. The ruling political party stays in power by feeding the population an unending stream of cheery propaganda, extolling the virtues of figurehead Dr. Swift (Adam Foldes). Swift is credited with shaping the new world order, one that revolves around firmly maintaining births and deaths. Any addition needs a subtraction, so the government encourages people to commit suicide at a convenient facility. Grandparents do it to make room for their grandchildren. Others do it to serve the greater good. Some do it because they can’t stand the thought of living in this world anymore.
The Rafa Play, now playing at the Flea Theater’s new Tribeca home, is a meta comedy about playwright Peter Gil-Sheridan’s imagined romance with professional tennis player Rafael Nadal. Gil-Sheridan, played on-stage by Olli Haaskivi, acknowledges his dual roles as the show’s playwright and lead character from the start with an over-the-top glowing preamble, and the navel-gazing never lets up. I don’t say this to be negative, I say it as a fact. This is a deeply self-involved show.
Washed Up on the Potomac, now playing at the Flea Theater’s new Tribeca home, is a dark workplace comedy set in the proofreading office of an ad agency (or possibly purgatory, depending on your interpretation). The show opens with a proofreading disaster in the office, a very obvious and costly mistake on an iPod ad, and the boss is looking for a scapegoat. There is the harried and mousy Sherri (Crystal Finn), who is dominated by her religious fundamentalist mother; Kate (Jennifer Morris), a wannabe rocker who won a songwriting contest at a young age but lost her momentum due to a family tragedy; Mark (Adam Green), a novelist who is so critical of his work that he rewrites the same passage again and again and never finishes anything; and Giorgio (Debargo Sanyal), the office’s self-serious manager who wishes everyone would act a little more professionally.
Tania in the Getaway Van, now playing at the Flea Theater’s new Tribeca home, is a coming-of-age story spanning decades and several generations of feminists in the United States, from San Francisco in 1975 to Brooklyn in 2012. Eleven-year-old Laura (Caitlin Morris) is unsure of who she is or what she wants in life, besides watching I Dream of Jeannie with her best friend Stacy (Courtney G. Williams), pretending to be Patty Hearst, and occasionally getting frozen TV dinners when her mother Diane (Annie McNamara) is out late at class. She doesn’t know what to think about her mother going back to school, but she knows that she despises her mother’s assertiveness training and answering her seemingly endless probing questions. Even though her mother insists that there are no wrong answers, Laura worries that her burgeoning feminist mother wouldn’t like it that she really wants to be an heiress and fantasizes about robbing banks.
Don’t Feed the Indians, which opened November 3 at La MaMa’s Downstairs Theatre, is an examination of Native American character tropes and stereotypes through a series of vignettes. Some of the vignettes are comedic, taking on Pocahontas with a Keeping Up With the Kardashians-style reality show and recreating Native American carnival shows. Other segments veer into harsher realities, like a character recounting an academic accomplishment from his school days and the vicious sexual assault that followed.
Aliens Coming, a new musical at the Peoples Improv Theater, is a comedic take on low-budget sci-fi movies with a blatant naughty streak. The plot is pulled from some of the best/worst episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 with some modern touches, and it centers on two teenage girls, Brandi and Clementine, who are about to graduate from high school. They have been best friends since they were kids, but Clementine’s interest in art (and the “cool art kids” culture) is pulling them in different directions. When Brandi is abducted, however, Clementine sets out to save Brandi and the world’s genitals from a prudish alien race. Along the way, Clementine finds herself and loses her virginity, and Brandi becomes a YouTube make-up tutorial star. Really, it’s a typical coming-of-age tale of friendship and following your dreams. Nothing out of the ordinary here.
Soot and Spit, playing at the New Ohio Theatre through June 17, is a celebration of artist James Castle. He was born deaf and autistic, and in his lifetime, he developed a distinctive artistic style using found objects, drawing tools he created, and a mix of soot and spit.
Piehole’s Ski End, now playing at the New Ohio Theatre, has big ambitions. According to a note published in the program, the show is meant to explore “economic and environmental dread” and provide a “thoughtful alternative to the noise” of the current political climate. Lofty goals and admirable ones in this time, but are they successful?