“…it’s the kind of old-school Off-Off Broadway I enjoyed so much when I first started going to live theatre in the 70s.”

Michael Dale, Onstage Blog

April 27, 2023

Last week I was honored that the wonderful theatre journalist Raven Snook…

saw fit to mention this column in her excellent article on the precarious state of Off-Off Broadway/Indie theatre, written for TDF Stages.  A few days later, the Off-Off Broadway movement lost one of its pioneers with the death of playwright Robert Patrick, who once regaled me with his fascinating experiences as part of the ground-breaking collection of artists who reinvented New York’s theatre scene at Caffe Cino.

Invariably, when people find out I write about theatre, they hit me with the question, “What should I see?”  Responding was fairly easy when the focus of my coverage was Broadway and major Off-Broadway; I’d often be mentioning shows and actors that people had at least heard of.

But Off-Off Broadway is a strange and mythical creature to most.  In television and movies, it’s generally depicted as a punch line; amateurish and sparsely attended or densely unfathomable work created by intellectual snobs.  Perhaps that’s a reason why so many prefer the hip and rebellious moniker Indie Theatre.

But honestly, it’s budget, not talent, that separates most of what you’ll pay $30 to see in a small, out-of-the-way venue and what some pay ten times as much to see in Times Square.

They say word of mouth and finding your audience are very important on Broadway, but there’s no time for that Off-Off Broadway, where shows rarely run more than a dozen or so performances, and it’s usually way less.  Theatre rental rates are prohibitive, and more performances would require union members to be paid on what would be an unaffordable scale for that budget level.

So, I’d strongly suggest that those curious about attending Off-Off Broadway (Indie, if you prefer) need to be of the mindset that they’re “going to the theatre” rather than that they’re going to see a specific hit play or a musical that they’ve heard is great.  Don’t wait for reviews or word of mouth.  Be proactive in seeking out live theatre that might appeal to you.  There’s a lot of great, affordable and underpublicized stuff in this city.  Go often enough and you’ll get a better sense of who’s doing the work you really enjoy.

When I was younger, my weekly issue of The Village Voice contained lengthy listings of current Off-Off Broadway shows, with brief descriptions and ticket prices.  I haven’t seen anything quite as comprehensive on the Internet, but a little Googling will lead you to the websites of theatre companies where you can read about current productions and sign up to get email updates on future shows.

In this week’s column I’m writing about a play I saw at The Tank, where I’ve been catching some very good theatre the past couple of years, and my first visit to see The New Stage Theatre Company, a troupe I’ll definitely be looking for in the future.

Here are some more websites for theatre companies I’m enthused to recommend.  But remember, this is just a start: The Classical Theatre of Harlem, The Brick, Chain Theatre, La MaMa, Theater For The New City, Here, Dixon Place, Wild Project, FRIGID New York, A.R.T/New York Theatres, Irondale Ensemble, Theater 2020.

One of my favorite ways to spend a Saturday night in New York…

…is to visit a tiny, out of the way theatre where people are doing an unconventional play I wouldn’t pretend to fully understand, but I can sit in a not especially comfortable chair experiencing the passion of creative voices demanding to be heard.

Fitting the bill very nicely was The New Stage Theatre Company’s thoroughly engaging production of Marie Glancy O’Shea’s The Singing Sphere, performed at the company’s home in the basement of a West 106th Street hostel.

Founded in 2002 by Hungarian-born Ildiko Nemeth, who directs this production, New Stage has built an award-winning reputation as a daring experimental theatre group drawing on multicultural traditions.  This was my first time taking in one of their shows and I’d call it the kind of old school Off-Off Broadway I enjoyed so much when I first started going to live theatre in the 70s.

Some of the play’s unexplained absurdist imagery is, by design, reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, yet the playwright specifies it to particularly female experiences.

Instead of Vladimir and Estragon, we’re introduced to Mags (Lisa Giobbi) and Belem (Gina Bonati), who find themselves in what Tibetan Buddhism calls a Bardo space; a kind of purgatory between death and rebirth.

A fabulously sequined, Vegas-type entertainer (Sonia Villani) sings a number that suggests their purpose for being there.  Also present are Liv (Sam Flynn), a creative who defines herself through her writings, Blanka (Daniele Aziza), a young boxer continually on defense, Miriam (Tatyana Knot), who has lost her child to the oppressions of war, and Ruth (Michelle Best), a flashy, confrontational talk show host whose views lead to her being ostracized by the others.

They interact in ways that are sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, and often intriguing, leading to the proposition that “Man Does, Woman Is”, when Mags compares herself and her companion to “those two ragamuffins from Beckett.”

“Think of what it is to have our machinery,” she proposes, which is followed by the company recalling the many ways society has regulated women to waiting.

“Only you could say something so extravagant and make it sound completely un-ironic.”

“I don’t do ironic.”

“Sometimes I wish you could.  It would make life much more comfortable.”

And with that early exchange, I was all set for Frank Tangredi’s Muse, directed in a solid, well-acted production by Hazen Cuyler for The Greenhouse Ensemble, to be a quirky-humored dysfunctional romance between two artists.

Wow, he really tricked me there.

While there is a certain cuteness in the live-in relationship between Mathias (Matt O’Shea) and Sheila (Rachel Gatewood), there is also a discomforting immaturity present that signals trouble ahead.

One is a painter and the other a dancer.  While neither has achieved any sort of prominence, when they decide to work together on a project, one finds such inspiration from the other that a potential brilliance begins to break through.

But scenes tracking their artistic and emotional progress alternate with scenes set in the future, where their loved ones are dealing with the violent tragedy that eventually occurs between them.

The parents of one (Anne Fizzard and Robert Hickey) are shocked and confused.  The father of the other (Jeffrey Grover), won’t hide his anger, but another relative (Reanna Armellino), who has the credentials to know, can see the significance in a work of art that was left behind.  If the work is made public, an enthusiastic critical reception could bring glory and admiration to both the perpetrator of a horrific act and that perpetrator’s victim.

If I’m being a bit vague with details of the plot, it’s because I was completely absorbed in seeing what was going to happen next.  While the toxic relationship between Mathias and Sheila is a familiar one, the issues it brings up regarding artistic collaboration and the separation of art from the artist are well presented.

This premiere production of Muse appears modestly budgeted, but it’s a play that will leave you with topics to talk about, and I’d be excited to see how a fuller production might illuminate the discussion.

Curtain Line…

“Above all, I was doorman at The Caffe Cino, of which I am very proud.  I let Lanford Wilson into The Cino for the first time.” – Robert Patrick