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Reviews - Another Sky


Another Sky is a festival comprised of six different programs of new work. nytheatre.com sampled the festival by sending reviewers to two different programs: Rachel Grundy reviewed Program B and Martin Denton reviewed Program D. Here are their commentaries:

Program B
reviewed by Rachel Grundy

Nellie Bly, the intrepid journalist whose career was launched with her groundbreaking work on New York's poor and insane, is lovingly brought to life in Laura Livingston's ensemble production of Nellie and the Madhouse, which opens Program B of Another Sky. Nellie (Shaundra Noll) is tired of writing "light" articles on fashion and theatre, and sets out to get her own scoop on the plight of those in the notorious lunatic asylums of New York. Noll is a dynamic force as Nellie, able to brilliantly maneuver between very short yet emotional scenes in the asylum, each portraying in a snapshot the horror of the treatment she and other inmates received. Her intelligence and charm are evident in some of the lighter scenes, particularly when combating reluctant male editors and convincing them of her journalistic abilities.

Noll is supported by a strong ensemble, each of whom plays multiple roles (sometimes within a single scene) and deserves praise for their versatility. The sadistic asylum attendant, played by Nalina Mann, is particularly striking, as is a fellow inmate played by Monica Hayes Anderson—she is not insane, but poor and sick with nowhere else to go, and Anderson delivers a heartbreaking performance. John Blaylock as the asylum doctor is brilliantly emotionless and dismissive of the women in the asylum, while I loved Michael Hardart's blustering editor and Tom Macy's comedic expressions in many of his roles.

The show ends with Nellie setting off on her next adventure—a record-breaking round-the-world trip— and a sense of optimism about the future of women in journalism. The director and performers clearly care about telling her story, and create a charming, entertaining, and thoughtful piece as a result.

Set on Emily Dickinson's front porch in 1871, the second show of Program B is a quirky piece that sees Emily encounter a strange magician and a dangerous criminal. The performing styles of the actors are sometimes a little unbalanced, but the show ultimately charmed me with its strangeness.

A dangerous criminal is on the loose in Amherst; the bumbling, stereotypical Constable Adams comes to the porch of Emily Dickinson's mansion to warn her. With an affectionate nod to small-town sheriffs of many a movie, John Rengstorff enjoys his moment of humor at the top of the show and immediately warms the audience to him. He makes futile attempts to get Emily out of the house, as she was famously a hermit who only communicated through the peephole of her door. After his exit, the strange magician, Vesuvia, appears, and through promises of magic tricks being performed, entices Emily onto the stage for the first time. Carol Jacobanis is a striking Emily; tall and elegant, with an intelligence and wit calmly exuded throughout the play. Her poise is in strong contrast to LuLu LoLo, playing Vesuvia. LoLo has a Victorian Music Hall style of performance, larger than life with over-the-top voice and melodramatic gestures. The strong difference in their acting styles is somewhat jarring, but LoLo captures the style of performers in the 19th century with confidence, playing a character alien to modern audiences but in keeping with someone that would have existed at the time. The play centers on their relationship and an implicit understanding that they are both outsiders, both on the fringes of society by choice, and are not in thrall to the constraints that the 19th century placed on women. This is emphasized by the appearance of a hilarious Connie Perry as Widow Osborne, the town gossip, who is confounded by Emily's lack of interest in attending social gatherings. The apparently dangerous criminal, played with menacing charm by Joel Nagle, similarly proves no obstacle to these two women, and he is brought to justice by their quick thinking.

Jacobanis held my attention for the duration of this play. She portrays Emily Dickinson as both innocent and wise, with a naive joy when meeting Vesuvia tempered by fierce intelligence and dry humor. I believed the otherwise rather fantastical premise of the show because she was so grounded and real, allowing the stranger characters to seem credible, and the play to hold together.

Program D
reviewed by Martin Denton

Program D of Another Sky is in two parts; I chose to review it because it features stories of American Women's History that I am unfamiliar with. The first act revolves around American writer Mary MacLane, an entirely obscure (to me at least) figure who was apparently quite prominent a century ago. Trish Harnetiaux's playful tribute, Oh Dear, Sweet, Bitter Olive gives us a sense of MacLane's style by depicting the 19-year-old Mary in a conversation with her schoolteacher, Fanny Corbin. (MacLane's best-selling book The Story of Mary MacLane, from which, I assume, Harnetiaux has taken much of her text, was published when Mary was 20.) Corey Tazmania creates the evening's most interesting character in Fanny Corbin, who, as our surrogate on stage, is alternately charmed and alarmed by the poetic, pleasure-and-fame-seeking Mary. Emily Davis is less assured in her performance as the young MacLane. Harnetiaux's direction is spare and elegant.

Paired with this piece is Normandy Raven Sherwood's perplexing and over-long Men Who Have Made Love to Me, inspired by a silent film of that title that MacLane made in 1917 which, according to Wikipedia, is lost to time. Sherwood imagines both the film itself (shown to us as a facetious facsimile of silent cinema, directed by Katherine Allen and featuring a large cast of actors opposite Juliana Francis Kelly as MacLane) and a public appearance surrounding a showing of the film, in which MacLane (Kelly, on stage) offers running commentary on the movie. Lacking any context to explain to someone like me who MacLane was, the entire piece falls rather flat, I'm afraid. I left not only not knowing much more about MacLane than when I came in, but without much interest in finding out more as well.

The second act of Program D has an exciting premise: playwright/director Andrea Pinyan promises A Brief History of Crossdressing in the Civil War. Sadly, there are no author's notes in the program, but some research online indicates that (as I assumed while watching) the key characters in this play—Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Jennie Hodgers aka Albert Cashier, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, and Sarah Emma Edmonds—are all real historical figures. I presume that some of their actual words, in particular Wakeman's poignant letters to her family from the front, are used in the play, though again we aren't told that in the program.

Pinyan has a terrific idea for a play here, but unfortunately in execution the piece proves problematic. A key issue is a question of tone: some of the time, Pinyan seems interested in reporting without frills or commentary on the conditions of life for a woman serving as a soldier or spy in a 19th century war; but other times, she seems to be going for a Hogan's Heroes-style sitcom or a fourth-wall-breaking parody. The material seems most to support the first approach, and I was sorry to see how often seriousness was veered away from in this play. Pinyan's cast is very uneven as well: Susan Atwood (Cashier), Lindsay Tanner (Edmonds), and Tara Henderson (Wakeman) deliver thoughtful and interesting performances, but others in the ensemble, especially those called upon to play many different roles, fall back too often on broad antics in place of building solid characters.

I was hoping to learn why women would choose to participate in such a difficult occupation, and how they managed and survived it. But this play ultimately does not offer much insight. My internet research, however, has led me to the titles of some books on this subject, and I may be checking those out.

 Director Ron Steaton helps Johnson create space in a small black-box theater through crafty blocking and strategic props, turning the stage into a full-court gymnasium so deftly the audience doesn’t pick up on the illusion. Original music by Keth “Wild Child” Middleton completes the sports atmosphere with thumping electronic bass lines when the going gets tough and trailing, high-pitched flourishes that bring Billy back to his childhood idealism. Give and Go: Learning from Losing to the Harlem Globetrotters, may be about losing, but the story and writer/actor behind it wins over audiences.