(Every so often I get to write about shows by people I’ve actually met–)
If you want to talk seriously about playwrights in the 2000s, Derek Ahonen is a name to know, even if he’d seem more comfortable in the ‘60s. His last show, performed in New York City–which ran from June to October of ‘09 in various venues–The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, seemed anachronistic because nobody could quite figure out where hippie communes could be found in today’s gentrified East Village—but, who knows, I currently live in the Bronx. His new work, Happy in the Poorhouse, playing at Theatre 80 St. Marks, talks like Fonzie could make an entrance at any moment or, as a friend mentioned, as if it were recalling The Honeymooners (the play opened the same week as Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical Love Never Dies, which is also set in Coney Island). Whether or not he's using mass culture to cloak a misty memory play, though, Ahonen sure doesn't mind shattering the idea that today's playwrights are too soft. Here's the one who finally gives the finger to all that grad-school, development lab BS–as if plays couldn't be crass or vulgar or violent and still be art (in The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, one of the characters–fully motivated, mind you–crashes onto the stage, naked with an erection!). I'm also not so sure Ahonen thinks about his plays in terms of their intelligence, vision, voice, or place for posterity: His theatre is visceral, open for business NOW–I'd compare him to early Shepard (the one drawing on cowboy serials and TV shows), not the one who found Beckett. I came away from Ahonen’s play, thinking that the theatre should be his home, not a tidied workspace at a University or library, suburb, or downtown studio–but right in the thick of it all. His stage is loud and crowded: Holes are being punched into walls, staples are being aimed into people's heads! Like Quentin Tarantino’s films, these works are fueled by B-movie excess. You also won't be able to view Happy in the Poorhouse or The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side without thinking about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Hair or Sticks and Bones or Rocky or Pulp Fiction or Moonstruck . . . maybe many more. But they’re just touchstones and props to keep the action moving–to give excuses for being live.
A film may not be the first cultural reference you begin thinking about regarding Happy in the Poorhouse, anyway (what I went to first was Pop Art–Roy Lichtenstein's work, in fact). Maybe it had to do with associating a character who has died in the play (from a shark attack) with the painting "Drowning Girl'–the cartoon bubble above her head says, "I DON'T CARE! I'D RATHER SINK THAN CALL BRAD FOR HELP!" Another work shows a blonde crying into her pillow, "THAT'S THE WAY–IT SHOULD HAVE BEGUN! BUT IT'S HOPELESS!" Things are also pretty hopeless at the beginning of Happy in the Poorhouse, too. A young boxer is impotent, especially unnerved because the woman he has married–whom he knew when she was a little girl–had been the wife of his best friend (now coming home from fighting in Iraq). Meanwhile, her brother, a mailman, has had sex with . . . well, I'd hate to ruin it for you. The point is that these characters are actors’ dreams–there's so much carnality to fill out and so little time. Everyone is desperate, everyone is larger than life, everyone needs to make monumental decisions in the next fifteen seconds. If you've seen The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, you'll know many of the actors appearing in the new play. James Kautz plays the boxer without a sex life who needs to go to the bathroom: "I believe what you are on the inside is what you say you are on the outside"; he might also not have any knuckles left at the end of the play’s run. Sarah Lemp is the wife who has given up virtually everything except the desire to have sex. Matthew Pilieci plays the postman having sex with an under-aged . . . I said I wouldn't give everything away; William Apps is the Iraq vet who comes home to take his ex-wife back–suffice it to say this is a cast who knows exactly what they're doing, have had many hours of working together (as part of their theatre company, the Amoralists), and will take you right over the top with them (special kudos to Nick Lawson who plays a nurse with so much attitude your mouth may drop open; you may also find yourself continuing to watch him as the play's three-ring-circus atmosphere moves elsewhere). Although we can compare the group to characters we've seen on sitcoms, the writer hasn’t brought us into the theatre to help provide a laugh track (even though you’ll be laughing). Instead, he wants to show a kind of screwed up nobility of purpose. Because his eye is so sharp (here he’s both writer and director)—we let him grab the behavior and cultural precedents he wants and lay it all out there to coldly show us what we've become. In The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side we watched the commune become destroyed by greed; in Happy in the Poorhouse the characters are asked to lose their dreams (not like Hickey does in The Iceman Cometh, though, because Ahonen actually thinks we're capable, he thinks we can be motivated). Admittedly, he’s wearing rose-colored spectacles with his nods to utopian thinking in the ‘60s or whatever era (such a commonality in the definition of many off-off Broadway plays). Still, he draws a hard line in the sand: If you don't follow your dreams, you might as well be eaten by sharks.
Visit Theatre 80 St. Marks: http://www.theatre80.org/default.aspx
Visit the Web site of the Amoralists: http://theamoralists.com/
Kristine Niven and Janice L. Goldberg at Artistic New Directions also believe people need to realize their dreams. Their recent evenings of shorts included fourteen up-and-coming writers over the course of two programs (the last day was Sunday, March 27). The “Boxer” bill, which I attended, also set a play among Italian Americans–this one involved marital strife escalating to violence (Magic Land by Tom Shergalis). In fact, the one acts were largely all serious–at least, they contained serious themes: It’s My Party by Susan Middaugh looked at the lives and intersections of two women entering jail; Star Song by Joseph Gallo showed young girls spouting Dr. Suess-speak, tobogganing into tragedy; Low & Away appeared to be a comedy (to those who have never been parents—because I am one, I knew better); A Reckoning, by Jeffrey Sweet, examined the perils of being a mentor and the irresolvable issues of the mentored; and Jill Melanie Wirth’s & David Wirth’s Sex Ed broached finding a fulfilling sex life (I guess you could consider this a comedy, too, but as I’ve lived this one in real life, as well, again, I knew better). Oh, and Robin Goldfin’s The Accoustics–concerning writing about sponges or listening to sponges or listening to opera on sponges or, best, finding the surreal in everyday love!
Visit the Web site of Artistic New Directions for future shows—and learn about their classes and workshops: http://www.artisticnewdirections.org/
© 2010 by Bob Shuman
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