The Lullaby Off-Broadway

By Perry Tannenbaum

Hir (***3/4) – Taylor Mac and I have a history. When I first saw him at Spoleto Festival USA in 2008, the highlight of his one-man Be(a)st of Taylor Mac came when he donned a ginormous set of singing boobs to deliver one of his greatest hits, “The Revolution Will Not Be Masculinized.” Three years later, it got more personal. Now it was his festival, bitches, renamed the Stiletto Festival. Mid-performance, he stopped to ask me why I was writing. Mac not only found my answer cool, he called me “Honey”!

So as I planned my latest New York pilgrimage, when I learned that Mac had penned a new play — and that he and his ukulele were not in it — I was intrigued and a little skeptical. As Mac himself freely admits in his illuminating essay included in the Playwrights Horizons playbill, Hir is a totally new kind of venture for him, a plunge into the mainstream.

He’s riffing on the hopeless environment he grew up in — Stockton, California — “one of those places where the American dream got stuck in an American reality.” The family situation; Mom and Dad living in their starter home for 30 years, raising two boys who are now fully grown; echoes Mac’s own upbringing. But the realism pretty much stops there.

What we see at curtain rise is no less disturbing than the explosive ending Mac has in store, just more strangely comical. The living room/dining room/kitchen is chaotic — with a willful vengeance, a tacky mess-terpiece by set designer David Zinn.

In the corner, by the side door (the front door has been sacrificed to a mound of junk), a man adorned with clown wig and makeup lives and sleeps in a cardboard box. He’s still in his nightgown — and his diaper may need changing.

Enter our returning war vet, Isaac, a Marine who has served the past three years in Mortuary Affairs, doing what must be done with body parts retrieved from combat. What he sees blows his mind, for the man is Isaac’s father, Arnold, debilitated from a massive stroke during his son’s absence. His formerly meek mother, Paige, not only condones her husband’s degraded condition, she forcibly insists on it. This is her ghoulish retribution for the years that she suffered abuse at Arnold’s hands. Same thing with the epic clutter. Don’t you dare clean that disgusting sink!

A bigger surprise emerges from the bedroom. Isaac’s younger sister, Maxine, is now transgendered as Max, a walking new New Testament of thou-shall-nots. Ze is the pronoun that must replace he or she, and from now on, him or her are off-limits when referring to Max. It’s hir. Ze also would have us acknowledge Mona Lisa’s true gender and discard the Old Testament, due to the gender bias evident in the Noah’s Ark story.

Beyond seeing his baby sis sprouting a beard, future shock besets Isaac, who presumably never got the memo that trannies are no longer content with mere tolerance and equality. But instead of staying focused on Max, Hir becomes a pitched battle over how Arnold should be treated and whether order should return to Isaac’s home.

The chief reason why this dark comedy worked so well, despite somewhat betraying its title, was the astounding Kristine Nielsen as Paige, more frightfully eccentric than she was in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and just as funny despite all her sadism. No less colorful in his nearly silent role, Daniel Oreskes as Arnold ably bestrides the pitiful invalid he is now and the brute he once was.

The brothers, less traveled than the true theatre vets, were also very fine. Under Niegel Smith’s deft direction, Cameron Scoggins gradually allows us to see the upside of Isaac’s spit-and-polish temperament. And in so many ways, Tom Phelan is the antithesis of Mac as Max. Despite a certain amount of brashness and defiance, we can see that Max is sensitive, vulnerable, and normal. There are no sequins in his makeup kit. All in all, Max may be the most wholesome person we see, the Medium Mac of Mac’s uniquely twisted Fun Home.

While his preoccupation with Paige strays from the subject promised in his title, Hir doesn’t stray from its main theme. It’s a question, really: how far can we go in redressing past abuses before we become the abusers? You can bet we’ll see a Charlotte company address that question as soon as it can get the production rights. Much of what’s wrong with today’s world is wrapped up in that explosive question.That’s exactly right. I’m accusing Taylor Mac of profundity. (Closed on January 3)

Colin Quinn: The New York Story (***1/4) — It’s interesting to observe how Quinn has flipped his basic thesis since his previous off-Broadway hit of 2011, Long Story Short. In that story of world history, ranging from the days of the Greek and Roman Empires right up to the just-completed economic summit in Davos, Switzerland, Quinn debunked the notion that humanity had progressed and evolved. All you needed to do was pick up a copy of today’s newspaper, and you’d find such presumptions of evolution decisively refuted.

Now, he’s telling the story of New York from the opposite perspective, showing us how the characteristics we now associate with New Yorkers are the result of successive waves of immigrants washing onto the shores of Manhattan, beginning with the original Dutch settlers. So why are New Yorkers so pushy, so blunt, so cynical, so rude, so snobbish and so cultured? The answers lie in the cavalcade of nationalities that didn’t altogether melt into the city’s melting pot: Dutchmen, Germans, Irish, Jews, Italians, Blacks, Greeks, Chinese, Russians, Dominicans, Arabs and East Indians.

Some of these groups were already in Quinn’s crosshairs back in 2011, when he also had some choice quips about the French, the Israelis, and Indians. But if you haven’t heard any good Polish jokes lately — or if you’ve been a bit freaked about how Mexicans, Muslims and Syrians are being mentioned in political discourse — you might share my notion that times have changed as radically as Quinn’s historical perspective.

Ethnic humor isn’t as innocent and carefree as it was just five years ago. Perhaps that’s the reason why Quinn, who only seemed nervous when his show began in 2011 (in a performance that was filmed by HBO), displayed some nervousness spasmodically for the entire 67 minutes. The SNL alum is sharper than ever in his analysis, but he’s more keenly aware that he must tread carefully. (Through January 31)

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Nutcracker Rouge (***) – Fin de siècle decadence was already in full swing when Tchaikovsky joined choreographer Marius Petipa in producing a new yuletide ballet in December 1892. Perhaps it was the lack of decadence in this sugary adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King that caused it to fail. While orchestras retained their affection for the Nutcracker Suite, gleaned from the score’s greatest hits, the ballet didn’t gain traction until the San Francisco Ballet made it a holiday tradition in 1944 and George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet followed suit a decade later.

So can we say that Company XIV’s radical alteration of the now-beloved ballet–making it bluer, raunchier, and more acrobatic — is simply bringing us what The Nutcracker should have been all along? Nah. Director/choreographer Austin McComick only begins by relocating Marie-Claire’s sugarplum discoveries from the Land of Sweets to a land of hedonistic abandon. He and our burlesque hostess, zaftig Shelly Watson as Madame Drosselmeyer, also take us far beyond the bounds of Tchaikovsky’s music.

I knew that this wicked confection would be for 16-and-over audiences only, but I was surprised to discover that photography was not only permitted but also encouraged. Tweet your naughtiest shots during the show if you wish, nobody will mind. Luckily, I had my camera with me, for the orgy of picture-taking that I indulged in would have surely exhausted my cell phone’s battery.

Yes, I watched a goodly portion of Nutcracker Rouge through the 3-inch monitor of my Canon G15, and it did occur to me that this might be somewhat unprofessional. But how else could I plumb the true depths of this voyeuristic experience?

There were orgiastic ensembles complete with simulated copulation, an artsy pole dance, an S&M-lesbian episode, a cross-dressing stag party and a kick line of man-poodles. There were also lyrical moments, particularly when Marcy Richardson soared above us into star-studded blackness on an aerial hoop, singing an operatic arrangement of Sia’s “Chandelier.” There may be a few messages from Cirque du Soleil on Richardson’s voicemail. Vegas beckons!

Straddling the gulf between kinkiness and lyricism, Laura Careless as Marie-Claire shed her hoop skirt and corset — and nearly everything else — to dance Tchaikovsky’s climactic “Grand Pas de Deux.” Steven Trumon Gray, wearing nothing more than a florid military coat and a thong, was her Nutcracker Cavalier. Careless has made the sexual awakening of Marie-Claire into her signature role over the course of six years with Company XIV, and she owns it with an expressiveness worthy of the best dancers we’ve had here in the Charlotte Ballet.

Inevitably, Careless’s awakening isn’t as vernal as it once must have been. There’s an unstated conspiracy now between the innocent ballerina and her expectant audience. We all understand that her ignorance, innocence, and shock are all artfully shammed, which gives her fantastical adventure an extra jolt of witchery. (Through January 17)

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Ruthless! (**1/2) – Written and directed by Joel Paley, with music by Marvin Laird, this high-energy spoof, billed as “The Stage Mother of All Musicals,” first stormed onto the off-Broadway scene early in 1992 and snagged the 1993 Outer Critics Circle Award. When it arrived here in 1995, Ruthless! pretty much swept CL’s Charlotte Theatre Awards, including our Show of the Year, encouraging Vance Theatrical Organization to reprise their production in 1996.

Precocious child actress Tina Denmark is the main attraction. Tina can pout impressively, toss a tantrum, or even sob unconvincingly. When these ploys let her down, there’s murder. Tina will literally kill for a role at her school’s upcoming Pippi Longstocking. “But not just any role,” she protests. “The lead!”

Sylvia St. Croix becomes Tina’s manager and agent, hiding the fact that she’s actually her grandmother, the shattered Ruth Del Marco, slain by a critic’s sarcastic review. Believing that Ruth had committed suicide because of her review, the guilt-ridden critic adopted Judy, never letting her know her true origins. So while there’s murder, deception, and violence lurking in the Del Marco/Denmark gene pool, there’s also — talent!

As you might expect in a stage mother spoof, Gypsy is a prime target, but only one of many. Paley recommends that the entire production team should also familiarize themselves The Bad Seed, All About Eve, The Women and Valley of the Dolls. Back then, you might have also found hints of Mame, Cats, A Chorus Line, Mommie Dearest and A Star Is Born, plus a string of long-forgotten Broadway and Hollywood drivel.

So what went wrong in the current revival, also directed by Paley? A couple of things leap to mind. First, he decided to streamline the show to 90 minutes, ditch the intermission, and quicken the pace. Why? So many of those titles in the catalogue above may be too forgotten, 24 years later, to remain ripe targets for mockery. Updating those sharp attacks within the Ruthless framework would have been a mighty challenge. Yet the streamlined result seems thin and hurried. The bang-bang finish that once was so wildly absurd and hilarious is now little more than a blur.

Perhaps more to the point, Paley has continued to maintain that Ruthless is an all-woman show and that the only reason why the over-the-top stage grandmother Sylvia St. Croix is traditionally played by a man is because a man, Joel Vig, gave the best audition for the premiere production. So it would seem that Paul Pecorino, who has replaced Peter Land, is playing Sylvia as an actor disguised as a woman – with little of the effeminate bravura that would gush forth from an authentic drag queen.

Back in 1995, it never occurred to me that Steve Bryan’s diva rendition of Sylvia was better than Vig’s. But it should have, because he was certainly better then than Pecorino is now. Way better. The rest of Paley’s new cast does measure up, beginning with Tori Murray as Tina, a beauty contest belter with an insane evil streak. Kim Maresca as her mother Judy is as perfect a housekeeper as Tina is an ingénue — with similar schizoid tendencies.

Yet Rita McKenzie as theatre critic Lita Encore upstages her daughter in the big show-stopping song, “I Hate Musicals.” This is preternatural, Ethel Merman-sized hatred for a critic’s daily bread, and McKenzie nearly does it as brashly and robustly as dear Deborah Rhodes did it here in ’95 and ’96. God bless ’em both. (Through April 2)

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