Entertainment » Theatre

terraNova Rx

by Marcus Scott
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Dec 12, 2013
Charles Andrew Callaghan and Nic Grelli in ’Animals Commit Suicide’
Charles Andrew Callaghan and Nic Grelli in ’Animals Commit Suicide’  (Source:Kampfire PR)

If the cynical naysayers are right, and certain powerhouse producers' sparse and overwrought tastes are going to be the slow and painful death of Broadway, well then, it's best you run to theatres that are actually addressing contemporary issues with innovative voices.

Sadly, some of those voices may never make it on the Great White Way. But a few of them, with enough support, may hit the mark Off-Off-Broadway. Take a hint: The folks of terraNova Collective know a thing or two about talent; for instance, their well-received and timely productions of the works of J. Julian Christopher and Leah Nanako Winkler.

"Animals Commit Suicide" by J. Julian Christopher

Self-destruction is a dish best served chilled, and there's nothing more chilling when you're on the verge of your 30th birthday. In J. Julian Christopher's "Animals Commit Suicide," Chance, a 29-year-old gay journalist working on Wall Street, is feeling the push and pull of the next stage in life. He needs something to dilute his feelings.

After meeting Sebastian at a sex party, an unlikely friendship is paired. Chance is a self-absorbed, neurotic, academic, pseudo-intellectual with a fondness for all of the great classic literature. Sebastian, on the other hand, is a strung-out, 40-something Papi Chulo grizzly bear type in search of the ultimate high.

But the pair become something more after Chance confesses he's decided to take a gamble, to take a chance, pun-intended, and get "The Gift" that keeps on giving: the HIV/AIDS virus. But the odds seemed stacked against Chance, as the bug chaser seeks out infection no matter how he gets it, whether it's sharing a dirty syringe or having unprotected sex with Sebastian, whom he discovers has the virus, mid-orgasm. Sebastian notes the glory of the infection and its benefits that come along with contracting the strain: free healthcare and medical coverage among them. Chance's motive seems murky throughout.

It's not until Chance meets a cute, cuddly and intense pastry couturier Ethan Sweet on a Poz site when things get rather dicey. Chance begins to fall in love with the motor-mouth bakery owner as he lies about being infected. In a startling revelation during intimacy, it becomes somewhat apparent of where the nucleus of Chance's desire to contract the virus came from: his mother was a prostitute and became infected by a john, giving birth to Chance, who was born negative, and dying shortly after.

The audience fears for Chance, as his risk-taking and thrill seeking become a catalyst of his stalled quarter-life crisis. With 35 million people infected and counting, it's still a mystery why some men and women would want to contact the virus, but for Chance, it's to feel something. J. Julian Christopher's sharp insight and gravitas moves the audience as well.

Certainly not an original idea or subject for a play -- you'd have to look at Erik Patterson's "He Asked For It" for that -- but this play has bite. With superb and brave NSFW performances by Charles Andrew Callaghan, Nic Grelli and Sandor Juan, this unflinching, haunting and candid spotlight on the gay bear and bug chasing subcultures is a microscopic look at 21st Century America. Packing quite the punch, as it takes you from nightclub to clinic, Christopher's queer manifesto is a jagged little AZT pill to swallow.

"Death for Sydney Black" by Leah Nanako Winkler

With superb and brave NSFW performances by Charles Andrew Callaghan, Nic Grelli and Sandor Juan, this unflinching, haunting and candid spotlight on the gay bear and bugchasing subcultures is a microscopic look at 21st Century America.

It's no surprise that for many, high school is a nether world of cliques, rules and institutions that set the heroes apart from the zeroes. In Girl World, it's a twisted wonderland of invisible tape and double standards. It's kill or be killed. With Leah Nanako Winkler's subversive take on the teen comedy genre "Death for Sydney Black," there's plenty of fodder and tongue-and-cheek action. But underneath the sugar and spice shtick, there's a surprising and innovative commentary on women empowerment and female sexuality through the lens of happily ever-after fairy tales.

Northeast Valley High. It's your average middle-of-the-road high school. Nancy (played with soul and earnestness by Danielle Slavick), your atypical awkward art school pariah has, like all damsels in fairy tales, lost her mother and has grown distant from her father, who may or may not have sexually abused her.

While she is trying to comprehend life and her place in the high school hierarchy, she meets an equally awkward but quirky half-Asian art school exile Jen (played with glassy-eyed kook by Allison Buck), who rocks out to sweet off-the-cuff tunes and narrates the story with satirical and matter-of-fact wit. When Jen proclaims Nancy's place to generate an uprising by reinventing herself into a popular girl and upsetting said hierarchy, things turn sour.

Brimming with parody of some of the most iconic John Hughes films (think, "Some Kind of Wonderful," "Sixteen Candles," "Pretty in Pink") and some cult faves (namely "Mean Girls," "Can't Hardly Wait," "Never Been Kissed" and "She's All That"), Nanako gives an inventive take of the queen bee archetype with Sydney Black, who refuses to be upstaged by Natalie, when she shows interest in becoming a cheerleader.

Played with sinister fun by Beth Hoyt, Sydney, like the witch in Sondheim's "Into the Woods," knows her place. She also understands the consequence of her life after high school. Afraid of aging and afraid of being seen as "uncool" by the popular boys, she sticks to an insane ritual of exercise and skin care while keeping her posse of cheerleaders in check and chaining her "deep" dreamboat of a jock boyfriend by putting out. This is why she is the crux of the story, often leaving a void in the show when the character is off-stage.

Everyone desires her, envies her, or wants to be her demise. Just look at the gaggle of gaga cheerleaders, each with their own identity crisis: The promiscuous girl who slept her way to the top in hopes of being validated (played by a sparkling Samantha Strelitz); the brainy girl who plays full-blown lobotomized to the point that she can no longer be considered competent (played by a narrow-eyed Emily Kratter); and the white-washed, ethnically-ambiguous gossip queen (Natalie Woolams-Torres). Played as a Greek chorus, these ladies provide comic laughs and stimulating critique on not only the American teen film, but also the irrational ways that young women compete through beauty, fashion and status, often for the eye of the opposite sex.

This comes full circle when Nancy not only ends Sydney's reign of terror and becomes cheerleader queen bee, but also when Nancy gives her body to Sydney's dreamboat boyfriend (played with laugh-out loud gnosis by Hoyt). When asked why she wants to be with him in particular, she is puzzled and irrational: Perhaps he provides just enough angst, mystery and distance that he's desirable? Or maybe because girls and society say he's the type that girls should desire? Winkler's restraint in providing an answer is haunting.

For all its laughs and meta-observation, after three years of workshop, there are a few things that just don't take off with the dazzling, though haphazard, production. Simply put, it's a straight play with music that should be an all-out pop musical. With a snappy switchblade structure and plot holes that get muddled over time, this ha-ha funny play features indie rock singing, Ke$ha-Fergie rap, and doo-wop affected toil-and-trouble harmony, that could raise the roof and help character development with the right composer backing the story. There's also a silent, distracting (and metaphorical?) Beaver mascot (played straight by Michelle Jasmine) that could use more stage business and -- if turned into a musical -- a killer song.

But Winkler & Co. are on the right track. With an amazing star-turn performance by Hoyt and sidesplitting, provocative script, this has the makings of being a downtown success of the season.

"Animals Commit Suicide" and "Death Of Sydney Black" run through Dec. 15 at IRT Theater, 154 Christopher Street, in New York. For information or tickets, call 917-639-3166 or visit http://www.terranovacollective.org/

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