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Now the Cats With Jewelled Claws


Jason Zinoman, New York Times: What really stands out about the title of Tennessee Williams’s late one-act “Now the Cats With Jewelled Claws” is not the stylish image, a menacing relative to that more vulnerable feline on a sweltering roof. It’s that unexpected first word. It’s urgent and oddly apt, evoking a ringmaster selling his next act.

    The play, which is not as good as the title, indeed has the nervous energy of a circus. Every few minutes a wild new character enters, or a familiar one interrupts with a song. A fear of boring the audience hovers over the proceedings. Unlike his classic plays, famously set in a dreamy, drawling South, this absurdist satire introduces us to New York ladies who lunch. And yet theatergoers will still warmly recognize the unmistakable literary voice.

    This scattershot minor work, which runs under an hour, is more interesting in the details, which may be why the director, Jonathan Warman, has encouraged a flamboyant presentational style that emphasizes coherence over flair. Performed by a team of cult stars, it seems inspired by purple lines like “Your face has a feverish flush that can’t be attributed altogether to the scuffle at Guffels.”

    Mink Stole, the John Waters veteran, plays Madge, who is dining out with her friend Bea (Regina Bartkoff), and putting up with the most ghastly service. In a thin role Erin Markey (“Green Eyes”) makes the most of every entrance as a pregnant waitress, swiveling through a curtain before listlessly taking orders.

    Stealing the show is Everett Quinton, the downtown legend from the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, who plays a bitter, grizzled restaurant manager who occasionally muses about jeweled cats in the night. Mixing diva delivery with expressionist dance moves, Mr. Quinton makes a feast out of every line, sometimes quite literally. Give him a bird reference, and he will pantomime chasing one down and eating it. There is camp humor and desperate bleakness in this older man’s hunger, but the production mostly captures the former. The actors are having so much fun that the play’s dark elements get overlooked. Then again, since this is a slight work and their dramatic exuberance is infectious, you may not mind.

Erik Haagensen, Backstage: Tennessee Williams wrote his mordantly morbid one-act "Now the Cats With Jewelled Claws" in the late 1960s, then revised it in 1981, not long before his death. An absurdist meditation on mortality, loneliness, and the general triviality of human existence, it combines bitter comedy and decadent sexuality with eccentric song-and-dance sequences. Though it may seem the work of a jaded and self-loathing outcast, it is nevertheless suffused with the compassion Williams always had for the disenfranchised. In any event, thanks to the imagination of director Jonathan Warman and his enthusiastic cast, it makes for an outrageously entertaining 50 minutes in what feels like the perfect space for it, the Club at La MaMa.

    Set during the New York City after-Christmas sales in a ladies-who-lunch restaurant whose "proximity to Guffels is its questionable attraction," the play begins with matrons Madge and Bea lunching, drinking, and complaining about, well, almost everything. The restaurant features an aging, heavily painted queen as its manager and a very pregnant waitress with a black eye and a bruised attitude whose every appearance is heralded by a harp arpeggio. Eventually, two handsome young men in pink leather motorcycle jackets that read "The Mystic Rose" arrive. It turns out that they are a romantic couple quarreling about whether they should continue to ply their trade as prostitutes, a profession whose mention perks up the predatory manager. Outside in the street, a mysterious "hunched man" wanders occasionally by, carrying vaguely disturbing messages on placards. Naturally, it all ends apocalyptically.

    Warman mixes Williams' diverse elements skillfully, letting them jostle gently about, feeding rather than fighting each other. Mink Stole and Regina Bartkoff are models of enthusiastic understatement as Madge and Bea, blithely judgmental, cuttingly shallow, and utterly devoid of self-awareness. Everett Quinton is an extravagantly creepy manager, creating a character out of expressionistic physical movement as much as dialogue. Erin Markey's dry, seen-it-all waitress is a hoot in her balletic entrances and exits but never funnier than when rapturously explaining to the manager why she can no longer continue to come to work.

    Max Steele and Joseph Keckler are an affectingly innocent pair of young whores. Steele is terrific in his "dance which expresses his loneliness, fear, violated manhood," as the stage directions put it, while Keckler displays commanding presence and a remarkable singing voice in a bravura sequence of sung text. Charlie Schick is a gleefully mysterious hunched man.

    Jonathan Collins' simple yet evocative set is lit with intelligence by Yuriy Nayer, though I couldn't help wishing he had more firepower at his disposal. What money there was has clearly gone to Karl Ruckdeschel's inspired costumes (I particularly loved Mink Stole's sea-green tailored Chanel weave suit). Composer Trystan Trazon's eclectic score is completely in tune with Williams' sensibility and adds immeasurably to the proceedings.

    It's hard not to see the manager as a stand-in for the playwright and to read the piece as the cry of a damaged man who could never completely accept his homosexuality as natural and healthy. Williams was disdained for his sexuality even when he was lionized for his work, and once that work took an unacceptable turn away from the mainstream, he was cast unceremoniously aside, the veiled disdain quickly replaced by open contempt. That he maintained a wicked sense of humor, a merciless eye, and an unceasing ability to write in the face of all that is Williams' personal triumph. And it's that triumph that suffuses this admittedly minor but nevertheless raucously effective grotesquerie.

Brandon Voss, The Advocate: Ridiculous Theatrical Company legend Everett Quinton and John Waters muse Mink Stole headline the New York premiere of this absurd late one-act by Tennessee Williams about Manhattan ladies who lunch, a flamboyantly smarmy manager, a pregnant waitress, and gay hustlers. Fearlessly directed by Jonathan Warman, who fully embraces the play’s grotesque beauty, the too-brief engagement at La MaMa E.T.C. ends November 13.

Andy Probst, Theatremania: The sort of lyricism audiences expect from a play by Tennessee Williams blends with the kind of absurdist comedy normally associated with Eugene Ionesco in Williams' short play Now the Cats With Jewelled Claws, currently receiving its long-overdue New York premiere in the Club at La MaMa E.T.C. And thanks to the surehanded staging from director Jonathan Warman and a fine cast, this mere squib of a play provokes both laughs and thought.

    Set in an upscale restaurant somewhere near a large urban department store (for which scenic designer Jonathan Collins has provided a spare, but appropriately kitschy environment), the show initially focuses on two well-heeled women, Madge (Mink Stole) and Bea (Regina Bartkoff), who have convened for a meal during the after-Christmas shopping rush.

    Sitting at a cocktail table and swilling drinks from martini glasses, the two exchange epigrams and non-sequitur-filled banter that deftly skewer the trivialities that obsess the women and the bitchiness they bring to their worlds. Williams' tart -- and bizarre -- portraiture of the two can be summed up by a comment Madge makes about the almost human-sized bunny that Bea has bought for a friend's child: "It's a sad thing. An albino rabbit for a mongoloid child."

    Before long, two hustlers (played with sex appeal, charm, and just a bit of menace by Joseph Keckler and Max Steele) come on the scene. The guys, sporting pink leather jackets emblazoned with "The Mystic Rose" on the back, are mid-spat about whether they should continue plying their trade. Eventually, theatergoers come to realize they are essentially as self-obsessed and petty as the older women, who cast long, disdainful looks them.

    Presiding over the place is a Manager (Everett Quinton), while a very pregnant waitress (Erin Markey) is on hand to service the customers. These two characters will transform -- and as the play ends, one has to wonder if they are gate keepers to a sort of hell for the four diners.

    The company blithely and gamely rises to each increasingly curious turn in the play. It's hilarious to watch Mink Stole's serene and snooty Madge join in an ultra-sexual dance break with Bea and the bunny, and a dance from the guys (choreography from Liz Piccoli) even manages to comically reference the abstracted works of choreographers like Martha Graham.

    Bartkoff, who gives Bea an aggressive edge throughout, scores solidly as the character describes the new use she has found for an old hatpin. Quinton makes the manager a fey and randy variation on the sort of suave characters that were once played by the likes of Vincent Price, while Markey somehow manages to make the uncaring and ennui-filled waitress compelling.

Heather J. Violanti, NYTheatre: Imagine Mad Men on LSD, add a dash of Beckett, stir in a watusi or two….and you get an idea of what Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws is like. This wonderful, wacky and weird play from Tennessee Williams’s experimental later period is making its New York premiere at LaMaMa, following a sold-out run at Provincetown.

    Williams's script combines several jarring styles. At once lyrical and obscene, it mixes heady symbolism with banal reality. Ladies who lunch find themselves sharing a grubby café with a pair of young hustlers…a café that becomes a portal to their innermost fears and desires. Dialogue gives way to song, song melts into dance, and what started as a glittering comedy transforms into a dreamlike meditation on mortality.

    I was startled by just how Beckettian the dialogue could be—raw scraps of half-finished sentences and mysterious, unanswered questions—all darkly funny and existential. Here’s an exchange between the lunching ladies Madge and Bea, after Bea recounts stabbing shoppers with her hatpin on the crowded sidewalks:

BEA: …..So here we are.
MADGE: To be anywhere.
BEA: When traffic is paralyzed in all directions. Name it.
MADGE: An urban problem.
BEA: I dream of the aerial city, floating above, celestial.
MADGE: Urban problems confronting.
BEA: In our time or after our.
MADGE: Transfiguration. But hold onto that hatpin.
BEA: I’d never dream of.
MADGE: A public emergence without it?
BEA: Just look at that street of infuriated shoppers.
MADGE: It’s a sight to be seen that’s obscene. But! Serenity will descend…
BEA: When the bomb is dropped. Waitress!

    Under Jonathan Warman’s direction, actors Mink Stole (Madge) and Regina Bartkoff (Bea) deliver these lines in a brisk near-monotone, facing out. Such presentational style adds to the play’s innate strangeness. Indeed, in many instances, Warman and his team up Williams’s avant-garde ante. The script calls for a trumpet to announce each entrance of the mysterious Hunched Man; in this production that cue’s been altered to demented ice-cream truck bells. When the Second Young Man berates his lover for becoming hysterical in public, his scripted monologue is now an aria, taking advantage of actor Joseph Keckler’s classical voice training. And the final few moments are now a trippy, tinseled ballet that’s as frightening as it is inevitable. In all, Warman more than matches the piece’s phantasmagorical style, even if he doesn’t always illuminate its multiple meanings. (Though to be fair, given the script’s mélange of styles, that just might be impossible).

    Warman elicits exquisite performances from his cast that are at once real and larger-than-life. As Madge, Mink Stole is wryness personified, while Regina Bartkoff’s wiry Bea nearly steals the show during an athletic dance break cleverly choreographed by Liz Piccoli. Erin Markey somehow makes the very pregnant Waitress as tragic as she is sarcastic, while Everett Quinton brings Shakespearean grandeur to the musings of the sleazy Manager. Max Steele’s First Young Man is a hustler as knowing as he is vulnerable, while Joseph Keckler displays his razor-sharp comic timing and operatic voice as the Second Young Man. Charles Schick lends winsome strangeness to the mysterious Hunched Man, who just may be a harbinger of death.

    In all, this is a fascinating production of a rarely-performed crazy quilt of a play—something well-worth seeing for devotees of Williams and the avant-garde alike.

Goyescas

George Grella, New York Classical Review: Despite the expense and difficulties of presenting opera in New York City that have already done in two important companies in recent years, this place is still packed with talented people dedicated to the genre.

    That was the overall reaction to the Saturday opening night of Goyescas, a production from Bare Opera of Granados’ rarely performed one-act opera. The work premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1916, but since then appears to have never been staged again in New York (there are only three recordings of it in the discography).

    While the drama may be new to audiences, much of the music is familiar—Granados adapted it from his well-known Goyescas for piano. Whole scenes, like “El Baile de Candil,” are sung and danced to pure orchestrations of the original music, in this case “El fandango de candil.”

    Bare Opera accurately describes the company and the staging. With few resources, the converted garage space of the Bat Haus, in Bushwick, was set with nothing more than hanging lightbulbs, a small wooden platform, and a metal garbage can, knocked on its side.

    What Bare Opera did have is ideas, craft, and some highly talented and skilled performers. The singers were impressive, and they were easily equalled by a trio of memorable dancers: Tiger Brown, Sharlane Conner, and Vivake Kamsingsavath.The three were integral to the evening, and featured in the first half, which was a performance of excerpts from Albéniz’s Suite Espagnola, choreographed for the dancers by Liz Piccoli.

    The five excerpts—“Castilla,” “Granada,” “Sevilla,” “Asturias,” and “Aragon”—were danced as a solo for Kamsingsavath, a pas de deux between him and Conner, a solo for Brown, then two pas de trois.

    The choreography mixed ballet, baroque, and modern dance, with additional, exciting flamenco steps for Brown. The steps and flourishes were an exact companion to the music, an entertaining and at times beautiful translation of sound into narrative movement.

    A 14-piece chamber orchestra, conducted by Sesto Quatrini, played well, with a big, solid, colorful sound that was enhanced by the odd acoustics of the space, the configuration of which had the musicians set in the back, under a low ceiling.

    As with the dancers, the principal singers in Goyescas were outstanding. Baritone Suchan Kim and mezzo-soprano Kirsten Scott were the majismos Paquiro and Pepa, presented as 1980’s post-Franco punks, while tenor Sungwook Kim and soprano Larisa Martinez were the aristocratic couple Fernando and Rosario.

    The majismos were members of the 18th century Spanish upper classes who adopted the culture and fashion of ordinary people. Jonathan Warman’s direction subtly but clearly defined differences in values between the pairs, setting the majismos’ self-conscious outsider stance against Fernando and Rosario’s restrained forbearance.

    The story that librettist Fernando Periquet y Zuaznabar fit to Granados’ music is a melodrama of love, jealously, honor, and violence. This is typical operatic fare, but made special, and often moving, by the music, which is overflowing with tunes and lively rhythms that surround a sense of tragedy and loss. Structured in three tableaux, with an Intermezzo and Interlude that provided for more excellent dancing, the staging was sympathetic to the underlying haunted quality of Granados’ original composition.

    The four voices were a pleasure to hear, and were terrific mutual dramatic foils. Suchan Kim and Scott were vivacious and extroverted, while Sungwook Kim and Martinez were self-contained, secure together but confused by their antagonists. Suchan emphasized power and virility, while Sungwook sang with an elegant line and quiet confidence.

    The women’s voices were lovely. Scott’s teasing manner did nothing to undercut her ringing, clear voice and wide-ranging tessitura. Although she had the ostensibly more lyrical part, Martinez sang with a darker color than Scott, and she was mesmerizing in the final tableaux, which has all the drama flowing through Rosario’s voice.

    The only flaw in this Goyescas was the orchestral playing, which sounded ill-prepared and severely underrehearsed. As solid as the musicians were in the first half, they played poorly in the second, at times extremely poorly.

    One hopes that will improve. With five more performances to come, the musicians will learn the music better through the demands of on-the-job training, and a production full of special moments might become more consistently special.

Groupies

Frank Scheck, New York Post: Sharon Lintz's "Groupies," now playing the Fringe Festival, is better than you might think it would be. Composed of four short monologues by characters explaining their obsessions, it initially seems yet another rehash of our celebrity-centric culture.

    But the playwright has more interesting ideas in mind. Here she uses her name-checked celebs as springboards for alternately disturbing and comical explorations of her characters' psyches, with each offering a surprising twist.

    Not all of the four pieces are effective. The less- compelling ones are "Pearls," in which an obese woman (Tricia Beyer) describes her idolatry of Elizabeth Taylor -- particularly in "Butterfield 8" -- while dressing for a night on the town, and "Eminem," about a young black man (Damion Lee) who takes heat from his friends because his favorite rapper is white.

    But the other monologues provide real pleasures. In "Shanghai Express" an elderly man (a superbly creepy Ralph Pochoda) gradually reveals his sexual perversion while rhapsodizing about Marlene Dietrich and the elegant, chain-smoking women of her generation.

    And in "Heart-Shaped Box," a man (Jeff Berg) regales us with his discovery of the image of Kurt Cobain's face in a most unlikely place.

    Under Jonathan Warman's excellent direction, the four performers do a superb job of bringing these troubled, poignant figures to life.

Andru's Head

Simon Saltzman, Curtainup: Mama Higgenbottom (Brooke Elliott) is crushed when two repo men invade her home and attempt to take away her TV set. Pity them. The TV set is the only stick of furniture that "Mama" and her two boys Lawrence (Timothy James O'Brien) and Gregory (Kako Kitano) have left since "Mama" lost her job to "outsourcing." Their only pleasure is watching "Andru's Head" on a local cable access channel. Yes, Andru (Paul Jason Green) has no body, but he's got a smiling face and a wholesome attitude toward life expressed through song in his daily show and with ever growing popularity and success ("Life is easy. Don't let it get in your way"). The plot and the score thicken amusingly in the new rock musical conceived by Stephen Wilson, with music and lyrics by Stephen Wilson and book by Mark Dendy and Stephen Donavan...An engaging eclectic, if un-sophisticated soft-rock score; lively and inventive direction/choreography by Dendy and Jonathan Warman give slick support to a very talented company. While this is a basically one-joke musical, it provides plenty of laughs, including a football game played with Andru's head, Big "Mama" taking on Phineas' thugs in a knock-down drag-out fight, and the expected double entendres. What most impresses are the polish and the panache that has been afforded this modest (but creatively designed by Donovan) yet ethically and eccentrically propelled production.