Wednesday, May 9, 2007
Bedlam in the Burbs
Through the ages: different productions of "Tales of the Lost Formicans," by Constance Congdon. Except for the most recent, which I don't yet have a photo of.
[Big long feature on the Off-Off Broadway company Nicu's Spoon, whose cast was kind enough to let me enjoy a few rehearsals to write about. Let me know if you read the whole thing.]
As a modest crowd strolled into a black box on West 54th Street last March, they passed a stocky bald man in a camouflage jacket and worn running-shoes, who lay on top of a big black platform. Lounging on a sleeping bag, he sipped from a Poland Spring water bottle and peered into binoculars at an imaginary sky.
Over a low rumble and the song of crickets playing over the P.A. system, he listened to a small, grey radio. It played an interview with a young man who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. As the audience observed, the smell of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups filled the air.
Suddenly a heavy static overtook the interview. The man, Jerry, perked up and jiggled the radio dials. He brought it back to the program, but the static returned. This pattern continued until eventually static flooded the transmission. The lights went down and a spotlight fixed on a wiry alien in a skin-tight black suit and white sunglasses.
“Hello, please turn off your cell phones,” she said, in a nasally alien drawl. “No flash photography. Otherwise, you will be probed.”
Tonight, Nicu’s Spoon kicked off their production of “Tales of the Lost Formicans,” a play by Constance Congdon, at the Shetler 54 theater. The Manhattan Off-Off-Broadway company opened a Pandora’s box when they chose to produce this play, a rapid-fire collection of bizarre vignettes about a mother who moves back to the suburbs to tend for her family and her father, dying of Alzheimer’s. How the company put it all together is a painstaking drama all its own.
The night prior, the actors were on a strict five-minute break when Nico Phillips plodded into Shetler Theater’s kitchen in the front lobby, leaning on a metal cane and clutching a mug of coffee. He spied into the refrigerator looking for a carton of half-and-half. His face was painted bone-white and he wore baggy black cargo pants and a long silver chain with a cross. He poured some milk in the cup, turned to me and asked if I could put the coffee in the microwave for him.
Phillips is 26, from Morningside Heights, suffers from Cerebral Palsy and is a self-described actor, writer and activist. For this production he played Eric, Cathy’s dejected Goth son. “I’m so into this role,” Phillips told me. He said he didn’t need the costume tonight, but wanted to wear it just to get acquainted.
The day before, the entire crew—Nicu’s Spoon’s creative director, Stephanie Barton-Farcas, director Brett Maughan, nine actors, the stage manager and her intern, the art director, the sound and lighting directors and the tech staff—moved tech equipment, fifty metal chairs, a few small tables and other set pieces into the cozy space to prepare for opening night, Wednesday, March 28.
For the past three weeks, Maughan and the actors had been rehearsing in a cramped but laid back rehearsal space on Christopher Street. Phillips wasn’t so keen on this high-priced, bare bones spot right near Times Square. “They charge a dollar for a Hershey bar here,” he said.
Nevertheless, “Formicans” would be his Nicu’s Spoon debut and he was enthusiastic. “I’ve enjoyed it,” he said. But, for all he knew, he was the only one having fun at this point. It was 8 o’clock in the evening and everyone had been at the theater the entire day. “Everybody’s under a lot of stress. A whole lotta stress,” he added. “Some express it in different ways than others.”
Suddenly, Barton-Farcas rushed up to us with a panicked look on her face. “Nico, they’re looking for you,” she said. She rushed him back to the box where everyone was scrambling around at top speed, setting up lights, timing sound cues, taking notes and tweaking through their parts.
Seated on a wide black platform inside, Barton-Farcas, a thin woman with short blond hair, sharp features and lively eyes, reasserted her cool composure. She glanced intermittently at a sheet of paper with notes on it, but mostly snorted and chortled through the rehearsal.
She watched Phillips work through a scene in the second act where, after running away from home, Eric calls his family at a pay phone, only to hear over the answering machine that his family had embarked on a road trip.
Over static, a recording beamed from the P.A. “Hello. Eric? This is Mom. We’ve taken a little trip. [Enter mom’s voice] For your Grandpa—to make him better. [Enter father’s voice] Huh? What is this thing?” Then the phone asked for fifty cents.
Phillips slammed down the receiver and trudged offstage. “Don’t forget your cane,” said Maughan, who stood off to the left and watched intently. The aliens moved in slowly to rearrange the props and set pieces.
Rebecca Challis, who plays Cathy, entered to work through a road trip scene with her mother, Evelyn, and her father Jim. At this point in the play, Jim is almost totally deranged from Alzheimer’s. The three sat at four chairs arranged to be the interior of a car. Riding along, Brian Coffey, playing Jim, fell into a series of fitful flashbacks.
“This is the forest Primeval, the murmuring pines and hemlock, bearded in moss and in garments green, stand like Druids of eld with beards that rest on their—their—” He paused. “Sometimes I wonder why I spend these lonely hours, dreaming of a song, a melody…haunts my…memory. Stop the car.” They pretended to stop and Jim stepped out. Stage left, an orange-red light shone on Jim’s face as he ambled around. Stage right, Cathy and Evelyn, played by Celia Bressack, bathed in a bright white light.
“Left—loose. Right—tight. Left loose. Right tight. Crying so loud—must be a boy. No, it’s a little girl—it’s a little, little girl.” Evelyn got out and Jim grabbed her in a lecherous embrace. “Evelyn,” he whispered, “we’re making love in the graveyard and scaring the hell out of those kids. They think our sounds are coming from the dead lying below us. …” He threw her off and, miming the necessary movements, screamed, “My tongue’s stuck on the clothesline! Trying to lick the ice—Mama, Mama, help! First bath outside in sun. Fireflies in jar. … Warm pee.” He climbed onto the back seat of the imaginary car. “Bosom.” He suckled a mother’s breast. As Evelyn slammed an imaginary passenger door shut, a slamming car door shot from the P.A.
“Nice!” Farcas said, directing a thumbs-up at the actors. “Nice. Great cue.”
Barton-Farcas said the total production would cost between $12,000 and $13,000. “Half of that is space, easily,” she said. She looked around and shrugged.
Nicu’s Spoon had just secured a deal to purchase the building of a Dot Com that recently went bottom-up. She looked forward to the new location, on West 35th off of 5th Avenue. There was ample space for a large stage and the building was already outfitted with the wiring they needed for sound and lighting. The Dot Com also sold Nicu’s Spoon fifty black, metal padded chairs for “real cheap,” Barton-Farcas said, gesturing at the stacks of chairs that surrounded us.
Unfortunately for this production, the company was stuck with the black box at Shetler Theater—where set pieces and equipment sat in plain view of the audience.
The rest of the money accounted for actor stipends, set props and Public Relations. Nicu’s P.R. agent is Katie Rosin, who works for the Off-Off Broadway organization United Stages. Barton-Farcas said Rosin is perfect for the job.
Nicu’s Spoon specializes in what some refer to as “inclusion” theater, meaning they recruit actors and actresses from a variety of ethnic and social backgrounds and also those who are disabled. The previous production of this season, Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child,” hosted a deaf fellow who played the dysfunctional family’s star athlete cum man-child, Tilden. “We need someone who’s like, ‘Oh, that’s amazing! A deaf mute! C.P.!’” Barton-Farcas said. “Katie gets that.”
Cerebral Palsy is a term that represents a series of neurological disorders that affect muscle growth and posture. Phillips’ knees bow toward each other as he walks, so he always seems at risk of toppling to the ground. He is an eager talker, but he struggles through a stutter and frequent muscle spasms in his shoulder and neck that force him to look upwards as he speaks.
Phillips had always been interested in writing and performance, but he suffered from a strong psychological block. “I'd sit for hours and hours at open mics of all kinds, theater and poetry, and the performer in me would be screaming ‘Get up there!’ And the suppressive part of my brain would go, ‘No. Your C.P. and your speech disfluency won’t allow that. Nope, no way,” he told me over email.
Phillips came across Nicu’s Spoon as an intern at the Emerging Artist’s Theater on 53rd Street. He met Barton-Farcas there, who invited him to a reading. Phillips met with a group one night, they all munched on pizza and read from some scripts. Members of the company told him Nicu’s had “secret plans” for him in the future. They eventually called him and asked if he wanted to play Eric in “Formicans.” “I didn’t even know it was an audition, really,” Phillips said.
Now he has an opportunity for professional growth in acting. He was working out well in the “Formicans” production. He was enthusiastic and, with his disability, he lent an ironic layer to Eric’s antagonistic persona. He just had to get his cues right.
Later in the rehearsal, Nico walked onstage for a scene in which Eric sleeps in an abandoned mall. “Too early, Nico,” Maughan said. Some other actors were still working through a scene. Nico stopped in front of a bench, climbed onto it and rustled around to get into a good sleeping position. “Oh, Jesus,” Maughan muttered to himself. He said to Phillips: “Can you just sit down and roll over?”
Later, when Cathy stood center stage to rehearse with Nico, her Eric was nowhere to be found. “Nico?” Maughan yelled. As they waited, Challis stared down and made a subtle grimace. Maughan walked through a door backstage left and returned. “Just come on stage and get in your place, please.”
The culprit was likely the door, which led to an area for actors to wait until their cues. Building regulations said the door had to stay closed at all times. But that way, nobody could hear what was happening on stage. “Is there any way to get a monitor in that room?” Michael Hartney, who played Jerry, asked later. “Even a baby walkie-talkie?”
“Keep the doors open two inches and listen,” Barton-Farcas said.
This play has been performed about 100 times. Maughan said that, in many “Formican” productions, the company takes the easiest route—all-out zaniness. Stills of one production posted online show aliens in lab coats throwing around a giant, colorful flying saucer. There is a giant vault and a T.V. screen that displays a Big Brother-style eyeball. Characters wear big facial expressions and they have big movements. All in all, the production appeared to target an audience of restless middle schoolers, despite the numerous expletives and sexual references.
Nicu’s Spoon’s production of “Formicans,” of course, was markedly different. Jerry and Cathy’s costumes looked like the clothes they wore on a daily basis. Set pieces were simple and mostly painted black, like the box around them. All in all, this was a resourceful, low-budget operation.
Barton-Farcas said the company got most of their props and set pieces from a New York City organization called Materials for the Arts, which gathers donated materials for over 3,000 area venues.
For “Formicans,” the company used a small radio, which had a transmitter that enabled the sound director to use it from the sound booth behind the audience; the body of an old pay phone; and a sucking machine the aliens used to probe into Jerry’s crotch, made from a dust buster and a cardboard cone. Barton-Farcas said the chief alien’s control console, which looked like a big metal bowl adorned with big red lights, was made with a “buncha shit.”
To achieve stunning visual bombast, the production employed a skilled sound and lighting team.
In the booth, sound director Tom Casetta manned a 49-key MIDI keyboard connected to a laptop. Casetta coordinated with the actors on stage to produce the 98 separate sound cues during the performance—dark, ambient rumbles, birds twittering, television sets blaring, cars honking.
Casetta recorded 300 sounds to use for the play. Most of them he either recorded himself or picked up from sound effects CDs. “It’s filled with copyright infringement,” he told me. He freely pillaged America’s Funniest Home Videos, MSNBC and Family Guy for content.
Next to him sat Steve Wolf, the lighting designer, who operated a grey lighting board. Wolf said the play had over 100 lighting cues, including eight different “chases”—when lights would blink in a coordinated sequence—or pulsating lights. But his job was a little easier than Casetta’s. At the beginning of the play, Wolf simply pressed a button to get the lights moving.
“He’s lucky,” Casetta told me.
The night before performance, the production was hampered by a serious problem.
The narrative of “Formicans” is a documentary-style production put on by aliens: they sift through a series of short, wacky vignettes to make sense of a foreign culture. Sometimes they fast-forward or rewind through scenes and often they directly interact with the humans. So, the play takes place in a number of settings—on Cathy’s front porch, in Jerry’s living room, in Jim’s truck, off the side of the road in Middle America, in a Big Boy, at an abandoned mall, at a pay phone, in a Motel shower—and requires complex and prompt set changes.
Maughan spent a month before rehearsals creating an elaborate process of changes with a collection of simple set pieces. The company then devoted its first week of rehearsals to blocking. The stage manager, director and actors inched through the two-act play, mumbling lines and lurching around the space on Christopher Street to map out every movement, design every set change, determine every time a prop was needed and figure out every time tech had to cue something.
But today, the two aliens assigned to most of the set changes could not remember what they had to do. Dirk Smile and Russell Waldman (who wakes up at 6:30 every morning as a market researcher to churn up statistics on consumer trends, acting on the side) entered through the wrong doors, moved platforms in the wrong directions and let set pieces alone when they should have moved them. Worst of all, they were sluggish.
As Waldman ambled around the stage during the run-through of act two, Maughan grew more and more frustrated. “Leave the steps!” he yelled. “Leave the steps, Russell!” Maughan threw his head in his hands. Then he got up and joined the aliens to move the set pieces.
After trudging through tech rehearsal for the second act, Maughan took a deep breath and looked back at the tech booth. “Fifteen minutes,” he said. Everyone would re-charge. Then, at around 9:30, they would run through the play in its entirety. They had to close up the space by 11 p.m. Maughan crouched down by Barton-Fracas to consult with her and a publicist for an Off-Off-Broadway website.
“It’s in good shape,” Barton-Fracas said, carefully. “It’s just the tech stuff.”
The publicist said a reviewer expected to see one of the performances, which should give Nicu’s Spoon good publicity. Maughan’s eyes widened and an expression of dread grew on his face. “If people like it,” he said.
On opening night, the “Formicans” performance resembled the process of putting it all together. By turns, it was quirky and dramatic, engaging and frustrating.
Cathy wore a sweater and black and red Adidas. Lindsay Goranson, who played Judy, wore a grey hooded sweatshirt, black tights and black sneakers with thick white soles. The two, like most other characters in the play, looked like caricatures. Cathy was the anxiety-ridden, pushover mom. Judy was her frazzled friend, looking to fill the void of her recent divorce.
Over a faint static, wind chimes sung in the background. Stage lights cast a soft amber glow on the two, perched on a front porch—a black platform, decorated with steps and a couple of chairs—chatting about Judy’s new lover.
“We’re talking the same guy,” Cathy said.
“Right,” Judy responded.
“Amazing. Makes me crazy! Uh! You are my hero. You are definitely my hero.”
“There’s just one thing,” Judy said.
“I said the L-word.” Suddenly their celebratory moods faded.
Although “Tales of the Lost Formicans” is billed as a comedy, it is impossible to stick it to any specific genre. Constance Congdon basically made goofy situations out of depressing material, ending up with a play that lacks a consistent rhythm and doesn’t quite make sense.
As the characters deal with divorces, dying fathers and households that are falling apart, they launch into clipped dialogues, long monologues or awkward bouts of silence. Some scenes are goofy: at one point an alien fiddles around with the main alien’s steel contraption, pressing dials that prompt sound effects over the P.A. Others are perplexing, like when Jim reads a tabloid article about alien babies in the living room as Evelyn knits booties made of aluminum foil, for a baby she plans to name Fong Emo Six.
Still, the intricately choreographed scenes could be dazzling. The sound and lighting helped save the performance from trailing off into tedium.
On opening night, Judy and Cathy eventually walked off and aliens Waldman and Smile moved in to shift around the stage. A lanky man with a robotic walk joined them, wearing the alien suit and sunglasses. This was Brett Maughan, the director. The three set up a table with a white toaster and shoved the platform against the far wall, length-wise. Armed with flashlights, cast members dressed as aliens stood at opposite ends of the platform.
In a daze Jim entered and took a seat. Over the P.A., a voice beamed in: “This is where he loses three days.”
Evelyn walked in. “Are you go to the ready store?” she asked.
Jim stammered, “I—I.”
“Yaagh!! Yaagh!! Are you ready to go to the yaagh?”
“Alright!” Jim yelled. Evelyn walked out and Jim stood up to look for her. “Evelyn? Baby?”
The aliens entered and took away the table and chair. Jim turned back to find the furniture gone. The lights suddenly went black and Jim wandered around the room in a daze. The flashlights blinked on like headlights and the horn of a semi-truck blared through the P.A. Alien Waldman entered in a work shirt and jeans, wearing the white sunglasses.
“What the hell is wrong with you?!” he belted.
“Who are you?” Jim asked.
“Are you blind?!!”
Suddenly Evelyn entered with a bag of groceries in her hands. “Jim—you were right there with me at the check out—I turn around and you were gone!”
Jim notices the platform with the shining lights and perks up. “Nice truck,” he gasps. “Peterbilt!”
Opening night lasted a grueling three hours. By the time the cast joined onstage for curtain call, an old man in the front row was snoring in his chair.
Usually, Off-Off-Broadway companies offer only a few performances for a run, Barton-Farcas told me. Nicu’s Spoon prefers taking on a half-month stretch. That way, the cast can sharpen their act. Critics had warded off audiences with the threat of a long show, Barton-Farcas said, leading to a lower turnout than usual. But the Shetler black box was packed the night before “Formicans” closed. By then, the aliens knew their staging cues and the performance moved faster and with more comic pomp.
Still, the performance hadn’t landed at a consistent rhythm. In hilarious moments of defiance, Phillips delivered stuttering strings of expletives. But Coffey, playing Jim, adopted childish gesticulations during emotional scenes. Bressack tended to rush through sad moments. Hartney’s performance as Jerry was a hoot: always at work on his deluded ranting, Hartney cultivated an exhalation which was useful at any awkward moment, a nasally “eeeeeeeeeeiiiiiiiii.” Yet, it was hard to see Jerry as anything other than comic relief.
Goransan, who played Judy, put on the strongest performance. Her hair was frazzled and her face constantly formed an expression of either self-assurance or distress. She offered quick comic timing, but lapsed into desperation at the right moments. She mastered an affected self-confidence that emphasized her insecurities.
It’s fair to say that any company that produces “Tales of the Lost Formicans” will take on the burden of having to work through a series of frustrating complications. Considering the company’s low budget and limited resources, Nicu’s Spoon pulled off an ambitious feat—they made an innovative and eye-catching performance with a play most companies would dismiss before reading the second act.
As the crowd milled out of the room, Barton-Farcas and Maughan stood amidst the audiences’ black padded chairs. Expressions of relief and satisfaction swept their faces. In the dressing room, the actors prepared for a late night bar run. The show was almost over. Soon everyone would have the first free weekend for a month.
When Nicu’s Spoon finishes renovations on the new building, a new cast and crew will launch rehearsals for the next production, Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” When they reach July 10th, the night before the show hits the stage, Barton-Farcas will likely recall what she told me during this production. “On the day before the show,” she said, “it’s always bedlam.”