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Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Mara Vélez Meléndez's Notes on Killing... A Subversive Burst of Creative Energy

Also, Soft Brain Theatre adds contemporary twists to commedia and Irondale mounts a Brecht classic.

Opening Number...

I know I'm not the only one hoping The Tony Awards sees fit to have a moment in this year's broadcast honoring Broadway's understudies, swings and standbys. Certainly, the major story of what you might call the 2020-22 Broadway season is how, with COVID still a health concern, these top-shelf substitutes were far more in demand than usual and did their all to keep Times Square lights shining and hold performance cancellations to a minimum.

One of my favorite things about New York theatre... when you walk through a non-descript doorway on a quiet, empty street and suddenly find yourself blasted by a burst of eccentric and subversive creative energy.

The huge disco ball I found myself under, the hard-thumping pre-show music and the excited buzz of the Soho Rep crowd was just the beginning of it all last Friday night, as I was swept away by the playfully packaged political outrage that is Mara Vélez Meléndez's Notes on Killing Seven Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Board Members. (tickets $35, with $20 rush and .99 cent Sundays)

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Mara Vélez Meléndez's Notes on Killing... A Subversive Burst of Creative Energy
Christine Carmela Herrero and Samora La Perdida
(Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Count Christine Carmela Herrero and Samora La Perdida as early favorites for Stage Pair of The Season, as they crackle with chemistry in director/costume designer David Mendizábal's small, but potent production.

In a role inspired by Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebrón, who was imprisoned for her part in a 1954 armed attack on congress, Herrero plays Lolita, described by the author as, "Trans Woman. Native Puerto Rican. Is done with this shit," who opens the play brandishing a gun while offering a brief history of the recent Puerto Rico debt crisis.

You may recall Lin-Manuel Miranda addressing members of congress, advocating for a relief plan, even jokingly offering Hamilton tickets as a bribe. The solution created was named PROMESA: The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, run by seven board members granted power to control the island's economy. Critics of PROMESA, such as Lolita, have regarded it as an extension of American colonialism over U.S. citizens.

When Lolita arrives at the PROMESA's Wall Street office with assassinations on her agenda, she meets an unnamed receptionist (La Perdida), described by the author as, "Cisgender Gay Man. Nuyorican. Is also done with this shit for different reasons," who is also a drag performer. ("You do drag?" "Bitch, I am drag!")

The bulk of the play might be seen as a fashion parade fever dream, with Lolita having encounters with the receptionist's drag interpretations of each board member. Andrew Biggs is reimagined as corporate/fabulous Andrea Baggs. José Ramón González becomes Joséphone Ramonita, clad in shimmering judicial robes. Carlos M. García is transformed into a hunky "Cutie McHottie" lap dancer named Karlos Grace. You get the picture.

Mendizábal's drag designs and La Perdida's portrayals come off more as living caricatures than over-the-top glitz, effectively keeping the board members on the same level of realism as Herrero's Lolita. And designers Gerardo Díaz Sanchez (set), Kate McGee (lights) and Espii Proctor (sound) do a great job of adding sexier, more inviting touches to the plain corporate locale.

I'll admit to being a bit discomforted by the gunplay at first, but what good is a piece of political theatre if it isn't discomforting? And in the end, Notes on Killing Seven Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Board Members advocates for freedom, not violence.

I'm not completely sure...

...but while trying to identify all of the flags hanging over the indoor German beer garden where audience members can enjoy brews and soft pretzels before Irondale's performances of Mother Courage and Her Children, my guest and got the impression they're meant to represent NATO members, along with one especially prominent potential member, Ukraine.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Mara Vélez Meléndez's Notes on Killing... A Subversive Burst of Creative Energy
Vicky Gilmore (Photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Though Bertolt Brecht's 1939 social commentary about a woman who becomes a small-time war profiteer peddling assorted junk from her cart was set during the Thirty Years War of the 1600s, it was, of course a criticism of the warmongering fascists of his time, and it's not uncommon for productions to allude to more contemporary conflicts. Director Jim Niesen's adaptation of John Willet's translation, which gives its closing performance today (tickets $30, students, seniors, and working artists $15), doesn't seem to have a focused interpretive agenda, but the ensemble company plays out the satirical antics with gusto.

And when Vicky Gilmore, who does a great job playing Mother Courage as - and I mean this with utmost admiration - a tough old broad, stands center stage and croons a number about knowing when it's time to sell out, well, you can't ask for a more cynically Brechtian moment.

Time to welcome a spirited new company to the New York theatre scene...

Soft Brain Theatre Company, dedicated to presenting commedia dell'arte plays adapted for contemporary relevance, was recently founded by a group of NYU Tisch School of the Arts students who graduated into a profession that was still stagnated by the pandemic.

Their debut production, a company-devised musical comedy adaptation of Albert Bermel and Ted Emery's translation of Carlo Gozzi's The Raven (tickets $25), indeed features a young-looking cast, but their exuberant execution of commedia silliness is delightfully well done.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Mara Vélez Meléndez's Notes on Killing... A Subversive Burst of Creative Energy
The Raven Company
(Photo: Julianna McGuirl)

Director C.J. DiOrio's production gets off to an impressive start with set designers R.J. Tabachnick, Isaiah Spetz and Conner James Gallerani creating the suggestion of a sailing ship out of blue fabric manipulated by actors to simulate crashing waves as the company sings some beautiful harmonies about getting through an oncoming storm. (Spetz and Owen O'Leary are credited as heads of music composition and for the bright and peppy showtune score, which is play on an onstage keyboard by composer Wi Chen.)

Nikki Amico provides the heroic centerpiece as Prince Jennaro, who travels the world searching for the secret of lifting an ogre's curse inflicted on his brother for shooting down a precious raven; playing straight for masked clowns and bravely confronting a glow in the dark dragon.

There are a few modern day visuals and references in the script, but if Soft Brain's mission is to provide strong contemporary relevance in commedia plays, they may want to have some 21st Century themes organically come out of their stories. But this is a grand first effort and I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with next.

Curtain Line...

"It's almost like a Noel Coward version of rock 'n roll." - Elaine Stritch re Company

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