The Komisar Scoop Reports & Analysis by Investigative Journalist Lucy Komisar

Thursday, April 30, 2009

IRS on the Track of Tax-Cheating “John Does”

Filed under: offshore,Regulation & enforcement,Scoops,tax evasion — Tags: , , , — Lucy Komisar @ 11:08 pm

By Lucy Komisar
Inter Press Service (IPS), April 30, 2009

MIAMI BEACH — The U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is hitting pay dirt with a novel legal tactic designed to catch tax evaders. And it’s going to use it to force international banks to give up the names of tax cheats.

It’s called the “John Doe” summons. Using “John Doe” means the IRS doesn’t know the names of the suspected tax evaders. So it sends a summons to a bank or credit card company that says, “Give us the names and account information of all your U.S. clients with secret offshore accounts.”

Daniel Reeves, IRS official, photo Lucy KomisarDaniel Reeves, an IRS agent in charge of the tax agency’s offshore compliance initiative, afforded an unusual look into the broad swath of projects that seek tax-cheating “John Doe’s” every place from accounts of the giant Swiss bank UBS to the records of Pay Pal.

Reeves detailed the IRS initiative at the Financial Due Diligence Conference organised by the industry newsletter “Offshore Alert” in Miami Beach earlier this week. He commented privately to IPS that it was the first time he and other members of the compliance team had appeared at such a meeting and credited the openness of his bosses.

“Offshore” refers to tax havens – countries and jurisdictions that allow clients to set up bank accounts and sham companies with fake owners, and that deflect attempts by outside law enforcers on the trail of tax evaders as well as drug and arms traffickers, corrupt business people, terrorists, looting dictators and bribe-taking officials.

In July 2008, the IRS filed a “John Doe” legal action against UBS, seeking the names of 52,000 U.S. citizens who ignored the requirement to report those accounts on their tax returns. It’s the first time it has used that tactic against such a large financial institution. UBS, which acknowledged having 47,000 accounts belonging to U.S. nationals, turned over 300 names but is fighting in U.S. federal court the IRS demand for the rest of the accounts.

Private banks such as UBS handle and hide the money of very wealthy individuals. Often the minimum deposit is 5 million dollars. The legal action directed at UBS is part of the IRS’s private-bank initiative.

Reeves, a key agent in the UBS case, said, “We have identified other offshore banks that promote tax avoidance.” He noted, “We are developing additional John Doe summonses on some of those banks.” The IRS must receive approval for the summonses from a federal judge.

He declined to name the new targets, but one might imagine that UBS’s giant Swiss competitor, Credit Suisse, is among them. Swiss banks will provide information about drug traffickers and other criminals, but not tax evaders, because the Swiss don’t consider tax evasion a crime. The IRS list could also include U.S. banks such as Citi, which has 427 tax haven subsidiaries, including 91 in Luxembourg and 90 in the Cayman Islands.

The UBS “John Doe” initiative and others to follow ratchet up the use of a tactic that has proved successful on a smaller scale over this decade, targeting tax evaders through credit cards and other electronic payments.

The tax agency knew that tax cheaters who hid money offshore needed to get access to it. A favourite method was via credit and debit cards linked to bank accounts in tax havens such as the Cayman Islands. The IRS started with the premise that the international electronic systems that cheaters used to move and hide their money could be turned around to catch them.

In 2000, it got an order from a federal judge in Miami authorising the IRS to serve John Doe summonses on American Express and MasterCard for names of U.S. citizens with cards linked to banks in offshore Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, and the Cayman Islands.

Similar orders aimed at other companies followed, and the number of tax havens investigated was increased. More recently, the order was directed at Pay Pal, the web-based electronic payments system.

Reeves said the result has been “tens of thousands of U.S. citizens” identified as having offshore accounts they didn’t report and as moving and accessing money in tax havens. He said that had led to “hundreds of criminal prosecutions” and “hundreds of millions [of dollars] in taxes, interest and penalties.”

Reeves said, “Nearly half the cases involved failure to report foreign accounts.” And they often made use of “International Business Companies” (IBCs) – fake companies formed offshore. He said a large percentage were business accounts. Merchants are supposed to have accounts where they are incorporated and do their business. Shady companies get around this by setting up IBCs in offshore financial centers.

The IRS discovered that merchants were diverting credit card and other electronic payments to offshore accounts. It was a ploy that grew with e-commerce. So the IRS demanded that the U.S. processing companies that handled credit card transactions supply information about their “John Doe” clients who sent money offshore.

The IRS has built a searchable database so that any individual or company that comes to its attention can be cross-checked. Reeves said its staff continues to analyse the records to develop new cases.

Another scam targeted by the offshore compliance initiative was U.S. taxpayers’ use of sham companies formed in tax havens to disguise ownership of brokerage accounts. Reeves explained, “The U.S. taxpayer establishes an IBC in an offshore financial system, then opens a brokerage account in the name of the IBC. The brokerage account claims foreign status. The brokerage account, money, and bank accounts are all in the U.S. But by claiming foreign status, it claims to be exempt from capital gains tax in the U.S.”

Furthermore, he explained that the accounts were often funded with unreported income.

Reeves said the IRS is investigating brokers to identify U.S. owners of accounts claiming foreign status. And it is targeting brokers who market sham companies to help clients cheat on taxes.

The new IRS “John Doe” strategy represents a shift toward systemically targeting large numbers of unknown tax cheaters rather than individuals whose returns look suspicious or who are turned in by enemies. The returns have been impressive, and promise to grow apace.

Article on IPS site

Saturday, April 25, 2009

“Kooza” is grace and fantasy for adults, as well as thrills for kids

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 10:37 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Contortionists.

Contortionists.

I have never seen anything like the three acrobatic contortionists who twisted and bent to the sound of Indian music under the Cirque du Soleil tent on Randall’s Island. Their movements created living sculptures that shifted and held and then moved to another pose. Clad in colorful, patterned skin-tight leotards (costumes by Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt), they were stunning. Memorable.

The 19 artists of the House Troupe burst into action off the top of the show, combining acrobatics, rapid-fire costume changes and rebounds from three miniature trampolines set in the stage.

Cirque du Soleil presents not just a performance of daring-do circus acts, but inventive and artistic performances. They are for adults as well as for children.

In fact, the best moments for me were the dance productions. I loved the twirling, marching dancers in blazing costumes of red and gold, metallic gold flaps like jeweled armor on chests and skirts, moving to brassy Asian tinged music. (Choreography is by Clarence Ford.) A lot of the sound of this production is Asian. Or fusion, if you can say that about music.

Skeleton dancers.

Skeleton dancers.

“Kooza” is supposed to tell the story of The Innocent, a melancholy loner in search of his place in the world. The theme of “Kooza” is said to be “human connection and the world of duality, good and bad….exploring concepts such as fear, identity, recognition and power.” There is a sad sack sort of fellow who wanders around, but I admit I didn’t quite see a deeper meaning. Maybe that underlies the dazzling dance of the Skeletons, featuring Death with his scythe.

Wheel of Death.

Wheel of Death.

The best of the rest includes the round Wheels of Death, presented here for the first time: two guys running like mice inside and outside those spheres that circle in space, struggling to stay upright as they turn. Among the other well-executed traditional circus feats were performers doing swordplay on the high wire, acrobatics on a trapeze, balancing on a tower of a dozen chairs, flying through somersaults.

The clowns were the weakest part. Not very witty, I thought. Maybe okay for the kids, who laugh at anyone with a funny nose. They loved people dragooned out of the audience to play a part in skits onstage. I didn’t. But I had to recognize that Cirque de Soleil is also for kids!

“Kooza.” Director of Creation Serge Roy, Written & Directed by David Shiner. Produced by Cirque du Soleil. Grand Chapiteau, at Randall’s Island Park in New York. 800-678-5440 or 800 361-4595. Opened April 23, 2009, Closes June 21, 2009. http://www.cirquedusoleil.com/.

Review on NY Theatre-Wire site.

Monday, April 20, 2009

“33 Variations” goes back to Beethoven to examine the creative mind

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 10:15 pm

By Lucy Komisar

What moves the creative and intellectual mind? Where does beauty lie? Those questions animate “33 Variations,” the provocative play written and directed by Moisés Kaufman and starring Jane Fonda. The production doesn’t quite reach the level of intellectual stimulation to which it aspires, but it deserves plaudits for dealing with ideas as well as sentiments.

Don Amendolia, Zach Grenier, Erik Steele. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Don Amendolia, Zach Grenier, Erik Steele. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The device is that in 1819 Vienna, music publisher Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia) has asked 50 important composers to create a variation on his rather simple waltz theme. Beethoven (Zach Grenier) becomes fascinated by the challenge and creates not one but 33 variations over a period of several years, refusing along to way to turn in the works he’s completed because he insists there’s more to be done.

In the present, musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt (Jane Fonda), has gone to Beethoven’s birthplace, Bonn, to search the archives for why the composer, in the midst of creating his great Mass and Ninth Symphony, took time to write the Variations. And why he insisted on doing so many.

She wonders, “What was it about this mediocre waltz?” Or maybe he just needed the 80 ducats. She reads his notebooks and music sketches. A highlight of the production is pianist Diane Walsh playing the music as it is discussed.

Susan Kellerman, Jane Fonda, Zach Genier. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Susan Kellerman, Jane Fonda, Zach Genier. Photo by Joan Marcus.

I stopped backstage after the performance with a friend who knows Fonda from the anti-Vietnam War movement. I asked her what the message of the show is. She said, “Slow down, and even simple things are beautiful.”

But it’s also about the character of creative and intellectual minds, the insistence that nothing will interfere with their work. Both Beethoven and Brandt are physically afflicted. Beethoven is assaulted by stomach gout, ringing in his ears and finally total deafness.

Brandt is struck by ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which atrophies the muscles. There is no cure, Kaufman says through Brandt, because not enough people get it to make it financially worthwhile for drug companies to look for one. She has perhaps a few years to live.

Jane Fonda. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Jane Fonda. Photo by Joan Marcus.

We discover that Beethoven refused to turn in the variations though he needs the money “because there are more.” And it was an artistic challenge to find them.

The strength of the show is the portrayal of those two tough kindred spirits. Grenier is a great character actor. He does a stunning scene in which he talks through the changes in tone, speed, and loudness of his pieces as pianist Diane Walsh performs them.

The effective set by Derek McLane includes tall screens with actual pages of music that allow us – especially the musically literate – to follow the themes as they are played.

Brandt, as she fails physically, insists on going ahead with her research. Fonda is compelling, mixing the strength and grace of her character in a cool, steady fashion without falling into the trap of overacting.

Samantha Mathis, Colin Hanks, Jane Fonda. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Samantha Mathis, Colin Hanks, Jane Fonda. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The play shifts between the 1800s and the present. I liked the 1800s best. Some of the present descends into sit-com. A dating scene between Katherine’s daughter, Clara (Samantha Mathis) and a nurse, Mike (Colin Hanks) conjured up a famous old Nichols and May bit. Their relationship is tiresome and never believable. Kaufman inserts a sexist and dramatically unnecessary moment when he has Clara pull off her blouse to reveal her breasts before embracing her lover.

An underlying point that is almost missed is that mother and daughter are both strong women, even though Clara unaccountably has an unusual idea about achievement, thinking she ought to move on to another career when she has succeeded in the first.

Don Amendolia is good as the music publisher, and Susan Kellermann delivers a fine performance as a didactic, stereotypically Germanic archivist.

“33 Variations.” Written & directed by Moisés Kaufman. Tectonic Theatre Project at Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th Street. 212-239-6200. Opened March 9, 2009, closes May 24, 2009. Reviewed by Lucy Komisar March 12, 2009. http://www.tectonictheaterproject.org/Tectonic.html.

Review on NY Theatre-Wire site.

Friday, April 17, 2009

“Why Torture is Wrong, and the people who love them” – a satire for our time

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 10:02 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Laura Benanti, Amir Arison. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Laura Benanti, Amir Arison. Photo by Joan Marcus.

How can you satirize torture and torturers? If you’re comically stinging playwright Christopher Durang, you stick pretty close to the truth till weirdness and absurdity overtakes the brutality. In this brilliantly funny play, Durang blunts the edge of what might appear to be gruesomely violent by turning reality into farce. He gets a lot of help from director Nicholas Martin who transforms right-wing psychopaths into figures of comedy.

The appropriately unsympathetic victim of the story is Zamir (Amir Arison), a swarthy, menacing man who appears to be from a Muslim country and who has date-drugged and married the unbelievably forbearing Felicity (Laura Benanti). When she wakes up in their marriage bed, he warns her, “I can get violent. Definitely don’t use your good china at dinner with me.” Benanti, who we know as a musical performer in “Gypsy” and “Into the Woods,” shows her versatility as a perfectly tuned comic actress.

Felicity takes Zamir to New Jersey to visit her parents in their quintessentially suburban house that features a living room with pine walls, book cases, and a couch with a doily throw. And of course a breakfast “nook.”

Richard Poe, Kristine Nielsen, Laura Benanti, Amir Arison. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Richard Poe, Kristine Nielsen, Laura Benanti, Amir Arison. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Her mother Luella (the talented comedienne Kristine Nielsen) is a perky, ditsy lady who lives in a dream world of theater. No wonder, since her husband Leonard (Richard Poe) is a bully who burns squirrels with a napalm projector. He is ex-military and very rightwing. He has a lot in common with Zamir. Luella’s theater fantasies alternate with horrific reality in a way that reminded me of “Kiss of the Spiderwoman.”

Is son-in-law causing a problem? Father pulls out a gun. Felicity declares, “Father, stop it, no more killing!” And, “The amount of testosterone charging out of the two of you is disgusting. Enough with men needing to kill and blow things up all the time.”

Durang pointedly brings up the standard left-right images of the past. Leonard remembers the photo of a South Vietnamese officer holding a gun to the head of a Vietcong soldier he is about to execute. Luella counters, “I remember the one of the poor little girl running naked down the street after she was hit by napalm.”

Leonard, however, is pro life about fetuses and stem cells. He wants to give them the right to vote and register them as Republicans.

But the past is prologue. Leonard is involved in a far-right cabal, with members in the Pentagon that include a Lt. Freedom, who have set up a shadow government and are planning a coup. In a secret attic room his wife and daughter are not allowed to enter, he has amassed an arsenal of guns and knives and even gaudy lances from the Middle Ages.

When Felicity informs her parents that she wants to divorce the nasty Zamir, Leonard goes into action, tricks the man upstairs, and turns the secret room into a torture chamber.

Richard Poe, Audrie Neenan, David Aaron Baker, Amir Arison. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Richard Poe, Audrie Neenan, David Aaron Baker, Amir Arison. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Attended by Hildegarde (the bizarrely funny Audrie Neenan), a middle-aged right-wing groupie whose underpants keep falling to her ankles, and Loony Tunes (David Aaron Baker), clad in a spy’s black raincoat and fedora, Leonard proceeds to draw blood, with strict attention to the Bush Administration torture definitions. He explains, “John Yoo from the Justice Department wrote a torture memo says that it isn’t torture unless it causes organ failure. And even if it does that, as long as the President says the words “war on terror,” it’s A okay.”

The cleverness of Durang’s script is that when it seems to have gone completely over the top, he inserts a bit of reality which shows you that this really all happened. Hildegarde, for example, wants to send Zamir to Syria and “let them make him talk.”

It’s also important that Durang and Martin make Zamir a very unappetizing character, so that you are rooting for him to get some punishment until you realize the horror that leads to. Not to mention the counter-productiveness of torturing someone until they say anything you want to hear. The over-the-top denouement seems not so unlikely at all.

“Why Torture is Wrong, and the people who love them.” Written by Christopher Durang, directed by Nicholas Martin. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York City. 212-967-7555. Opened April 6, 2009, closes May 10, 2009. Reviewed by Lucy Komisar April 14, 2009. http://www.publictheater.org/.

Review on NY Theatre-Wire site.

Monday, April 13, 2009

“Happiness” is a fleeting moment in this mixed musical pastiche

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 11:02 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Hunter Foster. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Hunter Foster. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Stanley (Hunter Foster) was an investment banker, a master of leveraged buyouts. As Foster tells it in song and dance, he was an “overachiever of insider trading,” moving “a step up the ladder of legalized crime.” Then, at 42, he had a massive heart attack. And died.

Now he’s the conductor on the train in this whimsical pastiche by John Weidman (often clever lyrics by Michael Korie, tuneful music by Scott Frankel) about people on the way to the netherworld – via a New York subway car with silvery benches — instructed to remember the best moments of their lives. It’s where they will spend eternity.

Of course, those moments turn out to be unexpectedly simple, sometimes the reverse of what they’ve wanted for their lives. What has mattered to these characters takes a little while to shed.

Rob Sapp, Joanna Gleason. Photo by Paul Kolhut.

Rob Sapp, Joanna Gleason. Photo by Paul Kolhut.

Arlene (Joanna Gleason), a rightwing radio shock-jock preens at being upper class and taunts a Hispanic in the subway car: “Show me your green card.”

Gina (Jenny Powers) brags about her holidays at Gstaad. They’re both class fakes. Turns out Arlene campaigned for Gene McCarthy and waited for the March 1968 returns at the Fillmore East with a character that looked very much like Mick Jagger.

Rob Sapp, Jenny Powers. Photo by Paul Kolnik

Rob Sapp, Jenny Powers. Photo by Paul Kolnik

Gina, who really works behind the cologne counter at Bloomingdale’s, remembers a wonderful and simple time on the beach with a fellow who doesn’t hold “flutes of Baccarat.”

As the subway car turns, lives spill out. But the stories are uneven.

My favorite was Helen (Alessa Neeck) as a young woman jitterbugging with a soldier at a USO club in 1944. Phyllis Somerville as the older Helen gets in some good dance licks of her own. Very talented director-choreographer Susan Stroman not surprisingly creates a number bursting with charm and verve.

However, Ken Page as Maurice, the gay decorator, is cloying in a flat, overly sentimental scene where he visits a hospitalized friend dying of AIDS. Miguel (Miguel Cervantes) as the Hispanic is given lines that make him unnecessarily vulgar, and a memory of his visit to his daughters is downright silly. Stroman is good at any kind of people-moving, including the opening rush around New York streets, with one character urging folks to give “a minute for Greenpeace.”

As with the characters, you need to grab the best moments.

“Happiness.” Book by John Weidman, Music by Scott Frankel, Lyrics by Michael Korie. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, 165 West 65th Street, New York. Opened March 30, 2009, closes June 7, 2009. Reviewed by Lucy Komisar April 10, 2009. http://www.lct.org.

Review on NY Theatre-Wire site.

“The Toxic Avenger” a hilarious musical satire of corrupt NJ mayor and environmental activist

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 8:05 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Take an environmentalist attacked by thug hired by a corrupt New Jersey mayor and thrown into a vat of that state’s famous pollutants so that he comes out dripping with green sludge. Add a blind librarian who, when she return books to the shelf, lets go in mid-air so that they fall to the floor. She also writes porn, samples of which we hear. Nothing’s better than a clever political satire, and “The Toxic Avenger” is the funniest I have seen in many a year.

Nancy Opel, Nick Cordero, Photo Carol Rosegg

Feature a white guy and a black guy who play a variety of good and bad characters, including a couple of women, children, cops, a nun, waste management executives, etc.  Liven it up with memorable and jazzy  musical numbers. And locate it all in Beowulf Boritt’s graphic comic book set centered around piles of corroded vats.

Melvin (Nick Cordero), the hero in nerdy glasses, is out to stop the mysterious pollution afflicting his state. The villain turns out to be the mayor of Tromaville, Babs Belgoody (the brilliantly comic Nancy Opel). Tromaville is Exit 13B on the New Jersey Turnpike, which in real life of course is known for the smell of the adjacent “tank farms.” And the state is known for political sleaze. The Mayor is planning to run for governor and is on the take from the Good Earth Corp. Melvin’s investigation is thwarted by a couple of thugs (Matthew Salvidar as the White Dude and Demond Green as the Black Dude) who chuck him into a vat of slimey NJ water.

He comes out a green mutant with superhuman strength. He will go after polluters and rip them in two. But, wait. Danger lurks. Bleach can kill a mutant.

Nick Cordero and Sara Chase, Photo Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images North America

Meanwhile, if you’re an ugly green mutant and still want romance, who better with than a blind librarian, Sarah (Sara Chase) who lost her sight in a freak cell phone accident. As his Ma (Opel) says to Sarah, “If blind people don’t love ugly people, then who will?”

That leads into “All Men Are Freaks.” “It’s a burden ev’ry woman shares as she travels down life’s roads. She dreams of meeting her charming prince, but all she meets are toads.” Melvin is still a bit of a toad. He tells Sarah a tacky “blind” joke. “How did Helen Keller burn her hand?” He suddenly realizes the faux pas and apologizes, but she replies, “Did she try to read the waffle iron? That happened to me once.”

There’s no favor for any target. When Melvin’s mother, Ma Ferd (also Opal), tells Sarah that “my son has gone on a rampage! He killed a senior citizen, Sarah inquires, “A senior citizen? Was she almost dead anyway?” So, you get the idea. Opel, a compleat comedienne, does a wonderful bit where she plays the Mayor and Ma at the same time, shifting her profile in tune with the dialogue.

Demond Green, Matthew Salvidar, Nick Cordero, Sara Chase, Nancy Opel, Photo by Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images North America

Demond Green, Matthew Salvidar, Nick Cordero, Sara Chase, Nancy Opel, Photo Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images North America

The plot thickens, and finally the Mayor tries to get help from the Professor.

“Damn it,” the professor tells her, “what are you doing in my basement, woman? Didn’t you ever hear of knocking?”

She: “Not long ago, you used to love it when I came in without knocking — finding you asleep … having my way …”

The professor: “Damn it, that’s true. But it was the same story every time – you’d seduce me and then you’d make me use science for evil.”

She wants him to help her take action against “the monster’s who’s been terrorizing our town.”

But his response is, “He’s no monster, the people love him! He has higher poll numbers than you!”

To get the people against “Toxie,” she figures she can brand him a “terrorist.” And organize “a lynch mob hopped up on moral righteousness and malt liquor!” Yeah, say the thugs, “A lynch mob that just wants to kill a terrorist, no questions asked, just like the Patriot Act says we can!”

The comic puns and quips come so fast, it’s hard to finish laughing at one before the next overcomes you. They are almost as potent as green sludge.

“The Toxic Avenger.” Book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro; Music and lyrics by David Bryan. Based on Lloyd Kaufman’s “The Toxic Avenger.” Directed by John Rando; Choreographed by Wendy Seyb. New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, New York City. Opened April 6, 2009.

A national tour will start in the fall of 2010.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

“Chasing Manet” – wanting “out” to recapture a past life

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 9:48 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Lynn Cohen, Jane Alexander. Photo by James Leynse.

Lynn Cohen, Jane Alexander. Photo by James Leynse.

Tina Howe’s bittersweet look at a tough, smart, legally blind and aging painter railing at the indignities of being warehoused in a Riverdale nursing home is sensitive and often funny. Jane Alexander shines as the painter, Catherine Sargent, who feels suffocated, blocked from her past life and surrounded by people who’ve gone senile.

Above her bed is a print of “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe,” the Édouard Manet painting of a nude women having a picnic with two fully clothed men. Sargent explains to the family of her new roommate, the spirited but slightly dotty Rennie Waltzer (Lynn Cohen), that putting a naked woman in public place in 1863 sounded a call for artistic freedom and paved the way for modern art.

She had been a prominent painter in her day and still burns for

Robert Christopher Riley, Julie Halston, Lynn Cohen, David Margulies, Vanessa Aspillaga, & Jack Gilpin. Photo by James Leynse.

Robert Christopher Riley, Julie Halston, Lynn Cohen, David Margulies, Vanessa Aspillaga, & Jack Gilpin. Photo by James Leynse.

freedom. “I want out!” she declares to anyone who will listen. They include her son, Royal (Jack Gilpin), who teaches poetry at Columbia University but disappoints her. He lacks her creativity, quotes Yates instead of finishing his book about him, and seems stuck in a rut.

Catherine asserts her own biting, uncompromising self by such devices as dressing up in a bloody mask while pretending to be Oedipus at a social worker’s activity.

Jane Alexander. Photo by James Leynse.

Jane Alexander. Photo by James Leynse.

So how will she deal with the lot she’s been dealt? The deux ex machina turns out to be Rennie, who Catherine inveigles into a scheme to accompany her onto the QE2 and from there to Paris. The grand escape is made problematical by the fact that Rennie is frail in both body and mind: she uses a walker and imagines that her late husband Hershel is still around.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with Cohen giving a charm and humanity to Rennie, and the others – including Julie Halston, David Margulies, Vanessa Aspillaga and Robert Christopher Riley — handling multiple roles that range from the members of Rennie’s family to the residents and caretakers of the home.

Halston moves amazingly between a very mentally disturbed patient and Rennie’s lively daughter, the rock of the family. Director Michael Wilson treats even the oddest balls with sympathy. Margulies as the very senile Henry suddenly fantasizes – or recalls — an archeological expedition in the Tigris-Euphrates where he saw pterodactyls fly. He’s telling us that people whose minds or bodies may have disintegrated may have had glorious lives – and they “want out” to recapture them.

“Chasing Manet.” Written by Tina Howe, Directed by Michael Wilson. Primary Stages, 59E59, at 59 East 59th Street, New York City. 212-279-4200. Opened April 9, 2009, Closes May 2, 2009. Reviewed by Lucy Komisar April 9, 2009. http://www.primarystages.org/.

Review on NY Theatre-Wire site.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

“An Oresteia” – juicy tales of adultery, murder, and revenge

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 9:33 pm

By Lucy Komisar

The Classic Stage Company’s bold mounting of three Greek playwrights’ visions of one of the most famous ancient myths lurches from melodrama to vaudeville and gives audiences some diverting hours in the modern theater.

Mickey Solis, Annika Boas. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Mickey Solis, Annika Boas. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Three directors have taken on the task, Brian Kulick and Gisela Cardenas staging “Agamemnon” and “Elekra” and Paul Lazar helming “Orestes.” The contemporary translation and adaptation is by Anne Carson. A mostly expert cast moves through the dramas, with special praise deserved by Stephanie Roth Haberle for an in-your-face Klytaimestra, Steve Mellor as the to-the-manor born Agamemnon and then his brother Menelaos, and an astonishing Annika Boras as Elektra, who asserts a daughter’s revenge with studied passion.

To remind: King Agamemnon has gone to Troy to help his brother Menelaos bring back Helen, who left him for Paris. Back home, Agamemnon’s wife Klytaimestra (Helen’s sister) has taken up with Aigisthos (Craig Baldwin). Alarmed, the King and Queen’s daughter, Elektra sends her younger brother Orestes to be raised by another king. When Agamemnon returns, wife slays him. Orestes (Mickey Solis) returns, kills his mother and Aigisthos (now Christopher McCann). The Senate wants him executed for matricide. But the god Apollo intervenes.

There is where the sense you are watching an ancient Greek production ends. A herald comes dressed in khaki to announce Agamemnon’s return. The King arrives in a military camel coat, cap with visor, dark glasses, and briefcase. His speech is macho.

Some of the directors’ choices don’t work, ie. the slave Kassandra (Doan Ly) being inexplicably drenched with a hose and the Furies, commenting on events in the second play, attired in bathing suits, sunglasses, and beach towels.

On the other hand, it was compelling to see Klytaimestra and Aigisthos as Bonnie and Clyde types, with the lady carrying a bloody axe. Stephanie Roth Haberle is a memorable Klytaimestra, exuding anger and toughness and self-confidence.

It’s made clear that there is some little bit of justification for their crime. In swaggering, tough fury, Klytaimestra denounces her husband for sacrificing their daughter, Iphigenia, to get winds to move his becalmed fleet. “Now you pull out your code of justice,” she declares. And “Beyond justice are men of excess wealth.” Lots of politics here.

Annika Boras. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Annika Boras. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Annika Boras dominates the second play as Elektra, full of poetry and passion. In flowing blonde hair, long black dress and wool coat, (costumes are by Oana Botez-Ban), she challenges wartime immorality. She exemplifies courage vs. sucking up. Her sister protests, “We have masters, we must bend.” But Elekra won’t lick their boots. Nor will she answer killing with killing.

The confrontation with her mother, who is dressed in an orange pencil line floor length spaghetti strap gown, and drinks a martini, is a scene that might have been written by Tennessee Williams. Elektra says she doesn’t think of her as mother, but “as some sort of punishment cage locked around my life.”

Boras shines in a monologue on justice and immorality, though I admit to being lost about the reason for a scene where she crawls in mud.

I did enjoy the arrival of Aigisthos in a white suit and straw hat and carrying Fifth Avenue style shopping bags. Then come body bags and blood running down the walls. With jazz background, Elektra is at the mike talking to the audience, explaining that the local citizens will vote whether to stone the killers.

Stephanie Beth Haberle. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Stephanie Beth Haberle. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The third play, directed by Paul Lazar, is truly over the top. And clever enough to maintain the logic of the text.

We never do see Helen, but Menelaos (Steve Mellor) arrives with a black wool coat over his traditional robe. Peering through wire-rimmed sun glasses, he soon turns into an ersatz shrink, as Orestes lies on a cot and his uncle listens to his plaints and inquires, “When did that start?” Orestes explains the events, and declares, “I’m not allowed to live!…Today they will vote….Death by stoning.” Mickey Solis infuses the Orestes character with anguish.

Menelaos asks, “Why haven’t you fled?” Orestes: “I am surrounded.” Menelaos: “By whom?” Orestes: “Long story short, the whole citizen body.” Menelaos: “Oh you poor man. Complete catastrophe.”

It becomes increasingly hokey. Tyndareos, the father of Klytaimestra and Helen, challenges Menelaos: “You launched 1000 ships for that?” He comments, “I’m a fortunate man in many ways, but not in daughters. I struck out.” (At one point Helen is called “that weapon of mass destruction.”)

The Greek chorus here is composed of two characters who sing vaudeville style while one plays a ukulele. Among the lyrics are “evil that calls itself virtue” and “the ruling machine.”

But by now you must guess that I very much enjoyed this very contemporary, slightly hokey and pointedly political take on these famous Greek tragedies. It’s another example of the Classic Stage Company smartly fulfilling its exemplary mission of bringing modern takes on old and ancient plays to the stage.

“An Oresteia”: Aeschylus’s “Agamemnon,” Sophocles’s “Electra,” and Euripedes’s “Orestes.” First two directed by Brian Kulick & Gisela Cardenas; third by Paul Lazar. Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York City. 212-352-3101. Opened April 1, 2009, Closes April 19, 2009. Reviewed by Lucy Komisar March 28, 2009. http://www.classicstage.org/.

Review on NY Theatre-Wire site.

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