Seen at the Movies:

Shrek 2

, from PDI/DreamWorks animation, is not up to the narrative quality and entertainment value of its predecessor, but it’s certainly diverting and comes with its share of ingenious moments. The story concerns the trip of Shrek (voiced once again Mike Myers) and new ogre-ish bride Fiona (Cameron Diaz) to visit her parents, the King and Queen (John Cleese and Julie Andrews). Dad in particular is none too pleased with the turn of events, since the dashing but dim Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), who just happens to be the son of an entrepreneurial Fairy Godmother (Ab Fab’s Jennifer Saunders), was supposed to have rescued his daughter from the dragon and saved her from nighttime bouts of the green uglies. The King enlists vicious assassin Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) to eliminate his unwanted son-in-law, and perhaps his annoying Donkey sidekick (Eddie Murphy) in the bargain.

Shrek 2 Photo credit: PDI/DreamWorks

Shrek 2 doesn’t have the forward momentum or satisfying emotional pull of the first film; the storyline serves as an excuse for what is essentially a digitally animated campfest, complete with cross-dressing cartoon characters, a nasty, boogeying Fairy Godmother, and a fairy tale capital city modeled on Beverly Hills and full of slightly off-kilter product placement. Banderas, in superb self-mocking form, battles with the ever-jazzed Murphy for number of laughs per reel, while Saunders and Everett never seem as funny as they’re meant to be. In all, the film is very much a hit-and-miss affair, and while it’s pleasing to look at, it doesn’t match—nor does it necessarily seek--the visual splendor of the latest Pixar offering, Finding Nemo. The production design, credited to Guillaume Aretos, has lots of wit and color, as well as a storybook flatness. The character design (headed by Tom Hester) and animation is sensationally effective with Puss in Boots and Donkey, less so with the more human figures. Oddly, costume designer Isis Mussenden gets a credit right under Hester in the film’s art department; digital costumes may be a whole new craft for the 21st century.--John Calhoun

Seen off Broadway: The Joys of Sex: Was it good for me? In one way, yes; the naughty-but-nice musical, now playing at the Variety Arts (a former porn house), is agreeable summer weather entertainment, a 90-minute quickie with energetic performances and some fun songs. On the other hand, the show, which premiered at the downtown Fringe Festival in 2002, clearly hopes to follow in the rags-to-riches footsteps of something like the Tony-nominated puppet perversion musical Avenue Q, but it just isn’t cut from the same cloth. Still, who doesn’t prefer to recall good sex over bad sex, and there are enough laughs here in the book and music by Melissa Levis and David Weinstein to make me put aside my morning-after regrets.

Joys of Sex Photo Carol Rosegg; pictured (from left) are Ron Bohmer, David Josefsberg, Stephanie Kurtzuba, & Jenelle Lynn Randall

Set in New York, The Joys of Sex is more tightly plotted than you might expect, and acted with as much sincerity as salaciousness. Thirty-something Stephs (Stephanie Kurtzuba) wants to have a baby with her randy husband Howard (Ron Bohmer), but feels her inability to reach the big O is inhibiting her. One of Howard’s old flames, April (Jenelle Lynn Randall), has no such problems in the bedroom, but yearns for a nice guy. That might be Howard’s best friend, nebbishy Brian (David Josefsberg), though he has a few kinks to work out. The song titles basically sum up the smorgasbord of sexual exploration that follows: "One Night Stand," "Twins," "The 3 Way," "Free the Tiger," "Fantasy Come True," and "Intercourse on the Internet," which isn’t quite as funny as a similar Avenue Q ditty yet builds to a hilarious punchline involving Brian and his undersexed mother (the four actors do double and triple duty throughout, in a variety of wigs and disguises). Like Stephs, the show has trouble reaching a satisfying climax but there compensations along the way, notably a designer’s delight of a number called "The Vault," where the set and costumes are completely made over into an S&M chamber.

Directed by Jeremy Dobrish, The Joys of Sexowes little to Alex Comfort’s similarly titled hippy-dippy instruction manual of the swinging Seventies, except its look, supplied by Neil Patel. The beds and apartments are contemporary (as are the conventional, day-to-day clothes of costumer David C. Woolard) yet surrounded by garish, lava lamp-styled setpieces and Lucite paneling that scream (maybe a little too loudly, in their primary-colored boldness) 1974 or so. Don Holder’s lighting adds to the hothouse atmosphere for the musical numbers, then cools down for the book scenes. I initially had trouble making out the lyrics in the din of the show’s band, The Throbbing Threesome, and their "virtual orchestra" Sinfonia machine, but sound designer T. Richard Fitzgerald sorted it out, at least from my seat. The designers, however, are thoroughly upstaged by the Variety Arts’ lobby, which has been themed with a variety of sex toys, some used onstage as props and all available for sale. Rumors that a famed drama critic purchased a few before showtime were unconfirmed at press time. --Robert Cashill

Seen In Brooklyn: Tony Kushner’s play, Homebody/Kabul is currently on stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre (through May 30) and I strongly recommend it, in spite of its nearly four hour length. Don’t be daunted by the length, the excellent acting and design elements are worth the investment. The play begins with The Homebody, an English housewife who doesn’t get out much. Act one is entirely a monologue (an extremely well-written, emotionally charged monologue, in fact) delivered by Linda Emond, who has been in the role since the play premiered at New York Theatre Workshop (where she received an Obie, the Lucille Lortel Award, and a Drama Desk nomination) and again at the Mark Taper Forum more recently. What a performance! The Homebody is alternately reading from an old, out-dated guide book about Kabul, Afghanistan, and telling anecdotes from her own life, including going out to buy some Afghan hats for a party. She brings the house down every time.

Christopher Akerlind's warm lightng in Act Two of Homebody/Kabul
Photo: Stephanie Berger

The sets, designed by James Schuette feature a small living room grouping in Act One that rises on a platform from below the faux stage put into the Harvey for the occasion. The platform has a small rug with a table (with a lamp and a few books) flanked by two chairs. The rest of the play takes place in the war-torn, bombed out city of Kabul, both in a hotel room and on the city streets. Tall ruins of buildings flank the stage on both sides, with the lighting by Christopher Akerlind dramatically lighting the shapes of the buildings while at the same time adding a warm amber glow in the late afternoons, and an ominous darkness at night. The premise of the play is that The Homebody has finally left home for good, gone to Afghanistan, and disappeared into the mysterious world of Kabul, where she may be dead or alive, we never know for sure. Her husband and daughter have come to look for her.

The costumes by Mara Blumenfeld range from the practical English clothes of The Homebody and her husband, to the jeans and sweatshirt of her daughter, Priscilla, to a range of Afghan-style military ensembles to burkha-clad women scurrying through Kabul. When Priscilla wears her own green burkha as she searches for her mother, the results are both humorous and politically poignant. The sound design by Joe Cerqua adds to the ominous nature of the second act, in which the characters range from an opium-smoking English diplomat to the rather peculiar wife of an Afghani doctor. Perhaps they are all in the imagination of The Homebody, who has never really gone to Kabul at all, but has simply slipped into the pages of that old, out-dated guidebook and is imagining what would happen if she did indeed go there and her husband and daughter came to find her. Kushner provides clues, but no real roadmap for the audience to find its own way through the mysteries of Kabul, but the play resonates with the problems the entire world seems to be facing today.--Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

Seen In The East Village: Troika Ranch is a digital dance company that is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. They presented a new work, Surfacing, May 20-23 at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village. The artistic directors and video designers for Troika Ranch are Dawn Stoppiello, who is also the choreographer, and Mark Coniglio, who composed the music. The goal of the company is to integrate dance, theatre and digital media, as seen in Surfacing, a work for four dancers and video projections, both live and recorded. The set by sculptor David Judelson was made up of four mobile projection screens built like tall trapezoids of white fabric, light enough for the dancers to move around the floor (part of the impetus for the design is the fact that nothing can be attached to the walls in the church, so it was a case of necessity being the mother of the invention of these screens). There was also a flat wooden platform on the floor in the same shape which added another element to the physical nature of the dancing.

Troika Ranch inSurfacing Photo: Richard Termine

The lighting by Susan Hamburger was on three levels: the risers along the sides of the dance floor, under the balcony, and on poles in the balcony. Low intensity was her mantra as the lighting couldn’t upstage or wash out the projections, that ranged from live images of the dancers in black and white, echoing their movements, via Isadora, a graphic programming environment created by Coniglio to provide interactive control of digital images. There were also extremely large images that floated above the dancers and were perfectly framed in a rounded niche on the upstage wall. These were shot with a special slow motion camera that gives the images an ethereal feel, and in the church environment, could have been angels on high, smiling down at the envelope-pushing digital dancing of Troika Ranch.--ELG.