Entries in Chinaza Uche (2)





When people think of the old saying, “War is Hell,” they think of helicopters, fighting overseas, and support our troops bumper stickers.  They may think of the movie “Apocalypse Now” or dozens of other movies depicting that very statement.  However, many of us have very different images spring to mind.  Lockers, football fields, wedgies, Homecoming Kings and Queens, and selfies, aka the number one cause of destruction in America’s youth (That’s a fact, I’m pretty sure).  For those at Plainview High School, War is Hell definitely springs to mind the high school images, and we relive all of them alongside August Schulenburg, fellow students, and JANE THE PLAIN.



Alisha Spielmann stars as the title character Jane.  We are told, through monologues aimed directly at the audience, that she is not above average, but not below average.  She is somewhere in between, which is far worse.  She’s plain, unnoticed, like “something you fly in to arrive someplace better.”  We’re also introduced to the other types traditionally found in high school.  There’s football star and uber-popular Scotty the Hotty (Chinaza Uche), head devious Cheerleader Betty the Pretty (Becky Byers), the unattainable hottie Lexi the Sexy (Sol Crespo), the 2nd string Quarterback Lesson the Decent (Chester Poon), and finally there’s Leonard the Awkward (Isaiah Tanenbaum), the "Magic: The Gathering" playing outcast who is in love with Jane the Plain, though she doesn’t see him in that light.  Jane is obsessed with Scotty.  Scotty has the hots for Lexi.  And Betty is willing to do anything to get Scotty.  It’s all typical high school craziness, including a bad decision nude selfie, until Jane saves a girl who’s about to get hit by a car.  This is where things start getting very strange indeed.  The girl glows, literally, with gratitude, and the next thing Jane knows is everyone finally sees her.  Everyone is entranced by her.  She is no longer plain, for better….or for worse.


August Schulenburg (Honey Fist, Riding the Bull) certainly knows his way around a whip-smart sentence, and Jane the Plain is full of exquisite dialogue.  Schulenburg continuingly paints beautiful pictures with his words, much of it pure poetry, and under the delicate directing guidance of Kelly O’Donnell, they elevate it immediately from your typical night in the theatre.  As Jane, Alisha Spielmann commands your attention, not with a roar, but with a fire of intensity building inside her.  She is soft and sweet, naïve and hurt, and Spielmann’s performance is touching and powerful.  Becky Byers nails every scene as the scheming and manipulative cheerleader, but never paints her as a true villain.  She’s an angry teenager, desperate to not repeat her parent’s mistakes, and Byers showcases all the hurt inside of her venom beautifully all the way up to a very heartbreaking end.  And although she doesn’t say much in the first half of the show, a single look from Sol Crespo or a wry line reading will send you into hysterics.  I also want to point out the amazing scenic design by Will Lowry.  Both low-fi and wonderfully clever, he set up a stage that’s somehow several high school memories all blended together.


With all of the wonderful things happening here, there are things that don’t work in Jane the Plain.  With so much to say, and so little time to say it, the ending sadly falls apart, and some of what it's trying to say does as well.  One device that I really liked early on, the narration, is used far too much.  Nearly every moment of the show is narrated by one of the characters, and though it can be a clever device, it simply wears thin and gets in the way of true character development. It often doesn't allow the audience to discover what a character is feeling and yearning for but rather simply tells us.  Had the play only started and ended with narration and used it sporadically in the rest of the play (if at all) I wonder how much more powerful the end result would have been.  That being said, Jane the Plain is a very clever piece of theatre, one that you really shouldn’t miss.  You just might get detention if you do.




DIRECTED BY: Kelly O'Donnell  WRITTEN BY: August Schulenburg  STARRING: Alisha Spielmann, Becky Byers, Chinaza Uche, Sol Crespo, Chester Poon, Isaiah Tenenbaum  CONTENT ADVISORY: Language, Sexuality  PHOTO CREDIT: Deborah Alexander


BOTTOM LINE: Poetic in its language and wholly original in concept, Jane the Plain shines best in the first hour, with many strong performances anchoring each moment.  Though it's not the best Flux show you'll see (or quite up to par as their last couple offerings), it is a fine addition to an extremely talented company.







To properly explain August Schulenburg’s new play HONEY FIST (playing in rep with Sans Merci – see my review of that one HERE) as three plays in one wouldn’t necessarily be lying, as it takes three very different forms as it goes.  That could have been a troubling notion but I’m happy to say that it’s not.  What starts out as a whip-smart comedy lets in darker tones, finishes off with a bang somehow seamlessly.  It’s quite a hat trick, and one that is uniquely original.  Set in the small town of Marblehead, MA we follow a group of friends as they reminisce about old times, shooting back beer after beer while remembering their buddy Justin on the anniversary of his death.  One of the crew, Joey (Nat Cassidy) has long left his old buddies for the budding fields of Hollywood where he’s cashed in on making movies loosely based on his old high school friends.  Joey shows up unexpectedly, and all seem thrilled to see him at first.  All that is, but Stu (Matt Archambault) who hasn’t forgiven Joey on several accounts which he considers betrayal.  Joey’s also brought his pop singer girlfriend Gretyl (Lori E. Parquet), which thrills the crew to no end.  But Joey has shown up for a reason, and it has to do with Justin.  He wants stories.  The best story they've got, all involving Justin.  As each tale unravels, the seemingly friendly banter gets heated and the play begins to evolve into a much darker territory.


Schulenburg is a gifted playwright, and truly a unique voice in indie theatre right now.  Yes, the setup is similar to movies and plays of the past, but he tells it all differently, with a sharp and interesting view that’s all his own.  The language is both hilarious and real as he always lets the characters sound like “real people” and never as if they’re only shouting out dialogue.  The entire cast is directed with a steady hand by Kelly O’Donnell, and she pulls some great performances out of them.  Nat Cassidy’s Hollywood writer is a triumph to see.  His swaggering character shifts and changes as the play goes on, and the actor shifts and changes along with it.  His anger brews in Act I and literally explodes with a ferocious outburst in Act II.  You leave remembering him as one of the most memorable of the evening, and he’s only in two scenes.  Matt Archambault’s Stu is quit, intense, and masterfully handled.  He’s a character that could easily go off the rails under the wrong guidance but Archambault steers clear of any overreaching and keeps you always on his side, even when he’s making very poor decisions.  Anna Rahn’s Rene is one of the strangest, kookiest, and mesmerizing characters I’ve seen this year, and it’s half thanks to the wonderful dialogue she’s saying and Rahn’s beautifully layered performance.  She’s a strange, interesting cookie, and Rahn loves every bit of it.  Rounding out the lead performances is Lori E. Parquet (so good in Flux’s superb Dog Act).  The fame and superior attitude fit well in the first act, and it’s wonderfully intriguing to see Parquet dig into the humanity of the pop star as the shit hits the fan.  Her connection with Cassidy, Archambault, and Rahn is perfection and having her view a very different picture of these lifelong friends brings so much power to the story.  In more supporting roles, Chinaza Uche adds a subtle beauty and quietness to the proceedings with his lovesick puppydog of a character, but Isaiah Tanenbaum seems to be playing in a different style all together, one that’s much more absurd and his sequences don’t quite seem to flow with everything else.  The only other complaint I have with the show is how some of the actors slip drastically in and out of their New England accent.  It's sometimes forgivable, but it's always noticable and sadly does take you out of the moment.


What’s wonderful about this play is that it WILL remind you of other productions and films.  For me, Suburbia and Richard Linklater came to mind instantly.  Perhaps others will cross yours.  But as much as they do, the language is entirely fresh and intriguing, and I’m happy to say I honestly and heartedly laughed throughout while caring for all the characters.  Flux has two white hot shows on their hands right now and Schulenburg is a force to be reckoned with, truly a voice to be heard.  It’s poetic, true, and pure.  Like Unicorn pure, you know?

Photo credit: Ken Glickfeld


Written by August Schulenburg  Directed by Kelly O'Donnell  Starring Matt Archambault, Nat Cassidy, Lori E. Parquet, Anna Rahn, Isiah Tanenbaum, Chinaza Uche. Content Warning: Adult Language, Violence. Playing at: 4th Street Theatre (83 East 4th Street, NYC).  For tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/3012

Mateo’s Grade: A-

Bottom Line: Fantastically intersting and uniquely original with some very strong performances throughout.