Wednesday, October 14, 2009

County of Kings

GRADE: A-

By Lemon Andersen. Directed by Elise Thoron. Public Theater. (CLOSED)

Critics agree that Lemon Andersen may not have as great a gift for convincingly becoming other characters as some fellow actors in current one-person shows, but his likable nature and way with words (the show mixes straight dialogue with verse) make up for this. This is what gives his autobiographical County of Kings positive reviews, even though critics are more divided on other aspects of the production. For example, Ben Brantley describes the design team as "top-notch" in his New York Times review, while Sam Thielman in his Variety review writes that is the inconsistent technical aspects that bring down the production.


Backstage A
(Andy Propst) Anderson's narrative—a mix of hip-hop and poetic prose, English, and occasionally Spanish—is neither sentimental nor angry. Instead, it's a heartfelt and honest recounting of growing up with his heroin-addicted mother, her painful decline and eventual death. As he tells his story, he not only infuses it with humor, he also becomes, with precision and specificity, a number of other characters. Perhaps most amusing is his portrayal of a partially blind busybody woman in the apartment complex where he grew up.

The New York Times A
(Ben Brantley) Directed and developed by Elise Thoron, “County of Kings” is in its outlines a conventional show-biz fable, not unlike the “Fame” movies, in which eager kids from hard-knock backgrounds “learn how to fly” on the wings of talent. But Mr. Andersen invests the formula with a fine-grained grittiness of detail and a rapt love for words that is at least as strong as his love of hearing his own voice. Both kinds of love are essential to his craft, and they endow Mr. Andersen with a magnetism that holds us for the nearly two hours it takes him to tell his story. “County of Kings” begins with a moment of apotheosis, at the Tony Awards in 2003, when “Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam,” a show in which Mr. Andersen appeared, won for “special theatrical event.” From the heights of that evening, the show’s focus glides, like an old-fashioned biopic, down Manhattan, over the Hudson River and into a Brooklyn housing complex called the Courtyard.

Associated Press A-
(Peter Santilli) Under the direction of Elise Thoron, "County of Kings" transforms Lemon's poetry and remarkable story into a compelling drama, with Andersen portraying many of the characters who shaped his development. His ability to bring these characters to life isn't quite on par with, say, Sarah Jones of "Bridge & Tunnel" fame. But he does display an engaging depth in his acting and, more notably, an irresistible abundance of style. This style isn't limited to his complex rhymes and fluid speech. It also pervades his movements. In one of the show's most entertaining scenes, the boy is with his mother at a Coney Island amusement park. When the DJ plays the classic disco song "Ring My Bell," his mother lets go of his hand and "gives her 10-year-old man-child the solo of his life," in which Lemon charms the audience with old-school dance moves.

Talkin' Broadway A-
(Matthew Murray) Andersen’s show, which has been developed and directed by Elise Thoron, and first appeared at this year’s Under the Radar festival at The Public, makes no attempt to hide from - or excuse - the urban clich├ęs from which its author’s story derives. So if you think you’ve seen and heard this all before, you probably have. But what sweetens those sour notes is Andersen himself. Though muscular and dark-browed, wearing oversized jeans and a backward-turned baseball cap, his refined voice and storytelling style offer no hint that they’re emanating from a man who not long ago was a cash-strapped ex-con. Whether rhyming outright or speaking in a more traditional straight-dialogue fashion, Andersen compels you to listen with a shoulder-shaking bravado tinted with a desperate need for acceptance. His speech rings with a wavering musicality that slides from forte to piano, often within only a syllable, dark undertones of pain being suppressed by the floating light of hope. His hand gestures and pointed-forward head motions are designed to appear threatening, but can’t mask the fear lying just behind the eyes, the deep-down understanding that he no longer spiritually belongs to the world that bore him.

New York Post A-
(Frank Scheck) Whether rhapsodizing about his first teenage love, sardonically commenting about his upbringing at the hands of a stepfather whose idea of parenting was to teach him "how to strip cars in broad daylight," describing his time spent on Rikers Island and, later on, winning a Tony for his part in "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam on Broadway," Andersen infuses the evening with a humor and self-awareness that alleviates its grimness. He refuses to present himself as a victim, making his rags-to-not-quite-riches tale all the more inspirational.

The Village Voice A-
(Alexis Soloski) Under Elise Thoron's direction, Andersen varies his reminiscences with lyrical interludes and the occasional dance break. He switches among characters and accents, returning most often to his pained, posturing adolescent self. Andersen has a prodigious gift for language, making words arc and soar, and conjuring unexpected rhymes. As a performer, he summons a hyperactive energy, interweaving this brio with welcome vulnerability.

Variety B+
(Sam Thielman) The language in Andersen's show is so much fun that it's tempting to quote the entire script, but probably best not to. You can't read his thick, old-school Brooklyn accent or his slightly nervous-looking gaze, and those are the things that make his oddly precise turns of phrase ring out like punchlines. Coney Island is "a mess hall of drunk lifeguards getting robbed under the boardwalk," Brooklynite kids hang out on "a cold April stickball street," in an Ohio prison "all you got is your word, your orange jumpsuit/your uncertified mail" -- these little bon mots appear and then vanish every few minutes, like a tropical lizard running in and out of holes in a cinder-block wall... The sound is too loud, then it's in and out, then it's gone when it's clearly supposed to be there. The lighting is pretty much the same wash except for a couple of moments when it contracts to a spot for Andersen's act-openers and closers. Most importantly, though, we really want to hear every word he's saying, and between the Spanglish and his hyperkinetic delivery style, it takes some major concentration to get the gist of things in too many scenes.

The New Yorker B+
(John Lahr) Inevitably, for someone who has unexpectedly found a voice and a way to be heard, Andersen’s idiom spills out in torrents. It reminded me of the Watts Towers, in Los Angeles—an edifice of scraps, but all the more extraordinary for its defiant accomplishment. Although Andersen’s humor and his courage insure that he never wears out his welcome, the two-hour celebration of his survival would have more clout if it were shorter. He holds our attention so confidently partly because, when she was alive, he held his mother’s. He keeps the memory of her with him and recounts it at the beginning and at the end of the show. He recalls the excitement of being watched by her at the age of ten, as he glided and shimmied on the dance floor. “I could hear her pitch perfect in the background yelling / ‘That’s my boy!’ ” Andersen says. He’s older now, but he’s still someone to watch.

Lighting & Sound America B
(David Barbour) County of Kings mixes straight narrative passages with poetry-slam-style riffs for moments of heightened emotion. At times, the rush of words is so thick that you'll have to listen extra hard. It's also a bit of a challenge because, for all his undeniable skill as a writer, Andersen isn't an especially gifted performer. The ability to deliver a short, intense poem into a coffee-house microphone doesn't really prepare one for the rigors of carrying a 90-minute solo piece. He's particularly weak at evoking the other characters in the text. This problem is especially apparent right now, when such outsize personalities as Coleman Domingo, Charlayne Woodard, and, yes, Carrie Fisher, are holding forth, all by themselves, on Manhattan stages. It's hard not to feel that Elise Thoron, who directed (and also developed the piece), hasn't quite gotten Andersen to the point where he is fully up to the ambitions of his own text.

Backstage A 13; The New York Times A 13; AP A- 12; Talkin' Broadway A- 12; New York Post A- 12; The Village Voice A- 12; Variety B+ 11; The New Yorker B+ 11; Lighting & Sound America B 10; TOTAL: 106/9 = 11.78 (A-)

1 comment:

Joel said...

Also check out the upcoming documentay film about Lemon and his work at www.dandelion-films.com .

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