How?
Strike Anywhere Productions
at JEM Arts Center
Through Dec 18.

The Lion King
Disney at Paramount Theatre
Through Jan 16.

Holiday XXX
Live Girls! Theater
Through Dec 11.

If you go to see How? at JEM Arts Center, you will wonder many things: Why do the actors refuse to use their inside voices? Why must the audience proceed through an hors d'oeuvres obstacle course having nothing to do with the play? Why is the foyer, decorated like a dentist's waiting room, so much more fascinating than the show itself? The one question you will not ask yourself is, "How did this play come about?"

How? is classic art-school detritus, a haphazard collection of the kind of styrofoam notions that occur to students as they're sleeping through classes on the history of theater. The tasks the audience is asked to complete before entering or leaving the theater--peering through a Viewmaster, carrying around a melting ice cube, assembling a few pieces of a jigsaw puzzle--have no purpose other than to pad the elementary ontological philosophy in the show itself. It's telling that the two loud actors, Justin Beard and Malte Frid-Nielsen, wrote the script themselves. No directing credit is given; instead the show was democratically "staged by" the actors and Sherrine Azab (who has successfully directed plays all by herself before). Not surprisingly, the resulting performance is undisciplined and dull, floating somewhere between a play and a parlor trick. Nota bene, my dear actors: If you think you don't need a director, you're not special. You're just dumb.

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Then there's the touring production of Julie Taymor's The Lion King, which actually aspires to nothing more than parlor trickery, and delivers nothing less. If you've been paying any attention to Broadway shows over the last seven years (the production premiered in 1997), you know that the show is less a musical than a sublime, mobile diorama--a parade of stunning human-puppet hybrids. From the zebras (with the massive thighs of male ballet dancers and lithe, freely jointed puppet hindquarters) to the giraffes (two sets of knobby stilts attached to the actor's arms and legs, plus a towering neck that defies gravitational intuition to swoop down and drink from a watering hole) to a fanciful wooden gazelle contraption to crusty hyenas with hind legs permanently frozen in a second-position plié, every one of these creations is a lure for the eye. Which means that the most thrilling moment in The Lion King, as in the eco-fable movie that inspired it, is the panoramic opening sequence, in which all manner of birds and mammals amble or stalk or whiz down the aisles and onto the stage.

Of course the rest of the show has its charms. There's the almost-too-slick trompe l'oeil appearance of daddy lion Mufasa's head in the night sky; there's the triumph of deep perspective in the (emotionally cold) wildebeest stampede. There's that deliciously biological seduction scene that deploys writhing grass and mossy aerial copulation to combat the cheesy strains of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?"--and to complement Simba's (i.e., Brandon Louis') glistening pecs. Granted, a few of the puppets are less than satisfying--Timon's thick Yiddishisms are uttered by a green man (Adam Hunter) holding a rubbery three-foot meerkat. But for the most part, the puppets and production design are the point, and as for the acting, the singing, and all the things you normally expect from musicals--who cares? This isn't eye candy. It's a goddamn visual feast.

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The tiny, stripped-down stage at Live Girls! Theater is offering three short plays, collectively titled Holiday XXX, which are meant to provide an antidote to ordinary holiday fare, but which taste as bitter as the poison itself. Each play, commissioned for the same four characters, fails for a different reason. Zoe Fitzgerald's "Familiar" is zany but pointless, director William Burke can't rein things in, and "Howard Schultz and the Starbucks at the End of the World," by Mallory McKay-Brooke, stretches a lame conceit too far. Joy McCullough-Carranza (with the assistance of director Dorothy Lemoult) achieves some actual dramatic conflict in "Three-Lined Potato Beetle," but forces the characters to spew such cliché-infested dialogue that it all comes to naught.

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