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On the Culture Front: Hill Town Plays, Pixies, Life and Times and More

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The Rattlestick Theater's self-described mission is to be a "playwrights theater," and this intent has never been more fully realized than with the creation of the Theater:Village Festival this past month, which presented five plays by Lucy Thurber for its inaugural season. The Hill Town plays collectively are an epic portrait of rural poverty, displaced love, and the boundless angst that can propel someone into a different life while leaving a fragmented past behind.

Each play is structured around a crucial period in a woman's life from preadolescence to post-doctorate professorship, but her name varies from play to play. In "Scarcity" and "Stay" she's Rachel, in "Ashville" Celia, in "Where We're Born" Lilly, and in "Killers and Other Family" Elizabeth. This broadens Thurber's story from the personal to the anthropological, giving us a snapshot of a region. There are themes of incest that weave throughout, and Thurber's spare dialogue is unforgivingly visceral. Lines flow in a gathering rhythmic ease between the spectacularly talented cast members and their beauty sneaks up on you. This western Massachusetts family lingers in the mind long after the final character has left the stage.

A family is the desperate goal of a New York lesbian couple in Ethan Coen's lackluster "Women or Nothing." Drawn out over two-acts, the play revolves around a woman's plot to "trick" a co-worker to have sex with her partner without letting him know that they only want him for his sperm. It's never quite clear why this deception is necessary not to mention that the one-night-stand is far from a full-proof plan for insemination.

Slightly less half-baked, Will Power's "Fetch Clay, Make Man" documents the days leading up to Cassius Clay's seminal fight against Sonny Liston. The fight is only the backdrop though for larger conversations of race and religion. Power gives his characters long, fiery speeches and some are quite stirring. Ray Fisher as Clay devours each line with increasing dominance as he further embraces the Nation of Islam while K. Todd Freeman as Clay's unlikely friend, Stepin Fetchit, gives an impassioned plea to be seen outside of the caricature that made him a Hollywood star. "I snuck in the back door, so you could walk in the front" he tells Clay in searing moment. There's a lot of heart in Power's work, and I love the way he contrasts these two men while showing the development of their friendship, but heavy-handedness ultimately derails the second act into melodrama.

The Nature Theater of Oklahoma thrives on transforming the mundane into magic. Their magnum opus, "Life and Times" dramatizes a series of phone calls artistic director Pavol Liska had with company member Kristin Worrall where he asked her, "can you tell me the story of your life?" Her detailed stream-of-consciousness answers are the basis for the script of this ten-part series with each "episode" expressed in a new medium. Parts 4.5 and 5, presented as part of the Crossing the Line Festival at FIAF for just two performances, took the form of an animated film and a medieval illustrated book. This 90-minute "performance" lacked actors and live people of any kind save for the organist Daniel Gower who gave instructions for how to read the book and then played a dynamically tense work him composed for the occasion. Nonetheless, it's a deeply moving piece with a universal scope. Particularly through a marathon all-day presentation of the first four parts, I began wondering what I would say if Pavol asked me about my life.

On the music front, a Deal-less Pixies played a rousing set at the Music Hall of Williamsburg that included "Here Comes Your Man", "Monkey Goes to Heaven", "Where is My Mind?" and "Wave of Mutilation". A disco ball flicked on when lead guitarist Joey Santiago launched into the signature riff of "Where is My Mind?" and early on frontman Frank Black announced, "we started out hard hitting last night, and this time we're starting mellow." The Pixies have produced their best songs when mellow, so I was happy to hear this, but Black could only hold back the thrash for so long. Cue metal machine music.

A couple nights later, I returned to the Music Hall for Savoir Adore, a very mellow indie pop duo (with a much larger live band) that sounds like a smoothed out, updated, and more danceable version of Talking Heads. At their best, Paul Hammer (son of Mahavishnu Orchestra legend Jan Hammer) and Deidre Muro invite us on a trek through a Technicolor forest with songs like "Dreamers" and "Loveliest Creature".

Houses take a more experimental approach to crafting songs. They opened a set at Mercury Lounge a couple weeks ago with a slightly melancholic soundscape. Their latest album, "A Quiet Darkness," is hauntingly beautiful but live they sounded a little hollow. This was partly due to sloppy engineering that mixed all parts to the max obscuring the nuances and subtlety of the music, but it's also the band searching for the final component the will make them whole onstage. At their best, Houses is a west coast response to Sigur Ros, and I can't wait to see what they do next.

The Moth has been nurturing the craft of storytelling for the better part of two decades and have it down to a precise science. Their tagline (though too gauche) could be "you will be moved or your money back." Their last mainstage show delivered a predictable wallop with New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik as MC for an evening of "Stories of Rights and Lefts," where the storytellers brought us into a moment in their life when they made a pivotal shift, which is actually sums up all Moth stories. The most memorable was Kemp Powers tale of how growing up in the ghetto led him to view his own son as weak until he realized the "strength" he had was a survival mechanism built around distrusting those around him. I brought my friend Gerard who's a first time Moth-er and an actor. He just launched a new web series on Blip TV.