Rising Phoenix Repertory: Keepers of the Flame

BY MARTIN DENTON (of nytheatre.com)

Company champions work that’s ‘visceral, transformative, and unforgettable’

On a Sunday night last June, I found an email from Daniel Talbott in my inbox. Talbott — who is an enormously talented playwright, actor, and director (as well as the artistic director of Rising Phoenix Repertory) — is a frequent correspondent, and also an inspiring one. Especially this time around. The email bore this subject line:

“Hey you guys and Cino Nights at the Seventh Street Small Stage :)”

and began like this:

“Hey you guys, How are yas?! I hope this finds you all doing great and having a wonderful weekend and Sun so far and I wanted to write ya all before I jumped into bed tonight cause there’s been something brewing in the back of my head for the last few weeks and I went to this amazing Coffeehouse Chronicles thing today at La MaMa about Caffe Cino and Joe Cino and I’ve decided I want to do something in honor of and in the spirit of the amazing muthaf***ers who started it.”

Now here’s the important thing about Talbott and Rising Phoenix Rep: By September — just three months after that inspirational email went out — “Cino Nights at Seventh Street Small Stage” had been launched as a monthly series of world premiere plays, fully produced, for one night only.

 “Cino Nights” pays tribute to Caffe Cino — which, in the late 50s and early 60s, was one of the very first Off-Off-Broadway venues in New York. The monthly series, which runs until March 2012, has already featured new work by Gary Sunshine, Mando Alvarado, and Courtney Baron, and is scheduled to include plays by Florencia Lozano, Kristen Palmer, Emily DeVoti, Cusi Cram, Jessica Dickey, Adam Szymkowicz, Laura Eason, Sheri Wilner, Daniel Reitz, Crystal Skillman, Megan Mostyn-Brown, Charlotte Miller, Keith Reddin, Dael Orlandersmith and Jonathan Blitstein.

You’ll observe that the folks Talbott was able to enlist for his visionary new endeavor include some of the best names working in indie theater. Rising Phoenix attracts talented people the way that chocolate candy attracts little kids — ravenously and gleefully. The smartest and most inventive craftspeople and artists want to work with Rising Phoenix because the company provides a nurturing space for theatremakers and theatregoers to have adventures they won’t get anywhere else. 

Talbott, who founded Rising Phoenix in 1999, is a Juilliard Acting alumnus — and he makes a particular specialty in his company of discovering young actors and sending them on their way. Samantha Soule and Denis Butkus, two of Rising Phoenix’s artistic associates, regularly appear on Broadway; Seth Numrich (currently on Broadway in “The Merchant of Venice” with Al Pacino) co-starred in Rising Phoenix’s hit production of Talbott’s play “Slipping” a year ago, opposite Adam Driver (who is currently on Broadway in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” with Cherry Jones).

Rising Phoenix specializes in site-specific work, usually (but not always) created to be performed in the company’s home base at the Seventh Street Small Stage, (which is located in the backroom of a fine East Village eating establishment known as Jimmy’s No. 43; www.jimmysno43.com). The environmental theatre ethos evolved from the requirements of the space, which is in no way a formal or traditional theatre — and, in every way, an intimate cabaret/party room. But the constraints of that space have brought out the unbridled ingenuity of Rising Phoenix’s artists and collaborators.

The first piece I saw there was Daniel Reitz’s remarkable adaptation of “Three Sisters.” Samantha Soule co-starred with fellow artistic associates Julie Kline and Addie Johnson as contemporary versions of Chekhov’s Irina, Masha, and Olga. By condensing the themes to their bare essentials, the play ran less than an hour — and took place almost entirely at a single table in a bar filled with people. Three of those people happened to be the emphatically articulate sisters of the title (while the rest of us in the room were lucky eavesdroppers).

Other works that have been spun at Seventh Street includes Crystal Skillman’s spellbinding “Telling Trilogy” — a three-part memory play/ghost story that was staged in various spots at Jimmy’s (including a narrow hallway leading to a rear exit); “Don’t Pet the Zookeeper” by Napoleon Ellsworth (in which the pub setting was transformed into a very strange and off-kilter office); and “Rules of the Universe” — another play by Reitz that was set in the men’s and ladies’ rooms of the restaurant (the actors were in the bathrooms and we watched, scant feet away).

What these plays have in common is a raw immediacy that makes them visceral, transformative, and unforgettable — even when, as is often the case, they are so dense and abstract that you can’t parse everything that happens as it unfolds. In their company mission statement Rising Phoenix says, “We want to rediscover the craft of a raw and vital living theatre.” This they do, by challenging audiences as well as artists to take leaps and risks and explore the unique, intimate dynamic of live theatre in a confined space.

No one who saw “Afterclap” — Reitz’s most recent play for Rising Phoenix — is likely to forget the journey of its sole character, a young man who wakes up naked in a bar backroom. That play starred Haskell King, another fine young actor who regularly appears with Rising Phoenix. As I said, this company draws the cream of the crop within its ranks; witness the roster of company members — which includes the likes of David Adjmi, MacLeod Andrews, Meg Gibson, Keith Reddin, Michael Chernus, Jessica Dickey, Jack Ferver and Kathryn Kates.

Here’s something I wrote about the Rising Phoenix aesthetic last year (from my review of Crystal Skillman’s “Birthday” — which can be found in the archives of nytheatre.com):


“I love these works because they’re always fresh and inventive, finding neat ways to make theatre in the back room of a pub/restaurant feel natural and organic. The actors are always top-notch and the production values are spare and economical and dead-on. And the whole experience is always under an hour and because the curtain time is 6 p.m., there’s time after the show for a full rest-of-the-evening….”


Rising Phoenix has innovated a new way to make and experience theatre in New York, one that suits the economic and resource realities of 2010 without crimping the creativity of the artists.

And now, for the next 15 months or so in the Cino Nights series, Daniel Talbott and his collaborators will be applying their aesthetic and their producing M.O. to celebrating the spirit that fueled Off-Off-Broadway in the first place.