Fringe Benefits

Confidential to Reader: Reserve Tickets Now; Bring Loose Clothing

In the second act of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus—as performed by the puppet and toy theater company Drama of Works—a rather piqued prince of darkness instructs, "Talk not of Paradise, nor creation, but mark the show." And, hey, that Lucifer guy gives pretty good advice (even if it comes with the eternal-damnation price tag), because the same might be said of the fourth annual New York International Fringe Festival. The totality of the Fringe—which reckons more than 180 theater, dance, and art events—proves too diffuse to foster easy discussion of thematics, methodologies, or even the state of avant-garde (read fringy) theater today. (Confidential to the Fringe producers: Perhaps if we hadn't set our minds on being the biggest multi-arts fest in North America we might screen a bit more for quality and import. Just a thought.) But the Fringe does provide a whole heck of a lot of shows: some marvelous, some middling, and some—particularly the unairconditioned ones—recalling another Marlowe line, "Why this is hell, nor am I out of it."

So over the past several days I took in 20 plays (and plenty of 6th Street takeout), attempting to capture the festival zeitgeist. Inevitably, certain trends emerged. Many of this year's shows focused on human abnormalities or the perils of masculinity. Some companies decobwebbed old dramatic forms, others old dramatic works. An awful lot of puppet shows graced the stage—also many clown pieces and wrenching confessionals, but a girl has to be kind to herself so I didn't see any of those. And owing to time constraints, scheduling conflicts, and a nasty traffic jam, I also didn't see several plays bearing particular promise.

The ninja and the fury: a toy MacBeth transports you to a simpler, cuter Scotland.
photo: Hiroyuki Ito
The ninja and the fury: a toy MacBeth transports you to a simpler, cuter Scotland.

The quintessence of fringe seems to emanate from the union of low-tech, fast-paced, brassy concept and assured execution. Few shows exemplify these virtues better than the Neo-Futurists and Theater Oobleck's The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in an Envelope (Partially Burned) in a Dustbin in Paris Labeled "Never to Be Performed. Never. Ever. EVER! Or I'll Sue! I'LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!!!" and Dov Weinstein's Tiny Ninja Theater Presents Macbeth. Complete Lost Works supposes a trio of unscrupulous scholar-actors (Greg Allen, Ben Schneider, and Danny Thompson) who unearth several lost plays of the master of malaise. They set about performing them, dodging legal repercussion. These never-before-seen pieces include Table Talk, which concerns a preserved brain and a Molloy-meets-bodice-ripper tale, and Happy Happy Bunny Visits Sad Sad Owl, Beckett's earliest work. Throughout, the performances are sharp, the wit sharper, and the ceaseless use of Bread's "If a Picture Paints a Thousand Words" so pointedly awful it had the audience in screams and tears. Wonder if Rockaby ever managed that.

Toward the end of Tiny Ninja Theater Presents Macbeth, the title character muses, "There's nothing serious in mortality. All is but toys." And thank goodness. While an audience of 10 or so scopes the briefcase-size stage through cheapo opera glasses, Dov Weinstein puts a troupe of inch-high molded plastic ninjas through the motions of the Scottish play. Performed briskly and with limitless confidence, the show delights with surprising stagings and hilarious bits of literalism. When Macbeth intones, "Stars hold your fires!" Weinstein turns the light out; when a ninja proclaims, "But I am faint," Weinstein knocks him over.

If Weinstein has a secret weapon, it's not a shuriken, but his enviable acting skills. Two other puppet shows, the above-mentioned Doctor Faustus and The Diary of a Madman, suffer from wanting dramatic talents. Though both plays derive from excellent source material—Marlowe's tragedy for the former and a Gogol story for the latter—neither theatricalizes it convincingly. Faustus boasts incredible, Nightmare Before Christmas-ish set pieces, but the puppeteers mumble or muddle the dialogue. And while the actors in Madman display remarkable dexterity with the beautiful Bunraku figures, they fail to provide persuasive vocals.

Such problems persist even in puppetless shows. The American Slave Code, a juxtaposition of minstrel show and antiabolitionist meeting, betrays an embarrassing lack of chops. Admittedly the minstrel show ranks as a peculiar—and disturbing—institution, but it would never have achieved any popularity if performed as poorly as here. (Confidential to adapter/director: Don't whistle "Dixie" if you can't whistle.) At least the banjo picker acquits himself favorably.

Similarly, guitar-plucking showman Trav S.D.—nearly unrecognizable sans monocle—emerges from his musical House of Trash unsullied, but he's quite alone. None of the rest of the cast, which includes Downtown stalwart Reverend Jen—nearly unrecognizable sans pointy ears—achieves a comfort level with the intentionally wretched, over-the-top script. (Sample lyric: "I like to drive my truck/Huckety-huckety-huck.") This tale of a garbageman/preacher and his glue-sniffing congregants reeks of ill-judged scenarios, ill-timed jokes, and general pop-culture damage. While Trav S.D. tickles with his Woodie Guthrie-like ballads, if the land of House of Trash is indeed my land, rest assured I'm moving.

Other song-and-dance shows fare better. Babes & Dudes concerns a band of moped-riding Wall Street types (think Izod shirts and Evian) desperate to vroom-vroom their way into musical theater. Though the script never quite captures the wacky perfection of the premise, this good-hearted piece does offer a few on-the-money one-liners and some jolly musical numbers ("Safe Sex Is Swell"). Babes also benefits from the charismatic presence of Rob Cameron in the part of the villain, Marty. Cameron, armed with abstruse lexicon and perpetual sneer, actually works a hot-pink polo shirt—no mean feat.

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