Mather’s staging has its strengths. His representation of Naomi (Ginsberg’s mother) in the later, calmer years of her insanity—when paranoiac visions of anti-Communist spies gave way to tales of cooking lentil soup for God—is simple and touching; and his reading of a posthumously delivered letter from Naomi, at the end of the evening, vibrates with invocatory power. However, Mather and his director (Kim Weild) rely too heavily on the bells and whistles of theatrical production—especially ceaseless and unnecessary underscoring. Mather often hides behind this soundtrack, relying on its rhythmic drive and tonal manipulation, rather than doing what Ginsberg did: mount the platform and let the language—ecstatic, mournful, and playful by turns—course through his body afresh. CHRISTOPHER GROBE


Victoria and Frederick for President
By Jonathan L. Davidson
New School for Drama
151 Bank Street, fringenyc.org

The narrator of Jonathan L. Davidson’s Victoria and Frederick for President assures us that the show won’t be a plodding history lesson. Instead, the tale of the 1872 campaign of Victoria Woodhull—the first female presidential candidate—and her running mate, Frederick Douglass, the first African-American nominated for VP, will shock us with its contemporary resonance. Like many campaign promises, though, this guarantee proves false—a historical primer is just what Victoria and Frederick becomes.

Teetering under its weighty exposition, the play duly displays Ulysses S. Grant’s incompetence (his wife calls him “Useless”), Woodhull’s plucky politicking, and Douglass’s oratorical genius. There are high points—like Woodhull’s catfight with Susan B. Anthony—but they’re mostly drowned out by the cast’s overly sincere declamations and swishing Victorian skirts.

Davidson is anxious to link Woodhull’s and Douglass’s historic candidacies to the Obama and Clinton campaigns—2008 election videos (Hillary pronouncing, Obama orating) hammer this point home. But what point, exactly? Should we revel in national progress? Indict our blinkered past? Despite his glut of information, Davidson doesn’t seem to know. MIRIAM FELTON-DANSKY


The Doctor and the Devils
By Dylan Thomas, adapted by Dan Balkin
Milagro Theater
107 Suffolk Street, fringenyc.org

“Fallon’s the butcher, Broom’s the thief, and Rock’s the boy who buys the beef.” This jingle sums up both the plot and the intended tone of Dan Balkin’s stage adaptation of The Doctor and the Devils, a little-known Dylan Thomas screenplay. The Faustian tale concerns Dr. Rock, a pioneering anatomist who ignores, to his peril, the dirty deeds of Fallon and Broom, the body-snatchers (later, murderers) who keep his school stocked with bodies for dissection.

I say “intended tone,” because for most of the evening—despite the raw force of Thomas’s language, and an eclectic sound design (by Daniel Carlyon) that can only be described as “badass”—the play feels like an unfortunate cross between a Dickensian skit and a Halloween pageant. Actor David Jenkins caricatures Dr. Rock, making little or no use of the character’s Shavian bluntness and wit. Why would this flat, sententious ideologue attract even one eager disciple, let alone the record-shattering numbers he supposedly does? What's more, Balkin lets his Fallon and Broom get dragged 10 yards behind the engine of the plot, finding no driving moral or emotional arc of the sort that could take them so quickly from selling cold corpses to killing warm friends. CHRISTOPHER GROBE


Borderline
By Rob Benson
Manhattan Theatre Source
177 MacDougal Street, fringenyc.org

In the program note to his monologue Borderline, writer and performer Rob Benson asks for our “empathy”—an understandable request, given that he based the monologue’s speaker on personal friends of his who fell into the British club-drug scene. But it’s an eerie request, too. After all, “empathy” was one of the original (and more apt) nicknames for MDMA, the chemical compound commonly known as Ecstasy. This uncanny (perhaps unintended) pun sums up this monologue’s method: It’s cheeky, it’s morally complex, and it makes the character’s experience of drug-induced psychosis and fragile recovery seem unsettlingly familiar, even to a presumptively straight-edged audience.

Benson does not condescend to his subject. He’s clearly more interested in consciousness-raising than didacticism or judgment. The narrator’s story of how his first shot at drug-dealing turns into a Robin-Hood-ish redistribution of joy is, for instance, downright charming—if queasily so. But, thanks to the perfectly erratic pace of this lean 50-minute monologue, and thanks to the bizarre, jangling rhymes hidden within Benson’s fluid writing, we never quite lose the sense of latent insanity, impending doom. This speaker, as the “borderline” diagnosis would imply, could go either way. But what is anyone doing to help him go the way of sanity? CHRISTOPHER GROBE


Penumbra
By Anthony “Fascious” Martinez
The Actors’ Playhouse
100 Seventh Avenue South, fringenyc.org

The title of Penumbra, a one-man musical by slam poet and hip-hop theater artist Anthony “Fascious” Martinez, refers to the faint echo of light encircling a shadow, as in an eclipse. For Fascious, this sort of shadow’s shadow is all that remains of the models of personal greatness that have given shape to his life. His spiritual ancestors, the pre-colonial inhabitants of Puerto Rico, were crushed by Spanish conquerers long ago. His grandfather, a WWII veteran and a great (if taciturn) man, has been silenced by death. And his father, divorced then imprisoned, was less a shining presence than a luminescent absence. What spark is left to ignite a young spirit?

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