Theater archives

Fringe Binge


By producing 144 shows in 12 days, the New York International Fringe Festival acquires the scope of a vanity press publication, giving artists the feeling of achievement without accomplishing very much. Most of the work I sampled in my semi-random travels neither sang nor croaked, teetering instead on the awkward branch of okayness. Diving into this melee in a city that’s already a fringe festival has the casual and bland feeling of tuning into an alternative radio station to provide cool background noise.

Brown and Black and White All Over (Red Room) Half-Cuban/half-white performer Antonio Sacre’s account of his weekend at a Robert Bly men’s retreat is everything you’d expect: self-righteous, “angry,” and contextualized by didactic poetry and New Age psychobabble. Surrounded by candles and rocks and speaking from a mound of dirt, he first scolds you for not listening to the stories of inner-city youths, then doesn’t tell enough of them himself, and, most irritatingly, doesn’t tell his own story either. But at least he does real social work outside the “ritual” of theater. B

Burn Manhattan (Soho Rep) Like most improv groups, these free-form Dadaists miss more often than they hit, but every once in a while the clouds of obscurity lift and you can see the Machu Picchu of humor shining clearly at the top of their mountain. Though they exude a Firesign TheaterÐish obscurity, thankfully none of them are showoffs, nor are they concerned with tying every last loose end together in Harold form. Their degree of physical trust and comic altruism astonishes as much as their ability to think together. A MINUS

Lightbulbs (Collective Unconscious) In a near-monologue told by a Malaysian woman who decides to search for the meaning of life by killing off members of her rock band, the Lightbulbs, playwright Karen Quah’s style shifts between sparkly and silly. The direction is pretty cheesy, and the multimedia concept isn’t well integrated, but the lead actress, named simply “Johanna,” sustains the show with her goofy presence. B

The Golden Ass (The Pit) Ostensibly the story of the seduction of Lucius by lascivious women, this open-air bluegrass musical stars mostly frat boys in towels and one blond in a dinner jacket. It looks like a tailgate at a University of Maryland football game, and is accordingly only comprehensible to the intoxicated. D PLUS

The Sleeping and the Dead (Henry Street Settlement) The International WOW Company presents a new-Vaudevillian movement piece that resurrects silent-movie acting, using minimal verbal expression to recount a day in the life of an everyman. It’s amusing if insubstantial, like the Adobe Theater Company with their tongues ripped out. B MINUS

Doughboy (Henry Street Settlement) I didn’t see Doughboy. By my second day, I was already tired of freshly scrubbed postcollegiate straight white boys. However, this piece based on the letters of WWI soldiers bulges with a dead poets’ society’s worth of most-adorable male ingenues (whom I ogled while they rehearsed in the street), and was written, interestingly, by a woman, Heather MacDonald. But one of the handsome fellows in the cast informed me that there isn’t any sex in it, so I sighed and moved on. N/A

Little Red (Kraine Theater) It would have been very easy to go wrong adapting “Little Red Riding Hood” to an avant-garde context. Director Erica Ruhl and playwright Linell Hanover’s transfer of the fairy tale into a decaying world of abject poverty and fear works by keeping its associations — child molestation, war, murder — just under the surface, where they’re extremely disturbing but not obvious. Rather than following the story’s lead, Hanover superimposes the original tale onto her own quirky and specific work, to chilling effect. It may also be the best (and most darkly) lit play in the festival. A MINUS

Martini Ceremony (Mazer Theater) If Whit Stillman ever got bitten by the downtown theater bug, he’d probably come up with something like Martini Ceremony, in which an ensemble of black-tie white folks sassily perform a dance-theater mix based on a barrage of facts concerning the history and culture of the vodka-vermouth mix. “One might see the martini as an extended metaphor for Euro-American culture itself,” blurts out one of our kooky hosts. Is that because it’s often so dry? B MINUS

Lizzie Borden’s Tempest (Connelly Theater) Apparently, most people think that to be avant-garde, they must make a play from material lacking drama, and/or based on a forced juxtaposition of unrelated texts, say, Lizzie Borden’s biography and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Huh? Brendan Byrnes’s scatologically obsessed and uneventful spectacle makes that mistake. It’s also way purple: “My bowels constantly remind me of the possibility of sharing Christ’s passion,” Lizzie exclaims. Yet Byrnes directs with such a sharp (if slightly passe) formalist eye that you might not notice how much Tempest feels like reading a not-so-well-reasoned term paper. You focus more on the lush stage pictures. And the costumes — Oh my gawd! — to die for! B

The Importance of Being Earnest (Red Room) Wilde is too resilient to screw up. Doing his work, as Hugh Hysell directs it, with casual sketch-comedy energy, only adds a layer of irony. And setting it, somewhat gratuitously, on Fire Island with an all-male cast only flattens the script in that it’s far too genteel — not to mention intelligent — to be spoken by the “spoon up the nose, knife in the back, dish all around” types that actually populate the Pines. If the entire cast had been as pumped up and unintelligible as spandex-clad “houseboy” Michael Marcel, however, that could have made this Earnest a harsh and funny critique of gay culture’s retrogression, though impossible to watch. B

HamletMachine (Henry Street Settlement) More recent undergraduates, pink as newborn hamsters, this time clunkily transferring Heiner Muller’s iron-curtain special to the depressed industry of Detroit. Dressed as club kids and climbing around on a homemade scaffolding, they graze some interesting ideas, but the staging is too muddy for them to hit their targets. B MINUS

Bender (Red Room) Where Martini Ceremony offered no drinks and an unrefreshing view, writer-director Eric Dyer and his motley bunch do exactly the opposite. All attending the noon performance of Bender were treated to both a Bloody Mary and an intoxicating thrill. Circuitously following a hard-boiled script about a detective having a really bad day (played with off-the-cuff insanity by Dyer), but also including bits of Repo Man and other texts, the directorless group stitches together a comic and mysterious pastiche calling John Jesurun and the Wooster Group to mind. Strings of evocative phrases rush by — “dreams cracked open like skulls on coconuts” — just above the waves of a live electric theremin. Then what seems like an episode of Kojak emerges from the blur, only to disappear once again. It may be the only show in the festival to deserve the word fringe, a badge it wears beautifully. A

New York, New York (Context Studios) These two one-act plays, “Rogues” and “The Special Fund,” by University of California at San Diego grad students, run a narrow gamut from Melrose Place to Dynasty. Both concern themselves with insider trading, the first among entry-levels, the latter among management, though the young cast remains essentially the same. The evening reeks of an industry showcase directed at soap-opera talent scouts, and strengthens my suspicion that the Fringe has temporarily inverted Manhattan, exchanging the population of the Upper West Side for that of the Lower East Side. Or is that happening on its own? C

Tales of a Bugged-Out Black Chick (Nada) Just when I was most starved for a sister to represent (a black man was too much to ask for; I saw not a one in any production), I got instead Echo Allen’s In Living Color-wannabe antics. It pissed me off to think that any Negro who wants a sitcom as badly as Allen seems to would resort to such self-debasement. Dressing up as a fat and missing-toothed caricature, “Miss Gloria Glamorpuss,” who explodes her own breast implant, she rolls her eyes and shucks and jives like a pickaninny come to life. Later, she portrays a thinly written drag queen character who can’t snap her way out of a paper condom and impersonates a buck-toothed Japanese character that made me flee the premises. D MINUS

Circus of the Damned (Surf Reality) The humor of the sketch comedy group Hoffenrich tends toward high-concept, pop-culture redux ideas. Even so, between television parodies like “Low Self-Esteem Jeopardy” and a takeoff of Jerry Springer, they have enough smarts and energy to pull an extremely funny show out of their underwear, and occasionally hit on something really unexpected, like the hilarious “Euroclown.” A MINUS

Mr. Raisin Head and Other Delights (Tenement Museum) Erika Batdorf, a Boston-based movement professional, slinks her way through one short and one long solo piece with great facility and quirky humor. In “kid,” the short one, she does a dead-on impression of a child trying to tell a story about a traveling feather. In the long one, “Mr. Raisin Head,” she inhabits a Southie-type middle-management flunkie who tries to stave off his impending age and obscurity by learning something about art, hoping that “virtues” will recognize him. In the process he begins to discover a personal philosophy and a new way of perceiving the world. A MINUS

Rum and Vodka (Red Room) Irish sensation Conor McPherson’s slice-of-life about the sordid and amoral exploits of a young working-class guy searching for salvation in drink, adultery, and more drink captures almost photographically the despair in the life of this Reilly. Candidly portrayed by John O’Callaghan, the character at times seems too generic for the play’s good, yet in his lack of self-reflection and half-baked transformation lies his tragedy. B PLUS

Dance in Vein (Allen Street mall) This festival opener, a painfully New Age, slow-motion movement piece to Indian music danced around sculptures of stiff pants stuffed with bundles of sticks, wasn’t so satisfying. When they literally hugged a tree, I knew it was time to go. C