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 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.
Viva Los Alamos, another musical comedy, also boasts a sneering charmer in the leading role. Alamos, an ostensibly lost Elvis flick, features the pompadour-sporting Michael A. Schneider as Dex/Elvis—a pelvis-swiveling hottie who has “to prove I can do more with myself than build weapons of incredible destruction—and sing!” While the parody elements don’t always go over, the music and lyrics sizzle with more spark than expected. As Dex sings in the opening number, “We’re splitting atoms and splitting shakes/Beating those Commies with whatever it takes/Viva Los Alamos!” Indeed.
While Marty and Dex seem terribly assured of their leading-men roles (bloody other guy, get girl, end of story), in several other plays the landscape of masculinity isn’t so smooth. In Hideous Men, a collection of monologues and scenes culled from David Foster Wallace’s fictions, a rogues’ gallery of unsavory alpha males unpacks an array of emotional and sexual pathologies—think Maxim combined with poststructuralist theory and a mean streak. While not at all unintelligent and often very fine, the production never quite convinces that Wallace belongs anywhere but on the page. (Confidential to actors Trevor A. Williams and Justin Campbell: I know it’s live theater, but all that direct eye contact while you’re talking about tying up women and masturbating to Bewitched reruns can make a girl really uncomfortable.)
And while actress Katie Firth plays all the roles in Stephen Belber’s Finally—a four-character investigation into the murder of a semi-pro football coach—this play, too, speaks about the masculine condition. Belber’s script plays out in a world without heroes—save perhaps for the family dog. The unsavory men concerned attempt to put aside personal demons and become excellent fathers, husbands, football players—achieving only indifferent success. Belber and Firth succeed much better, girding the play’s world with an unsentimental pathos and intelligence.
In one of Finally‘s most interesting details, two characters possess pairs of redundant nipples. This clever and evocative fillip hints at theater’s continuing interest in abnormal and extraordinary bodies. Other Fringe plays deal—directly or glancingly—with aliens (UFO, Viva Los Alamos, House of Trash, Little Green Man). And several explore bodily freakery or virtuosity, with varied results.
A sad mishmash of anachronism and cliché, Merrick’s Gallery—written by and starring Jon-Michael Hernandez—rehashes the life of Joseph Carey Merrick (a/k/a the Elephant Man). One of the greatest curiosities of the 19th century, the Elephant Man doesn’t lack for theatrical potential. But Hernandez’s maudlin script, with its predictable emphasis on mind-body dichotomy, adds little to the extant literature. (Confidential to Mr. Hernandez: You might want to wipe the Vaseline off that lens.)
Nailing the virtuosity angle, consummate showman Todd Robbins (Carnival Knowledge) snacks on broken glass, regurgitates critters, and pounds four-inch spikes into unlikely places. As skilled a historian as he is a performer, Robbins begins with vintage recordings of outside talkers turning the tip, extolling the virtues of two-headed babies, wild girls, even Professor Heckler’s Flea Circus. But he keeps his own patter snappy throughout. “It’s just like comedy,” he frequently deadpans.
Also peppering their acts with jibes and jokes are magicians Jamy Ian Swiss (The Honest Liar) and Mark Mitton (The Big Tent Show). Swiss, very East Village avuncular with pierced ear and sharp suit, performs a program of card magic, intercutting the tricks with raillery—”Before I came out here tonight I had a premonition. . . . So I took an aspirin.” And the seersucker-clad Mark Mitton pleases not only with his close-up act, but also in the dork-suave persona he perpetuates. Straight-faced, he dedicates his show to the disappearance of the adverb and bounces across the stage in an indelible prance.
Of course, comedy plus virtuosity doesn’t always spell fun. Ursus & Nadeschkin, the wacky duo behind Synchronized Swimming—the dry version, charm with their helter-skelter humor and juggling. (The act almost defies explanation, but a friend came close when he called them “the Swiss-German Marx Brothers.”) But the cracks and gags of Fred Anderson Prop Comic often fall flat—as do the objects he’s manipulating. Oops.
Certainly, the Fringe has problems. Its format lends itself toward dicey tech and insufficient rehearsal time; the size makes for awkward scheduling; and some of the spaces outright suck. (Confidential to Fringe producers: Did I mention the unairconditioned ones?) But that doesn’t stop several well-nigh perfect shows from emerging intact. In fact, the whole shebang conjures another gem from Doctor Faustus: “In hell is all manner of delight.”