While many summer theater festivals flee the city for leafy climes, others, stuck at home, develop ingenious strategies for cooling off. “Swim Shorts II” stages its site-specific one-acts in and around the rooftop pool of the 57th Street Holiday Inn. Taking a more cerebral route, the Ontological Theater’s “Blueprint Series” explores chilly subterranean depths.
In the “Blueprint” emerging directors’ series, Eric Powers weighs in on the dark side with Alice: What is the fun? With a company of six, he’s deconstructed and updated the original Lewis Carroll fantasy to make it fresh and tangy. Presenting selected episodes at a headlong pace, he stages them with an eclectic mishmash of music, dance, costumes, and props.
From chapter to chapter, different actors portray our heroine while the other company members do eccentric takes on old favorites, from the White Rabbit to the Door-Mouse. The Cheshire Cat, for example, mouths his enigmatic lines as a smarmy emcee on a reality-TV show, where Alice appears as an unwilling contestant.
Working with a low budget, the director achieves some startling effects. To show Alice plummeting down the rabbit hole, he arranges a team with electric fans about the hapless girl. As one points a fierce wind up her billowing skirt, another blows her long hair into a vertical dance—an image both suggestive and piquant. Later the Queen of Hearts parades by with a troupe of fashionistas. The absurdity and unfairness of their croquet game comes through with a twist when the Queen straps on shoulder pads and arm guards while her young opponent stands helplessly staring at her hands clad in oven mitts.
The witty musical accompaniments to these shenanigans range from Mozart and Gilbert & Sullivan to country, rock, and folk. Especially unexpected and funny bits include the treacly theme from Cats and the Bugs Bunny sign-off notes. While Powers sets these laughs in motion, he never neglects the tale’s nightmarish aspects, infusing it with the frightening and macabre. Birds with phallic beaks dance menacingly at Alice before attacking her en masse. Hands reach out to grab her ankles. Dissonant music rises to a deafening din, then abruptly switches off. Lights, shadowy or unreal red, glare into this murky world.
Some directorial choices seem less inspired than others: Rotating actors for Alice makes more sense in theory than practice; stepping outside the action to comment feels old and unnecessary. But overall, Powers, with his talented troupe, does successfully answer the question he poses in his title—Alice: What is the fun?
There’s also humor in another Blueprint offering—Savages, written and directed by Timothy Braun—but the amusement quotient leeches out as the real content emerges. A short, stylized dialogue between two high-school girls, the piece starts off with girl talk about a hunky guy. He’s the school hero, the football player, the all-American can-do guy. The two trade hyperbolic stories about him, juxtaposing the ridiculous with the sublime. Rose, the pretty, popular girl, brags that he’s asked her to the prom. She’s the heartless one: Think Heathers. Rosie, the hanger-on, drools. The two gossip about an Arab classmate, the “dirty, brown” girl “with the dishrag on her head.” She dared speak up against responding to terrorism with more violence. Then Rose recounts what Rosie prefers to forget—how their hero raped and crippled the girl in the school lunchroom. Does anyone feel sorry?
The allegorical element in this script, American power rapes Arab land, seems simplistic, but the interaction between two American schoolgirls casts a pall. Throughout their conversation, these characters stare at the audience through a picture frame, presumably a mirror, while they comb their hair. Painfully extended frozen silences between them feel like directorial affectation, but at other times Braun’s use of silence and sound, darkness and light, intensifies what these girls evoke with their casual blend of cattiness and racism. We see what they do not when they stare into the mirror. The vision unsettles.
Don’t want to think about politics and death? Join the summer frolic around the Holiday Inn pool at “Swim Shorts II.” The laughs in the series’s Evening A, when they come, float on the surface. (The one-acts of Evening B start August 6.) Take Peter Morris’s Two Gingers, a study in contrast with Savages. Two Bronx-accented twentysomethings sun themselves while bitching about their slobby boyfriends. They trade descriptions of the perfect man: He won’t smell bad and he’ll shave all over, including his balls. When a gorgeous hunk of this general description dives into the pool, they bare their claws over who will get him. It surprises only these dimwits that he’s gay. Done with good spirits, this little tidbit entertains. Staci Swedeen’s No Sweat features another pair of friends, these women pushing 50. As one begs and bullies the other to join her in aquatic aerobics, warm feelings and a few laughs erupt. These one-acts are the best of the five playlets because they capture, however superficially, something truthful in the interaction between friends. The others, while mostly silly and lame, provide a chuckle here or there—and one features a mermaid in the pool ripping into a country song about the joys of beer. As you sip your drink while the sun sets on the Manhattan skyline and wait your own turn to jump in the pool, you can imagine worse ways to spend a summer evening at the theater.