How little you need to make a play: one actor, one audience member. Or, as in the case of this year’s Yeast Nation at the New York International Fringe Festival, a stage full of single-cell eukaryotes with a fondness for polyphony. Yes, the Fringe and its 194 shows have again descended on 18 Downtown theaters, for its 15th annual stint.
Yeast Nation has a book by Greg Kotis and music by Mark Hollmann, the pair who transformed the Fringe when Urinetown bowed in 1999 and later made a triumphant Broadway transfer. In its first several years, the Fringe primarily served as a venue for scrappy local companies—Radiohole, the Present Company, the Flying Machine, International WOW. But after Urinetown‘s pee-soaked success, the fest became jammed with new musicals hoping for a similar trajectory.
Sure, there were still a fair number of one-person showcases and Shakespeare mash-ups, but the ethos had irrevocably changed. And as more and more of the Lower East Side theaters that had hosted the first seasons closed, the Fringe became more diffuse and dispersed, ranging over a city that mostly seemed unaware that any festival was occurring at all.
Though it boasts production values likely better than any other Fringe show this season (a full rock band, ambient lighting, confetti cannons, body mics that mostly seem to work), Yeast Nation marks a return to Fringe origins. Because it is weird. And more than a little icky. This is what we want from a Fringe: Shows that are too wild, too anarchic, too peculiar, too perilous to succeed on the mainstream stage. Instead, the Fringe now more typically offers shows that are too undercooked, too slight, too sloppy, or just too bad to have made it anywhere else. This wouldn’t be especially troubling if it had a first-come, first-served policy like fringes elsewhere, but FringeNYC presumes to curate their applications.
Yeast Nation was clearly a shoo-in. Even without its pedigree, its subject matter would have earned it a spot at the Ellen Stewart Theatre. Part love story, part Malthusian allegory, part Greek tragedy, part Elizabethan revenge plot, and all kinds of gross, it’s set more than three billion years ago and details the struggles of the first life forms.
Plenty happens—romance, betrayal, birth, murder—and most of it is well sung, but a tonal stasis persists, and as the primordial sea consists only of rock, sand, salt, and silt, it limits available metaphors. (If Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of perhaps 25,000 words, Kotis makes do with a couple dozen.) Sameness also settles into many of Hollmann’s rock songs as well, which are very good at tracing emotional states (yeast have feelings, too!), but less successful in advancing plot. A happy ending saves the piece from unrelieved gloom (as does the leading man, who can make his pecs twitch in time to the music). But where’s a nice prehistoric charm song when you need one?
Certainly not at The Power of the Crystals, a chaotic, macho musical apparently conceived on an off-brand vodka bender and never subsequently revised or rehearsed. James Call, an intermittingly charismatic performer, styles himself a guru of “fuck it-ism” and sings songs to help audience members adapt “The Seven Habits of Highly Destructive People.” The acoustics at Flamboyan CSV render most of the lyrics incoherent; many of the rest are incomprehensible. At least the backing band, who spend most of the show lounging in pajamas and browsing the Times, have fuck-it-ism nailed.
More straightforward religiosity pervades Winner Take All, by Claudia and Skip Brevis at Bleecker Theatre, a heaven-set metaphysical tuner with a first-rate cast, but uninspired lyrics and a premise so underdeveloped (Grease meets American Idol meets Milton) that very few angels could dance on it.
Keith Partridge’s wig supplies the only wings in The Bardy Bunch (Ellen Stewart Theatre), in which the Brady Bunch and the Partridge Family devolve into Shakespearean tragedy while singing all their hits. Writer Stephen Garvey excels in his command of ’70s TV homily (“When we fight, the only person we hurt is ourselves”), but stumbles at Shakespeare pastiche. Still, it’s a fine thing to hear lisping Cindy announce, “I’m thlain!”
Yet more characters are thlain in The Legend of Julie Taymor or The Musical That Killed Everybody! ( Bleecker Theatre), an effortful send-up of the Spider-Man debacle by Travis Ferguson and Dave Ogrin, in which they largely fail to render the litany of budget crises, endless previews, and injured performers any more absurd than the original.
No performers were injured in the wearying exploits of You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery!, at Teatro la Tea, though the odd sprained ankle might have thankfully shortened the running time. This sub-Sherlockian tale is fitfully imaginative, but the writers and cast believe an unfunny joke will only be enhanced by frequent repetition. Maybe Holmes’s dog didn’t bark in the nighttime. This one does.
Overacting was also afoot in The Unhappiness Plays, another Greg Kotis show, at IATI, consisting of nine very brief one-acts. While urine and yeast don’t appear, farts and diarrhea do. Yet more offensive content rears in Nils’ Fucked Up Day, at Dixon Place, which apparently caused a great scandal in Romania, but now seems just another example—if an amusing one—of what the Brits call “in-yer-face theater” and New Yorkers call “Thomas Bradshaw.” The best part: The pseudo-apologetic curtain speeches delivered by star-in-the-making Radu Iacoban.
Should Iacoban ever return with a one-man show, he’ll have stiff competition, as that remains an enduringly popular category. This year’s entries include Em O’Loughlin Was a Big Fatty Boombah!, at the Players Theatre, a comedy routine by a formerly plus-sized Aussie. O’Loughlin’s a charmer, but her script, mostly a litany of fat jokes, is very much on the thin side. Her countrywoman Ali Kennedy Scott offers a far more sober piece in The Day the Sky Turned Black (IATI), a study of the 2009 brushfires that killed and injured hundreds. A young performer, Scott still struggles to differentiate her characters and move among them, but she effectively conveys the experience and implications of this disaster.
This contrasts with Nancy Eng’s perversely lighthearted The Women of Tu-Na House, at Manhattan Theatre Source, which centers on the ladies (and one castrato) who all choose to work, without any sort of force or coercion, in an East Side massage parlor/brothel. Eng seems deeply committed to this project, but she strains to convey character through speech (rhymed prologues don’t help) and includes far more accents than she can manage. Like Yeast Nation, here’s another show with a happy ending. Several of them.
And then there’s Moshe Feldstein: Icon of Self-Realization, at the Studio at Cherry Lane, an unclassifiable solo show co-written and performed by Alexander Nemser, who apparently filled a blender with the complete works of Sholem Aleichem, a book of Buddhist koans, a bottle of Jäger, and performed the result. I’m certain that, like me, most of the audience had no idea what we were seeing, no desire to see it again, and no longing to be anywhere else but in this theater together. How Fringe is that?