NEW YORK FRINGE FESTIVAL 2013

Fringe Fests have always been a place to discover new voices, whether it be playwrights, performers or troupes.  Established in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1947, the concept spread worldwide to Adelaide, Australia; Grahamstown, South Africa and Edmonton, Canada among many others, with a majority of Fringe Fests occurring in the United States and Canada.  In fact, Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead’ premiered at Edinburgh Fringe in 1966.  New York’s version of Fringe is celebrating its 17th anniversary this year.

I have gone to more than a handful of NY Fringe performances over the years but have not been that impressed.  This year I decided to immerse myself and see 26 productions out of 185 to see if a friend is wrong.  This friend has been attending Fringe worldwide for many, many years and considers NY Fringe to be the worst of the worst (and it’s curated as he regularly points out).  The last draw for him was a butchering of Bukowski a few years back.  An offer of treating him to dinner if he joined me for a Fringe performance of his own choice still got me a resounding NO.  Herewith are my thoughts on the two-dozen plus performances I sat through.

 

Cowboys Don’t Sing: A Western Musical

The title says it all.  These college drama students who should have been flunked out of the theatre program can hardly carry a note or act, instead they are most likely refugees in one of the various atrocious sketch comedy troupes populating New York like toadstools after a storm.  The book should have been, like a lame horse, shot in draft stage to put it out of its misery (and the audience’s too).  The play, if cut by 40 minutes, could possibly work in a community theatre environment where mom and dad may think junior is cute and see the result of their tuition bill.  The biggest standout in the production is Michelle Flowers (Rosa).  TJ Acala (Cowboy) would be interesting to watch in straight dramatic roles along the lines of those Casey Affleck is known for.  That he wrote the score of this play is the big strike against him.  Stick to acting young man.

Move to Off-Broadway: No (However, consider Community Theatre)

 

Gotham Radio Theatre’s The Awful Truth

Quality acting in a treasured chestnut well known to fans of Turner Classic Movies (Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy).  Radio plays based on feature films have been making a comeback over the last decade or so harkening back to the glory days of the Golden Years of Radio (1930s and ’40s) where one had to listen to the story telling by actors with great voices along wondrous sound effects and music.  Television, the villain that killed movie palaces was also complicit in the death of its cousin on the wireless.  Gotham Radio Theatre and its friendly local competitor Radio Theatre are worth checking out for the discerning culture vulture.

Move to Off-Broadway: Yes

 

The Drifts Live: The Novel On Stage

Sam Shepard influenced, with a restrained Billy Bob Thornton acting style.  Queer activist Thom Vernon fights the gender wars through his latest performance project encouraged in its infancy by Hubert Selby Jr. (Last Exit To Brooklyn).  As with all Southern born outsiders, heavy influences of Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner and Carson McCullers litter this production.  All that’s missing is a melange of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams with a sprinkling of Eudora Welty to leave one hankering for a heap of grits.  However, an Arkansas toothpick is needed to whittle this play into the shape needed for a NPR monologue segment.

Move to Off-Broadway: No

 

Lula De Ray

The love child of David Lynch and Julie Taymor.  For those old enough to remember AV squads, overhead projectors and the Space Race, this gamelan shadow puppet theater-influenced production is for you.  Nominally set in the late ’50s in a trailer on the outskirts of a satellite dish ranch (I hate to say I doubt those monsters existed at that time), an angsty teenager battles her single mom for attention away from her obsessive ufology research.  A pocket radio and a haunting tune by the Baden Brothers (think Hank Williams meets Roy Orbison) turns the sullen teenager into a teenybopper rebel.  A little judicious editing is needed to make this work for a limited run at a family-friendly house.

Move to Off-Broadway: Maybe

 

Slaughterhouse-Five

“The 18th greatest English language novel of the 20th Century” (Modern Library) gets an interesting adaptation for the stage by a new company, the True False Theatre based in New York.  Maybe next year they’ll come back with their take on Catch-22, which definitely would be on the top of my list.  Curious to know whatever happened to the musical adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five that was being developed by the son of Cy Feuer (Guys & Dolls).

Move to Off-Broadway: Yes

 

The ABC’s Guide To Getting Famous

A one-man political screed about discrimination against Asian actors that is only a couple of steps above that of a drag revue.  If you didn’t know better you would think you were sitting through an oral presentation in a Brown University semiotics class.  The more interesting parts of the production are the video interviews with Asian actors, intercut within the performance, discussing their trials and tribulations as an actor when it comes to auditioning.  The downside is the production values of the footage is atrocious, starting with the cinematographer forgetting the number one rule of filmmaking: Keep it steady, Keep it steady, Keep it steady.  If you can afford a camera, you can afford a tripod.  And, don’t get me started on the lousy sound recording.

Move to Off-Broadway: No

 

Radio Mara Mara

Acting 101 exercise that should have been given an ‘F’ and the students thrown out of the program followed by the dramatist.  This is what you get when high school Sing students go to college, they think sprinkling a play with “fuck,” “blow job” and references to “getting high” makes for passable playwriting.  You know a playwright has no creative ideas when half the production is padded with pre-recorded interviews (the female protagonist is a radio archivist) and pop music emanating from a dj booth.  Strange music cues throughout the production range from a sped up acoustic hook from Echo & The Bunnymen as interpreted by Alvin & The Chipmunks to a male singer-songwriter’s take on Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” (if it was Stiv Bator’s version from his days with The Lords Of The New Church, maybe).

Move to Off-Broadway: No

 

Barcode

1960’s leftwing agit-prop theatre for the Occupy Wall Street generation disguised as a rock musical.  With a tightening of the book and a revamp on some of the songs, along with a recast of about 25% they’ll have the next “Rent” on their hands.  Best discovery, Luis Villabon (Mr. ICE).  Interesting to see James Rado (“Hair”) on board as a creative consultant.

Move to Off-Broadway: Yes

 

The Accidental Hamlet

Most high school students forced to read Shakespeare (in my days it was “Romeo & Juliet” Freshman year, “Julius Caesar” Sophomore year, “Hamlet” Junior year and “Macbeth” Senior year) would probably be best off started on the comedies (“Much Ado About Nothing”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or “The Tempest”).  Here we have the Cliff Notes version of “Hamlet” put through a blender with a forced laugh track.  With better actors and staging, there’s a more than decent possibility the production could move to an Off-Broadway venue or at least become another chestnut in community theatre repertoire.  Imagine what Peter Cook and Dudley Moore could have done with this in their prime.

Move to Off-Broadway: Maybe

 

Manic Pixie Dream Girl: A Graphic Novel Play

The graphic novel schtick doesn’t work.  What we have is an existential bitch fest by a hipster artiste still in his Peter Pan phase fueled by alcohol (what else?) and his best bud tolerating the rants of his man-child friend until he finally has enough, like the artiste’s “muse” aka ex-girlfriend already had.  Most of the actors on their own seem to have some modicum of talent; this vehicle however doesn’t let them shine.

Move to Off-Broadway: No

 

Carol & Cotton

Snoozefest.  Like Minneapolis where the play originates from, this production is nice and bland in a Midwestern way.  Unlike the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, this story of a solid father and good man having his perfect homemaker wife murdered and the repercussions that result gives you nothing more solid to chew on than stale Jack Links.  This play definitely is no barrel o’ fun.

Move to Off-Broadway: No

 

Aisle Six

Summer camp revue staged by Glee Club rejects written by a disgruntled ex-supermarket employee.  Doesn’t even come close to children’s theatre performed by recent university theatre grads filled with emoting to the cheap seats and silent movie theatrics.  Where are Mickey and Judy when we need them?

Move to Off-Broadway: No

 

En Avant! An Evening With Tennessee Williams

Wonderful one man performance about the life and times of one of the 20th Century’s best American playwrights, Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams III, whose writings were heavily influenced by the poet Hart Crane.  TW is best known for classics of the stage including “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Street Car Named Desire,” “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof ,” “Sweet Bird Of Youth” and “The Night Of Iguana,” among many others.  William Shuman both wrote and performed this gem.

Move to Off-Broadway: Yes

 

Fxxx Me!

Narcissistic, hyper-sexualized, gender-hating women; the ultimate heterosexual male fantasy.  Does she cook or clean?  Don’t know but she definitely will wash the dishes.  This woman is best known as the stereotypical hooker with the heart of gold who will do anything to please her man orgasmically.  What we have is a 1950s housewife crossed with free love under the strictures of sharia law.  “I love giving head.   I could give head all my life.”  The only thing missing from the finale was a flashlight and a speculum.

Move to Off-Broadway: No

 

Beast Of Festive Skin

Open mic in Hell with the mistress of ceremonies a paranoid schizophrenic performance artist who thinks she’s Peter Sellers portraying a Borscht Belt refugee in a mental institution’s staging of “Cabaret” as a one man show.  Amazingly bad, not just the puns, it’s beyond atrocious.

Move to Off-Broadway: No

 

Polly’s Waffle

Something only the Aussies could come up with, a bawdy look at lust and gluttony featuring Genesis Breyer P-Orridge channeling Dame Edna (Ian Boglia).  Polly is fugly; she doesn’t just bog in but hoovers food faster than her slaggy roomie Evelyn can close the fridge door.  Polly’s addicted to food, Evelyn to cock.  Each feasts and starves in their own ways.

Move to Off-Broadway: No

 

First Hand Woman

1970s feminist theatre for the 21st Century woman, Betty Friedan would be proud.  Five women, five stages of a woman’s emotional journey when the man they love loves them no more; Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression and Acceptance.  An heir apparent to “The Vagina Monologues,” if the production is tightened up quite a bit.

Move to Off-Broadway: Yes

 

Jack London: Sex, Love & Revolution

“The Call Of The Wild,” “The Sea-Wolf” and “White Fang” in and of themselves guarantee Jack London’s place for eternity as one of America’s most renowned men of letters.  Though London’s career as an author is nominally what this play is about, in reality the melodramatic sexual proclivities of the man and his unfaithful sex addict ways is what the playwright is obsessed with.  Fine with me, but the two plus hour running time needs an editor.  As London was quite friendly with Ambrose Bierce, Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair, only a side reference to Sinclair’s “The Jungle” was disappointing for a biographical play that comes off more like a Classics Illustrated adaptation of one of London’s novels.

Move to Off-Broadway: Maybe

 

The Unfortunates

Jack the Ripper and Ladies of the Night, or in this instance, one actress portraying Mary Jane Kelly, the last of the five confirmed victims of “Jack” aka “The Whitechapel Murderer” of London’s East End which occurred between 31 August 1888 and 9 November 1888.  Diana Cherkas, a local Queens girl, does a fine job and doesn’t embarrass herself with the accents, as many actors are prone to do.

Move to Off-Broadway: Maybe

 

 Naked In Alaska

The life and times of an American ecdysiast, or in laymen terms, doze ladies dat peel thar linens.  Without reading her biographical sketch, one could definitely tell that Valerie Hager spent many years twirling the pole ‘researching’ the subject matter.  Her years of mime study, starting with her dad, Jerry ‘Kazoo’ Hager, for whom she was his silent sidekick Punky the Clown, brings the production up a notch, along with her ear for dialects and speech patterns.

Move to Off-Broadway: No

 

Mercedes Benz Awkwardly

 Yet another “How To Be A Stripper” one-woman show, this time from the Land Down Under.  The girl behind the G-string plot is getting long in the tooth, just at NY Fringe 2013 alone.  It’s starting to get like Halloween around here, every girl dresses like a…

Move to Off-Broadway: No

 

I (Honestly) Love You

The Aussies are out in force at this year’s NY Fringe.  Here we find a couple suffering from vitiositas veritas, not one of them, but both.  True love conquers all.  Hilarity sort of commences but to be viciously truthful, this production needs a lot of work before it can attempt to move to a bigger venue.  Nice to hear Dido’s “Here With Me” in a stage production where the lyrics actually work with the play rather than reference a time period.

Move to Off-Broadway: Maybe

 

Lollapacoacharoozastock Music Festival

Vacuous and narcissistic, thankfully the production only runs for 45 minutes, the length of a high school class period where this was probably incubated during a substitute teacher day.  This is not a play, unless you consider cheesy faux video testimonials to be “acting.”  The only bright spot is the backing musicians who are professionals and have the chops to perform pop, country, alternative and metal with equal aplomb.

Move to Off-Broadway: No

 

What Every Girl Should Know

Masturbation and sexual precocious convent girls worshipping at the altar of the patron saint of family planning, Margaret Sanger, with interludes of Martha Graham body movement exercises.  100 years ago in New York’s Lower East Side reside four young women exiled from the family homestead, Anne, Theresa, Joan and Lucy.  Kept prisoners in a convent home much like the Magdalene Sisters of Ireland, these “fallen” young women slave away everyday washing laundry for 5th Avenue matrons, “because Catholics are cheap,” and partaking in daily rituals of prayer followed by weekly marathon confession sessions.  Whatever time they have to themselves is spent fantasizing about adventure, assassination and self-pleasure.

Move to Off-Broadway: Yes

 

Two Gentlemen Of Verona: A Swashbuckling Comedy!

Arrgh!  Hollywood pirate movies have taken over Shakespeare.  Our Pirates Of The Caribbean stock company mumbles through thee olde English while trying to emulate John Moschitta from the FedEx commercials in the 1980s.  (As an aside, he recorded a spoken-word album “Ten Classics In Ten Minutes” where he summarized Romeo & Juliet in 60 seconds.)  [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBA0NbPfDHU] The director appears to have been raised on a diet of Disney’s Peter Pan and the Keystone Kops, which is very apparent in the last act.  I was waiting for a crocodile with a clock in its tummy, bring on the talking animals.  Oh, did I forget to mention the audience member who spent the two plus hours knitting?  A tricoteuse perhaps?

Move to Off-Broadway: No

 

Truth, An American Opera About Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth reinvented herself multiple times throughout her life starting with her birth as a slave named Isabella Baumfree in Swartekill, New York before the start of the 19th Century.  We are presented with the life and legacy of a former slave who became an abolitionist and early suffragette, based on Sojourner Truth’s own writings. The score by Paula M. Kimper is impressive, especially compared to many of the scores heard in productions throughout this year’s New York Fringe.  This ain’t a fully developed play but with some work it could be successful if niche marketed to the African American community through their churches where alas opera may be a tough sell to the younger generations.

Move to Off-Broadway: Yes