Five plays in two days? It must be time for the New York Fringe Festival.
Some of the best shows I’ve seen in New York have been part of the Fringe: Pulp Shakespeare, which adapted Pulp Fiction into an iambic pentameter Shakespeare play, Theater of the Arcade, which mashed-up 80’s video game icons with the signature styles of famous playwrights, and Invader? I Hardly Know Her, Jason Powell’s sexy Sci-Fi musical with truly genius Gilbert and Sullivan style lyrics and music. By the Python, that was a fun show.
My vacation has only allowed me to jump into the festival during its final weekend, so I’ve carefully organized a 48 hour marathon of shows. I hate that the reviews won’t post until after the close of the festival, but I have always felt that reviews – especially at the indie theater level – serve a more important function than just selling tickets for the remainder of the run. Theater, unlike nearly every other entertainment medium, is ephemeral. A play is rehearsed for six weeks, performed for two weekends, and then gone.
Sure, you can buy the script of the play (if it is deemed worthy of publication), but audiences are not really supposed to read the playwright’s stage directions, you know? We’re supposed to see them occur in front of us. A script, even one carefully polished by the author for public consumption, only goes so far in objectively communicating what the event was actually like for those in the room experiencing it live. And we all know the thing about trying to film theater – unless you are PBS, it will not turn out well.
So, most plays vanish after they close. For those who missed it, reviews become a kind of fossil record through which an impartial perspective (hopefully) of the experience of a play can be reconstructed. Also, reviews later prove helpful to those who are curious about an artist’s past works and to the artist themselves when applying for things like fellowships and grant money. When considering all this, it still boggles my mind that places like Variety, the Associated Press, and my erstwhile employers at Backstage Magazine have effectively ceased coverage of indie theater, but continue to devote thousands of words to things like Kinky Boots. (No offense, Kinky Boots. You are not the problem and in fairness you do look pretty awesome.)
Ranting aside, here are the shows I will be seeing. I am sadly not very familiar with any of these playwrights or companies, but they all look fun. Because of the amount I will be tackling at once, the full reviews will likely be a little shorter than usual.
This is just what it sounds like – a satirical take on Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, and Scientology which according to the press notes is “based on rumor, gossip, hearsay, theory, fantasy, lies and when appropriate, Wikipedia.” A few months ago I did read Lawrence Wright’s fascinating exposé called Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. I have nothing against Scientologists – really, how much weirder is their space emperor than the cosmic patriarch of the Judeo/Christian/Islamic faiths? Or the Hindu gods? That said, with all its immediately revisionist history, it’s blatantly whitewashed marketing, and its laughable pseudoscientific jargon, the Church of Scientology sure doesn’t do itself any favors when it comes to inviting public lampooning like this. A large chunk of Wright’s book is devoted to the Church’s efforts to find a new wife for Tom Cruise, which was apparently considerable, and gives a profile on the young woman who was up for the position before Katie Holmes. I wonder if that will be touched on here.
A time-hopping historical drama that uses classical texts to connect the story of Charles and Mary Lamb, who wrote a children’s book about Shakespeare in the 19th century, with Lawrence Olivier and Vivian Lee in the 20th century. This, to me, is the ideal setup for a play: one that illuminates multiple historical periods and figures by rubbing them together, and kisses the Shakespeare ring at the same time. It also sounds downright Stoppardian in format and subject matter – I’m thinking of something like Arcadia. This also serves to tick off the “Shakespeare” box on my Fringe dance card. I had hoped to also see the vampire version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, called The Nightmare ‘Dream’, but I couldn’t make the scheduling work.
I know very little about this, but as I have said before, an uncomfortably long title goes a long way with me. That this piece originated with the legendary Groundlings company in LA was the only other thing I needed to know.
Speaking of Stoppard, the two-hander called Horsehead gets all Rosecrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, by focusing on the two goons whose job it was to leave the horse’s head in Jack Woltz’s bed. I suppose I should admit now, before gods, men and Internet that I have never seen The Godfather. I feel like I have absorbed enough about it through cultural osmosis to get the jokes.
My token Sci-Fi piece – I was dying to catch the adaptation of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, but alas it has already passed. This one is about a distant future where gender identity has been redefined through genetic tinkering. (Starring Stephanie Mangano from Saturday Night Fever!) That said, there are usually 50/50 odds when going into a Fringe Festival Sci-Fi play – and I say that as someone whose own Sci-Fi play in the Fringe was hailed as “Mediocre!” by the paper of record. It’s simply that the big ideas of Sci-Fi often need a little more runway than a 90 minute play can provide. Also, so much of Sci-Fi is the aesthetic, which you lose with a limited set and props. It takes something really clever and audacious to make Sci-Fi work within the constraints of a Festival setting. I’m routing for you, The 3rd Gender.