TONY's intrepid reporter opens up a six-pack of downtown theater, ranging from the vile to the very, very small
By Robert Simonson
After four summers, the virtues of the annual New York International Fringe Festival are basically the same as they were when the event made its debut. The 12-day affair injects the usually dead month of August with giddy activity; provides hundreds of young, unknown artists with a forum; and offers theatergoers a smorgasbord of cheap, novel and often blessedly brief attractions. The festival's faults, too, remain frustratingly consistent. The productions' level of professionalism is, in some cases, dumbfoundingly low; the roster's tendency toward studied quirkiness can be cloying; and the excessive number of shows (181 this year) serves neither the artists, who are competing for attention, nor audiences, as they search for the diamonds in the rough old Lower East Side. (This overkill is only exacerbated by a couple of concurrent Manhattan theater festivals. See "Beyond the Fringe," page 139.)
House of Trash, my first taste of Fringe NYC 2000, unfortunately epitomizes the first two of these flaws. This shambling musical entertainment is the creation of Travis S.D., who directs, plays the lead role of garbageman/preacher/narrator Bob Maggot, and is responsible for the lazy doodle of a script. There are some intentionally awful pop songs, for which I blame the influence of downtown director/playwright Richard Maxwell. And the characters can be found in your local trailer park. Surely, nothing further could possibly be derivednot satire, not irony, not insightfrom American culture's overlong obsession with white trash (assuming this area of interest ever constituted fertile aesthetic ground). The production's utter ineptness may have been a conscious choice. But I can't see why it should matter, or what difference it would make.
More vile behavior is on display, in a considerably tighter package, in La compagnie charnieres' production of Stephen Belber's Finally. The play is sort of a Rashomon tale told by four characters (all played by Katie Firth): the coach of a semipro football team, his daughter, her wide-receiver husband and the coach's dog, Syrup. Each is allotted a monologue, all of which center on two grim killings. The trio of bipeds are more or less appalling in both reasoning and action, yet, under Belber's pen, they never seem less than human. As for the dog, who quotes Byron and Tennyson, he's got humanity to burn. Belber is too much in love with the simile; but otherwise Finally paints a fragmented, slightly haunting portrait of mankind in all its predestined capacity for violence, confusion and remorse. And after the initial oddity of hearing a woman speaking in the voice of a gridiron bruiser, Firth's performance grows on you, and ultimately impresses.
Women again step into traditionally male roles in The RidersAmy Bennett and Heather Rogers's autobiographical show about their ardor for motorcycles. I feared a tiresomely earnest, self-empowering defense of the oppressed and underrecognized female-biker minority. And indeed, at one point, the duo hauled out a big pink chart of statistics supporting the lot of distaff easy riders. But Bennett and Rogers fill most of the short piece with confessions and anecdotes so sincere and unaffected, one is quickly caught up in the actresses' utter ingenuousness. By show's end, you very nearly envy the serenity afforded them by their singular passion.
Speaking of passion, Ma Joad's gone sapphic in Karen Hartman's Girl Under Grain, an intriguing, if peculiar, play born of the Drama League's Directors Project. Hartman draws her plot from the Bible's Book of Ruth and sets the action in the 1930s dust bowl. In this telling, Ruth (Sibyl Kempson) is a lot more than loyal to her mother-in-law, portrayed here as a blind Steinbeck-type called Sugar (Dales Soules). However, once they arrive at the farm of Sugar's rich friend Boone (Mike Hodge), Ma freezes Ruth out, and pushes her into the arms of the farmer to secure their place on the ranch. Hartman's reasons for adding a sexual element to this Old Testament tale of friendship remain obscure. But the story, taken on its own terms, holds one's attention, as does the playwright's spare, quasipoetic writing style. The play is greatly aided by Jean Randich's clean direction and the strong performances of Soules and Kempson.
Kathleen Gaffney and Christopher Eaves's Surrender, meanwhile, makes a strange journey from the arch to the mawkish in the space of one hour. Two people, a middle-aged woman and a young man (played by the authors), meet at a construction site and begin a series of ritualistic games. Their link, we gather, is adoption: The woman gave up her child at birth and the man was abandoned at age two. Through a series of role-playing gambitsshe plays his father, he plays her fetus, etc.they attempt to exorcise each other's demons. The language and structure are brittle and stylized, but despite all the high-toned avant-garde trappings, the themes being played out are, at heart, not cerebral, but sentimental and melodramatic.
Of all the shows in this year's Fringe, Tiny Ninja Theatre Presents Macbeth garnered the lion's share of advance word, probably because it hit upon the most charming gimmick of the festival. This version of the Scottish play is enacted entirely by inch-tall plastic ninja figures of various colors (Macbeth himself is a yellow, bulbous-headed figure/actor called Mr. Smile). These are deftly manipulated by the black-gloved hands of director Dov Weinstein, who has shaved Shakespeare's shortest play down to 35 minutes and reads all the parts. The whole concept behind the piece is, of course, a goof, and you rightly spend most of the time giggling at the sublime silliness of it all. Yet you are handed opera glasses as you come in (the stage is minuscule), and, viewed through these, the drama's painstaking precision takes on a minute grandeur. And since only ten people are admitted per performance, the occasion has a momentous air.
Undeniably, Weinstein's labors are in service of an end product of questionable value. The novelty of the piece wouldn't bear a second viewing; and there is certainly no purpose in the Tiny Ninja Theater staging Hamlet or King Lear; the concept is a one-shot thing. Nonetheless, the show is delightful and amusing, and you leave the theater energized and oddly moved. It may not be the ideal way to experience Macbeth, but, in its Puckish impact, it comes close to an ideal Fringe experience.
The New York International Fringe Festival runs through Sunday 27.