Now that the New York International Fringe Festival is being compared to Sundance, with hordes of musicals crossing their fingers for a Broadway transfer, it's heartening to see some real "fringe" work in the festival. Some shows have no desire to be the next Urinetown, but still enjoy taking the piss out of conventional theater.

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MedeaMachine
MedeaMachine
MedeaMachine

MedeaMachine is such a play. Performed mostly by a bunch of NYU Tisch students straight out of grad school, these apt pupils know their theater history. The show's title intones the Euripides play and Heiner Müller's HamletMachine, which reduced Shakespeare's masterpiece to eleven-odd pages of postmodernist musings and political rants. As in the Müller classic, writer Ian Belton takes a classic story and boils it to its core, studies it, plays with it, and presents it for today's audience.

Belton reads Medea as the story of history's most bloodthirsty woman. The man has a point. First, she kills her brother Apsyrtus to run away with Jason, of the Argonauts fame. Then, when Jason leaves her for a strategic marriage with King Creon's daughter, she offs her husband's new love with a poison dress. For her final act, Medea murders her two children, wiping out Jason's male heirs and protecting the boys from someone else's revenge. She takes an elaborate curtain call, prophesying an "evil doom" upon Jason before disappearing into the sky on a golden chariot. When it came to death and destruction, Medea was an artiste.

But anybody can point out that Medea was a creative murderess. What makes MedeaMachine special is how it uses the story to examine a culture that sexualizes female violence. Maybe the old Greek guy Euripides wasn't just thinking about the gods of Olympus in his drama. Could it be that he got off at the thought of a violent woman? Is the media's sensationalization of Susan Smith, who also murdered her children, a cultural manifestation of this desire? Is breast "enhancement" surgery its physical manifestation?

MedeaMachine begs all of these questions, loudly. These daring and talented actresses parade in their underwear, toss around fake body parts, wear orange jumpsuits behind chain link fences, and mime dildos with phone receivers to scream these messages. Scantily clad sexy young things wreaking havoc, they fight exploitation with exploitation. One minute, they're group dancing to Britney Spears' "Oops, I Did It Again" in bras and panties. The next, they're being backdoored by the play's only male cast member. For audiences who don't recognize the sleezefest as tongue-in-cheek, they quote from the SCUM Manifesto, the defining work of Valerie Solanas' Society for Cutting Up Men.

To call MedeaMachine anti-male is to miss the point. The men involved aren't self-hating and self-flagellating. The show holds no grudge against the male libido, only against the violent cultural expressions that often go unnoticed. Never preachy, MedeaMachine illustrates its meaning through dark humor, classic drama, current events, breathless energy, and, yes, sexual titillation. It bends over backwards to entertain, but, more importantly, to challenge.

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Naked Girls Drinking!

An unchallenging bit of frat-boy fluff, Naked Girls Drinking! follows the story of a young man who writes the eponymous play as an ironic commentary on the exploitation of women. He should have consulted Belton to see how it's done. This character is a fledgling hack that drones about his ex-girlfriend, hugs his teddy bear when he's down, and lets his chucklehead producers turn his masterpiece into a glorified strip show. The various points being that New Jersey Italians are uncultured buffoons, creative types are meek neuropaths, and people who don't hoot at these stereotypes need to eat their prunes. The concept isn't so offensive as it is tired. Some of the antics hit. But the play mostly made me wonder what the half of the audience who appreciated this sort of thing was laughing about.

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The American Revolution(Photo: Jason Covert)
The American Revolution
(Photo: Jason Covert)
The American Revolution

Kirk Wood Bromley thinks his mission statement is no laughing matter. His company, the Inverse Theater, wants to take Shakespeare out of the Park and put modern verse plays in. It's a tall order, and it will require an exceptionally talented poet and playwright to make it happen. The American Revolution makes the goal seem almost possible, if the downtown Bard can churn out plays this relevant and entertaining.

Bromley's first history play uses a feel-good version of the American War of Independence as an extended metaphor for the struggle of modern verse playwrights. The Brits, mostly a crowd of foppish dandies, withhold from the uncouth Yanks the inalienable rights to public expression, rugged individualism, and the license to shake things up. Benedict Arnold, although a good man, caves in to his wife's pressure to join up with the moneyed status-fascists.

Bromley's myriad Shakespeare references drive the metaphor home. He writes in the Bard's blank verse of unrhymed iambic pentameter, ending scenes with couplets. He loads the show with singing and revelry. The leader of the rebel mess is a prototypical fool reminiscent of the ones in King Lear and Twelfth Night. When George Washington comforts his demoralized soldiers outside of Valley Forge, he resembles Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt. Benedict Arnold's limp recalls Richard III's, and his conflict with his wife is something out of Macbeth.

Many consider Shakespeare an inimitable master, but The American Revolution asserts that no figureheads are untouchable. Ford and Webster attacked Bardology with verse plays nastier than anything Will envisioned. Restoration playwrights countered with plays more trivial than the Bard's. Bromley fires a musket of dramatic poetry that draws from our own spirit and mythology. Let's not take Shakespeare out of the Park, but let's give plays like these a larger forum.