Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow
in BASH'd A Gay Rap Opera
(© Ian Jackson)
Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow
in BASH'd A Gay Rap Opera
(© Ian Jackson)
[Ed. Note: This is the first in a series of TM review roundups of shows in the 11th annual New York International Fringe Festival.]

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The title of BASH'd! A Gay Rap Opera may make you think you're in for yet another musical parody, which seems to have become a Fringe staple since the advent of Urinetown. However, this dynamic and moving piece, written and performed by Canadian duo Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow, constantly surprises.

Sure, there are a few lighthearted parodic aspects -- including a hilarious musical number about the denizens in a gay bar ranging from Chelsea queens to twinks, chicken hawks, bears, and lesbians. Yet, the piece also has a more serious intent, as well as a strong narrative spine and a hard-driving musical beat.

BASH'd! first introduces the audience to gay angels Feminem (Cuckow) and T-Bag (Craddock), who tell the tragic story of teenage lovers Dylan and Jack who meet, fall in love, and get married. Their romance is rudely shattered when Jack is gay bashed, and Dylan takes to the streets looking for innocent heterosexuals upon which to vent his own fury.

Director Ron Jenkins has helped Craddock and Cuckow to make each of their many characters distinct. The duo delivers a high-energy athletic performance, flowing seamlessly from one role to another. The entire piece is told through rap and spoken word, showcasing the authors' clever rhyming skills as well as their commitment to strong storytelling. Aaron Macri's prerecorded music pulses and throbs, yet contains a few quieter moments as well, allowing both performers and audience to take a breath.

While there's plenty of anger in the piece -- both righteous and otherwise -- BASH'd! is ultimately a plea for understanding and the acceptance of each others' differences. It packs an emotional wallop, and is one of the strongest Fringe entries I've seen in the 11 years of the festival.

-- D.B.

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Jake Alexander and Wil Petre in Chaser
Jake Alexander and Wil Petre in Chaser
The term "chaser" has two main meanings in the gay community. (Well, perhaps a third, if you count that pint of beer you down immediately after that shot of tequila.) So the minute the lights go up on Howard Walters' intense two-hander, Chaser, and neither actor has an ounce of what the French call avoirdupois, it's clear that chubby-chasing is not what's on the playwright's mind.

Because the title is a bit of a giveaway for those in the know, savvy audiences will spend the first 15 minutes of this 40-minute one-act waiting to find out whether it's the cocky, hirsute, and extremely charming Val (Wil Petre) or the nervous, sensitive Dominick (Jake Alexander) who's doing the chasing -- that is, looking to be infected with HIV. Val, an out-of-work actor recently returned to New York, and Dominick, a personal shopper who has barely dated since breaking up with his partner over two years ago, have been set-up by mutual friend Liza, and have just finished their first dinner when the play begins. And yes, it does strain credulity that such a taboo subject will even be brought up under these circumstances.

The request does come, though, quite shockingly during the pair's initial lovemaking that night. And the aftermath ain't pretty, with accusations flying, tears shed, and a certain amount of polemic speechmaking that seems a bit forced, given the situation. Walters, who attracted some Fringe attention in 2005 with Extra Virgin, has some interesting points to make about the change in public and private perception about living with HIV, but stating them so baldly isn't ideal. And the play's ending is so abrupt, it's like a stage manager was sitting in the wings with a stopwatch mouthing "time's up."

Under Shaun Peknic's occasionally too-static direction, Alexander and Petre deliver completely committed performances; they are not just willing to bare all (in every sense of the word), but nicely delineate their characters with a simple gesture or vocal inflection. It might well be worth chasing after whatever show these talented and attractive thespians do next.

-- B.S.L.

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Christopher Domig in Dirt
(© Jordan Craven)
Christopher Domig in Dirt
(© Jordan Craven)
Austrian playwright Robert Schneider's solo piece Dirt attempts to show the effects of internalized racism on the human spirit. Unfortunately, the script's repetitive nature and unrelenting bleakness do not make for very compelling theater.

Christopher Domig plays Sad (short for Saddam), an Arab man who has illegally immigrated to the U.S. and now works as a rose peddler. He is filled with self-loathing, and is constantly apologizing for taking up space. His diatribes against his own race include telling the audience that Arabs do not value the lives of other Arabs very much, and that "there's a big difference between a boy with pale skin being shot and one with dark skin." Aside from the shock value of statements such as this, however, the piece rarely engages.

The dim lighting by Greg Brostrom doesn't help matters. It's meant to both reinforce the line in the script about Sad not having electricity, and symbolically demonstrate the darkness that surrounds him. Unfortunately, it also has the unintended effect of making this audience member (as well as a few nodding heads around me) feel somewhat sleepy.

Domig has a strong presence and a certain amount of charm; he is particularly effective in the section of the script where he describes his strategy for selling his roses to the 40-year-old men who buy them. Yet, there's not enough of an arc to his performance. Even when he screams and shouts, there doesn't seem to be a character progression that will take the audience along on Sad's journey.

-- D.B.

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Brian Rady and Jake Cohen in A Mikvah
Brian Rady and Jake Cohen in A Mikvah
There's a lot of potential in A Mikvah, writer/director Jeremy Bloom's bittersweet meditation on love, loss, and memory. Unfortunately, it's only intermittently visible in this uneven production.

The play revolves around Alan (Brian Rady), a young gay Jewish man who receives a phone call from his childhood best friend Ben (Jake Cohen), who informs Alan that he's dying. Meanwhile, Alan's best friend Kate (Amelia Huckel-Bauer) wants to have a baby, and former child star Jonathan Taylor Thomas (Max Jenkins) moves in next door.

Jenkins' brilliant portrayal of the Home Improvement star is the most entertaining aspect of the show, as JTT tries to figure out how to become more Google-able and usher in his grand comeback. It's more than just comic relief, however, as JTT's longing to make his life meaningful once more is echoed in all of the other characters' struggles.

The show's title references the Jewish tradition of ritual purification. Alan desperately seeks purity -- or perhaps absolution -- for the long-ago incident that ended his friendship with Ben, and which he constantly replays in his head. A container of water features prominently in the play's action, with several of the characters splashing the liquid onto their faces or standing ankle deep in it.

Bloom has attempted to give a dream-like quality to his play, with characters moving in and out between fantasy and reality, past and present. Alan's dead grandmother (Jessica Arnold) speaks to him from beyond the grave, and we also hear from the mothers of Alan, Ben, and JTT (all played by Huckel-Bauer).

However, this structure also leads to some confusion. For example, it's often difficult to determine what role Huckel-Bauer is portraying at any given time, especially since she makes no effort to differentiate them in either voice or physical posture.

More importantly, Bloom is a little too cryptic about crucial details, particularly in relation to Alan and Ben's friendship, which needs to be fleshed out.

-- D.B.

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