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FringeNYC 2009: Roundup #5

Reports on Ether Steeds, Bargains & Blood, and Dolls.

By New York City
Sahr Ngaujah
Sahr Ngaujah
[Ed. Note: This is the fifth in a series of TM review roundups of shows in the 13th annual New York International Fringe Festival.]

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"If you don't shape the dark, it shapes you." That's the advice that a father bestows upon his daughter in Jason Williamson's poetic play, Ether Steeds, at the Actors Playhouse Theatre. Giving words to the unknown and telling stories to explain the world are the primary themes of this compelling and thought-provoking work about damaged individuals. Such tales don't necessarily make things better, but it does allow the characters to connect to one another, and offers the possibility of hope amidst hardship.

The piece is primarily narrated by Skeeta (Sarah Lord), a teenage girl whose father (Todd D'Amour) died as a volunteer fireman, and whose mother (Birgit Huppuch) has since been bringing home a succession of men to fill the void. The latest of these is Emory (Sahr Ngaujah), who is a little different from the rest, and who forms a bond with Skeeta that may prove to be their undoing or their salvation.

Ngaujah -- who will soon be reprising his Obie-winning role in Broadway's Fela! -- has a strong presence and a nice onstage chemistry with Lord that adds tension to their interactions. D'Amour's deep, raspy voice can be charming one moment, and unsettling in the next. Huppuch most successfully brings out the humor within the piece, while still conveying the depths of her character's sadness and despair.

Williamson has a lyrical, magical realist style, with evocative passages that spill from the characters' lips. The repetition of key phrases is used to create a palpable rhythm, and director Niegel Smith emphasizes these aspects of the script without letting them overwhelm the production.

-- Dan Bacalzo


Lori Funk and Tracey Gilbert in Bargains & Blood
(© Ethan David Kent)
Lori Funk and Tracey Gilbert in Bargains & Blood
(© Ethan David Kent)
Economic downturns getting you down? Your misery is nothing compared to the hapless souls in Bargains & Blood (How to Succeed in Home Shopping!), at Dixon Place. Written and directed by downtown favorite Blair Fell, this campy horror fest looks at the age of hope and audacity through the prism of home shopping channels. Suffice it to say, there's more audacity than hope on display here.

One shopping hostess (Laura Desmond) demonstrates an extremely unhealthy attachment to her glass menagerie of Bavarian crystal, not to mention a certain "fiesta powder" that somehow winds up in her nasal passage. Patti Pucci (played with frightening hilarity by Lori Funk), is the reigning hostess of the End of Times shopping network, until a perky young upstart named Lady Lay Day (Tracey Gilbert) appears and stirs up everything, including the heart of Patti's fellow pitchman and supposed lover, Guy (Sean Kenin).

Gilbert is in terrific form here as the young Lady with a mix of misery and hopefulness. Leslie Goshko also has some nice moments in several roles, ranging from that old standby, the "hypersensitive, codependent lesbian stage manager," to a psychotic shopping hostess who provides the show, simultaneously, with its first laughs and chills.

Bargains & Blood clocks in at only about 95 minutes, but it could still greatly benefit from rigorous pace-tightening, including nearly all of the periodic videos that demonstrate the End of Times channel's best-selling products (the Kitty Kat Katheter Komforter was a favorite). Still, it's nice to see that antic, campy tastelessness is still alive and well on the Lower East Side.

-- Andy Buck


Michael Phillis in Dolls
(© Meg Messina)
Michael Phillis in Dolls
(© Meg Messina)
The first character we meet in Michael Phillis' solo show Dolls, at Manhattan Theatre Source, is a porcelain-bisque Southern belle antique who presides over the most cherished in a doll collection. Addressing the audience as if newly unwrapped dolls on the day after Christmas, she conducts an orientation to prepare us for our new owner Frank, an anti-social single gay male collector, who she warns we will eventually take after. Most importantly, she needs to tell us where he will likely place us in his hierarchy of doll treasures. She's only too happy to tell us, in no uncertain terms, that she's strictly "top shelf" herself.

Rank, preference and discrimination are the subtextual themes in the tightly written, briskly paced 70-minute show as Phillis descends the shelves and ably and comically inhabits the alpha doll on each level. Below the precious collectibles is the shelf that includes action figures where we meet Tommy, whose right arm was designed to deliver a mean karate chop -- but now, thanks to being violently thrown against the wall in a moment of parental rage of the "boys shouldn't play with dolls" variety, he's limp-wristed and unthreatening.

We also meet three editions of Beach Bum Ben, imitation Ken dolls that come in tan or brown, as Phillis continues down the shelves. At the bottom of the social ladder are the much-discussed, controversial "inarticulates," so named for their inability to be posed due to the lack of movement in their limbs.

Phillis is detailed and imaginative in both his clever writing and in his appealing performance. Barefoot and without benefit of costume changes, he relies on altering his physicality and facial expression to conjure each successive doll (and, in short wordless flashbacks, to depict the doll collector as a child). He makes each portrayal seem so effortless that it may only be after you've seen them all that you register how accomplished his performance is.

-- Patrick Lee


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