[Ed. Note: This is the sixth in a series of TM review roundups of shows in the sixteenth annual New York International Fringe Festival.]

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Rafael Benoit, Hannah Vaughn, and
Michael Criscuolo in Decompression
(© Hunting Canning)
Rafael Benoit, Hannah Vaughn, and
Michael Criscuolo in Decompression
(© Hunting Canning)
The radical self-expression experiment known as the Burning Man Festival holds inexplicable draw to those who have been and perhaps an even greater mystique for those of us who have never set foot in the Black Rock City desert where participants gather each year to create a temporary community.

The title of Maggie Cino's thought-provoking play, Decompression, at the Kraine Theater, refers to parties held after the fest that act as a re-integration back into society for Burning Man participants. At this particular one in Bushwick, eight friends seek to recapture the freedom they felt in the desert.

The group ends up at the nearby apartment of Amanda (Hannah Vaughn) and Justin (Michael Criscuolo) where a dangerous game emerges. At the suggestion of Justin, everyone agrees to pool their collective wealth and then have each person pick a piece of paper out of a hat to determine who gets to keep it all (nearly $100,000) along with the apartment for a year. The idea is that it will force everyone to reinvent their lives and create the equality they found at Burning Man.

As Elena (Victoria Anne Miller), a part-time teacher who lives off of her childhood acting royalty checks points out, the festival is only for people who can afford to drop two thousand dollars to spend a week in the desert, having to buy a ticket to the fest, transportation to get there, and all the supplies needed to survive in the desert. This excludes a vast amount of the population from participating in the supposedly inclusive society.

As much as they try, the well-intentioned friends cannot escape the confines of their privilege. Cino, who based the play on Isak Dinesen's short story "Carnival," has created vivid characters that are fascinating to watch as they wrestle with identity. There are many big ideas woven in about the fairness of capitalism and the distribution of wealth, but Cino ties them so organically to the characters that there isn't a preachy moment in this riveting show.

-- Chris Kompanek

Next Page: Mahmoud


Tara Grammy in Mahmoud
(© Lynn Farley)
Tara Grammy in Mahmoud
(© Lynn Farley)
Like an Iranian-Canadian Tracey Ullman, actress Tara Grammy has created three characters whose cartoonish accents and mannerisms verge on the ridiculous in her fascinating one-woman show, Mahmoud, at Jimmy's No. 43.

There's the titular Mahmoud, a Hafez-obsessed Iranian engineer-turned-taxi driver who fled his home country for the safety of Canada 25 years ago; Emanuelos, a gay Spanish cologne salesman engaged to be married to his Iranian boyfriend; and Tara, a 12-year-old Iranian-Canadian girl (presumably a younger version of the actress herself) who wants to be a blonde, body hair-free actress (she laments, "Iranian girls don't become actresses; they become doctors…really hairy doctors"). Their paths cross in unexpected and often very funny ways.

While her manic delivery occasionally obscures the text (this is particularly true for Emanuelos), Grammy offers a solid performance throughout and her characters, while heightened, are also utterly believable. Indeed, Mahmoud may appear habitually cheerful, but people who present such a façade are often compensating for some deeply painful wounds and Mahmoud is no exception.

Grammy and co-author and director Tom Arthur Davis have set the play during the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, now most remembered for the liberal "Green Movement" that took to the streets to protest the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While significantly raising the stakes, this choice also cracks open one of the central questions of the immigrant experience: why give up the familiarity of one's home country for a strange land in which your professional skills and qualifications are completely ignored?

Presented by Pandemic Theatre, this look into the dynamics of the Iranian Diaspora in Toronto is an infinitely worthwhile evening of theater for people who want to know more about Iran -- and considering its ubiquity on the world stage, that should be everyone -- and the people who choose to leave it.

-- Zachary Stewart

Next Page: Would


Jeremy Kahn in Would
(© Bobby Pfeiffer)
Jeremy Kahn in Would
(© Bobby Pfeiffer)
In David Marx's play, Would, at the New Ohio Theatre, Daniel (Jeremy Kahn) is a 21-year-old inmate serving about a double life sentence without the possibility of parole for opening deadly fire in his school when he was fourteen. We hear very little of his crimes, however, because the focus of the play is on an alternate life Daniel could be leading if circumstances were different.

Marx juxtaposes scenes of Daniel in prison being interviewed by a psychology student, Bryan (Dan Wilson), with ones with his girlfriend in the would-be future. We learn Daniel has been receiving letters from a young woman, Alexa (Amanda Lipinski), ever since she saw him in court years ago. While they've never met, they agree to write a story of what their relationship would be if they met in the outside world.

From the first date they go on to meeting parents and then forming a family of their own, we see vividly imagined snapshots of decades that will never be. These are set side-by-side against ones with Bryan, eagerly questioning Daniel in the hopes of understanding what caused his homicidal break.

Director Molly Lyons tightly winds together Marx's story of the boy before and after he was a killer. Surprisingly, there are no real villains in Would -- only a person who has fallen tragically short of expectations. There are moments when we want more details about Daniel's crime, but it leads to the realization that he is more than the crime he committed.

While not overtly political, Would makes a searing statement about the moral quandaries of trying a child as an adult without resorting to lines ripped from headlines. The result is a genuinely affecting work that calls us to question deeply felt beliefs about good and evil.

-- Chris Kompanek

Click here for a full list of FringeNYC shows.