Alan Smith, Christopher McAllister, and Amir Levy in Bellini and the Sultan: A Comedy in Istanbul.
Alan Smith, Christopher McAllister, and Amir Levy in <i>Bellini and the Sultan: A Comedy in Istanbul</i>.
(© Mark Krieger)

Bellini and the Sultan: A Comedy in Istanbul

by Hayley Levitt

Playwright/director Ed Stevens is rewriting history with his new comedy, Bellini and the Sultan: A Comedy in Istanbul, now playing at the Robert Moss Theatre at 440 Studios as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. Set in the late 15th century during the Ottoman-Venetian War, audiences enjoy a light history lesson as Stevens takes artistic liberties with the story behind the making of Venetian painter Gentile Bellini's famous portrait of Sultan Mehmed II of Constantinople. As the portrait gradually takes its final form, an unlikely friendship develops between the overconfident Bellini (a charming Alan Smith) and the tyrannical Sultan (captured by Eliud Kauffman's booming baritone).

A charming idea with a relevant theme for American audiences, considering the modern political climate of Arab distrust, Stevens' script comes across as slightly too self-congratulatory. He constantly jabs us in the ribs, pointing out his profundity as he repetitively mentions how these two men from different lands just might be able to "learn a great deal from one another." Stevens starts throwing these winks and nods our way from Bellini's first meeting with the Sultan, leaving us all the more disappointed when, after 90 minutes, we discover that we've done little more than take a few laps around this single, minimally thought-provoking idea.

The audience does seem to enjoy a number of Stevens' jokes, though rather than digging into the cultural meat of his characters with a sharp wit, he primarily opts to go the route of "schtick." While it would be impossible to unpack all of the political baggage between Bellini and Sultan Mehmed II, to barely scratch the surface seems like a missed opportunity to mold three-dimensional images of two largely enigmatic historical figures.

Tekkan and Kouta Someya in Count Down My Life.
Tekkan and Kouta Someya in <I>Count Down My Life</I>.
(© Kenji Mori)

Count Down My Life

by Zachary Stewart

The Tokyo-based company TipTap has brought their very modern musical, Count Down My Life, all the way to the United States. It deals with real issues of responsibility and expectation that contemporary Japanese people face. While Tokifumi Ozawa's high-energy rock/pop music is thrilling to hear in the intimate Theatre 80 (especially performed by such a talented cast), the show suffers under the weight of a melodramatic and long-winded book.

A struggling playwright (Tekkan) sees his prospects of success dim as he pushes 30. In Japan, you're old news unless you are successful by age 25. He decided to go all-in and quit his day job selling octopus rice sandwiches at a convenience store in order to focus completely on winning the new playwright award, which will be announced the day before his 30th birthday. When a mysterious youth (Kouta Someya) claiming to be the playwright's biggest fan arrives to assist him, this scribe is confronted with the choices he has made in order to pursue his dream, including his fatal decision to dump an old girlfriend (Megumi Iino).

Tekkan possesses some powerful pipes and delivers the material with gusto. Book writer and lyricist Ikko Ueda has captured the very real professional anxiety many young Japanese face, and the perils of taking the road less traveled. When you decide to be a playwright rather than a salaried insurance salesman, the opportunities for dishonor multiply exponentially. Unfortunately, the story gets bogged down in all this guilt and shame, causing the latter half of the show to feel like a musical therapy session, complete with false epiphanies and spastic fits of crying.

The specter of death and suicide hangs over this nearly two-hour affair. The Atlas-like burden of the show's emotional arc is so weighty (especially in the final 30 minutes) that the curtain call comes as a massive relief. Also, the notion that the playwright's ex-girlfriend's life became meaningless in the absence of her man (presented here as a given) strikes me as a little old-fashioned, even in patriarchal Japan. (Am I right, ladies?!?!)

Penko Gospodinov and Anastassia Liutova in The Spider.
Penko Gospodinov and Anastassia Liutova in <i>The Spider</i>.
(photo courtesy of The Drama League)

The Spider

by Bethany Rickwald

Bulgarian theater artists Dimitar Dimitrov and Yordan Slaveykov's The Spider, which has won several prizes for European productions, is now making its North American debut at The Cow theater as part of the Fringe Festival. While it's clear that the play has a spark of something special, in this U.S. production, too much is lost in translation. More specifically, too much of the play is lost in the poorly executed supertitle translation of the original Bulgarian text spoken by the actors (Penko Gospodinov and Anastassia Liutova).

Gospodinov and Liutova play adult conjoined twins, a brother and sister, on the night before a risky operation that will separate them. The entire play takes place in real-time in a bathroom, with limited props and set, making the details of the language even more integral to the story. Unfortunately, however, poor sightlines and limited movement on stage coupled with supertitles that never seem to quite match up with the action make it difficult to engage with either the text or the people speaking it.

Even with all these hindrances, Gospodinov and Liutova manage to create compelling characters who are believably multidimensional. Their situation is complicated (and biologically impossible, but who's checking?) and the two actors manage to convey all of the love and hatred that must be present in such a unique relationship. It is, perhaps, to the benefit of the play that the physical situation of its main characters is scientifically impossible, because it avoids stepping into the awkward emotional territory that has been shared by only a select few.