Barstool Words, Jihad, Icons and Outcasts
Another theater festival hits New York City in the middle of the slow summer season. The first annual Midtown International Theatre Festival (M.I.T.F), which began on August 9 and runs through September 3, is presenting 19 diverse shows. Productions range from the classical to the avant-garde, from solo performance pieces to musicals, and in addition to such familiar writers as Durang, Shakespeare, Beckett, and Shaw, new writers are also prominently featured.
Out of the 19 shows, I saw three, and judging from them, the M.I.T.F. is a hit-or-miss situation. I experienced a definite hit with playwright Josh Ben Friedman's Barstool Words--a mini masterpiece that will clearly have a long life after this run. A deceptively simple play about two estranged high school chums meeting in the middle of the night to talk about life and love, the play is actually about the power of words, and how the manipulation and misinterpretation of words can often lead to dangerous consequences.
Both Donovan Patton, as the superficially stable writer Terry, and Eric Gann, as the often-violent Craig, are excellent. Their characters seem to have lives off-stage as well as on, and the two actors handle the intense and tricky dialogue perfectly. Gann is a particular wonder as the redneck Craig. Although he stands many inches shorter than Patton, you believe it when he physically subdues the latter at the climax of the show. Barstool Words has numerous twists and turns, and that's half the fun--so I refuse to divulge anything further here. The play is funny, raw, surprising, engrossing and above all, enjoyable.
Jihad concerns a fictional meeting between 12th-century historical figures Richard the Lionheart and Muslim Leader Saladin, and a mysterious woman who magically appears and disappears throughout their tense evening. Although playwright Ann Chamberlin, a novelist with a background in archeology, has a gift for language and sprinkles her fiction with historical facts, Jihad never seems to become a true drama. Instead it plays like an extended staged analytical essay, with obvious allegories in place of true conflict.
Jilad's two antagonists play numerous chess games where the pieces, black and white, mirror their respective races, religions, and political positions. The mysterious woman plays various historical and fictional parts in an attempt to stir things up and show these two leaders that, in the end, the real battle is between the sexes. As the woman in question, actress Nick Janik is luminous. Every time she speaks, the play suddenly comes alive! This is due in part to her talent, but also to how well defined her character(s) are. I assume Chamberlin intentionally wrote Richard and Saladin as blustery, one note caricatures. Unfortunately, their weakness as characters undermines the play's impact.
Icons and Outcasts boasts a fabulous title--and little else. This terminally hip wannabe-farce revolves around eight "eccentric" New York City characters whose lives intersect during a single day. A sex talk show hostess, a college professor by day/vampire by night, a leather queen, and (of course) an actor are just some of the outlandish characters--the kinds of people that exist only in a playwright's limited imagination. The only truly funny and inventive character is Jennifer Monroe, a lost young woman who thinks she is a Charlie's Angel. And not just any Angel. Specifically, she thinks she is Cheryl Ladd, and she is clearly unhappy to be in the shadow of more popular Angel Farrah!
The actors in Icons and Outcasts cannot be faulted for the show's failure; they all do their best. However, they are undone by a derivative and unfunny script, and some very bad tech support. The climax of the show brings all of the characters together on the aforementioned sex talk show host's cable access show. A succession of quick lighting changes, all meant to throw focus on each character's respective fate, were botched. This didn't make the actors' jobs any easier, and it made it impossible for the audience to understand what was going on.
Overall, the festival is a great idea. The productions are professional, the spaces are decent, and the fact that they are all air conditioned makes the M.I.T.F. an excellent summer day getaway. And with the price of a festival pass only $99--about the coast of just one Broadway ticket, as the press kit boasts--and individual tickets priced at $12, you certainly get a lot of art for your dollar.
There are 16 more productions, in addition to the three I saw. Many seem very promising, specifically American Story, a new musical based on a true story about a strike in 1913; Durang by the Dozen, an evening of 12 Durang short plays performed by the well regarded Lightning Strikes Theatre Company; and Cultural Refugee, written and performed by Australian artist Wednesday Kennedy.