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Fire Island

Charles Mee's latest collage piece is visually impressive but lacks the narrative drive to sustain its 90-minute length. logo
Tina Alexis Allen and Stephen Payne in Fire Island
(© Diego Bresani)
There are free ice cold beverages, a terrific live cover band, and plenty of people watching. Summer has arrived in Manhattan a little early when you grab a beach chair and stake out your spot at Charles Mee's visually impressive theatrical collage, Fire Island, which transforms the enormous auditorium at 3LD Art & Technology Center into a make-believe (if sandless) beach.

Initially, as we soak up the show's sights and sounds, the highly unusual presentation -- an ambitious blend of high-tech video installation and live staged drama which happens on all sides of the audience -- makes for an engaging experience that keeps the ears and the eyes open and alert. But ultimately, Mee wants viewers to do more than just take in the scenery. Unfortunately, his musings on the impermanence of love don't accumulate into unified cohesive shape, and the absence of a driving narrative simply isn't enough to sustain the show's 90-minute length.

Although there is stimulus in every direction, the audience's attention is carefully led around the environment to what's most important, thanks to Kevin Cunningham's direction. And while the happenings in the show are constant and busy, Fire Island doesn't feel like bombardment -- it plays casually and aims to put the audience in a mellow mood.

The actors, mostly playing characters who are either holding on to or letting go of (predominantly heterosexual) romantic attachments, are seen both live and in pre-taped video segments sussing out their characters' relationships. For example, there's the visibly stressed woman wandering around with a kitchen knife; a couple in the first throes of attraction; another duo who will probably never see each other again, and a young girl and a clown who indulge in a mostly silent series of interactions (and which seems too baldly theatricalized to fit snugly in the show's mix, even given Mee's taste for collage).

The range of what these characters say to each other covers a wide spectrum from intimate dewy-eyed pillow talk to embittered goodbyes to philosophical ramblings on love. Indeed, Mee's dialogue often has a plain-sounding intimacy that goes a long way toward giving the show a measure of humanity. At its best, the writing gives the audience the illusion of eavesdropping on conversations rather than listening to pre-scripted dialogue.

Moreover, we're not meant to invest in their individual stories, but rather to gather impressions from their interactions. The effect is sometimes close to what director Robert Altman achieved in his densely populated multi-character films, in which the audience is asked to take away something larger than the sum of the narrative parts.

Adventurous theatergoers who value the offbeat above all else may find the trip to Fire Island a worthwhile journey. Others may decide the end result is simply more playground than play.

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