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FringeNYC 2009: Roundup #4

Reports on The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik, Two on the Aisle, Three in a Van, Citizen Ruth, and Winnemucca. logo
Tim Watts in The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik
(© Michelle Robin Anderson)
[Ed. Note: This is the fourth in a series of TM review roundups of shows in the 13th annual New York International Fringe Festival.]


The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer, currently performing at HERE Arts Center, is both a joyful and melancholic fable. Written and performed by Tim Watts, and presented with a seamless blend of multimedia which includes animation and puppetry, the solo show is an artfully designed, gently affecting little gem.

The work is set in the not-too-distant future after global warming has drowned most of the Earth. An early monochromatic animation sequence, depicting the catastrophic rise of the oceans, sets the tone of the show: the story may be post-apocalyptic and sometimes sad, but the artful simplicity of the telling has a warming, almost child-like innocence. Watts, also credited as animator, moves about the playing area controlling the various stage events -- in most scenes he is by turns narrator, puppeteer, and actor, always welcoming with a relaxed, calming performance style.

As the story begins, Alvin presides over his wife's deathbed with a tender song. (Like many of the show's scenes, it presents Alvin alternately as animated figure, live actor, and puppet.) In his isolated, mournful state, he soon becomes a deep sea explorer in search of an inhabitable place for the surviving members of the human race. The solo format deepens the show's emotional colors and nicely emphasizes Alvin's solitude on his mission, without being any more downbeat than necessary.

Concise and well-paced at just under an hour, the show's ultimately hopeful message is put over by its many moments of whimsy and humor: it's hard not to believe in man's capacity for joy when Alvin, depicted with a gloved hand for a body and a buoy for a head, happens upon a disco ball and busts out some dance moves.

-- Patrick Lee

Jim Stanek and Paul DePasquale in
Two on the Aisle, Three in a Van
(© Patty Wall)
If you've never had the experience of being beaten into comedy submission, then Two on the Aisle, Three in a Van, at the Connelly Theatre, is your catch-up opportunity. In writer-director Mary Lynn Dobson's one-door farce, ten members of The Neighborhood Action Summerfun Repertory Theatre tangle with each other over a season during which they hastily put on Hello, Dolly, The Sound of Music, Medea, Oklahoma!, The Glass Menagerie, and West Side Story.

The cuckoo idylls of an amateur theater group are nothing new to the stage -- and the same is true of the show's just-outside-the-stage door setting. The characters are familiar as well: demanding leading-lady Meredith (Natascia Diaz), frantic artistic director Jeff (Paul De Pasquale), pretentious director-on-the-make Eric (Jonathan Wierzbicki), well-meaning director Mike (Jim Stanek), gay costume designer Scott (Rick Delaney), pushy chorus boy Daniel (Stephen Medvidick), veteran actress Harriet (Terri Sturtevant), impressionable ingenue Robin (Madeline Blue), wisecracking stagehand Jeannie (Letitia D. Townes), and hippiesh jack-of-all-trades Vondo (Gordon Joseph Weiss).

For two acts, the main source of tension is whether Eric and Daniel's Mime: A Musical will be mounted the following season. But the main reason for the proceedings is to watch the group hurl comic lines at one another, and Dobson's tenacity at making you laugh will win out whether you want it to or not.

Sue Takacs and James Herrera's costumes, one of which is a Greek garment covertly rigged to show blood, also earn their share of giggles. Most of all, enough can't be said for the braying troupe, every one of whom is genuinely funny -- and among whom Townes stands out with her caustic delivery.

-- David Finkle

A scene from Citizen Ruth
(© Dixie Sheridan)
In the musical Citizen Ruth, currently at the Minetta Lane Theatre, the paint-sniffing deadbeat mom title character (played by Garrett Long) takes center stage in her big solo number and shrieks "What about what I want?" Indeed, what about it? The character -- whose pregnancy makes her an overnight media sensation as both left and right wingers maneuver to make her their poster child -- steadfastly resists one of musical theater's cardinal rules for main characters: she doesn't know what she wants.

Ruth's passivity is integral to the 1996 film that is this show's source material, allowing for a satire of extremism on both sides of the reproductive rights debate. But front and center in a musical, her passivity is dead weight, and her surly anti-social attitude -- at first a snarky contrast to her song-and-dance surroundings -- wears thin very quickly despite Long's skill with comic delivery. The actress' ragged, regularly off-key singing further alienates us from Ruth.

The book by Mark Leydorf (who is also the show's lyricist) is otherwise solidly constructed, with great care taken to set up the show's musical numbers. With equal relish, it lampoons both the right-to-lifers who initially bail Ruth out of prison and the pro-choice liberals who eventually take her in. While always maintaining the spirit of a cartoon satire, it even makes a little room to let us register the good intentions behind the extreme behavior. Skillfully directed by Howard Shalwitz, the production moves fluidly, shows clear storytelling know-how, and has been peopled with highly capable talent.

The musical loses a few hipness points for its only serviceable score from Michael Brennan, which ought to have more personality and variety. An early number called "Pretty Decent People," in which the right-wingers welcome Ruth to their fold, is pretty decent -- but one called "Bad Daughter," which we're told is a big radio hit for a Lillith Fair-style pop icon (cast standout Annie Golden) only winds up showing how far away the score is from genuine pop music.

-- Patrick Lee

Jenni Putney, Grayson DeJesus, and Will Brill
in Winnemucca
(© Brian Hedden)
There's no whale in Winnemucca (three days in the belly), performing at 45 Bleecker, but playwright Dan Moyer's contemporary take on the prophet Jonah still shares plenty in common with the Biblical story. Both explore themes of faith and avoidance, as a man flees from the divine destiny to which he is called.

The play's title comes from the name of the town in which Jonah (Grayson DeJesus) wakes up to find himself in, without any recollection of how he got there. A mysterious man named Big Chet (Will Brill) is keeping him locked in a hotel room until he answers a few questions pertaining to a visitation he received from an unnamed goddess.

Added into the mix is nightclub singer Suede Lucy (Jenni Putney), who shares a transcendental moment with Jonah -- and who may be the one to inspire his mission or perhaps send him spiraling further into doubt and inaction.

Moyer's writing is often evocative, and one of Jonah's early monologues describing his flight from his calling is particularly strong. Under Wren Graves' direction, the production tries for a noiresque feel, but unfortunately, the pacing is often too slack for this to be realized effectively. Moreover, the three performers don't bring enough depth to their characterizations, and DeJesus, in particular, needs to be able to showcase more of an inner struggle, which would give the piece a stronger core.

-- Dan Bacalzo


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