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FringeNYC 2011 Review Roundup #4

Reports on Yeast Nation (the triumph of life), Noir, and Sammy Gets Mugged! logo
[Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of roundups on the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival.]
Harriet Harris and Charlie Plummer in Yeast Nation
(© Jay Sullivan)
Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman, the creators of the ultimate Fringe success story, Urinetown, have returned to the festival with their new musical, Yeast Nation (the triumph of life), playing at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre. And while there's no doubt that the themes of the piece are very relevant to we humans of today, the show has a lot more evolving to do before it becomes a fully fleshed-out musical.

Set in the year 3,000,458,000 B.C. at the bottom of the primordial sea, Yeast Nation tells the tale of the first living organisms on earth, a society of salt-eating yeast who struggle for power and survival. And from the toga-like costumes to the presence of Tony winner Harriet Harris as a comically shrieky, bug-eyed narrator, the musical borrows heavily from the style of Greek tragedy.

It also seems to be borrowing heavily from Urinetown. That show's oppressive authority figure, idealistic young couple, and narrator accompanied by a precocious child companion all have their counterparts in Yeast Nation. Here, where too much gorging on salt and asexual reproduction has resulted in trouble for the floating yeasts, the king (George McDaniel) decides to enforce "the strictures," dictating that yeasts are to eat in moderation, avoid reproduction, and stay close to the bottom of the sea. But when the king's own beloved son (Erik Altemus) is inspired to explore the surface, a brand new threat is revealed.

The notion of examining a group of simple organisms as they first encounter the sorrows and joys of life -- love, betrayal, ambition, and murder all figure into the plot -- is a great one. And when Yeast Nation embraces the daffiness of its basic premise, it's a lot of fun. Unfortunately, these single-celled characters lack the dimension to make the considerable time spent on their emotional outpourings and political maneuverings sufficiently interesting.

-- Brooke Pierce

Abby Royle and Darrell Glasgow in Noir
(Courtesy of the company)
The requirements for tales of hard-boiled 1940s movie detectives are so clearly delineated that Stan Werse can trim the number of participants to four and still file a delightfully nasty version in Noir, at the Connelly Theater.

As might be expected, the work's tone is deep-dyed-cynical and morality is up for grabs. There may be at least a couple of cops who harbor the foolish conviction that good is necessary to combat evil, but even their brand of honor is tarnished in the process of figuring out who's doing what to whom. And, yes, if there's a dame involved -- and there always is -- it's a smart move not to turn your back on her when she seems to be doing nothing but straightening the seam in her nylons or lipsticking her treacherous mouth.

The broad with ulterior motives here is Helen Lydecker (slinky Abby Royle), who cajoles straight-up cop Clay Holden (cool Darrell Glasgow), the precinct's golden boy, to shoo from her trail a small-time crook in possession of a few incriminating photographs. But is that only what she says she wants?

Division man with ready fisticuffs McQue (wised-up Michael McCoy) unfolds the tale in flashbacks depicting typically ambivalent ethics. During them, he hopes to do some meaningful detective scrounging himself, although he's thwarted at every turn by bossy, a-story-for-every-occasion Norbert Grimes (glaring Andrew Dawson).

Audience members who've watched such films as The Maltese Falcon or Out of the Past -- this is the crowd at whom Werse and shrewd director Marc Geller are pitching the sinister tale (with sinister Daniel Dungan lighting) -- will think they've figured this one out. The beauty part is they may decipher some of it but not all.

-- David Finkle

Dan Heching and Patrick Byas
(© Walter McBride)
The charged relationship between a victim and his victimizer are explored in Dan Heching's intriguing new play, Sammy Gets Mugged!, directed by Noah Himmelstein at the Living Theatre. But while the work brings up potentially explosive issues relating to race, class, and sexuality, it is not as complex as it needs to be.

Presented as a memory play, the piece presents multiple takes on the time that Sammy (played by Heching) is attacked by a mugger (Patrick Byas). But was it simply a random act of violence, or was there more to the story? Sammy says at one point that it was "the most intense interaction I've had in a long time," and seems to attach a homoerotic significance to the encounter. He makes a big deal about the mugger crying in front of him, not taking as much money as he could have, and even telling Sammy how to get his insurance to reimburse him.

However, Sammy does not prove to be a very reliable narrator, and there are key elements to the mugging that are either left out or invented -- at least according to the Mugger, when he gets his turn to tell the tale. The presence of a witness to the crime -- a woman named Rue Felicite (Stephanie Pope Caffey) who was walking her dog -- could possibly clarify the details, but only if Sammy can come to terms with his true feelings about what happened that fateful Sunday afternoon.

Heching brings a sweet-natured vulnerability to his portrayal of Sammy, but his too-measured line delivery slows down the overall pacing of the production. Byas has a strong presence, appropriately laced with a hint of menace, and Caffey does what she can with a role that is somewhat one-dimensional.

As playwright, Heching inserts metatheatrical commentary from both the mugger and Rue Felicite -- both African-American characters -- as to how Sammy is representing the way they talk. Sammy also gives his own candid assessment of himself as a privileged white boy who is dependent upon his daddy's money. But while such statements inform the ways the characters interact with one another, Heching backs off from presenting a deeper consideration of the uneven dynamics at work here.

-- Dan Bacalzo


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