FringeNYC 2014: When We Were Idiots; No One Asked Me; Skyline
This is TheaterMania's second roundup of reviews from the 2014 New York International Fringe Festival.
This show probably has the lowest budget in the entire festival, yet it also manages to have the most realistic sets and a cast of thousands. Australian comedian Xavier Toby embraces the DIY, freewheeling spirit of the Fringe in this thrilling walking tour. It's a must-see, especially for anyone itching to see some theater outside the dark confines of the stage.
The premise is simple: New York City was buried under a mountain of trash in 2014. It is now 2114 and the city has been uncovered, perfectly preserved like a smelly Pompeii. As tourists from the future (a socialist utopia of universal healthcare, renewable energy, and an eight-hour work month), we've come to get a sense of how our primitive forebears lived, with the help of costumed actors playing the New Yorkers of yesteryear.
Dressed as a penguin, Toby insists that every passerby we see is actually a performer. He regularly encourages us to applaud them as he leads us through the streets of the Lower East Side. "You all look like a bunch of boners," one particularly passionate thespian shouted from a bar window, giving us denizens of the 22nd century a taste of the discourse of a bygone era. I took it as a compliment.
"Don't worry: No one has ever been physically harmed on this tour, except for me," Toby reassures us. That's not particularly surprising, considering his subversive candor. Toby informs us that pizza is actually poisonous as we stand outside a pizza joint on Delancey Street. He enlightens us on the business model for bodegas circa 2014 (they sell drugs) as we stand before one of those. Throughout the 90-minute tour, you learn a lot about the neighborhood while reconsidering everyday objects and concepts that largely go unquestioned in modern American life.
Toby's cheerfully anarchic style is reminiscent of Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book, but a whole lot funnier. While it's easy to dismiss his progressive idealism as naïve, I would counter: If a performance artist in a penguin costume isn't allowed to dream, who is?
As thousands of Central American migrants (many of whom are minors) seek refuge in the United States, Kate Ballen's play about undocumented teenagers could not be timelier. Unfortunately, while the subject matter of No One Asked Me is vital, the execution leaves much to be desired.
Sophie (Octavia Chavez-Richmond), Alyssa (Alaina Fragoso), and Daniel (Cornelius Franklin) are students at a Bronx high school. They're also undocumented immigrants through no fault of their own, brought to the United States as children. We watch them navigate the complicated immigration system, attempt to get into college, and support their families, all while trying to have a normal American life.
The scenes with Isaac (Gary De Mattei), an immigration attorney, are particularly revealing. "Genocide in your country — that's great," he enthuses for one client attempting to build a case for political asylum. Ballen acutely captures the perverse nature of this oppression Olympics, in which bright and productive members of society are forced to dredge up (and sometimes make up) painful memories from the past in order to obtain legal status in the U.S.
Unfortunately, the sharpness of these scenes is an anomaly. Most of the time, the characters seem to be speaking past one another, offering a laundry list of woes rather than actual dialogue. As a result, the characters never expand beyond a superficial representation of tragic immigrants. A pit stop at a therapy session for Jackie (Terra Mackintosh), a teacher helping the three students get into college, grinds the play to a screeching halt. Director Matthew Newton's clunky staging has too many scenes pushed far downstage where they are difficult to see for those sitting behind the front row.
"Guilt is tightly sewn into our DNA," Issac tells Jackie at one point, as they commiserate on their liberal impetus for helping these kids. While Ballen's motives are admirable, this constant barrage of misery does not make for the most compelling theater. No One Asked Me commits the theatrical mistake of spending far more time telling us, rather than showing us.
It's 1962 and activist Paul Silver (Joseph Spieldenner) is fighting to save the Stanford White-designed Pennsylvania Station. He enlists journalist Allison Abbot (Katie Lee Hill) to write a story about his crusade for Skyline Magazine. She agrees, but soon discovers that her architect fiancé, Henry (Peter Gosik), has just won the contract on the new Madison Square Garden (which is slated to take the place of the old station). Allison is torn between her loyalties to a story that could boost her career and a project that could boost her husband's.
Penn Station makes for a fascinating subject and the show possesses some memorable tunes. Unfortunately, it falters in execution and a sleepy second half, attempting to resolve the messy web of relationships woven in the first with a parade of sluggish reprises.
Peter Reardon puts on a good show as Allison's editor, Barry, in "Sell Me," a song about story pitches. "If we don't get nasty letters then it wasn't worth the ink," he proclaims while flanked by two sexy copy editors. The bittersweet anthem "This Is New York," about the ever-changing face of the city, is also a highlight.
What Skyline does have going for it is a truly original subject that is easily relatable for most New Yorkers. Any trip through the cave-like labyrinth that is today's Penn Station will help you understand the nostalgia for the marble columns, vaulted ceilings, and streams of natural light of its predecessor. That is why it is so baffling that we never once see an image of the station, even though one of the activists is a photographer who claims to have taken over 100 rolls of film of Penn Station.
You'll have a lot more fun with Skyline if you think of it as a developmental reading, rather than a full production. There's some truly great stuff at the heart of the show, if you get past the mess around the edges.