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Steven Fales in
Confessions of a Mormon Boy
(Photo © Pedro Portal)
Confessions of a Mormon Boy

Steven Fales has a great smile. In his solo performance piece Confessions of a Mormon Boy, the writer-performer chronicles his life story, which tells the tale of that smile -- where it came from, when he lost it, and how he got it back. Along the way, he recounts his experiences growing up in the Mormon faith, his struggle with his homosexuality, his marriage, the birth of his children, his excommunication, his stint as a high-paid male prostitute, and more.

The initial portion of the show features a number of jokes that don't quite land and more explanation than is necessary to tell the story. However, once Fales gets into the meat of his tale, things pick up. The actor possesses plenty of confidence, sex appeal, and charisma, yet he's also able to let down his defenses and show the audience his vulnerable side.

Directed by Tony-winner Jack Hofsiss, the piece has a good rhythm. Onstage costume changes are handled smoothly and the transitions between the different sections of the narrative work well. Fales, a fine singer, includes a few musical interludes; one of them is a catchy original song, reminiscent of a Dan Fogelberg tune, about going home to Utah. While Confessions of a Mormon Boy may not be a groundbreaking piece of theater, it's an engaging true-life story that's funny, poignant, and life affirming.


Dog Sees God

Snoopy is dead. Bert V. Royal's unauthorized parody of the "Peanuts" comic strip begins with this premise, and builds from there. However, the playwright isn't going just for shock value or campy send-ups of beloved characters; he has crafted a tightly written dark comedy that is hilarious, disturbing, and -- ultimately -- extremely moving.

The show exudes the same kind of irreverent humor as Avenue Q in aging the Peanuts gang to their teenage years. A lot has changed since the characters were eight years old: Linus is a pothead, Lucy's been shipped off to an insane asylum, Pigpen's cleaned up his act, and Charlie Brown is now one of the cool kids. Of course, legal reasons prevent the play's characters from being billed with these names in the program, and so instead they're listed as "CB" for Charlie Brown, "Tricia" for Peppermint Patty, "Van" for Linus Van Pelt, etc.

The ensemble cast is excellent. Michael Gladis, as CB, anchors the production with an understated quality that evokes immediate identification and empathy with the character. Benjamin Schrader is equally good as "Beethoven" (a.k.a. Schroeder), who is persecuted by the other kids for his perceived homosexuality. Although Melissa Picarello as "Van's Sister" has only one major appearance in the show, she makes a strong impression; the actress presents a complex portrait of a troubled young woman who may or may not be crazy but who has a real and genuine affection for CB and is one of the few people he feels comfortable confiding in.

Royal's script is smart, funny, and oftentimes poetic. The twists and turns in the plot are surprising yet effective as they lead up to a touching closing scene that would make Charles Schulz proud. (It certainly brought tears to my eyes.) Directed by Susan W. Lovell, the production strikes a nice balance between off-the-wall humor and more serious, emotionally grounded acting. It also includes a number of in-jokes for fans of both the comic strip and the animated cartoons based on "Peanuts." Dog Sees God is exactly the kind of risk-taking theatrical venture that the Fringe should be offering and it deserves a long, extended commercial run once the festival is over.


Sam Turich in Armless
(Photo © Ian Tresselt)

"Can you imagine wanting something so much that you're willing to destroy yourself for it?" asks a character in Kyle Jarrow's uproarious dark comedy Armless. John (Sam Turich) has a secret -- one that he hides from everyone, including his wife Anna (Colleen Quinlan). His secret is that he wants to cut off his arms; he just doesn't feel right with them attached to his body.

After finding out about others like him on an Internet chatroom, John comes to New York in search of a doctor who will amputate his arms. He locates a Dr. Phillips (Robert Carr) but apparently he's not the same Dr. Phillips that was recommended to him. In the tradition of plays like Edward Albee's The Goat, Armless pushes the boundaries of what is socially acceptable to desire for oneself. It also examines the ethical considerations involved in assisting someone in a surgical procedure that would not be approved of by the majority of people.

Turich plays John as neurotically sincere and is amazingly expressive while using his arms as little as possible. Quinlan captures both the love and fear that Anna lives with every day, and the character's struggle to find her inner strength and capacity for acceptance is every bit as emotionally gripping as John's dilemma. Carr has a boyish appearance that suits him well for the childlike fascination and excitement that John's request elicits in Dr. Phillips. Rounding out the cast is Gabrielle Rezneck as the doctor's secretary Jenny; she displays the hard-bitten façade of someone who couldn't care less even as the character demonstrates through her actions that she has more empathy than is initially apparent.

The performers are well directed by Ian Tresselt and all of the design elements enhance the production, including Timothy R. Mackabee's set, Lisa Zinni's costumes, and Eric Shim's sound design. Armless is rife with potential analogies to other controversial topics such as sex-change operations and assisted suicide, yet its story works well on its own terms, making for a provocative and hilarious piece of theater.


The Spickner Spin

The Spickner Spin tries to capture the feel of an old-fashioned musical comedy while providing a satirical look at contemporary politics. While such intentions are noble, the execution leaves something to be desired. Featuring music and lyrics by Seth Bisen-Hersh and book and lyrics by Daniel Scribner, the show is tediously mediocre.

Steven Spickner (Patrick Wetzel) is a man who can sell a lie as truth and make the truth seem like a lie. He makes a bet with his former colleague Susan Stridewell (Seri Johnson) that he can get anyone at all elected mayor -- including an alcoholic homeless man that they meet, Natty Walker (Michael Jay Henry). Spickner becomes Natty's campaign manager, getting him onto the Capital Party ticket after promising party leader Horstein (Richard Rowen) the position of deputy mayor. Horstein assigns his plucky new personal assistant Alice Whitehall (Crystal Scott) to help Spickner with the campaign and it's only a matter of time before Spickner and Alice fall in love, causing Spickner to undergo a crisis of conscience.

The musical starts out well enough with a catchy title song and a spirited production number featuring the entire company. Natty's makeover -- which pays homage to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's Fab Five -- is also amusing. But then the show stumbles and never picks itself back up. There's not enough development in the main characters to keep the audience invested in them, the music is largely unexciting, and the lyrics are fairly bland. Wetzel has charm and charisma that serve him well as Spickner but he doesn't have the breath support or vocal range to make his songs take off; Scott never quite develops a personality for her character and goes irritatingly sharp in the song "A Perfect World."

As directed by Andrew Henkes, the production lacks pep. Cheryl Swift's choreography is functional without distinguishing itself and William Duncan's set pieces are poorly designed. However, even if all of these elements were outstanding, the show would still be in trouble since the book, music, and lyrics are a major problem.


Irakli Kavsadze and ensemble in Host and Guest
(Photo © Stan Barouh)
Host and Guest

Based upon a poem by Russian poet Vazha Pshavela, Synetic Theater's production of Host and Guest is visually stunning. Playwright Roland Reed adapted the story for the stage, although the words the characters speak seem of less importance than the way that the actors move. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili with choreography by Irina Tsikurishvili, the show is a succession of striking stage pictures, slow motion fight sequences, and nonverbal action.

The story is simple: Two hunters from neighboring lands meet in a wood. Joqola (Paata Tsikurishvili) invites Zviadauri (Irakli Kavsadze) into his home, which causes a stir in his village as Zviadauri's people are the enemies of Joqola's people. Village elder Musa (Kakhi Kavsadze) organizes the townspeople to slay Joqola's guest, which in turn invites retribution from Zviadauri's people. There are other story elements, including the tumultuous journey undergone by Joqola's wife, Aghaza (Irina Tsikurishvili). However, the play's primary goal is to demonstrate how violence begets violence in a vicious circle -- a message that definitely has resonance today.

Vato Kakhidze's original music provides an effective soundscape for the stage action, while Colin Bills's lighting helps establish the mood of each sequence. The sets and costumes by Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili are predominantly black, making the occasional splashes of color all the more striking.

All of the actors are physically expressive but their vocal delivery is not as compelling; most of their line readings are fairly flat, perhaps partly due to the fact that English does not appear to be the first language of some members of the company. Still, since the show is such a visual feast, this is a minor annoyance in an otherwise captivating production.

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