FringeNYC Roundup #3
Venezuela, Thick, The Last Two Minutes of The Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen, and The Irish Curse
Although the Impetuous Theater Company is New York-based, the ensemble should be considered among the international picks of this year's FringeNYC for its staging of Venezuela by German scribe Guy Helminger. Set in a Berlin subway, the play begins with the revelation that a subway surfer named Fragel has fallen off a train. His friends don't want his sensitive pal Olif to know what happened, so they euphemistically tell Olif that Fragel went to the undiscovered country. Death? No, Venezuela.
Their stories grow more elaborate as the play progresses and fiction blurs with reality: The boys send Olif faked letters from Fragel that contain stories about Venezuela being a train-surfer's paradise. According to their accounts, the country has high-speed trains that whiz by at more than 200km/h, and its main city is surrounded by gold. But Olif soon begins to wonder why his tourism books indicate that Venezuela has no civilian mass transit system, and why the letters he receives have German stamps on them.
This worldly play confronts what is apparently a growing trend among Berlin youth; it illustrates the delusional mindset of those who choose not to ride subways the old-fashioned way. Venezuela's absurdist leanings disguise what's essentially a straightforward, heartwarming drama about confronting uncomfortable facts. The five cast members fill their roles well, ably handling the quirky dialect that the playwright invents -- which, if Penny Black's translation is faithful, combines Yoda-like syntax with cutesy street-slang. (Fear not, young one; the program a glossary has.) Graffiti is sprayed and DJ-type music is heard during the show, reminding us that this is a young, emerging, impetuous theater company.
A critical and audience favorite at the 2003 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Rick Bland's Thick tells the story of a family living in a small town -- but not just any family. The hero is an idiot-savant child whose mother dropped him on his head at birth. A chronic bed-wetter who describes himself as "thick," he nonetheless seems to be one of the most well-put-together members of his clan. His mother's a racist alcoholic flummoxed by an ever-changing world; his father has such an obsession with tending to his front lawn that it leads to his untimely death; and his sister tries to escape ther drama by getting knocked up at an early age.
This story is told in the style of a live-action cartoon, with an ink sketch of a quaint suburb in the background and a cardboard model of the family home on one side of the stage. Actors Bland, Tamara Bick, and Ross Mullan play more than 10 roles with creativity and precision -- no surprise, given their sketch comedy credits.
Their top-notch performances help compensate for the play's shortcomings. Thick contains a lot of witty dialogue and many poignant moments (its conclusion is particularly touching), but much of the writing is unsubtle. Indeed, Bland does everything but announce the central theme of the piece: that provincial biases get in the way of living a fulfilling life. One wonders if the author doesn't trust that his audience will get the point.
The Chicago-based Neofuturists first made their mark at the 2001 New York International Fringe Festival with a show that still lays claim to the most memorable title in Fringedom: The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in an Envelope (partially burned) in a Dustbin in Paris Labeled: "Never To Be Performed. Never. Ever. EVER! Or I'll Sue! I'LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!!!. Now, they're back for this year's fest with the marginally less screwy The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen.
Without question, it's an inspired idea to perform the closing moments of the iconic Norwegian scribe's plays back to back: His dramatic curtain-droppers include a suicide (Hedda Gabbler), a heart attack (John Gabriel Borkman), a revelation about syphilis (Ghosts), and a fall from a giant building (The Master Builder). Such gruesome theatrics no doubt pleased the original Futurists, a band of rabble-rousing upstarts in the early 20th Century who glorified violence and the power of the state, but Neofutrists founder Greg Allen and company seem like more easygoing folks. Instead of playing the material in earnest, they go the more facile and jokey route.
The show calls to mind the work of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. This troupe definitely has the creativity and comedy chops to keep the audience laughing. For example, they perform The Feast of Solhaug as a condiment puppet show, complete with a ketchup king, a mustard queen, relish noblemen, and forks and spoons representing the hoi polloi. There's even a puppet sex-scene that's sophomoric, juvenile, and very, very funny. But whether or not The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen will keep you entertained for its entire two-hour running time may depend on whether or not you visit the liquor bar at intermission.
Most men, it is said, think with their penises -- and some men do nothing but think about their penises. That's certainly true of the characters in Martin Casella's occasionally smart and ultimately sentimental comedy The Irish Curse. So what is this so-called "Irish Curse?" Is it the love of the color green, an inordinate fondness for beer, or the unstoppable urge to outfit your home with Waterford crystal? Nope, it's that these guys' private parts do not measure up, due to a supposed genetic predisposition.
The guys in question gather each week in a Brooklyn church basement to openly discuss their shortcomings. They are Steven, a hunky, gay New York City undercover cop (Howard Kaye); Joseph, a Southern-born corporate lawyer (Eddie Korbich); Rick, a good-looking pre-med student (Brian Leahy); and Father Kevin (William McCauley), who's both a moderator and member of their little group. On the night of the play's action, these four retell their sad stories in excruciating detail for the benefit of new member Kieran (Roderick Hill).
It turns out that Kieran may have the saddest story of all, but the competition is stiff. Joseph has been abandoned by his wife of 20 years, who not only ran off with her well-endowed tai chi instructor but left behind their two young daughters and a damning drawing. Steven is a sex addict who's terrified of exposing himself physically and emotionally. And though Rick is the most well-adjusted of the bunch, he does worry that his girlfriend isn't completely satisfied. Even the kindly Kevin admits that he sought refuge in the priesthood after having been humiliated by a teenage sweetheart.
Casella offers some sharp insights into the male psyche and has a good way with a quip, but there's not quite enough originality here for a satisfying 90-minute play. Fortunately, director Matt Lenz keeps things flowing, and the five actors admirably flesh out their roles (in the figurative sense) -- especially the ever-valuable Korbich and the very handsome Hill. Curse is truly blessed to have these few good men in its service.