FringeNYC Roundup #5
The creators of Live! With Pascale & Chantal might have found an inventive way to bridge the divide between America and what pundits call the "Arab World" -- French jokes! Let me explain...
This hit show of the New York International Fringe Festival is a parody of Lebanese talk shows, and the play makes much ado about the fact that the country has three national languages: Arabic, French, and English. When Chantal (Jana Zenadeen) mentions Beirut's reputation for being "the Paris of the Middle East," the sexpot Pascale (Leila Gazale) chimes in by calling herself the region's "Paris Hilton." Anyway, this leads to a barrage of stereotypes about Parisian women, from their saucy tongues to their fashionable threads. The brilliant twist on all of this is that Pascale and Chantal have to pretend to be chaste Muslims.
However, our charming hostesses let the audience in on the act, and they upbraid American preconceptions of Arab countries in the process. During one scene, a visiting Harvard professor becomes a guest on the show and mouths off on the country's patriarchal society only to have a submissive manservant (played by a hilarious Sami Metwasi) come out to pour him a cup of coffee. Later, the duo advises a closeted homosexual to go ahead with his arranged marriage with a detailed strategy for him to keep his lover on the side. The discussion titled "Are Tampons Dangerous?" is a riot, and the show gets even funnier when we meet the star of the fictitious blockbuster When Mahmoud Met Selwa. Inventive East-meets-West wordplay abounds with zingers like "I heard it through the grape leaves" and a new BBC television station called "The Beirut Broadcasting Company."
The impressive production values are uncommon for a Fringe Festival show, with a set designed in such bright pastels that they require sunglasses for prolonged viewing. It's clear that the theater company hopes for bigger things in the future, and one hopes it finds a wider audience.
There's something vaguely distressing when two of the edgiest and most daring shows of this year's New York International Fringe Festival are revivals of plays that debuted in 1969, using techniques developed in Eastern Europe years earlier. In any event, a theater company named cellarDoor Berlin pumped an earnest sense of experimentation into a festival in which gimmickry often prevails by showcasing a provocative and sophisticated pair of works -- Howard Benton's Gum and Goo and Christie in Love -- under the umbrella title Plays for the Poor Theatre.
Inspired by a manifesto written by Jerzy Grotowsky, "poor theater" quite literally means theater produced on the cheap, using minimal sets, lighting, and costumes. However, this style is often lavish in its mythic portrayals of allegorical tales using larger-than-life movements. The first of the plays presented here follows the story of a young autistic girl (Rebecca Sponseller) who is visited by two possibly imaginary young English lads named Gum (Tomas Spencer) and Goo (Nicholas Grew). The schoolboys taunt the girl, lift up her skirt, and generally behave like a pair of budding monsters a la the gang of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. The actors are uniformly engrossing, and they create evocative landscapes using mostly their bodies. Bare bones ooga-booga makeup by Bettina Scheibe and ethereal sound design by Nicholas Grew complete the creepy atmosphere.
Christie in Love depicts the interrogation of John Reginald Halliday Christie, Notting Hill's notorious, necrophiliac lady-killer. It's lurid stuff, and we first see the ghostly killer covered in a sheet and masturbating onstage. An interrogation by the righteous Inspector (Nicholas Grew) reveals some of Christie's more gruesome practices, including what revolting keepsakes he stores in a tin box. Simon Newby's performance as the murderer is too general, and he could have learned a thing or two about his role by studying Brían F. O'Bryne's Tony-winning performance in Frozen. Still, a mostly strong execution all around makes this revival an uneasy but thoroughly watchable glimpse into the mind of a serial killer.
Is it possible for an adaptation to be too faithful to an original work? That's the question that I asked two and a half hours into Geek Love, an adaptation of the epic novel by the same name. To be fair, I haven't read the Katherine Dunn story, which I understand to be a pretty hefty tome, but the stage version seems as though the adapters have needlessly dwelled upon certain details while giving climactic sections the short shaft. The nonlinear narrative may also have been derived directly from the book, but it makes the play very confusing at times.
Both the play and the novel follow a sideshow family in which the parents (Josie Burgin Lawson and Tim Cordier) use various methods to ensure that their children will be born with profitable mutations. (The mother is a "geek," carney-talk for a person who drinks the blood from chickens and other live animals.) This leads to the birth of conjoined twins (Caroline Masclet and Kalina McCeery), a bald hunchback albino girl (Anessa Ramsey), an apparently normal kid with a secret power (Randy Havens), and an "aqua boy" named Arturo (Jeffrey Zwartjes) with truncated limbs. Soon, Arturo hatches a devious plan to stand out from the rest of the pack: He'll start a cult of freaks who will practice "Arturism" -- voluntary self-amputation -- to escape the pressures of being a "norm."
It's a grim and fascinating plot, and most of the actors seem up to their difficult tasks of managing their characters' unique quirks and impediments. Whether the theater company achieved its realism through inventive costumes or by raiding Coney Island surplus, it ought to be commended on follow-through and attention to detail. The special effects with Arturo floating in his tank are appropriately cheesy to anyone who has seen any such acts before. Sometimes the ensemble achieves the macabre atmosphere with a physical or vocal affectation, and the woman who plays the doctor (Aileen Loy, who also directs) has a profoundly deep and gravelly voice that marks her character instantly.
Still, the performance drags under the weight of its various subplots. We find out that the bald albino girl has a missing daughter with a vestigial tail in a scene that gets awkwardly introduced, and we meet an investigative reporter covering the Arturism controversy before we discover what the hullabaloo is about. There may be a stellar play in this cult read from the 1980s, but it isn't the one onstage.
"I am Wonder Woman," declares performer Tara Hendry. Dressed in a replica of the classic Wonder Woman costume complete with red boots, golden lasso, and tiara, she certainly looks the part. In The Life and Times of a Wonder Woman, Hendry chronicles her character's origins -- all of them. Written by Terry Newman, this solo play interweaves the various incarnations of the archetypal female superhero from her mythological roots, to her comic book creation, to her 1970s TV series starring Lynda Carter.
The show includes interesting trivia such as the fact that Wonder Woman's creator, William Moulton Marsden, was the inventor of the lie detector. Yet, it also imagines other details, such as a lesbian tryst between our heroine and Helen of Troy and the knowledge that Wonder Woman was Superman's first lover, although she prefers Batman in terms of technique. Needless to say, there's a disclaimer in the program stating, "This play was not prepared, approved, licensed or endorsed by any entity involved in creating or producing the Wonder Woman television series or comic strip."
The lighting and sound design by Jason Unfried, supplemented by original music by Tara Hendry, effectively set the mood for different sections of the piece. A strobe is used during mock fight sequences, while a slowed down saxophone version of the Wonder Woman TV series theme song is haunting and surprisingly moving.
Hendry is a capable, and at times quite funny, performer. However, she lacks the dynamism that is necessary to sustain this larger-than-life character all the way through the show. Directed by Michael Eriera, the flow of the production is uneven, with lots of theatrical dead space that needs to be trimmed away. The script could also use some tightening, and its overall message is unclear. At times, it unfolds like a feminist celebration of female empowerment, while at other times it seems to push a more conservative agenda. Still, the show is enjoyable and will appeal especially to those who are either comic book fans and/or devotees of the 70s TV series.