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FringeNYC 2015: Julian & Romero; Kill Sister, Kill! A Musical; Swipe Right

This is TheaterMania's sixth and final roundup of reviews from the 2015 New York International Fringe Festival.

Gonzalo Trigueros, Sebastian Stimman, and Jerry Soto star in Alex Perez's Julian & Romero, directed by Perez, at the CSV Flamboyan Theater for FringeNYC.
(Courtesy of the production)

Julian & Romero

By Zachary Stewart

In his novel The Doorman, gay Cuban dissident Reinaldo Arenas describes friendship under the brutal Communist regime of that country as "a sense of brotherhood in the face of terror." Playwright Alex Perez eloquently depicts this fraternal solidarity in his heartfelt play Julian & Romero.

Much of the story is set in a UMAP camp. Those were the labor camps established by Fidel and Raúl Castro to "rehabilitate" counter-revolutionary elements of society like Jehovah's Witnesses, intellectuals, and homosexuals. It's an important chapter of Cuban history that is unfortunately oft-ignored, especially in leftist circles that would rather romanticize the Castro regime.

Julian (Sebastian Stimman) is the gay son of Raúl (Jerry Soto), a commander in the Cuban army. To prove his dedication to the revolution, Raúl has Julian sent to a UMAP camp, although Raúl uses his influence to protect his son from real physical harm. That abuse instead falls on Romero (Gonzalo Trigueros), a steadfastly heterosexual prison guard who nonetheless shows mercy to Julian. Romero very quickly becomes Julian's whipping boy (when Raúl decides he's being too soft) as Julian's mother Bertha (Edna Lee Figueroa) looks on helplessly.

Stimman and Trigueros exhibit a strong connection in their interactions, which oscillate wildly from standoffish to confrontational. Soto excels at playing the authoritarian patriarch, carrying this over to a portrayal of Fidel Castro himself in which he eerily captures the dictator's megalomania and erratic speech patterns. Perez also directs, showing a keen eye for efficiency and the forward motion of the plot (although a dramaturg might have helped trim some of the script's fat).

Perez and Stimman artfully choreograph several key moments, including a struggle between Julian and Romero that takes the form of juego de maní (a Cuban form of martial arts combined with dance, similar to capoeira). Bare-chested and sweating in the tropical heat, they throw each other to the ground. It's all a little too sexy for a drama set in a concentration camp.

Thankfully, it never gets any steamier than that, allowing the real story of survival in the face of repression to shine through. While the title suggests a Hispanicized version of Shakespeare's famous tale of star-crossed love, Perez wisely resists the temptation to turn his play into a Logo TV movie of the week. The love between Julian and Romero is not sexual, but derives from a deep respect between two men (one of whom happens to be gay). This is the brotherhood about which Arenas writes, made manifest onstage.

Kill Sister, Kill! A Musical

By Zachary Stewart

Samantha Walkes stars in Kill Sister, Kill!, directed by Jamieson Child, at Theater 80 for FringeNYC.
(© Amy G)

"Being bad feels good," sings a character in Kill Sister, Kill! Based on the title, one might expect a satire of the exploitation film genre, something so-bad-it's-good. But no, this musical from brothers Drac & Jamieson Child (with music by Michael Zahorak and lyrics by David Backshell) is not so much a parody as it is a poor imitation of an already poor form.

The story follows big city Catholic nun Lily (Samantha Walkes with an authentic church lady soprano) and her party girl sister Kitty (Astrid Atherly, dressed like a Solid Gold dancer). They hit the town for a night of fun, landing at a local leather bar (the banally dubbed "Butthole") where they meet shy boy Ronnie (Thomas Finn) and his sadistic brother Dagger (Aaron Williams). It proves to be a deadly encounter, leading Lily down the war path. She terrorizes the criminal population of the city like a badass version of Sally Field, fixated on her ultimate revenge.

The Child brothers offer a book that is nothing short of childish in its liberal employment of profanity and sexual gross-out language. Jamieson Child's direction consists entirely of unfocused blocking and painfully extended scene transitions. Zahorak's most exciting music comes during those transitions, while the actual numbers sound like a Rorschach test masquerading as notes on the page.

Backshell takes his cues from the book, making his lyrics just as crude and unoriginal. Song titles include the pre-rape ditty "Good Evening Bitches" (treated with disturbing levity) and "F*ck This City", a scene-setting number similar to "Skid Row (Downtown)" from Little Shop of Horrors sans charm or melody.

Kill Sister, Kill! is the musical equivalent of that guy at every college party who thinks he's hilarious, but is actually just loud and obnoxious. That guy should be told bluntly: Vulgarity is no substitute for wit, no matter how much your friends politely laugh.

Christine Penski takes on the roles of Paula, Rachel, and Christina in Allison Young's Swipe Right.

Swipe Right

By Hayley Levitt

If you're proficient in the online dating vernacular, the title of Allison Young's new comedy Swipe Right will speak for itself. Apps for Internet hookups have become the butt of the Millennial generation's collective self-deprecating joke. And yet, they simultaneously shine as a beacon of hope for those same twentysomething singles who tirelessly search for the true love that You've Got Mail promised them back in 1998. Before pop culture bleeds the punchline dry, this glaring paradox holds honest potential for some probing insights into the way the world's newly christened adults form and maintain relationships. Young unfortunately, as both director and playwright, sticks to the cosmetic hilarity that is a Tinder date gone wrong and leaves everything else on the table.

The quintessential Wall Street jerk Brad (given the necessary creep factor by the handsome Franck Juste) posts up at his favorite bar and awaits the arrival of all four of the potential conquests he's scheduled for the evening. Christine Penski plays three of these feisty women, who, one by one, are disgusted with the increasingly intoxicated pretty boy. Sara Kohler completes the quartet as an Internet-scorned blonde who is warned by the resident bartender John (with whom she shares a romantic past) that her latest online beau is bad news. John (a charming Andre Pizarro) convinces her instead to hang by the bar with him and a sassy lesbian waitress named Joey (Aly Pentagelo), who eventually catches the eye of one of Brad's dates.

An omniscient Saer Karim meanwhile narrates all of the romantic action under way in the bar like a sports commentator, reading stage directions from a script as if forming the play before us as it unfolds. The campy device — along with the rest of the play's familiar references and knowing glances that welcome chuckles of miserable camaraderie — have the potential to be winning in their awkward self-awareness. However, with no substantial commentary to ground the generational jokes and sideways glances, they taste as artificial as the coy poses that get leftward swipes on Tinder.