FringeNYC 2016: Debriefing; The Legend of Oni; A Microwaved Burrito Filled With E. coli
This is TheaterMania's first review roundup from the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival.
Trust is a precious resource in Debriefing, Maximillian Singh Gill's somewhat shaggy cloak-and-dagger drama set in modern-day Syria and the United States.
The play opens with Department of Homeland Security agent Reed (Andrew Rothkin) interviewing Aliya (Nazli Sarpkaya), a Pakistani-American who recently witnessed a drone strike while visiting her family in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. Naturally, she was horrified by the violence and has since agitated against U.S. militarism. Reed is convinced that she would make an excellent spy: With her anti-imperialist bona fides, she could credibly join the Islamic Caliphate or I.C. (a thinly veiled placeholder for the Islamic State that has the unfortunate effect of making the actors sound like they are talking about a refreshing slushy beverage rather than an international terrorist organization). Once there, she could filter sensitive information back to Washington; but why would she want to risk her life doing a thing like that, especially for a government that she finds oppressive?
Gill never fully resolves that problem, even though Aliya eventually joins up for the sake of plot development. It is hard to credit the persuasive powers of Rothkin's Reed, a nebbish with obvious self-esteem issues. Compounding this is Sarpkaya's Aliya, who goes from passively sarcastic to just plain whiny. We never get a sense that she would commit to anything that would seriously disrupt her yoga routine and supply of organic produce. Under the laissez-faire direction of Joan Kane, their scenes together often feel like a half-hearted production of David Mamet's Oleanna rather than a spy thriller.
Playing an Iraqi secret agent, Adeel Ahmed is the only actor who seems really plugged into this world. As Reed's DHS supervisor, Page Clements impressively makes her lines sound halfway credible even though her character speaks only in psychobabble: "You know how to dissolve and reconstitute yourself...I see that now," she tells him at one of their meetings.
Despite Gill's contrived plot and implausible dialogue, Debriefing occasionally hits the mark in examining how the expectation of loyalty can cross the line into exploitation and how people come to be seen as expendable in pursuit of a grand crusade. These are huge issues that deserve a regular hearing onstage, just not one this forced.
Do you like palace intrigue and mountain trolls? If so, then this is the show for you. Written, directed, and choreographed by Naoko Tsujii for Japan's Musical Company OZmate, The Legend of Oni is as strange and extravagant as we've come to expect from Japanese entries in the Fringe, even if it is not quite as polished.
Set in medieval Japan, it begins as a story of the ambitious Nagamichi (Roko Hidayama), a nobleman who is always scheming to undermine his rivals and further his position. He is embarrassed by his red-headed son, Ebuki (Hiro Matsumoto), so he puts up little resistance when Ebuki is abducted by a band of Oni (Mai Kisaka, Azuki, and Kanae Kiuchi convincingly playing the fearsome ogres who come down from the mountains to punish humans for bad behavior). But could it be that these misunderstood monsters actually make better role models than dad?
With its syrupy ballads and lavish stage pictures, the Takarazuka-based all-female company seems to be trying to emulate its more famous big sister. In practice, the shaky vocals and tinny canned music makes this event feel more like a high-concept karaoke lounge. The costumes are an exotic mess of polyester and busted wigs, while Tsujii's choreography is merely serviceable, like a well-rehearsed line dance.
There are a couple of standout performances: Kaho is very creepy as Nagamichi's smiling henchman, Seimei. As Chief Oni Shuten, Mai Kisaka has all the virile bravado of a Norse God, an impressive feat of acting considering she is wearing a Shirley Temple wig the whole time.
Messiness aside, no serious Fringer would want to miss the opportunity to see a Japanese musical (there seems to be one every year) on an off-off-Broadway stage. Even if the show isn't very good, you are still transported to a land of pure fantasy and unapologetic entertainment.
We know the burrito is filled with E. coli, but is it filled with laughs as well? The results are decidedly mixed in Andrea Alton and Allen Warnock's two-hander about lesbian crossing guard Molly "Equality" Dykeman (Alton) and her new BFF, Angie Louise Angelone (Warnock), a nice "I-talian" girl fresh off the bus from the Bluegrass State.
The thin plot (which is clearly just an excuse to put these two ridiculous characters in the same room) takes place at Enchilada Shelly's, a low-rent Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn where Molly is attending another spur-of-the-moment same-sex wedding. When she gets kicked out of the reception hall for being too hopped up on Percocet, she receives solace (and microwaved comfort food) from Angie. Is this the beginning of a beautiful friendship?
The comedy is almost entirely character-driven: Dykeman (who was the subject of Fringe 2011's The F*cking World According to Molly) is the kind of girl who wears cargo shorts and a reflective vest to a wedding (appropriately janky wigs and costumes by Anthony Catanzaro). She speaks in a thick Brooklyn accent and punctuates every other sentence with the word yeah. We watch her dig into her burrito with a lollipop as she dreams about her next poetry slam. Meanwhile, Angie looks on blankly yet adoringly, preparing to interject her next non sequitur anecdote about growing up Q (Angie identifies most strongly with the Q in LGBTQ) in Kentucky.
It is easy to imagine these characters being very funny with better material. As it is, Alton and Warnock seem only able to elicit mild titters with their lowest-common-denominator humor: When the wedding DJ inexplicably invites "bride number one and bride number two" to the dance floor, Molly observes, "I would hate to be called 'bride number two,' it sounds like poo-poo."
Lame jokes like these somewhat obscure the fact that Alton and Warnock are actually very talented comedians. Their commitment to character and comic timing is unquestionable. But that is not enough to sustain an hour-long show: By the end, Microwaved Burrito feels like a drawn-out sketch from one of Saturday Night Live's off years. No amount of reheating will assuage the bland taste it leaves in your mouth.