New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

New York City Theater

The Tenth Annual New York International
Fringe Festival -- 2006

New York

The 17-day Fringe Festival….biggest and the best of its kind (so they claim) in this country. Certainly this tenth annual New York International Fringe Festival (running from Aug. 11—27, 2006) has been a veritable orgy of shows, an all-too moveable and abundant feast. With over 220 shows, plus the outdoor Fringe, the alumni shows, the shows for younger people and high school students, it is certainly a vast offering…of the Good, the Bad, and the In-Between.

This reviewer’s experience this past week proved to be just that….The joy of this Festival is indeed its unexpected quality. Will you be bored, delighted, satisfied, disappointed, or jolted out of your seat? All of the above turned out to be true in our three-day sampling.

Since shows were staged in 21 different venues, our choices were too often determined by the time and place of the performance. How quickly could we leap from theater to theater, and how many could we see in one day? We managed, in three days, to cover six shows, missing a seventh because of misreading the schedule. “Modern Missionary,” on the day we planned to attend, was playing at 12:15 A.M., not p.m. The plays—and musical—we did see were, in alphabetical order, “Fallen Angel,” “Higher Power,” “In Transit,” “Lying,” “The Transformation of Dr. Jekyll,” and “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

What was the best of the best? In our view, blessed unrest’s lovely, moving drama “Lying” topped the list. Written by Jessica Burr and Matt Opatrny, the company’s co-founders, the play was adapted from the Lauren Slater memoir. It focuses on a sensitive young woman who must come to terms with her epilepsy. She turns her illness into a spiritual experience, thus dealing with her worst moments and her confrontations with doctors, parents, medications, operations. It is a tour de force for Burr and Opatrny, who, with three other fine actors—Becca Blackwell, Jesse Webster, and Laura Wickens—create numerous characters and change roles in a flash. Altogether, an absorbing ensemble piece. Damen Scranton, who directs the piece, shows considerable ingenuity and wit, as he deploys his troops to best advantage.

“In Transit” is a clever, witty piece, which offers seven staccato scenes staged with different vehicles. A few chairs moved about creates each scene.The story moves from a bus to a jitney to a subway to a boat to a taxi to an airplane to a train. Ultimately all ten characters emerge in the story as their lives intertwine. There are planes, bombs, faltering relationships, and money schemes. Matt Hoverman manages to hit on current urban anxieties, while skewering the people who grapple with them. It’s funny, fast, and often hard-hitting, in the firm hands of director Padraic Lillis and his capable cast of ten.

“Higher Power” is an even faster-moving, grittier piece, a piece about three young people caught up in drugs. With dialogue that sizzles (thanks to the skillful writer Sam Ryan), actors Chris Littler (Adam), Colin Hunt (Seth) and Larke Schuldberg (Holly) make the most of the material. Director Chris Plante never lets any one off the hook, and no one ever moves out of character as others take over the dialogue. Holly returns to St. Louis to confront her ex-lover Adam and to sell him drugs, while gradually becoming involved with Adam’s roommate and brother Seth. They make an unholy trio, fired up by cocaine and crack and over-the-counter drugs. Certainly a drama which deserves a continued life and further stagings.

“The Transformation of Dr. Jekyll” is also an interesting piece, created through the improv work of the Rabbit Hole Ensemble. The company, committed to emphasizing the communal nature of theater, puts its own stamp on the original Dr. Jekyll tale. The result is a deft, and mostly very professional, piece, thanks to actors Paul Daily, Amanda Broomell and Emily Hartford, and to director Edward Elefterion. Though not on the exciting level of the prior-mentioned three shows, “Transformation” is certainly entertaining.

Less satisfying indeed is the two-hour musical “Fallen Angel.” In creating a rock opera about the fall of Satan, writers Justin Murphy and Roger Butterley have assumed a monumental task, tackling the tale which forms the basis of our own Judeo-Christian mythology. But, alas, this sung-through opera is never equal to its promise. Its musical themes tend to be limited and repetitious. Not until the second act, when the action heats up, is more variation offered. As to the lyrics, repetition is also the name of the game, and the lyrics are often drowned by the instrumental back-up.

Yet the production itself is highly professional, with a company of first-rate performers, whose voices are nurtured by the fine acoustics of the Village Theatre. In particular, the stirring voice of Robert E. Butterley (who plays God) has the opportunity to shine, as do Mike McGowan as Lucifer and other cast members. As to the future of the show, if it could tone down its keyboard accompaniment and beef up its lyrics and musical themes, “Fallen Angel” might well come into its own.

Most disappointing of all was “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Here’s wallpaper which peels off and falls on its face. Based on Charlotte Perkins Gilman original 1913 short story, it had every reason to be a first-class drama. The original piece about a woman’s descent into madness packed an enormous wallop. Focused, intense, unrelenting, it leaped to life from the written page. But playwright Brian Madden, who has chosen to dramatize this piece, introduces many elements non-existent in the original. He attempts to create the stories of two separate women—past and present—rather than a single heroine. Communicating with each other through the yellow wallpaper, they find both have lost babies. This additional embroidery fails abysmally, merely adding confusion to the story. There is no sense of a woman’s descent into madness. Actresses Shawneen Rowe and Jenna Morris frequently toss back their hair or change their hair style to suggest great angst, but it does not work. For the genuine experience, the emotional jolt, avoid this “Yellow Wallpaper” and pick up the original story at a library or book store!

So much for the New York Fringe in August. Plays were everywhere, and we viewers raced about town as we tracked them down. Though we saw too little to make an overall evaluation, and what we did see varied in quality, this marathon was well worth the effort.

-- Irene Backalenick
Aug. 21, 2006

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