downtownexpress.com

Volume 19 • Issue 13 | August 11 - 17, 2006

N.Y. Fringe Fest celebrates 10 years

Photo by Rachel Roberts
“Americana Absurdum,” the play that helped launch the first New York International Fringe Festival, returns this year in honor of its tenth anniversary.

Brian Parks is being humble. During a recent rehearsal of his “two separate but related plays” that he paired together and titled “Americana Absurdum,” the playwright refuses to make any grand claim that his show launched the New York International Fringe Festival. But these are the facts: when the original director of Parks’ one-acts, John Clancy of the Present Company, wanted to bring “Absurdum” to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, Clancy’s associate Elena K. Holly tallied the cost, and the company decided it would be far cheaper to stay in town, and present it as part of the city’s own fringe fest. This was New York, after all, the world’s epicenter for theater—why was everyone schlepping to Scotland anyway?

Now, 10 years after “Absurdum” premiered at the first Fringe Festival in New York, Parks’ plays—two hyperbolic, side-splitting stabs at American values—have since been mounted at the all-important Edinburgh Fringe, where it won a Fringe First award; The Menier Chocolate Factory in London; and recently, P.S. 122. Its success is matched by the festival’s own impressive growth. Now the country’s largest multi-arts festival, this year’s Fringe, which begins August 11, showcases over 220 works from 11 countries and 20 states. It also includes alumni shows like “Absurdum,” which will be presented at the Lucille Lortel Theater with three of the original cast members. “We hope it will live up to its legend,” says Parks. Following are 10 new Fringe shows that can only hope to have as an impressive a run.

The Unlucky Man in the Yellow Cap
At 75 years old, Zuzana Justman is becoming a theatrical producer for the first time. “I’m still able to learn,” she says.“I’m certainly not retired.”

A filmmaker by trade, Justman also translated and adapted “The Unlucky Man in the Yellow Cap” from the original Czech, written by her late brother J.R. Pick. Pick was a well-known author and playwright whose work was banned in his own country for twenty years by the communist regime.

“Unlucky Man,” which is receiving its American premiere at the Fringe, is a play with music about an unusual love affair in the Terezin ghetto in 1944.

“This play is different from most Holocaust art,” Justman says. “It has humor and wonderful songs, and the characters have flaws. They aren’t heroes—they’re human.”

Pick and Justman spent two years in Terezin as children, and both have addressed the Holocaust repeatedly in their films, plays, and writing. “I’m a survivor,” says Justman, “and I think we all have a need to tell the story.” — Rachel Fershleiser

“The Unlucky Man in the Yellow Cap” runs at the Henry Street Harry De Jur Playhouse (466 Grand Street at Pitt Street) 8/11, 8/12, 8/13, 8/19, and 8/23 (www.unluckyman.com).

Blue Balls
Michael Tester is, as far as he knows, the only man in New York City history to graduate with honors from both the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and the Police Academy.

The son of two performers, Tester ran away from the circus and joined the NYPD. “I was surrounded by fantasy constantly,” he says. “The real world seemed exotic.”

“Blue Balls,” which debuts at the Fringe, is the first public airing of Tester’s life as an openly gay cop — the accomplishments, the frustrations, and ultimately the discrimination that ended his law enforcement career.

The actor, playwright, and composer took a small settlement in exchange for no gag order. “I don’t think I could live with myself if I didn’t tell the story,” Tester says, but he’s been very particular about the way in which it’s told. He rejected book deals and television movies because everyone wanted him to play the martyr. Instead, this four-character play portrays his journey from actor to cop to ex-cop theatre artist in all its subtleties, and revels in the inherent humor of the situation.

“It’s not a demonization of the NYPD,” he says. “I made mistakes too. If anything, it’s a bittersweet story of love gone sour.” — R.F.

“Blue Balls” plays at The Flea Theater (41 White Street) 8/11, 8/1, 8/17, 8/19, 8/22, and 8/25 (www.BroadwayClubhouse .com).

Mike’s Incredible Indian Adventure
“Mike’s Incredible Indian Adventure” is a play about a film about a play. For all those layers, the premise is strange, simple, and true: Michael Schlitt directed a production of a Neil Simon classic on tour in India.

“This tantalizing offer came up to direct there and my first thought was ‘that is so so weird,’” he says. “Simon is specific to an American, urban, sitcom sensibility.”

To remedy that problem, the production’s Indian benefactor suggested they add four sexy dancing girls and some musical numbers from other sources. At that point, Schlitt gave himself over. “I just kept repeating my new mantra—bad is good.”

The actors were received like rock stars in India, put up in five star hotels and interviewed on national television, but the documentary film Schlitt was trying to make about the experience fell apart, and culture clashes left him feeling lost and depressed.

The autobiographical monologue he’ll be performing at the Fringe is the result of years processing the experience. “It resonates because it’s not really about making a movie,” he says. “It’s about trying to do something meaningful with your life.” — R.F.

“Mike’s Incredible Indian Adventure” plays at The Flea Theater (41 White Street in Tribeca) on 8/15, 8/17, 8/22, 8/26, and 8/27 (www.mikeschlitt.com).

Puppet Government
Puppetry can be a craft studied for a lifetime and passed down through generations. It can also be a flash of inspiration and some eyebrows glued to a can opener. For Steve Barney, it was the latter, and by all accounts the results are hilarious.

“Puppet Government,” an Austin show that is receiving a longer, more fully realized run at the Fringe, reimagines the Bush administration as a coterie of performing household appliances. Dick Cheney, a rather malevolent-looking googlie-eyed Cuisinart, sings “It’s not easy being mean” as Condoleeza Ricecooker tries to reason with her boss.

“Our goal is to use humor to bring bigger truths to life,” says Barney, who wrote the script and plays Dubya — as a can opener. “It’s fun, but packs a punch in the gut.”

Consumer products struck Barney as the perfect analogy for today’s culture, in which we are constantly asked to buy the Bush rhetoric. A main plot point in “Puppet Government” is a salesman’s pitch for the Amazing 12-in-1 War in Iraq—a camouflage-patterned blender. “The idea was sold to the American people,” he says, “in a series of infomercials that turned out to be false advertising.”

Like products and puppets, even policy decisions come with strings attached. — R.F.

“Puppet Government” runs at The Players Loft (115 MacDougal St.) 8/20, 8/21, 8/23, 8/24, 8/25, 8/26, and 8/27 (www.chrishumphrey.org/puppetgov).

Danny Boy
Dating is New York is likely to make anyone feel too fat, too poor, too uncool to be worthy. In “Danny Boy,” playwright (and lawyer) Marc Goldsmith looks at living and loving in Manhattan through the eyes of a too short man — or in modern parlance, a little person.

Stephen Jutras, the 4’4” dwarf who plays Danny, fell in love with the script before he knew Goldsmith. “When I met him, I was blown away,” he says. “The realism of it—I could have sworn it was written by a little person.”

The full-sized playwright was inspired by a close friend, a short-statured woman who has given the play her seal of approval. And though his other recent plays — about retirees and the Mafioso — also seem to explore subcultures to which he does not belong, Goldsmith strives for universality.

“In each of the plays there has been some strain of autobiography,” he says. “I don’t want ‘Danny Boy’ to just be about the plight of little people. It’s about insecurity, self-image, and learning to accept yourself in all your strengths and your imperfections—who doesn’t struggle with that?” — R.F.

Danny Boy runs at Classic Stage (136 E. 13th Street) on 8/11, 8/11, 8/15, 8/17. and 8/19 (www.dannyboytheplay.com).


Girl Scouts of America
What is a play about an established organization like the Girl Scouts doing in an alternative festival like the Fringe? According to Mona Monsour, co-author, along with Andrea Berloff of “Girl Scouts of America,” the work’s edginess comes from the fact that it is a sincere tribute to the survival techniques they both learned in the Girl Scouts.

Its story — which Monsour describes as “part memory play and part Girl Scout camp” — cuts back and forth between two pairs of women whose lives ultimately link up in the end: camp counselors who fall in and out of love, and Scouts whose mishaps and encounters are framed in terms of badges the girls earn, like the “Finding Your Way” badge.

“It’s a really value-based organization. It teaches you to be nice to each other,” says Berloff, who also wrote the film “World Trade Center,” which opens this week. She too has been fending off questions about the play’s sincerity. “We are not making fun of the Girl Scouts in any way. It’s a celebration of girlhood and Girl Scouts and being dorky.” —Steven Snyder

“Girl Scouts of America” runs at Henry Street Settlement Recital Hall (466 Grand St.) Aug. 11, 13, 15, 17, 19, and 20 (www.girlscoutstheplay.com).

Open House
If there’s anything that divides Americans more than typical red-state-blue-state quibbles, it’s predicting when the housing market will crash for good. Ross Maxwell touches on the sensitive subject of real estate in “Open House,” his play about a family that erects a patriotic “war on terrorism” garden display on their lawn, making it difficult for the white-collar couple next door to sell their home.

It’s a “clash over patriotism, capitalism and trying to sell your home,” says Maxwell, who based the play upon the problems his own parents had with neighbors and homeowner’s associations in the suburban town of Beaverton, Oregon. “It’s an absurd form of suburban warfare.”

“Open House” marks Maxwell’s follow-up to his previous show, “Croatoan,” which told the story of a mother and daughter who were abandoned by their father. It was criticized for presenting the characters in an experimental way that disconnected the audience from the realities of this broken family.

Maxwell says the characters are more identifiable in “Open House,” which is directed by Josh Hecht, who helmed the Drama Desk Award-winning “Christine Jorgensen Reveals.” Taking no sides in the bitter political debate now gripping our country, Maxwell says both families are fair game: “Both are blown way out of proportion for comedic effect. We’ll see how they clash on stage.” —S.S.

“Open House” runs at Access Theater (380 Broadway, 4th Floor, between Walker and White), Aug. 11, 13, 16, 19, 22 26 (www.partialcomfort.org).

Billy The Mime
You’ve got to give Billy one thing: He’s committed. Not only to his mime act, which has garnered praise from such outlets as the New York Post and comedian Jimmy Kimmel, but also to the fact that he does his best to avoid the clichés of modern miming.

“I want to say right off, I hate mimes,” he says within a minute of answering the phone in California. “Most of them are pretentious and boring and not trained and they don’t know what they’re doing.”

And so Billy – who is quick to say he’s not affiliated with the more conventional Bili the Mime – has decided to go in a different direction, with routines that have little to do with standard mime fare such as being trapped in a box or walking the dog. Instead, his pieces run the gamut from Sept. 11 to abortion, Terry Schaivo, and even a piece titled “JFK. Jr., we hardly knew you.”

“It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen a mime do, it’s territory that hasn’t been explored before,” he says, “While they’re shocking pieces, I don’t consider them just another SNL sketch. I’m trying to sustain a piece of theater.”

What does a sustained piece about abortion – done silently through miming – look like?

“You have to see it to believe it,” Billy says. —S.S.

“Billy the Mime” runs at The Players Theater (115 MacDougal Street, south of West 3rd) Aug. 12, 13, 17, 20, and 25 (www.billythemime.net).

A Time to be Born: A 1940’s New York Musical
Rebecca Frank, general manager of “A Time to be Born: A 1940’s New York Musical,” says she was reading Dawn Powell’s 1942 book by the same name shortly after Sept. 11, when the parallels between America then and now became unmistakable.

“It takes place when America was on the brink of joining the Second World War, and so much of it still feels timely for today,” Frank says. “The opening number, about the world on the brink, wondering what would be in the paper the next day…the way war affects people and the anxiety of knowing the world might end tomorrow makes people act differently.”

Yet she says “A Time to be Born” is not a musical about woe and uncertainty, but a fun, clever and catchy work about people taking chances and celebrating life. The story focuses on Vicky, an Ohio girl who leaves the Midwest after losing her fiancé, who tries her hand at living amid the frenzy of Manhattan. Once east, her Midwestern naivety and sincerity serve her well, but always looming in the background is the notion of war and the future’s uncertainty.

Frank was drawn to the work for several reasons. “It’s really clever, it has a great score, it has wonderful dancing…[and] the time is always right for a musical.” —S.S.

“A Time to be Born: A 1940’s New York Musical” is at The Lucille Lortel Theater (121 Christopher Street) 21, 23, 25, 26, and 27 (www.atimetobebornmusical.com).

Every Nigger Is A Star
Mario Burrell says the title of his new show has been judged so provocative by some media outlets that they have refused to print the complete title. “However, if history has taught us anything,” he writes on the show’s web site, “It has taught us that... trying to silence a word does not make the word go away or lessen the pain when it is heard.”

In “Every Nigger Is A Star,” Burrell explores the pain this word has caused in the entertainment industry, building a story around a young black man and his father, who happens to be the first prominent black publicist in Hollywood. Partially an insider’s story, Burrell also takes a step back to look at how Hollywood projects black culture, reinforcing and exploiting stereotypes through its products.

Performed for enthused audiences and critics late last year in Los Angeles, Burrell says he hopes this breakdown of Hollywood, both in terms of an industry and a creator of cultural identity, will redefine the n word.

“The inspiration for the title came from the Black community’s ability to turn their history of oppression and slavery into things of beauty: poetry, dance, music, civil rights movements, novels – the list goes on and on…It is this spirit, making beauty out of pain, that ‘Every Nigger Is A Star’ celebrates.” — S.S.

“Every Nigger Is A Star” is at the Henry St. Settlement Aug. 12, 15, 19, 22, and 23 (www.everyniggerisastar.com).



Home

Downtown Express is published by
Community Media LLC.
145 Sixth Avenue, New York, NY 10013
Phone: (212) 229-1890 Fax: (212) 229-2790
Advertising: (646) 452-2465 •
© 2006 Community Media, LLC

Email: news@downtownexpress.com


Written permission of the publisher
must be obtainedbefore any of the contents
of this newspaper, in whole or in part,
can be reproduced or redistributed.