Contributor Lindsay B. Davis unravels some of the best productions of this year’s New York International Fringe Festival.
One of the first questions an audience member asked writer/performer Lee J. Kaplan about his solo piece, Bully, during the post-show talkback was not a question but a comment. A lean, 70-something-year-old man with a crisp voice said from his seat, “This play reminded me of a bullying experience I had…” He went on to explain how a workplace bully victimized him as an adult and that Bully captured so many of his feelings. What followed was an engaging dialogue where audience members opened up about their own experiences, shared survivor stories and affirmed Kaplan and Director Padraic Lillis for delivering a palpable work of theater that raises awareness while teaching you to fight back and “stand up to the bully.”
Bully is a triumphant story about a Jewish boy from Florida with a talent for impersonations who spent the majority of his youth teased and tossed around but eventually finds his voice, strength and salvation. Kaplan draws on his own sixth grade journals (nicknamed “Understandable” and addressed as “Dear U,”) for source material and uses the power of imagination and theater to put the past to bed.
Enter the Rocky-inspired Kaplan of 2013, a man who trains to become a boxer and conquer his demons: former bullies with names like “The Snake” and “The Worm,” who still exist as haunting memories as well as internalized, negative voices in his head (“You blew that audition! Quit! Give up!”) One might think that Kaplan leveraged boxing experience for this performance piece but that’s not the case. He trained rigorously to convincingly portray a boxer but before Bully, never boxed a day in his life.
With robust energy, Kaplan muscles through the 60-minute piece with a Robin Williams-like intensity. It is personal empowerment happening in real time and structured to suggest the hero’s journey cannot happen without the support of the audience. In a moment of tribal unity, Kaplan asks for a collective “howl” and the majority of the audience spiritedly oblige. While impressive, at times you almost want Kaplan to slow down and realize he doesn’t have to work so hard to win you over, which would give a little more space for some of the material to resonate. Yet, understandably, when someone is in the ring fighting for his or her life, there usually isn’t time to take a breather. Under the compassionate and visceral direction of Lillis (who has worked on Broadway, national tours, Off-Broadway and Tony Award-winning regional theater), Kaplan has the room to play big, be bold, drench a towel with the sweat of his brow and ring it dry.
Bully functions not only as a typical, autobiographically-based solo vehicle in which the writer/actor plays multiple characters — in this case, his childhood teacher, various childhood bullies, former athletic coach, younger self, a cheerleader, and his younger brother, to name a few — but also as political theater. The biggest seed of potential for Kaplan, whose excited and excitable onstage presence is balanced with a grounded, affable and approachable demeanor witnessed during the talkback — is as an agent for social change. Based on the sweat and tears that went into Bully, Kaplan seems ready and up for the challenge. And if the visibly moved, positive audience response is any indicator, so are the people.
Ndebele Funeral tells another story of survival in a brilliant piece by Zoey Martinson (TBS’ Are We There Yet, The Public’s All’s Well That Ends Well), who wrote/produced and stars in this powerful and affecting play about an educated, HIV-positive South African woman, Daweti, courting death from her shantytown home in Soweto by using government-provided building materials to build her own coffin. The only light to enter her dilapidated environment and broken heart comes in the form of her best friend, Thabo (Yusef Miller), a ball of sunshine and wit seeking to be her savior. Miller (Classic Stage Company, New York Theatre Workshop, Classical Theatre of Harlem and himself an accomplished playwright) is the perfect compliment to Martinson’s Daweti and their relationship is beautifully layered. Their equally matched intelligence, vulnerability and fire create one of the most affecting male/female friendships I’ve ever seen on stage.
When their spirited conversations are interrupted by the presence of Jan, an Afrikaner government officer tasked with performing routine shantytown checks, events take a dramatic turn. Jan, effectively brought to life by Jonathan David Martin. Ndebele Funeral is produced through Mirror Collaborative, where Martin and Martinson serve as Co-Artistic Directors. The creative team also includes director Awoye Timpo (Joyce Theater, The Public, Juilliard), who understands the rhythms and pacing of storytelling, and choreographer Sduduzo Ka-Mbili, whose perfectly placed gumboot dancing sequences unify the three characters. The addition of original music by Spirits Indigenous keeps the 80-minute piece swiftly moving along. The show’s startling conclusion at once brings relief and takes your breath away.
VENUE #11: Teatro Circulo
64 East 4th Street (Btwn: Bowery & 2nd Avenue)
Friday, August 23, 7 p.m.
Sunday, August 25, 2 p.m.