Contributor Lindsay B. Davis delivers a diverse round-up of this year’s New York International Fringe Festival.
The 2013 FringeNYC festival drew to a close on August 25th and upon its completion, my appreciation for indie theater artists reached epic heights. It takes major artistic mojo to perform a new or relatively unknown work before New York audiences in a venue you didn’t choose, stretch a low budget (most of which you probably crowdsourced) to the max and deal with minimal sets you are required to strike shortly after the show ends, often in haste if another production is starting in 15 minutes. Add to that the challenge of generating buzz and leveraging said buzz into ticket sales within a day or two of opening during the lazy, hazy August days of summer and you get the picture. Whether packing the house or suffering the effects of a painfully early or late time slot, earning a nomination and award or going home empty handed, every one of the approximately 2000 artists from 185 plays who participated in the Fringe deserves a hearty bravo.
Below is a lightening round of top-line responses to every Fringe play I attended. If any make it to an Off Broadway, Regional or Broadway theater, The Broadway Blog can say we knew them when!
Bully by Lee J. Kaplan– An inspiring, enthusiastic piece and FringeNYC Overall Excellence Award winner for Best Director (Padraic Lillis). See previous Broadway Blog post for a full review.
First Hand Woman by Sarah Michelle Brown– Stellar Canadian import and one of my favorites of the festival, it imagines a single woman’s post break up sensibility as the 5 stages of grief personified: Denial, Depression, Anger, Bargaining, and Acceptance. A beautifully staged, choreographed and layered piece, it features a breakthrough performance from actress Nicole Maroon.
Freefall Frostbite by Michael Fixel, scored by Fixel and Marc Irwin – Director/Actress/Choreographer Julie Fixel leads a high-energy cast through an original rock musical with Shakespearean inspired verse that has potential but needs tightening.
Lies We Tell Ourselves (when flamethrowers aren’t enough) by Josh Sohn– A good script and solid performances are not given proper light. Literally. The lighting design hid or starkly over-illuminated the actors’ faces, doing more to diminish what was happening on stage than convey the desired artistic effect. Stand out performance from actor Luke Forbes as Parker.
Like Poetry by Kristian O’Hare– A disco ball, dancing men in neon, glow-in-the-dark bodysuits and a dreamscape Walt Whitman are just a few of the theatrical elements on display in this ambitious albeit uneven piece that at its heart is a simple story about a boy’s struggle to become a man and the places he finds inspiration.
Ndebele Funeral by Zoey Martinson– A brilliant script, the demands of which the actors fulfill with their powerful and nuanced performances. See previous Broadway Blog post for full review. A FringeNYC Overall Excellence Award winner for Overall Play.
Pep Talk by Alberto Ramos– Only after the performance was I made aware this monologue play is modeled after a TED Talk but during the piece, the unclear context (see above note about venue assignments) left me confused as to what was really happening. Despite that, the character’s fiery, motivational speech wisdom and pompous yet self-deprecating comedic nature kept me in his corner.
Recipe For Success With Chef Michael Denardi by Peter Grosz– This one-man comedy about a wannabe celebrity chef fighting for his break while struggling to overcome his own self-esteem problems had its moments but ultimately did not live up to the buzz.
Somewhere Safer by Lauren Ferebee – Intelligent and well-articulated ideas hindered by characters whose relationships were not developed enough to feel invested in their fate. A significantly stronger second act left me wondering if the play’s sequence can be adjusted in a revision.
Suicide Math – Full review below.
This is a Play About Artists by Ginger Kearns – If Alanis Morissette had a performance artist younger sister, she would be Narrator, a woman who derives quirky, subversive artistic inspiration from a soul crushing on-again-off-again relationshippy-ish love affair with a poet. I kind of loved and definitely related to her creation, which includes a trio of men with artistic sensibilities and downtown appeal.
What Every Girl Should Know by Monica Byrne – Eye opening and seamlessly executed piece about four teenage girls whose lives are powerfully altered when they adopt Margaret Sanger as their patron saint. Provocative and daring, it evoked a similar feeling as when I saw Spring Awakening at the Atlantic. A well-deserved Fringe Award winner for Best Ensemble.
REVIEW: Suicide Math by Jim Shankman
Few plays touch the subjects of suicide or mathematics. Romeo & Juliet and Proof aside, shows that deal with either topic (let alone both at the same time) comprise a short list. For this reason and based on title alone, I was intrigued to see Suicide Math, a new play by Jim Shankman. Set at Princeton in 1972, it begins after a young, male math student jumps out of an ivory tower to his death. We learn about the event through the reaction of his best friend, Frank (David Gelles), who is tasked with piecing together a suicide note left in the form of complex, computer programming code.
Frank’s own mental state fast comes into question as he becomes possessed with deciphering and manic about unearthing the meaning of the code. Meanwhile, Frank’s roommate, Michael (Jonathan Randell Silver), a shy Jewish boy who functions with tremendous emotional reserve and at times catatonic detachment, must cope with his brother’s MIA status in war-torn Vietnam. The night is shortly underway when Lydia (Sarah Shankerman, the playwright’s daughter), a sensuous hippy from Vassar fresh off a bad night with a really bad guy, arrives drunk and wrapped in an American flag while toting a bag full of booze and her own grief to boot.
Shankman endows each character with their own driving needs and high stakes but there is not much in the way of levity in Suicide Math, and the piece begins to drag like that long computer code which can’t be solved. The use of musical interludes – a hit list of the era from Zeppelin and Hendrix to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell – felt too familiar and clichéd. One wants to hear songs more surprising as opposed to a syllabus from Classic Rock 101.
Directorial issues begin to jump out at as well, including Lydia’s consistently downcast eyes and upstaging, both of which cheat the audience of a complete picture, as well as the bulk of the physical action between Lydia and Michael happening off stage, which diminishes their believability as a couple. That said, it is a touching portrait of youth — the awkwardness, the fear, the drinking, the sex, the compulsions, the tics — all responses to hits from life that quickly launch a person, unready and without a say, from child into adult. Gelles shows an impressive command of a wordy script and stands out as the boy who hurls every ounce of grief into his problem-solving mission. Silver’s disciplined portrayal of Michael, while at times simply too restrained, evokes deep compassion. The young Sarah Shankman has a lost girl charm who pulls at your heart strings and conveys the sense of being weighed down by life far too soon. You root for all three characters in the world of Suicide Math, whose pain it actually feels refreshing to watch. The piece is a nostalgic reminder that before the age of smartphones and in the absence of so many distractions, kids were forced to find their words entirely on paper or in person.
Lindsay B. Davis is a journalist, actress, playwright, producer and director. She resides in New York City.