At this year’s New York International Fringe Festival, nearly 200 shows will be presented in 18 unique venues, bringing together approximately 5,000 artists in a two-week celebration of live theatre.
Bolstered by an anything-can-happen sense of surprise, the Fringe offers theatergoers a vast array of low-cost, artistically challenging entertainment options. It’s my first year covering the Fringe in depth, and I’ve chosen a wide array of offerings – comedies and dramas, experimental pieces and traditional plays. With pen and pad in hand, I’m venturing forth to see a number of productions, reporting back to musicOMH with my findings.
A Raisin in the Salad: Black Plays for White People
by Kevin R. Free, directed by Christopher Burris
On Monday, August 16, my expansive Fringe binge was off to a killer start with A Raisin in the Salad: Black Plays for White People, a new play by Kevin R. Free that seeks to blow the lid off of racial stereotypes in entertainment media.
The metathetrical premise of the play is this: Lelund Durond Thompson plays Kevin R. Free, the writer of the play, who’s concerned with his flat portrayals of characters as racial stereotypes. He’s constantly writing roles for Whitelady, but he’s not quite sure how to dig deeply enough into her psyche. Blackboy and Blackgirl seem like natural fits, but still he finds himself stuck in a morass of racial prejudices.
Dividing the evening into a series of clever vignettes (placards announce the arrival of each new segment), Free takes on a variety of writers, including August Wilson (The Kazoo Lesson), Kia Corthron (Breast, Boom), Tarell Alvin McCraney, (A Brother Sighs), and Lorraine Hansberry (the title segment). In addition, there are sections based on The Blind Side, Oreos, Tyler Perry, awards shows, you name it.
The show is hysterically funny throughout. Director Christopher Burris is similarly impressive in the energetic on-stage role of Blackboy, matched by Charlotte Cohn, who, as Whitelady, has her timing down pat. The rest of the cast, including Samatha Debicki as Whitegirl, Nicholas Job as Whiteboy, and Jennifer Nikki Kidwell as Blackgirl are superlative; there’s rarely a bum note.
The audience on the night I attended was in stitches throughout. Though a few of the segments fell flat in the second half of the evening, as Free decides to darken the piece near its conclusion, he finds some unexpected notes of grace and truth. Providing both hilarity and substance, A Raisin in the Sun makes for a welcome evening of theatre – refreshing and original, challenging but approachable.
Bottom Line: MUST SEE
Remaining Shows: FRI 20 @ 9:15, MON 23 @ 5
AK-47 Sing Along
by Samara Weiss, directed by Lucy Cashion
HERE Mainstage Theatre
On Tuesday, the 17th, I ventured to HERE Arts Center for AK-47 Sing-Along, an exploration of children’s TV in the Middle East, focusing on two competing incarnations of Sesame Street (one in Hebrew and one in Arabic) as well as Tomorrow’s Victors, a propaganda show that encourages young Palestinians to anhilate their Jewish counterparts.
In its first fifteen minutes, Weiss’s script is off to an intelligent start. Fictitious segments from Palestinian children’s TV are presented first, seemingly innocuously, in their original language. Next, we’re presented with their shocking subtitles (Mary de la Torre as Salwa and Devin Bokaer, in a rabbit costume, as Nisr are excellent in their roles as children’s TV hosts).
Once the premise of the play is introduced, Weiss introduces us to three central characters – Jake, an Israeli Sesame Street employee, Hassan, a Palestinian Sesame Street employee, and Quentin, a visiting American. Quentin’s connection with the Middle Eastern characters is only cursorily drawn, unfortunately, and, while many moments in Weiss’s script ring true, her script would have benefited from the contributions of more experienced actors; her cast her seems well-intentioned but underpowered.
The play – through its graphic design and marketing – seems to set itself up as an irreverent, topical extension of Avenue Q but ends up as something more serious. Unfortunately, that more serious play fails to live up to expectations. There are plenty of great ideas on hand about children’s media and the way we’re influenced by our earliest exposure to ideas, but without a more adept production, Weiss’s rather accomplished script seems not to have been given the dynamic attention it deserves.
Bottom Line: SEE IT, with reservations
Remaining Shows: SAT 21 @ NOON
Butterfly, Butterfly, Kill Kill Kill!
written and directed by Patrick Harrison
First Floor Theatre @ La Mama
On Wednesday the 18th came the most experimental show of my Fringe frenzy thus far. Butterfly, Butterfly, Kill Kill Kill! is a dynamic, highly theatrical take on Japanese director Seijun Suzuki’s film Branded to Kill. Featuring a lively cast of seven, it’s best not to expect a plot from this show, which is equal parts fun and frustration.
The show begins by creating a strange, almost incomprehensible pre-show atmosphere and is quickly off to a zany, manic start, plunging audience members headfirst into the world of Suzuki’s unique cinematic style. The herky-jerky movement and odd vocal tics lend a comic tenor to the proceedings. Some of the tongue-in-cheek fun to be had with Japanese accents is ill-considered, and some segments stretch on too long (particularly one involving sex with rice and another involving a human butterfly attacking its prey), but for the most part the Asian film gimmickry entertains throughout. The text, by Patrick Harrison, who also directs and stars, is often well-chosen, and the live music from Dave Harrington is most impressive (he’s got the out-there 1960s aural vibe down pat).
Clocking in at a mere hour, the show just about wears out its welcome by the time it’s over. The atmosphere when I was in attendance was hopped up on the incomprehensible glee of the piece, which is visually exciting (full of great sight gags and lighting tricks) but also, on some almost imperceptible level, textually interesting.
Bottom Line: SEE IT
Remaining Shows: THURS 19 @ 2
For more information about the New York International Fringe Festival, visit fringenyc.org.