My final weekend of Fringe fare consisted of one musical, POPE!, and one play, Hearts Full of Blood. While neither was perfect, both had merit as well-crafted, thematically ambitious shows with energetic, talented casts.
As this year’s Fringe festivities come to a close, I present to you my final pair of reviews – at least until the FringeNYC Encore Series kicks off next week (as a matter of coincidence both of my final Fringe shows made the cut)!
POPE! An Epic Musical
book and lyrics by Justin Moran, music by Christopher Pappas, directed by Greg Moran, choreographed by Adam Podd
Lucille Lortel Theatre
The character of Pope in POPE! An Epic Musical has been thusly named because his parents have always wanted him to grow up to be leader of the Catholic church. Buying into this dream, Pope, though he loves pretty young Mary Elizabeth, devotes himself to God instead, preferring to “do it in the Mass.”
Things go awry when he’s falsely accused of committing lurid crimes in the Vatican, and Pope ends up in exile thanks to the conniving Archbishop and his hanger-on, Duncan. Wholly unsatisfied with his new life away from holy stardom, Pope plots his comeback and, because he exists inside a musical, succeeds.
The show, with book and lyrics by Justin Moran and music by Christopher Pappas, features plenty of jaunty songs , especially in its first half, before the show’s jokes begin to wear thin. By the time the second half has approached, the irreverent, unexpected jokes that made POPE! so refreshing to start with begin to grow stale.
Clocking in at ninety minutes, the show could stand to be thirty minutes shorter. The creators of POPE! have plenty of clever ideas, but the humor of Pope’s escapades wear thin once the revelation of his sex scandal replaces the piece’s subtle humor with a more overt brand of obvious laughs (see: nuns in Charlie’s Angels poses).
POPE!, which largely omits references to any specifics (specific popes or historical moments), seems to still be finding the balance between presenting a clever concept and telling a satisfying (and satisfyingly quirky) story.
Ryan Nelson is handsome and winning as Pope, and Liz Bachman makes a strong impression as Mary Elizabeth. Scott Hart, however, makes a disappointingly hammy Archbishop. Despite a mostly fine cast, POPE! An Epic Musical, which has a clever concept in its favor, is ultimately still in search of its voice.
Bottom Line: SKIP IT
Remaining Shows: (As part of the FringeNYC Encore Series) 9/16 @ 9:30, 9/24 @ 7:00, 9/25 @ 10:30, 9/26 @ 4:00
Hearts Full of Blood
by James Asmus, directed by Andrew Hobgood
HERE Mainstage Theater
My final Fringe offering was a darkly comic play entitled Hearts Full of Blood, produced by Chicago-based company The New Colony, an actor-based theatre that created the piece collectively along with writer James Asmus (who’s credited as writer). The play is based on a true story (giving away too many details would spoil the play’s surprise) and occasionally relies too much on the shock of the central plot twist.
The play focuses on a married couple, Jacob and Alison, whose lives seem practically perfect. They’re the kind of couple who invite their single friends over in none-too-subtle attempts at playing matchmaker. As their relationship is tested to its breaking point by the revelation of a secret, their two unwitting friends – lawyer Kirk and bouncy, blunt Suellen – are brought closer together, much to their surprise and chagrin.
It’s difficult to say much about the play’s plot without giving too much away, but this twistedly funny play mixes the pathos of Oedipal tragedy with ripped-from-the-headlines sensationalism. Imagine, if you will, what Oedipus would look like on Dr. Phil and you’ve got some sense of the impetus behind Hearts Full of Blood.
The play is consistently well-acted; Gary Tiedemann and Sarah Gitenstein are heartbreaking as Jacob an Alison respectively, portraying the sad truths of these two star-crossed lovers’ life together. Snarky Evan Linder provides ample support as Kirk, while Mary Hollis Inboden provides a breakout performance as Suellen, undercutting the play’s darker edges with a clear shock of humor.
While the subject matter and cast excel, however, the play, like its imperfect characters, has its share of flaws. While James Asmus’s script balances comedy and drama with an uncanny level of adroitness, the sensationalism the play acquires following the “big reveal” of the piece seems consistently pitched on one level when it could have maintained a subtle effectiveness.
Several shouting matches throughout the play go largely unmediated by director Andrew Hobgood, who keeps the play moving at an unwavering fever pitch. Though Jacob and Allison’s vigorous misunderstandings seem wholly realistic, however, their arguments take place at a consistently overly emotive level, leaving an audience no emotional space in which to explore the situations on display. None of these flaws is alleviated by the play’s hopeful ending, which fails to acknowledge the complexities of the play as a whole. Though the New Colony’s efforts are to be applauded and the top-notch cast makes the most of the material on hand, additional focus on the playwright’s unifying concept for the piece would have surely helped tighten Hearts Full of Blood.
Bottom Line: SEE IT, with reservations
Remaining Shows: (As part of the FringeNYC Encore Series) 9/9 @ 9:30, 9/10 @ 7:00, 9/12 @ 3:00, 9/14 @ 8:00
For more information about the New York International Fringe Festival, visit fringenyc.org.