Ending my first week at the Fringe, I took in two shows on Friday and one on Saturday – two plays (one of them Shakespeare), and one promising musical (about group therapy!).
In Chris Kelly’s How My Mother Died of Cancer, I found my first favorite of the Fringe (my thoughts can be found below) and also my first cringeworthy experience (a punk adaptation of Richard III). Here’s what I have to say about all three shows.
How My Mother Died of Cancer, and Other Bedtime Stories
by Chris Kelly, directed by Laura Moss
The Robert Moss Theatre
My Friday evening was off to a fantastic start with How My Mother Died of Cancer, and Other Bedtime Stories. The title, it has to be said, promises something twisted and morbidly depressing, but I’m happy to report that the play is actually warm, funny, provocative, and consistently entertaining.
Playwright Chris Kelly has written a metatheatrical play centered on the story of his protagonist, Kate, who wants to reenact the story of her mother’s death. She enlists her brother Tim, her dad, her friends Lena and Trent, and her brother’s friend Barry to help in the task. The only “actor” in the play, Kate tells us, is the woman playing her mom (hence the play within the play). Beginning with a rousing musical number, the genius of Kelly’s play is its ability to hold an audience assuredly in the palm of its hand – shocking us with fits of laughter one moment by breaking out a hugely inappropriate joke, then bringing us to quiet attention the next.
There are quite a few funny gags in the show, including a cancerous game of Risk, Wheel of Cancer (based on Wheel of Fortune), and an infomercial for a series of exercise videos aimed at cancer patients. Each fits fancifully into the proceedings. As the play develops, we begin to realize that the enactment of this script – which is repeatedly interrupted by Kate’s father, who feels left out – is actually a primary element of the grieving process for Kate; this heartfelt revelation speaks to the power of theatre (and humor) to heal and to bring people together.
As a child, Kate’s mother would stories – her own little monologues, each made up off the cuff. As adults, it seems fitting that her children memorialize her in the form of a play. Retelling stories about her assures that they won’t forget her. After all, isn’t that what connects us as human beings – our desire and ability to witness one another’s foibles and feel all the more enlivened by doing so?
As directed with manic energy by Laura Moss, the evening races by without a single instance of watch-checking boredom. Chris Kelly’s play shows us that it’s OK to laugh again after a tragedy; in fact, even laughing at the grisly realities of life can be heartening. And the cast assembled here is top-notch; Elizabeth Romanski makes an affable narrator, and Sharon Wyse is pointedly funny as Mom, a quirky combination of out-there kook and unassuming sage. For those with familial experience with cancer – and even for those without – How My Mother Died of Cancer, and Other Bedtime Stories is an excellent way to spend an evening at the Fringe – a fantastic script, well-produced.
Bottom Line: MUST SEE
Remaining Shows: SUN 22 @ 2:15
by William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by James Presson
The Ellen Stewart Theatre @ La Mama
Is this Shakespeare? Or Shakespearean Idiot. After taking in James Presson’s punk rock post-apocalyptic take on Richard III (for the purposes of his production, he’s formatted the title as Richard 3), it’s difficult to feel the production has much merit.
To set the scene, Richard 3 is performed in La Mama’s Ellen Stewart Theatre, which is cavernous, at least for the Fringe. Upstage are a tower of scaffolding and a three-piece rock band. Throughout, there is plenty of bloodshed, punk rock posing, and empty thrashing (I mean, come on, these are theatre kids in this Shakespearean mosh pit).
Characters snort coke and Adderall throughout in addition to shooting up heroin. But what is it all for? It’s clear from director’s sophomoric program note that he seems to enjoy reinterpreting Shakespeare. And there are many rewards to be reaped from such experiments. Where this production’s difficulties come, however, are in bending Shakespeare’s text to fit a concept that doesn’t quite make sense for the piece.
For one, setting the play in a “nuclear wasteland version of England” seems unwise; from a design perspective, the production appears closer to the punk London of the 1970s, with elements of today’s fashion. Without a clear sense of where we are and what we’re doing there, an audience is sure to lose focus (and we did).
Awkwardly interpolating a capella songs, like Antony and the Johnsons’ Hope There’s Someone, feels distinctly out of place; thankfully the full band numbers are far better. The bloodshed throughout is unnecessary and ill-conceived, and the text that director Presson has interpolated with Shakespeare’s is vapid drivel, though composer Mike Fabano’s music and lyrics have somewhat more merit thematically.
There are standout cast members here. As Richard, Jake Ahlquist speaks well and shows dramatic promise. Becca Ballenger is a super-emo Anne (and it sort of works), and Tom Pecinka makes a strapping Buckingham. Unfortunately, however, the production’s supporting cast is rather uneven.
Clocking in at two hours (long for a Fringe show, though short for Shakespeare), I was ready for Richard 3 to be over after the first fifteen or so minutes. Reinterpreting Shakespeare can be shockingly enlightening; unfortunately, this production failed to show us why the play needed to be tampered with. Despite some lively music and a few inspired performances, there wasn’t much else of note to be found here.
Bottom Line: SKIP IT
Remaining Shows: None remaining.
Have a Nice Life
music and lyrics by Conor Mitchell, book by Matthew Hurt, directed by Bill Felty
Lucille Lortel Theatre
As the curtain rises on Have a Nice Life, a new musical about group therapy, the elements seem in place for an entertaining, thought-provoking evening of musical theatre. We’re quickly introduced to group leader Patrick and his misfit group of members. Composer-lyricist Conor Mitchell cleverly gives us the exposition in song, setting conversations and arguments adeptly to music; his music is reminiscent of Sondheim’s – lyrical, tuneful, and, most importantly, clever.
The conceit of the show is that a new member, Amy (Miriam White), is joining the group today. Group member and new mom Jackie met Amy earlier in the day at a shoe store and lured her, misleadingly, to the group by calling it a social networking group. Finding herself in a room with a group of complete strangers, Amy finds herself wondering if she needs therapy – and what sort of person needs therapy in the first place.
It’s a clever concept, somewhat akin to the Sondheim-Laurents musical Anyone Can Whistle in its questioning of sanity as a societal norm. But, as with Whistle, one can sense the sophomoric desire to draw easy conclusions from a complex subject. The musical isn’t specific enough about its situations; the most egregious omission is any indication as to what sort of group therapy is even in practice. The characters’ problems never seem quite specific enough to seem to merit group therapy so much as private psychotherapy sessions – or an appearance on Dr. Phil, in a pinch.
By the end of the evening, Conor Mitchell’s score, which is pleasant to listen to throughout and occasionally emerges to bring the evening’s more positive features back into perspective, has unfortunately succumbed to Matthew Hurt’s book. There are great ideas here, but this promising concept musical is mostly stagnant, crippled by its near-insistent avoidance of any cohesive plot and its ponderous non-specificity.
Bottom Line: SKIP IT
Remaining Shows: SUN 22 @ 10:30
For more information about the New York International Fringe Festival, visit fringenyc.org.