Summer Theatre in NYC: The New York International Fringe Festival and the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit Richard III

by Dan Venning

Although the theatrical season is usually said to go from September to May (much like the academic year), there is plenty of theatre available in New York during the tourist-heavy summer season. Broadway theatres remain open, and two annual New York theatre offerings attract aficionados from near and far. One is the New York International Fringe Festival, now entering its sixteenth season. The Fringe presents around 2000 performances over the span of sixteen days: this year it featured 187 shows at nineteen off-off Broadway venues across the city. The shows run almost constantly for these two weeks: as soon as one show is done, the next show starts setting up for its performance in the same space. The Fringe bills itself as the “largest multi-arts festival in North America,” and it certainly is, at least in terms of its number of productions. It is barely possible to get more than a small taste of each year’s festival, and this summer I saw four productions at the Fringe. Another annual theatre tradition is Shakespeare in the summer, which includes a number of participating organizations such as Shakespeare in the Park, the New York Classical Theatre, and others. The Public Theater, a staple of the summer festival, was founded as the New York Shakespeare Workshop in 1956, when Joseph Papp began producing plays with the express purpose of providing free Shakespearean productions for the masses. Starting in 1957, Papp also used the “Mobile Theater,” a flatbed truck with which he toured Shakespeare to the outer boroughs to bring theatre to those with less access to the arts. The Mobile Theater lasted only into the mid-1960s, but it was brought back two years ago and I also saw the Public’s production of Richard III, staged for this newly-revived “Mobile Unit,” based on Papp’s original impulse for free Shakespeare for the public.

The first show I saw at the Fringe was, in fact, Shakespearean in style, language, and theme, but definitely not written by Shakespeare. Pulp Shakespeare, which won awards in Los Angeles in 2011 when it was first presented, is, as its director and coauthor Jordan Monsell notes in the program, a sort of theatrical mashup. The plot is that of Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction, but the play is set in Elizabethan England, and written in Shakespearean style. This central idea is wickedly clever and works throughout, although many of the jokes require a thorough knowledge of Tarantino’s film. Early on in the film, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson) have a discussion about the Quarter Pounder with Cheese in France; in Pulp Shakespeare this becomes a conversation between Vincent de la Vega (Aaron Lyons) and Julius Winfield (Dan White) that begins with “knowest you not the French name for a cottage pie?” These parallels are executed aptly throughout the show: in the film, Vincent and Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) go to a 1950s themed restaurant; in Pulp Shakespeare Vincent and Lady Mia (Hannah Beck) go to an overpriced restaurant where their waiter, affecting a hunchback, is doing a Richard III impression. The boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) becomes the knight Sir “Butch” Coolidge (Christian Levitano), who fails to throw a jousting match as he had promised the criminal Lord Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames in the film; here Nathaniel Freeman). Such parallels abound throughout the entire show. The authors (Monsell, Ben Tallen, Aaron Greer, and Brian Watson-Jones) clearly worked hard to make sure each scene, character, and moment of dialogue both related to Tarantino’s original and simultaneously worked in the Shakespearean idiom.

Pulp Shakespeare works well because Tarantino’s film is indeed quite Shakespearean in style (excepting the fact that Shakespeare never wrote scenes outside of chronological sequence, as Tarantino does throughout Pulp Fiction). Both Tarantino’s film and Shakespeare’s plays are filled with philosophical dialogues between well-rounded characters having conversations that are not necessarily about the action at hand. In both Shakespeare’s dramas and Pulp Fiction, these conversations can lead swiftly to brutal and exciting scenes of violence (and the actors show how a sword in the hand of an Elizabethan hitman can be just as scary as a handgun three centuries later). For seeing and understanding this parallel, and communicating it so clearly to the audience, the authors deserve great praise. Similarly, Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed without significant set pieces, and Pulp Shakespeare is very well-suited to the Fringe: a couple of chairs, a moveable table, and an upstage piano are more than enough to signify every setting in the show.

But beyond the fact that the idea works so perfectly, Pulp Shakespeare is a success because it is simply great theatre. Monsell’s direction is spot-on, the acting is universally strong (although special praise goes to Levitano, who does a spectacularly hilarious impression of the wide-eyed Willis in the film, and Beck, whose Mia Wallace was every bit as luminous as Thurman’s character in the film, even in a long Elizabethan gown). Kelly Bailey (who won an overall FringeNYC award for her designs) created clever, beautifully made costumes, and both Aaron Lyons’ fight direction and Stephanie Pease’s choreography were terrific (the Elizabethan rendition of Vincent and Mia’s participation in a dance competition was one of the most hilarious moments in the show). The show has received almost universal praise and has been well-deservedly extended into the FringeNYC Encore in September. Nevertheless, I thought it was a questionable idea for the creators to preserve the racial identities present in Tarantino’s film so precisely (Marcellus Wallace, Jules, and the snitch Marvin are played by black actors both in the film and Pulp Shakespeare, while every other major character is white). This is clearly a choice that allows the audience to more quickly identify the characters, but it is not in line with the world created by the play. It means something for the crime lord Marcellus Wallace to be a black man married to a white television actress, or for the hitmen, clearly both friends and colleagues, to come from different ethnic backgrounds in the twentieth-century film. Skin color simply signified differently in the sixteenth century. Make no mistake—I certainly don’t object to colorblind casting in this show or Shakespearean performance in general. But by preserving the racial casting of Tarantino’s film so precisely, instead of mixing it up somehow, Monsell calls attention to the race of individual actors/characters in a way that doesn’t make sense within the established world of Pulp Shakespeare.

**

The Public Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, as part of their revived “Mobile Unit,” also uses nontraditional casting, but here in a clearly well-thought out manner. Shakespeare’s Richard of Gloucester was played by Ron Cephas Jones, a black actor who is extremely gifted in Shakespearean roles; the nine-actor cast (every actor other than Jones and Lynn Hawley, who played Queen Elizabeth, Edward IV’s wife, played multiple roles) was made up of actors from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. This was clearly a choice meant to appeal to the diverse audiences to which the mobile show toured, including free performances for audiences in prisons, homeless shelters, centers for the elderly, and other community venues throughout the five boroughs of New York. Indeed, the charismatic Cephas Jones clearly demonstrates why Shakespeare’s Richard, a cripple and outcast, declares in his opening monologue that “since I cannot prove a lover / … / I am determined to prove a villain.” Resentful of those around him with more love and privilege, Richard resorts to violence, steeping himself in blood. It is easy to see why, as we were told in a pre-show discussion, one inmate who saw the show said afterwards, “I am Richard.”

Amanda Dehnert’s production is staged simply, in the round, with few set pieces or props. One of the striking set elements was a cloth tarp depicting the family trees of the Lancasters and Yorks who had taken part in the Wars of the Roses from 1455-85. In an added prologue, an actor explained that history, painting over the names of the deceased kings and lords with red paint. As Richard completes his bloody ascent from Duke of Gloucester to King of England, more red paint is added to that tarp, nearly covering it. Richard is one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains. Like Macbeth, he is ambitious, but unlike Shakespeare’s Scotsman, who seems to accidentally get carried away by his violent acts, Richard genuinely enjoys murder. For example, towards the end of the play Richard decides he must dispose of his wife Queen Anne (Michelle Beck), whose husband he had murdered before the play begins, in order to marry his own niece Elizabeth (Miriam A. Hyman), the daughter of his dead brother King Edward IV (Kevin Kelly). In the play’s second scene, Richard woos Anne in front of the corpse of her father-in-law, King Henry VI (and at the successful close of this wooing, Cephas Jones gives the audience a gleeful thumbs up as he says “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d? / Was ever woman in this humour won? / I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.”). In Dehnert’s staging, when Richard tells an associate to “give out / That Anne, my Queen, is sick and like to die,” he does this while his wife is onstage, clearly getting a perverse satisfaction out of seeing his wife’s helpless reaction to the knowledge of her own impending murder on her husband’s orders.

 

Cephas Jones is magnetic, and perhaps even better is Suzanne Bertish as the venom-filled Queen Margaret of Anjou, whose scene with Hyman as Queen Elizabeth was easily the most compelling in the show. The scenes of violence are staged superbly by fight director Thomas Schall. Nevertheless, many parts of the show, which is cut to ninety minutes with no intermission, still drags. In fact, in several sections the text could certainly have been streamlined even further. Some of the problems may be due to uneven acting from the supporting roles, some of whom used bizarre accents for no apparent reason. Moreover, while the doubling is exciting and reminds the audience of the theatricality of the event, at times it is unclear as to precisely which character is onstage. Still, I am very glad to have been able to see the Mobile Shakespeare Unit production, even if it is not really meant to have been staged at the Public Theater itself. The show would have done Joseph Papp proud: Dehnert’s production of Richard III is both wonderful for those who don’t get to see much theatre and also quite exciting for those of us who, like me, do get to see a lot. It is a vital Shakespearean production, staged simply and elegantly, with a masterful performance by Cephas Jones. With productions like the Mobile Unit’s Richard III, the Public Theater is indeed living up to its original mission from over a half-century ago.

**

The second Fringe show I saw, Independents, is a musical, with music by Stephen Feigenbaum, lyrics by Mark Sonnenblick, and a book by Marina Keegan. The show has received some pre-production press because the twenty-two-year-old Keegan died in a car crash five days after graduating from Yale University in May. Shortly thereafter, her final column for the Yale Daily News, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” an engaging meditation on the potential of youth, went viral on the internet. Independents was first developed while Keegan was an undergraduate, and was revised by her collaborators for performance at the Fringe following her death.

The musical has an intriguing premise: the twenty-something Liam (Jacob Roa) owns a Revolutionary War-era tall ship, where he lives with his best friend Jaimy (Kevin Hoffman), girlfriend Isabel (Summer Broyhill), and a ragtag group of twenty-something drifters. They sail around New England putting on half-assed Revolutionary War reenactments to mask the fact that they sell marijuana wherever they dock. Without clearly defined plans for the future, they subsist on booze, weed, music, and love. When their new intern, Carl (Corey Desjardins) arrives, the crew gets infected by Carl’s optimism and his love for historical reenactment and theatre. But all this is thrown into chaos by the return of their compatriot Chris (Chris Burke), who is deeply in debt to unseen dangerous drug distributors.

Independents has wonderful faux-folk rock music and lyrics, most reminiscent of the band The Decemberists. While there are many musicals in a variety of popular rock styles (think of the recent emo musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), Independents fills a major gap in American musical theatre. Its hipster folk songs are genuinely terrific: balladic paeans to fleeting youth, tongue-in-cheek comic numbers (one of the highlights is a song about how the original crew of the ship didn’t actually fight in the Revolutionary War but spent the time fishing off the coast of Nova Scotia), a witty love duet between Liam and Grace (Lilli Cooper)—as Liam’s relationship with Isabel disintegrates (as young love does)—and a terrific torch song for Grace, too.

Independents won one of the four “Best Overall” awards for this year’s Fringe, and was also extended into the Fringe Encores. While the music and lyrics are great, and the show deserves much of the praise it has received (the performances are all solid, as the design and Charlie Pollinger’s direction), sadly, I felt that the Keegan’s book is ultimately a mess, albeit a beautiful one. Some of the characters don’t feel fully realized and several plot developments seem somewhat forced. Independents is clearly the first work of a young author who had great potential: Keegan was set to begin working at The New Yorker in June. The show lacks an 11 o’clock number (a showstopping musical number near the end), instead including a poetic spoken monologue given by a character who has just died. While well-written, this speech is misplaced—it might fit in a straight play, but Independents needs a strong, memorable musical number near its conclusion, so that it can go out with a bang, not a whimper. Additionally, Keegan was clearly very influenced by the style of Eugene O’Neill: his nautical plays, the entrance of characters who transform everything, if only briefly, as in The Iceman Cometh. It is deeply sad that Keegan didn’t live longer, couldn’t further develop her own voice, write more plays, or be part of revising this one. Indeed, some of the issues with the book may come from the fact that others had to revise for her: had she lived, Independents might have been an even stronger finished project. Keegan’s tragedy is highlighted in the show’s most heartbreakingly optimistic lyric: “They say the light goes out on everybody / If it does, I’m not afraid / You and I, we’re not just anybody / We’re not everybody, we don’t fade.” If Keegan had had more time, she certainly would have made a significant mark upon the theatrical world.

**

It is a crapshoot attending Fringe shows: not all are good. BANG! The Curse of John Wilkes Booth sounded exciting on the Fringe website: a solo performance containing vaudeville and magic and featuring, according to one advertisement “One Actor! One Twisted Shocker! Verse, Song, Magic, Sideshow Antics and Stand-up Comedy! Discover how your History book lied to you about Lincoln, Booth and just about everybody else. And yes, there’s a mummy involved…” (sic). Perhaps I should have been warned by the haphazard capitalization and punctuation in this description. The first fifteen minutes of the show, which was written by its performer, Scott Baker, is the most painfully boring thing I have ever seen in the theatre. In this opening sequence, Baker gives a dramatic monologue (in horribly-written blank verse) from the perspective of Booth as he rehearses his impending assassination of Lincoln. The tone of the writing and performance is incomprehensible: I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be serious but wound up being laughable, or if it was supposed to be funny but didn’t make me laugh. Either way, it fails. If I had not been seeing the show for review, I would have walked out within this first section.

The remainder of the ninety-minute piece is significantly better, although Baker’s show might be better suited for a documentary special on The Conspiracy Channel (should such a television station exist) than for the theatre. Baker expounds upon the myth that John Wilkes Booth may not have in fact died in Garrett’s barn on April 26, 1865, with the body being misidentified, the government covering up Booth’s escape, and Booth living out his life in hiding in Texas and Oklahoma. Baker is actually engaging when he speaks in his own voice, and the magic tricks he performs are genuinely clever bits of slight-of-hand. He is a charismatic enough performer that he can convince an audience that this alternative history may be possible—and at least deserves to be examined in more depth (it’s worth a Google Search or two). But Baker’s writing is uninspired throughout. I’m not sure what Richard Harden did as a director, and worst of all it is unclear if the show has an overarching purpose. I was at least entertained for some portion of the show, but it still felt like an overall waste of an hour and a half.

**

Fringe shows are not just varied in quality, but also in style. The final Fringe show I saw, after the comic parody Pulp Shakespeare, the musical Independents, and the vaudeville-inspired solo performance BANG! The Curse of John Wilkes Booth, was Being / Becoming, a presentation of Bharatanatyam, a classical dance form from South India. The show, performed by three dancers (Malini Srinivasan, Kadhambari Sridhar, and Umesh Venkatesan), consists of an entrance procession followed by five dance pieces: “Dance,” “Play,” “Devotion,” “Passion,” and “Union.” The dances are based on themes from classical Indian mythology. The majority of the dances were choreographed Srinivasan, who won a well-deserved Overall Fringe award for best choreography.

Bharatanatyam (sometimes transliterated in two words, bharata natyam) is a modern recreation of traditional temple dances and also descends from the dance-drama form known as kathakali, which is still taught and performed in the south Indian state of Kerala. The form requires precise articulation of various parts of the body as well as intense facial expressions, and is performed in colorful traditional Indian attire. Performances of Bharatanatyam are designed to evoke the many rasa—emotional “flavors” that can be experienced by the audience. Being / Becoming is a wonderful example of the Bharatanatyam form; it is a thoroughly beautiful theatrical performance that clearly demonstrates why theorists of the theatre, from Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht to Richard Schechner, have found Asian dance theatre so alluring. At the same time, there is something troublingly exoticizing about presenting such a show explicitly for a Western audience. Still, I was very glad to have seen this performance. The dancers were excellent, although I found that Srinivasan to be a better choreographer than dancer. She was not as compelling to watch as her fellow dancers Sridhar and Venkatesan, who were riveting in “Play” as the lovers Radha and Krishna (which ended with Venkatesan’s simultaneously hilarious and extremely erotic miming of playing a flute) and “Union” as the gods Shiva and Parvati, the male and female halves of the androgynous Ardhanariswara. Venkatesan, who has been a dancer for twenty-one years, since the age of five, is a genuine master of the form. Srinivasan’s work and her company certainly deserve to be seen by a wider audience.

**

I only got to sample a tiny fraction of the theatre available in New York this summer. Yet what I did see was extremely diverse in both quality and theme, highlighting the wide variety of theatrical performance available in New York. Crucially, these five productions also demonstrated that theatre of high quality can be presented for very affordable prices. The Fringe shows all cost $15 (in advance; $18 at the door), as did tickets to Richard III. All in all, this summer made me even more optimistic about the state of theatre in New York, and also gave me a lot to look forward to in the coming 2012-13 theatrical season.

**

BANG! The Curse of John Wilkes Booth. Written and Performed by Scott Baker. Directed by Richard Harden. Presented by The Drilling CompaNY, Hamilton Clancy, Producing Director. At the Gene Frankel Theatre. August 11, 17, 21, 22, and 25. Tickets: $15-18.

Being / Becoming. Malini Srinivasan and Dancers. Choreography by Malini Srinivasan, Sri C. V. Chandrasekhar, Leela Samson, and Umesh Venkatesan. Directed by Josh Penzell. Lighting by David Ullman. Lighting by David Ullman. Featuring Kadhambari Sridhar, Malini Srinivasan, and Umesh Venkatesan. At the White Box at 440 Studios. August 11, 17, 19, 21, and 23. Tickets: $15-18.

Independents. Book by Marina Keegan. Music by Stephen Feigenbaum. Lyrics by Mark Sonnenblick. Directed by Charlie Polinger. Musical Direction, Arrangements, and Orchestrations by Ben Wexler. Sets by Brian Dudkiewicz. Costumes by Isabelle Simone. Lighting by Gary Slootskiy. Sound by Emily Auciello. Props by Jillian Bartels. Stage Management by Michael Block. Featuring: Summer Bryohill, Chris Burke, Lilli Cooper, Corey Desjardins, Kevin Hoffman, Emily Jenda, Jacob Roa, Tom Sanchez, Ethan Slater, and Adam Weppler. At Theatre 80. August 11, 15, 20, 23, and 25. Tickets: $15-18. Extended to FringeNYC Encore Seriesat the SoHo Playhouse and the Huron Club, Fridays Sept. 7 and 21 at 7pm, Sat. Sept. 8 at 5pm, Tuesdays Sept. 11 and 18 at 8pm, Fri. Sept. 14 at 9pm. Tickets: $18.

Pulp Shakespeare. Presented by Her Magesty’s Secret Players and the New York International Fringe Festival. Written by Ben Tallen, Aaron Greer, Brian Watson-Jones, and Jordan Monsell (with contributions from Brian Weiss and members of the Pulp Bard Wiki). Directed by Jordan Monsell. Lighting by Philip Waller. Sound by Brian Weiss. Costumes by Kelly Bailey. Musical Arrangements by Todd Monsell and Bill Weiss. Fight Direction by Aaron Lyons. Dance Choreography by Stephanie Pease. Stage Management by Philip Waller and Dan Walters. Featuring: Hannah Beck, Curtis D. Davis, Nathaniel Freeman, John Klopping, David Lautman, Christian Levatino, Aaron Lyons, Jordan Monsell, Juan Perez, Liza de Weerd, Brian Weiss, Dan White, and Justine Woodford. At the Cherry Lane Theatre. August 12, 14, 19, 23, and 24. Tickets: $15-18. Extended to FringeNYC Encore Series at the SoHo Playhouse and the Huron Club, Weds. Sept. 19 at 8pm, Thurs. Sept. 20 at 9pm, Sat. Sept. 22 at 3pm, Mon. Sept. 24 at 8pm, Weds. Sept. 26 at 8pm. Tickets: $18.

Richard III. Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Amanda Dehnert. Set and Costumes by Linda Roethke. Music by Amanda Dehnert. Fight Direction by Thomas Schall. Stage Management by Anne McPherson. Featuring: Michelle Beck, Suzanne Bertish, Keith Eric Chappelle, Michael Crane, Lynn Hawley, Alex Hernandez, Miriam A. Hyman, Ron Cephas Jones, and Kevin Kelly. The Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit. At the Public Theater. August 6 – 25. Tickets: $15.

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