By Dan Venning
I was alerted to the Game Play festival at The Brick by Lisa Reinke, a fellow doctoral candidate in Theatre at the Graduate Center (and a fellow gamer). The Game Play festival, billed as “a celebration of video game performance art,” was a series of shows that demonstrated ways that theatre can interact with the world of gaming. The first event was a short “Preview Cabaret” with ten-minute selections from the festival’s ten shows. I was unable to see full productions of all these shows, but some of them looked quite promising: David Lawson’s solo piece, No Oddjob, was represented by a mesmerizing selection about Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the Final Fantasy series. But I wondered whether he was creating a text that really needed to be staged, as opposed to read. Another piece that I wish I had been able to see was Mac Rogers’s play Ligature Marks, which appeared to be about the conflict between addiction and love—here, addiction to MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online role-playing games).
The two full productions I was able to catch at the festival were The Photo Album and That Cute Radioactive Couple. The Photo Album, by The Story Gym (Reinke, the director, and her cast collaboratively created the show) required audience members to download the iPhone or Android application “Layar.” Audience members would then scan photos, piled on a table, and Layar would use embedded information in the image to give the audience members a prompt to say to an individual cast member. The audience members would then have brief one-on-one scenes with the cast. Together, the stories and shared secrets built a larger image of the numerous fictional residents of one house over a span of years: a fortune teller, a scientist and her husband, an insane murderer, and more. Because the show lasted only an hour, it was impossible to meet every cast member, but this was fine: the experience was unique enough. The cast was, however, somewhat uneven, and it was a bit infuriating that the assistant director suggested photos to audience members—part of the fun was choosing and finding the images that we were most drawn to. However, this was clearly a directorial choice designed to make sure audience members weren’t selecting images that would lead them to a cast member already occupied with someone else.
That Cute Radioactive Couple, written and directed by Charles Battersby, was crafted as the live theatrical prequel to a user-created module (also created by Battersby) for the video game Fallout: New Vegas. This was a fascinating concept and meant that the story was left incomplete at the end of the show, which centered on a couple living in an “Apocalypticorp Bachelor Bunker” following the nuclear obliteration of the United States. Battersby also appeared as the personification of the recorded voice of the Apocalypticorp spokesman. He was hilarious in this role and elegantly crafted a show that brought black humor to a very dire situation while also making me want to play his game module. Unfortunately, his cast was unable to effectively present the play. Although the actors had their moments, Amanda Van Nostrand and Len Rella had little chemistry as the titular couple. Indeed, the title was apt: because it wasn’t effectively performed, the play wound up little more than “cute.”
The Game Play festival was accompanied by several gaming installations at The Brick. The only one I was able to sample was Big Huggin’, a side-scrolling video game played by hugging and releasing a giant teddy bear, in order to make an onscreen bear jump. While adorable, and a subtle comment on the need for more love and affection in gaming, as opposed to violence, the game itself was somewhat buggy, as it was easy for the player to become “stuck” in an onscreen obstacle.
Overall, the shows and selections that I saw at Game Play were fascinating examinations of how theatre can be interactive in the video-game age. Although I left the festival not completely satisfied with anything I’d seen, I still was impressed with The Brick’s programming—plucky and wholly fun.
For me, the Public Theater’s annual Shakespeare in the Park is a form of experiential theatre. Sitting out overnight to get the free tickets is an act that makes me feel more part of the process than when I simply buy tickets. For the second year in a row, the Public chose to present a Shakespearean comedy paired with a musical. Last year, this was As You Like It and Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim; this year, the pairing was The Comedy of Errors and a new musical adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost.
The Comedy of Errors is itself a loose adaptation of Plautus’s Roman comedy Menaechmi, a story of mistaken identity involving twins. Shakespeare’s innovation is to add a second pair of twins, the Dromios, who are slaves to the first pair, the Antipholi. When all four appear in Ephesus, endless slapstick and bawdy situations arise due to the mistaken identity. Daniel Sullivan’s production was set in the 1930s in “Ephesus, New York”—an upstate city where the bus station had signs for Syracuse, Ithaca, Rome, and Schenectady. The production was designed to run a brisk ninety minutes without intermission. The action was periodically interrupted by swing numbers excitingly choreographed by Mimi Lieber and set to Greg Pliska’s original music, which seemed to come right out of the era. Also a part of Sullivan’s concept was the fact that Hamish Linklater played both Antipholi and Jesse Tyler Ferguson played both Dromios. This requires body doubles in the final scene where the two pairs of twins finally meet, but is done frequently in productions to highlight leading actors’ virtuosity.
The night I went was, however, unique. Half an hour into the performance, it began to rain. Hard. Audience members began to flee the open-air Delacorte Theater. Soon a voice came over the speaker system: the actors would pause, and we would wait to see if the show could continue. More audience members left. The rain did not let up. Apparently, during the storm the sound system overloaded and shut down. But instead of cancelling the show, the company decided to go on, in the rain, after a pause of about a half hour. Linklater came to the center of the stage and asked those of us remaining (about a third of the original number) to move down and fill in seats, since the actors would be working without microphones. During the remaining hour, De’Adre Aziza sang a jazz number a cappella, the dancers continued to do their full routines in the rain, without music (for one number, dance captain Bryan Langlitz called out numbers “5, 6, 7, 8” as the dancers bounded across the stage), and the show went on. When a moment required the sounding of a bell, Ferguson pointed at the church onstage and shouted “bong, bong!” The audience erupted in laughter. In another moment that required a gunshot, the entire cast shouted “BANG!” Throughout the entire show, it continued to rain.
Sadly, even close to the stage, I was unable to hear many of the actors without microphones. A notable exception was Linklater: I never missed a word he spoke. This was unsurprising, considering the fact that Linklater’s mother is Kristin Linklater, the head of Acting at Columbia University and the author of Freeing the Natural Voice (1976), a foundational text for voice and speech teachers across the world. But the inaudibility of much of the cast wasn’t the only problem. Ultimately, Sullivan’s direction and extreme cutting made this production not a joyous, raucous comedy, but a thin, insubstantial work that failed to convey both Shakespeare’s humor and his insightful portrayals of the many denizens of his Ephesus. As it turned out, my excursion to this Comedy of Errors, with the cast and audience joining in to ensure that the show went on, was one of the most vital evenings I have ever experienced in the theatre—in spite of Sullivan’s intended vision for the production.
The other production at Shakespeare in the Park this summer was Love’s Labour’s Lost, a new musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s play about four noblemen who go to a woodland retreat and swear off love, but quickly become smitten by four visiting noblewomen. This romantic comedy is complemented by the low comedy of the local inhabitants of the rural retreat, most notably the quixotic Spanish knight Don Armado, who falls in love with a local commoner. The production was directed by Alex Timbers (who also adapted the book) and music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. This is the team that created the extraordinary Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the Drama Desk Award-winning emo-rock musical examination of America’s populist seventh president. Their Love’s Labour’s Lost is not the first time Shakespeare in the Park has commissioned a new musical based on a Shakespearean comedy. In 1971, it produced of Two Gentlemen of Verona, with a book by John Guare and Mel Shapiro, lyrics by Guare, and music by Galt MacDermot (of Hair fame), starring Raúl Juliá as Proteus. That production transferred to Broadway and won Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Book; it is still periodically produced by both professionals and amateurs, and was even revived at Shakespeare in the Park’s 2005 summer season.
The Public was clearly trying to replicate its historical success at adapting an early Shakespearean comedy into a musical. There was indeed much to love in Timbers and Friedman’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. Many of Friedman’s songs had incredible hooks. Timbers has a gift for conceptual staging that nevertheless wholly fit the text of the show. The musical was staged as if at a college reunion. This allowed for many sight gags involving, among many other things, Constable Dull (Kevin Del Aguila) attired as campus police, riding across the stage on a Segway. Everyone was satirized: academics, hopeless romantics, sorority sisters, even audience members who paid $175 for donor seats to avoid the line. Timbers’s linguistic and staged gags were complemented by Friedman’s musical ones: a moment poking fun at Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, a re-staging of the final kickline straight out of A Chorus Line, and references to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and Mr. Big’s “To Be With You.”
The performances were also strong throughout. The Princess of France (Patti Murin) and her companions Rosaline (Maria Thayer), Maria (Kimiko Glenn), and Katherine (Audrey Lynn Weston) rocked their introductory number “Hey Boys.” Caesar Samayoa gave a comic star turn as Don Armado, highlighted in his hip-hop infused flamenco ballad “Jaquenetta.” As Jacquenetta, a barmaid clad in a sexy faux-dirndl, Rebecca Naomi Jones wowed the audience with her introspective, brooding ballad, “Love’s a Gun.” Colin Donnell was magnetic as Berowne and owned the stage in numbers like “Are You a Man” and “Young Men.” Probably the funniest were Rachel Dratch as Professor Holofernes and Jeff Hiller as her subordinate, Nathaniel; the satire of pretentious, self-righteous academics was spot-on.
Part of why Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost is so affecting is its ending, when the expected unions do not occur, replaced by mourning and penance after an unexpected death. This moment was intensified in the adaptation: a full marching band was brought onstage, confetti blown everywhere, as it appeared love and joy would triumph. Once the blow came, the shift in mood was even more powerful. At this point, Timbers stopped adapting the text, and allowed Shakespeare’s original words to close the show. At earlier points, however, they departed significantly from the original text: most notably by eliminating a sequence where the central characters ruthlessly and pitilessly make fun of those with less social standing, and, in so doing, reveal that they lack a degree of empathy and kindness. By eliminating this part, the adapters made the central characters more likeable, but less complex. They might have trusted Shakespeare more. Their desire for fun and joy throughout similarly led to periodically sacrificing nuances of the text or continuity of character in favor of getting a laugh or keeping the audience tapping their feet; this was most notable when Bryce Pinkham, as Longaville, perplexingly went from bad-boy stoner to musical theatre geek in a sequined outfit.
Like The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost ran under two hours without an intermission. Strangely, it seemed like it was in need of both trimming and expansion. Several of the songs felt unfinished, as if verses could have been added. Timbers and Friedman should have adapted more of Shakespeare’s long final scene, with its plays-within-a-play, trusting the nastiness in this scene to make the musical more affecting, not alienating, to audiences. “Are You A Man” in fact worked like a perfect curtain number, and a two-act production with an intermission would have been more satisfying. At the same time, Timbers and Friedman needed to rein in, slightly, their impulse to make gags. Their love of theatricality was on full display, and I left the musical entirely happy, but felt like Shakespeare’s play had disappeared into something markedly less substantial and satisfying, as with Sullivan’s The Comedy of Errors.
Seeing shows at the New York Fringe is always a crapshoot. While last year I found several pieces brilliant and one mind-numbingly awful, the five shows I saw this year were neither awe-inspiring nor horrible. All felt like journeyman projects, wholeheartedly and energetically produced but never entirely to their desired effect.
The best was Occupy Olympus, based on Aristophanes’ Plutus, God of Wealth, loosely adapted by the Magis Theatre Company and directed by George Drance, who played Plutus. This was a genuinely Marxist production, an economic and political call to arms that would have made Brecht proud. In fact, Elizabeth Swados’s final song called to mind Kurt Weill’s dissonant collaborations with Brecht, but her other songs ran the gamut of genres, from blues to electro-pop and even a square dance (“Wheel of Fortune”). Two scenes were particularly haunting: Penia, goddess of Poverty (Erika Iverson) gave a monologue that seemed to be drawn directly from Reagan’s philosophy of trickle-down economics: the world needs poverty, she argued, because people need the wealthy to look up to, admire, and earn money from. In another scene, the newly wealthy slave Cario (Margi Sharp) humiliates “CorpoMask” (Ronalda Nicholas), a terrifying amalgam of famous figures of corporate greed, costumed in a business suit with a mask made of dollar bills. But despite such moments, the show was unevenly cast, and its politics, like its music, were not consistent. The show ended with a whimper, when the citizens of Athens marched on Olympus, only to discover that the gods themselves had been evicted.
The Rufus Equation, by Ted Cubbin, was the only show I saw this year that won an Overall Excellence Award, for Cubbin’s Playwriting. I have no idea how the play won this prize. It was skillfully directed by Tom Ridgely and starred the engaging Geoffrey Arend as Bert Rufus, a young physics professor at an East Coast university. But to my mind, the writing was inelegant. The first half-hour of the play dragged, doing nothing to advance the plot other than introducing the audience to Rufus, his colleagues, and the women in their lives (all young, tenure-track faculty). The play didn’t genuinely engage until Rufus revealed, more than a third of the way in, his titular equation: a deterministic way to predict the near future. The play would have been significantly better if Cubbin had managed to trim his opening and establish character while advancing plot at the same time. And despite that plot, the play felt rather weightless until the last moments, which were made effective by Pierre Epstein as Ed Wilson, a senior professor at Princeton. Telling a story about when he met Einstein, Wilson in turn became that genius, creating a few moments in the theatre that were (electro)magnetic.
Track Twelve by Emily Comisar also had textual issues, but, in contrast to The Rufus Equation, these came at the end of the play instead of throughout. Track Twelve featured strong performances by Leo Goodman, Charlie Gorrilla, Sarah Sanders, and Keelie A. Sheridan as four people stranded at Penn Station during a snowstorm, and then onboard their finally-departed train to Washington, D.C. A brother and sister (Goodman and Sheridan) are going to their mother’s wedding; two co-workers and former lovers (Gorrilla and Sanders) are going to a business meeting. As the delays increase, so do the interactions between these formerly separate pairs. Director Josh Penzell brought out effective performances and created clever blocking that successfully moved the story forward. He was particularly skillful at creating moments of silence that built the tension and humor. But at the end, it all seemed to be for nothing: the show did not yet have a satisfying resolution and wound up feeling like a chuckle-worthy play without depth.
Brandon Ogborn’s The TomKat Project was a frenzied comic retelling of the tabloid Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes romance and divorce, highlighting a number of very versatile performers. The play featured Ogborn as the narrator, Julie Dahlinger and Walt Delaney as spot-on impersonators of Holmes and Cruise, and Kevin Knickerbocker, Micah Sterenberg, Briana Baker, and Allison Yolo as fifty-two other characters. The impressions were always hilarious: Baker was particularly funny as Oprah Winfrey, but the best by far was Sterenberg, who created a completely varied repertoire of bizarre characters including, among others, David Miscavige (head of the church of Scientology), writer Kevin Williamson, Midwestern dad Marty Holmes, Tom Hanks, and a German reporter from Der Spiegel. The actors sat in chairs onstage, wearing all black, and would shift between characters by using minor costume accessories and small vocal and physical cues. It was always clear and brilliantly done. At times, actors not in a scene would hold up signs saying “this dialogue is verbatim,” to let us know that the text was taken directly from the news. Still, until the final moments—a confrontation between Ogborn as narrator and journalist Maureen Orth (Yolo), the show seemed to lack any point beyond hilarity. In these final moments, Ogborn acknowledged that we, as outsiders, cannot truly know what happened in this breakup, that many of our preconceived notions (which he played on) were created by a frenzied tabloid media, that these are real people with real feelings, and that he may very well have the story backwards. I enjoyed The TomKat Project, but nonetheless the play ended up feeling like an extended sketch-comedy piece, not yet quite a fully-developed play.
The final show I saw at the Fringe, Scotty Decker’s The Dead Hooker Play, had an intriguing premise: a hilariously offensive comedy designed to acknowledge internalized misogyny, building to a tragic, not comic resolution. The play revolved around Miles (Decker) about to be married to the terrifying Kelly (Madeleine James). Miles is discovered by his best friends Marco (Jim Conroy) and Lee (Sean Modica) on the morning of his wedding with a dead prostitute, Hope (Maria Pastel), on his couch. The two acts were presented reverse-chronologically, so that the titular dead character of the first act was very much alive in the second, which takes place the previous night. The comedy was as side-splitting as it was repulsive, involving necrophilia, improper ways to win carnival prizes, a child’s ruined birthday party, an extended toilet joke to the tune of the song “Love Shack,” and a boatload of drugs and alcohol. I found myself laughing constantly, but disgusted at both myself and the show: it did not live up to its promise and (surprise!) never escaped from the misogyny present even in its title. Kelly was nothing more than a harpy, and Hope was a “magic prostitute” with unearned wisdom and depth—neither was a real human being. Decker, while skilled at writing jokes, failed to move beyond a Tucker Max-esque masculinity to critique the genre; as an actor he was also awkward and wooden in his movements. Conroy was a highlight as the degenerate drug-addled best man, but even his levity could not save this show from utter vileness.
One thing to remember about the Fringe is that the shows there, although open for review, could perhaps still be classified as in development. All the ones I saw could have used some reworking: whether to unify tone, develop or focus more clearly on the play’s ultimate point, or tighten up sections of the script. Not all of the shows I saw were worthy of such reworking, but seeing such rough theatre, presented by energetic companies, felt refreshing nonetheless.
Although I had a lively summer of theatre-going, the results were decidedly mixed. While several of these shows had strong elements, among them there wasn’t a single show I wholeheartedly loved, and a number were mediocre at best. Still, some of this was luck of the draw: hopefully next year I will pick better shows at the Fringe, or perhaps I will sample different festivals, such as the Lincoln Center festival or the ambulatory New York Classical Theatre. Or perhaps I’ll venture further afield, to one of the many festivals outside of the city.
The Photo Album. By The Story Gym. Directed by Lisa Reinke. Assistant Directed by Jack Karp. Featuring Tim Dowd, Colleen Kennedy, Alden LaPaglia, Laura Merrill, Freddie Moultry, Frank Paiva, Anna Paratore, Donna Ross, Mark Scherman, Leon Vogol, Kyung Sik Won, and Clara Wong. At The Brick. 6, 7, 10, 16, and 26 July. Tickets $15.
That Cute Radioactive Couple. Written and directed by Charles Battersby. Lighting design by Amanda Woodward. Featuring Charles Battersby, Len Rella, Amanda van Nostrand, and Isaiah Tanenbaum. At The Brick. 10, 13, and 27 July. Tickets $15.
The Comedy of Errors. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Scenic Design by John Lee Beatty. Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting Design by Jeff Roiter. Sound Design by Acme Sound Partners. Music by Greg Pliska. Choreography by Mimi Lieber. Dramaturgy by Robert Blacker. Stage Management by Cole P. Bonenberger. Featuring J. Clint Allen, De’Adre Aziza, Becky Ann Baker, Emily Bergl, Tyler Caffall, Reed Campbell, Keith Eric Chappelle, Robert Creighton, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Reggie Gowland, Jonathan Hadary, Bryan Langlitz, Brian T. Lawton, Hamish Linklater, Michael McArthur, Rachel McMullun, Heidi Schreck, Skipp Sudduth, Adrienne Weidert, Natalie Woolams-Torres, and Jessica Woo. At the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. 28 May – 30 June. Tickets: Free (standing in line or digital lottery); $175 supporter tickets available on limited basis.
Love’s Labour’s Lost. A New Musical Based on the Play by William Shakespeare. Songs by Michael Friedman. Book Adapted and Directed by Alex Timbers. Scenic Design by John Lee Beatty. Costume Design by Jennifer Moeller. Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter. Sound Design by Acme Sound Partners. Music Direction by Justin Levine. Choreography by Danny Mefford. Dramaturgy by Anne Davison. Stage Management by Arthur Gaffin. Featuring Daniel Breaker, Kevin del Aguila, Colin Donnell, Michael R. Douglass, Rachel Dratch, Andrew Durand, Bradley Gibson, Kimiko Glenn, Jeff Hiller, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Justin Levine, Patti Murrin, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Bryce Pinkham, Charlie Pollock, Caesar Samayoa, Maria Thayer, and Audrey Lynn Weston. At the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. 23 July – 18 August. Tickets: Free (standing in line or digital lottery); $175 supporter tickets available on limited basis.
Occupy Olympus. Based on Aristophanes’ Plutus, God of Wealth. Adapted by the Magis Theatre Company. Directed by George Drance. Music by Elizabeth Swados. Lyrics by George Drance and the company. Production Design by Devin Chowske. Stage Management by Katherine Barton. Featuring Becca Ballenger, George Drance, Erika Iverson, Lindsay Lark, Wendy Maples, Ronalda Nicholas, Sajeev Pillai, Margi Sharp, and Taylor Valentine. At CSV Flamboyan. 16 – 21 August. Tickets: $15-18.
The Rufus Equation. By Ted Cubbin. Directed by Tom Ridgely. Scenic Design by Jason Simms. Costume Design by Ana Milosevic. Lighting Design by Greg Goff. Sound Design by Kortney Barber. Stage Management by Rachel Manheimer. Featuring: Geoffrey Arend, Pierre Epstein, Joy Farmer-Clary, Chris Kipiniak, Dave Quay, and Kristin Villanueva. At the Connelly Theater. 13, 17, 18, 21, 23 August. Tickets: $15-18.
Track Twelve. Written and Presented by Emily Comisar. Directed by Josh Penzell. Lighting Design and Set Consultancy by Will Cotton. Stage Management by Jay Levy. Featuring Leo Goodman, Charlie Gorrilla, Sarah Sanders, and Keelie A. Sheridan. At Teatro Circulo. 10, 15, 18, 21, 23 August. Tickets: $15-18.
The TomKat Project. By Brandon Ogborn. Directed by Elly Green. Music by John Ahern. Produed by Dein Sofley. Featuring: Briana Baker, Julie Dahlinger, Walt Delaney, Kevin Knickerbocker, Brandon Ogborn, Micah Sterenberg, and Allison Yolo. At The Player’s Theatre. 20 – 24 August. Tickets: $15-18.
The Dead Hooker Play. By Scotty Decker. Directed by Scotty Decker and Lindsay Stringfellow. Featuring Jim Conroy-Marco, Scott Decker, Madeleine James, Sean Modica, and Maria Pastel. At The Player’s Theatre. 9, 11, 18, 21, and 22 August. Tickets: $15-18.