Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Checking In With Fringe Encores: Part 2

As you enter the SoHo Playhouse for Wasted, an Edinburgh Fringe transfer, there is a fun, club-like energy. Loud music plays, lights flash, and the actors, Serena Jennings and Will Merrick, act like bouncers, directing audience members to their seats and asking for IDs. As the hour goes on, the fun starts to fade into questions of what constitutes consent when drinking.

This is a topic that's been explored before on television (especially well-done last season on Switched at Birth), film, and theater, but as long as these things continue to happen, these stories need to be told. And Kat Woods manages to find a fresh take in her format--brief scenes, which sometimes place the audience in a similar disorientated state of mind as the characters. Oli (Merrick) and Emma (Jennings) meet at a club through their friends and end up spending the night together, but the exact events are a puzzle for both the audience and characters to figure out. Merrick and Jennings play all the characters and without resorting to exaggeration, they make it easy to distinguish between them all.

Woods writes believable dialogue that feels very true to the culture of nightlife in the UK. It was a smart move not to change the language for an American audience. The slang might be different, but the events could just as easily happen here.

Remaining performances are October 21 at 8 and October 22 at 7 pm.

Q&A with Jenn Kent, currently starring in Rocking Dead: Bedlam

If you dream of zombie apocalypses, you can soon live out that fantasy in the new interactive show, Rocking Dead: Bedlam. It runs from October 22 through October 31 at the Medicine Show Theatre (549 West 52nd Street). I spoke to Jenn Kent, one of the actors, to find out more about what you can expect.

Q: Who do you play?
A: I play TayTaythe hostess with the mostest! TayTay'll tell you your future right before she pulls you on the dance floor and introduces you to the joys of dust.

Q: What do you want audiences to know about your show?
A: It's the most fun you can have in the post-apocalypse! Really, we have a zombie cage match, an organ toss, sexy people, and awesome dance music. If you like to party, you need to come join us and party like you never have before!

Q: Why do you think zombies are big right now in popular culture?
A: I got sucked into the zombie phenomenon when I did my first zombie show three years ago. I think different people find different aspects of the phenomenon alluring. Some like to shoot zombies, others plan their survival, others like the make-up, and yet others allow themselves perspectiveas shitty as things get, at least they're not zombies. I personally like exploring the interconnectedness of all the survivors and how they come together and rely upon each other for survival.

Q: What would you do in the case of an actual zombie apocalypse?
A: I'd surround myself with people I trust and can rely upon, find a yacht, and sail to the Caribbean.

Q: And finally, since it's almost Halloween, what was your best Halloween costume ever?
A: I'm pretty much a sexy kitty every year. This year, I'm gonna switch it up... sexy zombie kitty!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Checking in with Fringe Encores

This year, I was out of town for most of the New York International Fringe Festival (for those interested, you can read about some of my summer travels here and here), but I'm checking out some of the shows I missed at SoHo Playhouse during the Fringe Encores Series, which also features shows from the Edinburgh Fringe. Last week, I caught Daniel Cainer's 21st Century Jew and Schooled.

I must admit I hadn't heard of Daniel Cainer before now, but judging from all the audience requests during the encore, he has a fan base, and it's not hard to see why. His easygoing approach makes it easy to listen to him for an hour. Using song, projections, and stories, he explores what it means to be Jewish today. It sometimes feels more like a concert than a cohesive show, but then again, each song is strong enough to stand on its own. Though he is often funny, he is even better when telling a moving story, such as one about going to cricket games with his grandfather. This show will especially resonate with other 21st century Jews, but you don't have to be Jewish to appreciate a skilled storyteller at work.

Remaining performances at the Huron Club (downstairs at SoHo Playhouse) are October 13 at 7, October 14 at 3, and October 18 at 3.
Lilli Stein and Quentin Maré in Schooled. Photo credit: Andrea Reese
Schooled was one of the most talked about shows at Fringe and the winner of overall excellence for playwriting. Lisa Lewis explores sexism and privilege through three characters at a college campus. Andrew (Quentin Maré), a screenwriter and professor, offers to help senior Claire (Lilli Stein) with her script. She is hoping to get a prestigious grant, which requires a nomination from a professor. Her much richer boyfriend, Jake (Stephen Friedrich), is going after the same grant. Lewis's pithy dialogue hones in on problems in our society, such as when Claire tells Jake, "I can tell a 50-year-old man, 'I like your movies,' without it meaning, 'I want to sleep with you.'" When Jake says that's what men hear, she answers, "That's not my problem." Snaps.

There is one performance left on October 17 at 7, but don't be surprised if it transfers soon.

Musical Comedy, Politics, and Free Donuts

When you enter the Actors' Temple Theatre for Who's Your Baghdaddy? Or How I Started the The Iraq War, you might wonder if you're in the right place. There is a table with free donuts and mimosas in the middle of the room, with chairs arranged in a circle around it. No, you didn't accidentally walk into a meeting. Well, not exactly. The musical by Marshall Pailet and A.D. Penedo takes place at a support group for people who started the Iraq War, so the treats help set the scene. Actors take their seats in the circle and Brandon Espinoza, who plays the support group leader and various other roles, starts the meeting. Don't worry, though, despite the intimate staging (Pailet also directs), you won't be asked to participate.
Photo credit: Jeremy Daniels

As each character tells his or her role, we see flashbacks, often elaborately told through song and dance (Misha Shields's choreography impressively utilizes the minimal space). There are a lot of pieces in the true story (with dramatic license taken, of course) of how the Iraq War started and Pailet and Penedo make it easy to follow. There's Richart Becker (Brennan Caldwell), a German detective responsible for Curveball (Nehal Joshi), an Iraqi defector who claims to have intel on biological weapons. He sends information to CIA analysts Berry (Larisa Oleynik) and Jerry (Olli Hasskivi), who verify it with weapons inspector Martin Bouchard (Bob D'Haene). Though they are all convinced that Curveball is telling the truth, CIA operative Tyler Nelson (Jason Collins) is skeptical.

Although the members of the cast, which also includes Claire Neumann in multiple roles, have varying skills in the vocal department (Joshi is the standout), they all work extremely hard. Though comedy should appear effortless, for the most part, their efforts pay off, as in Caldwell's big number, "Das Man," (German words in musical numbers always seem to be funny). For fans of The Secret World of Alex Mack or 10 Things I Hate About You, it's also fun to see Oleynik rap.

But it's not all frivolity and the writers deserve credit for tackling this subject matter in such an unexpected way. The musical is based on J.T. Allen's 2005 screenplay, which couldn't get made in Hollywood. Producer Charlie Fink writes in a program note, "Musical comedy may be one of the few vehicles through which we can see and accept our responsibility for what happened, and what we will do in the future to repair the world we have so terribly broken." It's also a form which can constantly evolve and surprise as long as producers are willing to take risks.