Want to meet God, a woman with four legs, and a fish that grants your wish to be the first female Pope or an angry Pope hitting the ceiling when he sees Michelangelo’s painful painting? Here are some more of the theatre productions I’ve seen at the NYC International Fringe Festival. If you are feeling Fringe-ready, which can mean feeling adventurous, come along before the Fringe fades into history for another year. (This is its 20th NYC marathon, with all shows happening in downtown Manhattan—14th Street and below.) See www.fringeNYC.org for details, lists of all remaining performances, venue addresses, ticket info, etc. And click on the link for “Fringe Faves” under “Special Events” for shows so popular they got a bonus performance added on Sunday (that’s August 28, when the Festival ends….but expect some of these titles to reappear in runs later on).
Take One is a laugh-out-loud irreverent trio of short musicals, with an ensemble cast, about the unknown Plan A or first “take” on famous events. What can you say about a show that starts with GOD— white-bearded, white-robed, grinning, flashing jazz hands and doing musical comedy steps, singing a peppy lyric that goes, “Gonna make me a world….” He takes six days, resting on the seventh, which is a far shorter stretch of activity than the Fringe Festival has. This first musical episode then brings us Adam and Eve and that snake in the Garden of Eden. If you think hey, wait a minute, this subject matter/dramatis personae reminds you of another three-parter from the 1960s called The Apple Tree, you’re right. But this is another take, and not just your garden variety of Eden stories. God seems to have attention deficit disorder, saying that Eve bore Cain and Abel they really bore Him. And that tree bore fruit—forbidden, y’know—and he was bored then, too, hoping they’d partake of the bait. Charm and sarcasm do-exist here and it’s just plain entertainment. The other mini-musicals involve Michelangelo on a scaffold painting a ceiling and getting negative comments from the impatient Pope and some famous painters. Who wants an all-white ceiling? He gets another chance, but the grouchy guy with the artistic temperament and temper tantrums wants things HIS way and rejects their rejection and the selection of an eager young fellow dispatched to be his assistant. But the determined young man, Ludovico, finally wins him over and maybe will win his heart, too, in a sexy turn of events and mindsets. And the final piece imagines a stubborn Richard Rodgers sticking to his guns about NOT cutting a song in the out-of-town tryouts of what would become the classic musical Oklahoma! This final piece should be the capper, but it’s not quite as sharp, as it belabors the one incident when there might be more about that well-known show to pick on and parody; thus, this piece runs out of steam as a somewhat off-target portrayal not close enough to the personalities and looks of Rodgers and Hammerstein and co-star Celeste Holm. But the centerpiece of the fake song is cleverly written and performed, especially if you know the show well. For the Fringe Festival, at least, I’m sorry to get no “Surrey with the FRINGE on Top” spoof finale. Bit its cute conceit is the brooding villain Jud Fry getting a musical moment to show other a kind and light side, being a sweet guy. There is a good truckload of wit in the rhymes and jokes and panache in the melodies, thanks to the triple-threat talent of Jeff ward as composer, lyricist, and bookwriter. Director Michael Schiralli is a good match for this brand of mischievous fun and valentine dipped in tasty poison, saluting and skewering musical comedy styles and conventions. As far as the strong and multi-tasking on-task talented cast, their standout characterizations for me are Tom Alan Robbins as the peeved God, Carl Howell as Ludovico (loveable and also hilarious with some not-overplayed malapropisms), CARL HOWELL
with Keith Varney nicely balancing him as the curmudgeonly Michelangelo, plus Corrado Alicata redeeming the Oklahoma! segment switching moods and getting the right physicality as Howard DaSilva gamely playing the split-personality Jud. Rob Brinkmann and L.R. Davidson as the darling, doe-eyed, semi-clueless Adam the apple of his eye, and Eve, with Caroline Schmidt finding a non-stereotyped way of playing the Serpent. Presented by The Council of Nine, this show shows much potential as a true audience-pleaser, and with some tweaks and tightening, and getting fleshed out (no pun intended, shirtless Adam and fig leaf-challenged Eve) with sets and more choreography and sparkle, we might have a hit with “legs” to run. And certainly, clever songwriter/scriptwriter Jeff Ward, a member of the famous breeding ground of the BMI Lehman Engel Workshop will be a name to remember and follow beyond this Fringe run at the Flamboyan on Suffolk Street. It’s already booked in the 4th Wall Theatre in Bloomfield, NJ in March. But with God on your team, the fun of Take One is bound to be found around other venues, too.
The Extraordinary Fall of the Four-Legged Woman: Whereas the Broadway musical Side Show brought us into the world of a pair of real-life conjoined twins who were attractions with the other so-labeled “freaks” at the once-popular circus/carnival presentations, this Fringe show also pulls a page from a similar true-life story. Josephine Myrtle Corbin, born in the late 1860s, had an extremely unusual condition in what used to be called a “Siamese” twin was not fully formed, but only existed physically from the waist down. We see her dressed in a full and full-length skirt to the floor so that her extra pair of legs is not at all immediately apparent. When she lifts her skirt, we see this extra set of legs, which were significantly smaller and shorter and with fewer toes, with matching footwear. This happens only briefly, just enough to make the point, although it’s a surprising choice to not have the “reveal” done on the available higher platform on the stage when the center part of the audience is NOT seated on risers and some not in its first rows may not even see this. Likewise, the condition is not referred to in detail in the course of the play, but it seems to be a case of choosing not to recreate the “display” function as the circus did. We know and we know that a certain frequent male audience member certainly knows the facts, but pursues the lady romantically anyway. She is flummoxed. This wealthy physician, awkward himself, proposes marriage during the brief stay of the touring show, asking her to leave the known security of her “family” of fellow performers, led by a controlling ringmastermind type known simply as M. M is played with an air of mystery and danger laced with common sense and/or unique unblinking caring by Lily Ali-Oshatz, who wrote this intriguing side show show (creating book and lyrics and collaborating on the melodies with Mark Galinovsky, the producer and music director).
It’s labeled an operetta and all the songs are delivered a capella, making it all the more compelling. With only the aid of a pitch pipe and the ensemble’s voices keeping a beat or vocal backdrop, the cast rises to the occasion generally quite ably. In the large Flamboyan space, not all words sung by all soloists were always distinguishable — ironically— against the fuller group sound. This was a pity, as the words were often worthy and artful. Mary Stewart Evans succeeds as Corbin, radiating a soulfulness and graceful glow while underplaying the struggles. Cody Sloan is sympathetic and gentlemanly as her suitor, but the show misses an opportunity to let us fully understand or witness their budding relationship as there is no scene or song of satisfying length to see how they get to know each other beyond their romantic attraction. We see, but don’t get to individually know, the individual personalities or problems or even unique physical/performance talents of some of the members of the side show. Some are referred to as merely the roustabouts who are employed to set things up and aren’t the “attractions,” here serving mainly as extra voices for the dynamics of a capella chorales and serving supportive “witnesses.” Indeed, one is left wanting to know more about their lives and thoughts. The person with the duo-gender-bender-inclusive-androgynous-sex-nonspecific (Help me with the right label!!) appearance and persona, named Simon-Elizabeth, more than hints at having qualities of male AND female. In these days of heightened awareness of fluid gender identity/sexuality, it brings a contemporary relevance to the proceedings. Brian Falduto makes the character stand out, despite rationed opportunities in the spotlight. Madeline Wall directs and keeps a tone of respect and dignity—especially admirable and valued when one thinks of how the “human museum” members were reduced to being treated in their day, at least in many cases, by managers and the glaring public. The show doesn’t let us know what happened to Corbin later in life, but it’s interesting to do a bit of research and see she was able to give birth to numerous children as she had two fully functioning sets of organs for sex, birthing, and waste elimination. And that her husband did not use her as a cash cow for display as she’d been used to from childhood (her father even used to charge people a dime to see her extra legs and her own full legs, one of which was club-footed). She’d been well paid as an adult, earning $450 a week in the late 1800s, but her husband insisted she NOT work in any way, but enjoy being a wife and mother.
Little Stories is a dramatization of a handful of pieces from the works of the Brothers Grimm, but avoiding their most-oft told and adapted tales. But it’s not part of the Fringe Jr. shows and just aimed at kids, by choice, I assume, in this Cornerstone Theatrical presentation. Probably the most well-known of the stories is the first one, with the fish who claims to really be a prince and has the magic and gratitude to offer wishes fulfilled in exchange for being released by a fisherman. His wife is relentlessly greedy, asking for riches and to be made royalty and more with repeated requests that she forces her husband to make in return trips to the water. He objects. “JUST DO IT!!!” she shrewishly but amusingly screeches. The fish and wife are just voiced by actors of the small ensemble cast, appearing to us as puppets, while the fisherman is an actor we fully see trotting back and forth. The two-dimensional but big fish pops up through a sometimes uncooperative slit in the billowing and big multi-colored cloth held up by other cast members and the wife puppet, with changing hats and props, is a visual hoot delightfully upstaging the rest of the participants. Jan Leslie Harding’s creative puppet design is a treat of talent. Scott Connor’s scenic design is cut from the same cloth (heh-heh), with that sea and especially a wrap-around/climb inside well that, well, the actors fall into or falls into them in another tale. Jennifer A. Jacob’s costume design is fine, especially with making the cast look quite different as half-dozen varied tales unfold. There’s even a smart costuming/casting choice with a drag decision that adds to the humor when sisters are played by one female and one obvious and imposing male (who conveniently has very, very long hair— a great, saucy, nose-thumbing performance by Garret Bureson).
Director Michael Heitzler’s best work here comes when a light touch is kept in mind and pursued, but some things feel belabored and slowly paced. And the endings of scenes peter out when they should be clearly conclusive. The audience seemed unsure if a story was over and thus was hesitant to applaud right away. (My companion and I appointed ourselves as clapping-starters and the crowd followed suit.) While the vignettes were generally pleasing and the cast more than game and peppy, there needed to be more variety in tone and energy to keep things building and percolating. By their nature and form/formula, Grimm stories have some predictability and repetition and if aimed at adult audiences, one needs to offer more than visual distraction and a slice of ham.
The saving grace and main attraction is the traditionally dressed white-faced, black-suited clown/mime played by the masterful, mischievous, marvelous, mercurial Jack Herholdt, who also adapted the stories. He begins the show peeking through the curtains and doing an audience warm-up, darting about the audience at the Kraine Theatre on East 4th Street, acting and interacting, then bringing some patrons up to follow his non-verbal directions to create a little band just tapping glass bottles. He was especially hilarious pantomiming the directions about turning off phones and emergency exits as the venue director gave the usual pre-show speech. His elastic face and pop-out eyes are pure professional perfection. He also popped up from time to time in the stories, participating, winking, or just watching from the aisle. His program bio more than indicates that mime is just one part of a multi-faceted career in theatre. I’d follow him anywhere.