Fringe report: WE’RE VERY PROUD AND WE LOVE YOU SO MUCH

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Blending schtick with semiotics, His Majesty the Baby is developing a pioneering approach to sketch comedy. Though We’re Very Proud and We Love You So Much is uneven, its high points offer an exciting indication of the group’s potential. Consisting of five Yale graduates (Shon Arieh-Lerer, John Griswold, Andrew Kahn, Max Ritvo, Nathan J. Campbell), the team derives its name either from Freud’s essay on narcissism and/or from the Arthur Drummond painting of the same name. It’s a fitting moniker, seeing as the fellows seem to have an obsession with birth (both literal and metaphoric). Images of fetuses, newborns and parturition abound in the show, frequently accompanied by the throbbing music of the band Sister Helen (pleasantly eerie lead vocals by Campbell). The most effective use of the image occurs in the opening sketch. A father struggles to placate his infant daughter, who is throwing a tantrum because she wants an ending. As any writer knows, birthing an idea is one thing. It takes a skilled and patient “parent” to nurture it to maturity– and eventually let it go. Variations on this motif occur throughout the presentation and help give it a loose narrative framework. But a secondary theme of audience psychology yields the funniest and most thought-provoking material. Viewers, it turns out, will repeat complete gibberish on cue when prompted by a manic game show host. Even a standup comedy routine can be delivered by a machine once the audience has been conditioned to laugh in certain spots. In keeping with the troupe’s restlessly deconstructionist approach to comedy, the rules of the vignettes are often ingeniously dismantled as soon as they are established. Sometimes the irony fails to land. The evening’s meandering non-finale seems to have little purpose other than announcing the location of the after party. Still, if the writers occasionally miss their mark, at least their targets are worthy ones and their ammunition well-chosen. It’s encouraging to see a young comedy team with more on its mind than pop-culture parody and dating angst. It will be interesting to see how His Majesty’s bold, unsettling sense of humor develops. Check their Facebook page for news and upcoming performances.

https://www.facebook.com/hismajestythebaby

For more about Sister Helen, click here:

http://sisterhelen.bandcamp.com

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Fringe report: URBAN MOMFARE and SMASHED, THE CARRIE NATION STORY

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While Broadway hangs fire during the summer, New York’s energetic festival season finds composers, lyricists and performers hard at work on new projects. Two ambitious entries in the New York International Fringe Festival take original approaches to the traditions of musical theater and opera.

Seamlessly blending razor-sharp satire with heartfelt reflections on the joys and conflicts of family life, URBAN MOMFARE tracks 17 years in the life of a modern mom. When we first meet Kate (Christiana Little) she is pregnant and unprepared for the culture shock that awaits her. Her husband hails from New York’s Upper East Side, and when he takes over his family’s business, the couple leaves laid back Pittsburgh for the fervid pace of Manhattan. At first, Kate feels like Alice in an intimidating Wonderland of parental perfection: Momzillas flash designer accessories while ruthlessly angling to get their genius infants into exclusive preschools. Hot Superdads negotiate million dollar deals and hit the gym every day, while still finding time to coach soccer and help with homework. Surrounded by all this flawlessness, Kate worries that she and her husband and young daughter Charlotte (Sarah Rosenthal) can’t possibly measure up. As she quickly learns, survival in this combat zone depends on finding allies, and luckily Kate is able bond with Ellen (Tiffan Borelli) and Debbie (Christine Toy Johnson). Together they are able to navigate even the most devastating of crises. That is, until Kate’s penchant for speaking the unvarnished truth sets off a chain reaction that threatens to tear the trio apart. Will friendship triumph over vanity? Fittingly, the parents must look to their children to find the answer.

Perfectly cast as the three mom-sketeers, Little, Borelli and Johnson pack powerful voices and nail the comic and poignant beats with equal precision. They are aided by versatile supporting cast (Antonietta Corvinelli, Sandi DeGeorge and Cheryl Howard) who nimbly morph into nannies, fitness gurus, talk show hosts, and a panoply of other personages. Director Alice Jenkell and choreographer Janine Molinari keep the myriad cues, time lapses and costume changes flowing smoothly.

Pamela Weiler Grayson’s music and ferociously clever lyrics blend heart with hilarity and give the characters depth and vibrancy. The score works organically with Grayson and Jenkell’s well-crafted libretto, to move the story forward. Urban dwellers will appreciate the show’s sagacious ribbing of the trend-crazed elite. But Grayson and company also have a lot to say about body image, self-worth, and a search for lasting values that can’t be bought on Madison Avenue. If there is any justice, URBAN MOMFARE will soon move on to a longer run in a major venue. See it now while the tickets are still affordable.

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Weighing in at a lean 70 minutes, SMASHED. THE CARRIE NATION STORY certainly never gets boring. If anything, its merry-go-round of ideas sometimes moves too briskly for its own good.

Nation (Krista Wozniak) sees the abuse of alcohol as an epidemic threatening the health of the American people. Rather than wait for due process, she follows the dictates of God (David Schmidt) and takes the law into her own hands. With violent determination, she sets about invading saloons and destroying their merchandise with a hatchet (hence the double entendre “smashed”). As her reputation grows, Carrie makes headlines, gets arrested and gathers a loyal band of followers (Cameron Russell, Christiana Little and Jocelyn O’Toole). America keeps on drinking regardless, as evidenced by the chronic inebriation of the Liquid Courage Brigade (Patricia Vital, Evan McCormack, and Seth Gilman). Even Carrie herself, in a surreal dream sequence, binges on adult beverages.

The production has an energetic, three-ring-circus quality and director Jenny Lee Mitchell makes inventive use of the C.O.W. theater’s raked seats and deep stage. The cast, backed, up by a three piece house band, are all strong singers and seem to having a good time with material. But Composer-lyricist James Barry and librettist Timothy Braun seem uncertain as to what story they want to tell. The Arias, though well-written, are truncated, and the vignettes that make up the plot are somewhat random in design. Self-referential theater jokes alternate with lampoons of contemporary dive bar culture, and a smattering of real biographical detail. At times, the songs are affecting and lucid, as when Carrie recalls her first marriage to an alcoholic husband. The driving force behind her activism is suddenly made clear and she becomes a human being rather than a just quaint relic of a bygone America. More character-driven work of this kind would give SMASHED the narrative musculature it needs and help weave its many intriguing elements into a cohesive whole.

The New York International Fringe continues at multiple venues through August 24th. Tickets and show times: http://www.fringenyc.org. Info@fringenyc.og.

SUMMER SHORTS, SERIES B

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Now in its eighth year, Throughline Productions’ annual event has established itself as an important showcase for new works by an impressive roster of writers. Series B, though uneven, serves as a welcome reminder of the power and versatility of the one act form.

Daniel Reitz’s NAPOLEON IN EXILE takes a compassionate look at Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Divorced publishing exec Evelyn (Henny Russell) comes home to find that her 25-year old son Corey (Will Dagger) has spent the whole day playing Minecraft. He has not, as promised, been looking for a job. Nor has he helped with any of the household chores. His recalcitrance is more than just an irritation for Evelyn. She has always wondered what will happen to Corey when she’s gone, and that day may not be far off. Evelyn has just been diagnosed with cancer. Corey’s brilliant but unusual mind manufactures a few fantasy solutions, but eventually reality sets in. Humor, toughness and affection emerge as Mother and son struggle to find a common language. Under Paul Schnee’s seamless direction, the Russell and Dagger forge a convincing, multilayered rapport and the turns of the story feel both inevitable and surprising. Reitz’s lean script, though highly endearing, steers clear of homily and sentiment and allows its characters’ quiet bravery to speak for itself.

Neil LaBute, a frequent contributor to SUMMER SHORTS, ventures into morally ambiguous territory in the tightly-constructed THE MULBERRY BUSH. Sitting alone on a park bench, Bill (Victor Slezak) wants only to eat his lunch in private, but Kip (J. J. Kandel) has other ideas. At first their conversation feels like small talk, but Kip’s questions clearly indicate that he has ulterior motives. Bill, it turns out, has passed a few pleasant hours in the park chatting with Kip’s wife and four-year-old son. Nothing inappropriate has happened, but Kip is troubled by Bill’s criminal past (which, under current law, must be made public). As Kip’s behavior grows increasingly menacing, Bill realizes the stain of his past will never be washed away. LaBute doesn’t take sides here, but his empathic portrayal of two troubled men raises provocative questions. Can sex offenders rehabilitate themselves and live law-abiding lives? Or do they remain a danger to society even after they’ve done their time? And does a father’s right to protect his family extend to robbing others of their civil liberties? Thanks to hauntingly human performances by Slezak and Kandel, THE MULBERRY BUSH continues to reverberate long after the lights go down.

Compared to the polished work of Reitz and LaBute, Albert Innarauto’s unfocused DOUBTLESS seems out of place. The story concerns a Reverend Mother (Brenda Currin) who wants to leave the Catholic Church and marry a young nun (Tasha Guevara). They plot their escape while the church’s priests and brothers are engrossed in a gay orgy. While waiting for the perfect moment to flee, they do a lot of standing around and ranting. Mother, especially, seems bent on attacking – without much wit or originality – everything from pop culture to the pagan origins of Catholic ritual. Some dramatic conflict arrives in the form of A Man (Dana Watkins), who combines elements of Jesus and Count Dracula. In order to be allowed to remarry, Mother must attain a divorce from Man (or, better yet, destroy him). The play’s energy heats up a bit as Mother and Man engage in a battle of wills, but the dialogue continues to emphasize commentary over comedy. Despite some strong performances – and a few inventive visual touches added by director Jack Hofssis – the play’s jumble of ideas fails to gel into a coherent statement.