Friday, August 17, 2012

FringeNYC, Week 1: "I Heart Revolution" and "Hadrian's Wall"

FringeNYC Begins:  187 Shows in 16 Days

Are you suffering from Olympics withdrawal? 

Here’s a cure for you:  Tackle the theater marathon that is FringeNYC, the International Fringe Festival.  187 shows, 19 venues, 16 days. Winner take all!

There is no way this couch potato is going to even try to see more than a few of the offerings (for one thing, my fulltime day job tends to get annoyingly in the way), but I did get to see a couple of the shows during the opening week.

Let’s begin with an offbeat comedy called I Heart Revolution, on view at the Living Theatre, with several more performances scheduled up to the festival’s final day, August 26.

I Heart Revolution is a gentle satire that takes aim at the “Occupy” movement; young revolutionaries, it would seem, have short attention spans and are easily distracted. 

In this case, the young revolutionaries are three BFFs—20-something children of privilege named Alexandra (the ditzy one), Tara (the belligerent one), and Alice (the sometime-peacemaker, sometime-pouty member of the triumvirate).  Back in the 1960s, we used to call them “Bonwit Teller hippies,” engaging in anti-war demonstrations and railing against the government during the week, while living off their trust funds and spending weekends with their families in the Hamptons. 

In I Heart Revolution, we are the proverbial “captive audience,” being held hostage by the trio. They surround us with police tape and hold us at bay with staple guns while they fill our heads with the not-quite-coherent beliefs they latched onto as students of a feminist professor at Brown University, a woman they refer to reverently as “Mother.”  

In what appears to be a semi-improvised event (though I Heart Revolution dates to 2008 and the aforementioned Brown University), the trio launches into a combination of diatribe, Power-Point presentations, threats, and New Age rituals aimed at getting us to succumb to Stockholm Syndrome.  That’s the phenomenon that occurs when hostages begin to empathize with their captors (√† la Patty Hearst, the heiress and socialite who turned bank-robber after being taken hostage—a very real and non-satirical event). 

The (possibly unintended) irony is, you probably can empathize with the anger and frustration, of which there is a lot going around these days.  But, like a character in a Samuel Beckett play, the rage dissipates when our captors—given a forum to air their grievances—are unable to articulate exactly what it is they are enraged about or what they want to see happen. 

This is the point, it would seem, of I Heart Revolution, and, in the end, it is not surprising that things fall apart over an argument in which one of the characters is deeply offended at an off-hand remark about the singer Beyoncé.

Throughout the performance, the trio is aided and abetted in their efforts by a game Chris Lowell (“dumb as a bag of bricks but cute in shorts,” as one of the women describes him).  Lowell plays Michael, their put-upon gofer who is just happy to have even a tiny moment before an audience, even a captive one.  (In a funny bit that occurs when the three women have momentarily left the room, Michael auditions for us as Biff in a scene from Death Of A Salesman).

The tacky staging and cheap props are most appropriate for a fringe production, and the three playwright/performers—Alexandra Panzer, Tara Schuster, and Alice Winslow—are on to something here.  With a bit more satirical bite, more in-your-face scariness aimed at the audience (hey, they are performing at The Living Theatre after all), and perhaps the excising of 15 minutes or so, I Heart Revolution could very well have an afterlife. 

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The second fringe show I saw last week is called Hadrian’s Wall (playing at the Connelly Theatre, with a last performance scheduled for this Sunday).  Unlike I Heart Revolution, this is a more fully realized play, written by Dani Vetere and directed by Stephen Cedars. 

Hadrian’s Wall is a three-character study about a brilliant yet reclusive archeologist named Ramona (Laura Siner).  Ramona has spent the last fifteen years holed up in her apartment after being accused of stealing an important artifact—a block of stone containing a tantalizing yet nearly indecipherable inscription she believes will lead to a significant breakthrough regarding the very real Roman Ninth Legion, about which a mystery remains to this day. 

Ramona is somewhat of a mystery herself, and the playwright slowly and carefully unearths fragments of her story and reveals them to us as an archeologist might, by dusting off the past and allowing us to learn about her life through her interactions with David (Eric Rolland), her attorney, friend, and former lover, and with a student at the university, Amy (Rebecca White), who is gradually supplanting David in Ramona's life.  

This is an intriguing play that leaves many questions unanswered, challenging us to interpret events for ourselves.  Taken at face value, Hadrian’s Wall is a straight-forward psychological mystery.  But its real strength is in what is left unrevealed.  There is more than a bit of Harold Pinter in the script; we are not meant to know everything, but we are invited to interpret. 

Perhaps the title is meant to suggest the self-protective wall that Ramona has built around herself since leaving the university.  Perhaps David and Amy exist only in Ramona’s memory, or perhaps she has invented one or both of them to keep her company in her self-imposed solitude.  One thing for sure, there is something about her that sticks in the mind and leaves you wanting to know more. 

I suspect that Hadrian’s Wall will have a further life, and that Dani Vetere will have an interesting future as a playwright.  But if you want to catch it now, you’ve only got until this Sunday. FringeNYC waits for no one!

If you crave more of ProfMiller, check out ProfMiller@The Theater at  Most recent review posted there:  "Richard III."

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