Thursday, August 19, 2010

FringeNYC: Running, Get Rich Cheating, and Tiny Geniuses

Performance Date: 08.13.10
FringeNYC Venue #14: The Cherry Pit

Get Rich Cheating 
Performance Date: 08.15.10
FringeNYC Venue #16: The Soho Playhouse

Tiny Geniuses 
Performance Date: 08.15.10
FringeNYC Venue #17: Here Arts Center Mainstage

Welcome to the last two (official) weeks of A Year of Plays.  Thankfully, these weeks coincide with the New York International Fringe Festival, when the city has plays coming out its ears every moment of the day.  If I’m a woman of my word, and I mean to be, I’ve got six shows to see before August 23rd.  Thus I am pleased as punch that this past weekend I saw three of them.

I should warn you though that I am currently in a fog of psychosomatic illness.  I decided last night to take a sick day today because I was starting to feel run down.  I imagined I would spend it as a productive mental health day – sleep late, wake up refreshed, tidy the house, work out, catch up on the To Do list.  Instead, my brain heard “sick day” and figured it needed to actually make my body sick.  Funny little brain.  So now I feel sort of thick-tonsilled and fuzzy-headed which is making it difficult to weave a cohesive thesis out of my Fringe experience thus far.

All the same, I do feel that these three shows – as far-ranging as they are in style – each made me alight near the topic of naturalism.  I’m not sure that’s the right word, so I’ll also throw in the adjectives real, believable, and authentic.  I fear I’m in danger of making you fuzzy-headed too, so let me dive in, tackling each show on its own.


This play is essentially a long conversation between a man and a woman over the course of a single night.  It’s performed by two veteran actors whose ease on stage is apparent the moment they make their entrance together, mid-dialogue.  This ease was so great that, at moments, their performances were nearly indistinguishable from real life, as if the audience were listening in on two people’s actual interaction.  It was very finely acted – I was particularly enamored of the male actor’s subtle specificity – and yet I wasn’t sure how to feel about the eavesdropping nature of my experience.  Not because I felt I was intruding on a private moment, but because historically I’ve considered vérité a liability in theater.

It has been my unchecked belief that theater is not meant to be actual-life-sized.  That theater is not meant to replicate life, but to translate it somehow.  Make it bigger, make it smaller.  Distill it, decorate it, distort it.  Shove it through a new lens, like Play-Doh through the Fuzzy Pumper, and extrude it into a new shape.  Even when the chosen style of a piece is naturalism (or realism or whatever the proper dramaturgical term is), I’ve always believed it must not be exactly like “real life.”  Indeed, the very nature of theater – that there are performers, an audience, a tacit agreement about why we’re there – prevents it from being exactly like real life.  (Except when “real life” is going to or performing in a play, but we’ve already covered that postmodern ground together.)  When actors seem to ignore this fact, the result feels too private and indulgent for me, as if the performer couldn’t care less that I was there at all.  And I guess I take that personally.  So I’ve always preferred that performances and productions embrace their not-realness, and that actors lift their energy, even slightly, to include me.

However, this actor in Running – I don’t think I can say his energy on stage was any higher than it would be for a man having a late night conversation with a woman in his apartment.  And yet as I said, I was enamored of his performance all the same.  I did not find it too private or indulgent. I felt included in his awareness.  So I’m a bit at a loss—still confused.  Are my tastes for “life-sized” theater changing?  Or was this piece of theater, and this man’s performance, not actually life-sized?  I think maybe both.  I’m just not sure in what proportions.

Get Rich Cheating 

Get Rich Cheating is my friend Jeff Kreisler’s one man show, billed as a Tony Robbins-type wealth-building seminar that promises to make your greedy little dreams come true through some good old fashioned cheating.  Rife with examples of real-life cheating “heroes” such as Bernie Madoff, AIG, and A-Rod, the show is a flat out satire – but of a surprisingly natural kind.

Jeff has a formidable intelligence, a robust moral center, and a wicked sense of humor.  These combine perfectly to create the ironic social commentary that blazes, nearly undisguised, behind his character’s cherubic grin.  Yet at the same time, Get Rich Cheating as a seminar feels disturbingly believable, as if it’s just a hair away from being an actual self-help phenomenon that could be sweeping our helpless nation tomorrow.  In fact, if you took the glint of intellect from Jeff’s eyes and replaced it with a vacuous sincerity, I would not be surprised to find this show on TV in the wee hours, right between the DebtBuster infomercial and the Shake Weights for Men ad. It’s a bizarre duality.  A show that is clearly not what it says it is, and yet is this close to being so.  I attribute that to shrewd observance on the part of the show's creative team as well as to the bleak reality of our current culture.

Thinking about that “life-sized” idea again, here is a show that takes a real life truth and translates it through satire, character, and humor.  There is nothing actual-life-sized about it.  Except, except… I do think it’s worth noting that a few of my favorite moments were when Jeff was playing off-the-cuff with members of the audience, and engaging in some real-time, real-life interaction. Jeff remained in character and therefore within the parody, so perhaps those moments can’t be called “actual-life-sized.”  But they did have an authenticity – an actualness – that deeply appealed to me.

By the way, actualness?  Who do I think I am?  Stephen “Truthiness” Colbert?

Tiny Geniuses 

Gosh I just really liked this show.  It was just super duper delicious and fun.  For starters, everyone in it looked so shiny and new and impossibly young, which is sort of unsettling because I could have sworn I was too young to think any adult person was impossibly young.   But they had more going for them than their youth. They were terrific actors, all of them.  They displayed playful comedic chops, open emotional access, and authentic moment-to-moment interaction. They were grounded and aware. They handled the absurdist aspects of the play with confidence, balancing exuberance in some moments with restraint in others.  Their ensemble connection was undeniable.  They were authentic. They were having fun.  And despite this embarrassment of riches, there seemed to be nothing smug about them.  They just seemed to be doing what they enjoyed to do.  Though perhaps if they catch wind of all this effusive praise I’m throwing their way, maybe some smugness will come upon them.

Tiny Geniuses is a comedy about an elementary school for the gifted that has been corrupted by the insecure, narcissistic, and down right batty adults that run the little brainiacs' lives.  Nearly all the characters in this play might be classified as over-the-top whack jobs if it weren’t for the fact that they’re so delightfully human.  There’s the insecure Principal Pineapple who is so pathologically lonely she conducts a romance with her companion teddy bear.  There’s the wealthy Mommy and Daddy who sling their venomous banter just slightly over their young daughter’s head.  And there’s the combined innocence and cruelty of the Gateway School’s children, played believably yet with clownish skill by the adult cast.  And then at the center of this stylized maelstrom is the charming Finola Applebaum, a teacher with a heart of gold and our relatable straight-man in this sea of insanity. 

I find the juxtaposition of outsized abusrdism and relatable naturalism really intriguing in this show.  I feel it is handled very well.  Ms. Applebaum's character – as "real-life" as she seems – always remains within the absurd world of the show.  Her character never comments on the wackiness around her, but deals with it authentically, as it were all just a part of her ordinary life.  A similar juxtaposition can be found within each character portrayal as well.  In one moment, you gape at the playground tyrant as she viciously blackmails Ms. Pineapple by threatening to withold the principal's regular cootie shot, and in the next moment, you witness the child's genuine hurt at her self-involved mother's neglect.  It's a delightful little magic trick to watch the style change so seamlessly moment to moment.

So there we have it.  Three shows down and three to go.  This whole life sized/real life/naturalistic/authentic thread is a bit of a tangled mess, but there are some good strands in there to keep tugging on.  Particularly the bias against "life-sized" theater.  I'm pretty sure there are a couple different concepts I currently have confused and need to separate within that argument.  Stay tuned.

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