Hy on the Fringe: Your Personal Guide to the
2012 New York International Fringe Festival
And the FringeNYC September Encore Series
This Reviews Page Was Most Recently Updated: Sunday September 9th 2012
FringeNYC Show Reviews
I assign all shows seen one to four stars, using the following rating system:
**** = Transcendently Great
*** = Solid & Worth Seeing
** = Unless Your Relatives Are in the Cast, Think Twice
* = "I Wanted to Kill Myself"
This page provides reviews of FringeNYC 2012 shows I've seen from beginning to end.
Each review includes a show's Web site address and a representative photo. Clicking the address opens a new window taking you to the show's official site. Clicking the photo opens a new window taking you to the show's listing on the FringeNYC site. You can use the latter to read the official description of the show, see when and where it's playing at the festival, and order tickets.
Please keep in mind these reviews have to be written in a hurry. If you spot any factual errors, please don't hesitate to let me know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm always happy to make corrections and updates.
The following are the reviews I've done of FringeNYC 2012 shows so far:
Chicago-based New Colony has a reputation for building great material via the participation of its performers. The perfect example is this show, which began as a 15-minute sketch and was developed via improvised scenes by its razor-sharp comedic actresses. The result is one of the funniest shows to ever grace FringeNYC.
Your experience begins before you even reach your seat, as in return for your ticket you're given a nametag to place over your heart. In this moment you become one of the "widows" attending The Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein Annual Quiche Breakfast. As such, expect to achieve an appreciation for quiche and eggs you may have never imagined possible; as well as lifelong lessons about sexual identify and the importance of paying attention to doors.
The script by Andrew Hobgood & Evan Linder is consistently smart, nuanced, and packed with laughs, and the direction by Sarah Gitenstein leverages every joke to the max. But the greatest treasures this production offers are its five cast members. Each is a formidable comedic talent on her own, but—fitting the spirit of the show—they all work beautifully together, forming one of the finest comedic ensembles currently on any NYC stage. They're such a tight-knit group that I won't even try picking out one above another, so will simply list them alphabetically: Caitlin Chuck (Ginny), Rachel Farmer (Lulie), Megan Johns (Wren), Thea Lux (Veronica), and Maari Suorsa (Dale).
I don't want to give away any surprises, so will simply say this is one of the funniest shows you're likely to experience anywhere this year—and a festival must-see. I was lucky enough to attend on its opening day. Grab tickets, because once word gets around about this production it'll probably sell out.
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Hanafuda Denki is spectacular. Forget Fringe; this Japanese production is one of most colorful, cunning, and hilarious epics about life & death you'll see anywhere.
Fifteen minutes before it begins, there's a pre-show in which characters walk around like homeless people from another dimension, wearing costumes that appear as if they were slapped together with old newspapers and spit. It reminds me of the old Mad Magazine, which in its heyday had a circulation that exceeded Time and Newsweek, but in contrast to its glossy-paged competition was printed on cheap newsprint. This was a brilliant choice by publisher William M. Gaines, because it allowed kids and rebels to feel Mad was a rag that took on no airs, wouldn't hesitate to poke fun at itself, and would speak directly to them with the truth. Considering how formal Japanese society can be, the costumes carefully designed to seem cheap are an auspicious start.
Soon after, an unsettling woman dressed in black sits down next to various audience members and asks if they like funerals. Most say no. Their minds will soon change; but more to the point, the barrier between performers and story and safe observers is ruptured from the get-go.
After this oddball understated opening, the show opens with a burst of energy—and then continues to blaze with wild colors, extreme characters, absurd storylines, and insane song & dance numbers in a relentless assault on senses and complacency.
For example, one of the early tales is about a man who has a coffin custom-built for him. It fits so perfectly that he's informed he must not gain or lose any weight—i.e., the rest of his life should be devoted to laying neatly in this beautiful box. The metaphor for a world that has rigid protocols to follow from birth to death is a resonant one. So is the incredible musical sequence that follows in which the man decides it's better to give up the ghost right away before change ruins things, and is gleefully bombarded by the chorus with the dozens of different ways he can die (including "water death, hair death, and song death").
This is a show in which women play men, men play women, and the border between life and death is fluid. The artful theme, delivered in a variety of wonderfully nuanced and hilarious ways, is that we're never stuck. No matter what circumstances we're handed, we can choose to alter them—and end up a winner.
The message is reinforced by the charming contrast between the playful and seemingly relaxed surface, and the immensely thoughtful care and work poured into every detail of this perfectly executed production, ranging from costumes to music to choreography to the concise and easy-to-read subtitles projected on the wall.
While it's loosely based on Threepenny Opera, this is a show that's unique—not just for the US, but (I'm told by someone knowledgeable) for Japan as well. Extra special thanks and blessings to Elena Holy and the Fringe for allowing New York to experience this extraordinary production, which came to us straight from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival—and right after ifs five performances rushed off to Canada for additional fringe fests as part of a world tour.
I hope Hanafuda Denki makes it way back here for an extended commercial run. It has a fierce life and energy that rivals anything on NYC stages.
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Tail! Spin! received lots of buzz for selling out its entire run in a flash, and for the impressive talents attached to it: Rachel Dratch (cast member of Saturday Night Live from 1999 through 2006, author of Girl Walks Into a Bar), Mo Rocca (former correspondent for The Daily Show, current correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning; Broadway's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), Sean Dugan (Smash, The Good Wife; pictured above with Rocca & Dratch), Dan Hodapp (Jimmy Fallon, UCBT's sketch troupe Beige and musical Newsadoozies, co-producer of PIT improv show The Scene), and Nate Smith (30 Rock, feature films Hello Lonesome and Ready or Not). Plus it was directed by Tony nominee Dan Knechtges (Xanadu, Lysistrata Jones), and scripted by Mario Correa (contributor to NPR's Weekend Edition, co-host of WNYC's RelationShow).
But none of that automatically meant the show was actually good. In fact, there were some rumors the sellout was orchestrated to create more hype that the production deserved.
Wanting to know the truth, I managed to get into the final performance on August 16th; and guess what? Tail! Spin! is superb. The script and direction are smart and stylish, and the performances are delightful—most especially those from Rachel Dratch, who is pure joy from beginning to end as she hilariously portrays betrayed wives, bemused mistresses, Barbara Walters, and more. (As a side note, I hope Dratch is snapped up for the eventual commercial run. Aside from rare sketch comedy geniuses such as SNL's Kate McKinnon, very few performers can match what Dratch does, and she's invaluable to the current production's success.)
The show focuses on four US politicians who went through very high-profile sex scandals: former US Republican Senator Larry Craig, former Florida Republican Congressman Mark Foley, former New York Democratic Congressan Anthony Wiener, and former South Carolina Republican Governor Mark Sanford. The script consists entirely of verbatim remarks made by these men, and select people around them, excerpted from public speeches, public interviews, leaked emails, leaked texted messages, and catastrophic tweets.
It's a great high concept that touches on issues of political hypocrisy and spin, but even more resonantly on the tension between the public and private lives of each of us. And the execution produces laughs so consistently that it's likely to leave you smiling for hours afterwards.
It's unfortunate that, for whatever reason, the show ran in one of the festival's smaller venues, and that so few audiences members and reviewers had the opportunity to see it. But if the producers are wise, they'll allow for added performances during the festival and/or an extended run during September's Encore Series.
Post-Fest Note: There were no added performances, and Tail! Spin! reportedly turned down the chance to be in the Encores. One might think a show about manipulation and arrogance would go out of its way to be welcoming and transparent to both audiences and the press. Time will tell how the strategy it's following instead works out.
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Last year COBU took FringeNYC by storm with its fierce, joyful energy. This year the troupe is back in an even longer and more ambitious production.
Blending Japanese Taiko drumming & American tap dance, this show is all about percussion, whether it's created by striking a drum, slapping sticks together, or stomping feet. In fact, the production was created by a former member of the off-Broadway hit Stomp, Yako Miyamoto.
Her troupe consists of young, lithe, adorable-looking Japanese women who proceed to beat the hell out of their drums with the fierceness of tigers and the precision of circuitry.
In fact, the most striking of the women—impossibly thin, with hair as big as her head, and wearing a doll-like smile while demonstrating incredible strength and discipline (above left)—often seems as if she just stepped off the screen of a sequel to Blade Runner.
There's no narrative; but the pleasure of the sound and the striking visuals are enough to make this well worth attending.
The main problem is that after a while some audience members seemed to find the hard-driving percussion—while always performed superbly—so harshly repetitive that it became one-note. A show should ideally be a rollercoaster ride, making an audience feel extremes of both comedy and drama, or otherwise it risks desensitizing the audience from feeling anything.
Yako Miyamoto is apparently aware of this, and added some new elements this year to create emotional variation—albeit with mixed results.
What works best are the bits Miyamoto performs herself. A star with natural charisma, when she comes off the stage to play around with the audience she provides much-needed softness and comedy—as well as a behind-the-scenes hint of how difficult it is to achieve the perfect timing of the performers on stage. I'd recommend showing much more of the process involved in making the show happen; it'd both be fascinating and help enhance our appreciation of what we're seeing.
Miyamoto also tries to provide some dramatic depth via Japanese songs about tears and despair, accompanied by English subtitles projected on a giant screen behind them. She's absolutely right to make the attempt, but hasn't yet struck the right notes with the execution. For example, the English was riddled with spelling and grammatical errors; and more importantly, the content didn't really resonate with anything we were seeing on stage. (The girls are smiling and perfect, and we're almost never allowed to see other sides to them, so what are the references to tears referring to...?)
I'd recommend Miyamoto work with a professional US storyteller to achieve the right balance of comedy, drama, behind-the-scenes glimpses, and emotional connection that would make the show powerfully appeal to mainstream American audiences.
But even as is, COBU is a unique and often breathtaking show that literally drums itself into your mind and body. Don't miss this wonderful opportunity to experience it.
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Matt Graham is an international Scrabble champion (prominently featured in the bestselling book Word Freak), a former writer for Saturday Night Live and Conan O'Brien, and a former roommate & drinking buddy of comedy giants David Cross and Marc Maron (for a chat between Matt & Marc, please click here).
You'd think someone with such credentials would have it made. But in this exceptionally honest autobiographical one-man show, Graham recounts how he frequently managed to pull defeat from the jaws of victory abetted by alcohol, drugs, and a very beloved but cock-blocking grandmother.
The failures with women are especially resonant. Graham's initial rejection came in grade school at the hands of a little red-haired girl. (As a side-note, Graham mentions he really wanted to call his show A Charlie Brown Crucifixion but was constrained for legal reasons...) The girl responded to the outpouring of affection in his Valentine's Day card by telling him "I love you too, Matt—in God's way." Graham continues, "This was my first exposure to opaque nonsensical blowoff language. I still don't know what most of it means, but I know to split the check when I hear it."
When he grew older, Graham went through a long dry spell that he'd hoped to break one night with a young woman coming over to his place—well, more accurately, his grandmother's home, where he was living rent-free while trying to find a career. He made his grandmother promise to stay out of sight, and she agreed without hesitation: When the special evening arrived, things started out well. As Graham tells it: "We sit on the couch talking for half an hour: It's not real intimate yet, but I've moved over to where my hip is touching her hip—at which point my heart is going a million miles an hour. Right then my grandma, who did my laundry, comes barreling out of the kitchen. She holds up a pair of my underwear and says, 'Now there's no excuse for this, Matt. You just don't wipe yourself good!' At that precise moment a groundhog appeared out of the TV set and predicted six more years of celibacy."
The show offers lots of great stories. In fact, you may find yourself wondering how many more were skipped merely for lack of time. And along those lines: My biggest gripes are that Graham doesn't so much end as merely stop because the clock tells him to; and that he performs for a mere hour when he clearly could go for 90 minutes. But most shows would love to have the problem of leaving the audience wanting more.
I should add this isn't purely a comedy show. Once he's won our trust with laughs, Graham goes into territory so dark it's grueling. Most performers wouldn't dare bare all in this way, both out of embarrassment and for fear of losing the audience. That Graham has the courage to go down such paths—and then tout where they led him as proof of a higher power—makes this show transcendent.
Graham has been out of the comedy scene for a few years to pursue pro poker and sobriety. It's New York's good fortune that he's now back. Come and enjoy this opportunity for an intimate evening with a razor-sharp writer/performer whose greatest career achievements are most assuredly ahead of him.
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The premise of this play is stated bluntly in its poster: "What if Shakespeare had written Pulp Fiction?"
And the answer the production provides is, "It would be hilarious."
The "conversions" of Tarantino's scenes into the language and themes of the Bard are done with loving care and great cleverness; and with such insight that you'll end up with a greater appreciation of both Will and Quentin.
Special kudos go to Ben Tallen, Aaron Greer, Brian Watson-Jones, Jordan Monsell, and Brian Weiss for the sharp script (I'm a bit amazed that a committee managed to create such a singular vision...); to Jordan Monsell for the thoughtful, tight direction; and to the delightful period costumes by Kelly Bailey, which are almost a show unto themselves. (Bailey very deservedly ended up winning a FringeNYC Best Design Award.)
I'm usually leery of "gimmick" shows that depend on established brands to draw audiences. But in this case the synthesis of styles creates something fresh and notable in its own right.
In fact, if the creators were interested in improvements, I'd suggest weaving in a focused premise beyond the gimmick that made the show more clearly stand out as distinct from its sources. That would give it the weight and meaning of a genuine Shakespearean epic...and, coupled with more established actors, the potential for a healthy commercial run.
Don't wait for that, though. Watch Pulp Fiction again, and then go enjoy this artful mashup, which is part of the FringeNYC Encore Series.
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A land of fairy tales falls apart when a dark witch loses her temper over not being invited to a party and bides the dead to rise. Prince Charming, Rapunzel, Snow White, and more battle to fend off the growing zombie horde—while engaging in a private war of the sexes.
The script by Brenton Lengel displays a deep understanding of both the fairy tale and horror worlds. This is refreshing, because there's little more annoying than creators working in a genre they don't respect and love. On the other hand, those well-versed in fantasy often neglect to embrace the fundamentals of great literature—such as creating layered characters, meaningful character arcs, and a satisfying ending. And, unfortunately, that's the case here too.
Up until the climax, though, this is edge-of-your-seat theatre. Supporting the well-plotted story are fine performances from the leads, with Parker Leventer a stand-out as the world-weary Rapunzel.
And if you like stage combat, this is the show for you. The production is packed with fights involving fists, knives, axes, swords, guns...and iron wills. Done with skillful grace, the choreographed combat lends a great deal to the tense tone of this horror tale.
If you can forgive the lack of subtext and a disappointing ending, go see this. As a pure fantasy/horror ride, it's loads of fun.
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Have I Got a Girl For You
A comedic insider look at an escort service that's delightful until (to my enormous disappointment) the story falls apart at the end.
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Dann Fink is a FringeNYC treasure. In 2010 he directed the funniest show of that festival, Saving Throw Versus Love, and also the more somber The Hurricane Katrina Comedy Festival. Both productions were accepted into the Encore Series, a rare double home run for any Fringe creator.
This year Fink is back directing the dramatic play Sleepover, and his powers have only grown with time. It's no small feat to lead veteran actors Brandy Zarle (August: Orange County) and Marcus Maurice (HBO's Oz; Jitney), and at the same time guide two recent LaGuardia High School graduates, Jared Kemp and Brandon Reilly (above). Not only does Fink manage to make these diverse performance backgrounds blend seamlessly and credibly, he creates such a fine sense of gravitas that you feel as if you're watching a Broadway play. (Stephen Dobay's scenic design also deserves a lot of credit for the latter.)
The key problem is that the script—by a 17-year-old playwright—simply isn't good enough to merit such weight. The line-by-line dialogue, especially between the two teens, is terrific: lively, organic, and very contemporary. But there's a severe lack of supporting structure. For example, so little actually happens in the plot that it's painfully obvious early on all will hinge on some "shocking" ending arriving in neon lights. That's precisely what occurs; and while the conclusion plucks heartstrings, it's a gimmicky and unsatisfying climax. The script appears to be an excuse to show off the writer's prowess with dialogue; and while his talent is promising, a more disciplined approach is needed for solid storytelling.
That said, all the cast members are highly appealing; and you're likely to enjoy the disparate superb elements of this production despite the playwright's "shaggy dog story" approach preventing them from ultimately coming together.
As for Dann Fink, here's hoping his next assignment is directing a Broadway comedy or drama. He's more than ready for it.
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Leah Rudick and Katie Hartman are an NYC-based sketch duo calling themselves Skinny Bitch Jesus Meeting. As the name indicates, they aim beyond the boundaries of conventional good taste to craft a special brand of dark comedy. (For a couple of video samples, please click here and here, and for a trailer click here.) In part because of their commitment to exploring new and unsettling territory, though, their overall body of work is inconsistent, ranging from taking a zigzag pattern before squarely hitting the mark to simply missing it by a wide margin.
This show reflects that modus operandi. It starts out with the gals parodying a Sexy Baby Pageant in which "performers put on their sparkly crowns and pink dresses and show their hottest moves for your entertainment and horror." (And yes, such things exist; they show us actual TV footage...) This sequence, ranging from the sadist pageant organizer to the power-mad mom to the innocent winning baby turned demon, is pure hilarity, and gives the show a very strong start.
But as the story progresses, following the career of the tot into a child star and then fading has-been, the ideas become less fresh and compelling. That's not to say the show stops being funny; there are good bits scattered throughout. But the overall energy drops, turning what could've been a dynamite comedy into a hit or miss assortment of barely connected sketches.
If, like me, you're okay with enjoying unique and way fun comedy at the expense of putting up with not-so-hot moments, then come see this. For my taste, it's worth it merely for the pleasure of watching Hartman & Rudick performing antics, as well as experiencing the special comedy dynamic between them.
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To be blunt, this musical cabaret show begins disastrously. Australian singing duo Emma Dean & Jake Diefenbach come out covered head to toe in dark goth outfits, walk around with absurd solemnity, and then sing a song that repeats the word black over and over. It'd be highly amusing if it was parody; but it's done with utter seriousness.
I might've fled during this initial "oh woe is me" nonsense—except I already knew these singers from their YouTube videos, and really like them. So I endured, and waited.
It took 20 minutes for Dean & Diefenbach to shed the cloaks, use up the depression material, and finally sing their lively, catchy "This Is Where the Trouble Starts" (to experience it yourself, please click here). They might as well have titled it "This Is Where the Show Starts;" because from that point on they're delightful. Both of them have terrific singing voices, they harmonize beautifully, and most of their songs are quite entertaining (for additional samples, please click here and here).
I especially adore Emma Dean's voice and stage personality—she's sort of the "Annie Lennox" of the duo—and frankly wish there was more of her in the show. (Maybe if they cut the first 20 minutes, there'd be time for a bunch of her solo numbers...)
Anyway, for my tastes the opportunity to experience Dean & Diefenbach at their best outweighs having to endure a high school melodrama opening. If you enjoy their videos as much as I do, I hope you come see these colorful performers during their brief visit to NYC.
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Famed actress Lee Meriwether began her career by winning the 1955 Miss America pageant. Comics fans know her best from the 1966 Batman feature film as one of the sexiest versions of Catwoman (above right). Meriwether went on to such roles as Ruth Martin, who was a recurring characters for years on All My Children; Betty Jones, the crime-solving partner of Barnaby Jones; and Lily Munster in the 1980s revival The Munsters Today. It's a treat to see someone of Meriwether's talent and deep experience appear on any stage, and under any circumstances.
That said, when I watched the trailer for this particular show (which you can see by clicking here), I figured there were only two possibilities—it'd be dramatically electric, or it'd be schmaltz. There'd be no middle ground.
As it turned out, this was accurate; and disappointingly, the production fell quickly and heavily on the schmaltz side.
This made the show a poor fit for a Fringe festival. But worse, it made it dull. For example, a couple sitting opposite me soon fell asleep—for a 7:00 pm performance on a Friday night...
Again, it's a genuine pleasure to see Lee Meriwether live on stage. I simply hope that, going forward post-fest, she chooses material that better showcases her wonderful gifts.
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Certain questions, such as "Why do babies die?" and "Why did God make cancer?", plague us because they seem to contradict our belief in a rational universe in which events have meaning.
We can now add to this list "How did Below get into the Encore Series?"
It's hard to imagine a judging process resulting in nixing productions such as Non-Equity: The Musical and Fantasy Artists that, with rigorous development and further exposure, have real shots at eventual commercial runs, while saying "yes" to this mind-numbing mishap that's the most annoying Fringe play I saw this year.
Just to give you a sense: In a post-apocalyptic world in which rodents have taken over the surface, five characters are hiding in the sewers to survive...and their names are Eyes, Pigeon, Rat, Rump, and Skittles.
Pigeon spouts pompous pseudo-poetic nonsense. Rat speaks in monosyllabic rants. Eyes is the leader, even though she never has anything inspirational to say and mostly nags. And Rump's most prominent behaviors are cringing and being boring.
But by far the most irritating of the lot is Skittles, who wears clown makeup, moves like she's auditioning for Cats, and says almost nothing beyond lines from TV commercials.
A feeling of immense inevitability befell me when I read in the program afterwards that Skittles was portrayed by—you guessed it—the playwright.
If you feel nostalgic for the first few years of FringeNYC when scores of its shows were rambling drivel that made you want to tear your head off, then this is the play for you.
Otherwise, the Encore Series mercifully also includes a number of better choices.
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