Monday, August 31, 2009

Recent Theater: Fringenyc

More fringenyc productions this week...

Would I have gone to see a satirical musical not-too-loosely based on the Tate/LaBianca murders if my friend, Trav S.D., hadn't written and composed the music for it? Unlikely. However, I'm pleased to report that Willy Nilly: A Musical Exploitation of the Most Far-Out Cult Murders of the Psychedelic Era, in addition to having the longest subtitle in recent memory, is a lot of fun and hits quite a bit more than it misses. The show is billed as "being tastefully presented to coincide with the 40th anniversary" of the murders; to call this piece tasteful would be a bit of a stretch but at least the targets of its black humor are not the innocent victims (for the most part). Most of the skewering is reserved for the ultra-pompous true crime stories, especially Bugliosi's Helter Skelter. Trav's script offers history virtually unmodified (although, as the narrator, he informs us that "the names have been changed to amuse the author") but filters it through the prism of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, the prototypical counterculture vaudeville—a genre that Trav has explored fully in print and onstage.

The key to satire is accuracy, of course: we have to immediately recognize what's being parodied or it isn't funny. Trav's songs hit a bull's-eye almost every time—the title song is a dead-on lampoon of The Beatles' Helter Skelter; so good, it immediately put me in mind of the music from the classic Beatles's spoof, The Rutles. Credit for this success should also be given to the onstage band, The Four Hoarses: they do a fantastic job with the many different musical styles in the production. I can't say that it's well-acted—by design, the acting style is absurdly broad and the characters are all basically stereotypes and stock characters—but it's never dull and I enjoyed watching everyone work, especially Avery Pearson as Willy.

My only complaint, really, is that Willy Nilly is too faithful to the Manson story: several plot points could be cut from the piece to make it a lean, mean 90-minute performance (time-constraints in the fringe prevented them taking an intermission, but the piece is a solid two hours at present). Still, you gotta have balls to write a satirical musical about an infamous mass murderer—there are times when this one pushes the limits of good taste almost to the breaking point. I don't think anyone will argue that Trav S.D. has proven that he's the proud possessor of a pair of Class A cojones.

May - December with the Nose & Clammy is a cute little romantic comedy that has potential. Like Trav S.D., the first thing that playwrights Jonas Cohen and Naomi McDougall Jones must do is cut: in particular the plot line that led them to that title, which would then allow them to change the title because it doesn't give you any idea of what you're actually going to see. Then they can expand the framing device they've created in which a young woman (nicely played by Jones) brings her neurotic, older fiance (Craig Waletzko, in a delightful performance) to a theater so that they can reenact their relationship for an audience to get our opinion about whether or not they should proceed with their wedding; the meta-theatrics of that device would have provided them with a lot more opportunity for commentary and character development than the super hero metaphor they're currently using (especially since half of the metaphor is introduced early in the piece and the other half only finally appears in the next-to-last scene). Ava Geffen's direction is disappointing: there are far too many painfully long "blackouts" (in quotes because they're actually scene changes under blue lighting and we can still see the actors moving around onstage; you've given us this context of a couple performing for us so use that, make it part of the concept—it's actually in the script) and the staging is awkward, especially the couple of short scenes performed in silhouette behind a screen. I hope the authors will go back and work more on this play: the dialogue is often quite clever, the relationship between the characters is interesting and the actors are both engaging. With the right dramaturgical help, I could see this piece working very well.

We ended our fringenyc experience with Richard Caliban's MoM — A Rock Concert Musical at CSV. It chronicles the rise of the rock band, Mom, formed by five suburban midwest housewives, from their first gig in a high school gymnasium to super stardom and back again in eight short years (or two hours of audience time, with intermission). All of the scenes occur during concerts at various points in Mom's career so we're told most of the key stories of their lives through their song set-ups to the audience. It's an interesting approach and it might work better if the ladies weren't just so darned willing to share extremely intimate details with hundreds (and, eventually, thousands) of strangers; their confessions are so frank and direct that there's no subtext. It's too bad because I think it'd be much more effective if the characters were allowed to draw us in and inadvertently reveal their turmoil. The songs are all pretty good: many of the lyrics evoke the sorts of issues that you'd imagine would be on the minds of a forty-something, middle class woman ("Single Mom," "Life is Sweet") and, later, a successful but conflicted rock star ("Runnin' Wild," "A Long Way from Home"); musically, Caliban draws from a lot of different influences—mostly '80s rock, which makes sense, given the ages of the women—and everything is executed well. The cast is musically impressive—they all play multiple instruments, have strong voices and seem to be skilled musicians—and they have a nice rapport with one another. I think they're all good actors, too, but the script doesn't really give them much opportunity to shine except when they perform "scenes" from their lives for their audiences; intellectually, I could justify them doing these but the piece is really too naturalistic for the device to work very well. Overall, as a concert MoM's got a lot going for it; as a theater piece, I think Caliban could rearrange the elements he has here and find ways to break out of the concert format occasionally to let us discover more about the characters: a little less strip and more tease in their stories would become these ladies a great deal.

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