Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Fleeting Joys of August On The Fringe: R&J at Happy Medium, The Third Story at Titanic, and New Exhibition Room's ZOMBIE DOUBLE FEATURE

As summer winds down, the doors to the kingdom are left unlocked for the people to play in the palace ... or something like that.  In recent years, the spaces that are busy all season with resident companies become available, sometimes for lesser rates and mostly for limited runs, to the homeless theaters of the Boston Fringe.  Two or three week runs, some longer, have opened and are running and closing this week and next, at the BCA Plaza and Calderwood theaters, Boston Playwrights Theater, and at the Black Box at the Arsenal Center in Watertown, among others.
I've seen a few (R&J at the BCA, The Third Story in Watertown), I'm seeing one tonight  ("Zombie Double Feature", two one-act Zombie plays at BPT).

Romeo and Juliet, Happy Medium Theater, BCA Plaza Theater thru 8/25
From what one can read in all of the publicity material, Happy Medium knows that the real star of its production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is the director, Paula Plum.  And it really is a triumphant fringe production, rising far above its limitations and my expectations.
While it feels somewhat like the culmination of a master class in performing Shakespeare with one of Boston's most respected "actor/director/teacher"s, it succeeds in presenting a clear and direct "no frills" production.  The unit set, by Bryan Prywes, of three portals, the requisite balcony, an open plaza and darkened entryways, are aided by Daniel Chavez's lighting, to create a fluctuating environment for fluid scene changes.  Too often on the fringe, costume budgets and constraints make for an incomplete picture, but that's not the case here, as Jillian Clark's costumes are very much of a whole.  And though I think the physical production is nicely realized, I had some confusion as to where this production was set.  With its vaguely Middle Eastern setting, and the contrast of flowing linen and vests on the Montague side and a more tailored "European" look to the Capulets, and a black Romeo and white Juliet, it was difficult to place the production.  A woman, Kiki Samko, as the Prince and Chorus, added to the sense that this was happening during a culture clash in a world other than Shakespeare's Verona, and at another time, though it wasn't clear when.  Angie Jepson's fight choreography is fantastic, and, again, well realized, especially in the performances of Michael Underhill as Tybalt and Jesse Wood as Paris..
The performances were also clear and direct.  These mostly young actors presented intelligent and well motivated characters, without extraneous clutter.  Besides Underhill and Wood, some standouts include Joey Pelletier's very physical and often lyrical Mercutio, the comic relief and timing of Mikey DiLoreto's Benvolio, June Kfoury's Nurse, and the majestic "single Mom" of Sharon Squires as Lady Montague.

The Third Story, by Charles Busch, Titanic Theatre Company, at the Arsenal Center for the Arts Black Box Theater, Watertown, thru 8/19 only
The newest fringe theater on the scene, Titanic Theatre Company, is made up of some fine veterans of the local theater scene, presenting the local premiere of Charles Busch's The Third Story.  The script is another in a series of genre parody comedies from the author of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Sleeping Beauty, or Coma, and Psycho Beach Party (all of which I directed in their local premieres from 1993 to 1995).  But Charles is also the author of the more realistic Broadway comedy Tale of the Allergist's WIfe, which earned Tony  nominations, for Best Play ,and Best Actress for leading actress Linda Lavin.   The Third Story lies somewhere in between.
It's a comedy full of Charles' famous way with words, puns and the period vernacular of  Hollywood of the Golden Age, of hardened tarts and cigar chomping gangsters, chorus cuties and Grand Dames.  The three stories that intertwine to make the intricate plot concern a Science Fiction/Gangster screenplay being written as we watch, a redemptive fairy tale woven by a Mother for her child, and the relationship of a Mother/Son writing team, a broken partnership trying to be regained.
The Titanic company rises to the challenge presenting one of the funniest shows currently running, and ONLY running through this Sunday.
The proverbial "Worth The Price of Admission" Medal goes to Rick Park's entrances, as Queenie, the Charles Busch "Leading Lady" who he manages to put his own stamp on, and as that character's clone, Queenie 2. Not a small person to begin with, Rick brings new meaning to "larger than life" in his Grande characterization of this Grande Dame.  (His "sotto voce" asides are hysterically appropriate and wholly his own).  I don't think I've ever seen Alisha Jansky look quite as tall, long and lithe as here in her period pencil line skirts and lab coats. (Alisha famously created the role of Chicklet's best friend, Berdine the ultimate 60's nerd, in my '93 production of Psycho Beach Party and it's '95 revival).  Shelley Brown maintains a commanding presence as the Mother of the writing team and as a character in her screenplay, while Brett Milanowski is having almost too much fun with his creation of the sci-fi experiment gone wrong, though I can't imagine it being played any other way than gleefully. Erin Eva Butcher camps up the golddigging gun moll, all giltter and intent, while nicely underplaying the innocence of the heroine of the fairy tale.  Jordan Sobel does a great about face in his two roles, as the screenplay's gangster and the screenwriting son.  With the addition of eyeglasses, he changes pitch and tone, body language and characters as easily as changing out of his coat.
Congratulations to director Adam Zahler and the Titanic Theatre Company, and best wishes for a long and bright future.  While the production may not completely solve the transitions of the plays difficult tones and themes, the characters and camp carry the show for a two-hour ride.

Zombie Double Feature : Terror at BPT (written and directed by Dawn M. Simmons) and Midnight at the Last Night Cabaret (written and directed by A. Nora Long)
The Zombie Apocalypse continues, this weekend and next, as two original one-act Zombie plays are presented by New Exhibition Room at the Boston Playwrights' Theater.  The waiting areas begin to fill with couples, threesomes and small groups of theatregoers, as well as solos like me, while the front theater remains open and dark.  It doesn't appear very inviting.  And rather than enter, we all wait, slightly uneasy but just as ready for some chills and laughs as the Zombie genre intersects with Boston's fringe theatre.
And then it's 8:00 and the calmly patient audience is disrupted by characters darting through the lobby, and just as suddenly we're led into the back theater, where The Vicar will hold his revival meeting.
Part theme-event, part parody, the first half of the night, Terror at BPT, had us as captives in the theater where the Zombie Apocalypse has arrived.  
In the second play, Midnight at the Last Night Cabaret, we are again playing the role of audience members at an impromptu cabaret in the BPT as the Zombie Apocalypse explodes outside the theater.  
The lines between horror and camp, music and comedy blur as the "rules" of Zombie Culture are set up and broken.  Some wonderful moments of tension and suspense are played out, while we await the inevitable gore and gross-outs.  And the inevitable Michael Jackson flash mob dance number gets turned on it's severed head.
Both shows are basically theatrical excuses to allow the New Exhibitionists permission to get their Zombie on.  The plays conform to the Basic Rules of Zombie-Dom: the undead seek fresh human meat and blood, and once bitten by a zombie, one dies and returns as one of the flesh seekers.
Terrence Haddad seems limitless in his ability to disjoint his joints and struggle with his Inner Zombie.  Both the physical contortions he gets into and the verbal attempts he lets out combine to hysterical effect.   And his final moments in Terror at the BPT rival Boris Karloff's monster for unexpected pathos.  Greer Rooney performs another hysterical sketch with a "puppet", a prop that she wrestles with, giving it a life of it's own.  In fact, Zombie puppets are also a part of this Apocalypse!  
Every one, Hannah Husband, Lyndsay Allyn Cox, Bryan Daley, Terrance Haddad, Greer Rooney, Bob Mussett (and his ukelele), Melissa DeJesus, and Omar Robinson, brings a gleeful joy to playing with prosthetic body parts and innards, and the directors, A. Nora Long and Dawn M. Simmons, keep the pace flowing, though I felt that some bits meandered while getting to the point.  It would be nice, for example, to have the musicians accompany more of the Cabaret songs, which might move them along.  The addition of live musicians in such a rock-and-roll format was a great idea, and the pieces set to their soundtrack, "inadvertant" cabaret acts during which a zombie, attempting to perform a simple task, "becomes" the show, were nonverbal highlights, and I would have liked to see them more fully integrated into the Cabaret.  (A sign at the theater announced that the musicians for last night's show were Brendan and TJ.  I don't know how often they perform, or who the alternating musicians are or what their schedules are).  
But even as is, the 2 hour 15 minute show, with intermission, moves along leaving little time to question and plenty of time to laugh.