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Byzantium: A New Musical

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

People will argue about the merits of President George W. Bush until (and likely beyond) the day he leaves office. But I have to say I'm about ready to see that happen as soon as possible. It's probably the best and easiest way to put at least a temporary end to pallid political plays that don't care how much they have to stretch to make their point.

For an excellent example, look no further than this year's Fringe Festival, where Byzantium: A New Musical is setting new standards for audaciousness in political-theatrical discourse. Despite being set during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (483-565), its book (by John Kaiser) throws around terms like "homeland security" and "exit strategy" and sentences like "You are either with us or you are against us" and "Enemies of the state are a sickness" as though there's no tomorrow.

Drawing parallels between current and past events is one thing; doing it so baldly and so badly is something else altogether. Lines like these, which stick out not like sore thumbs but sore hands attached to sore arms, don't make a show like this topical. They don't make a show like this relevant. The make a show like this ridiculous. And Kaiser proves that he doesn't need any help from Bush or the Republican administration on that account - he's perfectly capable of coming up with plenty of howlers all by himself.

Yes, even without the above references, Byzantium's dialogue is a veritable master class in unintentionally hilarious dramatic writing. (The show aims for the gravity and occasion of a James Clavell miniseries, but is closer in spirit to Shogun: The Musical as performed by a Les Miserables cast on an off night.) Lines like "Are you wounded... or just bruised?", "Politically appointed is twice anointed," "The greater good makes pawns of us all," and (my personal favorite) "The monk has gone and taken the dead princess with him. But where?" make keeping a straight face at this show - ostensibly a serious epic about Justinian's marriage to a lowly actress and how their romance rends the fabric of the empire - the hardest challenge you're likely to face this summer.

The score (music by Steven Jamail, lyrics by Troy Scheid and Kaiser) doesn't help. It's surprisingly inoffensive, especially by the standards of the show's book, but it's utterly locked in the British pop opera idiom without any of the emotional shading, lyrical subtlety, or melodic invention those shows demonstrate (and no, I'm not kidding). Declaring a "best" song, or even a good one, is basically pointless - they all more or less sound the same, and large musical scenes and intimate solos and duets alike pack no dramatic punch.

They're not aided by director Cailín Heffernan, whose stodgy staging keeps the show muddy from beginning to end. The choreography - not credited, but likely Heffernan's - is apparently inspired by faded images on the side of a Grecian urn rather than theatrical appropriateness; her dances and precision movements seem designed to highlight the sinewy bodies of the actors but instead look most like a half-drunk audience attempting the Wave at a baseball game.

The performers, helplessly trapped within this idiocy, try their best, but only a few are worthy of note: Bram Heidinger brings an energetic restraint and solid, light tenor to an artistic monk who arrives from a conquered land and helps bring down Byzantium; Janet Dacal has the right combination of softness and coarseness for Justinian's actress lover Theodora; Erica Ash is all smoldering sex as Theodora's fellow, uh, performer; and Ian Pfister finds an interesting complexity (if too many contemporary tics) in another claimant to the Byzantine throne.

But the story as presented here is so hard to take seriously that eventually you're forced to pity the performers instead of reacting to the characters they're playing. When, near the end of the evening, Heidinger's character brutally repudiates God for ignoring the trouble plaguing the kingdom, you feel nothing - while God has been a major force in many aspects of the story, He's never given a strong enough presence here to matter much in the end.

Come to think of it, that's strangely appropriate in a way, and it's even briefly reflected in another bit of classic dialogue from Kaiser: "Who cares what the Pope thinks? Surely God will approve." If the subject is Byzantium, however, I don't think one can be so certain; wouldn't He likely have much better taste?

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Byzantium: A New Musical
Through August 21
Village Theater, 158 Bleecker Street, Between Sullivan & Thompson (East of 6th Avenue)
Schedule and Tickets: www.FringeNYC.org or by calling (212) 279-4488. Outside New York: 1-888-FringeNYC