The Naked Dead Elephant in the Middle of the Room
New York International Fringe Festival - FringeNYC
Tim Gunn's Podcast (A Reality Chamber Opera)
Think reality TV is boring? Think opera is boring? Think fashion is boring? Think Internet audio is boring? Then you need to race to the Jazz Gallery to see - and hear - what happens when all four fuse: They create an ecstatic comic tour de force going by the title of Tim Gunn's Podcast.
The subtitle of Jeffrey Lependorf's sublimely absurd outing both says it all and says nothing: "A reality chamber opera." True, the hour-long show is sung through with unapologetically legit music; it takes as its subject the Bravo TV series Project Runway; and the title and sole character (whom baritone John Schenkel thrillingly evokes) is that show's couture overlord. But who could imagine such dreary components would elicit pure magic?
All Schenkel does is recite recit cribbed directly from Gunn's podcast following the third episode of Project Runway's third season, in which contestants had two days and $300 to construct a gown worthy of Miss USA. The particpants' angst is palpable, their talent and judgment questionable, and you might think that when grouped with Gunn's stutters, banal observations, and lack of unifying throughline that only stultifying, static theatre could result.
But Lependorf unearths buffo resonance in even the most staid, clichéd comments that Gunn proclaims as if Gospel truths. Reality TV, which takes itself most seriously when it's least warranted, can't withstand the withering attention paid it by the heavy-duty melodies it's been paired with: Gunn's recollections of the petty bickering and even pettier design philosophies become marvelously mocking when set to notes more appropriate for warring armies and disintegrating hearts.
The staging, by Linda Lehr, is by necessity simplistic - the tiny stage allows for only performer, piano, a chair, and barely movement between them. But the dramatic motion, around expectedly inert topics, makes the show at its best expansively hysterical: Just the way Schenkel basso-bellows the word "immunity," as if blasting through a key characterological turn in Don Giovanni, could rank as the most blistering comedy anywhere in this year's Fringe Festival.
Schenkel is terrific throughout, though, as a gleeful guide through Gunn's self-important world. He and Lependorf completely transform the podcast's diatribe into a cutting comment on the increasing shallowness of American entertainment media, reminding you there's so much more out there to be savored. But if Project Runway will always be much looser than a night at the Met, Tim Gunn's Podcast is a flawless fit.
Run Time: 1 hour
Larson Rose's deferentially self-referential The Naked Dead Elephant in the Middle of the Room exists for one reason alone: naked men. Half, full, front, back, you get it all - but attempts to derive any other significance from this 45-minute exercise in gratuitous gratuitousness will end only in obliterating defeat.
Since the story is about playwright Edmond (Keith Broughton) struggling through his latest opus, becoming enmeshed with his dialogue as he weaves his real life onto the pages on his computer screen, then this work must be about the creative process? No, Edmond's work is bereft of plot or meaning, existing only to acknowledge and tweak its own existence and its author's reliance on cheap theatrical tricks.
Edmond's actor boyfriend is a character, so the show must explore the complexities and challenges of relationships between artists? Again, no: Jack (Jim deProphetis) is there to cajole, handhold, hector, and rip off his shirt when necessary (which is much more often than you might think). But he factors into the story only insofar as he becomes yet another living prop that Edmond may move about his fantasy play in pursuit of vague titillation and even more ephemeral laughs.
But surely the play's other three characters must contribute something of consequence? As if. David (Zach Held) is a piece of meat Edmond forces on Jack; a Critic (Jesse Stewart) materializes only for a running gag about his own ineffectuality, and an overblown sexual visual pun that fulfills, one suspects, every playwright's secret wish; the joke on the House Manager (Roy James Brown) is that the union won't let him talk, but has no issues with him dropping the towel that functions as his entire wardrobe.
If all this sounds familiar, it should - [title of show] went this route much earlier, and is currently exploring it deeper and better on Broadway. That musical even has its own flashes of skin, though they're treated as intentional jokes within the context of a larger work aiming somewhat higher.
Its gaze forever locked on the ground, The Naked Dead Elephant in the Middle of the Room is content with its lack of content, mistaking calling attention to that deficit for actual substance. All it's really doing is calling attention to the fact that while the naked human body can speak volumes, it seldom says anything worth hearing when it's all that's onstage.
Run Time: 45 minutes