Terrible tragedies aren't always a source of fun. Take, for example, hope theatre's musical Die, Die, Diana, another entry in this year's Fringe Festival. It doesn't push the boundaries of bad taste, but also doesn't find the insight - or comedy - it could from its subject, the 1997 death of Princess Diana.
Authors Scott Sublett and Jef Labes examine the story of Diana's life and death from many different angles: that of Diana, of her children, of Prince Charles and his racy new love Camilla Parker-Bowles, of the Queen and the Queen Mother, of Diana's boyfriend Dodi Fayed, and even of the paparazzi apparently responsible for the high-speed car chase that resulted in her death at age 36.
Sublett and Labes ruthlessly skewer everyone involved, painting Diana (Ashley Wren Collins) as a pawn and prisoner of very powerful forces; Prince Charles (Bob D'Haene) as clueless, twisted, and greedy; the Queen Mother (R. Paul Hamilton) as a Machiavellian strategist; Queen Elizabeth herself (Heather McAllister) as a cold schemer determined to protect the throne at any cost; and Dodi (Vinnie Penna) as a ruthless opportunist. The closest to innocents the show unearths are Diana's sons, Prince William and Prince Harry (both played by Jackie Kamm).
In the right hands, all of this could result in an entertaining and thought-provoking evening, but as directed (by Kelly McAllister) and performed, the production grates far more than it compels. The most significant problem is that there's just enough tension and dramatic build (mostly in the second act) to make you realize how much more is needed for a satisfying evening; were the play tightened, trimmed (maybe to 60-75 minutes?) and played in a smaller house, the effect would likely be energizing rather than tiring.
The Michael Schimmel Center is an unforgiving house, with a wide stage that is far removed from the audience, but can't be held responsible for all the production's problems; the sluggish pacing and the difficulty the performers apparently experience in putting over all but the most visual of jokes are much more serious factors. (The company has the most comic success with a relentlessly silly running gag about the audience members being gay or having latent homosexual tendencies.) Desperation seems to reach its peak when Diana confronts the ghost of Marilyn Monroe (Aida Lembo) in one of the play's most awkward handlings of what could be a key dramatic moment.
Musical director Ayhan Sahin and choreographer Noel MacDuffie do what they can, but none of the songs proves notable dramatically or musically. This is sort of addressed in the show - the play's de facto narrator, Johnny Swift (one of the paparazzi, played by Jack Halpin), warns us after the first number that the songs are intended to be Brechtian and we shouldn't enjoy them. The use of the songs, whether or not they're intended as Brechtian commentary or diversions, is less of an impediment to enjoying them than their prosaic lyrics, bland music, and being sung by actors with little apparent singing training.
The performers also can't prevent the show from turning into a misguided and outsized Benny Hill skit, though they could improve matters a bit by sharpening their characterizations and vocal production techniques. (The show is amplified, but at the performance I attended, the messy sound quality tended to make matters worse, not better.) Kamm devises the most interesting characters for the two princes (Harry is played by a hand puppet), and Hamilton and Penna get some comic mileage out of their portrayals, but few of the other actors have enough energy or charisma to make much of an impression.
Not that they can be really be blamed, especially with this particular group of public figures they've taken on; Diana was one of a kind for a reason. McAllister and his company should be commended for tackling this touchy subject (apparently, this play was banned in England), but making Die, Die, Diana feel necessary, especially so long after Diana's death, would be difficult even under the best of circumstances. Sometimes truth really is stranger - and more theatrical - than fiction.
New York International Fringe Festival