The New York International Fringe Festival
The Swearing Jar
Playwrights (aspiring, struggling, or established) or merely lovers of theatrical brevity, take careful note of The Swearing Jar. Kate Hewlett’s play, which was an award winner at the Toronto Fringe Festival two years ago, has arrived at the New York International Fringe Festival to teach us needy Americans a captivating lesson in economy. In approximately 65 minutes (and that might be a generous estimate), Hewlett spins an emotionally epic story about a woman caught between two men, as well as her own inability to cope with life’s gains and losses. Yet you never feel shortchanged or unsatisfied: Hewlett has written so tightly and Rosemary Andress directed with such lean conviction, this play seems to cover more ground than marathon-length works like August: Osage County or The Norman Chronicles. (I’m not willing to go quite as far as The Orphan’s Home Cycle.)
Because of the play’s intricate, delicate construction, it’s tough to say too much without saying too much. But, in general terms, Carey (Hewlett) is married to Simon (Vince Nappo) and has just learned that they’re going to have a baby. In alternating scenes, we see Carey meeting and developing a close friendship with a bookstore drone named Owen (Christopher Stanton): He’s a musician, she teaches band at school, and they share the same discomfort in getting to know new people. Are they, in fact, the perfect couple? If so, where does that leave Simon? What ramifications will there be when Simon’s despondent mother (Mimi Quillin) discovers Carey and Owen kissing in the park? And how will this impact the 40th-birthday concert Carey is so determined to throw for her husband?
Hewlett does not offer easy answers to these questions, and working through the various troubles these four people have communicating with and about each other takes her every minute of the play. But Hewlett also doesn’t introduce any complications merely for drama’s sake — everything that happens (and the above précis covers almost the entire plot) happens for a very good reason, and you never feel you’re being misled or misdirected as much as being placed into the confused, questioning, and yearning states of mind of the characters themselves. Nappo, Stanton, and Quillin derive so much comedy, hope, and pain from the people they play that feel you’re surrounded by decades-old friends rather than folks you’ve known for barely an hour.
But Hewlett herself dazzles as Carey, so open-hearted around both Simon and Owen and yet so defensive when one threatens to abandon her — you utterly believe the apparent contradiction that this is a supremely confident woman who doesn’t trust herself enough to reveal her deepest feelings when they might do her some good. Whether Carey is facing tragedy or redemption, Hewlett is a remarkable representation of strength in need of an outlet that she only gradually learns other people can provide. When she learns that she’s never truly alone, Hewlett turns up Carey’s inner glow to an almost blinding brightness.
And yes, all this — and more — occurs in just over an hour. I haven’t even discussed the title character yet, introduced into the action because Carey and Simon want to make life better for their baby. To learn its significance, you’ll have to see the play. But at five dollars a pop, the “colorful” adjectives necessary to describe how good The Swearing Jar is would bankrupt anyone short of Donald Trump.
VENUE #2: Connelly Theater
That old canard about truth being stranger than fiction is certainly accurate with regards to Samara Weiss's engaging and sobering play at the New York International Fringe Festival, AK-47 Sing-Along. Set simultaneously in Israel and Palestine, it examines the terrifying realities of war waged on the ground in the Middle East, in human souls, and—maybe most unsettlingly of all—on children's television.
The last example comes chiefly courtesy of a Hamas series called Tomorrow’s Victors, on which a 12-year-old girl named Salwa (Mary de la Torre) preaches violent action against the Jews who routinely bomb Arab cities and brutalize their citizens, often with the side-effect of killing her cuddly bear and rabbit cohosts (all played by Devin Bokaer). Set between different “episodes” are excerpts from the life of the Jewish Yakov (Matthew Michael Hurley) and the Arabian Hassan (Adi Hanash), who once collaborated on a version of Sesame Street meant to cater to children of both groups, until it was split into two shows following the collapse of the Oslo Accords in 2000. Now trapped on opposite sides of the border, they’re trying to stay friends and stay alive—and it’s never clear which is the easier task.
Weiss and director Lucy Cashion have fashioned a supple plea for peace and understanding between the two disparate factions, with the glimpses of Tomorrow’s Victors all too adept at showing that the larger battle may already be lost. Hurley and Hanash give impassioned performances, the former displaying a simmering anger held in check by love, the latter smartly choosing the opposite configuration, so we can see how their societies shape their personal outlooks. Both actors make it clear that their characters are both victims and fighters of a sort, and a subplot concerning Hassan’s brother in America throws some much needed light on the morals under which anyone operates when they’re also under fire every hour of every day.
Less well developed is Quentin (Nate Grams), an Arabic-speaking American who helps bridge the yawning chasm between Yakov and Hassan. Used to link two men who otherwise can’t be together and bring the U.S. into a story it’s always—as the play points out—at least indirectly related to, he creaks as more a device than a person. Interestingly, though Salwa and her costar seem intended as devices, they’re two immensely powerful characters. They represent a real show that’s happening in the real world—and real feelings that real people agree with. That’s terrifying enough to strip all the “cute” from both Tomorrow’s Victors and AK-47 Sing-Along, and make it an even richer, more effective reminder of the present and future casualties of bombs, politics, and propaganda alike.
VENUE #17: HERE Arts Center- Mainstage Theater Fri 13 @ 10 Sat 14 @ 3:30 Tue 17 @ 7 Wed 18 @ 5 Sat 21 @ NOON
Tickets online at FringeNYC Tickets