Off Broadway Reviews
Champ: A Space Opera
Angst: The New Teen Musical
There's Something About Marriage
There's Something About Marriage, which is playing at the Center for Architecture as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, is the first show I've ever seen to insists its audience members leave their cell phones on - and mean it. In fact, John Fisher, the de facto emcee and Executive Director of San Francisco's Theatre Rhinoceros (from which this production comes), even offers a prize - "one whole dollar!" - to the first person to receive a call during the show. Gimmicky? Yes. But believe it or not, there is a point: As Fisher explains it, he wants Americans to be a part of the dialogue about gay marriage, and that means keeping all lines of communication open.
The discussion the show encourages, however, is presented less as thought-provoking agitprop than as an all-out burlesque. Conceiver-director Fisher, A.K. Conrad, Sara Moore, and Maryssa Wanlass enact a dozen or so fast-paced - if usually only moderately funny - skits focusing on topics of vital interest to San Franciscans and Americans in general. Among them: Mayor Gavin Newsom's 2004 same-sex marriage initiative, scenes from the lives of two couples (one male, one female) pondering the meaning of love and commitment in their own lives, the extent to which President Bush was reelected because of a gay-marriage backlash, and even parodic game shows aimed at identifying in-the-closet straights, unveiling lesbians's sexual habits, and determining the degree to which homosexual self-loathing is lied about.
Despite being coated with a crude shallowness - which reaches its nadir (or, depending on your point of view, its zenith) in two gay porn clips for which the audience is encouraged to provide the soundtracks - There's Something About Marriage is a compellingly complex look at an oversimplified subject. Its interweaving of political and social concerns is deceptively sophisticated, and its messages are hardly of the sound-bite variety. If you're expecting this show to be either an inveterate drum-beater for gay marriage or to firmly denounce it, you'll be disappointed: The show collects more diverse opinions and attitudes about the subject than you'll find in most news accounts or editorials.
Even if they're wrapped in a satiric package, you're forced to take them seriously. As There's Something About Marriage examines so many facets of this struggle for equality, you might just find yourself stunned at the fresh understanding you take away from a subject that often seems to have been discussed to completion.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Champ: A Space Opera
In space, no one can hear you kick-ball-change, and at Champ: A Space Opera, no one can hear anything else, either. This potentially fascinating science-fiction ballet - created by Jeff Curtin, Juan Pieczanski, and Patrick Young, and choreographed by John Heginbotham - is sabotaged by a sound and video system that make it impossible to decipher the songs' lyrics or following its projected plot narration. While the five actors who spend a solid hour tripping the cosmos fantastic are unquestionably accomplished, neither they nor the dances they perform can tell a story this complicated by themselves.
Even the must-read synopsis in the program stumbles attempting to explain the significance of spaceship watchman Champ (Jonathan Fredrickson), "descended from a hereditary line of telepaths," who diverts the ship's cargo of the universe's last remaining humans on a dangerous voyage once he picks up a woman's voice emanating from the SABIEN wave receiver. It's barely possible to glean as much from the show itself, and once Champ decides to share his discovery with the crew and must accept the awful consequences, any hope of comprehension is sucked right out the airlock.
What do come through are the relationships between the various crew members: the love affair of Captain Maas (Aaron Mattocks) and engineer Justine (Meghan Merrill) that gives away to Justine's strange fascination with Champ and then Maas's retaliatory efforts to regain control. As long as Heginbotham's dances focus on these concerns, Champ makes for an intriguing study of alienation within a community where community is the only thing that matters; Fredrickson displays an appealing innocence, Merrill a life-hardened distrust of the unfamiliar, and Mattocks a nicely managed violent streak, so when they clash, theatrical sparks really do fly.
But with an unforgivably overamplified sound system for Curtin and Pieczanski's sentimentally mushy lyrics and a video screen positioned so that the dancers block half of it (and its clarity-giving text) at any given moment, the specifics of this "future mythology" in the making never come through. In fairness, unexpected venues frequently pose problems for Fringe shows with special needs, and Champ is one of the most demanding I've seen this summer. These problems are only debilitating, however, because the story isn't adequately conveyed through dialogue or dance - the creators would have done well to remember one of their own show's morals: Technology, without the human element, is as meaningless as empty space.
Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission
Angst: The New Teen Musical
Whiny high-schoolers complaining about school, sex, and self... What is this, Broadway? The chief difference between Angst: The New Teen Musical and Spring Awakening is that while the latter longs to bring modernity to the past, its Fringe Festival-by-way-of-Minnesota counterpart wants to re-embrace old-fashioned musical values within the strictures of a contemporary story. That could well work if only the story's idea of contemporary weren't tired network sitcoms and the Disney Channel's High School Musical.
A class of nine students is ordered by their teacher, Mr. King (Theo Langason) to pair off and prepare a presentation about the ways in which they're alike. The kids don't see it at first: After all, what could the religious zealot (Derek Prestly) have in common with the booze hound (Tara Borman), the gorgeous and popular girl (Celeste J. Busa) with the sensitive and fashion-conscious boy (David Belt), the doper (Ross Orenstein) with the workaholic (Michelle Hernick), or the activist (Jeff Rolfzen) with the not-black-enough kid (Nathan Barlow)? But they eventually do, because they have to, in an overwrought and overlong series of two-person scenes that advance the premise without ever expanding it.
Last is the class's loner (Eric Mayson), who's addicted to MySpace and is confined to watching everyone else interact in the ways he's denied. He's the only one who feels like a fully fashioned person, with passions and dreams that extend commonly clichéd precepts. Mayson also gives the show's most honest performance, moving from quiet satisfaction to social discomfort with an ease the sketchy plot doesn't allow anyone else. He also has the show's best songs, which introduce us to his class in a sweeping production number of adolescent, class-conscience fervor and chronicle his own journey into a hell of loneliness from which he anticipates no salvation.
But no one else in the company, which helped write the show last summer as part of the Young Artists Council of Youth Performance Company, finds much believability in their hackneyed characters or situations; Busa has directed with too leery an eye for the obvious, and Langason's choreography seems to mimic "Broadway dancing" rather than the unique movements of these tortured teens' souls. As an initial effort for many of those involved, Angst is an admirable attempt in need of the additional originality that growing up - and rewriting - are usually able to provide.
Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission