Whether it’s a matter of evolving tastes or the fact that many New York theater brethren are offering tickets, I find myself attending lesser-known, off-off-Broadway plays more and more, with more and more enthusiasm. Seeing off-the-beaten-path theater isn’t just a noble exercise in fostering local arts (although it is that). It encourages theatergoers to step outside their comfort zone by exposing them to different ways of thinking and storytelling. New Yorkers owe it to themselves and to their community to take an occasional trip downtown, and spend an evening with more unpredictable company. Take the following random sampling of fringe-y yet solid theater in a city teeming with it.
Chloe Brown’s delightfully peculiar play Obedient Steel professes to be “neither documentary nor historical fiction. Instead, it is an impression of an era through now-tinted glasses.” This impression is brought to lopsided life by Brooklyn-based Tugboat Collective, the result of a year of workshops and and re-workings. Centered around the nation’s most brilliant physicists as they construct post-WWII atom bombs, Obedient Steel begins as somewhat of a workplace sitcom, albeit with rather higher stakes. From there it splinters, unexpectedly and disconcertingly, into fragmented snapshots of suburban malaise and various forms of sickness.
This splintering can be charted over the course of three acts. The first, in which we meet the scientists (Nathaniel Basch-Gould, E. James Ford, Max Reinhardsen, and Kate Thulin), is a tightly focused, often hilarious comedy of minutiae featuring a bright green bowl of lab alcohol-punch. Director Rebecca Wear nails the kind of awkward workplace interactions you might expect from nerdy 40s-era physicists, opening the show with a zippy dance number that allows her excellent actors to shine.
The middle acts slows to a crawl, as an alarming lab accident puts the scientists face-to-face with ordinary American banality. Their determined declarations of suburban life’s materialistic perks ring dismally hollow, a feeble attempt to avoid the fact that they can no longer touch and shape the course of history. Then it seems in the final act, when the laughs are few and far between, this becomes a play about radiation sickness. Abrupt symptoms emerge and are discussed in hushed voices – this is, after all, the Cold War. When Marnie (Thulin), the accomplished female physician forced to shoulder domesticity, must resort to drastic measures for medical coverage, she uses the national atmosphere of paranoia to her advantage. Brown captures the essence of that post-Einstein era, and through her disjointed scenes dragging unsettlingly onward, hints at the deep-seated terror and despair that characterized it.
Bedlam Theater, Hamlet, Lynn Redgrave Theatre
Currently in New York there reside two Romeos, a Scottish king, several bickering lovers, a Puckish fairy, a duke of Gloucester and a man playing a woman playing a man. I myself have seen none of this fall’s incarnations of Shakespeare (fie, thou critic!) but immensely enjoyed being reminded by Bedlam Theatre why Hamlet puts all those other plays to shame.
Its many “words, words, words” are here delivered by a troupe of only four actors, a fact made all the more astonishing when you learn they perform Shaw’s Saint Joan in repertory at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre. Dedicated to experimenting with space and winking to the audience, Bedlam’s four distinct performers make clear, compelling choices in a story whose many retellings have rendered it almost beyond cliché. While other productions, intimidated by Hamlet‘s renown, resort to gimmicks or distracting contemporary backdrops, director Eric Tucker (also starring as the titular prince) guides this performance towards the play’s intensely human passions.
So when Edmund Lewis as Laertes weeps, he really, truly weeps. When Tom O’Keefe, the best Claudius I’ve ever seen, sinks to his knees and declares his “offense is rank,” he practically shudders at the smell. And when Ophelia goes mad, she goes plainly, intently mad (Andrus Nichols fearlessly doubles up as both Ophelia and Gertrude). Tucker’s melancholy Dane vacillates somewhere between a 9 and a 10 for the majority of the show, but his manic grandeur can play almost as comically as Lewis’ superb Polonius. These actors chew, spit, bellow, and hiss Shakespeare’s immortal words, simultaneously proving why Hamlet is so overdone and giving it gutsy, impassioned life. You get the feeling they just absolutely love this play.
Maura Halloran, Pussy, United Solo Festival at Theatre Row
The United Solo Festival is the world’s largest solo theater festival, bringing in over a hundred of the world’s best solo performers in October and November. It’s an astonishing amount of productions, all being staged in rapid-fire succession at Theatre Row. Tomorrow I’m seeing Maura Halloran‘s one-woman show about a lesbian couple, homophobia, and unicorns. It’s simply titled Pussy and it sounds fantastic. Halloran has received heaps of praise for her portrayal of the story’s main character (a cat) and NewYorkTheatre.com called the play “a refreshing and enjoyable hour of theatrical fun.”