Something for everyone? Six summer theater fest shows

BY ALINE REYNOLDS

FAYE LANE’S BEAUTY SHOP STORIES 

Written by Faye Lane and directed by Jay Rogers

55 minutes (solo show/musical)

Aug. 19, 3 p.m. / Aug. 21, 9:45 p.m. / Aug. 23, 8:45 p.m.

At The Club at La MaMa (74A E. 4th St., 2nd Floor; Second Ave. & Bowery)

For info, visit www.FringeNYC.org or call 866-468-7619

Visit www.BeautyShopStories.us

NYC gal reveals her Texas beauty shop roots

BY SCOTT STIFFLER 

New York City sure is full of it — if by “it” you mean people who grew up as small town misfits secretly plotting for the day they’d move to the island of Manhattan and become fabulous. Inevitably, some of them not only make good on that self-fulfilling prophecy — they also put on a show recounting their journey from backwater dreamer to big city resident.

Add Faye Lane to that excruciatingly long but rarely distinguished list. What makes her take on this hoary old chestnut unique is not what she brings to the table, but what she chooses to leave off the menu. 

“Beauty Shop Stories” is not hip. It is not dripping with irony. It’s not fast-paced or mean-spirited or self-congratulatory or too clever for its own good. Its narrative arc is not particularly original — and its life lessons are as corny as the cornbread that our hero’s southern mentors washed down with gossip and tall glasses of buttermilk. 

What “Beauty Shop Stories” is, however, is sweet, self-aware and remarkably void of the ego trip down memory lane we’ve come to expect from these “growing up was tough for me” one-person shows. 

OK, y’all. So, it’s 1975. Chubby little Rhonda Faye Gunnels is growing up in a small Texas town, marking time by sitting on the front porch of mama’s Casa Vale Beauty Salon. When not chatting with her imaginary friend Jesus, she licks her wounds from schoolyard taunts about her weight as she glues shiny silver glitter on her Burger King crown and dreams of becoming a beauty queen who works as a stewardess by day. At night, she’s a famous singer who plays sold-out gigs at Madison Square Garden. 

That such a sweet, insecure, hurting little girl could still manage to aim so high — and end up achieving an acceptable version of her dreams in a very roundabout way — is what makes this familiar tale such an endearing experience.  

Like the ladies who sit underneath a row of dryers in mama’s beauty shop, we’re a captive audience for Lane’s star-making songs and heartfelt routines. At the show I saw, it didn’t take long for the audience to understand why the Burt Reynolds-lovin’ good old gals at Casa Vale became, as Lane recalls, a gang of “overly-indulgent grandmothers” (who kept guns and MoonPies in their purses).

If the show has any noticeable flaw, it’s the lack of improvisation. A performer who thoroughly engages her audience from word one, Lane squanders that powerful connection by sticking to the script like glue — except for a brief audience sing-along (that song, by the way, features a miraculous cameo from her imaginary friend).

The press kit touts plans for adapting the show into a memoir. I hope she stops there. “Beauty Shop Stories” could be fun to watch as a movie, a play, a cartoon or a sitcom — but one gets the impression that Lane hasn’t begun to tap into the rich, full life she’s led. Here’s hoping she moves on to other projects that fill in the gap between leaving Texas and residing for the past 20 years in the Chelsea Hotel.

SHINE: A BURLESQUE MUSICAL

Written by Cass King, John Woods (The Wet Spots) and Sam Dulmage. Directed by Roger Benington

120 minutes (musical)

Aug. 23, 9:45 p.m. / Aug. 26, 2 p.m. / Aug. 28, 2 p.m.

At The Ellen Stewart Theatre at La Mama (66-68 E. 4th St.; Second Ave. & Bowery)

For info, visit www.FringeNYC.org or call 866-468-7619

Visit www.shinemusical.com  

‘Shine’ dulls the burlesque world it depicts

BY TRAV S.D.

A dark cloud of dilettantism hovers over “Shine: A Burlesque Musical” — the title of which promises so much, but the reality of which disappoints with a boom, boom-boom boom.

Penned and produced by a musical burlesque act known as The Wet Spots, the show feels very much like a bunch of strong individual comic production numbers developed for their normal night club act, strung on a very weak strand of a book. The experience is like going for a drive, and constantly being forced to alternate between a Maserati and a Yugo.

The songs (co-written by The Wet Spots’ Cass King and John Woods) succeed for the most part. Written in a wide variety of styles, catchy, well-staged and well -choreographed, they generally hit their mark. While most of the lyrics are intelligent and clever, some of them stoop to the lowest common denominator. If the word “cum” is all it takes to make you laugh, feel free to sing right along.

But it’s at the level of story and dialogue that the show just tanks. The premise is a cocktail of vagueness, historical ignorance and illogic. The plot is “We’ve got to save our theatre from the creditors. Let’s put on a show!” — which I have no problem with, especially since this is a musical. The question is, though, what theatre would that be? It’s set in a “burlesque theatre” that has supposedly been in the hands of the same family and continuously running on the Lower East Side since 1885 — a concept that already doesn’t fly for at least half a dozen reasons, not the least of which is that the current proprietor, Shine (co-creator Cass King), has business and artistic instincts that wouldn’t keep a theatre open one month.

The authors have done a poor job of defining the world of this piece. Is this a kind of Shangri-La where old classical burlesque never died? Is it the sleazy, crude, porn-related burlesque of the post 70s exotic dancer? Is it the self-conscious, arty and ideological world of the burlesque revival? At times, they appear to have chosen all three — which is impossible, given that they are largely mutually exclusive sets.

When a backer named Richard Suit (Douglas Crawford) puts up his life savings in order to save the theatre (asking only to make the show more commercial), Shine evinces a grotesque parody of artistic integrity. She won’t dilute the show’s pornographic flavor, because that’s so “Uptown.” That’s a kind of corkscrew logic in a business of undraping women — the former heart of which was located in Times Square’s commercial theatre district.

Ultimately, “Shine” — like the world it depicts — is about naked flesh. It shows some, so ultimately I guess it doesn’t really matter that what the characters say and do doesn’t make any sense. It will sell out anyway.

BUTTERFLY, BUTTERFLY, KILL KILL KILL! 

Produced by Depth Charge. Written by Patrick Harrison. Music by Dave Harrington. Directed by Patrick Harrison. Choreographed by Adam Scott Mazer & Ian Picco.

60 minutes (performance art)

Aug. 18, 8 p.m. / Aug. 19, 2 p.m.

At The First Floor Theatre at La MaMa (74A E. 4th St., Second Ave. & Bowery)

For info, visit www.FringeNYC.org or call 866-468-7619

Visit www.depthcharge.us

Float like a butterfly, sting like a B-movie

BY SCOTT STIFFLER 

All’s fair in love and war — and, apparently, adaptations.

Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” begged, borrowed and stole from Asian cinema (see, for starters, Ringo Lam’s “City on Fire”). So it’s only fitting that the Kabuki-faced, sunglass-wearing, black-suited assassins in Depth Charge Production’s “Butterfly, Butterfly, Kill Kill Kill!” should do some borrowing of their own from the American pop culture reservoir. 

The title recalls Russ Meyer’s 1965 jiggle-crazed breastploitation flick “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” — and the show itself references everything from film noir to indie grit to stark Japanese cool. And — in the spirit of coming full circle — there’s an exceedingly generous amount of hyperstylized gunfights recalling the work of Mr. Tarantino. Chatty killers who’ve crafted their own moral code and femme fatales who rescue then corrupt also figure into the mix. It’s all very familiar.

That’s OK with us, though, because it’s all in the service of a frenzied tribute to Japanese B-movie director Seijun Suzuki’s “incomprehensible” 1967 masterpiece “Branded to Kill” — a film that contributed to his being fired that very same year by his employers at Nikkatsu Studios (who said his films “made no money and no sense”).

“Butterfly, Butterfly, Kill Kill Kill!” is, among other things, the story of a Japanese hitman on a million-yen mission that will, if he survives it, cement his reputation and maybe even advance him in the all-important numerical pecking order of professional assassins (the identity of the “No. 1 Killer” figures large in the story’s convoluted plot). 

Throughout, episodes of violence and stabs at making love are augmented by a few scenes in which “puppets” (objects on long wires, really) dance to the accompaniment of trippy live music by Dave Harrington. In one sequence, a butterfly puppet (metaphor alert!) perches on the top of a gun barrel, then does a slow motion dance alongside a just-fired bullet en route to its target. The production says just as much in that dense and efficient moment about the inevitable consequences of violence as it does in the countless gunfights.

One not so minor quibble: Before the show — for what seems like an eternity — two cast members stand stoically, holding a banner with something written in Japanese. Who can say whether it’s a welcome, a warning or an insult? Those who speak or at least read Japanese, I suspect. 

As this happens, the rest of the cast paces back in forth in an ominous manner. One of them occasionally mutters some funny improvs — but their presence telegraphs the look and the feel of the play. That’s the wrong way to go when you’re a theater company that boldly declares itself dedicated to “surprise and sensation that values entertainment and confrontation over and above Art.” 

Fortunately, Depth Charge makes good on that lofty ambition by presenting a high-octane hour-long experience that’s clever, thoughtful, entertaining and packed to the rafters with violent confrontation. Sure, you could say you expected more — but by the time the curtain comes down, your protests would amount to little more than geekish nitpicking. 

PICKING PALIN

Written and directed by Stephen Padilla

1 hour, 40 minutes (comedy/drama)

Aug. 21, 9:45 p.m. / Aug. 251, 9:35 p.m. / Aug. 28, Noon

At the Connelly Theater (220 E. 4th St., btw. Avenues A & B)

For info, visit www.FringeNYC.org or call 866-468-7619

Visit www.pickingpalin.com   

Palin gets the Greek tragedy treatment

BY TRAV S.D.

The outcome of “Picking Palin” is a forgone conclusion, so what’s the point of watching? Well, you could say the same thing about a Greek tragedy. The answer is that it’s really about the journey. And “Picking Palin” too is the stuff of myths. What was the process by which the decision-makers of the party in power came to decide that a patently unqualified, intellectually bankrupt newcomer was an acceptable candidate for the second-highest office in the land?

The playwright/director shows an admirable generosity of spirit in how he imagines the scenario. He boils the countless real-life dealmakers, politicos and henchman down into just four fictitious campaign staffers — only one of whom (Bill Timoney) is the unprincipled cynic we now imagine them all to be. Timoney’s Bob, a pugnacious, racist anti-Semite, is bent on winning the election at any cost — even if it means placing the country in actual danger. His job is to convince campaign head Neil (Stephen Gleason) that Palin is worth the risk, which entails out-arguing a couple of horrified moderates who would be more comfortable with Romney or Lieberman (Keith Herron and Georgette Riley Timoney). 

The existence of a play at all hinges on these two characters, neo-cons from the party’s intellectual wing who not-so-secretly admire Obama and argue in vain for ideals over expedience. One can’t help but feel the playwright is giving the process too much credit for even-handedness, however

Still, Padilla’s fantasy is a satisfying one — gripping in the tradition of the 1964 film “The Best Man.” Staged with Spartan simplicity, it moves along at a swift pace in a series of blackouts that take us deeper and deeper, step-by-step, into a very dark hole. The quartet of actors is solid in this backroom debate. In the end, we are left with but one consolation: Republicans might have won the election.

THE BATTLE OF SPANKTOWN

Written by Jeffrey Pfeiffer. Directed by Heidi Handelsman

1 hour, 40 minutes (comedy/drama)

Aug. 22, Noon / Aug. 25, 10 p.m. / Aug. 27, 10:45 p.m.

At Dixon Place (161A Chrystie St., btw. Rivington & Delancey)

For info, visit www.FringeNYC.org or call 866-468-7619

Visit www.thebattleofspanktown.tumblr.com

Infectious clowning gives ‘Spank’ its slapstick charm

by TRAV S.D.

“The Battle of Spanktown” is the perfect sort of show to catch in a fringe festival setting. A mash-up of “The Wind in the Willows,” the American Revolution, Shakespeare and fairy tales, the show is a playful lark that will be appreciated by theatre lovers yet entertaining enough to be embraced (perhaps) by a broader audience. The show traces the adventures of one Hobbledehoy (Chris Bannow) — a sort of apprentice to Mole (Ari Vigoda), an actual tunnel-digging rodent.

The year is 1777. Mole is a patriot in the infant revolution, now feuding with his former friend Badger (Adam Laupus) — who happens to be a Tory. This is just the beginning of the unassuming Hobbledoy’s woes, as he becomes drawn into personal strife between the two mammals. That strife takes the form of a political intrigue involving Benjamin Franklin (pere et fils), a religious war between Christianity and paganism, and his own star-crossed pursuit of Badger’s adopted daughter (Patricia Lynn) — who, at one point, goes in disguise as a boy like a heroine in a Shakespeare comedy.

Needless to say, viewer are well-advised to sit back and let it wash over them rather than try to follow the silly parody of a narrative. In addition to the obsessive convolutions in Jeffrey Pfeiffer’s script, the dialogue is written in an invented patois full of coinages and misuses that may or may not be intentional. Old words are pressed into new meanings. A portrait becomes  “ a portraiture” and “doth” is used where “dost” would be more correct. These are the tip of the iceberg, but it doesn’t matter.

The production’s real charm is in the playing — and here, it scores big. Director Heidi Handelsman has drawn from her cast a dozen boffo turns in a style that owes a lot to the art of the clown. This gang is having a lot of fun, and it’s infectious. At one point, we encounter a man who is hopping a thousand miles on one foot and pronouncing the every letter “s” as an “f” in order to protest a tax. Someone should point him in the direction of the modern day Tea Party, where his idiocyncracies would make just as much sense.  

Dream up Festival

SUMMER RAIN

Written and Directed by Robert Coe

75 minutes

Closed, Aug. 15

For info, visit www.dreamupfestival.org

Symbolic rainfall can’t cleanse these 60s searchers

Writer, director and co-producer Robert Coe takes us back to summer 1966 — the very cusp of the sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll era. The Vietnam War is raging, students around the country are angrily protesting, and Jim Morrison forms one of the wildest and most subversive bands of all time.

Although “Summer Rain” doesn’t say much that is new about the hippie era, it vividly reminds us of the era’s drug-stoked quest for personal fulfillment — which, the play reveals, was as insubstantial as the smoke and ashes of a used-up joint.  

The setting is Poche Beach, San Clemente, California. Rebellious youths Annette and Colleen plead with surfer beach bums Ricky, Raphael and Kenny to drive them 25 miles to Oceanside to hear the Doors perform.

Actress Maria Hurdle masters the complexity of her character, Annette, who is captivating and overshadows the other four actors. Coe adeptly incorporates the 60s lexicon (mojo, kowabunga, revolution) in nearly all the dialogues — but sometimes takes it too far, as when he has Kenny mutter mind-numbing 60s clichés about peace and love.  

The vapid characters are 60s stereotypes, and apart from Annette, they keep us only moderately engaged — particularly Ricky and Colleen, who are plot-fillers. But the play soon picks up momentum as grim realities begin to set in (thanks to a black magic theme).

Annette, who once met Morrison, wants a more meaningful encounter with him to tap into demonic powers. Her fantasy about Morrison, the ultimate bad-boy rock star, carries her further down the path of drugs and delusion. Her black magic fever also infects Kenny, who voices superstitious thoughts later in the play.  

Coe leaves his audience wondering whether Annette’s dream of reuniting with Morrison actually materializes (we never find out).    

A convoluted series of twists and turns occur when the crew returns to Poche Beach. The characters never sober up, but the play does. Raphael capriciously pulls out a knife and stabs Kenny, killing him — an irony, since until his appearance on stage, we presumed him to be dead from a street fight. Raphael’s reasons for suddenly turning on his friend are hardly credible, even for someone on drugs. Since Kenny looks and acts like Morrison, his death could be a reenactment of Morrison’s premature passing after a drug overdose at age 27.  

We also find out that Annette has been screwing her own stepfather. She loses all credibility when describing the affair. She says, on the one hand, that she was raped — and, on the other, that she allowed and even solicited the sex. Hurdle’s acting was once again captivating.  

The play ends with a fitting allegory. The characters hope to “wash their souls clean” in the summer rainfall — symbolic of their need to cleanse their bodies of drugs and alcohol, and their minds of black magic.     

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *