Friday, June 08, 2007

PLAY: "Wonderland: Free Fall"

When I last fell through the rabbit hole of indie theater and visited Wonderland, there were 52 one-acts competing for recognition: a chance to be in the spotlight right on 42nd Street's Theater Row. That was ten days ago. Tonight's finale, after three elimination rounds, featured the three "best" plays (selected by secret judges), and tomorrow at 11:30 PM, at Chi (48 West 21st St.), a winner will be crowned. Of the plays, two were standard fare: the outrageous Indigenous People, and the forgettable Farewell Evenbrook. Neither were bad, but they both felt comfortable and ordinary, and without risk. Of course, they would seem that way compared to the superbly written and directed Sandwich, and based on this microcosm of plays, the awards tomorrow will serve as a statement about the sort of theater we the public rewards. I'm not saying forget the TONY awards, but if you haven't ventured even an avenue off-Broadway, then you're missing the rising stars of tomorrow.

Terence Patrick Hughes' Farewell Evenbrook is a decent, but well-trodden tale that looks at two roommates on their last day of high school, checking to see if the real world will remind them of how different they are, or if it will tie them closer together. Teddy (the boring Henry Cyr) is the bookworm, the kind of kid who leaves his room late at night to study at a professor's house, whereas Oscar (an engaging Jeremy Ellison-Gladstone) is the kid who asks his roommate to leave his room late at night so that he can study a girl's "house." As a result, the expected confrontation reeks of literature and immaturity: for instance, a quip about a Kerouac book that's just been thrown out the window is "Now he's really on the road." It's also not very surprising; Hughes doesn't take any risks as a playwright or director, which is a shame, since he's got the potential to be very good as either.

Andrew Biss's Indiginous People, on the other hand, doesn't show much promise at all. It's very much a genre comedy that takes one eccentric character, Caroline (played her by the outlandish Nicole Heriot) and pairs her with a straight man, Roger (played tonight by James Stover, the director), and then places them both out of context, in this case, on a camping trip. It's a sketch that goes on for thirty minutes, and the only joke that pulls in the laughs is also one of the most forced and over-the-top moments I've seen in a theater. Caroline, believing she's been bitten by a snake in her most intimates, has Roger duck under her skirt to suck the poison out . . . you can pretty much write your own punchline to that one. Imagine what you will, it was the most grotesquely funny thing I've seen, and that's not necessarily a compliment to anyone but Heriot, who at least plays the role with full steam ahead.

From the moment Jessamyn Fiore's Sandwich starts, you know you're in for a treat -- and not just a turkey sandwich. Two perky girls, both acting like showroom models in a synchronized sandwich-making commercial, begin to take their ingredients from large brown paper bags, setting them at opposite ends of a table, all to the rising beat of a electronic song. The music swells as the two gyrate and coat their bread, it thumps as the meat and lettuce gets added to the mix. Then, for a coup de grace, one more ingredient: poison (in a big yellow sugar box with a skull on it, like the kind of sugar a pirate would use). Kimberlea Kressal's direction is just as consistently good even after the two start talking about their domestic woes, and both Karly Maurer and Dechelle Damien have superb emotional ranges, going as they do from comedy to tragedy, all in a quirky, neo-classicist dialogue that brings to mind Daniel MacIvor. When the sarcasm drops at last--"My husband fucks strippers"--the show starts to simmer, and Kressal's use of routine movements for the monologues sustains a disturbingly tense atmosphere, blending the everyday with the today. Director, actors, and playwright all come together to make a truly comic gem that distorts, exaggerates, and pivots its way to the only possible conclusion.

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