August 22, 2015

An Up and Down Day at The Fringe With "Schooled," "Little One" and "Loose Canon"

Quentin Maré and Lilli Stein in Schooled
The New York International Fringe Festival prides itself on being eclectic. Which means you never know what you’re going to get when you attend one of its 200 or so productions, ranging from one-person shows to mini-musicals and performed at all levels of skill from shows ready-for-a-professional run to those that will be appreciated only by family members and very close friends.

As we’ve done over the past few summers, my theatergoing buddy Bill and I sorted through the list of the offerings, which play in rotation at venues around the East Village, and whittled them down to three whose descriptions intrigued both of us—and that we could comfortably see in one day.

Our mini-marathon started off with a winner: Schooled, a smart play by Lisa Lewis, who graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, spent six years in the movie business and sets her drama at a New York film school. 

Her three-hander focuses on Andrew (Quentin Maré), a one-time hot screenwriter now in his 50s who teaches there, and two of his young students, Claire (Lilli Stein), a talented working class girl from Atlantic City who’s writing an intimate family drama; and Jake (Stephen Friedrich), her equally talented but far more affluent boyfriend who writes in a more commercial vein.

When Claire seeks Andrew out for extra help with her script their working sessions become increasingly flirtatious even though he is married and she's thinking about moving in with Jake. Things get even more complicated when both Claire and Jake seek Andrew's recommendation for the same prestigious grant.

Aided by the sure-handed direction of James Kautz, the artistic director of the Amoralists Theatre Company, Lewis has created an engaging 90-minute piece that wrestles with art and ambition, class consciousness and gender politics. In the opening scene, the men fail to take Claire seriously, by the play's end, they have to.

Schooled, which has been picking up a lot of good word of mouth, is scheduled for two more performances, tomorrow and Thursday (you can check out the specific details by clicking here) but it’s worthy of a longer run and a much wider audience.

The next show we saw, Little One, will probably have more narrow appeal. Developed by the Alley Theatre in Vancouver, it’s an unsettling psychological thriller with two story lines that eventually converge, although not in the way you expect them to.

One plot centers on the marriage between a geeky white guy and his beautiful mail-order bride from Vietnam. The other focuses on a sibling relationship between an orphaned boy and an abandoned girl who are adopted by a well-meaning couple.

The boy Aaron overcompensates and becomes a star athlete, straight-A student and obedient son. The girl Claire makes a less successful adjustment; she throws tantrums, kills the family pets and behaves, even as a child, in sexually inappropriate ways.

Much of both these tales is relayed by a now grown-up Aaron, who speaks directly to the audience, although some of his memories are illustrated with short, pungent scenes between him and Claire.

I’ll confess I’m not exactly sure what playwright Hannah Moscovitch wants us to take away from this 60-minute tone poem but director Amiel Gladstone has created a suitably creepy atmosphere and Marisa Emma Smith and Daniel Arnold do a fine job of portraying the perverse allure of a psychopath and the helplessness of those related to her.

I can’t say that I liked this show but I will that say that it continues to haunt me. You’ve got three more chances (on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday) to see—and judge—it for yourself.

Loose Canon, the last show we saw, also has three more performances but I can’t recommend it. The show attempts to combine a critique of consumerist society with a satirical look at the theatrical canon, stretching from Sophocles to Mamet.

But the humor here turns out to be the kind of sophomoric fare that goes down best after a couple of glasses of cheap beer. “Oh Roku, Roku. What’s Tivo  worth if not for you,” goes a line in the not-as-funny-as-it-thinks-it-is Shakespeare takeoff; meanwhile, the homage to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is set not on a debt-burdened Russian estate but in a sales-challenged Taco Bell.

The performances don’t help. The six-member cast, several of whom seem to be recent graduates of Tufts University, as is the show’s director, is game but too variously talented. Still, a lively crowd of supporters, including the proud grandmother of one of the actors, cheered them on loudly at the performance Bill and I saw. 

And, of course, that’s the thing about the Fringe; there’s something for everyone.

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