2004_08_artsfringelogo.jpgGothamist spent the weekend hanging out at the Fringe. With over 1200 performances of somewhere around 180 productions happening between this past Friday and Aug. 28, there's more than enough for us to se. We caught seven shows this weekend, and the good news is, Gothamist can actually recommend over 50% of them. We know --- we're shocked too! But the fact is, if this somewhat random sampling was any indication of what the quality of this year's festival is like, hopefully the rest of what Gothamist plans to attend won't be so bad either.

Of course, there are a few things to keep in mind with any Fringe production: what one sees is generally as far off of Off-Broadway as one can get, especially technically. These are stripped down productions, and that's actually some of the fun. While The Miss Education of Jenna Bush may have an elaborately decorated set, The Great Official Subway Musical uses three colored blocks and a big picturebook-like background for various scenery. The more technical some of these shows try to be, the more problems they actually seem to encounter. Shakedown Street understandably tries to mic all their actors (as, it seems, does every show at the relatively large Village Theater on Bleecker), yet either the wireless mics were funky or the board op didn't have a clue what he/she was doing. Gothamist has a guess, but will reserve judgement.

Gothamist will be hitting up a bunch of shows during the remainder of the festival to try to give you a little guidance in navigating the mammoth programming. Here's what we've seen so far (with short reviews after the jump):

The Miss Education of Jenna Bush

Jesus in Montana: Adventures in a Doomsday Cult
The Great Official Subway Musical
The Rude Pundit in the Year of Living Rudely (recommended with reservations)

Dance With Me, Harker
Shakedown Street

There's plenty of time to see these and other Fringe shows as the festival continues, and if you don't want to shell out the $15 per ticket, you might consider volunteering. For every two hours (i.e., one show) at which you volunteer, you get a voucher for a free ticket to any available show in the festival. Gothamist knows this, you see, because the venue manager makes such an announcement before every show. (This makes us wonder if they're woefully short this year.) If you're interested, go to FringeNYC.org or just walk in to FringeCentral at 125 W. 3rd Street between MacDougal and 6th Avenue. FringeCentral is also where you can buy tickets in person for any performance up to one day before the show. (Remember, you can also buy online from TicketWEB. Some shows may already be sold out, but you might try checking in at FringeCentral or going to the venue the hour before showtime if there's something you really want to see.

2005_08_fringe_missedjenna.jpgTHE MISS EDUCATION OF JENNA BUSH
If you've seen VH1's Best Week Ever, you know Melissa Rauch can riff on pop culture. In this pretty damn funny solo show, Rauch becomes the partier half of the Bush twins, coming home to her messy apartment (thanks to the kegger she hosted the night before) to spend the evening preparing for the first day at her new job as a school teacher. Jenna spends the next 90 minutes speaking directly to the audience as if we're just hanging out in her apartment. She orders Chinese food, needing to call her mom one time and sister another to get the address for delivery (yes, the address of the apartment she is physically in), tries to pick-out a good outfit for work, and imagines what it will be like talking to the other teachers. She makes fun of just about everyone in her family and her father's administration, and she gives us the real dirt on now-famous episodes such as the photo of her sticking out her tongue at the press. (They apparently didn't catch W. making orangutan noises.)

Rauch is a ton of energy and big laughs in a really small package. She has a wonderful stage presence, and can make you guffaw with little more than a facial expression or reaction to what she herself just said. Her personification of Jenna is of the ditzy blonde southern party girl we all love to believe her to be, but what makes the show more than simply Jenna-bashing-for-kicks is how Rauch humanizes her. Every several minutes, after a story or two, Rauch brings us back to the fact that Jenna is just a scared girl in her early 20s, not sure what she wants to do in her life, and terrified that she's going to screw-up. She gives a great speech about all the phases one goes through growing-up before suddenly being out of college, entering another new phase, but this time it's "the rest of your life." Throughout, Jenna repeatedly tries to get through to her father but can't. She needs her daddy to help her confidence. Rauch (who co-wrote the show with Winston Beigel) manages to ridicule and defend Jenna simultaneously, making the point (obvious as it may be) that at least emotionally, even with her wealth and powerful family, she's no different than the rest of us. Her mother and more responsible sister nag her; her grandparents call and chatter on; and her dad is often too busy to talk.

The show is not without flaws. At 90 minutes, it feels a bit long, and half-way through we started wondering where exactly it was taking us and how much longer it would until we got there. A little bit of editing and tightening couldn't hurt. Also, the blonde ditz act goes a bit overboard; not that it's too mean or "poor Jenna," but the joke gets old. Sure, each and every malapropism gets a big laugh, but Gothamist actually got a bit tired of them. There's enough in this show that's smart and funny without having a simple mispronunciation every five minutes.

Still, Miss Education is a really fun night of theatre, with a dynamic and riveting comedic heroine. The first show was completely sold out, and we imagine the rest will sell out as well. Hopefully, Rauch will continue to work on it and maybe find a home for another run later on. In the mean time, try to catch it if you can.

(The Village Theatre: 158 Bleecker St. @ Thompson. Remaining performances Wed 8/1710:45 PM, Sun 8/21 Noon, Thur 8/25 7:15 PM and Fri 8/26 2 PM; Runtime: 90 minutes)

-- Image created by Melissa Rios

Barry Smith grew-up in a Mississippi Southern Baptist home. As a kid, God spoke to him one day, helping him put his shoe on the correct foot. He got so excited, he ran to tell his aunt, who instantly told him he was crazy and should stop telling tales. This episode, mixed with his parents "divorce phase" is just the foundation for what eventually led Barry to join a cult that followed an 80 year old convicted pedophile living in Montana and claiming to be the return of Jesus Christ.

Sound unbelievable? Well, in this one-man show, Barry does his best to explain what led him to this cult and what eventually woke him up and brought him out. His story is both hilarious and unbelievable, and while most people who have never succumbed to any sort of religious fanaticism might still have trouble understanding how he got from A to B to C (no, it wasn't just the acid!), his journey is nothing if not entertaining. Smith discusses why certain prophecies from the Bible made his path seem perfectly normal, and why he never even considered that he was in a cult until he realized he had to leave it. He also does a good job of bringing up and trying to answer the questions you might ask in the audience, including what the hell was he thinking?

Smith may not be a natural performer, but his story is engaging, and he more than adequately holds the audience's interest. His performance is enhanced by a bit of multi-media play -- primarily some music here and there and a pretty elaborate "slideshow," which is actually very well-produced. If anything, the video may not be utilized consistently enough throughout the show as it comes and goes and spurts. Regardless, this short, entertaining piece is certainly worth the time.

(The Village Theatre: 158 Bleecker St. @ Thompson. Remaining performances Fri 8/19 7 PM, Sun 8/21 8:15 PM, Thur 8/25 3 PM, Sun 8/28 2:45 PM; Runtime: 60 minutes)

-- Photo by Michael R. Brands

Gothamist loves the subway, so of course we had to check out this "official" musical about our favorite mode of public transportation. What we found was a show that made us laugh a lot even if it's not the greatest play. The songs themselves are very short, not so musically imaginative, and sometimes clever, sometimes not. And even with a runtime just barely over an hour, there's a whole section at the end that comes relatively out of nowhere and actually drags the show down.

Ultimately, however, the laughs outweigh the flaws in this breezy and ridiculous (in a good way) production. The story follows Roger, a young man living in Brooklyn whose lifelong dream is to become the MTA's first official Subway Facilitator -- a person who will help straphangers find seats, keep the cars clean, ask one rider to stand for an enormous pregnant woman; basically just make the subway a nice place to be. After writing thousands of letters, he finally gets a reply from Mayor Bloomberg telling him to be at the Empire State Building by 3 PM to pick-up his Subway Facilitator welcome kit. What happens from that point on is a bit like Ulysses' Odyssey home, with Roger having to overcome obstacles (including lesbian love couple Jodie Foster and Kristy McNichol who are living in a tunnel, planning to make it the next hip New York neighborhood since at least it's not Queens!) to get from Brooklyn to 34th Street.

Star and writer Victor Verhaeghe is often hysterical as Roger, and the show never stops winking at the audience. It knows its story is absurd, but that's part of its charm. This is a very "in" NYC show. If you didn't live here and regularly ride the subways, you simply wouldn't get some of the references or bits. It's also very much an anti-Bloomberg show; a "Weiner for Mayor" bumper sticker, referring to Congressman and Democratic mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, makes a cameo appearance. So if you're a fan of Hizzoner, you may not take too kindly to some of the barbs. Otherwise, if you want a decent laugh, check-it-out.

(Players Theatre: 115 MacDougal Street, south of W. 3rd Street. Remaining performances Fri 8/19 3 PM, Sat 8/27 Noon; Runtime 70 minutes)

During the explosion of political blogging in the lead-up to the 2004 election, one anonymous liberal blog was saying things that nobody else would. These things would usually involve fairly graphic sexual acts or even defecation on some member of the Bush administration. However, they would also often include what every Democrat and Kerry supporter wished our candidate would stand up to say. The blogger went by the name The Rude Pundit, although some people would probably stick a "c" in front of "rude" to change-up that adjective a bit.

For this one-man show, The Rude Pundit exposes himself as Lee Papa, essentially performing several new and/or rewritten blog entries for whatever audience can fit into the tiny Dixon Place theatre space. (If you want to remember the Fringe as it was, crappy-to-no air conditioning and everything, Dixon Place is your venue.) Apparently there were supposed to be blow-up sex dolls with pictures of notable right wingers taped on the faces hanging as a background on a wall, but these were missing from Sundays performance. I don't know that they would have added much. Papa and this show are the definition of "preaching to the choir." His rants aren't going to convert any Republicans or make them see the light even as his Democratic audience sits there hooting and hollering and agreeing with everything he says. Gothamist found much of the show quite funny as well as interesting politically, but we didn't get so much more out of it than simply reading Papa's blog. Papa performs short rants, separated by a blackout and clever usage of recent "patriotic" music -- such as Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA."

Basically, if you're a fan of The Rude Pundit and agree with his politics, you'll enjoy this hour of watching Papa getting all worked-up. If you voted for the guy in the White House right now, regularly watch news or fantasize about Ann Coulter, you'll probably want to stay away.

(Dixon Place: 258 Bowery, 2nd Fl, betw. Houston & Stanton; Remaining performances Tues 8/16 9:30 PM, Thur 8/18 7:15 PM, Sun 8/21 2:15 PM, Wed 8/24 5 PM, Fri 8/26 10:30 PM; Runtime 60 minutes)

The web site for Wallis Knot -- the theatre company responsible for Dance With Me, Harker -- states that the show, "updates the action of the classic Bram Stoker novel ["Dracula"] to the slick, yet morally repressed, cold war 1950’s, when the fear of Russian invasion and nuclear weaponry threatened to over-expose the picture-perfect Ozzie & Harriet family-unit safely snug in their beds; when all the while perfect young misses were taking study-breaks from Vassar to do it in the backseat of their Oldsmobile." Let's put it this way: Gothamist didn't see any of that in the show. 1950s? I suppose that's possible. It's interesting they use "Ozzie & Harriet" and "Vassar" to describe a play that seemed to take place in London and Transylvania. I didn't think '50s America was so similar to '50s London, but who knows?

Dance With Me, Harker is an experimental, multi-media attempt at taking well-known material and adapting it into something completely different. It's something the Wooster Group does incredibly well, and at least based on this production, Wallis Knot? Not so much. For one thing, the show doesn't have a consistent tone either from the performances or the staging. Is it meant to be ludicrous comedy or serious emotional drama? It doesn't seem like it's trying to be funny, but then comes a moment when it couldn't be doing anything but, and it just feels out of place. And then there are the accents: the performances would mostly be pretty good if not for the horrible Eastern European accents which seem to occupy more of the actors energy than actual enunciation. It's not a horrible show by any means, but it's also just not that interesting. Instead, Dance With Me, Harker is a valiant attempt that doesn't go far enough to be truly attention-grabbing and isn't cohesive enough to be purely simple entertaining storytelling.

(The Mazer Theatre of the Educational Alliance: 197 East Broadway, enter on Jefferson St; Remaining performances Wed 8/17 9:15 PM, Fri 8/19 4:45 PM, Sun 8/21 6:15 PM, Sat 8/27 9:15 PM; Runtime 90 minutes)

No show is yelling louder, "Look at us! We're the next Urinetown!" than Shakedown Street which tries to ride high on the recent wave of jukebox musicals. In this case, old Grateful Dead songs have been re-orchestrated as 1940s jazz tunes to fit into a wannabe Maltese Falcon. The story has a down-on-his-luck private eye, a corrupt judge, a mysterious femme fatale, blackmail, rumored treasure, and of course, a love story, of sorts. The problem with all of these musicals featuring famous, non-theatrical, non-story-oriented songs is that they break the primary rule of musical theatre: the songs should serve the story, not the other way around. In Shakedown Street, scenes and story elements are manipulated to make the songs fit, and ultimately they really don't.

There's another huge problem with Shakedown Street which is that it's literally a huge show. Certainly too big, in its current form, for the temporary platform staging of The Village Theatre. There are often too many people on stage for this space, especially with a six person band trying to stay quiet enough to be heard but not drown out the voices, on mic or not. However big the producers hope an eventual Broadway production might be, it should have been even more scaled down for this space. Additionally, the staging also doesn't take the relative thrust performance space into account. Gothamist sat on the left during the first act, often finding ourselves with the focus of the action with his back to us while a bunch of other characters doing nothing stared our way. We moved for the second act and it was better, but there were some relatively simple rules of blocking and playing to the entire house that were simply ignored. The actors' performances are also very uneven: decent singing, but too much acting and deliberate reacting. Often enough, the actors seemed more like they were running lines than interacting in a scene

Of course, the most important element of this show is the music, and how do the Grateful Dead songs fare? Gothamist isn't enough of a Deadhead to be offended by the re-orchestrations. Most of them were still recognizable even if the band was composed of a piano, keyboard, multiple horns, stand-up bass and drums but no guitar. Turning "Truckin'" into a wannabe show-stopping big number near the end was somewhat amusing even if completely out of place. However, as interesting as it might be to hear some familiar music in a different context, it wasn't compelling enough to save Shakedown Street from being a relatively colossal bore.

(The Village Theatre: 158 Bleecker St. @ Thompson; Remaining performances Wed 8/17 2 PM; Sat 8/20 4 PM; Sun 8/21 10 PM; Thur 8/25 9:30 PM; Runtime 130 minutes)

ScrewBall is exactly the show Gothamist expects to regularly run into at the Fringe -- absolutely awful. It attempts to be a comedy in the vain of its title, but it fails miserably. It's the kind of show that makes an audience member ask, "How was this accepted?" and Gothamist's only answer is, "Well, there are parts of the script that seem like they might have been funny on paper." Whether or not that was the case, there's very little that was funny on stage. Much of the dialogue is written with a certain nod to early 20th Century screwball comedies, particularly deadpan Marx Bros. humor, but in this case, the cast is just not strong enough to handle it. Really nobody in the four-person cast provides much of a performance, certainly not a consistent one. It's not worth singling anyone out or detailing all the things wrong with ScrewBall -- and for the record, Gothamist loves good screwball comedy on stage and screen. Unfortunately, this ScrewBall isn't good because it's missing the comedy.

(Players Theatre: 115 MacDougal Street, south of W. 3rd Street; Remaining performances Tues 8/16 9 PM, Wed 8/17 3 PM, Thur 8/18 10:45 PM; Runtime 90 minutes)