New York City, specifically Times Square, may be the Crossroads of the World, but for the theater world, it has historically been the entrance ramp for many actors, writers and directors.
This website’s namesake was instrumental in spreading locally produced theater throughout the country, but the Big Apple always has been and always will be at the forefront of American theater. Where it has come from. Where it's going.
Given that admission, it's important to keep tabs on the performance culture of NYC and see what's going on. Recently, TheaterJones did just that. What follows is but a smattering of some of the theater going on right now in the America's cultural capital.
The following reviews cover a range of theater from the tiny off-off-Broadway production to a Broadway play to the giant musical extravaganzas the Great White Way is most often associated with. But, they all have one thing in common.
They're original. Certainly, there's a place for the movie adaptations and revues so popular these days, but the most powerful and lasting shows often start as original ideas. And they start away from the friendly confines of Broadway. Following is three examples of how original theater is the driving force of American theater.
We begin with the fringe...
Presented by the New York Neo-Futurists in a small office building space affectionately called The Monkey, Locker 4173b is a simple story told in a way only the Neo-Futurists can tell, about two men who buy a foreclosed storage unit and undertake an archaeological project to uncover the owner of the contents.
The Neo-Futurists, perhaps best known for their hilarious piece Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, are a group built around the "calling for a theater of audience interaction, breaking down all notions of distance, character, setting, and illusion, and articulating a socially conscious voice in a low-tech, 'poor theater' format."
If all that sounds absurdly serious and needlessly intellectual...it's not. Another common trope of Neo-Futurist performances, though never explicitly advertised, is the liberal use of comedy. And Locker 4173b is no different.
Posing as anachronistic urban archaeologists, Christopher Borg and Joey Rizollo, who also wrote the piece, recount their ventures in to the world of foreclosed storage space. Just like with homes, storage units can also be foreclosed, their contents becoming the new possessions of the highest bidder.
It's a sad practice as someone can lose their entire life through the loss of one of these units. Realizing this, Borg and Rizzolo saw an opportunity. Shattering the illusion of the stage by injecting a documentary approach, the two explorers describe a very real experience in a comedic way.
First, they buy a small unit for $25. The unit had belonged to a woman with mental problems who had been trying to get her life back on track so that she could win custody of her children back from the state. eaturing dramatic readings from a found journal in the unit by Yeauxlanda Kay, the actual "artifacts" from the units are introduced as evidence of an examination into the lives of others and what led to the loss of their possessions.
Transitioning from the smaller storage unit into their bigger purchase, Borg and Rizzolo play detective as they attempt to decipher the owner of another storage unit containing artifacts from three different people. Through the investigation of its contents they're able to piece together the lives of these people in sometimes humorous, sometimes saddening detail.
In true Neo-Futurist fashion, the Monkey is an intimate space featuring an extreme three quarter thrust performance area in the middle of which the two men often unfurl the mountains of stuff from the storage units.
Accompanying the live action are short, documentary-style films by Sydney Buchan, and though the two main performers are playing themselves they wear stereotypically classic archaeologist costumes and carry themselves as scientists is search of great treasures.
The point being, the repossession of these units is both heartbreaking and dangerous. Within the units, Borg and Rizzolo found more than enough vital financial information to successfully steal these peoples' identities if they wanted to, and a collection of mementos that clearly would have been near and dear to the original owners.
Drawing connections to the country's recent financial struggles and the sometimes inhumane nature of the haves towards the have nots, Borg and Rizzolo construct a performance piece that all at once is side achingly funny and incredibly poignant and socially aware.
This is the kind of theater that rarely makes it beyond its "off-off" designation in New York, or American theater, but feeds into the consciousness of the performances of community and more than likely will find its way into the mainstream in one form of influence or another.
And this is where New York theater really shows its power in shaping the public theatrical consciousness. Sure, Broadway gets all the publicity and all the glory, but so much of what American theater is owes itself to these kinds of groups and the chances they take, the boundaries they push. Theaters like this make it possible for more traditional mediums to also blaze new ground, as will be detailed in the big musical review section of this story.
And this is an area with which the Dallas/Fort Worth area should be well acquainted with. For if there is one area of theater the Metroplex seems to really get, it's the fringe. This much is evidenced by the acceptance of both Lisa Dalton and Denton's Sundown Collaborative Theatre into the esteemed New York Fringe Festival this year.
Fringe, alternative, off off. Whatever you want to call it, this is the foundry of theater. This is where new ideas are formed. Dallas is lucky enough to have a healthy representation in this scene, no doubt influenced by Margo Jones. But New York is still the big show and still on the forefront of the theater's path.
Or, next time you're in New York, seek out the off and off-off Broadway listings. On top of tickets typically being less expensive and easier to get, you also have the opportunity to preview the path of theater in this country.
Just like how Borg and Rizzolo discovered an unlikely treasure trove in their storage units, you too can discover the something new and exciting in off-Broadway theater.
And one of those plays that did break through and make it Broadway...
After a successful debut at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, California in 2009, Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo debuted on March 31 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York.
A 2010 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, critics voiced a bit of skepticism about the play's potential success in what is a limited run, ending July 3.
Taking place in Baghdad during 2003, Tiger follows an anthropomorphized Bengal tiger, played by Robin Williams. Yes, that Robin Williams. And don't worry. He's not dressed as some Lion King- style monstrosity. Instead, he sports a scraggly beard and peasant clothes, as if to symbolize and represent the Iraqi people.
In the play, Williams is mortally wounded after a fearful reaction to being taunted results in him biting off the hand of Tom (Glenn Davis), one of two U.S. Soldiers guarding him. He's shot by the trigger happy Kev (Brad Fleischer).
Now a ghost, the tiger stalks Kev from beyond the grave while simultaneously waxing poetic about the meaning of life.
With prosthetic hand in tow, Tom returns to Iraq to visit Kev, who has been hospitalized due to the encroaching madness of being haunted by a tiger, but he's not there for a friendly visit.
The gun Kev had used to kill the tiger was actually Tom's. Or it was Tom's so much as he pilfered it from the looted mansion of the hilariously evil Uday Hussein (Hrach Titizian). Tom's interest in the gun is connected to the fact that it’s gold plated, and possession of this artifact along with a hidden toilet seat made of gold also taken from the palace, is meant to help Tom profit from his traumatic experience. It's the only thing he has going for him.
However, during a raid in which he suffers his major breakdown, Kev loses the gun and it is recovered by Musa (Tony-nominated Arian Moayed) an interpreter who had previously worked as Uday's gardener.
Through the interactions of living characters and dead characters, the play follows a decidedly existential path contemplating the meaning of life, the cause and effect of actions, and the horrors of war.
The play itself is creative, but often falls victim to being a great idea in search of a plot. Many set-up scenes go undeveloped and the play ends on a cop-out monologue by the tiger.
Also troubling is Joseph's treatment of the soldiers. While the Iraqi characters, save for Hussein, are universally portrayed as victims and terribly put upon, the Americans, in turn, receive a decidedly one dimensional treatment akin to the low common denominator of soldier stereotypes. Mindless grunts who are cruel, mindlessly macho, and driven by money.
It's distressing that such an unfavorable portrayal is getting such wide attention. Not all soldiers are the morally deprived animals the Joseph wrote.
The importance of the piece centers around the fact that Joseph took on a bold challenge. He looked for a unique way to communicate the horrors and tragedies of the American occupation of Iraq, and he succeeded, somewhat.
Ultimately, the response hasn't been what was hoped for, but it does show that there is a place in mainstream theater for playwrights to attempt more challenging material.
Joseph may not have fully succeeded with his story, but he's certainly advanced the conversation about American imperialism and the atrocities of war through the lens of existential examination. What he developed will no doubt be taken up by others and eventually show its influence in future plays.
Because after all, despite some people's best efforts and a sometimes inaccurate thought that Broadway, and more broadly, mainstream theater, is just easily digestible schlock, much of the original theater that makes it to the mainstream started with people taking risks on the fringes and gaining a foothold through the sheer power of their artistic influence.
Which brings us to the hottest thing on Broadway right now...
Trey Parker and Matt Stone met in film class at the University of Colorado in 1992. Together, they developed an animated short, The Spirit of Christmas, which featured characters that would eventually find their way into a television show created by the two young filmmakers called South Park.
After the short film became one of the young internet's first viral videos, South Park debuted on the then tiny Comedy Central network in 1997. And over the last 14 years, the show has asserted itself as one of America's most influential sources of cultural satire.
Since the debut of South Park, Parker and Stone have consistently flashed their love of musicals, primarily through their films South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (of which the song "Blame Canada" was nominated for an Academy Award) and Team America: World Police.
Seven years ago, after seeing the 2004 Tony winner for Best Musical, Avenue Q, an irreverent comedic satire of American life featuring puppets, the duo was introduced to Q co-creator, Robert Lopez, who admitted a strong affinity for Parker and Stone.
What started as a fortuitous meeting turned into a collaboration, and seven years later has begat The Book of Mormon, playing at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, and the proud recipient of 14 Tony nominations.
Mormon follows the trials and tribulations of Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad) as they embark on their mission assignment to Uganda.
Price is the picture of a perfect Mormon. Respected and admired by all of his fellow mission trainees, he is the model every young Mormon aspires to be.
On the other end of the spectrum, Cunningham is an oafish buffoon, who though in possession of heart of gold is woefully inadequate at pretty much everything and given to making things up when he gets nervous.
In what becomes a recurring theme for poster boy Price, he is inexplicably paired with Cunningham, as Mormon missionaries are always paired up in teams of two, and his prayers to be sent to Orlando, Florida are seemingly ignored in favor of the less glamorous assignment of war torn Uganda.
However, he attempts to make the best of things and see it, with Cunningham's encouragement, as an opportunity to do something great.
However, when they get to Africa, his dreams unravel as they find a populous wholly unresponsive to the Mormons' efforts and openly angry at God.
Despite his best efforts, Price eventually breaks and attempts to abandon his mission in favor of a transfer to Orlando. In the meantime, through a drastically liberal translation of the Book of Mormon that features the Starship Enterprise, Boba Fett, and hobbits among other mythical pop culture references, Cunningham becomes an unlikely hero in converting the entire population of the local village.
And in true classic musical style, everything ties up nicely in a hopeful, if not entirely happy, ending.
Featuring a string of big numbers, dynamic choreography, and a solid, heartfelt satire of religion, Parker, Stone and Lopez have created what some are calling the best new musical of the last decade, if not the last quarter century.
Yeah, it's that good.
And it really is. Parker and Stone love musicals and Book of Mormon is just as much a love letter to classic Broadway as it is an effective pushing of the boundaries.
Loaded with their trademark strong language and mature themes, "the South Park guys" have managed to infiltrate the fortress that is mainstream theater and prove their worthiness.
So, what makes Mormon so good?
Though they're famous for playing dumb about their impact on American popular culture, Parker and Stone have proven time and again that they understand the power of satire and employ it to deftly create critical cultural commentary.
The Book of Mormon is not a spoof on Mormonism or religion. If anything, it's a celebration of the tenets of faith and the overall positive messages that religion is known to advocate, while still drawing humorous attention to some of the absurdities of belief structures.
This is perhaps best embodied in the song "I Believe,” in which Price responds to his Job like treatment by God by bucking up and reinforcing his beliefs, which include getting his own planet, God "changing his mind about black people" in 1978, and the Garden of Eden being in Jackson County, Missouri. However, despite the inclusion of such absurd-sounding beliefs, the point of the song is that through his strong faith in a higher power he feels emboldened enough to walk right in to the local warlord's encampment and preach the message to him in an effort to get the "General" (Brian Tyree Henry) to stop committing atrocities on the innocent people of the village.
All at once, it's a powerful ballad the likes of which are scattered throughout musical history, it's satirical in its commentary on the odd beliefs of the Mormon faith, and it's sincere in advancing the idea that though religion can sometimes border on ridiculous, the core beliefs of kindness, faith, and goodwill to others are still very important.
Rannells and Gad are both nominated for Best Actor at this year's Tonys. Likewise, Nikki M. James, who plays Nabulungi, the African heroine and eventual love interest of Cunningham, and Rory O'Malley, who plays the closeted homosexual leader of the Ugandan Mormon mission, Elder McKinley, are both nominated for supporting roles.
There are those who may be turned off to the show given the background of its creators, the strong language and mature content, or the religious nature. Some others might benefit from seeing it.
The Book of Mormon is a lot of things, all of which contribute to its success and standing as an instant classic. It simultaneously satirizes and glorifies religion by way of an excellent score, catchy tunes, rich characters and some of the best writing Broadway has seen in years.
It's not a fluke that it's had such a strong impact and is expected to clean up at the Tonys.
And it's also an excellent example that for all the less-than-stellar revue-style shows like Rock of Ages and Million Dollar Quartet and cheesy film/TV adaptations like Legally Blonde, 9 to 5 and The Addams Family, original, boundary-broadening theater is still the driving force of American theater.
The soundtrack is available on iTunes, and is highly recommend for all theater nuts out there. It's destined to be a classic and you can expect to see it performed for years to come.