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Gasland

Dir. Josh Fox (2010). You know what would be more effective than liking anti-fracking posts on Facebook? Hauling your real-life friends to the IFC to catch the urgent, sinks-on-fire doc that exposed the dangers of this newfangled natural gas drilling tech. Director Fox will be there, along with half of Cibo Matto, Sean Lennon, and for some reason Scarlett Johansson, who never gets credit for having been great in Ghost World.

Thu., Oct. 18, 7 p.m., 2012

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The Case Against Fracking in Gasland

With its jolting images of flammable tap water and chemically burned pets, New York theater-director-turned-documentarian Josh Fox’s Sundance-feted shocker makes an irrefutable case against U.S. corporate “fracking”—the Haliburton-hatched scheme of natural gas drilling in and around the nation’s shale basins. Narrating in the first person, the filmmaker begins by describing a gas company’s six-figure offer to drill on his rural Pennsylvania land, which sits atop what the company trumpets as the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas.” Refusing the deal, banjo-strumming Fox takes his show on the road, inviting citizens who did take big-energy cash to prove the contamination of their groundwater and recount its ill effects on their health. Describing himself as “not a pessimist,” Fox nonchalantly exposes EPA conflicts of interest and fingers the “Haliburton loophole”—a curious exemption to the 2005 Energy Act as cooked up by ex-Haliburton exec Dick Cheney. No mere collection of talking heads, the doc expertly juxtaposes instances of natural beauty with those of mechanized incursion, practically making us feel the toxic chemicals spilling off the screen and into our laps. Alas, Fox pushes his luck on the soundtrack by coming on like Marty Sheen in Apocalypse Now, his ultimately numbing voiceover delivered in halting rhythms and hushed tones. Still, there’s only one conclusion to draw here: No fracking way.

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Memorial Day Tritely Places Onus of War on Douchey Troops

For a while at least, Memorial Day suggests B-roll left over from an Ocean City, Maryland, edition of The Real World. Realistically performed by a cast of unknowns, the film’s party animals paint their shore town red with expletives, gross displays of genitalia, and monologues about Jews and doughnuts, the street signs around them suggesting we “remember those who have served our country.” Inviting the audience’s disdain for these perpetually performing douchebags, writer-director Josh Fox’s convincingly styled mockumentary appears interested in examining that curious neocon idea that the war in Iraq is meant to protect our freedoms. Is showing your dick or bush to a camera a privilege we enjoy because of our troops or is it one that trivializes their courage? But rather than argue this question, Fox muddles it by revealing his spring breakers to be soldiers on leave. Back in Iraq, the film’s trite, unexamined spectacle of men and women behaving badly proceeds: a forced testicle-shaving, promises of cunnilingus, and childish philosophical rants that wink at the Abu Ghraib–like facility’s torture victims, who appear most pained by the bad improv that fills the air. Placing the onus of the war on the troops, Fox follows Redacted‘s vile moral playbook, only without Brian De Palma’s self-reflexive, formalist gestures.

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BOOT CAMP

If the Iraq War came to Soho today, would you be ready to fight? Test your mettle when the International WOW Company, frequent promulgators of political drama, calls you to serve at their latest theatrical experiment Surrender. In this participatory piece, audience members enact “the training, deployment to Iraq, and return of a platoon of soldiers,” and instead of a playbill, you’ll receive fatigues, boots, and a replica M-4 rifle. Combat training, a simulated battle, a stint at Walter Reed, and several military funerals ensue. Josh Fox directs while Jason Christopher Hartley supplies the military experience.

Wednesdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m.; Sundays, 4 p.m. Starts: Oct. 25. Continues through Nov. 16, 2008

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The Racist Inside

Thomas Bradshaw’s Purity follows two Columbia University professors as they debate Wuthering Heights v. Jane Eyre, snort prodigious amounts of cocaine, and screw each other’s hot wives. As a member of the Columbia faculty myself, I am deeply affronted and outraged! Who are these lecturers and why haven’t they invited me to their parties?

With plays such as Strom Thurmond Is Not a Racist and Prophet, Bradshaw has fashioned himself an Off-Off-Broadway niche as a naughty provocateur, eager to illustrate our culture’s hypocrisies concerning race, faith, and sex. But Bradshaw paints with an excessively broad brush. Purity examines racism and self-hatred about as subtly as Juggs magazine explores the objectification of women. The drug habits and extramarital dalliances of tenured professors Dave (Daniel Manley), a white man, and Vernon (James Scruggs), a black one, are the least of their transgressions. Bradshaw waves them off on a booze-filled holiday to Ecuador, where they cheerfully rape a nine-year-old girl. He also depicts Vernon’s attempts to lynch a new hire, a professor of African-American literature who cites The Autobiography of Malcolm X as his favorite work.

Bradshaw and director Yehuda Duenyas excel at inciting visual and aural discomfort, aided by the fearless performances of the seven-member cast. (Scruggs offers a particularly unselfconscious performance.) The numerous sex scenes feature gobs of lube and a decided lack of undergarments (ah, verisimilitude!). And terms such as “jungle nigger” and “ass pussy” do not fall neutrally on the ears. But in this outing, writer and director leave our moral sense untroubled. While none of us is without prejudice or destructive desire, it’s doubtful that many in the P.S.122 audience secretly yearn to rape pre-teens or lynch colleagues merely because they sport dreadlocks. Depicting such extremes might make a spectator squirm, but actually it lets him or her off the hook. Vernon’s cry that “We need to lead a revolution against these kente-cloth niggers” or burn down Howard University lets us condemn him without ever turning that censure on ourselves.

Purity features a fantasy sequence in which Vernon rubs flour on his face and transforms into a white Southern plantation owner, a scene eerily echoed in You Belong to Me by Josh Fox and the International WOW Company, also running at P.S.122. Indeed, thematic and scenic resonances between the two works abound, though You Belong to Me positions itself as a far more self-serious work and boasts a three-hour running time (twice that of Purity‘s) to prove it.

Like Bradshaw, Josh Fox does not shy from grand, rather obvious themes. This three-part piece, itself the fifth installment in International WOW’s Death of Nations Project, makes the none too challenging argument that violence breeds violence, inhumanity leads to more of the same. Fox has the first part set on the last day of the Civil War, the second on the last day of WWII, and the third during the present conflict.

As in many of International WOW’s previous works, You Belong to Me ricochets among numerous genres and styles. An actor may first appear as a Confederate soldier, then as a tiger; first as a Southern belle, then a camp survivor. Fox’s work as a director has long garnered praise, but he has often seemed an auteur in search of an editor. He offers striking stage pictures and asks challenging questions, but they recede amid Fox’s desire to jam-pack every scene with as much imagery and theme as it can bear—perhaps more. History may repeat itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, but given enough iterations, it doesn’t mean much at all.

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Waiting for Lefties

Certainly he was the first. But maybe Aristophanes was also the last playwright to produce an uproarious comedy calling for peace in the middle of a popular war. I wouldn’t have thought to mull about The Frogs these days if publicity for Ruth Margraff’s Red Frogs hadn’t invoked it as her inspiration. Though her play’s connection to the Aristophanes comedy turned out to be entirely obscure, I’m glad it led me to pull the slapstick old sage off my shelf. I needed the laughs. And the moral uplift.

Recall: The hero journeys to hell to bring back a dead dramatic poet to rescue the world from its mounting turpitude. Politicians and generals have brought Athens to the brink of economic, social, and ethical collapse, Aristophanes suggests, so it’s time to turn to the city-state’s only reliable saviors: the playwrights. With its famous contest between Euripides and Aeschylus, The Frogs delivers sophisticated political and literary criticism amid topical wisecracks and relentless fart and phallus jokes.

The best that can be said for Margraff’s effort—and for Josh Fox and his International WOW Company’s The Bomb—is that it, too, seeks to integrate a seemingly hostile contemporary idiom with a belief in theater’s power and place in political discourse. Many of Margraff’s and Fox’s young peers have abandoned any concern for theater’s meaningfulness, producing elaborate spectacles and deconstructive escapades that have absolutely nothing to say. In different ways, Margraff and Fox claim their place in a generation reared on Wellman, Wilson, and the Wooster Group (and perpetual TV), yet refuse to follow the trend toward turning the formal insights of such forebears into a framework merely for displaying their own fabulousness.

But despite biting off the big questions—Margraff takes on class, media mendacity, and the patriarchal Old Left; Fox considers connections among violence, paranoia, sex, and war—neither writer makes a successful piece of theater. I’d like to say, neither succeeds yet, although both have now been around long enough that it no longer suffices to call them “promising.”

Red Frogs defies summary—there’s little discernible plot and the sketchiest of stock characters. A wealthy pundit cavorts with her maid, her male colleague and lover (whom she treats as a dog), and a trio of burlesque chorus girls from Coney Island. In a typical outburst, she shrieks, “It’s me voicing over all your tufts of hope inside your shrunken thought balloons! Where you have hoarded nothing but profanity. You take your public ferries to your public Sunken Forests, close your eyes and then pretend you’re renting something for the week.” And so forth for nearly two hours, with plenty of mimed humping and running around: a Coney Island of Margraff’s own mind.

Where Margraff is stubbornly opaque and elliptical, Fox is grandiose and sophomorically blunt. Running more than three and a half hours, The Bomb divides into three distinct parts: an offensively condescending Our Town-like portrait of a small city full of yokels; an exploration of Robert Oppenheimer and the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima (with some clichéd Holocaust imagery thrown in); and an extended meander through post-9-11 New York, beginning with a zombielike procession of the 35 (yes, 35) actors covered in dust. In all three sequences, folks search for true love, express fear of apocalyptic doom, and wonder aloud whether God exists and where evil comes from. You can’t help noticing that though a majority of the actors are women, all the characters pondering moral issues are male, with women serving essentially to light their very long fuses.

Fox assembles some arresting moments—the Asian American woman playing Oppenheimer segues from his description of the bomb to a horrified eyewitness report in Japanese—and he gets a tremendous level of commitment from his young company (though he doesn’t contain their tendency toward self-indulgence). Margraff’s cast, too, goes to it with abandon. They all seem eager to throw themselves into a new kind of theater that, like Aristophanes’, stokes both dissent and deep pleasure. I’m losing confidence, alas, that Margraff and Fox will be among those who create it.

In the meantime, there are the surprising satisfactions of The Front Page Follies—a small-scale liberal revue by a couple of square-looking middle-aged white guys, Peter Ekstrom and Michael Quinn. With Ekstrom (the composer) at the piano, they sing a dozen tunes lampooning the rightward tilt of the Supreme Court, the gun loving of the NRA, and so forth. In a song called “We Deserved It,” they take an unfair swipe at Susan Sontag and others on what they call the “fundamentalist left” for allegedly asserting that the 9-11 attackers were justified, when in fact all she did was question the use of the word cowardly in describing them. And the show ends with a sweet embrace of America’s promise: It’s not exactly radical. Nor is it as wonderfully demented as the songs of Tom Lehrer, in whose tradition it follows. Still, the lyrics are clever—”We’ll mother you and nurture you and shield you from attack/Until you take one step beyond the amniotic sac”—and the show provides the great relief of letting us laugh for a moment at all the grimness around us. If we can’t have Aristophanes, that will have to do.

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Theater

I Drink Therefore I Am



In one corner, a drug dealer pesters a waitress; in another, a mute girl argues with her sister by scribbling retorts on a chalkboard; across the room, an admirer clings to a stud as he babbles about his ex. The lives of these characters and seven others are satirized in Mono (Surf Reality), written and directed by Steven Tanenbaum. Watching the 80-minute show is like channel surfing: The brief scenes, set in a bar, jump from story to story and back again. It’s initially disorienting but gradually intelligible, geared to those with short attention spans. In a further bid to grab the audience, Tanenbaum stages the action around the perimeter of the room, forcing us to turn this way and that. Actors interrogate us stand-up style, sit on our laps, and hand us drinks.

While these diversions keep things lively, the script doesn’t always deliver. Most of the episodes skewer their participants’ self-absorption: a “conversation” in which each party conducts her own monologue; a confession made to someone who’s on the phone with someone else. When a fashion victim (dead-on Adi Terer) demands, “Are you listening to me?” the answer is obviously no—everyone’s too busy yapping themselves. Even the anthropologist, who dictates observations about the others into a tape recorder, would really rather tell us about her past. But Mono is richer (and funnier) when its subjects’ glossolalia reveals not their shallowness but their individuality, like the drug dealer’s drolly macabre fantasy of being embalmed, then filled with candy and donated to an orphanage as a piñata. Especially striking are the musings of the waitress (Alyssa Weiss) on being a smoker (“If I’m gonna stink, it’s not gonna be secondhand”) and, more darkly, on her dying father’s penis.

Like chatting with a stranger at a bar, Mono both rewards and frustrates; by the time you get past the trivial facade, the evening’s just about over. —J. Yeh



A Winter Slay Ride

Toward the close of the International WOW Company’s HyperReal America (La Tea), a professor lecturing on Lacan—shouldn’t it be Baudrillard?—intones, “There are stories all around us, in our minds, in our dreams, even in our children’s books.” Director and nominal writer Josh Fox appears well aware of these myriad tales. Indeed, he tries to include all of them in this sprawling three-hour work about mass murders in a law office and Columbine-like high school. Throughout the script, Fox threads the recurrent line “Be careful with my heart.” Suggested response: “Be careful with my time.”

Based on real events and interviews with cast members, HyperReal America concerns teenage rituals, professional politics, consumerism, drugs, rape, booze, and gun violence. Lots of gun violence. And since the cast of 21 actors play multiple roles, they can die multiple times—the body count in Titus Andronicus has nothing on this show. Many of the actors, though young and relatively inexperienced, display considerable talent, but Fox has allowed their histrionics free rein. The performances—like the text—become mired in self-indulgence.

It’s a pity Fox didn’t keep a sterner grip on his script or actors, as the play does not lack for funny or profound instances, especially the three-Martians-in-a-bar and lollipop sequences. But the avalanche of extraneous text buries them, as does the obtrusive, FM-lite soundtrack. But the music does provide one of the play’s finest moments, an extended absurdist dance choreographed to “We Built This City,” perhaps the finest use of Jefferson Starship since Mannequin. —Alexis Soloski



Sugar Low

Overbearing mothers beware: A bonding weekend away with your unstable adult daughter might just send her irrevocably over the edge. Emma, a casino-crazy parent with a penchant for “constructive” criticism, learns the hard way in Benjie Aerenson’s two-hander, Paradise Island (St. Clement’s), a drama with all the suspense of a Good Housekeeping short story.

Terri, a former makeup artist and failed court reporter, has the wincing, “leave-me-alone” demeanor of a stunted adolescent; even her mom’s compliments give her the shakes. During the course of a 24-hour period in the Bahamas, the two women bicker, play slots, watch a little Geraldo, and bicker some more. A diabetic with a dangerous level of backlogged anger, Terri yields to her self-destructive impulses, plying herself with cocktails and candy bars, followed by insulin chasers—evidently preferring a coma to the incessant maternal nagging.

But then sleep is a legitimate defense against the crushing banality of this disappointing New Group production, soporifically directed by Andy Goldberg. Aerenson’s dialogue tries to paint a portrait of contemporary culture’s vacuity, but ends up seeming as inane as the talk shows the women rattle on about. Unfortunately for the playwright, scoring his obvious satiric points comes at the expense of clandestine truths.

Not that the actors don’t try to inject the occasion with genuine feeling; it’s just that they have so little to do. As Emma, the estimable Lynn Cohen fusses endlessly with her bottle of club soda, hoping against hope it might provide her with an excuse for appearing on stage. Adrienne Shelly faces an even tougher challenge as the whining, thirtysomething wreck drowning (with good reason) in a sea of boredom. Ionesco says that characters in drama should be unleashed onto the stage; these two should be dropped off at the mall. —Charles McNulty