The Germ Project: Biggies Small

In poetry, an epic denotes a narrative poem written in grand style, concerning the adventures of a larger-than-life hero and typically including an endless catalog of ships. In the theater, an epic means a really long play by Brecht. But with The Germ Project, New Georges, the distaff downtown theater company, apparently wants to alter that definition.

Artistic director Susan Bernfield recently commissioned four affiliated playwrights (Kara Lee Corthron, Lynn Rosen, Kathryn Walat, and Anna Ziegler) to craft epics, works of “scope and adventure” that many theaters might declare “unproduceable,” either owing to the size of their casts or the reach of their ambitions. Now New Georges has presented the results. Sort of.

In the smaller space at 3LD, on a mostly bare stage, four directors and 13 actors offer 20-page excerpts of the commissioned plays. Kings don’t feature. Neither do monsters or gods or battle-hardened warriors, although there is a talking cat and a pair of D&D devotees with huge charisma points. Despite Bernfield’s encouragement, the plays all have small casts—just five or six characters. Most tend toward innocuous magical realism and characters with metaphysical cravings. (Then again, some cravings are more pedestrian—like those for drugs and sacks of cash.)

Even so, the plays don’t have much in common, and it’s a little puzzling that New Georges has made this assemblage open to the public—it more closely resembles a backers audition or a pitch meeting with 3-D PowerPoint. Still, there’s pleasure to be had in watching playwrights work to stretch themselves.

Perhaps the most fully realized piece is Walat’s This Is Not Antigone, a backwoods riff on the ancient myth set to Patsy Cline and directed by Portia Krieger. Old stories also inform Corthron’s AliceGraceAnon, a play that jumbles Grace Slick and the narrator of Go Ask Alice with Lewis Carroll’s pinafored heroine. Right now the mash-up feels forced, but the excerpt ends just when things might get interesting. In Ziegler’s Florida-set Evening All Afternoon, an elderly man and his housekeeper pine for lost love, and in Rosen’s Goldor & Mythyka: A Hero Is Born, Midwest dweebs yearn to knock over an armored car.

It remains to be seen whether New Georges or other companies will commit to fully producing these plays. Still, “Sing in me, Muse, and tell me of fantasy role-play nerds” kind of has a ring to it.


A Venture Through The 12th Annual New York Fringe Fest

On the first day, in the first hour of the 12th-annual New York International Fringe Festival, an actress lay splayed on a hospital bed, murmuring: “Happy? What do I have to be happy about?”

In the past several years, I’ve often asked myself that same question at the Fringe. The August heat, the cramped venues, the uninspired offerings didn’t encourage joy. Even as house managers lauded the FringeNYC as “the largest multi-arts festival in North America,” I would wish myself away to the Fringes of Edinburgh, Dublin, and various Canadian locales—festivals that attract a better quality of show. I would also find myself missing the earlier years of the Fringe, when the venues all clustered on the Lower East Side, which lent the Fringe a feeling of community and camaraderie now lacking.

But as the bed-bound actress Debora Weston, playing the title character in See How Beautiful I Am: The Return of Jackie Susann, lolled and kvetched, I actually felt rather cheerful. I’d just returned from traveling in India—dodging food-borne illnesses and some very angry monkeys. Suddenly, spending five days sitting quietly in the air-conditioned dark, with Western-style toilets nearby, seemed an undreamed-of luxury. Yet despite my newfound equanimity, five days of furious Fringing resulted in a typically so-so experience: several terrible pieces, lots of middling ones, and a few delights.

See How Beautiful I Am retreads, in high heels, the Jacqueline Susann story. While suffering from terminal cancer, Susann graciously takes time to recount her career and perform the occasional song and dance. Paul Minx’s script has its share of bon mots—”I used to worry about my mascara dripping; now, it’s the whole face”—but doesn’t offer any new reading of the famed author. In Jessica Dickey’s terribly sincere The Amish Project, mascara isn’t a concern since Dickey performs without makeup, bonnet-clad. She’s based the piece on the 2006 Amish-schoolhouse shooting, but combines the case facts with invented characters and monologues, out of a desire “to remain sensitive to the real people who were affected by the shooting while giving myself license to write an unflinching play.”

The pleasantly insensitive China—The Whole Enchilada doesn’t worry about ethical niceties. This musical opens with a white guy decked out in Tang Dynasty regalia, trading his r‘s for l‘s. He’s soon joined by a castmate sporting buckteeth and a coolie hat. Scripted by Mark Brown, who recently scored a modest hit with his adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days at the Irish Rep, China offers a breakneck take on 4,000 years of Chinese history, very much in the manner of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Deliciously silly, it’s a pupu platter of what the Fringe often does well: amusing, topical, low-budget musical comedy.

Of course, that formula doesn’t always guarantee success, as evinced by Perez Hilton Saves the Universe (or at least the greater Los Angeles area). Alas, the show doesn’t have nearly enough of the cruelty and lunacy of the website on which it’s based. A more genial work, The Johnny, also falls flat. It centers on the attractive, blond villain of teen movies like The Karate Kid. It might have played better had the lyrics risen above such declarations as “You can’t fall in love and play sports.”

Falling in love—nice, Christian, boy-girl love—is the subject of The Gay No More Telethon, a musical with a limp book, but some bang-up songs and performances, including Corey Glover as a preacher and David Abeles and Gerti Lee James as a formerly gay country-and-western duo who sing a very unconvincing chorus of “There’s Nothing Better Than Heterosexual Love.” Heterosexual love is but one thing mercilessly parodied in Gem!, based on the cartoon I once adored. Amanda Allan’s script proves more brainless than necessary, but Angela Harner’s costumes and David Lee’s direction enliven the proceedings.

The deluxe environs of the Deluxe Spiegeltent at the South Street Seaport improved several lackluster cabaret performances. The Home for Wayward Girls and Fallen Women features some fine burlesque, like Little Brooklyn’s Pierrot act and Tigger’s sacrilegious priest number. But 6 p.m. is far too early to watch a corpulent man stuff dollars into a dancer’s gyrating brassiere. Even so, some confident gyrations might have improved Marco Frezza’s magic show, Strange Attractor. Frezza characterizes himself as an alien desperate to save Earth from destruction, but even his status as an ET can’t entirely excuse his appalling stage presence—call it stage absence. His nifty tricks are eclipsed by his painful unease.

Sailor Man concentrates on a different type of pain. A collaboration among several Yale graduates, the piece distills the Popeye cartoons into an excuse for uproarious and bloody stage combat. Before the show, a participant’s mother described it to a friend, aptly, as a “violent Sesame Street.” Another pleasantly odd, though less gory, turn: johnpaulgeorgeringo, in which Dave Jay stars as all four members of the Beatles, responding to audience questions with a combination of cleverness and thorough research. Jay somewhat undercuts the event by promoting his own music—a pop varietal known as J’Blammo—and playing it.

Music also featured rather inexplicably in Tiny Feats of Cowardice, a cabaret-cum- confessional by New Georges founder Susan Bernfield, in which she details her fears: airplanes, malaria, toasters, violin teachers, cows, and (more problematically) performing in front of an audience. It’s unclear why Bernfield half sings the script—the sung bits don’t differ much from the spoken—or why she required a three-man backing band, but it’s an affecting piece. As is Too Much Memory, though it seems misplaced at the Fringe: Written by Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson and nicely performed by an estimable cast (Laura Heisler, Louis Cancelmi, Martin Moran, etc.), this smart, colloquial “adaptation of an adaptation of a retranslation” of Antigone would seem a likely Off-Broadway candidate.

As I’m still attempting some post-vacation equanimity, the less said about Heaven Forbid(s)!, Choose Your Own Play, and the unspeakably twee Velvet Scratch—Voyage of No Return, the better. Apparently the Fringe has some fine shows I haven’t seen—other Voice reviewers have enjoyed The Alice Complex, Julius Caesar, and The Grecian Formula. But I’d just as soon rest up and steel myself for next year’s fest. After five Fringe-filled days, I’m tempted to echo Jacqueline Susann’s dying words: “Let’s get the hell out of here, doll.”


Breaking the Code?

In the late 1960s, Actors’ Equity started allowing members to forgo their salaries for specially approved “showcases” to be seen by potential employers. But today, the Equity showcase code has become the de facto legal framework for all of Off-Off-Broadway, where more and more theater artists gravitate to do the work they passionately believe in. Last season, Equity received over 1,000 showcase applications—under which union actors agree to work for just a MetroCard and, with luck, a nominal fee or a percentage of the gross. Showcase-code productions and companies this past year have won Obies (Soho Rep’s The Thugs, Transport Group) and nearly scored a Pulitzer (P73’s
Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue
). Showcases aren’t just for nabbing agents anymore.

But many downtown producers say the current showcase code has become crippling, and they’ve begun an effort to change it. With the “Basic” (show-by-show) code, the maximum budget is $20,000, at least half of which can easily be spent on theater rental, and it’s tough to break even at a capped ticket price of $18 and a limit of 16 performances. The “Seasonal” code for small nonprofits allows more spending and more performances, but requires mounting two shows a year, when many are lucky to stage one.

Proposals for showcase-code reform have been bubbling up since the spring. The most prominent—a 12-page report from ART/NY—was spearheaded by Susan Bernfield, artistic director of New Georges. This “white paper” has provided a rallying point this summer for a growing Coalition for Code Reform, spurring two town meetings and an online petition (at Among its proposed amendments to the basic code are doubling the budget ceiling, raising the performance limit from 16 to 24, and allowing abbreviated “remounts” of successful shows sooner than the current one-year moratorium. For nonprofit companies operating under a seasonal showcase code, the coalition asks for more flexibility for “established producers” with strong track records as well as redefining and expanding rehearsal and development periods. Many of these reformulations also allow for increased fees to actors.

Reasoned though its proposals may be, the coalition has one formidable problem: As producers without a contract, they have no leverage with Equity. In a statement, Equity asserts that the code “is not a contract and isn’t negotiated.” Coalition leader Shay Gines recognizes that the cause is now in the actors’ hands: “As an unincorporated association, Equity is owned by its members, so it will be up to the members to do something about this if they feel strongly.”

Do actors feel strongly about loosening the code? As it is, Equity maintains that actors are already “subsidizing” Off-Off-Broadway. The web petition so far, according to Gines, has gathered nearly a thousand signatures—but only a third are from Actors’ Equity members. Reformers hope that actors who’ve benefited from showcase productions will step forward. For Gibson Frazier, who appeared in the original 13P showcase of Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist, the monetary sacrifices of acting under the code have been offset by relationships forged with playwrights who have to start out with showcases. “To do that kind of work on a new play is why I’m an actor,” he says. Donna Lynne Champlin, an Obie winner for her star turn in Transport Group’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, was grateful for a show that could only have happened as a showcase, but because “actors are so thirsty to do great work in great productions,” she also appreciates that the showcase code “protects us from ourselves.”

While Equity for the moment seems uninterested in the question, it acknowledges that “we have revised the code on several occasions over the years . . . to account for inflationary and economic factors as well as changes in the industry.” But will reformers be satisfied by tweaking? Brooklyn playwright Matt Freeman seems to speak for many when he says the problem won’t be solved as long as “the code still treats Off-Off-Broadway productions as glorified vanity projects.”