Degrees Of Appropriation

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The New York Sun

One of the common and popular techniques for new, experimental, or so-called fringe theater is to address, deconstruct, or satirize established works. In a medium that relies so heavily on its ability to get an often recalcitrant audience to fill seats, it is a clever way to lure people and play to their predilection to go see something familiar. The New York International Fringe Festival, in progress though August 27, is rife with examples of this tendency toward appropriation.

The most literal example of this in evidence over the weekend was the McManic production of “Reservoir Bitches,” which was, as can be presumed, an all-female retelling of the Quentin Tarantino film “Reservoir Dogs.” At first glance, the concept is intriguing. The original film is a satirical homage of the archetypal masculinity of genre films, so the comic possibilities of re-imagining it with a female cast constitute a clever and felicitous opportunity to address social constructs of gender and identity. This expectation is adequately fulfilled in the opening sequence, an extremely witty recasting of the famous restaurant scene and its now near iconic dialogue.

Unfortunately, the early promise is not maintained, and things deteriorate quickly. Relying on an alternate, yet equally hackneyed set of gender stereotypes, the characters discuss self help, chocolate, and a host of trite observations on the differences between the sexes, while managing to adhere, albeit awkwardly, to a great portion of the original dialogue and plot. The resultant amalgam of female interjections and machismo action makes almost no sense whatsoever. Even if the play’s sexist clichés are an intentional, supremely sophisticated commentary on Mr. Tarantino’s latent misogyny (an unlikely case), the only worthwhile conclusion is that at least Mr. Tarantino is funny.

In stark opposition in wit, intelligence, and charm is the Neo-Futurists’s production of “The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in an Envelope (partially burned) in a Dustbin in Paris Labeled: “Never to be performed. Never. Ever. EVER! Or I’ll Sue! I’LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!!!” A previous winner of the award for best comedy at the Fringe in 2000, it has been revived for a return engagement this year, and once again merits attention. It’s premise, to which its verbose title alludes, is that despite growing threats of legal repercussion and physical violence, the three members of the Neo-Futurists company — Greg Allen, Danny Thompson, and Ben Schneider — are to perform recently recovered lost works of Samuel Beckett. The stated dubiousness of their provenance, of course, sets the delightfully wry and unobtrusively self-aware tone of the evening.

The piece opens with a pastiche involving a highly articulate brain in a jar, and a missing table leg that has been incongruously replaced by a slack-jawed mute wearing a tie. The interaction that takes place between the two is so simple, yet so hysterically emblematic of Beckett’s world-view, it is a wonder he didn’t actually write it himself. Each succeeding ‘lost’ work further illuminates another aspect of the Beckett canon — his bleakness, his grandiosity, his perverse delight in unresolved repetition — with a subtle accuracy. The work exemplifies satire in its most ideal form, one that transcends imitation and actually illuminates and displays the true genius of the original work through its respectful mockery. Mr. Schneider, with his mobile face and hapless demeanor, is a perfect vessel for Beckett’s distinct brand of everyman’s despair. The performers carry the ambitious undertaking with ease and confidence, best displayed in the section “If,” a bravura turn of dramatic audacity by Mr. Schneider that, by its triumphant conclusion, inspires an emotion closely akin to awe.

Lastly in the genre of derivative theater, is “Vice Girl Confidential,” a broad send-up of the lurid big city melodramas of the 1930s and ’40s as presented by the Present Company and Peter Steinman. Though at moments genuinely funny, with winning performances by Christofer Yustin as an upright defense attorney, and Todd Micheal in drag as Stella Duvall, the gutsy madam of a Park Avenue cathouse, the script ultimately falls flat. Production values reminiscent of high school theatricals and inexplicably ill fitting costumes additionally hamper the play. While those with limited experience of the genre will enjoy the vintage slang, comic stock characters, and generally spirited performances by the ensemble, anyone with a genuine knowledge of, or fondness for, the louche pleasures of old B movies will find the imitations too overblown and the humor too obvious to really succeed, even as parody.

Until August 27 (for more information, call 212-279-4488).

The New York Sun

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