Tales From The Fringe
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The Brothers Grimm never “wrote” a single fairy tale. Instead, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected “children’s and household tales” from area storytellers all over Germany.
Or, rather, what would become Germany. In the New York International Fringe Festival’s engrossing but underdeveloped “How 2 Men Got On in the World,” author-director Emily Mendelsohn contends that this act of gathering played a crucial role in forging a cultural identity for this nascent country, carved from the likes of Westphalia and Prussia in the early 19th century. “Common to all folk tales are the remnants of faith,” the inflamed Jacob explains in a letter to his mother, and much of “How 2 Men Got On in the World” is devoted to how the all-but-inseparable brothers drew faith from their own efforts and from the fanciful, ominous tales they so diligently transcribed.
In addition to these stories — some of them familiar, some not — Ms. Mendelsohn has drawn much of her text from the correspondences among the brothers and their mother. Perhaps more letters from Jacob (Dave Edson) exist — he seemed to be more of a mama’s boy than Wilhelm (Keith Foster). Or perhaps Ms. Mendelsohn, herself a writer, placed a higher value on Jacob’s more single-minded literary efforts. But for whatever reason, the older Grimm’s yearnings are conveyed with far more exactitude than Wilhelm’s vague wish for romance, or solitude, or something beyond their shared quest.
(Wilhelm reportedly had anxiety attacks that would last as long as 20 hours.)
Only occasionally does Ms. Mendelsohn draw convincing parallels between these fairy tales and the psyches of those collecting them. Her rudimentary story-theatre techniques, with a three-woman Greek chorus manipulating the brothers’ bodies, could have been employed more aggressively. (The most impressive visual component can be found beneath the actors’ feet: Over the course of the play, the performers cover long rolls of butcher paper with brief snippits of the tales and primitive visual analogues.) And despite a touching reconciliation at the finale, the brothers’ relationship remains frustratingly opaque.
But her idea is a promising one, and I suspect a more intensive rehearsal period could give the brothers’ story the transformative gleam it deserves. It seems fitting somehow that “How 2 Men Got On in the World” should currently exist as a work in progress. Like the tales Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm amassed — “a poetry that belongs to the childhood of our race,” to quote another of Jacob’s letters — their story awaits further tellings and retellings.
Here’s something you may have never seen before: a mime putting his hands in front of him and exploring the dimensions of a phantom barrier. Oh, you have seen that before? A million times? Well, was the mime playing a fetus? And was the imagined wall his mother’s womb? And was the skit called “The Abortion”?
No? Then you probably haven’t seen Billy the Mime.
So Billy and his eponymous onemime show are probably not for everyone. A lanky Californian who looks like he might have stepped right off a junior varsity basketball court, Billy approaches, and occasionally even surpasses that level of tastelessness throughout “Billy the Mime.” If the JFK Jr. skit doesn’t offend you, the Karen Carpenter or Anne Frank one probably will.
Billy begins each brief sequence with a title card announcing the subject matter, thus beginning an emotional game of chicken between audience and performer.The discomfort is palpable almost every time — the audience is seemingly ready to turn on Billy at the very idea of, say, “The Priest and the Altar Boy.”
But even when the sequences are funny — and Billy, with his water-limbed flexibility and whip-smart timing, is a very funny mime — he finds surprising ways to sidestep this inherent shock value. Every sequence contains at least a germ of poignancy. (OK, maybe not “Thomas and Sally … A Night at Monticello,” the closest corollary to Billy’s bawdy turn in “The Aristocrats.”)
And sometimes they contain more than a germ. The sequence devoted to Terri Schiavo was as empathic and even-handed as anything I’ve seen or read about that sad case. And the abortion sketch? Ask the woman next to me. In a packed theatre, her sniffles and finally her tears were the only sound to be heard.
Until very recently, the New York theatre scene suffered from an acute scarcity of “spit takes” — the time-honored comic bit in which someone is made to laugh before swallowing whatever liquid (usually water) they had just ingested. But then Broadway’s “Drowsy Chaperone” saved the day, offering a half-dozen or so spit takes in each performance. Chicago’s long-running “Don’t Spit the Water!” which wrapped up its Fringe run this weekend, is less predictable in the outcome of its output. It’s basically a projectile version of the old 1970s game show “Make Me Laugh”: A trio of guest comedians try to get three audience members to spray within 60 seconds. The potential exists for as many as 14 spit takes.
However, the last Fringe performance saw only four full-fledged S.T.’s and one or two other side-of-the-mouth trickles. This had less to do with the contestants’ stoicism than with the fact that only one of the three comedians (Dan Telfer in an ominous penguin costume) was any good. Far more consistent was Steve Gadlin, who ad-libbed beautifully as Sasha, the show’s hapless Eastern European host. Had the audience been supplied with water bottles before Mr. Gadlin’s all-too-brief appearances, there wouldn’t have been a dry face in the house.
After a half dozen or so new pieces, I relented and caught up with one of this year’s repeat offerings. The festival invited back 10 distinguished alums from past years, and I took advantage of the opportunity to catch “Tuesdays & Sundays,” an insightful, moving, and rather marvelous tale of adolescent ardor and self-sabotage in a rural Canadian town circa 1887.
The actors-playwrights, Daniel Arnold and Medina Hahn, and director Wojtek Kozlinski take their time letting the details of their sad tale emerge. As they meet at a New Year’s dance, “laugh till forever,” and embark on a fateful romance, the two capture the feints, hesitations, and headlong sprints of young love with heartbreaking sensitivity and precision. It’s just elliptical enough to fit in among the Fringe’s more outré offerings — Mr. Arnold and Ms. Hahn only touch twice during the play’s 50 minutes — but it packs an emotional wallop reminiscent of more straightforward works like Brian Friel’s “Lovers”and even “Our Town.” “Tuesdays & Sundays” holds its own not only against its fellow Fringe dwellers but also against these lofty antecedents.You’ll want to clap till forever.
Until August 27 (for more information, call 212-279-4488).