Thursday, August 11, 2016

Fringe 2016 - Now Or Later - Just Not My Thing - 3 stars

Tweet review - #mnfringe Now Or Later: it's a very particular style of theater and storytelling; still trying to parse it out - 3 stars

I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that I’m probably just not the audience for New Epic Theater.  Which is a shame.  Artistic Director Joseph Stodola is a talented theater artist with a very specific vision, and I admire that.  New Epic works with a killer array of really top notch actors, and their Fringe show Now or Later is no exception.  When you’ve got Jennifer Blagen, Ryan Colbert, Peter Moore, Grant Sorenson, and Michael Wieser all crammed into a single hour of Fringe together, it’s almost not fair to the other shows with which it’s competing.  The playwright on Now Or Later, Christopher Shinn, is an Obie Award winner and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  Stodola also laid out the set with its clean lines, fluorescent lighting tube boundaries, sterile furniture, and color palette of blacks, whites and greys.  You can’t argue with the packaging of the thing or its ingredients.  It just aggravates me more than it engages me.  That may be what they want, but it’s not something I want to keep sitting through.

In the program there’s a quote from Bertolt Brecht:
“The theater-goer in conventional dramatic theater says: Yes, I’ve felt that way, too.  That’s the way I am.  That’s life.  That’s the way it will always be.  The suffering of this or that person grips me because there is no escape for him.  That’s great art - Everything is self-evident. I am made to cry with those who cry, and laugh with those who laugh. 

But the theater-goer in the epic theater says: I would never have thought that.  You can’t do that.  That’s very strange, practically unbelievable.  That has to stop.  The suffering of this or that person grips me because there is an escape for him.  That’s great art - nothing is self-evident.  I am made to laugh about those who cry, and cry about those who laugh.”

New Epic Theater won me over with their 2014 Fringe production of Tennessee Williams’ One Arm - it was one of my favorites of the festival and one of two shows I kept mentioning to people everywhere I went that Fringe when they asked me what was really great that they needed to see.  Then they repulsed me with their 2015 Fringe 21st century spin on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian GrayNow Or Later lands somewhere in the middle.  (Because I felt so burned by Dorian Gray, I had to pass on their double feature of The Normal Heart and Coriolanus earlier this year outside of Fringe season, even though I love the play The Normal Heart and was curious about Coriolanus, because it’s a Shakespeare I haven’t seen performed.)  It feels on some level that New Epic Theater is devoted to the idea of homosexuals suffering as entertainment, and I don’t have a lot of patience for that.

“I think freedom of expression is more than a temper tantrum.”

Here again, in Now or Later, we have John (Sorenson), the closeted gay son of a politician (Moore) poised to win the presidency of the United States.  Everyone is holed up in a hotel on election night, watching the results come in.  John is attended by his straight(ish) friend Matt (Colbert) and stalked by his handler Marc (Wieser) because a minor internet scandal is brewing that could reflect badly on the newly minted First Family of the USA.  John’s mother (Blagen) also gets in the middle of trying to manage the situation.

“There are things in this world that are bigger than you.”

John thought it would be a good idea to defend the idea of free speech at his Ivy League school against fears by his fellow students who are Muslim that they were be verbally assaulted by hate speech as follows:  He dressed up as the prophet Mohamed, went to a sex party to condemn it, grabbed a dildo, and pretended he was fellating his straight(ish) friend.  This being the 21st century, there are pictures and video of the incident.

“I have zero interest in becoming a spokesperson for gay people.”

John doesn’t see what the big deal is.
John doesn’t feel like he should have to apologize because - free speech.
And he’s a private citizen.

“It’s a campaign-induced psychosis.”

As everyone else takes pains to try to convey to John at great length - his dad’s the President of the United States.  John is not a private citizen anymore.  Forget privacy.  For that matter, forget the closet.  And your boyfriend who dumped you who you keep hoping will call.  And your therapist.  And the fact that you flipped your car as a teenager because you were trying to kill yourself.  Because, of course.

“I’m surrounded by these privileged kids.”

In addition to all the white privilege being tossed carelessly about the room, and all the self-loathing, this cast of largely lily white people - most of them in lily white clothes and/or formal wear, keep going on about how the Muslims must feel about everything.  Would it have been too hard to actually have - I don’t know, a Muslim character in the play maybe?  Someone who could actually speak to the experience rather than just being continually referenced as a potential annoyance?

“You can’t get elected President if your son kills himself.”

Everyone in Now Or Later does a great job.  The acting, the look of the production, it’s all first rate.  I just wonder what the point is.  Someone else who sees a lot of theater was just raving about this and I found myself thinking, “Did we see the same play?”  He said it made him think about all the issues these characters were talking about long after he left the theater, and that’s a mark of good art.  With which I would agree.  I just didn’t have the same experience.  I kept wishing we had a lot less exposition and hand-wringing, and a lot more actual action on stage.  The scene between father and son toward the end - that was almost about something.  That made me sit forward in my seat.  Then there was a jarring symbolic move that confused everyone around me.  I explained it afterward because I “got it,” I think.  It just didn’t get me.

But that’s not the kind of theater New Epic wants to do.  So I should just move on.

3 Stars - Recommended

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