You’d think that during this crucial and excruciating election year, the 20th New York International Fringe Festival would be rife with entries reflecting the discombobulated mood of the country. You’d think that, and you’d be right to a degree. Of the 200 productions offered, roughly one-eighth — 26, to be exact — concern political and/or social issues.
Unable to hitch up to all 26, this intrepid politico-crazed attendee got to five and is here to suggest that perhaps the most persuasive was Seeger, in which Randy Noojin impersonates folksinger-activist Pete Seeger with such convincing modesty and humor (lots of banjo jokes) that it wasn’t long before Noojin disappeared and Seeger (1919-2014) was fully present.
For those new (or not so new) to the man’s biography, it’s the tale of a performer devoted to folk music who became politically active as a result of the 1949 Peekskill riots, an upstate New York disgrace that transpired when word spread that the legendary African American singer-actor Paul Robeson, who was known for his Russian sympathies, would perform at a planned local concert.
The resulting fracas did it for Seeger. The up-and-coming folkster was on the concert roster and, when attempting for a second time for a peaceful event, saw firsthand the police taking sides with violent protesters. (The violence unleashed then sadly resonates too strongly with Trump rally violence now.)
Filling in details of his days with the seminal folk-singing Weavers (Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, Ronnie Gilbert) and his ugly run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee, Seeger — er, Noojin — leavens the hard-hitting history by encouraging the audience to sing along with “Goodnight, Irene,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” “We Shall Overcome” and other songs that not only paved the way for the folksinger-songwriter movement of the 1960s but changed a country.
With Patriot Act, the energized, personable Mike Schlitt offers perhaps the most politically intriguing Fringe title. He’s punning, of course, on the USA Patriot Act — an Orwellian acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. It’s name belies it‘s audacity, which suggests that anyone not in agreement with the act’s requirements fails as a patriot.
What Schlitt offers is an “act” in which he assumes everyone in the audience is a patriot. (He hands out “Patriot” buttons. I took one.) For this gathering, he’s determined to convince everyone that democracy — no matter how battered it may seem at the moment — is alive and well.
Reading from the Constitution and quoting commentators like James Baldwin, he soon pulls puppets from a valise representing Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Hardly attempting ventriloquism, he has the two famously adversarial founding fathers harangue each other over their attitudes towards federal and state approaches to running a democratic nation.
There are moments when, in encouraging audience participation, Schlitt, in an ultimately sweat-stained suit, blue shirt and tie, comes dangerously close to losing a grasp on his, uh, patriot “act” as well as his audience. Still, he’s too likable and too committed to his love of country to be criticized harshly.
It’s undoubtedly true that anyone pursuing the political hors d’oeuvres in Fringe this year hopes to find plays reflective of current headlines — with some perceptive powers to boot. This is certainly the case with Ryan Bernsten’s Dream Ticket. Many of the facets of the play do sound like what’s transpiring this minute, including rampant smearing tactics and a woman candidate resembling both Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina.
On the other hand, the script careers away from the present battles in a manner suggesting that when truth is stranger than fiction (as is unfortunate these days), fiction pales. Here, Republican candidate Leslie Sugarman (Chris Payseur), whose dippy slogan is “A Spoonful of Sugarman,” and Republican candidate Becky Roberts (Amy Lee Pearsall) insult each other through a presidential primary. And then, when Sugarman prevails, they team up to form a dream ticket.
In an unconvincing plot twist, their success is threatened when it looks as if the news may circulate that Sugarman’s whiz of a campaign head, Patti Baxter (Toni Martin), is engaged to a woman. Also not holding much dramatic water is the intervention of radio pundit Darla Finger (Olivia Jambol), who pulls an early November surprise.
Darla’s character does deliver one of the best of the many smart cracks peppering the script: “You’re so conservative, why should you help anyone?” Said, naturally, to herself. And the final line of the play — which I’ll let the reader discover — is also a doozy in this crisply directed production from Kristin Skye Hoffman’s, which is played with SNL-like skill by the eight actors.
Anyone remember the deep disaffection between Ronald Reagan’s representative to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and that high patroness of astrology, First Lady Nancy Reagan? The most memorable takeaway of Louis Nevaer’s Reagan’s Athena may be outlandish speculation about the relationship between the ladies. If such speculation were outlandish at all.
In a late scene after Mrs. Reagan (Carol Kuykendal) — “Mommie” to President Ronnie (Bill Conner) — prevails on her husband to remove Kirkpatrick (Sharon Talbot) from her post, the ladies say things to each other that simply aren’t repeated in polite society. They couch their animus in language that might suggest Nancy’s famous “Just say no” campaign was more “Just fucking say no.”
Playwright Nevaer will insist this sizzling contretemps is not the primary focus of his look at international politics as usual. It isn’t. In a play more compelling in contemplation than result, he’s interested in following the progression, from dislike to admiration, between the tough-minded Kirkpatrick and the equally if not more tough-minded Nora Astorga, the Nicaraguan revolutionary-turned-diplomat, during the years they faced off in the UN Assembly over the dismal Iran-Contra affair.
Whereas the subject matter is extremely intriguing, Nevaer has written a static piece in which President Reagan is a cipher, and for which Alice Spivak provides no more than adequate direction.
Sounding as if ripped from the headlines, Not All Cops Are Bad sort of is. Comic actor-writer George McAuliffe plays police officer Scott Baker, apparently on the force in a town called Carlyle that’s not far from a desert — where a video captured several cops beating a man bucked off a stolen horse.
Baker takes it on himself to appear at a local venue to represent good cops. Explaining how upright he is, he projects video evidence that isn’t entirely convincing and takes selfies with audience members to prove his good cheer.
He also has audience members read index cards that reveal their beatings at the hands of agitated cops, and revealing, dark secrets about themselves. (One supposed Carlyle businessman admits having sex with the blow-up dolls he manufactures.)
On such a worrying subject, McAuliffe is funny but, in the hour he allots, maybe not funny enough.