Thursday, July 12, 2012

The fringe transformed

Kiki Samko, Michael Caminiti, Michael Underhill, Luke Murtha and Elizabeth Battey in Polaroid Stories.

Sorry for much of the radio silence of late - and my sincere thanks to the six hundred dedicated souls who have been checking the blog faithfully, every day, despite my absence. I appreciate your loyalty, and will be blogging more regularly!

First up is a remarkable production of Naomi Iizuka's Polaroid Stories, which plays through this weekend at the BCA Black Box.  It's a joint production of three fringe mainstays - Happy Medium Theatre, Boston Actors Theater, and Heart & Dagger - though it feels largely like a Heart and Dagger show, frankly, probably because it has been directed by HD's artistic core, Joey Pelletier and Elise Weiner Wulff, and also because its dark mix of sex, drugs and glamour/squalor has long been the signature of H&D.  As I'm a friendly acquaintance of Joey Pelletier's, I've seen quite a few H&D shows, and I'd say that Polaroid Stories may prove a watershed for them - it's certainly the first time their vision has cohered in so strong and subtle a way.

Part of this success is attributable to the script, which is both more polished and more accessible than some recent Heart & Dagger fare; Iizuka is particularly successful at conjuring in her dialogue the cadences of life on the street, where all her young characters live, almost love, and sometimes die (she drew on interviews with Minneapolis runaways for inspiration).  The playwright's big conceptual gambit, however - she attempts to limn these broken lives through the lens of Ovid's Metamorphoses - slowly proves less convincing, even if at first it seems intriguing and apt; after all, Ovid's odes to change and transformation definitely have their parallels in the rootless environment of the street, where nothing is permanent or dependable.

But gradually it becomes apparent that while the Metamorphoses are all about passion in its many modes, Polaroid Stories is usually about the lack thereof.  In short, Ovid's mythological characters always connect - their obsessions drive them to their destinies - but Iizuka's almost never do; indeed, the story she tells over and over is of love and connection thwarted by ennui and addiction (a passion of its own, to be sure, but one which the playwright never dares to explore, even though she posits a pusher called "D" - for Dionysos? Dis? - as the king of her shady underworld).  And as the playwright is always pulling her dramatic punches, her Polaroids never quite come into focus, and her characters never actually metamorphose into anything; instead they seem suspended beneath a grimly mournful umbrella that (harsh as this may sound) is fundamentally sentimental.  Thus well before it's over we can feel the narrative gears of Polaroid Stories beginning to grind . . .

Luke Murtha and Melissa DeJesus in Polaroid Stories.
Still, this remains the strongest production of this provocative play we're likely to see, and casting directors in particular will want to catch the final performances, if only to pick out the next round of up-and-comers on the local scene.  I've often sung the praises of several of them already - so I wasn't too surprised that after  stumbling at Stoneham recently, Michael Underhill was back in top form as Narcissus (who in a witty stroke has his name tattooed across his pecs, in Greek, and backwards), while the hunky Jesse Wood exuded a low-key mix of sexual confidence and experience as "G" (which I really hope is not meant as shorthand for "God").

But what was most striking about this production was how Pelletier and Wulff had drawn the best performances I've yet seen from almost all their usual players - Luke Murtha, for instance. made a charmingly spontaneous Orpheus (his ad-libbed love songs are hilarious and sweet), and the often too-forceful Kiki Samko seemed to have learned how to keep a fund of tragic feeling in reserve as a fierce, damaged Persephone.  Meanwhile newcomer Melissa DeJesus (above left, with Murtha) made an appealing, if not quite intriguing, Eurydice, and there was subtle work on tap from Danielle Leeber Lucas, Elizabeth Battey, Mikey DiLoreto, Michael Caminiti, Amy Meyer, Robyn Linden, Denise Drago, Lauren Elias, Nicole Howard, Kate Shanahan, and Sarah Sixt.

What's more, director/choreographer Wulff deployed the cast in consistently creative and apt ways through the void of the Black Box Theatre (aided by evocative, flexible lighting from Michael Clark Wonson).  If I'd loved the script, I'd call this a triumph; as it is, it's an impressive demonstration of just how high the Boston fringe can fly.  Through Saturday only.

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