Jason Zeren, Sean Hankinson, and Colin Key in Tim Aumiller's “Luke Nicholas.” | TIM AUMILLER
Among the 185 offerings at this year’s FringeNYC, Gay City News was able to catch a fair number, some of them noteworthy –– and a few with performances still to come.
“Luke Nicholas” is the rare Fringe piece that’s playful and sexy yet has some serious issues on its mind. On the surface, it’s a wry, frisky comedy centering on a skewed love triangle among 40-year-old Thomas (an earnest Colin Key), his husband Jonathan (portrayed with quiet intensity by Sean Hankinson from “Days of Our Lives”), and a young stripper known as Luke (Jason Zeren).
Thomas meets this… ahem, pole-dancer at a bar while on vacation with Jonathan in Montreal. With an assist from shots of Jack Daniels and swigs of Stella, Thomas becomes so smitten that, eventually, the affair threatens to destroy his 10-year relationship. Of course there’s plenty of manflesh on display, but it’s not gratuitous.
A home-wrecking stripper, a sci-fi sexual outlaw, and shimmying saints
On a deeper level, the play is a meditation on the prickly politics of contemporary gay connections. The couple has an “open relationship.” But how open is open? Apparently, casual sex with others is okay. A wild crush is okay. But love is off limits.
Presented by the award-winning NO HOPE Productions, “Luke Nicholas” offers a slew of insights on the human condition: We all lead dual lives, one predictably ordinary and one where we veer off-script. We all deserve a little poetic license. Everything we do is selfish. Most people don’t like the truth.
But crafty writer-director Tim Aumiller is not content to leave it at that. He’s built an elaborate narrative structure, adding a play-within-a-play (Thomas is a playwright obsessed with “the process”) and then flipping it on its head. Turns out what we are watching are scenes in rehearsal from a play based on the ill-fated Montreal trip as directed by Thomas. But the role of Thomas is, perversely enough, being played by Jonathan. An actor named Stephen plays the role of Luke the stripper. Luke’s real name is Nicholas, hence the play’s title.
Got all that?
Both actors are not shy about weighing in on how scenes should be played. Lines are cut and scenes are rewritten. But is the trio improving the play, rehashing the reality of what transpired, or rewriting the facts to suit their own needs?
So on top of everything else, we have a commentary about the creative process of staging a play. Which can be as painful and painstaking as trying to fix a broken relationship.
It would seem that around the time he was writing the script, Aumiller was reading Pirandello. Or watched the mind-blowing, multi-layered thriller “Inception.” For sure, he read the novel “Prince of Tides” and watched the movie, both of which figure prominently in the play.
Throughout the 100-minute drama, the stage is dominated by a large, phallic stainless steel stripper pole, which serves as the axis for the dizzying proceedings.
Is “Luke Nicholas,” as the saying goes, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma? You bet. But under the artful direction of Aumiller, you care enough about the characters to stick with it. And while the conceit doesn’t completely jell, you stumble out of the theater disoriented and exhilarated, as if getting off a roller coaster ride.
Not one of those slick high-tech marvels, but a modest wooden one, like the Cyclone at Coney Island, that’s shaky and creaky and could use a bit of maintenance.
Teatro Circulo, 64 E. Fourth St., btwn. Bowery & Second Ave. Aug. 17 at 1:45 p.m.
Lee J. Kaplan in “Bully.” | SPENCER MOSES
Goody two-shoes. Teacher’s pet. Geek. Loser. Faggot.” These were just some of the names the bullies and their minions called Lee J. Kaplan throughout middle school. What’s worse, they harassed him so doggedly that he began to believe their words were true. He even developed painful, uncontrollable facial tics.
Now, decades later, the defiant Kaplan is seeking not so much revenge as catharsis in his sweaty, intensely physical solo show, “Bully,” based on his sixth grade diary entries that recorded daily horrors of taunts, pummelings, and death threats.
The brutally personal show, which outlines a lesson about how to beat bullies at their own game, handily projected onto a portable screen, seems tailor-made for school assemblies. But this is not just kid stuff. As the slightly manic, occasionally self-berating Kaplan eloquently demonstrates, the damage done by bullies is felt many years later and never heals completely.
Dressed in an athletic warm-up outfit, he tapes up his hands and transforms into a weaving, jabbing boxer, finally fighting his tormentors after years of regret. On some level, Kaplan is also sparring with his inner child who still believes he’s little more than a worthless punching bag.
It’s a happy coincidence that his brand of silk boxing shorts, revealed near the show’s climax, bears the prominent label “Everlast.”
Make no mistake, “Bully” is one of the more polished and potent works at FringeNYC, in part because Lee got practice at the DC Capital Fringe Festival earlier this summer. He employs his gifts of impersonation, nicely delineating characters ranging from a prim schoolteacher to Hans and Franz from “Saturday Night Live,” a Southern California dude, and various harassers, including a clueless phys ed coach.
“I will drive you into the ground with my dick,” promises a young bully he once considered a friend.
On several occasions the savvy survivor addresses the audience directly, even encouraging us to sing along with a tune from his childhood, which increases the intimacy and allows the themes to resonate all the more powerfully.
At times, a clearly agitated Kaplan reads passages from his actual diaries, written in cursive on one of those iconic composition notebooks with the mottled black-and-white cover.
While you might assume from the play’s title — and from his buff body and impish good looks — that Kaplan is gay, there’s no such mention (he had a crush on one of the female cheerleaders). By his account, he was punished for getting straight A’s and making the mistake of not hiding his love of learning and respect for rules.
“It’s like putting a big ol’ bully bull’s-eye on your back,” the actor says. Once he was branded a loser, it stuck and only got worse.
Under the razor-sharp direction of Padraic Lillis, this piece transcends issues of bullying. It pushes us to face our fears so we can succeed and acknowledges that it’s okay to crave approval from others –– and from ourselves.
What makes “Bully” so affecting is not simply Kaplan’s personal struggle, but what it awakens deep within ourselves. Some will find this journey triumphant and uplifting. Others, on the other hand, may find revisiting their socially fraught schooldays to be utterly distressing indeed.
The Steve & Marie Sgouros Theatre; 115 MacDougal Street, third fl., btwn. W. Third & Bleecker Sts.; Aug. 18 at 1:45 p.m.; Aug. 21 at 9:15 p.m.
THE 3RD GENDER
As you take your seat at “The 3rd Gender,” you’re confronted with a well-muscled young man lying on a gurney wearing only black briefs and what appears to be a glowing helmet with brain sensors.
A bespectacled technician is checking his vital signs and fiddling with a smartphone-like device. The subject’s wrists are bound and, although perhaps in a coma, occasionally his body twitches. Loud, foreboding bleeps and whirrs from the monitors can be heard (thanks to Douglas Maxwell’s skillful sound design). The year is 2397, and it’s clear this man is in serious trouble. The air is fraught with creepy possibilities.
Then the action starts, and, sad to say, the sci-fi drama fails to deliver on its initial promise.
Written and directed by Peter Zachari (who created the wacky FringeNYC hit “Parker & Dizzy’s Fabulous Journey to the End of the Rainbow”), the complex piece is a thoughtful exploration of the politics of gender, sexuality, and identity. In this world, heteronormative humans are illegal and have all but been eliminated. Now the planet is populated with highly evolved spiritual beings who are neither male nor female, but a third gender. They are not attracted to an “opposite” sex and have no sexual urges. When they “expire,” their soul leaves the shell of their body and lives on.
There are aberrations. Manten (a fiercely handsome J.P. Serret), the guy on the gurney, somehow slipped through the system and was born heteronormative, in other words, “straight.” He is branded an abomination in the eyes of God, and the genetic practitioner (Victoria Guthrie) and Dr. Tulkan (a devilish Marc Geller) have been trying to “cure” him. If the cure fails, he must be “eliminated.”
You see where Zachari is going with this — the conditioning is akin to the reparative therapy common in the mid 20th century meant to turn homosexuals straight. Naturally, Manten is none too pleased to wake up on his 20th birthday with no memory and no family, and when he fails a test after years of curative therapy, he escapes the medical facility with another hetero freak, Cassie (Lara Clear), aided by compassionate lab assistants Grey (Joey Mirabile) and Phoenix (Jacob R. Thompson).
And that’s just the first couple of scenes. The action-packed 85-minute piece, which is spiced up with encounters resembling softcore porn, finds Manten trying to track down his roots before the authorities catch up with him.
The pocked and scattered plot, which can only be followed by Philip K. Dick geeks, demands a lot from the audience. The staging is often labored and the tone jarringly uneven — at times the drama lapses into farce. The energetic ensemble does its best to tame to the wildly ambitious material.
If FringeNYC were to hand out an award for most intensely committed turn, then I would like to nominate Serret. Sure, Zachari should have reined him in, yet you can’t help but admire the actor’s vicious, spluttering rage when Manten realizes he may never know his past or future, all because he was born “abnormal.” By any measure, Serret is one “exquisite specimen” to watch.
Connelly Theater, 220 E. Fourth St. btwn. Aves. A & B; Aug. 18 at 7 p.m.; Aug. 20 at 4:45 p.m.; Aug. 25 at 4 p.m.
GERTRUDE STEIN SAINTS!
One of the few FringeNYC offerings that truly earns its exclamation mark, “Gertrude Stein Saints!” is like nothing you’ve ever seen. It’s an experimental opera bursting with singing and dazzling choreography, yet has no traditional characters, plot, or even an orchestra.
The source material is “Four Saints in Three Acts” and “Saints and Singing,” rhythmical, stream-of-consciousness works that Gertrude Stein wrote in the 1920s. The self-referential libretto, packed with non-sequiturs and other absurdities, makes little narrative sense, and that’s the point. But thankfully, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Sample text: “Four saints prepare for saints it makes it well well fish it makes it well fish prepare for saints.”
This astounding, genre-busting masterwork, presented by Theatre Plastique, was conceived by the talented ensemble at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, not far from where Stein was born.
At once rarefied and curiously accessible, “Gertrude Stein Saints!” celebrates American music and dance, playing with gender and identity. Often divided into male and female groups, the performers swap traditional gender roles with abandon. Amazingly, most of the opera is sung a cappella, with the aid of some impressive beatboxing, though a guitar and keyboard are employed from time to time.
Directed with precision by Michelle Sutherland, the 13 jubilant performers (all students at Carnegie Mellon), dressed in an array of white costumes, present an awesome patchwork quilt of do-wop, rock n' roll, gospel, bluegrass, folk, Shaker, jazz, and much more. One moment you’re watching a hoedown, the next a Bob Fosse Broadway number, then a New Orleans parade, then a kind of Missy Elliott music video, then Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” then a boy band. There’s shimmying, krumping, popping, disco dancing and Soul Train strutting. And, yep, there’s twerking.
Unfortunately, the five performances of “Gertrude Stein Saints!” were clustered at the beginning of the festival to accommodate the large cast’s schedules. If the work is not part of the FringeNYC Encore series this fall — and it deserves to be — let’s hope the troupe comes back to New York soon for a bona-fide run.
FRINGENYC | Various downtown venues | Through Aug. 25 | Schedule and tickets at fringeny.org or FringeCentral at 27 Second Ave., btwn. First & Second Sts. or 866-468-7619 | $15 to $18