Puppet Shakespeare Players’ artistic director A. J. Coté with some of his fellow actors in “Puppet Titus Andronicus.” | DALE HELLER
Unevenness is inherent in any evening of short plays, but among the six pieces that make up the Summer Shorts series at 59E59, there are two plays and four performances that are not to be missed. “Napoleon in Exile” by Daniel Reitz and “The Mulberry Bush” by Neil LaBute — both of which run in the program’s Series B — are extraordinary and in a different class entirely from the others.
“Napoleon in Exile” is the story of a 25-year-old autistic man and his divorced mother. Having lost his menial job in a hospital, he spends his days playing Minecraft, while she deals with a cancer diagnosis. The play’s central question is “What do we do now?”
This is a delicate play of human suffering that is often quite hilarious — as even the direst situations can be. Reitz writes with a clear understanding of autism, how those who have it communicate, and the fierce love, tempered by acceptance and resignation, that characterizes the parents of those living with it.
Six one-acts are uneven, but delightfully mutilated Shakespeare is comic gold
Under the elegant direction of Paul Schnee, Henny Russell as the mother Evelyn and Will Dagger as her son Corey have a wonderful chemistry. Both inhabit their roles beautifully, Russell with a level of understatement and simplicity that is consistently affecting and Dagger with a detailed appreciation for autistic behaviors and the emotional gaps many people on the autism spectrum experience. As these two damaged people struggle to communicate and strain toward a resolution, they provide a powerful and heartbreaking metaphor for anyone trying to figure out what’s next.
“The Mulberry Bush” is classic LaBute. Two men meet in a park, one confronts the other, and inevitably danger and disaster follow. In his typically spare but well chosen text, LaBute skewers hyper-vigilant, egotistical young parents who see threat in every situation out of their control. And, of course, this being a LaBute play, the situation is pushed to an extreme. The play is full of tension, as much for what is not said as what is, and director Maria Mileaf fully understands the characters’ emotional dynamics and cadence.
J.J. Kandel as Kip, a young father, hits every nuance, making him perfectly self-absorbed and thoroughly loathsome. Victor Slezak as the target of his anger, Bill, is controlled and deep. The two men work well together, and the piece, for all its quiet economy, has a harrowing and surprising impact.
The other piece in Series B, Albert Innaurato’s “Doubtless,” sadly doesn’t succeed. It is intended to be a play in the absurdist provocateur mode of the late 1960s in which offensiveness is used as a vehicle for making a political statement. In this case, the target is the Catholic Church, but the sexual shenanigans of priests and nuns is an old trope; more shocking things are tossed out on daytime TV and blogs every day than are heard in this play. Jack Hofsiss’ staging is appropriately antic, though at the performance I saw the actors seemed lost in its midst. The whole thing came off as dated and stale — quite a let down after the Reitz and LaBute pieces.
The three plays in series A were somewhat better, but ultimately disappointing. Roger Hedden’s “The Sky and the Limit,” about two bros in the wilderness where one gets injured, fails to develop either character sufficiently to make the story compelling. “Sec. 310, Row D, Seats 5 and 6,” by Warren Leight, is about guys with season tickets to the Knicks getting together for the last game over the course of several years. The insights into friendship that the brief scenes provide are largely bland. Eric Lane’s “Riverbed” is the most interesting of the three, telling the story of a couple’s struggle to go on in the wake of their child’s death. There’s not much new here, but the performances by Adam Green and Miriam Silverman as the grieving parents are excellent.
Finding short plays that work together is difficult, and I’d suggest you put your money on Series B.
For the most deliciously sophomoric yet intelligently hilarious retelling of Shakespeare’s most violent — and next to “Pericles” — complicated story, head over to the Beckett Theatre and prepare to be enchanted by “Puppet Titus Andronicus.” Even typing the title is silly, and it is, just as you might expect, a wildly truncated version of Shakespeare’s play performed largely by puppets. Staged by the Puppet Shakespeare Players, the laughs start when you read the program and continue ‘til the last dog (or boar or whatsit) is dead.
Lampooning Shakespeare, of course, requires an understanding of the Bard’s work, and this ebullient company knows what it’s doing. Because the first act of the original is largely exposition, it has been replaced by a song, “Actus Primus Titus Opus” that hilariously sets the story in motion. The rest is a condensation of the play focusing on the violence and gore, with plenty of puppet mutilation and silly string blood. The actors improvise, which often is helpful to the narrative and just as often tangentially ridiculous. As in “Avenue Q,” the actors are always visible on the stage when working the puppets, and their interactions are hysterical as well.
I have often wished that someone would come up with puppet design that’s not so indebted to Jim Henson and the Muppets, and there’s some indication puppet designer A. J. Coté is on his way there. Here’s hoping he continues, and that Puppet Shakespeare does as well. The intelligent inanity is very midsummer madness and welcome indeed.
SUMMER SHORTS | 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St. | Series A & B in repertory | Through Aug. 30: Tue.-Thu., Sun. at 7:15 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8:15 p.m.; Sat.. at 2:15 p.m.; Sun. at 3:15 p.m. | $25; both series bought together, $40 at Ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200 | Series A: 80 mins., no intermission ; Series B: two hrs., with intermission
PUPPET TITUS ANDRONICUS | Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St. | Through Aug. 16: Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m. | $50.25 at Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | One hr., 40 mins., with intermission