ice factory festival

Fatalistic Fandoms

In the Ice Factory Festival’s run thus far, no play has managed to reconcile the New Ohio Theatre’s intimate space with the magnitude of its subject matter as well as George and Co.’s production of Holden. The wrathful claustrophobia that Holden emanates very quickly imbibes the audience itself, and we find ourselves shifting uncomfortably in our plush blue seats. But it doesn’t begin that way. We are lulled into enjoying the sarcastic dialogue, the self-aware movements of the actors and Billie Holiday’s sad voice, which croons occasionally as part of the play’s soundtrack. But this false security is made all the more frightening by the individual character revelations that slowly begin to transfigure and twist the production into an entirely unexpected and strangely arresting creature.

The set is an organic element of the story: its walls of chopped logs and floors of wood chips create a color scheme of unending amber brown. Typed-up sheets of paper hang from a clothes line. It is evidence that we are in a writer’s island. There is a spare cot, shelves stacked with books and a detective-like desk with a reading lamp, typewriter and magnifying glass. And everywhere, crumpled balls of paper litter the furniture and the floor. Holden already seems overly cramped in its setup, and we wonder how its actors will negotiate the space, but this is a calculated move on the part of scenic designer Nick Benacerraf.

Writer-director Anisa George notes that Holden exists “in an impossible time and place,” lending an otherworldly tint to the log bunker in which her story is set. Four figures lie sleeping in the darkness as crickets chirp drowsily outside. One man gets up, quietly turns on a reading lamp and opens up J.D. Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye. His name is Hinckley (Scott Sheppard) and he begins to retype the entire book, word for word, with a typewriter set in front of him until the tall, side-burned and bespectacled figure of Chapman (Jaime Maseda) stops him. Both Chapman and Hinckley are devotedly respectful to the pajama-clad, white-haired Jerry Salinger (Bill George), who wakes up from a war-torn nightmare (the real Salinger took part in the hellish storming of Normandy on D-Day), but Zev (Matteo Scammell) seems to be on equal terms with the author.

Zev, a serious young man in torn jean-shorts and a red flannel shirt is the "new guy," as Chapman and Hinckley derisively christen him. It is not until the closing stages of Holden that the two start calling him by his name. A little girl called Peggy (Adele Goldhader) is the only one who is able to enter and exit the bunker; she appears to be Salinger’s 10-year-old daughter, and keeps urging him to return to the rest of his family. But Salinger pays little attention to his environs, even completely disregarding his three bunkmates as he fusses and fumes with his writing.

As the play progresses, it becomes evident that Chapman and Hinckley are infamous men. The former is Mark Chapman, the man who killed John Lennon in 1980, and his compatriot is John Hinckley, Jr., the man who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan in 1981 (a sore point for him since he couldn’t "finish the job" as Chapman did). Both men were apparent lovers of The Catcher In the Rye, rationalizing their murderous intents with Holden Caulfield’s disdain for "phonies." Hinckley was famously obsessed with Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Taxi Driver, as George funnily references before she reveals the character’s true self, but still he and Chapman are scarily similar. When Jerry (in the play) writes down one sentence in a fit of inspiration and falls back asleep, his two fans are rendered speechless by his words: “In his mind, fulfillment meant loving a good woman and killing a bad man.”

George cleverly introduces her characters with relative anonymity. Maseda makes Chapman seem like a hyperactive publisher or agent, impatiently keen on the release date for Jerry’s new book. Sheppard renders Hinckley as a comically bumbling figure, interacting innocently with his environment. It is only Zev, played to ominous ferocity by a supremely talented Scammell, who remains unknown to us until the end. Why is he being held in this purgatory-like fan land with such company as Lennon’s killer and Foster’s stalker? He doesn’t even like Salinger, and thinks Holden is “kind of a loser” to the utter shock of his fellow bunkmates. We soon find that George has created an even more terrifying character in Zev, one especially menacing to the modern American. He is the nameless, unselective kind of killer who rejoices in the power of guns and in closed, packed places. Even Chapman and Hinckley are disgusted by him, and it is with a bloodcurdling, knowing shiver that we hear Zev’s words: “I don’t like people. I like maps...blue prints. I like to see where the entrances and exits are. Public places. Stadiums. Schools. Theaters.”

The audience is flooded with memories from the country’s collective consciousness: Sandy Hook Elementary, a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and a church in Charleston, South Carolina. We see the second generation of American violence in Zev, and it is an aimless, indiscriminate violence borne not out of emotion, but detached cruelty. Zev’s fight isn’t against "the phonies" like Chapman and Hinckley. His violence doesn’t require reason or impetus, but merely opportunity. This complete shift in tone and performance that quietly occurs halfway through the play is an unflagging testament to George’s intelligent directorship and riveting dialogue. Holden merits a visit, and it almost seems like a citizen’s requirement, as we remain mired in the sorrows of modern violence.

Holden ran from August 6-8 at the New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher St., #1E between Greenwich and Washington Sts.) in Manhattan. For more information, visit www.newohiotheatre.org.

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A Rave Gone Wrong

When the ancient Greek playwright and epic raconteur Euripides described the bacchanalian excess of the Maenads, Dionysus’ virginal followers, he leaves no doubt that it is an intoxicating affair: “With milk and wine and streams of luscious honey flows the earth, and Syrian incense smokes…” Karaoke Bacchae, Meta-Phys Ed.’s subversive production of the ancient Greek play, The Bacchae, at the New Ohio Theatre, takes intoxication to another dimension. Although supposedly written "in the style of Euripides," the play is set in the singular location of a karaoke bar on the night of the Stanley Cup final, where the avenging wine god Dionysus is to descend on his unfaithful mortal family (who refuse to worship him, understandably), incite them into drunken madness, and and force them to rip each other to pieces. Instead, we have a harmlessly roving rock 'n' roll god attempting to loosen up a strictly sober bartender, rather than your requisite tearing to pieces.

Euripides’ immortalized characters from The Bacchae have their mortal counterparts in director Jesse Freedman’s Karaoke Bacchae: a cruel, godly Dionysus is a glittering, ostentatiously pan-sexual Iggy Pop (neo-boylesque star James Tigger! Ferguson). The agnostically complex King Pentheus is transformed into a particularly uptight bar owner (Tim Craig) and the Maenads, Dionysus’ frenzied followers (Mehdya Fassi Fihri, Sheree Grate, Youn Jung Kim and Sarah Matusek), are perennially tipsy members of a college sorority. Pentheus’ courtly dissidents are Tiresias (Benoit Johnson) and King Cadmus (Don Castro); the former seems to cling to his classical self of a blind prophet, spewing serious monologues while his lordly friend Cadmus has become a lonely, mildly irritating drunk moaning into a microphone.

To call Ferguson’s performance of Iggy Pop as Dionysus overtly sexual would be to grossly understate the lewd, but nonetheless terrific power of said performance. His funnily ceremonious entrances and exits, no doubt taken from his flashy productions on the burlesque stage, take on an appropriately egomaniacal and deified importance. His utterly sober counterpart King Pentheus, played with serious frustration by Craig, chases the glittered-up god to no avail, whacking away at his once-quiet bar with a hockey stick. He tries shooing away Iggy’s Maenads, who are four recent inductees into a sorority. It’s a none-too subtle nod to the chug-happy, partying lifestyle of college Greek societies, but perhaps the only apt modern translation of the wine god’s female cult. At first, the girls are smilingly inappropriate with audience members, reclining and flirting on the laps of front row ticket-holders, but they soon turn into evil-spirited fanatics, screaming shrilly and dancing wildly, in much the same manner their ancient mythical analogues might have worshiped their god.

Scenic designer Michael Minahan has endowed the sports bar with a ping pong table, a massive screen showing the hockey final and the ubiquitous presence of red cups. A bevy of recognizable tunes stream out of loudspeakers, all karaoke favorites: the Grease soundtrack, Alicia Keys, Ike and Tina Turner, and The Clash. Cadmus holds the karaoke mic for most of the production (it is occasionally commandeered by a sorority girl) and pours his sad, drunken interpretation of The Bacchae into it. Tiresias, a barfly under the impression that he is a prophet, recites Euripides’ words over Cadmus’ voice with pointed determination. But the reverberation from the mic is more than slightly distracting, and Castro does little to subtract from the overall atmosphere of confusion.

The plot is almost non-existent; we dimly understand that Iggy Pop is trying to enlist the unsmiling bartender into his staggering, bleary-eyed ranks, that Cadmus is desperate to find a girl, and that those sorority girls are crazy, but the kind of crazy we’d like to hang out with for one night. Freedman’s aim is to give meaning to the madness of the philosophical alcoholic, and take sobriety down a peg with the unintelligible raves of sorority girls slurring their way through karaoke songs. Consequently, much of the play is babbling incoherence, borne out of Freedman’s intent to sober up his audience at the very end. And he delivers, quite astonishingly.

Ferguson steps up as Dionysus, in a shockingly unexpected last scene, revealing his divine self (in more ways than one) and decrying the seriousness with which we arrived at this play. To the ethereal tune of Prince’s "Purple Rain," Iggy Pop says, “You have got to be drunk. Always. That is everything. Just to keep from feeling the hideous weight of Time that’s breaking your back and pushing you down to your knees… you’ve gotta be drunk, non-stop.” These last scenes somewhat redeem the confused melee the audience has witnessed for the past hour and a half, but while it eases our curiosity and pushes our feel-good buttons, it doesn’t seem quite enough to save this rave of a play.  

The Meta-Phys Ed. production of Karaoke Bacchae ran from July 23-25 at the New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher St., #1E between Greenwich and Washington Sts.) in Manhattan. For more information, visit www.newohiotheatre.org.

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