Summer is a great time to be alive in New York City. Putting the humidity and foul smells aside, the streets are bursting with an energy that no other season brings to this wonderful place. For theater lovers, it’s the time of new shows opening everywhere and theater festivals presenting the best of the new crop. One of those festivals started this past week. The Midtown International Theatre Festival is running wild for the sixteenth year at The Davenport Theater. With a plethora of shows going up every day, this festival has given opportunities to so many artists throughout the years to grow and find their niche. John Chatterton, the person behind this festival, is a continuous force in bringing emerging producers/playwrights to the forefront with his monthly Short Play Lab. The MITF and his Midwinter Madness Festival offer those same people the chance to work on bigger projects. This is where people sharpen their skills and show their best in the hopes to find their audience. Theater is a hard world to work in; this kind of festival makes it a lot easier to break in.
On Monday, I had the pleasure to see “Puzzle The Will,” an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which the company re-arranged the play to create a new understanding of it. A very good but flawed production, it showed the power a festival like this could have. The idea was risky; the company full of unknowns, and the stage almost bare… yet sometimes I was in awe by the production values and set pieces they managed to pull off. On Saturday I saw two shows back-to-back; “The Dinner” a play based on the relationship between Teddy Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington. The other was a one-woman show about the tribulations of a young woman trying to make it in the backstage theater world called “Rise Of The Usher.” So, how did they fare?
Let’s start with the historical piece “The Dinner,” written, directed and starred in by Darryl Reuben Hall. What seems like a personal work, this play sets itself up to explore the relationship between these two giants of American history and the events around them. Incorporating musical and dance pieces, this play does not lack ambition despite its 60 minute running time. But its ambition might have been bigger than their effort in this case. Boosted by powerful performances, especially the ones by Darryl Reuben Hall as Booker T. Washington and Nicholas Tucci as Ben Tillman, it is a shame that the rest of the production couldn’t keep up. It starts with a strong image of Reuben Hall, a black man, donning black face and doing a minstrel dance. Sadly, nothing that comes after is as powerful. The pace is off, sometimes drawing my attention and sometimes dragging to the point I saw myself being taken off the play entirely. There were some technical mishaps that may have thrown off the rhythm of the play when I saw it. The over-reliance on speeches definitely didn’t help. By the time the cast started singing at the end and asked for us to participate, I was still hoping the play would get it together. Maybe that it was longer. What I knew was, the work was to be admired. It’s not easy to pull off such a show, but they got close.
In “Rise of The Usher,” we are treated to the mishaps, adventures, and ultimately to the happily ever after of an usher. Written and performed by Jessica Elkin, the show is more of a play with one actor than a one-woman show. Full of comedic caricatures, Jessica Elkin plays all the characters by putting herself completely in each of them and not missing a beat. The problem is, the show itself is very peculiar, in a sense that it is written for a very small audience. Most shows about the climbing of the social ladder use satire and become universal by creating a language everyone can understand. After all, the majority of people will relate to the hustle and bustle that comes from the rising of the ranks. This play doesn’t manage to do that, and ends up excluding its own audience unless you have directly experienced this world. In the end, her charming performance doesn’t help the bad stereotypes some of the characters are, or keep the interest of those that have no idea how the usher world works.
But! That’s the thing of things here: The festival gives opportunities to people to showcase their talent, to pursue that passion project they always wanted, to see how people feel about your words and ideas and to put up a production you may not be able to do any other way, and that’s something we should all be happy about and promote. The festival will be running all the way until August 2nd. I still have a few more shows to watch, and I can’t help but be excited. Join me, check their site for these two shows’ schedules and more: http://www.midtownfestival.org/index.html
Also, and most importantly: SUPPORT NEW WORK!
Now for the ratings:
Twisted Talk: Have you seen any of the Midtown International Theatre Festival shows yet? What’s your favorite NYC theater festival? Discuss below!