The New York International Fringe Festival is best known for serving up a smorgasbord of relatively fluffy fare, perfect for summertime consumption. But this year, there’s been a profusion of shows obsessed with death — car accidents, murders, suicides, and everyone’s favorite, the apocalypse. Here’s our take on two compelling shows that not only delve into the dark side, but also feature gay themes.
21 Clinton St., btwn. Houston & Stanton Sts.
Aug. 20 at 4 p.m.; Aug. 23 at 10 p.m.; Aug. 25 at noon
When James Fluhr’s father called in a rage after finding photos of his son in drag on Facebook, Fluhr was devastated. His father turned his back on him and refused to pay for college. But instead of retreating, the resilient young man reached deep inside himself and, as a way to fight back against “the monster” of homophobia, created “Our Lady,” a solo bio-play about being young and gay and fierce.
“Our Lady” is a gritty, visually stunning performance piece that packs a hefty emotional punch. Not only is the play written and performed by Fluhr, but he directs as well. Did I mention he is only 23 years old?
Eschewing linear narrative, the piece is a mesmerizing jumble of boyhood flashbacks, nightmares, and fantasies. In one scene, Fluhr reenacts finding refuge at his mom’s makeup table, lip-synching to Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park.” In another, he mourns the loss of his darling boyfriend who was murdered by the monster. He also plays his loving mother facing the wrath of neighbors who scrawl “faggot” on their front door.
Toward the play’s inevitable conclusion, Fluhr takes the image that disgusted his father — a drag queen — and turns it into a kind of mythical goddess whom he dubs “Our Lady.” She has superpowers to wipe out hate even in the bleakest moments –– and replace it with hope. The gown becomes a kind of armor; make-up becomes war paint.
Bookending the main action are snippets of actual news coverage of teens who have been bullied and committed suicide.
In the play –– and in an essay published in the Huffington Post –– Fluhr explains the connection between those real-life tragedies and his own plight.
“In confronting my father's rejection of me, I understood for the first time the confusion and shame that so many young gay people encounter upon coming out. I saw his loathing of me as a vicious monster that attacked its victims –– a hatred transmitted and internalized that makes the hated see themselves as worthless. And for the first time, I saw why suicide had become an answer to so many young gay people.”
With “Our Lady,” Fluhr isn’t content to simply tell his personal story. Inspired in part by the Trevor Project, he aims to change lives. The piece is a eulogy of sorts for those we have lost and a beacon of empowerment for those who may be struggling now.
Being a micro-budget Fringe show, there were a few technical glitches, pacing issues, and a brief wardrobe malfunction. But the gutsy, gifted Fluhr infuses “Our Lady” with such heart and soul that any slip-ups are quickly forgiven. His standing ovations are hard earned.
STANDBY –– THE MUSICAL
The Players Theatre
115 MacDougal St. btwn. W. Third and Bleecker Sts.
Aug. 22 at 5 p.m.; Aug. 23 at 7 p.m.
While somewhat rare, musicals dealing with grim topics — divorce, death, AIDS, cancer — are nothing new, and some have even made it to Broadway. A couple of years back, “Next to Normal,” the plaintive tuner about bipolar disorder, was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won the Pulitzer Prize.
And now there’s “Standby –– The Musical” that dares to tackle the taboo subject of suicide. This is a delicate task for any seasoned dramatist, but relative newcomers Alfred Solis and Mark-Eugene Garcia, who wrote the book and lyrics, deftly strike a balance between heartache and hope. Ultimately, the work is not about death, but the triumph of the human spirit.
With music by Keith Robinson and Amy Baer, “Standby” may posit the most unsettling premise of any Fringe musical this year. Five travelers with all sorts of unresolved baggage find themselves in an airline terminal, waiting for a crucial flight.
Once we learn the gate attendant’s name is Peter, we suspect this is no ordinary terminal. In a Rod Serlingesque twist, we realize the travelers are deceased, stuck “on standby” in a kind of purgatory with only two seats available on the next flight. They must figure out who deserves to move on to their final destination.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because elsewhere film and theater have employed a similar conceit. The 2009 “Happiness” at Lincoln Center featured deceased voyagers trapped in a subway car. “Standby” does its best to steer clear of the whimsical sentimentality that marred that production.
The opening number that introduces these lost souls is particularly strong. Subsequent songs find each character revealing their tragic backstory. The central dramatic force: What drove them to it and will they find redemption?
The ensemble is a cut above standard Fringe fare. Jillian Gottleib gives a heartbreaking portrayal of a mother who lost her family in a car wreck. Matthew Corr lends the gay teen a plucky charm and avoids the usual stereotypes. Ashley Picciallo and Mike Backes are disquietingly credible as the squabbling couple afraid to communicate. Seth Blum is solid as a famous auto engineer who lost sight of what really matters. And Michael-Anthony Souza delivers a welcome shot of levity as the sassy, tough-talking gate guardian.
Surprising ties between the characters are revealed that ramp up the drama even further.
Under the direction of Marc Eardley, “Standby” suffers from several jarring logic gaps, contrivances, and tonal shifts. But it achieves a few sublime moments during the mournful ballads where it’s hard not to get a lump in your throat.
The producers said they began writing “Standby” nine years ago with the dream of showcasing at FringeNYC. Now it’s time for them to dream bigger. Let’s hope this thoughtful work doesn’t get stuck in development purgatory and can find a fulfilling life beyond the Fringe.