Welcome to the second part of our coverage of the 13th annual FRIGID Festival, the only theater festival in New York City in which all of the proceeds go to the artists themselves. The 2019 FRIGID Festival runs from February 20th to March 10th at the Kraine and IATI Theaters and, as always, has 25 more shows on offer than the four that we discuss here and in our previous dispatch, so we encourage everyone to check out the full listing of productions on the FRIGID website, where you can also find the performance times and locations for all the shows. FRIGID faced the additional challenge this year of a last-minute relocation of a number of shows due to a burst pipe just before the festival opened, but, luckily for audiences, this formidable obstacle wasn't enough to stop these artists, and the show will, in fact, go on.
CC: You in Hell!
Written by Mark Levy
Directed by Janet Bentley
Presented by Hub Theatricals at the Kraine Theater, NYC
February 20-March 10, 2019
An early reference to the 1998 slasher film Urban Legend winkingly establishes the pop-cultural milieu that infuses Mark Levy's new play CC: You in Hell!, making its debt at the FRIGID Festival. Levy himself plays the professor who brings up Urban Legend, a man who teaches a class on 90s pop culture and its impact. He is also the one responsible for forwarding an email chain letter to a group of other characters. The problem with this is not so much that the chain email has basically been rendered extinct in today's internet ecosystem as it is that, when this email says that recipients must forward it to seven other people or else die, it makes good on that threat. This mechanic, reminiscent, of course, of Ringu, another 1998 film, and its haunted VHS tape, introduces us to the unfortunates who will have to make (or in some cases be affected by) the choice to press "forward" or "delete." There is Nicholas (John Racioppo), recent college grad and aspiring writer who works at Optimum (not the one you think) in telemarketing under a boss (James B. Kennedy) who is something of an armpit-stained Glengarry Glen Ross type (he has a line about how a knife is a tool and using it invariably changes things that is memorably creepy). Charlie (Sara Detrik) and Jordan (Caroline Burke), the former flannel-clad and unemployed and the latter a poised workaholic, are having some relationship issues, though not because of Charlie's admission that she has had Crispin Glover on her mind a lot lately. Stu (Sam Mercer) is seventeen and primarily interested in playing MMOs with his online friend Candee@$$69 (Stevie Roetzel in voiceover) under the concerned watch of his single mother, Claudia (Taylor Graves). Kara (Sara Detrik) is a vapid streamer promoting "KaraCon," an event dedicated to herself, and Irene (Taylor Graves), the professor's ex-wife, has very recently moved in with young, attractive, and sex-obsessed Hank (John Racioppo). Finally, after having been in a cult and missed 18 years of social and cultural change while in prison, Ryan (Mark Levy) is back home and living with his hilariously similarly-mannered father (James B. Kennedy). Besides the professor himself, the common thread uniting these characters is an apartment-warming party hosted by Jess (Kayla Mason) in Greenpoint, Brooklyn—but not all of the invitees will make it.
One could perhaps interpret the deadly chain letter as a metaphor for the internet-enabled circulation of toxic negativity or, like some of the horror movies it implicitly or explicitly alludes to, as an expression of anxieties about technology; but CC: You in Hell! functions primarily as a comedic and affectionate spin on its points of reference, sprinkled with Blink-182 cues and including a fun little coda. That is not to say that there isn't some genuine pathos, particularly once the survivors converge at the party (complete with some very realistic door buzzer and shoe removal action) and their interpersonal relationships come more to the fore. Graves in particular invests her characters with authenticity; meanwhile, Kennedy is extremely funny in two very different roles, bordering on scene-stealing in tandem with Levy as the flat-affected father-son pair. Detrik too embodies two wildly different characters, and the silent Death (performer redacted) provides some good physical comedy. Whether your reaction to the idea of a killer chain email is, like ours, "Wow; I remember getting those and therefore feel old" or, like Stu's, "What's a chain email?," CC: You in Hell! is a great time. Now forward this review to seven people, or else.
River of Fire
Written and performed by David Lee Morgan
Presented at IATI Theater, NYC
February 23-March 9, 2019
David Lee Morgan's River of Fire was written for four performers playing seven characters but is being presented at FRIGID entirely by Morgan himself, an American expat and U.K. and BBC Slam Poetry Champion. The third of a trilogy published as The River Was a God, River of Fire imagines a war-torn near future in which a human consciousness can be uploaded onto the World Wide Web, effectively allowing the purchase of immortality (of a sort, anyway), while a roiling globe rockets towards a socialist revolution. Despite the cast of one, Morgan makes the narrative easy to follow, both with his performance and by cannily dividing the stage into three areas, one to signify Bangladesh, home to South Asian Socialist Alliance leader Hamida and her daughter Sulthana; one to signify the Los Angeles Commune, home to orphan and war veteran Jesse; and the third to signify the "beehive brain" of the globally networked computer. We may not always know precisely who the different characters in the digital realm are, but such identification is not essential for absorbing the plot and themes, and it arguably helps to represent the disorienting plenitude of voices that Jesse experiences after he volunteers to upload his own consciousness into the network in service of the Socialist Alliance cause. Jesse, who had enlisted in the military at 16, wishes now to take his chance to fight for the right side, and the story of his sacrifice unfolds alongside one of cross-cultural romance, the U.S. government attacking its own citizens, and the push towards far-reaching rebellion.
River of Fire bills itself as a spoken word musical, and it boasts an enjoyable formal hybridity, including traditional singing, spoken dialogue, and sections delivered in a more typical poetry slam cadence, these last most commonly associated with the computer setting and some of the most energizing. The score makes effective use of sampling and recurring motifs (and, appropriately, employs lots of synth). Stand-out songs include one that reiterates the maxim "Gotta be normal" in discussing flooding surveillance with useless information and is paired with a very physical performance, and a later example within the computer that schizophrenically incorporates snatches of other bits of other songs. The show puts forward some interesting concepts, such as its juxtaposition of the inability to engage in physical intimacy as a digitized consciousness with the fact that these consciousnesses feel like they can feel, the proposition that a person basically comprises a web of connected stories, and the observation that people swear "never again" after every war. While the Alliance wonders why anyone should starve in twenty-first century, much less millions, some in the digital realm see humankind as an enemy, a danger to be eliminated rather than, as others see it, a part of the environment, to be preserved and protected. River of Fire itself comes down on the side of the Alliance and its philosophy of care for others -- the show's thesis statement, found in the climactic number: "Love is a fighting word," which is certainly an ideology that we could use more of these days. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler