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January theater festivals roundup: Exponential edition

Written by
Helen Shaw

The Brooklyn-centric Exponential Festival runs longer than the other festivals; while the Manhattan fests whizz by in a cloud of dust, Exponential's programming extends in leisurely fashion past the end of the month. "That's so Brooklyn!" I hear you say. Yes, indeed. Taking its time, crafting artisanal product, waiting patiently for the G (which is actually so much better now)—that's the BK way.

RECOMMENDED: January festivals guide, Under the Radar roundup and Coil festival roundup

More time means two of the fest's marquee offerings are fully produced shows with long sit-down runs. Both are hugely worth seeing. Fresh off their much-lauded A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes, playwright Kate Benson and director Lee Sunday Evans present the feel-weird comedy [Porto] at the Bushwick Starr. The armature of the show is a meet-cute romance: The lonely Porto (Julia Sirna-Frest) frequents a local gastropub run by Doug the Bartender (Noel Joseph Allain) and Raphael the Waiter (Ugo Chukwu). Porto's blitzed friend Dry Sac (Leah Karpel) usually gets the guys—she's got that beauty-plus-damage quality—but tall, dark newcomer Hennepin (Jorge Cordova) may, shall we say, have a taste for a finer vintage.

Sweet, right? But Benson likes to play with meta-narration, and here she provides stage directions, speaking them herself in a voice-over that sometimes seems audible to the play's characters. Her interjections can turn pushy (she calls a blackout out of pique) or nauseating (she describes how a sausage is made, from how a sow nurses its piglet to how the killing is done). So while the cast is lovable—Allain perfects a jaded hipster flourish for his wine-pours, Sirna-Frest and Chukwu radiate sweetness—Benson's project is to use these endearing elements for a dark end. Essentially, [Porto] undermines self-gratification itself. In the script, the word underbelly keeps emerging in different contexts, and the word's ugly, sagging quality lurks everywhere. The play, while presenting as an adorable comedy, forces us to feel revulsion at our basic pleasures, whether that's bacon or sex or company. It's a good piece, but beware—it's also effective. After the show, I walked past a local bar spilling warmth onto the sidewalk. Instinctively, I shrank away. (1hr 30mins. Through February 4)

And then there is Chroma Key. For every dollar spent, Spencer Thomas Campbell's bizarro-noir (pictured above) returns the most laughs on investment of any show in the city. Does it make sense? Um... Does it go off the rails? Like a runaway train, baby. We're left breathless trying to keep up with Campbell's wordplay and cartwheeling absurdism; it's simultaneously brutal, hilarious, disgusting and dumb as two rocks banging together, and dazzlingly clever. It's also the messy-brilliant sort of outsider art that was promised us when we came to New York, so if you've been hankering after good old-fashioned downtown-style anarchy, you must get yourself to the Brick.

The play is actually three plays, nested in each other, Russian-doll style. In its outermost layer, a girl Anne (Kate Hurley) is stuck in a car with her terrifying father (Ryan William Downey). He's got mutton-chop whiskers, blank eyes and a very definite way of speaking; everything's a pronouncement. “My seed is strong,” he says as they drive along. “It's heavy in the hand. I call it liquid smoke.” The girl rolls her eyes. But just as the menace of the throbbing soundtrack starts to intensify past bearing, Anne escapes into a '40s movie narrated by a Private Dick (E James Ford). His cracked metaphors in period cadence (favorite: “she collapsed like a beautiful sexual parachute”) accelerate beyond the point where we can parse them—at which point poor Anne time-travels into a news broadcast in the undetermined future.

Campbell and Theresa Buchheister of Title:Point co-direct the mayhem, and most of the time it moves like a commedia that's been given speed, then acid, then speed again. The actors are tremendous, particularly Justin Anselmi as a child newscaster and Ford, on whose lickety-split delivery much depends. The three sets have been rammed into the tiny Brick with all the suavity of a production accidentally folded into a Murphy bed, but this sort of thing just gets better the more chaotic it is—particularly when there's a late-in-the-game turn towards quiet horror. The kicker is that Chroma Key is not just zaniness, there's craft here too. And really there needs to be: you've got to have titanium in your undercarriage to withstand pressures at this speed. (1hr 35mins. Through Jan 28)

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