Her Majesty’s Secret Players
Writers: Ben Tallen, Aaron Greer, Brian Watson-Jones, and Jordan Monsell
Director: Jordan Monsell
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
New York, NY 10014
Writer: Chris Phillips
Director: Brian Zimmer
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
New York, NY 10014
East Coasters rarely think of Los Angeles as a great theater town. But, as two ambitious entries in this year’s New York International Fringe Festival prove, there’s a talent pool out there that has much more to offer than just good looks and cry-on-cue naturalism.
In the superbly acted Pulp Shakespeare, Her Majesty’s Secret Players reset the Quentin Tarantino’s Gen X classic in Elizabethan London. In lesser hands, this kind of mash-up might be merely silly: a sketch found on Mad TV or Saturday Night Live. Building a full length play around this concept, though, requires a more sophisticated sense of humor. Thankfully, director Jordan Monsell knows- and trusts- his audience and allows the laughs to arise organically from our knowledge of the source material. The meticulously constructed script (which seems to have begun as an internet phenomenon), rises to the challenge of translating Tarantino’s playfully verbose gangsterese into iambic pentameter. Thus, John Travolta’s ledendary exchange with Samuel L. Jackson:
Vincent: And you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
Jules: They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with cheese?
Vincent: No man, they got the metric system. They wouldn’t know what the f**k a Quarter Pounder is.
Jules: Then what do they call it?
Vincent: They call it a Royale with cheese.
Vincent: And know’st thou what the French name cottage pie?
Julius: Say they not cottage pie, in their own tongue?
Vincent: But nay, their tongues, for speech and taste alike
Are strange to ours, with their own history: Gaul knoweth not a
cottage from a house.
Julius: What say they then, pray?
Vincent: Hachis Parmentier.
Accordingly, killings are carried out with swords and daggers in lieu of firearms and Kelly Bailey’s richly detailed period costumes exchange mod fashions for ruffs and bodices. Even The Tornadoes’ iconic surf rock soundtrack is re-imagined as a renaissance gavotte.
There is, of course, plenty of fun to be had in anticipating how the authors will bard-ify each well-known beat of Tarantino’s excursion into the heart of hipness. But what really gives the material its irresistible charm is the commitment and charisma of the thirteen-member cast. Never winking to the audience or breaking character, the actors deliver the text with the same fierce passion and vocal precision as they would straight Shakespeare. Although PULP runs a little long, the ingenuity of its premise and the beauty of its execution make it one of the highlights of this year’s Fringe. These Players will not remain secret for long.
A different kind of violence permeates the atmosphere of Chris Phillips’s PIECES. When a high-powered Hollywood mogul turns up dead, his body dismembered and strewn about Beverly Hills, young Shane Holloway (Chris Salvatore) finds himself facing a possible death sentence. Both Shane and the murder victim, Stephen, are openly gay, and the likelihood of selecting an unbiased jury seems slim. In addition, the inevitable media circus could cast the gay community in negative light just when important rights are finally being won. Both district attorney Mary Hamilton (Nina Millin) and public defender Rory Dennis (Jonathan Gibson) agree that it’s better for the case not to go to trial. Shane is encouraged to plead guilty, take the lightest sentence he can get, and let the scandal pass out of the news cycle as quickly as possible. As Rory interviews Shane, though, a more complicated picture emerges. Did Stephen, wealthy and powerful, abuse Shane and the other young men who stayed rent-free in his mansion in return for sex? Is the sole eyewitness, dapper studio exec Jonathan Nielsen (Paolo Andino), telling the whole truth?
This premise has the makings of a good sociological murder mystery in the tradition of Richard Price’s Clockers or Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play (Phillips openly acknowledges Fuller’s influence). Unfortunately, the sleuthing and legal aspects of the play are given the short shrift, as Rory’s personal agenda takes center stage. According to him, gay men present a united front for political reasons but behind the facade their world is brutally stratified. Those with beauty, money or power -even the ones who donate to all the right causes- ruthlessly ostracize the nerdier types. This Labute-esque thesis is interesting up to a point, but loses momentum as Rory becomes more interested in bloviating than determining what happened on the night of the murder. Likewise, Rory’s lover, New York-based journalist Nick Goff (Joe Briggs), ends up functioning mostly as a sounding board. Nick’s vaunted hard-nosed reporting extends to abrasively questioning Mary, but he makes little effort to dig up the real story.
Still, Pieces gives its actors plenty of material to work with, and director Brian Zimmer’s draws strong performances from the ensemble. Gibson makes the bombastic Rory oddly loveable, and his scenes with Briggs are tender and convincing. Andino layers his portrayal of the secretive Nielsen with psychological complexity, while Salvatore finds the volumes of emotion behind Shane’s laconic dialogue. Millin does an enjoyable as turn Rory’s lovingly exasperated best friend. The actors are at their best in the few scenes that emphasize subtext over soapbox, and Phillips would do well to place more faith in their ability to tell a story through inflection and body language rather than exposition. There is a lot here to like, and if the superfluous pieces of PIECES could be trimmed away, a tighter draft might better serve its timely subject and intriguing cast of characters.