When I heard there was a theater troupe called the Frog & Peach, I simply had to see what they were up to. Though they were founded in large part to make Shakespeare more accessible to a broad audience, their most recent production, College Fun, is a 35 minute long sharp-edged satire written by founding company member Ted Zurkowski. With its setting at an elite university in Southern California and its relentless puncturing of a certain brand of authority figure, it reflects many of the qualities of Beyond the Fringe, the innovators of the routine about the world’s most revolting restaurant.
A lifetime member of The Actors Studio, Mr. Zurkowski has recently been focused on the musical portion of his career. It would appear that for the creation of College Fun, he drew on his past experience as a teacher of theater history. The objects of his ire are those in the education community who employ the language of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion without embracing or even understanding the movement. Buzz words like “unpack,” “curate,” and “thought leader” are tossed around as if their mere use can take the place of their intended, beneficial goals.
The cast features DazMann Still as the Everyman Teacher appropriately named Professor Jones, a black member of the theater department who who has somehow triggered one of his rich white students. Alyssa Diamond’s wildly inappropriate Dr. Ram is the first to confront him, though she won’t even tell him the nature of the offense or who filed the complaint. Filling in some of the blanks is Jonathan Reed Wexler as the over-the-top flamboyant Dr. Queeg. It falls to the questionable power figure Dr. Pane, portrayed by Anuj Parikh, to complete the increasingly ridiculous picture.
The one-night performance of College Fun was made possible in part by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs. It was staged at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theatre, a 145 seat house in the West Side YMCA near Lincoln Center. As explained on the Frog & Peach Theatre’s website, the charming co-founder Lynnea Benson was chosen as the director because she’s the “least hammy and most wily” among them. She made use of the physicality of her actors and a well-chosen wardrobe to give color to the simple set of a few wooden chairs, two tables, and a sad potted plant as background. Diamond, Wexler, and Parikh previously worked together in the company’s production of As You Like It, giving them a familiarity that is useful to Still as his character navigates a progressively surreal landscape. At key points, Professor Jones speaks directly to the audience as if to acknowledge that any discussion with his idiotic interrogators is pointless.
Zurkowski and Benson are now developing a new work, Verbatim, with Estelle Parsons and Austin Pendleton, so stay tuned.
Get ready to go toe to toe with two terrific actors in the fast moving and highly entertaining Square Go. (A “Square Go” is a Scottish term for an all-out fist fight.) Max has made an unfortunate remark that received the wrong kind of attention from local bully-in-chief Danny Guthrie. Now he’s been challenged to fight it out in the playground. Max’s best friend, the affable and slightly dim Stevie, stands firmly at his friend’s back But his support will be limited to the moral kind. The audience is therefore invited to participate in Max’s preparation for an almost certain pummeling at Danny’s bigger and more experienced hands. As we contribute our cheers and a hand or two, we learn the key turning points that led to this undesirable moment in Max’s short life.
Several components put this slice-of-life tale in a class above most two-handers. The writing by Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair is poignant, humorous, and well edited. Both Daniel Portman (Poderick Payne on Game of Thrones) and Gavin Jon Wright (Black Watch with the National Theatre of Scotland) turn in wonderfully layered performances. Wearing boxing shorts and tank tops which fully display bodies that obviously did not just emerge from the New York Sports Club next door to the theater, they perfectly capture the awkwardness of their youthful characters.
What stands out even more is the viewpoint, with the action moving seamlessly from a school, to various locations around small-town Scotland, to inside the characters’ heads, to inside the theater. The entire creative process used to tell the story is imaginative and well executed. The setting is a simple square imbedded on the floor. The rest of the background is filled in with a soundscape and lighting. The lights designed by Peter Small, props developed by Martha Mamo, and original soundtrack provided by members of Frightened Rabbit are integral to Wright’s remarkable portrayal of multiple characters. Portman has the tougher job of bringing variation to the more straightforward role of the downtrodden Max.
Daniel Portman and Gavin Jon Wright in SQUARE GO. Photo by Carol Rosegg
Director Finn Den Hertog, who won a Scotsman Fringe First Awards for this production, has staged the entire piece within the square with the audience on all four sides just like a wrestling arena. The energy builds from the close proximity and the physical containment of the actors. The players’ interactions with the audience — which can often be awkward — are carefully crafted and skillfully managed. There’s no room for bad moods or poor sportsmanship from the crowd. You’ll be required to keep your feet out of their space and your head in their game.
Arriving at a time when toxic masculinity is being reevaluated by all genders, Square Go presents a universal story in a singular fashion. Though the details of Max’s journey may be particular to him, the experience of trying to find one’s place in the world is one that everyone can understand. Performances run through June 30 in Theater C at 59E59. Tickets are $25 ($20 for members) and seating is general admission. Running time is 60 minutes, with no intermission. To purchase or for more information, call the 59E59 Box Office at 646-892-7999 or visit www.59e59.org.