Medievalist and Live Action Role Player Zach is on the writing team for a period television series with a rabid fanbase. As a successful ghostwriter of bodice rippers, Laura knows every cliched metaphor for an erection. The two meet when Zach takes his ill-timed first foray into online dating in Liba Vaynberg’s Round Table, having its Off Broadway premiere at 59E59. The audience for these oddball lovebirds skews particularly young and it’s easy to see why. Despite the characters’ (pre)occupation rooted in the past, they are engaged in a very modern romance. Costume designer Johanna Pan does a particularly clever job of firmly pulling us into both worlds, with one half of the wardrobe lovingly mocking the other.
Ms. Vaynberg’s script is largely humorous and unexpectedly sophisticated. Threads of sad misfortune are delicately woven into the comedic tapestry. The carefully plotted landscapes of Laura’s novels and Zach’s LARP explorations are juxtaposed with the very real messiness of detached parents, sleepless nights, and creeping illness. There are some puzzling references to Greek mythology (is Zeus the gateway drug to King Arthur?), but for the most part the connective tissue is strong. This is a tale of would-be knights and damsels both in distress and in control. Vulnerabilities exposed in life can be gently cloaked and “cloaked” in the alternate universe, making them easier to confront. While these characters may need to escape to a place in which every move requires consent, they must ultimately accept what the universe hands them. These two realities are intermingled, with monologues serving to separate the beats, ending in a lifelike precarious balance of the two. The seesaw of moods is echoed in the lighting designed by Cha See, which switches from hot spots to muted shadows cast by branches suspended from the ceiling.
Perhaps too attached to her precious words, Vaynberg the actress doesn’t do justice to her own work. Laura’s lines indicate that she is self-aware, if imperfect. Instead, the actress’s delivery is stilted, as if read from a gigantic invisible paper floating before her. Fortunately, the rest of her cast is terrific. If there was a special Tony for staging embarrassment, director Geordie Broadwater would be the runaway winner. He brings out a full range of difficult emotions in his tiny team while also using natural movements to store out-of-time props. Craig Wesley Divino’s performance as Zach is infused with genuine tenderness, bringing out both his mastery of our hero’s work and dis-ease in the rest of his life. Karl Gregory rescues Zach’s gay brother Kay from remaining a one note flamboyant sidekick, providing emotional layering to pivotal scenes. Matthew Bovee’s Modred isn’t given as much to work with, though he does give distinction to his warrior and shyer selves. And Sharina Martin’s Morgan is so electrically charge, you can well imagine her having hoards of adoring followers. Even as her anxiety-ridden alter ego, she bores into your soul when she stares unflinchingly into the eyes of audience members. Good thing since Izmir Ickbal’s set bifurcated with effective scrim puts the players mere inches from their viewers.
In all their iterations, the characters of Round Table are thoroughly likable. And at $20/$25 this piece makes for a full and engaging theatrical experience. Produced by Fault Line Theatre and Anna & Kitty, Inc. it runs through October 20 in Theater C at 59E59 Theaters ((59 East 59th Street, between Park & Madison). Running time is approximately 95 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets are available by calling the 59E59 Box Office at 646-892-7999 or by visiting www.59e59.org.
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.