nytheatre.com review by Daniel Kelley
April 18, 2008
Speaking from a technical standpoint, the scope of Chuck Mee's Fire Island is extremely impressive. The theatre in 3-Legged Dog's Art & Technology Center is transformed into a digital beach party—complete with complimentary beer, hamburgers, and enormous wide format HD screens. The screens wrap around the theatre, as the audience sits sprawled out in the center and actors wade through their midst. One minute the video screens mirror the live action performance, the next, it's an installation art piece, the next it's a transition from one scene to the next, the next, it's the scene itself. If that isn't impressive enough, there is also a live band, whose lead singer is the Tuvan throat singer Albert Kuvezin. They keep the party lively all night long with covers of classics, such as "Black Magic Woman."
At its core, however, Fire Island is a play about relationships. It is a tapestry of relationships in various stages: an exploration of love against the backdrop of Fire Island. The fusion between the epic digital technology of 3-Legged Dog and the simple human relationships of Mee's text make for an interesting, if not entirely satisfying, evening of theatre.
What is unique about the approach to this play is that it doesn't use huge digital screens and surround sound to transport us to a world larger than ourselves (like the experience of going to an IMAX showing). Instead, it uses digital media to pull us in; to allow intimate moments to become more intimate by expanding the perspectives that we the audience see them from. We watch the actors play out scenes live, while the wall behind them shows us their faces in close-up. We watch a man's hand trace down his girlfriend's leg—their flirtation coming that much closer to us as her leg takes up an entire digital wall.
While this is a unique and compelling idea, it doesn't entirely hold up in practice. Mee's language is simple, and the characters are archetypal, and this makes for a stilted and awkward feeling when viewed in close-up. Often, especially when the digital projections mirror the live scene on stage, it serves more to confuse the scene than to add to it. Additionally, it's unclear why, though the play claims to be depicting a diverse cross section of relationships, the throughline seems to be the love between older men and the sprightly young women who dote on them.
The cast has the daunting task of holding their own against performances on huge screens in high-def. A number of them, however, are up to the challenge. Joshua Koehn as Bob—the righteous hipster poet—is dead-on. His feverish and disdainful philosophizing about love is compelling and recognizable. Gautham Prasad is also quite captivating as the mischievous woman-chasing clown. However, Albert Kuvezin's throat singing is by far the highlight of the evening. He is a charismatic performer, with a powerful voice, and a great sense of fun.
Fire Island works best when the digital hullabaloo dies down, and it focuses in on the simple human truths that Mee is writing about. The most beautiful example of this is later on in the play, when one of the huge digital screens settles on a woman relaxing with her friend, telling the story of how she met her husband on the back of a motor scooter, and how they lived and loved, and even though he died of a heart attack, if he came along with his motor scooter, she'd do it all over again. It is this kind of simple honesty that gets at the heart what Fire Island is trying to explore. It is just unfortunate that these moments are not more abundant throughout.