The Umbrella Plays
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 8, 2008
I kicked off my FringeNYC-viewing this year with The Umbrella Plays, and I am glad to report that I made an excellent choice. In every department, this hour-long program of six short plays about umbrellas—written by new playwright Stephanie Janssen and directed by Daniel Talbott—is engaging, fun, and supremely well-crafted.
The plays treat the eponymous subject whimsically (in Bruno, the destruction of an umbrella in the very first moments anticipates a story of lost love and lost opportunity with good humor), seriously (a solo piece about the loss of a loved one, Nice for a Funeral, reflects on the place of umbrellas at such an event), and with sudden, unexpected profundity (both Umbrella Sketch #6, set in an art gallery, and The Bridge, about a woman who brings an umbrella with her to the place where she plans to commit suicide, offer examples that I cannot share lest I ruin Janssen's work). The pieces all link together neatly, and in ways that are sometimes surprising and sometimes based on tiny details (Yeats figures in a couple of them, for example).
Attention to tiny details is what has made this production so successful. Director Talbott and his designers (Joel Moritz on lights and Walter Trarbach on sound) provide spare, simple contributions to the overall look and feel of the piece that keep the show unified and utterly professional. The transitions between the plays are gorgeously orchestrated so that there's a continual flow to the piece, and the running order of the plays themselves provides a nice, well-defined arc that makes this a satisfying and cohesive whole rather than the gimmicky hodgepodge that it might have been in lesser hands.
Seven actors offer deft performances in The Umbrella Plays. My favorite piece was Bruno, which is performed here with intelligence, sensitivity, and precision timing by Mark Setlock. Setlock also contributes to Umbrella Sketch #6, along with Janssen herself and Jan Leslie Harding; all three are very funny and smart in this play. Harding also offers a terrific turn in The Bridge, as the woman who might be doing away with herself by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. Natalie Gold is touching and effective in the other monologue play of the evening, Nice for a Funeral. Mycah Hogan appears opposite the playwright in You & My Umbrella, a lovely comic drama about a pair of ex-lovers who reunite on a rainy street. And Haynes Thigpen and Molly Ward are the performers in the first play on the bill, Lost, another meeting on a rainy day, this time between two strangers who find some unusual commonalities, not least of which is a desire to dispense with the protection their umbrellas offer them and instead dive into the rain. I will leave it to you to discover the truly delightful way that Janssen and Talbott have devised for them to do exactly that. May all the surprises you encounter at this year's FringeNYC festival be as much fun as this one!