Bigger Than I
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 6, 2009
Counting Squares Theatre has been defying expectations of what a young theatre company formed by buddies from college is supposed to be ever since they started up. Their first productions in New York were actor-driven revivals of strong contemporary plays (Martin Sherman's Bent and Howard Korder's Boys Life). They mashed-up Buchner's Woyzeck with, of all things, songs by the Andrews Sisters in their last devised production. Now they've taken a very standard academic-y theatre exercise—interviewing a whole bunch of people about secrets, lies, and the whole Facebook/Internet/social networking subculture to create a theatre piece—and instead of coming up with a serious Viewpoints-inspired collage they've made a raucous, smart, joyous vaudeville. Sure, Bigger Than I is more of a riff on themes than a focused exploration of a social phenomenon. But it's a great deal of fun, and offers plenty of food for thought.
The material contained within Bigger Than I is credited to 15 writers, including all but one of the six cast members (Michael Barringer, Edward Davis, Matt Greenbaum, Dena Kology, and Ryan Nicholoff; Chris Worley is the non-writing actor in the ensemble), the director (Nick Sprysenski), several of the designers (sound guy Joshua Chase Gold, multimedia guru Kantarama Gahigiri), the choreographer (John O'Malley), and company members Jarred Baugh, Shannon Beeby, Michelle Foytek, Ben Hope, Kurt Jenkins, Aaron Kirkpatrick, and Melody Kology. It's not absolutely clear how much of what's on stage comes from the research the Squares conducted and how much is original and/or based on their own lives. It covers lots of ground within the framework of secrets people keep and the strange, often cavalier way people seem ready to divulge their deepest and darkest obsessions and confessions. Most of it is comic: there's a scene, for example, in which a pair of veteran construction workers train a rookie on the finer points of harassing women from a rooftop, and a recurring bit in which unlikely people enter a priest's confessional (e.g., a Jewish man who says he murdered his father). Some of it is fresh and inventive, like a sketch in which a subway conductor decides to use his microphone to broadcast more than just the (indecipherable) next stop. And some of it is provocative and gripping: the piece about the Jewish man and the priest turns serious and moving as his story unfolds.
The writing is fine, but what really shines here is the excellent work of the actors and the professionalism of the production. Sprysenski keeps the show flying, and the production design—multimedia by Barringer and Gahigiri, lighting by Jessica Burgess, and uncredited sets and costumes—are terrific; Gold's soundscape, a dazzling mix of ambient noise and music with appropriate and evocative song snippets, is particularly impressive. Ryan Nicholoff's intensity and range always knock me out when I see him on stage, and here he adds sly comedy to his repertoire, playing the Male Chauvinist Pig From Hell, an egotist recounting all of his sexual conquests with confounding detachment. Dena Kology, the only woman in the cast, is similarly versatile, even taking the role of the newbie construction worker (a male character). Barringer, Davis, Greenbaum, and Worley each contribute numerous expert characterizations as well—Greenbaum's alter ego, who opens the show with a story that a lot of folks will be able to relate to, is particularly memorable.
The video, interspersed among the show's live sketches, shows interviews with "real people" about secrets in their lives. I love the ingenious method that Barringer and Gahigiri have come up with to maintain their subjects' anonymity.
Bigger Than I is mostly about having fun with a serious topic—folks on stage and in the audience seemed to be enjoying themselves plenty at the performance I attended. But it is loaded with unexpectedly resonant material, and that gives it emotional heft. It's a fine entertainment and certainly whets my appetite for Counting Squares' next season (which is revealed in a note in the program; I'm looking forward to it!)