Friday, February 9, 2018

155 (2017-2018) Review: FILL FILL FILL FILL FILL FILL FILL (seen February 8, 2018)

“Holes Holes Holes . . . ” 
Steph Del Rosso’s Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill—a title guilty of overkill if there ever was one—is an enthusiastically theatrical, downtown counterpart to Kate Benson’s uptown [Porto] at the WP Theater.

Both deal with single women, lonely, adrift, and trying to find not only love but who they are as human beings independent of their relationship with a man. But in order to do so they must first overcome their conditions as victims of the male hegemony. Appropriately, Fill, as we’ll call it, kicks off the Flea’s “Season of Womyn.” 
Sarah Chalfie, Roland Lane. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Presented by the Flea’s resident group of talented young actors, the Bats, in the recently relocated theatre’s intimate downstairs space, the Siggy (named for Sigourney Weaver), Fill follows the journey of self-discovery by 29-year-old, Joni (Sarah Chalfie), a promising photographer whose day job is writing textbooks. 

Joni begins her identity quest following a raucous opening scene in which her rock star boyfriend of five years, Noah (Roland Lane, charismatic), interrupts his concert to call her onstage, not (as she might expect) to propose but so he can break up with her before his adoring fans. Ouch.

Pierced by rejection, Joni goes to a doctor (Joseph Huffman), complaining of the holes she feels in her brain and all over her body. Seeking not only to determine who she is by filling the holes but also hoping to forget Noah and find a “replacement,” she swirls and subways through the urban romantic and sexual landscape, deluged with advice from friends and professionals. What she hears about improving her personal appearance echoes the advice given the heroine in [Porto].

Her adventures are depicted in a series of comically exaggerated scenes, some kaleidoscopically brief, others a little more extended, and all more or less surrealistically heightened and overlaid with Ben Vigus’s insistently rhythmic sound design. The pacing races, the movement is choreographically crisp, and the charmingly executed mugging and double-takes are nonstop.

Director Marina McClure makes clever use of a relatively bare setting by You-Shin Chen, dazzlingly lit by Reza Behjat, with a few movable units, a large, empty frame for one of Joni’s photos, and highly selective hand props. The ensemble moves confidently around the space, showing off their overacting chops, and squeezing Del Rosso’s script for whatever satirical fun it possesses. As my plus-one suggested, the energetic approach is like a throwback to PBS’s 1970’s kids’ show, “The Electric Company.”

Sitting in a restaurant, Joni meets a waiter named Todd (Ben Schrager); following cute chatter about her spicy order, he asks—in one of the play’s best bits—if he can buy her a drink. They then rush through a possible relationship in a series of brief, rapid-fire sentences that end with their inevitable breakup when she discovers he’s not ready to “take care of” her as he’d promised; he'd merely been quoting a line from “the employee’s handbook.”
Joseph Huffman, Sarah Chalfie, Valeria A. Avina. Photo: Hunter Canning.
A far more expansive scene follows when Joni meets a couple, Ray (Joseph Huffman, lots of promise) and Lisa (Valerie A. Avina, totally committed), at another table. Soon, she finds herself on the verge of a threesome with them at her apartment, where things get raunchy, with both Ray and Lisa changing into the kind of erotically charged undies you get at adult boutiques. Kate Fry deserves kudos for these and other terrific costumes.
Ben Schrager, Sarah Chalfie, Monique St. Cyr, Jonathon Ryan, Valeria A. Avina, Joseph Huffman. Photo: Hunter Canning.
When swinging doesn’t prove to be Joni’s thing, she winds up as a contestant on a TV game show, “The Perfect Woman,” produced and hosted by her girlfriend Kate’s (Monique St. Cyr, the whole package) sequin-jacketed fiancé, Doug (Jonathon Ryan, as blonde as they come and funny, too), who claims the show is “feminist” although it’s just the opposite. Standing on a pedestal, lined up with two stereotypical man-pleasers who represent her opponents, Joni struggles to be true to herself in the face of misogynistic questions from the male participants.

Gloria Steinem and Simone de Beauvoir, who appear in [Porto], could as easily show up here to insist to the heroine that a woman’s fulfillment should not depend on making a man happy, that every woman should exist on the same terms as every man. In Fill, Joni finds herself when she reconnects with her younger, innocent, and, it would seem, wiser self (Maggie McCaffery), at the time she acted one of the orphans in Annie. Suddenly she’s lonely no more, an ending that offers closure but leans toward the sentimental and simplistic.

The Bats perform Del Rosso’s hour and 15-minute play as if to the manner born, with Chalfie’s bold, animated, and sharply honed performance, ranging from bewilderment to self-assertion, leading the way. She also displays abilities in the dance and singing departments.

While the hilarity potential in Fill is palpable, the play, despite Del Rosso’s obvious sense of humor, is too self-consciously clever to reach the big-laugh, comic level it requires. And clichés like the game show take-off are too familiar to make an impression, no matter how well performed. Fifty-one years ago, I played a character very much like the game-show host in a play called The Contestants at La Mama; even then this kind of parody was dated.


The Flea Theater
20 Thomas St., NYC
Through March 4