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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Review- Population: 8 (FringeNYC)

The Fab Marquee review by Karen Tortora-Lee.

There are a lot of things that will drive people to despair in this world; loss of love... loss of hope... loss of innocence. Having someone to confide in during these bleak times, or even better - having a community (a church group, a support group, even a softball team) can provide a balm to your wounds as you navigate through your sorrow. But what if your loss is of community itself? What if your town has been whittled away to a meager eight people? What if, even though there is kinship and blood relations to tie you all together you still can't fine your balance anymore in this microscopic town? What if you're just sinking deeper and deeper into this isolation, rattling around this god-(and man)-forsaken town, waiting for the next person to leave? Welcome to Loki, North Dakota. Population: 8.
We come upon writer Nicholas Gray's small town mid-step, literally, as two towns people soberly make their way to the City Limits so they can change the marker on the sign post; with Jacob gone off their population has moved from 9 to 8. There is no long drawn out exposition of who these two people are, though we come to find that they are Man (David Goldberg) and Ugly (apparently named on opposite day, for Shoda Leigh Robbins is lovely) and Jacob is Ugly's now-lost love.

We can't tell right away how this town got to be like this; in fact there's very little explanation of anything at first, including who is who - Mother and daughter? Sister and brother? Good friends? Married? Very soon, however, patterns start emerging, and through repetition we begin to find the rhythm of this small town, and its eight inhabitants. There's a Fiddler on the Roof type echo here: the town may be small, and the future may be unsure, but there is one thing that weaves though each person's fiber and keeps them aware of what their role is: Tradition.

Frankie (the endearing Gideon Glick, former cast member of Spring Awakening, and a charming oddball here) is giving one of his radio broadcasts of the day, as he does every day... several times a day. He has a penchant for reading old letters he finds, they go back almost 30 years since Loki is so small that it stopped receiving mail in the early 80s. Joining Frankie is his sister Pepper (earnestly portrayed by Dana Berger, endearing in her own right) who sings a song "of her own creation" which turns out to be "Champagne Supernova". Either she's got some freakishly integrated ESP or this girl has a connection that isn't Loki-constrained.

Soon enough we meet the other six of the town: Cree (Jon Krupp) who was once the town's preacher but no longer steps foot in the church; his deaf son McCoy (Garrett Zuercher) who cherishes the hidden layers of life which he feels he experiences as a result of his deafness (yet hates the radio enough to shoot at it); Ruth (Maggie Low) who is Frankie and Pepper's mother and who has a deep bitterness in her since her husband died 3 years ago, but who loves the land with the same degree of fierceness, and finally Sylvie (Kathryn Kates), the matriarch of the town who is so in tune to it, and to its spirits, that she can feel it in her bones, but who didn't miss her chance to travel the world when it beckoned.

While the town is still disputing Jacob's reasons for leaving, his possible death, and exactly what this means to the rest of them, the population gets bumped up again to 9. This time the extra person is Jesse (Arturo Castro), Pepper's secret love who has been meeting with her by the city limits sign and supplying her with gifts from the outside world. A bit of a lost soul himself (he's AWOL from the nearby army base) he fits in perfectly with this town who welcomes him as long as he promises to be good to Pepper.

Life in Loki brings its natural cycles, the greatest challenge of which is trying to maintain a different kind of dignity as people talk of leaving, selling their land, and moving on. Some of the townspeople venture out for a while when hope of Jacob reaches them via a letter left by the city limits sign. Some of those left die. Some of them give up what they have in the hopes of giving their child a brighter future. Some go, some stay until they are forced out. Ultimately, the biggest journey they all make is not the one beyond the Loki city limits, but the one beyond their own limitations.

Nicholas Gray, surprisingly young (the joy of Fringe is being able to see the playwrights, just standing outside, pre-show), has an amazing grasp of the human condition. While the actual production had a little too much rear-projection for my taste (just because you can do an animated dream sequence doesn't mean you should), my distaste doesn't lie with the medium itself but with the way it distracted from the pacing of the story. This haunting tale was wonderful and didn't need the bells and whistles of not one, not two but three character's mental journey's projected on the screen (McCoy day dreaming at clouds and watching them turn into "2 elephants in love" just seemed gratuitous). Aside from that, I was astonished at how deeply I could identify with people who, on the surface, are nothing like me. But Mr. Gray's script deals with the human condition, and at some point, you don't need to be in a town of 8 to feel that isolation. Just try coming off a breakup and going anywhere by yourself in New York City (Population 8 plus another 23 million)... and you'll never be more isolated. This story illuminates that experience beautifully.

The New York International Fringe Festival
The Process Group and Purple Man Theater Company, present
Population: 8
The SoHo Playhouse

Remaining Performance: Sun, Aug 30 @2:45PM; For more information visit

The SoHo Playhouse | 15 Vandam St | Manhattan.

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