Cultural debates, Bukowski mark busy year

“It’s been a frenzy.”

That’s how a rep for the New York Intl. Fringe Festival described audience demand for “Bukowsical!,” a satirical musical that dissects the legend of poet Charles Bukowski. The clamor for such a high-minded (if not exactly highbrow) show indicates why the Fringe, whose 11th season closed Aug. 26, is still a haven for ideas.

Sure, mindless entertainment made this year’s schedule — consider sketch-comedy revue “Jazz Hand: Tales of a One-Armed Woman” — but the bulk of buzzworthy titles engaged in cultural debate.

Drama “Hillary Agonistes” addresses religion and politics, creating a future in which 65 million people disappear and President Hillary Clinton must decide if it’s the Rapture, the work of Satan or a Republican hoax. “Reader,” from scribe Ariel Dorfman (“Death and the Maiden”), is a dystopic look at a censor who vets a novel that eerily resembles his own life.

One of the fest’s most potent and artistically satisfying messages was delivered by “Bash’d!,” a “gay rap opera” written and performed by Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow. Set in Canada, this hip-hop one-act ferociously confronts homophobia in a nation that ostensibly supports gay rights.

But the show also makes room for love, hope and grace. Playing a variety of characters, including two young men who endure violence shortly after marrying each other, Craddock and Cuckow have created a rich, honest depiction of the gay world. Their clear-eyed conclusion, which refuses to reduce anyone to pure good or evil, only emphasizes how we all pay the price for hatred and we all benefit from understanding.

However, don’t mistake “Bash’d!” for an earnest sermon. The plot chugs like an engine, and as they rapped their way through every scene, thesps delivered jokes, twists and pathos with masterful timing. Plus, composer Aaron Macri upped the entertainment value with his club-ready beats, including one catchy number that samples Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).”

Craddock and Cuckow’s rhymes are occasionally awkward, but that’s an easy fix. Otherwise, the show, which also appeared last month at the Toronto Fringe, is ready for a transfer.

A future also seems feasible for “Catch the Fish,” Jonathan Caren’s dark little drama about a magazine reporter getting seduced by the world of rich, young L.A. socialites. As subjects for theater, celebrity obsession and our image-based society are starting to wear thin, but Caren ignites his tropes with some refreshing ambiguity.

As Alison (Elyse Mirto) tries to write a profile of beautiful young Jordan (John Forest) and his drugged-out, fame-whoring friends, she discovers that the drones have real feelings. Instead of just lacerating a flashy Los Angeles life, the play argues that it can have value.

Some may disagree with “Catch the Fish’s” arguments, of course, but it’s nice when a playwright says something different. And the cast’s detailed, relaxed perfs made it easy to accept that the characters were human and not plastic.

But the play’s real future may be on television. Caren puts all his effort into dialogue, showing little imagination for the spatial possibilities of live theater. Judging by her static direction, Kristin Hanggi also saw the production in terms of a flat screen.

There’s more ambition but less polish in “As Far as We Know,” an amateurish affair that nevertheless managed a few taut moments. Inspired by the true story of Kenneth Maupin — a U.S. soldier in Iraq who has been promoted to staff sergeant despite being unaccounted for since 2004 — the play refuses to takepolitical sides. For instance, when an Army liaison (Sara Kathryn Bakker) arrives to comfort (and spin control) the family of a missing solider, she asserts her pro-military patriotism. The script lets her comment stand, never instructing the audience how to feel about her point of view.

Multiple viewpoints kept the production engaging, even though the actors were often wooden, and flourishes from writer-director Laurie Sales — like breaks between scenes for “poetic” movement — were silly.

At least “As Far as We Know” felt genuine. On the contrary, “Williamsburg! The Musical” was all facade. The tuner about the trendy Brooklyn neighborhood sold boatloads of tickets on the promise that it would be a wry satire. Instead, it delivered obvious jokes, cheap sentiment and songs that could be forgotten before they were over.

The gruel-thin plot — about a Hassidic man who falls for a rich daddy’s girl — is just an excuse to name-check everything from the New York subway to its staggering rents.

In other words, “Williamsburg!” is a bargain-basement rip-off of “Avenue Q” and “Rent.” Thankfully, the Fringe was a haven for plenty of other ideas.

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