BOTTOM LINE: A wonderful piece of documentary theater that is not a comedy festival, though it does illuminate the circus of the military, political and media handling of the natural disaster swirling around the individuals who lived through the event and emerged on the other side to share their stories with us.
Going into the theater cold, with only the title to go on, I actually thought I was going to a comedy festival; I assumed it was going to be political satire and that it might or might not have a lot to do with Hurricane Katrina. I was intrigued by the title, because, immense tragedy though it was, there is a lot to satirize about the mishandling of the disaster by the powers that be, or were. However, The Hurricane Katrina Comedy Festival is misleadingly named. The title is a an ironic nod to the mayor of New Orleans' misguided attempt to celebrate the one year anniversary of Katrina with a city-wide comedy festival, but this is somewhat of an inside joke. Rather than political satire, the play is a very moving look at the stories of five New Orleans residents who chose not to evacuate before the storm; though sprinkled with moments of levity, the main effect of the piece is to show just how profoundly traumatizing Katrina was for the residents of New Orleans and the city itself.
For the most part, this piece is documentary theater at its best. The stories are true, the actors play multiple roles expertly, the direction and production values are clear, simple and minimal, all designed to highlight the stories themselves. The characters, especially Antoinette, played beautifully by Lizan Mitchell, are the heart and soul not just of the play but of New Orleans itself. Viewed through their eyes, one begins to see the disaster not from the outside as a spectator or as a concerned citizen, but from the inside as a fellow human being. The stories of Katrina are universally relevant, even five years later, but take on even more urgency as the people of the gulf take another devastating hit to their region with the recent BP oil spill. This is theater at its most relevant.
Very briefly at the end, director Dann Fink takes some mis-steps, dipping into some of the more annoying conventions of the documentary theater genre with a jarring reprise of single lines from the play backed by some ultra-cheesy xylephone music and a projection of images and text of the 'real life' ends to the stories of each main character, requiring stage lights to be dimmed on the actors themselves. Throughout the piece, I connected to the actors as characters, and as the lights go down, it is their faces that I want to see, not a slide show. However, these problems are truly minor, but they stand out because all other aspects of the show are so good.
Overall, this is a piece to put high up on your Fringe list. It is a reminder not just of the scale and tragic consequences of this awful event, but in a way that transcends cliches, about the resiliency and beauty of the human spirit in the face of adversity.
(The Hurricane Katrina Comedy Hour plays at Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street between Varick and 6th Avenue, through August 29th. Remaining performances are Sunday 8/15 at 5pm, Wednesday 8/18 at 9:45pm, Wednesday 8/25 at 3pm, Sunday 8/29 at 4:15pm. Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 at the door, and are available at FringeNYC.com, by calling 866.468.7619, or in person at FringeCENTRAL, located at 1 East 8th Street at 5th Avenue. There is NO LATE SEATING for Fringe NYC shows.)