Review: FEARfest 2022 Serves Up Seven Bite-Sized Explorations of What Frightens Us

FEARfest 2022

Playing with Matches, by Jennifer Downes and John Peña Griswold; dir. John Peña Griswold

Hot Blood Sundae, by Aly Kantor; dir. Mia Y. Anderson

Fear Floor, by Caitland (Caky) Winsett; dir. Todd Butera

Black, White, & Blue, by William Oliver Watkins; dir. Sara Berg

The Hand, by Erin Moughon; dir. David Adam Gill

Do You Remember?, by Nina Tolstoy; dir. Jonathan Wong Frye

The Man in Red, by Mandy Murphy; dir. Mandy Murphy

Presented by New Ambassadors Theatre Company at TADA! Theater

15 W 28th Street, 2nd floor, Manhattan, NYC

October 26-30, 2022

Mandy Murphy and Raquel Valiente in The Hand. Photo courtesy New Ambassadors Theatre Company
The horror and comedy genres often benefit from brevity, making them a good fit for a short play festival such as this year's installment of New Ambassadors Theatre Company's FEARfest, which features hefty doses of both, along with a strong measure of dystopian sci fi. The fears that rear their discomfiting heads in the fest's seven 10-minute plays arise from a panoply of causes, from technology to patriarchy to bullying to sexual and family relationships. It's likely that you'll find at least one of your own fears reflected among these short works, but it's certain that you'll find plenty to enjoy.
Jennifer Downes and Lee Tyler in Playing with Matches. Photo courtesy New Ambassadors Theatre Company
Playing with Matches, from Jennifer Downes and John Peña Griswold, opens the fest with a first date between Lennox (Lee Tyler) and Noah (Jennifer Downes), who met through a horror-fan app. The play allows the audience to settle in by laughing at some of the awkwardness and missteps endemic to first dates–exacerbated mostly on Lennox's part, in a funny performance by Tyler–before taking things in a direction that involves A.I., virality, and self-fulfilling prophecy intersecting in a way that does not, at least from some perspectives, bode well for humanity (but does make the pun in the title clear). Matches offers an interesting twist on the trope that our own brains are not only our greatest strength but also one of our most threatening weak points. Next, Aly Kantor's standout Hot Blood Sundae finds Bex (Maile Binion), who has had a blood test because of an at-first unspecified injury, hanging out with her friend Jess (Starr Kirkland). When Jess touches the wound, it produces different results than you might think, and, dovetailing with one tradition of female monstrosity, a positive result begins to seem more empowering than undesirable. Binion and Kirkland are terrific together, and Hot Blood Sundae is briskly hilarious from the first moment as it confidently dispenses commentary on the imposed and internalized restrictions on women's behavior.  
Maile Binion Starr Kirkland in Hot Blood Sundae. Photo courtesy New Ambassadors Theatre Company
Fear Floor, by Caitland (Caky) Winsett, returns us to the realm of sci fi, positing a world in which some humans are admitted into the utopian "inworld" while the rest live outside. The intake process for the inworld includes having one's fears cataloged and removed. One human (Maille-Rose Smith), however, denies having any fears, creating more than a little friction with intake agent Zee (Matthew Menendez, whose increasing discomposure as the avowedly unflappable Zee is great fun to watch). Fear Floor makes an argument for the value of its titular emotion that would sit comfortably alongside works such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but is grounded in character, world-building, and performance-specific detail that is entirely its own. Closing out the first half of the program is Black, White, & Blue, from William Oliver Watkins, which we first saw as part of the 2018 The Fire This Time festival (and is available in the anthology 25 Plays from the Fire This Time Festival) and which has lost none of its timeliness in the intervening four years. Black, White, & Blue does not fall as overtly into horror or sci fi as the other plays in the fest–although the way that the ending is staged, including the use of some music from Dario Argento's Suspiria, goes some way towards making a genre connection, as well as highlighting a sense of inevitability–but it unquestionably deals with fear. Rather than fear of ghosts or malign dolls, the play focuses on fear of the Black Other, constructed through stereotypes such as the superpredator. Jerome (Quentin Lee Moore), a Black actor, and Bill (Bryan Patrick Stoyle), a White actor, are rehearsing a scene based on the transcript of a traffic stop turned fatal, with Bill playing the officer. The interventions of the director (Christine Renee Miller), who for example, doesn't find the first run-through convincing because Jerome isn't obviously threatening or doing anything to invite being shot, lose their amusing quality relatively rapidly. The escalation on this stage-as-microcosm leads to an acknowledgement by the play that its message is far from new but, somehow, still requires repeating.  
Erin Moughon, Betsy Regus, & Perryn Pomatto in The Man in Red. Photo courtesy New Ambassadors Theatre Company
The second half of the program begins with Erin Moughon's The Hand, another standout. Horror-movie aficionado Rose (Raquel Valiente) won't be going out for Halloween this year, but the horror will come to her, in the form of her roommate Sidney (Mandy Murphy) and her possessed, knife-wielding hand. Sidney (a shoutout, perhaps, to Sidney Prescott, though she is costumed as Carrie) being controlled by her hand gives Murphy a chance for some first-rate physical acting in a piece with a clear affection for horror films and a satisfying twist. Things also turn out not to be what they first seem in Do You Remember?, by Nina Tolstoy, but it eschews comedy on that journey in favor of a pathos that comes to be vividly undermined. A discussion between husband and wife Darren (John Austin Wiggins) and Sophie (Maria Elèna O'Brien) about software for virtual tours leads them down the path of reminiscence. At a certain point, while the refrain "Do you remember" remains the same, much else is upended, a shift in perspective that Wiggins and O'Brien invest with affecting impact. The Man in Red, by Mandy Murphy, ends things on a much lighter note, with a tale of a 10-year-old girl, Sally (Betsy Regus), who is convinced that Santa is a nefarious figure against whom she must fortify her home. Sally's mother (Erin Moughon) and father (Perryn Pomatto), the latter wearing an excellently tacky Christmas-patterned suit, clash over what to do with their troublesome daughter (therapy, apparently, has not worked; and Sally's views point at the proximity of myth and conspiracy theory) and whether to finally reveal the truth of Santa's non-existence. The Man in Red presents some moments of well observed, authentic parent-child interaction amid lots of outsized comedy and, as this is FEARfest, after all, a dash of macabre irony.

Moving among and often blending the comedic, satiric, and dramatic, the plays of FEARfest reinforce how fear can both enlighten and entertain.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards 

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