Annual Preview: United Solo Festival

In its 8th season, United Solo, the country’s largest, most varied solo theater festival, will offer 120 theatrical pieces from six continents and 23 countries. Almost all these one-acts were written by the person performing them. They include biographical and auto-biographical pieces, dramas, comedies, puppetry, mime, mentalism and music. Some feature recorded sound, some utilize video, some include movement or dance. The festival is an inexpensive way to enjoy original, often premiering theater as it finds its sea legs in an intimate environment. Every year, we preview a few of these shows.

NEC METU – the story of Artemesia Gentileschi 
“Nec spe, nec metu” means without hope, without fear   
Written and performed by Sara Fellini
Directed by Emma Rosa Went
October 10 at  7:30 p.m.

Sara Fellini is a Brooklyn native with no theater training, but a considerable amount of experience. Bitten young by the bug, she acted and worked backstage in a series of community venues from childhood. A semester of Art History (another enthusiastic interest) at Queens College was abandoned to return to the stage. In 2015, Fellini founded Spit & Vigor which produces and gives her a platform to both act and write. She’s contributed two plays to this year’s festival: NEC SPE- The story of Caravaggio and NEC METU – The story of Artemesia Gentileschi. (These are not her first playwriting efforts.)

Exposed to Caravaggio in college, Fellini had never heard of Gentileschi. It was backstage at Sylvia Milo’s The Other Mozart (reference to the musician’s prodigy sister Nannerl), that she learned of the Italian Baroque painter in conversation about female artists lost to history. (Fellini played Nannerl on tour.)

Gentileschi (1593-1656) was an accomplished painter of the generation following Caravaggio. That she was able to support and make a name for herself as a woman in the period is less astonishing than having brought her teacher, Agostino Totsi, to court for rape. It seems the pragmatic teenager had submitted to him several times after because he’d promised to marry her – security was paramount. When she found out he had a wife in Perugia, she went to her father who brought suit.

Left:  Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemesia Gentileschi (Wiki); Right Sara Fellini (Photo by Emma Rose Went)

Fellini has copiously researched the woman she refers to as a Caravaggisti. She speaks fluently of the trial whose transcript she’s read, the courage and clarity of Gentileschi’s own words, that to which she was subject in an unenlightened time. “What she endured was so hideous and she came out of it incredibly when every single thing was against her.”

Aware she’s a ghost, the painter speaks to a priest during Fellini’s scenario which eliminates a fourth wall. She wants us to know the real story, to make a case for her legacy. We hear about childhood, the event, controversial work featuring strong, suffering women from myths and the Bible, assignments from later patrons. It’s an obstacle-filled journey of survival and growth that both produced memorable art and created a surprisingly stable life.

The Caravaggio play was written first. There’s an astonishing amount of material on this artist. His poor, drunken, violent life and questionable circumstances of death are almost as well known as the icon’s realistic depiction of humanity’s struggles and uber-dramatic use of chiaroscuro that would influence artists for generations. “The devil’s in the details – you see this basket of fruit and it’s rotted, worm infested – which is the point,” Fellini comments with gusto. Caravaggio was a friend of Gentileschi’s father.

NEC SPE- the story of Caravaggio
Written by Sara Fellini; Performed by Adam Belvo
Directed by Emma Rosa Went
October 10  at 9 p.m.

If this interview is any reflection, Sara Fellini will set off sparks illuminating and communicating her passion. 

Jacob Storms (Photo by Derek Storms)

Tennessee Rising
Written and Performed by Jacob Storms
October 14 at 2 p.m.

Jacob Storms has been acting (and singing) since he was a child. At 16, a director at his “amazing little arts prep school” gave him the script of I Am My Own Wife, Doug Wright’s wrenching play about German antiquarian Charlotte von Mahlsdorf who killed her father when she was a child, surviving Nazi and Communist regimes. At 16?! He performed it two years later, having interviewed several people about personal experience. To date, the artist has never seen a professional production. Shortly thereafter Storms arrived in New York.

Asked to give a speech at a scholarship fundraiser for his alma mater, he left a production here and flew back to Portland, Oregon. It was Elizabeth Taylor’s birthday. As her granddaughter was a parent at the school, festivities would include a screening of the film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  which starred Taylor. At that point, Storms had seen A Streetcar Named Desire, but no other work by Tennessee Williams. He bought Williams’ Memoir in anticipation of seeing Cat.

“Connection was like a spiritual thing,” he comments in regard to his feelings about the book. “I just knew I had to play him. We have a lot of things in common.” I ask what drew Storms to his subject. “He was very politically aware, aware of social issues, very interested in the world.” Not the way most people think of Williams, I respond. “I thought I had a unique perspective to offer. This is not just about his obvious struggles. The whole point here is how he became Tennessee.”

The play begins with Williams moving to New Orleans in 1939 and the continuance of his brief affair with Kip Sheredin. The younger man apparently told his lover “I can’t be with you in the way you need me to” and subsequently married a woman. Storms feels that relationship or lack thereof had a lasting effect. He then takes us to California, New Mexico, Florida and New York introducing agent Audrey Wood, The Group Theater, various friends and enemies, and, finally the Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie that put Williams on the map.

Curiously, the piece does not include Williams’ own words. “I’ve taken inspiration from them,” though the actor will endeavor to deliver his subject’s accent. “There’s no audio or film on him when he was young, so there’s room for me to sound a certain way without people comparing… The public tends to think of him when he’s about to die. (Exhausted, dissipate, bitter?) This is going to be a Tennessee that people don’t know and have never seen – before the self abuse.”

Do you see him as a tragic figure? I ask. “No. He certainly experienced tragedy, but I don’t approach him that way… His mother instilled in him deep fear and shame regarding sex. She took a toll which also had a lot to do with why Rose (his mentally ill sister) lost it. Tennessee was always afraid that the deterioration that affected Rose might strike him.”

“He had great success. The big plays are like operas. In the 1960s, Williams created what he called Baroque stuff and the critics still wanted opera. At the end, he experienced great loss…I admire him both as a person and a writer.” This promises to be an iconoclastic point of view.

Megan Metrikin (Photo by Guy De Lancey)

Finding Fellini
Written and Performed by Megan Metrikin
Directed by Guy De Lancey
September 26 at 9 p.m.; October 1 at 2 p.m.

Playwright/actress Megan Metrikin was raised white in apartheid South Africa (roughly in practice 1948-1991). Government was “fascist and oppressive, life was cheap, and respect for human dignity lacking…” The artist still has nightmares of being personally attacked and feels her country continues to reel.

As a child, she organized neighborhood kids to put on plays which she says even then could be construed as political. “One’s imaginative and creative fantasies were deeply infiltrated by ideology and violence.” Her Alice in Wonderland must’ve been really interesting. The Metrikins were politically and culturally liberal. They supported Megan’s desire to become an actress.

When her “complete film nut” father accepted a job as government censor, the family was horrified despite ulterior motivation: “to bring a voice of reason to what was totally unreasonable and crazy…” Every night, he ran movies on the living room wall. Metrikin discovered and fell in love with the work of Frederico Fellini in her own home. “He spoke to me. The films represented freedom, fantasy, romance, impulse, everything not a part of my life…I wrote what he said all over my walls… ”

She studied at The University of Capetown, then became a member of the first of what would become successive protest/politically bent theaters creating exciting, original work. (Cultural boycott allowed nothing in.)

At 23 in the early 1980s, Metrikin decided she had to go find Fellini. “Without giving it much thought, I said goodbye to family and friends and went to Rome.” The young woman couldn’t speak a word of Italian and had made no preparations. Her play is about extraordinary adventures that ensued; people she met who promised to introduce her to the maestro, an encounter with his sister, following Fellini’s “path,” going to his home, tracking down movie sets…Completely alone, living in an inexpensive youth hostel, there were days she willingly spoke to no one. Metrikin even secured a ticket to And the Ship Sails On and hotfooted it to Venice when she discovered Fellini was to speak at the opening of the Venice Film Festival. (I’m not going to tell you whether she found him.)

Megan Metrikin (Photo by Guy De Lancey)

This was independence, self determination! Metrikin spread her wings. She found love and fantasy, the latter, she says, while experiencing things never fully understood for lack of common language. Three months later, the pilgrim surprisingly went back home. I ask why. The response? Friends, family and theater that was ABOUT something. The voyage of self discovery had come to a close of parentheses. A second trip was planned, ticket purchased, but Fellini died.

“I knew I wanted to make this piece.” Metrikin had taken photos of people she met in Italy and kept a diary. She’d collected things. Life took over. With the play Sophiatown, about forced removals of a suburb outside Johannesburg, the actress toured Europe and America. She married, moved to New York, raised two children, did a little theater work, and became a citizen. “I’m what they call an alien of extraordinary abilities,” she tells me wryly.

It wasn’t until her kids left for college that she returned to realizing the dream. Finding Fellini is Megan Metrikin’s first authored play. While being developed it was presented in three prior festivals. Director Guy De Lancey has added both atmospheric and actual, at-the-time video. The writer is pleased with the results. A show about her experience as an immigrant in New York, a “first world comedy,” is queued up. And Metrikin is ready to act again.

Bill Bowers (Photo by Benjamin Heller)

Beyond Words
Written and Performed by Bill Bowers
Developed with and Directed by Scott Illingworth
An Encore Production
September 16 at 2 p.m.

I saw this show and reviewed it in 2015. My review said, in part:
Bill Bowers has reinvented the wheel. His dramatic art form combines mime, music, and original monologue in a way you’ve likely never experienced. This is not an actor who employs the occasional silent, exaggerated gesture or a practitioner of movement who sometimes speaks, but a skilled thespian seamlessly intertwining these balanced skills with masterful storytelling. The artist is also a gifted playwright. Beautifully chosen and edited archival radio clips, Arthur Godfrey’s 1954 recording of a pivotal prose poem, and often quirky music add atmosphere to a series of vignettes both based in reality and imagined.

Beyond Words was stimulated by an incident that occurred just after his mother’s 2007 death. The two were incredibly close…Cleaning out her dressers, he and his sisters discovered a prose poem called “What is A Boy?” which, he discovered, had been tucked into his baby blanket at the hospital “and came home with mother and son…This got me thinking about how different boys can be on their way to being men.”

I recommend the show without reservation.

Opening: Left – Sara Fellini; Right – Adam Belvo – Photos by Yvonne Allaway Photography

The 8th Annual United Solo Festival runs from September 14 through November 19, 2017, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Go to the website for more information and to purchase tickets.

About Alix Cohen (764 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.