Coulda woulda shoulda


By Mike Batistick
Directed by Brian Roff
Rising Phoenix Repertory
New York Fringe Festival
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by Doug DeVita

Mike Batistick's Ponies was fabulous. On any level, by any standard, Batistick's modern morality play was an exciting 75 minutes of theatre in which all of the elements came together with breathtaking precision. Alternately hilarious and distressing, Ponies pulled no punches in its depiction of immigrant life in the United States, circa now. The American dream is cracking; for the immigrant population not much is left but to spend their days gambling at the OTB, hoping and praying for the big win that will pay for that cab they are driving, that passport that will make them legal, or that communion dress for the sick child at home. Batistick's dialog flew with crisp wariness, his characters were acutely observed, and his message -- while clear -- was delivered with a lack of sermonizing that was bracing. And four outstanding performers, tautly directed by Brian Roff with no detail spared, delivered it all flawlessly.

As Drazen, a Croatian wannabe wheeler-dealer, Greg Keller's nearly maniacal energy drove the show with relentless perfection -- there was not one false note in his performance; from his superb accent to the hunted and haunted look in his eyes, he gave the impression he would explode at any moment, and it was exhilarating and frightening to watch. Polar opposite in temperament, Babs O was nevertheless more than his match as Ken, a Nigerian engineer reduced to driving a cab to make ends meet. His growing desperation as he realized that Drazen might not be the friend he claims to be was palpably thrilling; while never losing his character's innate dignity, he still conveyed the essence of a man very close to the edge. Wayne Kasserman played an illegal immigrant from Venezuela with just the right amount of nervous defensiveness, and Nicole Lewis was a laugh-out-loud delight as a cashier with attitudinal brass balls. Both Smith and Kasserman, never off stage but rarely in the spotlight, filled their performances with moment-to-moment details that never pulled focus but added to the immediacy of the entire enterprise.

And it was those often-overlooked details that helped to Roff's production its edge. T.V. monitors suspended from the ceiling, crumpled and torn chits littering the floor, a bullet-proof cashier's window, and uncomfortably yellow molded-plastic chairs depicted the drab world of an OTB parlor with simple but stunning fidelity in Shoko Kambara's set, enhanced by Josh Epstein's appropriately flat, cold lighting that came from a mixture of theatrical and fluorescent fixtures. Shane Rettig's subtle but ever-present sound design enhanced the mood immeasurably, while Meredith Benson's costumes were remarkably unremarkable, a compliment to their suitability to time, place, and character.

While there has been relatively little press attention given to Ponies compared to some of the other Fringe Festival productions that have been touted endlessly, it is to be hoped that Batistick's work will have a life after the festival is long forgotten -- his is a voice that should be heard, and Ponies was a production that should be seen.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Sets: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2003 Doug DeVita