Life in a post-apocalyptic world is often depicted as a romantic adventure where heroic survivors battle for control of the remains of the world. Below, a new play running in the NYC Fringe Festival takes a different route. In Below, there is only madness, uncertainty and the slow unraveling of humanity.
Long before the start of the play, an apocalypse has destroyed the world. A handful of quick-footed New Yorkers managed to make it underground into the subway system where they have subsisted for a decade after creating their own tribal society.
Three of these ragged survivors, named Rat (Brandon Scott Hughes), Eyes (Alanna Blair) and Rump (Blaire O’Leary) gather together in their home, a section of some subway line cluttered with garbage. There they discuss their missing leader, Pigeon (Cordelia Istel) who has left them to pursue her own adventure.
Pigeon has been gone for days and the three remaining members of the tribe are uncertain if she’ll return. Bereft of leadership and pursued by an unseen menace they discuss their fate and limited options. Soon they are joined by Skittles (Tess Howsam) a teenaged girl who speaks only in commercial slogans and jingles.
How Skittles came by this knowledge of the old world is a mystery for much of the show, but it provides an excuse for lots of clever ramblings from Skittles in the form of mangled advertising slogans and subtly apropros use of old-world phrases.
The dialog for the other characters consists mostly of poetic slang. In the years since the surface world was destroyed, their language has degenerated. Occasionally they speak in normal English, but this is only for narration to provide backstory about who they were in their previous lives.
Performances are excellent, especially Alanna Blair as a disabled former ballerina who seems to suffer the most in this new life. The Direction by Karyn Joy DeYoung takes advantage of the apocalyptic premise by having her ragged cast pop out of piles of junk, or blend into the rubble with their tattered costumes when scenes change location.
Costume design (Johanna Hickey) is excellent. The characters are clad in the trappings of their previous lives; a business man who has a threadbare suit and tie, a dancer with the remnants of leg warmers, and a couple of young adult characters who clearly outgrew their clothing years ago but never found anything new to wear in the subways.
The set (Also designed by Johanna Hickey) is remarkable for a show in an off-off-Broadway festival, The stage is dominated by an authentic looking slab of subway platform with holes that the actors can pop out of or crawl through for exits.
The playwright Tess Howsam (Who also plays Skittles) has created a believable world in the remains of New York’s subway. She avoids nit-picking the details about survival and instead focuses on the psychological effects of surviving the end of the world. The result is an unusual take on the apocalypse and a powerful addition to this year’s Fringe.
Below is running as part of the NYC Fringe Festival through August 19th and has two more performances as of this writing. Tickets and more information can be found at www.fringenyc.org or www.exquisitecorpsecompany.com.