AdaptationComedyHistoryNew York

Worlds Fair Inn – Axis Theatre, New York

Writer: Randy Sharp

Director: Randy Sharp

Reviewer: Jamie Rosler

Billed as an absurdist comedy—comedy is subjective, after all, and absurdity excuses a fair degree of creative leeway—Worlds Fair Inn at Axis Theatre continues raising questions well after the performance has ended. Some reveal more connections between the production and its espoused inspiration, while others leave one more at sea, confused in a confusing world. Which may be the point?

Inspired by but not actually about three notable figures from the fictional and historical past—J. Robert Oppenheimer (“father of the atomic bomb”), scientist Victor Frankenstein (creator of a creature, himself created by Mary Shelley), and H. H. Holmes (American serial killer)—Worlds Fair Inn explores creation & destruction with a questionable view of humanity. The three main characters are lightly drawn at most, and played with gusto by Brian Barnhart, George Demas and Jon McCormick. (Kudos to you if you can decipher who plays whom, as the production, program, and company Instagram account offer little clarity.) The proprietor of the titular inn slowly discloses pieces of a personal backstory of dubious accuracy, yet of obvious concern. Why do the itinerant contractors join so eagerly in the disturbing project at hand? The younger of the two seems to have concerns early on, channelled through facial expressions and a moment of pause, before his transition to being a willing participant switches on like a light.

The mix of fact and fiction is compelling, a potentially fruitful means to explore human nature, but in this case, it might be helping spread historical misinformation in the program notes. H. H. Holmes’ alleged crimes include orchestrating a “Murder Castle” during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, a story that directly influences the plot of Worlds Fair Inn. Though Holmes was indeed a criminal and a killer, the extent to which certain widely believed stories are reality or myth appears to be hotly debated (this reviewer did a post-show deep dive into internet research in an effort to find and multiply the truth, though certainly not every audience member will do the same).

The play ends [SPOILER ALERT] with a nuclear explosion, presumably the first of two American bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. This must be the inclusion of Oppenheimer’s influence on writer/director Randy Sharp, though there is little else that connects to 1945. There are several mentions of Japan throughout the play, accompanied each time by a bow from every actor on stage. Likely intended to signal respect and remorse, it does not read that way among all the absurdity and implied violence (though perhaps a Japanese viewer would feel differently). Two or three allusions to contagion and covering one’s face are there to remind the audience of the current state of public health, or to ask if we’re better or worse than a century ago, or just to wedge in a direct reference to “the moment we’re living through”.

Layered over, under and through the loose narrative and scattered cultural references are the bold light and sound design of David Zeffren and Paul Carbonara, respectively. A well-planned and dense series of tech cues reinforced the mood of the production, served as clear scene breaks without slowing down the pace of the show, and was deftly run by Production Stage Manager Regina Betancourt. Some of the flashing light cues, though not literally a strobe, might merit a warning for audience members with sensitivities.

Abstract art has no single interpretation, often seen in just the context of its time and of the life of the creator(s). Yet the previously mentioned program note presents the impossible goal of diving “into the subconscious of these three men and their tragic personal lives”, a pronouncement that diminishes the potential for wide and varied viewer interpretations. Is Worlds Fair Inn an organic reflection of the times, or is it an active attempt to make something that seems like it is? Looking backward to look forward while simultaneously warning against unfettered nostalgia? A comment on the dangers of white men in groups? Cautioning against the early adoption of new and unknown technology? Does it matter if any of this was intentional, if they fail to accomplish a self-stated mission?

Why now? is always relevant to the creation of art and theatre and feels exceedingly important in this not-quite-post-COVID-19 world. This production’s hodgepodge of nostalgia, true crime and modern technology encourages exploration of modern problems through a rearview mirror. But as with Frankenstein’s monster, the final product appears to be more enigma than enlightenment.

Runs Until 19 June 2021 | Photo Credit: Regina Betancourt

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