John Chatterton sits kingly amongst the crowd gathered in the re-purposed synagogue at 339 West 47th Street. His comfort-grip cane rests scepter-like in his lap as a sea of sweating hipsters, frilly goths, hip-hop dancers, and wrinkled theatre old-guard swirl around him, celebrating the start of the Midtown International Theatre Festival. Chatterton has cultivated the festival for fifteen years as its Artistic Director. He works tirelessly to ensure his festival is anything but stagnant. A short play lab aimed at fostering new writers, as well as a ’commercial’ program meant to gain traction for plays looking for a commercial run, are new additions to the lineup. Where some festivals might rest on their laurels, MITF is ever-evolving work in progress. Despite his achievements, Chatterton is slow to accept praise. He credits his delegation skills more than anything in the show selection process, casually critiquing the militaristic hierarchy of another not-to-be-named summer festival we casually labeled ‘The “F” word.’
With over fifty plays on the docket from the U.S., Japan, Italy, and elsewhere, this kickoff cabaret night was sure to be anything but business as usual. Excerpts from nearly every play in the festival were to be staged. As the crowd poured in from the exhausting summer heat, a vigorous, youthful energy crackled in even the codgerliest attendee. They were all in the program. Everyone but this reviewer would be, or have their work performed, onstage before the night was through.
The Gothic, ‘Sleep-no-more-esque’ Pistrix was a standout of the evening. In a staged bathed in darkness, the actors tell a macabre story of heroism and all-consuming hunger with tiny red and white flashlights, creating a grim, sickly sort of stage magic. The cabaret was a mixed bag to be sure. The stodgily poetic Homage to Henry was followed by a the fiery half-nakedness of Chanel Star! My Journey Through the Strip Club. This structure seemed to encapsulate the pace of the evening; hiccups and bursts of Off-Off Broadway theatrical fuel.
To say the cabaret night went off without a hitch would be a gross misstatement. Changes to the roster based on train traffic and technical difficulties abounded. But whatever the snag, what struck me was the unwavering sense of community. No chair shifted, no phone was toyed with, and no matter the performance, it was met with thunderous applause. If the purpose of theatre is cultivating community, John Chatterton has already succeeded where so many more stumble.
Although the vibe of MITF was unashamedly off-the-cuff, there’s no denying the inspiriting warmth in this labor of love. Even if you’ve experienced the sensory-deadening that comes from years of sitting through theatrical squalor, have no doubts that MITF will, if only for a moment, bring your inner amateur flickering back to life.
Midtown International Theatre Festival runs now through August 8th. All performances will be held at 312 West 36th street.
(photos: Bielzy & Gottfried, Chenel Star, Sleep Well, and Champagne Lady)