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'Loose Canon' Charms with Tales from Sophocles to Taco Bell

A walk through the history of theater, if history was a strip mall.

Who knew that a play that takes place in a Taco Bell could be so thrilling? Brian Reno and Gabriel Vega Weissman's Loose Canon, part of the New York International Fringe Festival, is a collection of six short plays inspired by and in the style of six foundational playwrights from antiquity to the modern day: Sophocles, Shakespeare, Moliere, Chekhov, Beckett and Mamet. But these pieces aren't simply reproductions of plays that could have been written by the playwrights themselves; Loose Canon brings them into the landscape of modern consumerism, from Ikea to Amazon, and in such a madcap adventure, anything goes.

Moving chronologically, we begin with Sophocles-esque "The Elmae," taking place at a five-year-old's birthday party and centering around an epic struggle for the idolized Tickle Me Elmo. "The Tragicomedie of Moira and Rosa; Mothers and Thieves" concerns the high art of Amazon product reviews, Shakespearean style, and takes place in an Amazon warehouse. Moliere-inspired "Desire Under the Malm's" is the typical Ikea battle of the wills in rhyming couplets, while Chekhov's "The El Taquiera" imagines a family of sisters trying to save their father's once-beloved Taco Bell restaurant from going out of business for good.

"The Full, Upright and Locked Position" pushes Samuel Beckett into the modern world of endless torture in the form of economy-class airplane rides, and "The Vessel" brings David Mamet's cutthroat office politics to Petco. All together, the plays capture the essence of each playwright while still being enjoyable and accessible to those with only an average level of theater knowledge; having seen or read a single play by each of the writers is more than enough to be in on the joke. And the remarkably versatile set, constructed largely out of cardboard boxes, sets us up efficiently in the world of each piece.

While several of the plays make direct reference to lines or characters from their source material, such as Tiresias and Cassandra at the Sophocles birthday party or the incorporation of famous Shakespeare quotes, the perhaps stronger pieces are those that honor their inspiration perfectly through style alone. And the best plays are those that reveal something about the canonical writers' works that you may not catch outside of such an atypical setting, from the overdramatic soap opera tendencies of Chekhov to the complex sexual dynamics of Mamet and the immense importance awarded to everyday activities in Sophocles.

The ensemble of six actors does a good job, exhibiting the cleverness and versatility to jump from one absurd stylized role to another in a manner of seconds, though this play is arguably more about the writing than the characters. Particular standout performances include Cynthia Nesbit as the Greek chorus leader of "The Elmae" and the take-no-prisoners illegal breeding ring boss at Petco, and Becky Baumwoll as Beckett's suffering soul, trapped in the ultimate airplane economy class accommodation: a trash can.

There are a few places where Loose Canon stumbles in fulfilling its mission. "The Full, Upright and Locked Position" doesn't last for long enough to truly commit to the length and agonizing pace of an archtypical Beckett production, while with four of the plays taking place directly in stores or warehouses, the more indirectly consumerist settings of the airplane and the birthday party feel somewhat out of place. Still, it is an immensely intelligent and entertaining piece for any sort of theater lover or scholar, an engaging romp through the highs and lows of the modern dramatic canon and certainly a highlight of this year's Fringe season.

Loose Canon plays at the Kraine Theater as part of the New York International Fringe Festival through August 29.

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