In the cozy Abrazo Interno Gallery, located up some winding stairs at The Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center in New York City’s Lower East Side, several rows of New York International Fringe Festival audience members still damp from the August heat are staring intently at a stilted box.
The box has four doors on its sides, two on the left and two on the right. Suddenly they both swing open to reveal Dominique Salerno, the playwright and one-woman star of “The Box Show” (directed by Sash Bischoff), crouched on the floor of the box and earnestly extolling, on the phone to her mother, the many virtues of it as an $1,800 no-kitchen, no-bath eighth-floor walk-up just a 45-minute walk from from the G train.
(In interest of full disclosure, Salerno was a college classmate of mine, and Bischoff was a college acquaintance, as well.)
The character, a naive new New Yorker, displays the kind of determined optimism in the face of bizarro-world real-estate conditions that many middle-class transplants with big dreams probably can recall. The bottom floor of her building is a fish market, “and Mom,” Salerno bubbles, “you know how much I like ... hate fish!” It’s an opportunity to learn to love another kind of protein!
Over the course of an hour and a half, the box (designed by Ann Beyersdorfer) transforms into a Trojan horse, a hotel hallway, a murderer’s car and trunk, a recording studio, a swimming pool and so much more. Most of the sketches lean heavily comedic, though a couple swing dark or sappy. Salerno’s bottomless energy and brilliant timing make the purely comic moments ― particularly affectionate riffs on experiences or stories familiar to her audience ― her strongest. One Dan Brown-esque tale of a treasure-hunter who infiltrates a monastery looking for hidden tunnels filled with stolen masterpieces, and who accidentally winds up becoming pope, is not to be missed.
That said, Salerno explained in an email to The Huffington Post, “The Box Show” has been changing constantly since she first developed the idea during graduate school at the American Conservatory Theater, where she’d begun creating the show using a “small a/v cupboard” in her rehearsal space. “First and foremost: I had to transition from my workshop in a basic cupboard to our set-piece,” she wrote.
The show also adds and subtracts entire sketches: “There are tons of characters that didn’t make it to Fringe, because they weren’t ready or they didn’t fit in thematically,” Salerno told HuffPost. “But trust me: lots of people live in my head and are dying to get into that box.”
“Audience response is really important to us,” added Bischoff.
“The Box Show” was singled out as one of the “weirdest” FringeNYC shows by TimeOut New York, and that off-the-beaten-path aspect is important to Salerno and Bischoff in more ways than one.
“Too often in ‘mainstream theatre,’ there is no room for risk or edgy work,” Salerno told HuffPost. At FringeNYC ― which is celebrating its 20th anniversary ― and in other independent theater spaces, she said, artists can “make space for themselves and be empowered to create their own daring work without ‘permission’ from anyone else.”
Plus, Bischoff chimed in, “From a practical standpoint: the rungs of the theatre ladder are very steep, and even the off-Broadway community is very competitive. So opportunities like the Fringe are a great jumping-off point.”
In case you’re wondering, FringeNYC can claim to have helped launch the careers of alumni such as Mindy Kaling, Bradley Cooper and Morgan Spurlock.
These opportunities might be particularly meaningful for women-led, women-created shows like “The Box Show,” which boasts an all-female team ― not to mention for playwrights, actors and directors of color. With theater, as Bischoff said, “sadly still a man’s world,” supporting women’s work at the earliest rungs on the ladder can make a difference.
“I think the best thing that women in this field can do is flip the script ― redefine the limitations that people are placing on them,” said Salerno. With more fringe female playwrights and directors getting opportunities, we’re all likely to benefit more from a shakeup like that.
The creator of “The Box Show” offered up a few other women-centric, script-flipping shows now showing at FringeNYC so New Yorkers can get their indie theater fix. And, if you’re elsewhere, keep your eyes peeled. You just might see these ladies on your TV screens before too long.
“A one-woman show by Julie Katz about the personalities of the tech industry. Julie and I improvised together out in San Francisco at Endgames Improv, and she is a funny lady!”
“An edgy and violent new piece about six sisters who are cosmically cursed to stir one pot for eternity.”
“Written by outstanding artist Aisha Jordan, about six strangers in the final hours of humanity.”
“By Eastern Nazarene College, who re-imagine the lives of the forgotten women in the Bible.”
“A two-woman adaptation of ‘Comedy of Errors.’”
To check out the full array of The New York International Fringe Festival 20th Anniversary shows and buy tickets, visit the website. FringeNYC will run from August 12-28, 2016.