Off-Broadway Shows Full of Impressive Innovation

New York has any number of theatrical options on a given night that extends well beyond Broadway. This week, I had the chance to see two up-and-coming shows in Midtown that are only gaining more popularity and prestige. Both Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party and See Rock City & Other Destinations thrive on their originality and challenge the traditional theater experience. They're both unpredictable in their own ways, thanks largely to decisions and details that keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

Dance Party is exactly what it sounds like and professes to be. Rather than tell a standard story about one Illinois teacher who is put on trial for having her fourth graders tell the "real" version of the 16th president's story, Aaron Loeb presents a much wackier perspective that includes a cast of seven who all take the stage dressed in Lincoln garb. As the play progresses, Lincoln appears and reappears as a character -- played by different actors, depending on the scene -- who provides a moral conscience to the others.

Loeb somehow makes this believable because of the way the play is structured. You see, at the top of the performance, the actors present three different story arcs to the narrative, with the promise that you'll follow the same story three times through the eyes of different actors. But it's up to the audience to decide the order. This offering would be downright suicidal in most plays, but this one is built in a way that not only makes it possible, it's a central part of the play in delivering characters' biographical information and the play's recurring motifs.

Lincoln, or "Lincoln," keeps the play from spiraling into all-out mayhem. He calms characters down, reassuring the audience that the Honest Abe we know and recognize is still alive and well inside this cast of conniving characters. Loeb's relies on the interplay between the historical depiction of Lincoln and contemporary issues like political correctness and gossip.

If Dance Party recalls historic characters, events, and details to push along its story, See Rock City does the same with its sense of geography. Jack Cummings III's show is a series of six vignettes that have little in common with each other aside from the way their scenes are built on, and influenced by, their settings. Niagara Falls, Roswell, the Alamo, and, yes, Rock City, are some of the locations that host a series of visiting characters looking to work through their issues. Their time spent in these places lends them insights into everything from love to longing, companionship to regret.

Cummings can pull off so many different story lines in his 100-minute show because he uses the audience's imaginations to fill in all the details that happen before and after these brief scenes. In fact, from the first minute you enter Rock City, you find a barren stage with a stack of beach chairs to the ceiling. The actors, who look no different at first glance than the theatergoers, position the chairs in rows for the audience as part of the show. In these minutes, the audience begins to see how something gets formed from nothing, seats suddenly appears inside an otherwise empty space. Even this small but calculated decision helps the audience get into the right mood for what they're about to see.

Rock City will, unfortunately, be closing this weekend at the Duke On 42nd Street Theatre, but Dance Party just opened its doors at the Acorn Theatre. That's the nature of theater in New York as new shows are constantly popping up; there's always something new and different to be found and enjoyed.