Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review: The Dentons Are Never Tired of Going to the Theater

By Ed Malin

Martin Denton Martin Denton is an oral history of an amazing man and his mother, who brought exposure and recognition to so many indie theater artists in New York. The indefatigable Chris Harcum (Martin) and Marisol Rosa-Shapiro (Rochelle) are directed by Aimee Todoroff of Elephant Run Productions. They have all seen enough of the local theater scene to tell any story, and yet here they are lovingly transmitting these tales about a family which spent so much of their time bringing us the news about other people’s theatrical productions. I am one of those thousands of artists touched by Martin and Rochelle Denton. It’s kind of meta to be writing a review of this play. During the show, Chris as Martin asked if anyone in the audience received their first play review from Martin Denton and his websites and That was very telling. There is no doubt that this man and his internet skills in the late 1990s kept so many artists on track to create their work; several thousand plays from Off-Off-Broadway, including FringeNYC and other festivals, have been published on the Dentons’ site
But some who encountered Martin Denton on the Lower East Side in the ‘90s may appreciate the play’s reference to Brigadoon: he seems to have appeared out of the mist and then vanished at the end of the weekend.  You will want to know what Martin and Rochelle told Chris, so head to that beehive of theater, the Kraine (Erez Ziv, Godfather).
In 2014, the Dentons are moving from New York City to sunny New Jersey. In this time of packed boxes and transitions, we hear of Martin’s happy childhood in Washington, D.C. with Rochelle and his father, Bart, who liked theater. He would act out all of the roles in The Iceman Cometh, sing songs from Kiss Me, Kate in a unique way, make everyone aware of the importance of Our Town and took the family to see Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! at the newly-opened Kennedy Center. At George Washington University, Martin studies political science, then law, and finds both unconcerned with objective truth. Soon he is running systems for Marriott Hotels, and taking his widowed mother on weekend trips to see Broadway shows up north.  While that’s a great place to start, the Dentons soon discover the many smaller productions happening all over New York.  There are so many new shows looking to attract an audience. Sometimes, these risk-taking productions are quite amazing, and they are willing to give free tickets in exchange for a review, to be shared on one of those new things called websites.  They joke about what “Off-Off-Broadway means”; it’s worth walking two blocks away from Broadway to see something good.  A few years later, the Dentons are running a small press and publishing anthologies of new plays; one of their first acknowledged innovative playwright, Kirk Wood Bromley, urges everyone to use “indie theater” (like “indie film”) to emphasize the spirit of these efforts.
Martin’s boss at the Marriott used to be in the Army, and notices that Martin is coming in to work later on Mondays following extended weekend theater sorties. Instead of the expected court-marshall, Martin is encouraged to move to New York and work remotely.  Rochelle is retiring from her pottery business, so the two find a nice apartment together on John Street, in the financial district. Life is quite convenient until the day when the World Trade Center, two blocks away, is destroyed. Evacuated without their two cats, Martin and Rochelle find an unexpected welcome at the midtown Marriott, which is empty except for them and the Fox News team. Soon they are reunited with their furry roommates and find a new place in Murray Hill, to which they invite their community of reviewers for holiday parties.
Now, the sincere phrasings of Chris Harcum and the rapier-sharp repartee of Marisol Rosa-Shapiro aside, why should you care about this story?  Maybe you are a Millennial-American and take online coverage of things (let alone theater) for granted.  Maybe you are pleased with the subsequent gentrification of every corner of New York. Please consider how (comparatively) little online coverage there was for any kind of New York events.  Gradually, the site recruited an army of reviewers who for many years covered every single one of the approximately 200 FringeNYC shows each August plus more plays year-round.  (For FringeNYC, festival co-founder Elena K. Holy arranged for their reviewers’ paper tickets to be manually pulled and delivered.)  These shows included Urinetown, the pleasantly grotesque dystopian laugh-fest which this reviewer got to see in 1999, which a certain someone advised Martin might be OK to skip, and which went to Broadway in 2001 and did a lot for the community and for the economy of New York.  After Martin and his clan reviewed some of my shows in FringeNYC, I started reviewing other local plays along with them.  They were looking for people who were not professional critics, just experienced in some part of the artistic process.  Letting this army of non-destructive observers loose on the New York scene is what I will always thank the Dentons for; by 2011 they had begun publishing these once-overlooked plays online.  Now your play could succeed (or not) in the Big Apple and then be selected to play in Peoria.  Remember that this was the Dentons’ second revolution. Since 2000, they were already publishing annual anthologies of 10 plays. They happened to be willing to increase that number exponentially.
photo by Cilla Villanueva
Such a community fosters memorable personalities. Martin recalls the awesome absurdist work of Brian Parks, Kelly McAllister, Julia Barclay-Morton, Boomerang, Mac Rogers, Offending the Audience, Horse Country and on and on. At one of his book launch events, Martin becomes aware that Vampire Cowboys Head Priest Qui Nguyen has smuggled a pair of dueling swords past security. Martin’s two creative nieces also accompany and inspire him: one teaches him how amazing it is for a ten year-old to see Shaw’s “Candida” while the other alarms him by walking around the Lower East Side on her way to drop off  thousands of dollars of FringeNYC box office money. (I recall feeling safer doing this with a bicycle.) As we approach the present day, during a Taylor Mac performance the star shows intent to kiss Rochelle, but kisses Martin instead. It is important not to give away too much of the play.  To find out what is the best dish at Monty’s, go see Martin Denton Martin Denton.
Like many a production described herein, this wonderful show does a lot with an inflatable couch and a few boxes and posters.  Elephant Run is all about preserving the history of avant-garde theater.  In this show, they go where even they haven’t gone before. Judging by the joyous atmosphere in the theater, and by the online comments of the very approachable Dentons, this show struck quite the chord. Director Aimee Todoroff has transformed her subjects quite believably into a bunch of theatergoers who for 17 years knew exactly which venue they were going to be in every night. I hope you get to spend an evening listening to them.