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Under the Dragon’s Tail: A Review

Characters endure a variety of transitional moments in playwright Isaac Byrne’s Under the Dragon’s Tail, a quartet of short plays at Matthew Corozine Studio Theatre.

Also directed by Byrne and featuring players from Theatre 4the People (co-founded by Byrne), Dragon’s Tail presents its characters in extreme situations and then pushes them even closer to the edge. Ophiology begins en medias res – perhaps even post medias res – as three marauders confront each other on a hot desert night after a heist has gone drastically wrong. Ace (Aubrey Clyburn) has just shot and killed a police officer and offers no easy consoling explanations to her girlfriend, Reggie (Melissa Mateo). Meanwhile, Jacky (Danielle Grisko), the third member of their wild party, has also been shot and is caught between Reggie’s pleas to help her and Ace’s refusal to do so.

While the situation is absurd, the cast plays it adroit and straight, and while the three performers capture the urgency of the moment and deliver Byrne’s mordant humor perfectly, Ophiology does require a bit too much guesswork to catch up to where this play is when we encounter them – how many different events have already happened leading up to where we find them, and who are these three, exactly, to each other? Byrne provides a nice button on the piece, but we’re also left wondering if the act has indeed gone in the right direction. (And yes, if you know what the title means, snakes do factor in here.)

In Letters to a Cosmonaut, a crew member (Haley Rice, excellent) finds herself alone in space, torn between the fear she finds alone in the universe and the traumas she relives back on earth. Her only companion is the occasional contact she has with the command center (a recording of Ksjusha Povod’s voice) as she ruminates on her current solitude and the people who have caused her pain. Byrne is able to make the character’s emotional and physical claustrophobia palpable – when a problematic home base is still the one you long for, that’s cold comfort indeed. (Joshua Rose’s lighting and scenic design is solid throughout Dragon’s Tail but are particularly evocative here.)

In One. Two. Three., two exes go through the detritus of their now-ended relationship as they move out of their shared apartment. Wednesday (Kat Donachie) speaks in a torrent of philosophical references while Ash (Evan Simone Frazier) asks many direct questions that only get indirect answers. asks a lot of questions and gets no clear answers. Byrne’s effect here, while a little befuddling, also serves a dual purpose: as we watch the former lovers divest their life together, they are also dissecting it. And they’re not able to get the answers they want from each other. Perhaps it’s not as easy as one wants to the think it is for a pair to truly know each other – and perhaps the only way to obtain any type of closure is simply to shut the door and walk away.

Conor M. Hamill runs away with Dragon’s Tail thanks to The Golden Fleece, in which he portrays the Jason of mythology as a modern-day stand-up routine. Except he’s not quite alone at the wheel – every time he tries to steer his biography in a more flattering direction, some unseen force tortures him (Chris Cornwell did the sound design) and forces him to redirect his tale of arrogance, cravenness and infidelity toward a more truthful path. Byrne finds many parallels between Jason’s entitlement and a general lack of accountability permeating the culture.

It’s apparent, though, that the two solo one-acts work at a higher voltage than the other two; assuming it were feasible to do so, I might rearrange the order of the show’s four set pieces to maximize their oomph and accessibility, perhaps replacing One. Two. Three. with The Golden Fleece as the evening’s closer. Regardless, virtuous or flawed, victim or perpetrator, the characters throughout this quadriptych share one common goal: a sense of not being listened to, and longing to be heard. The same is true of Byrne himself, an established director and playwright but a burgeoning playwright. Attention must be paid. Theatre 4the People is offering several pay-what-you-can options for audiences, and I’d advise taking advantage of it. There are real treasure to be found here.

Under the Dragon’s Tail, presented by Theatre 4the People,

Matthew Corozine Studio Theatre (357 W. 36th St., 2nd floor)