By James Bartholomew
This September, Theatre Row will once again open its doors to the United Solo Theatre Festival, the largest festival and celebration of solo performance in the world. Running September 19th through November 24th, this year’s festival will mark the tenth anniversary of the event. It’s an occasion that United Solo intends to mark with all the prestige and grace that its attendees and participants have come to expect since the festival’s inception one decade ago.
Ten years after its original run of forty‑seven solo shows across two weeks, United Solo prepares for what will surely be its most ambitious season yet. Emmy Award recipients and nominees abound, including celebrated producer Teresa L. Thome in “Warm Cheese,” comedian Debbie Kasper’s premiere of “Has Anybody Seen Debbie?” and primetime legend and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” star Ed Asner performing “A Man and his Prostate,” written by Peabody Award and three‑time Golden Globe winner Ed Weinberger.
But what makes United Solo so remarkable isn’t just its notable list of decorated and well‑respected performers, but also its commitment to sharing new voices from up‑and‑coming artists. Last year’s festival saw impressive offerings from performers, writers, directors and producers from all walks of life, whose dedication to solo performance shined just as brightly as accolades from their peers. This year’s festival marks world premieres for several productions, including Oscar Emmanuel Fabela’s portrait of a would‑be monarch in “Don Carlos: Prince of Asturias,” and national premieres for plays like “Bare Knuckle,” Jake Boston’s brawling coming‑of‑age story set in the gritty world of bare‑knuckle fighting.
And while most of the voices in this year’s festival will be American, United Solo’s commitment to showcasing international theatre artists is as apparent as ever. From South Africa, Bonani Miyambo brings “Kafka’s Ape,” his rendition of Franz Kafka’s 1917 story of a jungle ape who learns to be human, adapted for a 21st‑century, post‑Apartheid audience. That melding of literary history and contemporary identity politics is tantalizing and unique, not entirely unlike Canadian writer and performer Melanie Teichroeb’s “Shield Maiden.” She plays Ingrid, a Viking warrior and motivational speaker, and her 10th‑century TED Talk aims to inspire and empower women while inviting men to join the battle for gender equality. Feminist themes are also reflected in “I’m Woman,” the story of Moldovan performer Ana Daud, who promises to tell “a stark and brutal truth in the body of a woman with a world to confront.”
Regular readers of All About Solo know that, as diverse a medium as solo performance can be, it is especially well suited to intimate and autobiographical stories. Last year’s United Solo Festival gave us memorable productions like Yu Ling Wu’s “American Dream, The,” Anne Torsiglieri’s “A TRAIN” and Beverley Elliott’s “Sink or Swim.” All three shows wowed our critics for their honest and often humorous glimpses into lives and families that, while certainly unique, proved powerfully relatable. The 2018 UFest also gave us performances like Marco Michel’s laudable turn as the artist Antonio Ligabue in “A Kiss,” while “PRINZE” star Jose Sonera won the inaugural All About Solo Critics’ Award for his portrayal of comedian Freddie Prinze, Sr.
These kinds of performances – deeply personal oral histories and captivating impressions – continue to drive a significant number of productions coming to this year’s festival. Sean Devare uses music and Hindu epics to tell his story of first‑generation assimilation in “First Violin.” Immigrant stories are hardly new to United Solo, but much like last year’s “OTOSOTR” by Anatoliy Ogay, its multimedia approach is sure to help it stand out. Julie Gieseke’s “Borderline A**hole” is another autobiographical piece that sees the performer retelling her trouble balancing past relationships and mental illness, while Cathleen O’Malley plans to explore the comically unsavory details of motherhood in “Milkdrunk.”
And on the “biopic” side of solo performance, Paola Hadjilambri gives a voice to Maria Callas, one of opera’s most influential sopranos, in “Callas.” Meanwhile, shows like “JO (Not Just Mrs. Edward Hopper)” and “An Evening with Tennessee Williams,” performed by Pippa White and Sebastian Galvez respectively, offer glances at the formidable women behind two of America’s great artists of the last century.
Complementing the original and diverse entries to this fall’s festival will be a new category of performance, titled “THE BEST OF.” These shows will see some of the festival’s most illustrious award winners from previous years onstage once again. Returning UFest artists include Bill Bowers, whose globetrotting, miming confessional “All Over the Map” received the festival’s inaugural “Best Production” award back in 2010. Fittingly, that award’s most recent recipient, Janis Brenner, is also returning to United Solo this fall with an encore production of her evocative dance piece, “Inheritance: A Litany” (a personal favorite from last year’s festival).
Also returning from the 2018 United Solo Festival is Bellina Logan’s “Confessions of a Mulatto Love Child” and Amber Topaz’s “The Rude Awakening: Sex, Shame ;and Liberation.” Both plays received the All About Solo Critics Choice distinction and were two of our best‑reviewed productions from last fall’s festival, as was Mike Folie’s “My Dead Wife.” Another play by Mike Folie, “3 Men,” will make its return this season after celebrated performances at the 2015 and 2016 United Solo Festivals.
Over 120 artists will share their stories at United Solo this year, but the festival’s “six different continents” tagline is an understatement this time around. That’s thanks to Latvian performer Toms Liepajinieks and his performance of “Lost Antarctica,” based on marine biologist James B. McClintock’s memoir of the same name. Such global inclusion is a point of pride that not many other festivals can boast about.
With up to five performances per day of all manner of genre and medium, the tenth annual United Solo Festival promises to be the epicenter of solo performance this fall. All About Solo will be covering the festival in detail, in both reviewing the shows and as a media sponsor, but that’s no reason to wait until the fall – tickets are available now for all the festival’s exciting entries. We’ll see you there.
The 10th Annual United Solo Theatre Festival
Over 130 unique productions from six continents
Up to 5 shows daily
September 19 – November 24, 2019
Photo Selection: courtesy of United Solo
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.