The New York International Fringe Festival is no more, but its spirit lives on at a second-floor black box theater on the edge of the garment district. There you will find “The Rise and Fall, Then Brief and Modest Rise Followed by a Relative Fall of … Jean Claude Van Damme as Gleaned by a Single Reading of His Wikipedia Page Months Earlier,” a new show whose descriptive title takes us right back to the heady days of such Fringe delights as “Theater of the Arcade: Five Classic Video Games Adapted for the Stage” and “Harvey Finkelstein’s Sock Puppet Showgirls.”
Though the show announces itself in an expansive manner, it is a minimalist affair: a low-cost approximative biography of a former B-movie action star told by just two men, using action figures that were sourced on Amazon and then jury-rigged into controllable puppets. Again: very Fringe.
It will come as little surprise to connoisseurs of stage exploitation — an expression I use with affection — that the writer is Timothy Haskell, “one of the great hustlers of downtown theater,” as The New York Times described him back in 2007. In the years after that review, Haskell and the company the Psycho Clan cemented their status as the emperors of immersive horror theater, most famously with the “Nightmare” series of Halloween spook houses, which ran every fall for 14 seasons and returns in October after a hiatus. The Psycho Clan’s exploration of shock tactics peaked with “This Is Real,” in 2017, an escape experience in which audience members were “abducted” in Red Hook.
With “Rise and Fall,” however, Haskell has returned to the lighter, goofier pop-subcultural vein that put him on the Off Off Broadway map in the early 2000s; during that period he turned out productions like “Road House,” a “fightsical” based on the film in which Patrick Swayze played a bouncer, and “Fatal Attraction: A Greek Tragedy.” In this show, the actors Joe Cordaro (Jean-Claude Van Damme, plus a smattering of other roles) and John Harlacher (mostly as a narrator, and ending up in a painfully unforgiving costume) need only an hour to barrel through the life and oeuvre of the so-called Muscles from Brussels, who achieved peak popularity from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s.
Directed by Haskell, his brother Aaron and Paul Smithyman, the show tracks Van Damme from his childhood in Belgium to his early martial-arts training and his eventual move to Hollywood, where he deployed balletic splits and athletic leaping kicks in such classics of the VHS era as “Universal Soldier,” “Double Impact” and “Bloodsport.” Cordaro and Harlacher deploy stick puppets to move the story along, and pull up those action figures (customized by Aaron Haskell) for the fight sequences. Most of those have been dreamed up for the show, like a brawl between Van Damme and Steven Seagal that many 13-year boys would have loved to see in 1995.
As the show’s title suggests, Haskell has little interest in digging beneath the surface to reveal the man behind the muscles. (For insights — sort of — viewers might want to check out the meta Van Damme film “JCVD,” from 2008, which, we are told, “the author of this play didn’t see because he was pissed about it.”) But despite the gleefully juvenile humor, pathos bubbles up, as when Van Damme’s career stalls and he is portrayed as grateful for a spot as a villain named Jean Vilain in “The Expendables 2.” Recalling a childhood trauma, Haskell’s Van Damme swears, “I would never be a laughingstock again. But I am. Or was.” No time to linger, though: There is always one more fight on the horizon.
The Rise and Fall, Then Brief and Modest Rise Followed by a Relative Fall of … Jean Claude Van Damme as Gleaned by a Single Reading of His Wikipedia Page Months Earlier
Through July 17 at the PIT Theater, Manhattan; thepit-nyc.com. Running time: 55 minutes.