Lessons to Learn from Fringe Festival by Rob Lester

fringe scene  Here are some thoughts about things that might be take-aways in thinking back on some shows seen in the Fringe Festival, and some things that didn’t always quite work as well as hoped, at least for this reviewer.

Lessson 1

LESSON # 1: Maybe a musical about a super-hero doesn’t have to be super-cute, feel like a comic book page brought to stage, or ape an action movie, feeling less special for lack of special effects.  With the musical called SUPER!, earnestness and sincerity are the super-heroic attributes of characters as well as the composer, lyricist, bookwriter, director.  In this case, without the need for secret identities, Aaron Michael Krueger fills all those roles in bringing his life-affirming, gently strong story to the Fringe Festival. FRINGE SUPER Having been rewritten since an earlier festival’s presentation, I suspect the show will gain enough frequent flyer miles to land once again, with its powers even stronger.  This full-length, two-act musical is one you root for, even if there is plenty that could be a lot clearer.  Early on, a serenely focused child actor named Gianni Faruolo briefly but significantly gets a spotlight to get words of wisdom from his soon-to-disappear dad.  That child grows up (played by a sympathetic Tyler Egan in a psychologically layered performance) to be blessed and/or burdened with some super powers and responsibility.  The world seems to need hope, help, a conscience, and, well, a hero.  Sometimes dark, sometimes bright as the sun, but often confusing, the play nonetheless pulls us along its bumpy road, our curiosity not always satisfied in events, but emotions get a good workout.  Standout songs in a production that likes its reprises, are anthem-like but effective, especially “Fly” and “A Hero.”  But these variations on too few themes could use some fresh musical blood in tone and could benefit from a dose of warm-spirited, gentle humor to leaven the heavy air.  Oh, but when the excitement sparks and the musical touches on the deeper emotions of caring, commitment, and community represented by its ensemble cast, Super does soar.

Lesson # 2     

Lesson # 2: Odd and unpredictable doesn’t always equal compelling.  ANONYMOUS, ANONYMOUS seems kind of in love with itself and its time-jumping story dares you to follow along on its bait-and-switch, tricky, teasing, self-indulgent roller coaster ride (or, in the literal case of a running scenario, a subway ride) which often jerks and slows to a halt to allow for some bit of drama in the play or the play within the play.  Watch your step getting off.

Anonymous AnonymousIn one more instance in a long, long, long line of theatre pieces about theatre people going to pieces, Anonymous Anonymous uses some tried-and-played-out techniques as if they were fresh and original, played as if not already played-out, such as showing us the same scene over again with the hopes of a fresh perspective because of what we’ve seen and thought since we saw it last, making us unsure if something is really happening or part of a script being acted out, and the lack of progress of a work in progress.  Sure, there can be some knowing laughs when a writer apparently a long-term resident on Writer’s Block bluffing his way through a meeting with his cast when his script hasn’t been finished….and other typical theatrical nightmares.  A few good ideas are here for sure, but some go on and on.  And on.  Either at a snail’s pace or with as much subtlety as throwing a brick at the audience (if only to break the fourth wall).  Playwright Jason Sofge is credited as co-director, along with Michael Melkovic.  The actors, in an unenviable challenge, inevitably, have their work cut out for them and they shine in many ways, humanizing the off-stage sides of the theatre clan and demonstrating striking contrasts (versatility) between the people they PLAY and the people they ARE.  Some genuine emotion came in near the end after the series of “tricks” subsided.  Or was it the ultimate trick of the playwright?  No, I think it was just some good acting and something that rang truer as real life when sorrow and regret take over.          

Lesson 3LESSON # 3—A character in a one-person show had better be sympathetic and/or captivating. DIVA  provided neither for me and my theatre companion was not pulled in either.  The hour-long solo play seemed longer and in-your-face claustrophobic.  The character, June, is played by the playwright.  June is a former opera singer, based on a somewhat eccentric woman the playwright met, then melded with aspects of herself and her director, Helen Doig, and her imagination.  Eccentric should be fun, but the play focused on the sadder aspects of her faded glory and denial and delusion, without a Sunset Boulevard mystique.  The lady, dressed –or almost undressed—in girdle, bra, and feather boa, and spends much of her time parading and panning or pitying her aging body.  June enters out of a large cardboard box and the play gets some points for thinking outside the box with its quirkiness, such as —speaking of boxes— the figure of a smiling square-headed person with floppy limbs made of a series of various-sized connecting boxes.  And speaking of that, there’s a vagina puppet —you read that right—and a beloved vibrator she nicknames Mr. Buzzy.  FRINGE DIVAApparently, the play itself got good buzz, as press material informs us that the piece has been done before and was well received, winning awards such as one honoring female playwrights.

“I shouldn’t drink vodka.  It makes me maudlin,” moans June as she gets progressively drunker, slurring words and blurring memories of a mother who punished her by putting her in a cardboard box, which she now does to her (dead) cat.  She rattles on about music and men and sex and sorrows and her breasts and her burdens.  As the play wore on and wore me out, the diva occasionally wore another outfit, such as the wedding dress from her failed marriage.  While addressing the audience, more or less, she’s addressing herself and her constantly popping-up memories, and also addressing her cat, Eugene, who is dead, but kept on the premises for company, having been stuffed.  Macabre or just mad?  The woman has lost her voice, somewhat lost her career, her nerve, and quite possibly, what’s left of her mind.  The make-up of the play settled into a predictable pattern of ranting and moping, with the actress’s voice dropping in volume when she was pouting or self-doubting, and in these moments she was difficult to hear above the whirrrrr of the electric fans, although we were in the second row and she was downstage (well, down-floor— star, spectators, and deceased feline were all on the same floor level).  An interview quotes the playwright-actress as loving confrontational, bare-bones theatre, and this is certainly that.  FRINGE DIVA TIFFANY BARTONBut without a more fascinating life story and a character breaking down her walls to connect with the audience, who is something more than super-self-absorbed, we are left with just June busting out all over, vomiting her vodka-fueled thoughts and half-truths at us.  With some rethinking, and re-shifting in the events not told chronologically anyway, maybe –just maybe— our hearts could be touched?     

Lesson 4Lesson # 4:  Turning your real-life experiences into a play and then playing yourself doesn’t always make for superb theatre for those who don’t already know you and are curious about your back-story.  Catharsis isn’t as life-changing and healing  for the audience.  But CALM MOM –which starts with a frenetic mom justifiably panicking about her baby who unaccountably stopped breathing— takes us on a frantic ride to the emergency room.  Panic prevails for a bit, but not without humor as Gaby Gold plays herself in the memory montage as well as the Spanish accented hospital worker quizzing her with a sense of jaded indifference and suspicion.  Calm MOM - Design 1And she sings.  And that’s fine because she’s playing herself and she’s worked as a singer for years—once upon a time with none other than Barry Manilow as her musical director, allowing for another actual human to appear onstage, albeit not for that much of the already brief performance (it’s well under an hour).  Thus, many of the songs, which she wrote with a variety of collaborators, are little more than snippets and the scenes little more than vignettes strung together as a montage of monologues and amiable observations.  The most entertaining for me were the ones centering on her mother, who had a grand manner with self-created flair and a fake British accent for a bit of pomp.  With some questionable parenting skills, Mom flounces around, asking her daughter for sympathy, a willing ear, companionship, and massages.  Who’s mothering who?  Ms. Gold is a high-energy performer with brio, relishing some moments to flounce around herself, including her rap song about the multi-tasking of modern moms.  This number, which depends for impact on the tongue-in-cheek unlikely “casting” of a middle-aged plainly-dressed working mom rapping instead of the usual suspects.  It pleased some in the small audience in the small basement space of the Huron theatre under the Soho Playhouse’s main stage.  The short play spun out at high speed and high spirits seemed like something shrunk in the dryer on Mom’s laundry day that could be a longer piece with longer songs.  Perhaps that’s what it should be.  As is, directed briskly by Theresa Gambacorta, it’s a pleasant trifle with tidbits and some cheery thoughts and amusing and touching memories that whiz by like when people used to show you slides of their vacation before the days of plastering photos on Facebook.

Fringe fun