As a first time attendee and critic of the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival, I had a certain set of expectations in terms of tone for the shows I was about to see, expectations that were exploded immediately. Rather than a series of short, gently experimental pieces, the festival instead greeted me with Betsy Carmichael’s Bingo Palace, an insane sojourn into the brightly lit world of celebrity bingo.
Joey Bucheker’s Bingo Palace is an interactive bingo comedy. This is a series of descriptor’s that have rarely, if ever, been applicable to a performance in human history. The titular Betsy Carmichael, a fanatical Vegas-casino type in a mumu, delivers monologues about the glory (and sexual nature?) of bingo in between fully realized games of bingo the audience is expected to participate in. And when you attend Betsy’s show, participate you will. Besides playing the game, a series of dance moves accompany many of the potential numbers to be called. At times, the fun of the show is in how much effort it takes to simply keep up with Bingo Palace’s manic energy.
The show also features some wonderfully weird sketches that demand audience members make shiny balls, pray to the higher power of bingo, and marry one another. In one of the most singular and amazing moments of the festival, Betsy napalms the audience with handful after handful of large, hard candy when a certain number is called.
Yet, Bingo Palace is a remarkably skillful affair; no potential audience demographic will feel left out or particularly uncomfortable. The show is enough of an assault on the senses to really engage the 18+ demographic that makes up most of the festival, but is also friendly enough to accommodate younger audiences and knowing enough to speak to older audiences.
Next up is Elizabeth Wants a Sword Fight by the Brawling Bard team. The show is a Fringe mainstay, and with good reason. It’s simple, fun-for-all conceit – a young woman in search of adventure challenges the narrator of her life to provide her with one – masks a series of sometimes complex meta-textual allusions to the works of Shakespeare.
Sword Fight is also a show that embraces its budget aesthetic in a big way, which makes for the kind of plucky, underdog experience the Fringe was made for. Still, it is a show with pacing issues. Much of Sword Fight’s comedy is more hit than miss, and some of the more overlong bits overwhelm the play’s moments of real character.
My day took a turn for the dark during Laugh/Riot’s Love Stories, a collection of short one acts about some fairly ugly sexual relationships. We open with a conversation between a pedophile coming out to a coworker at his school, transition to a man discovering his girlfriend is a stripper when he walks in on her giving a lap dance to a family member, then watch a reformed alcoholic stalker visit his ex-girlfriend and end with a conversation between two women who hide their sexual attraction for each other from their partners.
This is a show that goes for heavy, and it does so with a heavier hand. Rarely do the play’s moments of discovery come from what feels like a natural place, and instead come with the awkward weight of a first time improv comic who just can’t wait to introduce a gun into his scenes. A clear example of this is during a moment in which the reformed alcoholic is accosted by his ex-girlfriend for attempting to hack her father’s leg off with a hatchet. “It was a machete,” he reminds her.
The play has its stronger moments: I particularly enjoyed Rob Connick’s panicky boyfriend, who darts around the stage his stripping girlfriend spouting lines like “come and fuck me you phallus fucking phallus fuckers.” The levity in this section of the play does a good job at keeping everything a bit more grounded, but ultimately what it does is mask a series of ‘let’s take this thing to 11’ moments.
The most unusual and also greatest moment of the day was Chris Davis’ off-kilter comedy One Man Apocalypse Now. True to its title, this is a show in which Davis condenses the anti-war epic into an hour and fifteen minute extravaganza of unbelievable celebrity impressions, complete and utter commitment to character, and parody that goes so far beyond its one-note conceit into a kind of sublime mania.
What makes One Man Apocalypse Now so great is that you can feel the love and repetition for the film. To watch Davis embody Martin Sheen is akin to talking through one of your favorite films with a best buddy. I’m usually fairly stoic when I watch shows, but Davis has the distinction of being the only actor/writer to ever make me actually cry with laughter in a play.
Kevin and Ian: Too Stu2id; A One-Man Show, is a sketch comedy by Ape Yard Staging that similarly chases absurdism. It occasionally succeeds, too: the play’s most memorable character, Nostradamus as a trumpet playing New Orleans jazzman is a solid opener worth giggling along to. However, many later sketches, which mix references to classic literature, philosophy, and figures of historical import with puns and pie fights do little to inspire the imagination, often hitting notes which may feel familiar to fans of sketch comedy.
I ended the night with Randy Ross’ The Chronic Single’s Handbook. The play advertises itself as a show that is “an unflinching look at how men really feel about sex, love, marriage, and massage parlors.” This, categorically, is untrue. Burns’ anecdotes about plowing a Russian woman with alcohol on a boat in the hopes of bedding her, speaking ill of the various prostitutes he spends money on and turning a consensual dominating sexual scenario into a forceful revenge fantasy on the woman who fires him earlier in the play did not speak to me as a man. Rather, the show’s often ugly humor, which is just barely peppered with some basic self-reflection, provided me with an unflinching look at how women must, by necessity, fear some men.
Ross refers to most every sexual scenario in the show as a type of conquest. He sees the want of a wild animal in the eyes of the women he meets, which is to him a challenge. “I want to be that predator,” he says. This unfortunate turn of phrase echoed in my head during the few scenes in which Ross reflects inward.
He has an admirable command of language and a dry sense of humor which are wasted on these somewhat self-aggrandizing short stories. It is very difficult to take a performer seriously who not only punches down, but toes the line with sexual assault as a punch line. Put simply, Ross’ autobiographical show makes him out to be an older, morally dubious Tucker Max. This is not something anyone should be, and it is a sentence I shouldn’t have to write.
What was most amazing about today was how wildly different each show felt. I spent the entire day covering shows at St. Mary’s Lyceum. A show would end, I would be filled with thoughts and feelings, and have no idea what the space I had just left would look like when I re-entered in 15 minutes. If I were to draw a massive diagram of The Fringe fest as a whole with dozens of demographic interests, it would be one big circle.