An Apocalyptic Tour of Fringe 2017

Fringe is such a strange festival.  It’s really a concoction of the eccentric, a bumbling mind manifested into the sphere of Deutschtown that is Pittsburgh’s North Shore.   There’s a sort of cragginess to the event, a propped up expressionism that hangs together from wires and a shifty foundation, and yet palpitates with the charisma, charm and dressed-down splendor that a discovery usually has.  It’s Einstein’s maxim that revelations are made with a “that’s funny” rather than a “Eureka!”.  It’s at Pittsburgh Fringe that you’ll unearth a basement wonder, a treasure secluded on the fringe of mind, society and theatre itself.  Down into the crawlspace you go, dear Alice to find a spark of catharsis hidden at the end of the tunnel…

traige-3x3-webAllegheny Inn is a resplendent Victorian red-brick mansion with polished hardwood furniture and art on the walls, but its basement was made to exude the post-apocalyptic hellscape that is represented by Bent Antennae Productions’ Triage.  Performer Anna Bennett with a gas mask hosts an underground game show in a seeming post-apocalyptic environment.  Set dressing is a natural advantage for a quality divulgence into scene and that’s found in the claustrophobic, concrete-floored and damp basement of this pronouncedly immaculate building.  Its age is certainly felt and for the sake of the play; and the agedness becomes a great question: How long has the Earth been a hellscape?

Triage is modeled as a game show, which parodies many of the entertainments we indulge ourselves with today: there’s Top Chef, American Idol, America’s Top Model, Survivor, Real World.  Only the songs are made up.  The fashion is derived from scraps and tarps and strange tool implements.  There is sparse, horrible food.  There is no water.  All of the memories are scarred and let on to the origins of certain unnamed horrors.  And it’s all made up on the spot.  And there was good improv by the actors (though it’s a bit weird that their names aren’t exhibited on the program.)

Ms. Bennett’s host game with herself in wearing a gas mask the whole time served as a tiny model for the ticking clock of near apocalypse.  For a 75 minute show, the thing steamed up by midway.  At a certain point within improv, you’re seeing not how the dancers dance but watch how they avoid falling.  But with a steamed face, she pressed on—lobbing grenades and dancing like a standing hyena in heels, quips about their inevitable deaths, the drudge of radiation that is the world outside.  Laughing, beckoning cheering and audience participation.  No water, no crops, all desolation.  But the actors have room for brilliant back and forths, recalling an event of milking a cow:

“I wish we could drink water…”

“Drink Walter?!”

“No, I said ‘water’”

“But I heard ‘Walter’…”

“But you can’t…”

“But what if…”

“See, it’s funny because I heard ‘walter’ and you said ‘wat–‘”

“hey, I think you just solved a problem.”

I do think that perhaps the act could have been played out a few more times for a little better execution.  It was a very good piece with a few rough edges, but what apocalyptic story isn’t?  I’d call it a very ticklish concept and a hell of a good time!  Who doesn’t like postmodern parodies of our decadent, useless lives scrutinized under the lens of a futuristic generation mocking our entitlement!  We’re all bastards, ha!  But we’re fun bastards, aren’t we!!

Also, want to note: the music for Triage was amazing.  Jingles put on the spot, a layering that was at once children show and cynical commentary.  Well done from another mystery artist.

chrisdavisapocalypsenowpostcardfront-1_origIn the basement of St. Mary’s Lyceum is a large room with structure support columns, linoleum floor and drop ceiling.  Marked by the stage lighting hanging from I-beams and the minimalist rapport that identifies the space as a classroom, unhinged.  Throughout the basement performances, the din of noise upstairs.  People stomping on the floors, falling; in other Fringe plays.  For the sake of solitude, it might be too noisy.  To establish madness, though, it’s a charm!

Can we talk about the film Apocalypse Now for a second?  An amazing cast with Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne, Harrison Ford.  This film is canon.  It’s set in stone as a Vietnam “great”.  But what is it, but a deluge of personalities in different states of setting madness aboard an adventure; often described as a hellish or horror.

You’d think: Why watch this theatre version of a film?  Isn’t that redundant?  What is this, Cliff Notes?

It’s actually a pretty intensive, analytical study of the composition of the movie.  To relay certain affects and physical characteristics about each character, to provide the dialogue or narration back in a different, but loyal cadence; even the fruit of the spectacle, which is to see this film dialed back and rediscovered for its historical value and it’s license to do things as a pioneer film: it’s another postmodern treatise on something that is stored in the mind as canon, but re-realized as the juicy embodiment of a child’s mind coveting madness.  Chris Davis’ One Man Apocalypse Now is the sensationalist odyssey of a fan’s tribute towards the compulsion of method acting that created such viscerally composed performances.

I was a bit skeptical from the start.  His impression of Martin Sheen leeching up from a tropical, sweaty insomnia looked a bit like interpretative dance gone silly.  Though Davis’ approach is one of excited mutability, going in and out of the movie, making jokes about certain characters’ tics (his Harrison Ford impression is a blessed mockery of the man’s first acting job).  He pulls you into the movie, but rather than just give a delivery that’s face-deep and impressive; he modes the entirety of the film into a personal quest into his sake, his own journey and the connect between either depressive or adventurous themes in his own life.

This is a very masculine movie, driven by male roles.  But they are also akin to weaknesses that we don’t often see in the stereotypical male.  Much crying, much cowardice.  Davis tortures himself by being dunked in a bucket of water onstage again and again.  He goes shirtless to clothed, back and forth, imitating the constructions of each part’s necessary nudity.  He commits to things like dancing as a playboy bunny.  He dives into personal stories of attempting to save helpless kittens and failing.

We see the oppressive state of guilt unfolding through his catharsis built upon enjoyment of the film.  A good movie means something personal to someone.  And while we re-watch aspects of the film through his behavior, there’s never a moment where we’re not glaringly looking at the actor on the stage.  He provides clues to who he is, the lies he tells, the sadness, hope and fear that pervade his personal esteem; and finally, what drives him to compose an homage to this 40 year old classic.

He takes on each role with the gusto of a Robin Williams’ face-melding clown mixed with the pomp of Robert Duvall’s insane masculinity.  His performance leeches with the full mix of emotion that captivates all the necessary ironies of his becoming familiar identities, but also undoubtedly sharing dark truths about himself.  The play is at once funny, sad and familiar.  He’s a comic bastard, who pulls lines about not knowing what he’s doing in his 30’s, in a basement, in a strange neighborhood in Pittsburgh, shirtless, re-enacting a scene where he’s about to bludgeon himself to death.

Perhaps the spirit of Pittsburgh Fringe is madness.  It’s the madness for actors to attempt to create a work of art in brutally austere spaces for limited audiences to question their sanity.  A lonely sharp turn down the implacable trajectory of unfettered will, or dumb hopes and dreams attempting solace; looking for reason.  I wish more people came to see these shows, got trapped in the mesmerizing strangeness of this event.  It’s like being inside of a mind sheltered within the old buildings along the cobblestone streets and balloon-framed houses of the North Side.  Not much has changed in a hundred years and a well-preserved darkness sustains the old world charm of a dark city and the echoing clack from a shoe walking on a quiet, thin, lived-in street.  It’s a perfect place to go deep into the fetters of the mad.

Stay tuned for more Pittsburgh Fringe fun! Follow along with our adventures through our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #PITRdoesFringe 
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival for complimentary press passes. For tickets, day passes, and more information, click here.