The thing with attending the Fringe Festival is that you can’t really know what to expect. I’m keenly aware of this as I enter St. Mary’s Lyceum; as I enter, the only evidence a festival is occurring appears to be the laminated press pass hung around my neck. A single sign denoting the Fringe Festival’s presence is placed outside, and the bar patrons inside give me sidelong glances as I enter. A festival staff member lets me know I’ll need to head to the basement to see my first show: How to Suffer Better by Amanda Erin Miller.
The conceit goes like this: Celeste, an alcoholic sociopath who, guided by a piece of life advice pertaining to ‘suffering better’ on the underside of a Snapple cap, has gathered a motley crew (re: folks in apparent psychological duress) to compete in front of an audience to discover who, truly, suffers the best. Mix the opportunity for a wide variety of performances and the dismissive cruelty inherent to Suffer Better’s conceit, and you have a solid foundation for a bleak comedy, one which includes a clown named Amondo who falls into despair after an experience with a call center and a maid who constructs a dance partner out of cleaning equipment.
More characters follow, but not all of them feel comfortably balanced. Miller at one point re-enters the stage as the crowd-favorite Edith, an extremely horny octogenarian who workshops her dating app, a Tinder-style swipe-athon that includes the intimate medical history of its participants, which she demoes for the audience, Shark Tank-style. Things go well until Miller ensures we all understand that Edith is in a state of abject depression and is (so far unsuccessfully) seeking to end her own life via assisted suicide. It isn’t impossible to make light of mental illness, particularly if the character making the joke is doing so in an act of reclamation, but Miller frequently drops her characters’ darkest moments like anchors that bring the show’s energy to a halt.
Nowhere was this more acutely felt than in Miller’s portrayal of a teenager singularly obsessed with Donald Trump. There is a chance Miller didn’t intend to make a connection to the real-life incident in which a teenager in need of psychiatric helped scaled Trump Tower back in 2016, but the comparison there is obvious and, perhaps, in poor taste. Miller is clearly a versatile performer, but her characters need to be more than broad stereotypes that rely on desperation as a punchline.
The next show in St. Mary’s I caught was David Lawson’s No Oddjob, a one man show that more or less acts as an interpersonal shorthand for the myriad controversies the video game industry has endured over the last twenty-plus years. Truth be told, however, Lawson’s anecdotes are more incidental to his comedic A Brief History Of-style show. While one anecdote regarding Wolfenstein becoming banned from his local Jewish Community Center feels somehow prescient to the narrative, others involving judging the perceived ‘performative’ geekery of wearing video game referencing t-shirts feel not only irrelevant to the history of video game controversy, but to his own narrative as an industry advocate as well. Even the mention of it recalls the gate-keeping notion of capital G “Gamer” culture, which posits that video games are a lifestyle, dammit, and forever holding one more venue for art and entertainment at arm’s length to a larger segment of the population who just kind of wants to play video games, thank you very much.
Worse yet, Lawson’s method of argument more or less rests on the assumption that everyone in his audience will find even the most graphic instances of violence in video games to be banal. While it’s true that the science is in on video games causing the desensitization of violence in teens (surprise: it’s a myth), that doesn’t mean that seasoned fans can’t become desensitized to violence as it’s portrayed in video games, just as it with film or television audiences. To show out of context clips of Wolfenstein: The New Order to an audience unfamiliar with video games would be like showing a character get slowly cannibalized in The Walking Dead to a person whose entire experience with television is reruns of the show Friends.
The final show of my first day, Show Up by Peter Michael Marino, is an improvised comedy about the life of the audience. Marino has a series of topics that form a larger narrative and audience members fill in the blanks with real stories from their lives.
Marino is clearly an experienced improviser, pulling collective laughs from an audience who at first appeared disjointed. I was surprised that Marino found quite literally the only woman in the audience unwilling to participate, and then forced her to do so. This resulted in the most awkward conversation imaginable, in which Marino more or less demanded that this unfortunate woman reveal any detail about herself, no matter how small.
Impossibly, the move paid off. I’m still not sure how. At some point in Marino’s narrative, which for us was a bizarre autobiography in which a child set a school teacher on fire and became a renowned Walmart greeter, this woman was forced onstage. Her refusal to speak ended up feeding into this oddly redemptive arc about silence and love, which was (predictably) peppered by awkward pauses between the two.
This is the kind of moment you go to the Fringe Festival to witness. It was strange, immediate and inexplicable, that Fringe-specific concoction that results in a totally bonkers show exploding into life for just an hour before dissipating into an empty stage to be filled with yet another show, and yet another unpredictable memory in the making.
These moments require not only the talent, but also a sense of interconnectivity between audience, artist and venue in order for them to exist. Making my way across the North Side to the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church for my second set of shows on my second day, it occurred to me that there was a wide gulf between all three of these things. The higher venue count of last year’s festival meant that walking form one venue to another meant passing at least a dozen people with blue Fringe t-shirts or festival passes around their necks.
Thoreau, NM’s Bottle Rockets, my first show of day two, is a traditional three-person play about the lives of a local family; by local, I mean, like, super local, these characters ostensibly lived within a short walk from the theater their story was being performed in. Written by Lance-Eric Skapura and performed by Robin Beruh, Sophia Englesberg and Bruce Story-Camp, it’s a likable portrayal of authentic Pittsburgh life. Jordan is a twelve year old with a fascination for science and blowing stuff up, and the show initially revolves entirely around a variety of familiar trials she has to undertake such as: “what’s the deal with boys?” and, “why can’t I dismantle the brick fireplace with a chisel?” All three performers feel like neighbors you used to live across from. There is a nostalgic warmth and humanity to their dynamic.
Unfortunately, a startling twist midway through the show that forces a reevaluation of Bottle Rocket’s initial premise, which I wasn’t a huge fan of. A revelation about one the character’s is dropped like an anvil, and while I appreciated the sudden gut-drop of the moment I couldn’t help but feel I’d seen it coming. The world of Bottle Rocket felt too perfect, and as a result I was more or less forced to assume tragedy would strike. Members of the audience clearly felt differently: Bottle Rockets is quintessential ‘not a dry eye in the house’ material, and was a surefire Fringe Festival hit.
My final show of the night, Andrew Frank’s comedy special, Macrocosm, is correctly billed as both “cerebral” and “empathetic” standup comedy. In an era of Louis C.K.s and TJ Millers, we need more performers in comedy like Andrew Frank, who view empathy as a comedic strength. So much of Frank’s comedy is political, but he’s also friendly and willing to call out larger acts of oppression within American culture. In fact, he actually managed to wring a few laughs out of me, and I’m something of a miserable asshole.
There was unique talent on display this year which I was lucky enough to catch, but I still left the festival feeling empty. This festival is at its best when it is a breathless sprint from one act to the next. The Fringe Festival is named so because it brings acts who are on the fringes of the mainstream to a single space for everyone to explore; this year, relegated primarily to two unbranded venues separated by what amounts to a 25 minute on foot trek, the word “fringe” was unfortunately literal.
For more information about the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival click here.