It was 90 degrees, I had a backpack full of snacks and water bottles and I was hiking from one end of the North Side to the other to catch an outdoor performance; Pittsburgh Fringe was in full swing. That was last year; this year I found myself praying that the snow would melt before the pavement pounding began. Luckily, Spring broke just in time for the third annual Pittsburgh Fringe Festival, where at least the offering of new and edgy works stays consistent.
My Fringe experience began in the basement of Young Men’s Republican Club, a fraternal organization that was probably a hopping place in the 70’s and 80’s. It’s Who You Know is a one man storytelling show created and performed by Chambers Stevens. I admit that I was rather skeptical when finding out the show was essentially a man telling stories of people he has met in Los Angeles and I figured it would simply be a show of name dropping. Luckily, my cynical assumptions were doused as Stevens opened his show by explaining his lineage of Tennessee storytellers and then began to draw cards with names of famous people in which he had stories to tell. Inspired by the late Spalding Gray’s autobiographical performances, Stevens shuffles his deck of name cards, selects a number of cards from the deck and tosses the rest on the floor, making each of his shows a bit different. During the performance I attended, we heard stories of sitting first class with Chaka Khan, accidentally stalking Julia Roberts, and Quincy Jones’ awful recipe for ribs among others. Stevens’ storytelling abilities are strong and he connects with the audience in a way that is very personal, so much that audience members felt comfortable enough to comment on his stories and ask questions directly to Stevens from their seats. At the beginning of the show, Stevens explained his father’s and grandfather’s style of storytelling and how they would either tell a story full of BS with but a grain of truth in them or simply sprinkle seeds of falsehood throughout their stories. Now, Stevens claims his stories are 100% true but even if there are a few planted seeds, he filled enough seats to tie for the Audience Choice Award and entertained his way to winning Best Actor.
I made my way out of the grungy basement of the YMRC and back into sunlight and swung back by Arnold’s Tea for a ham and cheese croissant and an Arnold Palmer that had me daydreaming of Carolina. As soon as I finished indulging, my tour group started to form for If I Die I’m A Legend… by Boom Concepts. This immersive performance takes audiences on a satirical real estate open house in a gentrified neighborhood. The group walks from Arnold’s Tea down East Ohio St. while the agents point out the sights and amenities of the neighborhood before we arrive the listed apartment. Once inside, everyone understood this would not be your average showing. Imagine a not-so-fun house meets A Christmas Carol, but instead of ghosts of Christmas past, we are visited by the Street Deities representing Black disparagement, struggle and Black Power movements. These deities were those on the front lines of the crack epidemic, victims of eugenic sterilization and members of those campaigning for the first Black president and the Black Lives Matter movement. The artists tell their stories through monologues, poems as well as song and dance, making it an almost complete sensory experience. The foundation of this performance is what set it apart and set it up to win the Selke Award (Best in Show). With some refinement, this show has a lot of potential to be one of many voices in a movement and, in my opinion, could be expanded as an immersive production and even be adapted into a full stage production one day.
I barely had enough time to digest what I had seen and make an offer on the property before having to hike back to the YMRC for the final two shows of the night. Up next was Best Intentions by Shark Eat Muffin Theatre Company, which was unfortunately cancelled after their first performance. The audience finds themselves witness to the interaction between two women of Shakespeare’s plays, Emilia of Othello (Amy Fritsche) and Angelica, Juliet’s nurse (Jess Tanner) that are trapped in what they have deemed purgatory with nothing but a kitten puzzle and a voice recorder. The pair get to know one another while they grapple with their past sins in an attempt to leave escape their confinement. While the story and violent dance at the end were a bit confusing, the way Fritsche and Tanner commit to their characters really carried this show. When Best Intentions came to an end, there was a brief moment for me to draw in some fresh air before Always B Sharp took over the basement to create another one of their improvised musicals. This year, the comedy troupe included only three members, about half compared to last year when they performed in the upstairs of an insanely warm church. ABS opened with a brief introduction of what they do, including impressions of the worst people in their profession (I suggested senators) before diving into a rather confusing musical tale of trying to make it in Hollywood.
Overall, the night was quite entertaining, even a bit educational and gave me something to talk to my Lyft driver as I headed home looking forward to Sunday.