Fringe Day 2: A Day Full of Female Playwrights

nichole 2Does anyone remember the incredible horror movie franchise from the early-90’s called Critters? Leonardo DiCaprio made his film debut in Critters 3. An amazing performance if you ever have a chance to check it out. I began day two of the Fringe with a performance of Critters an original puppet show written by Darlene Fedele that was not a revival of the movie. Critters: the puppet show is a series of six vignettes illustrating the lives of animals native to the United States such as foxes, skunks and beavers.

The show began with an original composition, a kind of theme song about loving Critters performed by Darlene Fedele of local company Puppets in Performance. Her voice was a bit flat, but the song was sung with great enthusiasm, and it helped generate excitement for what was to come.

This was a dialogue heavy show. For instance, in the first act there is a very long conversation between a feral cat and ‘possum about playing ‘possum to outsmart predators. The introduction of facts into the dialogue was often rather clunky. For instance, an animal would say something like, I do this [animal behavior] because [explanation]. The tone of the dialogue switched from conversational to relaying dry facts. It was jarring to the narrative, and it took the audience out of the unfolding action. I hope that this issue can be smoothed out in the future so that the audience can be educated in a more subtle fashion.

Speaking as someone who has been vegetarian for 18 years, I did really enjoy the veggie propaganda flavored vignette that featured a rabbit declaring his healthful diet. Also, there was a song featured in the last vignette that was hilarious where a dog sings a song to a skunk that has the refrain, “dangerous dog, that’s me!”.  Walking through Frick Park yesterday I found myself singing that at the sight of a rather slobbery beast running in my direction.

The next show I saw was Four Voices…One Story written and produced by Kristin Ward of the Moquette Volante. The concept of this show was simple—four tellings of the story of Cinderella pulled from Italy, the former Czechoslovakia, Kenya and India. I felt a twang of anxiety upon reading this description in the Fringe program. I was concerned that in an attempt to universalize the story of Cinderella, the play would erase or rewrite the cultural experiences of women of color or of another culture’s story tradition. This is a critique that has been lodged often at white feminist playwrights who have portrayed experiences not their own.

I am relieved to write that this was not the case in Four Voices…One Story. This play featured four actresses, each representing one of the previously mentioned countries. The staging of the show was simple, the women stood in a grid formation, two in the front and two in the back. When it was time for one of the actresses to speak, she would step forward and deliver her lines. Unfortunately, the actresses were not off-book for the most part. Since this was a storytelling-based performance with limited physical movement, having the actresses speak directly to the audience would have really enhanced the show. There were times where I got overwhelmed with the verbiage and was craving for something more visual to be unfolding in front of me.

Ward researched and wrote Four Voices over the course of a year using as primary text as possible, and this work was reflected in the script. What I heard in the tellings of Cinderella were themes of self-actualization and willingness to survive hard circumstances. When the stories diverted, the Czech one for instance featured “the art of necromancy” while the Kenyan tale was resolved not with the damsel getting a prince but instead becoming independently wealthy, it was a fun reveal. A playwright in Ward’s position could have smoothed over these divergent narratives for convenience sake to offer the audience a cleaner ending resolution, but we are all better off with a play of more substance that challenges us to value cultural differences.

The last show I viewed was Confessions of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I feel lucky that I got to spend a Saturday so immersed in the writing of female playwrights.  This was the one-woman show lampooning the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope that I didn’t know I needed. But what is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, you might be asking? Well, dear reader, its that quirky, fascinating, conventionally attractive woman that you just can’t get enough of. She is quick witted, with cute hair in barrettes with a mysterious past and a girlish figure. Better yet, here is a more succinct Wikipedia definition: a stock character type in films. Film critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the term after observing Kirsten Dunst‘s character in Elizabethtown (2005), describes the MPDG as “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writerdirectors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

Ah, thank goodness for Tulsa based playwright Anna Bennett.  Bennett played four characters, all riffs on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope: geek girl, silent sprite, free spirit (nut job), and blonde party girl.  This was a show that used multimedia to its best advantage. The audience was introduced to each character a la’ monologue delivered at a MPDG recovery meeting.  After each monologue Bennett would retreat backstage while a video clip of that character wistfully interacting with a beau played on a screen. These short clips showed the MPDG’s recreating some of the best of the best of MPDG behavior: inspiring comic book artists and enchanting socially awkward young men.

The reason this play was so compelling was that Bennett established stakes for the characters early on. We witnessed these seemingly trope characters come to grips with wanting a life not defined as objects or at the mercy of men’s whimsy but as actual women making decisions about their lives. Deep, I know, in a play featuring a ukulele adaptation of Smash Mouth song. What could have been another fun vehicle for character sketches a la’ The Eulogy was instead a piece of theater where the both the protagonists and the audience came out a little better. Bennett is a young playwright coming into her own. I can’t wait to see what is next.