This year the Fringe Festival is once again held in the beautiful North Side. And it’s almost as if the weather god is also a big fan of this annual unjuried theatre event where we celebrate the brightest and boldest talents with the most vibrant theatre scenes here in Steel City. This entire weekend suddenly escapes the Pittsburgh April weather curse and is blessed with sunshine and a 70 degree summer breeze. So with my sunglasses on, press pass in hand, and the hilly red brick pavement with old rail track under my feet, I was on my way to my first day of shows in my first ever Pittsburgh Fringe Festival, and thinking that how this gorgeous Saturday afternoon just couldn’t get better.
My first two shows are in St. Mary Lyceum, which located on the Chestnut Street away from all the other venues this year near East Ohio Street. It’s a little cozy dive bar with the nicest bar tender. You have to go through a sliding door to get to the performing space in the back, which made the whole experience a lot more magical for me like going to Diagon Alley and Hogwarts. I’m feeling good about this so far!
The first show The Last Lifeboat was presented by Waynesburg University Players. Based on the play by Luke Yankee, this one-act play tells the story of J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line and the man behind the Titanic (yes, that Titanic). Through memory flashbacks and linear story narratives, the whole blueprint of Ismay’s life before and after the Titanic will get closer and closer to sight in the 60-minute ride, with the actual sinking moment naturally being the most intense dramatic moment of the play. The main conflict of the show is between the misunderstanding toward Ismay from the press and other survivors, and the truth of what really happened on that last lifeboat. And in the end you will walk away with a question: what would you do if you were in Ismay’s shoes, see your loved ones again and live a coward, or do the noble thing and die a hero?
Directed by Michael Merten, the very fast pace of the play made the story feel like a crash course of Ismay’s personal history that a lot of tense moments seemed melodramatic without proper build-up. And the love triangle between Ismay and two women of his life turned out to be rather distracting and eventually made the play lose its anchor on what the story was really about. But the comeback of the people whose lives were affected by the incident and Ismay’s decision in the end was indeed a nice touch and made the whole experience wholesome again.
Most of the casts play multiple characters at the same time with costume and accent changes indicating who is on stage now. Major highlights are Mr. Dawson Laabs, who played J. Bruce Ismay with a heroic personality and a conflicted soul that we all care about, and Mr. Adam Tapparo, who played almost all the villainy characters in the play opposing Ismay with a sharp edge and a terrifying style. Ms. Kally Hallett’s Florence Schieffelin is also one of my favorites, whose portrait of a caring mother and courageous wife will bring out the emotional dimension of the story.
Presented by Brawling Bard Theater, the second show A Dream of Midsummer took a completely different direction and brought the comedy back to the spectrum. Think about this as a rehearsed improv version of Shakespeare’s classic, and if you’ve read the story in high school, you will already know 90% of the story.
Written and directed by Mr. Alan Irvine, the play opened with the premises that the ensemble from Brawling Bard Theater went to the wrong venue and got the wrong program for the day, so they had to come up with an non-rehearsed, completely “improvised” 60-minute version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sort of like a “show within a show” if you really get technical about it. The entire play was going as Mr. Irvine directing all the actors playing their parts on the spot, and occasionally some audience will participate by playing a “sit-in” role or drawing a name from a hat to decide who get to play the mischievous Puck.
The structure of the play seemed chaotic at first but maybe that was the intention as no one on stage was supposed to know what was going on. And due to the fact that it was meant to be an improvised show, it was really hard to engage with the audience too despite of the audience participation effort. But once you realize that this show is actually not about the story of Midsummer Night’s Dream at all but more like a Fringe spirited comedy improv, then all there is left is just great great fun. The acting was an ensemble effort like what you would usually see in an improv show. One of the highlights was Ms. Elizabeth Irvine, an 11th grade Pittsburgh CAPA student who brilliantly played two characters at the same time on stage. And as for other surprises including a “sword fight” and some Hand to God references, I’m afraid you will just have to see it to find out!
For tickets and more information about the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival, click here. Stay tuned for more reviews coming soon!