Thank god (whichever deity of your choosing) for Google maps. Not only did it help guide me into the city as I drove in from the lovely environs of dreary Erie, but it also got me to the venue for my first day at the 2017 Pittsburgh Fringe on Saturday. While there are four venues with various spaces and various performances to choose from, I made my way over to the fringes of the festival to St. Mary’s Lyceum for the evening, a little bar with a community hall space in the back that reminded me vaguely of the rooms where my Girl Scouts troop met. A very simple stage was set up at the far end of the room. I had never seen a production put on in a space like this before, and I was excited to get a taste.
My night began with Shedding Skin, a wordless one hour dance performance that feels much more like witnessing a private ceremony or ritual. In it, the audience observes Julie Leir-VanSickle of Creative Moves as she slowly struggles to tear off her old skin, quite literally, starting with her hands and then her arms, neck, and legs until she is “bare” before us, a new creature, free and relieved. But even when she has wriggled out of who she was, she still holds on to and cherishes what she has left behind by gathering them into a small box. The dance is captivating, at times reminiscent of the controlled movements of yoga, but other times languid and sinewy like the coils of a snake, or open and joyful like a crane in flight. The lone performer commits to the dance she has created which commands the audience’s attention, and while the sense of story is blurry here and there, we are left with no doubts about what we have observed together. After all, it is an outward show of something we have all experienced; we need no words.
The next performance to take the stage depended on nothing but words. Krish Mohan uses his stand-up comedy routine to talk to us about some tough issues in Approaching Happiness, like mental illness, drug use, guns, and race. I think Mohan is more than capable of speaking for himself, so I’ll try not to spoil his bit, but maybe I can tempt you with notable phrases like “The Rat Tickler,” “I think the Catholic apocalypse is cute,” and “The Devil is an immigrant on this plane of existence.” Don’t let these lull you into a false sense of security, however. Approaching Happiness is not out just for laughs (with unabashed dark humor) – Mohan wants to get us talking to each other about these issues as much as he does.
After a good chuckle, it was time for some magic. Cody Clark also tries to get us to talk with his performance, but more than that, he wants us to participate; he’s a magician and volunteers are required. But what sets him apart from the average magician is the story he tells us with his illusions. From the start, Clark frankly discusses the realities of living with autism as he pulls Thomas the Tank out of a box with no bottom, summons boxes of Velveeta out of an empty paper bag, and restores a cut rope to its whole state. Like Mohan, he cracks jokes about the stereotypes and his personal experiences, but autism is never made out to be a joke. Instead, it invites the audience into Clark’s unique world, especially timely at the start of Autism Awareness Month.
Little did I know that I was about to enter my own unique world afterwards with Cockatrice, a production not for the faint of heart, and most certainly not for the kiddies. Bradley K. Wrenn leads the audience through a very interactive quest to help the Chosen One, a fellow audience member, slay the villain and save the kingdom. He has only a handful of props and costumes that he uses to transform himself into a host of characters, some of them quite disturbing, but all of them very distinct. The rest of the performance relies upon the imagination, which can be difficult to coax out of people, but Wrenn will beat you over the head until you comply. And if you comply, you may just get a beer or a chocolate bar in the bargain, and you will certainly have to wipe the tears from your eyes (I’ll let you guess if it is from pain or laughter). Google maps managed to bring me to the right place, and I am hungry for more Fringe.