Solos Going Steady at the Fringe

Fringe Day Two kicked off with my extremely questionable choice to bike over to the north side despite it not being nearly as warm as I wanted it to be. After stopping at James Street for my now-customary pre-show beer (two times counts as a custom, right?) I locked up my bike outside Allegheny Inn and headed inside to join the Hugging Army.

The Hugging Army: An Experience in Connection is a storytelling performance by Vanessa White Fernandes, who shares her experiences offering free hugs to people over the last several years. For an intimate experience like this, the living room of the Allegheny Inn bed & breakfast is an ideal setting. Sitting on the couch, White Fernandes invited the audience to pull their chairs in closer and form a circle. As she discusses her thoughts and memories, she cycles through a series of pictures illustrating key points or meaningful moments.unnamed (6)

The goal of The Hugging Army is to help people feel a connection with other people, whether they’re strangers or someone you already know. So naturally, the show ends with an invitation to hugs all around. I happened to be sitting next to Laundry Night’s Captain Ambivalent, so I can report to you, dear readers, that that dude is a good hugger. During the show we were told that a good hug lasts for three breaths, and he stayed in for all three. No hesitation.

Unsurprisingly for a person who spends her time hugging strangers, White Fernandes does a good job of making the audience comfortable in what feels more like a conversation than a performance. And sharing long hugs with seven or eight fellow theater-goers in a bed & breakfast is honestly a great way to warm up after a chilly bike ride.

My second event of the night was Proxemics, upstairs at AIR. Proxemics is a short visual art performance by fabric sculptor Hannah Thompson. I’m just
going to walk you through my train of thought on this one, because it has been my biggest Fringe-venture unnamed (8)surprise so far. When I read the description the other day I saw the sentence “The sculptures have bodily connotations challenging the concept of proximity,” and thought “This is going to be weird and I’m not even remotely artistic enough to know how to appreciate or write about it.” But hey, it’s Fringe, so I’m game for anything.

Sitting on the floor of AIR’s upstairs gallery, I was able to chat for a couple minutes with the artist and some other people in the audience. She’s a Pittsburgh native, and had just returned from a residency of Proxemics out in Spokane, Washington. The performance itself consists of Thompson wearing several of her creations, moving her body and changing positions within the colorful, stretchy fabric to create changing images. She also has some kind of electrical apparatus that changes the sound generated by an amp on the side of the space depending on its position. I was seriously enthralled. If we’re being honest, I’m not sure I got the full message of the piece, but as a visual experience, it’s really striking. The performance only lasts twenty minutes, and it feels much shorter. I’d definitely recommend seeing this if you have a chance.

To finish out the night, I stayed at AIR for The Portable Dorothy Parker. Three one-woman shows in one night! TPDP, written by Annie Lux, features Margot Avery portraying the writer as she selects the pieces to be included in a collection of her works. Quips and poems are excerpted as she reminisces to her unseen and unheard editor. I’m not super familiar with Dorothy Parker (do I have to turn in my NYC ID after that admission?), but Lux’s dialogue and Avery’s performance definitely matched the tone of what we heard of her actual writings. And both are very funny – my “ooh, I’m totally using that line” reflex was triggered several times.unnamed (9)

While the writing and acting were both strong throughout, it did feel a little longer than it needed to be. That might have been a result of seeing it as a late show after several shorter ones, so take it with a grain of salt. The Portable Dorothy Parker plays again at AIR Sunday afternoon, and this summer in Edinburgh. So if you happen to be in Scotland in August, stop in and give it a shot!

Epilogue: I ran into Hannah Thompson on my way home. Hats off to her for impressive memory skills. Recognizing a beardy white dude on a bike in the Strip as someone from a performance hours earlier is pretty amazing. There’s about a million of us out there.

Stay tuned for more Pittsburgh Fringe fun! Follow along with our adventures through our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #PITRdoesFringe 
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival for complimentary press passes. For tickets, day passes, and more information, click here. 

First Time Fringer Saturday!

Whereas the Fringe line up on Friday was a combination of plays in both the dramatic and comedic vein, the line up today was much more oriented towards what one would colloquially describe as music of the alternative nature with an ending of a sombre (and for this reviewer, remarkably personal) note.

The Dorothy Matrix 8 Bit Orchestra

dorothy-matrix-72dpiHosted in the basement of Saint Mary’s Lyceum, this musical performance lies somewhere electronic and classical music genres meet. The titular Dorothy Matrix is actually Andrew Davis, a Philadelphia based musician who also works under the alias SloppyGoop. Matrix also has an assistant, Shari O’Sound, who is played by the remarkably charming Cory Kram. Together Matrix and O’Sound (or Davis and Kram, or SloppyGoop and Kram) have rigged together eight nintendo gameboys, which as any gamer who was alive during the early 90’s will remember operate on 8 bits. O’Sound controls the technical elements, while Matrix acts as the conductor. I hope this doesn’t come off as offensive, but there were several times during the performance when Kram reminded me of Mickey Mouse as the Socerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia. There is also an element of drag to the performance, which I’m not sure how much to play up or play down because Kram did not acknowlege this element during the entire performance.

One of the smartest bits of the performance is that Kram makes references to a fictional universe video games. The ingame universe revolves around stones including a fourth atonal stone, which a glitch. This whole video game and glitch element are reminiscent of Wreck It Ralph and the candy game glitch princess that was played by Sarah Silverman. An audience could expect to Rachmaninoff, Bach, Dvorak, Camille Saint-Soens, and Beethoven. The performance also used several pieces from a film, which I believe is called Lieutentant Kije and which as a lover of Russian film I intend to hunt down at a later date.

Laundry Night

After starting off my morning at Saint Mary’s Lyceum (which by the way has laundry-night-72an awesome membership that I’m planning on joining shortly), I made my way to Artists Image Resource to see Laundry Night. If you think that a pair of Kiss boots, a golden cape, an accordian, and a large blowup dinosaur make for an awesome show, you need to check out Ambivalent Man. Ambivalent Man is a solo performer from Chicago, Illinois. I’d bill him as an accordian player, but that’s not necessarily true. There are also several Ambivalent Man songs that were originally recorded on prerecorded instruments that you used to be able to buy (and maybe still can) at Toys R Us. Ambivalent Man is from Chicago (or at least spent some time there) but his demeanor due to his dreamy and faraway quality remind me more of the Pacific northwest than Chicago.

The story told by Ambivalent Man revolves around Ambivalent Man’s struggle for love in Chicago, laundry based problems, and slow rise to international obscurity as a sideline figure in America’s Got Talent footage. There are several costume changes (and dinosaur inflations) throughout the performance, and at the very least Ambivalent Man’s performance is consistently surprising. If I had to make a comparison, I’d say that Ambivalent Man has some inklings of Emo Phillips, who also spent time in the Downer’s Grove part of Illinois. If you like the strange and peculiar, Ambivalent Man and Laundry Night is a can’t miss.

The Booth

the-booth-photo_origThe Booth was the first opportunity that I have had to check out the new Alphabet City building. Fortunately, due to both The Booth and Sophia Mintas I was able to see both the upstairs and downstairs parts of the very new Alphabet City building. As a resident of the war streets, I’ve been very excited about this building and all that is has to offer in the city of Pittsburgh. The Booth is a very funny, very clever (for those who are in the business) play about the lives of three “booth” people during the run of a play. Written by lance-eric skapura and so artfully directed by Alice McAllister, this play was a good piece of short writing.

In less than 30 minutes, The Booth made me laugh and wonder how much of the play was based on real life events. Special note should go to Lisa Germ as Athena Patel who is a gift to good comedic timing in Pittsburgh as well as Chelsea Forbes (Paul) and Bruce Story-Camp (Robert) of whom comedy is well played. Usually, in that amount of time, I don’t have those needs met. In a short amount of time, The Booth is to the punch. I don’t think the piece will run in larger circulation so I’d say check this out again, but instead I’ll say check out all of those involved.

Sophia Mintas Live!

Due to the influences (classical, maybe opera?) I felt a bit out of my ballpark sophia-mintas-fullsizerender-3_origlistening to Sophia Mintas. She’s a young songwriter and a voice student at Duquesne University. All I can say are good things. There’s a remarkably engaging quality about Sophia Mintas. In between the songs, Mintas told stories about her stuffed elephant, hot pink roses, how she got angry when her significant other did not call her and a childhood love of ice cream. Mintas has performed in  (and gained inspiration from her time in) Italy, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh. Many of her lyrics focus on the transcendent nature of love and the human being experience. Mintas has a very rich voice that serves as a fine compliment to her piano playing. The performance was held in the upper part of Alphabet City which has a lovely bookshop with some very interesting selections by local authors and deep, red curtains that remind me of the red room in Twin Peaks. I was very impressed with the Alphabet City building and plan on going back some time soon.

The Pink Hulk

For the last show of my Fringe Festival run, I headed back to Artists Image Resource. After a day that was spent taking in mostly unique and memorable music act, this was a very emotional performance to sit through. The Pink Hulk is a one woman play by Valerie David about her experience as a survivor of both lymphoma and breast cancer.

David uses a large amount of comedy and heartbreaking honesty to deal with the difficult topics of the play. As a two year survivor of stage three testicular cancer, I connected with this work on a remarkably personal level. I understood very well the topics that David brought up in the play like having valerie-david-the-pink-hulk-richard-booper-photography-pressyour hair until two weeks into chemotherapy and then watching it fall out in clumps, the struggles of chemotherapy, the feelings of desertion by the people to which you are closest. That said and this is a very small point, at one juncture in the play David posits that stage 2 breast cancer was worse than lymphoma. As cancer survivors, David and many others (including myself) frequently find ourselves comparing one form of cancer to another as if it was some strange comparison contest. The two cancers that David had are both brutal and not comparable. (Other than, breast cancer is a direct assault on one’s femininity in the same way that testicular cancer is a direct assault on one’s masculinity.)

That David was able to turn her experience into a play and has the blind courage as a performer to speak about her time in the fire with such candor is nothing short of a demonstration of her many gifts as an artist. If you or a loved one has been affected by any type of cancer, I’d follow David and try to see The Pink Hulk. While a very hard performance to sit through, the play is also immensely rewarding. It was nice to end the Fringe Festival with David’s piece, it brought me back into the daily concerns and perspective that David and I have as survivors while also giving me strength.

Stay tuned for more Pittsburgh Fringe fun! Follow along with our adventures through our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #PITRdoesFringe 
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival for complimentary press passes. For tickets, day passes, and more information, click here. 


Tips and Tricks at Saturday’s Fringe

philadelphiajugglermagicianDouglas Stafford, the writer and star of The Bad Idea Variety Show: My Lack of Social Life delivered a meta-style show at AIR Saturday night about what he describes as the truth of entertainment. Stafford tells a linear story about how he came to be a juggler and magician. Of course you can’t tell a story about magic and juggling without actually demonstrating those skills. For instance, while telling a story about the first time he got drunk, he performed a magic trick involving the shuffling of liquor bottles and a shot glass.

I think, unfortunately, there were many points in the show when Stafford’s magic tricks distracted from the storytelling so that both elements did not come off well. He seemed to be so distracted by performing the slight of handwork that often his lines were delivered with a kind of afterthought. For instance, he told a story about learning his father converted to Sikhism but then quickly launched into an apple, marshmallow, and bowling ball juggling bit. As an audience member, I didn’t understand the takeaway from the story about his father. I was left wondering if perhaps the performance interludes were actually deflections from delving into more emotionally vulnerable storytelling material.

Towards the conclusion of his show Stafford spoke about the idea of magic as human connection. I’m wondering what Stafford was aiming to connect to exactly. There were moments where he seemed genuinely invested in his material—especially when he was talking about his early love of magic but then he delved into some throwaway type jokes about the Penn State child molestation scandal and a bit about Michael Jackson that really didn’t serve his purpose. I think in the coming years we will see Stafford growing into an even better performer and storyteller, and I hope he continues to participate in the Fringe.

After catching Stafford’s show I stuck around to catch The Seven Suitcases of a Snake Oil Salesman by O’Ryan the O’Mazing. Before I get into my review of fringe-3x3this show, I would like to note that I don’t believe O’Ryan’s act was best served by being scheduled within a half hour of Stafford’s show because both performances shared very similar elements of narration with magic tricks, and they even shared many of the same props.

O’Ryan began the show delivering a missive about the nature of lies and lying while standing in front of a stack of seven suitcases.  He opened the suitcase on top of the pile and narrated a story about the origin of the phrase snake oil salesman. It ends up snake oil was a tonic used by Chinese immigrants when the US rail system in the 19th and early 20th century. It was only when white people began marketing and attempting to make the tonic for profit that the phrase was associated with fraud.

After wrapping up that segment, O’Ryan opened another suitcase and delivered a short puppet show illustrating what is possibly a Hopi fable on the theme of lying for survival. I think it was in this segment that O’Ryan lost his commitment to the show. He prefaced this vignette with an aside about throwing the act together at the last minute, and that he found the fable late at night on the Internet. I felt dismayed that a performer of his experience and caliber would toss out those kinds of comments. As an audience member I was immediately less invested in his work.

After the fable concluded O’Ryan spoke more about the payoff of lies for people in power while eating Cheetos, which was an obvious illusion to our current Cheeto-in-Chief.  And then he delivered a charming shadow puppet tale interpreting story by Frog and Toad author Arnold Lobel who was a closeted gay man until he was in his eighties. O’Ryan is amazing at shadow performance and his execution was on point. I think I understand where O’Ryan was going with this portion of the show by alluding to hiding as a form of lying but I believe he needs to add deeper analysis so it more clearly connects to his overall theme.

The show as about three-fourths over when O’Ryan asked how much time he had left. Faced with a looming curtain call O’Ryan then delved into a short monologue about times he lied. This section was both revealing and relatable when he discussed his anxiety and all of the ways he has found to not return texts and emails. He then delved into some charming material about lying his way through several states as a busker. I think what I saw Saturday night was the skeleton of a show-to-be for O’Ryan. With more rehearsal time and confidence, O’Ryan will turn this work into something great.

Stay tuned for more Pittsburgh Fringe fun! Follow along with our adventures through our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #PITRdoesFringe 
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival for complimentary press passes. For tickets, day passes, and more information, click here. 

Friday Fringe at AIR!

17636851_781096878709340_3255313992491545639_oThe evening began with the ridiculous but thoroughly entertaining one man show Laundry Night by Captain Ambivalent.  Captain Ambivalent sings with the accompaniment of a gold accordion,  telling the story of an ordinary super hero.  The one man show reflects on the struggles of being a regular guy in Chicago, through lyrics reminiscent of They Might Be Giants or King Missile.  Sharing experiences of heartbreak, boredom and public transit as well as his rise to local fame, and a brief stint on America’s Got Talent. His costumes and props, including a 15’ purple inflatable dinosaur(not Barney) compliment the silliness of his lyrics.  The show is amusing and certainly a production all ages will enjoy.  Of course in Pittsburgh, everyone loves the the accordion.  All music performed is original, except for the famed 1989 hit by Technotronic, Pump Up the Jam, which is beyond hilarious played on an accordion.  

Next up, is Melissa Cole’s Mo-to-the-Oncle.  The story begins when Detroit img-2737Price loses his vision insurance, just at the time his teenage son, Detroit Price Jr. is in need of new glasses.  When Price reveals to the eyewear associate he has no vision coverage for his son, Detroit Jr is provided with a monocle in place of eyeglasses. The teen is horrified at the abuse he anticipates upon returning to school with a monocle. He goes to school only to have his greatest fear come true.  Another student threatens to jump Detroit Jr, so he elicits the help if his uncle, a pimp.  

Through detailed costume changes, voice reflection and finely tuned body language Cole expertly presents each character; father, optical sale associate, teenager, pimp and doctor.  The program lists Mo-to-the-Oncle as a comedy.  Detroit Jr’s rhyme is clever, the colorful characters depicted by writer/ performer Cole are well developed, the dialogue is sharp but in today’s political climate, to clarify this is a dark comedy.

Proxemics, a wearable art performance by local Pittsburgh fabric sculpturer hannah-thompson_origHannah Thompson is performed on the 3rd floor at AIR, in the gallery exhibiting Visual Fringe 2017 artists. By definition,  Proxemics is the study of humans use of space and the effects of population on behavior, communication and the ways in which humans interact with one another. I was intrigued by the synopsis in the program, I enjoy how performance art challenges my perceptions. Unfortunately, this performance was tarnished for me before it even began.  The artist arrived late, experienced technical difficulties with her music and as she prepared her props, she casually engaged other audience members in conversation about her political positions. When launched, the performance consisted of Thompson climbing into several elaborate cocoon-like stretchy ‘Snuggie’s’. Then she rolled around on the floor, extending her arms and legs or stood and stretched inside the long tubes of fabric.  Maybe she was practicing yoga or some form of free movement dance.  No one else in the audience seemed bothered.  Others mingled around after the 20-minute show engaging the artist in conversation and asking questions.  Performance art? Definitely, but definitely not my thing.

The Pink Hulk: One Woman’s Journey to Find the Superhero Within is written valerie-david-the-pink-hulk-richard-booper-photography-pressand performed by Valerie David, 2 time cancer survivor and improv artist.  Part anecdotal comedy and 100% personal narrative, solo artist David shares her terror,  frustration, depression and anger after learning she is diagnosed with breast cancer just weeks after celebrating her fifteenth anniversary of being cancer free from Lymphoma.  David bares her soul and owns the stage as she reveals the darkest time of her life; a direct attack on her womanhood; breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.  She holds back nothing, is brutally honest and frank. This is uncomfortable and frightening but David’s skill for storytelling puts me on the edge of my seat, almost immediately feeling an alliance with her.   She uses minimal props and I am tempted to say, they could actually be eliminated altogether as her narrative and stage presence are engaging enough.  

pittsburgh-image-2The Portable Dorothy Parker written by Annie Lux is a flashback in time.  The year is 1944, New York.  Writer Dorothy Parker is visited by a young editor for Viking Press, tasked to help edit the soon to be released The Portable Dorothy Parker.  Parker reflects on her time working for Vanity Fair, her friends and enemies, and the places she visited and shares these experiences and stories.   Actor Margot Avery portrays Parker over the course of the eighty minute solo performance.   Avery delivers Parkers witticisms and a straightforward rendition of her life and career with brilliant ease.  Avery reincarnates Parker on stage, and Lux channels her intellectual poise and intelligent cynicism through the script. The show, directed by Lee Costello is smart and moves fast despite being nearly an hour and a half of monologue.  

Avery’s ability to capture and exhibit Parker through delivery of dialogue, body language and slight movement are further captured through the use of period dress.   If you are a Dorothy Parker connoisseur, do not skip this performance.

Stay tuned for more Pittsburgh Fringe fun! Follow along with our adventures through our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #PITRdoesFringe 
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival for complimentary press passes. For tickets, day passes, and more information, click here. 

The Fringe Awakens

unnamed (4)Although the Fringe Festival is now in its fourth year, this is the first for me. If we’re being honest, it’s actually my first theater festival. So I’m easing into it. Only two shows today! After number nine on Sunday, we can all look back at how young and naïve I was at this moment.

I got into the neighborhood a bit early for my first show – actually the opener for the whole festival, a 3:45 performance of Penelope’s Dragon. So after changing out of my work clothes in the car, I decided to jog through the rain and kick things off with a beer at James Street Gastropub. Which wasn’t technically open, but it was the bartender’s last day, so he bent the rules a bit. A good omen.

For this performance, Artists Image Resource was hosting Puppets in Performance – a group organized by Darlene Fedele Thompson, who wrote and directed Penelope’s Dragon. This musical comedy riffs on the standard fairy tale plot: dragon terrorizes village and kidnaps a fair maiden, dashing knight sets off to rescue her. Except in this case, the dragon and the maiden are perfectly happy together. They met at a Ren faire and she brought him home to meet the family (who were none too pleased). And the knight’s a bit hapless and greedy. The dragon is totally terrorizing the village, though. All things considered, the Queen’s anti-dragon policy seems fairly well justified.unnamed (3)

Fedele Thompson, who constructs many of her own puppets, did a great job with this show. Drake, the titular dragon, is represented by three distinct puppets at different points, with the final one impressively sequined and floppy-tongued. Sir Dirk, the knight, sports a helmet vizor that flaps animatedly when he talks, perfectly matching the G.O.B. Bluth-y airheaded arrogance that actor Chris Cattell voices for him. The set consists of a series of wheeled platforms that rotate from the sides of the stage to the center as needed. As much fun as it is to watch the puppets, I also enjoyed keeping an eye on the actors who weren’t currently performing setting the props for each scene while trying to hide behind the platforms.

At only 45 minutes, Penelope’s Dragon is a fun, quick show. The playbill says it’s rated PG, but I don’t think anyone should feel uncomfortable bringing kids to see it. In addition to Fedele Thompson (as Lester the Jester and Penelope’s father) and Cattell (who also voices Seth the zookeeper), the cast features Elena Egusquiza as Penelope and a second dragon who may or may not have been named, Joe Milliren as Drake, and Nupur Charyalu as Queen Ellie (not Nellie). Pro tip: keep an eye on Charyalu. She’s acting along with the puppet the whole time and it’s great. The next two performances of this show are at Alphabet City. So don’t show up at AIR expecting puppets. You’ll only be disappointed.

I decided not to drive over to St. Mary’s Lyceum for The Dorothy Matrix 8-Bit Orchestra, which may have been a mistake because it was definitely still raining. Word to the wise: St. Mary’s is very much a smoking bar. As a recent transplant from a non-smoking city, these things still take me by surprise.unnamed (5)

The Dorothy Matrix 8-Bit Orchestra is a chiptunes symphony, with drag queen Dorothy Matrix conducting an orchestra of eight game boys playing selections of classical music. Between pieces, capable assistant Shari O’Sound sets up the Game Boys required (one to eight, depending on the track) while Matrix regales the audience with tales from her former life as the protagonist of the game “Super Maestro Adventures” before escaping to the real world. Occasional technical difficulties meant more time for this part of the show, which I was fine with because Matrix is an engagingly eccentric character.

The performance itself is well done, if you’re into 8-bit music. Even if it’s not your thing, you have to respect the creativity needed to render the wide variety of sounds in a classical piece through the audio abilities of a vintage 1989 AA-powered hunk of junk. (Remember how terrible all the Pokemon’s cries were in the original game?) At one point in a Prokofiev piece, I thought one of the Game Boys was glitching out, but then I realized it was playing a martial snare drum beat, and it completely worked.

Two quick notes: First, I’d advise anyone going to see this performance not to read ahead on the program. There’s a bit of audience engagement that works better if you’re just following along with the show. Unless that was improvised and it never comes up again. Go find out! Second, for any shows at St. Mary’s, there will be a food tent set up outside the building all weekend. They’re super friendly. They gave me an oversized hunk of chicken on my sandwich! So if you’re in need of some not-too-pricy snacks during your Fringe experience, stop by. I swear I’ll get the name of their operation next time I’m over there.

Stay tuned for more Pittsburgh Fringe fun! Follow along with our adventures through our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #PITRdoesFringe 
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival for complimentary press passes. For tickets, day passes, and more information, click here.