Unpredictable Treasure: The Fringe Fest Day 3

The conclusion of my Fringe Festival experience took place in the chilly Artist’s Image Resource building, a small yet colorful space dotted with anti-Trump art pieces. I would be seeing 5 completely disparate one person shows here. As with the rest of my time at the festival this weekend, none of them resembled each other in any way.

14940052-10154289454893143-39234906837708829-o-1The first show is Holiday Countdown, a live reading of a writing project from local author Jenn Stover. While Stover’s short pieces are indeed a series of quirky, bizarre, often humorous moments tied together by impending holidays, this drab title fails to capture the absurdist joy of both her writing and her show.

The conceit is like this: Stover chose a seemingly arbitrary series of days before the four most major US holidays, and wrote a short, usually fictional piece at least tangentially related to the event or the culture surrounding it every day for half a year. Rather than a series of memoir-style musings about how ‘Christmas sure is stressful,’ these pieces quickly explode into insane parables about elf genocide, cupid’s alcoholism, and the threat of Mayor Bill Peduto who, to paraphrase, is accompanied ‘by the scent of bike lanes and a culture of acceptance.’

Stover’s pieces are likable and hit like a brick at their best. They’re not entirely dissimilar to the prose of a writer like Patricia Lockwood. However, the pieces Stover read were seemingly at a whim, and the fact that the project appears to be currently half finished means it’s lacking in clear narrative bookends or even a strong central theme of any kind. Stover is a powerful humorist and a great writer but the relative lack of focus cut into an otherwise super cool conceit for a series.

I returned to AIR an half hour later to find it had been transformed into a ‘40s pittsburgh-image-2hotel room for one of this year’s biggest highlights, The Portable Dorothy Parker. Instead of a traditional series of autobiographical scenes, show creator Annie Lux instead opts to retell the life of the punchy author by giving us a window into the editing process of the eponymous collection of Parker pieces the play is based upon.

In other words, as Parker picks pieces for her collection, she has reason to retell more and more stories from her life. It’s one of those conceits that scream ‘hey I’m the conceit!’ but it essentially opens the show up to cover a greatest hits of moments, quotes and written pieces from Parker’s life in a really tasteful way.

The show quickly sinks into an identical rhythm of poem-anecdote-quote-bittersweet reflection, yet I found myself looking past the show’s repetition due to the otherwise quality script and a stellar performance from Margot Avery, who possesses both the grace and the subversion the character demands.

I’m at the mercy of any play which can effectively utilize a quote like “I hate actresses…they simply cannot stop undulating.”

fringe-3x3Next was The Seven Suitcases of a Snake Oil Salesman, a one man comedy/magic/puppet show. As with Dorothy Parker, Snake Oil possesses a clever ‘aha!’ conceit; onstage are seven suitcases stacked on top of one another, each containing a new lie to explore.

O’Ryan the O’Mazing’s strange yet simple exploration of identity in falsehood is a fun, yet incomplete-feeling show. While the narrative mostly works, it is oddly paced. The first suitcase, which contains rubber snakes for O’Ryan to grind, establishes the fun, somewhat intimate tone, but other sequences like the puppet show arrive at their thematic conclusion far earlier than their actual conclusion. There is some worthwhile whimsy here and O’Ryan is a likable host, but Seven Suitcases would do better with a sharper focus on its best and quirkiest moments.

Mo-on-the-oncle, Melissa Cole’s one woman comedy about a teenager who is forced to use a monocle for his schoolwork after his father loses their vision img-2737coverage is fast-paced and idiosyncratic enough to resemble a shorter, more socially conscious Wes Anderson film. Cole jumps from bizarre caricature to bizarre caricature to deliver a series of booming monologues: there is the teen’s wealthy uncle, a pimp who loves to sing out his feelings to karaoke Rascal Flatts songs, the put-upon father and his paycheck dance, and a clueless, tactless doctor who spends most of his day convincing his patients not to sue.

What Cole’s characters lack in complexity they make up for in sheer presence. Some of Cole’s comedic delivery is too bent towards sketch comedy to make the show as a whole sing, but she has also written moments of undeniable power. The teenager, after a consultation with the most pretentious ophthalmologist in the world, performs an entire rap song about his impending death by monocle.

Mo-on-the-oncle, incidentally, is the one show I caught at the festival I thought could stand to last a little longer. Clocking in at a concise twenty minutes, this is a show that may benefit from not only tonal variety, but maybe a few more characters as well.

17636851_781096878709340_3255313992491545639_oI ended the festival with Laundry Night, meaning my Sunday was bookended by shows whose overall quality is much greater than their cookie-cutter titles. Laundry Night chronicles the origins of accordion-toting superhero extraordinaire, Captain Ambivalent.

While the show does feature a giant inflatable dinosaur, glittering costume design and the appearance of a clownish hippie who plays songs using Micro Jammer toys, Laundry Night is an intimate experience as far as musical comedies go. We sit with Ambivalent as he wastes away in a job he hates and an apartment complex that perpetually leaks Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones” through the walls.

The audience happily cheers Ambivalence on as he quits his job to pursue fame and fortune as a musician, but his self-deprecating demeanor suggest that this is a false narrative; Ambivalence isn’t seeking glory much as he’s finally becoming a truer version of what he’s always been.

Laundry Night is a good show, and a fitting festival closer. Pittsburgh’s Fringe Fest has nowhere near the presumed splendor of its big brother in Edinburgh, which feels somehow appropriate for a city that so often prides itself on being the underdog. This weekend, for me, wasn’t a series of high profile artists marathon-ing their established material, but instead a series of intimate mysteries waiting to be unpacked, an unpredictable treasure chest that replenishes itself every hour.

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 more information about Fringe, 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. 

 

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.