If you’ve been keeping up with our coverage of the Fourth Annual Pittsburgh Fringe Festival, you’re probably assuming that this is also my first time attending such an event.
If you did assume that about me, you’re half correct.
Two years ago, I had my very first Pittsburgh Fringe experience. I saw an outdoor performance of an original play produced by my friends. I cherished the chance to support them. I also relished getting a taste of what guerilla theatre can look like and of who it can reach with some professional support.
Little did I know that that small taste, that one play was only the cherry on top of something greater.
This year, I came to realize that it is not just a random assortment of performance pieces. It is a family. Pittsburgh Fringe has its own culture.
I learned that eavesdropping in the lobby before shows just as important as watching the performances. I found it thrilling spotting patrons attending all the same shows as me and trying to guess what the other official Fringe lanyard colors—besides the purple one I wore—signified. It was interesting to hear performers share war stories from other fringe festivals around the country.
It became clear that this festival is an accepting space for all types of storytelling by all types of people. My first day of the Fringe binge featured two one-woman shows. Both were alike in structure, but very dissimilar in content and genre.
Swan? was the first. In it, we follow Essie, the stereotypical ugly duckling. She doesn’t have a home where she was hatched and is told as much by a curmudgeonly bullfrog. With that, she flies off in search of herself. Along her journey, she encounters a cat that teaches her about companionship, a peacock that exposes her to culture, an eagle that brings out her creative side, and a beetle that shows her the silent power of introspection.
Suddenly, with a clearer vision of the beautiful swan she always was, she is finally able to find her tribe.
Kristin Ward wears a lot of hats in this production of Swan?. Literally. She employed light and sound cues to establish an interactive atmosphere for her play. Portraying nearly a dozen characters, she also cleverly uses gesture to switch between various points of view. I admired the playfulness of her custom animal-themed head pieces and of her joyful dance steps. Much of the audience may have been too shy to groove with her onstage, but we were with her in every other way.
Next up was the hilarious Mo-to-the-oncle. This was New York-based actress Melissa Cole’s Bronx hood chronicle of Detroit Price, Jr. When his father loses his vision insurance, it is Detroit Jr. who must give up the shred of street cred he possesses in exchange for his sight. Since the family can’t afford any brand of glasses, all that is left for Detroit is, you guessed it, a monocle.
I simply could not stop laughing at Cole’s joke-a-minute script. She grounds outlandish characters like the country music loving pimp Uncle Sugar Free with the most thorough costumes I’ve seen featured in a solo show. Just when you think there are no more surprises in store, Cole nails a silly original rap and belts out a side-splitting rendition of “What Hurts the Most”. This was my favorite show of the day, if you couldn’t tell.
Luckily, Mo-to-the-oncle was not the only show to incorporate strong musical storytelling elements.
When it comes to that, it’s hard to beat Penelope’s Dragon. This original 45-minute musical comedy by Puppets in Performance welcomes us in song to a peaceful, medieval kingdom. Everything changes when Lester the Jester feeds the baby dragon locked up in the kingdom’s zoo. Drake grows up, escapes his prison, and eventually finds love with a human girl named Penelope. Friendships and family ties are tested as everyone objects to their relationship, including her parents and the brave knight Sir Dirk.
The star of this show is undoubtedly PIP’s detailed and gorgeous puppet design. There were a couple of gasps from my audience when the Drake puppet first flew onstage with his magnificent sequined scales shimmering in the light. The score is a small collection of catchy charm songs that find every rhyme for the word dragon from wagon to waggin’. I also loved Elena Egusquiza’s performance as Penelope whose ferocity and fascination with dragons can be matched only by Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones.
Last on my agenda today was surely one of the more unique pieces in the festival, Teeth and Sinew. It exemplifies the mission statement of the experimental theatre company Cup-A-Jo Productions. Through dance, three women embody the real-life account of one woman’s loving turned toxic relationship. The interpretive dance is echoed by a stirring suite of original music and by two artists who hand paint a visceral portrait of the narrator’s struggle with her abuser.
This performance featured an eclectic mix of artistic disciplines. During the final dance interlude, the movement and the voice over synced up to truly breathtaking effect. The most resonant image had to be the twisted collage of hope and regret that the improvised painting evolved into by the show’s end. New meanings and images reveal themselves depending on where and how you look at it.
Right before the house opened for Teeth and Sinew, I overheard the end of What Comes Next: A Hamilton Sing-Along. Of course, I couldn’t help mouthing along with the lyrics with the tracks. I also couldn’t stop smiling when I realized that many of the people having the times of their lives performing at that karaoke extravaganza were kids and tweens.
For me, this was further proof that Pittsburgh Fringe really is for everyone. Whether you love dragons, have memorized all the words to Hamilton, have unfortunate vision insurance, or, like me, you’re guilty of all three, there is a Fringe button and a good time awaiting in the North Side.