Sensations and Emotions: Fringe Day 3

The final day of Fringe started, admittedly, with a bit of delirium. Fatigued, processing all the mini-dramaturgical moments from the past two days, I was a bit beleaguered re-entering the Alphabet City bookstore, now on the sun-soaked top floor, ensconced in bookshelves. I wasn’t entirely certain what to anticipate going into Penelope’s Dragon, a kid-friendly puppet-romp from a img-20170131-092118468troupe out of my home state of Virginia. Perhaps it was my fatigue, or the right amount of soothing warm sunlight, but I was able to find the play pretty enjoyable, even chuckle-worthy at time. Penelope’s Dragon was predicated on bestiality, so I really admired the audacity in presenting it as a children’s production. The story centers around a kingdom where dragons and other winged beasts of that variety are strictly forbidden by the queen. However, unbeknownst to the rather buffoonish denizens of the kingdom, not one but two dragons dwell in the kingdom.  The larger of the two is the titular dragon, and rather than being a pet (although, perhaps a pet of sorts) he is dating Penelope, much to the terror and repulsion of her father and members of the kingdom. Though there are some awkward moments and transitions and unresolved storylines, the songs and the hysterics of the foppish knight are truly the highlights of the show.

It was ideal that the day started with some bizarre, puppeteer-driven levity, as the remainder of the day at Fringe was the heaviest-hitting and most emotionally-fraught. Moreover, it was the strongest assemblage of shows I had the privilege of viewing. My final evening started with a show so hauntingly visceral, it is hard to adequately convey the phenomenon of watching the show put forth by Pittsburgh’s always exquisite Cup-A-Jo productions. Teeth and Sinew begins with a woman intricately and passionately dancing as another woman narrates from off-stage. We understand that the woman is rhythmically and bodily conveying the narration of the unseen woman, a story of burgeoning, awkward, maybe imagejpeg_0unintended romance. As the dancing and narrative go on, two black-clad individuals, a man and a woman, stand behind the dancing woman and begin to purposefully paint with their hands onto a canvass. This is the masterful trifecta that enraptures the audience—part dance, part painting-in-motion, part storytelling. Each part of this dynamic is developed and fascinating in its own rite, but when functioning as a cohesive unit to express one woman’s story and one romance’s disintegration into acrimony, contempt and eventual violence. As the emotions become more complicated and tempestuous, the dancing, which alternates between three women for three different stages of the narrator’s life, becomes more frenzied (though never out of control) and more breathless. The painting too becomes more feverish. The eventual product leaves the audience exhausted and ravished, and I was blissfully overwhelmed with what I had experienced in a few short moments of performance.

chron-single-3in-72dpiFascinatingly, I jumped from this show to the intriguingly titled Chronic Single’s Handbook. Created by author and performer Randy Ross, the show, allegedly fictional (or at least for the most part) centers around a neurotic, recently unemployed mid-life crisis caricature as he blows all of his money on a multi-national trip to find himself. A one man-show, the play unfolds with an intermingling of first person narration and interpretative acting out of the various, surreal or just uncomfortable encounters Randy experiences. Though often offensive, generally in no way, shape or form P.C. and borderline, if not explicitly, misogynistic, the vignettes acted out are compelling and amusing (in a guilty sort of way) and the cohesion of the show is flawless. Moreover, Ross is himself a meticulous and seasoned performer, and no moment of the show seems unpolished or misplaced. But one can only hear so many off-color Thai accents before one gets a bit uncomfortable.

logo_origGiven the raunchiness and satire of the preceding show, I was caught completely unaware of the intensity of my last show of the evening, Love Stories. Produced by Laugh/Riot Performing Arts Company out of Edinboro University, the show is a collection of stories and moments that evoke the multifarious, and often problematic, forms of love, desire, seduction and need. The show opens with a difficult to approach piece: a schoolteacher is caught on tape raping a twelve-year-old student and is confronted by his superintendent. The performances are flawless and as unpleasantly nuanced and painful as one might anticipate. Having started the day the way I did, this was both a horrifying and utterly fascinating piece to watch. The show proceeded with this same unflinching commitment to showing the complexities of our impulses and behavior. Perhaps my favorite bit, for a myriad of reasons, was the second story chronicling a man’s aghast realization this the dancing his PhD-candidate girlfriend did for tuition money was, in fact, stripping, as she is the hired dancer for his friend’s bachelor soiree. This particular story perfectly encapsulates the furious and even hilarious awkwardness of this scenario, and even though the final moments are enraging, the performances allow for a certain fondness to be held throughout.  A compelling array of sensations and emotional registries, this was the ideal way to end a multifaceted, emotionally charging three day haul.

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. 

Trump and Circumstance: A Politically Charged Day 2 at Fringe

fringe-3x3It is apropos, perhaps, that when entering the Artist’s Image Resource, I was tantalized by phenomenally raw pieces crafted by artists of varying levels of experience that lined the wall. The images, by and large, captured the aching and angry sentiments surrounding the current state of things—paintings of distorted American flags; screen prints of Trump in all his pompous vainglory; graphics of an outraged cat projected on a Soviet Crest. These images bore auguries of the shows I was about to see all day, more presciently than I may have guessed in my frazzled, Saturday morning state. The most interpretative show of the line up was indeed the first, The Seven Suitcases of a Snake Oil Salesman. Given my religious schooling, I was both incredibly anxious and intrigued by the prospect of witnessing a rendering of the snake oil peddler that exists in the mythology of the Southern zealous consciousness. O’Ryan the O’Mazing, or as it may or may not say on his birth certificate, O’Ryan McGowan, is a striking man and personality—lanky; nimble yet rambunctious; physically boisterous, yet rickety in certain ways; ostentatious yet vulnerable. He opens the show by addressing the historical context and background of the snake oil salesman—that it originated in theft and deceit. O’Ryan explains that Americans stole the concept from Chinese laborers working to construct all of America’s railroads. He displays the double ignominy of the exploitation of the culture and the practices of the individuals used for slave labor to create an inauthentic commodity to pander to small-town, religious zealots. This is the compelling construct of O’Ryan’s show—he meticulously works to display different types and layers of chicanery, meretricious guile and outright deceit as he opens and unpacks each of his suitcases. As a parallel to this, he performs various physical feats of escalating danger—magic tricks, juggling, throwing knives—to underscore the perilousness of the depth of deceit. O’Ryan is at his best when he divulges his own personal untruthfulness—his history of breaking into homes, creating false identities, lying to friends etc. It is those moments where the rambunctious arrogance of O’Ryan’s show subsides and reveals something vulnerable, aching. By the time O’Ryan concludes the show to crawl into his final suitcase, allowing deceit to encompass him, we are blissfully disrupted with our own relationship to “truth.”

I did not anticipate that my Saturday would involve witnessing a moment of oral sex between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But I did not know what I was getting into when I trundled to the basement of Alphabet City. The eva-hillarysetting was intimate—a few seats in a bunker-esque room, in which the audience was situated with extreme closeness.  A woman is sprawled across a couch, watching news with dismay on a large screen television. Strewn around the couch and on the coffee table are countless bottles of whiskey, wine, beer etc. and junk food paraphernalia of all sorts. The woman on the couch was besotted in a pink bathrobe that she appeared to have not shorn in ages. As the show begins, the woman answers a phone, and through pieces of the conversation, it is revealed that this blonde-wigged, bedraggled woman is Hillary Clinton. As the conversation proceeds, a beautiful buxom woman enters the room, dangling a cigarette, glancing admonishingly at the wreckage of Hillary Clinton’s surroundings. This woman, we discover, is Eva Peron, famed former First Lady of Argentina. As she sumptuously engages in a tet-a-tet with Hillary, we understand that she has scheduled the meeting to critique Hillary on her likeability factor and the reasons behind her loss. Though the piece veers on gimmicky at times, with the show relying on the normal foibles of Hillary caricatures, the dynamic between the unlikely duo, particularly two women who are so historically stereotyped and given characteristics outside of their own control, is stellar. The energy between the two leading women, from the Tardigrade Theatricals Company, is electric, particularly when they break the fourth wall and engage with the audience, and their performances riveting. When the flawless Trump impersonator enters the stage, the logic and cohesiveness falls apart a bit, though the show is no less amusing. And then, of course, there is the Trump cunnilingus moment. While it is a bit tacky in how it borders on non-consensual, the moment is curiosity piquing and thought provoking, to say the least. The show is a success not so much in humanizing Hillary, but in demonstrating the superficiality that underscored the election and ultimately catalyzed the pickle we’re all in.

IMG_1157I admittedly always have some trepidations going into an improv comedy show. Having done improv and comparable forms of comedy as a theatre kid, I know the anxiety, the mechanisms of delivery, the tension that can be palpable throughout a performance. I allow myself to feel a great deal of anxiety for the performers and for the audience that often taints my experience. That being said, That Really Funny Improv Show, put on by Awkward Attic Ensemble, was a welcoming and enjoyable experience. While the troupe certainly had moments of the awkward shifting and uncertain bits, it made the comical moments that much stronger. The troupe efficaciously enacted both long and short form improv, and truly shined in their short form, game/sketch-based moments. The dynamic between and rapport between the group was electric and in no-way combative, and certainly the highlight of the show was the uproarious “My Dick” segment, in which the troupe took audience suggestions of things to compare their phalluses to. The best? Perhaps the parallels between their dicks and weedeaters. Obviously.

the-principle-posterOne of the most harrowing viewing experiences of Fringe was, perhaps, The Principle. Resonating acutely with the looming anti-Trump, anti-regulatory sentiments that had been pulsating throughout the tenor of the shows all day, The Principle, set in a not-so-unfathomable dystopian cell at a queer conversion camp, bellows with the fear and dread dramaturgical art is so magisterially able to convey. The play centers around two people, one gay man and one trans man whose female-to-male transition was cruelly halted and reversed when he was put in the conversion camp, who are forced into a cell together to have heterosexual intercourse. The characters reveal ghastly glimpses of their diagnosis/conversion processes—masturbating in front of a psychologist; being forced to change their names to something more befitting heteronormativity; alienation from their loved ones—and hint at what made them happy before they were forced into their current conditions. The play is not only gut-wrenching in demonstrating the normalized agonies of being queer or trans, but is also hauntingly exquisite in showing the defiance of those who refuse to accept tyranny of ideas, of bodies, of selfhoods. It is a true triumph of short-form theatre.

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. 

That’s a Wrap: Fringe Day 3

Day 3! The last day of my first Fringe Festival! And it was a beautiful one. Finally, I could happily live the dream of comfortably biking around town seeing plays. On Friday it was all dreary and rainy for my agenda of puppetry and chiptunes. Saturday was super cold as I caught hugs, colorful fabrics, and classy mid-Atlantic wit. But Sunday! Lovely sun and balmy air for… cancer, conversion therapy, and an examination of mental illlness. Get ready for a good time, everyone.

My second paragraph always opens with a beer at James Street, so let’s get that out of the way. Coffee stout instead of brown ale today! Having checked that box, I headed over to AIR for The Pink Hulk: One Woman’s Journey to Find the Superhero Within, written by and starring Valerie David, and directed by Padraic Lillis.unnamed (12)

The Pink Hulk is a one-woman show following David’s diagnosis with and treatment for breast cancer, opening with her celebration of fifteen years cancer-free after an earlier struggle with lymphoma. This show spans just about the whole range of human emotions, from a playful hookup in Aruba in the beginning to sadness and loneliness after the second diagnosis and a rollercoaster between defiance and despair as the treatment goes on. David offers inspiring moments when she chose to do things differently from her first battle with cancer, to place them on her terms instead of passively letting them happen – having a party to shave her head before the hair falls out; getting a better wig, then deciding she doesn’t need it. But each one is soon followed by doubt, reflecting the sadness of having struggled with the disease once only to have to do it all over again.

David’s performance is as intimate and boundary-free as a show of this nature needs, and in the lighter moments, she’s very funny – which helps the audience deal with the gravity of the material. The set doesn’t change throughout the performance, but changes to the lighting give a different tone to each scene.

Unfortunately, I had to skip the talkback afterward, as it was time to head over to the Allegheny Inn for Happy/Sad Collective’s The Principle, written by Alan Stevens. The Principle is a short, but dense, drama focusing on Thomas and Jess, a gay man and a trans man who have been forced into Conversion Camp, where the doctors force them to live as Tom and Jessica. The dark, dungeon-y basement of the inn is a perfect setting for the room the two have been placed in for their final test.unnamed (13)

The two characters, portrayed by Jim Hartley and Brittany Stahl, use the occasion of the test to finally talk about who they really are, away from the constant monitoring of the camp. They share their experiences, what made them happy in their former lives, and their feelings on what they’re going through in the program. The actors have clearly put a lot of work into these performances. Their tense movements and body language convey the emotions their characters have been struggling to keep bottled up for so long.

Despite its short runtime, Stevens’ writing draws you into the world of the show. A decision is made at the end that implies there could be more story to portray if he wanted to extend the show. But the heart of the play is the examination of these two characters, and the moment Stevens has chosen for this scene gives you all you need to get to know them. I think it will win an award. Call it a hunch.

After The Principle, I bolted over to St. Mary’s, but my first show there was canceled so it became dinner time! Back at James Street after an attempt to eat at Park House, I wound up sitting next to The Pink Hulk herself, Valerie David! We had a whole corner of the bar just for New Yorkers. Yay for making friends!

On Friday I saw the very first show of the festival, and now it was time for me to see the very last: Krish Mohan’s Approaching Happiness. Approaching Happiness is Mohan’s standup act, that he has performed on tour throughout the country. As the title suggests, Mohan is interested in helping people to be happy, particularly those with anxiety and mental illness. Starting with the personal, his own anxiety and its origins – his discussion expands to society and the human mind. With jokes, of course. That sounded a bit heavy, but don’t worry, it definitely is comedy.

One of the Fringe volunteers told me “The closer you get to the front, the better it will be for you.” I was the only one who heeded that advice, so I wound up alone in the front row, receiving a lot of eye contact. Which kind of fit with the talk of anxiety. I was feeling it. Comedy’s not always supposed to be comfortable, and Mohan warns at the top that he’s going to get weird and esoteric. He keeps his promise, but fortunately also keeps you laughing.

The night ended with the awards ceremony, where I got to see a ton of familiar faces from the weekend and enjoy a few drinks with the rest of the PITR crew that spent their weekends running between the venues. Overall, it was a solid day and weekend.

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. 

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. 

Apocalypse, Adventure, Sex, and Bingo: A Fringe Odyssey

As a first time attendee and critic of the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival, I had a certain set of expectations in terms of tone for the shows I was about to see, expectations that were exploded immediately. Rather than a series of short, gently experimental pieces, the festival instead greeted me with Betsy Carmichael’s Bingo Palace, an insane sojourn into the brightly lit world of celebrity bingo.

purple-betsy-final (1)Joey Bucheker’s Bingo Palace is an interactive bingo comedy. This is a series of descriptor’s that have rarely, if ever, been applicable to a performance in human history. The titular Betsy Carmichael, a fanatical Vegas-casino type in a mumu, delivers monologues about the glory (and sexual nature?) of bingo in between fully realized games of bingo the audience is expected to participate in. And when you attend Betsy’s show, participate you will. Besides playing the game, a series of dance moves accompany many of the potential numbers to be called. At times, the fun of the show is in how much effort it takes to simply keep up with Bingo Palace’s manic energy.

The show also features some wonderfully weird sketches that demand audience members make shiny balls, pray to the higher power of bingo, and marry one another. In one of the most singular and amazing moments of the festival, Betsy napalms the audience with handful after handful of large, hard candy when a certain number is called.

Yet, Bingo Palace is a remarkably skillful affair; no potential audience demographic will feel left out or particularly uncomfortable. The show is enough of an assault on the senses to really engage the 18+ demographic that makes up most of the festival, but is also friendly enough to accommodate younger audiences and knowing enough to speak to older audiences.

Next up is Elizabeth Wants a Sword Fight by the Brawling Bard team. The bbshakespeareshow is a Fringe mainstay, and with good reason. It’s simple, fun-for-all conceit – a young woman in search of adventure challenges the narrator of her life to provide her with one – masks a series of sometimes complex meta-textual allusions to the works of Shakespeare.

Sword Fight is also a show that embraces its budget aesthetic in a big way, which makes for the kind of plucky, underdog experience the Fringe was made for. Still, it is a show with pacing issues. Much of Sword Fight’s comedy is more hit than miss, and some of the more overlong bits overwhelm the play’s moments of real character.

My day took a turn for the dark during Laugh/Riot’s Love Stories, a collection of short one acts about some fairly ugly sexual relationships. We open with a conversation between a pedophile coming out to a coworker at his school, transition to a man discovering his girlfriend is a stripper when he walks in on her giving a lap dance to a family member, then watch a reformed alcoholic stalker visit his ex-girlfriend and end with a conversation between two women who hide their sexual attraction for each other from their partners.logo_orig

This is a show that goes for heavy, and it does so with a heavier hand. Rarely do the play’s moments of discovery come from what feels like a natural place, and instead come with the awkward weight of a first time improv comic who just can’t wait to introduce a gun into his scenes. A clear example of this is during a moment in which the reformed alcoholic is accosted by his ex-girlfriend for attempting to hack her father’s leg off with a hatchet. “It was a machete,” he reminds her.

The play has its stronger moments: I particularly enjoyed Rob Connick’s panicky boyfriend, who darts around the stage his stripping girlfriend spouting lines like “come and fuck me you phallus fucking phallus fuckers.” The levity in this section of the play does a good job at keeping everything a bit more grounded, but ultimately what it does is mask a series of ‘let’s take this thing to 11’ moments.chrisdavisapocalypsenowpostcardfront-1_orig

The most unusual and also greatest moment of the day was Chris Davis’ off-kilter comedy One Man Apocalypse Now. True to its title, this is a show in which Davis condenses the anti-war epic into an hour and fifteen minute extravaganza of unbelievable celebrity impressions, complete and utter commitment to character, and parody that goes so far beyond its one-note conceit into a kind of sublime mania.

What makes One Man Apocalypse Now so great is that you can feel the love and repetition for the film. To watch Davis embody Martin Sheen is akin to talking through one of your favorite films with a best buddy. I’m usually fairly stoic when I watch shows, but Davis has the distinction of being the only actor/writer to ever make me actually cry with laughter in a play.

16650498-10154952496333582-877048705-nKevin and Ian: Too Stu2id; A One-Man Show, is a sketch comedy by Ape Yard Staging that similarly chases absurdism. It occasionally succeeds, too: the play’s most memorable character, Nostradamus as a trumpet playing New Orleans jazzman is a solid opener worth giggling along to. However, many later sketches, which mix references to classic literature, philosophy, and figures of historical import with puns and pie fights do little to inspire the imagination, often hitting notes which may feel familiar to fans of sketch comedy.

I ended the night with Randy Ross’ The Chronic Single’s Handbook. The play advertises itself as a show that is “an unflinching look at how men really feel about sex, love, marriage, and massage parlors.” This, categorically, is untrue. Burns’ anecdotes about plowing a Russian woman with alcohol on a boat in the hopes of bedding her, speaking ill of the various prostitutes he spends money on and turning a consensual dominating sexual scenario into a forceful revenge fantasy on the woman who fires him earlier in the play did not speak to me as a man. Rather, the show’s often ugly humor, which is just barely peppered with some basic self-reflection, provided me with an chron-single-3in-72dpiunflinching look at how women must, by necessity, fear some men.

Ross refers to most every sexual scenario in the show as a type of conquest. He sees the want of a wild animal in the eyes of the women he meets, which is to him a challenge. “I want to be that predator,” he says. This unfortunate turn of phrase echoed in my head during the few scenes in which Ross reflects inward.

He has an admirable command of language and a dry sense of humor which are wasted on these somewhat self-aggrandizing short stories. It is very difficult to take a performer seriously who not only punches down, but toes the line with sexual assault as a punch line. Put simply, Ross’ autobiographical show makes him out to be an older, morally dubious Tucker Max. This is not something anyone should be, and it is a sentence I shouldn’t have to write.

What was most amazing about today was how wildly different each show felt. I spent the entire day covering shows at St. Mary’s Lyceum. A show would end, I would be filled with thoughts and feelings, and have no idea what the space I had just left would look like when I re-entered in 15 minutes. If I were to draw a massive diagram of The Fringe fest as a whole with dozens of demographic interests, it would be one big circle.

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. 

Into the Fray: First Night of Fringe

16650498-10154952496333582-877048705-nAmid the dismally, dreary haze of Friday evening, there was a certain excited hum and rattle that illuminated the day as it settled into dusk. This excitement was the anxious anticipation and elated knee-knocking of the performers awaiting their turn to take one of the several stages for Pittsburgh Fringe Festival. I embarked on the evening, delirious, after a full day of work, and entered the dimly lit St. Mary’s Lyceum, a locale that epitomizes the curious grit and history of Pittsburgh’s North Side. My first show of the evening, perhaps capitalizing on my 9 hour day-delirium, was a frenetic showing by a couple of willy comedians, Kevin & Ian: Too Stoo2id: A One Man Show. The nonsensical nomenclature of the show is revealed in the opening of the moments, in which the titular dudes of Ape Yard Productions attempt to introduce their show, only to frustratingly realize their egos are disallow them to introduce themselves as separate entities who equally share the limelight. Jocular antagonism carries the show, with the boys having an unuttered one-upping relationship that imbues the antics of their hour-ish long show. Kevin & Ian…has an array of absurdist stock characters—Cheap Vito, a quintessential, ruthlessly parsimonious, track suit wearing “guido;” Nolastradamus, a flamboyant, completely clueless, Nawlins-horn blasting predictor of the future that has already passed; and a strange French man who appears to have stumbled into the wrong high school reunion—that sometimes miss the mark a bit in their hyperbolic bits, but ultimately tickle the audience. The show is perhaps at its strongest in the moments of subtly, like a sketch in which the two men ask one another to describe themselves, only to be met with expressive silence or bloodcurdling screams. This banal ludicrousness is the true skill of the duo, and their female counterpart, who appears at ideal moments to cut the boyish rollicking. Perhaps one of the most cohesive shows, interestingly, Kevin & Ian succeeds in honoring the rules of sketch comedy, in which certain characters or tropes reappear and permeate other sketches, highlighting the peculiar artifice of the show.

Fresh from comedic romping, I scuttled over to the cozy and ambient Allegheny Inn, a welcome respite from the incessant drizzle outside. The cover_origsumptuous couches and gorgeous décor was the very apropos setting for Alan Irvine’s one man performance Lost Love: Tales of Tragic Romance. Though sparse style, Irvine’s rendering of three tales—Romeo and Juliet; the story of Queen Maeve and her sister; and a personally crafted story about an enigmatic specter, Ann—was remarkable in its passion and Irvine’s meticulousness was impeccable. While I was personally alarmed at the number of specific details I was able to recall from Romeo and Juliet (which I read two thirds of in ninth grade and then never touched it again), I was also impressed with Irvine’s ability to make the stories and visually vivid as possible. In a festival otherwise marked with theatrics, Lost Love was a wonderful interlude in the tradition of classic, fireside yarn-spinning.

bbshakespeareLike the human pinball, I pinged back to St. Mary’s, where the bartender became my best friend after Cocatrice’s cancellation, and I found myself waiting for my final show of the evening Elizabeth Wants a Swordfight to begin. There was a certainly exhausted but definitively elated bustle in the old elks club lounge, as various costumed individuals scurried around, marginalia from sets and props scattered about. It was the energetic thrall that reminded me of my earliest moments watching, organizing and taking part in theatrical performances. There was a nascent exuberance to Fringe that was undeniable. This exuberance was certainly present in Elizabeth Wants a Swordfight, a robust, quirky piece put on by the Brawling Bard company. The company’s experience was evident throughout the show, the performances steeped in precision, phenomenal timing, and physical/acrobatic spunk. The titular Elizabeth and her guide through the strange, Shakespearean-tinged quest for a sword fight and perilous fun, were plucky highlights of the show. Elizabeth…was the ideal, somewhat surreal, conclusion to a 13 hour day.

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. 

Sunday Fringe: Taking a Dive into the Absurd

chrisdavisapocalypsenowpostcardfront-1_origMy Sunday Fringe viewing took a dive into the absurd. I began my afternoon by catching One Man Apocalypse Now in the smelly basement of St. Mary’s Lyceum. Full disclosure: at the conclusion of this show, I thought—holy Hell, what can I possibly say about this? I have never seen the movie this play is based on, so as much as I enjoyed this production, I honestly have no idea how to describe the plot.

First the praise: the one man behind this one-man show, Chris Davis, is an incredible performer. He deftly embodied I’m guessing about twelve distinct characters over the course of an hour. At times he told the audience who he was (“I’m Laurence Fishburne, age fourteen…), and other times he transitioned without comment.

Also, this piece was surprisingly funny, particularly the part where Davis got meta. At one juncture he delivered the line: “you send a theater-artist to assassinate me?” In another scene he took on the persona of a Playboy Bunny and pantomimed some rather risqué moves.

I left feeling conflicted not about the show, but if I ever actually want to watch Apocalypse Now in its movie form. I kind of enjoy the idea that my only impression of this iconic movie comes from Davis’ interpretation.

After catching One Man Apocalypse Now I jetted over to Alphabet City, the new, beautiful, bookstore opened by City of Asylum to catch a showing of Eva and Hillary a production by Tardigrade Theatricals. The premise of this show is rather interesting—Hillary Clinton post-election is sequestered in a cabin watching CNN and binging on alcohol and raw cookie dough when suddenly Eva Peron appears for a meeting.

eva-hillaryThanks to the strong acting chops of the actresses playing Hillary and Eva I was able to sink into the action unquestionably. The strongest moments were in the ribald exchange between Hillary and Eva regarding Hillary’s likeability and the nature of being a woman with power.

In the last ten minutes of the show Donald Trump shows up to taunt the “girls”. After he gets grabby with Eva, Hillary pulls out some Kung Fu and knocks him out. I wish that was where the writers decided to end this show but instead the audience was treated to a rather disturbing scene of Hillary pressing Donald’s face into her crotch as she launched into an orgasmic-tinged monologue about how even if she didn’t break the glass ceiling she sure put some cracks in it. After climaxing, Hillary drops Donald back on the floor and Eva knocks ash from her cigarette onto his prostrate body.

Dear reader, I believe that true revolution is not about taking on the behavior of our oppressors but is actually about redefining power for a new, better age. Unfortunately, the end of this play only reinforced the “if they can do it, we can do it too” kind of cheap feminism our culture so embraces a la’ capitalistic “girl power”. What started out as a play with an interesting critique of likeability politics, unfortunately, lost its way.

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. 

Bring It Around Town: Fringe Sunday

Fringe stops for no woman, and today the train kept on chugging.  After the high of yesterday’s performances, I was trying to keep my energy up, but I will admit that I was a little tuckered out.  Still, I was eager to see what today held, especially since I would get to venture out a little more and experience another venue.  At 11:30 I was led into the somewhat forbidding downstairs space at St. Mary’s Lyceum.  One of my fellow audience members whispered that it smelled like a church, and it did have that kind of Sunday school basement feel to it, but the performance we were there to see was anything but forbidding and was definitely not Sunday school material.

16650498-10154952496333582-877048705-nWhat we got was Kevin and Ian: Too Stoo2id; A One-Man Show, a staged variety show with knee-slappin’ bits and surprisingly academic humor.  Although this three-hand one-man show was stuffed with learning and some clever lines, the pacing and delivery prevented a satisfying landing.  The biggest laugh from the audience was during the curtain call when the trio froze in their final pose and awkwardly stage whispered to each other when no one left.  Ironically enough, it was the few scenes with gravitas that really showed off the cast’s acting chops, like Joan of Arc’s defiant declaration just before she is burned (or pied in the face) or Ian’s story of an abusive husband.  Most of the time, the various characters we met just got overplayed.  Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean said it best: “Dying is easy.  Comedy is hard.”

After the awkward curtain call at St. Mary’s, I had about an hour to get something to munch on and make my way over to Alphabet City.  I dropped by Crazy Mocha for a snack and then tripped back across the street to my p1000995_2next venue.  The lovely space upstairs combining reclaimed concrete columns and rich orange satin curtains worked well for Kristin Ward’s Swan?  Ward retells the story of the Ugly Duckling with a few new twists and gently coaxes the audience in to participate.  In this version, Mother Duck knows very well she’s got something different, but special, and Essie, our ugly duckling, goes on a long journey to discover who she is and where she belongs.  Ward’s quietly confident demeanor and infectious smile make for the perfect Essie, but she can deftly take on other skins with the switch of a hat.  She is like a storybook come to life with a very timely message about finding what we have in common with strangers and welcoming new friends with different feathers, or maybe no feathers at all.

Then I needed to rush downstairs to see The Booth.  The lower level of the-booth-photo_origAlphabet City was the perfect performance space, tucking the audience into a conference room with close walls that made the whole room into a booth.  Though it is the shortest production I got to see at Fringe, playwright Lance Skapura gives us a succinct, sweet, and uproarious story about two techies, the seemingly gay Robert (Bruce Story-Camp) and flighty, never satisfied Paula (Chelsea Forbes) along with their sexually frustrated Stage Manager, Athena Patel (Lisa Germ) as they run through a show.  All three actors give a solid performance, but it is Germ who steals the show with her shy openness about her sexual experience and her struggles both wrangling together productions and her own life.  Stage hands so often have to watch grand romances on the stage, but this time, they might get to have one of their own.

I returned upstairs for my last show of the festival, Sophia Mintas Live!  Mintas, a voice student at Duquesne, entertains her audience with her own sophia-mintas-fullsizerender-3_origcompositions, both for the piano and for voice, interspersed with stories from her life, some light-hearted and some heavy, though there is no clear, defining arc to her anecdotes.  It is clear Mintas is operatically trained with a soprano’s range, but she strives for a unique blending of the high-form of opera with a bouncier, more modern sound.  As I walked out of Alphabet City I knew that she and all of the other wonderful performers I have been lucky to witness this weekend have given me a lot to reminisce and savor on my drive back to Erie.

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. 

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.