Five Fringe Shows, So Many Flights of Stairs

Day 3 of Fringe was my marathon day, in which I attempted a feat only dreamed of before. Five shows in one day! I did it, with the help of food trucks, coffee, $3 cocktails, and a brief nap in my car.

tentaclespghfringeshowgraphicwebHaving learned from the previous day’s mad rush, I arrived early for my first show. The helpful volunteers got me all checked in, and when the time came, led me downstairs for TENTACLES, from Voyage Theater Company. TENTACLES takes the form of a thesis presentation by Tessa (played by Tessa Flannery, who also wrote the show) studying the ravishment fantasies of an “anonymous subject” and attempting to reconcile them with her feminism.

The lecture is interrupted consistently. At first by the speaker/subject’s own fantasies, cutaway scenes lit in red that Tessa then sheepishly recovers from, and then by a spectator. We eventually learn that Chris (portrayed by Chris Fayne), was invited by Tessa to watch her presentation. But the Shakespearian actor-turned-porn star, who she had secret fantasies about during their college years, takes it upon himself to set the record straight on aspects of her thesis that he disagrees with. A good chunk of the crowd I was in didn’t realize at first that Chris was part of the show, so I got to enjoy people grumbling at him for heckling until his interjections escalated enough that he was clearly a cast member.

Despite being framed as a literal lecture, Flannery’s writing does a great job of raising the issues of the #metoo movement in a way that feels natural to the story and the characters. Chris’ interruptions are played for laughs until they aren’t, underscoring that Tessa has the final say in where the line is drawn. With great writing and acting throughout, this was a definite highlight of the weekend.

3-x-3-72dpi_origAfter a quick bounce upstairs and a few minutes of writing, I headed back to the St. Mary’s basement for No Oddjob, David Lawson’s one-man show about video games, and their impact on his life. I’ve spent a fair amount of time at sci-fi/comic/anime conventions that feature nerd stand-up, and too often the routines boil down to “here’s a reference, laugh if you get it!” so I was a little cautious about this show. But Lawson’s performance is more than that. As an examination of what kind of influence games can have on those who play them, the show follows Lawson through his youth and into adulthood. At each stage, he discusses the games he played, how he saw them, and how others reacted to them, whether that means parents, employers, or the government. The games are always central to the narrative, but the story is his.

Lawson’s primary focus is the perennial argument over violence in video games, resurrected once again by President Trump, and he argues that while games can inspire people, they don’t create monsters. It’s a point he makes well, but I think the show’s scope could be expanded. Every time he referred to “the next big controversy” I was expecting him to address the gamergate blow-up from a few years ago that focused not on violence but sexism in the gaming community. With his history and perspective, I think it would be interesting to hear Lawson’s take on that issue as well.

showupwebsiteartpittsNext on the agenda was Show Up, Peter Michael Marino’s improvised solo comedy. I thought this show was impressive as hell. In the course of an initial dialogue with the audience that Marino points out is mostly scripted on his end, he collects topics from the audience in several categories (Childhood, Addiction, Love Life, Job, etc…) and assigns the roles of Stage Manager and Sound Technician to two attendees. And that’s when the show kicks off in earnest. Using the props set out by the Stage Manager and a musical cure from the sound person to set each scene, Marino improvises a personal narrative that incorporates all of the topics suggested by the audience.

This is a task that could easily go off the rails, but Marino managed to put together a consistently funny and mostly coherent one-man show relating the life of Pedro, a shoemaker’s son who went on to co-found Moe’s Southwest Grill with a surprising amount of murder along the way. (That was my fault, actually. My weird family story involved murder.) According to the website showuptheshow.com, he will be performing a kids’ version of Show Up in New York City in May, which I assume will probably be dropping the “Addiction” category. So tell any of your family members back east who have reproduced in the last decade or so to check it out!

leahy-fringe_origFor my last stop downstairs, I saw Are You There Margaret? It’s Me, God! Based on the classic Judy Blume novel (which I should admit I haven’t read), Rude Cutlet Theater Company’s show features the long-awaited responses from God to Margaret’s repeated entreaties. God is mostly unsympathetic, which isn’t surprising, because maaaaaaaaaaaaan is Margaret an odd duck. The only-slightly-exaggerated excerpts from the novel that comprise Margaret’s dialogue mostly center on how much she wants a bra, to have her period, and to be ogled by an attractive teacher. God responds by pointing out how strange and problematic all of this is, and that we really shouldn’t have kids read this book anymore.

Writer/performers Dana Leahy and Emily Askin have a good concept for the show, but the jokes are pretty hit-or-miss. The best parts of Are You There Margaret?, as part of a larger comedy show, would be a great act. But as a full one-hour performance, it seems a little padded.

fc18194d203954691561a5799116379es-8_origIan Insect’s It Sounded Like A Good Idea In My Dreams is exactly the kind of madness I come to Fringe to see. An absurdist comedy revue, everything about this performance adds to the overall effect, even though none of them seem very closely related. Even before the show starts, you’re greeted by a surly usher who informs you that smoking is not permitted in the show while holding a cigarette. A sign at the front declares that laughter is only permitted when the red light is on. The performance is broken into two acts containing monologues, sketches, and songs, split up by an intermission that’s actually a sketch of its own, and parody ad videos from sponsors like Green Soda and RateMyInfant.guv.

A lot of the show is built around language – the opening disclaimer is a maybe-too-long discussion of whether the show is not for everyone, not for anyone, for someone, for somebody, or not for nobody, and Act II opens with a slide show on punctuation. Ian Insect wants you to think about what’s being said, and how. And he also wants you to feel a little uncomfortable while you’re doing that. Little things throughout add up to a sense that things aren’t going exactly as planned – the usher’s constant haranguing of the audience, the panicked writers’ meeting at intermission, the consistent technical errors when the ads play, a not quite long enough microphone cable. It all creates an atmosphere that contributes to the dreamlike, disassociated structure of the play.

This was also the perfect show to end on, in the final moments, as Ian Insect lay awkwardly (and unless I’m mistaken, creepily unblinking) on the ground amid the scattered salad and props that had been left untouched since Act I and Ann Usher yelled at us to leave (“We can’t go home until you’re gone! GO!”), the Fringe volunteers packing up the table and curtains in the background felt like part of the show. I hope I didn’t miss a Marvel-style after-credits scene, but I took the hint and walked off to the afterparty. Good Fringe.

For more information about the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival click here

Of Art and Church Basements: Fringe 2018

The thing with attending the Fringe Festival is that you can’t really know what to expect. I’m keenly aware of this as I enter St. Mary’s Lyceum; as I enter, the only evidence a festival is occurring appears to be the laminated press pass hung around my neck. A single sign denoting the Fringe Festival’s presence is placed outside, and the bar patrons inside give me sidelong glances as I enter. A festival staff member lets me know I’ll need to head to the basement to see my first show: How to Suffer Better by Amanda Erin Miller.

howtosufferbetter-amiller-72dpiThe conceit goes like this: Celeste, an alcoholic sociopath who, guided by a piece of life advice pertaining to ‘suffering better’ on the underside of a Snapple cap, has gathered a motley crew (re: folks in apparent psychological duress) to compete in front of an audience to discover who, truly, suffers the best. Mix the opportunity for a wide variety of performances and the dismissive cruelty inherent to Suffer Better’s conceit, and you have a solid foundation for a bleak comedy, one which includes a clown named Amondo who falls into despair after an experience with a call center and a maid who constructs a dance partner out of cleaning equipment.

More characters follow, but not all of them feel comfortably balanced. Miller at one point re-enters the stage as the crowd-favorite Edith, an extremely horny octogenarian who workshops her dating app, a Tinder-style swipe-athon that includes the intimate medical history of its participants, which she demoes for the audience, Shark Tank-style. Things go well until Miller ensures we all understand that Edith is in a state of abject depression and is (so far unsuccessfully) seeking to end her own life via assisted suicide. It isn’t impossible to make light of mental illness, particularly if the character making the joke is doing so in an act of reclamation, but Miller frequently drops her characters’ darkest moments like anchors that bring the show’s energy to a halt.

Nowhere was this more acutely felt than in Miller’s portrayal of a teenager singularly obsessed with Donald Trump. There is a chance Miller didn’t intend to make a connection to the real-life incident in which a teenager in need of psychiatric helped scaled Trump Tower back in 2016, but the comparison there is obvious and, perhaps, in poor taste. Miller is clearly a versatile performer, but her characters need to be more than broad stereotypes that rely on desperation as a punchline.

3-x-3-72dpi_origThe next show in St. Mary’s I caught was David Lawson’s No Oddjob, a one man show that more or less acts as an interpersonal shorthand for the myriad controversies the video game industry has endured over the last twenty-plus years. Truth be told, however, Lawson’s anecdotes are more incidental to his comedic A Brief History Of-style show. While one anecdote regarding Wolfenstein becoming banned from his local Jewish Community Center feels somehow prescient to the narrative, others involving judging the perceived ‘performative’ geekery of wearing video game referencing t-shirts feel not only irrelevant to the history of video game controversy, but to his own narrative as an industry advocate as well. Even the mention of it recalls the gate-keeping notion of capital G “Gamer” culture, which posits that video games are a lifestyle, dammit, and forever holding one more venue for art and entertainment at arm’s length to a larger segment of the population who just kind of wants to play video games, thank you very much.

Worse yet, Lawson’s method of argument more or less rests on the assumption that everyone in his audience will find even the most graphic instances of violence in video games to be banal. While it’s true that the science is in on video games causing the desensitization of violence in teens (surprise: it’s a myth), that doesn’t mean that seasoned fans can’t become desensitized to violence as it’s portrayed in video games, just as it with film or television audiences. To show out of context clips of Wolfenstein: The New Order to an audience unfamiliar with video games would be like showing a character get slowly cannibalized in The Walking Dead to a person whose entire experience with television is reruns of the show Friends.

showupwebsiteartpittsThe final show of my first day, Show Up by Peter Michael Marino, is an improvised comedy about the life of the audience. Marino has a series of topics that form a larger narrative and audience members fill in the blanks with real stories from their lives.

Marino is clearly an experienced improviser, pulling collective laughs from an audience who at first appeared disjointed. I was surprised that Marino found quite literally the only woman in the audience unwilling to participate, and then forced her to do so. This resulted in the most awkward conversation imaginable, in which Marino more or less demanded that this unfortunate woman reveal any detail about herself, no matter how small.

Impossibly, the move paid off. I’m still not sure how. At some point in Marino’s narrative, which for us was a bizarre autobiography in which a child set a school teacher on fire and became a renowned Walmart greeter, this woman was forced onstage. Her refusal to speak ended up feeding into this oddly redemptive arc about silence and love, which was (predictably) peppered by awkward pauses between the two.

This is the kind of moment you go to the Fringe Festival to witness. It was strange, immediate and inexplicable, that Fringe-specific concoction that results in a totally bonkers show exploding into life for just an hour before dissipating into an empty stage to be filled with yet another show, and yet another unpredictable memory in the making.

These moments require not only the talent, but also a sense of interconnectivity between audience, artist and venue in order for them to exist. Making my way across the North Side to the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church for my second set of shows on my second day, it occurred to me that there was a wide gulf between all three of these things. The higher venue count of last year’s festival meant that walking form one venue to another meant passing at least a dozen people with blue Fringe t-shirts or festival passes around their necks.

bottle-rocket_origThoreau, NM’s Bottle Rockets, my first show of day two, is a traditional three-person play about the lives of a local family; by local, I mean, like, super local, these characters ostensibly lived within a short walk from the theater their story was being performed in. Written by Lance-Eric Skapura and performed by Robin Beruh, Sophia Englesberg and Bruce Story-Camp, it’s a likable portrayal of authentic Pittsburgh life. Jordan is a twelve year old with a fascination for science and blowing stuff up, and the show initially revolves entirely around a variety of familiar trials she has to undertake such as: “what’s the deal with boys?” and, “why can’t I dismantle the brick fireplace with a chisel?” All three performers feel like neighbors you used to live across from. There is a nostalgic warmth and humanity to their dynamic.

Unfortunately, a startling twist midway through the show that forces a reevaluation of Bottle Rocket’s initial premise, which I wasn’t a huge fan of. A revelation about one the character’s is dropped like an anvil, and while I appreciated the sudden gut-drop of the moment I couldn’t help but feel I’d seen it coming. The world of Bottle Rocket felt too perfect, and as a result I was more or less forced to assume tragedy would strike. Members of the audience clearly felt differently: Bottle Rockets is quintessential ‘not a dry eye in the house’ material, and was a surefire Fringe Festival hit.

andrew-frank_origMy final show of the night, Andrew Frank’s comedy special, Macrocosm, is correctly billed as both “cerebral” and “empathetic” standup comedy. In an era of Louis C.K.s and TJ Millers, we need more performers in comedy like Andrew Frank, who view empathy as a comedic strength. So much of Frank’s comedy is political, but he’s also friendly and willing to call out larger acts of oppression within American culture. In fact, he actually managed to wring a few laughs out of me, and I’m something of a miserable asshole.

There was unique talent on display this year which I was lucky enough to catch, but I still left the festival feeling empty. This festival is at its best when it is a breathless sprint from one act to the next. The Fringe Festival is named so because it brings acts who are on the fringes of the mainstream to a single space for everyone to explore; this year, relegated primarily to two unbranded venues separated by what amounts to a 25 minute on foot trek, the word “fringe” was unfortunately literal.

For more information about the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival click here.

Three Bearded Dudes and That One Girl: Fringe Day 3

The final night of the 5th Annual Pittsburgh Fringe Festival found me in yet another basement for three more shows, this time at the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church. Unlike the prior night’s venue at St. Mary’s Lyceum, this location was an actual church. There was something immediately soothing about the diffusion of late afternoon light through the stained glass windows. There was also a wickedly glorious irony in having that light bathe over me with the pulmonating voice of Fringe Festival performer Bob Weick as Karl Marx filtering into the entryway. While the fates whisked me to the less charming basement multi-use room, the sound bleed from above was not nearly as bad and distracting as the Lyceum.

andrew-frank_origThe first show of the evening was Andrew Frank’s stand-up show, Macrocosm. While I don’t spend much time at comedy clubs, intellectualism is not necessarily my first association with stand-up. However, Andrew Frank wastes no time in establishing this is a thinking person’s show. He launches into bits on light speed (keeping it comedic by doing the math on the size of his proclaimedly large penis relative to light years), nonillion (a number with 30 zeros) and the Fibonacci sequence. You realize you came in expecting to play some version of Chutes and Ladders, and all of sudden, the chess board has come out.

To establish his legitimacy, Frank opens the show by telling us he’s done 11 years of stand-up. His transitions consist of giving his hipster haircut a faint tug and outwardly flipping his microphone cord, an onstage move that’s reminiscent of the recent water bottle flipping phenomena. Overall, Frank comes off as more gently amusing than genuinely comedic. There were few roars from the audience. Frank exudes an air of pretention, even when talking dismissively about his education at an unaccredited Christian school in Missouri. He struggles with straddling that line between making people laugh and making them feel dumb. After all, not everyone knows the Fibonacci sequence (a series of numbers in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers). Ultimately, the math of Frank’s comedy adds up to making one feel a little lesser.

28514724_10157160314724838_3180087440204844665_oThe second stand-up show of the night was Krish Mohan’s Empathy on Sale. Like Frank, Mohan also takes an intellectual approach, albeit more political in slant. However, Mohan is clearly more at ease than Frank. Mohan engages the audience with self-referential sideline commentary about their responses (or lack thereof), which dissolves boundaries and encourages easy laughter.

Mohan offers satirical commentary on the immigrant experience having come to the U.S. from India when he was 8. He reminds us of our biases as he addresses common questions like “Where is your accent?” Mohan helps us stand ever so slightly outside of our American box in considering the screwy nature of rampant capitalism. This is memorably evidenced by his family excitedly whisking his 68-year old grandmother off to a mall when she visits the U.S. from India for the first time.

While Mohan and his family have only been in the U.S. for 20 years, he dismally notes his father is a rabid follower of FOX News and regularly rails against the Hispanic immigrant influx. Ironically, it seems we quickly morph into fierce protectionists of our adopted home, ready to erect walls now that we’re here. It reminded me of living in California and people complaining about newcomers overcrowding the state when they themselves had only been there for a few years. Yet, this behavior is as old as America itself. Mohan quotes a journal entry from Christopher Columbus noting the native population will be easy to subjugate because they are welcoming and not technologically advanced. Ah, Amurika!

vanlife-201801-3x3-webjpgSqueezed between these two stand-up routines in the Unitarian church basement was the runaway sensation of the night, New Vintage Ensemble’s #vanlife. In this piece, Casey and Kimmie are two gay millennials in search of both escape and the meaning of their lives. They look to accomplish this by stripping down beyond the small house movement to its more extreme cousin – van culture. Participation in this movement will theoretically allow them to travel as freely as dandelion fluff on a breeze.

The show opens with hilariously fresh and cutting banter. It stays in sync, never missing a beat. The two friends nitpick at each other like an old married couple as they prep to record a YouTube video with the proper balance of humor (a chipper rattling of the van’s name: Jean-Claude Damme Van – or is it Van Damme? Damn!), hand gestures, charm and of course, product placement as they attempt to monetize their journeys. The quest to capture that perfect seamless, inspiring, breezy moment is peeled back to reveal a fiction. The show cracks open the wide delta in life between upbeat social media portrayals and the palpable realities of life as it is. For instance, Casey notes #vanlife pictures on social media are in meadows and on beaches, not in the Walmart parking lots where they actually congregate.

Of course, this delta isn’t limited to Casey and Kimmie. The very existence of the phrase “Facebook life” points to the fact that social media portrayals are not reflective of everyday reality. It’s a shiny final image with the right filter that elides the mess and muck along the way. Miserable and grumpy, Casey and Kimmie sideline into a debate on the relative merits of truckstop showers, before roping it back in and plastering on fake smiles for the YouTube camera. They’re combative, picking at each other with ease and an underpinning of affection worn by the trials of travel.

Kimmie wears an orange V-neck sweater and patterned LuLaRoe leggings. She decries that her life has just become “about managing people’s expectations of me.” She says it like it makes her unique. In fact, it illustrates her lack of self-awareness on the general human condition. These apparently oppressive expectations stifle her ability to figure out who she really is, so Kimmie does a past-life reading. In learning who she’s been, perhaps she’ll figure out who she is. Like any past-life reading worth its salt, her past turns out to have been far more intriguing than her present. This disconnect seems to provide the inspirational spark for her vanlife venture, and she successfully campaigns to have Casey join her.

Throughout the show, the two actors stand only a few feet apart, but they never look at each other. In fact, they’re mostly on a slight diagonal away from each other as if each is standing in the middle of an angry face emoji eyebrow painted on the floor. Casey and Kimmie literalize social media’s tendency to look downward or outward, but not inward and never making eye contact. Our laughter is underpinned with a recognition of ourselves.

Check out the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival site for more information on their shows.

Fringe Festival in Three Shows

This is only my second year seeing Fringe Fest shows, but I feel like I’m already a pro at it. For instance, this year I didn’t get lost trying to find St. Mary’s Lyceum, and once I walked inside I didn’t think twice about the small bar filled with smoke and people who would rather watch football than a play and showed it by speaking to the people sitting right next to them loud enough that you could keep up with their entire conversation while watching the performance in the back. This is only slightly a negative; it makes the festival feel familiar and local, and it nice to be able to grab a beer before a show if you’re into that sorta thing.

leahy-fringe_origThe first show I saw was Are You There Margaret? It’s Me, God! downstairs at St. Mary’s, so I didn’t get to hear the spillover from the bar, just a little thumping from the show upstairs. The Rude Cutlet Theater Company presented a show featuring two actors standing before the audience and reading from their scripts, so I’d call it a dramatic reading more than a one act play. Margaret, the character from Judy Blume’s famous novel, read her diary out loud. We got to hear about her crush on the teacher, her obsession with breasts, and the first time she got her period. Her diary was filled with actual excerpts from the book and additions to make the material more modern and call out the completely inappropriate material that makes you wonder how this was ever an acceptable book for teenagers. God, the character from the Bible and seemingly some dimension where you can work your way into achieving deity status in this particular rendition of the character, answered Margaret with sassy comebacks and complete horror at the more yikes-worthy parts. Although Margaret could not hear God’s answers.

There were lots of good parts in this show. A lot of the material was funny, and certainly relatable to the ladies in the audience. The concept of looking at material from decades ago and pointing out how problematic it is really makes for great entertainment. However, many of the jokes felt forced or were delivered oddly. Sometimes I was cringing at the diary entries, sometimes at the missed attempt at humor. It seems like this play could be amazing if it was just cleaned up a bit. But they should definitely keep the hamburger bit. That was pure comedy gold.

voa-poster-3x3Next, I moved on to a church in another part of the North Side for Voice of Authority. Much less smoke and beer (by that I mean none). When I arrived, I found Dean Temple, the writer and performer of this one man show, playing his guitar to the small audience. I thought he’d started early, but it turned out he was just performing his own house music. He used this to launch his show from the final song, which was a unique way of beginning the show. Temple certainly liked to keep the audience on its toes. The show itself was Temple telling a story, supposedly a true story of things that really happened to him, about how he went from the performing arts to making more money than he knew what to do with to being sued by the Department of Justice for $19 million and back to the arts again. This is all set up with the audience playing the part of therapist so he can talk his story and feelings out, often referencing the internal voice of authority that makes him make questionable choices.

The story was interesting, and Temple’s performance was well rehearsed. He changed mannerisms and vocals for the different characters that he was using, which helped to keep the story from being too confusing. It was still confusing, as it jumped around a lot and Temple’s high energy kept him bouncing around the stage. The lights were weird too, and the fact that they changed with certain moods and not others made it seem very avant-garde where I didn’t feel it needed to. If nothing else, the show was entertaining, and it was a story likely to be unique to everyone who hears it.

pittsburghfringewebsite_1_origBack to St. Mary’s for Falkland: The War the World Forgot, and upstairs this time so the multimedia and actors of Tasty Monster Productions had to work hard to keep the audience’s attention on them. They succeeded, and I was completely drawn into this story that was based on true events of a war that I’d never heard of. Which was the point in the telling of the story. The company used film to show what was happening in the world during this war in the Falkland Islands in Britain, along with recordings of interviews and newscasts, and photos of the actual war and aftermath. There were two actors- one who played a sheep farmer and one who split time playing a young soldier stationed on the farmer’s land and also the farmer’s wife in other scenes. It was a compelling story, showing how the war affected not only those who were fighting in it but also the civilians whose land was compromised during this time.

Heather and Luke, the company founders and the players in the show, did an excellent job of story telling and portraying the different characters. It was easy to feel their anxiety and fear, and it was easy to find yourself rooting for these characters that you’d barely met. And the sheep, which we got to see in some of the photos. This show made me want to learn more about this war, and the trouble it caused for the natives of the island. And that should be considered a win for this company. It was a really nice way for me to close out my festival experience.

For more information about the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival click here.

Fringe Day 3: St. Mary’s Lyceum: Part 2

pgh-fringe-website-photoLocal Pittsburgh buskers, Sean Miller and Kristin Ward are The Daring Douglasses. If you have been to any Pittsburgh events over the past couple decades, you most likely have seen them, a large crowd standing in a circle, watching with eyes wide and mouths gaping open in awe.   Fire eating, sword swallowing and lying on a bed of nails are incredible feats and sometimes hard to watch, but watch we must and this is evident by the crowd of people, sitting anxiously, awaiting the show to begin.

The first part of the title, Straw, Mud and Old Boards refers to the seating available at carnivals, festivals, and fairs; the venues The Daring Douglasses perform most often.  Over the course of the show, Miller and Ward colorfully recount their most memorable experiences up and down the United States from the Eastern Seaboard to the Mississippi and everywhere in between.

I think the audience expected to see the team perform some of their most daring acts; bursting, otherwise known as blowing huge, big balls of fire or swallowing fire or swords.  Unfortunately, due to insurance issues, these death defying displays of fearlessness were prohibited.  This did not prevent the dynamic duo from sharing plenty of stories and a few select tricks.  The most well received escapade demonstrated is not for the squeamish; the “Human Blockhead”.  Miller began his presentation by asking an audience member to choose a nail from a box of nails. Then he requested someone examine a hammer and confirm it is a standard, regular old hammer.  Next, Miller casually used the hammer to insert the nail into his nose.  Many in the audience turned their heads, but only slightly, so they could still see Miller extract the nail from his nostril with the claw end.   Ward, demonstrated the same trick using a glow stick.  The audience, clearly relieved she did not choose a nail,  but every bit as impressed.  These stunts earned several gasps followed by vigorous applause from the audience.

Miller and Ward primarily entertain at popular festivals, fairs, and carnivals but they are also engaging storytellers.  

Through a carefully planned narrative, they each tell their own stories; how they found their calling as sideshow performers, performances that were less than successful as well as some of their favorite showcases.

I  enjoyed this show.  I loved the storytelling and hearing about the history leading up to the forming of the troupe.  As a Pittsburgher, I have seen The Daring Douglasses perform at least one dozen times.  I think the concept of Straw, Mud and Old Boards is a crafty way to promote themselves and share their art despite the limitations due to the provisions set forth by the Fringe Festival;  and for good reason.   For just one second, imagine the liability associated with a fully bearded man, eating fire, in the back room of a bar on Pittsburgh’s Northside!

Audience members who have not witnessed The Daring Douglasses performance in full, Straw, Mud and Old Boards should whet your appetite for good old fashioned sideshow.

bbshakespeare_1Rounding out my Fringe Festival tour for Pittsburgh in the Round, is a witty performance by Pittsburgh’s Brawling Bard Theater, Shakespeare Annotated.  Written Alan Irvine, with help from William Shakespeare and performed by a company of extraordinary actors. The showcase begins with a brief introduction from Irvine, explaining the plot; actors deliver classic Shakespeare scenes and monologues while an expert librarian sits off to the side, prepared to provide footnotes when necessary.  He introduces the first performance, Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1.  Alex, with her long flowing dark hair takes the stage and without warning begins reciting Sonnet 18.  The cast is quick to interrupt.  Alex insists, the sonnet is her favorite piece.  Everyone agrees it is a lovely sonnet- but despite her earnest attempt to persuade, the show continues with Hamlet.  I must say, being the most recognized Shakespeare play next to Romeo and Juliet, and despite attempted comedic elements the launch of the show fell short with Hamlet. The most memorable moments come from the apt and presumptuous ‘librarian’ sitting quietly with her nose in the books, barking out exceptional interpretation, whenever she felt it was needed.   By the second arrangement,  As You Like It, Act 2, scene 7, the cast seems to have warmed up and the show gets livelier.  I was relieved to see and hear some of the initial rigidity in the actors voices and movements melt away.   A genuine and more professional production emerged and it was almost an a-ha moment for the audience collectively once we figured out the entire show is a farce.  By the time A Winter’s Tale is presented, more props are introduced and the is loving the levity bestowed upon the classics.  With the presentation of As You Like It, we discover the world’s first flushing toilet. In The Winter’s Tale, Act 3 scene 3, a bear races through the theater.  The footnotes included in the introduction of Much Ado About Nothing, had the audience in stitches.  Alex’s second attempt to present her favorite sonnet was a small fiasco and the zany, knife fighting scene from Julius Caesar, Act 3 Scene 1, is expertly directed by Tonya Lynn, adding another layer of theatrical expertise to the company’s exhibition.

What began as a weak and lackluster program ended with cheers and smiles from both the cast and audience.

I read my fair share of Shakespeare in high school and college and I’ve seen several Shakespeare productions, of varying degrees, performed live, but none that compare to Shakespeare Annotated. The cast is energetic and invested in their roles, but it is the originality of the script that really won me over.   Shakespeare Annotated is not assigned reading in English 101, but probably should be.

For more information about the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival click here.

Fringe Day 3: St. Mary’s Lyceum: Part 1

logo_1_origChildren of Heaven produced by Laugh/ Riot Performing Arts Company Is pertinent following the #metoo movement currently storming media.  Before the performance begins I am greeted by a woman wearing all white.  She shook my hand, thanked me for coming, then stated, “We hope the message fills you”.

Children of Heaven is performed in 2 acts, by students from Edinboro and California State Universities. The show unfolds as each woman, dressed in white, shares a personal narrative about sexual assault, harassment and victim blaming followed by a statement of gratitude to Lilith for rescuing them from a wicked and crumbling society.  Each woman has an experience of abuse and a need for healing.  Their stories are not unique, but each actor delivers an honest account wrought with emotional agony, remorse, disdain and shame.  You can’t help but feel the ugliness they convey.  The casts tributes to Lilith evolve from a culture supportive and nurturing to all women, a family who lives apart from mainstream society.  In other words, they are members of a cult, led by Lilith. Lilith has convinced these women they could not function happily, at peace, nor should they want to, outside of the society.

Act 2 features Lucy, a young woman who has left the cult.  Per the request of her parents, Lucy is being interviewed by Harvey.  He has been hired by Lucy’s parents, to integrate her back into society and reunite her with her biological family.  Lucy is angry and not at all receptive to conversation.  She portrays a ‘feminazi’ type character who wants nothing more than to take down Harvey and will try at all costs.

It’s clear Children of Heaven is an attempt to raise awareness of important issues such as rape culture, victim blaming and patriarchy, but the script does very little to support feminism in a beneficial manner.  The cast is sincere in dramatic representation of characters ultimately the message falls short of being supportive of women, men or feminism. I get it, not all endings have to be happy but the message here could easily be misconstrued and that is not helpful for anyone.

img-7386-web-2-cecilia-takes-lolipop-from-wyatt_origWho- Ha is a cluster of chaos.  Choreographed by Anthony Alterio, faculty member of the University of Kentucky, Who- Ha is a performance art piece which begins and ends in an intense explosion of untamed energy.  The show begins when the performers pass out index cards to audience members.  Each card has a question written on it that the audience is expected to answer.  After writing your response, a troupe member takes the card from you, reads the question and answer aloud in front of the audience. Then the performer snatches a piece of tape from off of a poster board, sticks the tape to the back of the card and slaps the card onto another performer.  This is done within a matter of minutes. The girls run at high speed, read quickly and zigzag about the performance space with no perceived direction, appearing disorganized and out of control. Once all of the index cards have all been collected and the questions and answers presented aloud, the dancers line up in front of the audience with pieces of tape and index cards dangling from their hair, shoulders and backs.  The props begin to fall off the girls, dropping to the floor, scattering across their feet and I kept wondering, how are they going to dance with all that stuff on the floor?  In this instance, dance is subjective.  There is movement, some clearly choreographed.  There is music too, but for most of the performance there is so much happening on stage simultaneously;  each performer moving in a different direction, some standing on their feet, some rolling on the ground, while another runs aimlessly or dances on top of a box. I really struggled to follow what was happening; I didn’t know where to look, or whom to watch.  I felt lost and confused.

The Fringe program synopsis reads, “Who- Ha is a performance dance piece that showcases feminine hygiene, feminine characteristics and feminine oppositions in pop culture”.

I typically enjoy performance art and I enjoy dance performances. Unfortunately, I think Who- Ha missed the mark.  The direction was far too scattered for me to appreciate Mr. Alterio’s choreography nor could I extract any of the aforementioned themes from the movements or music.  

* As I reflect back, a day later, I realize, I initially felt the subject matter being presented was lost in translation, but perhaps, this is Who- Ha’s point.  Sometimes, after experiencing a piece of art, it takes a day or two for all I saw, heard or felt to sink in.  I’m still mulling this one over.  Who- Ha is definitely left up to audience interpretation.

Ballet, Puppets, Memories, and Marxism: Fringe Day 3

This year, my first day of Fringe was my last day, but it was no less of an experience than last year’s.  My first show was Bobby’s Ballet Lessons in the basement of the Unitarian Church.  Coming in at fifteen minutes, it’s the shortest play I have seen at Pittsburgh Fringe, but it still tells a fairly complete story.  We meet Bobby and Leah who are two eight-year-olds in a dance studio where Bobby’s mom signs him up for ballet lessons with Leah’s mom, the instructor.  The children immediately befriend one another, and Leah doesn’t mind that Bobby is nonverbal and stims when frustrated or excited.  Leah’s mother seems more reserved but still teaches him, and we see the children grown and dancing ten years later at their final recital.

evening-of-creativity-006_origThe child actors are a joy to watch, and not just for the cute factor many bigger productions exploit.  They connect and present a genuine moment of childhood friendship.  Most scenes are short and punctuated by a blackout at the end of each one.  While this lends an effect of taking a snapshot of the characters’ lives, some scenes feel too brief to provide a full sense of who everyone is.  More to the point, we never get to know Bobby.  After the first scene establishing his autism, the rest of the characterization goes to Leah.  Rather than allowing Bobby his own personhood and growth, he becomes a lesson for Leah.  Kindness can make a huge difference in our lives, but what does it do for Bobby?  Leah even asks her mother, “Will he be okay?” as if he has no chance of independence.  Theatre needs more autistic representation, but we must also be mindful of how that representation serves that community.

kyle-bounderThe second show taking place in the same space, Bounder the Rescue Dog, by Puppets in Performance addresses a similar theme, but brings it to a child’s level using puppets and songs.  They tell the story of Kyle, a boy struggling with ADHD, who desperately wants to adopt an abandoned stray named Bounder, who has been surviving on the streets.  Both Kyle and Bounder face down bullies: an obnoxious girl, Clarissa, and a fanged and scarred bruiser, Zig-zag.  Meanwhile, Kyle’s mom fights for fair treatment at school.  The brochures Kyle’s math teacher hands to her illustrate the lack of understanding and options for children with learning impairments.  The story pushes the idea that Kyle getting a dog will solve his problems, but that is hard to believe.  A therapy dog can help, but it is no cure for his disability.

Puppets are the perfect medium and give kids a way into what can be a difficult topic.  The actor/puppet combo behind Zig-zag was one of the strongest performances.  Both were equally animated and committed to the character.  Most of the other actors’ facial expressions were very animated, but it didn’t quite come through the puppet.  The ending also felt abrupt and just a little too good to be true, with a missing Bounder suddenly showing up at Kyle’s house and his combative mother giving a blasé “Okay” to the dog being in her son’s room.  This is probably not an issue for a younger audience who may be just happy to see dog and boy finally together.

marxinsoho72dpi3x3l_2I moved upstairs to see Marx in Soho by Howard Zinn by Iron Age Theatre’s Bob Weick, which requires some contextualization that doesn’t touch on the show itself.  Everywhere I found it, the show was scheduled for a 4:00 curtain.  After waiting a surprising amount of time with no sign of the show starting, I finally found out it would start at 4:30.  No sign or notice was posted outside the space.  After a long surprise wait in a hard pew, I was a little less than disposed to give the show my full attention when it began and it eventually made it difficult to pay attention at the end.

That being said, Marx in Soho by Howard Zinn was most definitely not geared for children like Bounder.  As Karl Marx recounts most of his life in monologue to the audience, there are moments inappropriate for kids, but it mostly delves into a lot of material that is over kids’ heads – some of it even over mine.  That’s not to say I can’t follow Marx’s arguments, but he tends to drop more historically obscure names without explaining.  There is an expectation of knowledge when he should very well know our capitalist society doesn’t allow socialism to be taught in classes without demonizing it.  The performance tends toward a lecture, with many smug asides about how our world can’t be as backwards as his was (as we well know it is), and then going on to explain how we are still backwards (which we already know).  However, he managed to stir my emotions with the line, “To be radical is to grasp the root of the problem.”  In a world where commodities and CEOs are king, loving and respecting your fellow human beings unconditionally are the most radical things you can do.

mg-6468-brochure-2_origAnd funnily enough, the last show of my night, Come as You Are, a group from Rochester, NY, does just that.  Taking more of an open-mic route rather than a traditional play performance, four storytellers got up and recounted a memory from their lives, often deeply personal in some way or another.  I feel it wrong to tell any of their stories for them, but I think I can safely mention a funny story that involves mud with ants in it passed off as chocolate ice cream.  They invite audience members up with their own stories at the end and they gently tease you into taking part.  It was a sweet and relaxing end to the day and the best example of theatre creating community and acceptance.

For more information about the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival, click here.

A Fringe Bookend

The last day of Fringe felt much like the first…with one major difference. After spending the first two days at St Mary’s Lyceum I was happy to have a change of venue. At this point a description of the differences between this year’s two Fringe spaces would benefit no one. We’ll let it rest at the fact that Unitarian Church is just that, a church, wooden pews and all. The forced aesthetic reverence, the associations from my childhood were all present during the first of my evening viewings.

fredhampton72dpi3x3To My Unborn Child: A Love Letter From Fred Hampton was one of the most powerful pieces I saw over the weekend. As a political choice the story of the Black Panthers is hyper-relevant. Contemporary activist and conscious communities of various shades are finding new links to and resonance with the stories of the Panthers, COINTELPRO (the counterintelligence operation that essentially murdered and jailed a generation of powerful black leadership in our country), community defense and cooperative programs. Those stories have a lot to teach us about what it means to struggle and how to go about fighting for change in a world that wants to divide and conquer, and is highly skilled at it.

During the performance Richard Bradford reaches out from the 60’s and incorporates some of the strong physical imagery that we (somewhat incorrectly) associate with movements of our current time. The show reminds the audience that black bodies lying in pools of blood at the hand of police, that black hands in the air, and that anger at the politics of older black leaders spans decades of struggle. Bradford personalizes Hampton’s story beautifully. There is a central choice that opens the play wherein Hampton is laying in a pool of his own blood staining his bedsheet. The blood stained sheet remains front and center for the entirety of the performance and acts as not just a reminder of the end of one person’s life, but also used at one point as the blood of community in which Hampton both politically and personally shrouds himself, and at another point as the blood of his living son with a dire political tone.

As an actor Bradford has the energy and skill to hold us for the entire show, no small feat for such an energetic performance. We are invited into the passion, sadness, and community of Hampton’s vision. I was reminded of another performer, Roger Guenveur Smith, who did a similar show in the late nineties, but at that time embodied Huey P. Newton. If you don’t get a chance at some point to see Richard Bradford’s performance I would suggest you watch Spike Lee’s recording of Smith’s, A Huey P. Newton Story. I didn’t get a chance to ask if Bradford had been influenced by this production, but I find the act of embodying historical political personages as a brilliant device for communicating radical political thought through the very flesh, blood, and emotive tissue of humanness. In radical struggle there is a deep love, for self and for others.

voa-poster-3x3The last show of my short Fringe career was Dean Temple’s, A Voice of Authority. Over the course of the performance Temple literally asks us to be his personal shrink, calling the audience Doc, as in, “Hey, doc, what do you think about this…”. We are asked to evaluate two lives, one of a person who struggled for something he didn’t care about, and one who struggled to attain a clear dream. Temple’s piece is based on a true story, and the details embedded within the performance feel like they couldn’t be entirely made up by anyone. The titular voice of authority is one that can lead us toward a false sense of safety. It does not hold our, or Temple’s, true desires at heart. In the end there is not a major reveal or conclusion other than, hey, we just gotta keep trying.

That theme bookended my fringe experience. My first show of the weekend was Michael Marino’s piece, Show Up, which had a similar core sense of itself. So like I said, I left Fringe as I had begun.

No Matter Where You Go, There You Are – Fringe Day 2

My second day at the Fringe was spent at two locations: St. Mary’s Lyceum and Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church. It takes between 20 to 30 minutes to walk between the two locations, so, depending on the weather, the time of day, and the time in between the shows you are seeing, this can be a nice opportunity to take a break, get some fresh air, and enjoy some of Allegheny Commons North Park.

The second day of the Fringe was a social justice movement tsunami of new works, with a little bit of silliness thrown in to help weather the storm. It makes me wish I could have seen every single show that Fringe has to offer, to see if this searching, pushing, floundering, reaching demand for a better way of doing things, a clearer direction, was a universal undercurrent throughout the festival, or if I just got lucky with the performances I attended.

mg-6468-brochure-2_origCome As You Are is not so much a performance as a group storytelling session. The stories are personal, real-life accounts of the struggle to fit in, to achieve outside approval, the tolls taken, and the lessons learned. It’s very intimate. It’s unvarnished, honest, and brave.

From a theatrical perspective, it’s really not much of a “performance.” This group of presenters seems new to the art of oral storytelling, though many of them have a background in radio and writing. There are no carefully crafted narratives, no weaving together of images and ideas, no surprise revelations or attempts at creating memorable characters inside their tales. Instead, there are unvarnished, unrehearsed confessionals, offered up to the audience by non-performers, much more self-conscious and unsure than seasoned professional storytellers or actors would ever be. And yet, I was moved by their vulnerability.

Come As You Are often felt like a group therapy session, as opposed to a theatrical presentation, and I have very strong feelings against theater as therapy. There is theater. And there is therapy. Both can elicit enlightenment and catharsis, but theater is primarily an external vehicle of entertainment, while therapy is a private attempt at personal growth and healing. I don’t approve of mixing the two worlds. And yet, I was caught up in the glimpses into these presenter’s lives and grateful to get to know them.

At the end of the planned presentations, the collective opened up the floor for audience members to share stories of their own experiences, and, surprisingly, gratifyingly, several individuals did just that. So, there we all were, complete strangers, in the dark, sharing intimate moments from each other’s lives. It was really rather beautiful, and…therapeutic.

Next up for me: Tentacles, a two-person production grappling with female sexuality, fantasy, power, and, worse, disempowerment.

tentaclespghfringeshowgraphicwebTentacles is hands down the best production I saw during my time at the Fringe. It is well written, wonderfully performed and directed. It is intellectual, emotional, titillating, fascinating, unapologetic, surprising, funny, horrifying. I really hope this production gets more performances, all over the country. It’s just that good.

Written by Tessa Flannery (who also plays the lead character) with direction by Rebecca Cunningham, Tentacles is initially framed as a lecture on feminist ravishment fantasies in relation to pornography and the depiction of female rape given by “grad student” Tessa. The lecture itself is really interesting and informative. In fact, I would love to have a bibliography identifying the source materials used in the research of this piece. In the midst of this lecture, Tessa often grapples with her own personal fantasies, depicted with great humor by Ms. Flannery. These fantasies interweave with the subject at hand, challenging her professional, clinical self-representation.

To complicate matters further, Tess is confronted by Chris (played by Chris Fayne), a former college friend, now porn actor, who confronts, criticizes, and demeans Tessa and her work. The confrontation slowly devolves from debate to sexual overture to an assault that leaves Tessa incoherent and almost speechless. Her voice has been stopped; her power subverted. It is a disturbing and deeply resonant moment that looks the audience squarely in the eye and demands we not be complicit, that we stay alert, and that we take action when it is needed. It was a truly electrifying production.

The minor problems with the show do not ultimately take away from its final impact. Tessa Flannery’s performance is much stronger and skillful than Chris Fayne’s, though Chris is completely committed and willing to take the fall as the “bad guy.” The character of Chris is a bit of a straw man, since there is literally nothing likable about the guy from word one. So, while the characters’ interactions honor the complexity of the issue at hand, the antagonist himself does not. And the idea that a man would be allowed to hijack a public lecture in the way that Chris does without intervention by the audience or venue security is a bit unrealistic. It’s worth suspending one’s disbelief in order to engage with the material, but I expect there is a writing fix for this weird plot anomaly.

Regardless, this is truly an amazing piece of theater. You should see it, more than once, if possible.

28514724_10157160314724838_3180087440204844665_oComedian Krish Mohan continued the call for social justice in his standup performance called Empathy on Sale. I liked Mr. Mohan. I mean, I don’t actually know him personally, but his style of comedy is gentle, kind. He does, indeed, seem empathetic to his fellow human beings. So, he can address social justice issues like racism, immigration law, and political extremism, and, even if you don’t agree with all of his observations, you can appreciate his sense of humor and his genuine empathy. I thoroughly enjoyed my time listening to Mr. Mohan’s comedic observations, and I’d love to meet both his parents and Uncle Marv(?); they sound like really interesting people.

IMG_0159Finally, there was #vanlife, written, performed and directed by Kimmie Leff and Casey Thomas. I admit to being entertained by this witty, fast-paced theater piece, if a little put off by the relentless snarkiness of its characters. They were funny, after all, just really, really irritating; heck, they didn’t seem to like each other most of the time either. Which may have been the point.

#vanlife was the perfect show with which to end my Fringe experience, since it’s a show about people trying to escape. Escape the complexities of the modern world. Get away from everyday disappointments. Get away from adulthood. Hit the road. Be free!

Anyone over the age of 15 has had this fantasy. Only, instead of motorcycles à la Easy Rider, it’s retrofitted vans. And, instead of just fantasizing about it, our characters actually do it. They give up most of their worldly possessions, pack up their van, and start driving, searching for….what, something…some ineffable thing. And they are sure, based on all the cool Instagram posts from other van-life practitioners, that their world will be full of romance, peace, beauty – all the stuff their real life lacks.

And yet, in their determination to leave behind all of the trappings of their trapped lives, these modern day Kerouacs can’t seem to break away from their need for a good Wifi connection. After all, what is life? What is adventure? If it can’t be documented on Facebook or Instagram? Their flight towards freedom is also hampered by the, irritatingly always present, practical needs of life – money, food, shower facilities, a legal place to park their van. The vicissitudes of life on the road quickly begin to wear on our intrepid pair. Until, disillusioned (van-life does not solve all our problems, does not lead to enlightenment, much less good toilet paper supplies), our duo decides to expose the seedy truth of van-life with their own behind-the-lies posts on Facebook, et. al.

As their followers grow, the two find themselves monetizing their feeds, until they too are part of the conspiracy, posting pics and promoting products online, instead of truly pursuing self-improvement or that all illusive enlightenment. In the end, Kimmie and Casey just decide to go back home, à la Dorothy Gale this time. The answers aren’t “out there” somewhere, self-understanding cannot be manufactured, you can’t run away from your adulthood.

I found the commentary on our modern obsession with social media resonant. And that aching longing for….something….poignant. However, I felt like the performances were a bit stale; these folks know this show inside and out, and it didn’t feel like they were really present with the audience for the performance. I also totally did not understand why the actors never looked at each other!? I did not get whatever message this was supposed to convey. At all. Unless their disconnection as actors on stage was supposed to reflect their disconnection as characters? I don’t know. It bugged me. And maybe that was the point.

Anyway, #vanlife inspires me to always remember: “No matter where you go, there you are.” à la Buckaroo Bonzai.

The Fifth Annual Pittsburgh Fringe Festival unfortunately ends today but if you’d like to learn more about Fringe click here.

An Evening at St. Mary’s – Fringe 2018

For Fringe Day 2, I spent my evening seeing three shows in the upstairs space at St. Mary’s Lyceum. The space has a pretty great dive bar atmosphere, but be warned: it’s cash only and there aren’t any ATMs for a few blocks around. Make sure you have some cash on you if you want to grab a theatre-drink. This was a lesson I learned last year, but because of some scheduling errors on my part that left me driving too fast while wolfing a tuna sandwich I’d been told was chicken, I was still unprepared when I showed up.

logo_1_origThe first show of the day was Children of Heaven, from Laugh/Riot Performing Arts Company. Laugh/Riot had been associated with Edinboro University of Pennsylvania for the previous five years, and Children of Heaven is their last production with Edinboro students and alumni. It’s a two-act piece centered around the cult of Lilith, a charismatic leader who teaches women to make their own choices.

In the first act, we meet members of the cult, telling of their experiences with rape, sexual assault and harassment, and other traumas of male-dominated society, and how Lilith saved them. Finally, Lilith herself comes out to finish the sales pitch. Although the segment goes on maybe a little too long, I can see what the writer was going for – showing that female disempowerment takes many different forms. And each of the actors handles her monologue well. Where I think the first act drops the ball in setting up the second is in showing what exactly the cult is doing wrong that would require an intervention. Lilith seems alright in my book.

The second act shifts to a scene of an attempted deprogramming of a former cult member. Lucy is holed up in a cabin in the woods with Harvey, who is trying to bring her back to her biological family. Harvey’s a pretty one-dimensional villain. (And his name is Harvey. Topical!) Since the cult doesn’t really seem to have much in the way of outlandish beliefs, he’s pretty much just trying to convince her that she’s not being nice enough to him. The show is dealing with important topics, but in a very direct manner that leaves the plot feeling a little thin and secondary.

img-7386-web-2-cecilia-takes-lolipop-from-wyatt_origSo then… what’s the opposite of dealing with things very directly? Who-Ha. Folks, I really enjoyed the hell out of Who-Ha. Every year I read a description of a show in the program and think “I don’t know what that means. I don’t think I’m smart enough to appreciate or write about that.” And then it ends up being awesome… even though I’m not 100% sure on the message. This year’s winner was Who-Ha. Choreographed by Anthony Alterio, this is a dance piece featuring dancers Kye Miller, Cecilia Port, Caroline Smith, Wyatt LaFever, and Katie Kloska. It promises to “make you question gender, identity, empowerment, and what I call everyday performance persona.”

The performance opens with the four handing index cards with questions to the audience members. The cards are read aloud, and then attached to the performers with loops of tape from a board held by LaFever. I finished mine first, so I kind of sacrificed the anonymity of the later answerers who were read simultaneously. So now everyone knows that I practice answers to the question “What’s new?’ before seeing people. After the Q&A the dance segments begin. It’s a high-energy, chaotic spectacle, but you have to make sure to keep your eye on the whole stage. If I’d focused too much on what was going on front & center, I’d have missed my favorite “wait, what?” moment – LaFever, in the back, nonchalantly pulling off the leftover loops of tape and putting them in his mouth. (Not gonna say eating. No assumptions.)

Unfortunately, I can hear what’s probably the last performance of Who-Ha occurring in the background at St. Mary’s as I type this (they scream a few times), so I can’t recommend you see it here. But if you get a chance to catch the show elsewhere, or follow any of these performers, go for it.

pittsburghfringewebsite_1_origMy last show of the night was Falkland: The War the World Forgot, a drama from Tasty Monster Productions. Performed by Heather Bagnall and Luke Tudball, Falkland follows Gideon, a sheep farmer whose home is near the front lines of the fight, his wife Helen, and Fitz, a British soldier they befriend. Bagnall stands out, playing every role except Gideon, and creating a unique persona for each despite fairly minor costume changes.

I didn’t know much about the war going in – other than an Eddie Izzard bit saying the British needed the island for “strategic sheep purposes” – but Bagnall’s script and the duo’s performances lay out the scene well enough that you don’t need to. And the use of images and audio from the era do a great job of setting you up in the era. As a less-known conflict, it’s helpful to remember that this is a conflict from the ‘80s, not the ‘40s. Much of the plot of the play is drawn from true stories either researched or shared by survivors. It examines the reasons behind the war and its impact on those caught in the middle, with an appreciation of the humanity on both sides. Also, I’ve run into Bagnall and Tudball a few times since seeing the show, and they’re both great people. (As I’ve been writing this piece between shows today, their last performance is also going on right now. I’m really dropping the ball on this recommendation thing. But this was probably my favorite show so far, so if you can work out the time travel, seeing this would be at the top of my list.)

The Fifth Annual Pittsburgh Fringe Festival unfortunately ends its run today but for more information to gear you up for next year click here.