No April Foolin’ at the Fringe

Thank god (whichever deity of your choosing) for Google maps.  Not only did it help guide me into the city as I drove in from the lovely environs of dreary Erie, but it also got me to the venue for my first day at the 2017 Pittsburgh Fringe on Saturday.  While there are four venues with various spaces and various performances to choose from, I made my way over to the fringes of the festival to St. Mary’s Lyceum for the evening, a little bar with a community hall space in the back that reminded me vaguely of the rooms where my Girl Scouts troop met.  A very simple stage was set up at the far end of the room.  I had never seen a production put on in a space like this before, and I was excited to get a taste.

skinpittwebMy night began with Shedding Skin, a wordless one hour dance performance that feels much more like witnessing a private ceremony or ritual.  In it, the audience observes Julie Leir-VanSickle of Creative Moves as she slowly struggles to tear off her old skin, quite literally, starting with her hands and then her arms, neck, and legs until she is “bare” before us, a new creature, free and relieved.  But even when she has wriggled out of who she was, she still holds on to and cherishes what she has left behind by gathering them into a small box.  The dance is captivating, at times reminiscent of the controlled movements of yoga, but other times languid and sinewy like the coils of a snake, or open and joyful like a crane in flight.  The lone performer commits to the dance she has created which commands the audience’s attention, and while the sense of story is blurry here and there, we are left with no doubts about what we have observed together.  After all, it is an outward show of something we have all experienced; we need no words.

The next performance to take the stage depended on nothing but words.  krish-mohan-headshot-pghfringe-tara-arseven-photographyKrish Mohan uses his stand-up comedy routine to talk to us about some tough issues in Approaching Happiness, like mental illness, drug use, guns, and race.  I think Mohan is more than capable of speaking for himself, so I’ll try not to spoil his bit, but maybe I can tempt you with notable phrases like “The Rat Tickler,” “I think the Catholic apocalypse is cute,” and “The Devil is an immigrant on this plane of existence.”  Don’t let these lull you into a false sense of security, however.  Approaching Happiness is not out just for laughs (with unabashed dark humor) – Mohan wants to get us talking to each other about these issues as much as he does.

After a good chuckle, it was time for some magic.  Cody Clark also tries to get wfpl-1us to talk with his performance, but more than that, he wants us to participate; he’s a magician and volunteers are required.  But what sets him apart from the average magician is the story he tells us with his illusions.  From the start, Clark frankly discusses the realities of living with autism as he pulls Thomas the Tank out of a box with no bottom, summons boxes of Velveeta out of an empty paper bag, and restores a cut rope to its whole state.  Like Mohan, he cracks jokes about the stereotypes and his personal experiences, but autism is never made out to be a joke.  Instead, it invites the audience into Clark’s unique world, especially timely at the start of Autism Awareness Month.

Little did I know that I was about to enter my own unique world afterwards with Cockatrice, a production not for the faint of heart, and most certainly not for the kiddies.  Bradley K. Wrenn leads the audience through a very cockatrice-good-goodinteractive quest to help the Chosen One, a fellow audience member, slay the villain and save the kingdom.  He has only a handful of props and costumes that he uses to transform himself into a host of characters, some of them quite disturbing, but all of them very distinct.  The rest of the performance relies upon the imagination, which can be difficult to coax out of people, but Wrenn will beat you over the head until you comply.  And if you comply, you may just get a beer or a chocolate bar in the bargain, and you will certainly have to wipe the tears from your eyes (I’ll let you guess if it is from pain or laughter).  Google maps managed to bring me to the right place, and I am hungry for more Fringe.

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 Friday

This is the first Fringe Festival that I ever attended so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. With today’s four plays, I got a little bit of everything including drama, comedy, cross-dressing, a little science fiction, and even bingo. More importantly, I didn’t dislike a single of the four shows and found a lot to admire.

waiting-for-death-screen-logoWaiting for Death

I saw this play at Artists Image Resource, which has been converted to have a neat little stage. Produced by college students, Waiting for Death was staged by the WU Players, a group of college students from a variety of majors. The play revolves around the idea that the grim reaper comes to visit a dinner party. It’s suggested that the grim reaper will kill someone and the duration of the play is determining who will be the reaper’s victim. While this premise might sound like the play will be grim in nature, the story is actually tongue in cheek and that’s a remarkably wise choice. I won’t disclose the play’s ending, but it’s a clever choice that’s not expected by the audience.

In its current form, the play reminds me of a more comical approach combined with a tone reminiscent of some of the early Clive Barker plays. The actress playing the Grim Reaper is an inspired choice and is capable of a very strong deadpan delivery of lines. The Grim Reaper is an amalgamation of how Death has depicted in a very of cultures, but there was one monologue that reframed the “appointment in Samarra” story that appears in the novels of John O’Hara and Paul Bowles that fell a bit flat. But, this is a memorable play by a young group of actors with some genuinely funny lines. Waiting for Death started the evening on a comedic but somewhat serious tone.

Shedding Skinskinpittweb

I don’t often review dance pieces. I have nothing against dance, it’s just not an art form with which I am particularly familiar. Shown at Saint Mary’s Lyceum, Shedding Skin was created by Julie Leir-VanSickle of Creative Moves. An Idaho artist, Leir-Vansickle created the piece after watching her child’s reptile. Thematically, the plot would be described as a process of shedding one’s weight and being born anew.

Serious, and slow in tone, the intimacy of the work was its greatest charm. Leir-Vansickle started dancing without any formal announcement that was about to begin and concluded the work by confusing all in attendance by simply leaving the room. In between these two events, there were some moments where the dancer was simply lost in the dance, colliding between jarring violent rhythms and more graceful patterns. If this is what interpretive dance is, I’m going to have to look into this form much further because this was an engaging act.

purple-betsy-final (1)Betsy Carmichael’s Bingo Palace

This is the most entertaining and enjoyable show that I’ve ever seen in Pittsburgh. Also shown at St. Mary’s Lyceum, Betsy Carmichael’s Bingo Palace is best described as a descendant of Dame Edna and Dixie’s Tupperware Party. The titular Betsy Carmichael is a drag version of an old woman who loves Bingo, wears outrageous glasses, and calls everyone “dear”. Betsy will beat you at Bingo, believe me, I know, I tried.

The performance, which is interactive, revolves around several rounds of Bingo with Betsy Carmichael, Betsy’s two female friends, and the man who reads the bingo numbers. If you don’t dance and make the proper hand motions when certain numbers are called,  Betsy will yell at you. Most of the audience was laughing throughout the performance. If I didn’t have to go see more works at Fringe Festival tomorrow, I’d be headed to take in as much Betsy Carmichael as I could before she leaves town and goes back to Betsy’s native Buffalo.

The Principlethe-principle-poster

The Principle was shown at Allegheny Inn, which is a building I’ve passed a thousand times as a resident of the war streets and often wondered what was inside. The space in a small corner downstairs basement with one strong light and some music cues was perfect for The Principle. Simplicity is what the work needed. Written by Alan Stevens, much of the dialogue in The Principle is very enviable and it works well to establish the tone of the play fluctuating between very dark humor and sad, almost heartbreaking poetry.

I’m not sure if The Principle was supposed to be a science fiction story or a particularly harrowing story of conversion therapy survivors. The play doesn’t attempt to explain which of these is true and that’s a clever decision because refusing to make such a decision allows both tones to exist in the world of the show. The play tells the story of Jess (Brittany Stahl) and Thomas (James Hartley) who have suffered through conversion therapy and are now being monitored by doctors. Both of these actors were remarkably talented performers. Hartley reminds me of a very young Robin Williams in the few early works when Williams acted serious and Stahl is a strong, quiet actress that is able to use comedy when necessary. I don’t often say this, but I loved the world, the tone, and the actors in The Principle and would enjoy seeing this play extended.

I started watching plays today at 4 and got done with The Principle around 9:45. I’m excited and curious what plays will form my second day of Fringe Festival.

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.