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. 

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. 

Friday Fringe at AIR!

17636851_781096878709340_3255313992491545639_oThe evening began with the ridiculous but thoroughly entertaining one man show Laundry Night by Captain Ambivalent.  Captain Ambivalent sings with the accompaniment of a gold accordion,  telling the story of an ordinary super hero.  The one man show reflects on the struggles of being a regular guy in Chicago, through lyrics reminiscent of They Might Be Giants or King Missile.  Sharing experiences of heartbreak, boredom and public transit as well as his rise to local fame, and a brief stint on America’s Got Talent. His costumes and props, including a 15’ purple inflatable dinosaur(not Barney) compliment the silliness of his lyrics.  The show is amusing and certainly a production all ages will enjoy.  Of course in Pittsburgh, everyone loves the the accordion.  All music performed is original, except for the famed 1989 hit by Technotronic, Pump Up the Jam, which is beyond hilarious played on an accordion.  

Next up, is Melissa Cole’s Mo-to-the-Oncle.  The story begins when Detroit img-2737Price loses his vision insurance, just at the time his teenage son, Detroit Price Jr. is in need of new glasses.  When Price reveals to the eyewear associate he has no vision coverage for his son, Detroit Jr is provided with a monocle in place of eyeglasses. The teen is horrified at the abuse he anticipates upon returning to school with a monocle. He goes to school only to have his greatest fear come true.  Another student threatens to jump Detroit Jr, so he elicits the help if his uncle, a pimp.  

Through detailed costume changes, voice reflection and finely tuned body language Cole expertly presents each character; father, optical sale associate, teenager, pimp and doctor.  The program lists Mo-to-the-Oncle as a comedy.  Detroit Jr’s rhyme is clever, the colorful characters depicted by writer/ performer Cole are well developed, the dialogue is sharp but in today’s political climate, to clarify this is a dark comedy.

Proxemics, a wearable art performance by local Pittsburgh fabric sculpturer hannah-thompson_origHannah Thompson is performed on the 3rd floor at AIR, in the gallery exhibiting Visual Fringe 2017 artists. By definition,  Proxemics is the study of humans use of space and the effects of population on behavior, communication and the ways in which humans interact with one another. I was intrigued by the synopsis in the program, I enjoy how performance art challenges my perceptions. Unfortunately, this performance was tarnished for me before it even began.  The artist arrived late, experienced technical difficulties with her music and as she prepared her props, she casually engaged other audience members in conversation about her political positions. When launched, the performance consisted of Thompson climbing into several elaborate cocoon-like stretchy ‘Snuggie’s’. Then she rolled around on the floor, extending her arms and legs or stood and stretched inside the long tubes of fabric.  Maybe she was practicing yoga or some form of free movement dance.  No one else in the audience seemed bothered.  Others mingled around after the 20-minute show engaging the artist in conversation and asking questions.  Performance art? Definitely, but definitely not my thing.

The Pink Hulk: One Woman’s Journey to Find the Superhero Within is written valerie-david-the-pink-hulk-richard-booper-photography-pressand performed by Valerie David, 2 time cancer survivor and improv artist.  Part anecdotal comedy and 100% personal narrative, solo artist David shares her terror,  frustration, depression and anger after learning she is diagnosed with breast cancer just weeks after celebrating her fifteenth anniversary of being cancer free from Lymphoma.  David bares her soul and owns the stage as she reveals the darkest time of her life; a direct attack on her womanhood; breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.  She holds back nothing, is brutally honest and frank. This is uncomfortable and frightening but David’s skill for storytelling puts me on the edge of my seat, almost immediately feeling an alliance with her.   She uses minimal props and I am tempted to say, they could actually be eliminated altogether as her narrative and stage presence are engaging enough.  

pittsburgh-image-2The Portable Dorothy Parker written by Annie Lux is a flashback in time.  The year is 1944, New York.  Writer Dorothy Parker is visited by a young editor for Viking Press, tasked to help edit the soon to be released The Portable Dorothy Parker.  Parker reflects on her time working for Vanity Fair, her friends and enemies, and the places she visited and shares these experiences and stories.   Actor Margot Avery portrays Parker over the course of the eighty minute solo performance.   Avery delivers Parkers witticisms and a straightforward rendition of her life and career with brilliant ease.  Avery reincarnates Parker on stage, and Lux channels her intellectual poise and intelligent cynicism through the script. The show, directed by Lee Costello is smart and moves fast despite being nearly an hour and a half of monologue.  

Avery’s ability to capture and exhibit Parker through delivery of dialogue, body language and slight movement are further captured through the use of period dress.   If you are a Dorothy Parker connoisseur, do not skip this performance.

Stay tuned for more Pittsburgh Fringe fun! Follow along with our adventures through our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #PITRdoesFringe 
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival for complimentary press passes. For tickets, day passes, and more information, click here.