Fringe Day 3: Four Voices One Story, It’s Who You Know, and Always B Sharp

drake 3My second and last day of Pittsburgh Fringe Festival started rather late in the Sunday afternoon. All three of my assigned shows Sunday were all at Young Men’s Republican Club, a smoky sports bar with a performing space in the basement. Needless to say the scene and the atmosphere are rather different, but the art and the fringe spirit stay the same. So without further ado, let’s “dive” right into it!

Presented by Moquette Volante, the first show of the day, Four Voices…One Story, took a sharp turn from all the classic school plays or comedy improv Saturday and truly showed me the experimental side of the fringe spectrum. Written and directed by Kristin Ward, it tells the classic fairy tale of Cinderella but through the visions, contexts, and voices of four different women who come from different cultural and ethnic background: Kenya, Italy, Czech Republic, and India. As the four beautiful actresses standing together all proudly wearing their own special ethnic dresses and lifting those timeless words from the book but each with its unique focal point and flavor, the stage presentation alone is already the strongest statement of the artist.

Director Ms. Ward said that this is a story about the heroine’s journey, about transformation. But as four different versions and interpretations intertwined together a bigger theme of beauty and diversity started to become clearer and clearer. Some versions of the story interestingly included some pretty dark twists and turns–definitely not your classic “happily ever after” Disney journey. But in the end the impact is still moving and powerful. Tech wise besides your usual Fringe Festival minimal lighting change, there is also an accompanying percussionist using different tempo, rhythms, and forces to represent each time line and each princess’ figure and personal journey. But if you ask me, the true “tech” support of this show would be the most fundamental and simplistic technology we have: human voice–simple but full of emotions. The constantly changing dynamic between four actresses on stage through position changes and hand gesture is another highlight of the show. And together, four story lines turned into one beautiful bouquet before the audience’ eyes with amazing color and depth.

Before we go on and talk about any further details of the second show which later turned out to be one of my personal favorites of the festival, I want to tell you all a little anecdote. So there I was, standing in line getting my tickets checked out by the volunteers for the second show, suddenly a gentleman in his 40s/50s wearing ripped jeans and a plaid shirt approached me and said, “Hey you know, I heard the guy in the next show is crazy, like CRAZY!” Now you have to remember that we are in the basement of a dive bar. So naturally I froze for a second and said, “Ahh, okay?”. And then he said, “Hahaha just kidding, that’s me!”

Anyway that’s how I met the host of the one-man show, It’s Who You Know, Chambers Stevens, and if one day I would do a show like his by pulling names of the people I’ve met in my life out of a box and telling a story of how I met him or her, that’s how I’d tell that story.

So there you go. It’s Who You Know is a show about stories, told by a master story-teller. From listening to Judy Garland’s granddaughter singing, to encountering the “homeless” Jonny Depp, all of the stories are randomly picked out of the box but at the same time carefully arranged, teased, and tailored  in a dramatic order. And with the casual setting of the performing space and an intimate lighting, all characters gradually come to life and become a reflection of the story teller’s own life journey. Through the 60-minute run Mr. Stevens has told stories that made the audience laugh, think, learn, and most importantly, connect. Not a single second during the show did the audience (myself included) not feel engaging with the stories and memories replaying on stage. And in the end, we were already wanting for more.

My final show of this Fringe Festival is Always B Sharp, a musical improv group with great energy and a sharp talent. Leading by the pianist and music director James Rushin, the crew on stage would take any word suggestions from the audience and turn it into a song. On Sunday night for warm up one of the games during the show was “World’s Worst Employee”, meaning that the audience would suggest an occupation and the actors will act or “sing” out a scene about how the world’s worst employee of this job would behave. In the second half of the show a full length musical based on two suggestions “Pomegranate” and “Jordan” were made on the spot filled with solos and group numbers, ballads and up-tempos, even an improvised lighting change of one of the Festival volunteers! It was the perfect way to say goodnight to another wonderful day full of theater and arts, and all in all it was just great great fun.

Just like that, my first Pittsburgh Fringe experience officially concluded with a big finish. Beautiful stories and wonderful music. What more could you ask for? It’s been truly a thrill sharing an intense but art-full weekend with so many talented artists, volunteers, and audiences from all over the city (and country!) The Festival once again reminded all of us of why we love Pittsburgh and its vibrant cultural scene so dearly, and I simply cannot wait for the many more Fringe Festivals to come!

 

Fringe Day 3: Funerals, Poetry, Dance and an Open Mic

chloe 3After experiencing and fully enjoying day one of the Fringe festival, I think it goes without saying that I was looking forward to day two. After loading up on coffee, I headed out to see my first show of the day, Shades of Shel at St. Mary’s Lyceum. Now, when most people (at least most younger people) think of Shel Silverstein, we think of the Giving Tree; how wonderfully he crafts poetic stories for children! Little did I know, Shel Silverstein also wrote tons of poetry to adults as well (his work was often featured in Playboy magazine). The man bringing these little known gems to life was named Sean Miller, and, in the intimate setting of me, two other audience members, and him sitting in a circle, he captured all of us as he wove through Silverstein’s words. The way Miller utilized the possibilities of the voice created a crystal clear movie reel in my head. His delivery of not only the words, but also of Silverstein’s original characters, was smooth and natural. Although there was only one man on stage, I felt like I met many characters that day. It’s one thing to memorize an hour’s worth of poetry, but it’s even more brilliant when that poetry is successfully brought to life, which Miller definitely did. A wonderful kick off to my day.

Following a small break in my day, I returned to St. Mary’s to see Ukie Fusion by the Slava Dance Company. The brainchild of artistic director, Natalie Kapeluck, this performance explored what it is like to grow up “a Ukie fusion,” raised in the US, but with Ukranian background. The way the dancers brought Kapeluck’s choreography to life juxtaposed modern dance with traditional Ukranian dance clearly and beautifully. With the addition of a narrator, telling audience members between numbers about what it’s like to grow up a Ukie fusion, I felt like I was truly learning about something I knew nothing about. For me, being able to learn about others through movement and artistic expression is one of the deepest ways to understand a person or idea and I felt that the expression and passion of this performance was incredibly strong. Having a modern dance background myself, I was amazed at the technicality and skill of the dancers. Not only that, but they all seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves and their time dancing with each other. I was also taken by the music. At the end I found out that most of it was fusion music, only a couple songs were traditional Ukranian. The music along with the dance paid homage to the brilliance of culture and the ways our cultures mix. I left Ukie Fusion wanting to dance (which is always the sign of a great show)!

Later that night I headed to see Passing Through at the James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy. This was a show written by a group of friends and artists bouncing off of their own personal experiences with friendship, love, and art. By setting the show in the James Street pub around the premise of open mic nights, the actors developed a comedic drama between friends that I felt myself feeling like I was truly witnessing. The show also featured a house band and various other musical performers, all of which were amazing, adding much energy to the rest of the show. The chemistry between the actors and their relationship with the space flowed really, really well. Utilizing the whole room, I found myself always turning my head to see what was going to happen next— where are they going? What are they doing? By immersing the audience in a relatable and engaging atmosphere, the creators of this performance really succeeded in their exploration of life, friends, and change.

My last Fringe festival show, and quite possibly the funniest performance I have ever seen in my life, was a one-man show called The Eulogy. Michael Burgos, a performer from Washington D.C. wrote and self-directed his genius parody of a funeral. The story is that he is burying his old “friend,” who he actually hated. The words themselves were hilarious and Burgos delved fully into his quirky, almost off-putting character through his use of meticulous body movements and blocking. Although he was one person the whole time, Burgos incorporated many different characters into that one man, adding to the craziness of the character. I was astounded at how much energy he not only kept himself, but also all of the energy he transferred to me as an audience member. The way Burgos interacted with audience members through eye contact as well as words was impressive to say the least. Burgos presented a fully developed, unique, and hilarious show. As I said, I’m not sure if I’ve ever laughed that hard at a performance and that’s saying a lot. I was so glad I didn’t miss this!

Friday Fringe Binge: Day 1 of the Festival

jack day 1It was 90 degrees, I had a backpack full of snacks and water bottles and I was hiking from one end of the North Side to the other to catch an outdoor performance; Pittsburgh Fringe was in full swing. That was last year; this year I found myself praying that the snow would melt before the pavement pounding began. Luckily, Spring broke just in time for the third annual Pittsburgh Fringe Festival, where at least the offering of new and edgy works stays consistent.

My Fringe experience began in the basement of Young Men’s Republican Club, a fraternal organization that was probably a hopping place in the 70’s and 80’s. It’s Who You Know is a one man storytelling show created and performed by Chambers Stevens. I admit that I was rather skeptical when finding out the show was essentially a man telling stories of people he has met in Los Angeles and I figured it would simply be a show of name dropping. Luckily, my cynical assumptions were doused as Stevens opened his show by explaining his lineage of Tennessee storytellers and then began to draw cards with names of famous people in which he had stories to tell. Inspired by the late Spalding Gray’s autobiographical performances, Stevens shuffles his deck of name cards, selects a number of cards from the deck and tosses the rest on the floor, making each of his shows a bit different. During the performance I attended, we heard stories of sitting first class with Chaka Khan, accidentally stalking Julia Roberts, and Quincy Jones’ awful recipe for ribs among others. Stevens’ storytelling abilities are strong and he connects with the audience in a way that is very personal, so much that audience members felt comfortable enough to comment on his stories and ask questions directly to Stevens from their seats. At the beginning of the show, Stevens explained his father’s and grandfather’s style of storytelling and how they would either tell a story full of BS with but a grain of truth in them or simply sprinkle seeds of falsehood throughout their stories. Now, Stevens claims his stories are 100% true but even if there are a few planted seeds, he filled enough seats to tie for the Audience Choice Award and entertained his way to winning Best Actor.

I made my way out of the grungy basement of the YMRC and back into sunlight and swung back by Arnold’s Tea for a ham and cheese croissant and an Arnold Palmer that had me daydreaming of Carolina. As soon as I finished indulging, my tour group started to form for If I Die I’m A Legend… by Boom Concepts. This immersive performance takes audiences on a satirical real estate open house in a gentrified neighborhood. The group walks from Arnold’s Tea down East Ohio St. while the agents point out the sights and amenities of the neighborhood before we arrive the listed apartment. Once inside, everyone understood this would not be your average showing. Imagine a not-so-fun house meets A Christmas Carol, but instead of ghosts of Christmas past, we are visited by the Street Deities representing Black disparagement, struggle and Black Power movements. These deities were those on the front lines of the crack epidemic, victims of eugenic sterilization and members of those campaigning for the first Black president and the Black Lives Matter movement. The artists tell their stories through monologues, poems as well as song and dance, making it an almost complete sensory experience. The foundation of this performance is what set it apart and set it up to win the Selke Award (Best in Show). With some refinement, this show has a lot of potential to be one of many voices in a movement and, in my opinion, could be expanded as an immersive production and even be adapted into a full stage production one day.

I barely had enough time to digest what I had seen and make an offer on the property before having to hike back to the YMRC for the final two shows of the night. Up next was Best Intentions by Shark Eat Muffin Theatre Company, which was unfortunately cancelled after their first performance. The audience finds themselves witness to the interaction between two women of Shakespeare’s plays, Emilia of Othello (Amy Fritsche) and Angelica, Juliet’s nurse (Jess Tanner) that are trapped in what they have deemed purgatory with nothing but a kitten puzzle and a voice recorder. The pair get to know one another while they grapple with their past sins in an attempt to leave escape their confinement. While the story and violent dance at the end were a bit confusing, the way Fritsche and Tanner commit to their characters really carried this show. When Best Intentions came to an end, there was a brief moment for me to draw in some fresh air before Always B Sharp took over the basement to create another one of their improvised musicals. This year, the comedy troupe included only three members, about half compared to last year when they performed in the upstairs of an insanely warm church. ABS opened with a brief introduction of what they do, including impressions of the worst people in their profession (I suggested senators) before diving into a rather confusing musical tale of trying to make it in Hollywood.

Overall, the night was quite entertaining, even a bit educational and gave me something to talk to my Lyft driver as I headed home looking forward to Sunday.

Write for Pittsburgh in the Round!

12188054_536337963185234_8033373135834798401_o

12188054_536337963185234_8033373135834798401_oPittsburgh in the Round is rapidly expanding and we’re looking for a few reviewers and feature writers to add to our team.

As you probably know, we write reviews every week, post feature articles about specific events in the community, maintain an extensive event calendar and keep a directory of all companies and venues in town. We are also the official reviewers of the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival.

Ideal candidates have an extensive background in creative/nonfiction writing with a strong interest and knowledge of theater and dance. We provide all reviewers with complimentary press tickets to shows they review. Flexible schedules are a must but you can always write as little or as much as you’d like! We do a little bit of traveling so it’s also a plus if you have a vehicle!

If interested, please email us at info@pghintheround and tell us why you’d like to write about Pittsburgh theater! Please also include a few writing samples.