The Fringe Awakens

unnamed (4)Although the Fringe Festival is now in its fourth year, this is the first for me. If we’re being honest, it’s actually my first theater festival. So I’m easing into it. Only two shows today! After number nine on Sunday, we can all look back at how young and naïve I was at this moment.

I got into the neighborhood a bit early for my first show – actually the opener for the whole festival, a 3:45 performance of Penelope’s Dragon. So after changing out of my work clothes in the car, I decided to jog through the rain and kick things off with a beer at James Street Gastropub. Which wasn’t technically open, but it was the bartender’s last day, so he bent the rules a bit. A good omen.

For this performance, Artists Image Resource was hosting Puppets in Performance – a group organized by Darlene Fedele Thompson, who wrote and directed Penelope’s Dragon. This musical comedy riffs on the standard fairy tale plot: dragon terrorizes village and kidnaps a fair maiden, dashing knight sets off to rescue her. Except in this case, the dragon and the maiden are perfectly happy together. They met at a Ren faire and she brought him home to meet the family (who were none too pleased). And the knight’s a bit hapless and greedy. The dragon is totally terrorizing the village, though. All things considered, the Queen’s anti-dragon policy seems fairly well justified.unnamed (3)

Fedele Thompson, who constructs many of her own puppets, did a great job with this show. Drake, the titular dragon, is represented by three distinct puppets at different points, with the final one impressively sequined and floppy-tongued. Sir Dirk, the knight, sports a helmet vizor that flaps animatedly when he talks, perfectly matching the G.O.B. Bluth-y airheaded arrogance that actor Chris Cattell voices for him. The set consists of a series of wheeled platforms that rotate from the sides of the stage to the center as needed. As much fun as it is to watch the puppets, I also enjoyed keeping an eye on the actors who weren’t currently performing setting the props for each scene while trying to hide behind the platforms.

At only 45 minutes, Penelope’s Dragon is a fun, quick show. The playbill says it’s rated PG, but I don’t think anyone should feel uncomfortable bringing kids to see it. In addition to Fedele Thompson (as Lester the Jester and Penelope’s father) and Cattell (who also voices Seth the zookeeper), the cast features Elena Egusquiza as Penelope and a second dragon who may or may not have been named, Joe Milliren as Drake, and Nupur Charyalu as Queen Ellie (not Nellie). Pro tip: keep an eye on Charyalu. She’s acting along with the puppet the whole time and it’s great. The next two performances of this show are at Alphabet City. So don’t show up at AIR expecting puppets. You’ll only be disappointed.

I decided not to drive over to St. Mary’s Lyceum for The Dorothy Matrix 8-Bit Orchestra, which may have been a mistake because it was definitely still raining. Word to the wise: St. Mary’s is very much a smoking bar. As a recent transplant from a non-smoking city, these things still take me by surprise.unnamed (5)

The Dorothy Matrix 8-Bit Orchestra is a chiptunes symphony, with drag queen Dorothy Matrix conducting an orchestra of eight game boys playing selections of classical music. Between pieces, capable assistant Shari O’Sound sets up the Game Boys required (one to eight, depending on the track) while Matrix regales the audience with tales from her former life as the protagonist of the game “Super Maestro Adventures” before escaping to the real world. Occasional technical difficulties meant more time for this part of the show, which I was fine with because Matrix is an engagingly eccentric character.

The performance itself is well done, if you’re into 8-bit music. Even if it’s not your thing, you have to respect the creativity needed to render the wide variety of sounds in a classical piece through the audio abilities of a vintage 1989 AA-powered hunk of junk. (Remember how terrible all the Pokemon’s cries were in the original game?) At one point in a Prokofiev piece, I thought one of the Game Boys was glitching out, but then I realized it was playing a martial snare drum beat, and it completely worked.

Two quick notes: First, I’d advise anyone going to see this performance not to read ahead on the program. There’s a bit of audience engagement that works better if you’re just following along with the show. Unless that was improvised and it never comes up again. Go find out! Second, for any shows at St. Mary’s, there will be a food tent set up outside the building all weekend. They’re super friendly. They gave me an oversized hunk of chicken on my sandwich! So if you’re in need of some not-too-pricy snacks during your Fringe experience, stop by. I swear I’ll get the name of their operation next time I’m over 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.