Tips and Tricks at Saturday’s Fringe

philadelphiajugglermagicianDouglas Stafford, the writer and star of The Bad Idea Variety Show: My Lack of Social Life delivered a meta-style show at AIR Saturday night about what he describes as the truth of entertainment. Stafford tells a linear story about how he came to be a juggler and magician. Of course you can’t tell a story about magic and juggling without actually demonstrating those skills. For instance, while telling a story about the first time he got drunk, he performed a magic trick involving the shuffling of liquor bottles and a shot glass.

I think, unfortunately, there were many points in the show when Stafford’s magic tricks distracted from the storytelling so that both elements did not come off well. He seemed to be so distracted by performing the slight of handwork that often his lines were delivered with a kind of afterthought. For instance, he told a story about learning his father converted to Sikhism but then quickly launched into an apple, marshmallow, and bowling ball juggling bit. As an audience member, I didn’t understand the takeaway from the story about his father. I was left wondering if perhaps the performance interludes were actually deflections from delving into more emotionally vulnerable storytelling material.

Towards the conclusion of his show Stafford spoke about the idea of magic as human connection. I’m wondering what Stafford was aiming to connect to exactly. There were moments where he seemed genuinely invested in his material—especially when he was talking about his early love of magic but then he delved into some throwaway type jokes about the Penn State child molestation scandal and a bit about Michael Jackson that really didn’t serve his purpose. I think in the coming years we will see Stafford growing into an even better performer and storyteller, and I hope he continues to participate in the Fringe.

After catching Stafford’s show I stuck around to catch The Seven Suitcases of a Snake Oil Salesman by O’Ryan the O’Mazing. Before I get into my review of fringe-3x3this show, I would like to note that I don’t believe O’Ryan’s act was best served by being scheduled within a half hour of Stafford’s show because both performances shared very similar elements of narration with magic tricks, and they even shared many of the same props.

O’Ryan began the show delivering a missive about the nature of lies and lying while standing in front of a stack of seven suitcases.  He opened the suitcase on top of the pile and narrated a story about the origin of the phrase snake oil salesman. It ends up snake oil was a tonic used by Chinese immigrants when the US rail system in the 19th and early 20th century. It was only when white people began marketing and attempting to make the tonic for profit that the phrase was associated with fraud.

After wrapping up that segment, O’Ryan opened another suitcase and delivered a short puppet show illustrating what is possibly a Hopi fable on the theme of lying for survival. I think it was in this segment that O’Ryan lost his commitment to the show. He prefaced this vignette with an aside about throwing the act together at the last minute, and that he found the fable late at night on the Internet. I felt dismayed that a performer of his experience and caliber would toss out those kinds of comments. As an audience member I was immediately less invested in his work.

After the fable concluded O’Ryan spoke more about the payoff of lies for people in power while eating Cheetos, which was an obvious illusion to our current Cheeto-in-Chief.  And then he delivered a charming shadow puppet tale interpreting story by Frog and Toad author Arnold Lobel who was a closeted gay man until he was in his eighties. O’Ryan is amazing at shadow performance and his execution was on point. I think I understand where O’Ryan was going with this portion of the show by alluding to hiding as a form of lying but I believe he needs to add deeper analysis so it more clearly connects to his overall theme.

The show as about three-fourths over when O’Ryan asked how much time he had left. Faced with a looming curtain call O’Ryan then delved into a short monologue about times he lied. This section was both revealing and relatable when he discussed his anxiety and all of the ways he has found to not return texts and emails. He then delved into some charming material about lying his way through several states as a busker. I think what I saw Saturday night was the skeleton of a show-to-be for O’Ryan. With more rehearsal time and confidence, O’Ryan will turn this work into something great.

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Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival for complimentary press passes. For tickets, day passes, and more information, click here.