Well, I guess it was bound to happen: a 2009 Indy Fringe show disappointed me. But one out of twenty-one, which is how many Fringe shows I’ve seen so far this year, is not bad. Not bad at all.
Here is what I saw on Tuesday and Wednesday night of the 2009 Indy Fringe Festival in Indianapolis, Indiana, in the order in which I saw them:
“The Cast of Amontillado” –
This short opera (yes, opera!) by Dr. Paul Geraci, professor of music at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana, was the opposite of a disappointment: it was a treat.
The composer sang a welcome to us and then warmed us up further by having the company’s two female vocalists – Mary Katherine Simons and Maggie Hall – each present a “puzzle song” in English that Dr. Geraci had written. Michael Booth accompanied them on a portable piano. My breathing slowed as their beautiful voices soared.
Then came the opera, also in English, based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe. The instrumental music for this was pre-recorded. Dr. Todd Samra played the pride-filled Montressor. Joseph Clarence Steward played the jester-like Fortunato, who had unknowingly offended Montressor one too many times. I could feel their full, rich, masculine voices all the way down in my belly. It felt exquisite!
The also-talented chorus included Michael Booth, Ben Gilsdorf, Maggie Hall, Mary Katherine Simons, Bailey Snyder, James Winter, and Anthony Rossi.
Everyone wore gorgeous masked costumes designed by Cathy Berard. Fortunato’s jingled as he stumbled unaware through Montressor’s dank, skull-filled wine cellar to his doom. (Prop construction by Lee Dykstra. Anthony Rossi was the stage manager.)
I left this show shivering, both from the creepiness of the story and the beauty of the artistry.
Venue: Theatre on the Square main stage
Each member of the Indianapolis-based (Re)Collective Company contributed his or her own art form to create a seven-part nature-themed piece that is even larger and richer than the sum of its artistic ingredients.
Five creative musicians line the back of the stage, playing electric guitar, cello, and a huge variety of percussion instruments to ground and drive the piece. In front of them, three supple dancers twirl and bend to add more layers of content. Behind them on a large screen, short yet intricate wordless films appear from time to time in a dance of their own with the lighting design. One of the percussionists is also a poet. For one segment, his words add yet another layer of thought and emotion.
All of this could add up to one big distracting mess but it doesn’t. On the contrary, the many distinct elements somehow all blend together in a way that is completely invigorating, completely pleasing. The final little film moved me to tears.
The dancers include Ashley Benninghoff, Kaitlin Ryan, and Jaclyn Virgin. The musicians include Helger Oomkes, Grover Parido, T. J. Reynolds (he is the poet, too), Doug Sauter, and Tim Williams.
The lighting and imagery (i.e. the films) are by David Yosha. Alex Mark is the sound technician. Mike Glumb is the production assistant. Costumes are by the cast members with “special thanks to Molly Wyldfyre.” Photography for the program is by Crowe’s Eye Photography.
Venue: Earth House
“The Tragical Ballad of Black Bonnet”
This Fringe piece is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. I enjoyed it first for its uniqueness and then for its innocent, feminine sensuousness.
It is actually two pieces for the price of one. First, a 15-minute Victoriana-filled movie called “Cygnes Olor” that feels as if it were made during the silent film era. It is based on the classic folk tale of a man who steals the skin of a swan in order to keep her for a wife in human form, but in this version the man is a young woman and she thinks she wants to keep the swan-girl simply as another item in her nature collection, which already includes several butterflies. We catch glimpses of the young woman’s journal, in which she writes with a fountain pen as faithfully as a scientist. There is nothing overtly sexual about the film, which means the unacknowledged sexual longing in it is all the more powerful.
After the film, audience members talk amongst themselves for five minutes or so while the two women from the film move the projector out of the way and make ready their hand-crafted puppet stage.
When I first heard there was a puppet show in this year’s Indy Fringe, I imagined hand puppets, but these are actually marionettes, manipulated from above via strings tied to little pieces of wood. I sat in the very top, back row of the Theatre on the Square Main Stage venue and I could see very well, but if I had the chance to see this show again, I would sit closer to the stage so that I could see more of the details of the puppets and stage. I was intrigued by the way the people in the groups of servants and field hands could seem so individual while being twirled by just one hand.
I was also surprised (and delighted) by the fact that the puppeteers occasionally set down their puppets and embody the characters themselves. They sing as well as tell their story, too, which was an added delight. (I know the title says it is a ballad, but I somehow didn’t make the connection that sung music would be involved.)
The story is of a person who was born with both male and female genitalia. She/he was raised by nuns as a girl, and constantly shamed. Now she is working as a kitchen maid for a rich lord who has a lonely daughter. The two fall in love, but, as the title warns you, the story ends tragically. The technical execution of the ending is another delightful artistic surprise.
As far as I know, there is no program for this show, but a quick Google search led me here for more info about the Black Forest Fancies company out of New Orleans.
Venue: Theatre on the Square main stage
“murder, hope” –
I loved this deceptively simple multi-media, multi-performance-art piece because it leapt around just like my brain does. It is ultimately, in fact, about brain disorders and the hopes surrounding their potential cures.
Don’t expect a straightforward narrative structure in this piece. Just let the many, many nuggets of art, craft, and information flicker along your neuron pathways. Your brain will eventually make the necessary connections.
And if it doesn’t, there is time for questions at the end.
Writer-performer Becky Poole begins the piece as Cheryl, a go-get-em salesperson on the phone. Handwritten quotes from a book called The Brain That Changes Itself are on a flipchart behind her. Then she rolls into introducing information about strokes via spoken words and physicality. Then she sits back down, the lights dim, and she sings a ballad from North Carolina in which a young pregnant woman pleads unsuccessfully for her life but is murdered anyway by her lover, John Lewis. All this within the first five minutes or so.
We also hear via recording from a boy named Devin, laughing infectiously with his teacher or other adult as they talk about the letters in his name. Fast costume changes and goofy but clever homemade props allow Becky to also embody two doctors, an accordion-playing nurse, the hero of Gotham City, and more. My favorite was the talking book.
The most powerful elements of the show are Becky’s acting, her ballad singing and her musical saw playing. The saw is fascinating because it’s something you don’t see or hear every day. The ballads moved me to tears.
I loved that Becky sang more than one version of the same story. We don’t have to live with a story that doesn’t work for us. It may take the heroes in our lives (e.g. our doctors, our own brains) a while to figure out how, exactly, to change the story, but there is always more than one way to tell it.
Venue: Theatre on the Square stage two
“Sex, Dreams and Self Control – Part Two” –
This is my third Fringe festival. I’m beginning to think that every Fringe festival has at least one solo performer sharing an autobiographical story about finding his way as a gay man. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – these stories need to be told – but it must be challenging to tell them in a way that is fresh and artistically interesting.
Kevin Thornton, the writer and performer of “Sex, Dreams and Self Control,” succeeds through his potent imagery and his lovely, rich singing. He accompanies himself deftly on electric guitar.
He says in his program description that this is “Presented in two parts over six nights. See both or either one alone.” At the beginning of the show on Wednesday night, he asked how many of us in the audience had seen Part One. Almost no one raised a hand.
So he gave us a song to catch us up. Basically, he grew up in a small town in Indiana, fighting internally against the fact that he was gay because of the messages he received from Pastor John and others.
Part Two is about when he went away to college, basically, and came to terms with himself and his background.
He speaks and sings very explicitly about his journey in real life and in dreams, so he was probably right not to give us an excerpt at the Fringe Preview Night when there were children present. But none of it is x-rated for the sake of being x-rated.
I laughed a lot during this piece, and, as I say, I relished the surprises in the imagery within the stories and I enjoyed listening to Kevin’s rich voice. I also enjoyed singing along with the “ooh-ooh”s in one number.
And I can’t help it: gay or not, I swooned over his gorgeous blue eyes.
“Welcome to Blanksville: …. Choose Your Own Adventure” –
I am sorry to say this, but I was disappointed by this Fringe show by local improvisational comedy troupe IndyProv. I went in ready to laugh, I worked hard at it, but I just…didn’t. And when the house lights came up at the end, I was still waiting to be entertained.
I don’t know if this is because I didn’t understand for a long time that the company members were just attempting their usual improv games within the very loose structure of a road trip (which would have even more confusing if I had never seen people playing improv games before since there was no explanation of what they were doing) or because I went in expecting the show to be more like the original Choose Your Own Adventure books. I.e. – to be more about story building than about gags. But in any case, the gags seemed forced, as if the company members were looking too hard, and in the wrong places, to “find the funny.”
Two audience members got up and left half-way through. Two others chatted with me a bit out on the street after the show. One summed up by calling it “an evening of missed opportunities.” The other said, “Oh, there were some funny moments, but I thought it was going to be more like an evening at Second City. I was disappointed when it wasn’t.”
However, as MC Bill Skaggs said, every performance of this show is completely different because there are different company members performing it each time and the audience’s votes on where to take the story are different each time. So maybe we were just there on an “off” night.
Although my overall experience was not very satisfying, I did appreciate the fact that the company had built a large, funny car to take them on their road trip and that they had a wide variety of choices of other funny props (including some jaunty corn stalks), costume pieces, and recorded sound clips ready to go no matter where the audience’s choices led them. I also enjoyed the voices of the company members who inserted bits of singing into the mix.
Venue: Phoenix Theatre
Please see www.indyfringe.org for all showtimes.
I am working at my “day” job tonight so no more Fringe shows for me until Friday.
‘See you at the Fringe!
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and @indytheatre on Twitter.com and IndyTheatreHabit on YouTube.com