I had a wonderful, wonderful first day of shows at the 2010 Indianapolis Fringe Theatre Festival yesterday. I met some lovely new people (including Australian comedian Lou Sanz – see the little informal video we made after her first show, above) and reconnected with some dear friends.
And…I saw four satisfying shows!
“Andrea Merlyn’s Book of Secrets” – Theatre on the Square (TOTS).
The Act – Local transgender magician Taylor Martin performs as Andrea Merlyn sharing stories from her 50+ years of performing all over the country, meeting all kinds of people. She incorporates magic tricks with props – including the Book of Secrets itself – plus clips of recorded music, a few costume changes, a bit of lip-synching, a mouthful of bubbles, and more into her stories, assisted by Taylor Martin’s wife and two other stage hands.
The Art – The stories from Andrea’s life fit neatly into the overall story arc of 1) being at a magic show, 2) getting to go back stage to chat intimately with the magician at intermission, and then 3) going back out with her to enjoy the second act of the show. A repeated reference to the singing Chipmunks ties the beginning of the piece to the end of the piece in a very satisfying way. The show is neatly staged and tightly put together – neither rushed nor padded. The patter made me smile and sometimes laugh out loud. I was sitting near the light booth and even heard the tech guys chuckling from time to time. Some of the magic tricks are performed competently but transparently: you can guess how they work, so you just enjoy sharing Andrea’s delight in presenting them. However, the sleight-of-hand in the bubble trick is seamless, and a trick towards the end that incorporates an unknown audience member is “hey, how’d she do that?!” amazing.
The Appeal – There is a schmaltzy, homemade, bravely-adult-but-still-joyful quality to Andrea’s work that is very appealing. She has been through a lot and she pretends to be jaded, but she’s not. She obviously loves everything about magic – from collecting antique magic props to sharing her vast knowledge of magic history – and she obviously loves working with live audiences. You definitely feel seen, heard, and acknowledged when you are in her audience. There is at least one other 2010 IndyFringe act that incorporates cross-dressing, and there is at least one other that incorporates magic, but I guarantee you that none of the other acts are quite like Andrea’s. Taylor Martin’s magic show, starring either Andrea Merlyn or one of Taylor’s other personifications, is also one of only two acts that have been part of the 6-year-old Indy Fringe Festival from the beginning. (Andrea shares the honor with Phil the Void.) If you have never seen one of Taylor Martin’s shows, you have not truly Fringed in Indianapolis. If you have seen Taylor’s work before, don’t worry: the 2010 show includes a lot of new material plus a trick from Andrea’s “greatest hits” collection.
The Audience – This is an “adults only” show only because a parent might have to answer some awkward questions from a child about why that man is wearing make-up and a dress, and because children might not be interested in all of the stories. Also, Andrea uses the “s” word once.
“Please Don’t Use My Flannel for That: A Memoir” – Phoenix Theatre, sponsored by Storytelling Arts of Indiana.
The Act – Australian writer/stand-up comedian Lou Sanz gives “a reading” from her memoir-in-progress. The chapter she shares is about her selling a screenplay as a 19-year-old (I think) and coming to Hollywood from Melbourne to fulfill her dreams. She has the most outrageously bad luck when she gets to the United States – everything from falling in with a racist pimp she calls The Cowboy to falling in “love” with a heroin user/dish washer that she meets at Denny’s.
The Art – Lou speaks from beside or behind a music stand that holds her writing, but this show is so much more a crafted and polished performance piece than a mere reading. For one thing, if Lou hasn’t memorized the whole thing I’d be surprised, she is that comfortable walking away from the stand and interacting with her audience. Also, subtle but effective lighting choices, subtle incorporation of props such as eyeglasses and balled up pieces of paper, even Lou’s choice of what to wear (leopard print top over cute black shorts plus glittery purple eyeliner and red, red lipstick at the performance I saw) add layers of artistic polish to the show as well. Her word choices and her story-shaping make for brilliant writing. Her deadpan delivery and deliciously impeccable comic timing make for brilliant performance art. I wish I could hear and see the next chapter in her memoir as well!
The Appeal – Beyond the basic appeal of excellence in literary and performance art, if you like your IndyFringe experience to have an international flavor, this show is filled with fascinating cross-cultural references. Plus, there is the delight of Lou’s Australian accent.
The Audience – I heard both men and women roaring with laughter at this show. This show is definitely only for adults, and only for adults who are not easily offended by shocking language and content. This show’s humor is sophisticated but it does include references to things like finger raping and dick-kicking, never mind the occasional “f” word.
“Deep in Love/For Adults Only” – Phoenix Theatre, sponsored by Storytelling Arts of Indiana
The Act – Local (I think) musician Vincent Howard plays some sprightly jazz compositions on a portable electric piano before MC Jacques Carry warms up the audience further with a short, funny joke about love. Then storyteller Deborah Asante shares a story or two from her repertory of adult love stories. The selection at each of her 2010 IndyFringe performances will be unique. On the night I was there, she told a longish story that had come to her “in a dream.” It was about an African-American woman in 1948 who farmed and made a little extra money by providing room and board to “colored travelers” that couldn’t stay in whites-only hotels. One of her guests was a man that became both lover and threat. Deborah also told a shorter story about a woman and her frog pet. Deborah said that she had shared that story before at a Fringe Friday event, but I had never heard it before. Even if I had, though, I like hearing stories more than once to see what I get from them on repeated listening.
The Art – Every performance artist is a storyteller of a sort, but when I use the word “storyteller” I usually mean someone who shares stories aloud in the oral tradition – i.e., tells the stories rather than memorizes them word for word or reads them aloud – in a well-crafted way, and who tells them as herself rather than pretending to be someone else. There is no “fourth wall” between a storyteller and the audience. Deborah is a master at this art form. She quickly develops excellent rapport with her audiences; her pacing is comfortable, effective, and sometimes even trance-inducing; and her delivery, for the most part, is beautifully economical: no unnecessary “he saids” and “she saids,” for example. At the performance I saw, there was one moment in the first story when Deborah struggled and struggled over how to convey the intimacy and animosity inherent in the two lovers’ breathing into each other’s mouths. The struggle surprised me because it was so out-of-character for Deborah’s usually seamless work. However, ultimately she did find the words to make us understand, and the struggle ultimately enhanced the portrayal of the characters’ struggle, so maybe it had been a conscious artistic choice all along. At the performance I saw, Deborah wore a stunning white dress embellished with sparkly white appliqué’s. She was not in costume, but she was dressed up, which made me feel that she respected the storytelling trinity: the stories, the storyteller, and the story listeners.
The Appeal – Deborah Asante’s storytelling style is warm, frank, and compassionately humorous. I have heard her tell many times before over the years but it has usually been stories for children and/or family audiences. It is a rare treat to get to hear some of her adults-only stories. Vincent Howard’s music is icing. He will be at all of Deborah’s 2010 IndyFringe shows except for the last one. At her final show next Sunday, Deborah will share her stage with a “blues woman” whose name I didn’t catch. More icing is that if you fill out a form at the end of the show, you get a copy of a romantic suspense novel written by one of Deborah’s friends, Crystal Rhodes. It is called Sweet Sacrifice.
The Audience – The content of this show, at least the night I saw it, is earthy and definitely for adults only, but it is not x-rated. It uses sexual innuendo and words like “orgasm” but not the “f” word (that I remember.)
“Phil the Void: Spontaneous Dumbustion” – ComedySportz.
The Act – L.A.-based stand-up comedian Phil Van Hest has brought another of his world premieres to Indianapolis this year. The new material is a richly layered, pee-your-pants-funny story based on a specific and sincere spiritual awakening that Phil had recently.
The Art – At the performance I saw of this solo artist’s show, two very distinct forms of artistry were going on.
On one level was Phil the performance artist working his gifts of language mastery, cerebral surprises, comic timing, physicality, and story making.
On another level was Phil the compassionate and perhaps reluctant healer-artist (for lack of a better word) doing what he had been called to do in terms of energy management by the universal boss in that particular moment.
A woman I sometimes (meanly, I admit) call the Honker was in the front row, laughing her signature laugh inappropriately loudly, long, and often. Other people in the audience who don’t know that she is an institution in the Indianapolis theatre community were grumbling loudly about her distracting behavior, thinking they could influence it. I have been one of those grumblers in the past. I sympathized with both my fellow audience members and with Phil.
But I could see also see the Honker’s face and she was obliviously locked on to Phil, looking at him with such love and need that her laughs were like orgasms.
I know from love and neediness, too, so I just watched her and Phil while still listening to, and enjoying, Phil’s surface show.
In the meantime, a man in the other side of the front row started texting someone about the Honker. (I was sitting behind him.)
Phil mostly stood in front of The Honker and, again for lack of a better word, was a channel for whatever divine energy was trying to feed her. He delivered the show that he had come to deliver, and it was excellent, and he even managed to connect with the rest of his fans in the audience, but he also stayed fully present and judgment-free for that particular woman while she got what she needed. Only when Texting Guy took out his phone and started thumbing it did Phil react.
“Are you texting her?” Phil asked the man, pointing to the man’s date. “Because that’s less rude than whispering to her, right?” Everyone laughed. I was surprised at first that Phil would let the Honker’s rudeness go unaddressed but call out Texting Guy.
A little later in his monologue, Phil referred to cell phone usage causing brain damage. He paused and looked over at Texting Guy, who was still thumbing the phone in his lap. More laughs from everyone.
Phil came out of his story even more then to say, “At least he’s holding it down here…” Phil cupped his hands around his crotch, then grinned at Texting Guy and stage-whispered “Sorry! Sorry!” before saying aloud to the audience “…Where it won’t do any damage.”
More laughs from everyone, including Texting Guy. At the end of the show, I saw Texting Guy tell his girlfriend to wait a minute so that he could go up and shake Phil’s hand.
And only at the very end of the show did Phil acknowledge the Honker with words. He said to everyone, “I have CD’s of last year’s show for sale.” He looked at the Honker and said, “You’re on it.” He laughed a little and added something like, “I sometimes wonder if you’re going to burst. You remind me of a whistling tea kettle.”* She just smiled at him, relaxed and satisfied.
Now would I prefer to see any show without the distractions of the Honker? Yes. But I can’t help thinking, also, that I have been her. And Phil’s energy management artistry reminded me that many people have been compassionate with my neediness, too.
His artistry last night also reminded me of a conversation that he and I and a previous IndyFringe artist named Brent McCoy (aka Clown at Work) had on the back porch of the Chatham Tap last year.
“The audience is a beast that is on my side,” Brent said. “If I treat it right, I can tame it.”
The audience was on Phil’s side last night, and they would have torn the Honker to pieces if Phil had let them. Instead, he managed the energy in the room so that there was no blood shed and everyone went away with something good.
That, my friends, is artistry.
The Appeal – As I mentioned earlier, Phil shares with Taylor Martin the honor of being the only two performers that have been part of the 6-year-old Indy Fringe Festival every year from the beginning. I don’t know if Phil-as-Healer/Channel will be part of every performance – he is, after all, just this regular guy from L.A. at the end of the day – but “just” his advertised stand-up comedy show is treat enough that it will be selling out by the end of the festival.
The Audience – Phil’s work is definitely for adults only, and only for adults that are not offended by politician-bashing, homophobe-bashing, sexual explicitness, the “f” word, the “p” word, the “a” word, and so on. But beyond that, Phil’s work appeals to both men and women, to adults of all generations, and to comedy-lovers, story-lovers, shock-lovers, and philosophy-lovers.
The Indy Fringe Festival continues at six venues on or near Massachusetts Avenue in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana (USA) through Sunday, August 29, 2010. For a schedule and more information about the shows, please see www.IndyFringe.org.
‘See you at the theatres!
*Phil mentioned in the comment box for this post that for the record, what he actually said was, “You remind me of a teakettle in distress.” I promised I would revise my “record” accordingly and have hereby done so, laughing again. HB