Sunday, July 13, 2008

Report from the Capital Fringe Festival

OK, it was a hot steamy day here in DC, so naturally I went out, sweating like a freakin' horse, to catch two plays in annual Capital Fringe Festival.

The Fringe Festival is similar to ones that run in places like Philadelphia or Edinburgh; performers and theatrical troupes set up in various out-of-the-way venues. It's actually a fun way of sampling the works of different groups and seeing some stuff you might ordinarily miss.

Today, the first play was Hamner Theater's quirky "Poe & All That Jazz" at the new Harman Center downtown.

I got there a tiny bit late, so I missed the very beginning, and it was somewhat odd going, but I finally got into it. Jon Cobb played Poe fairly well, but Patti Finn stole the show as a chameleonlike spirit who shifted identities to become various women from Poe's life and his art. The script explored the themes of loss and abandonment in Poe's works and how they reflect his troubled personal relationships. Now, it could have been most sombre, but it was leavened with sarcastic humor, and the music (classic jazz, mostly Cole Porter) at first seemed odd and incongruous but then suddenly became appropriate (and sometimes ironic). For instance, "In the Still of the Night" was interspersed with Poe writing "The Raven." And a scene with Poe encouraging his child-wife Virginia to sing is given a mordant twist when she sings "Love for Sale." It was all quite satisfying and Finn is a genuine talent, a great singer and an effective actress.

After that, I grabbed some dinner in Chinatown, then headed up to the "The Shop at Fort Fringe" for Molotov Theatre's fun play "The Sticking Place."

Actually, I was there early, and I got to hang out with the other early patrons out on the shabby street, lined with crumbling buildings (but with the DC Convention Center a block away), while dark storm clouds gathered overhead and wind skittered dry leaves on the pavement, sounding almost autumnal. It was a great prelude to the play. Also, I unexpectedly bumped into my friend Lexx, who I haven't seen in an age, which was very pleasant. (Hey there, Lexx!)

Molotov Theatre is dedicated to reviving the art of Grand Guignol, and their show is a perversely funny story of professional jealousy and sexual depravity. Praem Phulwani is arrogant newscaster Darren, opening the show by reporting on the new kink of "bloodplay," and then berating underling Richard (Karthik Srinivasan). Richard's on a date with Debbie (Laura Bloechl), which has peeved her best friend Jane (Pamela Sabella). Of course, there's murder, and unholy passions kindled by the murder, and jealousy, and anger, and any number of other sins. It's all very, very offensive, and very, very fun. Some interesting touches include silent-movie-style title cards projected during scene changes and how stage blood, faux gore, and detritus from fights is left to accumulate on the stage as the play progresses.

There's a lot more going on in the Fringe Festival, so if you're in the DC metro area, get to the website, download the schedule, and start looking for a show that appeals to you. Both "Poe & All That Jazz" and "The Sticking Place" have more showings in the run of the festival, so catch 'em if they sound good. Or see something else. (My friend Kris is in Theatre Du Jour's very intriguing avant-garde piece "Self Accusation" at the DC Arts Center; see it before it takes off for Edinburgh.) This festival has a lot to offer, and some stuff is free.

But of course, make time to see HELLBOY 2. And make time to do some reading. And whatever else that gives you pleasure; life is too short.


rosalind le conte said...

This piece is really something unexpected in a festival where you expect to find...well, the unexpected.

Yet, this show is more than just 'different" and judging from the talk it is an early buzz-worthy standout and should not be missed.

In Poe's words, "a delicious, confusing, delicate, sensual delight" clearly describes this work from playwright Peter Coy, Helen Hayes Award winner (New Play 2002) and co-artistic director of the Hamner Theater, Nellysford VA (

Two remarkable young actors flesh out the tortured life, art and psyche of Edgar A. Poe and decorate the action with style and some tasty jazz to boot.

Jon Cobb as Poe brings humor and insight to a tough role and successfully illuminates the painful effect of his early emotional losses on the development of Poe's personal life and subsequently on his artistic works. Does it matter what the "state of the artist" is when he makes his art...? Should we consider 'art' only in terms of 'life'? Poe's statement is that 'it matter's not', but Cobb proves otherwise. His portrayal is sensitive and human--without the ghoulish stuff that would mire a lessor actor and he leaves you thinking...and even maybe a little misty.

The program identifies the other actor as Patti Finn in the role of Eliza, but that billing doesn't quite cover it. Might be better to call her "All-that-Jazz" as the role requires her to constandly morph from Eliza, Poe's mother who apparently was a famous actress back in the day, into multiple other characters representing the women in his life and stories. She seems to effortlessly shape shift from one to the other and then another. She is powerful, tragic, innocent, provocative and an emotional tour de force.

As if that is not enough, Finn also knocks out a host of songs that somewhow logically seem part of the action and in general, kick ass. A live jazz combo of an old-school master pianist, Bob Bennetta and hip bass man, Jim Meyer really bring to life this unusual yet somehow vaguely logical musical connection between Poe and jazz.

Gotta see it to understand, but it works!

Bottom line--"Poe and All that Jazz" is a thoroughly enjoyble, thought provoking, humorous, smart and quite endearing theatrical event in the new Harmon Center Forum.

It is not to be missed.

Anonymous said...

I saw "Poe and All That Jazz" Saturday night at the Fringe Festival, and I have to say that it was really amazing. You owe it to yourself to see such a unique piece of drama and music. A unique and really terrific experience!! Great story, married with great music - And Patti Finn is outstanding! What entertainment.