Thursday, July 28, 2011

Fringe Festival '11: Post-Mortem

I was EXHAUSTED after last four days I saw six plays and attended two concerts. While the concerts weren't really part of the schedule (one was Tim Minchin, the other was William Elliott Whitmore, and both were wonderful in different ways), they were still fun, but it was also brutally hot, with record-setting temperatures, and it left me flat. And work has kept me hoppin'.

But I promised myself a breakdown of what else I'd seen at the Fringe Festival, so here goes.

This show, sponsored by the DC Film Alliance, was a lot of fun. It was the old game show resurrected with local celebs, including some chefs, a drag queen, and a former football player. The humor was ribald, and one of the chefs kept wanting to take off his pants. He never did, much to my disappointment.

"Gallantry" was a load of fun and one of the better shows I saw in the festival. Presented by Opera Alterna (a group I need to check out), it's a soap opera parody that's an actual freakin' opera. The singing was top-notch, and the plot included commercial breaks (for soap and floor wax), a sexy nurse, and an aria sung by a fellow in a hospital gown with his ass hanging out. In other words, perfection.
"Foggerty's Fairy" was presented by the Victorian Lyric Opera Company, but it wasn't an opera or operetta. Rather, it was a straight play by W. S. Gilbert (of "& Sullivan" fame), an amusing farce about a man whose impending marriage is threatened by a relationship from his past. Wishing to his guardian fairy that it had never come about, he suddenly wakes to find his past has been altered...but so has his present, and not for the better. It's stuff that we're used to these days, but it seems it was a challenging concept for the 1880s, as the play did not do well back then. It has aged very well.
Ben Egerman's "The Beasts" was my least favorite. It's got a very intriguing premise that's muddled at first but becomes clearer as the show goes on...mankind has retreated underground, presumably after a nuclear war, and has existed in underground bunkers for generations. Now they're wondering whether it's safe to go out now, and worried about the animals that present threats to them. Meanwhile the animals are wondering what to do if and when the humans emerge. It's a one-man show (something I normally avoid) presented with puppets for the animals, and goes on and on but never really gets anywhere. But the folks around me loved it, so maybe it was just me and there was something I didn't get.

"Divas Just Wanna Have Fun!" by the group 7 Sopranos was a delight. A program of songs from opera, operetta, musical theater, and traditional tunes, the singing was flawless and these ladies have an undeniable presence and chemistry. They work well together and have fun clowning and shouldering each other out of the way, and then switching gears and flirting with the audience (me, quite often). I want to see those gals again!
On one of the hottest nights of the year so far I saw MixRun Production's "King Lear." The staff handed out bottles of water before the show, and I survived by barely moving (the space was not air-conditioned). That said, it was an interesting evening. Their take on the classic involved setting it in a biker gang and their sleazy bar HQ, with many characters played as gay or bi, and Lear's madness played as alcoholism. At first the concept seemed almost a bit too cute for its own good, but the power of the material shone through and by the end I was wiping away tears. I did feel bad for the actors, though; during the evening their costumes became more and more sweat-soaked, and by the end all were drenched and probably dying to get out and take a shower. But they all did an impressive job and I'm glad I went.
"An Adult Evening with Shel Silverstein" was presented by the exhaustively-named "Actors Repertory Theatre of the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts" but was a fun show. A collection of short sketches by the famed poet and children's author, it was patently adult and often very funny. As with any anthology, it was of varying quality, with my favorite being a play where a man confronts his wife about her slowly becoming a bag lady, talking to her about how there's a bowl of cold oatmeal in her purse. A couple were more peculiar than funny, but still with that Silverstein stamp.
Naturally, there was a Poe-themed show, and naturally, I had to go. "Embodying Poe" was an interesting take on Edgar. Presented by Sanctuary Theatre, I found it a bit of a mixed bag. It was a narrative of Poe's life, with readings, all done by actor Robert Michael Oliver. While it didn't have much new to say, it swing the focus from the usual Poe stuff to his more cosmic and mystical work, and at the very least avoided the usual one-man reading of "The Tell-Tale Heart," which I never want to experience again. The readings were very well-done, but for some reason it didn't grab me as much, and I can't help but wonder if it was because I was tired or there was too much noise from outside the venue. Still, it was at least different and a halfway refreshing take on Poe, so it deserves credit.
"The Malachite Palace" by Wit's End Puppets was a charming little show, told mainly with shadow puppets, and half in English and half in Spanish. It was a kid-friendly fairy tale about a princess imprisoned by convention in a gorgeous palace and kept from having friends and leading a satisfying life. Nothing dark and macabre here, but it was nice to know there's good stuff for kids (nothing overly insipid or vulgar, but with some actual quality) , and it was fascinating from an artistic standpoint.
I wasn't sure about Brian Wilbur Grundstrom's "A Day at the Museum" but saw it had some good reviews, and decided it would be my final show. I'm glad I chose it. It's a wordless play, all the action communicated by movement and expression. Three frames are set up before the audience and we see the actors as they look at a trio of paintings. In the back, behind an illuminated cloth screen, we see a nude model striking the poses in the paintings, and we get the reactions of the museum-goers. And there actually is something of a story here, as a middle-aged woman with a teenaged daughter comes by, and you realize that she's the model in the paintings, grown older, and wants to tell her daughter about it. It ends affectingly, with the mother finally communicating to the daughter that she's the model, but also the baby she's holding in one painting is the daughter herself as an infant. It was actually quite touching; Pamela Nash, who played the mom, was wonderful in communicating wistful nostalgia and pride. And I was also VERY happy to find that it was choreographed by John Milosich, who did the choreography for Old Lore Theatre's "The Fiddler Ghost" and "Annabel Lee," two simply amazing shows, and I've mourned Old Lore not reappearing in subsequent festivals. Milosich is an amazing choreographer and I was overjoyed to see his work again.

So, that's pretty much it. There were several shows I wanted to catch, but didn't, and others that were maybes. I had an informal rules of no one-man shows (broken) and no "feminist takes" on classics (kept); not that I'm anti-feminist but I've seen a few too many "feminist takes" on classic plays and stories that left even my strongly feminist friends rolling their eyes and checking their watches. I didn't do too much overtly gay-themed stuff this year, either; the gayest stuff was either one-man shows (avoided) or one play that had a ridiculous title ("Caught in Dante's Fifth: The Naked Truth of Kindred Spirits") and which was universally dismissed (at least, as far as I could see) as a pretentious mess, of interest only for the male nudity.

I did do something different; I picked up a ten-show pass, which saved me a bit a of money, and I'm wondering if I want to pick up a universal pass for next year. We'll see.

But I had fun this year, not only seeing shows but meeting new people and connecting with some of my theater-world friends. Yes, it seems I have a certain amount of popularity in the local theater's always a pleasant surprise to find myself being popular, probably a holdover from my younger days of extreme unpopularity, and even as an adult having spells of pariahdom. But at least now I know where to go when I'm down...

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