News Column

Fringe Festival 2013 was an absorbing array of old and new

July 28, 2013

YellowBrix

July 28--KC Fringe, the annual festival of performances and visual art exhibits that wraps up today, is always a surprising mix of the old and new, the contemporary and the past revisited.

Take Shel Silverstein, for example. I knew Silverstein as a cartoonist (Playboy) and a songwriter ("A Boy Named Sue") but had never seen one of his plays until the Fishtank Performance Studio staged "An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein" for KC Fringe.

Directed by Heidi Van, this collection of seven comic vignettes is consistently amusing. The humor is often unpredictable. Without question the view of sex and relationships found in this material is filtered through an aperture from an earlier era, but the performers commit themselves to these mini-plays.

Jake Walker tends to dominate a talented young cast with his charismatic presence, beginning with the first piece, "Going Once." Walker plays an auctioneer -- if he had a name it would certainly carry the prefix "Colonel" -- who is hawking a piece of merchandise in the form of a young woman (Marianne McKenzie). Walker's handling of the staccato delivery is precise and seductive.

In "One Tennis Shoe," Tim Wilkinson and Jenny Ward are a young couple confronting a troubling issue: Is she or is she not a potential bag lady? Katie Gilchrist and Annie Cherry are engagingly bawdy in "Buy One Get One Free," in which a couple of ladies of the evening advertise their wares entirely in rhymes. "Wash and Dry," with Wilkinson and McKenzie, is an elaborate joke that isn't quite funny enough to justify its length.

We see Walker again in "The Lifeboat Is Sinking," in which he reluctantly plays a "what-if" game with his wife (Diana Watts), who demands to know who -- his wife, his mother or his daughter -- he would throw overboard if they were adrift in a lifeboat. Watts and Pete Bakely handle "Bus Stop," which is basically a word game.

The show closes with the best piece of the evening: "Thinking Up a New Name for the Act," which begins with Van and Walker working through the power dynamics of a relationship with only two, endlessly repeated words of dialogue: "Meat" and "potatoes." The meaning of each word changes as the context shifts, and the results are very funny.

The show was a consistent sell-out during the festival and has been extended for one more post-Fringe weekend, Thursday through Aug. 5. Call 816-809-7110 or go to fishtanktheater.blogspot.com.

Other shows last week ranged from absorbing drama to whimsical clowning. Here's a roundup:

-- "Bernice/Butterfly" is actually two interrelated one-act plays by Nagle Jackson that together depict the slow death of a small town in Kansas. Part 1 is "Bernice at Bay," depicting an aging waitress at what appears to be the town's sole remaining diner. In Part 2, "The Butterfly Effect," we see an intellectual in professorial robes who initially seems to be delivering a speech to the American Philosophical Society.

Two of Kansas City's best actors, working with director Warren Deckert, bring these pieces to life. Marilyn Lynch plays Bernice as she goes about her morning, greeting unseen customers and refilling cups with empty coffeepots. Through Bernice we learn a lot about the history of the town and its gradual decline, but ultimately we find out Bernice isn't what she seems.

Neither is Randall, played by Robert Gibby Brand, who delivers a comically verbose speech about the tension between thesis and antithesis. At times Randall loses his focus and slips into memories of the life he once had and how he came to this: A man delivering a lecture to an imaginary audience to prerecorded applause. These plays suck you in with potent humor and then shove you toward serious reflections about life, expectations and the inevitability of change.

--Australian actress Tamara Lee is riveting in "A Solitary Choice," a one-person theater piece that maintains a meticulous balance between visceral performance, visual imagery and a literary script that could stand alone as a short story. This was one of the strongest dramatic pieces I saw at the festival.

Sheila Duncan's play is by turns poignant, sardonic and excruciating in its portrait of a woman who finds herself in a classic dilemma with no palatable solution. Ruth, a reserved bank employee, has led an ordinary and predictable life with her husband and young son until one day the unexpected happens: She is seduced by the music of Carlos, a South American musician with whom she has an impulsive fling.

The resulting pregnancy offers her two grim choices: Have the baby, leave her husband and make a life with Carlos; or abort her unborn daughter and remain haunted forever by the child she knew and loved in both a literal and mystical sense.

This is gritty stuff, filled with heartache and the collapse of expectations in the face of reality. Lee, directed by Michael Allen, is in total command of the material and takes the viewer on a journey that yields indelible images.

--Jaron Aviv Hollander and Slater Brooks Penney are exceptionally gifted mimes who take their audience on an utterly unique and frequently hilarious journey in "The Submarine Show."

Created by Hollander and Penney for the Kinetic Arts Center in Oakland, Calif., this whimsical, unpredictable piece depicts two mariners who are drawn into a bizarre, metaphysical world after they crash their submarine on the ocean floor. Often interacting with the viewers, the performers swing between carefully choreographed set pieces and spontaneous improvisations. Their physical performances are extraordinary.

--Tara Varney and Bryan Colley each year bring a strange new creation to the Fringe. This year we got a staged re-creation of "Chicken Heart," a radio play by Arch Oboler that was originally performed as part of "Lights Out," a macabre late-night radio series broadcast in the 1930s.

The story involves the exponential growth of a tiny chicken heart kept alive in a lab. It grows and grows, bursting out of the building and eventually devouring the Earth.

Director Varney chooses a meta-theatrical approach as the action at times seems rooted in the realities of radio drama -- actors providing sound effects at a table with microphones -- but sometimes enters its own surrealistic realm with some characters played by hand puppets.

Varney turns to her unofficial repertory company -- Andy Garrison as a mad scientist, Parry Luellen as a reporter and in supporting roles Marcie Ramirez, Amy Hurrelbrink and Eric Tedder. Ramirez's instinctual timing will get laughs every time, and Hurrelbrink performs with what might be described as effortless quirkiness. The results can be hilarious.

--Sound designer John Story and musician Barclay Martin got together to produce "Just So Stories," an innovative take on the Rudyard Kipling tales atmospherically staged in the made-over green room at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre.

The show employs music but not as much as you'd expect from a cast that includes musical talents like Erin McGrane, Shay Estes, Nathan Granner, Vi Tran, Kyle Dalquist and Pat Conway. The material is presented in reader's theater format, with the actors working from prepared scripts.

At the performance I caught, two stories were performed: "The Butterfly That Stamped" and "The Elephant's Child." The performers brought considerable charm to the show, and the MET's backroom performance space allowed singular intimacy.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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