I'LL ADMIT IT: I was dragging by the end of this year's Fringe Festival. Like the spring weather that alternated between windy rainstorms and idyllic sunshine, I found myself suffering from aesthetic whiplash between some great work and some truly awful dreck. It's one thing to hunker into a stoic position where you can numb yourself to the bad; but to be caught off-guard by something wonderful when you've given up hope is almost more than a critic can bear.
10th Annual Seattle Fringe Festival
The Fringe Festival is an odd barometer for the general state of Seattle's theater scene. Lots of sketch comedy was to be expected, given the amount of new sketch groups that have shown up in the last year or two. Likewise, the number of shows that were variations on either Shakespeare or literary classics—Alice in Wonderland scored a couple, along with several fairy-tale adaptations—demonstrates that, as always, Seattle artists are a literary bunch. What was surprising were the number of new plays written solidly in the realist tradition, as well as the number of pieces that were clearly workshops for later full productions. For those of us designated by accident or desire to try and see a lot of stuff, this was decidedly exhausting: Many more shows seemed to be 90 minutes or longer this year. Still, it's counterproductive to slight artists for presenting works-in-progress as part of the Festival; the Fringe has always been the place for folks to test-drive their pieces with an open and tolerant audience on board.
And that, as always, remains the greatest asset of the Festival: its audiences. Walking around Capitol Hill during the last couple of weeks has been a joy to a hardened old theater cynic like myself, as performers and spectators alike roamed the streets arguing about the quality of shows and creating a pleasing blur between the plays and the everyday street theater of Broadway. Complaints that the Festival is unjuried entirely miss the point: The jury is there every night, buying their tickets and applauding or withholding their applause at the end of each show. You don't need a panel of "theater professionals" (and that includes theater critics) to tell you that something has been worth seeing.
With that preamble, here are a few minireviews from the second week.
The Begetting—Local actor/playwright Jeff Berryman's intriguing prequel to the myth of King Arthur tells the story of Arthur's mother Igraine and the three men who compete for her love. It takes real moxie to toss an audience into 5th-century Britain with no more to guide them than the occasional narration of Emrys (Evan Whitfield), but Berryman's strong narrative sense, muscular poetic language, and a impassioned cast (led by Berryman himself as the brutish Uther and Nikki Visel-Whitfield as the desirous and extremely crafty Igraine) made this one of the most polished offerings of the Festival, despite the bare-bones production values. A full remount would be welcome indeed.
Foolery—Howard Stregack's "one-clown" show attempts to marry the books of the Bard with slapstick and circus tricks, but does so from an odd angle. Shakespeare's plays are filled with clowns and fools, so having Portia's three chests turned into a cup-and-balls magic routine or Macbeth's dagger speech performed with balloon animals seems like spray-painting the lily. There's precious little ore mined from some very rich material; the performer might hit the books a little harder before this project's next incarnation.
The Fisherman and His Soul—Oscar Wilde's enigmatic and dark fairy tale concerns a fisherman who falls in love with a mermaid and seeks to separate himself from his soul so that they can be together. Bradley Moss' adaptation, directed by Jennifer Kunz, uses a packing-trunk full of theatrical tricks, including puppets, masks, and choreographed movement, to duplicate Wilde's strange world where a stern Christianity lives side-by-side with pagan magic. The company's measured pacing and unconventional effects are not always successful, but the abundance of imaginative ideas and the willingness to stay true to the narrative of this odd fable yields some extraordinary images and moments, including a truly disturbing witches' Sabbath and a pleasing stories-within-a-story structure. Unexpected yet richly rewarding.
Please Leave the Bronx—Just in case you're worried that Seattle's missing out on some great comic talent, be assuaged by the uneven efforts of San Francisco's sketch comedy quintet Bronx Shmonx. The ensemble's high spirits fail to compensate for such sophomoric material as a booze-hound's guide to history or a painfully unfunny "Weekend Update" rip-off, though a love song to Godzilla and the narrated downfall of an unlikely beauty queen were amusing. Even given the tolerant tastes of their audience, this group scored only one laugh to every three groans.
The Drug War Follies—Jeffrey Stonehill's lecture against the insanities of the US government's costly "war on drugs" is good politics but only marginally theatre, with a table full of mostly unnecessary props hindering rather than helping his presentation. The best thing about this show, aside from Stonehill's scholarly knowledge of his subject, was his reassurance to his audience that the clock lying prominently on the floor would guarantee no more than 60 minutes to his presentation, a promise that he dutifully kept.
Sigourney Square—A comedy-drama about four brothers growing up in a Connecticut suburb, Jeffrey Kagan-McCann's gift for engaging dialogue and some pleasing performances from the large ensemble (particularly Jeff Schell as older brother Burke and Chris Marshall as rebel brother Jack) are the strengths of this show, along with its polished pacing. The play's greatest weakness, though, is a tendency to punctuate every 15 minutes with another Shocking Revelation about the past, which allows some heartfelt emotion at the expense of the audience's credulity. Still, a solid bit of playcrafting; and, with one notable exception, all of the show's younger actors are remarkably free of precocious mugging.
The Beard—Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow, or people who look like them, meet in a blue velvet room that may be heaven. The result is hell. Why three talented actors (Juli Etheridge, Kerry Weddle, and Joe Pesce) think so much of the writing of overrated beat poet Michael McClure as to stage this repetitive, pretentious riff on No Exit is known only to them. But despite their personal charisma and fine physical efforts, the result was akin to being trapped in an elevator for 90 minutes with a high-school poetry class. Even more galling, while the play (eventually!) does feature simulated sex, there was no nudity at all, despite the signs warning us about it.
Colonel Jack—Phil Wozniak's gentle drama about a father dying of cancer and his mentally disabled son is so unassuming as to be practically nonexistent. John Kobasic as the father and Tom Fraser as his adult offspring were both wonderfully understated, but Casey Munro as the social worker trying to solve their dilemma had almost no role to inhabit. There's undoubtedly a drama to be had from this material, but the low stakes and weirdly inconclusive ending to this script were ultimately disappointing.
Everybody Loves Divided Highways—This silly mess of a play is a bit like a spoof of The Blair Witch Project, beginning with three guys stumbling around a darkened campsite that includes a tent covered in blood. Said blood previously belonged to terminal loser Chet, who has almost amputated his thumb while cutting wood. For the next hour Chet, nice guy Phil, and obnoxious jerk Brad philosophize on the terrors of camping, the greater terrors of women, and why it's not a good idea to add coffee to dried couscous. A special guest appearance by ZZ Top almost works, and though the evening eventually dissolves into a free-for-all, writer Jeremy Johnson's got a good ear for dialogue and some pleasing Gen-X cynicisms.