2009 Kansas City Fringe Reviews: Tuesday, July 22nd

Veni, Vidi, Vici

Okay, so this was a piece by someone who’s obviously a tremendously skilled performer, but one that lost me very quickly; the action is meandering, and I found it difficult to follow the logic of it. Basically, she discovers a piece of chalk and improvises various rules as to what she can do with it (lines drawn cannot be crossed, unless circular “doors” are drawn through them, et cetera). This business was clever. The show description indicates that this is some sort of indictment of human greed, or something.

What she’s physically doing in the space seems to be incidental to her character-building work, which is driven by her relationship to the audience. And while her physical and vocal performance is crisp (though I did find the high-pitched squeaking she uses to communicate grating), I found myself wanting her to hold still and communicate something, make something happen – the bulk of the show consists of her performing a simple action, giggling, and looking to us for our response.

The show is primarily about her relationship to us (or, at least, that’s what she devotes the bulk of her time and energy to onstage). And I’m not simply referring to the audience-interactive sequences of the show (although those could be difficult to follow, as well – it wasn’t always entirely clear what she wanted us to do, and the fact that her character was taunting us through that process kind of complicated that) – in many respects, our response seems to dictate the nature of the show we get. So in fairness to the performer, we weren’t a very responsive audience – in fairness to us, I don’t know that we were given much to respond to.

Bear Hugs and Bingo Balls

I’ve been a fan of Mike Shaeffer for years – I see his stuff religiously, and in fact I think I’d previously seen every piece that he did here. I’d cheerfully sit through it again. For me, seeing one of his shows is like kicking back and popping in a favorite album – so I’m way past the point where I have any idea what this looks like to someone who hasn’t seen his stuff before.

It’s exactly what it sounds like – rapid-fire, profane, pop-cultural spoken-word comedy. If you don’t get one particular reference, don’t worry – five more will be by in the next twenty seconds, as he sifts and sorts through Gen-X detritus like a one-man episode of Family Guy.

One thing that’s been striking me the past couple of times that I’ve seen him – and in this particular show as well – is that what he does works because of his vulnerability; his dirty jokes aren’t leered at us, but delivered with all of the giggling schoolboy fun of arrested adolescence. He has a genuine love for his chosen subject matter, as he leaps from parodies of Hunter S. Thompson to George Romero to a bevy of classic rock musicians; if you know half of the people he’s talking about, it’s impossible not to share that warmth. And judging by the sheer range of the things that he loves, it’s likely that you will.

Naughty Knickers – Take II

This is exactly what it sounds like: lithe and attractive girls remove their clothes in ways that are equal parts athletic and ironic. Performers are uniformly excellent in both arenas.

Bizarre as it may seem to apply too much analysis to this, one quick thought – I’ve seen a couple of burlesque shows by now, and they seem to follow a variety of formats – often the dancing girls will be alternated with other specialty acts (comedy, magic, et cetera). This, on the other hand, is pure burlesque. The danger of that is that the action can grow repetitive, when you’re seeing essentially the same kind of material over and over again – there’s a numbing effect from over-stimulation. Both good sex and good comedy are all about rhythm changes. There’s a reason that it’s more exciting to watch a girl undress for you than it is for her to just walk into the room naked – it’s the suspense and the anticipation.

That said, they actually do a pretty impressive job of finding ways to mix up the formula. (Including a piece by a girl who, yes, walks into the room naked.) So I may just be jaded, as part of the generation that grew up with internet porn, but novelty is stimulating.

The Death of Cupid

Okay, so let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way – this has extraordinary production values for a Fringe show, and the ensemble is superb (as nearly as I can tell, it’s made up of a kind of KC Fringe All-Stars). It’s an impressive intellect that could conceive of this wide variety of elements and bring them together into anything resembling coherent. It’s well-done and it’ll be a Fringe hit and it deserves to be and you should see it and you’ll enjoy it. So with all that nonsense out of the way, I’d like to take a minute to dig into what I found to be the most interesting part – the text.

This is basically a loose adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. I’m actually a big fan of Aristophanes – The Birds is my single favorite play ever written – and while this is the one that’s likely most familiar to modern audiences, it’s one that I’ve struggled with. Lysistrata is about a woman who organizes a sex strike in order to stop a bloody and senseless war. So it’s found continuing life both in the feminist movement and in the pacifist movement (since the play is, at least superficially, anti-war), and theatres love to do readings of it whenever we invade another country and yadda yadda.

However, her status as one of literature’s first anti-war protestors isn’t sufficient for this production: here, they need to re-invent her also as a kind of champion of secular humanism, capable of facing off with (and ultimately overthrowing) the gods. This is mainly achieved by stapling Aristophanes’ plot to a kind of celestial battle between rational thought (represented by Athena) and divine fate (represented by Cupid); between free will and predestination; between individualism and collectivism. Heady stuff, and there’s also a lot of fun had in the clever re-invention of various Greek gods (I particularly found Mercury’s cameo to be laugh-out-loud hilarious). This is also the section of the play which most frequently skates into melodrama – nearly every character gets (at least one) overwrought speech (with key phrases repeated, suddenly and with great intensity, to make the audience jump – TO MAKE THE AUDIENCE JUMP).

I found the script to be at its most tolerable when its ideas are understated – despite superb performances from each actor, I caught myself wincing when they abandoned their irony and self-awareness. (I found the scene between Lysistrata and the magistrate of Athens to be particularly egregious – he repeatedly beats her, apparently for no other purpose than to shock the audience into hating him enough to completely discredit his ideology.)

Okay, but all of these issues I’m having are really a tip of the hat to the strength of the adaptation. If Lysistrata comes off as a shrill, emotionally manipulative political cartoon (and please note that that’s a reference to the character, not to the actor’s performance, which I found to be remarkably controlled), well, she does in the source text, too. It’s the very reason why she’s been so widely loved for so long, and why I’ve always found her kind of obnoxious. In the programme, the writer boasts that his play asks some dangerous questions: I’m curious as to what, precisely, those questions are.

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