Animal Cracker Genocide

I’ve been following Ben’s work since he first started doing stand-up. Seriously. As someone who frequents open-mics, I think I was in the audience as far back as his first time onstage. I don’t follow the local stand-up scene closely, although I do have some awareness of it; and he stood out immediately as an appealing, self-deprecating newcomer with an unusually cerebral streak. While his material was golden from the get-go, his stage presence could be stiff and off-putting.

Three years have passed, and while in this show his tics haven’t vanished — he still mumbles, he’s still furtive — he’s now taken those liabilities and turned them into assets. His persona is relaxed and polished, and the night I was there he shone.

Of course, that may not be a fair assessment — it was a sold-out house, and it’s hard not to give a great performance with an audience like that. Not that you’ll likely find out otherwise, since he’s sold out his first two performances, including a Monday night slot(!).

His material’s as strong as it ever was — indeed, much of it is maintained from previous shows, albeit tightened up considerably. The difference now is that he’s developed a sufficiently approachable stage presence that everyone can reach that material. It was one hell of an hour of entertainment, and I’m honored to have the opportunity to work with him.

My Sinking Ship

Well, I loved it. I don’t know why more people aren’t seeing it.

Her first show, All the Things I Never Told My Mother, will always have a special place in my heart. And her last show, I’ll Marry You For Health Insurance, remains by far her best-written script to date (albeit one that I struggled with). But this one? Definitely her most entertaining.

Basically, it’s not much more than a collection of goofy recollections of drunken (and otherwise) debauchery. These are punctuated by a series of crappy, amateurish, kindergarten-theatre-style transitions that I found hysterical. (In particular, the line “Oh, look, everybody — a music stand!” is a standout.)

There’s really not much to say that the show description doesn’t make abundantly clear. This is one Fringe show that is exactly what it looks like: the best spoken-word in a raft…ever. Nothing more. And nothing less.

Alice Unwrapped

Urg. Another one that I’m in complete disagreement with the majority on. This is one that I’ve been hearing a lot about through the grapevine, to the point that at last one person teared up while he was recommending it to me. The show concluded in a nearly unanimous standing ovation. I say nearly unanimous, because I didn’t join in on account of apparently having a stunted sense of empathy.

I’ve seen Nautilus Music-Theater on and off for the past several years. They frequently take some very literate texts and set them to music. My impression is generally that these are incredibly technically proficient, but gain very little by being shifted to another medium.

This was, essentially, a one-woman show, a story told from the point of view of a teenager whose father is MIA in Iraq, and her attempts to hold her family together. Compelling stuff, and I suspect that I would have been riveted had the material been spoken. I also suspect that much of my hostility comes from a profound dislike for many of the conventions of musical theater: I found her performance excessively mannered, compounded by a series of exaggerated tics and mannerisms that made me want to say stop stop stop and just tell me what you have to say. This is less of a reflection on her as an actress — indeed, she found several moments of genuine emotion through the music — than it is on a style of performance that I’ve always found grating and jarring. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to overcome this sufficiently to reach the character behind it, so I found much of the hour tortuous.

Mansion of Dust

Note that I arrived nearly a full ten minutes late for this one. I’m reasonably confident that I didn’t miss much plot.

I’ll confess that I’m at a bit of a loss as to what to say about this one, since there honestly doesn’t seem to be all that much to it: it’s basically a vehicle for their considerable talents (Sara’s dance and Joe’s physical comedy), as well as their chemistry together (which is charming), as they bumble about in a haunted mansion.

I loved loved loved their collaboration last year, Dance of the Whisky Faerie, although that was a meandering show as well; perhaps I found it more enjoyable because the frame story immediately established an episodic structure, whereas this one really kind of felt like stuff happening and then more stuff happening and then some more stuff happens and then it’s over. So while it’s chock-full of some entertaining moments — not least of which is a lightning-lit bunny attack — I couldn’t really find the meticulous attention to structure that their last show bore. Enjoyed sitting through it, just found myself moving on with a bit of a befuddled shrug.

Sideways Stories From Wayside School

Before entering the theatre, my companion asked me to tell her about the books: I replied that, while I’d read them when I was a child, I sustained hardly any memory of them. So, truth be told, I can’t approach anything like an objective analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of this show: because my experience of seeing it was being hit by wave after wave of nostalgia as I went “Oh, yeah — I remember that!” What I can tell you is that it’s bright and colorful and fast-moving and has a ridiculously talented cast and that this could be the role that Courtney McLean was born to play.

(And also that, every Fringe, I tend to find one line or one moment that I find completely, irrationally, disproportionately hilarious. Thus, I have spent the intervening time resisting the urge to suddenly shriek “Ahh! Rattlesnakes!” and instead find myself bursting out into sudden fits of helpless giggling. I have no idea why I’m wired this way.)

Buyer’s Remorse

This is another show that I stumbled into purely by random chance, and I winced when I opened the programme and saw that the play was by the author of Killer Smile — a show that I found well-constructed, but ultimately hollow and a bit tedious.

Not that there was all that much to this one, either, but I found its general aesthetic to be much more to my liking. Any satirical pretensions are understated: this is a pure farce, a comedy of situations. The plot tells of a hapless bystander who finds himself embroiled in an escalating, bureaucratic war between a pair of bumbling hit men, and the increasingly ludicrous plot twists that are piled onto one another. The cast is appealing, and though it never seems to go as far as it wants to or hit the breakneck pace it needs to, it’s an adequately entertaining way to spend an hour at the Fringe.

Crescendo

All indicators suggest that Allegra Lingo has another hit on her hands: admirable numbers, glowing response. I’ve been a fan of her for years: I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every one of her previous shows, and found each one to be progressively stronger than the last. Which is why I’m a little pained to admit that this is the first one that really didn’t work for me.

I’ve been watching Allegra experiment with musical storytelling in various shows with the Rockstar Storytellers over the course of the past year, with varying results: some very successful, some less so. Here’s the thing: the strength of Allegra’s writing has always been her ability to find grand, sweeping revelations in simple observations. This is incredibly effective when it’s understated. When those revelations have grand, sweeping music underscoring them, I find that they become almost comically overwrought. Moreover, this seems to influence her performance, as well; she’s always had an appealing, laid-back, folksy style, but this is the first time that that persona has felt affected to me. So, in that respect, I have to regard the experiment as one that didn’t really work for me.

The writing fares much better, and reveals the strength of her craftsmanship again: a layered story of writer’s block, alternating with her re-invention of classical myth, containing a variety of elements that are elegantly tied together. (Although I’ll confess that I’m unconvinced by her tale of Icarus Triumphant: it seems to me that those who refuse to acknowledge their limitations are the ones most severely crippled by them. The truly mad dreamers, those who have departed from reality to the point that they fling themselves off of cliffs seeking to fly, have little to offer us. I’m also fascinated with the parallel between the act of divine creation and the act of artistic creation — Tolkien termed this subcreation — but I’m also not unaware that it can carry about it the stench of hubris if not closely examined.)

So this ended up being a show full of things I should love — proficient storytelling, ancient myth, and writerly angst — but I found myself stumbling over far too many barriers to reach the story itself. In any case, I’m thrilled that she’s found an audience, and a little sorry that I can’t be part of it this time around.