Flash mob

So there’s a flash mob taking place, for a show called Down Devil’s Backbone. These are some folks who came all the way in from Indianapolis, and reportedly have delivered at least one show with one — that’s right, one — member in the audience. And received two zero-kitty reviews.

There’s been some fairly heated debate about this on Callboard. Some people have been saying that crashing their show is a bad idea, mainly because — why should we reward a show that’s terrible, when there’s so many other struggling shows out there?

Here’s my response:

I’ve been these guys. I tour, and I’ve brought shows to cities where I played single-digit audiences and got reamed by the local press. It’s not fun. I don’t know that their show’s terrible: two reviews don’t mean anything. Besides, I frequently love stuff that everyone else hates.

So I’ve been to these cities, and there’s enough theatrical dick-sucking that goes on, where nobody will spit on you if you don’t have a successful show. So I’ll confess that I actually got a little choked up at the fact that someone in my home city would think to try to swarm one of their performances.

Some people really object to doing this; that’s fine, and I actually really get the objections, and if it seems silly to you, by all means don’t go. But if, for whatever reason, you’re as utterly charmed by this idea as I am: make a point of hitting up their show. 2:30pm on Saturday, at TRP.

(With the final annoying punchline that I’m actually not sure if I’ll be able to make it, since I’m dependent on someone else for transportation; but if I’m in the area, I’ll be there.)

See You Next Tuesday

So this is the show that everyone’s been approaching me, saying, “Oh! You especially are really going to love this show!”

Having now seen it, I’m not sure how to interpret that. I mean, they’re right — I did — but I’m totally blind as to what aspect of it would have made people think of it as a natural fit for me. The obsession with language, perhaps? Nearly every argument the couple gets into is philological in nature. (Even the title, for that matter.)

More fascinating than the show, for me, are the arguments that have sprung up around it — people seem to be quite eager to choose one side or the either, the dude or the chick. (The fact that I’m referring to them as “The dude or the chick” is probably a strong indicator of which side I’m on.) One element that particularly impressed me is the fact that this is a play which portrays characters on varying sides of a debate — and, despite the lip service that’s usually paid to this, in this instance each character is given the chance to have a fair say. The vast bulk of the audience applauded her attack on monogamy; I found myself wanting to applaud the brother’s defense of it (not in spite of, but because of, how fucked-up it is).

Which makes it sound like the real nature of the play is political, but that’s not the case. At core, this play is about the same thing that both Entwined and Yvette were about: asking that frightening question, why do we pursue these things that we know are going to destroy us?

Maybe that’s the reason that everyone was recommending this show to me; but I choose to believe that my friends don’t know me that well.

Bloddeuwedd

Monday was supposed to be my night off — it’s the one night of the Festival in which I wasn’t committed to performing in a show — but, impulsively, I decided to head out to catch the 10pm showing of this one.

There’s a couple of reasons for this — but mainly, because this is an instance in which I know the source material with some intimacy. In fact — I’ve been trying to avoid talking about my own show, but I think I simply can’t avoid it in this instance — both this show and My Mother Told Me are based on parts of the Mabinogion.

Likewise, there’s some similarity between the two pieces — both revolve around protagonists that are, essentially, blank slates — characters who set out into the world with no knowledge of what to expect, and their discoveries mirror, to some degree, our own.

Let’s be clear — I am in love with this script. For two reasons. The first is, simply put, its composition. It’s an odd mixture of modern and archaic, and there’s a few unpleasantly jarring word choices — but generally, this is a text that chooses the unusual word, as opposed to the expected one. The pleasure of startling language is one of the great reasons that I love this form.

And then, there’s the reason that I love this content. Nearly all of the shows that I’ve seen this Festival revolve around relationships, joking about them or whining about them or what have you, and that’s a bit of a slog for me. But this is a show that opens with a woman describing her dim memories of being flowers. Of crawling through the dirt and being drenched in nectar. Oh, fuck yes — this is precisely one of the things that I love about fantasy writing. She is Not Like Us. And the play plunges into that mystery to a degree that The Selkie didn’t even attempt. On some heady level, yes, that’s interesting because it helps us define what it means to be human — but on a more primal level, one I can’t articulate so well, I’m fascinated by the otherness of this kind of thing. This is a show that gets what magic is — a disturbance of the natural order; and therefore something horrific, frightening, even sickening at times. It is, quite literally, the definition of unnatural. And that’s intensely compelling to me.

From what I’ve heard, this is a show that’s been getting some very impressive reviews, and some less impressive audience numbers. Most seem to be praising the performance, and criticizing the script. I’m going to go ahead and say that I suspect that I’m in pretty much diametric opposition to the others on this; I love the script, but I have some pretty critical issues with the performance.

Here’s the thing; I’ve had the extreme displeasure, over the years, of witnessing some seriously abusive relationships. Moreover, I saw the show with someone who, I’m sorry to say, has a lot of experience with abuse, from a number of different angles. I won’t speculate on the experiences of either the writer or the performer — I know nothing about either — but I wll note that both of us asserted, strenuously — her far more so than me — that this performance simply didn’t ring true. The actress wails; she moans; she leans forward and clutches herself; her voice shakes with barely concealed emotion.

Had I been the director of this show, I would have guided her towards something else, something far less histrionic; but rather, to that coldness, to that terrible, numb detachment that I’ve witnessed in those that have lived through this kind of thing.

The thing is — and this is the reason I feel compelled to raise this in a review — this isn’t solely an aesthetic question, but a moral one. Here’s what the show description (presumably composed by the writer/producer) says:

“Bloddeuwedd is a solo story play, loosely based on an ancient Welsh legend about a woman made out of flowers, who, in the midst of a brutally sadistic (and arranged) marriage, takes a lover and undergoes a kind of sexual awakening.”

That’s not my perception of this story at all. This is the story of a man who takes a woman — not simply a woman, but something new, something fresh and strange and strangely beautiful — and sets out to destroy her; and he succeeds. He destroys her as a moral being. If she begins by talking about the ecstasy of the sensation of sunlight, she ends with her transformation into a predator, not just physically but spiritually. This is, for me, as a man of faith, the ultimate horror: the story, not of the destruction of a woman’s body, but the destruction of her soul. I’m sure that there’s some school of second-wave feminism that could regard this as some sort of triumph, but to be totally honest, the fact that someone could characterize the action of this play as a “sexual awakening” makes me kind of sick.

(Let’s establish, before moving on, that she’s an excellent actress, and more importantly a very controlled and disciplined one. My beef here is with the choice made, the approach chosen, not with her craftsmanship as a performer.)

This is tied into the acting, in the respect that I think that, had a real sense of detachment been cultivated and sustained — well, first of all, that would have been much more chilling; to hear the events she described, described without emotion, would have caused them to hit us far more dramatically. But furthermore, they would have emphasized the tragedy of her ultimate fate. Whereas now, I can’t escape the uneasy sense that this is being portrayed as a kind of dark triumph.

…and with that, we have skated so far outside of the aesthetic that we are firmly in the realm of my own personal prejudice. And I conclude on the note that this show upset both of us; and upset us to the point that we spent the better part of an hour arguing, angrily, intensely, about both the content and execution of the show.

…and if that isn’t the definition of great art? I don’t know what is. This is, unquestionably, my favorite show of the Festival thus far.

Idiosynchronicity

I’m at a bit of a loss as to what to write about Rob Callahan’s Fringe show — since his is one of those that seems to get everything right.

Okay, no — there’s a few things that spring to mind, particularly when so many of his stories are held up in quick succession. The main one being that he tends to develop an incredibly strong concept — and a hell of an opening line — and then his stories will peter out. (He actually references this in at least two stories, which he cuts off before the conclusion.)

Unbelievably, that complaint — which would be crippling in just about any other show — is minor here. Here’s another show that seems to be composed — due, no doubt, to some trick of my own brain — of pieces of others that I’ve seen: like Mahmoud’s, it is interspersed with poetic interludes, but here with a kind of relaxed playfulness that I found completely engaging. Like Couch Aliens, it relies heavily on pop-culture references, but consistently used in a completely unexpected way. It’s an odd mix of elements — autobiography, psuedo-Beatnik poetry, and sci-fi — that works, if only because its unifying theme is total and utter geekdom. (I mean, Neil Gaiman tweeted him about the show. WTF, mate? God, I’m petty.)

Whether or not you care in the slightest about that last parenthetical statement is probably a good indicator of whether or not you’ll care for this show.

(Also, I want to throw out a quick note of commendation to Jonah the Destroyer. I’ve seen several storytellers play around with the music/storytelling hybrid, and honestly, I’ve found that it rarely works — it usually ends up becoming distracting for me. Here, the music is used to illustrate the stories at carefully decided moments, in an entirely calculated way. Kudos, and I intend to steal many ideas from you.)

Couch Aliens vs. the False World

This show is pretty much the definition of light Fringe entertainment — it’s bright, and colorful, and wacky. There’s not a lot of in-depth character work here, because it’s not necessary. These are stock characters, and therefore we recognize them instantly: the gen-X slacker hero; his douchebag best friend; Ford Prefect (i.e. his nonplussed alien guide); the bratty ex-girlfriend. They’re sketched out for us in a few quick strokes, and that’s all we need.

Likewise with the sci-fi concepts introduced here: there’s a little quantum mechanics, and a nod to the whole “many-worlds” hypothesis; but it’s nothing too heady, and if you’ve ever seen an episode of “Star Trek” in your life you’ll catch up pretty quickly.

A few of the audience reviews seem to be indicating frustration at the fact that it introduces these concepts, but doesn’t really go any deeper. I’d argue that they’re missing the point, but in all fairness there’s a point at which the show invites this onto itself: when it reaches those few key moments in which we need that investment, we haven’t found it yet. When the protagonist heroically declares that he’s willing to put his own, and everyone else’s, lives at risk, in order to find his perfect world — we don’t really get why; and without getting that, he seems like kind of a jerk. The most egregious example is one secondary character suddenly blurting out her father’s recent death from cancer, which can’t help but feel like a bit of tacked-on pathos.

But that is missing the point — because the plot is largely an engine to deliver the dialogue, and the generally eccentric environment. This is a play about the setting, and the world, more than it’s about the ideas or the characters. So, yes, I do get the frustration of not being able to follow those through to their logical (or, really, any) conclusion; but that’s not what this play is about. It’s about the quirkiness; it’s about being able to sit in a darkened theatre and let this weirdness just kind of happen. And, yeah — I think if you’re prepared to accept this play on its own terms, you’ll have a great time.

The Selkie

Being part of a dance show this year, I had the pleasure of witnessing several other dance shows in preview. So this is one that I saw some snippets of a few weeks back: and my thought was, “Huh. That looks cool. How the hell are they going to tell the whole story without any words?”

Well, they do it — they successfully communicate the action without narration or dialogue, and that alone is a worthy achievement.

I’m a mythology geek, so the fact that I know the story well certainly helped — it’s not hugely complex, and I would imagine that the outlines are familiar, in that it’s a typical love story between a mortal and a magical being. (I will mention that I completely lost the thread, about twenty minutes in, and I took me another five to get caught up again — with the caveat that my viewing companion tells me that I’m a complete idiot for not having been able to follow the action.)

There’s a few points that I raised my eyebrows at: knowing this kind of story well, and loving it well (in other words, being a big ol’ snob), means that I have some points of contention. There’s an element of kidnapping, rape, and slavery to the story that was barely glanced at; a selkie is Not Like Us, and she seemed to adapt to mortal existence with a shrug and a skip. I also question the use of the female vocalist: not that there was anything wrong with her performance (on the contrary, I thought she was extraordinary), but in a story that was communicated almost entirely without words, for someone to be speaking so literally was jarring for me. (There’s also a degree to which I’m not in the audience for this: when, towards the end, she rocked a performance of “Auld Lang Syne”, a not-insignificant portion of the audience rose to their feet and sang along. This clearly carries some emotional resonance for them that I do not share.)

Regardless: this is an incredibly ambitious production, taking a style of dance that seems (at least superficially) to be somewhat limited, and demonstrating incredible versatility with it; not only that, but to incorporate a full cast of such dancers and a live orchestra(!) — the intellect that could not only conceive of this vast number of elements, but bring them together into something resembling coherence, certainly deserves to be commended.

Can Michael Come Out and Play?

In my pre-Fringe promotion for this show, I wrote the following:

“Mahmoud Hakima stormed onto the storytelling scene with Two Bowls of Cereal and Some Bacon, an impressive initial effort that was both heartfelt and well-structured. With that show, he established himself as someone with at least one great story to tell – the question of whether or not he’s go staying power as a storyteller may be answered by this one.”

That question has been answered — the man is definitely a storyteller, at least insofar as he has more than one story to tell.

One of my favorite elements of his show last year was the title. “Two bowls of cereal and some bacon” wasn’t a key line, as such — it wasn’t tied to some major, life-changing event. It was a single line that had stuck in his head, tied to a single unsettling incident. And in that respect it was a reflection of what that show — and what I suspect his entire body of writing — is about: a fascination with the way time and memory work.

Likewise — there’s a few emotionally significant moments: but this isn’t a story about those moments. It’s about the moments in between — those few strange comments and incidents that popped up here and there in his life.

I have a few criticisms: some of the character transitions were distracting and clunky, I question a few staging choices — but for the most part those fall under the camp of I-would-have-done-it-differently, or it-might-have-been-more-effective-if — there’s very little in the way of wrong choices here.

The greatest departure from his previous work are the poetic flights of fancy — at various points he lapses into rhyming couplets, illustrating fantastic scenarios that he imagines. They’re hit-or-miss, but for the most part they’re successfully whimsical and entertaining.

However — and I’m going to have a harder time sensibly articulating this point — there’s an incredible intensity to his delivery, and while for the most part it works for him, there’s definitely places where I wish he would be more relaxed — more casual — and use that to draw us in. His theatricality can sometimes work against him (and, yes, I’m aware of what an incredibly ironic criticism that is, coming from me), and there’s several places in which I think something more playful, more relaxed, would be more successful.

(I also find it ironic — and I want to emphasize that this has nothing to do with his performance, but is a frustration I have in watching it performed — that this is a show about prejudice, but plays so much into the ingrained prejudices of a Midwestern audience. There’s a degree to which the fun of the show comes from Northerners laughing at Southerners. But racism isn’t uniquely southern — it’s just more visible there.)

Regardless. This is a fine piece of work. I’d urge everyone to go see it, but I’m pleased to state that all evidence suggests that encouragement is unnecessary. But if you were on the fence — yes. He should be watched.