See, this kind of production is *exactly* why the Fringe exists. I can’t really imagine another set of circumstances where a company would have the cojones to do something like this: a live-action, moment-for-moment and gag-for-gag re-enactment of the Marx brothers’ lost silent film Humor Risk. My overall verdict? It’s an interesting, if flawed concept.

Despite criticisms, I thought it actually contained several classic Marx brothers moments, although it occasionally went over the top – was the scene with the flatulent chicken absolutely necessary? The “penguins in the piano” bit during Chico’s number was a great sight gag, but I thought the cast spent *way* too much time with it. Also, the harp solo lost a lot of its impact in a silent production. Groucho in particular was ashamed of the source film, and it’s not hard to see why here: bereft of his trademark one-liners, he was apparently reduced to prancing around in a schoolgirl outfit and making obscene hand gestures. Still, well worth seeing if you get the chance, which isn’t likely this side of the River Styx. (eyebrow wiggle)

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!


A Drama in Mid-Air

DESCRIPTION: Hijacked in mid-air, an 19th-century balloon pilot struggles with his assailant over failure, motivation, and survival – the nature of exploration. Inspired by the works of Jules Verne and NASA astronauts.

Man, *everything* about that description disposes me to like this show. Hell, this is worthy of being indulged further. Here’s a note by the playwright/director in the “Background + more” section of the site:

“I’m shocked and frustrated about the ending of the Space Shuttle Program. America’s last, manned flight into space was a little over a year ago – Space Shuttle Atlantis made it’s final landing on July 21, 2011. NASA’s shuttles had been flying for 30 years, put hundreds of astronauts into space, launched (and fixed) the Hubble telescope, helped to assemble two space stations (Mir and the International Space Station)…and that’s just off the top of my head. True, NASA is still working on getting (unmanned) missions to Mars, and NASA still trains astronauts. But, with the retirement of the Space Shuttle vehicle, America has no way of getting our own astronauts into space. Astronauts now tag-along on Cosmonaut or Taikonaut missions. I find that embarrassing. Not being able to get our own explorers into space seems like a grim omen when it comes to inspiring future generations. Can we call ourselves a visionary nation if our own explorers hitchhike?”

So, I’m guessing that most of my readers either skimmed that wall of text or clicked through to another review. I’m hoping that a small percentage, like me, is a little choked up right now. As far as I’m concerned, that passage alone deserves your ticket price.

So, yeah, this is one that hits a huge number of huge buttons for me – science, exploration, adventure – and it follows a promising structure. It opens with the freaking Challenger disaster, for fuck’s sake. That’s bold. It leaps around in space and time to the perils of early ballooning as well as the space program, and intercuts that with comments by Jules Verne and astronauts. That’s *bolder*.

So why did I find so much of the show a chore to sit through? Ultimately, I’m not sure the production lives up to its text. I wasn’t sure whether it was the dialogue or the performances I found stiff – and, yes, I appreciate that the two primary characters are old-school gentlemen, raised in a society where the measure of a man is his ability to maintain coolness and gentility under pressure – but I missed *passion* from both of them, particularly since they were measuring the worth of their ideas in a life-or-death situation.

Worse, there’s a number of members of the cast who simply don’t know their lines. I don’t mean an occasional stumble – I mean it was a recurring, visible problem throughout the show, and a pretty significant barrier to engaging with what was being said. I don’t know the behind-the-scenes deal on this, but for me as an outside observer, it bore all the marks of a chronically under-rehearsed, under-developed production.

I think the script might be very good. In fact, the more I reflect on it, the greater that suspicion grows. But the missed cues, dropped lines, clumsy transitions, and stiff performances make *reaching* those words a slog. I’d be eager to see this script, and any other work from this playwright, in the future – but both would be better served by a more polished presentation.

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!

Behind the Big Top

DESCRIPTION: A funny yet tragic play about an aging clown in the circus struggling to manage both his crumbling life and his insane co-workers.

So what we have here is essentially a workplace drama, mired in the same minutiae of every workplace since the beginning of time, with the twist that the employees are clowns. The underlying joke seems to be that, hey, they’re *supposed* to be presenting family-friendly entertainment, but offstage they actually, like, drink and swear! Which I suspect isn’t terribly startling or hilarious to anyone who has, y’know, worked in show business, though there was definitely a solid patch of people to my left who never found the gag tiresome.

(I’ve also worked with enough clowns over the years to find the errors in workplace minutiae increasingly annoying – the comedy, after all, emerges from the setting, and it’s not really clearly or consistently handled. Errors like the belief that it’s remotely plausible for Cirque du Soleil to be talent-scouting a crumbling, touring circus, or that being a birthday clown is somehow a logical stepping stone to touring, or the idea of a circus that refuses to travel unless it makes a certain amount of money. The whole point of touring is that there’s a limited audience pool! How the hell is this a viable economic model? These details really, truly matter in this kind of setting-driven comedy!)

The more I think about it, the more I think that my intense level of frustration and resistance to the show derives from the fact that I found its strokes to be much too broad for my tastes in this kind of tongue-in-cheek character drama. To pick one example among many, when the cuckold discovers that his fiancée has been cheating on him, his response is comically overwrought; he doesn’t truly embrace his vulnerability, the kind of sadness, hurt, and anger that result from that kind of betrayal. The actors and script have a tendency to reach too hard for the laugh, and it consequently isn’t all that funny.

Likewise, I found the script to be at times gratingly obvious. The brawl breaking down into a kind of three-ring slapstick was fine and clever, but the stage manager bursting in and accusing of them of being in a *circus* was – much, *much* too on-the nose. The characters have a tendency to describe their central motivations and conflicts to each other in monologues, rather than allowing them to be revealed through their decisions and actions.

I’m fond of circus history, and the setting’s clever, if a bit tired by this point. I’m simply at a bit of a loss as to what the writer was trying to express, beyond sadness and shame: contrasting that with clown makeup is amusing, but only for so long.

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!

Happy Hour

CAVEAT: I have collaborated with some of the performers in the past, most notably in a 2010 Fringe show which Sara produced/directed, Danielle choreographed, and for which I wrote the text.

DESCRIPTION: Join us at the bar for five dances, each inspired by a different drink. See whiskey swirl, watch an absinthe striptease, raise a glass to marriage equality and more in a show full of booze and celebration.

“…out of wine comes truth
out of truth, the vision clears
and with vision soon appears
a grand design.

From the grand design
you can understand the world
and when you understand the world
you need a lot more wine…”

-Stephen Sondheim, The Frogs

So this show is an ass-kickingly kinetic hymn to Dionysos, my patron: the Greek god whose gifts to our species were liquor and theatre, and they haven’t been properly separated ever since. And this seems to neatly encompass both halves of his gift to us, with its equal portions of bacchanal and social comment.

I’ve been watching Sara’s work for years, and if I had to try to divine an underlying purpose, it’s one of struggling with the problem of accessibility: a desire to take her intensely specialized training, and to find a way to reveal some of its rewards to an audience that hasn’t undergone her years of study. She’s undertaken a number of experiments, from collaborating with storytellers to working on dance-oriented comedy shows; and I’m going to go ahead and rank this as one of the more successful. Which is particularly gratifying, I think, since it’s also one of the most unapologetically dance-heavy.

(One of my favorite movies is Jackie Chan’s Drunken Monkey in a Tiger’s Eye, and much of what I love about it was manifested in this show, as well: the use of an extraordinary level of grace, discipline, and control – to represent the complete loss of grace, discipline, and control.)

So much love for this (although I’d single out Danielle and Sara’s startlingly intense tribute to Argentinian Malbec as a favorite). I was a bit disappointed in that I thought it closed on a bit of a weak note: it’s a large ensemble, whose members are operating at wildly varying levels of skill. That said, I really did sort of love the fact that the show began with mournful isolation of whiskey, and ended with something as celebratory as champagne.

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!

Ash Land

CAVEAT (and a rather embarrassing one, too): I actually dozed off at a couple of points during the show – not in any way out of boredom or disinterest, but I’d opened my own show earlier that afternoon and seen shows in just about every slot in between – I was wiped. So, yes, I almost certainly missed a few key points.

DESCRIPTION: The creators of Red Resurrected and Ballad of the Pale Fisherman present a desert Cinderella, scored by a slide guitar. Where bones bake in the sun and water is precious, a motherless child finds her identity.

I generally try to avoid the bestselling shows at Fringe – it’s far more exciting for me to try to discover something new, rather than join the zeitgeist – but I’d missed their last two shows, which were pretty widely hailed as genius.

The presenting schtick here is that this is an almost entirely propless, setless show – the performers themselves rely on their extensive movement backgrounds to create the world, from waves of grain to drops of rain, cars, buildings, sand and bone. It’s impressive and arresting, and if it carries with it a deeper idea, it’s that we’re a species defined by the environments we inhabit – the characters seamlessly drift into and out of their own scenery. (It does make me feel like the world of the city folk was a bit of a missed opportunity – I think there was much more that could have been done to set them apart from the farmers who comprised the central cast.)

I do wish that all of that skill had been put at the service of a story that ran more to my tastes. This is melodrama: pure, old-school melodrama, with its heightened emotions and broad gestures. The setting was compelling, and I’m a real sucker for daughter/father relationships, but ultimately it’s broad strokes, painted with raw emotion, more striking and startling than deep.

I walked away with intense technical admiration, at every level: for the acting, for the music, for the movement – but without the matching level of emotional/intellectual response that I was hoping for, or that, judging by my observations, the rest of the audience around me was experiencing. I didn’t fall in love, this time around – but I’m definitely prepped for a second date.

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!

Moonshine, Madness, and Murder

DESCRIPTION: In Quacker Holler, Tennessee, the Lake Wobegon of the south, erotica-writing nun Sister Candance is murdered. Emily must use her investigative skills, fainting goats, and mental illness to solve the crime.

I’ve seen quite a lot of Christy’s work in the past – she’s a regular at the Story Slams and the Word Ninjas open mic, both of which I frequent – enough to have a very high opinion of her and her abilities; to assert that she’s a rising talent in the area, and totally arresting and compelling at her best. So it pains me a bit to assert that this particular show isn’t her at her best.

The thing is, all of her defining virtues are present here, in spades. There’s still the deft bits of clever writing, and – what really struck on watching this show – her seemingly bottomless compassion; none of her characters exist simply as the object of ridicule, and the way she populates her worlds can achieve an almost Shakespearean dimension, where all of her characters, even the ones we only encounter tangentially, seem to be living their own story.

The show begins with the assertion that what we’re hearing is excerpted from a novel. I suspect that this is where the central problem lies: we’re rapidly overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters and storylines and dangling plot threads – and about halfway through the show I realized I was totally lost, no longer able to follow the who was doing the what to the which now?

I walked away from the show thinking, hey, this is a novel I’d love to read. I’d love to hear her rendition of it as an audiobook, on a series of CDs I could pop in for one of my long road trips. But it’s not really effectively functional as an hour-long Festival show. It’s been too heavily gutted, and what’s left is still too complex. There is clearly skill here, and insight, and great virtue: the problem, I think, is primarily a mismatch between story and form.

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!

An Agony of Fools

CAVEAT: Ben and I have worked together *extensively* for the past several years, making this pretty much the freaking definition of a conflict of interest. As for why I’m bothering to put together some thoughts anyway, please check out Notes on Notes.

DESCRIPTION: No journey of self-discovery. No deep reveal. Only a slight chance of dancing. Cleanse your palate with a new comedy hour from the creator of “Minnesota Middle Finger” and “A Nice Guy’s Guide to Awkward Sex.”

It doesn’t look like this show needs much help from me – his initial audience was packed, and eating it up with a spoon – so I’ll limit myself to two brief observations:

1) He remains one of the finest stand-up comics I’ve ever seen; and

2) What was most striking about his show for me – as someone who’s been a fan of his since, like, 2005 – is how radically evolved his stage persona is. I mean, I’ve seen most of these routines being worked at open-mics for the past couple of months, but I wasn’t really struck by this until I saw his new material laid out in long-form. There’s a slightly darker edge to some of his material than usual – anal rape jokes, dick jokes, et cetera – but nothing more shocking than what you’d see just about any night in a comedy club; it’s shocking here because he’s built his career on a clean, accessible, nice-guy persona. Which is, for the most part, intact – he gets away with the dirtier stuff because he still seems so disarmingly sweet – but there’s a brashness now, a hint of audience hostility. The mumbling and shuffling’s mostly gone, replaced with both speed and confidence. All of these are factors that increase my interest – I’ve always been fond of bluer material – but I’m truly curious to see what other audiences make of it. And now that I’ve written my thoughts, I can go read theirs.

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!