Wednesday, August 20, 2014

IndyFringe on Tuesday night: If you're not eccentric, you're not at the center

"Live On Air With Poet Laureate Telia Nevile" (Theatre on the Square Stage Two)  is one of those IndyFringe shows with a perfect matching of concept and detail. Like many of the shows that are strutting their stuff a half-dozen times on and around Mass Ave through Sunday, it makes a virtue of eccentricity.

If you're not at the far edge of the search for identity and self-expression, you're not at the center of the Fringe persona. That's OK, too, because even Fringe festivals need their outliers, their flashes of ordinariness.

In the case of "Live On Air," Nevile creates a comic microcosm focused on a lonely suburban girl's passion for poetry, expressed over a pirate radio station. She puts the "try" in "poetry," she declares, and her efforts are both trite and insightful, whimsical and plaintive. The show is never dull.

Telia Nevile goes live with poetry.
Her sweet-voiced storytime segment  is a "West Wing"-inspired gay-hookup episode loaded with sexual punning and governmental jargon. A soft-focus blues track lies behind her lamenting "First Date Fail Blues."  By her own measure, she is a poet so given to "deep thought" that she fancies spelling "deep"  with a few extra "e's."  She brings her most menacing voice to "Apostrophe Apocalypse," hilariously warning against the confusion of "its" with "it's". A proud rap on her zest for unusual words proclaims her right to "wallow in wistful antiquities."

Every part of Nevile's act unfolds its own delightful surprises. She mocks her character gently insofar as the show indicates that the most intelligent word-lover can be just as subject to feelings of isolation and defeat as the semi-literate. She also satirizes the expressive limitations of pop songs and cliches.

The Australian comedian's appealing young woman is after something that her literary reach may be forever unable to grasp. Her T-shirt declares "Rimbaud Built My Hotrod," and the French poet's call for a derangement of the senses may be just what she needs to leave tire marks on the pavement. It's so much fun to watch the attempt that it feels like she's made it already. "Live on Air" should be on everybody's frequency.

It would be a pleasure to report that the elaborate preparation behind "Jacked!" at the Cook Theater  was well-served by the content. Derived from the radio sketch comedy that's been key to the success of the long-running "Prairie Home Companion," this is a rather frantic spoof of "Jack and the Beanstalk." A huge (for Fringe) cast of eight is mostly lined up along the front of the stage, each player with microphones. A screen placed  in front of the stage cues the audience to say or do scripted things as the story proceeds.

The faux-radio show is presented by "the Folkettes," which says a lot.
Essential to the show as the story lumbers on, interrupted by commercials, is bickering among the principals and a series of scripted gaffes and disasters. There is no end to the cleverness applied to this scenario, the creation of Bob Sander. Very little of it tickled my funnybone, however. Upon being informed that the Giant's fowl-produced golden eggs have made him as rich as Midas, we are reminded just how very rich that must be because of the current cost of muffler replacement. And after host Travis DiNicola, victim of an explosion in the scenario, is allegedly replaced by a twin brother, one of six such (he says), the predictable objection that twins come only in twos is answered by "I'm not saying it was easy."

I'll pause here until you recover yourself.

"Jacked!" ends with a faux-academic argument on how to interpret the story: Is Jack the hero, or is the Giant? In my view, the execution is the real hero, because it makes a technical silk purse out of a conceptual sow's ear. And the writing, while it percolates as brought to life by the committed cast, suggests that the bar wasn't set very high above the camaraderie required to produce such a show.

TOTS' Stage Two was also the venue for my third show of the evening, "How to Raise a Good Child Badly." Paul Strickland's convoluted script of a young woman's upbringing and adjustment to life's confusion was brilliantly interpreted by Julie Mauro. With her toothy grin and sparkling eyes, Mauro ingratiated herself with the audience by rendering the charm of youthful naivete through the entangled lives of a character named She and one named Her.

Julie Mauro is thoroughly winning.
I'll admit I had a hard time keeping them straight, but something vivid embedded in "How to Raise a Good Child Badly" swept me along over the rough spots. Iconic objects and experiences illumine all of our lives, and Strickland's script particularizes these and gives them polished auras. It's the kind of play that would remain murky on the page, and even in performance, without such a striking performance as Mauro's.

Her achievement extends to Strickland's notion that a couple, presumably up in years, is attending the show and struggles with their confusion about it. The woman's attitude has the right aspirational endorsement the Fringe experience requires, while the man remains hostile.

I'll end by giving vent to my chagrin that Mauro gives this man a sorghum-thick Southern accent, which chimed uneasily for me with a similar vocal caricature in "Jacked!", where Sue Grizzell voiced Jack's mother as a braying hayseed.

I confess I'm avoiding Fringe shows that put forward either a sentimental or a satirical view of rural American life. Either tendency indicates that safe entertainment for likely Fringe patrons has to be at a far remove from how they live.  Thus we can either sentimentalize the rubes or make fun of them. I think it would be good to give the country-bumpkin impressions a rest. In 2014, we Americans must be uneasy about how much of traditional lifestyles and manners we have lost, so we make them either folksy or ridiculous in high and low art alike.

Plus, actors with rudimentary mimicry skills can always manage a cornpone accent. I'm thinking it's too bad that certain odious walks of life today — say, hedge-fund managers or wedding videographers — don't have distinctive accents. It's time to draw a bead on fresh easy targets.

Guest Blogger Susan Raccoli: The variety of Fringe is its greatest strength

Where else could you see a sentimental love story, a gay cabaret, and a magic show, all in one evening? That is the beauty of IndyFringe. You don't have to love everything you see, but you will definitely find shows to urge your friends to see, and some shows you may want to come back and see again. In the course of exploring your options, you might find some shows that did not meet your expectations, but that is OK, and it doesn't diminish the value of IndyFringe.

Chicken and Petunia dance into love.
"Petunia and Chicken" at the 800 Bloc Theatre, created by and starring husband and wife team Karim Muasher and Carrie Brown, is a love story based on the writings of Willa Cather.  They are part of Animal Engine Theatre Company in New York, and devised this show when they were engaged, so love was on their minds. With just a hat, a scarf, and two spoons, they manage to conjure up scenery and props, including farm machines. The entire scenario is always clear, including the weather, and the plot moves along to the inevitable happy ending. An occasional song helps enrich the story line.

Petunia and her parents emigrated from Bohemia and were promised rich farmland in Nebraska. Alas, the farmland is not as rich as promised, so life is tough. Petunia meets Chicken, a boy from a nearby farm who lives with his grandparents. He teaches her English. Naturally they fall in love, but eventually they part, and due to her father's death, Petunia takes over the farm, and sadly has to marry to survive. Chicken returns from his journeys and discovers she is married. But I won't reveal how the happy ending manages to evolve.

This unusual production has a sweet sentimentality without being cloying. The way isn't smooth for Petunia and her family, but they persevere.

Muasher and Brown cleverly move from character to character without confusion. Narration is not needed. Both mime and facial expression are integral to the action, which seems to authentically represent the time and place. Fortunately Fringe relies on small venues, so you can see everything that you need to see to follow the story.

Yes, the families have hardships and bad luck, but this play does not deal with large world problems, so is more like comfort food. You'll smile when you leave the theater, and reflect back on the unique methods that the actors utilize to convey everything you need to understand the story.

What a contrast to go from a sweet, old-fashioned love story to "Cabargay III: The Cabargayest" at
Cook Theatre featuring the Indianapolis Men's Chorus. (The entire chorus did not participate: just nine singers and several pianists.)  While this show offered no warning or age limit, I suspect that parents would not want to expose their young children to all the lyrics that were sung, or they would have plenty of questions to deal with at home.

Indianapolis Men's Chorus members did "Cabargay."
The singing was good, and that is what you expect at a cabaret show. Some of the singers had more  dramatic flair than others, but everyone onstage put across their songs effectively, and most of the singers were right on pitch. The pianists, including artistic director Greg Sanders, were excellent. They understood show tunes and had the chops for them.

We heard about 16 songs, many by Jason Robert Brown, an American musical theater composer who has won Tony awards for "Parade" and "The Bridges of Madison County."  One of my favorites was the song about being the last one chosen for teams in physical education. Many of us can identify with that distinction!

After the solos, all the singers gathered for the final number, "Hear My Song," a stirring ending to a fine show. Without a written program, I don't have the titles of the songs, except for "Moon River" from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and something from the album "Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall"— but the variety made for an attractive program. We heard a song about geeks, another about the confusion around feelings ("I feel bad that you feel bad . . ."), "Home Is Where You Are," "Times Like This" [At times like I sure could use a dog.] and the very attractive (and very well performed) "Everybody Wants to be Sondheim."

Diction was first-rate, so this is obviously a well-trained and disciplined group and a worthy addition to the Fringe festival.

Magician's patter almost swamped her magic.
And then, on to something completely different: "The Magic of Kayla Drescher" at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre. Now this was definitely a family show, though by 9 PM not many children (if any) attended.

Drescher, who is based in Las Vegas, has the gift of gab, a necessary requirement for successful magicians. I think the minutes of gab perhaps outnumber the minutes of magic tricks, but Drescher knows how to keep her show moving along. She mystified and astounded and amazed everyone, and in this small venue, nothing could be hidden from the audience.

Audience participation is a must at magic shows. Both her card trick, with the strangely reappearing five of hearts, and her torn dollar bill trick made us appreciate her expertise.

Originally from Wallingford, Connecticut, Drescher has been interested in magic from a very young age, despite studying math and science in college and earning a degree in an environmental field. She indicated that her parents have been supportive.

Untangling rubber bands, maneuvering scarves and lemons, using rings which clasp together and then unclasp, disappearing water — she knows how to manage the tricks of her trade. However, the long section with four audience men serving as possible dates for her with instructions contained in envelopes went on a little too long and did not represent magic at its best.

Like all successful show people, she appreciated both her audience and her willing participants, and let them know frequently.  Drescher entertains well and her show is fun, and that is what we hope for  at a magic show.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

IndyFringe combats weekday doldrums right out of the gate: the Monday night report

"All that matters is what you hold on to when you walk away," Jeremy Schaefer sums up at the end of "Not a Destination," his show at the Phoenix's Basile Theatre.

A good motto for smoothing over the effects of life's changes and disruptions, but I've always found that one of the benefits of good art is the powerful impact you feel in its presence. If you hold on only to a vague memory of its effect on you, that's enough. What matters most is that you felt something when you were experiencing the art. An amplified "now" is the real payoff, and it's immediate. I'm getting a lot of that at the 2014 IndyFringe Festival.

Schaefer's show is a well-written series of autobiographical episodes. His motto is, of course, a tight fit for each of us as we live our lives. Each of his episodes focuses on a personal journey taken as a young adult. All are grounded in memories of his solitary playtime, with its imaginary world, at his childhood family home. At the end of the show, the effect of his birth family's leaving that home is explored.

The title "Not a Destination" suggests that every stop is temporary along the way to somewhere else. There is intensity and sadness to spare in Schaefer's presentation, but also a detailed appetite for adventure. The overall effect is of a comedy, but without any straining after gag lines. Schaefer goes to Amsterdam and accidentally gets high, to Ecuador and learns about himself through volunteer tourism, to Peru and becomes ill while climbing toward Macchu Picchu, and to his ancestral hometown of Watertown, N.Y. He never abandons his inner Peter Pan, perhaps, but he realizes "I've outgrown my Neverland." His account of that process is rewarding to observe.

Terry Clark's journey back in time takes him out of himself entirely in "The Legend of Buffalo Bill" at the 800 Block Theatre.  Fully outfitted to look the part, Clark inhabits the frontier scout and adventurer of the Plains who parlayed his experience into a popular Wild West show here and abroad. Set in 1907 after a successful European tour, this intimate show has us listening to the boastful raconteur telling about his past and the colorful characters he knew.

To support the monologue, Clark sets up a series of photos on a tripod and occasionally goes to an upright piano to accompany himself in old songs, from "The Star-Spangled Banner" (not yet the national anthem) to Stephen Foster's facetious "If You've Only Got a Moustache." If you have a taste for old-school Americana, "The Legend of Buffalo Bill" is a must-see.

Clark portrays a larger-than-life personality convincingly in both song and story. A recurring motif is Cody's sales pitch for his autobiography — an effective reminder that the Wild West icon understood the American need to sell yourself. The tender plant of fame requires constant watering in order to thrive. With this show, Clark effectively brings his hero's marketing zest into the 21st century.

"The Secret Circus" opened Monday night to the anxiety of sound-system troubles at the Cook Theatre. Brent and Maya McCoy play a couple of appealing nerds with extraordinary acrobatic and juggling skills. They showed  resilience in dealing with the absence of a soundtrack, though it probably marred the illusion they were working on with the opening spy-caper spoof.

The McCoys' professionalism was tested Monday.
When they shed some of their laugh-provoking nerdiness and strip down to their "action suits," the fun really takes off. There is extensive audience participation (meaning that a couple of volunteers are extensively used, so your chances of being selected are slight). There is juggling with knives and Indian clubs. The latter trick climaxes with seven clubs flung and caught between the two of them. There are many sources of astonishment in this show, and the comical quips and sight gags keep coming along the way.

A fully functioning sound system from the start should make this show even more delightful if you attend one of the three remaining performances. A few suggestive remarks aside, "The Secret Circus" is family-friendly; the warning "ages 12 and up" may be well-advised, but I can't imagine any younger kids will be corrupted by this high-energy entertainment.

Guest Blogger Susan Raccoli: Two one-person shows and a funny comedy

One-person shows are popular at IndyFringe, probably because they are inexpensive, plus you don't have cast quarrels about interpretation. Vulnerability is a common theme, sometimes stated and sometimes unstated, but obvious.

Two one-person shows that I saw Monday night both dealt with vulnerability, and in the periphery, dancing.

"Exposure: Dancing with Vulnerability," at the Phoenix, written and presented by Diane Black, did not feature any startling revelations, and in fact Black admitted that she wondered why she wanted to do this, and her therapist wondered too. But after she signed up in February, she knew she would go through with it.

"The Actual Dance," at the 800 Bloc Theatre, written and performed by Samuel A. Simon, was all about the vulnerability a husband feels when his wife is diagnosed with breast cancer.

Program illustration for "Exposure"
Black's simple soft-shoe dance opened her show, with her dressed in a somewhat skimpy black outfit, with a black slip worn for modesty purposes. Used as a metaphor for the main exposure of her show, the dance is really not central to her theme, except for its symbol of her vulnerability for the real exposure: her life's story. She has not had dance or voice lessons, and yet was willing to try both in front of an audience. She claimed to be a terrible joke teller, but told two short jokes, both based on puns. She read two original poems, without claiming them to be great literature.

The real exposure of her vulnerability, in her mind, was revealing more intimate facts of her life story, so for this section she donned a black negligee (or robe) over the somewhat skimpy black outfit and slip. However,  she revealed a few intimate details even before donning the black robe. (I would not announce my date of birth and weight to an audience of strangers!)

Black's delivery was pretty straightforward, with a clear voice not interrupted by tears or laughter. Despite the lack of startling or shocking life events, she managed to make her story seem worth telling, though I'll admit I was waiting for some scandalous revelation. Instead, we learned that she was born in an elevator, is number five of eight children, has a bachelor's degree and a law degree, and has kept journals since age 14—159 volumes in all. We heard about her infatuation with Elvis Costello (English singer-songwriter). She has twin sons, born eight weeks prematurely in 1984, and  is on her third marriage. She works as a public defender.

And so we learn more and more facts, but Black also reveals her vulnerability in that she has had some rough times, and is not always self-confident.

To me, the most interesting section was her description of the issue involved in being a public defender: do you sympathize or not? She tried cutting off her feelings towards her unfortunate clients and their families, but this did not work. When she cut off her feelings at work, then she ended up also cutting them off in other sections of her life, and this was not a satisfying way to live. So she started sympathizing with her clients and their unhappy families, and admitted she cries  in her office and has some sleepless nights. More vulnerability!

OK, now Black knows she can do this: reveal her life's story on stage to total strangers. (Although when I spoke to her afterwards, it turns out we have a mutual friend.) Her story does not have a rip-roaring fascination, and yet, perhaps through her honest delivery, she manages to make it appealing.

On the other hand, Simon's story in "The Actual Dance" had built-in drama, some realistic scares, and a high degree of human pathos. Again, the dance served as a metaphor, and came out of his imagination: a grand, well-lit ballroom, with musicians who assemble when it is time for the "last dance" on earth.  The song is recognized only by the dancers, and  friends  they have known are gathered in the ballroom. This vision haunts him periodically as he deals with his wife Susan's diagnosis of breast cancer, which eventually is described as "stage three." That is not good.

We learn how he met Susan, and how much she means to him. When this cancer trouble started after 33 years of marriage, he felt the universe shift and change. Somehow he sensed that a dire outcome was inevitable. He had seen the "life force exit" from his mother, and knew he would have to take Susan on that journey.

He credits her with more stoicism than he was capable of then, and yet he did find the strength to be supportive. His vigils at the hospital were wrenching. The roller coaster changing of the diagnosis was always traumatic--good news turns to bad news. He desperately wanted things to turn out differently.

For anyone (like myself) who has lost a close relative to breast cancer, this presentation opened old wounds. I know about lymph nodes, mastectomies, third stage cancer, and tamoxifen. Simon was not sparing in medical details. Such honesty also elicited empathy for Simon and his trials. He had never lived alone, and dreaded that. The ballroom image with the musicians kept returning. The song he and Susan considered "theirs" was "Unchained Melody" from the movie "Ghosts."

Finally Susan had 16 weeks of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation. Like Black, Simon's delivery was straightforward, though with a melancholy tone. For breast cancer survivors and relatives of breast cancer victims, the searing effect of this accumulation of depressing details induced wet eyes.

We prepared mentally for the tragic ending to his tale. All of a sudden he announced: "Susan is alive and well and she'll be here for our 48th anniversary."

Talk about a surprise ending! This was joyful news, but a long time coming as the suspense built up in his doleful tale. More power to them. Not all cancer tales end up with such a happy ending, but even so, Simon's story will resonate with many people.

In between these two serious shows, I saw "The Death of Me" by Canadian playwright Norm Foster at Theatre on the Square Stage Two. With a simple, workable set, this 40-minute play delivers one laugh line after another by characters who are not really stereotypes, but exaggerated almost to the point of caricature. John Adderly, the dead man, is really too good, and shocks even the sardonic but witty Angel of Death.

Few dead people (at least to my knowledge) are given a second chance on earth outside of plays and movies, but John talks the Angel of Death into giving him a 12-hour reprieve, as long has he finds the girl who dumped him at the altar four years ago and tells her off.

John finds Cassie, the ex-fiancee, and she is not exactly warm and fuzzy. But who would be, working in a license renewal office with an incompetent staff and too many clients to serve? Cassie did not survive law school more than a month.

John also finds the doctor who pronounced him in good health two months before he died alone in his apartment of an aneurysm. Lacking a loving bedside manner, the doctor's favorite advice to patients is "Sick, schmick, get outta here."

With these characters, every situation highlights one improbable event after another but taken together, the playwright weaves a story line with rollicking humor made to seem realistic despite its obvious unreality.

When you find that a play is over too soon and you were wishing for more, you can only admire the playwright and tell your friends: "You have to see the Norm Foster play." I wish I could credit the actors, but printed programs are not always a part of Fringe. Go and reward them with your hearty applause! 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Weekend IndyFringe report (part two): A pass-fail guide to cultural literacy

Internet search engines have made it irresistible to bone up on areas of knowledge that are beclouded just when we may need them to be clear.  Some of the urge for clarity may be laid to vanity: If you found it out on Google, do you have to tell anyone how you got to seem so well-informed? Of course not. Go ahead and post that definitive status report! Write that e-mail reply that nails the issue conclusively and silences your Tea Party uncle for a few minutes!

It's been a point of honor with me to blog without Googling except when it seems necessary to get a quote or reference exact.  If I have a fact-related notion in my mind and it is just a little overcast with doubt, getting some Google reassurance within nanoseconds is acceptable without acknowledgment.

This is by way of preamble to reviews of three shows that may or may not nudge you to acquire some information beforehand. I'm here to say that whatever you know about gaming, Mary Todd Lincoln or "Alice in Wonderland" may be enough to enjoy three IndyFringe shows saturated in those cultural areas. Our cultural literacy doesn't come from only one place. And who indeed can lay claim to it all?

Johansen, Johansen, & Macy, Inc.
So first I'll take up "Jen Con," the latest production by the elegantly edgy ShadowApe Company. This play by Bennett Ayres delivers the goods in a way that his "A Useful Woman" fails to.  To have two substantial scripts realized by outstanding actors in the same Fringe Festival is a considerable achievement. But it's "Jen Con" that seems to have the requisite breathing room, while Ayres' examination of the curious figure of  Carry Nation, the Prohibitionist vandal of the turn of the last century, does not.

Part of "Woman"'s failure is the way it stuffs aspects of Nation's life into the Procrustean bed of the Fringe format, where no show can exceed 60 minutes.  "A Useful Woman" had me breaking my self-imposed rule before I wrote, Googling a bit to flesh out the historical substance that Ayres' show is so stingy with.

But my focus here is "Jen Con" (Phoenix Mainstage), and I know next to nothing about the culture behind the punned-upon reality of Gen Con, which has gathered hosts of costumed players Downtown in recent days, all of whom are devoted to playing online games for fun and profit.  It's a mysterious world, but all you need to know to enjoy "Jen Con" is some acquaintance with the toxic effect on a close relationship of any all-consuming hobby. Anyone ever subject to the spreading blur of a compelling fiction upon what passes for the real world will have a way into this show.

Rob Johansen plays Mitch, a mumbling obsessive whose devotion to his game makes him a selfish, cruel partner of the more grounded, long-suffering Con, his wife. Holed up in the laundry room and resenting his wife's attention to such mundane duties as doing the wash, Mitch soon drives Con into a fantasy world. There she meets Genevieve, Queen of Graymalkin, a character (or, as he insists, "emblem") in Mitch's game whose dynastic and romantic fortunes he's manipulating. The queen — Jennifer Johansen made more statuesque than ever, thanks to skillful costuming involving stilts — is being wooed in the worst way by Warwick  (also Rob Johansen, transformed in every respect).

The fulcrum of this scenario is  Con, given a witty, simpatico characterization by Constance Macy. Con ("of Greenwood," the queen dubs her) is bewildered both by the difficult reality she is used to and the unsettling one that invades  her from the gaming world, with its faux-medievalism and conflicts as outsized and idiosyncratic as its rhetoric. The women's shift from mutual hostility and suspicion to empowering friendship is genuinely heroic and touching despite the rich cultural caricature on which Ayres' play depends.

Typical of ShadowApe's elegant production values, sound, costumes and lighting are at the same expert level as the acting.

MaryAnne Mathews as Mrs. Lincoln
I was equipped with more knowledge about Mary Todd Lincoln than I thought when I went on Saturday to "Mrs. President: A Visit With Mary Todd Lincoln" (Phoenix Basile Theatre).  MaryAnne Mathews researched and wrote this deft overview of the most famous presidential widow. And she persuasively embodies the possibly manic-depressive former Kentucky belle as she welcomes visitors to the parlor of her sister's home in Springfield, Ill., in 1882, her final year.  Matthews conveys Mrs. Lincoln's charm and eccentricity, her jostling happy and sad memories of her marriage, and her worries about reputation and the bills she can't keep up with on a less than generous federal pension.

The show balances Mrs. Lincoln's justified resentment and injured self-esteem with the possibility that she was indeed mentally ill and thus subject to the era's unenlightened treatment, whether or not she deserved what her surviving son, Robert, dealt out to her. Mathews makes deft use of plenty of historical material, and I learned a lot on top of what little knowledge I brought with me. More important, I was welcomed convincingly into the private world of a public figure.

NoExit Performance has a complex, creative take on the cultural heritage it deals with, so my anticipation of its "Alice vs. Wonderland" (Cook Theatre) ran high.  But I felt as blocked and frustrated as Lewis Carroll's Alice by the barriers put up to full understanding by the show's technical wizardry.

To have the dialogue prerecorded and projected at the audience allowed for captivating, dreamlike stylization of lip-synching and angular gestures required of Alice and the long-familiar denizens of Wonderland.  But it meant that clarity was sacrificed.  It reached the nadir when the Queen of Heart's long speech was buried in the sound mix by static-like noise.

More crucially, the gimmick to have audience members help make some of Alice's choices for her via iPhone was marred by technical glitches; after typing in the website on my server and adding the numerical password provided, I couldn't get past  the "Submit" button. Others seemed to be having trouble, too. Compounding the problem: whenever the White Rabbit bounded into the audience to field suggestions and offer help, none of what he said could be heard. It was tough feeling much of the time as clueless as the Dormouse at the Mad Hatter's tea party.

If you know your "Alice in Wonderland," however, you will enjoy visually (and somewhat aurally) NoExit's fresh interpretation of several major episodes — the Duchess and her fondness for pepper, the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, the Queen of Hearts' flamingo-wielding croquet game. The pixelated  props and costumes were a delight, and the enduring whimsy of life down the rabbit hole did not get wholly snuffed out by technical shortcomings.

Weekend IndyFringe report (part one): joyful self-liberation vs. kicking against the pricks

Three shows I saw this weekend reminded me of the hurts we inflict on ourselves as we search for who we really are. To be defined by others — perhaps even from birth, and certainly later by social constructs —  is for many people unsustainable. The niceties have to be overthrown.

For the men of Wabash College, that may mean the behavioral constraints that define "gentleman" in traditional terms. For a young, passionate libertarian, the crisis may take the form of a night in jail or selection as a delegate to a Republican convention. For the young of both sexes in a sexualized culture, it may be a brutally obscene attempt to reconcile their desires with an identity they can claim comfortably as their own.

Such conflicts, serious as they are, generate much of the anarchic quality of comedy, including a strain of blasphemy that has ancient roots.  I have an LP called "A Medieval Christmas" that ends with a realization of French music from the Feast of Fools. The celebrants lead into church an ass, whose imitated hee-haws replace "Amen" in the refrain of a hymn called "Orientis partibus."

Though the Church tolerated no outright sacrilegiousness, crude revels saucily linked to the inhibitions of Christian culture remain with us in New Year's and  pre-Lenten celebrations. In some countries today, such hearty partying provides thousands with an elaborate, scheduled release from everyday life. Hierarchies are upset, decorum is overthrown, self-rule gives way to misrule.

A considerable part of IndyFringe is a Feast of Fools. As a visitor, you have to choose carefully if you don't want your world to be turned upside down—  if you don't want your mind and heart mooned. Indecency is proposed as a tool to prime the engine of enlightenment. Your safety is not guaranteed. We are kicking against the pricks, as the Bible says, and if we're lucky, it hurts so good.

Do we have too much of this in our culture today? Perhaps, but the release from life's inevitable restraints is always tempting. As the conductus introducing "Orientis partibus" says (from the translation in the LP booklet): "Away, today, with jealousies, away with all grief; those who keep the ass's feast seek happiness."

My first exhibit in the #fringe14's  asinaria festa is "Ants," a flowing set of sketches written by Sharla Steiman and performed by the Arden Theatre Union. With unflagging gusto, four young men and women inhabit scenarios of seduction and power. Confusion and clearheadedness are surprisingly not-so-strange bedfellows.

Steiman presents intimacy as inevitably fraught with the friction of conflicting desires. If you ride in someone's car with them, what else might you be prepared to do? Where do the boundaries come from? What stands in the way of your freedom is a shape-shifter — is it conscience, cowardice, or convention?

Directed by Ty Stover and Jaddy Ciucci, the show throws banal vulgarities around as well as insightful engagement with the universal search for personal meaning. "Why I am here is to be free," one character plaintively declares. The show's governing image explains the title: An ant walking along a Moebius strip travels on both the outside and inside, while remaining on the same surface, Steiman has a character point out. External pressures and internal forces combine somehow to direct each of us on one journey. No wonder we struggle so to determine which is which.

Since freedom is an obsession for those who identify politically as libertarians, Phillip Low's "Indefinite Articles: A Libertarian Rage" (ComedySportz Theatre) fires up his verbal kiln to white heat.  After launching his show with an odd folktale with the likely moral that curious people endanger themselves, Low becomes defensive. He won't stop asking questions, and he welcomes confirmation of his skepticism from any quarter — whether from corporate Republicans or corporate Democrats, or even from a tense night in jail on an unspecified charge.

The libertarian cry: 'Power to the person!'
The torrential set-piece of "Indefinite Articles" is a bizarre sexual fantasy involving Sarah Palin, in which the celebrity politician is turned on by Low's rapid quotation of lumpy economic theorizing from the likes of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Liberation through extreme tastelessness may be Low's most powerful self-help prescription.

His precursor in this mode is Paul Krassner of "The Realist," a scurvy periodical that yoked graphic obscenity and political satire most memorably in a post-assassination scenario that had Lyndon B. Johnson humping (as we used to say) the exit wound in JFK's neck on Air Force One. The image was so appalling at the time that some Mainstream Media commentator (I forget who) provided the best inadvertent humor of the era by solemnly informing the public: "The incident, of course, never happened." I love that sentence, especially the pursed-lips placement of the phrase "of course."

Speaking of the Sixties — ah, "fair seed-time had my soul" — how little today's potty-mouth entertainers may realize what they owe to that era's most controversial comedian. George Carlin was a wuss in comparison. "Lenny Bruce died for your sins," I'm tempted to mutter as I recall this troubled genius running afoul of the law with merely an f-bomb or two. Nowadays it's carpet bombing.

The lads in "The 10 Simple Rules to Become a Gentleman" at the 800 Bloc Theatre parody what are presumably the lofty expectations of students at Indiana's all-male Wabash College. It's a great Feast of Fools takedown of behavioral codes. The show is violent, sentimental, scabrous, and obscene. In other words, good frat-house fun.  There may be an underlying pathos,  insofar as these brawling, boozing buddies are hoping for an antidote to testosterone poisoning — and failing to find it. Their grappling and groping also flirts with homoeroticism. But that's another Gentleman Callers show, perhaps.

A gentleman's rulebook like no other
Though the spirit of the show is rigorously anti-introspective, the embryonic gentlemen act out the 10 rules in a flailing search for authenticity almost as heart-piercing as that of their contemporaries in "Ants." A gentleman "never swears gratuitously," one rule says, but is free to ungratuitously deconstruct a Shakespeare sonnet in order to salaciously flatter a young lady. As for the rule that a gentleman "never gets embarrassed," the ironclad self-regard of these young men makes them nearly immune from that.

In fact, all three of these shows carry around with them a kind of self-righteousness that keeps them from being wholly endearing. You don't thumb your nose while blushing, after all. And you don't flaunt your freedom and specialness noisily if you're inclined to ruminate. Case in point, again rooted in the 1960s: On the old Dick Cavett Show one night, Mort Sahl, a self-described "ex-nightclub comedian," was becoming tedious talking about the dearth of "intellectual actresses" in New York theater.

Cavett asked his other guest, the drama critic John Simon, what he thought of that assessment, which jawdroppingly combines sexism and snobbery. "I would imagine there are as many intellectual actresses," Simon replied, setting up the perfect squelch, "as there are intellectual ex-nightclub comedians." Judging from the subsequently tense atmosphere on the live broadcast, the host evidently had to patch together an armed truce during a well-timed commercial break.

Nothing gets a comedian to be serious faster than having his ego deflated. By the same token, Fringe performers must realize they're courting that possibility by treading the boards at this glorious Feast of Fools. And any one of us could be growing ass's ears as well. We're all just seeking happiness, aren't we?

Guest blogger Susan Raccoli: Fringe confusion resolved.

Warning to IndyFringe fans: Study your program book carefully and thoroughly examine the times listed for each performance.

There I was on Sunday, waiting to enter the IndyFringe Basile Theatre and be charmed by the "Magic of Kayla Drescher." As if to get me even more "fired up," a street performer suddenly appeared on St. Clair Street and juggled with fire— three at once, behind his back, over his head, around and around in truly amazing maneuvers. Finally the theater opened and the crowd entered for the 3 PM show, and I was really ready for more magic.

All of a sudden I discovered that I would not see Kayla Drescher's magic show but instead Ben Asaykwee in "My name is _________." (The magic show was at 7:30 and not 3 PM!)

However, I still saw some magic in the way Asaykwee honestly portrayed troubled veterans, and brought their  problems, separate from what they endured as veterans, to life. Asaykwee became each veteran in turn, each with a different story, and each requiring more compassion and kindness than veterans often encounter.

With the book and music by Asaykwee, this show as a benefit for the VA Medical Center Homeless Domiciluary Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program, which helps veterans get back on their feet. He notes that 22 U.S. Veterans commit suicide a day. This should not happen.

Asaykwee wants us to see these veterans as more than veterans; they are people with lives outside of their military service, but their service often haunts them and prevents them from assuming a normal life as soon as they return home. They must deal with the same sort of difficulties that many people deal with: broken love affairs, death, drug addiction, dysfunctional families. But given their past, comfortable solutions are not easy to find, and help is just not always available.

Even the Declaration of Independence is ignored for veterans. Asaykwee quotes "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" except that veterans don't always get the health care they need, or a place to sleep. When they come back from the war, they are expected to try harder. They have learned to follow orders in the military and stay strong and clean to ensure our freedom. But as one of Awaykwee's characters laments: "Honor is a shallow sentiment." Being presented with a flag on Veteran's Day doesn't make up for the lack of modern, top-quality health care and the time needed to adjust back into society.

The style is straightforward without unnecessary histrionics, with the emphasis on the trials that each veteran faces when he/she returns to society. Joining the military means seeing the atrocities of war. A few weeks in rehabilitation cannot erase all that has been seen and felt.  Coming home means facing problems that weren't solved before going to war, and are harder to deal with after enduring the trauma of war.

One of the veterans Asaykwee portrays is a lesbian, and her mother did not approve of this life style, and wanted to prevent her from seeing her sister Jessica, whom she loved despite her autism. She admitted that she joined the army to get away from all this.

Directed by Lauren Briggeman, the show is augmented by some stark music. Asaykwee wants us to see veterans as more than just drug addicts, or people holding a sign asking for help. Veterans are people. The show is not without humorous lines, but the total impression is that something is wrong in our country if veterans cannot get the help they need after they have done so much. Asaykwee's production is a well-crafted and compelling plea for help. I hope he is successful in alerting people to this stain on our system, which sends young people to war and does not care for them properly when they return.

A different kind of magic happens in "Different Trains Electric Counterpoint" at the Phoenix Main Stage: the magic of sudden attraction between a boy and girl entitled "I Saw The Girl of My Dreams On The Subway Tonight." Somehow this reminded me of Judy Garland's "The Trolley Song" from the 1944 film "Meet Me in St. Louis." The song describes an accidental meeting between a boy and girl, and as the lyrics exclaim: "I went to lose a jolly/Hour on the Trolley/ And lost my heart instead."

In this show, the boy initiates the meeting, sending a note via a balloon. The choreography by Tommy Lewey tells the story. The style captures the carefree excitement of young people in the throes of a new romance. Naturally everything can't go smoothly so the girl loses her phone at one point, which facilitates the communication with the boy. But the phone is found, eventually a wedding ensues, and a child is born.  The couple fight, the baby eventually graduates, but then the woman wants to move out, despite the man's urgent and desperate appeals.  For a time he flirts with other women, but nothing works. At last she returns, and they grow older and wiser together. The daughter has a baby, but then the cycle of life is sadly completed and the woman dies.

The man thinks through all that has happened in his life and relives the events of the relationship including the meeting on the train. All in all, an inviting story, with the choreography underlining the events and emotions quite vividly.

The second segment, "Different Trains," is more somber, with choreography by Melli Hoppe and  music by Steve Reich. His minimalist, repetitive style fits perfectly the repetitive rumble of the train, and this also underlines the tragic destiny that trains were a part of during the Holocaust: transporting people in cattle cars. Massive crowd scenes hint at the suffering. All this is shown on the screen, as the dancers enact small parts of the tragedy that hit the world when Hitler came to power. Hitler too is shown briefly on the screen to help set the context.

We don't like to think of trains as engines of death and suffering, but that is what they became during World War II. Meanwhile, the dancers pack their suitcases and partially undress, representing the loss of humanity forced upon so many people. We hear sirens and see swastikas. We sense the terror and struggles. At one point the dancers are walking silhouettes across the screen, representing the dehumanizing that took place.

Finally the war ends, the survivors reclaim their clothes, and the dancing is more angular with swooping and running movements, along with other joyful gestures.

They arrive in New York, are welcomed by the Statue of Liberty. and seem hopeful about their future.

A lot of emotion and events is condensed into this presentation, with the moving train as the link to the momentum of history. The images on the screen alone, however, would not have told the story as convincingly without the help of the five dancers. Dance can convey both emotion and plot activity, and without making anything too complicated, the movement enhanced the conception of this work. The dancers worked very well together and seemed firmly committed to this project.