Thursday, August 27, 2015

Silence, please! The performance art of Marianne Moore, or poetry as theater's secret agent and the world's caretaker

Eyes on the prize: A pangolin subject to out-of-control harvesting
The toll mankind exacts on wildlife throughout the world took a poignant turn for me when I listened to NPR's Aug. 18 report on the threat to the pangolin, a compact anteater that I'm guessing few people have heard of. The report calls it the most trafficked mammal in the world, despite its obscurity and low profile in conversations about exploitation and extinction.

I would have been among many American listeners unfamiliar with the beast had I not known one of Marianne Moore's inimitable animal poems, "The Pangolin." I went back to this poem as I reconnected with the poet's severely truncated version of "Poetry" in order to make a point about my response to Phoenix Theatre's current show, "Silence! The Musical."

Considering whether to lasso "The Pangolin" into that post, I was stopped by my internal editor, who barked: "Wait a minute! You're reviewing 'Silence!' Please tend to business."  But there is an odd relevance of both Moore poems to the themes often obscenely pursued in "Silence! The Musical." That's what I plan to probe here.

Near total annihilation in habitats elsewhere, the pangolin in Africa is under dire threat, spurred by what some might defend as a cultural norm that our Western values should not disturb. I will disturb it here.

To quote the NPR report: "The animal has long been prized for its scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. But  Jonathan Baillie, a pangolin specialist at the International Union for Conservation of Nature in London. says nowadays pangolin meat is considered a luxury item by a growing middle class in Vietnam and China. 'We're seeing that the body is actually being eaten as some sort of celebration when a business deal is done,' he says. 'The price can go up to many hundreds of dollars per kilo.'"

It may be harsh to find this sort of heedless desire akin to the psychopathology that drives some people to the extremes of Hannibal Lecter, famished for human flesh, and Buffalo Bill, who has human skin in the game, in the Phoenix show. But once the world is conceived as being for our use and pleasure, there's no stopping us. And we tend to individualize that in the worst way.

There is no end to human vanity and greed, qualities for which money exists in part to assign costs to. From time immemorial, East and West, many celebrations have been accompanied by wasteful feasting. When we push ourselves back from that groaning board, the perspective changes: "To explain grace requires / a curious hand," Miss Moore notes in "The Pangolin." This insight is nestled amid praise of the pangolin's fitness for its unspectacular existence, with its artichoke-like armor proof against its food's resistance and its predators' designs. The current headlong harvest by the worst of all predators is something else.

Miss Moore always had that steady, curious hand.  Her animal poems are exact in description and oblique, even coy, in extolling her subjects. To put a stamp of unique performance upon these tributes, many of her poems are set in unconventional line lengths and with a controlled, sinuous variety of indentations (the forced adherence to the left-hand margin you will find in versions of "The Pangolin" online makes as much sense as stressing the downbeats in a Debussy prelude).

"The Pangolin" is gloriously discursive, ending in a meditation that blurs the line between this charming, dogged animal and that king of the hill, mankind, about whom Miss Moore is richly ambivalent. An odd effect of reading such a poem is that you become super-aware of a human sensibility shaping every phrase, and yet somehow the animal itself seems to emerge intact and unexploited for your inspection and admiration.

Marianne Moore: Showing the deepest feeling.
In Moore, culture and nature are often intertwined: In "The Elephant," for example, the poet writes: "As loss could not ever alter Socrates'/ tranquillity, equanimity's contrived // by the elephant. With the Socrates of animals as with Sophocles the Bee, on whose / tombstone a hive was incised, sweetness tinctures / his gravity."

The dust jacket of my "Complete Poems of Marianne Moore" carries praise from fellow poets as diverse as T.S. Eliot (his eye ever turned toward eternity) and John Ashbery (relentlessly focused on this world of time and change). Ashbery's kudos runs thus: "More than any modern poet, she gives us the feeling that life is softly exploding around us, within easy reach."

Such energy occupies a different universe from the noisy explosions  — and ejaculations —  in "Silence!: The Musical." The creators' exclamation point hypercharges the irony of that abbreviated version of the movie title. The show's gravity is peculiarly hard to access, and no sweetness tinctures it.

Miss Moore had her "Silence," too, it must be pointed out. She devotes the short poem of that title mainly to recalling her father's wisdom, ending with these lines:

"The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint."
Nor was he insincere in saying, "Make my house your inn."
Inns are not residences.

As we continue to hack away at the health and viability of other species, we ought to consider the earth as our inn. Regarded solely as our residence, how can the earth help being ours to do whatever we want to with pangolins, elephants, other people, and species that are disappearing faster than we can count them?

It's instructive to encounter the lack of restraint that boils over in "Silence!: The Musical," but we don't want to live there, do we? Whoever or whatever you may want to consider our host on earth, it seems healthier to have the good manners and restraint of a guest. The pangolin might then thrive in its own modest way, along with earth's other guests.

Continuing to exercise what we deem to be the prerogatives of residence is frightening to contemplate. The rest — to quote the most quotable literary character ever — is silence.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Gag reflex: Musical comedy from a world untuned in Phoenix Theatre's "Silence! The Musical"

The queasiness at the heart of "The Silence of the Lambs," the much-laureled 1991 film starring
Bleat treat: The lambs raise their voices
Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, gets dialed up beyond retching in "Silence! The Musical," a jolly interpretation of an imprisoned cannibal's rapport with an ambitious FBI agent in search of an even more heinous mass killer.

The Off-Broadway hit has been freshly interpreted by the Phoenix Theatre to end its 2014-15 season in the intimate basement confines of the Basile Stage. As seen Sunday at the end of its second weekend, the all-out musical thriller could hardly have been carried off with more gusto.

The cast pins our ears back and props our eyes open (like Alex's in "A Clockwork Orange") with its adroitness and fervor. This goes from the intrusive Lambs — generally grouped in buoyant and nimble choruses reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan — through the dogged law-enforcement crowd to the keenly portrayed, psychopathic blood brothers Hannibal Lecter (Paul David Nicely) and Buffalo Bill (Scot Greenwell).
Phoenix's Lecter never lacks focus.
The text that "Silence! The Musical" might be said to preach upon lies no further off than the opening speech of "Twelfth Night," which many readers of this blog will have seen at the beginning of the month in Heartland Actors' Repertory Theater's production. "If music be the food of love, play on," intones the self-involved Duke Orsino. "Give me excess of it, that surfeiting / The appetite may sicken and so die."

Music feeds the grossest kinds of love in "Silence!" Others must be sacrificed to the voracious, just as the lambs in Clarice's childhood memory had to be. Surfeiting may sicken the appetite of most of us, but not Lecter and Buffalo Bill. The show's creators — Hunter Bell (book) and Jon and Al Kaplan (songs) — have attempted to make excess a comfort food that's digestible only in discomfort, including laughter.

Buffalo Bill wants to be his own rough trade.
To present the show competently requires strong heads, hearts and stomachs, working in organic concert. Bryan Fonseca brings his usual flair to the directing job, smoothly assisted by choreographer Kenny Shepard. Musical director Jay Schwandt seemed flawless Sunday at the electric piano in the chameleon accompaniment.

Nothing detracted from the gut-wrenching funny business of giving offense. So I mean it as a compliment when I say "Silence!" is the most disgusting show I've ever seen at the Phoenix.

That is not to dismiss it.  What we call bad taste is no counterfeit coin. It maintains its value, for it helps us keep a purchase on our limits.  When bad taste comes from the right mint, you can bite it like a peasant trader without leaving tooth marks. If we prefer to invest in good taste, it makes sense, as with more tangible investments, to diversify somewhat. In one corner of our portfolio should be, for example, two of "Silence!"'s ickiest songs:  Buffalo Bill's fantasy of violent self-buggery and Hannibal Lecter's love song (reprised, even!) outlining an olfactory fantasy about Clarice.

The most fastidious American poet of the 20th century, Marianne Moore, notoriously dismembered one of her most quoted poems in her "definitive edition," offering readers a bleeding chunk of the much-anthologized "Poetry." More compact, the poem became more sententious: "I, too, dislike it. Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt of it, one discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine." That's the whole thing, all she wanted to say finally about poetry itself.

And it's close to my reaction to "Silence!" But I did discover in it, I must admit, a place for the genuine. In one of the excised lines of the full-length "Poetry," Miss Moore touted the genre's ability to "present for inspection imaginary gardens with real toads in them." This show certainly qualifies: The garden is luxuriant and well-tended, though the toads are damned ugly.

The collective gusto I praised above is a word derived from the Latin for "taste," which is rooted in an older word meaning "to choose." Though the word itself has a bad odor today, discrimination lies at the basis of taste. Nausea thus becomes one of the varieties of aesthetic experience. When Chelsey Stauffer's excellent Clarice was about to ralph a couple of times in the performance I saw, I was with her all the way — and even more often.

Another of the phrases Miss Moore removed from her original may be apt here in conclusion. Among the things "we do not admire (because) we do not understand," the poet points out, is "the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea."

Sunday, August 23, 2015

My IndyFringe wrap-up: A grab-bag of shows seen late in the run

The strong, beating heart of the IndyFringe Festival is the eternal, thumping appeal of comedy, sometimes just abrasive enough to make us unembarrassed by hints of uplift and happy endings.

In cobbling together a selection of shows, I had to take into account the need to check in with new productions by Indianapolis Opera and Phoenix Theatre while shrugging off my late arrival (due to out-of-state travel) at the festival after the crucial opening weekend.

Jeremy Schaefer detects fishiness in the workaday world.
But funny things have happened on the way to this forum, though I'm the only one holding forth on it.  Two examples of highly accomplished comedy spun out along the narrative threads characteristic of storytellers were "Working Titles"  and "Hannibal: Liar!" Both shows — the former by Jeremy Schaefer presented at ComedySportz and the latter Chris Hannibal's blend of comical high spirits and amazing magic on the Indy Eleven Stage — privileged memory, family, perseverance, and the kind of personal triumphs that help, rather than hurt, others.

Schaefer gave vignettes from his job history — lifeguard, swim teacher, Christmas elf, diversity workshop assistant, among the line items — that sharpened his perceptiveness about other people. Without egotistical display, thanks to lightly applied self-deprecation, Schaefer made the stories riveting as well as amusing.

Gaining useful perspectives on one's place in the work world, he demonstrated, is of enduring benefit. In our security-mad society, Schaefer learned this in attempting to market a non-profit's lame show about protecting kids from online predators and finding that a police officer's startling bluntness was far more effective. Without privileging his position as a professional storyteller, Schaefer displayed the usefulness of knowing your limits and playing to your strengths as you find your way in life.

Nothing about cards, stories and autographed dollar bills escapes Hannibal.
"Hannibal: Liar!" proceeded from childhood memories, just as Schaefer had in describing his relationship to work through helping his father with household chores. Hannibal learned his craft of weaving spells through stories and sleight-of-hand from his grandfather. His show relied more on stories than trickery,  though there was a continual presentation of amazing feats, chiefly involving a pack of cards. His knowledge of them permitted no shuffling, except of the deck itself.

Hannibal has developed an uncanny ability to play to an audience, to elicit shouted challenges from them that he knows he can handle. Whose attention has ever wandered at a magic show? Magicians tend to attract intense scrutiny (we all think we can penetrate their secrets). This rotund prestidigitator knows how to toy with it, then deliver fresh surprises, better than most. The only discordant note was his disproportionate put-down of a woman who offered a ribald remark I thought was in the spirit of suggestive banter the performer had earlier instigated; Hannibal took her for a heckler, and verbally smacked her.

The proof is in the putting on: "Scientist Turned Comedian."
Low-key delivery, along with a lack of warm fuzzies, served "Scientist Turned Comedian" well. Tim Lee feels no need to court an audience's sympathy. He engages its mind, partly through satirical variations on common types of graphs. With Power Point precision, Lee exposed the realities of lying's relationship to success on the job, party behavior, drinking (but I repeat myself), and family interaction. It mocks the way we like to process secure knowledge so it reinforces what we know intuitively. It's confirmation bias wearing a jester's cap.

His insights were unfailingly amusing, and if most of us don't really understand science, pseudo-science pervaded by cleverness goes over well. His "announcer's voice" (his description) sometimes skirted inaudibility, however; and it was odd in an act as far from slob appeal as possible to note that Lee's suit jacket was partly tucked into his waistband near the right vent in back.

The sexy solon: Identity questions complicate staying on message
Performers should pay attention to how they look before going onstage.  Does their appearance reinforce the kind of show they are setting before the public? In "I'm Not Gay," the actor playing the part of George, a politician's assistant, wore a suit that was too small, the center jacket button straining to hold. Politicians characteristically like to keep up appearances, and their staffs follow suit (pun unavoidable). Matthew Barron's four-character play relies on that well-established fact. A conservative state senator, long married and with two grown sons, has been linked to a publicized liaison with a young man. The officeholder's image is in tatters.

The satirical thrust of the story is tentatively applied. Barron has other goals: He is working toward the senator's reconciliation with those close to him. The politician mostly sticks with the denial summed up in the play's title; by the end, he has reaffirmed his love for both his wife and his gay staffer by incorporating inclusiveness in his public speeches.

Barron exposes some of the costs of hypocrisy in lives that demand adhering to mainstream ideas of probity and uprightness. But to me he achieves a soft landing for the central character too easily. Performances by the four actors were earnest, and something beyond that in the case of the hearty gay-bar proprietor.

"I said of laughter, it is mad" was a rare quotation from the Bible (Ecclesiastes) to be found in the old Mad Magazine. The editors capitalized "mad," of course, and as a boy, much of my immature sense of humor was fed by my Mad subscription. Manic goofiness has left its mark on me, which made me fairly tolerant of the frantic fun pervading "Speedthru," a two-character farce with a flimsy set-up.

Desperation drives a pair of unprepared thespians in ETC production
Two actors with bit parts in a play they are barely familiar with are forced to rehearse the whole piece in the absence of the rest of the cast. They don't know what's what: It's Eclectic Pond writer Jeremy Grimmer's insanely ADHD version of Christopher Durang's "The Actor's Nightmare,"  which is based on everybody's nightmare of being unprepared for a task you are expected to undertake right away and well.

The premise here is that the actors' company's board of directors is dropping in to get a look at the drama, "The Importance of Being Jeff." For some reason, the bit players — at first almost at ease running through their fight scene in the last act — feel duty-bound to render as much of the play as they can remember. It's as if their careers will be over if they don't get the whole clumsy drama as right as possible.

As a result, there is scarcely a let-up in the words and action they jam together in order to approximate a work that apparently is a classic, but is both (a) set in the 1860s and (b) features "thees" and "thous" in the dialogue — among other incongruities. The ETC regulars who manage to keep the madness under artistic control could hardly be more invested in this nonsense, which went on about 15 minutes too long. Still, this sort of exercise in rapidfire teamwork is undeniably in the true IndyFringe spirit. The sun also rises, and Ecclesiastes has it right, as usual.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Indianapolis Opera resumes its production history with "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat"

Opera throws more obstacles into the paths of true identity and genuine love than you can shake a selfie stick at.

Moment of truth: Dr. P. grabs wife's head when it's time to go.
But no obstacle is more bizarre than the degenerative brain disease suffered by the main character in "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," Michael Nyman's one-act piece drawn from the title true story by neurologist Oliver Sacks in his best-selling book. It's the story of an accomplished artist, identified only as Dr. P.  He's primarily a singer and voice teacher but also an accomplished painter, suffering from a puzzling, persistent mental tarnish darkening his golden years.

Indianapolis Opera Friday night resumed its interrupted and imperiled course into the 21st century at the Schrott Center for the Arts at Butler University. It was the first of three performances, designed and directed by GLMMR (Giving Light Motion + Memory + Relevance), a performance-art company based in Brooklyn, N.Y. A string ensemble (including piano and harp) from the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra was in the pit; its music director, Matthew Kraemer, conducted.

Nyman invented the term "minimalism," but his style (as pointed out by IO general director Kevin Patterson in a pre-performance talk) is not in the strict, extended style associated with Philip Glass. The repetitive structures tend to be briefer and change more often. In "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,"  this balance — shifting patterns of phrases, mostly consonant, with lots of textural variety — suits the nature of the action well. Dr. P. lives in a cubist world, sliding between planes in which cognition consists of identifying selected markers of objects and people, rather than the whole object or person.

Dissonance in the modern era has so often represented distorted visions of reality that it's almost a shock to realize that you can manipulate conventional tonality and go through the looking-glass just as convincingly. (David Del Tredici demonstrated that at length in his Straussian "Alice" pieces.) The comedy in "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" is more saturated with pathos, however.

The relative simplicity of the musical language matches the almost static dramatic momentum of the work. The opera is closely wedded to the growing realization by Dr. S. (representing Sacks) of the dimensions of Dr. P.'s illness.

Treatment, sadly amounting to little more than management, has already been put in place by his wife. She does her best to keep her husband's day orderly so that he can use a childlike song to accompany each activity. If there's conflict in "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," it's mainly focused on Mrs. P., whose resistance to the growing diagnosis becomes fierce when Dr. S refuses to take the fragmentation and incoherence of her husband's recent paintings for artistic development.

Friday's performance was distinguished by consistently fine singing from tenor Brian Joyce (Dr. S.), bass Tony Dillon (Dr. P.), and soprano Emily Pulley (Mrs. P.). In his lower range, Dillon was sometimes covered by the orchestra, but for the most part he and his colleagues projected their voices clearly and expressively over the accompaniment. The acting style of all three was appropriately  understated, almost out of an oratorio bag.

Given that "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" places what happens almost exclusively in the province of Dr. P.'s mind, a lot of gestural or vocal stress would not have seemed apropos. Clear, well-designed projections, both slide and film, take care of that dimension, externalizing it as the patient struggles to make it cohere.

At the very end, when the couple settles into a motionless embrace after the doctor leaves their apartment, musical symbols — white on black — swirl around them. There could be no better representation of Dr. S.'s final assessment of the case. In Sacks' words from the book: "What I would prescribe, in a case such as yours, is a life which consists entirely of music. Music has been the center, now make it the whole, of your life."

The edge-to-edge tapestry of Nyman's music fulfills that prescription, and this production is conscientious in displaying its rationale and the compassion behind it.

[Photo by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]

Friday, August 21, 2015

Dance Kaleidoscope again makes an indelible impression at IndyFringe

One of the hottest tickets at the IndyFringe Festival for several years has been the annual hourlong show by Dance Kaleidoscope, the city's durable contemporary-dance troupe.

For a couple of years, the program has focused on new works by DK dancers rather than samples from its repertoire. Artistic director David Hochoy displays both graciousness and wise encouragement in turning over to his member colleagues this part of the company's outreach.

The show I saw Thursday evening brimmed with lyricism, exuberance, and simple truths. Titled "New/Next/Now," the production consisted of seven works, all introduced by their creators or designated spokespersons (Hochoy and DK rehearsal director Liberty Harris).

Choreography necessarily bridges abstract and dramatic expression. All the pieces in "New/Next/Now" reflect their creators' idealism and desire to either transcend or resolve conflicts through the language of movement. The collaborative spirit is intense and sustained in this show. The technical demands are often huge, but they are met within a context that privileges communication.

Justin Sears-Watson's whiz-bang finale was untypical of the show but perfectly placed. Using eight dancers in "Speak Easy," Sears-Watson outfits his dancers in insouciant partying clothes and sets them spinning, jumping, twitching, and soaring to the explosive music of the Buddy Rich big band.
A slow, sensuous middle section makes for a satisfying tripartite structure in which joie de vivre can be displayed in full spectrum. Though the piece is an ensemble triumph, its  saucy energy — with facial and physical expression fully integrated — can be summed up in the performance of Jillian Godwin.

Earlier, Godwin introduced her piece, "Flashes of Life," with words about space — both close and far — and her interest in how people relate to it. The work for five dancers involved lots of space on and near the floor. There was a sense of struggle, slow and difficult, as if people have to fight isolation and dispersion in order to form alliances.  There were helping gestures, sometimes tentative, moving toward  recognition that we're all entitled to occupy space, to move into and claim our full stature.

This kind of working through uncertainty was central to Timothy June's "Origin of Love," which bases modern views of identity on the Platonic notion that human beings move toward love to complete their sense of self. Finding a soul mate is an essential life project subject to interruption, distraction, and false choices. Choreographed for three couples, the bonds shift in the course of the work, set to the sublime "Tallis Fantasia" of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Rejection of unsatisfactory alliances is gently handled, because June is focused on the nobility of this universal search for completion and fulfillment. The work remains true to the philosopher's fanciful concept.

A similar idealism pervades other pieces, such as the opener, in which creator Stuart Coleman, replacing an injured Brandon Comer, partnered Mariel Greenlee. This modest, ethereal duet yielded to a trio that incorporated a few energetic disturbances before ending placidly: Noah Trulock's "Silently/Seeking/Solace."

Two edgier works complete the program, whose final performance is Sunday on Theatre on the Square's main stage. Like Coleman, choreographer Zach Young needed to dance his own piece, "Sovereignty," due to Comer's injury. With Godwin in a role unusually requiring toe shoes, Young and June moved from sparring to redirecting their attention to the feisty, fiery-red-clad woman. The piece was physically daunting, yet smoothly balanced cooperation with a persistent three-way drive to come out on top.

The other somewhat barbed piece is Greenlee's "State of Grace," a study in barely controlled violence and reconciliation. The choreographer said the piece grew out of her witnessing a couple's street quarrel through a restaurant window, then imagining the story behind it in dance terms. Six dancers stayed close to the tense physicality that makes erotic attraction potentially dangerous, especially when conflict bursts out in public, as it did in the work's generating incident.

 The reconciliation was fully achieved, however, putting "State of Grace" in line with "New/Next/Now"'s pervasive endorsement of happiness. There's nothing shallow about happiness; it's not a smiley-face emoticon or decal. This show beautifully represents that fact seven ways.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Learning more about how our brain processes our worlds: Indianapolis Opera adds information to production of "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat"

There are notable mad scenes in the operatic repertoire, but little focus on other types of brain dysfunction. A rare exception is on the cultural schedule this weekend.

Indianapolis Opera opens its 2015-16 season presenting GLMMR's production of "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," Michael Nyman's adaptation (with two librettists) of neurologist Oliver Sacks' book of the same title. One story in particular, of a man suffering from visual agnosia, a condition in which someone can see but not recognize or interpret visual information, forms the basis of the opera.

Distortions of normal perception in loved ones occasion lots of heartbreak in families, and opera is rich in heartbreak. To help those who attend performances this weekend at the Schrott Center for the Arts at Butler University, the company has set up panel discussions two hours before each performance of the opera.

At 6 p.m. Friday, the panelists will be Dr. Brandy Mathews of Indiana University's School of Medicine, Linda Altmeyer of the Alzheimer's Association, and Tina McIntosh of Joy's House. an Indianapolis adult day service.

General director Kevin Patterson
At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, participants will be neurologists Mike Sermersheim and Cynthia McGarvey, Candace Preston of Joy's House, Dr. Tim Brimmer of Butler University, and Altmeyer.

Contributing to the final conversation in the series, "Understanding Brain-Based Diseases: A Catalyst for Community Discussion," will be four representatives with different specialties from Community Health Network: Zonda Stead, Todd  Wagoner, Dr. Syed Hasan, and Suzanne Clifford. The discussion begins at 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

Admission is free to the discussions on the Schrott Center's mezzanine. Tickets to the opera performances can be obtained through the opera company's website.

In addition, IO general directdor Kevin Patterson will give a background presentation on Nyman's work an hour before each performance. A talk-back opportunity for audiences will follow all performances, with the performers participating.

What a Wednesday for whimsy! Reviews of three IndyFringe shows, chiefly comical

Performances that give an hour of impure pleasure are a staple of IndyFringe, and my abbreviated 2015 coverage of the festival yesterday focused on three funny shows.

Because attempts to capture humor in a review are futile almost to the same degree as having to explain a joke to someone who didn't get it the first time, this post will be brief.

Squeeze-box heroics: Daniel E. Biemer as Captain Ambivalent
"Not So Secret Origin of Captain Ambivalent"  presents life according to accordion, accompanying original songs by the performer Daniel E. Biemer of Valparaiso. It's a story with generous amounts of fantasy, superhero impersonations and unfulfilled wishes. The self-description Biemer ends up with — the one in the title — indicates that the mission-driven clarity of superheroes is unsustainable for an ordinary guy adept at pushing keys and buttons for fun.

Biemer's songs are packed with wit, sometimes on the borderline of being inaccessible at first hearing. (That's why he's selling CDs, perhaps). But a song about the richness of ancient Greek in supplying five words for "love," where English has to wear one word to a nubbin, indicates that what's too complicated to understand can entertain the creative mind.

The show accumulates  a variety of ways to lighten the load of growing up American, resulting in Biemer's adopted persona of "Pirate Ninja Zombie," sung with lusty commitment and a parade of partial costume changes. The finale, despite the stubbornness of an inflatable dinosaur, rocked the house (downstairs at the Marott Center). What needs upgrading is Biemer's delivery of spoken narrative: too often it came across as a set-up for the next song. He obviously put a lot of work into what he has to tell us between songs, and the awkwardness (some of it due to having to manipulate props) was a distraction.

Those songs are consistently droll, however: I won't soon forget a sea chantey repurposing pirate sailors' enthusiasm for going ashore, not for the usual whoring and carousing, but to do their laundry.
Passage from India: Krish Monan does stand-up about adjustment

My evening ended with another one-man show, this one in the familiar genre of stand-up comedy — a man and a microphone. Krish Mohan of Pittsburgh occupied the spotlight at another new Fringe venue, the Firefighters Union Hall. "An Indian Comedian: How Not to Fit In" promises cross-cultural adjustment stories, which Mohan supplies, in part. He skewers mainstream American ignorance: a nation of foreigners doesn't seem to know what to make of them.

Though his audience was responsive, I had a feeling a lot of intended laugh lines were falling flat. Mohan's style is crude enough to meet today's stand-up standards, but is also fast-talking and fairly cerebral. Maybe that explains it. I don't know why it's a stand-up convention to comment on how the show is going over with a particular audience, and fortunately Mohan didn't overdo it. But he seemed sensitive to it.

Coming from India and touching on racism he's encountered here, Mohan could have gone further. As a light-skinned Indian, he must be familiar with prejudice in his homeland against darker-skinned countrymen, but this show doesn't register the touchy problem. Here he is throwing in his lot with the darker brothers, which allows him to skewer racism from a victim's perspective.

The seams showed as Mohan darted from one topic to the next. Comics have their practiced pauses when they turn the page to a new chapter, as it were, and audiences expect that. But Mohan shifted gears often and abruptly, sometimes producing discrepancies: Family anecdotes dependent on conversational exchange didn't square with the comedian's later insistence that his family "never talked."

A big chunk of the monologue was devoted to sex, with germane references to the Kama Sutra, the illustrated Indian manual famous worldwide for its variety of positions. Mohan was thoroughly believable when he ended his show asserting that the one place he feels he really belongs is onstage talking about this kind of thing.

Program image, properly enigmatic, for "Mr. Boniface, the Wise"
In between (for me) came a clever play about an eccentric family and a science teacher who wants into it in the worst way. KT Peterson's "Mr. Boniface, the Wise" (Indy Fringe Basile Theatre) is a manic, though controlled, piece of engaging theater.

The teacher is a nerve-wracked Humbert Humbert with designs on a froward teenager named Angora, whose brilliance needs an alliance with the teacher for her intellectual development only. Their opposing motivations find common cause in a campaign to have Angora expelled from school and transformed into a scientist.

Her mother, Inga, wants to use the teacher's home visit to save her older daughter from the shame of expulsion. She sets the stage for this rescue with care: A Rubik's cube must be placed on the coffee table just so. And the sibling rivalry between Angora and her younger sister, who is told the future by Mr. Boniface, an invisible seer living in her bedroom wall, must be kept down to a dull roar.

Wednesday's performance was perky and well-knit, with all the eccentricities vigorously set forth. Despite its improbabilities, the story had tension and forward momentum. Its recurrent themes, such as Inga's narcolepsy, were neatly touched upon and developed without overemphasis. The hard-working cast romped about the shallow stage without a hitch or unplanned tumble.

Peterson has more than a bag of tricks to display; the humanity of all the characters came through the thickly applied impasto of caricature. "Mr. Boniface, the Wise" is full-throttle Fringe at its most ingenious.