Sunday, August 25, 2013

Ancient, age-old, modern and silly problems at IndyFringe: The Saturday report

If you don't find something at IndyFringe to move you, then you have just scratched the surface. Sure, there's nothing wrong with staying on the fun side of the annual festival, but there's so much more.

Susan's haul from successful bidding at "Going, Going, Gone(r)"
To while away an hour watching the long-running "live auction comedy" contrived for the 2012 Fringe by Lou Harry and John Thomas always returns positive benefits.  Running out of play money to bid with is the closest thing to a worry you're likely to have at "Going... Going... Gone(r)." (Before she ran out of faux dough, my wife, Susan Raccoli, had acquired the treasures pictured here.)

The show, a monthly staple on the IndyFringe Basile Theatre schedule since its premiere, takes donated castoffs and garage-sale rejects, then repurposes them as valuable forgotten items from the estate of a deceased auctioneer named Ed. His relatives and friends just want to move on (for the most part) after having unloaded everything on eager bidders.

The production team's supply of actors willing to rummage in Ed's world appears to be endless. On Saturday, most of the ShadowApe Theatre Company cast whose main gig at the 2013 Fringe is "Welcome to the Monkey House" became Ed's near and dear and ad hoc auctioneer.


ShadowApe was resourceful improvising off a scenario  that called for the late proprietor's sister (Jen Johansen) to come in late, reluctantly bringing along a convulsively sobbing longtime employee (Constance Macy) after family members played by Charles Goad, Jolene Mentink Moffatt and Rob Johansen had launched the auction. The blueprint was inspired, though I had the feeling the items pulled out for sale were not quite abundant or provocative enough to inspire the best spontaneous interactions.  But the set-up had imagination to burn, especially in the consistency and wit of one-eyed brother Rob's original, hard-to-untangle speech impediment.

For a connection with the more serious side of Fringe, a visit to Ben Abbott's "Questions of the Heart: Gay Mormons and the Search for Identity" was likely to leave a mark on your understanding of the festival's more profound possibilities.

Raised in a large Mormon family and now happy in a conventional approved marriage, Abbott has turned his personal exploration of the conundrum of gay identity within his church into a moving, well-crafted play. He bases his riveting monologue on interviews with co-religionists whose homosexuality has no place within orthodox Mormon identity. But he wisely links it to testimony on his own transformation within Mormonism toward seeing the need for a more inclusive definition of faith.

Partly through acting out portions of the interviews and partly through recorded excerpts, Abbott dovetails into his narrative accounts of rejection,  creative ways of working through official rejection, and bursts of compassion and insight that echo the revelations accorded the church's prophet, Joseph Smith. Along the way, he shares many aspects of Mormon belief and practice with the audience in an unacademic manner. The staging is imaginative and theatrically resourceful.

Most important, he represents through his openness and enthusiasm the way strong religious convictions present the paradox of being both a springboard to greater faith and a temptation to harden the shell that separates the faithful from others. Abbott boldly chooses the former course, spurred by stories he's gathered from people he refuses to turn his back on. "Questions of the Heart" has the potential to work immense good as he prepares to take the show to Utah and California.

One-performer shows bulk large in the festival schedule, and their range is wide. A world away from "Questions of the Heart" is Gail Payne's cabaret show, "La Vie, L'Amour," smoothly put together under the direction of Mark Goetzinger, with the peerless collaboration of David Duncan at the piano.

Different questions of the heart are engaged here. Around the scenario of an impressionable young woman's romantic sojourn in Paris, Payne has assembled a group of French and American evergreen songs. Her stylish singing and her conscientious bridging of the spoken and sung parts of the show were commendable in the acoustically friendly Cook Theater at Indiana Landmarks Center.

Nonetheless, though no one should expect a cabaret program to convey deep dramatic content, the naivete of the intelligent, attractive American whom Payne portrayed was astonishing. The lover who swept her off her feet and took her to Paris seemed — if I can mix imagery a bit here — a transparent straw man, as Payne's monologue describes him.

Ostensibly inspired by the hackneyed example of Ernest Hemingway's residency there, "Richard" doesn't distance himself from his girlfriend because he's working so hard on his writing, as the young Hemingway did. No, indeed: he's lazy and convivial and ready to let his roving eye settle on some other beauty, a development that ushers in a variety of torch songs. In sum: a neat concept to hang such a show on, but not worth examining too closely.

A serious take on an ancient classic is a rare thing in IndyFringe history. Shakespeare send-ups are almost fashionable, but to adapt Euripides' tragedy "Medea" without snickering is the laudable achievement of Amber Bastards, a troupe from Minneapolis. 

On a bare stage, with no more than a thronelike chair on one side and a small platform on the other, the five-member company provided rare exposure to the fountainhead of Western theater. Masks were not used, but the language employed put personal expression on an elevated plane. Raw emotion is conveyed not as a series of ephemeral moods (as our realistic heritage has trained us to see), but as something fundamental to each character's existential stance and moral relationship to the other characters and to society.

The heart-piercing theme of a foreigner linked by marriage to a ruler far away from home, then spurned for political and dynastic reasons and eager for retribution, is one of the strongest legacies in European literature. In Saturday's performance on the Phoenix Theatre's Basile Stage, the company's acting was flawless and intense, the Greek-chorus commentary smoothly integrated to character interaction.

The portrayal of Medea — whether eerily moved to laughter as she hears an account of her murderous plot unfolding or struggling with her decision to kill her daughter rather than leave her behind or require her to share the shame of exile —  evoked compassion and repugnance in almost equal measure. This is the stance that gives Greek drama its staying power: Offenses to the moral order are vividly portrayed and provided with justification,  but just as clearly used as examples of why that order must be upheld to keep a society's fundamental values pertinent.