Talk is plentiful at a Fringe Festival, so a show that mimics silent films has an immediate chance of standing out.
Fortunately, there is a lot more that "The Beast, the Lady, & the Sanguine Man" has going for it besides a paucity of chatter. And it isn't a mime act, either.
It's the creation of NoExit Performance, ensemble-directed, from a script by Bennett Ayres. We are in the world of silent films — not the comedies that have endured as an influential style, but the melodramas that seem too dated to have made a long-lasting impact on popular culture.
"The Beast, the Lady, & the Sanguine Man" changes all that: An elaborate, classically effective style of acting has been reclaimed to suit post-modernist sensibilities. Subtitled "a live-action silent film," the show is also a technical marvel, even as it replicates and amplifies the flickering titles, streaky film, cheesy soundtracks and projector whir from technology long since superseded.
The smattering of eroticism marbled through the show's texture is beautifully handled, as the story unfolds of wide-eyed ingenue Alma, shedding her old circumscribed life in search of an undefined freedom, only to meet a host of exotic perils. They can be triangulated in the persons of a drunken father (Michael Burke) with a volcanic temper (a descendant of Huck Finn's Pap), a woodsy wolfman (Matthew Goodrich) and a citified vampire (Lukas Schooler).
Only the dad makes manifest his hostility to the heroine from the start, though weepy remorse overtakes him at times. The other two come to Alma's aid through infatuation and inner conflict, rescuing her from the demonic Rowena (Audrey Stauffer) as well as releasing her from the insipid attentions of the androgynous Dickie (Amelia Smith).
As the dialogue, a farrago of '20s slang and florid late-Victorian prose, flashes on a screen above the Phoenix Theatre Russell Stage, the characters mouth the words. Makeup accentuates their eyes and mouths — focal points of the outsize expressiveness typical of the genre. The cliches of movie acting before the triumph of talkies are so robustly evoked that they transcend the hackneyed to become a fresh way of rendering even flat characters. This is stage acting from a parallel universe, and it is marvelously well brought off.
I've saved for last an appreciation of the portrayal of Alma by Georgeanna Smith. Channeling the likes of Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters, Smith stands the quaintness of the "silents" style on its head. There was an underlying dignity and consistency to her every gesture, to every head tilt and flash of anguish, joy and curiosity communicated by the kaleidoscopic movement of her eyes and mouth.
Her performance recalled for me a Stratford Festival production of "The Importance of Being Earnest" many years ago. Festival star William Hutt was cross-dressingly magnificent as Lady Bracknell. During the severe aristocrat's attempt to vet Jack Worthing as a suitable match for her daughter, at the point when she discovers Jack's parentage is murky and that he was found as an infant in a hand-bag left in a cloak-room at Victoria Station (the Brighton line), Hutt did a wonderful thing: Upon saying the line "A hand-bag?," Lady Bracknell's face went all stunned and colorless, and her head drooped slowly into four distinct declining positions till chin touched chest. Each droop drew a fresh peal of laughter from the audience, with cheers at the stopping-point. Sure, the gesture milked applause like crazy, but it was the greatest bit of physical acting from the neck up I'd ever seen.
Smith's performance had a comparable degree of nuance, but spread out over an hourlong show and without the benefit of spoken lines to support each expression. And though her face did most of the work, this was a superb top-to-toe performance, especially memorable for the repeated wracking sobs the role calls for.
NoExit Performance in this piece confirms a key value of Fringe: Make it as weird as you want, but lay solid artistic groundwork underneath, inviting the audience to feel honored by the theatrical experience as well as entertained.
Other shows seen Tuesday evening:
Jim Poyser's "Saving the World thru Bumper Stickers" is a slide show with informal commentary from the Indiana Living Green editor and new Earth Charter Indiana honcho. He uses audience interaction to illustrate some points about climate change, but mainly threads his information on a string of specially designed bumper stickers flashed upon the screen behind him, from "Want Less" to "Plan Ahea" (no room for the "d").
Explicitly "political" shows ought to be part of every Fringe Festival, and when they offer a modicum of entertainment as well, the spirit of the event is well-served.
Earlier, I went to the Babeca Theatre (the festival's newest venue) for "Invitations," a play by DivaFest winner Sharla Steiman. The play centers on a newcomer young couple's attempt to ingratiate themselves with their mountainside neighbors by throwing a party. With invitations hand-delivered by the nervous hostess, the careful planning has little chance of increasing the event's chances for success, in part because of something the hostess saw while going house to house.
Sure enough, the gathering is a disaster, with clashing values (lesbian couple vs. conservative Christian couple, mainly) creating a toxic salsa of awkwardness. Ty Stover's direction yields the result of maximum awkwardness, all right, but the dialogue charges along at an unrelentingly rapid pace, except for those awkward pauses. Too little attention is paid to plausible reaction time, on top of which the dialogue sometimes sinks into near inaudibility.
The only performance worth singling out for its high level of insight and detail was Lauren Briggeman's as Annie, a painfully shy, almost reclusive children's-book illustrator. I knew as soon as I saw her anxious pre-party primping in front of the mirror (the fourth wall, so the audience sees it all) that we were in for a performance we wouldn't be able to take our eyes off of.
"Invitations" shows Steiman's burgeoning gift for coming up with characters who have reasons for responding the way they do, but, as seen Tuesday, this production seemed disconcertingly rushed and raw.