Saturday, August 23, 2014

Bringing my Fringe to a close at TOTS: "The Great Bike Race" and "Lolita"

Theatre on the Square has built a justified reputation as the home for "out-there" shows, especially on its main stage. Its proportions are unusual, long on width and short on depth. If they are well-staged, action-packed shows can revel in all the room from side to side, while seeming to unfold practically in the audience's laps the whole time.

Four Humors' "Lolita: A Three-Man Show" and Zach Rosing Productions' "The Great Bike Race" displayed their comfort in that space Friday night. (There is just one more chance to see these shows before the IndyFringe festival ends Sunday; catch up with the schedule here.)

The competition is fierce and (mostly) mustachioed in "The Great Bike Race."
Rosing, a local wizard of technical theater, outfits Zack Neiditch's script with multimedia splendor in "The Great Bike Race."  The show is loosely based on the prophetically dishonest 1904 Tour de France. Undercutting the competition by means other than performance-enhancing drugs, the all-French competitors seeded the course with cats and tacks, encountered interference from spectators annoyed by the annual disruption, and were otherwise sidelined by mechanical sabotage, romance, and alcoholic consumption.

Using black-and-white film occasionally for both backdrops and to supplement the onstage action, Zeiditch and Rosing concoct a fast-moving show inspired by Mack Sennett comedies. Handlebars and hard-pumping legs mimic the thrill of jostling, tightly packed bicyclists. There is ample carping and cooing dialogue, plus songs by Paige Scott (who also stars as presumptive champion and braggart Hippolyte Acoutrier), including an ensemble chorus set to the most famous Jacques Offenbach tune.

The performance style owes a lot to vaudeville, it seems to me, though neither I nor the young cast has any direct knowledge of that manic style — the blend of visual and verbal comedy that's unabashedly lowbrow and direct. Whatever the inspiration, Neiditch and Rosing have gotten their high-spirited cast to coalesce around the scenario, which reaches the height of burlesque, in the original sense of that word. However short of brilliance individual performances may fall here, everything is redeemed and enhanced by the solid esprit de corps.

Brant Miller is a risibly counterintuitive Lolita.
From the Twin Cities comes the Four Humors, who are just as adept at catching the Fringe vibe. They have a much more directly parodistic show than their TOTS main-stage companions' free-floating historical fantasy. With unflagging gusto, they've taken on the Stanley Kubrick film version of Vladimir Nabokov's notorious novel about the love affair between a middle-aged English academic and a spoiled 12-year-old girl in upstate New York.

Director Jason Ballweber collaborated on the show with cast members Ryan Lear, Brant Miller, and Matt Spring. The three work superbly together, inhabiting mainly the characters of, respectively,  Humbert Humbert, Lolita, and Lolita's mother Charlotte/Humbert nemesis Clare Quilty.

Little reverence is expended for the film, despite the obvious admiration the creators of the Four Humors show have for the original and its bizarre love affair. Certainly the taboo exemplified by the Humbert-Lolita liaison has only become more entrenched since the movie was released. To see, in his initial appearance, the hairy, pudgy Miller lolling poolside in a red bikini wearing heart-shaped sunglasses both softens and sharpens that taboo.

In making hilarious revisions, the production merely builds upon what Kubrick did to the novel and Nabokov's screenplay. This is how the novelist recalled the movie's debut: "At a private screening [in June 1962], I had discovered that Kubrick was a great director, that his 'Lolita' was a first-rate film with magnificent actors, and that only ragged odds and ends of my script had been used."

Four Humors indulges in some goofy digressions, such as Spring's wholehearted arabesques on the role of the butler — loquacious, slightly deranged, and afflicted with a spasmodically wavy left hand. There's a phone picked up before it's finished ringing and a gun that doesn't fire when it should. The guys quibble amusingly on the authenticity of Lear's James Mason accent, and near the end, try to deal with Miller's astonishment at learning the truth about Lolita's relationship with Humbert and Quilty.

Both shows exemplify some of the best this year's Fringe has to offer in its 10th-anniversary season. Whatever the appeal of the festival's many one-person shows, ensemble productions that are as unified, brazen and all-out as these two will remain at the heart of IndyFringe's enduring appeal.