Wednesday, August 20, 2014

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.