Wednesday, August 20, 2014

IndyFringe on Tuesday night: If you're not eccentric, you're not at the center

"Live On Air With Poet Laureate Telia Nevile" (Theatre on the Square Stage Two)  is one of those IndyFringe shows with a perfect matching of concept and detail. Like many of the shows that are strutting their stuff a half-dozen times on and around Mass Ave through Sunday, it makes a virtue of eccentricity.

If you're not at the far edge of the search for identity and self-expression, you're not at the center of the Fringe persona. That's OK, too, because even Fringe festivals need their outliers, their flashes of ordinariness.

In the case of "Live On Air," Nevile creates a comic microcosm focused on a lonely suburban girl's passion for poetry, expressed over a pirate radio station. She puts the "try" in "poetry," she declares, and her efforts are both trite and insightful, whimsical and plaintive. The show is never dull.

Telia Nevile goes live with poetry.
Her sweet-voiced storytime segment  is a "West Wing"-inspired gay-hookup episode loaded with sexual punning and governmental jargon. A soft-focus blues track lies behind her lamenting "First Date Fail Blues."  By her own measure, she is a poet so given to "deep thought" that she fancies spelling "deep"  with a few extra "e's."  She brings her most menacing voice to "Apostrophe Apocalypse," hilariously warning against the confusion of "its" with "it's". A proud rap on her zest for unusual words proclaims her right to "wallow in wistful antiquities."

Every part of Nevile's act unfolds its own delightful surprises. She mocks her character gently insofar as the show indicates that the most intelligent word-lover can be just as subject to feelings of isolation and defeat as the semi-literate. She also satirizes the expressive limitations of pop songs and cliches.

The Australian comedian's appealing young woman is after something that her literary reach may be forever unable to grasp. Her T-shirt declares "Rimbaud Built My Hotrod," and the French poet's call for a derangement of the senses may be just what she needs to leave tire marks on the pavement. It's so much fun to watch the attempt that it feels like she's made it already. "Live on Air" should be on everybody's frequency.

It would be a pleasure to report that the elaborate preparation behind "Jacked!" at the Cook Theater  was well-served by the content. Derived from the radio sketch comedy that's been key to the success of the long-running "Prairie Home Companion," this is a rather frantic spoof of "Jack and the Beanstalk." A huge (for Fringe) cast of eight is mostly lined up along the front of the stage, each player with microphones. A screen placed  in front of the stage cues the audience to say or do scripted things as the story proceeds.

The faux-radio show is presented by "the Folkettes," which says a lot.
Essential to the show as the story lumbers on, interrupted by commercials, is bickering among the principals and a series of scripted gaffes and disasters. There is no end to the cleverness applied to this scenario, the creation of Bob Sander. Very little of it tickled my funnybone, however. Upon being informed that the Giant's fowl-produced golden eggs have made him as rich as Midas, we are reminded just how very rich that must be because of the current cost of muffler replacement. And after host Travis DiNicola, victim of an explosion in the scenario, is allegedly replaced by a twin brother, one of six such (he says), the predictable objection that twins come only in twos is answered by "I'm not saying it was easy."

I'll pause here until you recover yourself.

"Jacked!" ends with a faux-academic argument on how to interpret the story: Is Jack the hero, or is the Giant? In my view, the execution is the real hero, because it makes a technical silk purse out of a conceptual sow's ear. And the writing, while it percolates as brought to life by the committed cast, suggests that the bar wasn't set very high above the camaraderie required to produce such a show.

TOTS' Stage Two was also the venue for my third show of the evening, "How to Raise a Good Child Badly." Paul Strickland's convoluted script of a young woman's upbringing and adjustment to life's confusion was brilliantly interpreted by Julie Mauro. With her toothy grin and sparkling eyes, Mauro ingratiated herself with the audience by rendering the charm of youthful naivete through the entangled lives of a character named She and one named Her.

Julie Mauro is thoroughly winning.
I'll admit I had a hard time keeping them straight, but something vivid embedded in "How to Raise a Good Child Badly" swept me along over the rough spots. Iconic objects and experiences illumine all of our lives, and Strickland's script particularizes these and gives them polished auras. It's the kind of play that would remain murky on the page, and even in performance, without such a striking performance as Mauro's.

Her achievement extends to Strickland's notion that a couple, presumably up in years, is attending the show and struggles with their confusion about it. The woman's attitude has the right aspirational endorsement the Fringe experience requires, while the man remains hostile.

I'll end by giving vent to my chagrin that Mauro gives this man a sorghum-thick Southern accent, which chimed uneasily for me with a similar vocal caricature in "Jacked!", where Sue Grizzell voiced Jack's mother as a braying hayseed.

I confess I'm avoiding Fringe shows that put forward either a sentimental or a satirical view of rural American life. Either tendency indicates that safe entertainment for likely Fringe patrons has to be at a far remove from how they live.  Thus we can either sentimentalize the rubes or make fun of them. I think it would be good to give the country-bumpkin impressions a rest. In 2014, we Americans must be uneasy about how much of traditional lifestyles and manners we have lost, so we make them either folksy or ridiculous in high and low art alike.

Plus, actors with rudimentary mimicry skills can always manage a cornpone accent. I'm thinking it's too bad that certain odious walks of life today — say, hedge-fund managers or wedding videographers — don't have distinctive accents. It's time to draw a bead on fresh easy targets.