Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Catching up with IndyFringe: Reviews of three Tuesday performances

Never having started Fringe Fest coverage this late, I decided to plunge in close to where I picked up my media badge, festival headquarters at 643 Mass Ave: "4.48 Psychosis" and "Ca-Ching" at Theatre on the Square, just down the street at 627.

It was a chilling double dip. And inevitably, my first Fringe shows also fell under the shadow of the light cast by a recent visit to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. When your week has opened with a radiant production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," you're likely to be blinking for a while. And when a few days before you took in an equally stunning performance of "Much Ado About Nothing," it's hard not to find even such a FringeFest tour de force as "Breakneck Hamlet" (the last of my three Tuesday shows) somewhat contrived.

All points of view in mental illness tend to approach gridlock.
Eugene O'Neill nonetheless came to mind usefully as my 2015 FringeFest opened with Savage at Last's production of "4.48 Psychosis" by Sarah Kane. The intense three-actor scrutiny of mental illness, directed insightfully by Bill Wilkison, focuses on suicide — its rationale, emotional and intellectual disorientation, and both the promise and futility of preventive treatment.

In "Strange Interlude," O'Neill goes as far as possible to erase the boundary between interior and exterior speech. The massive work must be challenging to take in in performance, hearing actors say aloud what would normally be unspoken. O'Neill takes on the prerogatives of the novelist, but with the difference that dramatic convention is repeatedly violated. All the beans are spilled: A character's self-definition becomes as important as his interaction with others, and intention and motive take on the substance of deeds and words.

Similarly, but in a deliberately less cohesive manner, Kane examines the mind of a young woman (played by Ann Marie Elliott) bent on self-destruction. As staged in "4.48 Psychosis," her illness knows no distinction between what she has done and what she plans to do. Her course of treatment is a pharmacopia of distractions, and yet distractedness is at the center of her life. Her attempts at controlling her destiny are fierce but hardly well founded. Diagnosis interferes, and the psychiatrist (Max Jones) dealing with her is himself compromised by the patient's projection of her reality upon him.

Much of this representation falls to the role of a second woman (Andrea Heiden), who is both friend and foe of the others. Kane cleverly suggests that in psychosis a second self emerges full-grown from the sufferer's tortured mind. How this second self interprets what is going on becomes just as important as the patient's fragmented grip on reality. Yet what this occasional truth-teller has to say cannot always be trusted; it is also sick.

Through their changing positions onstage, along with their involvement in front of, behind and through a framed sheet, the three characters create an embodiment of mental illness that amounts to a pathological trinity, "being of one substance" (to borrow a phrase from the Nicene Creed). Dramatic advancement is frustrated. Even at the end, the audience has to figure out there will be no more. There is no closure: lights remain the same, and the patient stands mute, partially in view through the torn sheet at center stage.

All that we've heard from this codependent trinity does not point the way forward. It has come from deep down without finding a way out. Resolution is a rigged game. Kane might very well subscribe to something O'Neill puts in Nina's mouth in "Strange Interlude": "How we poor monkeys hide from ourselves behind the sounds called words!"

The love of money is the root of all banality, too.
An echoing ring of words forms a kind of prelude to "Ca-Ching!" on TOTS' Stage One. When you enter, the cast is shifting among themselves a series of verbal counters about  shopping, corporations and money. These are the chips of a consumer society manipulated by a few big winners and put up with by the rest of us.

Nomads Collective of Brooklyn, N.Y., has put together a scarifying set of sketches, dotted with song and dance. The seven-member cast imposes continuity on rather disparate satirical thrusts thanks to recurring characters, ranging from a narcissistic high-roller to a resentful minimum-wage clerk. Everyone in the world of "Ca-Ching!" is forced to have a brand or tout one, to invent a new hustle or play a subservient part in an old one.

I liked the show's fervent struggles for individuality that thrust upward, like flowers through concrete, in cracks amid society's appalling lust for validation through material success. Vitality adheres to several portrayals, though the roles are shot through with shopworn licks and cliches. There are some vivid insights in Benjamin Claus' script, but it surprised me that such a show tries to get by with just a modicum of wit. Maybe we've arrived at a point where it's difficult to poke fun at something that wants to choke the life out of us.

No IndyFringe Festival is complete without a few astonishing one-person shows on the roster. Timothy Mooney's "Breakneck Hamlet" (at a new festival venue, the Musicians' Union Hall on Delaware Street) is one of this year's. With an energy belying the "melancholy Dane" stereotype, the black-clad actor-adapter weaves together narration and generous quotation to make of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" a concise cliff-hanger.

Timothy Mooney's Hamlet comes face to face with Yorick.
By necessity, the acted portions of "Breakneck Hamlet" share in the lecture-demonstration aura of the whole show. Gestures are precise, elaborate, and underlined by stark changes in vocal tone. Mooney recognizes this tendency in himself by doing a double take in Hamlet's "advice to the players" speech as he "saws the air" with hand and arm gestures that exemplify what the Prince has just said he abhors in acting.

You would not want to see a "Hamlet" in which each role were embodied with so much explicit detail, but in this format, it works: It helps link the play's action and text to narration and summary. And there are distinct acting triumphs: Mooney's portrayal of Polonius, particularly the old counselor's verbose account of his Hamlet observations, and the "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I" soliloquy.

Using only a small clock at the edge of a carpet to monitor his progress (and with just a throne and Yorick's skull as props), Mooney delivered an assured and lively adaptation of a play that still poses problems of interpretation. If his "To be or not to be" seemed to follow convention in being about suicide rather than the nature of action and free will, it's no distortion to see it as such. The question remains an open one, and "Breakneck Hamlet" deserves kudos for setting such questions before us once again — and in just under an hour.