Thursday, August 20, 2015

What a Wednesday for whimsy! Reviews of three IndyFringe shows, chiefly comical

Performances that give an hour of impure pleasure are a staple of IndyFringe, and my abbreviated 2015 coverage of the festival yesterday focused on three funny shows.

Because attempts to capture humor in a review are futile almost to the same degree as having to explain a joke to someone who didn't get it the first time, this post will be brief.

Squeeze-box heroics: Daniel E. Biemer as Captain Ambivalent
"Not So Secret Origin of Captain Ambivalent"  presents life according to accordion, accompanying original songs by the performer Daniel E. Biemer of Valparaiso. It's a story with generous amounts of fantasy, superhero impersonations and unfulfilled wishes. The self-description Biemer ends up with — the one in the title — indicates that the mission-driven clarity of superheroes is unsustainable for an ordinary guy adept at pushing keys and buttons for fun.

Biemer's songs are packed with wit, sometimes on the borderline of being inaccessible at first hearing. (That's why he's selling CDs, perhaps). But a song about the richness of ancient Greek in supplying five words for "love," where English has to wear one word to a nubbin, indicates that what's too complicated to understand can entertain the creative mind.

The show accumulates  a variety of ways to lighten the load of growing up American, resulting in Biemer's adopted persona of "Pirate Ninja Zombie," sung with lusty commitment and a parade of partial costume changes. The finale, despite the stubbornness of an inflatable dinosaur, rocked the house (downstairs at the Marott Center). What needs upgrading is Biemer's delivery of spoken narrative: too often it came across as a set-up for the next song. He obviously put a lot of work into what he has to tell us between songs, and the awkwardness (some of it due to having to manipulate props) was a distraction.

Those songs are consistently droll, however: I won't soon forget a sea chantey repurposing pirate sailors' enthusiasm for going ashore, not for the usual whoring and carousing, but to do their laundry.
Passage from India: Krish Monan does stand-up about adjustment

My evening ended with another one-man show, this one in the familiar genre of stand-up comedy — a man and a microphone. Krish Mohan of Pittsburgh occupied the spotlight at another new Fringe venue, the Firefighters Union Hall. "An Indian Comedian: How Not to Fit In" promises cross-cultural adjustment stories, which Mohan supplies, in part. He skewers mainstream American ignorance: a nation of foreigners doesn't seem to know what to make of them.

Though his audience was responsive, I had a feeling a lot of intended laugh lines were falling flat. Mohan's style is crude enough to meet today's stand-up standards, but is also fast-talking and fairly cerebral. Maybe that explains it. I don't know why it's a stand-up convention to comment on how the show is going over with a particular audience, and fortunately Mohan didn't overdo it. But he seemed sensitive to it.

Coming from India and touching on racism he's encountered here, Mohan could have gone further. As a light-skinned Indian, he must be familiar with prejudice in his homeland against darker-skinned countrymen, but this show doesn't register the touchy problem. Here he is throwing in his lot with the darker brothers, which allows him to skewer racism from a victim's perspective.

The seams showed as Mohan darted from one topic to the next. Comics have their practiced pauses when they turn the page to a new chapter, as it were, and audiences expect that. But Mohan shifted gears often and abruptly, sometimes producing discrepancies: Family anecdotes dependent on conversational exchange didn't square with the comedian's later insistence that his family "never talked."

A big chunk of the monologue was devoted to sex, with germane references to the Kama Sutra, the illustrated Indian manual famous worldwide for its variety of positions. Mohan was thoroughly believable when he ended his show asserting that the one place he feels he really belongs is onstage talking about this kind of thing.

Program image, properly enigmatic, for "Mr. Boniface, the Wise"
In between (for me) came a clever play about an eccentric family and a science teacher who wants into it in the worst way. KT Peterson's "Mr. Boniface, the Wise" (Indy Fringe Basile Theatre) is a manic, though controlled, piece of engaging theater.

The teacher is a nerve-wracked Humbert Humbert with designs on a froward teenager named Angora, whose brilliance needs an alliance with the teacher for her intellectual development only. Their opposing motivations find common cause in a campaign to have Angora expelled from school and transformed into a scientist.

Her mother, Inga, wants to use the teacher's home visit to save her older daughter from the shame of expulsion. She sets the stage for this rescue with care: A Rubik's cube must be placed on the coffee table just so. And the sibling rivalry between Angora and her younger sister, who is told the future by Mr. Boniface, an invisible seer living in her bedroom wall, must be kept down to a dull roar.

Wednesday's performance was perky and well-knit, with all the eccentricities vigorously set forth. Despite its improbabilities, the story had tension and forward momentum. Its recurrent themes, such as Inga's narcolepsy, were neatly touched upon and developed without overemphasis. The hard-working cast romped about the shallow stage without a hitch or unplanned tumble.

Peterson has more than a bag of tricks to display; the humanity of all the characters came through the thickly applied impasto of caricature. "Mr. Boniface, the Wise" is full-throttle Fringe at its most ingenious.