Friday, August 19, 2016

IndyFringe Fest, Day One: Identity, Loyalty, and Illusion

Immersion in another IndyFringe Festival requires the kind of sorting that American shoppers have long been accustomed to at the supermarket. Matters of conscience, taste, and enjoyment jostle for priority in our diets and in our entertainment.

So many choices! Should you spend more time — going with impulse or deliberation — eyeing fresh produce or snack foods, at the meat counter or among the wine shelves? (Fill in your own arts-and-entertainment counterparts to these store stops.)
Program art for Timothy A. Taylor's Fringe play

The difference with the Fringe festival is that shopping for price is not a factor. Night after night through Aug. 28, admission to each show is the same: $15 for adults, $12 for students and seniors, $8 for children under 12. The price conscious can by five tickets for the price of four shows with a Fiver Pass ($50). So much for consumer advice. On to the shows.

As with many family shoppers trying at home to justify purchases as they empty their bags, some things can't be adequately explained. Even a blogger's account doesn't have to go there, and there is no emoji for a shrug. So here's my opening night, described and evaluated, sans explanations.

"The Juniper Tree" grew on me, no pun intended. Susan Bennett plays women of three generations  in Timothy A. Taylor's play. It starts slowly. In 1968, the soft-spoken Anna, who escaped czarist Russia with her husband, Avi, invites a visitor to join her for tea, a lifelong afternoon social ritual and link to her past. The memory of the 1905 Odessa pogrom is vivid to her, and Bennett conveys through nervous hand gestures just how deeply anti-Semitic atrocities in her hometown imprinted themselves on her. She laments a family rift the audience soon learns more about.

Her estranged daughter, Cece, recounts difficulties with her mother, which have resulted in her daughter Rachael's growing up cut off from contact with her Bubbe, whom she remembers fondly, if vaguely. Bennett moves among three playing areas in the Phoenix Theatre's Basile Theatre, advancing the story. In a climactic scene, the actress switches quickly between Anna and Cece (who has changed her name from the Hebrew Haya, meaning "life," that she was given at birth).

Otherwise, the playwright has put the monologues into the format of a therapy session (for Cece) and a cassette recording that Rachael prepares to send to her grandmother seeking more insight and a reunion. Taylor has given different ways of speaking to each of the three women, and Bennett amplifies these skillfully. I felt that Rachael's uniqueness could have been pointed up more, though we hear enough about it to make her yearning for family connection come through movingly, and the segue to Anna's comment after hearing the last part of the audiotape puts a seal on the pathos of a family whose history poses identity challenges for each generation.

NoMads Art Collective duumvirate Ben Claus and Scott Jackoway
My evening's other serious stage work was NoMads Art Collective's "So Proudly We Hailed." Nobody can fail to recognize the title's origin in a line from the national anthem. And flag idolatry is crucial to this series of sketches on American patriotism and gun culture. That's evident as you walk into Theatre on the Square's Stage 2, with a large Old Glory forming the backdrop. It's both decor almost a third actor, in addition to Drew Beyer and Ki-Jana C. Moore.  It drapes itself figuratively over what is clearly a collaborative effort, judging from the credits and thank-yous in the printed program.

Thus, "So Proudly We Hailed" is a theatrical stew, with all ingredients stirred by the show's cast to suit the vexed theme of gun violence at its intersection with patriotism — sometimes in synchronization with individual fulfillment, sometimes at odds with it.

Long ago, George F. Will gave an early collection of columns the happy title, "The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts." The thoughts of Jackoway and his colleagues on that fabled pursuit and everything it entails are overwhelmingly sober. Indeed, some of the sketches burst into angry flame inexplicably. Delineation of character was vaguer than it had to be, even given the sketch format. Humor around the theme was fleeting in comparison: The goofiness of a young man wanting to buy a gun so he could smoke marijuana out of the barrel received an uninflectedly vehement response. At other times, the dialogue was frivolous, but rarely in a way you might characterize as light, or with a keen satirical thrust.

Three sketches were efficient enough to strike home: A wordless struggle between the two men over an empty chair, a dialogue about marksmanship at a shooting range, and an officious orientation session about dealing with an "active shooter situation."  But the sequencing and substance of the show as a whole did not have me saluting.

Simon Coronel is a sleight-of-hand maestro.
In the middle of my Thursday evening came the zest, precision, and wit of "An Alien of Extraordinary Ability." Magicians who comment on their craft as part of their banter are not uncommon, but Simon Coronel is unusually detailed and resourceful in playing with an audience's investment in the illusionist's art.

Not only did the Australian handle audience participation enticingly and with an astonishing wealth of trickery, he toyed with our notions of magic and our willingness to be controlled at the same time we are trying to puzzle everything out. He doesn't prey upon our gullibility, but upon our good sense. Coronel rightly pointed out that it's neither rational nor creepy for an audience to think actual magic is happening onstage. It's rather that "you know it's not real, and that's what's creepy."

His hands and fingers exhibited the loose-jointed independence and control of a concert pianist's. The card tricks mounted in complexity as he invited the audience to know exactly what he was up to. But of course we nvever did. What he got out of an empty Pringle's can, even one that had been for several minutes in the hand of an audience volunteer, was nothing short of amazing.

"An Alien of Extraordinary Ability," which the magician said was the exact phrase that has enabled him to work in America, is thus a show title that carries a U.S. government endorsement. So, taking a leaf from the "So Proudly We Hailed" book, I'll say you owe it to your country to catch Coronel's act.