Saturday, August 19, 2017

Avuncular art: Amiable fellows with an edge — Woody Guthrie and Kurt Vonnegut — highlighted my FringeFest Day #2

People with large book collections have to endure mysterious losses over the years. The one I regret most is my autographed paperback copy of "Mother Night."


With a crinkly smile, Kurt Vonnegut signed my purchase at an Ann Arbor bookstore in 1968 or early 1969. It was the only prose writer's autograph I've ever owned, having since focused on poets.  Anyway, the author-inscribed novel is long gone from my bookshelves. Not among the Indianapolis master's greatest fans (I can claim only to have read several of his books), I still nourish a pang over the disappearance of my "Mother Night."

So there was a touch of nostalgia to my Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival visit Friday night to Phoenix Theatre's Basile (or Underground) Stage for Tom Horan's adaptation of Vonnegut's tangled story of personal identity and deception centered on Howard W. Campbell Jr., who fit into German society a little too well in the late 1930s and was tapped upon the American entrance into World War II to send coded messages to the Allies in his Nazi propaganda broadcasts. The author's stated moral for "Mother Night" also provides a motto for the stage version: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

Jeffery Martin plays Vonnegut's entrapped playwright "hero" and Chelsea Anderson a bewildering variety of other roles, under the direction of Michael Hosp, in this presentation by the Vonnegut Museum and Library.

"As a playwright I should know when the hero has to die," Campbell muses at one point. But the ambiguity of real life rarely pinpoints a good death, and often blurs many other things we wish were clearly defined. This is the theme Vonnegut elaborates in one of his darkly comic plots, which typically seem a little too much like artful contraptions for my taste. For the story Vonnegut had to tell here, however, his manner of storytelling seems perfect.

Horan's choice to have an actress of Anderson's versatility appear as  Campbell's wife Helga and her younger sister Resi, as the sly American spy recruiter, a New York cop on the beat, a sadistic American army lieutenant, et al. fit the shape-shifting scenario like a glove. Not all the novel's characters and plot complications can be brought to the stage, of course, but the sacrifice doesn't distort the original, to the best of my recollection.

Hosp has the two actors smoothly deployed in different settings and effecting a continuous blend of action and Campbellian reflection. Anderson was particularly adept at the two main female roles, but also made a strong impression as the popcorn-munching, trenchcoated agent of Campbell's fraught double life.  Martin had a few line bobbles opening night, and his intensity flagged occasionally, but overall he conveyed the character's blend of cluelessness and the nimbleness that's required when a man builds his life on pretense and must wrestle with personal authenticity — whatever that is, the ghost of Vonnegut might mutter.

Thomas Jones fascinates in "Woody Sed."
Vonnegut parlayed a repressed survivor's guilt (he famously lived through the firebombing of Dresden as a POW underground) into a wary, wry approach to life. Woody Guthrie's journey of survival, triumph, and decline, was more deeply rooted in childhood and family health heritage, and the fame he eventually acquired was wrought out of unquestionable authenticity from poverty and near-nomadism — plus a deceptively simple musical genius.

Connecticut-born, Vancouver (B.C.)-based Thomas Jones embodies the folksinger (1912-1967) in "Woody Sed," which I saw in its first FringeFest performance Friday night. The master of a company of voices surrounding Guthrie from childhood until his death from Huntington's Disease, Jones mostly re-creates the big-hearted, strong-minded musician in song and story, accompanying himself on a guitar labeled (like Guthrie's) "This machine kills fascists."

The well-crafted portrait is bookended by the folksinger's struggle with Huntington's, then takes us from the teenager's hobo period into his breakthrough in regional radio in California — a destination he shared with so many other Oklahomans during the Depression, Dust Bowl refugees memorialized in John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath." The attraction to communism is unapologetically described, the natural result of Woody's recognition that the system he and his people were in the grip of did not offer them much of a purchase on the promise of American life.

On the IndyFringe Basile Theatre stage, Jones uses  as props a chair, an old-fashioned microphone and a semicircle of manuscripts representing the prolific songwriter. The rest he leaves to our imagination, but we get lots of help as he vividly fleshes out incidents from Guthrie's life across the United States and in the merchant marine in World War II. The show is aglow with the performer's amiability as well as his physical and emotional investment in his material. The result is funny, passionate, and heart-wrenching all within a packed hour. It's likely that only the Alan Lomax recordings of Woody for the Library of Congress can get us any closer to this American icon than "Woody Sed."

Cody Melcher spoke about truth.
My third show was a bit of a puzzle. A highly intelligent young stand-up comic from Chicago named Cody Melcher presented "In Falsitas Veritas" at ComedySportz. As seen in its first festival performance, the show offered in rat-a-tat fashion Melcher's thoughts about the welter of false information that circulates and often thrives throughout the America we know and love as we scarf down the junk food of rumors, guesswork, and innuendo. Here's a representative sampling: Why Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC, fad diets, the showboat quackery of Dr. Oz, the riots in Hong Kong, the flimsy basis of men's rights activism, and — climactically — the saga of Truman Capote's "cremains" and their disposal.

The show needed more nuance and variety in delivery. The performer spoke too fast and often ran roughshod over what were intended to be cues for laughter. Avoiding a common crutch,  he admirably didn't go "blue," except for an eight-letter word beginning with "b." Though Melcher seemed intimate with his material, it was not completely memorized. Comedy out of a notebook? Uh, I don't think so. It was as if he thought detail-laden written material about the elusiveness of truth would spring to life just by being spoken.

Stand-up comedy, even at its brainiest, does not work that way. The illusion of spontaneity, an off-the-top-of-my-head feeling, is essential to the genre's success. Timing is  — almost — everything. George Carlin always had you believing he had just thought of the next thing and was sharing it with you. Bob Newhart's artful hesitations were meant to have you imagine you could hear his mind wheels spinning. Brainstorming as hermetically sealed in performance as Melcher's struck me as an overthought tempest in a tepid teapot.