Thursday, August 22, 2013

More IndyFringe gems on the Phoenix Theatre's Russell Stage: The Wednesday report

Constant behind the wry, sad smile with which Kurt Vonnegut greeted the world — his face wreathed in smoke and wrinkles as he aged, crowned with tousled curly hair, an ageless look that made it seem he might be carrying a slingshot in his back pocket — was an abiding concern for resisting dehumanization.

The spirit of mischief raised in his writing always pointed in the direction of something better for what his literary hero, Mark Twain, called "the damned human race." Humor might be the lingua franca of hope, but don't bet on it, Twain and Vonnegut would probably agree.

"Welcome  to  the Monkey House," an adaptation of several Vonnegut stories by ShadowApe Theatre Company, is a performance as unswerving from this outlook as any you'll see at Fringe. It has the special virtue of turning some of Vonnegut's fable-like short fiction into vibrant action. That helps mute hints of whimsical sermonizing from such stories as "The Euphio Question," placing them squarely in the realm of plausible behavior.

Not that we can take comfort in the behavior that's most natural to us as our scientific and technical knowledge advances. In the frame provided this show by "The Euphio Question," the upshot is: If we had the capability, we would wish a disarming happiness (triggered by amplifying and broadcasting radio waves from outer space) to settle over our enemies so that our side could remain free of the disorientation that imposed euphoria entails. The damned human race can be counted on to prefer power to happiness every time.

A dismal conclusion, surely — especially when we can't be sure of mastering that power.  Even the room-filling computers of the late 20th century, if enlisted to ease brainiac courtship, would be difficult to control in that cause, another ShadowApe adaptation suggests. How much more treacherous are the pocket powerhouses we now carry daily, along with our keys and credit cards!

"Monkey House" mostly as you'll see it this week at Fringe.
The high-spirited ingenuity of the ShadowApe show can hardly be overstated. This production bears the fruits of ensemble creation from the fertile ground of the printed page right through the harvest offered on the Phoenix Theatre's Russell Stage. The coordinated energy and tense, artfully maintained balance of pathos and farce never let down Wednesday in the performances of Charles Goad, Scot Greenwell, Jen Johansen, Rob Johansen, Constance Macy, Jolene Moffatt and Robert Neal.

I once heard Vonnegut lecture on modern fiction at the University of Michigan, using low-tech visual aids — a whiteboard and a black marker.  With mock-scholarly wit, he graphed the emotional trajectory typical of works by several 20th-century authors. The vertical coordinate represented happiness; the horizontal, the progress of the story through time. Ending with Franz Kafka, Vonnegut began his line from where x and y coordinates meet at zero and curved it downward off the graph.

The audience laughed heartily —  another momentary triumph of humor. Always a provisional victory, of course, since I'm guessing Vonnegut was habitually desperate as both writer and man to avoid overlapping the Kafka line. That he largely succeeded gets honest, entertaining confirmation in this production, presented in cooperation with the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.

EclecticPond Theatre Company's "Shakespeare Wrote What?"  opens with a zesty curtain speech by director-creator Thomas Cardwell, as if Prospero had not drowned his book at the end of "The Tempest" but repurposed it in order to tour as a stand-up comic.

Cardwell notes the public perception of the Shakespeare canon as embracing merely five or six plays. Then he tweaks authorship controversies by correcting this notion to inform the Phoenix's Russell Stage audience that the Bard of Avon surely penned "between 10 and 40 plays." He promises a survey of relatively obscure ones, whose common ground (it turns out) is complicated plotting and odd, rarely brilliant, digressions. Such works readily invite spoofing.

Thus, the procedure of "Shakespeare Wrote What?" is to summarize boisterously some less-performed plays among the Collected Works: "Troilus and Cressida," "Titus Andronicus," "King John," "Cymbeline" and "The Two Gentlemen of Verona."

Set in motion by Cardwell's irreverent wit and anarchic sense of fun, the EclecticPond company (Jeremy Grimmer, Kate Homan, Michael Hosp, Zack Joyce, Meagan Matlock and Scott Russell) throws itself into its daunting assignment. While it would be absurd to say anything dragged, on Wednesday night there were signs of exhaustion that dimmed the comic glow momentarily. On the whole, however, the actors' success in projecting rampant confusion without getting confused was unalloyed. They were loud, funny and never mealy-mouthed.

The script sets erudition and slapstick cheek by jowl, like the bad dreams of a graduate student in English. The stylistic heritage of the wacky side of entertainment in Cardwell's native England lies amiably upon the production: The Goon Show, Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python.

Some of the elements: Breaking character to utter stage directions and snide commentary. Hastily applied disguises readily accepted by clueless, self-involved characters. Intensification of the near universal practice in Shakespeare productions of deploying actors in multiple roles. Pointing up the impulsive behavior — every nurtured suspicion grows to full bloom like time-lapse photography of flowers — that drives the plots.

My ear didn't catch much of an attempt to parody Shakespeare's verse technique. But Cardwell cleverly includes some Shakespeare lines that sound strikingly modern: From "Titus Andronicus," Aaron's sexual boast "I've done your mother," for example. The critic Harold Bloom may have overreached in crediting Shakespeare with "the invention of the human," but he did invent a lot of what we are, including much of our language.

Still, it's best to take this show in a light, unacademic spirit, shrugging it off when you're ready to.  I recall dimly the Beyond the Fringe Shakespeare sketch that had fun with the rhyming couplets concluding many a Shakespearean scene: After a long and tangled speech, one character announces his intention to "go home to bed / And sleep off all the nonsense I've just said." Pleasant dreams!

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