Weekend IndyFringe report (part two): A pass-fail guide to cultural literacy

Internet search engines have made it irresistible to bone up on areas of knowledge that are beclouded just when we may need them to be clear.  Some of the urge for clarity may be laid to vanity: If you found it out on Google, do you have to tell anyone how you got to seem so well-informed? Of course not. Go ahead and post that definitive status report! Write that e-mail reply that nails the issue conclusively and silences your Tea Party uncle for a few minutes!

It's been a point of honor with me to blog without Googling except when it seems necessary to get a quote or reference exact.  If I have a fact-related notion in my mind and it is just a little overcast with doubt, getting some Google reassurance within nanoseconds is acceptable without acknowledgment.

This is by way of preamble to reviews of three shows that may or may not nudge you to acquire some information beforehand. I'm here to say that whatever you know about gaming, Mary Todd Lincoln or "Alice in Wonderland" may be enough to enjoy three IndyFringe shows saturated in those cultural areas. Our cultural literacy doesn't come from only one place. And who indeed can lay claim to it all?

Johansen, Johansen, & Macy, Inc.
So first I'll take up "Jen Con," the latest production by the elegantly edgy ShadowApe Company. This play by Bennett Ayres delivers the goods in a way that his "A Useful Woman" fails to.  To have two substantial scripts realized by outstanding actors in the same Fringe Festival is a considerable achievement. But it's "Jen Con" that seems to have the requisite breathing room, while Ayres' examination of the curious figure of  Carry Nation, the Prohibitionist vandal of the turn of the last century, does not.

Part of "Woman"'s failure is the way it stuffs aspects of Nation's life into the Procrustean bed of the Fringe format, where no show can exceed 60 minutes.  "A Useful Woman" had me breaking my self-imposed rule before I wrote, Googling a bit to flesh out the historical substance that Ayres' show is so stingy with.

But my focus here is "Jen Con" (Phoenix Mainstage), and I know next to nothing about the culture behind the punned-upon reality of Gen Con, which has gathered hosts of costumed players Downtown in recent days, all of whom are devoted to playing online games for fun and profit.  It's a mysterious world, but all you need to know to enjoy "Jen Con" is some acquaintance with the toxic effect on a close relationship of any all-consuming hobby. Anyone ever subject to the spreading blur of a compelling fiction upon what passes for the real world will have a way into this show.

Rob Johansen plays Mitch, a mumbling obsessive whose devotion to his game makes him a selfish, cruel partner of the more grounded, long-suffering Con, his wife. Holed up in the laundry room and resenting his wife's attention to such mundane duties as doing the wash, Mitch soon drives Con into a fantasy world. There she meets Genevieve, Queen of Graymalkin, a character (or, as he insists, "emblem") in Mitch's game whose dynastic and romantic fortunes he's manipulating. The queen — Jennifer Johansen made more statuesque than ever, thanks to skillful costuming involving stilts — is being wooed in the worst way by Warwick  (also Rob Johansen, transformed in every respect).

The fulcrum of this scenario is  Con, given a witty, simpatico characterization by Constance Macy. Con ("of Greenwood," the queen dubs her) is bewildered both by the difficult reality she is used to and the unsettling one that invades  her from the gaming world, with its faux-medievalism and conflicts as outsized and idiosyncratic as its rhetoric. The women's shift from mutual hostility and suspicion to empowering friendship is genuinely heroic and touching despite the rich cultural caricature on which Ayres' play depends.

Typical of ShadowApe's elegant production values, sound, costumes and lighting are at the same expert level as the acting.

MaryAnne Mathews as Mrs. Lincoln
I was equipped with more knowledge about Mary Todd Lincoln than I thought when I went on Saturday to "Mrs. President: A Visit With Mary Todd Lincoln" (Phoenix Basile Theatre).  MaryAnne Mathews researched and wrote this deft overview of the most famous presidential widow. And she persuasively embodies the possibly manic-depressive former Kentucky belle as she welcomes visitors to the parlor of her sister's home in Springfield, Ill., in 1882, her final year.  Matthews conveys Mrs. Lincoln's charm and eccentricity, her jostling happy and sad memories of her marriage, and her worries about reputation and the bills she can't keep up with on a less than generous federal pension.

The show balances Mrs. Lincoln's justified resentment and injured self-esteem with the possibility that she was indeed mentally ill and thus subject to the era's unenlightened treatment, whether or not she deserved what her surviving son, Robert, dealt out to her. Mathews makes deft use of plenty of historical material, and I learned a lot on top of what little knowledge I brought with me. More important, I was welcomed convincingly into the private world of a public figure.

NoExit Performance has a complex, creative take on the cultural heritage it deals with, so my anticipation of its "Alice vs. Wonderland" (Cook Theatre) ran high.  But I felt as blocked and frustrated as Lewis Carroll's Alice by the barriers put up to full understanding by the show's technical wizardry.

To have the dialogue prerecorded and projected at the audience allowed for captivating, dreamlike stylization of lip-synching and angular gestures required of Alice and the long-familiar denizens of Wonderland.  But it meant that clarity was sacrificed.  It reached the nadir when the Queen of Heart's long speech was buried in the sound mix by static-like noise.

More crucially, the gimmick to have audience members help make some of Alice's choices for her via iPhone was marred by technical glitches; after typing in the website on my server and adding the numerical password provided, I couldn't get past  the "Submit" button. Others seemed to be having trouble, too. Compounding the problem: whenever the White Rabbit bounded into the audience to field suggestions and offer help, none of what he said could be heard. It was tough feeling much of the time as clueless as the Dormouse at the Mad Hatter's tea party.

If you know your "Alice in Wonderland," however, you will enjoy visually (and somewhat aurally) NoExit's fresh interpretation of several major episodes — the Duchess and her fondness for pepper, the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, the Queen of Hearts' flamingo-wielding croquet game. The pixelated  props and costumes were a delight, and the enduring whimsy of life down the rabbit hole did not get wholly snuffed out by technical shortcomings.


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