Sunday, August 23, 2015

My IndyFringe wrap-up: A grab-bag of shows seen late in the run

The strong, beating heart of the IndyFringe Festival is the eternal, thumping appeal of comedy, sometimes just abrasive enough to make us unembarrassed by hints of uplift and happy endings.

In cobbling together a selection of shows, I had to take into account the need to check in with new productions by Indianapolis Opera and Phoenix Theatre while shrugging off my late arrival (due to out-of-state travel) at the festival after the crucial opening weekend.

Jeremy Schaefer detects fishiness in the workaday world.
But funny things have happened on the way to this forum, though I'm the only one holding forth on it.  Two examples of highly accomplished comedy spun out along the narrative threads characteristic of storytellers were "Working Titles"  and "Hannibal: Liar!" Both shows — the former by Jeremy Schaefer presented at ComedySportz and the latter Chris Hannibal's blend of comical high spirits and amazing magic on the Indy Eleven Stage — privileged memory, family, perseverance, and the kind of personal triumphs that help, rather than hurt, others.

Schaefer gave vignettes from his job history — lifeguard, swim teacher, Christmas elf, diversity workshop assistant, among the line items — that sharpened his perceptiveness about other people. Without egotistical display, thanks to lightly applied self-deprecation, Schaefer made the stories riveting as well as amusing.

Gaining useful perspectives on one's place in the work world, he demonstrated, is of enduring benefit. In our security-mad society, Schaefer learned this in attempting to market a non-profit's lame show about protecting kids from online predators and finding that a police officer's startling bluntness was far more effective. Without privileging his position as a professional storyteller, Schaefer displayed the usefulness of knowing your limits and playing to your strengths as you find your way in life.

Nothing about cards, stories and autographed dollar bills escapes Hannibal.
"Hannibal: Liar!" proceeded from childhood memories, just as Schaefer had in describing his relationship to work through helping his father with household chores. Hannibal learned his craft of weaving spells through stories and sleight-of-hand from his grandfather. His show relied more on stories than trickery,  though there was a continual presentation of amazing feats, chiefly involving a pack of cards. His knowledge of them permitted no shuffling, except of the deck itself.

Hannibal has developed an uncanny ability to play to an audience, to elicit shouted challenges from them that he knows he can handle. Whose attention has ever wandered at a magic show? Magicians tend to attract intense scrutiny (we all think we can penetrate their secrets). This rotund prestidigitator knows how to toy with it, then deliver fresh surprises, better than most. The only discordant note was his disproportionate put-down of a woman who offered a ribald remark I thought was in the spirit of suggestive banter the performer had earlier instigated; Hannibal took her for a heckler, and verbally smacked her.

The proof is in the putting on: "Scientist Turned Comedian."
Low-key delivery, along with a lack of warm fuzzies, served "Scientist Turned Comedian" well. Tim Lee feels no need to court an audience's sympathy. He engages its mind, partly through satirical variations on common types of graphs. With Power Point precision, Lee exposed the realities of lying's relationship to success on the job, party behavior, drinking (but I repeat myself), and family interaction. It mocks the way we like to process secure knowledge so it reinforces what we know intuitively. It's confirmation bias wearing a jester's cap.

His insights were unfailingly amusing, and if most of us don't really understand science, pseudo-science pervaded by cleverness goes over well. His "announcer's voice" (his description) sometimes skirted inaudibility, however; and it was odd in an act as far from slob appeal as possible to note that Lee's suit jacket was partly tucked into his waistband near the right vent in back.

The sexy solon: Identity questions complicate staying on message
Performers should pay attention to how they look before going onstage.  Does their appearance reinforce the kind of show they are setting before the public? In "I'm Not Gay," the actor playing the part of George, a politician's assistant, wore a suit that was too small, the center jacket button straining to hold. Politicians characteristically like to keep up appearances, and their staffs follow suit (pun unavoidable). Matthew Barron's four-character play relies on that well-established fact. A conservative state senator, long married and with two grown sons, has been linked to a publicized liaison with a young man. The officeholder's image is in tatters.

The satirical thrust of the story is tentatively applied. Barron has other goals: He is working toward the senator's reconciliation with those close to him. The politician mostly sticks with the denial summed up in the play's title; by the end, he has reaffirmed his love for both his wife and his gay staffer by incorporating inclusiveness in his public speeches.

Barron exposes some of the costs of hypocrisy in lives that demand adhering to mainstream ideas of probity and uprightness. But to me he achieves a soft landing for the central character too easily. Performances by the four actors were earnest, and something beyond that in the case of the hearty gay-bar proprietor.

"I said of laughter, it is mad" was a rare quotation from the Bible (Ecclesiastes) to be found in the old Mad Magazine. The editors capitalized "mad," of course, and as a boy, much of my immature sense of humor was fed by my Mad subscription. Manic goofiness has left its mark on me, which made me fairly tolerant of the frantic fun pervading "Speedthru," a two-character farce with a flimsy set-up.

Desperation drives a pair of unprepared thespians in ETC production
Two actors with bit parts in a play they are barely familiar with are forced to rehearse the whole piece in the absence of the rest of the cast. They don't know what's what: It's Eclectic Pond writer Jeremy Grimmer's insanely ADHD version of Christopher Durang's "The Actor's Nightmare,"  which is based on everybody's nightmare of being unprepared for a task you are expected to undertake right away and well.

The premise here is that the actors' company's board of directors is dropping in to get a look at the drama, "The Importance of Being Jeff." For some reason, the bit players — at first almost at ease running through their fight scene in the last act — feel duty-bound to render as much of the play as they can remember. It's as if their careers will be over if they don't get the whole clumsy drama as right as possible.

As a result, there is scarcely a let-up in the words and action they jam together in order to approximate a work that apparently is a classic, but is both (a) set in the 1860s and (b) features "thees" and "thous" in the dialogue — among other incongruities. The ETC regulars who manage to keep the madness under artistic control could hardly be more invested in this nonsense, which went on about 15 minutes too long. Still, this sort of exercise in rapidfire teamwork is undeniably in the true IndyFringe spirit. The sun also rises, and Ecclesiastes has it right, as usual.

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