Monday, August 22, 2016

IndyFringe Fest, Day Four: Tapping into history, macabre verse, and performance art

My Sunday visit to the 2016 Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival let me nibble around the edges of the typical gingerbread hut of stage performance. (Invited inside, I usually resist the urge to shove the resident crone into the oven.)

I sampled classic light verse brought to life, cutting-edge testimony from the spoken-word and standup comedy scenes, and the art of tap dance historically considered.

It's been decades since the verse of Robert W. Service, James Whitcomb Riley, Hilaire Belloc and Alfred Noyes has jangled around in my head. At the Phoenix Underground, "A Darkly Humorous Evening with Stephen Vincent Giles" rang those bells all over again with a flair I was never able to manage.
Stephen Vincent Giles: Drenched in the comical macabre.

Giles, with some funky wardrobe changes and low-tech projected title and author identification to one side, brings into fresh perspective the sounds of poetry meant to be understood and enjoyed at first hearing.

This is the genre that Edward Lear perfected on the plain of nonsense, G.K. Chesterton in the arenas of war and religion,  and Rudyard Kipling at sea and the far reaches of the British Empire. The multifaceted Indianapolis performer focuses on the subgenre of verse narratives, with humorously doleful limericks by the inimitable Edward Gorey interpolated, that tend toward the macabre and ghostly.

The climax of the show is a vivid, increasingly despairing, reciting of "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe. It's a poem so famous it even provided the name of the football team that just edged the Colts in a preseason game. And to think Poe never did much for the Ravens' home city (originally the Colts') except die there. That's poetic influence writ large!

Though Giles' program consisted of pieces with a strong "tum-ta-tum-ta-tum" metric stress, he was never metronomic in performing them. Letting meter and rhyme take care of themselves, thanks to his poets' adept prosody, Giles went for the expressive content of the selections, from "The Raven" to the drolly gruesome "Ballad of Blasphemous Bill" by the Anglo-Canadian versifier Service. In the latter case, the recitation was supplemented by simple projected illustrations of the frozen protagonist and the coffin the narrator made for him. In getting the former to fit the latter, some disassembly is required, which the poem amusingly frets over.

Giles' show displays a masterly command of his material's way of getting under your skin.  Every time Noyes'  Highwayman comes riding, riding, and every time Riley warns that

"the Gobble-uns 'll git you
Ef you
Out" (the Hoosier Poet's lineation and spelling in "Little Orphant Annie") you may get chills running up and down your spine, even if the Underground's air conditioning is responsible for some of them.

"Poems for the People," also an Underground show, flies under the aegis of Greg Deboor of Indianapolis. Every performance differs in participants and, thus, content. The one I experienced had some smoothly managed transitions between types of spoken word, starting with a rapidfire monologue by a young woman with a segue to a male comic's shtick about dating today—the often unavailing, repeated attempts to make contact via social media. The poems emphasized the rattling internal rhymes and chock-a-block imagery of hip-hop rants and reflections, notably on issues of acceptance, gender identity, and body image. The prose humor depended on timing and wry flings of rueful self-revelation. Both were in generally good working order.
The show's vibrant mix of hilarity and pathos, insouciance and anger managed to husband its outsize energy well, though the abundance overshot the festival's stipulated 50-minute span.

"The Rhythm Chronicles" celebrates the variety of tap dance.

Upstairs earlier on the Russell Stage, voice-over guidance to the history of the tap-dance art form gave continuity to "The Rhythm Chronicles," a production of Circle City Tap Company.  From some display of tap's origins in African and Irish dance idioms as they got blended in this country, the exhibition by ensembles of various sizes focused on tap's heyday, largely to music of the Swing Era and early modern jazz. 
It made light sociological commentary along the way that included the gradual ascendancy of female dancers and the revival of tap that spilled over from the modern-dance scene in the late 20th century. On the traditional side, there was a chirpy girl-trio performance, with voice and dance smartly combined, of "Chattanooga Choo-Choo."  Two young men offered a slow-tempo respite from the vigorous display of intricate dance bravado with a number illustrating the elegant "class act" variation of tap on the song "Taking a Chance on Love." A finale brought the art form up past its heyday with an electronica hit featuring a full dozen participants.
"The Rhythm Chronicles" has a genuine all-ages appeal and offers, in costuming and music as well as choreography, an energetic survey of an all-American dance type that hardly anyone can avoid feeling — even if you haven't got the pedal chops to carry that feeling into your feet the way these well-schooled practitioners did Sunday.

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