Thursday, August 25, 2016

IndyFringe Festival, Days Six and Seven: Closing it out with reports on four shows

At least once a year, you can select a local leisure-time activity that is sure to plop you into the cliche of getting out of your comfort zone. That's what the 2016 IndyFringe Fest offers through Sunday, right on schedule. Even if you stick to selections you feel sure you'll like, there will be surprises.

As a self-published critic, I run the risk of looking clueless — maybe even while covering genres I'm supposed to know something about. I invite you to be the judge of that in what follows.

Despite appearances, Act a Foo' doesn't look down at its audiences.
My last show put me in the pretty unfamiliar territory of African-American improvisational comedy, with Act a Foo' Improv Crew's Wednesday evening show at the Phoenix Theatre. Four actors and an emcee kept the audience-participation-intense performance super-busy and a challenge to follow.

 I laughed heartily, if often uncomprehendingly, at the rapid-fire succession of games and sketches. My grasp of pop culture is weak, for one thing, but we all bring personal handicaps to encounters with anything we're not used to. The show is engaging, and the troupe feeds creatively off the audience's raucous goodwill.

I was drawn into the audience-participation format when I was asked to suggest a dream job other than the one I retired from at the Indianapolis Star three years ago last spring. This is improv, so prepare to have your suggestion modified if you are so tapped. When I said, after a long pause, that I'd like to be a pollster for the Libertarians, it was my idea of a dream job only in the ridiculous-fantasy sense: I doubt I'd enjoy spinning interview data for a bunch of smug quasi-anarchists.

So I probably deserved having "pollster" turned into "upholsterer," and the Libertarians disappearing entirely. The couch-repair sketch that resulted was funny. A troupe with Act a Foo's knack for spontaneous comedy knows when some instant revision is advisable, and the emcee was continually alert to challenging and redirecting his actors as well.

Still, I wonder what this group might do with a Libertarian pollster on the job. It could go something like the "Life of Brian" dialogue by Jewish militants about Roman rule: "Apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?" But even to imply that the Act a Foo' men might fashion anything predictable out of a suggestion they in fact didn't take violates the spirit of improv. And this troupe is about as skilled as imaginable at its deliberately slapdash craft. I would not ever take an actual couch to them, but they are great comfort-zone smashers.

The night before, I had to demolish fewer obstacles to appreciate "I'd Like to See More of You: A Vaudevillian Burlesque," the Fringe debut at Theatre on the Square of the often-amazing BOBDIREX Productions, the work of the wizardly Robert W. Harbin. With a wealth of songs and dances, most of them nicely naughty, the well-dressed and -undressed cast provided captivating entertainment. It held my undivided attention from the title song, performed by the multifaceted, adorable Claire Wilcher,  to the finale, an ensemble dance with peekaboo clothing maneuvers to a "Sing, Sing, Sing" that Benny Goodman never imagined.

Speaking of cultural icons, Walt Disney and henchmen created a memorable setting of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" in "Fantasia" that had Mickey Mouse dealing with out-of-control brooms. Everyone remembers that. Harbin reconceives the apprentice's comeuppance as the outgrowth of a disobedient employee (Wilcher) donning a forbidden hat, whose X-rated design inspires a flood of demon-wielded imitations to cavort around the stage. Trigger warning: Anyone who takes in this show (there are three more performances) will  have two sets of images competing for attention whenever he or she hears the Paul Dukas tone poem.
The doctor is in: Claire Wilcher (from left), Stacia Hulen, and Bradley Keiper

I don't want to know whether my eyes were bugging out and my tongue lolling a la Jim Carrey in "The Mask" responding to Cameron Diaz.  I'll simply salute here the striptease aplomb of Drew Bryson, Jenee Michele, and the towel-swapping duo of Lincoln Slentz and Kris Ezra. Kudos as well for a few vocal showcases, ably accompanied by pianist Deb Ward: Stacia Hulen's "Wherever He Ain't," Joi Blalock's double-entendre ode to a secondhand chair, and Bradley Keiper's "You'd Be Surprised."

On the same stage Wednesday evening, the musical-theater side of the festival had me focusing on an ambitious book musical, "Calder," a collaboration of Dustin Klein (music) and Tom Alvarez (book and lyrics). An instrumental trio led by pianist Klein lent hefty accompaniments to the songs. The brio behind the songs' presentation helped make up for some lackluster aspects at the creative level. When the full production takes the IndyFringe Basile stage come November, maybe some gaps in this bio-musical of the larger-than-life Alexander Calder, among the greatest American artists of the 20th century, will be filled in. The need to handle narrative elements and enable time transitions with efficiency was met by giving Calder a wisecracking guardian angel in the form of Thalia, the Greek muse of comedy, played with zest by Nathalie Cruz.

Liberties with a subject's life are fair enough when it comes to creating entertainment, of course. Yet "Calder" cries out for a big song about the mobile, an outgrowth of the wire creatures, including Calder's reputation-forging "Circus," that get a lot of attention in this show. Klein and Alvarez set the tone with "Wires and Pliers," an affectionate duet for "Sandy" as a boy and his loyal big sister Peggy. And Calder "stabiles" are the pride of several civic spaces around the world; there was one at Ground Zero, spookily titled "Bent Propeller," and there's another that's well-known to Hoosiers on the lawn outside the Musical Arts Center at Indiana University.

That Sandy was going his own way from an early age with sturdy family encouragement is well-represented here. My acquaintance with Calder's autobiography, however, suggests that he was not bullied by his peers for being different -- nothing beyond the usual rough-and-tumble scrapes of early 20th-century boyhood. As an adult, the sculptor even recalled his pride at engaging older boys' admiring interest in his budding craft.

Logan Moore and ensemble in the circus scene from "Calder."
Logan Moore plays and sings the mature sculptor with the joie de vivre that Calder expressed in his art, despite an episode of deep discouragement of the kind that seems to be required in shows that emphasize a hero's mastery of all hindrances.

From the Rodgers and Hammerstein of "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "Climb Every Mountain" through "The Impossible Dream" of "Man of La Mancha" to "Defying Gravity" of "Wicked," the American musical theater often bounces upon trampoline anthems of encouragement. Klein and Alvarez set their seal of aspiration and triumph upon two songs: "A Path to Follow," the hero's solo pep talk, and "Prize in the Sky," a Sondheimesque duet for Calder and his wife Louisa (Katie Schuman).

Ben Dobler's projection designs put various evocative scenes on the backdrop, more in pastels than the primary colors Calder favored, yet resonant with Calder's lyricism and whimsy. Ashley Kiefer did the costumes; Mariel Greenlee, the choreography. Both serve the show's atmosphere well, especially in a ragtime-influenced circus song for the ensemble.

There may not have been room to work in a bit of Hoosier bicentennial trivia: Just a few blocks away from "Calder" is the DePew Memorial Fountain in University Park. Between 1915 and 1919, Calder's father, briefly portrayed in this show in unsympathetic terms, completed the work launched by his mentor and ever since enjoyed by Downtown visitors and loiterers.

A concluding report on a one-man show at ComedySportz: "What's a Wedding Got to Do With It?"  Seen Wednesday night, Jeremy Schaefer of Chicago displayed brilliance with a well-delivered monologue on the subject of marriage, in general and particular. He mixed his own experience with "observational" comedy, so that the sociological and cultural values of marriage today meshed with an account of his hard-won acceptance of formally tying the knot.

The staging was astute, with the monologue divided into scenes that often called for slight costuming changes. Schaefer's talk was rich in imagery and satirical quips, yet it was also affirmative in ways that most happily married people can identify with. Some things went by me that I didn't understand -- things that registered with other audience members more than with me.

For instance: James K. Polk, 11th president of the United States, is apparently a laugh line. He's one of my least favorite presidents. The comedian's references to him seemed gratuitous as he tried to explain how Polk thematically shaped Schaefer's design of his wedding web site. I guess couples are doing that sort of thing now. Polk drove our first misbegotten war, unless you count the War of 1812. A young congressman named Abraham Lincoln, speaking against the Mexican War, had this to say about Polk's weaselly war policy: "His mind taxed, beyond his power, is running hither and thither, like some tortured creature on a burning surface, finding no position on which it can settle down and be at ease."

Schaefer's mind seems to be like that, but that may help produce good stand-up comedy. He fights against it almost successfully, and the conclusion of "What's a Wedding Got to Do With It?" fortunately indicates he knows how to be at ease when love is in charge.

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