Friday, August 16, 2019

My opening night of Fringe Festival 2019: Approxima Productions' 'Vinny the Pooh'

Most of us can readily come up with favorite first lines of novels we liked. For me, such sentences succeed in catching the attention as well as, retrospectively, hinting which way a work of fiction is headed. They form a kind of aura around the experience that glows to the end.

So, like many people, I admire "Call me Ishmael" ("Moby Dick"), but also a few others that don't seem stagy but are still resonant throughout the adventure of reading. Hence, "They threw me off the hay truck about noon" ("The Postman Always Rings Twice") and "Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo" ("A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man").

That choice brings us neatly to early childhood. Another first sentence that's stuck with me (full disclosure: I returned to the text to get it right) is the way A.A. Milne's "Winnie-the-Pooh" starts: "Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin." It's funnier in German, a translation of which I read aloud with other members of my foreign-study group on a German train in 1965. A nearby passenger had a hard time suppressing his giggles.

The line-up for a trenchant spoof of a children's classic.
The opening of "Winnie-the-Pooh" provides the only clue you'll need to know how "Vinny the Pooh," an edgy romp that debuted at the Indy Fringe Basile Theatre Thursday night, comes out. The bond between Christopher Robin and his teddy bear is upheld. But "Vinny"'s violent, witty progress toward that denouement departs in every respect, mostly stylistic, from the affectionately rendered puzzles and predicaments of Milne's faux-ursine hero. It's comedy tonight from Approxima Productions, but the Milnean whimsy now wears brass knuckles.

Christine Kruze wrote the play in an artfully jumbled reworking of "Godfather" themes pressed into a distorted "Winnie-the-Pooh" mold. For Eeyore's missing tail, for example, we have the missing eye of Eyesore (Clay Mabbitt), who grosses out the hard-bitten assemblage by provocatively raising his eye patch. Rabbit (John Kern as Stagger here) hops about vigorously, but mostly because he's a cokehead. Piglet (Kelsey VanVoorst as Sniglet) is a bear's best buddy, all right, but in the worst way, bitterly overcompensating for being little.

All the characters are twisted toward barbed promotion of their agendas and ruthlessness in carrying them out. As "Vinny-the-Pooh" keeps adjusting its shoulder holster, a sudden lip-locking smooch is as likely as a sucker punch or a savage beating. Alliances are fragile, and, as usual, there is no honor among thieves. The unanticipated arrival of Christa MaBobbin (Morgan Morton) on the scene soon moves the turmoil toward the kind of sorting out that crime fiction dependably provides.

Serenely perplexed by the gangland machinations, yet well aware he's continually in danger, is Vinny. His sweet tooth helps ensure a connection with Milne's Bear of Very Little Brain. He's played to the hilt by Steve Kruze, with a nice blend of cluelessness and apprehensiveness, decked out in shorts that match his sport coat and an East Coast mobster accent that's echoed by his fierce pal Sniglet. The pair are under the maniacally watchful eyes of Franga (Carrie Ann Schlatter) and her intrusive hand puppet, with the warlord unintelligibility of Scowl (a ferocious Joshua C. Ramsey) adding another layer of mystery and menace.

The mob's capers are undercut by ceaseless internal divisions and perpetual rivalry with another gang, whose distinguishing features the playwright has borrowed from "The Wind in the Willows." I had to wonder if Kruze was incapable of trimming out any of her verbal or physical inspirations or simply had to have every last one. But finally I decided that the show works best as an overstuffed pincushion of threat and zaniness. And the cast was certainly up to the writer/director's frenetic pace and forcefulness. Kudos also to Kruze for not literalizing the parodic elements.

In less than an hour, "Vinny the Pooh" skillfully hammers the funny bone. When we strike the one in our elbow, we wonder how the physical funny bone got its name. This play works that odd intersection of painful buzz and wry amusement. And, despite the vast dissimilarities, at the end Edward Bear goes bump, bump, bump back up the stairs behind Christopher Robin.

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