Sunday, August 22, 2021

First Fringe Festival weekend: Singular and collective

 Variety in performance styles, purposes, and a wide range of content is a given in the annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, which returns to Mass Ave and its immediate neighborhood after a year in hiatus. Two more weekends are left.

Any summary of individual selections necessarily covers a wide ground without any obvious way to make the account cohesive. My first 2021 festival weekend comprised just five performances. Three of them were one-man shows (a format massively represented in the schedule, including one-woman shows, of course).

So why not start with those? Danny Russel's "Abraham Lincoln: Hoosier Hero," "Dadbod," standup comedy from Brad Hinshaw, and Timothy Mooney's "Shakespeare's Histories: Ten Epic Plays at a Breakneck Pace."

Mooney's show, well described by the word "breakneck," is a virtuoso tour of the Bard's versions of

English royal history, with a slant in favor of the Tudor dynasty, represented in his time by the formidable Elizabeth I. The complicated struggles around royal succession are succinctly (yet exhaustively!) summed up in Mooney's narration. That's where he loads most of the witty fun that the show's publicity advertises. Obviously, there's little humor in the excerpted speeches so essential to the show, except for appropriate bits of Falstaff, Hotspur and the sneering Dauphin of "Henry V," where the playwright's satirical chops are exercised. 

Famous evergreen moments are included, such as Henry's rousing speech at Agincourt and Richard III's opening declaration ("Now is the winter of our discontent") of what he's all about in his play. But I liked Mooney's choice of other excerpts not nearly as well-known. The juicy role of the rebel Jack Cade (in "Henry VI," Part Two) is effectively represented. And, in the normal run of Shakespeare offerings onstage, playgoers rarely hear so extensive regrets about the status of kings as Henry's second-act meditation on time, a granular look at how anxious monarchs need to be about crucial events.

Mooney's ability to slide into and out of Shakespeare's characters is as remarkable as the adroitness with which he brings off the entire, well-honed concoction. His voice and gestures were fitting and exemplary; none of it was overdone, and all of it as well-judged as the show's length itself, which an onstage timer confirmed. 

True, he called for a line near the end Saturday night, a forgivable lapse insofar as he had to deal with a technical surprise that forced the informative projections on a screen behind him to be cued from the booth. But the triumphs of professionalism and love for his material clearly carried the day. You may now turn to these plays as readers who formerly passed over most of them as you browsed your complete Shakespeare.

Danny Russel likewise had to be selective from the blend of established truth and myth about the historical figure he chose for his one-man show. What Shakespeare interpreted about Elizabeth's predecessors had to be colored by the reigning historical myth about the subject. Yet the relative recency of Lincoln is no absolute protection against Lincoln mythology; the man attracts legends, and perhaps always will.

Since his play carries the alliterative convenience of "Hoosier Hero," one expects a focus on Lincoln's formative years in Spencer County. Indeed, there's about as much as may be gleaned from what turned the Kentucky boy into the Illinois lawyer as he passed through Indiana. Russel's physical appearance and conscientious costuming go far to bring off Lincoln as an authentic character. His twangy Midwestern voice in the high tenor range jibes with what has been  reported about Lincoln's speaking voice.

I'm far from familiar with the bulk of Lincoln bibliography, which I once read is nearly the most extensive of any historical figure's. Still, I wondered: Russel chooses to make Christianity explicit in the mature Lincoln. Though Protestant piety was formative through his early and enduring acquaintance with the King James Bible, the Christian fervor Lincoln expresses in this show does not match the evidence that, despite his oft-expressed reliance on God as Providence, he never joined a church and seemed to leave aside any theology centered on Jesus.

For dramatic purposes, "Hoosier Hero" might have gone beyond the Gettysburg Address, though by the same token that was an obvious place to stop. But the main dramatic liability of the show, however one wants to conceive the truth of Lincoln's personality, seems to me an excessive reliance on Lincoln's loss of composure whenever he recalls serious matters: the deaths of his mother, and later his sister, and still later the loss of two sons, Willie and Tad; the carnage of the Civil War also brings forth tears. True, Lincoln suffered from depression, and probably cried often. But as drama, different ways of expressing deep feeling and compassion might have served the show better. It probably would have displayed the actor's range more extensively as well.

The third one-man show had the informality that Fringe history has often allowed. In "Dadbod," Brad

Hinshaw was trying out new material, and he managed to segue with few hitches to different episodes after consulting his notebook. He even took a punchline from an audience member and wrote it down with immediate approval. It's fortunate that his engaging manner and his way of relating anecdotes about family showed him to be personable and amusingly reflective on various shortcomings as husband, father, and son.

As for the group shows: there was one well-designed ensemble presentation (Indianapolis Ballet) and a fresh premiere reflecting the author's personal and professional focus on environmental perils in Jim Poyser's "Climate Follies" (a Strike Home production).

I ended my first weekend with the Poyser show, an ensemble presentation of warnings in the format of fanciful sketch comedy and satire brought off by five women who are somewhat well-known on local stages. "Climate Follies" opens with a slapdash song-and-dance number and moves onto an uneven plane of mordant commentary, with props of wildfires, calving glaciers, and one of the tools of humankind's tendency to inflict environmental damage — gasoline-powered leaf blowers.

'On Saturday night in the Oasis Room at Old National, the energy the actors poured into Poyser's concept was unstinting. Yet the show as a whole felt a little underrehearsed. I suspect some of the dialogue was improvised to a point. Assuming that to be a deliberate decision, it's always an element subject to rises and falls of inspiration and pacing. Though it may be essential to Poyser's message, the masking of the actors throughout deprives the cast of a theater essential: communication through vocal and facial expression. The cast working under these conditions consisted of Kerrigan Howard, Jaddy Ciucci, Beverly Roche, Annabel Watson, and Dena Toler. Raphael Schwartzman directed.

The script has some sharp points to make about the serious costs of complacency among the temporarily better-off sort of people. A mordant funeral sermon in gospel style for a self-cannibalized man was stunning.  There is a call to action that could have been better designed, as the audience is encouraged to look up on their iPhones their representatives (in the U.S. House, I guess) and direct them  to save the planet. Implied violence with a toy baseball bat toward an audience member came up a few times in a puzzling way. The Fringe history of workshoppy experimentation was sustained.

Perhaps in a revised form, with an experienced sketch-comedy troupe performing it, "Climate Follies" could have a successful future as a rare piece of educational, agit-prop theater that doesn't forget to be entertaining. 

No such "we're-not-quite-ready-for-this,-but-here-it-is" sense adhered to "Beyond Ballet." The successor to the Indianapolis Ballet's 2019 festival debut reflects some of the recharging  atmosphere that has affected all arts groups as the promise of managing the pandemic widens. There is a blitheness to much of the program that founding director Victoria Lyras almost apologized for before introducing "Beatlemania." But everything looked well-prepared.

The new show, with a home at the Atheneum's Basile Theatre,  cuts back somewhat from the flair and imaginative range of the 2019 show. And the new setting lacks the intimacy of the District Theatre's Main Stage;  the dimensions of the stage make the wings too visible; keeping the right illusion — a delicate matter when it comes to ballet — may be a problem depending on where you sit..

It was a treat to see the pas de deux from "Diana and Actaeon," after its local premiere in April, danced with inspired partnership by Yoshiko Kamikusa and Chris Lingner. Kamikusa also offered a poised and poignant performance of Saint-Saens' beloved solo cello piece, "The Swan," imaginatively staged by Lyras. 

"Scherzo Passionato," brilliantly choreographed across broad emotional terrain by Kristin Young Toner, opens the program, as thrilling to watch as it was at the Toby last April. "Fantasia Concertante" sets a half-dozen women in continuous motion to choreography that seems more attentive to phrasing in the large sense and does much less with the string orchestra's heavy accents in the recorded score. No one wants mickey-mousing of sharply accented music, but  the dancing seemed to emphasize flow above all. I wondered if Filipe Aragao-Benton was striving for modern classicism in the Balanchine manner. But the impression of a mismatch between music and dance remained.

"Beatlemania" opened unpromisingly with "I Saw Her Standing There," as if only a sock-hop vibe needed to be evoked. Nuance came later: Lyras has placed a couple of solos well in the lively mix. William Robinson brought out the wistful notes of "In My Life," and Jessica Miller shed a little extra radiance upon "Here Comes the Sun."  The sentimental side of the Beatles got a further outing in "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You" (the program transposed a couple of the title's words). A female ensemble had fun with  "All My Loving," and some virtuoso turns of exuberance emphasized the straightforward wish behind "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Money is probably never far from an arts organization's mind, so give Lyras extra points for the sincerity with which she set the company finale, "Can't Buy Me Love."

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