Monday, September 6, 2021

Fringe Festival's third weekend was almost the charm

 Leading up to Labor Day, my miscellany of 2021 Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival events spread over three days suggests I might as well go for the laughs first. (I took a breather Sept. 4; what follows are some impressions from shows I saw Sept. 3 and 5. )

The spirit of spontaneity is uppermost in the Fringe tradition, so that a high priority is not put on polished performances. Encountering rough-around-the-edges shows can be welcome, and the muse of comedy typically gives an inviting nod to presentations that embody human foibles in addition to pointing them out.

At the Indy Fringe Basile Theatre Sept. 3, I took in an old Fringe favorite, the locally based troupe of young black comedians known as Act a Foo Improv Crew. The company was dependably bonded internally, with Daniel A. Martin the master of the revels, calling out the improv games and selecting from among the five-man crew assembled onstage, all on the edge of their seats when not assigned to cavort. 
The troupe thrives on taking chances

Practiced in zany verbal and gestural games over its 10-year lifespan, Act a Foo again played up to enthusiastic audience response, as Martin fielded shouted suggestions that were sometimes off-the-wall, thus inspiring off-the-wall realizations. The instantaneousness of crew's short-form creativity forced members to come up with something plausible, relying on mother wit and group rapport.

Given the wildness of the genre, plausibility is an all-accommodating notion. An individual failure to mimic kabuki theater or to adopt a French accent was readily acknowledged and made part of the fun. What counts is the relentless application of instant comic response in an atmosphere of trust in the process. Act a Foo delivered, folding in both hits and misses as if both ends of the spectrum could add up to success.

My other hour of amusement last weekend was "Deadpan Jan: My

Jan's near-smile

Life Is Not a Sex Party, Or Is It?' which was presented in the Indy Eleven Theatre that's part of the same Fringe building. Jan Gudaitis truly markets herself with that rhyming title. Apart from being outfitted distinctively, the comedienne's appearance came across as nondescript, along with her voice.

Jan's stream of observations about her life, including some rather severe assessments of her skinflint husband, reached out into fantasies about a Netflix special and dishing with Oprah. Dating misadventures from early adulthood were mixed in with Carlinesque reflections on language oddities. 

An interesting advantage of her deadpan style, nearly devoid of changes in facial expression or vocal tone, is that the jokes that fall flat do so with the same nonchalance as the guffaw generators. There is no arc to a deadpan delivery that cues the audience as to what's the set-up and what's the punchline. Furthermore, I found myself laughing quasi-genuinely but somewhat by the power of suggestion, with a note of self-assertion, as if to say, "Yes, I got that one!"  The audience likewise seemed to be making up for the lack of rise and fall in Jan's delivery by indicating amused sympathy with her outlook on life. 

The rough-around-the-edges aspect showed up in her sporadic glances at notes on a table, with the incidence of blackout cues seeming a little random. Also, though she asked if the microphone was on when she started, failing to get a clear answer she conducted the whole monologue unamplified. The audience went along with it; her softspokenness was part of the point, after all.

My Sunday afternoon began with a vigorously imaginative production of "The Old Man and the Old Moon," a play with music created by the Pig Pen Theatre Co., and presented here by a group out of Carmel High School, directed by Maggie Cassidy.  The show has a narrative of fey fantasy that was pretty well realized by performers working under the disadvantage of being away from their technically well-equipped home theater. 

The cavernous environment of the Athenaeum stage did not flatter the young voices individually, but the illusion of a charming myth about how the moon might have gone from always full to new to the waxing-waning satellite we've always known and loved — that well-designed story — stayed intact through an array of production challenges. With considerable help from the audience's imagination, the show provided enough encouragement to be rather engaging.

I wish I had been as charmed by an original musical comedy at the District Theatre, titled "Rocket in Your Pocket! Father Ned in Space, The Musical." With a book by Kate Duffy and music by a team of four, the Clerical Errors production also required considerable effort to make an admittedly fantastic illusion work even provisionally. It did so somewhat, but a show without a realistic bone in its body needs to be thoroughly grounded.

A lot of the humor is based on inoffensive Irish Catholic stereotypes (except for an alcoholic character). Jon Lindley, the one member of the cast whose local theater presence I'm most familiar with, appears in the title role as an anxious priest on Perpendicular Island near Ireland. He mentors a younger priest aspirant who has an out-of-this-world connection that shapes the whimsical sci-fi plot. A pair of Jesuits act ambitiously as the show's villains; their society's historically rooted drive is used here to demonize Lutherans and otherwise seek control within universal Catholicism. 

The songs drop into place with variable ease: smooth transitions from dialogue to song and back are always a challenge in musical theater. The projection of the solo voices varied as well, with loud recorded accompaniment sometimes obscuring the lyrics. The seven songs are placed well among the sometimes confusing dialogue and needed to be put across more consistently. 

The workshopping sometimes unapologetically present in Fringe shows was fully on view in "Oak Island, In Concert," which American Lives Theatre billed for Fringe as the preview of a show intended for full presentation presumably in the near future. The singing of the four-person cast was well-prepared and blended well. Music carried the show better than the dialogue, as the drama suffered certainly by the fragmentary presentation of a work-in-progress. A couple of songs were added to the finished portion to crown the Fringe performance, including a rousing drinking song that easily brought the audience into the picture. 

The story is based on the legend of a buried treasure on the island of the title near Halifax, Nova Scotia. A father's determination to dig down to the buried hoard has ended in his death by heart attack. It's left to his two sons, who have never gotten along, to figure out a way to carry on the project and repair fraternal rifts. "Oak Island" as a show remains to be evaluated when it can be appreciated for its balance of words and music.

Thus ends the first "post-pandemic" Indy Fringe Theatre Festival. Though my coverage was not at blitz level, what I saw indicated that the annual event may have suffered in its usual wide reach and thoroughness of preparation, show for show. Some decline was probably predictable, given the interruption all the performing arts have suffered recently. With COVID-19 threats diminished, the 2022 event can be expected to share in the arts' revival.


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