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St. Lou Fringe 2014

St. Lou Fringe 2014

Welcome to Part 2 of my “Notes From the Fringe”! Before I continue in reviewing the shows I saw at this year’s St. Lou Fringe, I want to add a few comments about the general atmosphere of the festival.  The “Street Fringe” in Strauss Park was a great idea. With various acts performing on the stage in the middle of the park near the Fringe Box Office, it provided a great “home base” for the festival, and a good place for patrons to spend time between shows. The Fringe Family events on Saturday and Sunday were a great way to encourage participation from patrons of all ages.  There was such a great overall atmosphere of artistic expression and mutual appreciation at the final party, as well, and I’m glad I was able to see even more shows this year.  The shows ranged from rough experiements to “works in progress” to polished, professional presentations, and while I enjoyed some shows more than others, that variety is really the essence of what makes a Fringe festival unique. It’s a celebration of the arts and of creativity in general.  I have high hopes for next year, and for the future of the arts in this great city.

Now, on to the rest of my reviews!

Core Project Chicago
Saturday, June 21st, 2:00pm

I have to give credit to this production for reading my mind, at least partially. I had never reviewed a purely dance production, so about halfway through the first segment of this show, in which the five primary dancers (Megan Beseth, Patti Garvey, Christine Hands, Kate O’Hanlon and Tiffany Philpott) danced an expressive routine with a classical music background, I had been feeling somewhat inadequate and wondering how I would review it. Then, after this piece, the words flashed onto the screen behind them to the effect of “Now, you’re probably wondering–oh shit, this is just another modern dance show!” I laughed, as did the rest of the audience. What followed was definitely not “just another modern dance show”, as the dancers presented very personal works while their pictures and stories were projected on the screen behind them.

Directed by Erin Rehberg and choreographed by Rehberg, Beseth, Hands and Matthew Frasier-Smith, this presentation impressed me as an ingenious combination of acting, dancing, and multi-media storytelling. The various routines ranged from the humorous (an ode to housecleaning, a celebration of individuality and quirkiness, a segment in which two dancers talk about their lives as they get ready to dance) to the more serious (a segment called “Dividing Line”, in which dancers jockey for position as they stretch before a routine, and another segment that highlights feelings of coldness and isolation). There was even a fun interlude in which the venue’s house manager was brought into the act. This struck me as a very personal, very current production that very cleverly integrated the dances with other forms of storytelling to create a very 21st Century presentation.

Foster and Fortitude
Cranky Yellow
Sunday, June 22nd, 2:00pm

This is quite possibly the strangest show I have ever seen. It’s a struggle to even think about how to describe it in written form, since this was such a completely immersive production–even more so than any of the others I saw at Fringe, or really anywhere else. It’s a play, but it’s also a concert, an art show and a rummage sale. Yes, a rummage sale. They actually stop the show in the middle so that the audience will have the opportunity to purchase the various knickknacks that decorate the stage, as jazz-influenced music plays and David Wolk (as Fortitude) wanders the space with a hand puppet, encouraging patrons to get up out of their seats and shop. I’m not sure what to think about this aspect of the show, although the overall “anything goes” attitude of this production is certainly impressive. This is is the kind of show in which a group of enthusiastic artists just keep throwing out more and more outrageous ideas, hoping that the audience will go along with their enthusiasm. In this case, for the most part, the audience did go along for the journey.

The essential story, inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, presents a story of an artist’s journey to find his lost creativity. Foster (the more subdued Jake Adams) and Fortitude (the outrageously energetic Wolk) are separated early in the story, and the initially reluctant Foster is eventually encouraged to chase after Fortitude in a quest that takes him under the sea, and through his own doubts and lost confidence. The audience is brought into the action as they are encouraged to hold hands and shout at Foster to awaken him, and the story continues through elements of musical theatre, jazz performance, guided visualization (and a funny song about a weasel) and finally, a chaotic celebration. It’s colorful, it’s ambitious, and the cast is extremely, infectiously enthusiastic. It’s more than a little confusing at times, but for the most part, it works. A Fringe Festival is the ideal setting for a highly experimental, hit-or-miss show like this, and I’m very glad for the experience of it.

Creepy Basement Players
Sunday, June 22nd, 3:30pm

Creepy Basement Players Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

Creepy Basement Players
Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

The Creepy Basement Players, a local improv troupe, were everywhere at this year’s St. Lou Fringe. Featured in various presentations at the Street Fringe in Strauss Park, including a hilarious turn representing each of the acts that were unable to appear at the Fringe Tease presentation at the Fringe Kick-Off Party, this troupe also got their own dedicated show. Players Alex Carnes, Melissa Darch, Steven Harowitz, Colin Katrenak, Ben Lyons, and Petey Papavlasopoulos performed various routines with prompting from the audience, both in a long-form alternating scene format and in a more short-form, improv-games format.

Improv acts can be very uneven, but the Creepy Basement Players are very consistent. I was especially impressed by their energy and focus, and some of their funnier ideas in their long-form sketch, which consisted of a series of unrelated scenes that cycled throughout the performance. The “literary gangs” skit, in which street gangs based on classic authors like John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, and Louisa May Alcott, threaten to engage in a gang war, was especially well done. The audience-participation aspect was handled very well, too, as they allowed audience members to choose settings for their scenes, and contribute variables for such games as “Home Shopping Network”. All the players did a great job of keeping up the energy and timing, holding the audience’s attention throughout and generating many laughs. They managed to carry the whole hour they were allotted, with no real lulls in the performance, which is an impressive feat. This show was the comic highlight of the festival.

John Clark
Sunday, June 22nd, 5:00pm

This production, by local writer John Clark, was the shortest production I saw at Fringe, although I think it used its time very well. Running at about 20 minutes, Olivia is a play told in interview format, as various friends and acquaintances of a bright, artistic young college student, Olivia Jordan, recount their experiences with her upon learning of her tragic suicide. This is a concise, well-written, intense production with some excellent performances and a strong story with a great deal of emotion that, commendably, doesn’t veer over the edge into melodrama. It also deals with some very timely issues in a clear, poignant and challenging way.

Clark casts himself in perhaps the play’s most difficult role, that of Olivia’s narcissistic, entitled, abusive boyfriend, Riley, who refuses to take the blame for his own heinous actions that very likely contributed to Olivia’s suicide. Clark does a great job of being so thoroughly unlikable but still a believably human villain and not an unrealistic, cardboard ogre. Other standout performances include Alicen Moser in a sympathetic turn as Olivia’s best friend from high school, and Sarah Griffith as Olivia’s self-doubting college roommate. This is a show that intrigued me a lot, in that I didn’t know much about it before seeing it, and I found it extremely affecting. It was a very simple production, staged with the cast members sitting in chairs and recounting their interconnected stories. I was also impressed in that the unseen Olivia was such a fully realized character, even though she only “appears” in the descriptions of the other characters. Although it did have the air of a student performance, I found it to be a believable and well performed production, and the biggest surprise of the festival in my opinion. Clark is a promising young playwright and actor, and he has assembled a strong cast in support of his play.  This whole production was very well done.

The Apotheosis of Big Jim
Tesseract Theatre Company
Sunday, June 22nd 6:00pm

Chris Williams, Jessica Alvarado, Jamie Fritz Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

Chris Williams, Jessica Alvarado, Jamie Fritz
Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

This is another production that epitomizes the concept of “experimental theatre”. Written by Tesseract member Taylor Gruenloh, it’s more of a straightforward presentation than something like Foster and Fortitude, although it still plays around with the traditional theatrical form. Overall, I think this was a well-cast, well executed production even though the format was not always easy to understand. It’s supposed to make audiences think, though, and it certainly does that.

Presented initially as a play about an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and its members’ unexpected common connection with a recently deceased local apartment complex owner named Big Jim, the show starts off as a traditional play and then changes course into a more absurd direction. The meeting starts with its members (Jessica Alvarado, Brittanie Boado, Jamie Fritz, Taylor Gruenloh, Alexander L. Hylton, Chris Williams) sharing their stories and eventually get into an argument when one character, Sarah (Boado), gets angry and challenges them, but just when it looks like she’s going to tell her story, Boado breaks character and addresses the audience, and then other performers follow, as the the story then shifts between the “serious” plot and the more existential quest of its performers, as they act out various sketches involving clown noses, audience interaction (with Laurell Stevenson and Jarris Williams lending support as “clowns” in the audience), which eventually leads to a staged rebellion against the very concept of linear drama and the roles they are forced to play.It all ends in an abrupt and somewhat jarring manner. It’s a well-cast and crisply staged exercise in dramatic experimentation that comes across as two very different plays transposed together. It’s a clever idea, and the cast performed with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, although I did find myself wonder what exactly it was trying to communicate. It’s certainly thought-provoking, though, and perhaps that was the real point.

St. Lou Fringe Executive Director Em Piro and Fringe artists in Strauss Park Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

St. Lou Fringe Executive Director Em Piro and Fringe artists in Strauss Park
Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

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