Posts Tagged ‘grand high productions’

St. Lou Fringe 2014 was a wild, weird and wonderful weekend of daring, experimental and sometimes off-the-wall artistic activity.  This is my second year attending the festival, and while the event is still not as big and as well-attended as I wish it were, it’s getting there.  The sheer enthusiasm demonstrated by Executive Director Em Piro and the entire Fringe staff is impressive, as is the passion and artistry displayed by the various participants, from right here in St. Louis and from around the country.  I was honored to be included as a member of the Reviewers’ Panel at this year’s festival.  I managed to see 10 shows this year, as well as attending the Closing Extravaganza party at Fubar in Midtown, where I got to share my thoughts about the shows I saw and vote for my own favorite (noted below).  It was a great experience, and I have high hopes that next year’s Fringe will be even bigger, bolder and better.  Here are my thoughts on the first five shows I saw:

A Goofball Rock Recital Grand High Productions Thursday, June 19th at 6:00pm

Ben Mankus, Joey Puricelli Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

Ben Mankus, Joey Puricelli
Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

Joey Puricelli certainly has a lot of enthusiasm. I saw his show, Total Nonsense, at last year’s Fringe, and my impression was that it had some good ideas and some funny moments, but came across as unpolished and a little confusing. This year seems to be in the same vein, but in concert form. In A Goofball Rock Recital, Puricelli takes the stage by himself for two performances, and with special musical guests for two more. The performance I saw featured Ben Mankus on guitar and vocals, with Puricelli singing lead vocals and playing a variety of instruments including jaw harp, harmonica, and tambourine (with his foot). As with last year’s performance, there are some good ideas here, and some truly funny moments, especially with Puricelli’s parodies of pop songs featuring various subjects with geek-appeal, like “The Legend of Zelda” video games (“The Fresh Princess of Hyrule”), The Hobbit (“Precious Confusions”, a parody of Alanis Morrissette’s “Hand In My Pocket”) and Homestar Runner (“The Cheat’s Exploding Head”, a parody of Katy Perry’s “Firework”). There’s even a lyrically clever literary parody with “Poe Folks”, singing about Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado to the tune of The Eagles’s “Desperado”.

The original songs are, for the most part, cleverly written and have some fun ideas, but the vocals are uneven and although Puricelli is a likable guy, he doesn’t have a lot of presence as a performer. He also spends a lot of time reading the lyrics off of his computer. He comes across better when bantering with Mankus between songs, and the spoken/rapped numbers are more successful than those that are sung. He and Mankus work well together on some of the more interesting covers, such as a mashup of the Beatles “Hey Jude” and Outkast’s “Hey Ya” which is basically the lyrics of the former spoken/chanted to the rhythm of the latter. An obscure song from YouTube artist Lemon Demon, “The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny”, also has its fun moments. Although the overall quality of this performance is uneven and unpolished, there are some genuinely good ideas here, and I think Puricelli’s best skill is as a lyricist who would probably be more successful writing for other artists. He and Mankus seemed to be having a great time, although the overall effect was more of two friends practicing songs at home rather than as a complete performance.

Nine/Sketch Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble with Leverage Dance Theatre Thursday, June 19th at 7:30pm

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye
Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

An encore presentation of a show that was originally performed last year at the beginning of SATE’s current season, Nine/Sketch is a truly fascinating piece of theatre. Blending two separate works into a seamless presentation, each focuses on two women and their relation to one another. The first segment, Sketch (devised by Hannah Fischer) has dancers Keli Hermes and Erin Lane in various short situations emphasizing emotions, from quick poses punctuated by blackouts to longer sequences of movement. There is no music so the mood is set by the dancers and the lighting. This is an expression of relationship and emotion, with the fluid movements of the dancers and their expressions communicating a range of feelings from sadness to confusion to pain to concern and compassion. This presentation leads directly into the next segment, which features two women in what only can be described as a bleak situation.

In SATE’s production of Jane Shepard’s Nine, Rachel Tibbets and Ellie Schwetye begin the performance sprawled on the floor, each confined inside a chalk circle which is drawn on the floor, and each wearing a long, heavy chain around her neck. They are apparently prisoners of some nameless, unseen captors, who are made to seem all the scarier because we don’t know much about them. Of the prisoners, Tibbetts is initially the more confident one–the veteran who has been here longer, and Schwetye is the newcomer who has just arrived back from what seems to be a grueling torture session. The two remain on the floor throughout the play,talking to one another in sometimes taunting, sometimes insulting, and sometimes concerned tones, making up little stories and remembering old sayings to keep their minds off the brutality of their situation. With intense, fully committed performances from the two leads, this is a powerful and riveting performance that’s more than a little disturbing. Just thinking about the horrors these two prisoners are facing is unsettling, and both actresses convey the brutality of the situation as well as their ever-present humanity in the midst of the horror. It’s terrifying, nerve-wracking,and completely compelling to watch. I didn’t get to see this show when it was first performed, and I’m glad Fringe has given me the opportunity to see it. This is an unforgettable performance.

Nine/Sketch is my Critic’s Pick for Best of St. Lou Fringe 2014

Landslide First Time Puppet Theatre Thursday, June 19th, 9:30pm

Through a combination of puppeteering, voiceovers, music and projection, the First Time Puppet Theatre presents the story of Amelia, a 40-year-old woman with Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s a highly emotional performance, focusing on images, sounds and feelings and although it can sometimes be difficult to follow, for the most part it’s an effective, moving story. It follows Amelia–portrayed by a puppet controlled by three puppeteers–as she emerges, birth-like, from a pile of clothes at the beginning of the performance, throughout her journey through the difficulties of losing her ability to care for herself, and as she rummages through old pictures and clothes, attempting to hold on to precious personal memories. Throughout the performance, images are projected on a screen along with short videos on a small TV inside a replica of a Victorian style house. This is all very stylized, mostly in a very serious tone, and again not always easy to follow, although that may be the point as Amelia herself is struggling with holding onto her memories and self-awareness.

This is a striking, unusual performance with probably the most expressive puppet I’ve ever seen. Even though her facial expression is fixed and incapable of actually changing, the careful manipulation of the puppeteers combined with the music and overall mood of the piece makes it appear as if the puppet’s face does change. Credit goes to the puppeteers and the puppet designer (Kim Wilson) for creating and operating such a fully realized character. It’s a unique, very emotionally affecting, even poetic multi-media performance.

The Next Dog King Jim Julien Friday, June 20th, 6:00pm

Jim Julien with "Saffron" Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

Jim Julien with “Saffron” in Strauss Park
Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

In the history of humans’ relationship with dogs, who is really in charge, and what do the dogs really think about their human companions? These questions are among those explored by Asheville, NC artist Jim Julien in his mixed-media presentation that features Julien playing several human roles in addition to providing the voices for the three puppets representing the dogs. In one of the funnier sequences in the show, Julien starts off portraying the death of Grendel, King of the Dogs, through the use of an articulated cut-out “acting” against a white board representing grass. Grendel then sprouts wings and ascends to heaven, precipitating the need for another dog to take over as King. What follows is a somewhat disjointed presentation in which Julien, portraying a professor or lecturer of some kind, talks from an academic perspective about humans’ relationship with dogs. Meanwhile, in a parallel story, the dogs prepare to choose a new King, with the prime candidates being Bolan, a young mixed-breed dog who loves his human companion, and Yuan Shao, a purebred dog who is proud of his lineage and has a great distrust of humans. Both of these dogs vie for the attentions of Saffron, who was essentially Grendel’s Queen (“his bitch”, in her words), and who presumably will be the new King’s mate as well. Julien also portrays Bolan’s owner, who shows a mixture of affection and confusion in relation to his dog.

Overall, this was an entertaining production, if a little uneven and confusing at times, with an over-emphasis on the lecture aspect and not as much focus on the dogs, whose story was the most compelling aspect of the piece. I think there could have been more backstory about why the dogs have a King and what the King does, and why it has to be a King and not a Queen, as well. Julien’s donning of a hat that reads “DOGBRAIN” whenever he’s speaking for the dogs is a clever device, and he does a good job of providing distinct voices for the dogs. The story drags on a little long, though–especially in the lecture sections, and the transitions between scenes were a little choppy and confusing. Overall, though, I think it’s a good idea and I hope Julien continues to develop it and polish the presentation.

Trial By Jury Act Two Theatre Friday, June 20th, 8:00pm

This is basically “Gilbert and Sullivan meets Divorce Court”. Adapted from one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s more obscure operettas, with additional music and arrangements by David Phillips and additional book and lyrics by Phillips and Sean Green, this production updates the setting of the original to modern day reality TV. For the most part, it’s a clever and often hilarious production with a great deal of audience participation, broad characterizations, and excellent singing. Portraying a trial for “breach of contract of marriage”, the show depicts an overly involved Bailiff (Harry Pickup), a moody jury and an Elvis-like Judge (Robert Michael Hansen), along with the much-vilified Defendant, the romantically conflicted charmer Eddie (Omega D. Jones), and the adored Plaintiff, the pageant queen-like Angelina (Brittany Kohl Hester), who is being wooed by both the Judge and the Bailiff in the midst of the trial. There are many pop-culture references and a very energetic ensemble, as well.

The stand-out performances here were from Hanson as the egotistical Judge, Pickup as the deep-voiced, overzealous Bailiff, and Jones as the smarmy Eddie, displaying an extremely strong tenor voice. Kohl Hester as Angelina and Shannon Slavik as the Jury Foreman also gave strong performances, with impressive voices and good comic timing. Kevin Hester as the Plaintiff’s Counsel gave a fine acting performance, although his singing wasn’t as strong. This performance, aside from the singing, is most notable for the very strong use of the audience participation elements, including in the amusing finale. The Judge even gave me a scarf as I was sitting in the front row.  The staging was kind of chaotic at times, but the overall performance was mostly a lot of fun.

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