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St. Lou Fringe 2018

The St. Lou Fringe festival has come to Grand Center again, featuring two headline acts–one national and one local–and a variety of performances by an array of different local and national artists. It’s a celebration of the performing arts at their most quirky and inventive–or, at least, it’s supposed to be. I didn’t get to see as many shows this year as I would have liked, but what I did see was something of a mixed bag in terms of quality, ranging from top-notch shows, to shows that need work. Here are my reviews:

The Gringo (Local Headliner)

Music, Lyrics, and Book by Colin Healy

Directed by Colin Healy

Cast of The Gringo
Photo by Bob Crowe
St. Lou Fringe

The first show I saw at this year’s Fringe is a show that embodies a lot of the qualities that I have come to expect in a Fringe show–challeging, thought-provoking, timely, and inventive. It’s not a perfect show, but there’s definitely promise there, and the music and cast are excellent. Written entirely by local artist Colin Healy but taking place in Miami, the show is certainly distinctive, even though the sound balance and odd acoustics in the .Zack made it difficult to understand at least half of the lyrics. Still, there’s a story here, and some great characters, even if there are too many and some of their situations and relationships are difficult to figure out.

The Gringo is also somewhat of a baffling title, since it references a character who isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the focus of the show, and whose role in the show is confusing to say the least. Ishmael (Riley Dunn), who is white, is a wandering street artist whose wanderings have taken him to a mostly non-white neighborhood in Miami. I sort of get the initial focus on him in terms of portraying how often artists of color are ignored in favor of white artists trying to be “edgy” and getting celebrated as such, but still, the real focus of the show is (and should be) Kahlo (Alcia Reve Like), a famous artist who laments being treated as a curiosity at best by white tourists. The story takes place in the aftermath of the killing of local artist El Fantasma by police, and it follows the reactions of various people who were close to him, such as his brother Diego (Gheremi Clay), who is something of a “friends with benefits” type relationship with Kahlo, although Kahlo, along with Ishmael, decide to navigate the unpredictable world of online dating, which is how the two artists meet and form a tentative relationship, which further alienates Diego, who is wary of Ishmael but also gives him his nickname, “The Gringo”. As white “internet celebrities” such as @Sally7777777 (Janine Norman) discover Ishmael’s work and plaster it all over Instagram in a self-congratulatory “look what I discovered” sort of way, the rest of the neighborhood prepares to memoralize El Fantasma, Diego searches for answers and validation, and the somewhat mysterious Manni (Robert Crenshaw) occasionally appears expressing his animosity for The Gringo. There’s also popular drug dealer Molto (Omega Jones) and Kahlo’s friend Reya (Evann De-Bose), who have a tragic subplot of their own. The characters’ relationships and motivations are muddled, to say the least, and there are  simply too many plots to follow coherently. I think keeping the main focus on Kahlo’s and Diego’s situations would make the most sense, and while Ishmael has his moments, he seems mostly irrelevant by the time the story draws to a close.

There are some great performances here, especially from Like, Clay, Jones, and Norman, and the songs are clever and memorable, at least from what I could hear of them.  The look of the show is striking, with an eye-catching set (designer not credited in the program), art by Tielere Cheatem, and distinctive costumes by Carly Uding. The band conducted by Healy is excellent as well, as is the energetic choreography by Christopher Page-Sanders. The sound mix is uneven, though, and the story is incomprehensible at times because the lyrics of the songs were often drowned out by the band. This is a show with definite promise, if Healy could streamline it some and make a clearer focus on the more compelling characters and define the relationships and character motives more clearly. Overall, it’s an impressive debut, even though it still needs some work.

Race Cars and Romance (National Headliner)

Book by Klay Rogers, Music by Brent Rogers, Lyrics by Klay Rogers and Brent Rogers

Directed and Choreographed by Brandon Bieber

Even though it’s not a perfect show, The Gringo has a lot of potential and fares much better than Fringe’s national headline act, Race Cars and Romance, which is, frankly stated, a mess. Staged with much fanfare at the Grandel, this show just leaves me asking “why?’ on so many levels. Billed as a “family friendly musical”, it’s basically just a big collection of stereotypes, shallow characters, poor plot structuring, and a plot that’s so episodic it almost comes across as more of an anthology than a play–and not a very good anthology at that. I will say to start, though, that the performance I saw was a preview, and I hope the overall energy improved in the subsequent performances, but in terms of characters and structure, I don’t see how seeing one of the “official” performances would have mattered.

The focus is on an oil change shop in a small Alabama town, in which a collection of characters work, including new “star” mechanic Roni (Emily Trumble), who grew up in the town but spent some time working on the racing team of star stock car racer Chuck Champion, who is talked about a lot but never actually appears on stage. Another stock car racer and childhood friend of Roni’s, the clueless and somewhat vain Johnny Ray Ratchet (Ralph Meitzler), has been struggling on the racing circuit and is due to race at Talladega starting in last position, and needs his car fixed in preparation for the race. He brings it to the oil change, meets Roni, and… well, that’s all for a really long time while the play takes a break from their story to tell a lot of other stories that are only peripherally related to the main plot. It’s odd how much this plot is treated like an afterthought even though it’s supposed to be the lead story, as all the other characters are given their moments but not in a way that contributes much to the main story arc. We just get a lot of cliches and stereotypes, with some interesting characters but mostly a lot of filler, and excuses for songs that don’t advance the plot. There are some good performances here, especially from the big-voiced Trumble as Roni and Rachel Bailey as Roni’s friend, the romantically adventurous Louraine, who has a sweet but somewhat confusing romance with sweet-natured mechanic Pedro (Fredy Ruiz). Meitzler is fine as Johnny Ray, even though his character doesn’t have much to do beyond bragging about his racing prowess and inexplicably changing his mind a lot. The chemistry between the two leads is OK but not great, and there are some interesting songs but only one that really stands out–the plaintive duet “Lonely Lovers Game” for Johnny Ray and Roni, but the song is in the wrong place in the show, and it doesn’t do much to save the convoluted, implausible romance that doesn’t make a lot of sense in the long run. The cast does the best they can with what they are given, but they aren’t given much.

Techically, the show looks good, with a colorful set and costumes (production design credit is given to Klay Rogers). Still, as it is this is little more than a theme park show, and I’ve seen better shows at theme parks. Creator Klay Rogers gave an introduction before the performance explaining that a lot of the stories here are based on a real job he had at an oil change shop in Texas, but there are too many stories here and for the most part, this doesn’t work as one show. Maybe it would be better if he split the stories up into several different shows.

As a writer who sees myself as a fan more than as a critic, I try my best to be kind even when I don’t like a show, but I find that difficult with a show like this. The cast deserves credit for the effort, but the show itself has little to recommend.  I really hope Fringe picks something better to take center stage next year.

Now Playing Third Base For the St. Louis Cardinals… BOND, JAMES BOND

by Joe Hanrahan

Directed by Shane Signorino

The Midnight Company

From the always intriguing Joe Hanrahan comes a delightful show that’s part personal memoir, part history lesson, part nostalgia, and all fascinating. It’s a cleverly constructed one-man show from St. Louis’s king of one-man shows, Hanrahan, who narrates and plays all the characters as needed. It’s a lesson in theatre appreciation as well, along with baseball appreciation and an appreciation for the 1960s-era James Bond films, particularly From Russia With Love. 

Telling the story as himself, Hanrahan takes the audience back to his childhood in St. Louis during the storied 1964 World Series-winning season for the St. Louis Cardinals. He weaves the story of that team with reminiscences of his little league practices and what he refers to as his introduction to theatre–a recounting of the plot of the “new” James Bond movie by one of his teammates, Danny.  As Hanrahan, playing Danny, tells the story of the movie, Hanrahan as himself gives the audience background information about the film and also stories about that famous Cardinals team, St. Louis in the 1960s as well as the history of theatre, World War II and more. It’s a somewhat difficult show to describe adequately, but what it is is excellent. Hanrahan through use of his great storytelling skills and impressive use of video designed by Michael B. Perkins, holds the audience spellbound for about an hour. It’s a great show, and I hope Hanrahan will get a chance to perform it again in another venue. It’s entertaining, educational, thought-provoking, and an ideal example of the best of what the Fringe can be, along with the last show I’m reviewing.

Aphrodite’s Refugees

Created by Monica Dionysiou, Visual Art by Aaron Young

MonTra Performance

Monica Dionysiou
Photo by Bob Crowe
St. Lou Fringe

I was looking forward to seeing this show, after seeing and enjoying Dionysiou’s last show at St. Lou Fringe in 2015, the  Alice In Wonderland inspired “Paper Glass”.  Here, like in that previous show, Dionysiou combines dramatic performance with visual art, but now her story is more personal, taken from her own family’s story, and she’s joined by Aaron Young, who paints a picture during the performance, illustrating and augmenting Dionysiou’s narrated tale.

Dionysiou tells the story, weaving with legends of the Greek goddess Aphrodite playing a card game with Ares, the God of War. In between these segments, she narrates the story of her family on the island of Cyprus. The main figure in this story is Dionysiou’s father, George, called “Koko”, portrayed by Dionysiou along with his sisters Eleftheria and Andrula, and his brother Dionysus. Through personal recollections, they tell the story of the family throughout various conflicts involving the continuing conflicts between the Greek (represented by the Dionysious) and Turkish populations of Cyprus. It’s a compelling story, based on Dionysiou’s interviews with her family, and her portrayals of all the characters, particularly the determined Koko and the mischievous Andrula, are convincing and impressive. She also makes excellent use of sound effects for the “card game” sequence as Young impressively recounts the story with his painting, including elements of movement that add to the story and the overall drama. It’s a fascinating story, and another ideal example of the excellence and inventiveness that should be celebrated by Fringe. I’ve been extremely impressed by both of Dionysiou’s shows that she has done here, and I hope to see her at a future Fringe as well.

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