This year's 12th Annual Seattle Fringe Festival presents 97 productions by 94 companies on 9 different stages over the course of 11 days. With most of the productions within easy walking distance on Seattle's Capital Hill area, one can easily spend the entire day seeing shows of an astonishing variety. Given the sheer number of productions, I decided to simply just sample as many shows as I could fit into one long day, virtually at random, and at three different venues. Here's what I found.
These three inter-related one-acts are a stark exploration of the loss, anger and cynicism generated by the suicide of the rock star Kurt Cobain. The first play takes place while Cobain's body still lays in the bathroom, and while his wife Courtney Love is still digging his teeth from out of the wall where a shotgun blast has blown them. The fury between her (Heidi McAlister) and the drummer (Thomas Piper) is filled with danger and despair. Ms. McAlister finds just the right blend of ambition and distrust, and Piper creates a striking portrait of the desolation left when this "voice of a generation" abandons those who believe in him. This play has an immediacy and impact that is totally missing in the next two. The second is really just a scene-change filler, a man shuffling storyboard cards. Dumb. The final play wanders off in a parallel but contrived story of a rock-star who breaks out of her contract, is pursued by an enigmatic "suit", interviewed and videod by another ambitious musician, and finally commits suicide in her parent's home. Everything that gave the first piece a dynamic immediacy is missing here, and the end result is to make the genuine impact of Cobain's death seem self-involved, artificial and contrived. Not exactly what they wanted.
This harrowing drama is set in a Boston mental hospital in 1950, where the CIA is subjecting two women to involuntary experimentation with LSD and brainwashing techniques. It's excruciating and intense, but the riveting performance of Mary Jane Gibson and Nicole DuFresne transforms this histrionic material from snake-pit sensationalism to a kind of poetry from Hell. Side by side in adjoining cells, drawn with chalk on the floor, they search for anything real enough to remain constant, for some reason to their misery, and for a way of connecting to one another. Lost in their own minds, and in existence itself, they cling to every possibility of substance, every chance to own the reality of their own thoughts for even a moment. The system is a dehumanized authoritarianism, and allowing themselves to comfort each other is no less fraught with danger. In the end, the question is not how to live in such circumstances, but what it means to live at all, and how we create or reject every element of our reality and our relationships. The brilliance of the language, and the tight dramatic construction gives their desperate madness the lyricism of Rimbaud. This was one of those plays that could not have gone on ten minutes longer and still been endurable, and could not have been ten minutes shorter without great loss. It's precisely the kind of art and passion that fringe theatre should be about.
Nikki McCrettonis certainly a talented dancer, actress and mine, but Lord does this show ask a lot of the audience. Dressed as a cloistered nun in front of a wall of open shelves, each containing a neatly covered box, and each box containing another element of her regimented life. Slowly, ever so slowly, we are introduced to her daily routine of polishing the furniture, doing exercise, eating dehydrated noodles in a cup, washing herself, changing the "Time Man of the Year" photo on the wall, engaging a solemn red book and generally moving from task to duty to ritual. With repetition and some variation in pace, we do get the point (oh, do we get it) that this is becoming insufferable. That, of course, leads to acts of personal liberation that literally take her out of her habit, and eventually the cell. It's all very artistic, quite competently if not expertly performed, and a long, slow ride on a very short train.
The most interesting thing about this erotic, explicit dance/performance piece is how ordinary it all seems. That's not really a negative comment. These performers come in the shapes and sizes of real people, not exotic dancers. Their performance is well-practiced, but not especially precise. Their varied explorations of sexual experience are filled with the commonplace doubts and social insecurities we all feel. Most of the time, whatever real heat and sexual tension they generate leads to momentary excitement, and then quickly returns to the plain light of day. The piece is always interesting, often amusing, at times disturbing (one section in which a woman subjects herself to degradation, in particular), sometimes a bit tired (another litany of forbidden sexual words), and generally more like a campout among very close friends than anything distinctive, new or daring. The ensemble, who developed this piece together, has a bit too much comfort, a bit too much familiarity to give it the edge it needs. When in the final moment of the play they all remove their minimal costumes to stand naked before the audience, it is neither effective nor necessary. It was striking 40 years ago in "Hair", but now it achieves nothing, and the good parts of this performance have nothing to do with good body parts.
Oy Veh! This evening of Klezmer song and dance, Yiddish theatre and Ladino tradition has precious little to do with erotica, other than a smart recognition that the title would bring in a lot more traffic than "Yiddish Music" would have. The performer, Sheila Fox, has a small and not especially attractive voice, and the eroticism consists mostly of some burlesque-style teasing around the subject of Jewish women, and a pointless sketch in which she takes off her robe, begins nude, and then dresses for a date. Without being too unkind, the body in question really doesn't want its own show. Frankly, the technical support provided by her red bustier was quite needed, and there's nothing in the material to generate even mild titillation. Fortunately, the real subject here is the music, and her marvelous ensemble is really all this show has going for it. The song selections span a great historic and cultural range, and it's all unusual and interesting. If only anything else in this cheesy, well-intended but sadly inadequate show rose to the level of the band.
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