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Review: New Orleans Fringe Festival 2011 

Will Coviello on what worked and what didn't at this year's Fringe Fest

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With 70 shows, the New Orleans Fringe Festival presents far more than anyone can catch. But there was a great array of choices in the 2011 event, and here are notes about some of the offerings.

  There are chick flicks, chick lit and now, apparently chick fringe. The two best shows I saw were from the Pacific Northwest and focused on domestic and family themes. Domestic Variations was a mesmerizing aerialist/dance piece by Ticktock Dance, and My Mind Is Like an Open Meadow was Portland, Ore.-based Erin Leddy's interdisciplinary solo show based on a year she spent recording conversations with her grandmother.

  In Domestic Variations (pictured) at the cavernous warehouse space at the Den of Muses, a trio of women spent an hour soaring on and above a canopied bed, a stove and a claw-foot tub with a halo-like circular shower curtain bar. A brief introductory voice-over featured narrative about what's depicted in unseen childhood photos and relationships between figures. At times, the women made tea or mimicked cleaning the tub, but most of the action took place at higher elevations, and the movement, often with all three interacting on the same trapeze or the bed's bars, was amazingly creative, varied, sensuous, vigorous, at times playful and other times elegant. The result was a stunning aerial dance piece by the Seattle-based troupe.

  Leddy's project incorporated singing, dancing and abstract movement in a piece built around a conversation between Leddy (live) and recordings of her grandmother talking about her life. The first 20 minutes dwelled on the sometimes wise and sometimes cranky wit of older people. But then Leddy opened up an emotionally explosively monologue about loss of loved ones, childhood fears, anxiety and the creative process. She shed clothes and rolled on the ground, melted down in a primal-fit like confession. There were many poignant, stark and even frightening moments, but her in-the-moment commitment to the piece was extraordinary, and the last 40 minutes were riveting.

  There were several very impressive conventional comic plays. My Aim Is True was sort of a spaghetti Western (without out-of-sync dubbing) featuring a grizzled gunslinger whose horse died in the desert, leaving him to crawl for three days to the town where he intends to kill everyone. He works his way through a series of hilariously overwrought Western characters — annoyingly talkative saloonkeeper, drunk barber, gold-toothed brothel madam, card-playing doctor, onstage narrator who talks to both the gunslinger and the audience — as the purpose of his mission finally emerges. The large cast of Brooklynites relied almost exclusively on costumes to set the piece and delivered a great show.

  A local show, La Concierge Solitaire also featured an array of eccentric characters, but all played by Cecile Monteyne in the one-woman show. A bored and lonely hotel concierge, she passes the time by imagining odd hotel visitors, including a maid with a Midwestern drawl and big dreams; a conniving Russian-accented figure (who may or may not work for the hotel); a disaffected wealthy socialite; and an academic who's mistakenly traveled to the wrong conference. Monteyne did a great job of staging back-and-forth conversations between guests, and getting the most out of a single prop, a raised eyebrow or clever turn of phrase.

  Fans of puppetry had plenty of options, including a pair of shows at the Mudlark Public Theatre. Resident troupe the Mudlark Puppeteers presented The Bride of Black Lake, a dark take on the Corpse Bride folk tale. In its version, a young Russian Jewish bride is killed on the way to her wedding in an act of anti-Semitic violence. Spirits in the netherworld give her a chance to return to her groom, but she must give up her voice to do so. It brings out the darkness of prejudice and treatment of women during the period (1880s), and there is nothing light about the choices Lida must make. The puppets were beautiful, and the use of shadow puppetry very good. Mudlark's puppeteers often choose stories with dark and difficult historic aspects, and once again they created a somber and compelling modern folk drama.

  Billy the Liar by North Carolina's Toybox Theatre and Cripps Puppets was a much more lighthearted and fun show. The marionette piece was presented on a small proscenium stage, and the costumed puppeteers worked visibly from above — as if hosting a children's educational program, but with an air of hipster nostalgia. Billy is a nerdy serial liar, and the schoolgirl he is trying to impress sees through all of it. A lurking villain, however, believes everything Billy says and this gets both of the kids in trouble. It's a whimsical feel-good tale for all ages.

  Among the cabaret offerings was Faux Real and '33. In the former, San Francisco-based female drag queen Fauxnique's one-woman show combined singing, lip-syncing, dance and gymnastics and themes about art, gender, performance and illusion. More inspired moments included envisioning Madonna as a butch drag queen, bringing out the determined and forceful side of her personality. The Black Swan from Swan Lake was at least very timely if not an unsurprising cipher for exploring male and female attributes in the same figure. Bremner Duthie's '33 was a one-man cabaret show about the musicians, artists and eccentrics of Weimar Berlin's cabaret scene as the Nazis clamped down on free expression in 1933. Bremner was most entertaining when taking on the personas of various performers, including a female prostitute whose clientele have exotic tastes.

  Tsunami Dance's Ghostwalk was a sharply executed contemporary dance presentation, with a trio of dancers working through a fairly seamless series of pieces choreographed individually and jointly by John Allen and Kettye Voltz.

  Boston's CHIMERAlab Theatre Project presented Unaccountable Fog, a more abstract dance piece, which was overrun with spasm and contortion. The dancers exhibited flashes of impressive technique and interesting movement, but overall there was simply too much in the way of primal shakes and fits, and the choreography stuck to ideas that made the piece seem introverted if not solipsistic.

  There was a good piece within EE Me & Pollock Thee, but I am not sure why the production was staged as an opera rather than a play. There were wonderful flourishes of dialogue by Andrew Vaught as an obsessive E.E. Cummings and a credibly intense representation of Jackson Pollock by Chris Lane. But neither of the two main characters sang, which left me wondering why it was staged as a musical piece.

  The Fringe is a place for productions that experiment and take risks. Of the shows I caught, some of the most daring produced some of the most exciting results. The festival rewarded those who ordered the most exotic things on the menu, and left local audiences hungry for more. — Will Coviello

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