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Fringe 2011 Review: The Mountain Song

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

PigPen Presents: The Mountain Song

1h 0m
VENUE #12: 4th Street Theatre
Performance seen:Sat 13 @ 7:30
Remaining performances: Thu 18 @ 6:30 Mon 22 @ 7:15 Thu 25 @ 10 Fri 26 @ 3:45 Sat 27 @ 12*
http://pigpentheatre.com/

Rating: 10
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

“PigPen Presents: The Mountain Song” was already going to be a hot ticket on the strength of the company’s general excellence award at last year’s Fringe (for “PigPen Presents: The Nightmare Story”). Now it’s going to be a hot ticket for word of mouth. Before, it was “if it’s anything as good as last year… .” Now, it’s “it’s even better than last year.”

The Mountain Song has a lyrical and narrative cohesion that seems deceptively simple to achieve. Through song and prose, the story is told of an carpenter searching for his mute daughter’s wedding. Along the way, he scales a mountain three times, is launched into flight by a waterfall, meets a giant and builds for him a pair of shoes the size of a boat, and is carried to the ocean by a man who uses his suitcase as a horse.

The voice of this thoroughly original story is that of a tradition of tall tales that’s distinctly American—no Swiftian sarcasm here—and the language is authentically that of the Appalachian hollers—perhaps those of West Virginia, a stone’s throw (at least, a giant’s stone’s throw) from Carnegie Mellon University, from which the troupe of seven graduated this past May.

The style is an emerging form that we might call theatrical collage.

The Pigpenners use a hand-held length of fabric to represent the mountain, a child’s dress for the daughter, a papier-mâché head and hand for the giant, a pair of fingers for the man climbing the fabric mountain, a shadow-stencil for a village, a shipping pallet for a raft, more shadow stencils, and more objects d’puppetry. That no two are of the same scale, even in the same scene, only adds to the charm.

Last year’s Fringe saw at least two such shows; besides Mountain Song’s Pigpen predecessor, there was the astonishingly incoherent and delightful “Butterfly, Butterfly, Kill Kill Kill!” (imagine if, instead of making “What’s Up Tiger Lily,” Woody Allen had spent four years at CMU with the Pigpen boys).

There’s nothing incoherent about “Mountain Song” though. The story moves clearly and inexorably toward a bittersweet ending that’s fully foretold in an opening speech, and the speechifying throughout is as charming as the bluegrass music, the shadow and other puppetry, and the life-sized acting.

The whole thing made me want to rent a couple of grandkids and go back to the next performance. The only thing better than seeing “Mountain Song” through adult eyes or those of a child would be seeing it through both at once.

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Fringe 2011 Review: The Bardy Bunch

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady

1h 40m
VENUE #9: The Ellen Stewart Theatre @ LA MAMA
Performance seen: Sat 13 @ NOON
Remaining performances: Fri 19 @ 9 (sold out!) Sun 21 @ 8:45 Wed 24 @ 2

Rating: 8
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

When I say I thoroughly enjoyed “The Bardy Bunch” you have to take into account that I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of the Brady Bunch (nor the movie); I was not a fan of the Partridge Family; and I don’t have the greatest head for Shakespeare.

Yes, Shakespeare.

“The Bardy Bunch” is a telling of Romeo and Juliet where the rivaling families are the Bradys and the Partridges and there are two forbidden loves, not one: Marcia–Keith, and Greg–Laurie.

But the Shakespearean references only start there. Midsummer Night’s Dream, All’s Well That Ends Well, Tempest, and most especially Macbeth and Hamlet—I can’t tell you all the plays quoted from and referenced (the playbill claims a dozen), because they come fast and furiously and, as I say, I don’t have the greatest head for Shakespeare, confusing the various gender-bending ones, for example. Sorting out the Hamlet from the Macbeth was particularly tricky until I realized that the same ghost was doing double-duty: For the Bradys, he’s Duncan, for the Partridges he’s Hamlet’s father.

It’s a clever idea, and that kind of cleverness pervades the show—notably in the mixing of Shakespearean plots, without losing itself in fealty to any one of them, but also in the use of music, especially the way “Woke Up in Love” and “I Can feel Your Heartbeat” hurtle the conflicts toward their inevitable tragic and hilarious conclusion.

The huge cast is entirely outstanding—it seems unfair to single anyone out, but Marcia (Cali Elizabeth Moore) and Greg (A.J. Shively) are particularly aptly cast, Erik Keiser’s singing channels Keith’s voice perfectly and is terrific in its own right, and speaking of voices, Craig Wichman gets Reuben’s so right it’s eerie. It’s probably not possible for the Alice part not to be a crowd pleaser, but Joan Lunoe does a terrific job of milking the small role for all it’s worth.

I have only two small complaints about this show—the name, and the fact that in an early scene Marcie and Jan make an explicit reference to Romeo and Juliet. It’s unnecessary, and undermines the show’s greatest charm—that the subtext to a story grounded in the most ephemeral of 1970s pop culture is rooted in the 16th century writer who created the most enduring cultural monuments we have. Indeed, the number of Fringe shows that reference the Bard is literally and figuratively uncountable, but I can’t remember enjoying it this much.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Fringe 2011 Review: COBU

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

COBU

VENUE #14: Bleecker Theatre
0h 45m
Show seen: Fri 12 @ 9:45
Remaining performances: Wed 17 @ 7:30 Fri 19 @ 5:15 Wed 24 @ 2:30 Thu 25 @ 5:15

Rating: 9
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

Our favorite of our three-show opening night of this year’s Fringe was COBU, which describes itself as an “explosive fusion of Japanese Taiko drumming and funk tap dance … created and directed by STOMP veteran Yako Miyamoto. COBU is a dance/percussion troupe with the motto ‘Dance like Drumming, Drum like Dancing’.”

The first piece uses five drums, three upstage, and two down, each with a woman wearing a unique outfit that in one way or another—whether its pink hot pants with black fishnets, or a yellow tank top, yellow shorts, and loose yellow leg warmers, or just an orange golf hat worn backwards—bespoke hip-hop. The woman at the center drum, who I came to quickly think of as the queen drummer, wore olive drab baggie cargo pants and a sort of long sleeveless black hoodie robe.

The entire effect was both sexy and extremely powerful, and got only more powerful as the show progressed.

Three dancers appeared between the two rows of drums, at least, at first they seemed to be just dancers, but they held drumming sticks and soon alternated the choreography with drumming on the floor itself.

There were about nine distinguishable pieces—the boundaries were unclear, except when the costumes changed, which happened several times—and perhaps my favorite was the third, in which the queen drummer led off with a lengthy tap dance that included using the side of her square-heeled tap shoe for added volume and, for a moment, rising en pointe. After the dance, she sat cross-legged downstage, facing away from the audience and toward two drummers who came out and played the rhythms she had tapped out. In a later number, she would sit in the same place and do a call-and-response with the entire troupe, with her banging only the floor.

Every time it seemed we’d seen everything the troupe had to offer, something new was added. In the fourth number, drums lying sideways were struck on both sides by two different women, several of whom, standing between two drums, alternated between them. The eighth piece was mostly dance, with the queen drummer holding the beat—mostly dancing, that is, until it evolved into a beautiful chanting song.

I can’t easily describe the finale except as a tour de athletic force of rhythm and choreography that included cartwheels, dancers jumping over one another, and the queen mother wielding a six-foot-long stick with which to strike the sticks of others and be struck by them.

A powerful pas de quatre in which dancers circled four drums and with perfect precision struck their own and those of the others, first with little ronde de jambs over them, then with swooping, drumming 360 turns beside them, was the dramatic highlight of the piece and an altogether pleasing show.

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Fringe 2011 Review: Rachel Calof

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

Rachel Calof

VENUE #2: CSV Flamboyan
1h 30m
Show seen: Fri 12 @ 5
Remaining performances: Fri 19 @ 2 Sat 20 @ 9 Sat 27 @ 2:15
http://www.rachelcalof.net

Rating: 4
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

A picture bride survives an unbearable childhood in Russia and a brutally harsh North Dakota family of in-laws and winter before things become better.

If this logline strikes you as surprisingly inactive for a dramatic story, you’ve identified the central problem in the one-person play “Rachel Calof.”

Teachers of narratives—whether it’s a play, movie, short story, novel, or even a memoir or nonfiction narrative destined for a magazine—all agree: If your story has a protagonist, the protagonist has to actively resolve the plot’s complications (or fail trying). Jack Hart, in his excellent book “Storycraft” says, “when you’re looking for a protagonist, search for the person who makes things happen.” Rachel Calof, it turns out, is no protagonist.

The play is based on a book, “Rachel Calof’s Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains” (Indiana University Press, 2009) that in turn is based on a hand-written memoir Calof’s family found after she died, augmented by “scholarly essays that provide historical and cultural background,” according to IUP press materials.

In childhood, Calof, whose mother died when she was four, is bounced like a pinball between a thoughtless and cruel father, a thoughtfully cruel step-mother, and an imperious and uncaring great-uncle who, as Calof approaches marrying age, wrenches her from a growing friendship and love with a village butcher boy by sending her to America to marry a total stranger to the family.

In America, Calof is an impeccably passive fiancee and then wife and daughter-in-law. Her mother-in-law, by turns superstitious and just stupid, but always domineering, would make one long for the violently cruel step-mother.

Writer Ken LaZebnik shows almost no awareness of the need to make Rachel Calof at least somewhat the mistress of her own fate. It’s left to the music and lyrics (by Leslie Steinweiss) to show us a Rachel acting on her own initiative, pathetically fashioning a lamp out of mud and butter as the fuel. To be sure, in on lone, belated scene LaZebnik has Rachel saying no to the ridiculous demands of her husband, himself laughably submissive to his mother. It’s not enough. Every good thing that happens to Rachel—the visit by a neighbor to Rachel and her six-week old baby, left alone in a tiny shack; the declaration by the shochet that the ailing post-partem Rachel is allowed to eat unkosher ox meat; the children she is allowed by her husband to have—happens to her.

The narrative is bookended by Rachel’s desire, and eventually resolve, to visit her daughter in Seattle. Stepping across the threshold without her husband’s permission is apparently LaZebnik’s idea of the decisive act of an active protagonist. It’s not enough, and not just because all we see is a resolve; it comes 85 minutes and 30 years too late in the story. Worse, with a flat inactive protagonist, “Rachel Calof” almost inevitably has no other interesting characters either. Everyone, especially the husband and his mother, are flatly cruel and stupid, albeit hardworking.

There’s much to enjoy in Rachel Calof—the hardships of homesteading are novel and engrossing to a modern audience, and Kate Fuglei’s acting is inspired, her Russian-Jewish accent letter-perfect, and her singing voice is stunningly clear. In the words of IUP, “her narrative [is] both unique and a representative western tale.”

It’s not possible to rewrite a show from the audience, nor is it a critic’s place to do do, but it’s impossible not to note that the protatonist-confrontation-resolution structure is not the only one available to the author, nor is Rachel the only protagonist available.

The story as it actually seems to exist on the page’s of Calof’s memoir is one of a family with almost insurmountable challenges of culture, abject poverty, pride, and jealousy, finally and reluctantly uniting to defeat the greater enemy of North Dakota’s unrelentingly grim and nearly fatally harsh winters. In that story the husband’s admirable qualities of hard work and fealty to family would at least briefly shine, and the mother-in-law, enduring 40-below winters at the end of her life and, like Moses, given only a view of the promised land, might at least evoke our sympathy.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Fringe 2011 Review: Chagrin

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

Chagrin

1h 0m
VENUE #8: The First Floor Theatre @ LA MAMA
Show seen: Fri 12 @ 7:15
Remaining performances: Wed 17 @ 10 Thu 18 @ 4 Sat 20 @ 12
http://michaelrossalbert.com/plays/full-length-plays/chagrin/

Rating: 5
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)


Four friends who used to star in a kid’s quiz show have drifted apart until they return to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, for a TV reunion and the near-suicide of the smartest one of them.

The structure of “Chagrin”—a single scene outside a hospital—requires that the power of the show consist entirely of the successive, ongoing reveal. That requires impeccably coordinating the twin faucets of mystery and information.

Here, unfortunately, the story goes cold, as the early minutes become bogged down with unimportant information that didn’t carry us far enough toward answering the bigger questions in the backstory, while the final minutes persisted beyond their being answered, to the extent the play answers them at all.

The only action in such a story is a character’s decision to confess something or lie. It’s not enough. At some point, the audience craves action in the present.

The lack of any real action means as well that there are no opportunities for the characters to change, and with only the four friends on stage, the story becomes, over time, claustrophobic.

By contrast, had, say, the TV producers come downstairs from their vulture-like perch at the one friend’s bedside (which we know about only second-hand), they could have forced the four to make choices and reveal character through actions instead of empty words.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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