For those scoring at home, here's a list of 5 plays I've seen at Fringe, that I'm going to talk about here. (I'm going to discuss several others in Part III - so many shows, so little time!!!)
The Motherfucker with the Hat, Two Motherfuckers on a Ledge, A Vegas Kind of Love, Blackbird, The Interference.
"Epiphany, Epiphany, Epiphany..." That's what Ellyn Daniels chants in her stand-up show, Emotional Terrorism, as she waits for a former high school friend to describe the revelation she's had, that has changed her views about everything. (See Part I of this article for a fuller explanation.)
It's also become my mantra during this Fringe Apocalypse of 375 shows, as I lurch from one fictional world to the next. And I have been pleased and surprised by the number of times that my "epiphany" threshold has indeed been crossed.
THE MOTHERF*CKER WITH THE HAT by Stephen Adley Guirgis
It helps to start out any production with a great script, and these actors have a spectacular one. Stephen Gurgius's special talent is making vernacular speech sing like poetry and yet seem believably conversational too - something he may have learned from David Mamet, but unlike Mamet, Gurgius likes people, loves all his characters, refuses to judge them even at their worst and has a saint's empathy for the human condition. The Motherfucker with the Hat is designed to give actors with great rhetorical skills and street cred an outlet with unlimited potential to express their primal emotions of lust, love, rage, hate, frustration, pain, joy, and - especially - revenge. There's also room for friendship, hope, trust and family alliances. These actors, under the direction of Tony Gatto, do a very good job of venting their passions and searching for the happiness which mostly eludes them. In a fine cast, Fayna Sanchez (who also co-produced) and Felipe Figueroa stand out for their inventiveness and ability to live in the dramatic moment. The show is being done three more times this weekend, and then that's it for the Fringe. I urge to see it if you can.
TWO MOTHERF*CKERS ON A LEDGE by Ronn Johnstone
Destined to be referred to as "that other motherfucker play" - a sad fate to be sure - this is an intelligent and well-meaning exploration of what it really means to be a hero in one's own life as opposed to worshipping super-heroes in comic books and the films they give rise to. The situation is this: Allyn is a patient with "a hero complex," that makes him feel like a failure unless he can "save the world." Mattie is his doctor. She is also a PHD candidate writing her thesis about "the hero complex as a narcissistic disorder." Allyn goes through his doctor's desk, finds her thesis, freaks out and goes out on a ledge, driven to jump by despair - and Mattie goes after him. Which would be fine, sort of, if the element of danger that this entails had even a shred of credibility. But it doesn't. After a lot of back and forth about "Don't jump" - "I have nothing more to live for" - "I'm here for you, let's talk" - "what is there to talk about?" etc. - the two settle in for a conversation that could just as well be taking place in front of a fireplace as they toast marshmallows. That is, the reality of their supposed situation is completely lost. Even when a police siren sounds below them, there is no follow-up; no voice on a speaker telling him to go inside, no police presence on the ledge, nothing changes. In the process of this cozy conversation, the main character switches from the patient who wants to end his life to the therapist who is suddenly resolving her own daddy issues. Such a change in focus always signals an amateur to me, someone with lots of ideas and a lack of understanding of how to use the dramatic form. The dialogue is pithy, though, and nicely delivered by Veronica Wylie and Ronn Johnstone (who also wrote and produced the piece). My advice to him: next time you have this much on your mind, write an essay.
A VEGAS KIND OF LOVE by Brendan Beseth
One thing that Brendan Beseth and director Eddie Kehler show here is that there is still some juice left in the femme fatale film noir crime drama. Even stripped of all the fancy photography we're used to seeing in contemporary film treatments, stripped down to just five actors working without sets or props, it is still possible to set off some fireworks when you pluck down a sexy and somewhat amoral blond woman into a gaggle of horny guys. The Vegas blond in this instance is played by Nadiya Geldenhuys, a 19 year old South African who comes off as early 20s and without a noticeable accent. Her role is a series of crazy hairpin turns, and she does an excellent job of justifying these 0ften-contradictory motivations as best she can. The guys are all good - Matt Doherty, Nicholas Read, Kofi Boakye and Henry LeBlanc - and they also do what they can to make us believe that Beseth's crazy twists and turns have some credibility. But the performances are finally sunk by so many cliches piled on top of each other, until you start asking: why does the only black guy have to be the pimp? Why does the cop have to have an old-fashioned drinking problem? How are these two white guys "best friends" at work and yet they never have a scene together and the one "friend" doesn't even have a moment's hesitation before fucking his "best friend"'s girl? The play actually ends up in an interesting place, but it travels through so many miles of bullshit to get there that it doesn't have the impact it might. I do see some potential here - though I have to admit that my BL colleague, Enci Box, didn't, and I imagine that many women might agree with her.
BLACKBIRD by David Harrower
This is once again a great script with great opportunities for actors, and fortunately for us, Bradley Fisher and Charlotte Gulezian are very much up to the task, under the interestingly curious direction of Anna Stromberg. The play's setup is deceptively simple: Una was seduced and violated repeatedly at 12 years old by Ray, a family neighbor around 40. Now, 15 years later, Una has tracked down Ray, now calling himself Peter, at his workplace. In the previous production I saw, there was no doubt in my mind that this confrontation was happening in real time in a believable work rec room. In this production, it seems more likely that we are in some kind of hell akin to Sartre's No Exit where two characters are linked in a way that can never be resolved, with behavior patterns of abuse that just keep repeating themselves. Then a third character showed up, and I wasn't quite sure what to make of that. In any case, this is a compelling and compulsive piece of work which has gotten under my skin both times I've seen it. I have no patience with theatergoers who talk about shying away from plays that deal with supposedly "dark" subject matter - I mean, have you lived at all? Are you human? Isn't the purpose of art to shine light on the darkness, so we can better understand people and things that were confusing before? If you have a beating heart in your chest, then come see this play.
THE INTERFERENCE by Lynda Radley
This ensemble piece about an undergraduate woman struggling for justice in her rape case against a star athlete was only here for a few performances, but it is still worth discussing. The production by students from the Pepperdine Drama Department, directed by Drama Professor Cathy Thomas-Grant, is a powerful experience for the audience, as the many aspects of the campus rape case are dramatized by the 12 actors, some playing several different roles. This is certainly a story of our time - though really it's been an ongoing issue for at least the last 30 years. And that's one of the problems. The young actors faced the audience with a defiant demeanor, as if telling a forbidden story that people want to keep hidden, as if they were the Group Theatre presenting Odets's Waiting for Lefty for the first time. (Yes, go look it up.) But this is essentially the same story that's been told countless times on Movies of the Week and Lifetime movies and episodes of Law & Order SVU. This is not to discount its importance or to say that such crimes are not being perpetrated with terrible frequency on college campuses, but the events depicted here have a familiarity to them and a predictability to the course they take. The new play Actually, recently presented at the Geffen, does something far more original with similar subject matter. Of course this is just my opinion - this production received several awards at the recent Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and the performers did a very good job of committing themselves fully to the project and its message of social bias against the rape victim. I'm sure this play will be performed on many campuses, where it will very likely instigate important conversations. But as a work of drama, it wearies me as a screed that is preaching to the converted. There are no two sides here with equal validity, so there is no real conflict, only the simulation of such, calculated to make the liberal audience members feel that something important is being accomplished. But is it? Is it really? Or is it just a group exercise in everyone patting themselves on the back?