Indy Fringe part 3: Three admirable shows...with caveats

August 23, 2011
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On Sunday and Monday I caught three more Indy Fringe shows, each of which offered pleasures—and each of which should come with a caveat.

“Slammed” begins with some remarkable slam poetry—made even more remarkable if you go in knowing that the author of the play, Sharla Steiman, is only 16 years old. What I heard (the cast of adult pros has trouble vocally filing the IndyFringe space) of the high-energy wordplay was smart, playful, inventive, and evocative.

So what’s the caveat here? Well, the play itself, which concerns the loves and loyalties of a group of communal artists. Even with outstanding, honest work from actress Lauren Briggeman in the lead, making the poetry feel like she’s brilliantly creating it on the spot, the plot and dialogue feel written by, well, a 16 year old.

In addition to being a danger for audiences, overpraising can be a danger to artists. For me, "Slammed" doesn't work as a play. Not yet. But Steinman is an artist (not just a young artist, but an artist) to watch. She's an outstanding poet. And I suspect she will become an outstanding playwright. Bring on another Fringe show next year--with or without a plot and characters--and I'll be there. 

“The Blizzard,” the Fringe contribution from the Bloomington Playwrights Project contains some gleefully fun bits and a high-energy, game-for-anything cast. Structured much like the “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” show that Neo Futurists in Chicago have been offering for more than 20 years, "Blizzard" features 30 plays, each numbered and strung to an on-stage clothesline. All the short plays are performed within the hour, but in an order determined by numeric shouts from the audience.

The format gives a boost of craziness to the between-bit activity, as the talented quartet of performers scramble to acquire the correct props (after recovering from whatever scene they had done previously).  By the time it’s over, the stage is covered in food, water, paper and lots more.

Fun? Yes. The caveat is that only a small percentage of the plays are gems and depending on randomly selection, these could come early, late or bunched together in the middle. Hint: After a string of meh picks, try the startling #27 (“Time Machines Can Be Funny Sometimes”), the exactly-what-you-expect-and-that’s-a-good-thing “#2 (“Junior Prom Dance”) or the playful audience participation #4 (“The Blizzard in 3-D”).

I was drawn to “A Sword and a Kiss” in large part because of the talent and high-spirits displayed by the three-person cast at the Fringe preview gathering. I was happy to see that they brought that same game to an afternoon show where only a handful of patrons were in attendance.

Developed by Asante Children’s Theatre, the positive-message rap show does have a bit of the middle school convocation vibe about it. But it's that convocation that you actually thought was pretty cool (even though you didn't admit to your friends that you liked it).

Caveat: While the men on stage are talented artists, they aren’t given a framework to delivery their work to optimal effect. Their between-song banter is casual to the point of amateur and a dropped-in-from-nowhere audience-participation dating game is underdeveloped and feels like padding. When the beats are layed down and the words come fast and furious, though, "Sword" is kissed with spirit.

More Indy Fringe thoughts at www.ibj.com/arts.

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