A&E: Fringe characters meet Fringe Film

August 20, 2007

By the time you read this, Gen-Con-one of our town's largest conventions-will have packed up its multisided dice, folded its cowled costumes, and drunk its final Mountain Dew (at least for this year).

How you feel about this convergence of game players will influence, in part, how you feel about "A Great Disturbance," a feature film to be screened Aug. 17, 24 and 31 as part of Fringe-Film, the new movie component of the 3-year-old IndyFringe Festival.

To be clear, "A Great Disturbance" is not about GenCon. But it does focus on another major Indianapolis gathering of costumed obsessives-2005's "Star Wars Celebration." In a creative combination of such documentaries as "Trekkies" and such mockumentaries as "Waiting for Guffman," the filmmakers set a group of actors loose amid the real world of the convention. The actors play a range of convention attendees-an over-competitive schoolteacher, a computer fixer with a grossly hyper-inflated belief in his own sense of humor, a would-be costume designer with the saddest Stormtrooper costume you've ever seen, etc. And through the course of the weekend event, they interact with each other and with the non-actors attending the con.

The result, while a bit stretched at over an hour and a half, is funny and oddly moving. The film seems to be saying it's still possible to be an outsider-even within a world of outsiders.

In addition to "A Great Disturbance," other FringeFilm highlights among the stack of screeners I previewed: "When I Grow Up," a sweet/sad/loopy seven-minute short that sets a wide range of animators loose on a soundtrack consisting of the career dreams of kids and the sobering career realities of their elders, and "Joyride," a wonderfully kinetic romp (with surprisingly dark turns) to the music of Queen. Both are part of longer programs of shorts. For a full schedule, visit www.indyfilmfest.org/fringefilm.

Readers of this column might recall the name Jessica Murphy. A couple of week's back, in reviewing a local production of "High School Musical," I suggested that Murphy and other cast members of that fun-but-lightweight show deserved roles in shows that really tested their talents. Little did I realize that that test would come so soon. And that she would pass that test so triumphantly.

Murphy and some of her Warren Central High School compatriots (working under the name Listen to the Music Productions) recently closed a four-performance run of "Songs for a New World," a production she initiated with fellow actor Stephen Doherty Koch Jr. They took their project to the Carmel Community Players, which, in an amazing act of theatrical generosity, put its financial and technical resources-as well as its tiny Studio 15 theater space-behind the fledgling company and their show.

At the risk of having my critical license revoked, I'm just going to say it: Their production was the most exhilarating, goose bump-producing production I've seen on any Indiana stage in the past year.

Unless you're a musical theater buff, it's unlikely that you've heard of the show. "Songs for a New World" is a 10- year-old musical revue by Jason Robert Brown, who went on to write the Tony-winning "Parade" and the more recent "The Last Five Years." To be sure, it's a hodgepodge show. More structured than a concert but more disjointed than a traditional musical, it pulls together songs by the then-26-year-old composer and loosely ties them together thematically. In one song we're on the deck of the Santa Maria in 1492, in another, we hear from a disgruntled Ms. Claus. A woman realizes she's compromised her dreams. A young man shares his determination to rise above the bad hand dealt to him.

You may not realize it until it's over, but all the songs have to do with discovery, with moments of transition, and with how we flawed, brave, yearning, weak people deal with knowing and not knowing that we are on the brink of change.

With only one major misstep (I'm not the only attendee who felt uncomfortable that the one black performer was limited to a single, basketball-fueled solo), the show was effectively directed and designed within its obviously minimal budget. I'm still stunned at how maturely the young cast-and the very talented quintet of musicians-approached the challenging material. It's not just that they pulled off the vocals. It's not just that they had solid stage presence. These actors knew how to mine the drama and the humor in each song. They resisted the temptation to copy the inflection of the cast recording and, instead, stamped this material as their own.

The women were particularly powerful, with Brook Wood (a high school junior) skillfully sliding from the comic "Just One Step" to the beautifully sad "Stars and the Moon" and into the Brecht/Weill spoof "Surabaya Santa" without any hint of the look-at-me-ism that many talented teens suffer. Far more experienced actors could take a lesson from her in-themoment/every-moment focus. And Murphy was nothing short of revelatory in the deeply moving "Christmas Lullaby," in which she convinces herself that she has the strength to face the world with the child growing inside her.

Recently, "Songs for a New World" was presented in an all-Broadway-star concert version by Washington, D.C.'s Signature Theatre. Not that I had a choice, but in all honesty, I'm glad that this was the production I was lucky enough to experience.

For years I've been hearing about the fun to be had at The Phoenix Theatre whenever Dos Fallopia comes to town.

But catching the Seattle duo's most recent production, "Desperate Spuddwives," left me a bit baffled. Oh, I got the jokes. I just don't get what all the fuss is about.

The second act, an overextended, too-latein-the-game takeoff of "Desperate Housewives" transported to the trailer park zone, didn't have anything particularly funny or insightful to say about either target.

And while the first act's sketches contained some good lines, too much of the already thin show was padded with goingon-past-the-punch-line song parodies and a not particularly inventive game show spoof. If you're going to call something "Are You Smarter Than the President?" how about, oh, asking some questions of the president? Instead, the audience-participation bit fizzled to a point where we were expected to laugh at contestants shooting toy guns at George Bush. As political satire, Bob Hope routines had more bite.

Rather than say that the Fallopians are going down the tubes, let's just hope that they're having an off year and look for a sharper show next time around.
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