About halfway through "Party of One," an IndyFringe performance by a clown called Captain Melisande, things started to get uncomfortable.
Melisande (real name Noel Williams) had already established herself as a loser in love, ready to get out of town and escape her past. Saddled with uncooperative baggage and a desire to keep gabbing even when she had nothing to say, she was the picture of every needy, confused person you ever wanted to help-but stayed away from for fear she'd latch onto you and never let go.
That wasn't what made me-and, to my eyes, much of the audience-uncomfortable. And it wasn't the part where she flirted with her suitcase, either. Nor was it the part where she seemed erotically attracted to an electric fan.
At this point, I should make clear that much of what I'd seen by that time at this year's IndyFringe had been pretty conventional. A little disappointing, actually, for a festival whose raison d'etre is to be unconventional.
"Married to Magic," featuring local prestidigitators Christian & Katalina, was what you would expect, combining impressive trickery and standard-issue husband/wife banter. "The Dock Brief," by the Massachusetts-based Mugford Street Players, offered a well-acted, very British, two-character playlet with good laughs but nothing to rock anyone's world. "The Peregrine Heart," a joint effort by Indy's Arden Theatre Company and Fat Girls Theatre, was a heavy-handed one-act whose acting, visual and writing styles never quite meshed in a story combining the Icarus myth with a space shuttle disaster.
"Party of One," I thought, might at least be different. It was, after all, one of the few IndyFringe shows that listed "nudity" as one of its warnings. Does clown nudity mean the removal of the red nose? Do the big shoes pose an obstacle to removing one's pants? (For the record, I do not have a thing for nude clowns. And the more I try to convince you that I don't, the more you will believe I do, so I'll just move on).
The show's brief program negated such questions before the lights went down. Contrary to what was said in the IndyFringe guide, "Party of One" included no deliberate nudity. And if there did happen to be any costume mishap, the program stated, rest assured that the clown was wearing underwear.
What planet are we on again?
Here on stage was a disturbed, needy (and, OK, kind of sexy) clown facing off with an electric fan, a difficult turnstile (the minimal set suggested a train station) and a pile of luggage in a show that first offered a nudity warning, and then retracted it?
And then, as if things weren't bizarre enough, Captain Melisande was talking about God. Sincerely.
After noting how uncomfortable the audience had become with talk of religion, she credited Jesus and the Bible as the two scariest things for contemporary audiences to hear mentioned on stage. I thought that we had all just been caught in a truly remarkable bait and switch. Lured in by the dubiously compelling clown-plus-nudity equation, we were now going to be preached to.
Rather than being angry, though, I was impressed by this coup de theatre, this sudden, unexpected shift that woke us up out of our traditional audience complacency.
But just as suddenly, I realized I couldn't have been more wrong. Captain Melisande was entering the audience with an insane come-hither look and I thought, OK, maybe the retraction of the warning was a fake.
For the life of me, I had no clue what was going to happen next.
That feeling is why I go to FringeFest.
What did Melisande do? She reached out to touch the hand of an audience member. To make a human connection. And I could see that people wanted to hug her and, simultaneously, wanted to get as far away from her as possible. I'm not sure how much of the impact of "Party of One" was deliberate and how much was accidental, but it left me a little stunned as I walked up the stairs and out of the Phoenix basement.
And, remarkably, it wasn't the oddest experience I had at this year's festival.
No, that honor would go to "Unexceptional Tricks." In it, a gentlemen going by the name of Max rada dada, dressed in Boy Scout uniform and sporting a pencil-thin moustache, performed dubious feats that lived up to the title of his show.
He put a rope on the floor and walked on it. He performed card tricks with an alljoker deck. He stood atop an ironing board and used boxing gloves as whale puppets. And he showed off a series of odd objects, including a framed collection of the pubic hair of every member of a Cirque du Soleil cast. In one corner of the stage was a sampling of his spatula collection. He didn't talk about that. But he did share a story about Jackie O's wooden toilet seat.
Rarely have I heard an audience laugh so joyfully without really knowing why.
There are certain words that you will rarely read in this column. One of these is "great." Greatness, to me, isn't something we see on stage every week. Or every year. We are lucky-blessed, I believe-when we are in its rare presence.
Over the years, I've been blessed to hear Isaac Stern at the violin, to see the Lincoln Center's breathtaking production of "Carousel," to see Derek Jacoby, Peter O'Toole and Christopher Plummer on stage.
And, now, to see Savion Glover dance.
I had seen him once before, years ago, in a supporting role in the musical "Jelly's Last Jam," but that's not the same as witnessing him do his thing by his own rules. At "Savion Glover's Bare Soundz" (performed Aug. 24), the crowd at the Madame Walker Theatre Center applauded, gasped and cheered as three amazing dancers-Glover, Marshall Davis Jr. and Maurice Chestnut-did nothing besides tap on a trio of raised wooden platforms. And that was plenty.
Later in the set, they were joined by a young man with a conga drum who joined the jam. Glover's career had taken off at age 10 when he appeared on Broadway in "The Tap Dance Kid," and the addition of this conga kid gave the proceedings a clear feeling of glorious traditions being passed down.
Glover's return visit here was a gift. Last year, he tapped to classical music. This year, it was to his own sounds. May he return each year, leading us to whatever amazing place his feet care to travel.