Indy Fringe part 1 (and more)

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First in a series of reports from Indy Fringe 2009, the non-juried festival of short theater works running through Aug. 30 at theaters on and around Mass. Ave. For a full schedule and more details, visit Plus thoughts on Sharon McKnight’s visit to the Cabaret. 

I was running late, so I chose my first show of this year’s Indy Fringe festival entirely based on my knowledge of Mass Ave. area parking patterns. In this case, I knew that, at 5:56 on a Friday evening, my best bet to get into a Fringe show (nobody is admitted after the start time, in this case 6:00) was to find a spot near the Phoenix Theatre.

My where-can-I-park process led me to a show that wasn’t on my must see list: “55 Minutes of Sex, Drugs and Audience Participation.”

(For the record, this year’s must-see list for me–largely compiled by looking through the Fringe program and checking out the Fringe kick-off event last Thursday–included “7 (x1) Samurai,” “Another Classic of Western Literature,” “Blunder Construction,” “A Cynic Tells Love Stories,” “Groundwork Suites,” “humanature,” “Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach,” Phil the Void: The Great Brain Robbery,” and the second show I saw last night, “The Tragical Ballad of Black Bonnet.” In the past four years, FYI, I haven’t made it to half of the Fringe shows on my must-see list. Serendipity happens. Time runs out. Schedules conflict. You do what you can. We’ll see how I do over the next few days.)

“55 Minutes of Sex, Drugs and Audience Participation,” like much of what will be happening on the Basile stage at the Phoenix Theatre throughout the festival, is grounded in storytelling. In this case, a pair of able tellers, Loren Niemi and Howard Lieberman, both of Minneapolis, tossed in a variation: A fishbowl was passed through the audience, hot potato-like, and the lucky/unlucky person who had it when the music stopped joined the duo on stage. A card was picked out of the bowl with a topic and the third party could elect to either interrupt the ensuing story with questions or actually play a part in the tale.

The gimmick added a wildcard element to some of the stories, but Niemi and Lieberman are strong enough at their craft that, while often fun, it wasn’t necessary.

Niemi’s stories felt more careful structured. Lieberman’s were more emotional and less conclusive. Both dealt with unexpected aspects of the title topics, from the points of view of two men who took wild-ish rides through the 60s and survived to tell about them. The only dud in the show was a final piece that was less story than observation and granted too much power to the audience guest.

If the fest didn’t have so much to see, I’d strongly consider a return for another listen to see what else emerges from the combination of fish bowl randomness, audience prodding, and introspective original storytelling.

One of the pleasures of the Fringe is seeing forms, viewpoints, styles and even structures that you are unlikely to experience any other time. With that in mind, I couldn’t resist “The Tragical Ballad of Black Bonnet,” a puppet operetta.

Have to say, I’ve never seen a puppet operetta, let alone one that concerns the romance between a 16th century woman and her maid, who was a hermaphrodite (the politically correct term is now “intersexed”).

It’s a slight story. But the New Orleans-based duo known as The Black Forest Fancies finds a way to give it not just an original look, but also an original voice. Both the puppeteers and their puppets are in full view throughout the show. Often the strings are figuratively cut loose with the actresses taking on the key roles. In lovely, heartbreaking voice throughout, the duo never resort to condescension, overt politicalization, or pandering. 

Clearly for adults, the half-hour “Black Bonnet” nonetheless had a riveting, child-like quality to it that made me wish it had been given the entire program. Instead, “Black Bonnet” was preceded by a far less effective or evocative short film, created by the same company.

Why only two shows on the first night? Because I took time in between to see Sharon McKnight perform her “Songs to Offend Almost Everyone” revue at the Cabaret at the Connoisseur Room.

The show–and the singer–were hilarious. But McKnight’s impressive achievement wasn’t just in presenting bawdy crowd-pleasers, but also in having the guts to perform such freeze-the-audience shockers as the disturbing  “Strange Fruit” (a song about lynching best known from Billie Holiday’s version) and Randy Newman’s “God’s Song,” with its wry, mocking “Man means nothing” deity.  

Her set, performed with the added challenge of what was clearly a painful foot injury, was an effective example of how quality  cabaret isn’t the same as piano bar or lounge entertainment. It’s not about always performing the songs you know are going to generate the biggest smiles or the most nostalgic feelings.

The best cabaret acts are also an education in our musical history. McKnight, by including those songs in that first-class venue, for this high-ticket-paying audience, took more artistic chances than anything that we’re likely to see at the Fringe fest.

Impressive. Entertaining. And, I should add, hilariously filthy. If you’re reading this on Saturday, you still have a chance to catch her tonight.

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