Theater festivals call for stamina and snacks and friend support. Attending three to four plays a day is not for the faint of heart or for people who have a hard time sitting still. Day one I met up with my friend Nick. He managed to see one of the first offerings of the festival, The Last Lifeboat (reviewed elsewhere on this blog). Due to my poor sense of direction and a blister on my foot, I managed to miss that show but had time to grab a beer before catching a performance of Story Swap 1: Jack and the Neverending Tale.
I moved to Pittsburgh over six years ago from Richmond, Virginia, and there are still plenty of first-times to be had here, including attending the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival that is now in its third year. All of this year’s story swaps were held in the upstairs of Max’s Allegheny Tavern in a kind of old fashioned parlor furnished with a heavy wooden mantle. The walls of the room are wallpapered in a fussy floral and there is a set of china on display on shelves running the perimeter of the room. Even though the décor was Victorian, it still felt right to see an Appalachian influenced puppet show in the space mainly because it is more shabby chic than actually auspicious like sitting in a grandma’s living room.
The show began with a simple proposition: whoever told the King the best story would become the official storyteller of the kingdom, and whoever told a boring story would be resigned to performing a boring job for the rest of their life. During the performance the puppeteer, Felicia Cooper, asked the audience to name the most boring job they could imagine. I immediately thought of middle management. A young boy in the audience said, “washing the dishes.” I think we both had great ideas. In the play, shining doorknobs was named the most boring job ever, also a good entry.
As you can imagine, most of the skit was about the story contest. We first see a young woman try and fail. Then comes along Jack. Before Jack began his story he made a bargain with the King. If Jack finished his story, he would be stuck performing meaningless labor, but if the King finished the story, then Jack would become the official storyteller. I won’t give away how, but Jack won the contest of wit.
I was impressed with a few elements of the show. Cooper quickly established a report with the audience, and skillfully bantered with both the oldest and the youngest audience members keeping them engaged. Her marionette puppets, made completely from recycled materials, moved well in her hands. I also appreciated the staging of the show. In addition to the marionette work, the performance also included shadow work illustrating birds stealing grain, which even in its simplicity was compelling to watch.
Overall, this was a strong entry into the festival. I do think though that Cooper’s talents could be put to better use performing a more complex story. I look forward to seeing her future work in puppetry.
The second show I saw was The Eulogy by Michael Burgos. This show and Confessions of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl were the most hyped of the out-of-town shows, so my expectations were high. The premise of The Eulogy is simple—a colorful cast of characters come together to send off Thomas, an overweight man lacking in personality. Yes, you read that correctly, from what I gathered, Thomas was a guy who: loved junk food, especially cake, he was overweight, and unappreciative of his wife.
This is a straw man situation—that is a sham or easy argument or in this case easily defeated person. The Eulogy is a vehicle for Burgos to show off his strong acting chops but it doesn’t do anything to challenge the audience. There are no stakes in disparaging a dead man, and therefore there is no growth or change to witness either. Burgo’s character sketches were entertaining for sure, but it was hard to sit through an entire hour of character sketches that weren’t building to anything.
The pleasure of this show was watching an actor fully in command of his craft. Burgos on stage is a study in physicality. He never changed clothes during the course of the performance but he was able to inhibit his body in way that was unique to each character in a way it was as if he’d undergone a costume change. His energy never wavered. Spoiler alert: midway through the play one of the eulogizers lights Thomas’ coffin on fire in an act of mania on par with Daffy Duck finally getting Bugs Bunny once and for all. Watching this scene I was both enthralled and physically uncomfortable. There wasn’t even a prop coffin on stage—Burgos is that good.
Story Swap 3: Adventures of Speak Life Storytellers
As I mentioned earlier, the storytelling events were held in an odd upstairs parlor in Max’s Allegheny Tavern. While that setting added to an Appalachian marionette show, it appeared just plain ridiculous as the staging area for the futuristic themed performance of the Speak Life Storytellers. Also of note—the Fringe volunteers were rudely loud as the performance was going on. I couldn’t see them because the door of the room was closed, but I could hear them, and it was distracting.
What to say about Speak Life Storytellers? They were champs. This was an ensemble piece that consisted of the highly skilled musician Langston Kelly: Human DJ, Adam J Keene, the main storyteller and a female deputy storyteller whose name I do not have. I attempted to find her name on the Speak Life website and was not able to track it down. You may be reading this and thinking—hmm…I wonder if Nichole is a radical feminist, and I wonder if Nichole is completely horrified that she is unable to name this actress. Yes, dear reader, I am horrified that I cannot tell you the name of this actress. Many apologies.
Even as I was watching this show, I was worrying about how I was going to describe it on paper: journey of self-love and self-actualization with some musical interludes and a dragon and jewel heist thrown in. There is a descriptive word I first fell in love with during my first year of grad school—discursive. That is a kind of lyrical, meandering narrative. Here is the story as best as I can describe it—travelers steal some precious jewels from a woman named Consuela. This is a story of Consuela and her jewels but also it is the thieves story and an exploration of what makes people do wrong, and how they need to heal in order to stop doing wrong. I know I mentioned a dragon earlier. There was some dragon slaying as a metaphor for removing false masks—this according to the narrative is where the healing happened.
Imagine this staging if you will—a shabby Victorian parlor, a musician behind a keyboard, and two storytellers. Keene was the main storyteller and his female counterpart interjected asides to the story and punctuated the narrative by singing a few lines as emphasis to whatever Keene was saying. The strength of this piece is that I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next. There was not a predictable moment in the whole show. Also, because the show was part improv, it was great to see the performers surprise themselves at time with where the story went.
Kelly’s musicianship in the show deserves its own paragraph. He not only played the keyboard and beat boxed, during an interlude in the story he played an original saxophone piece. His persona in the show was kind of right-hand man a la Letterman and Max Fischer. He and Keene have a real sense of timing between each other, whereas there was an awkward moment with the actress began to sing and interject just as Keene was beginning to say something, which felt off, like they didn’t know who should go first.
Speak Life Storytellers are the kind of original, creative performers that Pittsburgh needs. Check them out at their upcoming performance at SLS Adventures at Toby Hill on April 29th.