Puppets, Proletarians, Things That Go Pop, and Police Violence

Welcome back to Fringe Festival Weekend, Pittsburghers! Time for another round of bouncing around between a ton of independent performances throughout the North Side. While I eased into my first Fringe experience with only two shows on day 1 last year, this time – as a grizzled old veteran – I jumped in with a Four Show Friday. And man, did we cover some emotional range.

As usual, I arrived early for my first show. Sadly, my former traditional stop at James Street Gastropub is no longer possible, so I hit up the Federal Galley before getting on my way to the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church. All four of the night’s performances were hosted in this venue, which was good for me because it was a bit cold and damp, and also gave an opportunity to see how different performers utilized the space.

29793559_1004680116351014_746952537134858240_oFirst up was Bounder the Rescue Dog, a new puppet show from Puppets in Performance. An original production from PiP founder Darlene Fedele Thompson, the play follows Bounder, a recently abandoned dog as he struggles to transition from a comfortable family to life on the street. After some run-ins with the more experienced street dog Zigzag, Bounder meets Kyle, a boy who has been struggling at home and school because of his ADHD. They learn that together, they can save each other and solve the problems that have held them back.

Bounder is a fast, G-rated show that kids will have a lot of fun with. Thompson’s puppet-making craft always shines through in these shows. My favorites this time were Zigzag the street dog, with his scars and bared teeth, and Kyle’s long-bearded teacher Mr. Myrick, performed by Joe Milliren with a deadpan that fits the character. My deep research (read: diving into Facebook comments) has revealed that the actual Bounder puppet is one of the few Thompson uses that she did not make. It’s over 30 years old! And still lookin’ good…

marxinsoho72dpi3x3l_2Moving up from the basement, I ran a few blocks to Crazy Mocha before settling in for my first play in the Unitarian Church’s upstairs space. Marx in Soho is a one-man show written by Howard Zinn (which, upon seeing the schedule, prompted a “wait, he writes plays, too?” Wikipedia trip) and in this production, directed by John Doyle and performed by Robert Weick. Weick portrays a temporarily-resurrected Marx fighting back against claims that Marxism is dead and capitalism has triumphed. While it gives a good treatment to Marx’s ideas and ties them into current events, it avoids being a straight-up lecture by dipping into reminiscences of friends, family, and fellow-travelers.

The set is minimal, just a table, some chairs, and a bag of papers, so all of the focus is on the text and the performance. Weick’s Marx has a sense of humor as well as outrage, and the show’s 75 minutes go by pretty quickly. As you’d expect for a show presenting Marx to a modern American audience, a few rough edges are smoothed off – he disavows the repression of the Soviet Union and mostly sidesteps the question of whether he had an illegitimate son with his maid – but that’s helpful for cutting through the kind of lazy equation of “socialism = bad” that’s prevailed in the US for decades and taking a look at the man’s actual ideas.

bottle-rocket_origI stayed in the same room for Bottle Rockets, a one-act dramedy from Thoreau, NM (the production company, not the census-designated place in McKinley county). The show is primarily narrated by Robin Beruh, as Rachel, and deals with the relationships between her, her daughter Jordan (Sophia Englesburg) and husband Will (Bruce Story-Camp). This is another play that draws all the attention to the performers with only a few props and no real set, although it took more advantage of the raised stage to create separation between characters than the other shows I saw in the space.

The actors do a great job demonstrating the love among the members of this family, and Englesburg is definitely endearing as Jordan. Now, I should warn you that I’m a cry-er. I have recently teared up over my friend and his wife duet-ing Journey, an article about Dolly Parton’s charity work, a gif of Mirai Nagasu’s Olympic celebration… Anyway, there’s one line Rachel speaks, probably about midway through, that’s a sort of thesis statement for the whole show. Not going to spoil it, but as soon as I heard it I thought “Oooooh, they’re gonna get me.” And dammit, they did. Tears were jerked.

fredhampton72dpi3x3Round 4 in the Unitarian Universalist Church was To My Unborn Child: A Love Letter from Fred Hampton, written and performed by Richard Bradford. This one-man show from Iron Age Theatre is a retrospective from the perspective of Fred Hampton, the Black Panther Party leader who was assassinated in an FBI-backed raid in 1969. As the title indicates, Hampton is speaking to his son, Fred Hampton Jr. (who, surprisingly, is the subject of a Fall Out Boy song), born only three weeks after his killing. Bradford’s performance is passionate and is aided by the use of lighting and occasional sound and music to shift between a retelling of the night’s events, incidents from earlier in life, and instruction to Fred Jr.

A key theme in the production is Hampton’s belief in activism around class-based, rather than exclusively race-based activism. (Hampton founded the original Rainbow Coalition to bring together poor black, white, and Latino communities in Chicago.) Like the earlier Iron Age production, Marx in Soho, Bradford calls out capitalism as the root of the problem and uses the example of the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program to show the appeal of socialist programs even to people who aren’t politically active. Hampton wasn’t a figure I was very knowledgeable about before, but thanks to this show I’ve started doing some more reading. Which I think was the point.

All four of these shows have two more performances this weekend. Check them out here.

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