It Sounded Like Shakespeare Hypnotized Children of Heaven in My Dreams

I spent my first day at the Pittsburgh Fringe 2018 at St. Mary’s Lyceum. It was a mixed experience for both the shows and the location.

As far as the space is concerned: audiences beware! St. Mary’s Lyceum is an ashtray! You have to walk the gauntlet through a bar full of smoking men to make it to the upstairs performance space. I felt like I was on the wrong end of a “Law and Order” episode when I entered the building, and I left needing to wash my hair with bleach to remove the cigarette smell. But, seriously, if you have asthma or any sensitivities to cigarette smoke, this is not the location for you, at least during the hours the bar is open, so take care.

On the other hand, a terrific, friendly team of volunteers from the Fringe were there to greet me and give me the skinny on the evening’s shows. If all of the Fringe volunteers are equally helpful and competent, the festival will be well represented all weekend.

Now for the shows:

IMG_0115Children of Heaven is a very earnest, very flawed attempt at addressing modern sexual politics. Taking inspiration (and some direct quotes) from the #metoo movement, this cast of primarily college students attempts to wrestle with victimology, social norms, female empowerment, and sexuality.

Act I is structured somewhere between a victims’ support group meeting and an infomercial for cult life with leader “Lilith” (I am sure all obvious connotations for this mythic reference apply). The act is static and formulaic, with each character coming forward to tell her personal story of victimization. All but one of these women tell a story of sexual assault; all speak about harassment, double-standards, self-hate, body shaming, and negative judgment. All the stories end the same way, with the discovery of and commitment to following Lilith. At the end of the testimonial section, Lilith enters: a glowing, messianic prophet in white, who purports to know a better way of living, one that involves her “having a dream and changing the landscape of the world.” She preaches female self-love, female empowerment. But one questions if she isn’t actually just perpetrating her own form of victimization on both her followers and her detractors.

Act II takes the form of an attempted deprogramming session between a Lilith-cult member, Lucy, and her erstwhile deprogrammer, Harvey. Set up as a head-to-head confrontation centered around sexual power politics, Act II puts into action the ideas briefly discussed in Act I. It is disturbing in its aggressive, sexualized encounter between the male representative of the status-quo and the female representative of Lilith’s version of revolution. It is violent (more emotionally than physically, though there is that). It attempts to shock. And it’s final solution is…unclear and unsavory.

While this reviewer appreciates the attempt at addressing such important subject matter, I can’t help but be disappointed in the final product. The script is in-expertly devised, pedantic, uneven, and the second act suffers from an antagonist that is a mere straw-man. With some serious workshopping and re-writing, it could end up being something special, but it’s got a long way to go. (Note: the show, particularly Act II, reminded me of the 1999 movie, Holy Smokes, starring Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel, which also dramatizes a sexualized encounter between a cult member and a deprogrammer.)

The directing was unsuccessful for me. It was static and unfocused in Act I, and it tread too close to the line of downright exploitation in Act II. Lastly, this is a brave and motivated acting troupe, but none of them have the acting experience or expertise to really handle this particular material.

I would warn anyone that has any triggers around sexual violence to avoid this production. And I would encourage anyone interested in the important conversation around ending sexual violence and inequality to attend the production. Despite its many flaws, this piece is attempting something important.

Children of Heaven will play again on Saturday, April 7 @ 6:00 pm, and Sunday, April 8 @ 11:20 pm. Visit www.pittsburghfringe.org.

IMG_0123On the complete opposite end of the entertainment spectrum, the next show of the evening was H. Douglas Jones’ Howie Hypnotize show. Exactly as the name advertises, Howie Hypnotize brings the art of hypnosis to the stage. Mr. Jones is a real pro, and he knows how to make the most out of a challenging situation. His show really benefits from a large audience to maximize the fun, but he was handicapped at his first performance by a very small and self-conscious audience. (You couldn’t have gotten me to volunteer to be hypnotized for any amount of money). Mr. Jones took it in stride and made the show work. Afterward, he was personable and gracious and took the opportunity to interact directly with individual audience members and discuss how the show. I really appreciated Mr. Jones’ approach, and I encourage everyone to go see his next performance. It should be fun, and it will be more fun the more people show up, and the more people participate. (I did participate in the warm-up exercises for the whole audience, and I admit, Mr. Jones, my freak’n right hand kept moving DOWN no matter how much I tried to make it stop!)

Howie Hypnotize will play again on Saturday, April 7 @ 10:00 pm, and Sunday, April 8 @ 6:45 pm. Visit http://www.pittsburghfringe.org or http://www.howiehypnotize.com.

IMG_0135Shakespeare Nerds Unite! For all of you who love the Bard, who obsess over editions, and correct pronunciations, scansions, obscure references….oh, the joy, the rapture!!!…Brawling Bard Theater company’s offering of Shakespeare Annotated is the show for you. In this high-energy performance, the Bardettes (my term, not theirs) present several monologues and scenes from Shakespeare, accompanied by live-action footnotes. That’s right, while scenes are enacted, a reference librarian of sorts provides explication of word definitions, pronunciations, and historical context. The director adds his own, sometimes conflicting, notes on specific items, and the fight choreographer enthusiastically explains the technical requirements of Shakespearean fights as demanded by the text…in the middle of the fights.

As you can imagine, all of this “helpful” explication can actually create quite a bit of confusion. In the Brawling Bard’s case, it can also lead to outright anarchy on stage, which, inevitably (they are the BRAWLING Bard after all) leads to some sort of ruckus involving swords of some kind or other.

Let’s be honest here, this company isn’t full of strong Shakespearean actors; most of its company aren’t really actors at all. The staging is often rough, the timing awkward, the scripting in need of refinement. But the company is so likable, so enthusiastic about their material, so inviting to their audience, that you can’t help but root for their success, and join into the spirit of their fun.

If you are a long-time fan of Shakespeare, you’ll enjoy the inside jokes and the clever ideas behind the staging twists in the scenes. If you are new to Shakespeare, you’ll get to experience the fun, the humor, the bawdy jokes, and the silliness that is inherent in so much of Shakespeare. So, Shakespeare Annotated will never be on a big stage or in a “professional” theater. So what?! Brawling Bard has once again created a love letter to the words (and the fights) of Shakespeare. So, I’m all in.

Shakespeare Annotated plays again Saturday, April 7 @ 1:15 pm, and Sunday, April 8 @ 3:45 pm. Visit http://www.pittsburghfringe.org or http://www.facebook.com/Brawlingbard.

IMG_0144Rounding out the night was playwright Ian Insect’s It Sounded Like a Good Idea in My Dreams.

This show is freakin’ weird, you guys!!! I mean….you know?! It’s just strange. Period. (punctuation used specifically in honor of the show – you’ll just have to see it to understand…maybe…I’m still not sure I actually understand.) But, I think, for the most part, I liked it.

It Sounded Like a Good Idea does what I love so much about theater: it deals in and with words, words, words, words. It is part poetry, part philosophy, part philology, with a bit of performance art, multi-media happening, and stream-of-consciousness narrative thrown in. It’s a Dada-esque SNL sketch comedy show with leanings toward “Welcome to Nightvale.” It’s weird.

The show is made up of a series of disconnected vignettes interspersed by satirical advertisements. Both vignettes and filmed advertisements are self-consciously clever, sometimes pretentious. And yet, these scenes also offer up poignant vulnerabilities, fears, and, primarily, feelings of disassociation from, well, everything. In this way, this production is truly like a dream.

Directed by Shelby Brewster, the production definitely had its ups and downs. Comedic timing was off most of the time. Staging was often too static when not relying on projections. Most of the acting was amateurish. A notable exception to this was Tamara Siegert and her creepy “Ann Usher,” which was just exactly the right amount of strange. Playwright Ian Insect is a better writer than an actor; he has real potential…I’m not sure as what, but it’s real potential.

Highlights of the evening were: “Tabled Conversation” – a subconscious monologue interposed over a mundane dinner scene; “I Love Things” – a disturbing lip-synced musical performance of unhampered rage and violence; “On The Genealogy of Punctuation” – one of the more light-hearted moments. Well written. Funny. Done with a light touch; and “Confetti” – unexpected, George Carlin-esque observational monologue with a surprise ending.

It Sounded Like a Good Idea in My Dreams runs a little too long and is a little too self-indulgent, but it kept me interested. It kept me listening. And watching. And thinking. I’d see this one a second time.

It Sounded Like a Good Idea in My Dreams plays again Saturday, April 7 @ 4:15 pm, and Sunday, April 8 @ 8:55 pm. Visit http://www.pittsburghfringe.org

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