It is the first evening of the 5th Annual Pittsburgh Fringe Festival. A full weekend of new plays, collaborations, and one person to-dos ahead. There are only two venues this year, the obscure and almost delightfully impossible to find St. Maryâ€™s Lyceum on Chestnut (former Fringe attendees are well aware), and the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church on North Ave. My first evening was entirely spent in the basement of the Lyceum.
Before jumping into the plays themselves I must say my heart goes out to everyone playing the basement of that venue. The shows are hounded by the noise and echo of the space upstairs, which, of course, filters down at the most inopportune times. Clamorous furniture and stomping above invadeÂ moments of intense and purposeful quiet, humorous silence the moment the basement show ends and it no longer matters. But, this is a Fringe Festival and the performers are made of a hardy stock. Onward.
The first basement show of the evening was a lovely, improvised, audience generated, comic performance created by the talented New York based Peter Michael Marino. The show is a raft pulled along by an undercurrent of anxiety and depression that invades our lives, and the toll it takes to force yourself to get up in the morning, avoid the alien shows on television, and actually attend to being a human being. This sentiment is directly reflected in the title of the piece, Show Up. Much of the performance is improvised and is created with the participation of the audience. Show attendees offer stories, control music and set pieces, and generally provide the raw content for Marino, who in the second half of the show weaves the disparate pieces together into a humorous and at moments poignant narrative of a life. This fictitious life plays against Marinoâ€™s personal stories and the product is a sweet dive into what it means to just try, and try, and try again. Not all the audience generated improv risks pay off, but in the end Marino is right, you have to show up.
Anxiety and depression were followed by a peek into the complex politics of the erotic during the next performance of the evening. TENTACLES, by the Voyage Theater Company, takes as its premise a feminist lecturer speaking on the topic of ravishment fantasies, specifically tentacle based ones. The show is self-described as a feminist harpooning of Tentacle Porn, and it is that, but itâ€™s also more. Creator Tessa Flannery and director Rebecca Cunningham do harpoon, but also expose, complicate, and generally explore that specific yet somehow un-located space where pro-sex feminist politics mesh with and mash up against desire, fantasy and consent. My Fringe accomplice for the evening put it well when she said that at times she was laughing and then a minute later wanted to ask if the performer was ok. Itâ€™s that kind of show, and it is refreshing to get a full range of experience. TENTACLES is an onion (or whatever layered metaphor you want) and the execution of the piece is well done.
The last show of the evening was a modern political ribbing of a classic Judy Blume novel. In Are You There Margaret? Itâ€™s Me, God The Rude Cutlet Theater Company spends an hour sending zingers back in time to the politics of adolescence of the early 70â€™s. Margaretâ€™s obsession with sharp teeth, the gaze of her school teacher, and of course her boobs, provide substantial material for an annoyed and sometimes bitter God to call out the unfortunate politics of body shaming, obsession with the male gaze, and at times the subtle but definitely present anti-jewish sentiment embedded in a piece of adolescent American literature. Â There is a noticeable lack of direct dialogue between God and Margaret, something I wanted to see, and not every joke lands tightly, but all that is forgiven during some well written God-riffs on sex and hamburgers.
So far, Fringe is providing the expected experience of reasonable performances, charismatic venues and the sense that for some of the performers Pittsburgh is but a humble step. I just hope that everyone can find their way off script.
The 5th Annual Pittsburgh Fringe Festival runs April 7th and 8th. For tickets and more informationÂ click here.