For Fringe Day 2, I spent my evening seeing three shows in the upstairs space at St. Mary’s Lyceum. The space has a pretty great dive bar atmosphere, but be warned: it’s cash only and there aren’t any ATMs for a few blocks around. Make sure you have some cash on you if you want to grab a theatre-drink. This was a lesson I learned last year, but because of some scheduling errors on my part that left me driving too fast while wolfing a tuna sandwich I’d been told was chicken, I was still unprepared when I showed up.
The first show of the day was Children of Heaven, from Laugh/Riot Performing Arts Company. Laugh/Riot had been associated with Edinboro University of Pennsylvania for the previous five years, and Children of Heaven is their last production with Edinboro students and alumni. It’s a two-act piece centered around the cult of Lilith, a charismatic leader who teaches women to make their own choices.
In the first act, we meet members of the cult, telling of their experiences with rape, sexual assault and harassment, and other traumas of male-dominated society, and how Lilith saved them. Finally, Lilith herself comes out to finish the sales pitch. Although the segment goes on maybe a little too long, I can see what the writer was going for – showing that female disempowerment takes many different forms. And each of the actors handles her monologue well. Where I think the first act drops the ball in setting up the second is in showing what exactly the cult is doing wrong that would require an intervention. Lilith seems alright in my book.
The second act shifts to a scene of an attempted deprogramming of a former cult member. Lucy is holed up in a cabin in the woods with Harvey, who is trying to bring her back to her biological family. Harvey’s a pretty one-dimensional villain. (And his name is Harvey. Topical!) Since the cult doesn’t really seem to have much in the way of outlandish beliefs, he’s pretty much just trying to convince her that she’s not being nice enough to him. The show is dealing with important topics, but in a very direct manner that leaves the plot feeling a little thin and secondary.
So then… what’s the opposite of dealing with things very directly? Who-Ha. Folks, I really enjoyed the hell out of Who-Ha. Every year I read a description of a show in the program and think “I don’t know what that means. I don’t think I’m smart enough to appreciate or write about that.” And then it ends up being awesome… even though I’m not 100% sure on the message. This year’s winner was Who-Ha. Choreographed by Anthony Alterio, this is a dance piece featuring dancers Kye Miller, Cecilia Port, Caroline Smith, Wyatt LaFever, and Katie Kloska. It promises to “make you question gender, identity, empowerment, and what I call everyday performance persona.”
The performance opens with the four handing index cards with questions to the audience members. The cards are read aloud, and then attached to the performers with loops of tape from a board held by LaFever. I finished mine first, so I kind of sacrificed the anonymity of the later answerers who were read simultaneously. So now everyone knows that I practice answers to the question “What’s new?’ before seeing people. After the Q&A the dance segments begin. It’s a high-energy, chaotic spectacle, but you have to make sure to keep your eye on the whole stage. If I’d focused too much on what was going on front & center, I’d have missed my favorite “wait, what?” moment – LaFever, in the back, nonchalantly pulling off the leftover loops of tape and putting them in his mouth. (Not gonna say eating. No assumptions.)
Unfortunately, I can hear what’s probably the last performance of Who-Ha occurring in the background at St. Mary’s as I type this (they scream a few times), so I can’t recommend you see it here. But if you get a chance to catch the show elsewhere, or follow any of these performers, go for it.
My last show of the night was Falkland: The War the World Forgot, a drama from Tasty Monster Productions. Performed by Heather Bagnall and Luke Tudball, Falkland follows Gideon, a sheep farmer whose home is near the front lines of the fight, his wife Helen, and Fitz, a British soldier they befriend. Bagnall stands out, playing every role except Gideon, and creating a unique persona for each despite fairly minor costume changes.
I didn’t know much about the war going in – other than an Eddie Izzard bit saying the British needed the island for “strategic sheep purposes” – but Bagnall’s script and the duo’s performances lay out the scene well enough that you don’t need to. And the use of images and audio from the era do a great job of setting you up in the era. As a less-known conflict, it’s helpful to remember that this is a conflict from the ‘80s, not the ‘40s. Much of the plot of the play is drawn from true stories either researched or shared by survivors. It examines the reasons behind the war and its impact on those caught in the middle, with an appreciation of the humanity on both sides. Also, I’ve run into Bagnall and Tudball a few times since seeing the show, and they’re both great people. (As I’ve been writing this piece between shows today, their last performance is also going on right now. I’m really dropping the ball on this recommendation thing. But this was probably my favorite show so far, so if you can work out the time travel, seeing this would be at the top of my list.)
The Fifth Annual Pittsburgh Fringe Festival unfortunately ends its run today but for more information to gear you up for next year click here.