With a name like St. Mary’s Lyceum, I was anticipating a church venue for the 5th annual Pittsburgh Fringe Festival shows playing there. In fact, it’s a bar – or should I say a social club, a term I still don’t fully understand as a relatively recent southwestern Pennsylvania transplant. However, the gist seems to involve smoking indoors and serving liquor at times other places can’t. Basically, imagine the Polish wedding reception scene from 1978 best picture winner The Deer Hunter, and you’re there.
One-person shows are inevitably a hazard. It’s a lot to ask one person to entertain you and a room full of strangers for a solid hour-plus. After all, people we adore sometimes have a hard time capturing our complete attention for hour-long intervals. This is just to say I don’t approach any solo show without a heightened sensitivity and respect for their mission.
The first show of the evening was Peter Michael Marino’s Show Up. The show opens with an array of large neon sticky notes plastered to the wall. They’re splashed with keywords like Today, Childhood, Love Life, and Addiction. The 1980s tune “Be Near Me” from Marino’s youth blasts out pre-show, and one can’t help but notice the catchy refrain “all my dreams came true last night, all my hopes and fears…” It feels a little contrived. The show does come across as slightly dated; it’s a day-old pastry, still enjoyable but on the downward slide. Marino promises the show won’t be about nothing in a Seinfeld or Beckett kind of way. While there’s no risk of comparison to avant-garde Beckett, it is a bit like watching an old Seinfeld episode. Marino clowns around like a somewhat darker Jerry whose shtick is talking about his insecurities and challenges as a gay introverted New York comedian.
Marino is at his best when he engages the audience, and he has solid energy as he bounces around the stage in his high-top sneakers. Marino enlists the audience to help him fill in the sticky notes with their own life events. These become the substance of a story he tells, suggesting each show varies to some extent, and he’s comfortable as an improv artist. In fact, the show immediately feels fresher when he deviates from the one-man script. Marino not only engages the audience, but he breaks down the barriers between audience members. Ultimately, Show Up becomes experiential. It’s about the creation of community through theatre as we laugh together and get transported from dingy, low-ceilinged basement venue to a higher plane of camaraderie. Cheers to that.
Amanda Miller’s How to Suffer Better was the second show of the night in the basement Lyceum, and it was the ringer of the evening. Miller channels and portrays a half dozen memorable characters going head to head in a competition on who can suffer better. The contest is inspired by a quote on a Snapple cap that triggers deep thoughts for Miller’s first madcap character, competition hostess and alcoholic bartender Celeste Schuman. Miller perfectly captures the sloppy drunk who thinks she’s holding it together thanks to silver kitten heels and day-old eyeliner that rims sunken eyes. All six characters are united by extraordinarily messy wigs, which just visually reinforces their inner chaos. Schuman is no exception. Her platinum blonde bob has a trio of bobby pins and a small binder clip to restrain it. Her opening act is both comedic and tragic as she attempts to represent female empowerment through a debased stripping routine.
When one actor plays multiple characters, there’s typically at least one weak link. However, Miller nicely bucks that tradition as all six of her characters are fully fleshed out, although her four female characters play stronger than her two male ones. Miller paces the show extraordinarily well, having each character introduce the next for smooth transitions. She is able to convey a deep and varying range of suffering that creates an ebb and flow, inducing bubbles of laughter over an outlandish sex app for seniors as she channels 87-year old Edith Shlivovitz, edgy Jewish grandmother looking to get laid. It’s not all comedic as she also portrays the banal and painfully relatable suffering of endless customer service transfers as well as a soundless piece reminiscent of The Artist. Miller is memorable, leaving us wanting more of her characters and their stories as the show ends with an array of desecrated props strewn across the makeshift stage of linoleum flooring. Theatre at its best.
David Lawson rounded out the evening with his video game-inspired piece, No Oddjob. Admittedly, I don’t play video games, but great content can make any subject interesting. Unfortunately, Lawson misses the mark in his tired, frayed khakis and button-down plaid shirt, although he enhances his show with pictures and clips of video games from his youth. There are moments of levity in the piece, such as when he talks about secretly playing Wolfenstein 3D on mute at the Jewish Community Center in Fairfax, Virginia as a kid. He is self-aware about the irony (and thus the need for mute) at being a Jewish kid playing a shooting game that takes place in a concentration camp.
Overall, the show is primarily a history lesson on video games from David’s youth in the 90s, and it was zero percent surprising when he admitted to still being a virgin at age 20. In fact, one felt the mention of a current girlfriend later in the show was just to make it clear he has gotten laid in the intervening years. Lawson ties his content to broader social issues, like ongoing debates over causality between violent video games and school shootings. However, that part of the show feels obligatory and isn’t particularly memorable or impactful. The real story is just Lawson wanting to geek out about the hours he spent playing video games in his youth. While the basement setting felt appropriate for this narrative, a better audience would be a convention of like-minded folks who want to wax nostalgic and debate the merits of the PlayStation versus Nintendo 64, leaving most of us not Ready Player One.
The Fifth Annual Pittsburgh Fringe Festival runs through April 8th. For tickets and details, visit their site.