No Matter Where You Go, There You Are – Fringe Day 2

My second day at the Fringe was spent at two locations: St. Mary’s Lyceum and Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church. It takes between 20 to 30 minutes to walk between the two locations, so, depending on the weather, the time of day, and the time in between the shows you are seeing, this can be a nice opportunity to take a break, get some fresh air, and enjoy some of Allegheny Commons North Park.

The second day of the Fringe was a social justice movement tsunami of new works, with a little bit of silliness thrown in to help weather the storm. It makes me wish I could have seen every single show that Fringe has to offer, to see if this searching, pushing, floundering, reaching demand for a better way of doing things, a clearer direction, was a universal undercurrent throughout the festival, or if I just got lucky with the performances I attended.

mg-6468-brochure-2_origCome As You Are is not so much a performance as a group storytelling session. The stories are personal, real-life accounts of the struggle to fit in, to achieve outside approval, the tolls taken, and the lessons learned. It’s very intimate. It’s unvarnished, honest, and brave.

From a theatrical perspective, it’s really not much of a “performance.†This group of presenters seems new to the art of oral storytelling, though many of them have a background in radio and writing. There are no carefully crafted narratives, no weaving together of images and ideas, no surprise revelations or attempts at creating memorable characters inside their tales. Instead, there are unvarnished, unrehearsed confessionals, offered up to the audience by non-performers, much more self-conscious and unsure than seasoned professional storytellers or actors would ever be. And yet, I was moved by their vulnerability.

Come As You Are often felt like a group therapy session, as opposed to a theatrical presentation, and I have very strong feelings against theater as therapy. There is theater. And there is therapy. Both can elicit enlightenment and catharsis, but theater is primarily an external vehicle of entertainment, while therapy is a private attempt at personal growth and healing. I don’t approve of mixing the two worlds. And yet, I was caught up in the glimpses into these presenter’s lives and grateful to get to know them.

At the end of the planned presentations, the collective opened up the floor for audience members to share stories of their own experiences, and, surprisingly, gratifyingly, several individuals did just that. So, there we all were, complete strangers, in the dark, sharing intimate moments from each other’s lives. It was really rather beautiful, and…therapeutic.

Next up for me: Tentacles, a two-person production grappling with female sexuality, fantasy, power, and, worse, disempowerment.

tentaclespghfringeshowgraphicwebTentacles is hands down the best production I saw during my time at the Fringe. It is well written, wonderfully performed and directed. It is intellectual, emotional, titillating, fascinating, unapologetic, surprising, funny, horrifying. I really hope this production gets more performances, all over the country. It’s just that good.

Written by Tessa Flannery (who also plays the lead character) with direction by Rebecca Cunningham, Tentacles is initially framed as a lecture on feminist ravishment fantasies in relation to pornography and the depiction of female rape given by “grad student†Tessa. The lecture itself is really interesting and informative. In fact, I would love to have a bibliography identifying the source materials used in the research of this piece. In the midst of this lecture, Tessa often grapples with her own personal fantasies, depicted with great humor by Ms. Flannery. These fantasies interweave with the subject at hand, challenging her professional, clinical self-representation.

To complicate matters further, Tess is confronted by Chris (played by Chris Fayne), a former college friend, now porn actor, who confronts, criticizes, and demeans Tessa and her work. The confrontation slowly devolves from debate to sexual overture to an assault that leaves Tessa incoherent and almost speechless. Her voice has been stopped; her power subverted. It is a disturbing and deeply resonant moment that looks the audience squarely in the eye and demands we not be complicit, that we stay alert, and that we take action when it is needed. It was a truly electrifying production.

The minor problems with the show do not ultimately take away from its final impact. Tessa Flannery’s performance is much stronger and skillful than Chris Fayne’s, though Chris is completely committed and willing to take the fall as the “bad guy.†The character of Chris is a bit of a straw man, since there is literally nothing likable about the guy from word one. So, while the characters’ interactions honor the complexity of the issue at hand, the antagonist himself does not. And the idea that a man would be allowed to hijack a public lecture in the way that Chris does without intervention by the audience or venue security is a bit unrealistic. It’s worth suspending one’s disbelief in order to engage with the material, but I expect there is a writing fix for this weird plot anomaly.

Regardless, this is truly an amazing piece of theater. You should see it, more than once, if possible.

28514724_10157160314724838_3180087440204844665_oComedian Krish Mohan continued the call for social justice in his standup performance called Empathy on Sale. I liked Mr. Mohan. I mean, I don’t actually know him personally, but his style of comedy is gentle, kind. He does, indeed, seem empathetic to his fellow human beings. So, he can address social justice issues like racism, immigration law, and political extremism, and, even if you don’t agree with all of his observations, you can appreciate his sense of humor and his genuine empathy. I thoroughly enjoyed my time listening to Mr. Mohan’s comedic observations, and I’d love to meet both his parents and Uncle Marv(?); they sound like really interesting people.

IMG_0159Finally, there was #vanlife, written, performed and directed by Kimmie Leff and Casey Thomas. I admit to being entertained by this witty, fast-paced theater piece, if a little put off by the relentless snarkiness of its characters. They were funny, after all, just really, really irritating; heck, they didn’t seem to like each other most of the time either. Which may have been the point.

#vanlife was the perfect show with which to end my Fringe experience, since it’s a show about people trying to escape. Escape the complexities of the modern world. Get away from everyday disappointments. Get away from adulthood. Hit the road. Be free!

Anyone over the age of 15 has had this fantasy. Only, instead of motorcycles à la Easy Rider, it’s retrofitted vans. And, instead of just fantasizing about it, our characters actually do it. They give up most of their worldly possessions, pack up their van, and start driving, searching for….what, something…some ineffable thing. And they are sure, based on all the cool Instagram posts from other van-life practitioners, that their world will be full of romance, peace, beauty – all the stuff their real life lacks.

And yet, in their determination to leave behind all of the trappings of their trapped lives, these modern day Kerouacs can’t seem to break away from their need for a good Wifi connection. After all, what is life? What is adventure? If it can’t be documented on Facebook or Instagram? Their flight towards freedom is also hampered by the, irritatingly always present, practical needs of life – money, food, shower facilities, a legal place to park their van. The vicissitudes of life on the road quickly begin to wear on our intrepid pair. Until, disillusioned (van-life does not solve all our problems, does not lead to enlightenment, much less good toilet paper supplies), our duo decides to expose the seedy truth of van-life with their own behind-the-lies posts on Facebook, et. al.

As their followers grow, the two find themselves monetizing their feeds, until they too are part of the conspiracy, posting pics and promoting products online, instead of truly pursuing self-improvement or that all illusive enlightenment. In the end, Kimmie and Casey just decide to go back home, à la Dorothy Gale this time. The answers aren’t “out there†somewhere, self-understanding cannot be manufactured, you can’t run away from your adulthood.

I found the commentary on our modern obsession with social media resonant. And that aching longing for….something….poignant. However, I felt like the performances were a bit stale; these folks know this show inside and out, and it didn’t feel like they were really present with the audience for the performance. I also totally did not understand why the actors never looked at each other!? I did not get whatever message this was supposed to convey. At all. Unless their disconnection as actors on stage was supposed to reflect their disconnection as characters? I don’t know. It bugged me. And maybe that was the point.

Anyway, #vanlife inspires me to always remember: “No matter where you go, there you are.†à la Buckaroo Bonzai.

The Fifth Annual Pittsburgh Fringe Festival unfortunately ends today but if you’d like to learn more about Fringe click here.

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