This year, my first day of Fringe was my last day, but it was no less of an experience than last year’s. My first show was Bobby’s Ballet Lessons in the basement of the Unitarian Church. Coming in at fifteen minutes, it’s the shortest play I have seen at Pittsburgh Fringe, but it still tells a fairly complete story. We meet Bobby and Leah who are two eight-year-olds in a dance studio where Bobby’s mom signs him up for ballet lessons with Leah’s mom, the instructor. The children immediately befriend one another, and Leah doesn’t mind that Bobby is nonverbal and stims when frustrated or excited. Leah’s mother seems more reserved but still teaches him, and we see the children grown and dancing ten years later at their final recital.
The child actors are a joy to watch, and not just for the cute factor many bigger productions exploit. They connect and present a genuine moment of childhood friendship. Most scenes are short and punctuated by a blackout at the end of each one. While this lends an effect of taking a snapshot of the characters’ lives, some scenes feel too brief to provide a full sense of who everyone is. More to the point, we never get to know Bobby. After the first scene establishing his autism, the rest of the characterization goes to Leah. Rather than allowing Bobby his own personhood and growth, he becomes a lesson for Leah. Kindness can make a huge difference in our lives, but what does it do for Bobby? Leah even asks her mother, “Will he be okay?” as if he has no chance of independence. Theatre needs more autistic representation, but we must also be mindful of how that representation serves that community.
The second show taking place in the same space, Bounder the Rescue Dog, by Puppets in Performance addresses a similar theme, but brings it to a child’s level using puppets and songs. They tell the story of Kyle, a boy struggling with ADHD, who desperately wants to adopt an abandoned stray named Bounder, who has been surviving on the streets. Both Kyle and Bounder face down bullies: an obnoxious girl, Clarissa, and a fanged and scarred bruiser, Zig-zag. Meanwhile, Kyle’s mom fights for fair treatment at school. The brochures Kyle’s math teacher hands to her illustrate the lack of understanding and options for children with learning impairments. The story pushes the idea that Kyle getting a dog will solve his problems, but that is hard to believe. A therapy dog can help, but it is no cure for his disability.
Puppets are the perfect medium and give kids a way into what can be a difficult topic. The actor/puppet combo behind Zig-zag was one of the strongest performances. Both were equally animated and committed to the character. Most of the other actors’ facial expressions were very animated, but it didn’t quite come through the puppet. The ending also felt abrupt and just a little too good to be true, with a missing Bounder suddenly showing up at Kyle’s house and his combative mother giving a blasé “Okay” to the dog being in her son’s room. This is probably not an issue for a younger audience who may be just happy to see dog and boy finally together.
I moved upstairs to see Marx in Soho by Howard Zinn by Iron Age Theatre’s Bob Weick, which requires some contextualization that doesn’t touch on the show itself. Everywhere I found it, the show was scheduled for a 4:00 curtain. After waiting a surprising amount of time with no sign of the show starting, I finally found out it would start at 4:30. No sign or notice was posted outside the space. After a long surprise wait in a hard pew, I was a little less than disposed to give the show my full attention when it began and it eventually made it difficult to pay attention at the end.
That being said, Marx in Soho by Howard Zinn was most definitely not geared for children like Bounder. As Karl Marx recounts most of his life in monologue to the audience, there are moments inappropriate for kids, but it mostly delves into a lot of material that is over kids’ heads – some of it even over mine. That’s not to say I can’t follow Marx’s arguments, but he tends to drop more historically obscure names without explaining. There is an expectation of knowledge when he should very well know our capitalist society doesn’t allow socialism to be taught in classes without demonizing it. The performance tends toward a lecture, with many smug asides about how our world can’t be as backwards as his was (as we well know it is), and then going on to explain how we are still backwards (which we already know). However, he managed to stir my emotions with the line, “To be radical is to grasp the root of the problem.” In a world where commodities and CEOs are king, loving and respecting your fellow human beings unconditionally are the most radical things you can do.
And funnily enough, the last show of my night, Come as You Are, a group from Rochester, NY, does just that. Taking more of an open-mic route rather than a traditional play performance, four storytellers got up and recounted a memory from their lives, often deeply personal in some way or another. I feel it wrong to tell any of their stories for them, but I think I can safely mention a funny story that involves mud with ants in it passed off as chocolate ice cream. They invite audience members up with their own stories at the end and they gently tease you into taking part. It was a sweet and relaxing end to the day and the best example of theatre creating community and acceptance.
For more information about the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival, click here.