Local Pittsburgh buskers, Sean Miller and Kristin Ward are The Daring Douglasses. If you have been to any Pittsburgh events over the past couple decades, you most likely have seen them, a large crowd standing in a circle, watching with eyes wide and mouths gaping open in awe. Fire eating, sword swallowing and lying on a bed of nails are incredible feats and sometimes hard to watch, but watch we must and this is evident by the crowd of people, sitting anxiously, awaiting the show to begin.
The first part of the title, Straw, Mud and Old Boards refers to the seating available at carnivals, festivals, and fairs; the venues The Daring Douglasses perform most often. Over the course of the show, Miller and Ward colorfully recount their most memorable experiences up and down the United States from the Eastern Seaboard to the Mississippi and everywhere in between.
I think the audience expected to see the team perform some of their most daring acts; bursting, otherwise known as blowing huge, big balls of fire or swallowing fire or swords. Unfortunately, due to insurance issues, these death defying displays of fearlessness were prohibited. This did not prevent the dynamic duo from sharing plenty of stories and a few select tricks. The most well received escapade demonstrated is not for the squeamish; the “Human Blockhead”. Miller began his presentation by asking an audience member to choose a nail from a box of nails. Then he requested someone examine a hammer and confirm it is a standard, regular old hammer. Next, Miller casually used the hammer to insert the nail into his nose. Many in the audience turned their heads, but only slightly, so they could still see Miller extract the nail from his nostril with the claw end. Ward, demonstrated the same trick using a glow stick. The audience, clearly relieved she did not choose a nail, but every bit as impressed. These stunts earned several gasps followed by vigorous applause from the audience.
Miller and Ward primarily entertain at popular festivals, fairs, and carnivals but they are also engaging storytellers.
Through a carefully planned narrative, they each tell their own stories; how they found their calling as sideshow performers, performances that were less than successful as well as some of their favorite showcases.
I enjoyed this show. I loved the storytelling and hearing about the history leading up to the forming of the troupe. As a Pittsburgher, I have seen The Daring Douglasses perform at least one dozen times. I think the concept of Straw, Mud and Old Boards is a crafty way to promote themselves and share their art despite the limitations due to the provisions set forth by the Fringe Festival; and for good reason. For just one second, imagine the liability associated with a fully bearded man, eating fire, in the back room of a bar on Pittsburgh’s Northside!
Audience members who have not witnessed The Daring Douglasses performance in full, Straw, Mud and Old Boards should whet your appetite for good old fashioned sideshow.
Rounding out my Fringe Festival tour for Pittsburgh in the Round, is a witty performance by Pittsburgh’s Brawling Bard Theater, Shakespeare Annotated. Written Alan Irvine, with help from William Shakespeare and performed by a company of extraordinary actors. The showcase begins with a brief introduction from Irvine, explaining the plot; actors deliver classic Shakespeare scenes and monologues while an expert librarian sits off to the side, prepared to provide footnotes when necessary. He introduces the first performance, Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1. Alex, with her long flowing dark hair takes the stage and without warning begins reciting Sonnet 18. The cast is quick to interrupt. Alex insists, the sonnet is her favorite piece. Everyone agrees it is a lovely sonnet- but despite her earnest attempt to persuade, the show continues with Hamlet. I must say, being the most recognized Shakespeare play next to Romeo and Juliet, and despite attempted comedic elements the launch of the show fell short with Hamlet. The most memorable moments come from the apt and presumptuous ‘librarian’ sitting quietly with her nose in the books, barking out exceptional interpretation, whenever she felt it was needed. By the second arrangement, As You Like It, Act 2, scene 7, the cast seems to have warmed up and the show gets livelier. I was relieved to see and hear some of the initial rigidity in the actors voices and movements melt away. A genuine and more professional production emerged and it was almost an a-ha moment for the audience collectively once we figured out the entire show is a farce. By the time A Winter’s Tale is presented, more props are introduced and the is loving the levity bestowed upon the classics. With the presentation of As You Like It, we discover the world’s first flushing toilet. In The Winter’s Tale, Act 3 scene 3, a bear races through the theater. The footnotes included in the introduction of Much Ado About Nothing, had the audience in stitches. Alex’s second attempt to present her favorite sonnet was a small fiasco and the zany, knife fighting scene from Julius Caesar, Act 3 Scene 1, is expertly directed by Tonya Lynn, adding another layer of theatrical expertise to the company’s exhibition.
What began as a weak and lackluster program ended with cheers and smiles from both the cast and audience.
I read my fair share of Shakespeare in high school and college and I’ve seen several Shakespeare productions, of varying degrees, performed live, but none that compare to Shakespeare Annotated. The cast is energetic and invested in their roles, but it is the originality of the script that really won me over. Shakespeare Annotated is not assigned reading in English 101, but probably should be.
For more information about the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival click here.