The final night of the 5th Annual Pittsburgh Fringe Festival found me in yet another basement for three more shows, this time at the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church. Unlike the prior nightâ€™s venue at St. Maryâ€™s Lyceum, this location was an actual church. There was something immediately soothing about the diffusion of late afternoon light through the stained glass windows. There was also a wickedly glorious irony in having that light bathe over me with the pulmonating voice of Fringe Festival performer Bob Weick as Karl Marx filtering into the entryway. While the fates whisked me to the less charming basement multi-use room, the sound bleed from above was not nearly as bad and distracting as the Lyceum.
The first show of the evening was Andrew Frankâ€™s stand-up show, Macrocosm. While I donâ€™t spend much time at comedy clubs, intellectualism is not necessarily my first association with stand-up. However, Andrew Frank wastes no time in establishing this is a thinking personâ€™s show. He launches into bits on light speed (keeping it comedic by doing the math on the size of his proclaimedly large penis relative to light years), nonillion (a number with 30 zeros) and the Fibonacci sequence. You realize you came in expecting to play some version of Chutes and Ladders, and all of sudden, the chess board has come out.
To establish his legitimacy, Frank opens the show by telling us heâ€™s done 11 years of stand-up. His transitions consist of giving his hipster haircut a faint tug and outwardly flipping his microphone cord, an onstage move thatâ€™s reminiscent of the recent water bottle flipping phenomena. Overall, Frank comes off as more gently amusing than genuinely comedic. There were few roars from the audience. Frank exudes an air of pretention, even when talking dismissively about his education at an unaccredited Christian school in Missouri. He struggles with straddling that line between making people laugh and making them feel dumb. After all, not everyone knows the Fibonacci sequence (a series of numbers in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers). Ultimately, the math of Frankâ€™s comedy adds up to making one feel a little lesser.
The second stand-up show of the night was Krish Mohanâ€™s Empathy on Sale. Like Frank, Mohan also takes an intellectual approach, albeit more political in slant. However, Mohan is clearly more at ease than Frank. Mohan engages the audience with self-referential sideline commentary about their responses (or lack thereof), which dissolves boundaries and encourages easy laughter.
Mohan offers satirical commentary on the immigrant experience having come to the U.S. from India when he was 8. He reminds us of our biases as he addresses common questions like â€œWhere is your accent?â€ Mohan helps us stand ever so slightly outside of our American box in considering the screwy nature of rampant capitalism. This is memorably evidenced by his family excitedly whisking his 68-year old grandmother off to a mall when she visits the U.S. from India for the first time.
While Mohan and his family have only been in the U.S. for 20 years, he dismally notes his father is a rabid follower of FOX News and regularly rails against the Hispanic immigrant influx. Ironically, it seems we quickly morph into fierce protectionists of our adopted home, ready to erect walls now that weâ€™re here. It reminded me of living in California and people complaining about newcomers overcrowding the state when they themselves had only been there for a few years. Yet, this behavior is as old as America itself. Mohan quotes a journal entry from Christopher Columbus noting the native population will be easy to subjugate because they are welcoming and not technologically advanced. Ah, Amurika!
Squeezed between these two stand-up routines in the Unitarian church basement was the runaway sensation of the night, New Vintage Ensembleâ€™s #vanlife. In this piece, Casey and Kimmie are two gay millennials in search of both escape and the meaning of their lives. They look to accomplish this by stripping down beyond the small house movement to its more extreme cousin â€“ van culture. Participation in this movement will theoretically allow them to travel as freely as dandelion fluff on a breeze.
The show opens with hilariously fresh and cutting banter. It stays in sync, never missing a beat. The two friends nitpick at each other like an old married couple as they prep to record a YouTube video with the proper balance of humor (a chipper rattling of the vanâ€™s name: Jean-Claude Damme Van â€“ or is it Van Damme? Damn!), hand gestures, charm and of course, product placement as they attempt to monetize their journeys. The quest to capture that perfect seamless, inspiring, breezy moment is peeled back to reveal a fiction. The show cracks open the wide delta in life between upbeat social media portrayals and the palpable realities of life as it is. For instance, Casey notes #vanlife pictures on social media are in meadows and on beaches, not in the Walmart parking lots where they actually congregate.
Of course, this delta isnâ€™t limited to Casey and Kimmie. The very existence of the phrase â€œFacebook lifeâ€ points to the fact that social media portrayals are not reflective of everyday reality. Itâ€™s a shiny final image with the right filter that elides the mess and muck along the way. Miserable and grumpy, Casey and Kimmie sideline into a debate on the relative merits of truckstop showers, before roping it back in and plastering on fake smiles for the YouTube camera. Theyâ€™re combative, picking at each other with ease and an underpinning of affection worn by the trials of travel.
Kimmie wears an orange V-neck sweater and patterned LuLaRoe leggings. She decries that her life has just become â€œabout managing peopleâ€™s expectations of me.â€ She says it like it makes her unique. In fact, it illustrates her lack of self-awareness on the general human condition. These apparently oppressive expectations stifle her ability to figure out who she really is, so Kimmie does a past-life reading. In learning who sheâ€™s been, perhaps sheâ€™ll figure out who she is. Like any past-life reading worth its salt, her past turns out to have been far more intriguing than her present. This disconnect seems to provide the inspirational spark for her vanlife venture, and she successfully campaigns to have Casey join her.
Throughout the show, the two actors stand only a few feet apart, but they never look at each other. In fact, theyâ€™re mostly on a slight diagonal away from each other as if each is standing in the middle of an angry face emoji eyebrow painted on the floor. Casey and Kimmie literalize social mediaâ€™s tendency to look downward or outward, but not inward and never making eye contact. Our laughter is underpinned with a recognition of ourselves.
Check out the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival site for more information on their shows.