The genius of the Fringe theater movement is that it has created vast opportunities for theater lovers all over the world to be inspired, enlightened and entertained by a rich assortment of non-mainstream artists and their work over a short period of time, within the same area, in different cities.
Since 2005, Indianapolis audiences have enjoyed both the privilege and luxury of experiencing their own unconventional theater festival with IndyFringe. Continuing through Aug. 25 at 8 venues throughout the downtown Mass Ave. Arts District, Fringe 13 regulars and newcomers alike can partake in this year’s program consisting of 78 shows, presented by local, national and international performers.
Once again, respected word of mouth drove Examiner.com to attend three additional shows over the past several days. Seen Monday at their 6 p.m. show was The Fourth Wall, in “Fruit Flies like a Banana” which was presented at the Cook Theatre at the Landmark Center. Tuesday, it was the 6 p.m. performance of “Yelling at Bananas at Whole Foods” that played in the Frank and Katrina Basile Theatre at the Phoenix and at 9 p.m., this writer saw “Menagerie Macabre: A Theatre du Grand Guignol” at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre.
“Fruit Flies like a Banana” featured The Fourth Wall, (who received their greatest exposure as hits at both Spotlight ’12 and ’13) a group of classically trained musicians who describe their work as “a new hybrid of the performing arts in which musicians are also dancers and actors.” Founded in 2010, the group consists of flautist Hilary Abigana, bass trombonist C. Neil Parsons and percussionist Greg Jukes.
The best way to describe this “hybrid arts ensemble” whose shows give a whole new meaning to “interactive,” is one that is a combination of Keystone Cops energy, Three Stooge silliness, and virtuoso musicianship --- all rolled into one to create a madcap circus in which the zany clowns also double as members of the band.
“Fruit Flies like a Banana” began with an explanation of the show’s ground rules in which it was explained to the audience that they would decide the content of the show. From that point on, cards which held titles denoting selections from the group’s repertoire were chosen from handfuls carried out by the musicians to members of the audience throughout the show. A pledge was also made that the group would play 25 selections within the hour length of the show. To hold them accountable, a digital clock sitting on an easel onstage was started to count down the hour length of the program.
Agigana, Parsons and Jukes demonstrated not only musical versatility but also physicality as well as vocal and comic acting talent during their rollicking, yet, on occasion, quiet and reflective program that featured many highlights.
Selections of note included "Bordel - 1900" from Histoire du Tango by Astor Piazzolla; “Four Songs” by Ralph Vaughn Williams with poetry by his wife Ursula; “Baroque Monstrosity (Ramón Remixes Rameau)” by Ramón Castillo; and "Trepak" from “The Nutcracker” by Piotr Tchaikovsky.”
Audience participation took place during Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t got That Swing” when two audience members were brought on stage to assist Abigana and Parsons in playing their flute and trombone, respectively. Another collaboration involved an audience member who joined the musicians in playing “Pop Goes the Weasel” with plastic Boomwackers and the most daring, if not the oddest, transpired when audience members were asked to speak their favorite cuss words during what the group called “profanity popcorn.”
Other purely wacky bits involved Abigana and Jukes reading personal ads from Craigslist off their smartphones as well as headlines and comics from newspapers as they were accompanied by Parsons playing the trombone in each instance.
By the time the digital clock had run out of time, The Fourth Wall had not only completed 25 songs in an hour’s time but had also managed to perform a medley of ‘70s hits to close the show. In the end, these appealing personalities proved that not all musicians take themselves too seriously and that music, of any kind, can be made accessible to any kind of audience.
A perfect example of one who does (or did) take himself too seriously is Dan Bernitt in “Yelling at Bananas in Whole Foods.” From Brooklyn, New York, story teller Bernitt shared his account of his journey from average eater to food Nazi after a chance encounter with ‘90s fitness guru Susan Powter who coined the term “Stop the Insanity,” that gained her widespread fame.
Bernitt, who is also a playwright, has a droll sense of humor and was amusing and engaging as he shared what was presumably his autobiographical story of how, after meeting Powter, he became obsessed with what he put into his body. Moving from vegetarianism to veganism and then eating only raw food prior to insisting that it had to be only locally grown, Bernitt, through his extreme behavior which becomes a neurosis, is backed into a corner and forced to re-evaluate the choices he has made.
Bernitt’s piece, which also incorporated his experience as an out gay man, was interesting, thought-provoking and revealed his humanity in its indictment of the food industry and concerns for the environment and society. Unfortunately, Bernitt’s performance was hampered by his mostly stationary stance behind a music stand that held his script. Though he occasionally expressed himself through movement, his performance might have been more entertaining had he utilized the stage more fully.
Harnessing the stage, and effectively so, was not a problem for Main Street Artists (based in Parker City, Ind., in Randolph County) during their presentation of “Menagerie Macabre: A Theatre du Grand Guignol.” Impressively written, designed and directed by Darrin Murrell, the show was a fitting tribute to the aesthetics of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, a theater in the Pigalle area of Paris. Specializing in naturalistic horror, the theater operated from 1897 to 1962. Grand Guignol is often used as term to describe amoral horror entertainment and is a genre that paved the way for modern day slasher films such as the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series featuring diabolical Freddy Krueger.
The cast of this Main Street Artists production included Julie Lyn Barber (Gypsy Hag), Bill Wilkison (Husband/Blacksmith/Father), Lisa Marie Smith (Wife/Witch/Mother), Benjamin Schuetz (Lover/Demon/Son) and Sari Lott (Daughter).
“Menagerie Macabre,” consisted of three different stories presented in separate acts. They included “The Eye of the Beholden,” told in the style of a silent film, about a husband whose wife cheats on him with his brother. Seeking revenge, he retaliates with sadistic brutality. Wilkison was outstanding in conveying his betrayed character’s murderous rage. Also exceptional in this story and the other two is Barber in her role as the ugly and decrepit Gypsy Hag, who serves as the narrator while singing eerie-sounding Hungarian folk songs, and stirring unspeakable things in a cauldron.
Act II’s “True Nature” was told in the style of an Operetta and enacted in the style of a European Pantomime. The story involves a witch who eats children and decides to change her appearance so she can live amongst humans. Eventually she falls in love, has a child and becomes a grandmother. Once alone with the newborn child, she catches a glimpse of herself in the baby’s eye and sees a reflection of her former self, causing her to react in a way that can be described as completely unimaginable. Though wearing a half-mask, Smith, as the Witch, was highly effective at communicating a range of emotions.
Act III’s “Infection,” was an adaptation of a few original Grand Guignol scripts, and a homage to classic Universal Horror Films. It tells the story of a father and a son in the woods, searching for their wife and mother who has disappeared. The son reveals to his father that he is suffering from an affliction that is causing his fingers and hands such pain that he begs his father to relieve his suffering by cutting them off with a knife. Terrified, the father is forced to make a frightening choice. Later, the mother comes on the scene and horrified by what has occurred, she responds accordingly but in a most unexpected way. Both Wilkison as the father and Schuetz as the son pulled out all the melodramatic stops and created believable characters that were empathetic.
The production's lighting, costumes, props and make-up all contributed to the authenticity of its Grand Guignol style. And in an age when we are all desensitized by the violence fed to us daily on the evening news, in films and on television shows, it would seem that the graphic and gory special effects, central to the theatrics of “Menagerie Macabre,” would have no impact whatsoever. To the credit of Murrell and these Main Street Artists, however, they, like their Grand Guignol predecessors who entertained those who wished to be titillated and feel terror (but in a safe manner), cleverly managed to suspend belief and do so with both artistry and panache.
It is expected that Fringe 13’s closing weekend will draw large crowds. At this time, due to word of mouth and reviews, Fringers are flocking to the hottest shows, so based on this writer’s experience, Examiner.com recommends that you appear at venues at least 45 minutes before the show of your choice, in order to purchase tickets and ensure decent seating.
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