- Natsumi Sugiyama stars in The Tale of Mephisto.
The 8th century Chinese poet Du Fu contemplated much, but he probably never thought he'd make it into the New Orleans Fringe Festival. His work was channeled through a string band and trio of rural Mississippi neighbors in the brilliant (and appropriately titled) show Du Fu, Mississippi. And his work was among good company in a festival featuring many great productions. With 60 shows to choose from, one could only sample a handful, but here are some of the highlights and disappointments.
In Du Fu, Nick Slie, Lisa Shattuck and Ray Vrazel waxed philosophical about nature, war, the pleasures and curses of excessive drinking, and the futility of attempting to comprehend the humbling vastness of the universe. An accompanying string band helped offer some poems as songs, and the musicians also contributed observations. Clever but minimalist costumes helped forge perfect harmony between Du Fu's timeless writing and a modern Southern rural vernacular.
Goat in the Road Productions' Our Man was an excellent piece about another near-mythic historic figure: Ronald Reagan. Co-writers Will Bowling and Chris Kaminstein performed the outrageously funny hourlong piece in a clear plastic box that allowed neither to stand straight. When an overhead "On Air" sign lit up, they snapped to attention and enthusiastically glorified Reagan, perpetually retelling and embellishing his life story. The hyperbole was pushed to heroic extremes as they invented stories about Knute Rockne and Reagan fighting together behind enemy lines in World War II. (Rockne died in 1931.) It seems they convince themselves of the veracity of their own tall tale propaganda.
One of the most offbeat of concepts, a rock opera about the dangers and appropriate ways to clean up lead paint, made Lead Paint Libretto one of the Fringe's best surprises. A Roman chorus and a villainous lead particle swirled around a Tyvek-clad painting team as Pabst-toting handyman Giovanni (Owen Brightman) learned how to clean up his act. Show creators Nina Nichols and Case Miller lifted text from EPA manuals for lyrics, and there were a few puppet interludes. Staging it in the Den of Muses, surrounded by Krewe du Vieux floats, made for a fun venue.
Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters met Sarah Palin's can-do attitude of platitudes in To Moscow, You Betcha!, a fun offering by writer-director Bridget Erin. As Chekhov's siblings begin the first act of their tragedy, Palin, as an audience member, mistakes their onstage tea party for a Tea Party and joins them to deliver a steady patter of Palin-isms that dovetail quite well with the actual play. (All dialogue was taken from the original play and real Palin speeches.) As the women mused on the falling snow, Palin piped up with, "This global warming hysteria isn't based on sound science!" Erin directed a small cast with an economy of movement and props, aided chiefly in the laughs department by Rebecca Rae, who perhaps resembled "Supernanny" Jo Frost more than the former Alaska governor, but brought the requisite happy-peppy-wink! viewpoint on everything from "mama grizzlies" to the Gulf oil disaster.
The Liar Show featured four New York comedians and writers telling stories, one of which was a fabrication audience members had to identify after 15 minutes of interrogation. One woman told of a marriage proposal from an obsessive origami-folding boyfriend, another recounted a courtship involving mailed dead birds, and the story too good to be true rounded up drugs, pastries and a shootout over a beauty parlor tryst.
Hollywood's Freakshow Deluxe broke out all the expected stunts: lying on beds of nails, walking on broken glass, fire swallowing and more. It's easy to watch people flirting with danger, but the show could have been improved with some sort of original presentation or dramatic structure. One disturbingly original stunt was a sadistic final pass-the-bucket proposition: Audience members could staple a dollar to the stomach of one of the men, or a twenty to the butt of a woman. There were no big spenders in the crowd, but plenty lined up for the cheaper thrill.
The Tale of Mephisto was a rigorously well-done piece of nontraditional theater, exploring the demon in Faust's bargain as a character with a mundane life and interests, but whose petty charms serially attract suitors. Natsumi Sugiyama displayed an impressive array of dance, martial arts and creative movement, and the piece had elements of satire and comedy. More of a narrative might have improved the piece, but Sugiyama was captivating.
A story that went too far was the take on Little Red Riding Hood in Hunter's Blind. Pandora Gastelum and the Mudlark Puppeteers created an artistically beautiful array of puppets, shadow puppets and props and told the story in an original way. The wolf confronted in the piece was Gilles de Rais, a French knight disillusioned by the French throne's abandonment of Joan of Arc, whom the British burned at the stake. The story followed a complicated crisis of faith to a very dark place that made more sense for de Rais than the girl. Overall, it was very well done, but a little jarring.
There was a mixed bag of one-woman shows. New Yorker Nancy Eng's The Women of the House of Tu-Na was a roundup of mostly comic monologues by Asian sex workers in a massage parlor. There were many funny quips and rants on the sexual desires and lack of knowledge or sensitivity of clients, but after a while, the anger and weariness were what registered in a show that didn't find the best balance between comedy and drama. Nora Brown's monologue Dad Doesn't Dance chronicled her real-life quest to find her biological father. Although the noirish framing was suitable to the intrigue of finally knocking on his door in Hollywood, the piece needed more emotional revelation from Brown to be dramatically compelling. At the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, there were a couple of portraits of Louisiana artists by writer Carolyn Woosley. Angelique Feaster offered a poised and engaging performance as Clementine Hunter, and Carol Anne Gayle gracefully incarnated abstract painter Clyde Connell, another aging eccentric.
Duo Rococo was among the international performances/acts, though Jessica Arpin formerly lived in New Orleans. A mixture of comedy, gimmicky magic tricks, theater and bicycle stunts, it was a lighthearted, fun and polished collection of street busking stunts and gags.
Among the disappointments was Trail of Tears, a mixture of Japanese Butoh and interpretive dance by Bearing Light Butoh Dance Theatre. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough quality dance, costumes were underwhelming, use of New Age music seemed cliched, and a long segment focused on an antipollution message could have been achieved solely by the video montage at the back of the stage.
Overall, it was hard not to regret having missed so many shows given the number of winners we saw. Organizer Kristen Evans told Gambit before the Fringe that New Orleans' festival has gotten a reputation as the "fringiest," but it should also be regarded as one with great quality as well as artistic diversity and experimentation. — Kevin Allman, Will Coviello and Dalt Wonk