Sunday, August 14, 2016

"Day Five: Mini-Reviews from the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival"

2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #15
Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally
Kevin Armento
The Pleasance

From the unique advantage of a cell phone, a riveting, screen-by-screen, word-for-word accounting is laid bare of an initially innocent-enough, later totally illicit relationship between a high school math teacher and a fifteen-year-old student.  Five actors spill the story’s details as seen, heard, read, and intuited by the boy’s phone in a continuous flow of words.  Sentences, phrases, and single words spring forth from the cast in spoken unison, duets and trios, and solos.  Sometimes words are echoed; sometimes, repeated in staccato repetition; sometimes, tossed about as a ball on a tennis court; and often, shared in a dozen other manners.  Actors step forward to play assigned, primary protagonist roles, only to quickly fade to become props; to project a picture on the phone’s screen; to lift another actor high above or catch in a fall; or to hone in a cluster to get a close look as the phone’s camera to what is happening that must be seen. 

Highly original and deeply affecting in every imaginable dimension, Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally dares the audience member to look away even for a few seconds, knowing that some continuous stream of words, movements, and character shifts will be missed if the dare is taken.  The story and subject matter portrayed in Kevin Armento’s play that was in 2015 a hit at New Yorks 59E59 Theatre and now in its European premiere at the Fringe alternately attracts and repels but always commands total attention.

If there were ever an Everyman Teenager, Red is surely he.  Red (Devin McDuffee) is on that delicate cusp of still boy but almost man, of only a few hairs on the face but with a body already developed beyond his years, and of looks of resentment when asked a question by a parent followed by looks that melt his mom’s heart when he unexpectedly puts his head on her shoulder. 

Red’s divorced parents are in a bitter battle, and he is in usually in the middle.  His mom (Sarah-Jane Casey) fawns over him with her too-big smile and affected speech as if of high society – that is when she is not nursing her latest cocktail concoction.  Dad (Nick Flint) uses yesterday’s dirty dishes to serve his frozen pizza and spends most of his time with his son kvetching about his ex, Red’s mom.

Into Red’s world comes a math teacher (Leah Donovan) who has confiscated his phone over-night because he had refused to put it away, yet again, during class.  From the phone’s point of view, its teenage contents are just too tempting for the teacher not to explore in the privacy of her apartment (only when her unemployed boyfriend – Richard Saudek -- was not looking of course).  A series of pictures of carefully stacked rocks on the beach catch her attention and somehow causes her to leave him a similar picture, but of mahi-mahi pieces stacked on a plate.

Once returned, the discovered picture leads to a faster and faster exchange of texts between 15-year-old student and thirty-something-old female teacher.  With actors swirling about faster and faster in the telling of the exchanges, intrigue leads to connection leads to gnawing leads to obsession; and from obsession somehow springs -- almost too naturally not to believe all is “natural”  -- to action. 

What is powerful about the play is that the teacher’s pursuit of the student is never particularly creepy.  There is a sense of beauty and innocence.  And that is the truly scary part of the phone’s story.  Seen from that inanimate, all-knowing/seeing perspective, there is little wrong and much right about the afternoon trysts at the beach, the holding hands in the car, the frozen looks and whispers in the café.  But seen from the audience perspective, events become more and more difficult to watch while impossible, as was noted before, to turn our eyes away.

Ianthe Demos directs the choreography of the play’s telling with imagination that goes places only a set as designed by James Hunting and Olivia Mcgiff can allow him to do.  Movable boxes stack and separate into chairs, walls, steps, or even tossed balls.  Metallic cylinders connected by bars become tables or axis of a moving car.  A rectangular hole in the stage is a place to hide and to sin or to hide in refuge and reflection.  Bars across the stage allow for climbing and swinging – and again for more escape.  All are enhanced by a lighting design (Mike Riggs) not seen often on a Fringe stage.  Shadows, flickering border lights, changing atmospheric colors, and many other creative effects spotlight details and establish entire moods.  And the action of this beautiful but sordid tale is accompanied all along by a woman with a mandolin relaxing lazily on a swing.

In the end, this is a coming of age story that raises many more questions than it answers but one that will be remembered and discussed and troubled over again and again by anyone who sees it.  The real question for Red, will this be a story be someday a source of sweet cherish or of tormented anguish?

Rating: 5 E

Note: “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” stands for a well-known acronym PEMDAS for the order of mathematical operation: “Parenthesis, Exponential, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction.”


2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #16
Catherine Cranfield
Ecce Theatre

It’s moving in day at the uni, and five friends are returning to their familiar rented abode, ready to greet the new guy, Milo (Bertie Gibbs), best friend of Liv (Catherine Cranfield).  Liv grabs Milo aside as he arrives warning him, “These are my best friends (Georgia Phillips as Rosie, Jack Harrison as Nick, Fergus Macphee as Joe) and I want them to be your best friends and not sleep with any of them.”  Somehow, he, she, and we all know already this is not advice likely to be followed for long.  After all, these are hormones-racing-like-crazy, alcohol-downing, normal college kids.  So when Milo and Callie (Eliona Ostro) immediately have eyes for each other, why would anyone be surprised? 

In fact, nothing is all that unusual or unexpected in the first 80% of Catherine Cranfield’s Crazed.  The friends drink.  They screw.  Then they sniff a little coke, study here and there; and play drinking games as they drink and screw some more.

But what makes Crazed an important play that deserves to be staged in university theatres everywhere is what happens in the final fifteen minutes of the one-hour play.  After we have been lured into having a few good laughs as we remember how we had that same awful hangover back when, after we recall telling some of the same crude jokes at the expense of our best pals, and after we played the same strip poker with both guys and gals – after we have seen ourselves and identified ourselves on this couch and in this house – drunk Callie says to drunk Milo, “No ... Not tonight.” 

What follows in the next few minutes and the next morning are scenes never to be forgotten and rich fodder for intense, needed conversations on every college campus today where the topic of “consent’ and when does no really mean no” is more and more becoming a required and not an elective topic of discussion.

Rating: 3 E


2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #17
Adam and Eve and Steve
Chandler Warren (Book); Wayne Moore (Music)
Max Emerson Productions and Elva Corrie

Emerging from a green bush with a sign pointing “To Hell,” Beelzebub opens with a devilish, delicious number, “It’s All about Me.”  And even though Chandler Warren’s (book) and Wayne Moore’s (music) West-Hollywood-hit musical has a title of Adam and Eve and Steve, as usual whenever he appears, Satan (but don’t call him that) is quite the star throughout this immensely fun and clever re-telling of the creation story.

In fact, Beelzebub has figured out how to thwart God’s plan for creating a marrying mate Eve for Adam and instead sends a playmate named Steve into the Garden called Eden.  Adam (Joseph Robinson), who has been beautifully crooning with his boyish face and oh-so-mannish body, “I am Waiting for Someone,” immediately is ready to duet with his newfound, equally handsome and hunky friend Steve (Dale Adams) in “I Look Like You, You Look Like Me.” 

Eve (Hayley Hampson) arrives a bit confused as she sings with a voice of Broadway stage quality, “Am I He? Am I She? Am I Me?” and remains flustered until Beelzebub lures her into biting into a red, round, juicy apple.  The two then joyously sing with all the new knowledge garnered from the forbidden tree, “Look at Everything’s This Apple’s Done for Me.”

The love triangle twists and turns in every dimension as Steve and Eve tempt and then demand in enticing, sweaty voices “Choose Me.”  Adam only becomes more and more confused, since he is probably by this point the first “bi” person on earth, but that concept has not been created yet.  (God is still trying to deal with the gay that somehow arrived on the scene.)  Steve has already done a little side selling of himself, telling Adam, “I have a splendid idea ... they have a store called Ikea,” while also singing “All I Want to Do Is Buy Furniture with You.”

Full of both one-liners drawing on Bible times and current times (as in the likes of Trump, the Kardashians, and Pokemon), Adam and Eve and Steve is heavenly for all its sexy, titillating, and devilishly funny qualities.  Even God (Michael Christopher) gets to make an appearance, after having made his deep-voiced, echoing presence known throughout).  God joins his ol’ pal from below in a vaudevillian routine of dance, jokes, and song (“I Wish I Were a Song and Dance Man”) that brings floods of laughter and thunderous claps from the audience.

Francesca Goodridge’s direction and choreography may not be the most inventive or cutting-edge seen at the Fringe Festival in 2016, but she ensures that the seventy-five minute show flies by and almost ends too soon.  With five actors all having voices that are strong enough to belt when needed, brightly clear as whistles when required, and ready to sing a soft ballad to move emotions, this director cannot lose.  Campy at times, close to glorious at other times, Adam and Eve and Steve bears coming to get the bare facts about the other side of the creation story.

Rating: 5 E


2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #18
Deal with the Dragon
Kevin Rolston

With its three stories told on a blackened stage under a charred shrub hanging upside down in red light, Deal with Dragon as told by its creator Kevin Rolston sneaks upon its audience with a seemingly mundane, everyday beginning.  The stories then quickly divert time and again into realms dark, troubled, fantastical, and altogether realistic as the multi-personality, multi-voiced man dressed in black standing before us tells them.  What should we believe is possible?  What is imagined in a madman’s head?  What is maybe of a world that is just beyond the daily norms of reality?

Kevin Rolston superbly brings opposing worlds, characters, and time periods to life before our eyes with a twist of the head, with a sudden change in voice and countenance, with a mighty breath full of fire, or with arms that spread as if great wings.  He is Hunter, a contemporary artist hungry for a first commission at long last and needing but at last resisting the patronage, protection, and dare we say, permission of the ever-present man of his life, Brenn.  A man (or is he?) from the Black Woods of Europe, Brenn is ready to ensure Hunter wins a two-person bake-off for a MOMA exhibit of a new artist; but that also means the contract that binds them together must be followed to its ancient-written letter.

Ghandi Schwartz is the other half of the commission battle; and Mr. Roston’s almost quarter-hour introduction of this former drug addict as he gives a presentation to a self-help meeting of alcohol addiction-fighters could well be fifteen minutes of the most compelling theatre anyone will see at the 2016 Fringe Festival.  Ghandi desperately wants to escape his sure, almost-sure return to his drug-festered existence, so much so he would be willing it seems to make a deal with the devil himself.  And that is where a possible gay hook-up with Brenn in a bathroom may in fact lead him.

Images of dragons and devils, themes of gay men and their battles with self and others to be who they are, and story lines as old as literature itself are woven into an intriguing, sometimes convoluted and confusing, but always fascinating set of tales about how two men learn to Deal with the Dragon.

Rating: 4 E


2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #19
5 Guys Chillin'
Peter Darney
King’s Head Theatre 

Welcome to a “chilling” party, where men take “Tina” and “slam” meth, where dancing wildly may lead later to every imaginable act of sex if enough drugs have kicked in but not kicked in enough to leave you on the floor either convulsing or in a dead-like heap.  Based on over fifty hours of interviews and using what was heard as the script, Peter Darney has constructed an evening of Five Guys Chilling that is raw to the bare bone, funny in ways slightly naughty and totally nasty, and both hard to watch and impossible not to look.  This is a sex-and-drug-packed party heading to an ending like that of so many other such all-night/all-weekend/all-week parties of some gay men – an ending that will leave images in audience minds that may never be forgotten but will hopefully evoke learning and lessons long remembered.

Sex.  Coupling/un-coupling/re-coupling.  Sex.  Cell phone checking of latest Gindr hits.  Sex.  A lot of campy joking and too many no-so-funny exchanges.  Old friends, long-time partners, new drop-ins.  Honesty ... Hard and heart-felt honesty.  Crying, comforting, withdrawal.  All here supposedly for sex, but actually all here mostly for the drugs, drugs, and more drugs.  And most here to escape those other worlds of work, pressures of family, or just boredom with life.  It’s all so close to the audience that the it feels as if the sweat of the next kissing, humping, grinding, or mouth/cock/fist probing is actually your sweat and not just theirs.

This is a play neither for the timid nor just for voyeurs.  It is a serious look by five accomplished actors at a deadly party phenomenon that has spread among some factions of both gay and straight (and everything in between) communities.  While never preachy, Peter Darney’s dialogue explores in teaching manners HIV, PrEP, readily revealing one’s status, decisions on condoms or not, and other topics thrown in that gay men often avoid thinking, much less talking about.  Elliot Hadley, Chris Cuming, Tom Holloway, Damien Hughes, Michael Matrovski, and Siri Patel boldly simulate acts, encounters, and persona that leave lasting impressions and that are often so real that it is difficult to believe that the dust is not really coke, that the liquid consumed really is not a drug-infused cocktail, and that the syringe actually does not penetrate the skin.

Rating: 5 E

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