Seattle Fringe Festival 2003 Reviews

{max rating = ****}

And the Cowgirl Jumped Over the Moon ***½
Ever-brilliant Maria Glanz sparkles in her one-woman play about cowgirl sweetheart Billie's adventures on and off the rodeo circuit. A funny and touching piece that seems to take place in Wests old and new, with gorgeous original music (written and performed by cute John Ackermann) that evokes the melancholy beauty of dusty plains under a big ol' moon. Billie recants lovely stories about characters called Maudlin Maude and Mr. Wheeler and Uncle Canuck; coming from fantastic Glanz, we believe in every one of them. Satisfying and sweet.

Babylon Briefs ***½   new!
The two segments featuring fantastic Amanda Wiehe (as the Queen of the Land of Bad, and as an unfortunate girl whose life goes to hell the moment she gives up smoking) are wonderful. The remaining four of this year's smattering of Theatre Babylon offerings are also good in their own special ways.

Big Fish, Small Pond ***
Montana von Fliss and John Osebold play Dogtooth Violet and Johnny Rocket, a small-town brother-sister buttrock/punk duo known as FISH STICK, a middling band whose flash of popularity quickly fades when Johnny's sappy puppy-love poetry finds its way into their oeuvre. Big Fish is audience-pleasing material with some good laughs, and just as many attempts at big humor that fall flat. But the incredible performances (von Fliss' dramatic, Osebold's musical) are almost irresistible.

The Book of Liz **
I can imagine myself reading this Amy and David Sedaris play (in print form) doubled over in hysterics — which makes me doubly sorry to report that ReAct's production of The Book of Liz just isn't all it could be. The script (about a perspiration-prone cheeseball-maker in and out of a humorously strict religious community called The Squeamish) is hilarious and deliciously bitter. Too bad just about everything else underwhelms, from the uncertain performances to the awkward staging.

Cat Fight! ***   new!
So-so buzz for Lacey Langston's solo show about the notorious feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had me expecting the worst, so imagine my surprise when I actually enjoyed the thing! It's not that Langston is particularly good at channeling either of the icons in question — she isn't, but she can imitate both pretty well. And it's not because all the fun gossipy legends are explored — they're not, but I was given info (fiction? Documented fact? Who knows) that I'd never heard before. This show is campy fun, especially when jealous bile is being spewed between Joan ("Bette has a cult — I have fans!") and Bette ("I didn't throw my crotch in men's faces like Joanie Phoney!"). Her versions of Davis and Crawford even manage to come to terms with their dislike of each other in the end; oddly enough, it works.

Deli! The Musical ***
The talented gals and guys behind this lively musical comedy could have a potential cult classic on their hands — but in its current form, Deli! The Musical is around three songs and two subplots too long. It's (mostly) a joy to watch, though, as size-enhanced deli worker Amy (Amber Noelle Burg, who also wrote the songs) deals with kooky co-workers, demanding patrons, and her very own personal demon (outstanding S. Ann Hall) — a dramatic device that works surprisingly well. There's a vibrant little piece of musical theatre here, if the Deli folks can bear to trim a little of the… um… excess.

4-F: A New Rock Musical *
Considering Momma's advice to hold my tongue if I didn't have nothin' nice to say, I offer a short review: the backing band was pretty good, and the skinheaded dude's nekkid rear end was pretty cute.

Getting it Wrong ***
Dairy heiress (aka farmer's daughter) Vivien Straus has gotten a lot wrong in her life — and she lays some major true-life misadventures on the line in this amiable comedic autobio. Relating childhood-on-the-farm wisdom to recent-past San Fran foibles, Straus engages the audience effortlessly; at one point during the performance I attended, she actually asked (in what appeared to be an unscripted aside), "You just want to slap me, don't you?" The answer, for me anyway, was a resounding yes. But I still liked her an awful lot, and this appealing and humorous piece is a nice showcase for her talents.

How to be Cool ***½
Even without the multimedia element (the slide projector didn't seem to be working at the performance I attended) this thoughtful new Ursa Major Theatre production is a refreshing, earnest pleasure. Audience members become students in Miss Taylor's (charming Alyssa Tomoff) 1962 high school class on the day that Eugene Wright (charismatic and engaging Evan Whitfield) visits to deliver a special lecture on Cool. For an enchanting hour, Mr. Wright speaks of his trip to the Seattle World's Fair, of the starry-eyed possibilities of a magic technical future, and of the dance he neglected to invite Miss Taylor to attend with him years ago. Judging from this smart and delightful piece, playwright John Longenbaugh seems very cool, despite his program notes' claim to the contrary.

David's Balls ***½   new!
A vain actress named Angela (freshly pregnant by some guy named David) throws a party. Attendees include a 75-year-old theatre producer named Martha and a bitter intellectual named Jane, the latter of whom happens to be David's wife. Lies are told, bons mots exchanged, and all hell eventually breaks loose. The source material (by Lisa Beth Kovetz) leans toward trite, but this show belongs to fascinating solo performer Margot Avery, who expertly inhabits all three female characters and allows them to weave convincingly in and out of one another's spaces and perspectives.

Fringe the Puyallup! ***   new!
Fun but uneven set of five vignettes culled from recent visits to this year's Puyallup Fair. Deamy live music (by local band House on a Hill) and videography highlight the wacky theatrical goings-on.

Heretic ***   new!
Highly imaginative post-apocalyptic tale of a zealot banished to the moon when religion is outlawed on Earth. Fantastic Niki McCretton wrote and stars in this one-woman show that mixes theatre, film, dance/movement, and even a bit of puppetry to achieve a cool (if somewhat distant) experimental piece.

JOB: The Hip-Hop Musical ****   new!
Montreal-based geniuses Eli Batalion and Jerome Saibil rewrite the biblical story of Job as a New York record-label drama set to hip-hop. And the result is nothing short of extraordinary. Saibil (who is a cutie pie) and Batalion (a mesmerizing acting machine) have crafted a masterpiece of contemporary musical theatre, and their brilliant and energetic performances (they switch back and forth between characters with apparent ease) are miraculous. Everything about this production, from the elaborate choreography and sound design to the surprisingly brainy and knowing script (Nietzsche, The Economist, and the term "corporate nomenclature" are referenced, for example) elicits jubilant awe. Fo shizzle.

The Kazoo Bible ***½   new!
Popular Fringe troupe Kazoo! are a weird and wacky lot. This mostly-ingenious sketch/musical take on the Good Book (written by Brian Wennerlind, with help from Gordon Todd on the songs) is a joy, with thoughtful and truly hilarious takes on biblical lore. Brilliant Ingrid Ingerson, cute Rob Vetter, and fierce Teneia Sandlin join Wennerlind and Todd to bring us an agnostic Abel, a King Herod with a market research team, and an opportunist PR-guy Lucifer, among many others. The 25 bits on display here almost always win, and Ingerson's loungey rendition of "The Bible Turns Me On" is alone worth the price of admission.

Kill Your Television **
Jeff Gardner and ten voice actors take us on a bizarre (and very well-sound-designed) plunge into the other side of the TV screen. A disturbing funhouse that goes on about twice as long as it needs to.

A Man, a Magic, a Music ***   new!
Austin-based fiftysomething Movin' Melvin Brown is a musical powerhouse, and this song-and-dance journey through Black music history is often thrilling. Personal-history monologues between songs feel a bit stilted early on, but toward the end there's a deliciously bizarre strip routine (!) that refreshingly infuses the material with a whole new spin. See this heartfelt show for the rousing renditions of classics by the likes of Wilson Pickett and Jackie Wilson; they make the corny bits more bearable.

The Nazi Nearest You **   new!
Overwrought, flimsily written, un-insightful piece about a former Nazi whose wretched past catches up to her current day-to-day life in the Bavarian village of Millstone, WA. The performances are weak (hello, there's more to a German accent than using "v" sounds where "w"s should be), with the exception of the uber-talented Amber Wolfe, who's wonderful as an FBI agent who shows up to investigate a murder; unfortunately she has little to do, and this preachy play has little to offer.

Nharcolepsy ****
There's a lovely poignancy beneath the randomness of Richard Harrington and Chris Kauffman's comedy about two kooky Belgians who freeze to death while searching for the Yeti. It's the longing-filled pursuit of youthful dreams that Nharcolepsy is really about, and Harrington & Kauffman's ingenious and beautiful little piece of theatre isn't one I'll soon forget.

PileDriver! ****
I'm more surprised than anyone at how much I dig this rasslin' comedy from the Great White North. A troupe of pro-wrestlers (many of whom are secretly gay) tour the backwater burgs of the Northwest on their way to a big-city smackdown in Seattle. Manager and "referee" Harvey (utterly hilarious Josh List), his lover Killer Karl "The Kraut" (Tim Hyland), newbie Rock "The Cock" Hardd (local fringe-theatre regular John Kaufmann), and Angie and Randy Rage (wonderful Shelley Reynolds and Peter Dylan O'Connor) are incredibly fun to watch as they clash and tumble in and out of the ring. Aside from the astonishing feats of physical prowess by the actors (they bodyslam right before your eyes), this is a fascinating behind-the-scenes showbiz story: the rehearsals, the power struggles, the elaborate soap opera performed for a decidedly redneck niche and populated by what are essentially stage personas. And Harvey, acting as the self-sacrificing and illusion-shattering Mother Hen and the sensible center of this fucked-up flock, is an absolute joy. PileDriver! was a big hit on the Canadian fringe circuit, and its US premiere (produced by the ridiculously talented folks at Bald Faced Lie and continuing at fab Re-Bar beyond Fringe) is not to be missed.

Seattle Neutrino Project ***½   new!
Based on a suggestion from the audience, the good folks of Neutrino and Wing-It Productions miraculously shoot, edit, score, and project a live, improvised movie before your very eyes. It's a wonder to behold. The theme of the performance I attended was "sleep", and the resulting insta-flick consisted of three cute vignettes whose stories cunningly merged at the end:

  • a production crew shoots a film about a guy addicted to eating lead-based paint chips; he's "asleep" to the knowledge that it will eventually cause irreparable damage.
  • a girl comforts her recently-dumped galpal; they go to a nearby convenience store to gorge on Fiddle Faddle® and single-serving Merlot, and the spurned girl winds up konking out on the sidewalk outside.
  • a poetry major, groggy from the previous night's cram session, deals with the ludicrous lie he told a friend in order to hook up with the friend's ex.
    OK, so Sleep wasn't a masterpiece that'll hold up through the ages, but it was certainly fascinating to watch. I'd love to see Neutrino begin a regular weekend gig — they're onto somethin' here.

    Splatter **½   new
    !

    The talented minds at Defibrillator Productions brought two masterpieces to Fringe in 2001 and 2002. Among the Ruins: Ten by Kafka and Book of Job shimmered with a hard, bizarre, incalculable vigor that, sadly, this new production only occasionally matches. Splatter is maddeningly dislocated and uncentered, with its Eastern-Euro-inspired Sprockets-ness. There's some slick multimedia, and an interesting visual take on Pygmalion, and a cool Hertzfeldt-style animated bit, and an awesome killer puppet scene. And the human beat-box boy is way hot. But the great stuff (and it is great) is far too infrequent in what basically amounts to an overly-long frenetic muddle.

    A Tale of a TIGER ***   new!
    Edinburgh Fringe hit (written by Dario Fo and performed by Ami Dayan) about a dying soldier who becomes a village guru after having been healed by a tigress. Dayan is an appealing stage presence, fascinatingly agile with the physical movement his role demands. Some of Fo's attempts at humor and modern-day pop-culture references seem stilted, but Dayan and the story's mystical-realism element never fail to intrigue.

    Throw Me a Bone ***½   new!
    Commissioned by Prague Fringe, this enchanting British youth-theatre piece is Niki McCretton's second Seattle Fringe production this year. The brilliant mind behind the dark and brooding Heretic brings us the whimsical tale of a mischievous hungry dog named Patty and her high-spirited imaginary adventures. Like the best children's entertainment, it's funny, melancholy, and a wee bit terrifying.

    Trick Boxing ****   new!
    A simple summary of this beautiful, beautiful play might put you off, so forget the subject matter and take the names Megan McClellan and Brian Sostek to heart. They wrote, directed, and perform this gorgeous piece, and they are talented beyond measure, evoking Depression-era swingin' city life with unbelievable charisma and nimbleness. Their performances are far better than we deserve, and their fantastic swing-dance sequences simply brought tears to my eyes. A must-see.

    Unaccessorized **½
    If Rich Kiamco's frenetic one-man autobio isn't fictionalized, it's pretty self-aggrandizing — this guy pats himself on the back for everything from participating in high school Math Club to working for Judy Tenuta to snagging a materialistic jet-setter boyfriend. I didn't start liking him until he finally took himself down a notch in the final third of the show.

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