3 Fringe Shows; 4 Actors
As a veteran of many a theatre festival, I’m here to tell ya: lean and mean is the way to go. Scaled back solo shows and two-handers may come with challenges, but they’re the good kind, the kind that shouldn’t bother actors: multiple characters to play, more memorization, and the physical challenge of being onstage for an hour non-stop without a break. Those are the challenges intrinsic to the art, the ones we’re supposed to love to conquer. The bad kind are the logistical ones, the sort that hinder our art: the impossibility of getting a large number of actors together for sufficient rehearsals; the hassle of too-small dressing rooms and wing space; the need to shlep costumes, props etc. Anything that makes you cranky, irritated, shakey, uncertain, and so forth is bad, bad, BAD for actors,
Without intending to, I attended three pocket-sized shows on my first couple of days New York International Fringe Festival. In every case, the wisdom of their choice to do a manageable-sized show shone through. Each was well realized, i.e. achieved what it set out to achieve, or came close. This isn’t by the way to damn any of them with faint praise. Any habitual arts patron knows how often artists fire….and go way wide of the mark.
BANG! THE CURSE OF JOHN WILKES BOOTH
At first blush, it may seem odd that sideshow maven Scott Baker, best known to fans as “the Twisted Shockmeister” would enact this one-man show about John Wilkes Booth. Though he has done much acting for the stage and screen, both clothed and unclothed, one would think Baker would create a Fringe show around his better known carny “talker” persona. Well, the upshot is that he HAS. His angle on the Booth story is that old “In Search of…”, History Channel conspiracy yarn, the one that lays out a case that Booth actually survived the barn fire that supposedly killed him in 1865, and lived for many additional years in Texas and Oklahoma under an alias. Then (the story goes) he committed suicide, was mummified and exhibited at carnivals, much like our own dramatical subject Elmer McCurdy (see here). And then bad things happened to whoever owned the mummy. So you see, it winds up as a bit of a tall tale, though historians do seriously debate the merits of the “Booth survived” scenario. Further, Baker livens the proceedings with magic tricks, cleverly used as metaphors to illustrate Booth’s story. And that’s another dose of Coney.
For the first chunk of the show, Baker plays Booth himself, in a long monologue that conjured for me both Richard III and the Richard Nixon play Secret Honor….an evening in the presence of a monster. But then Baker switches it up some, at times simply being his charming self running down the facts of the case, at other times playing myriad other characters in Booth’s complicated life (and purported afterlife). Baker’s a great actor (the only previous parts I’d seen him play were in Dick Zigun’s Creepshow at the Freakshow), but here he reveals character chops to rival his showmanship. The physical toll was apparent though. The room was hot, he wears a heavy wool coat, and we saw his opening night performance which can be to hell get through. I have done two solo shows of similar length myself, right down to the wool top coat in a theatrical hotbox, so I have felt similar agonies and know what he’s going through. Pace yourself, baby, pace yourself!
No word of a lie, I knew Pamela Sabaugh for at least a couple of years before anyone told me she was visually impaired. And someone had to – - I may never have noticed. During our brief exchanges, when she would seem to be staring at my halo (hah!) or my left lapel, I just thought she was a very weird lady. Because, lemme tell ya, I know a LOT of people who don’t look you in the eye. Sometimes, I’m one of ‘em.
While I am plenty obtuse on a regular basis, it turns out to my relief that in this particular case I was only somewhat obtuse. In fact, Pam meets people roughly as obtuse as me all day long. (Which doesn’t really make me feel better, but it does make me want to do better). It turns out she totally had been looking me in the eye, or looking at me, at least. It’s just that she is a victim of a genetically inherited condition called “juvenile macular degeneration.” Basically she has lost her central vision, although her peripheral is just fine. To see something better, she has to look at it from an odd angle — not a bad predicament for someone who wants to be an interesting artist, but no doubt a SUCKY one on a day to day, minute to minute basis.
As Pam herself says at the top of her inspirational performance piece, she lives in an awkward, in-between place. For example, she gets around pretty well, well enough that lummoxes like me can go for years without realizing she’s impaired. (If you want to see what it’s like, give yourself a little test. Relying on only your peripheral vision you can pick out a surprising amount of detail about stuff to your left or right. I did it myself on the elevator this morning. Then when I looked at the people around me a second time with frontal vision I found that I’d only gotten one detail wrong). But not being able to read signs or see faces and so forth is a challenge. Essentially, all day every day she has to deal with the frustration of people making incorrect assumptions about who she is and what she’s capable of.
Fortunately she has had many an outlet to express her anger, fear and frustration. One is punk, and punk is perfect for those emotions. As it happens, she grew up in Detroit, by some lights the birthplace of that musical form. Her relationship with that town adds a rich texture to her tale, and a specialness. How does a visually impaired teenager get around a dying town with a lousy public transportation system? What’s going to happen to her when the friends she is relying on for assistance happen to be on HEROIN? Rebellious as a kid she finally gets tired of living in gratuitous danger and returns to her first love, the theatre. Which she happens to be great at. Her polished and wide-ranging piece calls for her to tap into an entire range of emotional colors, all of which she hits with skill and confidence. Her songs are terrific (and even a little punky, despite the fact that she’s rocking an acoustic guitar), her voice is pretty, and her lyrics are clever.
The theatrical moment that really blew my mind though occurred before she even started her piece, when she blasted into the space all cocksure, put her cane down, barked directions to her stage manager, bantered with a pal she recognized in the audience and did her sound check. I was like, “Whoa! Is this Pam’s twin sister?” The only comparable experience I’ve ever had in the theatre was when I first started working at Big Apple Circus. I had started working in the back office in early summer, so I had actually been there for two or three months before I ever saw the show. On opening night of the new season, I lucked out and got to sit in some front row seats. At one point, I looked into the ring, and standing about eight feet from me was a lady I had seen many times in the office, making photocopies, standing around the water cooler, or whatever. Only now she was wearing a beautiful, one piece, spangly circus costume. I scarcely had time to register who she was when she grabbed a hold of a rope, and within about ten or fifteen seconds she flew to the top of the tent dozens of feet above our heads. That’s what that moment was like for me.
Initially, I had expected her to behave like a sighted person. Next I expected her to behave like a blind one. I’d love to say at this point that now I’ve got her pegged! But I’m not THAT obtuse…
TWO HOUSEHOLDS, TWO ASSHOLES
This is very important: the two actors in Two Households, Two Assholes Sam Munoz and Aaron Munoz, ARE NOT BROTHERS. This is vital to know with reference to the scenes where the two dudes French kiss as Romeo and Juliet. Two dudes kissing? No problem. One dude Frenching his brother? I’m callin’ a taxi!
The show is your standard, old-fashioned two-man pocket Shakespeare. It’s an actor’s workout, the kind every actor should be forced to do just to push themselves but very few are brave enough to attempt. As the men state in the program, they wanted to go “far outside [their] comfort zone.” For all I know, they aren’t even gay, which would make their work even more impressive.
Because they really do the thing. The actors do themselves a disservice with the title of the show, which is a one hour two man version of Romeo and Juliet. I know the drill; they want to hedge their bets. In case they fell on their faces they could always play for laughs and make believe it’s all been strictly a goof. There are only a couple of moments, fairly early in, where we are tempted to make merry outside of the comedy Shakespeare himself put into the script. Such moments have to do with the 100% commitment of Aaron Munoz (a rather large man) to the role of the dimunitive teenage girl Juliet. We get some initial Arbuckle-like laughs out of that casting, but Munoz’s commitment is in earnest and if he seems like Miss Piggy at first, by the end we are well past such superficial matters. Juliet’s sorrows are ours, and there ain’t nothin’ funny about that.
In short the guys are great. The stage combat, which they seem to have choreographed themselves, was especially impressive. They make sense of the language, they play it for real, and they honor the material. Samuel Munoz goes too fast sometimes and his diction is occasionally muddy, but as Romeo and the Nurse, among many other characters, he has several great moments, as does Aaron as Juliet, Mercutio, et al. I’m not kidding — the balcony and death scenes were actually beautiful. This is one little stunt that ain’t no stunt! Recommended viewing!
For tickets to these shows and others in the New York International Fringe Festival, go to Fringenyc.org.