Sunday, September 20, 2015

Core Project Chicago at Elgin Fringe Festival

With a piece that could be subtitled "Allergy Season," "Clean and Dirty," or "Hard Core Campfire," Core Project Chicago presented "<=2" at the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival.

Ostensibly a collection of short performances related by their similar durations (less than or equal to, but not more than 2 minutes), a cast of recurring characters and themes provided unexpected synergy.

Core Project Chicago performs at the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival.
A busy bee, a naked accordionist and a janitor played under fair and gray skies as a continuous series of comedic skits tumbled across the stage, punctuated by interludes of dance, in a collage of "found concepts."

A thread of bees, pollen, sneezing and nose-wiping connected with sweeping, washing, and soiling again, like scenes from a childhood summer camp. Zany contests involving audience members added a "talent show" quality, and occasional bullying and snarky on-stage banter showed that even rehearsals can be a performance object.

Though campfire skits may not be among the classic forms or archetypes, they are a language that speaks to everyone, and it reminds us that at some level, imaginative play is the essence of all art.

Project606 Dance at Elgin Fringe Festival

Seven identically-costumed dancers filled the stage at Imago Studios Saturday in a performance of "Things That Look Like Other Things" at the Elgin Fringe Festival.

Throughout this 45-minutes suite of three related works, internal and external forces powered the movements of the ensemble, beginning with a single-file summation of childlike gestures. A scene of dancers seated on chairs as though in a classroom matured into a fanciful ballroom atmosphere in which the chairs were swung and embraced like imaginary partners, then dropped.

Project606 Dance performs at the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival.
Photo by Scales Off Media.
The search for individual identity connected the middle sequence as four dancers alternately synchronized as a group, then separated into individual expressions, and returned to the group structure again. At times, duos and trios seemed to be embracing and resisting each other at the same time, evoking the universal experience of coming of age within and without a family.

This study of human relationships would not be complete without addressing the individual in society, and thus the dance developed ideas of cooperation/competition, giving/taking, and leading/following with beautiful and eloquent forms.  Themes of salvation came in and out of focus as images of baptism and rescue. The chair device reappeared in the finale as the dancers expressed ideas of caretaking and support. 

A Fringe Festival is an excellent place to sample a variety of art forms, and this piece offered an accessible, coherent concept that was easy on the eyes and the ears—a great fit and welcome addition to the program.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

FoolSize Theatre at Elgin Fringe Festival

A quick lesson in British slang was needed by only a few of the curious who attended "Women Who Wank," an improvised performance by Joanne Tremarco of UK's FoolSize Theatre at the Elgin Fringe Festival.

While many of the shows at the Fest are more art than performance, "Wank" was pure performance to a degree of style and spontaneity we rarely have the good fortune to see.

Quick-witted Tremarco conjured comedic naughty bits of varying size and depth from reactions elicited directly from the audience with the fearless energy of a street performer. She took on pornography, autoeroticism, and childhood sex education using her pink dress pulled over her head as a gigantic vaginal—er, visual aid.

Working from a mental map of feminist topics in Herstory, she navigated adroitly through darker themes like rape, exploitation and female circumcision with a disarming humor and magnetic personality. Men and women both found it possible to divulge a few of their own personal secrets, which served to propel Tremarco ever further toward the show's climax.

To be clear, it required the help of everyone in the audience ... and about 2 minutes of heavy breathing.

Because Why Not? Theatre Company at Elgin Fringe Festival

The exclusive pair bond is a social phenomenon in humans and other species, but is it distinguished above other family arrangements? That's one of the questions posed by "Paradigm," a world premiere performance by Because Why Not? Theatre Company at Elgin Fringe Festival.

Because Why Not? Theatre Company performs "Paradigm"
at the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival.
A superb script by Director Shannon Geier follows two generations struggling to understand and accept (or reject) each other's internalized definitions of marital commitment. The friction begins in the opening scene as polyamorous Simon (Daniel A. Scurek, Jr.) shows up unwelcome at his son Cal's traditional wedding.

Creatively staged split scenes with separate couples exchanging a counterpoint of incisive dialogue highlighted the ambiguity of terms like love, union, and family. As the piece develops, characters face forward and alternately address the audience and the other characters with provocative points of fact.

The conversation continued after every performance as Geier and the cast engaged the audience in discussion, eliciting a range of questions and observations that echoed and further informed the play's themes.  Is our preference for monogamy instinctive or learned?  How much self-denial is required to partner with someone else?

The finest element of "Paradigm" is its poetic, timely and intelligent script, an important premiere for Elgin Fringe Festival which deserves a bigger stage.

Theatre of Self Doubt at Elgin Fringe Festival

Combining action, speech and recorded narrative, Stephen Gomez effectively played multiple roles in his one-man show "Drawn Dead" this weekend at Elgin Fringe Festival.

The plot begins as Gomez walks off a monotonous office job to reassess the direction of his life. Turning to his family's Las Vegas roots, he takes up high-stakes poker, then walks away from it again, multiple times on a journey that crisscrosses the Pacific Northwest.

Steven Gomez performs at the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival.
Photo by Scales Off Media.
At times, all the drama is happening only in his mind, whose thought process is broadcasted as a play-by-play commentary heard over the P.A. Competing voices—including his own spoken monologues—tug him in different directions in a kind of bipolar cycle of blind confidence and crushing self-doubt.

From scene to scene, the words of a tournament poker author reappear as mantras, fueling his drive toward the next big gamble: "The cards you're dealt are immaterial" and "You fold, you learn nothing."

Elements of pantomime, acting and audiobooks enhance a compelling, original story which proves that the better your ability to read your opponent's bluff, the more you will doubt yourself. In the end, Gomez questions even the validity of that lesson in a dramatic fistfight with his own conscience.

"Theatre of Self-Doubt" is alternately coarse and surprisingly subtle, thematically well-developed, and like seven-card stud, much more complex than meets the eye.

David Boyle at Elgin Fringe Festival

Drawing on a wealth of personal material, comedic storyteller David Boyle captivated audiences in three shows entitled "Pizza & Pop (and Church)" at Elgin Fringe Festival.

Boyle's Catholic school upbringing and ongoing career as a church musician are a fertile source of interconnected anecdotes that he recounts exuberantly with sound effects, voice characterizations and carefully placed gestures.

Hitting his pace like the writer of book you just can't put down, Boyle crafts his stories from vivid, sensory observations of the details that make an ordinary experience memorable, like the sound of eating potato chips during a play, the looks of a monstrous school teacher, or the smell of a "senior moment."

David Boyle performs at the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival.
Photo by Scales Off Media.

But good stories become great when constructed with the proper sense of scale and proportion, and Boyle's tales reveal a well-developed discipline of structure that would hold up to even the driest analysis. Though to an audience, they just seem fascinating.

Adding to his occasional interjections of song, Boyle's mastery of the music of the spoken word is evident in the timing, pitch and tempo of his delivery. It's a voice you never grow tired of listening to.

Yielding every so often to confessions of guilt or grief, Boyle is part homilist, but his message is ultimately a joyous one, beautifully illustrated with revelations of the humanity—and the humor—that connects us. 

Independent Players at Elgin Fringe Festival

If one could draw a line from Gertrude Stein to Monty Python's Flying Circus, it would pass through Eugène Ionesco's 1950 absurd play The Bald Soprano, staged by the Independent Players Friday at Elgin Fringe Festival.

Two (or three?) couples in a suburban London parlor are essentially a talking tableau against which language itself becomes the protagonist.  Completely awash in prattle, the narrative is just barely conventional enough to explain the presence of actors, yet the characters are strangely absent.

The Independent Players perform The Bald Soprano at the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival.
The long scenes of loquacity were handled skillfully by the Players, whose delivery of sometimes meaningless lines shifted attention to the art of enunciation. The action, minimal but well-rehearsed, was welcome relief from a script so dense and disconnected it sounds like a memorized dictionary.

In our age of smartphone-powered distractions, we like to lament the loss of conversation and the intimacy it produces between people. But Soprano suggests this is not a new problem: people can converse for years and still not recognize each other—or themselves.

In the end, as the dialogue becomes even more random, structureless and repetitive, the speakers seem to form a collective mind, but it's both more and less than a consensus. Walking in circles, shouting in unison, they finally agree—on precisely nothing.

Though avant-garde theatre is one of those genres that people love to hate, it belongs in a Fringe Festival and the well-directed Players make it worth a look.

Kelly Bolton at Elgin Fringe Festival

Life is surprisingly full for each of the quirky characters played by Kelly Bolton in her one-woman show "Lonely, Flirty, Weird" Friday night at Elgin Fringe Festival. Her string of almost twenty 1-3 minute humorous vignettes developed those themes with well-written monologues, costumes, props and vocal affectations.

"Thirty-five and Single" might have been the center of gravity for a wide range of personalities preoccupied with relationships, sex, food and awkward conversation.

Kelly Bolton performs at the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival.
Photo by Scales Off Media.

A muumuu-clad, coupon-clipping housewife offered a little TMI to open and close the show. During the intervening 35 minutes we met a lady mad scientist, a nervous airline traveler, a talkative cinema patron, and a barista with imaginary animal boyfriends.

Bolton has a gift for capturing glimpses of human eccentricities in these brief but well-composed snapshots, complete with closing captions that are essential to the effect.

We could construct a sophisticated subtext around a theory of survival that surfaces in her animated riffs on diversion, impersonation and self-defense (though never hiding).

But that would be seriously overthinking what is really a clever concept album of sassy, funny sketches with a beat you can dance to.