Sunday, September 17, 2017

Robert Frosty Theatre Co. at Elgin Fringe Festival

Don't be fooled by the makeshift set, exaggerated stage combat and ridiculous premise. "Andrew Jackson: American Maniac" stands as proof that the actors of Robert Frosty Theatre Company actually know what they're doing.

Part history, part fantasy, lots of comedy — Frosty has created its own genre of theatre, based on plots filled with famous personalities, shameless use of pop culture references, and fluid timelines fraught with anachronisms. It simply can't be judged by the standards of legitimate theatre.

Yet these skilled actors can project their lines without shouting, take full control of their performance space, and handle any degree of full-body physical action that the script requires. Did we mention the script?

Robert Frosty Theatre Co. at Elgin Fringe Festival.

"Jackson" chronicles the past, present and future life of America's seventh President, the temperamental Father of the Democratic Party, famous for the Indian Removal Act and his zest for dueling. According to Frosty, he also plays a mean guitar and sports a bionic arm.

You'll spend half the show laughing and the other half holding your breath, as you watch a great cast doing what they love to do, in their own way, on their own terms. That's when artists are at their best.

Elaine Phillips at Elgin Fringe Festival

Elaine Phillips is not the Zingbot you're looking for. Bringing thoughtful humor to her show "No Place Like Home," she uses observations from her extensive travels abroad to touch on themes of privilege, provinciality and "otherness" as experienced by a white American woman.

Elaine Phillips at the Elgin Fringe Festival.

Trained as a teacher, she knows how to stick with a topic for while, using the stage to inform as well as entertain, and you can see the wheels turning in her head as she pauses between riffs. Going from country to country in her set, she has no problem using her own homebody tendencies to set up jokes on wildlife, sunburn, foreign language or cuisine.

Ironically, Sunday's audience seemed to laugh loudest at her personality characterizations and physical humor during a bit on Israel. She's easy to watch, never talks down to you, and no, she's not Jewish.

Minnesota SkyVault Theatre Co. at Elgin Fringe Festival

It strikes you as a vaudeville rendition of a heartland supper: a loving, homemade spread of musical theatre, and lots of it. But the feast that is "Skirmish of Wit," an original show by Minnesota SkyVault Theatre Company, is anything but bland.

Minnesota SkyVault Theatre Co. presents "Skirmish of Wit" at Elgin Fringe Festival.

Based on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, it's a story about falling in and out of love based on dubious information and advice. You'll make more connections than a northern Illinois railroad as you watch these young artists act, sing, swap instruments and play for nearly an hour.

The style and soul of this piece resonates with a Midwestern audience like fine folk art, whose wisdom and authenticity is far more important than technical sublety. The lack of contrived costume or makeup are essential to this cast's appeal, and on a stage full of raw talent, the two leads, Rebekah Novinger and Aidan Driscoll, showed off some real chops.

Without hearing every lyric through individual wireless headset mics, we can't decide if "Skirmish" is better during the loud choruses or the soft, tender duets, but we wouldn't change a thing. The fact that this show holds its own among seasoned professionals is proof that even greater things are still to come.

Jeremy Schaefer at Elgin Fringe Festival

Giving voice to a viewpoint that's rarely examined, Jeremy Schaefer's "Sportsball" questions the preeminence of sports in America in an effort to understand why fans devote so much attention to it.

Schaefer admits he sees baseball as just a field of daydreams, and football as 22 concussions waiting to happen. With well-chosen examples, he exposes the paradox of a sports culture in which every game is rule-based, but lawlessness and injustice in things that really matter are given no scrutiny at all. His sharp and insightful arguments are laid out with humor and lots of personality.

Jeremy Schaefer performs "Sportsball" at Elgin Fringe Festival.

Stopping just short of maligning all avid sports fans (an enormous group of people he doesn't fully understand), Schaefer discovers a basketball team he can rally with, based not on geography or brand loyalty, but for its social consciousness. In the process, he gets in touch with a part of his own humanity that sports fans have always deeply felt.

As tightly wound as a cello, he is just as musically eloquent in his delivery, going from growls to shouts to whispers with just the right timing and articulation, and his restless energy is often used to visual effect. He's a tough act to follow.

Sports is sacred in America, and Schaefer takes considerable risk by lampooning Cubs fans in an Elgin show, but ultimately he finds acceptance, if not community, in a sports culture that is profoundly diverse in every other way that really matters.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Elgin Theatre Company and "Screwing Around with Shakespeare" at the Elgin Fringe Festival

The extensive talents of Elgin Theatre Company never cease to amaze us with their audacious variety of material in all sorts of genres. Donna Latham's original trio of sketches called "Screwing Around with Shakespeare" is a comedic cocktail of two main ingredients — Shakespeare and "screwing around" — and this mix is heavy on the latter.

Guy Moore as Romeo (left) and Henry Honshul as Ralphie in Elgin Theatre Company's
"Screwing Around with Shakespeare" at Elgin Fringe Festival

A cast of five handles all the roles that make up vignettes borrowed from Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, but these scenes aren't quite as the Bard wrote them. Not a contemporary resetting either, the scenes are a time warp of characters and dialog from different centuries, in full period costume and wigs, acting alongside a sign language interpreter.

It's campy as hell, and the over-the-top sendups of classic roles are full of youthful exuberance. The slapstick energy is infectious and the script is so full of pop culture references and contemporary urban street slang (CUSS) that it sounds like it was written five minutes ago. The cast cannot help but indulge themselves a bit.

A little knowledge of Shakespeare goes a long way in "Screwing Around," and if you listen carefully you'll find something to giggle about in almost every line.

This show wraps with a finale on Sunday, September 17th at 1:30pm at the Elgin Art Showcase.

Creative Moves Performace at Elgin Fringe Festival

The program description of "Weaving Webs" is accurate, but it can't capture the depth of meaning in this standout piece created by Julie Leir-VanSickle of Creative Moves.

Julia Leir-VanSickle performs "Weaving Webs" at Elgin Fringe Festival.

The sequence of sound, imagery and solo dance lead gently but deliberately into a profound composition of connectedness, first of one body's members, then more. Powerful images of sympathetic vibrations, the self-ness of a home, and the hard work of making and retaining attachments accompany beautiful movement that makes ingenious use of materials.

One thread becomes a small web, then a larger web, then an installed web of interconnected vision and effort that draws in the audience. Our energy creates the web and powers it; it strengthens us and becomes a lifeline and a dwelling place.

"Weave with me," Leir whispers, as nearly every person joins in the group project that physically reconnects the stage to the auditorium, one gesture at a time. It brilliantly teaches, through direct participation, how all art is a community enterprise. If only the Elgin Fringe Festival could last five more days so everyone could experience this piece.

Become captivated Saturday, September 16th at 7:30pm at First United Methodist Church.

William Pack at the Elgin Fringe Festival

Audience buzz for magician William Pack's "Exceptions to Reality" crackled with electricity early in the Elgin Fringe Festival, and he did not disappoint.

William Pack performs at Elgin Fringe Festival.

Combining storytelling, memoir, and high quality magic, Pack skillfully sidesteps the charlatan image of some illusionists with his running commentary on the history and philosophy of the craft. But rather than short-changing the act, the narrative actually deepens the appreciation of the tricks, delivering the message that magic is just as powerful now as it was before technology made difficult things seem easy.

Audiences are often part of intimate fringe performances, and the Saturday afternoon crowd was all in for card tricks, sleight of hand and a little classic carnival geekery. A few noisy voices in the audience may have made Pack end the show early, but it only left us wanting more.

All the best artists are devoted fans and students first, and Pack's deep affection for this craft shows through in his detailed command of powers he knows are really much bigger than himself.

Experience it again Sunday, September 17th at 1:30pm at Imago Studios.

Carleton the Mime with Mighty Joe at Elgin Fringe Festival

The art of pantomime may have faded from American culture, but you wouldn't know that from a visit to the Elgin Fringe Festival, where Carleton the Mime, one of America's finest and most experienced, revived a show he has honed for more than forty years in front of audiences all over the world.

Carleton the Mime performs with the music of
Mighty Joe at the Elgin Fringe Festival.

The Elgin Art Showcase was standing (and sitting) room only, with an audience of all ages. Carleton took the stage to the music of his partner Mighty Joe, and strung together a series of sketches covering a broad range — from honoring the "flea circus" tradition, to breaking the mold with gritty scenes of street crime — all in classic silent white face. We never expected to shed a tear, but the piece on fatherhood convinced us that mime is far more powerful than "trapped in a box" or "walking against the wind."

The audience enthusiastically joined in at times, while others intently watched his process of propping, costuming and directing. The interjections, guitar music and sound effects of Mighty Joe gave this act a distinct Chicago feel, and Carleton brought together the creative energy of a twenty-something with the seamless professionalism of a seasoned pro.

If you ever get the chance again, don't miss a show by this man, born with a face that was made for the craft. Sadly, they do not make artists like this anymore.

Independent Players perform "Interview" at Elgin Fringe Festival

The Independent Players consistently bring great material to a fringe festival, the most off-off- of all stages. This year's feature was "Interview," a one-act play from the edgy 1960's America Hurrah trilogy by Jean-Claude Van Itallie.

What looks like a perfunctory job screening quickly becomes a fragmented montage of superficial banter, as a full cast of eight generic characters talk over each other and repeat empty formalities like a bad case of the hiccups.

The Independent Players present "Interview" at the Elgin Fringe Festival.

The premise doesn't become a plot -- it's just a cover for a brilliant subversive composition that assaults the dehumanizing effects of corporatism, mass media and technology. Each character will reveal a glimpse of authenticity only in a monologue or an aside to the audience, stuck between sequences of group cooperation that are singularly absurd.

The excellent cast handled the onslaught of words and cues superbly, and the action was on par with choreographed modern dance. Director Don Haefliger could not have done any better with this minimally staged piece, in which people become props in a corporate agenda that is increasingly devoid of meaning.

You must show up for an "Interview" in the large basement theater of First United Methodist Church, Saturday, September 16th at 4:30pm or Sunday, September 17th at 3pm.

Sonder Productions' "The Fainting Room" at Elgin Fringe Festival

Is sexuality a source of anxiety, or a relief from it? Do doctors give diseases, or take them away? Who defines "wellness"?  Decide for yourself in "The Fainting Room," the one-woman show performed by Becca Bernard of Sonder Productions.

Switching costumes and characters like an old-fashioned farce, she takes you to a Victorian doctor's office where nervous ladies have their "female troubles" evaluated by a gloved hand, and a runaway bride serenades herself (and her proxy) with songs of love, doubt, depression or shame.

Billed as an "explosive release of physical comedy," the bits come gushing out like a firehose, in a mixture of characterizations, songs and sight gags that hold you clenched between your sheepish social norms and full-on dribbling paroxysms of joy.

Becca Bernard in Sonders Productions' "The Fainting Room"
at Elgin Fringe Festival.

Bernard is fearless and utterly body-positive throughout, but displays great artistic depth in a closing sequence of symbolic dance and a cello instrumental that takes this bawdy performance piece to new heights of pleasure.

Explore the sensations, alone or with a friend, Saturday, September 16th at Noon or 9pm.

Ben Benjamins at Elgin Fringe Festival

He says he's not a psychic or a mind reader — he's a magician with tricks that make you think he's those things. But that's neither here nor there once the magic starts, when he makes numbers appear on price tags, or he sketches hidden objects.

Ben Benjamins presents "Mental. Magic." at
the Elgin Fringe Festival 2017.

In his show entitled "Mental. Magic." Ben Benjamins uses several random audience members to show off his uncanny abilities to pluck words and images from a subject's mind. But unlike other "audience participation" acts, you well may want to be chosen for the stunt, because this magician isn't weird or frightening. He's like the funniest guy you just met at a bar.

Key to Benjamins' success is his quick-witted, comedic, regular-guy delivery that leaves you guessing whether the next line is a joke or an astonishing display of mentalism. Make no mistake, a few of the gags really are just jokes (well-played and funny ones at that), but even the shrewdest observer will be gobsmacked by the message in the bottle. No spoilers!

Try to keep up with him Saturday, Sept. 16th at 3pm or 7:30pm, or Sunday, Sept. 17th at 4:30pm at Imago Studios.

Judah LeBlang at Elgin Fringe Festival

Judah LeBlang performs "One Man's Journey
Through the Middle Ages" at Elgin Fringe Festival 2017.

God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone."

We have a primordial urge to know and be known by another, to be understood and accepted, to belong; and yet we must understand and accept ourselves first. It's a human predicament that Judah LeBlang's therapist probably discussed with him.

Like several other Fringe artists this year, LeBlang employs his gift of storytelling not just to fascinate an audience, but to work out personal issues by connecting with people through detailed remembrances of his formative relationships that were never fully satisfying. In his "One Man's Journey Through the Middle Ages," he ties together a Baptist funeral, a deaf uncle, a Saturday night in Provincetown and more, to illustrate a life experience that's overcast by feelings of inferiority and accustomed to unmet expectations.

Equipped with powers of vivid and sensitive description, LeBlang delivers autographical vignettes that are powerfully relatable, and his story structure, word choice and timing are paired with just enough movement and costume effects to hold your unbroken attention for a full fifty minutes. The script is verbose, but nicely segmented and never repetitive.

You may think you could never relate to an aging, single, gay Jewish man, but this piece will make you feel like marrying one.  Get to know Judah LeBlang Saturday, Sept. 16th at 6pm or Sunday, Sept. 17th at Noon.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Tricia Park at Elgin Fringe Festival 2017

"Baroque composers wrote music as a social, civic or religious duty, not for personal expression," explains violinist Tricia Park in her solo show "variations on an (original) theme: a suite in eight movements" at the Elgin Fringe Festival. Her performance would later quote from Bach's "Chaconne in d minor," a landmark piece in a musical form that endured an international identity crisis for centuries.

These elements are key to the symbolic reasoning that connects chapters of Park's autobiographical narrative: snapshots of formative experiences that exposed mind, body and soul to scrutiny by teachers, doctors, impresarios, even her parents through the lens of Korea's culture of high expectations.

Gifted more as a writer than an actor, her scholarly voice wavers only when recalling the most achingly real details of a childhood shaped by constant discipline, and jarring transitions from solitude to total exposure.

But she has used this material of her life to write something original that heals from within, and her musical performance reflects technical excellence without a gloss of perfectionism in portraying who she really is, not just what she was trained to do. The poetic justice is consummated by her violin, which looks blonde, but speaks with a voice exquisitely darkened by stress.

Meet Tricia Park at Imago Studios at Noon or 10:30pm, Saturday, September 16th.