8) Mission Drift – The TEAM (Traverse Theatre – 21:30-23:30) ￼￼￼￼￼
Okay, so this is my pick of the Fringe, hands down. It’s run finished the night I went (day two of my three-day whirlwind weekend), unfortunately, but a little bird let slip the show will likely come to the Barbican, so — Good news, London! Be sure to snap up tickets if it does materialize because… Epic. The show is epic. I’ll admit I’m not a huge fan of musicals these days… My last two experiences were not great — when my mother was visiting from America we saw Phantom and Les Mis, and, while the shows themselves were not bad in themselves (Les Mis was moving), the experience of being in the audience was downright embarrassing. It was like being at Disney World on coupon day: people jostling and talking, taking photos and being chastised by harried theatre staff who were more like frazzled primary school teachers than ushers, forests of hawkers selling mini ice creams, t-shirts, plastic masks, and key-chains-I could go on. And the Disney-fication doesn’t stop there, of course, because then there’s the plastic music. It’s like this sort of sheen-like a skin on milk-this waxy, sleek gloss that’s a little too sweet to be palatable; rosey-cheeked chorus girls smiling toothily through their painted-on soot and expertly tousled hair as they strut their way through the revolution, the sewers beneath Paris, or across the rooftops of London… Not so with Mission Drift. This is a vodka-and-rusty-nails musical; a musical with texture; a modern-day mythology that’s bigger than the theatre that houses it. These few performers (there is a cast of four, with the band and mega-amazing Heather Christian… but more of her in minute…) managed to conjure up giants, summoning the glittering city of sin up out of the sands they scattered across the astro-turf stage, and trundling us on covered wagon across two hundred and fifty years of American history. When I saw it the house (the Traverse seats some two hundred-odd people, I think) was packed to bursting — not surprising for a show which received such rave reviews and had such a pitifully short run. It was an exhilerating, energy-packed two hour romp that felt like it was discovered, not made.
Which is really surprising because, in a conversation I had with the TEAM (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment)’s artistic director, Rachel Chavkin, in the bar following the show she mentioned that the entire cast writes the show (I think her words were something like “There’s almost not a line everyone didn’t put their hands on at one point or another”)… Now I don’t know about you… But I’ve spent the last year making collaborative, devised theatre, and when I say collaborative, I mean hellishly collaborative. And Mission Drift had such a homogeneity — such a feeling of integration — that’s often missing from devised pieces, where the joints and bits from various contributors maybe just don’t fit quite right. There was no feeling of the collage to Mission Drift. it was just a well-crafted story, told through vivid, evocative imagery and knives-out song; through not seemingly affected dance, and through the wonderfully variable, sweet-as-cotton-candy-sour-as-lemon-and-Lousiana-hot-sauce voice and physical performance of the previously mentioned Heather Christian… Who was by far the shining star in this constellation… Somehow without seeming to take centre-stage at all, so smooth and complete was the the ensemble feeling generated during the show.
Still, there is no denying the power and changeability in this woman who, playing Miss Atomic, corrals us and the rest of the show, twirling her lasso about us all and dragging us through the story with all the effort of a dreaming child making shining castles from fluff and imagination. She is saucy, sweet, lulling, tenacious, and sexy as she interacts with Joan and Chris, speaks directly to us, and steps out of logic-driven roles into the other space of the songs when she is most sublime. All of this is not to say that the rest of the cast and the band didn’t deliver stellar performances… Because they did, of course. Amber Renae Gray’s Joan first opens the show with a bit of mock-ecclesiastic speechification that could have gone very badly had her commitment and confidence not given it all the power and conviction needed to carry us into this fictive Vegas-flavoured myth. Libby King (Cataline) convincingly played the evergreen immortal, remaining fourteen years of age while somehow growing in age and experience far beyond King’s own years, the contradiction between the character’s ‘real’ and ‘biological’ ages melting away and yet being both felt and present at one and the same time… And the praise shouldn’t be slopped on its female contingent alone… No, no. Brian Hastert and Mikaal Sulaiman were both solid in their roles as Joris and Chris. Hastert’s charisma supporting the meglomaniacal short sightedness of Joris so that, though he rapes the land and swindles the Native Americans as he waltzes through the centuries we somehow still like this essentially niave character, feeling his loss and bewilderment, as Catalina turns away, his lonliness and helplessness arousing our sympathy despite his history of heinous crimes. Mikaal Sulaiman is sloe gin and molasses; easy going and sauntering, he is the perfect counterpoint to Gray’s fretful, frenetic energy, urging her to join him in big sky country after taking her on the floor of her foreclosure in the middle of the ghost-town-that-was-greater-Vegas. Together they are like Voltro,; they are greater than the sum of their parts, their voices and presences swelling to tower above the audience as their songs spiral up to bounce back down from the rafters above a mesmerized audience.
As an American, I had an addidtional layer of meaning and dramaturgy spread on top of this political, tale of economics, classes in a ‘classless’ society, and broken expectations which, like Angelou’s dream, ultimately explode, leaving us all in their wake, asking why? How did we come to this, fallen from such great heights. *sigh* Just… See the damn show, if you get the chance, okay?
9) Your Last Breath – Curious Directive (Pleasance Dome – 12:15-13:25) ￼￼￼￼
This Fringe First award winner is the second show about Iceland I’ve seen in the last couple months (Reykjavik at the Albany seems like it was just yesterday). To cut a long story short, it was beautiful. Their (Curious Directive) use of projections was one of the more exciting and innovative I’ve seen (I especially liked the x-rays), but I was really excited by their use of materials. They used wood and yarn to create the wilds of the arctic cold, creating mountains, valeys, forests and lakes with amazing topographical effects made by plucking, pushing and pulling the grids of colored lines. The show follows four different stories occuring in three different rime periods (the 1860’s, contemporary, and 2034), and is based on the true story of Anna Bagenholm who miraculously survived falling into freezing water and having her heart stop for two hours. They built an all white set which was so variable because of its sparseness — the perfect textured screen for the massively interactive projections that saw us whizzing through town on snow-mobile, climbing in mountains, and getting lost beneath the ice with the doomed skier. The puppetry (achieved with only a wooden chair) managed to have me misty eyed over the reindeer companion, and the relationship between daughter and father that is the focus of one of the timelines is heart-wrenching.
The true glory should be heaped on the pianist who, playing live through the entire piece, carries such a power and unstoppable energy that it flavours the entire composition. I didn’t realize the music was live until the last minute when this skilled performer was revealed behind the set, and that made my jaw drop even more. The stories are all well written and well performed, the tech flawless, and the design focused and to the point. This was a show that was enjoyable to watch, providing fun with learning, intriguingly intertwined storylines, and a pinch of melancholy that all combined to leave me glad to have been in the audience.
10) Penny Dreadful’s Etherdome – Penny Dreadful (Assembly George Square 14:10-15:20) ￼￼￼
Extreme characters people this three-performer adventure through 1850’s anesthetics, with the actors playing several characters each, (apart from the protagonist, who remains in character throughout. This was a slapstick. melodramatic play, with outlandish costumes, loads of stage chicanery, audience heckling, and a magical box of tricks as a centrepiece. Denise Kennedy, and Philippe Spall’s physical contortions were delightful as they capered about, playing the undead, and shuffling shambolickly across the stage in a parody of 1920’s silent film capers and anitcs. Fun but fluffy, it’s not a bad hour off in the middle of the day… Like a vacation for your conscience. And mind. I had fun, but it didn’t change my life. But of course theatre doesn’t always have to change your life… This is an entertaining production, skillfully acted and a fine segue to heavier material later in the day.
11) Where’s Eric – Eric Lampaert (Pleasance Courtyard 18:00-19:00) ￼￼￼￼
Stand up… Err… Story telling/comedy. Eric Lampaert tells us the story of his chIldhood; his many homes and his travels. Language figured heavily in the stories the night I saw him. The distinctive thing about Eric’s style is that he’s like a brain with some sort of bypass — he just says whatever comes into his head unfiltered. And this can have hilarious consequences. His stories are engaging, wacky, and just this side of believable. He uses his physiue, his history, and his audience to the best possible advantage, and like all good story tellers, he relates his tales to us in unexpected ways. If you’re expecting a series of one-liners and punchlines, you may be disappointed, but if you’re up for a trip into another person’s mind, you’ll find that hilarity will ensue.
12) Crunch – Gary McNair (Forest Fringe 20:00-20:45) ￼￼￼￼
This would be the most disconcerting of my Ed Fringe experiences. I’m still trying to untangle how I feel about Crunch, to be honest. It was a fantastically crafted… Was it a show? Was is a motivational lecture? Did he have an agenda? Was he just fucking with his audience? Should I throw all caution to the wind, blaze a new trail, and become a visionary living in the wilderness? I DON’T KNOW! This was one of those blurry sort of life-meets-art-and-gets-the-tar-beaten-out-of-it pieces of theatre where philosophy, scripting (Was it scripted? Of course it was.), and the audience’s reactions all got melted and stirred around. This was an earnest character, a character who believes passionately in his proposals. A character who shows no hint of the insincere. A good dose of history-of-money-for-idiots helps give the piece verisimilitude, as does the wanton destruction of… Well, I don’t want to ruin anything… But trust me when I say that Gary and his expert are not fucking around. They mean what they’re saying, and they’ll do what they say they’ll do. A thought provoking piece of theatre that has me walking away from it really giving thought to how I view life, art, and the grey spaces in between.