Fave’s of the Fest, For me

Now, I have no time to write this, but I’ve had no time, and I need to write *something*, so I’m stealing a few minutes while Barnaby dances to the spin cycle on the laundry machine.

I have really liked everything I’ve seen in the festival so far, and I’ve seen a dozen or so plays (plus three more today) so the fact that I’ve picked two to highlight doesn’t necessarily mean anything. These are two that just lit something up in me, for some reason, and more than feeling like they are great plays, I’m just really happy that they exist, if that makes sense.

The first is American Jakata Tales by Ed Malin. In the program, we’re told that in Buddhist cultures, often the Buddha takes on myriad different lives and shapes, that they simply invent new stories of spiritual significance, without regard for the holy texts. It’s such a lovely and freeing idea, and from the moment the show starts, it’s as if the writer was reaching across the divide and saying “Listen, we’re playing a little fast and loose with structure here, we’re gonna mess around a bit with identity, but trust me, I’m not gonna screw you. Do this with me, and I promise to be kind.”

We get stories set all over the United States, the four actors move back and forth inside each vignette, playing scores of different characters, completely skewing our expectations. By the time Satan himself admits, “Sometimes even the devil has to do good”, you realize that the show is taking us away from the theater, away from New York, even away from the U.S. (in the middle of this deeply American story) and he’s turning the room a full 90 degrees.

I just loved it, although I’m sure the director and the actors saved the script from some screwy moments. There are bad jokes that land exactly right, like bad jokes. There is almost no set, no real costumes, hardly any props, so the director and the cast has made up for it with well-calibrated theatricality. The theater itself is a death-trap, as soon as the door closes it feels like Apollo Thirteen in there with a dwindling oxygen supply, but I still walked out of the theater feeling completely invigorated.

Now, please understand, I’m not recommending this play. I know for a fact that I brought a lot of myself into this show. I have such a deep affection for the lonely and weird voice, the non-pretentious and honestly under-represented artistic point of view, when it reaches out from the pages of a strange and ugly piece of art, that I know a big part of why I loved this piece is because I could *feel* my own loneliness in my perspective. A United States that is misunderstood, being queerly picked apart by a host of bizarre characters, having been written by a lovely and strange man, and all of it being produced for an audience who didn’t seem to quite be on the same page… I was in an irrational heaven.

On the other hand, I can whole-heartedly recommend Candide Americana. I don’t want to misrepresent the show, because *all* Fringe shows look like home-made college black box shows, it’s what’s so great about the Fringe, but what this show carries with that ethos is an actual enthusiasm throughout that reminds me of the heady days when we were all in school.

When I think of Candide, the first thing that comes to mind, just before Voltaire, is Bernstein, particularly the overture. If you listen to that fantastic bit of Soprano energy, the off-kiltered banshee giggle, you’ll get an idea of what the energy is like in this production. The horrors that befall the characters in the show are constantly off-set by the gaggle of lovely people running on stage to holler out chapter titles and deliver locations and plot. It’s a focused mania, a theatrical literalness that works so perfectly when you can’t support the show with big sets and props.

The cast is without fault, with each of them embracing or distorting the cliche’s expected of their situations. The actors don’t stand out the way it usually happens at the Fringe, the entire ensemble is together creating the entire piece, it’s really a wonderfully crafted show. The direction is meticulous, it’s a complete vision, from each individual moment to the overall arc of the piece.

The writing, though, steals the show. Again, this is one of those things that might just affect me personally. For a stinkin’ commie, I am a complete sucker for an artist who’s fascinated by the character of “America”. The Candide story has been moved to the U.S., but it’s been done with such elegance. From the first moment, when Candide announces that he lives in the best possible country in the world “Bosnia”, you know this is smartly crafted.

The horrors of the Candide story have been replaced by… well, by the average stuff that’s been happening to America over the last eight years. And what is so powerful is that usually, when one says “the last eight years”, we all know it’s a condemnation of the Republican administration, but this play has no time for anything so small. This is a much larger play, dealing with the actual ideas that Voltaire (and a hundred others since) brings up.

I just loved this play. Totally theatrical, but still completely organic. Perfectly performed and costumed for the Fringe, proving a kind of flexibility that so many companies fail to embrace. Also, it helps that the “young, cute, talented men and woman” quotient is through the roof… not to be a pig, but this is just a lovely, lovely group of people. I’m so happy that I got a chance to see this, and even more happy to know it’s out there being done. Please go see it.