London, England: July 6, 2019
London, England: July 6, 2019
Today, I took in:
a couple chapters of The Sellout
Austentatious, an improvised play in the style of a Jane Austen novel — it was hilarious
a Black History Month post on the TV series Dear White People
My first Fringe experience was as a flyerer and sometimes performer in 2014, so it was a different thing to go up as a paying punter this year. Liz and I went up with a friend of hers from college; the three of us each had our own bed in our own room in a flat we rented — such luxury! We bought our meals out and didn’t make any ramen noodles — such decadence! It was definitely a pricier way to do the Fringe, even for only three nights. But it was a lot of fun. I managed to see 14 shows in 3 days, as well as many street performers. Here are my highlights. Check out these acts if you can!
The three young guys of the Two Plus Ones delivered nonstop, silly sketch comedy in “Huge Night In.” Luke Sumner’s characters in particular were all the more hilarious for being so wholly conceived. They had a sketch about a canon support group that had me in stitches with its utterly stupid brilliance.
We met Roisin and Chiara while queuing for their show “We Are Not Afraid”; they handed out candies and made conversation while in character as red jumpsuited oddballs. Inside, they did what seemed a hybrid sketch/improv show, including lots of audience involvement, a disco soundtrack, surrealist humor, and at one point, a wolf mask.
The 1st Annual Black Comedy Showcase was brilliantly emceed by Che Burnley, who asked white male audience members where they were from, then no matter what they answered (London, Manchester), followed up with, “No but where are you really from? What’s your heritage?” (“Germany, maybe? My girlfriend went there, she said it’s really beautiful and the people are so nice”). I hope the few confused people in the audience eventually got that he was pointing up the offensive and ridiculous nature of the same question when it’s posed to people of color on the regular. Che was a warm and friendly host, but make no mistake, he had clear intentions with this showcase. I loved it.
The standout act from the showcase was Athena Kugblenu, a London-based comedian who had one of the Jokes of the Fringe. She has this droll delivery that just kills me, and it doesn’t hurt that her mix of the personal and the political hits my sweet spot for stand-up.
The Banshee Labyrinth is one of the main centers for spoken word at the Free Fringe, and it was kind of a trip to go back there and see a show in the same little room that I’d performed in three years ago. We watched four young poets perform “A Matter of Time,” an interconnected group of poems told from the point of view of one person, at four different points in their timeline. It was a neat concept, and beautifully executed. If you like your poetry heartfelt but not sentimental, reflective but not navel-gazing, check out Ellen Renton, Shannon MacGregor, Ross McFarlane and Bibi June.
Liz has seen Theatre Ad Infinitum shows before and wanted to see whatever they were putting on at the Fringe this year. We went to see Homer’s “Odyssey,” and were thrilled to find it was a spellbinding one-man storytelling hour. Spellbinding is not hyperbole here: I was fully immersed in the story from the first word, and breathed a deep sigh of contentment at the end.
The circus is the place to go when you want to be reminded of how amazing the human body is, and Bibi and Bichu‘s “Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams” provided myriad reminders. I actually gasped in awe several times and applauded wildly every time they held a pose or finished a tumble.
I’m pretty sure everyone in the audience cried during 201 Dance Company‘s “Skin,” a hip hop dance show about a kid growing up and coming out trans*. The dancing was urgent and emotional, especially from the protagonist and their mother. Including a child dancer to mirror the adult protagonist was a great choice, and it’s good to see an FTM transition, which is a story not told as often as an MTF one, I think.
One of the most perfect play-within-a-plays I’ve ever seen, Willis & Vere‘s “The Starship Osiris” made me laugh for the entire show. A self-obsessed man puts on the most ridiculous sci-fi show glorifying himself, and everything breaks down spectacularly when the cast rebels. The details in the performances were spot-on, from the particular preening of the director to the facial expressions of the babed-up female crew members.
Pollyanna is the queer cabaret we all need in our lives. Polyfilla hosts, and the night we went we saw several excellent acts, including a drag king performing to a clever medley of songs about being a boy/man and Pollyfilla leading the audience in a participatory musical about Theresa May that made you laugh through the horror of the current political climate.
Nearly all of these acts are UK-based, so if you are too, be sure to check out their Twitter/FB pages in the links I’ve provided and see when their upcoming shows are. Even if you aren’t based in the UK, art travels, so why not follow them anyway in case they come to your town. If you get a chance to see any of these, I highly recommend that you do!
To commemorate 400 years of Shakespeare’s brilliance, the Globe Theatre set up a 2.5-mile walk along the south bank of the Thames the weekend of April 23-24, 2016, showing one 10-minute film for each of his 37 plays. The films combined new scenes shot just for this walk (set in places the plays were set like Hamlet in Denmark and Antony and Cleopatra in Egypt), scenes from silent movie adaptations (on loan from the British Film Institute), and scenes from Globe productions over the years.
I had a wonderful time walking the route over the course of two days, sometimes with friends and sometimes on my own. I mistimed my Sunday and got caught up in the mass of humanity that was cheering on the London Marathon across the river, so I just squeezed in all the plays that day and finished 15 minutes before the event ended and the screens went dark.
I certainly don’t know every play, and in fact upon talking it over with my friend Liz (who knows just about every single one and has seen most of them performed too), I realized that I know the tragedies and many of the comedies, but I only know the outlines of his histories and some of the problem plays. I suppose that just gives me more to explore.
I liked that the Globe filmed scenes where Shakespeare originally set them; I think this was particularly effective with Othello & Iago alone in a Cypriot fort, where Iago could pour his poison in Othello’s ear under the hot sun; Coriolanus driving around the streets of Rome at night, Taxi Driver-style; Juliet ending it all in the tomb named for her in Verona; Richard II handing over his crown in the austere Westminster Hall; Cordelia trying to bring Lear back from madness at the white cliffs of Dover; and Falstaff carousing and philosophizing in The George pub.
Here’s a sample of what I saw, in the order of the route as laid out by the Globe (you can see the route I followed here and the list of credits & play summaries here). I didn’t always get the famous lines on video, and my camera ran out of storage space before I could get video of each film so there are still photos for those plays. The only scene out of order is Hamlet–there’s a photo of that film in order, but the video is at the very end of my movie, because I think the brief lines there offer a nice coda. Enjoy!
I wish I’d clarified for myself that I wanted to see as many types of musical and stage performances as possible earlier in this trip. I didn’t seek them out as vigorously as I did by the time I reached Vietnam, which I suppose means I’ll just have to go back to spots earlier on the itinerary and see what there is to see. Still, I knew what I wanted when I was in Japan, and I saw a lot: a Cinco de Mayo concert, a geisha dance performance, a Beatles cover band rehearsal, a traditional lyre-type performance, and a kabuki show. My experience at the kabuki show was a great mixture of high and low, even from the cheap seats.
Getting a seat at a kabuki show isn’t hard, so long as you get it early and pay what is, for me, a large sum of money. But as at so many theaters throughout the world, concessions are made for the poorer theater fan. You stand in line outside the theater for at least an hour, get a ticket, and then wait for another hour before you can stand in line inside the theater to get your spot. I used my in-between hour to eat some tasty noodles from the shop next door, then went up to the fourth floor to wait in line again.
People were in a range of outfits, from jeans to suits, and a few women in full kimono outfits. Two women in perfectly turned-out kimono took it upon themselves to make sure I stood in the right place in line and had my ticket, and generally was all taken care of. They posed for a photo for me, and we shared a lot of smiles, but we didn’t speak a word of each other’s language, so that’s as far as that friendship went. It’s all I needed to feel good going into the performance, though.
I paid extra for an audio guide in English, which was worth it. The guide gave a summary of the story before the show and then translated as the actors spoke. It was the story of an old man who needs to sell a sword to raise money for his daughter, and he approaches three warriors just returned from battle. Warrior 1 offers to buy it, and has Warrior 2 appraise it. But Warrior 3 says looking at it doesn’t prove anything. If the sword cuts through two human bodies, it’s a good sword. They find a convict facing the death penalty, and the father sacrifices himself as the second body. But when Warrior 2 does it, he only kills the convict. Warriors 1 and 3 leave in disgust, and Warrior 2 explains to the father and daughter that he purposely didn’t use the full strength of the sword because he noticed it belongs to his ancestral home (the side he’s fighting against in this war, because adoption complications). He proves it’s good by splitting a stone cistern in two, and that cistern was in the name of the play, which I can’t for the life of me remember now or find on Google.
The set was simple, a painted backdrop and a few low tables and tall screens to break up the stage. The actors wore large, stiff costumes that looked practically 2-D, and often the actors moved in deliberate, almost jerky movements. Kabuki has had close ties to Japanese puppetry for centuries, so that’s not surprising.
Kabuki is performed by all-male casts. I was surprised to learn that the form actually started with all-female casts in the early 17th century, but it was quickly deemed too lewd and subsequently outlawed. Since then, it’s been the all-male casts we’re used to associating with Shakespearean times. (Kabuki’s beginnings and Shakespeare’s peak are just about the same time, incidentally.) Apparently, women perform in some productions today, but not in the one I saw.
The actors spoke in exaggerated tones, the female character a plaintive whine, the narrator a sharp bark, the great warrior’s voice a sonorous command. The male characters often made that “ohhh!” sound, accompanied by a slight roll of the head and eyes, that I associate with bad imitations of dubbed martial arts films. It served a similar purpose here, it looked like, as a mocking end to a challenging statement.
Occasionally, audience members would shout out phrases (whether of encouragement or disapproval I’m not sure), especially when the actors were exiting the stage via the hanamichi, the long walkway that extended into the auditorium stage right. For years, kabuki was the common man’s theater, a combination of drama, stock comedic characters, and specific story structures that amused the masses. It was only at the end of the 19th century that kabuki performers tried to get the upper classes to enjoy and support the art. It worked, and now kabuki has several fancy theaters in Tokyo and elsewhere in the country, and it’s promoted outside Japan as a traditional, serious art. But you can’t keep the hoi polloi from their art forms entirely. People will shout out during kabuki plays, just as they will at concerts and movies.
I stood for the entire hour and twenty minute performance, leaning awkwardly against a rail provided for that purpose. The cheap seats aren’t even seats, as it turns out. It’s standing room only up at the back of the top balcony, crowded in with women in kimono, men in suits, teenagers in jeans. Surrounded by this cross-section of Tokyo society, all of whom clapped, laughed, and gasped appreciatively throughout the performance, I smiled to myself. This is why I want to see as many different types of performances as possible as I travel the world–to see how the varied acts affect us all the same way, lighting up our faces and moving us deeply.
Other than the obligatory college performance of a Beckett play, I haven’t really seen much avant-garde or absurdist theater, and I’ve only read a few plays in the style. Generally, I enjoy the heck out of the wit and wordplay, and get annoyed by the bleak outlook. That proved to be true of the latest play I saw for Centerstage, Trap Door Theatre’s Smartphones. Here’s an excerpt from my press release:
Amelia (Géraldine Dulex) and Barbany (Chris Popio) arrive minutes apart in the living room of an absent host’s house, and they immediately start arguing about whether either of them has a key to said house. In the middle of this argument, Chantal (Jodi Kingsley) and Dagobert (Antonio Brunetti) arrive attached at the hip, and another round of arguments begins, this time concerning the number of maids employed by their host, Fede. The rest of the play is an hour-long series of similarly petty arguments and minor revelations, but every moment is entertaining.
You can read the rest of the review here.
Trap Door is on the second floor of a restaurant in the east part of Bucktown. Right by the Clybourn Metra stop, it’s this little corner of a couple restaurants, a bar, a flower shop, and a cafe. It’s a nice place for a pre-show meal or post-show drink. Enjoy!
Go see this show! You know I don’t give unqualified recommendations often, so take ’em when they come. “Gotham City” is a show that catapults narrative dance out of its ballet-heavy history and into the future. Here’s an excerpt from my play review:
Deahr has matched up dance styles with the status of the groups that use them: gangs use hip-hop and the Brazilian fight-dance capoeira, the upper-crust tourist couple uses ballet, and the clowns let their anarchic spirit show in contemporary moves with commedia dell’arte overtones.
You can read the rest of the review here. Okay, I guess I have a few qualifications: the taming of the shrew was annoying and overdone for most of it, but had a slightly interesting twist toward the end; and the voiceover can get a little intrusive. For all y’all who aren’t into hip hop, be warned that this is modern dance and a modern soundtrack is used (but it’s a great soundtrack).
Apparently tickets are going fast, so check it out while you can!
“Lisa, you just put another review up on Tuesday! What’s going on?” Well, what’s going on is I forgot to post about that one ages ago, when I actually wrote it, and this one today is actually much more recent. It’s summer, my brain is fried, etc.
Arcas Productions is brand-new, and bless ’em for their ambition. Making Beowulf your first production is a gutsy move, and while it doesn’t entirely pay off here, there are aspects that make the company worth looking out for in the future. Here’s an excerpt from my play review:
Director Jeff Lynch’s history is in dance, and it serves him well here. His performers are in constant motion, acting out the monologues delivered by various characters in a way that recalls how it may have been done back when poets told tales next to fires. The fight scenes between Beowulf and his enemies are well done, especially the last one, in which the whole cast comes together as the fearsome dragon.
You can read the rest of the review here.
Red Tape Theatre’s motto is “Awake Now?” and the plays they put on are all about pushing us out of our comfort zone. I’ve seen two such shows now, and my main feeling on them is: I want to like them better. The acting, the sets, the sound design, the direction–it’s all there. But they are so self-serious! Again, I’ve only seen two shows, but just glancing at the rest of their season, it’s all doom and gloom. Nothing wrong with using theater to shake people up a bit; that’s an important use for it. But I have to be gripped by the story in order for that to work, and instead I’m sitting there wondering when I’m going to feel invested in what’s going on. Here’s an excerpt from my play review:
As usual at Red Tape, the costumes (Izumi Inaba) and set design (Emily Guthrie) were a marvel of detail and atmosphere. The themes of small-town dreams, collective guilt, and American pride are clearly spelled out in this funerary tale, but the play tackles them more from the head than from the heart, and that’s where it falters.
You can read the rest of the review here.
Gorilla Tango hosts a dizzying array of bare-bones theater troupes, which put on any number of energetic shows every year. Some of them are great, some of them not so much, but they’re always done with passion. And they’re cheap, too! I recommend Gorilla Tango in general. And I’ll recommend the latest show I saw there: a musical parody called Attend the Tale of Danny Tanner: A Full House Musical. The writers of the show said they wanted to cross the sitcom with Sweeney Todd, and that’s about right. Here’s an excerpt from my play review:
It’s not spoiling anything to say that this is one bloody show. Within the first five minutes, we learn that Danny (Rob Speer) commemorates the anniversary of his wife’s death by finding and killing a drunk driver. Joey (Gorton) and Jesse (James Dolbeare) help him out in return for having a free place to stay, and the kids stay blissfully ignorant. That is, until Danny loses it one night during a Life Lessons moment and claims more than one victim.
You can read the rest of the review here. You do have to be comfortable with Michelle cussing up a storm, and with someone meeting a messy end every other scene. But the lyrics are clever, the performances enthusiastic, and the run time an hour. Enjoy!