Philadelphia Fringe Festival: Week Two
The second week of the annual Philadelphia Fringe Festival rolls on with an even more diverse set of shows created to surprise and shock the viewer, as well as offer art that is not often found in Philly.
I’ll start with the bad, as there was only one show I went to last week that I had a lot of trouble with, which was Shannon Agnew’s "If I Were A Drag Queen, I Would Be Famous." In this show, the intent on Agnew’s part was to showcase her enviable talents as a dynamic theatrical singer. To do this, she targeted her theatre idols, such as Judy Garland, Patti Lupone and Ethel Merman. So far, so good, right? In fact, she even hit the nail on the head with a few of her impressions, but in the end a less-than-there impression could have been overlooked.
What is important is that the show provides entertainment and the so-called "sharp satire" that such a show needs to keep itself more interesting than my own Showtunes playlist. Unfortunately, Agnew showed a little too harshly that she was in fact not a drag queen and did not have the bite or wit available to create a worthwhile show. Instead she took aim at easy targets like "Glee" and Anne Hathaway to rehash overdone jokes, all the while usually falling short of her impressions.
Perhaps Agnew would have found it easier to succeed amongst something of a team of impressionists, or if she had created something a little bit more personal to show off her incredible range and impressive power. As an early solo outing for the performer, she of course will have time to sharpen her focus. Let’s just hope she puts more thought into the next one.
The other two shows I had the pleasure of attending last week were an entirely different story. Up first was local singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke’s incredibly personal and indelibly smart show, "My Mother Has Four Noses." Sprung from Brooke’s experience caring for her late mother who had been stricken with Alzheimer’s, it is a musical story put together with a combination of Brooke’s songs, her mother’s poems, and the connection they shared.
As a one-night only affair, it was something of a let-down only in that I would recommend the show highly to anyone who knows what it is to lose someone and seek how to include them in your life afterward. In this sense, Brooke created an inspiring piece of art that is something of an outsider for the Fringe Festival.
But my favorite show of the week, and of the festival so far, was the incredible and visceral, "Basement." The creation of Gunnar Montana is an evocative exploration of the painful and often violent feelings that we experience in the midst of a break-up.
That description does a disservice in trivializing what is presented. The moment I walked into the room, I knew I was in for a treat that could only be found at the Fringe Festival. Covered in plastic, the room looked like a kill room from "Dexter" and was littered with rusty bathtubs, severed mannequin heads and a forebodingly rickety door.
The show began, and Montana entered the room looking solemn and menacing, as he dragged a body covered in plastic across the floor and turned on the fans underneath two patches of plastic. The room then came alive with hidden dancers underneath the plastic and a shockingly alive body in the wrapped plastic, and three female dancers along with Montana began the violent, choreographed stages of heartbreak.
Highlights included the plastic-wrapped body crawling from one side of the room to the other to the tune of Patsy Cline’s "Crazy," a gorgeously choreographed and essentially nude scene in the bathtub to Lana Del Rey’s "Young & Beautiful," and a hysterically menacing scene involving the severed mannequin heads, a frying pan, and Nat King Cole’s "L.O.V.E."
Yes, the soundtrack of the show is mostly songs you would recognize or dance tracks from the depths of an industrial club that interact in the same way the four cast members do. There is no real end of Patsy Cline’s "Walking After Midnight" just as there is no tangible beginning to the crunching dubstep of the following track, just as there seems to be no logical beginning to the somewhat romantic dance scenes and those that find Montana swinging a chainsaw around in an attempt to kill his "lover." The result is one of the more thrilling shows I have experienced in quite a while, and one that I could not take my eyes off of.
It is this mixed bag of shows that bring me back to the Fringe Festival each year. A talent like Shannon Agnew has begun to find her footing, even if a bit unsteady. A veteran like Jonatha Brooke used her show to explore something personal and triumphant. And a continued developing artist like Gunnar Montana used his recent pain to create his greatest performance yet.
There is only one more full week of the Festival and this week’s offerings promise an exciting group of shows to come.
For a full listing of shows in the 2013 Fringe Festival, please visit http://guide.fringearts.com/.