Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Boulder International Fringe Festival 2011

My latest piece for the Post. (Full, unedited text below.)

There are some wonderful shows playing this year. One thing i'm excited about is that it seems like the one-person show people--always the dominant theatre genre at Fringe--have finally gotten the memo about performing INTERMINABLE, long-ass, self-indulgent shows that go nowhere.

Of the four one-person shows I've seen so far, only one was rather mushy and meandering and in need of an editor. But all of them were shorter than I've gotten used to, having done this for the past three years, none clocking in longer than around 1:15.

(Read the comment at the end of the Post piece for one man's take on what sounds like a painfully self-indulgent one-woman show (2.5 hours!!!) that I thank all the gods who still exist that I didn't see.)


All you need to know about seeing a juggler perform--in an unfamiliar, enclosed space, with a rack of stage lights shining in his eyes--was illustrated by the older lady who moved back a couple of rows when Aji the juggler was about to start tossing knives in the air.

This was after an errant hat rolled to a stop at her feet.

“That’s a logical response,” Aji said cheerfully, as he went on to successfully, more or less, juggle three machete-like knives as part of his one-man show “Bad Day to Be a Juggler.”

His improv and comedy-heavy act, pulled from street performances honed in his adopted hometown of San Francisco, is just one slice of this year’s Boulder Fringe Festival. It’s an always interesting collection ranging from the off-beat to the downright strange playing in various venues around town.

And as always, there is a convivial warmth, a camaraderie and sense of both audience member and performer being participants, largely erasing the fourth wall.

Another one-person show, “Burnt at the Steak” is a complete and well-rounded piece, the comedic musical story of a Texas-born Italian woman, Carolann Valentino. She moves to New York, but her dream of performing on Broadway is hijacked when she finds herself rapidly moving up to management at a multi-million dollar steakhouse in Manhattan.

Her raucous, raunchy show had the audience howling with laughter as she portrayed characters such as her psychic Italian mother, a very Noo Yawk maitre d’, a dingbat restaurant hostess, and a British lady customer who refuses to wear undergarments.

Valentino’s jokes are sharp and well-delivered: “You are the strangest looking Mexican I’ve ever seen!” says one Texas neighbor; in another scene, a Jersey Shore-type woman gives a friend sartorial advice: “First of all, you’re wearing a solid-colored dress. I told you, stick to the animal kingdom! Tiger, giraffe, zebra...”

But the highlights are her songs, including titles like “Big Fat Daddy,” and an uproarious song explaining meat temperatures sung to the tune of “Do-Re-Mi.”

“Steak” is an example of how good a one-person show can be, the potential the form has to rise above what often turns out to be self-indulgent, overwrought goo.

Another is “Huffs,” Kelsie Huff’s tale of growing up with her abusive, cheating, alcoholic father.

“Emotional goo” warning signs flash immediately.

However, Huff is not only clearly a seasoned comedic performer, she also is a top-flight writer. The piece rips along relentlessly, honed down to her funniest memories recounted with a professional comedian’s pitch-perfect timing.

But while Huff is unabashed about humorously relating her most embarrassing, awkward moments, she also counterpunches with deeper emotions effectively, bringing in sharp jabs of real pain and pathos.

The death of her father for one is a story in which she skillfully blends poignancy and wit. She goes from describing her mother’s distraught reaction in the morgue--she helplessly repeats “I should have brought the dog. I should have brought the dog,”--to flatly intoning “The villain is gone.”

And while the festival’s theatre offerings lean heavily toward one-person shows, a charming change of pace is being produced by a group of students from New Vista High School.

Their original piece, “Alex and Themselves” is part dance, part coming-of-age story, part allegory for leaving the safety of home and hearth. It’s a promising, steampunk-inspired tale about Calla Lily, an 18-year-old girl (Camille Libouban-Gundersen) who lives in a town that has been locked away from the outside world her entire life.

Her dictatorial mother (Tizri Eleanor Zelig) runs the town with an iron fist, but Calla Lily finds a means of escape.

It’s a strange but sweet and haunting piece, overlain with gloomy keyboard music (played by Josie Brown, who also plays Marie) to which the ethereal and mysterious Alex (Lorien Russell) dances. And although it isn’t quite explainable in a linear sense, it still works.

In fact, not being quite explainable makes it perfect for Fringe.


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