On (pieces) of the Frenetic Fringe Festival

A few nights ago I saw Lineup the 2nd for the Houston Fringe Festival presented by FrenetiCore.  There was a weekend of shows before this one, and two weekends after it before the entire affair is over.  Just in case you didn’t know, this is the third year of this particular fringe festival, and will now be the only such festival for Houston, since BooTown has decided to focus their energies elsewhere.

I went to see the show – or, rather, collection of shows – because of one particular play: “I said, Don’t Touch My Dog.”  I must admit, I went to see this play because I knew everyone involved outside of the playwright and, most specifically, because Megan was one of the two actors starring.  If this had not been the case, I wouldn’t have set foot in the Frenetic Theater.

This antipathy has two sources:

Identified Source: The feud that FrenetiCore was having with BooTown over the use of the Houston Fringe Festival moniker, and how FrenetiCore had gone about trying to force BooTown from the name, including some practices that were inconsiderate at best, shady at worst.

Unidentified Source: A friend of mine had a number of negative dealings with the company that turned me off any work they produced and away from the people who ran it as a whole.

Grant that in both these cases I have only one side of the story – though the sources are people I trust – and grant that my opinions for people/organizations I haven’t met are strongly influenced by friends that I have, then you can grant that I have no real idea about either FrenetiCore or their Fringe Festival.

The point of all that granting is just that I’m glad that I made it to the show.  I see far too little theater or dance or performance and it was good simply to sit in an audience and watch a show that wasn’t my own doing.

First, there’s the space.  The last time I was inside the Frenetic Theater it was little more than a warehouse.  There was a stage, certainly, and curtains hung to separate the audience from the off-stage performers, but it was all too obviously a re-purposed space yet to be fully butterflied.  Now, the space looks like a theater.  The floors are still concrete, but that’s pretty much the only clue as to what the place used to look like.  Clean, white, museum-quality walls divide the theater neatly, and the bathrooms, well, the bathrooms are nearly artistic in design.

But I’m here today not to laud the performance space, but the performances in the Festival, at least those that deserve lauding.  Others will be unlauded upon you.

Tsunami Dance: “Lagniappe”

Tsunami performed three short dances, each scored to a piece of music (two popular and one, if I remember correctly, classical), and each time a dance started I was initially convinced I wouldn’t like it.  I thought, ack, this’ll be boring – probably a result of the slow(ish) start to each of their pieces and, more so, the tangible connection between their movements and the music.

I don’t know why, but here’s how I am regarding dance.  If there’s music, I feel that the dancers are cheating, using music to create an emotional connection that the body’s movement by itself can’t.  If there’s no music, I find myself bored by the simple, naked movement of bodies, the all-too-loud slap of feet on stage.

These are initial reactions only, and ones that I don’t have control over, and which, thankfully, dissolve quickly in the presence of good dance.  And this was good dance.  Though I had to warm up each time a piece started, I found myself, after a few moments, engrossed by the (to use their own words to support them) athletic, dynamic dance.  The dances weren’t literal in terms of telling a story, but they evoked a story through repeated movements and changing relationships between the dancers.  In addition, they took such obvious joy in their dancing, in the moving of their bodies, that the joy bled into the audience as well.

The only critique I have is that not all of the dancers let their faces take part in the dance.  Some of the time they had the frozen non-expression of dancers whose bodies are simply tools for the choreographer, but in the best moments, their eyes were alive to the story they took part in.

Mark Carrier/Silverback Entertainment: “Celebrity Squares”

I have no idea what, exactly, this theater piece was supposed to achieve, but whatever it was aiming for, it failed.  The premise: A version of Hollywood Squares where Willie McGee – a black man executed in Mississippi for raping a white woman – fight for his life by trying to win the game.  Instead of celebrities, various racist and unloved figures from history inhabit the squares: Sarah Palin, Hitler, O.J. Simpson.

Now, the entire proceeding is supposed to be humorous, jokes flying left and right and underhanded.  But humor is pretty ineffective without character to support it, and there’s no character in this play, simply caricatures, which means that the humor is relying on the audience’s preconceived notions of the “characters” on stage and their various quips.

The play takes place in a neverland that could be heaven or hell or limbo but is definitely not “reality”.  For example, in the world of the play, McGee has already been executed, and yet he’s on trial again in the gameshow to successfully be exonerated and, um, unexecuted?  Of course, Hitler is on the panel, and he’s dead, and his being dead provides for some of the “jokes” in the play when he asks about what the world is like now.  And, spoiler ahead, the entire scenario is pointless anyway because, even though McGee wins the game, he’s still killed because he’s black, and this is America, and, hello, if you want to make a play that’s a pointed statement about racism why not use a recent example or go into depth with the subject?

There is so much that can be said about McGee and the injustice in his trial.  There is much that can be said about racism, and the inability of America to deal with it effectively or, for the most part, honestly.  There is much that can be said about the gameshow culture and how court trials mimic them in how they fascinate public attention.

This show says none of that and, in fact, nothing of any consequence.

Though I do have to say that some of the actors, inasmuch as they are allowed to, act well despite handicaps of script and direction.  And the man who plays Willie McGee is amazing, even if he isn’t given much to work with.  He is the only one who creates a character and, in any sense, connects with the audience.  I would pay to see him again in anything else.

In Other Words

I just wanted to point out, finally, that one of the aspects that made the festival a joy to me were the videos used as filler between pieces.  They were all strange, wonderful, and showed an attention to visual flair that I found hypnotizing.

Here’s one of them:

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