Asheville Fringe Dispatch: Jan. 25
There are dozens of amazing shows on tap for 2019 Asheville Fringe Festival-goers. The only problem is that with so many locations spread out across town, your average Fringer will be spending a lot of time in the car or calling a Lyft just to get from one venue to the next.
Leave it to LaZoom Tours to come up with an elegant solution. Instead of shuttling from place to place in your boring Kia, why not ride a big purple bus and be entertained by magic, comedy, and a gaggle of tipsy passengers?
That’s basically what the LaZoom Fringe Bus Tour is all about. Beginning at the LaZoom Room (which also functions as Fringe HQ), attendees are treated to some light sword swallowing by Opal Lechmanski before moving on to two separate locations with a whopping four performance pieces.
This quadruple feature is punctuated by Lazoom’s signature mode of transport. In this case, the hosts were Welsh magician and comic Tom Hughes aka Professor Whizzpop, whose corny magic and heavy accent combines to make a delightful host. Additionally, Jason A. Phillips regaled riders with his “lists” — a Letterman-esque gimmick where he recites “Things that can be said by both your therapist and your hooker” and “My favorite family members.” Spoiler alert: His dog makes No. 1, ahead of his child.
It’s true that the contrast between the goofy LaZoom rides and the solemn Fringe pieces is sometimes awkward. After the final piece, Hands Up, a haunting exploration of what police brutality does to black bodies, it’s a little weird to hop back on the big purple bus to see what Professor Whizzpop had in store. Nevertheless, it makes for an action-packed 90 minutes, and adds to the communal experience that’s part of what makes Fringe so unique. So, that’s the journey. As for the destinations…
The first stop on the Tour is the Taylor Gallery in the River Arts District. Inside is trace, (spearheaded by Caroline Williford and Christine Josephine) a collection of five performance art pieces all centered on scissors and yarn. At one pole of the gallery, which is shrouded in white curtains and painters’ tarps, a pair of musicians provides the soundtrack — a melodic, melancholy violin together with a dirge-like bass. The bassist also rhythmically uses a pair of hedge clippers to open and close the piece, which is about 20 minutes long.
Meanwhile, a male and female actor circle each other in a cage made of string, their red and blue strands eventually weaving together while they passionately kiss. A young woman sits to the side, determinately binding herself with white yarn. A third woman ties and cuts yet more yarn before a beautiful mandala-like pattern of scissors. There’s also a young slender man whose long hair and beard draws immediate Messianic connotations, in drag, who wanders about the space swinging a light attached to a rope.
The whole thing is very retro avant-gardeperformance art. If it weren’t for all the iPhones, I’d almost expect to bump into Andy Warhol silk-screening a nude John and Yoko. In some ways, trace feels like a group of performers playing Be-In as opposed to actually participating in a new one. That being said, I was quite taken with some of the pieces, especially the girl ferociously tying herself up in white yarn. It seemed to suggest that the limitations we perceive are largely self made, and though they seem impenetrable, they can all fall away with a single scissor snip. Likewise, the intricate cage of yarn at the back of the space is very impressive and beautiful. trace may be playing from a well worn songbook, but it’s evocative and thought-provoking nonetheless.
2. Pagans & Androids
We crowded back on to the bus, and after some more magic and lists, arrived at our second destination, the Revolve Gallery on Riverside Drive. The competing aromas of the French Broad Chocolate Factory and the Woodfin Sewage Treatment Center left me feeling dizzy, but it was nothing compared to our next show.
Pagans & Androids is an electro-sci-fi spectacle that is deeply satisfying. It features Justin Pilla as a sort of DJ High Priest who literally plugs into his muse, a nine foot tall Leaflin Winecoff. Standing on stilts, with giant pigtails bedecked with Christmas lights and a creepy silver facemask, Winecoff wins Fringe for sheer stage presence.
In fact, Pagans & Androids wins my made up award for Best Costumes and Effects. Using the simple wizardry of garish LED lights, projectors, and some amazing costumes, Pilla and Winecoff create some real stage magic in Revolve. While the narrative is fairly basic — it’s your typical boy plugs into girl, girl controls boy with electric pagan voodoo, boy becomes unleashed and they Vogue together — it‘s also fairly clear, an asset for more abstract pieces. And, the story is not really the point here. Pagans & Androids brings a slice of ecstatic rave culture to Fringe, without the bottled water and annoying club kids. Go for the stilts, stay for the magic.
3. Where The Blood Goes
Staying in Revolve, but moving to a gallery space further down the hall, Where The Blood Goes is a solo piece by Emily Thomas that explores trauma, identity, and the myth of the siren.
Fully nude in a round nest-like space, Thomas begins the piece by crawling around and singing a sort of trauma ballad, with evocative lyrics like “He buttoned down his pants” and “He pushed me on the ground.” Then, after disappearing into a cave-like womb-like space, she emerges as a siren. Bedecked with white wings, a black feather-like ruff, and clawed hands and feet, Thomas struts about the space, seemingly empowered.
But a shift happens when she holds up her hands and sees blood. Perhaps she has done what sirens do and captured the life of a poor sailor? She is distressed by this violence, and whispers, “What’s happened to me?” As she strips away her avian accoutrement, she becomes increasingly still. The piece ends with her seated in a meditative posture, not as dramatic as a harpy, but far more empowered, it seems.
Where The Blood Goesis a strong piece of performance art. It smartly combines costume, music, and physicality to create a tight piece that’s evocative and focused. It touches on themes that are ultra-important right now — namely, trauma and sexual assault — without being exploitive or on-the-nose obvious. And I have to give props to any artist willing to thrash around on stage completely naked in front of a couple dozen strangers.
4. Hands Up
The final piece before heading back to the LaZoom Room was also at Revolve — or, rather, outside Revolve. Hands Up is a solo dance piece by Sharon Cooper that takes place in the parking lot outside the building. It takes a lot to justify an outdoor piece in Asheville in late January, but it was well worth it.
Cooper enacts all the different physical postures black bodies must adopt when confronting the police: Kneeling with hands up, sitting with hands atop head, and lying face down on the ground. Her movements are slow and deliberate, as though she’s giving a demonstration of all the “correct” ways to posture oneself before law enforcement.
Throughout this performance, there’s no soundtrack except the noise of the highway, no lights except the harsh glare of the streetlights. The sounds of her jeans scraping on the concrete when she throws herself down or when she pounds her fists on the side of the dumpster are infinitely more interesting than anything she could have replicated on stage.
As the piece reaches its final devastating conclusion, one is struck by the tone of Cooper’s expression. There is terror, and distress, and anger, for sure. But there is also a feeling of resignation — of “this is just how things are” — and that’s most devastating of all.
(The LaZoom Fringe Bus Tour rides again Saturday, Jan. 26, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 27, at 4 p.m.)
[Cover photo: P&A (Pagans & Androids). Photos courtesy of Asheville Fringe Festival)