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Asheville Fringe Dispatch: Jan. 26

Asheville Fringe Dispatch: Jan. 26

We’re in the thick of it now, folks. With only Sunday and a whole year separating us from Fringe 2020, it’s do or die. And on Saturday night at Habitat Brewing Co., I did a little bit of both. Welcome to the final Daily Dispatch of Asheville Fringe 2019. In no particular order, except the order in which they appeared:

1.     Habitat Double Feature: To Dragon with Love

The first piece of the Habitat Double Feature was To Dragon With Love, created by Susan Collard with Edwin Salas. It gets off to a promising start as Salas, the sole performer, entered from the back of the house, crawling like a dog and sniffing people’s legs as he wound his way to the stage. A sudden spotlight draws his attention. He’s in something close to a six-year-old’s ballet outfit: White leggings, a tutu, a pink tank top. But the face is bearded, the head is balding, and the makeup is like a Rob Zombie murder clown. 

A video screen stage right plays a video of a teenage girl reading a made-up fairytale about a royal family who dances nonstop. Salas vaguely follows the narrative with movements to match. And then, the narrative sort of devolves. Salas writhes on the floor, stares creepily at the audience, and at several points screams very loudly for no discernible reason.

The overall effect is grotesque. It’s one thing to experience some pain in the pursuit of artistic excellence. A show I reviewed last night, Hands Up, about the effect of police brutality on black bodies, was not exactly pleasant in the same way as, say, a revival of Guys and Dolls. But the message was brutal and clear. I can’t say the same about To Dragon with Love. The caption in the Festival Guide claims the piece is “funny, dark, emotional, bizarre [and] juxtaposes the ugly and the beautiful.” Only some of those adjectives are true, I’m afraid. And though there’s a lot of ugly, it doesn’t juxtapose much else.

2.     Habitat Double Feature: Marvelous Mechanical Musical Maiden

The second half of the 7 p.m. hour was another solo show, featuring the awesomely named Carmel Clavin as the Marvelous Mechanical Musical Maiden. This one is pretty high concept, even by Fringe standards. The titular Maiden, it seems, was a street performer who had the misfortune of pissing off Thomas Edison at the turn of the last century. As revenge, he transplanted her human essence (via some electronic wizardry) into a brass robot, who now can only be awakened when someone gives her a “spark” — that is, some connection that enables her walk, talk and live.

The show basically takes the form of a cabaret, with some storytelling interspersed between an eclectic array of songs. But there are two elements that lift the piece far above merely delightfulness. The first is the spectacle. Although I gave my made up award for Best Fringe Costumes to yesterday’s Pagans & Androids, they have serious competition with Maiden. Clavin’s costume is a hot Edwardian mess, all lace and corsets and brocade. A tiny top hat, fingerless gloves, and fierce teal makeup complete the getup. 

But wait, there’s more! Embedded within the costume itself are tiny metal switches that, when touched by a metal button tied to Clavin’s finger, play the different songs that she sings to. She has made her own costume into a touch screen. True, there are glitches. Occasionally, a desired song does not play, or an undesired one plays suddenly. But Clavin covers seamlessly (and hilariously) and it does little to dampen the cool effect. Not a whole lot surprises me on stage anymore, but this was genuinely innovative.

The second, more important element that takes Maiden from good to great is Clavin’s performance itself. Her stage presence is electric, and not just because she’s playing a robot. She has an amazing expressive capability that outshines even the grand spectacle of her costume. She is fearless about improvisation and audience interaction. She sells the high concept of her idea assertively and clearly. The premise of the piece may be fantastical, but it is perfectly earnest about the importance of human connection. Perhaps we needed a robot to make us remember what’s great about being alive.

3.    Let’s Go Cry With Strangers!

My evening at Habitat ended on a high note with a splendid one-person piece called Let’s Go Cry With Strangers!, written and performed by Valerie Meiss. It’s a fabulously creative bit of theatre, integrating elements of storytelling, stand-up comedy, sculpture, drawing, lighting design, music, and puppetry, to name a few. Meiss is a powerhouse. Like Marvelous Mechanical Musical MaidenLet’s Gorelies on the charisma and expressive power of its protagonist. But unlike the previous piece, Meiss does not employ a character. It’s all her up there, and boy is she cool.

The show is basically a travelogue, or maybe a theatrical memoir, of Meiss’ travels throughout last year. She goes to Japan, she goes to the Czech Republic, she’s ghosted by some asshole (who could ghost on this woman?) and she learns life lessons along the way. She sings a half dozen songs in her throaty, deep alto voice, accompanying herself with both prerecorded music and live ukulele and toy piano.

Although Meiss is a serious puppeteer, she only really gets into classical puppetry towards the end of the piece. Until then, she uses a cornucopia of other designed props, including simple signs with drawings, light boxes that scroll paper through them, and pop-up books. It’s whimsical, it’s fresh, and it’s stunning in its breadth and depth. 

The show has so many moving pieces, literally and metaphorically, that it will probably take a little while to tighten up. Some things didn’t work as planned, some lighting cues need to be worked out, and for those sitting in the back, I don’t believe as much of the magic came through as it did for we lucky few in the front row. Nevertheless, the raw energy of the piece cut with Meiss’ infectious self-deprecating humor more than compensated for any technical flaws. It’s Fringe at its best: Creative, raw, and unlikely to be produced by a major mainstream theatre. As it turns out, I did in fact cry with some strangers. But after this show, they felt a little bit more like family.

(The Double Feature receives an encore performance Sunday, Jan. 27, at 4 p.m., and Let’s Go Cry With Strangers! returns at 6 p.m.)

(Photo of Let’s Go Cry With Strangers! courtesy of Asheville Fringe)

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