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Asheville Fringe Dispatch: Jan. 24

Asheville Fringe Dispatch: Jan. 24

Early Triple Feature at The Mothlight, 7 p.m.

It’s strange to see rows of chairs set up in front of the smallish, squareish stage of The Mothlight. At first it seems to dampen the raw music hall energy of the space. But as the crowd started to gather for the first show of the first real night of the Asheville Fringe Festival, the mood was as electric as any of the Mothlight’s midnight dance parties.

That was my first clue that this would not be like any other Asheville theatrical experience. Fringe is just different, and the crowd was hungry for it. The three short pieces that made up the “Mothlight Early Triple Feature” — The Dance, Vessel, and Psyche: the Ballad of Sid and Kiki — were all fresh, fun, and Fringey in their own ways. Grab a chair, and a ticket, because after their Friday night encore at 7 p.m., these gems will be gone.

1. The Dance: A Larval Mask Theatre Piece

The audience benefited from some added context for this first, short piece, because the writer, director, and producer is Walter Beals, the Fringe venue manager for The Mothlight. After he told us about turning off our phones and where the emergency exits were, he got to briefly explain his inspiration. 

It seems that Mr. Beals at one point attended clowning school where he learned of the “larval mask” tradition. Larval masks, as their name suggests, are simple and relatively unformed. The masks in The Dance are cream colored, with simple large shapes. One sort of resembled a monkey, or perhaps, more darkly, a gas mask. The other is like a large egg tapering at the top with two tiny eyeholes. Each has a blank expression that’s both endearing and haunting. 

As the pantomime unfolds, with only a gentle guitar and a ticking clock as a soundscape, the performers — Apryl Blakney and Elizabeth Evans, respectively — switch roles. At first, it’s Egg Shape that comes home, with coat and briefcase, and makes tea for the decrepit Monkey/Gas Mask, who is seated with a blanket over their lap. But after a strange dance, motivated by the switching on of a fantastic wire phonograph that “plays” in perfect cue to the soundtrack, the roles reverse. Now it is Egg who is old and blanketed. Monkey/Gas Mask makes tea, rubs some coins together in an exaggeration of greed or ambition, and exits the domestic scene with coat and briefcase in hand. 

Perhaps this Lynchian étude is an ode to partnership, where one half goes out and brings home the bacon while their partner is at home, resting and being doted on. A more sinister interpretation is that one partner feeds on the other, sucking up their life energy like a vampire, only to have the whole parasitic cycle repeated night after night. Or it’s both of those things — or neither! If the objective of The Dance is to produce a single obvious symbolic meaning, it eluded me. But my guess is that Beals prefers his piece to be more open ended. 

In any case, the mask work is delightful and the pantomime is evocative, if perhaps not as expressive as the blank larval masks seem to call for. With a 12-minute running time, it’s a delicious Fringe aperitif. 

Vessel

Vessel

2. Vessel

Presented by Stewart/Owen Dance, Vessel is a solo modern dance piece. The movement is accompanied by a recording of a young female immigrant describing her experience in Mexico, crossing the border, and growing up in the United States. 

The piece, although short, is very impactful. It’s a testament to the raw expressive power of physical movement, and it could not have come at a more appropriate moment in our social and political reality. While many are calling for more walls, Vessel breaks them down, forcing us to confront the actual lived experience of those we may not understand.

The staging is ruthlessly minimalist. A totally blank stage, sparse lighting except for a few floodlights placed on the stage, and the dancer herself is clad totally in a slate leotard. Therefore, this piece truly lives or dies based on the physical expression of the single dancer, — and, luckily, Vanessa Owen is amazing. Her gestures are by turns fluid and sharp, but always precise and assertive. She owns the space. Her leotard is so tight we can see her ribs expanding with her breath, and she uses this to her advantage. Like The Dance, she is denied the use of her voice or her face, but unlike the previous piece, she uses her body to the full extent of its expressive power. 

Then, there is the soundscape itself. The idea of an undocumented Dreamer telling her story may seem a little on-the-nose, but after all, we are living in the age we are living in. I found it haunting and authentic (hauthentic?) — not exploitive. And the dance follows the words with exquisite simultaneity. I don’t think a 30-minute modern dance piece can solve our national divisions, but it made me see them in a new light, and that’s a heck of a start. 

Psyche: the Ballad of Sid and Kiki

Psyche: the Ballad of Sid and Kiki

3. Psyche: the Ballad of Sid and Kiki

Presented by The Cardboard Sea, The Ballad of Sid and Kiki is a devised piece loosely based on the myth of Cupid and Psyche. A post-show Wikipedia search of said myth made me understand the story a lot better, but even so, this was a highly fun and creative show. 

Divided into eight short acts, The Ballad really does begin with a ballad, complete with banjo, guitar, and a lovely Neutral Milk Hotel-esque original song by Bill Coonan. Then the ensemble cast takes us through the story of how Sid And Kiki fell in love. The titular characters are cross gender casted, Sid being played by Quinn Nevel and Kiki by Charlie Holt.

From the very beginning, it’s clear that this play is in on its own joke. The chorus — Stevie Alverson, Olivia Stuller, Kristi DeVille, and Todd Weakley — function as narrators but also as characters. There’s an intoxicating free-for-all spirit about this show, as though the players are performing in their living room for their delighted family.

Sid and Kiki is ostentatious about breaking the fourth wall. The cast uses handheld mics to speak, some of them bizarrely wrapped in cardboard animals and bits of fake evergreen leaves. Their faux 19th century group dance devolves into hilarious modern club banging. Act Five is “a break from the story while we argue” where the cast breaks characters and debates the point of doing a play at all. These Brechtian flourishes are where the show thrives. Where it’s weakest is when they actually try to put on a play, with characters and connected feeling and authentic stage action. Paradoxically, the more overtly artificial the show gets, the realer it seems, and vice versa.

But let me clear: I loved this show. More than that, I loved the ensemble. I wanted to hang out with these kids. I wanted to join their dorm room discussion about myth and theatre and love. This is what Fringe is all about: Giving young artists a platform to produce creative, athletic performance pieces. 

Yes, it was rough around the edges. A scene at the bar is not even lit, a back-of-house entrance was clunky, some of the dialogue is obtuse and unwieldy. But who cares? These are small matters compared to the fresh and earnest energy that Sid and Kiki overflowed with from the beginning. We need more theatre artists like The Cardboard Sea. I hope they stick around. — Michael Poandl

Tyler West in  Abeyance

Tyler West in Abeyance

Abeyance at Bebe Theatre, 7 p.m.

Tyler West’s Abeyance begins with a bang as he falls from the dark and into a world in which he’s a young man waiting anxiously for a job interview. The story that follows, while terribly familiar to all of us in the work-a-day world, is uniquely told with West’s delightful voice — or lack thereof.

The show is billed as “microphoned-mime,” where the actor adds vocally produced sound to the art of mime, rarely allowing anything that resembles an actual word. In combination with deftly choreographed light and sound tech, West uses his hands, arms, legs, hips, face, and vocal utterances to draw the audience (sometimes literally) into a fantastic, and hilarious, imaginary world.

Abeyance follows the wild imaginings and nervous mishaps of a desperate man in waiting. Some of the gags rely on old slapstick tropes, and occasionally his space-work is a little more “you-get-the-idea” than “hard-invisible-reality,” yet West’s endearing character and terrific ability to set an unseen scene with just his reactions and indications quickly and warmly welcomes his audience to join him in a rich, cartoonish world that’s ceaselessly entertaining. One immediately forgets that the only set piece is a simple black box centered on a blank stage, and none of the myriad props that West’s character uses to great comic effect are ever actually there.

Abeyance runs one hour that feels like half that time and can be seen at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Jan 26, at the BeBe. Tickets are $13 and well worth the price. — Richard Bergh

It Didn't Happen at Magnetic Theatre, 9 p.m.

I sat down in the front row center seat at the Magnetic Theatre, flipping through my handy Festival Guide to see what in the world my next show would be. Would it be an avante garde puppet show? A provocative interrogation of race and culture? A Greek Tragedy told through the music of Björk?

I finally found the description of It Didn’t Happen: “Judy thought of herself as straight; marriages, kids. She’s compelled to take us on a journey through erotically-charged relationships with women throughout her life.”

“Oh great,” I thought. “Another one-person coming out story. How privileged, how bland.”

Boy, was I wrong. It Didn’t Happen is not just the strongest Fringe piece I’ve seen thus far. It’s one of the freshest, most honest, most urgent pieces of theatre I’ve seen in Asheville. If you see one piece at the Festival this year, head down to the River Arts District on Saturday, Jan. 26, at 9 p.m. and make it happen.

It Didn’t Happen is written and performed by Judy Calabrese. It’s not, in fact, a one-woman show, although it’s clear from the beginning that this is a true story about the woman on stage, and much of the action is Calabrese speaking directly to the audience. However, she is aided by three spectacular co-stars — Missy Bell, Tasha Pepi, and Leanna Campagna — who play Judy’s various lovers throughout her life.

It’s true that the connecting tissue of the play is Judy’s assorted sexual encounters, and if it were a different sort of production it could even be construed as a piece of erotica, more suited for 11 p.m. Cinemax than the Magnetic Theatre. It’s also true that from beginning to end, the subject of the play is the protagonist, the performer. The magic of It Didn’t Happen is that at no point does it seem, on the one hand, exploitive or overly sexual, and on the other hand, indulgent and navel-gazing. On the contrary, Judy’s encounters with these different women seem so honest and authentic, so funny and self deprecating, you can’t help but be sucked in.

Of course, this feat could not be accomplished without the performance of Calabrese herself, who is no less than spectacular. She is ridiculously vulnerable — at one point appearing totally nude on stage — and also subtle. It’s not obvious when the shy, closeted teenage Judy becomes the fully formed, “feral creature” of the final scene, because it happens gradually and authentically. There’s also a fantastic consistency of tone. The same intimacy of two women sitting on the ground, sipping tea, is present when Judy is in full dominatrix garb, sanitizing dildos and anal beads with Clorox wipes.

And, oh yeah — this play is hot. I doubt many theatre-goers were thinking about bringing their kids to Fringe, anyway, but if so this is certainly not the play to do it. Even if you don’t smoke, I suggest buying a pack before going in: You’re gonna want a cigarette afterwards. But again, the sex doesn’t seem remotely pornographic. It seems real, right down to the awkward removal of eyeglasses before intercourse.

It Didn’t Happen is unequivocally required viewing for all Asheville lesbians. But whatever your persuasion, you should see this play for its honesty and its humor. (Saturday, Jan. 26, same Bat Time and Place is you’re next opportunity.) We desperately need real depictions of sex and gender on stage. Maybe that’s why this show felt like such a rush. — Michael Poandl

Bremner Duthie in  '33 (a kabarett)

Bremner Duthie in '33 (a kabarett)

'33 (a kabarett) at Static Age Records, 9 p.m.

Bremner Duthie’s one-man melodrama '33 (a kabarett) is a timeless journey into grief and a grim warning against oppression of expression. Set in a fictional world that draws its character and smoke from 1930’s Europe, it’s a story that the audience is made to feel is very much happening in present day.

Duthie’s tortured performance begins in the dark — a perfect introduction, for every beat that follows is painted with the black brush of tragedy. One by one, Duthie’s character, the last remaining of a troupe of activist Kabarett performers, introduces us to his lost companions by stripping off his own clothes for the skin and voices of the dead.

Featuring standards from Kurt Weill, Stephen Sondheim, and other songwriters of the invoked era, Duthie seamlessly intertwines dramatic dialogue with song and character, slipping in and out of personas, accents, and languages with a grace and rhythm that feels like verbal ballet. The surreal storytelling is a bit hard to grasp at first, and the premise of a mysterious audience just showing up to a ransacked theater and expecting a show is a hard leap to make. But Duthie’s performance simmers until it becomes hot coals of engrossing drama, culminating in a haunting performance of “Mack the Knife” so visceral that the rough cut of his blade can be felt in the pit of one’s stomach.

'33 (a kabarett) is dark and beautiful, and performed with a perfect balance of boldness and humility. Be sure to catch its encore performance at Static Age on Saturday, Jan. 26, at 9 p.m. — Richard Bergh

(Cover image: Judy Calabrese in It Didn’t Happen. Photos courtesy of Asheville Fringe Festival)

Asheville Fringe Dispatch: Jan. 25

Asheville Fringe Dispatch: Jan. 25

Theater review: Nunsense A-Men at 35below

Theater review: Nunsense A-Men at 35below