The Hundreth Monkey

Polo Brothers

through June 25

Short Hair/Real Job

No Limit Productions

throught June 24

Will and Testament

Fredric Stone

through June 25

Chicago Fringe Festival,

at the Organic Theater

In a land where Hollywood producers can’t get enough of militant black leaders and multiethnic lesbians, in a land where advertising executives use rap music to sell everything from McDonald’s hamburgers to Now and Later candy, in a land where even Timothy Leary peddles interactive computer software, it’s hard to find a “fringe” at all, much less put credence in the artists who claim to work there. The hegemonic behemoth of American culture–aided and abetted by the entertainment and advertising industries, which grow increasingly difficult to distinguish–is both voracious and efficient, commodifying and thus neutralizing any potentially threatening counterculture impulses. (How long before Black Panther action figures appear on toy store shelves?)

The Chicago Fringe Festival, a 15-day showcase of national and international low-budget, high-octane variety acts and plays, would seem to be a marketer’s dream, especially in this overgrown small town of 3 million. Chicago loves to portray itself as having “an edge” (witness Chicago magazine’s recent issue devoted to the city’s “wild side,” featuring women who wear leather and artists who wrestle!). Of course, since Chicago theater is already chock-full of small, unconventional companies, one could also argue that the festival is a producer’s nightmare, playing to a saturated market. But the Fringe purports to go “beyond the edge,” according to Stagebill. “It’s off-beat, it’s unexpected, and sometimes it’s just way, way out there.”

In the immortal words of Chuck D, don’t believe the hype. Stagebill may be packed with superlatives so hyperbolic they’d make P.T. Barnum blush, but this Fringe is a far cry from the cutting edge. There’s hardly a countercultural impulse within 20 miles of the thing. Many pieces are straightforward theater, and most of the other performances–by comedians, magicians, monologuists, puppeteers, and clowns–owe a greater debt to the century-old tradition of vaudeville than to any 20th-century avant-garde theater movement. (Fittingly, the term “nouveau vaudeville” floats around the festival like a half-forgotten dinner guest trying to find a place at the table.) “Fringe” is really a term of art, sprung from the loins of the renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where anyone can perform just about anything so long as they can find a few feet of empty space. As one Fringe Festival insider explained to me, “fringe” doesn’t describe an approach or a style but rather the production values. This is the fringe of “legitimate” theater, the kind people won’t pay $25 to see. Apparently “poor theater” has once again come to define the theatrical fringe some half a century after Grotowski coined the term.

On a practical level, such bare-bones productions are essential when setting up and breaking down some 200 performances, many of which are separated by only a few minutes. Produced and curated by John T. Mills and James H. Ellis, the festival is a masterpiece of organization; the dozen shows I saw during the opening weekend all started precisely on time. But by turning away from the Broadway insistence that “more is more” in favor of a simple, unadorned aesthetic, the festival does, perhaps unintentionally, give rise to a kind of philosophy, placing a premium on direct human contact. (This is given the clearest expression in Jonathan Kay’s beguiling Fool, in which he simply plays with the audience for as long as they’ll let him.) The Fringe Festival doesn’t promise technical wizardry but instead honest, relatively unmediated theatrical experiences.

What’s frustrating is the seeming unwillingness of so many of the performers to allow that genuine experience to happen. This is a festival of strangely self-conscious performers terrified of spontaneity, despite the threat of “audience participation” that looms over a great number of the shows: such audience participation usually amounts to little more than the relegation of paying customers to the status of onstage floor lamps. Overrehearsed shtick abounds, even among the most interesting performers. Magical Mystical Michael (from Austin, Texas) is a truly talented magician, but he tries to engage the audience with a forced, cloying demonic laugh–complete with rolling eyeballs– every five minutes. Canadian Wendy Hopkins, in her autobiographical one-woman Gloria Steinem Said “Some of Us Become the Men We Wanted to Marry”…Wendy Hopkins Is Tall Dark and Handsome, tells us personal stories in a style so studied she sometimes seems to be reading from cue cards. And the three women of Britain’s Sensible Footwear often smother their fiery feminist satire under the dead weight of their unvarying stage personas. In short, the festival offers a number of talented people who by and large are simply trying too hard.

Of course, many of the performers come from various outdoor-festival circuits, where their every gesture has to be over the top in order to distract passersby from jousting men in clanking armor. But in the Organic’s quiet, comfortable black-box theaters such histrionics seem painfully inappropriate: a magician’s blaring, stilted patter doesn’t make his $10 store-bought rope trick any more enchanting.

Naturally the upward displacement of fringe dwellers into a “legitimate” venue engenders such risks. (Remember what happened to Maestro Subgum & the Whole when Remains Theatre gave the group their stage for six weeks?) And there’s no denying that on one level the risk pays off in spades: almost every show I saw offered at least a half dozen truly inspired moments, and one or two shows were nothing short of brilliant (a few others, sad to say, should be stricken from the annals of recorded history). But despite occasional displays of genius, holding a piece together from beginning to end eludes almost all the festival participants, most of whom have simply invented quirky, engaging personas and strung together an hour’s worth of insights, vignettes, and anecdotes. Even the most fascinating pieces tend to double back on themselves or lead nowhere–it’s a bit like watching a freshman college student try to conduct a graduate seminar. The performers’ naivete is often charming and even penetrating, but as the hour wears on it becomes clear they’re not up to the demands of the moment.

Three shows encapsulate the range of work the festival offers. The Polo Brothers’ astonishing The Hundredth Monkey stands at the apex. No Limit Productions’ egregious Short Hair/Real Job lies embarrassingly near the bottom. And Fredric Stone’s pleasant Will and Testament represents the majority of shows: unfinished, uneven, but rich with promise.

Despite its two-person cast, The Hundredth Monkey is in essence a one-man tour de force of clowning. Danny Lord, a veteran of New York City’s Big Apple Circus (and a self-described “practicing clown doctor”), allows his partner (and wife) Priscilla B-Light to introduce the show, twirling a pair of illuminated sticks in half-darkness for a full five minutes. Thankfully Lord then takes the stage, in blue-and-white-striped vest and shorts, yellow rain slicker, crumpled top hat, and–of all things–neck brace. Impish, stone-faced, he’s a schlemiel alternately defeated and delighted by the self-contained world he carts along in two huge steamer trunks. Looking for something in one of them, he tosses aside a crumpled brown lunch bag, then watches in horror as it skitters across the floor as though it harbored some frantic, bewildered alien being. He spends a good minute trying to assemble a metal folding chair only to have it collapse the instant he sits on it. He discovers a glowing red dot on his thumb, which he then magically tosses through the air, bounces off the floor, swallows, and regurgitates. Beaming with delight, he throws it toward an LED message board upstage where it “appears” as an illuminated red bulb. The board then lights up with the words, “HEY YOU! COME OVER HERE!”

Unlike so many of his compatriots, Lord performs with an effortless air. Although his subtle physical comedy requires split-second timing and exquisite physical precision, he makes everything he does appear almost accidental. His act is at once highly polished and apparently spontaneous. Lord seems to discover his delightful effects along with the audience. Rehearsed or unrehearsed, this is a romp for him.

And while many other fringe performers self-consciously adopt an air of self-deprecation (“How good could I be? I’m playing the fringe,” Magical Mystical Michael quipped), Lord elevates schlock to celestial heights. The Hundredth Monkey is an elaborate send-up of high art, complete with a serene but grotesque ten-foot ballerina promenading while Lord thrashes about at her feet trying to extract himself from a straitjacket. Lord acknowledges throughout his hour-long show just how pathetic and inadequate his act is. For example, he gives an audience member a camera so the man can toss it back to him; but Lord makes no effort to catch it, merely watching it shatter into a hundred pieces when it hits the stage. Ba-dum bum. Later, when he pulls a four-foot yellow balloon from his trunk–the kind street performers use to make dopey balloon animals–he looks at his audience with the stoniest of poker faces as if to say, “I can’t believe I’m resorting to such a cheap gimmick.” Then, outdoing even balloon animals in cheapness, he swallows the entire balloon (his assistant later extracts it from his rear end). To achieve his grandest visual effect, Lord mounts a roll of toilet paper on a kind of industrial hair dryer, blowing a flowing white billow high into the air. When the roll is gone, however, he’s left in a decidedly awkward position, wrapped in mounds of toilet tissue.

Despite his endless self-mockery, Lord’s breathtaking theatrical ingenuity is apparent at every moment. From his virtuoso physical comedy to his mesmerizing sleight of hand–he makes a bottle of ketchup disappear before our eyes–Lord maintains careful control, building the inanity to a sublimely awful audience-participation finale. Lord doesn’t belong on the fringe; he belongs center stage.

By contrast Canada’s Jeff Bradley, writer and performer of Short Hair/Real Job, belongs permanently in the wings, at least if he continues to fancy himself a monologuist. Bradley’s hour-long stand-up comedy routine about his unending search for direction is serviceably if superficially written. And his occasional forays into circus clowning are quite impressive, but all told these distractions account for perhaps one-fifth of the piece. Bradley spends the remainder telling stories with all the comic timing of a hot-glue gun. Bradley may fancy himself a storyteller, but his inability to get through more than two sentences without stumbling over his words, his talking to anyone but his audience while pacing uncomfortably, and his propensity to run out of breath would suggest otherwise. People without fingers shouldn’t play the piano.

Between the extremes of Lord and Bradley is Chicago’s Fredric Stone, who offers an interesting if incomplete hour based on an intriguing premise. Stone, a veteran Shakespearean actor, imagines himself killed in a crunch of rowdy Cubs fans. During his first postdeath pit stop, Stone finds himself sharing an Olympic-size Jacuzzi with none other than William Shakespeare, who coincidentally is forming a new acting company in heaven. Granted an audition by the Bard, Stone finds himself reciting famous Shakespearean speeches not only to their author but to Shakespeare’s producer. Namely God.

Stone’s version of the actor’s nightmare is craftily conceived, especially the way that bizarre interruptions thwart his attempts to please his high-power listeners. At one point he’s “molecularly disembodied and reassembled,” an experience that understandably convinces him he is in fact dead. Stone adopts a Woody Allen-esque persona, calling himself an “insecure, self-flagellating individual,” making the audition all the more nerve-racking and ridiculous.

But every time Stone launches into a bit of Shakespeare, Will and Testament stops dead. Not because Stone’s delivery is poor but because the speeches bear only tangential relationships to the situation. When he overhears God discussing the financial terms of his investment in Shakespeare’s new company, Stone recites Shylock’s “5,000 ducats” speech from The Merchant of Venice. When he begins to remember the joy of being in love during his life, he recites some of King Henry’s playful wooing of Katherine from Henry V. During these sections all the tension and suspense of Stone’s big audition vanish, and the show veers dangerously toward a vanity showcase.

Stone would do well to throw out all the Shakespeare and follow through on the promising one-man play he’s begun. He has no shortage of imagination–during a nuclear-disaster drill he’s advised to stay off the really thin clouds, for example–but he hasn’t taken full advantage of his own strengths. Like many of his fellow Fringe performers, Stone needs to push himself beyond his own self-limiting revue format, which isn’t challenging to a performer or the audience. Just because it’s on “the fringe” doesn’t mean it has to be easy.