I spotted my first sleeper at my second 10pm show of the Fringe. A woman to my right passed out halfway through Unknown Matters at HUGE. I was wide awake, but I could see where she was coming from. This was a peculiar play – low-key, slow-paced and full of scientific jargon and obtuse metaphors. In other words, it was exactly what I wanted to see.
When I decided to focus on the 10pm time slot, one of my hopes was that the later shows would be heavy on the weird. I’ve seen some complaints that Fringe isn’t fringe-y enough nowadays, that the festival’s original mission as a showcase for theater you wouldn’t find anywhere else has been diluted by success. I’m not well enough versed in Fringe history to make a call on that point, but as a fan of offbeat experimentation, I’m excited whenever I can find those odd ducks.
And Unknown Matters certainly fits that bill. It’s set in an underground research facility where two scientists have been searching for new planets and evidence of dark matter in deep space. It’s also a musical featuring mostly ukulele accompaniment. And there are questions of life and death and government funding and grapefruit and scary diseases with silly names.
It didn’t all work for me. The script was a bit murky and technical (perhaps intentionally), the action dragged at times and I’d be hard pressed to hum one of the songs. All that just makes me appreciate it all the more. I’ve always been partial to messy, ambitious pieces of art. I’ll take that over something streamlined and pedestrian any day. Sure, Unknown Matters never quite gelled for me, but that made the parts that did work stand out in sharper contrast: Katie Bradley’s steely, subtly soulful lead performance. The clever devices Mark Sweeney used to denote the passage of extended periods of time. The way the play’s claustrophobic, dreamlike atmosphere meshed with the informal intimacy of the HUGE space.
It all added up to an experience that strikes me as fundamentally Fringe-y, and one particularly well-suited to the 10pm slot. It’s one thing to step out of a trippy, ponderous production into mid-afternoon sunshine and quite another to exit onto the eerie stillness of Lyndale Avenue after dark. Whether or not you like it or even get it (and I’m not sure how much those two things impact each other), Unknown Matters’ themes of exploration, personal connection and the mysteries of outer space work wonderfully as a prelude to the evening sky.
Or, in the case of the woman across the aisle from me, the impetus for a brief nap. Different strokes and all that.