One of the big hooks of any Fringe Festival is that it’s supposedly home to the cutting edge of modern theater, the fresh blood and new ideas that are going to propel the medium into the future. That’s true up to a point, and yet there always seem to be a lot of Fringe plays that take a keen interest in the past. To kick off this year’s Playlist Fringe coverage, I figured I’d take stock of four shows that approach historical events from very different angles.
Playing it for laughs
The Wright Stuff is nominally a play about Wilbur and Orville Wright and the birth of human-powered flight, but anyone with a working knowledge of show creators Josh Carson and Andy Rocco Kraft’s past work will come into it expecting a less-than-reverent treatment of the source material. Even those who know Carson and Kraft’s reputation, though, may be caught off-guard by just how much lunatic energy they’ve pumped into this production. In this incarnation, the Wright Brothers (Carson as Wilbur and Kraft as Orville) are a pair of cocaine-fueled morons whose awkward lurches into the history books are made possible mainly by everyone around them, with the possible exception of their sister Katharine (Sulia Altenberg), being deeply corrupt or even stupider than they are.
The Wright Stuff is a breathless, often profane comedy that makes only the slightest nod toward its factual roots. (At one point Mike Fotis’s smug antagonist directly calls out a statement as the only historically accurate facet of his character.) But hey, we don’t come out to Fringe comedies intending to go home with a head full of book-learning, especially from a show as deliriously entertaining as The Wright Stuff. It plays like a Marx Brothers romp filtered through Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge, complete with a chorus of “Wright Aides” (Olivia Hedeman, Karissa Lade, and Leslie Vincent) who offset the action with impeccably timed parodies of pop songs, most of them flight-related. It’s the type of show that features endless wordplay, multiple sight gags of a guy getting his hands stuck in jars, a press conference seemingly riffing on the ‘50s novelty record “The Flying Saucer,” and one full-scale training montage set to the theme from St. Elmo’s Fire. It’s about as much fun as I expect to have at this year’s Fringe, and I’m expecting a fair bit of fun.
Gettin’ trippy with it
I’m guessing this is going to be a divisive one. I’ll say up front that I know Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five inside and out, so it’s fairly impossible for me to assess Clevername Productions’ new adaptation from a purely theatrical viewpoint. For all I know, the show might be confounding, annoying, or downright nonsensical for a viewer who doesn’t know the source material. For this particular fan, though, it serves as an impressive appendix to Vonnegut’s novel and a kinetic, frenetic piece of experimental musical theater.
Like the book, Slaughterhouse Five: A Musical melds science fiction with historical fact, as mild-mannered protagonist Billy Pilgrim (a beautifully blank Jacob Hooper) comes “unstuck in time,” drifting through his own existence and giving roughly equal weight to, say, an optometrists’ convention, his daughter’s wedding day, his time in an extraterrestrial zoo, and the bombing of Dresden. It’s that last part that provides the meat of the play, a series of vignettes depicting the horrors of war, both mundane and monstrous. It’s an ambitious and justifiably celebrated approach to the historical memoir that brings an uncommon sense of perspective to moments that might otherwise feel unrelatable, if not unthinkable. Writer/director Alexander Gerchak and stage manager Shanna Frasier keep the energy cranked up high, with sets in nearly constant motion and people physically dragging a passive Hooper in and out of the events of his life. Every mention of death triggers a bell and a light-up sign that flashes the novel’s catch phrase “So it goes.” A live band onstage punctuates the narrative with jarring blasts of psychedelic rock that only enhance the feeling that we’re watching the type of bizarre production you might have stumbled upon in some obscure New York theater cafe in the mid ‘60s. I mean that as an endorsement, but I fully understand if you don’t take it as such.
Talking the talk
Jon Stark Olsen’s Katie Versus the Devils is a curious case, a slice of religious and social history based around the fictionalized adventures of one night in the life of a fairly obscure figure. As a non-Lutheran, my pre-show knowledge of Martin Luther pretty much started and ended with the nailing-treatises-to-the-church-door thing. Coming out of the play, I can’t say I knew much more, other than that Luther’s wife Katharina Von Bora Luther (Gina Sauer) might have been kind of a bad-ass. That wasn’t for lack of effort - there’s a lot of talking about a lot of big ideas in Katie Versus the Devils, but it’s all presented in a way that makes it hard for any of it to stick.
The show opens on a very slow note, with Katie hosting dinner for a pair of boarders and her friend Barbara, all of them engaging in philosophical and practical conversations that never pique the interest. Fortunately, things pick up considerably as Katie begins to confront the titular devils, a trio of tormentors sent to threaten and taunt her in an attempt to bring down her highly controversial husband. The proceedings peak with Sauer facing down Erik Sorensen’s smarmily satanic doctor, who intends to sacrifice her to the forces of darkness. It’s a show featuring multiple homicides, gruesome corpse disposals, blasphemy, demons, and devils, yet even at its most salacious it remains largely static and too talky to truly connect. There are a lot of intriguing ideas in Olsen’s script, but the presentation doesn’t give the actors a lot to do with them. It’s definitely interesting and fitfully entertaining, but it will probably appeal most to harder-core theologians than I.
Engaging with identity
I’ll admit I was a little wary heading in to Christy Marie Kent’s Pope Joan: The First Transgender Pope. For one thing, it’s staged in the Rarig Xperimental, my pick for the least inspiring theater venue in town. For another, a story about gender discrimination in the 9th-Century Catholic church sounds like a pretty heavy way to end an evening. My misgivings were unfounded, thankfully, as Pope Joan turns out to be one of the more delightful and insightful Fringe productions I’ve seen.
The program notes right up front that the play’s title is a misnomer: the historical figure on whom it’s based was a trans man named John, but historians have consistently cast him as a woman who faked her way into the papacy. (There’s also some debate about whether he existed at all, but I’ll let the play explain all of that.) Any concerns about the subject matter being too dour evaporate almost immediately, as the script crackles with warmth and wit, working in nods to modern sensibilities without straying too far into anachronism. In a hugely charismatic lead performance by Kjertina Whiting, John emerges as a bright-eyed individualist who loves the church deeply but isn’t afraid to scoff when, say, Pliny the Elder insists that menstruating women make apples fall from their trees. While it’s perhaps inevitable that this story will end tragically, Kent, director Janet Preus and the racially and gender-diverse cast strike a buoyant, triumphant tone throughout. Pope Joan isn’t without a few rough edges, but on the whole it’s an exhilarating, enlightening piece of theater that tackles a challenging topic with remarkable grace. Heck, it even makes excellent use of the Rarig Xperimental’s dreary confines, and in my book that’s an achievement worthy of the saints.