"The Empty Space" or Welcome to the Jungle
While pondering what theme I would choose for my turn at the helm of the MN Fringe blog post for Playlist, I kept thinking about my personal past fringe experiences. The thing that was the annual stressor, source of excitement, and ultimate puzzle piece, was WHERE we would be performing and HOW we would transform that space, with limited budget and time, into the world of our play. I was inspired by a quote from the infamous Peter Brook, from his book of the same name, “The Empty Space is defined as "[A]ny space in which theatre takes place. I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged" So I decided to choose a space I’d never set foot in before, a place where everything would be completely free of previous experience and bias, somewhere I’ve been meaning to see shows, a place I’ve heard wonderful things about...The Jungle Theatre.
Thursday night, August 10th, was a four show night. I checked the Fringe website (for NO other reason but to see if the evening’s productions were potential sellouts, otherwise I didn’t want to know anything) before heading into my first evening at The Jungle. The lobby was gorgeous and I was immediately excited to see the performance space inside. It did not disappoint. The theatre, established in it’s current permanent location c.1999, is a classic throw back to the golden age of the Great White Way, beautiful, and luxurious with red velvet seats and even curtained boxes. The aisles on either side cozily sandwich the block of 150 seats. It has a very wide proscenium that reads fairly deep. The plan was to look at the space as a theatre and determine HOW the different companies used it to their advantage, or not, as the case may be. I dove right in.
5:30pm: FOOL’S MEDICINE
Set up: Two old fashioned suitcases and steamer trunk, the former on spindly period racks. Center stage, in a spot light, an encrusted globe, possibly another case? I was definitely interested. The 1940's jazzy intro music (i.e."the story of love") was a perfect fit for the atmosphere and I has hopeful. Sadly the piece was cute yet amateurish, had some middle school magic but was pedestrian and fragmented. The audience suffered a lot of awkward silence under the performers clowning,which could have easily been remedied with more of the jazzy music highlighted in the intro. It ultimately came out that he was trying to use this platform to be political and environmentally aware, but that theme was fleeting and got lost in the maylay. I checked my Clock at 35 minutes in. The most memorable moment by far (spoiler alert) was a random game of musical chairs with audience participation, ending with the winner/sucker forced to sit on a “whoopie” cushion. That said, and to my blog post point, I feel like this piece used the space well. The clown was on and off stage, into the audience bringing up people willing to play, and with his vaudevillian sad clown look, the old suitcases, trunk, the racks and even the globe had a vintage effect that matched the classic nature of the jungle's style, color scheme (red black, white and gold), and recreated Art Deco decor.
Use of/and appropriateness of assigned space: A
7pm: EN PASSANT
Set up: a series of white and black cubes, different shapes and sizes reminiscent of a cityscape, alternating black and white, a large white one with a door handle, some on casters, some stationary, utilitarian and simple. The intro music was funky and instrumental. At the top it seemed that the production was definitely using the space fully and embraced the entire length of the proscenium. The play was cinematic and attempted realism with way too many scene changes for such a short amount of time. The dialogue was semi-trite and acting inconsistent with the highlight being the father’s “come to Jesus” moment telling his daughter why he doesn't want to see her ever again! Rough stuff. Other than that the story is predictable, a bit confusing with the time jumps, and wraps up a little too perfectly. And, though I appreciate the use of the various boxes to move from apartment, subway platform, diner, and upstate prison, the frequency and laboriousness of the transitions became clunky and distracting. The use of sound, contemporary clothes, and verbal time references, help place us in modern day New York City, though the set pieces are purely representative. Ideally this would be better suited for a more contemporary black box environment but they did what they could and I think were relatively successful.
Use of/and appropriateness assigned space: C+
8:30pm: Crash and Burn: an American success story
Set up: No set to speak of at the top of the show but the blue wash on the stage and a musician's amplifier and microphone stage right. The guitarist, narrator (Big Lebowski style) provides lots of cool southwestern guitar music and it really added to the atmosphere. No significant set to speak of, a humble table and chairs representing one trailer in the trailer park, a lawn chair, beer cooler and milk crate, representing another trailer, are moved into the space as the play begins. The rest of the action and setting is consequently mimed. The simplicity of the set allowed for easy and timely transitions and kept the pacing and storyline moving. The production used the lighting really well and the live musician was, consequently, also responsible for sound effects, (i.e. the motorcycle revving and the squawking of the ill-fated chicken). The music created a lot of the ambience and a lovely atmosphere that served the southwestern/white trash-ness of the set. This was my favorite show of the evening. The story was unique and clever and ended on a sad, yet somewhat hopeful note. The acting was good and highlighted several actors deftly playing multiple characters. The play might be a bit modern to embrace the full affluence of the red velvet seats, but to me, this was a wonderful representation of a successful fringe show utilizing the space and time wisely.
Use of/and appropriateness of assigned space: A-
10:pm: Dancing with the Enemy
Set up: Nothing on stage but the transition blue wash. The pre-show music was upbeat and Middle Eastern. This was a fun show to end my night with, nine small vignettes featuring the all-female dance troupe with an awesome inclusion of guest artist, Branwen Zakariasen’s, excellent storytelling. The piece, Diaspora, was also a highlight. It’s hard to judge the use of space by a dance group and I think, since several pieces included up to ten dancers, there was a wonderful use of the wide stage. That said, there were three solo pieces danced by Artistic Director, Mirah Ammal, that seemed a little indulgent and I wanted to see more people fill up that lovely proscenium. I wouldn’t say this was the perfect venue for this group but the Jungle’s stage (size and depth) reminded me of The Joyce dance theatre in New York and it definitely created the necessary ambience with the use of lighting and sound. Bottom line, I think this piece would be better suited in more of an amphitheater-like setting.
Use of/appropriateness of assigned space: B+
All and all I had a great night, each piece completely different from the one before, as is expected of Fringe. I enjoyed the charm and character of The Jungle Theatre and appreciated how these four groups chose to adapt and assimilate to the space they were allotted. Here’s to the last three days of the 2017 festival, may you see some really cool and creative work like I did tonight! Cheers!