Dispatches From the Edge
Rounding Up the 2001 FronteraFest Long Fringe
The Vesselby the High Performance Arts Foundation
The Off Center
Running Time: 1 hr, 30 min
As presented by the High Performance Arts Foundation and directed by Jeffrey Johnson, The Vessel is an "epic fantasy" focusing on four characters who are searching for a mythic object that will protect them from a mysterious and deadly plague. These characters are champions of their peoples -- the several tribes scattered throughout the desert in which the action takes place. This being a fantasy, one of the tribes is originally from the moon. This being performed by members of the Central Texas Wrestling Association, Freestyle Fighting Federation, Enogia, and Capoeira da Rua, it's also heavy with fisticuffs.
The staged battles are hard-fought and provide an opportunity for performers like John Satberry, Damon Stith, and others to show off their fierce style. There are kung fu altercations full of one-handed cartwheels and spinning kicks and even backflips, the characters doing whatever necessary to send their fists, feet, staffs, and practice-numchucks flying into each other's meat and bones, the action often moving from stage combat to actual, heavy contact. Unfortunately, this fierceness of purpose is not as evident in the story or the acting.
The show opens with long exposition, a sort of prelude constructed to sketch the background and foreshadow the events to come. This is delivered with, at least, a passionate intensity by a stageful of varying talents working to overcome dialogue that often seems lifted from Conan the Barbarian. You might suspect this prelude is paving the way for greater narrative glory, the way the opening credits of Star Wars first did in a cinema long, long ago. But once the stage is set, the majority of these supporting players and their colorful costumes vanish and the story devolves into duel after duel after duel between the four principals, the reasons for which duels are inferred from circuitous explanations of who did what to the ancestors of whom in days of yore. Worse, the combatants' frequent ad-libbing, while clever, tends to tear the tenuous membrane between this fantasy world of moon-warriors and the modern life we live outside the theatre.
You can catch some truly impressive fighting in this convoluted drama, but the Method will need to be studied as assiduously as the Mayhem, and the storytelling arts as closely as the martial, before it's ready for primetime. (Sunday, Feb. 4, 8:45pm)