Close to the Edge

Characters Pushed to the Limit -- and Artists Pushing Themselves There -- Fill the Long Fringe at FronteraFest

A faith healer staring into the abyss of doubt. A settled middle-aged man confronting violence in himself in an urban hell. An aspiring sportscaster facing up to her own faults instead of blaming her baseball player brother. Drivers driven to scream hostile obscenities at each other by the pressures of traffic. Women taken to the verge of nervous breakdowns from the pressures of society regarding their body image, identity, sexuality. Finding common threads in the diverse works that comprise a FronteraFest Long Fringe is rarely easy, but this year's crop of longer works in the annual performance festival offer several tantalizing portraits of characters on the edge, at some precipice where they're forced to confront some truth about themselves. It's an intriguing counterpoint to the artists in FronteraFest, who push themselves to the edge, seeking some new truth about what they're capable of. It's a combination ripe for drama.

Last week, the Chronicle Arts team hit the Long Fringe to find how close to the edge this year's artists take us. While they weren't able to cover all the Long Fringe performances for this roundup -- our apologies to those artists whose shows were omitted -- their glimpses of seven of them are surely enough to prod you into making at least one trip to the Blue this week.

All Long Fringe performances are at the Blue Theater, 916 Springdale. Dates and times for remaining performances for each show follows the review. Ticket prices vary. To make reservations, call 479-PLAY (7529). For more info, visit www.hydeparktheatre.org.

by Robert Faires

Faith Healer, by Brian Friel

Big Bad Wolf Productions

Running Time: 1 hr, 20 min

Brian Friel's Faith Healer, like FronteraFest, celebrates the power of a performance on a bare stage. Director Travis Dean uses a banner backdrop (reading "The Fantastic Francis Hardy -- Faith Healer" in comic book lettering), a chair, a table, a bottle of whiskey, a glass, and three actors. The stage is taken and vacated in turns by Hardy the Faith Healer, his wife Grace, and his manager Teddy. In monologue, each tells a version of years spent together touring small churches and community halls through Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Their characters fill out in the gaps between those versions. From harrowing events "about as far north in Scotland as you can go," the tour van heads to Ireland and Ballybeg, a constrictive place where Friel's characters so often return or attempt to leave.

Bernadette Nason delivers Grace's side of the story in touching style. She quivers with anger at a husband who saves the best of himself for his art. Craig Kanne, who plays Teddy the loveable Cockney manager, supplies sorely needed laughs. Adding gusto to the tale of a whippet who could play the bagpipe, Kanne's Teddy saves the play from a maudlin atmosphere.

But the climax of the piece comes in Hardy's second monologue, delivered without affectation by the star of the show, Joe Walling. Through the Faith Healer's doubts about his life as a performer, Brian Friel can be heard questioning his life as an artist. As a reason to continue, Hardy describes a small church hall somewhere in Wales where he, the Faith Healer, cured everyone in the audience. There were no miracles in the Blue Theater, but my faith in the value of theatre still increased. Thursday, 1/31: 9:15pm; Saturday, 2/2: 8:15pm

by Rob Curran

Dragging a Dead Man, by Keith DeRenzo

Keith DeRenzo

Running Time: 1 hr

Dragging a Dead Man is the best metaphorical entrance to an extended, physics-flavored monologue on one man's fears, insecurities, and excess emotional baggage using a man-sized dummy as a visual aid that Keith DeRenzo has written in Austin -- ever.

Now, the script could use a little tweaking, could stand to have some of the repeated sections repeated fewer times (so they'd be a more powerful emphasis of the ironic coincidence of emotions and laws of motion, instead of devolving toward the merely, well, repetitive), and could use a minor touch-up in the Startling Juxtaposition department. But DeRenzo, who also performs the piece, has obviously labored long and lovingly to construct a story that is entertaining while steadfast in its look into the existential abyss.

He might choose to hire another performer, too, to bring a fiercer life to this monologue; for, while DeRenzo -- clad all in black and dragging his anthro-form metaphor around the stage by way of illustration -- does a serviceable job in relating his parables of airline travel, psychotherapy, and chiropractic manipulation, he lacks the riveting presence that some actors either have naturally or have somehow learned to generate, and that sort of presence seems required to pull Dead Man into the light of brilliance that it's not too far from already. Since the use of an outside performer would also allow DeRenzo-the-writer more time to create other such marvels for the stage, that could be the best solution all-around. Friday, 2/1: 5pm; Sunday, 2/3: 10pm

by Wayne Alan Brenner

At the Hawk's Well, by W.B. Yeats

Tongue & Groove Theatre

Running Time: 1 hr, 30 min

We get a preface to this staged version of W. B. Yeats' adaptation of an ancient Celtic myth: Art Davis, the director of the Yeats drama, performs three pantomimes -- "Fly," "Dream," and "Chemistry" -- as sort of an unrelated appetizer to whet the taste for the subsequent work. As mime goes, it's good work. Davis is a longtime practitioner of the art, and he's solid enough to convince an audience that he's dealing with objects that are merely invisible instead of nonexistent. The first part suffered from the familiarity of the guy-chasing-an-invisible-fly shtick (especially considering the near phenomenal version done locally last year by Australia's Umbilical Brothers); the other two were fresh enough, and equally clever and thoughtful; all were beautifully enhanced by Davis' own music and the expressive Noh masks by Kari Perkins.

At The Hawk's Well, though, was a letdown. The most interesting thing about this voiceover-driven three-actor story of a Fountain of Youth guarded by an alluring hawk-woman was its original choosing, like "How cool that someone's picked a bit of Yeatsian mythologizing to bring onstage." There was a lot of walking about going on -- not really any evocative movement, just a sort of purposeful strolling -- and that may be why the word "pedestrian" comes to mind. The excellence of the masks (again by Perkins), the costumes (by hawk-woman Chia Guillory), and the soundtrack (Davis again, and Anderson Dear) seemed out of place, as if borrowed from a much better show. Saturday, 2/2: 4pm; Sunday, 2/3: 6pm

by Wayne Alan Brenner

Rounding Home, by Amy Goodwin

Amy Goodwin

Running Time: 1 hr, 20 min

Amy Goodwin's play about growing up in the shadow of an older sibling has familiar strains for all younger brothers and sisters, but adds a mystery and some comedic twists and turns that make Rounding Home an enjoyable presentation. Maggie Bell portrays younger sister Sally, desperate for some acknowledgement of her existence in a house -- and town -- that can't see past her baseball hero big brother. A budding sportscaster, but struggling with booze and the frustrations of living in the fish bowl of a small town, Bell's Sally is a feisty, funny, and sad young woman. Bell is a charming standout in a charming cast that plays Goodwin's naturalistic scenes with ease and honesty. Brent Mitchell, as elder brother Ty, struts with the requisite bravado and adds to that several layers to make the baseball hero a well-rounded character. Marc Menchaca, as Ty's Yankee teammate and house guest John, effectively conveys an outsider's bemusement and discomfort at being thrown into this dysfunctional family setting.

There are some incongruities in the script, especially when it comes to the issue of money, which ought not be an issue; the opening and close are still rough; and the mystery is hardly that. Still, Goodwin has provided some fine material for this able cast, and director Marco Perella (who adds a sturdy combination of prickly conservatism and buffoonishness to Father) has them well tuned to the world of the play. Sunday, 2/3: 12noon

by Robi Polgar

realmdanceproject
realmdanceproject

Issues, by realmdanceproject

realmdanceproject

Running Time: 1 hr, 20 min

"I don't feel like making up a dance."

Those words, uttered by a choreographer slumped in a chair, open this dance theatre collage and set the stage perfectly for a work that explores what makes us do what we do and what keeps us from doing what we want. The choreographer is driven to dance and yet she's also easily distracted from it, by popcorn, TV, a magazine. She finally abandons her dance -- just temporarily, of course -- to go to a movie, leaving the stage to a series of women pushing shopping carts while musing variously about sex, ex-lovers, caloric intake, and a fat-ass husband; a series of women involved in various outdoor activities but chiefly involved in their appearance; and groups of women dancing through scenes of conformity, competition, and sexuality.

The issues covered by the women of realm range all over the social spectrum -- dating, the media, stereotypes, sex, discrimination, power, body image, identity, passion -- and are treated in ways that vary from choreography to comic character sketches. The shopping cart gals and fashion-conscious sportswomen, while fun, come and go so quickly and in general are so loosely performed that they feel like satiric asides, jokes where the point is made for us. The dances, however, seem more richly imagined and are always crisply executed, from a funny, tender duet between two women in satin pajamas to a spooky Rohypnol nighmare with four women in shirts and slacks manipulating four women in skirts who look to be unconscious. The dances are compelling and linger long after they end.

Some women may not be doing what they want, but not the women of realm. Issues shows them to be clearly where they want to be. And it's just where we need them. Friday, 2/1: 6:30pm

by Robert Faires

Edmond, by David Mamet

Mainline Theater Project

Running Time: 1 hr, 20 min

While a suitable debut for the high-octane Mainline Theater Project, Edmond seems a strange choice for FronteraFest. A couch, a counter, beds, and tables are lugged, along with the play, out of the theatre's fringe.

Like a middle-aged Holden Caulfield, Edmond leaves his settled life and model wife. With "sex, money, power, adventure, and religion" on his mind, he heads for the dark alleys of the big city. Setting off with honesty, then skidding through confusion in an argument with his wife, hitting desperation as he haggles over price with a prostitute, crashing to hatred when he harasses a woman in the subway, discovering his bigotry in a bar, Edmond becomes a sick and dangerous man.

As Edmond, Peter Malof handles every gear change masterfully. Malof's co-drivers appear in multiple guises. Marisa Pisano has a better time as the whore than as the fortune-teller. Sarah Seaton steers the model wife, the manager of the whorehouse, and the woman on the subway with equal accuracy. Josh Painting stands out as the racist who only stops talking Edmond's ear off to accept thanks for listening. Elissa Linares and Gregory Harrington take their turns well as love interest and object of hate.

Director Jeremy Saxton shows how real Mamet's dialogue can be. People often do not listen; when they do listen, misinterpretation happens. People sometimes express ideas in an odd, stilted way. When there is an understanding, the connection matters.

The production races at a Formula 1 pace. Race, madness, social conventions, city culture, communication -- Edmond has too many themes on the mind. Mamet's look at racism makes this thundering vehicle worth reflection. Sunday, 2/3: 3:45pm

by Rob Curran

<i>The Unknown Soldier</i>
The Unknown Soldier

The Unknown Soldier, by Amparo Garcia-Crow

Prism Works

Running time: 1 hr, 20 min

Our modern heroes are often much more complex individuals than their legends allow. Often hidden in the public triumphs are personal blemishes. The same quirks of character that drive a man to great deeds can overcome him, and drag him into obscurity and misery. For Latino lawyer Gus Garcia, his exceptional brilliance and combative spirit were two such traits, raising him as high as arguing a landmark civil rights case before the U.S. Supreme Court and casting him into delusional depths of a life of petty crime and nights spent on park benches.

Playwright Amparo Garcia-Crow turns this intriguing story of Garcia into a circus-style musical, in the fashion of the touring tent circuses -- carpas -- that frequented the Texas-Mexico border. A cast of 17 portray seemingly hundreds of characters in the story, and live music by Chris Vincent on guitar adds to the festive air. The ensemble work is good throughout; and the trio of Fiordelino Lagundino, Chris Alonzo, and Enrique Bravo, who plays Garcia, are charismatic, crowd-pleasing performers.

The play is billed as a work in progress, with emphasis, this outing, on the carpas style. This leads to some confusion with the chronology of the storytelling; and scenes that supposedly frame the carpas are indistinguishable stylistically. Good singing, plenty of theatrical tricks, and -- when the story hits its stride -- an intense and interesting biography make this phase of Garcia-Crow's play worth catching. No remaining performances

by Robi Polgar

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