FronteraFest Short Fringe, Week Two

A high-speed train of spoken word, crackling improv, and raw poetry

Shana Merlin (l) and Shannon McCormick are Get Up.
Shana Merlin (l) and Shannon McCormick are Get Up.

FronteraFest Short Fringe, Week Two

Hyde Park Theatre

Jan. 24

The Best of Week Two was such a high-speed train of spoken word, crackling improv, and raw poetry, the audience could barely contain itself. Gasps were audible, laughter plenteous, and between performances, Hyde Park buzzed with comments such as, "I can't believe that was improv," and, "This is some of the best FronteraFest I've seen." We, the audience, were lucky to be there, and we knew it.

With three of the five shows performed by black, Hispanic, and gay artists, race and identity politics were a big theme. When spoken-word artist and self-described "cool-looking black guy" SaulPaul waved his hand between himself and the audience and said, "This barrier right here ... it's officially broken," he set the tone for the night. Walls were coming down.

Through hip-hop verse, music, and narrative, SaulPaul told his hard life story without blame or apology, morphing from foster child to scholarship student at UT to inmate at the state pen to UT student again. He's a disarming raconteur. He finished with improvised spoken word; as the audience shouts out words, he writes them on his arm, then turns them into hip-hop poetry. (Off the cuff, he matched "banana" with Tony Danza and "swelling" with cerebellum.)

The women of Stamp Lab performed "T.A.G.," an impressionistic montage. A ghost named Nina raves quietly, a strong old woman named Billy rails on social change and gentrification ("I'm a certified Negro," she says, refusing the label "African-American"), a singing woman chugs across the stage as a train with a 3-foot beehive, and a captivating gay girl waits for the bus, eager to split town. The piece may be baffling, but it is visually arresting.

Heavyweights from the Austin Poetry Slam scene Christopher Lee and Christopher Michael consumed the stage with a raucous, goose-bump inspiring homage to the power of poetry. They are skilled word jugglers, tossing around unlikely rhyme pairs such as "gargoyle" and "aluminum foil." Scenes of a crack junkie jonesing and an Iraq veteran recalling how he put pieces of his friends in Ziploc bags made me cringe with their brute honesty. They take you there.

Get Up improvisers Shannon McCormick and Shana Merlin are so in sync, it's scary. Is it supernatural? A mind meld? Or just wicked smart improv? Here they brought us "The Adventurers," a riff off 1930s serial drama. Their characters, Maurice and Josephine, recover ancient manuscripts and battle Katarina Von Eivel, their archrival. After asking the audience to suggest an exotic location, a girl threw out "Djibouti" but mispronounced the country's name. McCormick didn't miss a beat – that man knows his geography. Then, Maurice and Josephine were off – to Africa, lions, village elders, and improv hilarity that left me craving more.

FronteraFest famoso Big Poppa E closed the show. A pro at dissolving the audience's reserve, he'll do or say anything, including planting a fat kiss on a lady near me and reciting a love poem to a girl in the front row. He's been traveling on a Greyhound bus in recent months and has some fresh poems, both irreverent and sweet. One of the best had the line: "I don't want to make out with you; I want to make a fort with you." Shucks, Big Poppa E, are you saying good old-fashioned make-believe is sometimes as good as sex?

Seems like it. The creativity onstage here beat any date I've had lately. The only disappointment of the evening was that we could vote for only two shows to continue on to Best of the Fest.

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FronteraFest Short Fringe, SaulPaul, Stamp Lab, Get Up, Christopher Lee, Christopher Michael, Big Poppa E

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