The Opening of the Fringe Fest: One Perspective

Aug. 28, 2016
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The Milwaukee Fringe Festival opened with depth and dizzying variety in its first two hours yesterday. The Festival atmosphere harnesses the chaotic unpredictability that forms the magic at the heart of the arts. Audiences can navigate their way through it however they like...a bit like an abstract amusement park. At noon I was engaging in light comedy. Within a couple of hours, I was watching a woman in historical garb talk of killing hundreds of children. A lot happened in between. Here’s the arc I took:  

Wisconsin Hybrid Theatre opened the Milwaukee Fringe Fest on the stage of the Todd Wehr Theatre as a few dance groups opened Vogel Hall. I chose to attend WHT. The retro radio comedy group is as solid as ever. The charming Jack Farwell opened the show with a bit of surprise that anyone would show up to a noon program...as it was attendance was quite respectable for a matinee performance of light comedy. The company performed its comic abbreviation of Così fan tutte as an old Western. Over the years Ira Hampton and Jack Farwell have developed a rhythm that serves the center of the comedy quite well. A fun show as always with an audience more than familiar with the group. There was a warmth there. 

The Wisconsin Hybrid Theatre left the stage. I was waiting around for the second show on the opening Todd Wehr program when I spotted a post on Facebook from Broadminded/Ex Fabula co-founder and exceptionally cool person Meghan McGee. Above a suitably moody pic of her at a table by the river in Pere Marquette Park, she had written that she was “Typing nihilistic advice till 3. Not that it matters.” She was right across the river from me when she posted the pic. How exactly does one go about passing that up? Embrace the chaos, cross the river and see what’s going on. 

The clatter of keys on 8 old school typewriters from various eras banged away beneath a tent as energetic folk rock kicked out of Rocket Paloma not more than a dozen paces away on the Gazebo Stage. The typewriter project, which runs through the entire festival has been devised by Anja Notanja Sieger. She’s something of a fixture of the local arts scene. You’ll find her various places clacking things out on a typewriter. I must confess to finding it a bit viscerally tedious. This may be a generational thing, though. Growing-up in poverty, I started writing on a manual typewriter long after they were obsolete. It’s the best I had at the time. (It’s all I had.) It’s such a crude and clumsy way to write. Those old school typewriters aren't that far from being the originals invented in Milwaukee by Sholes and Glidden and THOSE were so bad they had to specifically develop the modern keyboard to slow typists down so as not to jam the keys. Crude and klunky, but its all I had. Leave it to subsequent generations to find it quaintly appealing in a stylishly hipster fashion. It was always tedious to me, though. (Oh god: there’s that typewriter girl again...) There was something about six of them going at once in the park on a Saturday afternoon, though. Standing there under that tent with the clatter of keys in Pere Marquette Park while Joanna Kerner and company played...I think I understood it. 

The project goes like this: write down in concise format anything for which you seek advice and then pass it around to various characters, who respond to it by typewriter. No speaking is allowed. Sieger is keeping the actual typewritten responses (which are going to come together in an art exhibit.) The audience is free to take pictures of the responses, though. In addition to McGee's nihilist, there's a yoga guru, a sporty character, a woman who chooses dictionary entries at random, a metaphorical advisor and more. By opening it up like this with a whole bunch of people in character in a park, Sieger is giving the aesthetics room to breathe through a multitude of different voices. And it works.

I asked a simple question: “How Do I Raise Two Daughters In  A World Suffering From So Many Problems?” Some of the responses I got made me tear-up a bit. To maximize the personal connection between performers and audience, those experiencing the performance are given numbers to maintain anonymity. Ask whatever you want and it’ll be a part of the finished project, but no one has to know it was you who asked the question. This is interactive theatre directly from the writers to the audience in the most intimate outdoor theatre imaginable. Fascinating experimental stuff. The project continues into Sunday. The tent is open from 12:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m. Advice is free. McGee’s Nihlist returns 2:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.

After filling a “passport” with advice that had been dutifully logged in my phone in digital pics, swung through the park, had a beer and saw human statue Alice Wilson not far from the gazebo. A towering Michael Pettit in pirate garb passing out flyers for the new Quasi Mondo show I headed back to the Marcus Center for a program at Vogel Hall. The 2:00 p.m. show opened with a preview of the new show with All-In Productions. A humbly bedenimed Robby McGhee worked nearly invisibly just beyond the corner as a full cast in ’20s period costuming gave a high-energy preview of The Wild Party. Liz Norton delivered a powerful performance of "An Old-Fashioned Love Story" Amber Smith followed that up with a sensual dazzle with “Life of the Party,” from the top of Act Two. 

The second piece on the show was a world premiere of Mark Boergers’ short -CIDE. Drawn from history, three historical women charged with infanticide sit onstage. They all relate their lives in dialogue contrasted against that ancient Greek infanticidal tale Medea. Marcee Doherty-Elst summoned upper-class refinement as Amelia Dyer: the 19th century woman who “made angels” of hundreds of unwanted children. Shannon Nettesheim played Alice Crimmins, who was charged with killing her two children in 1965. Tess Cinpinski played Andrea Yates--convicted of systematically drowning all five of her children in 2001. Very heavy stuff. Boergers gets around what might have been three static historical monologues by juxtaposing the three women with each other locked in the same room forced to deal with why it is that they’ve all been forced into each other’s company. Kind of a fascinating psychological horror piece that dives into the darkness to try to pull out some kind of enlightenment. Doherty-Elst, Nettesheim and Cinpinski are all quite accomplished, young actresses who rendered a strikingly vivid picture of lesser-known historical villains. 

The Milwaukee Fringe Festival continues through today at the Marcus Center and Pere Marquette Park. For more information, visit the Fringe online

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