The Absurd critique and the materialist critique at the Fringe.

There is a general law of cultural consumption that you must sort through disappointing stuff in order to find gems.  The law has graver implications for performing arts than for gallery and museum visits, because of ticket prices and the captive nature of being audience.  The Fringe Festival is among those annual events whose arrival, though welcome, also unsettles me, because to watch performance seriously is hard work, and yet I find myself compelled to let the festival take over my life, temporarily.  For the past four years I’ve spent in Philadelphia,  I’ve made the Fringe weeks sacred, spending a chunk of my disposable income on sometimes two shows a day, coming home after work to change from construction clothes and dash to the theater in time – living out a fragment of Marx’s dream that after the revolution, in a society of non-divided labor, we’ll “farm in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and critique in the evening…”

'above under inbetween,' like a minimalist circus
‘above under inbetween,’ like a minimalist circus

I accept said law of cultural consumption, and so, during the festival, I try to see lots of shows.  This year, however, I felt I couldn’t run the marathon.  I experienced anxiety at the thought of making a new matrix – my method of taping sheets of graph paper to create a big chart that allows me to narrow down the dozens of shows whose descriptions intrigue, to a more humane viewing schedule.  I must take gambles on what’ll be the best, hope that tickets are available to the performances I choose, and let other shows fall into the slots still free.  This year, I stuck mostly with Live Arts – the invitational portion of the festival, where the odds are better (but not fixed) that you’ll see higher caliber performances.  My first three nights: STORE; The Last Cargo Cult; above under inbetween.  Some thoughts follow.  But first, in case you don’t make it to the end of this piece of writing, I want to convey my experience last night, 9/15/2009, because that’s the only show I’ve seen which you still have a chance to see.

Eugine Ionesco was born in Romania and exiled from other countries.  He wrote The Chairs in the early 1950s, and it’s being performed here by the Philadelphia company called Ideopathic Ridiculopothy Consortium.  They’ve done absolute wonders with Beckett and other absurdist plays in past years on the red-velvet-lined stage L’Etage Cabaret; this year, they’re using a very intimate space called The Red Room, at Society Hill Playhouse.  If you like existential humor, you absolutely must go.  (Through Saturday.)

There is a very delicate balance in the humor of the absurd, a tense sort of humor at the precipice of existence and nothingness.  I’ve been lucky enough to have experienced it through theater on a few treasured occasions.  IRC did it in the past with Beckett; the Irish Repertoire Theater )which coincidentally has similar initials but is a more so-called professional group) did not achieve it with Beckett when the came through town two years ago.

IRC did it again this year with Ionesco.  I knew nothing of this author but his name, but when you see this production, you understand why it has a place in the cannon.  Tina Brock, who directs the company and also acted, coaxes you to the absolute brink of the canyon, the precipice of existence.  She has a co-star; the two are essentially the only characters in the play.  Against a semicircular wall of white doors, she plays an old lady, hunched but darting around, in an immaculately conceived costume – a white gown with trail of lace, and white slippers, setting off eye-popping red socks matched to her red lips.  From the first movement on the stage – her step onto a stool to reach up, struggling to light a hanging lantern, she channels the futility of existence with a fiery dignity (“there’s a bit of Lady Macbeth in her,” she said of the roll afterwards).

The plot is a conventional absurd one: a man and a woman – husband and wife – sit in their small dwelling, in the delirium of old age and failed hopes, believing that (invisible) guests are arriving to listen to the old man’s “message” – in which is to be a revealed something wonderful.  It conjures the same anticipation as the arrival of the title character in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.  Yet of course the two are pathetic, and they great the arrival of a cast of invisible characters – the colonial, the emperor – obsequiously, embarrassingly.

And what is the “message” that the old man will give?  We’re promised Big Wisdom – the explanation of everything important .  Most absurdly, he can’t speak it himself – he’s scheduled an orator to come deliver the message.  “He will radiate to the universe the light of my mind — my PHILOSOPHY.” says the old man, with the kind of pity-inducing gusto that we get from the moribund Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s depresso-classic Death of a Salesman. He’s played by Bob Schmidt, who gives the roll his all, and doesn’t let up the energy for a moment (neither of them do), but he his natural disposition is ultimately not the right fit for the character.  He instills too much pity for my tastes, which offsets the balance of the humor that’s particular to absurdity.  Tina, meanwhile, is an absolute tour de force.  The theater’s teeny, and you should sit close enough to watch her face register the pain or hope of every word the old man speaks.  She’s a delight to behold, and I’d urge you to go see it (or the next IRC production, which they plugged – upcoming in March).

There is a third character, though he doesn’t appear until the very end.  He is the orator, who we’d presumed was also imaginary, and he is a very tall man with the swagger of a pirate.  After building up to the “message” the whole play, the orator bows graciously and commences the “message” in grunted, slurred gibberish.    Allow me to say only that I laughed harder at this final moment than I have in perhaps twelve or eighteen months.  (And in that hard laugh, in the humor of the absurd, something about the nature of humor itself is revealed, and it’s got something to do with nothingness.)

The great thing about theater  – unlike art galleries – is that the actors generally get better toward the end of the run.  So go see THE CHAIRS in one of the remaining shows.  It will wash over you.

A fascinating discussion after in the intimate theater, on the night I went.  Tina and Bob both emphasized how much energy their rolls take – emotional energy, really — because they’ve got to maintain the illusion that they’re under the illusion.  “If you stop to think, you’re dead” said Tina – but indeed, they’ve got it.  Someone even asked how long the play went – clearly, he’d been so enraptured that he was oblivious.  Had it been 40 minutes, he asked?  Or 60, or 80?

The program offers a note from Tina.  She describes her first time seeing The Chairs years ago, and sounds like she was washed over by a wave.  Then leaves us with a thought on the nature of the Fringe festival itself  t– a question I’ve turned over, trying to pinpoint exactly what, for me, sets the festival apart as an almost sacred interruption from the rest of the year.  Tina puts it like this:

“For the next two weeks, in spaces tucked here and there throughout Philadelphia, over 185 “messages will be communicated” [that’s the old man’s phase] at over 80 locations, and we’ll all be richer for having experienced these together.”

This, precisely, is what makes the critical mass of the Fringe Festival so magical – much more so than going to an occasional performance during the rest of the year.

Funny thing about Live Arts is that the cutting-edge and innovate performance art gets headlined, and the absolute gems of more conventional theater get some sideshowed.  You must either seek out the smaller shows, or else be in the know.  I hope I can convince some of you to go see Chairs, because it, and Tina Brock, are really gems.

We do, however, have other news to report.

Each year on that big retail day which follows Thanksgiving, the lesser newspapers carry a photo of a parking lot at dawn, with shoppers clustered at the entrance to a big-box store offering limited-quantity bargains.  A similar scene outside a vacant drugstore at dusk, last Thursday, as we waited for doors to open to STORE, a dance/spectacle choreographed by Kate Watson-Wallace.

The Fringe provides an annualized structure for artists with trilogy ambitions. Thaddeus Phillips did it with Lucidity Suitcase between 06-08. STORE is the third in Kate’s trilogy, which she calls “American Spaces.”  Last year, I failed to see CAR, which quickly sold out due to limited seating: each performance was viewed by exactly one automobile of people.  (Before that, CAR, there was HOUSE, also sold out and limited-audience.)

But I made it this year.  Funneling through the doorway, a talking (blonde) head greeted us from a wall projection.  “Welcome to STORE,” she said, as a succession of retail interiors flashed behind her, bluescreen-style.  Then, a real docent directed me to seats in “Convenience Foods”  — the different section names still marked out on the vacant store’s walls; an appropriately conceptual entrance to this show.

Clothing, gobs of it, strewn about a platform stage.  Around the perimeter, perhaps ten TV sets, facing sideways and askew, glowing grey with analog fuzz.    No movement.  Then a low, throbbing sound grew into new-day-dawning synth refrain, and as stage lights came on, bodies I hadn’t noticed began squirming, awakening, gradually  rising.   Now with taut posture, they curtseyed slowly, in formation, across the stage – a motion not particularly riveting until the tempo sped and the dance tightened, becoming more palpable.  A short piece, then the performance, broke for a commercial.  A futuristic-dystopian voice-over advertised bagged air – “breath with the universe.”

Makato Hirano and Heather Murphy are both (young) veterans of Philadelphia’s very intra-linked dance scene.  They re-mounted the stage, and to a tense beat, Makoto began rapidly dressing Heather – grabbing at the garments all around him, violently fitting them on her figure, as she stood with arms up, receiving.  Amazingly, a clearing grew in the clothing mess, as Heather bloated with layer upon layer, until she could accept no more.  The music cut, and we heard only her panting, as she staggered and spun – as if in a spacesuit, arms unable to hang straight – euphoria and exhaustion registering on her face.

Another absurd advertisement (“Chickens…and other bird roasters…can be found in the GREEN section…”).  Makoto danced a seizure, and bumps into a stack of merchandise boxes, sending them flying.  Another performer rolls and gyrates on the floor, slowly, as he embraces one of the television sets like a lover.  All this hits me in the vein, because I experience that of which this is representation, every day, for my job: I work in basements of low-income Philadelphia, where sit endless 1990s-era TV sets stacked atop one another, and trash bags full of clothing, awaiting only mildew, while upstairs, daytime infomercials bombard living rooms and their occupants.  Just like everything depicted that evening.

The critique in Store isn’t too heavy-handed.  I missed the transition, but dancers suddenly busted into the final piece, a rawkus dance to one the most booty-shaking rap tracks of the past decade (Lil’ Wayne’s A Milli).  They bowed.  The show was over, and I sat taking in the immense amount of clothing now strewn everywhere.  Pathways of jeans had even been laid along aisles, as if to say, look how dispensible these commodities are.  This choice of prop design is itself material example of Store’s critique.  And to the curious, it begs the question: how does one procure such quantities of clothing?  And how do they arrive?  Bundled? Bailed?

Store unavoidably stands in comparison to the only other work performed in that venue: last year’s Flesh Blood Fish Fowel.  That play succeeded stupendously at cranking sublime beauty from the dingy, dropped-ceiling space.  Store took on a big topic – consumer culture – and through dance, performance, and multimedia, ultimately didn’t quite cohere – it just needs more work.  Except for Makoto-Heather piece, we could feel a creative vision not fully developed.  Heather said afterwards: “It was bigger – there were 10 windows open this summer…and we had to choose.”  The dancers participated as performer-creators, she said, while Kate Watson-Wallace brought in both a theatrical co-director (Brian Osoborne), and a dramaturge (Sebastienne Mundheim), halfway through rehersal.  This is an unusual move for choreographer; I was curious how those two participated.  Heather grinned – “well…they’re loosely defined rolls.”   Given all these voices, the show perhaps simply needed more workshop time.

The next night I saw Mike Daisey (brought to town for the Fringe) launch a critique similar in theme to Store but with more invective.  Daisey’s field is a narrow one: he’s a professional monologist (or, as he called himself, a “storyteller”).  Four and a half years ago, a flyer for his show MONOPOLY caught my eye.  On it, a rotund man sat hunched over a table, Spalding Grey-style.  I went, to the Ohio Theater in New York, and was floored.  He interwove several narratives – some historical, some personal accounts – and he was side-splittingly (really) funny, and smart.

Here, at the Philadelphia Theater Company, he gave a new piece called ‘The Last Cargo Cult.’  One usher gave me a program, and another handed me a dollar bill.  I shrugged – a gimmick – and stuffed it in my shirt pocket.  The lights dimmed, and a  voiceover warned that anyone whose cell phone rang would be fed to wild dogs.


Under the faintest of blue light, Mike parted the curtains and walked silently – like a ghost, only outlines of his plentiful figure visible – to the desk at stage front.  He paused, and took a seat.  Except for occasionally wild gesticulations, this was to be the only movement on stage for the next hundred minutes.  And when the lights came up, Mike was off – like a horse race – launching into his piece with all the intensity I remembered.

How does one review a monologue?  On must re-tell it, in parts.  He begins with a crowd gathered at a tarmac’s edge, ready to stampede a prop-jet as soon as the gate opened.  Mike was in the South Pacific, headed for the most distant of a chain of islands, from which was the only weekly flight to the mainland.    He is replete with anecdotes to convey the bizarreness of the journey — the airplane pilots, for example, had knives sheathed on their belts, and resembled pirates.

The island of Tana sits at the farthest reaches of anthropological study, and it is particularly unique in that the French and English used it as a base during World War II.  Mike puts it bluntly: “imagine if you lived as you did for the last four thousand years, then one day these white people arrive with bulldozers and build a runway.  They bring chocolate bars…and vacuum cleaners…and after a while, they simply disappear.”

Mike has honed a special skill of wrapping our attention entirely around some narrative element, and then suddenly taking a leap back, out into the meta-perspective of narrator.  So, after whetting our appetites with all this that he’s read of Tana, he pauses, shifts tone, and says slowly “And –  that – is – why – I – am – there.”  In particular, he’s planned to arrive for the national U.S.A. worship ceremony, which he’d seen in the pages of National Geographic.  (I can’t do it justice with an explanation; you’ll have to hear it from him.)

The nearly unspoiled inhabitants of Tana do not get the concept money, and this is what so fascinates Mike (and us).    The island has a weekly marketplace.  Few traders have set up blankets on the day he visits; all one man has laid is several moldy potatoes.  Through his translator, Mike inquires why he bothers to sell these, and here, gets perhaps biggest laugh of the evening.  The man shrugs, and explains: “I didn’t have any use for them.  I thought maybe someone else would, and that maybe they’d give me some money.”  His apathy toward currency stands for the utter dissonance between primitive and modern societies.

The monologue channels poignancy as well.  Mike likens his first year of college – he, unadulterated from rural and poor Maine, arriving at an exclusive liberal-arts college – to the Tana islanders’ experience with descending westerners.

Those colonists attempted and failed to incorporate some islanders into the currency-based economy that they transplanted.  They took in certain invidivduals, dressing them, and giving them jobs.  The Tana either rejected it or didn’t get it, and held giant bonfires where they burned the money.  This deeply unsettled the French and English, who took severe reproach.  Mike uses this to riff on the alienating nature of money – and calls up Marx’s image of prices detaching from their objects and floating away – leaving only real value.

Here, Mike pulls off the trope of his deft rhetoric: he shifts narratives while staying with a theme.  After describing the Tanas’ rejection of money, he pausesb, and then says: “Tonight, I am an artist – [pause] –  AND a businessman.”  Why does he come up on stage and do this, he asks?  “You could consider this a gift from me to you…it’s something I am driven to do, to want to tell stories.”  Then, he requested that we pull out the dollar bill we were handed at entrance.  I got a one-dollar note, but others fives, tens, and some even fifties.  Mike explained that he’d given back all the money he made that evening, in an attempt to briefly, briefly, subvert the cash nexus which mediates so many social interactions.

Of course, just before the piece ends, Mike bowed to necessity, and placed a large glass bowl at the front of the stage, spot-lit, asking us to give back the money if the evening had been worth it.  He bowed; a celebratory tribal chant came over the sound system, and slowly, they all start to file down to the stage – one line from either direction, slowly passing each other at the glass bowl, nearly the entire audience returning the cash to whence it came.  Awesome.

Mike was in the lobby pretty quick afterwards, talking with a small crowd of suitors.  Someone asked a typically money-minded question: he wanted to know the rates of money-return from audiences in different cities.  I scoffed; this was indicative of the very attitude Mike hoped to spring us from even for just an hour or two.  Nonetheless, he assured us that so far, it’s varied INVERSELY with the crowd’s well-to-do-ness.  (I’m not sure if this is true, but if not, it’s a white lie.)  Others asked Mike more edifying things, about e.g. his process.  “The act of making an outline fixes it in my mind,” he said, though he wasn’t actually reading much from the pages he periodically flipped on stage.

Australia is the farthest place a Live Arts act came from this year, but I wagered that the group from Austria would be bring the most refined work – known, as it is, for both its culture and its cultural funding.  Choreographer Willie Dorner was here last year for Bodies in Urban Spaces; this year, he brought a show which, to date, they’d only performed in a small industrial town in their home country.  Here, they had the Ice Box – a giant former refrigerated store room.   I’ve seen, in that space, a Pig Iron production with seating on risers, Sebastienne Mundheim’s Sea of Birds with seating on bean bags, and others on folding chairs.  Tonight, however, no seats were provided.  Ushers told us simply to stay on one side of the space’s invisible centerline, and to sit on the floor if we wished.

Once again, as much good performance art does, ‘above under inbetween’ began with a surprise.  From amongst us, the audience, seven dancers nonchalantly came forward.  They crossed into the stage area, converged on a 3 foot square marked in tape, and froze, facing every which way.  Pause; they broke formation, and then re-converged, this time, in orderly formation – all facing the same way – watching us watching them.

This show’s title was well chosen;  “above under inbetween” strikes you as quite meaningless until, suddenly, it clicks a few minutes into the piece.  For the third variation on the taped square, the dancers entered it one at a time, in height order, bending perpendicular at the waist, so that each nested into the other – except for the last one, who plugged herself into a void created by the others’ legs and torsos.  It was a physical movement which elicited laughs.  Again: freeze, then break formation, all in silence, with only swoosh of pants and scuffle of feet.  They next introduced a chair, then a table, then several, and held poses alongside and entangled with these objects.  One dancer crawls under, another sits on top, and the chair is pulled out; or the table is tilted onto a dancer frozen in half-summersault, and another balances on it.  The title, I realized, is utterly literal.   Everyone is “above, under, [or] inbetween.”


Indeed Cie. Willie Dorner answered Mike Daisey’s (rhetorical) question about why he does monologues at all.  Mike’s answer was, he’s driven to do it – art for the sake of art, essentially.  And while dance pieces usually follow some narrative, however vague – here was only series of formal figurative compositions, a sequence of body sculptures – dance for its own sake.

Each movement in above under inbetween added additional furniture-esque objects, and grew in complexity of poses.  And as it progressed, the dancers moved linearly down the length of the Ice Box.  The audience, without direction, followed the slowly transporting performance.  I began to understand the show as a minimalist circus: slow, deft feats of balance and focus in making precarious structures with humans and furniture.  By the time they’d hit the far end of the space, they’d arranged in their trail (without us realizing) a sequence of objects – roller-carts, ladders, a trampoline, bookcases, tables, and chairs – stretching back to the starting point.  Have you ever seen a child’s toy where a marble rolls and hits a lever that release a spring that propels a weight into a domino and so forth?  I don’t know what such a thing is called, but this is what happened.  In a truly stunt-devil climax, a dancer jumped onto the bookcase, tilting it onto a chair, which propelled another dancer onto a rolling cart, that knocked into a ladder, from which a third dancer jumped, just in time, onto a trampoline, et cetera – all the way down the length of the Ice Box.  The entire company then dashed back across the space, and burst through the side doors out into the courtyard of the rainy night.  It was exhilarating.

Two nights previous, exiting the vacant Rite-Aid at 43rd and Walnut where Store was performed, I half-noticed a large flat-screen, displaying what resembled election results.  An usher handed me a cardstock leaflet.  I smiled, assuming this was the last gimmick of the production – some spoof on retail surveys and futuristic-dystopian ubiquity of TV screens.  In fact, I was wrong.  The same set-up greets you at the exit to every headlining Live Arts show this year.  Yor’re asked to vote by text message your rating of the show you’ve just seen.  In cozy conference rooms over the past twelve months, I presume, Fringe fundraising staff and the major corporate donors concocted this superfluous use of technology.

Lars, a Fringe tech who rigged up the communications system, explained that one of PNC Bank’s funding stipulations was that the festival ‘use technology to encourage the audience to be active participants in culture.’  [I’m paraphrasing.]  “We looked into making an iPhone app,” Lars said, “But it was way too expensive.”  Broadening critical participation is entirely laudable, but in the wake of recent Iranian democratic protests mobilized through Twitter, using the technology to vote on performance art strikes as grandiose and anemic at the same time.  Anyone who’s written grants knows the feel-good moment of proposing your brilliant visions to funders.  But if PNC really wanted to incite discourse, they should have spent their money to bring underserved high school kids to see some of this year’s fantastic performances.   Regardless of text-message voting, the intelligencia will anyway go to the festival bar and trade one-line reviews of the show’s they’ve seen, but you can bet your behind that no black kids from the ghetto made it down to Mike Daisey’s monologue or IRC’s The Chairs.

I expressed my skepticism to Lars.  He smirked.  “Some people loved it, and some people hated it.”  Frustration focused on the one-through-five voting system.  “Funny,” he said, “the text message system sparked more debate about itself than about the Live Arts shows it was designed for.”  Ultimately, I think Tina Brock nailed it when she wrote that “185 ‘messages will be conveyed’” across Philadelphia, and “we’ll be richer for it.”  PNC is trying to innovate unnecessarily with an already successful festival – and in particular, they’re trying to bring technological mediation to bear on those 185 “moments,” which are what they are precisely because, as Tina says, it’s “the designers, the actors, and the audience creating together a magical island.”  That island only lasts as long as the curtains are up, and it gets somehow trivialized when you ask the audience to rate it a 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5.

Too bad salons have died.  In lieu, I’ll tell you the one other show I’m most looking forward to:

Please Make Us Happy…I know nothing except from what’s printed in the guide: a group of performer-creators, from visual arts/puppetry/dance backgrounds, trained by movement theater legend Jacque Lecoq (responsible for many of Pig Iron’s antics), and camped out in Providence for the last 8 months to create it.  Like The Chairs, it runs only thru Saturday.  Only $10!

photo credits:  Katharina Heistinger (‘above under inbetween’); Mike Daisey (himself).