I hope that anyone who wants to know what's really happening in theater, local and worldwide, paid attention to the recent Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival. Commercial theaters do what they must to make a buck and pay the mortgage; and community theaters tend to be conventional by nature. The Fringe/Live Arts connection, by contrast, brings together two (fiscally) opposite ends of theater, which have more in common than you'd expect.
Live Arts brought grateful theatergoers rare treats ranging from Polish musical absurdity (Witold Gombrowicz's Operetta) to a professional dance competition (The A.W.A.R.D. Show) to an interactive Facebook-based play (Whit MacLaughlin's Fatebook) to Urban Scuba, a gravity-defying underwater/overwater postmodern dance carnival (the shows get harder to describe as you go on), all conceived by some of the world's foremost experimental performers.
The Fringe, conversely, offers exposure to any body or group that can find a venue.
If it's possible to draw any conclusions from just six shows (two Live Arts and four Fringe), below are three important signs of what's on in experimental theater.
The more, the merrier
"Less is more" is the implied credo for any theater group struggling to pay its bills. But if you're too rich, too poor or too free-spirited— a good definition of the participants in either festival— that rule can be disregarded. Of the shows I saw, one was a three-hander, and only two others had fewer than ten actors. Gombrowicz's Operetta, as directed by MichaÅ‚ Zadara, had 35 participants all told.
I'm not suggesting that a small cast can't be exciting. Danger Goddess Productions' telling of Strindberg's Creditors was mesmerizing, with three actresses dancing the subtext to this hard-wrought drama. But when most theaters are craning to find shows with two to four heads, it's refreshing to see more bodies relating to each other on a stage.
It's also refreshing to see those bodies move in new ways. Every show I saw was highly physical in its characterization and storytelling. Pig Iron's Welcome to Yuba City! featured a landscape of cartoonish "out West" characters, each with their own unlikely physicality, and a big part of the fun involved watching each actor clown his or her way through at least five roles in an hour and a half.
Similarly inhabited by their actors were Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, presented by Renegade Performance Group, and Barracuda Carmella's original, exploratory play, Something with Wings, each with a widely diversified set of characters played by a relatively small cast. Director Rowen Haigh's postmodern dance set Creditors apart. Operetta's distinctly non-naturalistic style used dance and clowning alongside real-looking people doing real things, all the while thrusting realism aside so that ski-suit-clad gentlemen bragged about their top hats and canes, renegade bourgeoisie hid under lamps, fattened elites slouched for extensive periods of time saying, "Lord Bottom's chairs," and a camel fell from the sky.
Perhaps the most telling deviation from tradition occurred in Company, EgoPo's inventive telling of one of Beckett's short stories, which eliminated visuals completely as audience members were blindfolded and led around by their own personal "angels," and voices— in turn seductive, pacifying, cruel and yearning— told audience members the story of their life.
The medium is the message
The third and maybe least surprising sign: People aren't interested in morals. Original productions like Yuba City, Something with Wings and Company seemed to skew even the idea of a message, instead drawing the audience through a series of emotional experiences while encouraging diverse responses.
To be sure, the classic plays that were restaged, like Ubu Roi, Operetta and Creditors, did contain messages. Creditors examined the struggles of three people who basically lacked any real morals, and Ubu Roi and Operetta subjected the political and economical jack-assery of our history (which according to both playwrights will continually repeat itself) to a harsh and ridiculous light.
But the interesting thing about these choices of plays is that none of them present the audience with a way out. There are libraries full of classic and unknown plays to pick from, a good chunk of them moralistic. But as Papa Ubu sails out of dangerous Slavic regions to France, where the cheese is stinkier than he is, or as the naked girl of Operetta leads revolutionaries and bourgeoisie alike into a punk musical climax, or as Gustav pronounces the futile words, "She really did love him, too!", the stomach is cut open and the guts are held up, and we see the world as the artist sees it, with all its foibles and beauties, and that's the play.♦
To read a response by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
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