Saturday, June 27, 2015

St. Lou Fringe Report 3: A full house

Khnemu Menu-Ra
Thursday, June 25th, turned out to be my best Fringe experience yet, with two fine one-person shows and a powerful cabaret act.

Things got off to a strong start with “Origins of Love”, a smartly theatrical cabaret starring a pair of actors well known on the local theatre scene, Khnemu Menu-Ra and Antonio Rodriguez. With a narrative thread assembled from the works of Shakespeare and a song list that ranges from Stephen Sondheim to Trent Reznor to the Lebanese-British singer-songwriter Mika, “Origins of Love” rings an impressive variety of changes on the theme of love and its discontents.

A well-designed cabaret show will often feel like a one-act play, with a dramatic through line and possibly the sense, by the end, that you have gone on a journey with the performers. “Origins of Love" is exactly that kind of show. It opens with Mr. Menu-Ra (who carries the majority of the show) performing the “Bottom's dream” speech (from “A Midsummer Night's Dream”), the moves smoothly and logically to Sondheim's "Invocation" (cut from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum") and finally "High Flying, Adored" from "Evita." That last song is performed as a duet with pianist and music director Leah Luciano, whose skill as a singer and musician is also essential to the success of the evening.

From there, the selections from Shakespeare—performed, I'm happy to report, with an excellent feel for both the meter and the meaning—are used to segue among segments on various aspects of love, from juvenile sexual conquest to dark obsession, and finally to light-hearted acceptance. The show is filled with impressive moments, including Mr. Menu-Ra's performance of the title song (from Stephen Trask's score for "Hedwig and the Angry Inch") and Mr. Rodriguez's hilarious "Stumble Along" (from "The Drowsy Chaperone"). Ms. Luciano also has a nice solo on "I'd Rather Watch You," a clever 1920's pastiche from Joshua Schmidt's score for the 2008 musical adaptation of Elmer Rice's "The Adding Machine."
Kimberly Lawson is credited as the director of "Origins of Love." I don't know how much of this show is hers and how much is Mr. Mr. Menu-Ra's, but between them they have come up with one of the stronger cabaret productions I've seen recently. And I've seen some pretty darned good ones.

Next, I hiked down the street to the CEL Center for Architecture and Design for The Midnight Company's presentation of Joe Hanrahan's latest one-man play, David MacIvor's "House." Described as a stand-up-sit-down comedy nightmare," "House" is the story of Victor who is, as he puts it, "fucked up, but not weird. You're born weird, but you get fucked up." It starts out as a comic, no-fourth-wall complaint about Victor's therapy group and soon moves on to an equally funny but increasingly bizarre series of complaints about his life. His wife Mary Ann doesn't love him, to begin with, and his father ran off to the circus to become The Saddest Man in the World.

OK. Odd, but possible. But then: his sister hosts parties for dogs who, according to Victor, behave eerily like humans. And when he tells his mother that he is planning to leave Mary Ann, she turns into a demon, levitates to the ceiling, and begins slashing up the house with a razor-sharp tongue.

Maybe not so possible. Mr. MacIvor's script and Mr. Hanrahan's charmingly believable performance combine to lure you into this story. Victor's disconnect from reality doesn't become obvious until he has already become ingratiating, and by then there's no turning back. "House" is a perfect combination of virtuoso acting and compelling story telling.

Blair Godshall
Finally, it was off to TheStage @ KDHX for "ODDyssey," actress Blair Godshall's comic monolog about her "10-year journey of odd jobs, odd skills and odd people." Fresh out of college with a theatre degree, Ms. Godshall realized that the odd jobs she had taken to help finance her education were going to have to continue while she tried to find a way to make a living on stage. That meant lots of work in various service industries involving "screaming children, dangerous heights, sexist midterm papers, even more sexist bosses, extra hot coffee, expensive glass and reasonably priced sausages".

She tells her stories with a sure sense of comic timing and a slightly caustic attitude that often reminded me of another skilled comic and actress, Sandra Berhnard. She changes from her own persona to that of other characters quickly and credibly, and it's not surprising to discover, towards the end of her show, that she is finally working as an actress on a regular basis.

"ODDyssey" is obviously a work in progress. Ms. Godshall was still working from a script and sometimes had to vamp while she got back on track, and her one-act play doesn't really have much of an end yet, but that's minor stuff. "ODDyssey" is still great fun, and a reminder of the mundane stuff your WTFs (Weird Theatre Friends) have to do in order to grab some creative freedom.

The St. Lou Fringe Festival continues through Saturday, June 27, at various venues in Grand Center. For more information, check the festival web site.

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