Saturday, June 20, 2015

St. Lou Fringe Report 1: Tops, taps, and toxic men

Hiroshi Tada
In this first of a series of dispatches from the St. Lou Fringe Festival, we talk of top spinning, tap dancing, and toxic masculinity—a classic example of just how diverse the Fringe can be.

My Fringe experience started quietly, with a charming if slight demonstration of the Japanese art of top spinning by Hiroshi Tada (or, as he says it, "Taaa-Daaa!").  Mr. Tada's English may not be the best, but there's no doubt of his skill and spinning and juggling tops.  In the course of the show he spins tops created out of everything from a poker chip to a rubber light bulb to a "Cardinal red" plastic baseball bat, and does some fancy balancing besides.

The night I saw his show he spent a bit too much time telling us what he couldn't do because of the space limitations at the Kranzberg Cabaret space, but his cheerful, grandfatherly stage presence more than made up for that.  This is definitely an "all ages" show.

Scot Moore
Next was "Men Will Be Boys," a one-act play written and performed by Minneapolis-based actor Scot Moore.  Billed as a "comedic journey through the stages of how men go from being cute little boys to sexist womanizers, and the influences they receive along the way," the show offers a pointed but thoroughly entertaining critique of the way American culture encourages a notion of masculinity that manages to inflict damage on both sexes.

Using sound bites from everyone from Bill O'Reilly to Stephen Colbert as bridge material, Mr. Moore plays six widely varied characters, beginning with a creepy fundamentalist preacher whose simple-mindedly aggressive reading of scripture is as suspect as it is self-assured, and ending with a young father talking his baby daughter to sleep with stories of the great success he hopes she will have.  Along the way we becomes a small boy in a Captain America t-shirt who doesn't understand why he can't call his classmate Sheila a whore ("dad says she is!"), a sullen teenager who feels oppressed by feminism, a clueless gamer, a make-out artist embarrassed by the boorish sexism of his "wing man," and a sportscaster who suddenly decides to tell the simple truth about the over-paid sociopaths he's been covering. 

His points about the way key segments of American culture encourage a state of permanent adolescence in men are well-taken, and delivered in a way that never feels preachy.  Mr. Moore's stories have a moral, but they're skillfully woven and thoroughly engaging.

Tristan Bruns of Tapman
My first two days at the Fringe ended with a bang.  Well, several bangs, actually.  As the "Traveling Tap Dance Super Show" by the Chicago-based Tapman dance troupe opens, the house goes dark and we hear a steady rhythm from the company's four tap dancers.  At first it's simple—on the beat and in unison.  But then the lights come up and company choreographer Tristan Bruns begins and increasingly complex series of syncopated steps.  He's soon joined by Javier K. Villamil in the tap version of a traditional ragtime "cutting contest," trading steps back and forth.  Mr. Villamil eventually takes center stage and the piece builds to a flashy conclusion.  It's rather like a tap version of the music of (say) Philip Glass or John Adams, building a complex structure out of small cells.  Great stuff.

There are plenty of wonderful moments in this show.  I especially enjoyed what appeared to be a tribute to the great black tappers of the Vaudeville era (complete with top hats) as well as a nod to Fred Astaire's style using one of his signature tunes, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields' "The Way You Look Tonight."  The song is played first in a lovely solo guitar arrangement by Mr. Bruns and then sung by Mr. Villamil, accompanied by classy dancing from his fellow company members.

There's also a great blues number played by Mr. Bruns and Mr. Villamil with dancing by the company's fifth member—not a tapper, but an elegant jazz/modern dancer.  And a couple of passionate Indie rock tunes demonstrate that tap can go with almost any style of music.

Bottom line?  The Tapman ensemble is a fiercely energetic and multi-talented bunch.  Their second (and last) appearance at the Fringe is Saturday, June 20, at 4 p.m.  Don't miss it!

The Fringe continues through June 27th in the Grand Center Arts District.  For more information, visit the official web site.

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