Art often viscerally connects everyday experience with a broader culture, sometimes representing the culture to outsiders. Three of the four performances I saw Monday at the San Diego International Fringe Festival honed to this theme, and the fourth invited the audience to succumb to the pleasures of the fantastical.
Two of the three culture-based shows were international in origin. One depicted a sad event in cultural history, and the other riffed on iconic contemporary culture and its effects on changes in relationships.
La Moana’s 1918 depicts the introduction of what was called Spanish flu into Samoa (pronounced “SAM wah” by the cast). There was a world-wide flu pandemic that year that has been estimated to have killed approximately 50 million people worldwide. (In the U. S., this strain was also called “La Grippe” and connoisseurs of American musicals may remember this reference from Miss Adelaide’s lament in Guys and Dolls.) The flu was easily spread through casual contact, and Samoa was potentially isolated enough that it might have been spared. A New Zealand ship came into port, however, and the captain did not quarantine the crew, whose members spread the virus to the population. The pandemic swept through the population, leaving so many dead that the bodies had to be piled into mass graves. Samoans continue to mark this loss of life, and relationships with New Zealand were affected.
The New Zealand-based company portrays this watershed event through dance, narration and song. Only a little of the narration is in English, and that piece indicts the colonial attitudes of English-speakers. The movement is powerful and precise, and the depiction is devastating. The level of commitment and skill is as high as I’ve ever seen at the Fringe. There is only one additional performance, Tuesday, June 28, at 9pm on the main stage of the Spreckels Theater. If you can attend 1918 you’ll not soon forget it.
A cultural performance of a different type was offered by Theatre Group GUMBO of Japan. Presented in “Japanglish,” as one performer called it (some of the company may have learned the English text phonetically, including how to say the letter “r”) Will You Swear Your True Love? presented contrasting views of male/female love representing traditional versus contemporary culture. One couple was dressed in a clever variation of traditional garb and used references to Noh theatre as well as samurai culture. The other couple dressed as adult versions of the kind of infantile Western culture that Japanese youth seem to worship currently. For certain, the presentation was intended to be cheeky, and to some degree it succeeded. There was some improvisation and audience participation that, at the performance I saw, took the show’s rating from the advertised PG to a definite R. There were a number of cultural references that were probably hilarious to a young and hip Japanese audience, but it was funny enough even if one didn’t get all the references. Unfortunately, Monday the 27th was the group’s final performance. Perhaps they will be persuaded to return to the Fringe with their next effort.
Turning back to the U. S., a local group of theatre professionals tried their hand at playwriting and directing. The result was three short plays, collectively titled Bedrooms & Boyfriends, that probed various aspects of gay male culture. Choreographer/movement director Michael Mizerany led off with “Peter and John,” a story about a middle-aged man (Joey Landwehr) who hires a rent boy (Scott Nickley) but forgets to take his Viagra ahead of time. So, the two need something to do for the next twenty minutes – and their talk turns into a study in how age differences manifest in gay men. Up next was actor Jonathan Hammond’s” Jonah and Joel,” which concerns two men (Joshua Jones and J.D. Burke) who are lamenting that one’s visit is almost over. Finally, actor Samantha Ginn’s play, “Giovanni and Charlie,” dissects the nature of gay intimacy when an emotionally fragile young man (Patrick Mayuyu) hires a professional cuddler (Katherine Haroff).
All of the plays are funny (though, Mr. Mayuyu and Ms. Haroff have a chemistry that’s hard to beat), and each has a major plot twist that sends the story off in an unexpected direction. In their current form there’s not really enough to make an evening’s entertainment, but with either the expansion of these three or the addition of a fourth these writers might have something that could succeed commercially. There’s still time to see it, too – on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at the Diversionary Theatre main stage.
My colleague, Welton Jones, will undoubtedly rhapsodize about Mysterium – A Magic Show, so I will leave most of the commentary to him. This one is proven, having won a Fringe award in 2015. Magic depends entirely on being able to charm and distract the audience, and these performers excel at that ability – and, win sold-out houses in the process. You can see them Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at The Geoffrey Off-Broadway, the Spreckels’ smaller space. But, get there early to assure seating.
A Fringe Monday yielded four winners out of four. May your Fringing experience be as fortunate.