Returned already to the Fringe – how the months fly by! – and so far, the 2016 menu seems mildly diminished, in that there’s not so many agonizing conflicts to deplore.
My first full evening included no disappointments and one delightful surprise. I can recommend, with certain reservations, I Got Guns, a strident farce from Oregon; Cocooned in Kazan, a charming literary mash from England; and The Heart of a Goof, a bon-bon from the rich comic pantry of P. G. Wodehouse.
How is it, all of a sudden, that Wodehouse is so forgotten? Jeeves the superbutler survives, mostly because of a failed net browser that borrowed the name, but the rest of the dreamy Edwardian bubble that encloses Wodehouse’s featherweight tales is visible only to nostalgists.
Here is a remedy! And you’ll thank me for steering you to John Anderson’s sublimely silly staging of golf-given romance. Wodehouse channeled the vague, starchy world of late empire privilege with all the charm and grace of Noel Coward, Agatha Christie, etc. but none of the entangling realities. The problems in Wodehouse stories are tailoring catastrophes, dictatorial aunts, grand-prize hogs, young love and golf, golf, golf. The “goof” who operates the heart in this piece is a willowy lad fainting from adoration of a pert girl but too lumbered with self-loathing at the flaws in his game (and thus, his life) to declare himself. Exasperated, the spunky lass enlists the help of the club’s Oldest Member and finds a way.
As always with Wodehouse, it’s not what is done that brings on the bliss but rather how it is done. Anderson’s triumph – as adaptor, director, actor and furniture-mover – is the rare skill with which he has brought the story to the stage, juggling narration and dialogue into an hour of exquisite escapism. Bill Shore as the boy, Brandi Lacy as the girl, John Rosen as the elder and Anderson himself as everybody else could have sprung directly from the master’s brow, enhanced by Anastasia Pautova’s extraordinary (under the circumstances) costumes and Kevin Anthenill’s spot-on sound.
You may have to hike through a construction maze to reach the Lyceum Stage but, after this show, you’ll float out.
The other major venue of the fourth annual San Diego International Fringe Festival is the Spreckels Theatre, where shows are happening in three separate spaces. The most imposing – because it’s right on the stage of the dear old historic Spreckels itself, is sponsored by the Reader and that’s where I saw Royal Kung Foolery assault the lush world of European Romantic novels, Cocooned in Kazan.
The three players – Cam Abbott, Lauren Brainch and Ellise Martin – conceived and executed the piece and maybe that’s the problem. The plot is a nuisance, the dialogue meanders and the characters bounce off each other at odd angles.
These are three very appealing comic actors, too, each driving a sturdy fictional stereotype. Abbott, tall and imperious, is the arrogant, exasperated heir not yet in control of the family fortune. Brainch, using impressive comedy shoulders and the grimace of dread, is the underdog female, sometimes a maid, other times an embarrassing relative. Martin, languid, insouciant and roguish of eye, plays an assortment of supporting characters, some with moustaches. There also are a fish and a flash of exposed knickers.
The fun is in the backgrounds as Abbott drones on with the plot. His function, actually, is straight man for his pair of lively comic women. Is this enough? In the moment, it seems so. But even formidable talent works better with proper supporting structure.
Structure is abundant in commedia dell’arte, the traditional Italian street-theatre format with stock characters and situations so secure in their ancient detail that seasoned players can build and perform specific scenarios almost instantly. Sounds like an ideal format for political theatre in a quick-change world. And that’s what Sanctuary Stage of Albany, Ore., must have figured when they built I’ve Got Guns as a platform to encourage, with vivid and outraged vigor, the tighter regulation of the firearms supply.
It’s a robust show, raw and raunchy in classic fashion, but it’s entirely too soft for what it’s trying to do. These actors yearn to go over the top but they can’t quite find it. They haven’t the training, the experience or the hunger that evolved into commedia. Instead, they feel like a gang of compassionate academics who met in Professor Somebody’s theatre history class and, discovering in the school wardrobe a stock of gorgeous Barbara Mason commedia costumes and masks, decided on a community project.
Dan Stone is their guide. He nailed together the scenario, liberally sampling today’s most fashionable obscenities, and he’s coached his players into a broad style that camouflages their amateur standing. Most successful are Tinamarie Ivey as the tyrant Pantalone, and Joseph Workman and Alycia Olivar as the frustrated lovers. Nobody holds back except the tentative musical accompaniment.
Frankly, commedia doesn’t really work well as a beast of burden for a specific message. Its core is too wound up in sex, power, money and generational conflict. The best hope for Sanctuary Stage is to leave school and tour the outback for a decade, playing the same characters in playlets that stress the basics. Then maybe try some politics.
I’m going to have some more comments before the 90 (!) plays of the Fringe Festival wrap up July 3. But, as a senior guy at the reviewing business, I plan to be very selective. Here’s my process, developed for my specific tastes and not urged on anybody else, though you’re welcome to it.
I look for wit and the promise of wonder. Spectacle, even bedraggled, is always interesting. I try to identify dues paid – training, maturity, true self-confidence – and I’m faithful to discoveries of yore.
I avoid solemnity, with respect, and agonized personal confessions with indifference. Squads of disciples are off-putting, especially when they carry traces of the classroom, an always reliable warning. One-person shows are easy to skip and anything that suggests the “stand-up” formula doesn’t get a second thought.
I’m sure I miss some interesting stuff by operating within these prejudices. But, as the late Craig Noel once told me, in a similar context: “I’m too old, too rich and too famous to worry about that, Welton.”
A final tip: The big hits of this year’s Fringe will emerge during the week remaining as the cauldron churns. But may I suggest two shows that might start selling out as word gets around? The Phantom of the Empire and Bella Culpa. More on them both as soon as I can manage.
Everything about the Fringe Festival is explained at their website: SDFRINGE.ORG
Or go by one of the 12 venues. Probably the best one is 923 First Ave. in the Spreckels Theatre Building.