2016 is the first year that the Diversionary Theatre has taken part in the San Diego Fringe Festival. Several ensemble comedies are playing throughout the weekend at the Blackbox Theatre.
It Had to be You, from Michael Madden Productions, is a very modern look at the online dating world. Set in Lestat’s Coffee House, the relationship story is split into three scenes. Each one deals with a heterosexual couple who hope to connect.
As the adult men and women talk to each other, audiences get to hear their inner thoughts, with the help of two of the performers, Randy Davison and Rachel Bishop.
Writer/director, Michael Madden (he has a cameo in the introduction), has assembled several actors to play the single San Diegans. Duane Weekly and Jennifer Scibetta give grounded performances as Roger and Kathleen. On the other hand, Andrew Ian and Nancy Wong humorously portray Frank and Sandra, who suffer from being extremely shallow and other character defects.
Bishop and Davison display comedic versatility as the contemplative brains in each sequence. Both of them are hilarious, witty and even a little vulnerable.
Madden’s first two segments handle awkward conversations in a relatable way. Seeing would be couples failing to bond should resonate with singles.
There is something very frustrating about the conclusion, and that is by design. Not everything is resolved neatly, which is atypical for a romantic narrative. Though the conclusion is an odd fit for the genre, it is gutsy for not sticking to a formula.
Another play dealing with relationships is Strangers, Lovers, Family, Friends presented by Company of Cohorts. Although the 2015 Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival’s Audience Choice Award winner gets off to a slow start, the new staging picks up a lot of steam as the night progresses. There are four shorts, and each one is worth talking about individually.
First up is a tale about two individuals (Trayven Call and Hannah Minshew) who have been seeing each other for several weeks. They don’t label themselves a couple, even though they are wild about each other. Things get complicated when a potentially alcoholic roommate (Suni Gigliotti) pops up.
Minshew and Gigliotti are charming to watch, but the reoccurring joke is that Call spends his time onstage only in his underwear. It’s a scenario that get old quickly, despite a few dramatic moments in the climax.
Following the half naked hijinks, is a plot that can only be described as bizarre. When a “Regular Joe” (Max Cedar Huftalin) enters his home, he soon realizes that a narrator (Merry Magee) has broken into his abode.
Of the mini plays, this is the one that comes across as the strangest. Magee does what she can to keep her situations entertaining, yet a lot of them do not make sense.
Strangers, Lovers, Family, Friends starts to click with the third anecdote. Right before a wedding, a couple (CJ Strong and Manda Corbett) discover that the groom might be running away from the special occasion. What follows is a farce of sorts with enjoyably exaggerated conflicts.
Another reason the particular segment works is because of the affectionate way love is treated. Strong and Corbett’s bond grows stronger as they find themselves getting into out of the ordinary situations.
Ending things strongly is the last storyline, which is a little more serious than the preceding ones. After her dad passes away, his WASPy daughter (Minshew), tries to be dignified during her father’s funeral. Her polar opposite sister (Corbett) talks about their parent with a pessimistic attitude. Tensions boil between the two siblings as the day goes on.
If the other one-acts were fairly light, the finale strikes more of an emotional chord. That is in large part because of Minshew. She becomes quite compassionate when the older daughter is forced to reflect upon her past.
By experimenting with different kinds of storytelling, Company of Cohorts rewards attendees. A word of warning. Every vignette ends with a loud handheld gong noise form the MC, Tristan Johnson. Sensitive viewers might consider bringing earplugs.
Diversionary is proving to be a great new location for the Fringe Festival. Perhaps Michael Madden Productions and Company of Cohorts will produce new work next summer.