The 2011 IndyFringe festival wrapped up its seventh year this past Sunday night. And even though this was only my second year enjoying the theatre extravaganza in Indianapolis' own mini-arts district, it felt even more inclusive and representative of the theater spirit than my first festival outing.
The IndyFringe festival began in 2004, the same year I relocated to the West Coast. I've been a theater geek for most of my life, so imagine the excitement I felt when I returned to my hometown to discover a festival dedicated to independent productions that challenged the notions of traditional and commercial theatre.
No, we don't rival Edinburgh's mega-Fringe masterpiece (or even Toronto's or D.C.'s), but this little-festival-that-could has become a terrific feather in Indy's cap in an incredibly short time. It also has become a boon for local businesses in the Mass Ave. area. (I don't have to run the cash register to know that YoguLatte must be cleaning up whenever IndyFringe rolls around.)
Although I only caught 2 plays at last year's festival, each production left a wonderful impression on me. So, of course, I had to come back for the 2011 lineup and up the ante. Initially, I created a long wishlist of plays I wanted to see, but I forced myself to narrow it down to my Top 5. But only because my wallet, schedule and sanity made me do it.
For my first play, I made the mistake of not planning ahead. So instead of snagging a ticket to the sold-out School House Wrong, I opted to see Lou Sanz's one-women show, Not Suitable For Children.
Despite the rocky start to my evening, Sanz's show was a delight. Armed with a slideshow, notebook and colorful illustrations, her show-and-tell of life's most irreverent lessons made us all wish we knew how her devious mind truly worked.
Just as the show title suggests, this storytelling hour was only intended for mature audiences, or at the very least, those who are only juvenile at heart. Sanz shared stories of her unique childhood, her struggle to find the right gay guy to love, and her discovery that children may not be in her future.
Sanz is as snarky as she is curvaceous, completely disarming you with her charm before hitting you with the 1-2-punch of her beautiful, Australian wit. At times, it's difficult to say if she's sharing true events or simply setting you up for a payoff later in the show.
The storytelling hour was a wonderful introduction to my 2011 IndyFringe lineup. Not only did I learn about the oddly entertaining character of an IndyFringe favorite, but I learned that the festival is best when you're flexible and willing to try something unexpected and new.
It's no wonder Christel Bartelse was a 2011 Canadian Comedy Award Nominee. Her one-woman production was an energizing, yet poignant whirlwind of inspired storytelling and boisterous improv. ONEymoon focused on the concept of self-love in the ultimate form of devotion: Marriage.
Decked out in a white wedding dress and black tap shoes, Bartelse kicks off the play with her wedding in front of “family and friends” and delivers 60 minutes of hijinks and candor that reminds us what fringe theater is all about.
From an original rap to a tap dancing solo spent in deep contemplation, Bartelse offers something for everyone. She even manages to work in an audience participation segment and some of the best use of Dutch dialogue in the history of American theater.
It’s not all fun and games though. Our heroine struggles with a moral dilemma after a night of indiscretion. She’s left to wander if she’s cut out for marriage at all. Bartelse balances the quieter moments with the same finesse as her physical comedy, proving like many modern-day great comediennes (like Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig), she cannot be contained.
Starring four talented actresses with a wicked sense of humor and a love of literature, Antigone with a Shotgun wraps up four classics in well-crafted kindergarten classroom bookends. When the story opens, Lyndsey, Maureen, Chloe and Bethany are our inquisitive tykes who'd rather listen to stories than discuss boring topics like math and grammar. No, they'd rather hear a story featuring a woman with a lesson learned and a shotgun loaded. Their teacher -- provided by an offstage voice -- begrudgingly agrees to each little girl's request.
One by one, the teacher shares the tales of Antigone, Juliet Capulet, Nora Helmer and Hester Prynne, as our four playwrights, singers and actresses act out the "What If?" scenario.
The reinterpretation of these literary archetypes was both clever and inspiring. With just a dab of stage glue, a false beard and moustache, and quick changes galore, we're treated to melodies and melodrama that teaches as easily as it entertains.
I personally loved the Antigone excerpt the most. It did a wonderful job of retelling the story concisely without sacrificing tension, humor or detail. Not an easy feat at all. Plus, Lyndsey Brown's and Bethany Driggers' performances revealed two incredibly skilled actresses who can effortlessly improv their way threw failing moustaches to firmly capture the fear, desperation and urgency of a woman on the brink of exile and rejection. This book nerd and theater geek was quite impressed.
If there was any production during the 2011 IndyFringe touted as the “must-see show” of the festival, it was Zehra Fazal’s Headscarf and the Angry Bitch. The buzz surrounding this New York International Fringe Critic’s Pick winner was non-stop for the fest’s 10 days of shows.
And deservingly so.
Headscarf and the Angry Bitch takes shape as an ongoing series of weekly lectures at the Indianapolis Islamic Center to help increase understanding, tolerance and respect in our community. Alone on stage with her rolling carry-on of props, prayer rug and acoustic guitar, Fazal gives us a brief lesson in basic Islamic tenets and South Asian culture.
From there, we’re delighted with songs, anecdotes and confessions from our North Carolina-born, Pakistani-descended narrator. Sometimes blue, sometimes sweet, you can’t help but relate to her feelings of being caught between two worlds, even if your childhoods have nothing in common. Now that is the mark of great storyteller!
Fazal easily raises the bar with every interlude, impressing us not only with her witty folk songs, but with her honesty and courage. From the opening strums of “Horse With No Name” expertly re-written with the lyrics “I’ve been threw the airport as a Muslim detained,” I knew she would be a cut above the rest.
Her cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” re-fashioned as the tale of her coming out to her parents was worth the price of admission alone. Between Fazal’s beautiful voice – which is clearly meant for the stage – and her thought-provoking commentary on life as a Muslim woman growing up in the U.S., I'm sure this won’t be the last we hear of Ms. Fazal.
I’d hate to give you the impression I only attended shows spotlighting proud feminine quests for identity and justice. Au contraire. As some other feisty fringers have told me, IndyFringe would not be IndyFringe without the magnificent Ben Asakywee. So I took their advice and made my way over to Asaykwee’s one-man lounge act titled Satan LIVE! And the name says it all.
Imagine 60 minutes of the most melodious tenor to grace the microphone at the Fringe, punctuated by bawdy anecdotes, double entendres and the most demonic smirk you’ve ever seen this side of the Mississippi. Asaykwee takes us through his side of the tale of Original Sin, as well as the start of creation. Of course, the Devil remembers it differently.
Then, the man in red shares his take on the seven deadly sins. Wrapping soulful tunes around caveats and bon mots like a master chef drawing you into the most decadent dessert your senses have even known, we can’t help but feel transfixed as Asaykwee plays with our notions of “acceptable sin.”
My favorite number of the evening was a rapid-fire tribute to greed. Tied wonderfully into the human obsession of buying whatever we’re told to want, good ole Lucifer reminds you of the common sights of everyday consumerism. Standing in line at the Apple Store to replace one perfectly good phone with a newer one. Ignoring homeless people asking for change as we step into a Starbucks to buy a $5 coffee. And the list goes on, giving you food for thought with your order of jazzy syncopation.
Yes, the show may be fun, lewd and euphonic, but it’s also deceptively clever. Imagine that. It’s as if the Devil planned it that way all along.
If you missed your chance to see either of Asaykwee’s contributions to this year's festival -– the other was Strike! The Musical -– you have to make it up to yourself next year. His work has become a fixture at IndyFringe, and once you see his show, you’ll easily understand why.