theatre/dance
July 24, 2009

Fringe binge
by Greg Boyle

This is the fifth year of the Kansas City Fringe Festival, and it might be the year that it gained respectability. Its very name makes it clear that the art, poetry, theatre, dance, burlesque, fashions, and films presented at the festival are not mainstream fare.

However, this year, some of the well-known local stage companies have opened their doors to allow Fringe productions within their midst. This allows patrons to see shows at locations they’re familiar with, while still “fringing”. In making their choices as to what shows to see, audiences are encouraged to take chances just as the artists have done. Some of the presentations are late night and adults-only bawdy, while many others would easily get a “G” rating. The Festival website and program give pictures and synopses to allow you to make your choices. That’s how I chose mine.

Sunshinefaceis a one-man show starring Devin Keast. Keast is a comic and sports broadcaster out of Chicago. He has a “little boy you want to take home with you” quality that serves his material well. He is lithe and graceful but not flashy in his physical bits. His show is billed as a revue, which eliminates the need for it to have a beginning or end, or any continuity.

However, in this case, the lack of those things isn’t a problem. With no introduction or buildup we get a spot-on impression of a Johnny Carson monologue. Keast’s posture and delivery are right on target, along with Carson’s typical weak jokes. We are treated to a variety of other characters, including a name-dropping party host, an Eastern European landlord, an eccentric high school symphony conductor, and an energetic but shy dog.

Along the way Keast finds time to sing a few songs, accompanied by recorded music that he credits to Jack Apricot. The keyboards are a very nice complement to Keast’s untrained, but pleasant singing voice. At intervals throughout the show, Keast also gives us some introspective insights regarding his relationships with women. Like a good comic, he creates a rapport with the audience that makes you glad you came. 

Eat Now, Talk Later is an entirely different experience in a one-man show, featuring Jim Vescovi. In truth, it isn’t a performance at all. Vescovi alternates sitting behind a small table and a desk while speaking directly to the audience, in the style of Spalding Gray. While he occasionally gets out of his chair just for a change of pace, the vast majority of the time Vescovi is just sitting there, and it’s perfect. We’re immediately comfortable because we feel like we’re his friends, sitting around his kitchen table, drinking homemade wine, while he shares his reminiscences of his beloved Italian immigrant grandparents.

Jim Vescovi is a literature professor at Columbia University who was talked into creating this piece by friends. It is obvious that while Vescovi has experience talking for a living, performing is new to him. However, that does not detract from the evening’s entertainment.

The audience is absolutely rapt in its attention, waiting for each charming new vignette. They are often funny, sometimes a little sad, but never depressing. Vescovi’s simple delivery doesn’t leave any room to feel sorry for anything that happens. It is presented as a natural unfolding of life. Vescovi, as a professional writer, doesn’t fail to give us a beginning, middle, and end, covering the stages of the grandparents’ lives in America. Along the way we’re treated to an understanding of his and his father’s relationships with them.

Anyone who loves the truly American story of trying to adapt to a confusing new culture, while being unable to let go of the old, should see this show. Or if you simply love or miss your grandparents, that’s another good reason to go.

Sunshineface and Eat Now, Talk Later are playing at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main Street, through Sunday July 26. Box office 816-531-7529.

The jewel in the crown of my Fringe week was Money Buckets, by the Buran Theatre Company. It is a long-lost Marx Brothers script, adapted slightly for our time, and performed with zany gusto by the ensemble, which includes Justin Knudsen as Groucho, Marius Maciulis as Harpo, Brady Bevins as Chico, and Alicia Gian as Margaret Dumont. I have never seen young players with such an appreciation of the Marx Brothers routines. Their shtick was flawless. Their sense of anarchy and chaos, the hallmarks of the Marx Brothers style, was right on target. They were betrayed a little by a sound system that distorted some of their rapid-fire word play and ruined their hard earned punch lines, but the incredible energy of the company overcame those obstacles.

This group is out for more than laughs, though. The Marx Brothers may have been anarchists, but the Buran Company gives us a dose of political theatre on top of it all.

Their faux interviews of Bertolt Brecht and Buckminster Fuller, though each is nonsense, indicate that they have serious fish to fry. The placards that the lovely Val Smith carried around the stage are straight out of Brecht’s Epic Theatre, even though the interview made fun of it.
Background music was ably provided by Chris Luxem and Ben Leifer, who played folk songs from the 1930s in keeping with the time frame of the play. Money Buckets is playing at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3604 Main Street, call the box office at 816-569-3226.

All Fringe Fest information, regarding events, times and locations, can be found by calling 816-359-9195, or at their web site, www.kcfringe.org.

Greg Boyle can be contacted at gbboyle@kc.rr.com.