"Think of this show as a series of dreams over the course of the night," the audience was instructed before the mesmerizing, multi-sensory performance of "Sure-Minded Uncertainties" at the TheatreROCS Stage on Sunday. Presented by CaveDogs (cavedogs.org), the show featured large-scale shadow projections layered with video imagery and an engaging original soundtrack.
Depicting the balance between technology and nature, the production immersed the viewers in the dreamy drift between the activities of a tree puller, a storyteller, a tailor, and a scientist. Each shapes the shifting world, which is constructed by the layered silhouettes of live actors, paper cutouts, and objects. I'm bummed that this one was only performed once!
I'm also bummed that the brief play, "Conscience," was performed only once during the Fringe (at MuCCC), and I hope that Rochester audiences will have the opportunity to see it in the future. The production is a dramatic reenactment of the testimony given by Elizabeth Good (played by Caroline Yeager) when called by her son, Bob Good (played by himself), who was on trial in 1973 with the rest of the Camden 28.
The group of conscientious objectors were arrested in 1971 while raiding a Camden, New Jersey, draft board, and stood trial after the Pentagon Papers had already been released, and more Americans were joining the youth in their disillusionment over America's meddling in Vietnam.
"We do not believe that it is criminal to destroy pieces of paper which are used to bind men to involuntary servitude, which train these men to kill, and which send them to possibly die in an unjust, immoral, and illegal war," said the 28, in a group statement submitted before the trial and offered to the MuCCC audience in a packet of useful information.
A middle-class farm wife and admittedly against communism, Elizabeth Good had already lost one of her 10 children to a car accident when she received the news that her drafted son Paul (Bob's older brother) died in Vietnam. Between the time that Elizabeth buried her son and was called as a witness by the Camden 28, Howard Zinn had already testified on behalf of true patriot Daniel Ellsberg. The mother's grief has turned to disgust.
"I still tried to hang on to that theory that my boy died for his country," she says. "But after Mr. Zinn was on the stand, and he spelled it out, 'tin, rubber, and oil,' that's when I broke down in court."
Her tearful testimony turns to an angry attack on American priorities, blaming the comfortable, clueless middle class -- of which she is admittedly a part -- who "sat aside and let them take our boys." Yeager shifted seamlessly between guilt, grief, chocking horror, and spitting anger, powerfully conveying the address that helped secure the group's freedom. The heavy presence of history settled even more tangibly into the room as Bob wiped his eyes when his "mom" mentioned how old his brother would have been.
My evening wrapped at MuCCC with a semi-tedious, two-hour performance of "Mystic Castle," a play by Lori Marra about a reporter who interviews the infamous Genesee River Killer, Arthur Shawcross. It was by no means a bad show -- it provides loads of fascinating information, and the versatile Elliot Fox was a very engaging Shawcross -- but parts of it have problems.
The title of the play is derived from a fictional conversation depicted within the show, between the incarcerated Shawcross and reporter John Ehrlich (Jesse Conklin), who was asked by his single-minded editor, Sam (Robert Shea), to pursue a sensational interview with Shawcross at Sullivan Correctional Facility. Part of the dubious angle is that Ehrlich, like Shawcross, is from Watertown, New York, and was terrified by him as an 11-year-old during Shawcross's early spree as a child rapist and murderer.
The editor rightly sneers at the law enforcement and court officials who deemed it appropriate to offer Shawcross a plea bargain -- "tell us where the bodies are, and we'll only charge you for assaulting the little girl." Shawcross accepted, served 25 years, and was released on probation (which he immediately and violently violated), and quietly relocated to Rochester (thanks a lot, court system), where he began murdering sex workers.
The first act introduces one of the play's problems: a rather flat representation of Ehrlich's relationship with his wife, who after one failed pregnancy and her own near-death has discovered she's still fertile, but the clock's a-tickin'. Part of the difficulty of caring about their struggle is that Brianna Ehrlich (played by Rachel Oshlag) is wheedling and yet unbelievingly over-accommodating to a kind of wince-y extent.
The other issue is that the play is an extremely long dramatic reading, with an unnecessary narrator (Jeff Wilson) intermittently speaking stage directions that could have been pantomimed (and are, effectively, but some of the actors). The narrator's voice was also sometimes moot, when it was drowned out by different players' yelling. But Wilson's turn as different kids during Ehrlich's flashbacks worked well.
Fox's Shawcross is intelligent and smug, but a debilitating bitter and unstable man. Marra and Fox did such a great job balancing his unstable behavior with severe bouts of charm that he's the most likeable person in the play. I was all set to protest this representation, troubled by the manipulation, but recalled that many people described the real man as pleasant and were shocked to learn of his activities.
During the course of the interview, Shawcross basically takes over the interrogation, easily manipulating the reporter into confessions and anger. I found this to be unlikely for a seasoned professional who purportedly works on grisly stories on the regular, but we can chalk it up to the burnout he's slipping into and the fact that he admits he's still afraid of this boogeyman. Despite pressures at home, Ehrlich's exposure to the evils of the world have made him reticent to bring a child into it the picture, and ultimately, stay in it himself.
With more than 500 performances taking place Thursday, September 15, through Saturday, September 24, there's a lot to take in. We'll help you get started.
Comedian Patton Oswalt discusses philosophy, comedy, and how stand-up will always be his mainstay