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Two experimental shows give Rochester Fringe an auspicious start

Rochester Fringe Festival, Day 1: "The Event," "Hide the Moon" reviews 

Two experimental shows give Rochester Fringe an auspicious start

UPDATED 9/20/12 to correct the name of the actor playing Jokannan on "Hide the Moon."

The theme for the first night of the inaugural First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festival was the lifting of veils, both literal and figurative. My first stop for the evening was the Geva Theatre Center Nextstage for the first performance of "The Event." John Clancy's one-man show has been a hit internationally, including at the Edinburgh Fringe, where actor David Calvitto -- who reprises the sole role in Rochester -- won a Best Actor award.

The hour-long piece is difficult to describe, even though it spends a great deal of time explaining itself directly to the audience. Right from the beginning Clancy, through the use of The Man (Calvitto), sets about demystifying the essential illusions of live theater, and any preconceptions the audience may have about what's about to happen for the next 60 minutes. But he doesn't stop there. The Man slowly peels back the layers of many social and ideological constructs and assumptions about modern-day life to reveal some surprisingly obvious, yet undeniably hard-to-swallow, basic truths. Some of them are superficial, some personal, some cultural, some political. I won't spoil the specific content, but I will say that if you've ever thought, "What is the world coming to, and how did we get here?" this is the show for you.

Except, that's only true if you have an attention span and patience. "The Event" is not performance art for the easily distracted. There's no razzle dazzle or flim flam -- although there are several solid laughs. But mostly it's one guy, talking at a very rapid pace, almost non-stop for 60 minutes, and asking you to think and really engage with what he's saying.

Calvitto does a good job playing with the show's many layers -- or is that a total absence of layers? -- and while he delivers most of the lines in an odd, slightly rushed affect (I kept thinking of him as a cross between Jeff Goldblum and Mr. Bean, and I cannot put my finger on why) he's quite good at lulling the crowd into gentle subservience with the fluffy stuff and then pressing harder with the meaty observations. He did have a few minor line flubs, but overall he gave an impressive performance of some tricky material. It was a great way to start of the Fringe Festival. (NOTE: "The Event" will also be performed Friday, September 21, 6-7:05 p.m. at Geva's Nextstage. Tickets cost $15.)

My second stop of the night was to RAPA's East End Theatre for the debut performance of "Hide the Moon." This new piece was conceived by Eastman School of Music students Andrew Pramuk, Alison Moritz, and Matt Moisey, and adapted from Oscar Wilde's "Salome." As in the original, it retells the biblical story of Salome, the innocent princess turned temptress whose dance of the seven veils results in the beheading of John the Baptist. "Hide the Moon" incorporates live music performances ranging from Fiona Apple to Broadway to Christian spirituals, plus costumes inspired by early 20th century styles, and even a bit of 21st century technology.

The show started out slightly clunky, as the performers took some time to settle into their roles. But things got steadily better as the show went along, and it was absolutely riveting in parts. There were times when the production felt shocking just for the sake of shock, but it's important to remember that these are students, and they are they still figuring out their artistic sensibilities.

One of the most notable differences about "Hide the Moon" is that the role of Salome is performed as a man, still referred to by the characters as a female, but not played in drag. Andrew Pramuk played the role well, with an odd mix of detached drone and unhinged zeal. In having a male actor play the part, the show instantly raised additional questions about gender and sexuality in a story already defined by sensuality and its link to power. Moritz was commanding in the role of Salome's mother, Herodias. Gabe Condon as Jokanaan was routinely difficult to understand due to sound issues, which were also problematic at other parts of the show as the music drowned out crucial lines of dialogue. (I have absolutely no idea what Herodias said at the end of the play.)

All that said, the show built to an undeniable energy, and the troupe's passion for the project was unmistakable. These are young artists creating something new and different for local audiences, and it is exactly what I was hoping the Fringe Festival would present us. "Hide the Moon" could use a little fine tuning, but it's an ambitious, auspicious start for these students and the festival itself. (NOTE: "Hide the Moon" will also be performed Saturday, September 22, at 10:30 p.m. at RAPA's East End Theatre. Admission is free, and the show is recommended for audiences ages 16 and up.)

On Thursday night I'll be checking out Bandaloop dancing on the side of One HSBC Plaza, taking in the bellydance of Shimmy Shake Down, and getting a shotgun blast of suburban housewife glamour courtesy of Kasha Davis. What Fringe events are you looking forward to tonight?

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