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Monday, 15 July 2013 22:42

Performing arts review: 'Gun Club,' Phat Beethoven, 'Modern Mixes' and 'The Lord Loves a Working Man' and 'This Is a Play' at St. Lou Fringe Festival 2013

Karlovsky and Company at St. Lou Fringe Festival 2013 Karlovsky and Company at St. Lou Fringe Festival 2013 Kathryl Powell Photography
Written by Johnny Buse
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"Gun Club"
Alex Phillips and David Reddick

There are two types of cafes in the movies. There's the hive of romance -- think Brad Pitt and Claire Forlani in "Meet Joe Black" -- a cozy room with warm, milky drinks and longing eyes.

Then there's the hive of treachery -- think Denzel Washington and John Travolta in "Pulp Fiction" -- a harsh place with hot, thin coffee and unpredictable tempers.

In "Gun Club," a two-act play written by Alex Phillips and directed by Nick Otten, we're squarely in the latter.

Phillips plays the lead role of Tony, a self-described schizophrenic, coffee swilling, 20-something nihilist who lives at home with his parents and wears a bathrobe in public. He is a regular at Coffee Cartel, and the play opens with him twitching at a table in the Central West End coffee shop, surrounded by grotesque, homemade puppets that get stage time in a delusional monologue, the tamer of his two rants. It is at 2 a.m. inside Coffee Cartel that Johnson meets his foil, Clint Edgewood, played by David Reddick.

Like Tony, Edgewood is a disillusioned 20-something, but with a different twist -- he's a buzzword-spewing anarchist dedicated to taking down the "fashionistas" -- i.e., fascists. He wears salmon pants, a backwards college hat and walks with swagger, a pretty boy lefty hungry for esteem in an Occupy world. Edgewood also has puppets, but they're used for protesting. He confuses his ideologies, and stutters through sound bites while trying to define anarchism, the sort of character Ann Coulter's dreams are made of. Where Johnson is nihilistic, Edgewood is full of life -- the former believes he is nothing, the latter that he is Jesus. They're both individualists and deeply flawed, and their game of contrasts is highly entertaining.

The two dip and dive through dialogue that captures a contemporary flavor in the same way "The Big Lebowski" captured a moment of the '90s. They fly through miscommunication rather than stumble, the misunderstandings birthing whole new lines of conversation. Phillips and Reddick are so natural together I began to worry about how autobiographical the whole thing might be.

Carlton Lee, who plays a laconic barista caught in the middle (think Steve Buscemi's Donny, constantly in the background, tethering an absurd pair to speechless reality) and Otten, who appears in the closing scene as a 60-something drug dealer God, accompany Phillips and Reddick on the whirlwind of a ride. "Gun Club" feels half as long as its run time, which is broken in two by an intermission, and the actors explode with energy, aided by fake cigarettes, bags of oregano and a prop gun that the two wave all over the place. They threaten suicide, smash a banana, rant, rave, yell, hide, and bow before a singing wall-mounted trout, the stage filled with insanity.

Form aside, the push and pull between Phillips' and Reddick's characters give the play its lasting impact. Johnson is crippled by his inability to make anything worthwhile of the world. Edgewood is crippled by his inability to imagine the world without his saving touch. They grapple for authenticity and purpose in ways that repulse one another but draw them together - -Edgewood takes Johnson's off-hand, absurd suggestion that they rob Coffee Cartel and runs with it, claiming it to be the perfect way to strike back at the man.

Tony and Edgewood may be separated by ethos, but they are united in their struggle under the weight of their own, self-imposed White Men's Burdens. For Johnson, his burden is crippling; for Edgewood, it's energizing -- regardless, they're both useless farces.

"Gun Club" is richly entertaining theatre with a strong, original study of its characters--it's only drawback may be that the finely tuned cultural vocabulary becomes uber-specific to a point of potentially isolating the audience, as they watch two 20-somethings reference the inner workings of their overdriven, insular minds and fringe communities. But that's the point, right?

Phat Beethoven

Phat Beethoven, a four-man sketch comedy group from Chicago featuring Adam Cole, Jordan Haynes, Daniel Shar and Samuel Stone Watters, introduced themselves as the winner of a "most cerebral" award. At first glance, it plays off as a joke -- the troupe's 45-minute show started with a boner joke and ended with the group walking in a Ouroboros spanking circle, their bare cheeks turning visibly red before the lights faded out.

It may sound like a frat party gone wrong, and that's sort of the idea. But rather than celebrating the triumph of testosterone and wolf packs, Phat Beethoven was poking and prodding our conceptions of masculinity, playing with twisted comedy that understands the inherent dickishness of four men on stage.

They pair pride with shame -- in their first skit, a pair of cops arrest a pair of cops, only to reverse the arrests on technicalities again and again, until they eventually descend into a wife-cheating confessional, arresting themselves at gun point.

There's aggression and impotence -- a terrible bowler loses his cool in the face of taunting friends and rips his shirt off, only to fold it while "hulking out" his skinny torso, veins bulging more than muscles.

And, of course, there's untempered and confused sexuality--during a slumber party viewing of Monster's Ball, the four gaze into the audience as if each member made up the image of Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton, the foursomes hands miming beneath their respective blankets through a drifting conversation.

Not that all of their material hits home -- they occasionally lay on the brutality with heavy hands, and it overwhelms in a skit about suicide and football coaches -- and their penchant for over-the-top and abrupt skit endings grows a bit stale. More often than not, though, they landed strongly, warming up a Saturday afternoon audience that played hard to get through the first scenes.

Phat Beethoven is hairy and gross, but, most importantly, the troupe dissects familiar gender roles with precision and great comedic effect. For that, they've got the "cerebral" part down.

"Modern Mixes"
Karlovsky & Company Dance

I'll be honest: my dance knowledge is limited, the achilles heel I try to hide in conversation. So, apologies in advance to Karlovsky & Company Dance -- the finer aspects, references and kinetics of your two act Modern Mixes were likely lost on me. But the energy, innovation and camaraderie was not.

Modern Mixes is the product of the new dance company, started by local dancer and choreographer Dawn Karlovsky. Seven dancers made their way through a hour long two part show accompanied by live futurist art rock from Tory Z Starbuck, Kevin Harris and Bruce McLaughlin, who warmed the audience with desolate electronic music.

The first half of Modern Mixes matched the music -- dark and discomforting, yet entrancing. What started as a patterned movement slowly disintegrated, as the one dancer after another fell away and out of sync. The group would reform, and a dancer would attempt to break off, only to be pulled back by a teeming mass of limbs that fluidly stayed one step ahead. The whole act ended with a scene of domestic discontents, incomprehensible murmurs from each dancer turning into shouts, a sort of malfunctioning "Sims." Again, it was uncomfortable stuff, my fidgets increasing through the act.

The second half used the more traditional first half to launch into an unorthodox program: a dance menu, in which seven audience members chose which dancers would perform, with what props, themes and music (the musical choices included "Modern Architecture"), leaving the dancers to improvise their ways through seven of a several hundred thousand possible combinations.

The combinations made for interesting theatre -- the improvised dance rightfully varied greatly from piece to piece -- and lightened the mood, as the dancers' creative processes unfolded on stage and ended in camaraderie as they walked off the stage -- back pats and smiles and whispered comments.

There was a 9-or-so-year-old boy in the front rows of my show -- the last for the company -- that had seen the show at least once before. The MC suggested he let other audience members have a chance to choose a dance menu, but when the seventh spot went unpicked, his hand stayed raised. He excitedly assembled a dance menu.

At the end of one dance routine, he said "See, I told you they were crazy!"

Crazy makes for a bold performance, certainly, and a captivating one at that.

"The Lord Loves a Working Man"
Eric Warner

As the stage lights went up on Eric Warner sitting at the lone, school-desk for his monologue "The Lord Loves a Working Man" at the Kranzberg Arts Center Black Box Theatre, the house lights stayed dark.

"Can you turn the house lights up, please?" were the first words out of Warner's mouth, spoken with a touch of meekness.

It was a fitting start to his monologue, a 50-minute-long float through the memories of Warner's life, unchronologically drifting from childhood to his 31st birthday. Throughout, one conflict holds his story together: the fear of the unknown, and the desire to conquer the unknown. And that sort of conflict makes for one anxious man.

He stammered like Ira Glass on fast forward and seemed nervous, giving the audience the upper hand, but always had control. He didn't stop when the audience laughed, nor did he chuckle at his own jokes--he rolled straight through. The lack of smugness or pretension was endearing, and after the first 10 minutes, he hit his pace and stride without losing a filter of anxiousness in his story telling.

The main line of the monologue dealt with his adventure west from Chicago to build houses with a group of men. With no experience, he recounts planing lumber, failing to lift heavy things and building a house, He rambles through the men's characters, similar to him, touching upon the pains of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. It's all set against a fixation on Teddy Roosevelt and his Bull Moose tenacity. Warner sees a role model in his independence, and grapples with his own failures to emulate the tales he reads in a Roosevelt biography.

The house brackets tales of a jumpy chronology, hitting childhood, young adulthood and the recent past. He hits his major sweet spot as he recounts his first visit to the Registrar's Office at St. Louis Community College - Florissant Valley. After recounting the registrar asking him about his career goals, a stream of consciousness dribbles out of Warner's mouth for the better part of two minutes, as he stumbles through careers he's interested in, only to follow up with a reason why it wouldn't work. It's generalized anxiety at its purest, but unguarded.

He ends the monologue on a seemingly hopeless note: the house isn't finished, but it will get done. However, his 10 days are over, and he's made no progress on his relationship or career aspirations--he's still reeling from a break up, broke and jobless. The light fades as he repeats "I guess I'll be a...I guess I'll be a...I guess I'll be a..."

Warner's monologue was the one show I felt I needed to see again. Not so much because I enjoyed it--I did--but because I found myself reaching back throughout his ramble, trying to piece together his carefully scattered memories. He leaves a trail of crumbs leading the listener from his childhood fears to young adulthood to adulthood, drawing faint but weighty lines between a child's fear of crossing the street to career and relationship anxiety with a gracefully tumbling stage presence.

"This Is a Play"
R-S Theatrics

This is a theatre review. Or, rather, a capsule -- something short, sweet and witty, a bit of a quick read on a quick play. Here, I introduce the play, with a bit of Wikipedia researched summary (don't worry, I checked my sources): "This Is a Play," a comedy in one act by active Canadian actor, director and playwright Daniel MacIvor, which hit the stage of Fubar under the care of local theatre company R-S Theatrics.

Now I tell you about the play, dropping buzz words I picked up from years of skimming VHS boxes, movie posters and online review capsules: "This Is a Play" is a hilarious, fast paced four acts in one play about a play (about lettuce) that joyfully rips on Mamet, Midwestern archetypes and the overacted, dead-end images of local theatre.

Casey Boland plays the wannabe-stud blockhead "Male Actor" with a fixation on Robert Pattinson, opposite Beth Wickenhauser, the theatre princess "Female Actor" who's sleeping with the director. Kirsten Wylder fills the all important role of the jaded, chain smoking "Older Female Actor," complete with a purposefully bad wig.

Boland, Wickenhauser and Wylder nail the parts, as they jockey through the four-miniature-acts in one, faithful to their archetypes with a joyful earnestness that never dips into mockery and never breaks the image of the play -- if the audience spoke no English, they'd be captivated by the drama, not the comedy.

The bare stage, with only a wooden chair, was pretentious. "You're worried this might be a children's play," Wylder tells us in the opening moments. Wickenhauser's eyes watered with overwrought emotion -- Boland's were often perfectly vacant. In-jokes made this play most enjoyable for actors, but the joy and energy the trio brought to kept the play accessible for those who were foreigners to the stage.

For all the surface cynicism, the play rumbles with a beautiful truth: Even bad theatre, or especially bad theatre, is full of earnest joy and love of the art. Dramatic readings are lambasted, but as Wylder's character states in the closing moments of the play, nothing quite compares delivering that final line, and that's what keeps us coming back.

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