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Monday, 15 July 2013 20:14

Performing arts review: 'Montana: A Shakespearean Scarface,' 'The Spotty Truth,' 'St. Louis Taiko' and 'Thunder Kittens' at St. Lou Fringe Festival 2013

Out of the Ashes Theatre Company at St. Lou Fringe Festival 2013 Out of the Ashes Theatre Company at St. Lou Fringe Festival 2013 Kathryn Powell Photography
Written by James Anthofer
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NonProphet Theatre Company's 'Montana: A Shakespearean Scarface' finds humor, pathos in adaptation of film.

Out of the Ashes (of the NonProphet) Theatre unearthed a beating heart of tragedy and hilarity under all the powdered sugar, neon and horrific accents in their faithful Shakespearean adaptation of Brian De Palma's 1983 film "Scarface."

Tony (Antonio) Montana went from Cuban immigrant to drug kingpin to sword-riddled corpse in just under an hour as the players formerly known as NonProphet Theatre danced, strutted, and sliced their way across the stage.

Though they could have simply inserted the random "thee" and "thine" in between the ludicrous number of f-bombs and "cock-a-roaches" in Oliver Stone's original script and still called it "Shakespearean," the writers of "Montana" did something much more impressive. They used inventive wordplay and rhythmic fidelity of a great Shakespearean tragedy throughout the adaptation in hilarious and even touchingly sad ways. One example: when Antonio Montana quit his job in a restaurant to sell drugs full time, he threw his apron with a flourish and said "Thou speakest not to dishwasher or dish drier -- I do from food service retire."

The sets and staging also played off the theme of Shakespearean tragedy effectively. When Montana's character attempted to bring home his "1000 crown" from his first job murdering a drug rival for the slimly Frank Lopez, he carried the money in a leather satchel and threw it on the table for his mother to see. This nod to the coinage of Shakespeare's time, in contrast to the "bringing home the Benjamins" of ours, wasn't just funny, it was dramatically effective; Montana's mother threw the coins back into Antonio's face with a satisfying clang. In addition, the sword-fighting of this version, in contrast to the film's gunfighting, offered the hilarious spectacle of a Montana covered in powdered sugar swinging a massive sword and parrying what looked like ninjas in the play's climax.

Most importantly, the play would not have been successful without the actors and actresses of NonProphet, who managed to wring emotions besides sheer absurdity out of characters than had nothing more than that in De Palma's film. Antonio Montano sounded and acted more like Tony Soprano than Tony Montana, and that was a great thing: James Gandolfini, god bless him, played a gangster with far more wit and nuance than Al Pacino did, and that performance was echoed in "Montana." There were no weak players in NonProphet. The smoldering sister Gina Montano, the loving and constantly disappointed Mama Montana, the goofy, doomed best friend Manny Ribera, the imperious Sosa, the slimy Frank Lopez, the cocaine-addled Omar Suarez and the bored, lonely Elivira Hancock all played their part.

There's no better way to sum up "Montana" than with your best Tony Montana accent and the words he uses to describe Omar Suarez: "He fairly dripped with flash, and with pizzazz." Unlike Suarez, NonProphet took the flash and pizzazz of "Scarface" and imbued it with something else: humanity and humor.

The Spotty Truth improvises at Fringe

The inherent riskiness of improvisational comedy creates a kind of shaky continuum. On one side are "alternative" improv artists: they gladly let a show flower into absurdity or sink into pathos, and don't mind if no one in the audience laughs. On the other side is "Whose Line Is It Anyway," the steady jobbers who make careers on friendly, rarely offensive, predictably funny sketches. I prefer the former, but "The Spotty Truth" often ended up being closer to the latter.

The problems started with the format. Just like many traveling improvisation ensembles, the Spotty Truth used an audience interview as raw material for its sketches. The idea was sound, but the ensemble made far too much out of how they will take "the truth" of someone's life and turn it into fiction with the "power of comedy." They passed out a piece of paper with a spot on it to each member of the audience, and the one audience member with a red spot ended up being brought on stage for a 15-minute interview.

I'm not sure why such a process was necessary, since I've seen improv ensembles just as successfully point at a random person in the audience and bring them on stage, nor why the interview, replete with props and pre-taped transitions between each section of the interviewee's life (parents, childhood, adolescence, adulthood), needed to be so long. It didn't help that the audience member randomly chosen by the spot process was a self-described "boring guy" who continually tried to insert his own jokes in the interview.

When the show actually started, the sketches were high energy and often funny, but rarely challenging. The interviewee's story of seeing someone fall on the ice at a skating rink that he worked at and doing nothing to help them became an improvised trial for manslaughter by all six members of "The Spotty Truth." His story of being the child of accountants and growing up to be a computer programmer became a belabored joke about counting stacks of paper rather than enjoying his life.

One of the other improv ensembles at the festival, Phat Beethoven, leans more towards the alternative style, and the Spotty Truth actually brought them out to begin the show with a frenetic 15-minute set. This move made me wonder whether The Spotty Truth even liked performing using only the interview format. I hope that they don't, and that they're taking inspiration from the smart, often uncomfortable work of Beethoven.

St. Louis Taiko slams audience into submission, delight

Before I saw St. Louis Taiko in the small Satori studio, I had been warned to bring earplugs. Despite playing mostly unamplified, the ensemble, which practices the 60-year-old Japanese discipline of Taiko drumming, was as loud as advertised, as loud as a typical rock and roll concert. Yet this performance was a study in contrasts.

Right from the first, 10-minute-long song, the ear-splittingly loud bass drums were paired with a delicate flute solo. The women's intermittent cries in Japanese were interrupted with an often delicate choreography, full of slow-motion swoops and deliberate pauses. The drummers smiled at each other while keeping perfect time. At moments, all of them would swing one hand towards the sky in perfect unison, slowing their beat by half and allowing the flute to shine through.

By the time the second song began, with a brief introduction about the art of Taiko from one of the only men in the ensemble, I felt overwhelmed by the constant volume but energized by the infectious joy and communal spirit. I couldn't help smiling, then, when the half of the ensemble brought a table full of sake shots from the back of the venue to the center of the instruments as the other half began the song. The members then switched back and forth from loudly cheered sake shots to increasingly complex drum beats.

To complete their strange tour, the group danced through the audience during the last song, picking people up out of their seats for a hula-like sway. Near the back of the stage, a member of the ensemble appeared with a devil mask on the back of her head, took out an even larger mallet and swung it at the huge bass drum while another member of the ensemble took out a pair of pink fans from somewhere beneath the timpani and danced delicately next to the front row of the audience, who were back in their seats by this point.

I wasn't quite sure what was going on, but I took my earplugs out and basked in the noise and spectacle until the last drum sounded.

Can't take your eyes off the Thunder Kittens

No matter your interest, kink, or hobby, the eight women of Thunder Kittens probably had a performance for you. From a restrained, soulful version of Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman" to an epic ode to cookie addiction, complete with snorting and shooting, the Kittens took it (mostly) all off and put on a smart and funny burlesque.

I had never attended a burlesque show before Kittens, but the first dance of the night, Allura Fette's geeky ode to "A Clockwork Orange," put me immediately at ease. Fette's gleeful performance as Alex, the main character from the film, didn't make me feel like a creepy guy. Note: all men who watch burlesque shows aren't creepy, I'm just kind of a prude. However, Fette's performance, complete with umbrella and suspenders, made me feel like a fellow film geek.

I was also delighted by Cinderella's performance as the sadly defunct Cookie Monster singing "C is for Cookie" and a Tom Waits song that I couldn't identify. She ate cookies, danced, stowed cookies away for more dancing, simulated snorting cookie crumbs, simulated shooting up cookie dough, and then ate more cookies. Her performance was one of the longest of the night, but I was transfixed throughout.

The show concluded with the classic one hit wonder "Baby Got Back," as interpreted by the lounge artist Richard Cheese and performed by Rayna Skye. Skye did indeed possess a healthy backside, and she shook it with gusto as Cheese schmaltzed up Sir Mir-A-Lot's butt-positive lyrics. It was exactly the type of surreal but undeniably captivating performance that sums up the appeal of the Kittens.

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