Tuesday, September 9, 2008

60 Minutes

For many people, 60 Minutes is the name of the long-running, award-winning Sunday night newsmagazine on CBS.  For others, 60 minutes is merely another way of describing the amount of time contained within an hour.  But for audiences at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, 60 minutes is the length of each act.

The good news is that with each act lasting 60 minutes, it's easy to catch three separate and wildly different styles of performance art in an evening.   When the 60-minute act is wonderful, it's hard to imagine that so much good theater could be crammed into one hour. However, when the act is decidedly substandard, waiting for the clock to hit the 60-minute mark can be an exercise in dramatic endurance.

My first night at the San Francisco Fringe Festival started off on remarkably strong footing with a performance of Joe Besecker's caustic one-act play, Loving Fathers.  What's that?  You thought Mart Crowley's The Boys In The Band was filled with vicious queens?  You thought Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was filled with self-loathing?  

Well, fasten your seatbelts, kids. You ain't seen nothing yet!

The promotional blurb for the play describes it as "a dark, surrealistic comedy about two young gay men who lust after their own fathers and are lovers themselves." That's a bit too simplistic. Let me see if I can be a little more specific.  

Chipper (who begins and ends the show) is an angry, bitter 22-year-old crackhead who, having run through all his money, has returned home from San Francisco to live with his vain, spiteful and dying mother in Pennsylvania (who has a boyfriend named Manure). Chipper is newly in love with Sean, an extremely insecure, pushy bottom whose father (Jeff) just happens to be Chipper's psychiatrist.  Sean, meanwhile, is the petulant live-in lover of Madison (whose previous lover was Sean's father, Jeff).  

While Sean has always had unfulfilled sexual fantasies about his father, Chipper lays claim to "unfinished business" with his father, Daniel, who always enjoyed Chipper's probing massages. Unfortunately, since his twin brother died, Chipper has always had a penchant for high drama and martyrdom (claiming, among other things, that he and T.S. Eliot have a close friendship back in San Francisco).

If an hour's worth of fangs, claws, venom and seduction is your favorite dish, this is the play for you.  I particularly loved the scene wherein Jeff challenged the two young men to act on their "Daddy" fantasies while disrobing and making himself available to them. Powerfully directed by Ben Randle, Loving Fathers benefitted from a tight ensemble led by Adam Simpson (Chipper), Maxine Kincora (Florence), and Michael Vega (Sean).  In a curious casting coup, Ben Fisher played all three father figures (Madison, Daniel and Jeff).

Plenty of salt was rubbed in old wounds.  
Hissy fits were thrown.  
No one went home happy.

I loved every minute of it.

* * * * * *

Next up was a  remarkable performance by John Leo (Gold Medalist in the 2007 NYC Clown Olympics for Eccentric Dance) in Number's Up! (described in the program as a neo-vaudeville ode to the glorious awkwardness of being.)

John Leo (Photo by Cindy Lopez)

An obviously gifted clown, Mr. Leo portrays the unfortunate sidekick to the global superstar, El Macho Del Norte, who has mysteriously vanished into thin air.  Even as he dodges about the stage setting up props before the show begins, there is a great deal of wit, charm, and pathos in Mr. Leo's work. His furious concentration and desperate attempts to fill in for the missing headliner kept the audience in constant fits of laughter.  

In the spirit of all great clowns, this performer exudes a sweetness and vulnerability that touches the heart.  Mr. Leo's attempt to make out with a folding chair offers moments of inspired hilarity, as does his garbled funeral oration for El Macho Del Norte and the adorable routine he performs with his trusty chihuahua.  

Whether bringing the audience onstage for a group hug or deftly improvising with strangers as he passes a musically psychic umbrella through the audience, John Leo is a sight to behold.  

* * * * *

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Jonathan Bender's one man exploration of Judaism entitled In The Belly Of The Whale. Unfortunately, Mr. Bender's feverish overuse of the stage did more to hurt his material than enhance it.   Whether miming actions which were often unintelligible to the audience, rolling on the floor, stamping his foot to emphasize a point, or fussing with stage props, Bender's production could have benefitted immensely from a "less is more" approach to the material.  

One of the hardest things for creative artists to do is cut material that they have labored over with great love.  It hurts to do so, but sometimes microscopic surgery is necessary to create a better, stronger artistic product.  I'm willing to bet that if Mr. Bender eliminated 99% of his frenetic movement and onstage fussiness, he would have a much better show.

Jonathan Bender (Photo by Marcin Mroz)

While many Jews take an interest in their rich heritage, they don't enjoy being bored to death with Jewish angst.  At numerous points in the evening I felt an urge to throw my hands up in the air and scream "Genuk.  Stop with the mishigas already!"

There is a wonderful Yiddish word -- ongepatsht --  which is often translated as "a little too much."  However, in the household in which I grew up, ongepatsht meant "too much of everything, all at once."

Ongepatsht is a fitting adjective for Mr. Bender's work.

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