Highlights from the Fringe Festival & Midtown “St. Lou”

Fringe-Festival 75“Asperger’s” sold out all three of its Fringe performances, and it’s easy to see why.

Fringe-Festival 500

This Is a Play | R-S Theatrics
Fubar, St. Louis

The first impression audiences receive of This Is a Play is a printed one: The program notes THIS IS A PROGRAM for This Is a Play. The joke is apt because the show is about actors and others involved in presenting a ridiculously bad production. We hear some of the lines from the “play,” just enough so that we have a vague idea of what’s going on, but the real story is the internal monologues shared with us by them. The “outer play” involves three characters. The Aunt played by “Older Female Actor” (Kirsten Wylder) who hastens to let us know that she is still attractive and sexy underneath her gray, Brillo-like wig. The niece/“Female Actor” (Beth Wickenhauser) obsesses about her character’s “tentativeness” as she tries to elicit maximum emotional response. The stranger/”Male Actor,” (Casey Boland) is a dim bulb in both his onstage personae. He spends a lot of time playing to a casting agent he’s noticed in the audience and being physically tugged around by the women onto his mark because he can’t seem to remember his spot. 

Lettuce is featured heavily. The aunt is partial to it and speaks of it often. There is a train that brings the stranger. The niece and the stranger are falling in love until, gasp!, it is revealed that the aunt is their mother (and of another triplet sibling who has died). Their lettuce tattoos are the proof. Throughout this foolishness, we are privy to their thoughts about how stupid all this is, their concerns about how they look, how to cry (or how not to), who is the “star” (the Older Female Actor claims she is because one of her speeches contains the title of the play), gratuitous shirtlessness, sleeping with the director, plagiarism (the writer), problems with the music (sound designer) and staging (director). These latter three are offstage voices and hard to hear when people are laughing or when the noise from the production in the adjacent room bleeds through.

And we were laughing. This is funny stuff, and the performers are all gifted clowns. The 40-minute running time is just right to land the one-joke premise without beating it to death, and I thought it was great fun. Well done, director Mark Kelley, and all! 

Asperger’s: A High-Functioning Musical | Highly Distracted Productions

Kranzberg Arts Center, St. Louis

 “Asperger’s” sold out all three of its Fringe performances, and it’s easy to see why. Awareness of the subject matter has never been higher, the publicity blitz was a well-oiled machine, the show is in a comfortable, easily accessible venue, and the director, Ed Reggi, is a high-profile artist and community activist. Conceived and written by the father-son team of Dean (book and lyrics) and Adam Rosen (book, lyrics, music) , the musical is reminiscent of the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, only here, the same behavioral difference manifests itself in all the cast members except one who is the facilitator of their therapy/life skills group. Even her life has been directly affected by a brother who was undiagnosed but was likely a high-functioning member of the autism community.

Right now, we’re in the midst of a shift in terminology to bury the term “Asperger’s syndrome” at the highest functioning end of autism spectrum disorders rather than making it a discrete diagnosis, but “Aspies” do seem to have a completely different skill set than other neuro-atypicals. They aren’t like Rainman, their avatar in popular culture. Until recently, Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt was possibly the only representation most neurotypical people had for “autism,” though some of Raiman’s abilities, such as his facility with numbers and his amazing memory, are found in a few Aspies. But there are also variations among those diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, as well, and those are explored in the session that makes up the backdrop of this story.

Randall (Michael Baird) is socially inept but very intelligent and musically inclined. Unlike his WOW-focused group mate Lucas (Robbie Haupt), he isn’t a gamer, and when the two engage in a “duel” during their duet of “In Our Own Little World,” a touching ballad that celebrates the imagination, Randall wields a baton against Lucas’ prop sword. (Note: Here WOW stands for “World of Witchcraft,” not “Warcraft.” Copyright issues?) Corey (Robert Michael Hanson) is sweet and gentle and obsessed with ceiling fans. He is an innocent who believes he’s being published, even though he had to pay for the privilege (his poem, “Ode to Emerson” is about his fan at home). He does tell us his favorite brand is Casablanca, despite having an Emerson. He was the one who touched me most, perhaps because his expression and gestures reminded me of my own 12-year-old grandson, one of whose traits is high-functioning autism.

Allie (Laura Hunter) is tough and emotionally distant. At 19, she’s living in a group home. She may be lesbian and possibly transgender when she asserts that her name is “Allie today,” because apparently sometimes it’s “Al.” D.C. (Brandon Smith) is given to panic attack, a common occurrence for people with autism for whom the world moves and feels different than it does for those of us who are wired typically, and his number, “Panic,” is evocative of an actual experience. Dahlia (Alex Woodruff) is the group leader, but she also joins the ensemble from time to time, and seems rather awkward herself. This meeting introduces newcomer, Claire (Mary Beth Black) who has recently been diagnosed and isn’t sure she belongs with these people. I’m not sure she does either, since she seems less quirky than the rest, but she is an amazing singer. Reggi has worked her since she was a little girl, and he recruited her for this show.

Since there are no microphones, every vocal flaw is magnified, and everyone else suffers in comparison to Black. She is so outstanding that she weakens the team, so it might be wise to cast performers who can keep up with her, or cast Claire down so she doesn’t stick out so much. But these young people (the group ages are late-teens to early 20s, apparently) are all fine actors, and inhabit and hold their characters even when the focus is on someone else. They are accompanied by a four-piece ensemble led by Anna DiVesta on piano, Byron Brownstein (keyboard), Sarah Smith (saxophone), and 13-year-old percussion prodigy Dominic Anzalone.

There is a sense of ticking off a list in this show because it is so overtly a message piece, but it is also entertaining, and despite Black’s talent, her character is the least interesting, so the others have a chance to shine. Baird is heartbreaking on “You Never Leave High School (about being bullied). The ensemble delivers “Take Only as Directed” about the cocktails of drugs they must all take just to get through the day, even though they were inculcated with the “Just Say No to Drugs” mantra at an early age. “Your Story” winds up the show with a happy surprise for the group.

Overall, I think this is a very promising script that I can see expanded and workshopped into the very special show that it is in its bones. Asperger’s: A High-Functioning Musical is well acted and directed and worth the time of the sell-out crowds flocking to see it.

Montana: The Shakespearean Scarface | Out of the Ashes (of the NonProphet Theatre Co)
Satori, St. Louis

Came we that night to witness a tale told by immigrants;
Full of sound and fury and signifying nothing, if not a lesson to be learn’t
About avarice and pride and all the sins
That fallible man is heir to in one man, if man he be

Or beast and creature of the night addled with drugs and disappointment.
Antonio Montana, by name, is he, and full of anger at his lot—
At father dead, mother ashamed, sister lost to him, he believes,
Unless he can gain wealth and power and prove himself worthy

Of his family’s love and admiration.
He knows no boundaries, even unto seducing his noble master’s nubile wife;
Of slaying that master and many others who got in his way
Until he lived unhappily with all wishes fulfilled, only to learn

That the dream is in the taking, not the having.
This morality tale is based on a movie from decades past
In which Michael Corleone becomes Antonio Montana through means
Not noticeable to the audience because they seem so alike in appearance and action

As to be sometimes indistinguishable. Though doubtless, Player Al Pacino’s style
Of acting by decibels had the effect of making this illusion seem like sameness.
Tom, of the House of Lehman, essays his role by strutting and fretting his hour on the stage
To make us see Antonio and Al in all the colors of Hawaiian shirts, red here

Representing the rage he deploys at every outcome not to his choosing.
Antonio lies to immigration authorities that his whole family is dead,
But his mother lives, and his sister also. Antonio cannot break through to the
One who bore him, but his baby sister, now twice two decades and working in a

Shop of beauty for Miami blue hairs, is seduced by his illicit gains and abuses
His gift of gold to her used for going to Discos and misbehaving until
She falls in love with Manolo, best friend of Antonio’s bosom who he
Accidentally murders on the very night of their nuptials, leaving

This Juliet bereft of her Romeo, and his mother soon childless as Antonio is brought down
In a flurry of stabbings reminiscent of the fate of Caesar, though
The coup de grace is administered by a man of mystery, here Robert, Earl of Mitchell
Who wrote and directed this parody to a fare-thee-well.

Please sir, I implore thee, bring us the story of Antonio again and again,
So that we may take it as a cautionary tale, while laughing until our nether parts
Fall off at the antics of this fiend, as evil as had studied at the knee of Iago.
For this is a play of worthy intent and great pith and moment,

Remembering that Corleone: The Shakespearean Godfather was born
From the same pen and brain, and both Michael, that power hungry prick, and this
Antonio, who say “fuck” overmuch, are alike in form and manner,
And much like the Duke of Destruction,

Himself—Al of the House Pacino.
Pick up the quill again, Poet, and render unto us another, please you—
Every Dog Shall Have His Afternoon and take us to fair Attica for our story
When next we meet at Fest of Fringe.

Additional cast: Chris Ayala, Courtney Gibson, Hannah Bailey, Joe Hanrahan, Margeau Steinau, Reynard Fox, Rob Davis, Robert A. Mitchell. | Andrea Braun


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