Friday, August 18, 2017

Fringe Plunge: 'Divos' and 'The Gab' made TOTS' main stage the place to be opening night

After last year's "Divas," it was the turn of male pop stars to get choreographic treatment in Dance Kaleidoscope's seventh engagement at the Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival.

So, of course, "Divos" debuted Thursday night as one of several shows to kick off the 13th annual festival. At Theatre on the Square,
Oneiric fantasy: Missy Thompson's "Dream On"
(Photo by Chris Crawl)
seven members of the contemporary-dance company presented premieres of works choreographed to songs by celebrity male performers of the past few decades.

The songs' rhythmic drive and musical phrasing naturally generate much of the choreography, but the choreographers also have in common an intense interest in how lyrics can guide dance expression. This is clear from each choreographer's spoken introduction to his or her creation — statements that provide the audience with insights into the personal sources and motivations behind the program.

In other words, the divos were celebrated mainly to the degree their music had something vital to impart in dance terms. From Aerosmith's "Dream On" (Missy Thompson) to Rod Stewart's "I'll Stand By You" (Stuart Coleman, in a piece titled "Surround Yourself"), the program unfailingly added an extra dimension to the songs.

"Dream On" rested on the theme of recurring dreams, mostly disturbing, and thus was replete with floating and falling movement, as well as postures of apprehensiveness and confusion, some as if airborne, others grounded. "Surround Yourself" used the full company to reinforce the virtues of group support. Its intricately coordinated, billowing language put stress on cooperation and rapport, the individual drawing sustenance from the ensemble. A particularly striking passage had the company unfolding from a tight circle outward, yielding to a solo in the center. It was like time-lapse photography of a flower in transition from bud to blossom.

Positive energy also was held up in Mariel Greenlee's "Keep Faith," to music of George Michael.  There were churchy moments at first, alluded to later, with stained-glass lighting and prayerful postures. But faith was also addressed in less transcendent ways, in a manner that expertly bridged  the meaning of faith from something remote to something near at hand. In both cases, belief in the unseen is the common denominator, and "Keep Faith" spoke particularly to the reservoir of mutual trust upon which dancers necessarily draw.

As a dancer, Greenlee had to draw upon such trust spectacularly in Brandon Comer's "Dangerous Diana," a medley of Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" and "Dirty Diana." She was the title character, supported by five DK men, and had to keep embodying the first song's laserlike opening line: "There was something different about this girl." Comer's choreography avoided the King of Pop's stylized, angular twitches and tap-rooted footwork to come up with something original, requiring a considerable amount of lift, flexibility and panache from everyone concerned  — and trust galore from Greenlee, who managed to convey both danger and vulnerability as a woman being both venerated and tossed about.

Romantic devotion was a keynote of Paige Robinson's "You Take My Breath Away," the soaring Queen vocalism providing the cue for intense interaction among the six dancers. The same number of dancers was used in a more polarized fashion by Timothy June, setting Johnny Cash's searing "Hurt": Each of three fully visible dancers has a demonic masked partner, making the theme of hurt vividly both internal and external to how we live our lives. The demonic side seemed to score a final victory with a black hand over each anguished face.

Jillian Godwin set the longest piece, a mash-up (mixed by Mike Lamirand) of four Led Zeppelin songs. "Zeppelin" was a real tour-de-force for the troupe's women, the shift among songs complemented by costuming as well as different choreographic dialects. The full ensemble coalesced for the finale. At that climactic stage, the potentially problematic guitar solo — talk about divos! who's more a divo than a rock-guitar god? — was neatly handled with fluid solos and duos for the dancers, yielding to re-emphasis on the ensemble at the end.

As with the whole show, the music was never allowed to swamp the inspiration behind the choreography nor the flair with which it was executed. Roll over, divos; tell the divas the news!
A Zachandzack hit: The shared good cheer of "The Gab" girls is just for show.

The evening thus launched, my next stop was at Angel Burlesque's "Glitter Emergency" at Firehouse Theater. Because this is a last-minute replacement for the originally scheduled act, which withdrew, and with technical troubles dogging the performance, I'm foregoing commentary about the show.

The last act for me opening night was "The Gab," a production by the wizardly team of Zack Neiditch (writer/director) and Zach Rosing (producer/video designer), riffing upon the female talk show of longevity and notoriety called "The View." The rapidfire pace is set at the beginning as Maureen (Devan Mathias) and Alex (Chad Woodward) fuss and fizzle just ahead of airtime to make sure everything's all right. Of course, it isn't.

The competing egos of the star panel have ratcheted the show's tension up to unbearable levels, which means that production underlings like Maureen and Alex have to bear it all, while keeping Jim (voiced by Rosing), the show's director high up in the booth, the almost happy lord of all he surveys. Every diva around the oval table has more issues than National Geographic — and they are just as hard to get rid of.

Rosing and Neiditch dependably fashion productions whose technical adroitness matches their artistic aplomb, and "The Gab" extends the partnership's short, but already illustrious tradition. The cast seems to find the spat-filled scenario totally energizing: Jenni White, Vickie Cornelius Phipps, Nathalie Cruz, Betsy Norton, and Ericka Barker inhabit their characters exuberantly. There is generously proportioned wit, snark, and slapstick throughout the show.

A large screen above the stage replicates in-studio video monitoring, with flashes to "The Gab"'s upbeat title page heralding the next topical segment, for which the ladies hastily compose themselves. Gradually but inexorably, the fragile garment of the hit talk show unravels. The camera's bright lights, nourishing the hothouse plants of daytime stardom, can't forestall the hilarious plunge toward "The Gab"'s dusky extinction. The conclusion resembles Alexander Pope's "Dunciad," which ends:

Lo! thy dread Empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch, lets the curtain fall;
And universal Darkness buries all.

Fortunately, the "uncreation" of "The Gab," the fake TV show, mirrors upside down the masterly creation of "The Gab," the  surefire 2017 Fringe Festival hit.










Thursday, August 17, 2017

Fringe preview night presents a panoply digest of short-form entertainment over the next 11 days

The applause that greeted a line in Mayor Joe Hogsett's short speech to the IndyFringe Festival's Preview Night audience seemed to have topical resonance.

Mayor Joe Hogsett put an official seal of approval on FringeFest.
In any given year, his words would have been applicable to what the festival is all about. But in 2017, after the mayor had extolled "the performances and talent it attracts," he praised the annual performing-arts bash for "the diversity and inclusion it welcomes and lifts up." Yes!

To mark the start of the festival with two-minute pitches by 50 acts, Hogsett then read excerpts from the mayoral proclamation designating Aug. 16, 2017, as Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival Day in Indianapolis.

Certainly a large crowd gathered in the Athenaeum Theatre knew that the honor is rooted in the open-ended mission of the Fringe, which enters its 13th annual season today, continuing through Aug. 27 on eight stages on and around Massachusetts Avenue.

And while it's always possible to point to ways any artistic project could inject even more diversity into what it offers the public, IndyFringe is establishing a solid record. For one thing, it has cultivated two mini-festivals during the regular season to promote female and black playwrights, respectively: DivaFest and OnyxFest.

The range of presentations Wednesday evening was immense. Many were excerpts — scenes, songs, anecdotes, jokes, vignettes — from shows that specialize in those things. The idea was to whet the appetite for admission to the full 45-minute to 1-hour performance, most of them available six times between today and a week from Sunday.

In contrast, the choice to talk about their shows was perhaps provoked by the artists' sense that no two-minute excerpt could do justice to them. A pair of agile, improvisational clowns kept performers within the 2-minute limit and chased erring artists gently but firmly offstage.

Jill Ditmire and George Wallace acted as hosts for the parade of performers, with cameo appearances that included a charming duo team of Indianapolis City-County Council members: Zach Adamson and Jeff Miller. They would have been an example of smooth-working bipartisanship if not for technical difficulties with the soundtrack meant to accompany their Bad Lip Reading-style collection of "real" lyrics behind a few popular recordings.

Like many attendees, my response to the parade of pitches was all over the place. Some choices I made in advance are now tinged with qualms or even regret. Some things I had passed over now look to me like must-sees. Other wham-bam presentations left me in a vast "meh" area.

That's part of the fun of the Fringefest: no hunches are set in stone, but at least bets you place on shows that will please you are more likely to pay off than any given lottery. Sure, you pay a little more to place those bets, but the rewards are more probable.

So: Happy Fringing (or should that be "Fringeing," so it doesn't rhyme with "ringing"?)!





Monday, August 14, 2017

13th annual IndyFringe Festival opens soon with late night additions and short runs for out-of-town artists

Thanks to a successful expansion of its home base, which enabled year-round scheduling, IndyFringe's annual theater festival rests on a firm foundation as it is poised to enter its 13th year this week.

Inspired by the Edinburgh, Scotland, Fringe and by so many subsequent staged bashes in North America, the well-established IndyFringe Live Theatre Festival runs from Thursday through Aug. 27 at eight sites in and around Massachusetts Avenue.

The evening scene along Mass Ave. five years ago during the festival.
Two of them are at IndyFringe headquarters at 719 E. St. Clair St. Besides, there are two each at Phoenix Theatre, 749 N. Park Ave., and Theatre on the Square, 627 Mass Ave., and one each at ComedySportz, 721 Mass Ave., and Firefighters Union Hall, 748 Mass Ave. Seventy-four shows will have had more than 400 performances by the end of the 11-day festival.

Despite director Pauline Moffat's disappointment with increased obstacles to foreign performers getting access to the U.S. recently, she enters organizational crunch time buoyed up by several factors: the assistance of George Wallace as associate director under a two-year grant, the increase to eight theaters with the addition of the Firefighters hall, and the addition of two late-night shows during the festival's second week (see page 15 of the program book for complete information).

"The level of professionalism has increased," Moffat said, looking back over her tenure as director since the beginning (2005). "People have liked being out of their comfort zones....It's remarkable that it thrives in a city like ours, a city that's smaller. But this is a community-driven Fringe."

Both Wallace, a veteran of the Orlando Fringe Festival,  and Moffat point with pride to a diversity of offerings that has simply sprung from the festival's first-come, first-served admissions process. For patrons, the usual rules apply: Doors are shut to each performance right at the listed performance time; shows run 45 minutes to 1 hour each. The buttons that used to provide access to all shows — once individual tickets were bought — are now available as souvenirs and as a kind of bonding ornament for attendees. Getting into a show no longer has a festival button as a prerequisite.
"One Man's Journey Through the Middle Ages" opens on the festival's opening night Thursday at the Indy Eleven Theatre, the IndyFringe building's second stage.

"There's no diversity lottery needed," Wallace said. "It's intrinsic," added Moffat, explaining: "DivaFest and OnyxFest have both helped promote diversity naturally." She was referring to two IndyFringe-sourced festivals of new plays — by women and African-Americans, respectively. Plays developed there, as well as others workshopped at the facility the rest of the year, have fed into the range of local options available to festival patrons for the past several years.

This year the balance between local and out-of-town shows at the festival is about 50-50.  The festival has adjusted the usual six-show schedule to allow out-of-towners to perform just three times during the festival's second week to expedite their tours.

Among his other duties, Wallace advises presenters on the "warnings" the schedule includes. They variously advise on recommended minimum age and notifications about violence, strobe lights, gunshots, and other features meriting caution. There is frequent mention, which anyone who picks up a 2017 festival booklet will notice, of "adult content" and "adult language."

"I advise them to be true and realistic," Wallace explained, "about both their warnings and how they identify their genre. When they are having to make that decision, they can get sure of what they are."

With so much focus on national politics these days, and given that many in the arts community are wary of how the Trump administration seems to oppose their values and can directly or indirectly affect them, do Moffat and Wallace expect a lot more political content across the board? The answer: Not so much this year.

Wallace said he expects to see that influence more prominent in 2018. By the time entry applications for the 2017 festival started to come in nearly a year ago, the national election had yet to be decided. The result, stunning to many people, has had particular resonance among artists of all sorts across the nation and the world.

Politics has become enmeshed in everything we do.  In the meantime, happy Fringing!






Sunday, August 13, 2017

Comes Pence, Nothing Can Be Done!

Difficulties come to mind about opposition to current Executive Branch leadership when the possible downfall of the Chief Executive is contemplated. Does the No. 2 man present any vulnerabilities? As with love, perhaps nothing can be done.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Sammy Miller and the Congregation: Everyone's invited to the party, but the interactivity is carefully managed

One of my favorite LPs in my early, pinch-penny years as a collector, was Duke Ellington's "Jazz Party." I played it over and
Sam Crittenden plays trombone with Sammy Miller and the Congregation.
over again, from the first track with a bunch of guest percussionists right through a rollicking, all-stops-out blues featuring Jimmy Rushing. In between came bursts of applause by the small studio audience; the record buyer felt in on the party, even as a distant, eager eavesdropper.

A jazz party is what a Sammy Miller and the Congregation show is all about. In this case, there wasn't anything like the cameo appearances (notably Dizzy Gillespie's) in the studio that individuated this particular recording in the Ellington discography. At the Jazz Kitchen Tuesday night, there was just the touring band itself, a sextet now more "theatrical" (trombonist Sam Crittenden's phrase) than in its first appearance locally at Birdy's, and the paying audience had been deliberately attracted. Its hearty response was part of the show.

It's important to note up front, however, that Sammy Miller and the Congregation choreograph their spontaneity elaborately. And the feedback they generate comes from the kind of outreach that's carefully planned — gestures, instrumental arrangements, vocal showcases, and movement up and down the  nightclub's stingy aisles.

Understandably, early Ellington figures into the band's repertoire. It showed up in a travesty of opera — a jazz opera, or "jopera," as drummer Miller said in his introduction. And during an episode focusing on "Creole Love Call," with trombonist Crittenden and tenor saxophonist Ben Flocks wooing each other, that out-among-the-crowd aspect got a risky workout.

The sound of the band is boisterous and draws stylistically on New Orleans jazz as well. The Congregation uses its outdoor voice, the way the Crescent City's bands did at the dawn of jazz. Looking ahead through jazz history, the poses and the mugging evoke such jazz entertainers as Louis Jordan, Louis Prima, Cab Calloway, and Fats Waller. And at the head of the line, sometimes undervalued for the value he placed on entertainment: Louis Armstrong.

Calming things down during a Congregation set is a relative matter: The lyrical heart of "What a Wonderful World" was there in the first encore, but so was a tempo shift into high gear. The second encore returned the Congregation to its rambunctious roots: "Liza Jane" featured recurrent staccato statements from the three horns (sans rhythm section) and an intense blues harmonica solo from the pianist, David Linard.

Fun needs to have a steady presence in jazz. Not everyone can, or should, present the kind of show Sammy Miller and the Congregation did Tuesday night here. But the cluck-clucks of censors in the jazz community sometimes get out of hand. I have two examples: When I needed to replace my copy of "Jazz Party," I was only able to get a tweaked version with all the applause trimmed away and a version of the oft-recorded "Satin Doll" unnecessarily inserted. Some party!

Furthermore, when I needed to get a CD of "Satchmo at Symphony Hall," one of my favorite LP purchases from my teen years, I found that the reissue producer had cut out the Velma Middleton vocals. True, she was never a first-rate jazz singer, but her bounteous voice and enthusiasm were part of the atmosphere of that now 70-year-old Boston concert, with solo turns in "Since I Fell for You" and "I Cried for You." And the band's accompaniments are great; they loved them some Velma!

Also dropped was her wonderful, clownish duet with Armstrong on "That's My Desire."

Suffice it to say that when Louis ad-libs "I feel the touch of your chops all wrapped up amongst mine" in place of the original line "I feel the touch of your lips pressing on mine," he forecast the approach and appeal of Sammy Miller and the Congregation.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Aaron Parks, an APA Cole Porter Fellow with a solid career, issues a new CD

"Find the Way" is an apt title (after an Ian Bernard song influenced, in the performance here, by Shirley Horn) for Aaron Parks' new trio recording. It's got an exploratory feel, with ample confirmation that the exploration has yielded genuine satisfaction.


Aaron Parks has delivered on the promise that marked his Cole Porter Fellowship.
Parks, a Seattle-raised pianist who first came to national attention as a precocious teenager via an NPR feature, will be familiar to Indianapolis jazz fans as the 2001 Cole Porter Fellow of the American Pianists Association. Among his accomplishments since then, he was a Terence Blanchard sideman for several years, contributing much to the trumpeter's band through his composing and keyboard skills.

On "Find the Way" (ECM), he works with bassist Ben Street and drummer Billy Hart, recorded in Pernes-les-Fontaines, France,  in October 2015. The mood is relaxed and thoughtful, but avoids dawdling, daydreaming or tempting the listener to turn its eight originals (plus "Find the Way") into background music.

The disc opens with the brooding "Adrift," a more focused piece of music than its title indicates. The theme features rising phrases that repeat an ascending pattern, which seems to keep the music afloat as well as adrift. It's quickly apparent that the imaginative drumming of Hart is a major sustaining factor.  There's an integrated feeling to the soloing that makes this trio feel like a gentler version of the Bad Plus. No one spoils the mood of the program with a display of chops.

A drum feature, "Hold Music," allows well-managed focus on the veteran Hart.  His adeptness on brushes superbly complements the tasty phrasing of Parks' piano on "Song for Sashou."   Adventurousness gets under this trio's elegant skin subtly: "The Storyteller" is a particularly winning example. "Alice," titled in tribute to Alice Coltrane, is both gritty and tinged with avant-garde suggestions in a school-of-hard-knocks manner.

"Find the Way" exhibits an original sense of melodic freshness and a keen awareness from all three players of how to make their evident rapport fascinating for listeners.