The Chicago Fringe Festival is back for a second year, and this time it's stretching over two weekends and five venues in Pilsen, focusing on the theme "On the Map, Under the Radar." Below are reviews for two shows from opening weekend; reviews for two more will appear in Friday's "On the Fringe" column. The shows were selected for the festival via lottery, versus any sort of vetting process, so you pay your money and take your chances. The artists receive all box-office proceeds; the festival keeps the one-time $5 fee for the festival badge.
One function for fringe festivals is allowing local established companies a chance to stretch their wings in a new direction. Sideshow Theatre Company, which got a lot of attention for its Ibsen-and-robots production of "Heddatron" in the Steppenwolf Garage Rep series this year, does just that with "Strangerland," the first "devised" piece in its history. (Matt Fletcher, Karie Miller, Mike Steele and Nate Whelden are credited as the writers, with Miller directing.)
The show opens with three men and three women engaged in a mechanized ballet depicting a quotidian office routine. One woman sits at a desk stapling papers. Another pours and offers endless cups of water, while a janitor occasionally drops to his knees and furiously scrubs an invisible stain on the floor. But the Dilbert-like nature of their lives turns topsy-turvy when a cosmic event (perhaps a hurricane or tidal wave) leaves a body on the shore. From this grim memento mori grow a series of life-altering decisions that destroys their safe and predictable world. The janitor runs off with the cute office assistant to a pastoral retreat, and together they discover the joys of the birds — and the bees — and feelings that the janitor describes with Freudian wonder as "statues turning into milkshakes." But the resulting pregnancy provides another upheaval, and when they return to the office-land, the life-and-death consequences of a world turned strange become grimmer.
It's an interesting premise, and the ensemble commits to the sometimes-twee material with sharp focus, particularly Whelden as the passionate janitor. There are also lines that resonate for all those who have found themselves stuck in a life they didn't imagine. The pregnant woman, undone by her condition, says, "I feel like I'm dying — I wave goodbye to myself every day." The movement sections (coached by Joshua Davis) also contain some arresting, if broadly drawn, tableaux that provide snapshots of the life cycle and the risks inherent in moving beyond our self-devised prisons of routine. But overall, "Strangerland" feels a little stuck in acting-exercise mode.
"Nightmare in Bakersfield"
Fringe festivals also provide a traveling circuit for solo performers, and Los Angeles-based storyteller Les Kurkendaal, who brought his show "Christmas in Bakersfield" to the Chicago Fringe last year, returns to California's Central Valley this time around with "Nightmare in Bakersfield." Where the first show dealt with the African-American Kurkendaal meeting his white boyfriend's ultra-conservative family (who didn't know that their son was living with a black man), this piece deals with the same boyfriend's 20-year high school reunion.
There are two running themes. The first is Kurkendaal's fish-out-of-water discomfort at being black and gay in a roomful of white and (seemingly) straight people, who keep confusing him with George, an absent former classmate who was also black — and over 6 feet tall, compared with Kurkendaal's 5-foot-4-inch frame. The other, more interesting aspect is his jealousy that his boyfriend, who co-produced the hit film "Thank You for Smoking," gets the celebrity treatment from his old classmates while Kurkendaal, who has been toiling in the less-glamorous showbiz trenches (such as fringe festivals), is treated like a tarnished trophy wife.
It's an engaging and easily digestible tale studded with lines that elicit gentle chuckles. But it feels as if Kurkendaal pulls his punches a bit to craft something more homiletic than honest.
"Strangerland" runs through Sept. 11 at Doppler Stage, 1915 S. Halsted St.; "Nightmare in Bakersfield" runs through Sept. 11 at Temple Gallery, 1749 S. Halsted St. Each show is 50 minutes. Tickets to all Chicago Fringe Festival shows are $10 apiece (plus $5 festival badge), with multi-show packages available at 866-811-4111 or chicagofringe.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun