There’s so much THERE there in Capital Fringe, what’s a reviewer to do? And when events move between opera, drama, comedy, dance or amalgams of performance, as Lucretia Borgia does, the task of how one gets to a description, a modicum of analysis, let alone a rating is mind-boggling. For those who fuss or fume trying to understand how it works, here is one reviewer’s walk-through of the process of taking in a Fringe show.
First and foremost the mandate of the Fringe is to take risks. In the case of the Small Batch Theatre Company, a very young company and its cohort of collaborators, some of whom are still in college. The challenges and the high motivation it has taken to bring them this far is impressive.
On their opening night, I look around. There are only four people in the audience and two of them are reviewers. Yet when Director Leah Englund Black stepped out on stage to introduce herself and her company, there was not a hint of embarrassment or disappointment.
Poised and smiling she seemed genuinely grateful we had come, and as she spoke of Gertrude Stein and the inspiration that pioneer of women’s consciousness and forger of a new style of writing had given her to explore this text, I felt both Black’s passion and her courage. The impulse to do this work with the cast assembled was authentic. High marks for risk-taking to Black & co.
Let’s face it, Gertrude Stein is not for the weak-minded. (I should know, having just directed a private performance of Marty Martin’s biographical play Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein.) The repetitions, convolutions, leaps of ideas, backtracking, and overlaying of names and numbers alone are challenging. As Stein quoted in a penned response to her own personage and style by none other than Ernest Hemingway, “A bitch is a bitch is a bitch.” And she would laughingly howl at this, relishing every word and digression of her own making. And so should we.
Stein called her Lucretia Borgia an “opera” (without song.) No division of parts. No obviously discernable beginning, middle and end, no real climax, and not much of a denouement in its structure. In this format, “Act I “ gets repeated several times. Black and her cast of three women went into this project to explore what they could discover dramatically. That’s the right spirit. For risk-taking this company gets high marks.
Now Lucretia Borgia was from not such a nice family, one reputed to be full of massive sexual appetites and corruption, not above incest, poisonings, and murder. Did Ms. Stein purposely choose this historical figure solely because she was not one for “nice women” (she had no intention herself of not making history as nice girls reputedly don’t.) Or was it her intention to poke fun at the institutions of male dominance and the men who upheld them? Or was this work a veiled description of a love that dared not speak its name in those days about her odd ménage household in Paris with Alice B. Toklas and Stein’s brother Leo. This reviewer remains perplexed.
The second thing I try to identify in a production is the degree of difficulty set by a group balanced with a sense of working out problems of production values. Now remember, every show has to work with a fixed light grid, and every ensemble only gets three hours max in the space to tech every sound and light cue. On top of this, the whole set has to be set up within 15 minutes of opening the house and broken down and carted away within 15 minutes.
The challenge, to quote Ms. Stein again, is how to create a there there. Here again, Brick, with the support of mentors at Towson University’s various departments, made some very smart choices. The set amounted to a small wooden platform with its braces exposed creating an acting-below space, and a sturdy wooden chair with arms. Well, there are lots of other chairs as well, most of them seatless, a veritable collecting and proliferation of chairs on stage by the end of the show reminding me of nothing so much as Ionesco’s absurd world, but more on that later. A flank of black curtains upstage across the entire stage are supported by pole devices of the kind you’d find in a hotel assembly room to cordon off and mask areas. Its central panel was a white scrim which was backlit and very effectively used for silhouette and shadow play.
The “there,” provided with a modicum of means, was filled in by three young women: Katharine Ariyan, Elizabeth Scollan, and Sadie Angel Lockhart who made believable a kind of imaginative play world that was driven by psychological excavating that might have aspects taken from mind-body techniques as bioenergetics and such. Again, I give this company pretty high marks for creating something workable within the difficult confines of time and budget of Fringe productions.
by Gertrude Stein
at Sprenger – Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
Washington, DC 20002
Details and tickets
Each woman took turns becoming the central character, dressing in the black-bodice and long red skirt. Each explored an aspect of the Lucretia character but also an aspect, I imagine, of her own inner emotional landscape. The chair becomes a lover to entice, coax, shove, push, and embrace.
The performers’ work behind the scrim was especially clean, where arms become snakes attacking each other, and geese flip their heads side to side, and fingers splay and count out Stein’s obsession with the number eight. But childlike shadow play grows dark and intimate when upended feet and legs entwine and create an insect-like organism, and female “twins” are caught kissing. These actresses made bold choices about Stein’s odd skeletal story of a girl whose name may be Lucretia Borgia or it may be Winnie or Jenny or — makes her twin and is the first to make her come – but then kills her, only to wonder if you “make” someone, can you kill her?
The three sections of the performance stayed fresh and were filled emotionally. Black’s shaping of their explorations and savvy “editings” as a director worked well. Only the last scene with the piling of chairs and then crashing them apart seemed to go on too long. I stayed fascinated with the performances and the boldness with which the company interpreted Stein’s most difficult work.