– Alliance for New-Music Theater was invited to bring Kafka’s Metamorphosis to this year’s Prague Fringe Festival. Susan Galbraith takes us there as a Fringe goer and producer –
We’re back at the Prague Fringe Festival , now in its fourteenth season, an annual pilgrimage for many – coming from places like Coventry (England) to Calgary (Canada) and from Sweden and Iceland to South Africa’s veldt.
Opening Day and I’d already staked out one of the seven or eight venues where I would see two shows back to back then dash to Beseda (accent on the first syllable, thank you,) Fringe Central, the watering hole for all the artists and their guests, to take in two more works.
Finding One’s Voice
If the first day’s shows had any theme in common it was the exploration of a deeply personal expression. That is, after all, the mandate of all “Fringers” in The World Fringe Alliance: to showcase independent voices and visions. While the caliber of polish varied, the point was that the artists were being given a space to perform and to draw an audience that respected risk-taking.
First up for me was Kafka’s Belinda. Kafka seemed to be in the ether this year, for there are at least three companies, including mine, and all three from America, paying homage to the great German-speaking Czech writer. It was a return “gig” for J.B. Alexander from last year where he had performed solo a loosely-adapted Metamorphosis of his own. He and director Joan Kane had discovered Paul Aster’s work that penned an alleged fascination by Kafka to loosen the writer’s ligaments through the creation of a little girl’s lost doll.
J.B. portrayed Kafka as a kindly if awkward man as he related to the child, dramatized as a giant puppet, and Olivia Scott, playing Dora, Kafka’s last lover, was alternately amused by and chiding Kafka’s poor attempts at communicating suitably child-friendly material. She insisted on retooling Kafka’s postcards penned as if from the lost doll. I can’t quite imagine the premise where Kafka would allow someone else to do re-writes, and the little girl-puppet was unfortunately un-childlike. The creative team clearly loves Kafka, but the piece hadn’t yet settled sufficiently for the personal voice to be communicated confidently.
Harry Gooch Three Star Show
Confidence was far from being a problem for Harry Gooch in the debut of his one-man show, Three Into-One. Gooch seems a rightful ambassador of Prague Fringe, heading up its favorite comedic troupe, Men with Coconuts. (After all he met his wife here three years ago and has produced the first official Fringe baby, Georgia.) By also taking on a solo show, he’s managed the equivalent of a triathlete with extreme-sports ambitions. But Gooch is an animal, and his comedic experience has given him an eye for finding a physicality for odd characters and pumping them up just sufficiently with helium to send them aloft to hysterical effect.
He presented three portraits: an antsy Italian poet, a spiritualist and psychic, and finally — his most accurate and savagely funny — a self-help guru with the fire of a television evangelist (aka Tony Robbins.) Later, he sprints to another venue to reappear in Men with Coconuts – a show of improvisational skits with titles shouted out from the audience, much like the American televised Whose Line Is It Anyway? It’s a crowd pleaser and plays to standing-room only crowds.
The Piano Man
In between I sandwiched in The Piano Man, an experiment in tracing the identity of the Czech-born, Australian-raised piano man by an American-born Prague-transplanted poet and young Czech director. The material is still raw, but in the autobiographical searching through music and poetic rifts for his authentic voice, the moment when our piano man plows into his instrument and song, pounding on the keys, he demonstrated the freedom and power of unleashed artistic passion. That’s when we get the real deal
Jewel Box is a mad romp of a show and seems to have been designed for Fringe entertainment with disguises and ruses to pull off a great heist of a plot. Michael Pitthan is an actor with an ideal face to pull off a British “p.l.u.,” a genetically and socially challenged individual who is the butt of so much humor. Rebecca Riisness in the lead female role has great physical control and pulls off one of the funniest bits of physical comedy I’ve seen, climbing up, around and over Pitthan’s, body searching for info leading to a lost jewel’s whereabouts. Though I caught it on the first night, which means there were some technical snafus, and I’d have to say it’s all pretty thin material, it’s good fringe fun.
Big Focus in Small Scale
Venues for Fringe can be small, and intimacy serves them well.
There is a one-woman Richard III here which boils down the play to a psycho’s sick “To Do List,” and we, the audience members, crammed into a space about the size of a cell, become her playthings and her victims. From the moment actress Emily Carding — think the icy, androgynous Annie Lennox — greets the audience one by one and seats us giving each a sign with our character’s name, she unleashes upon our heads all the machinations of this sinister mind. She watches for every flicker and give-away weakness, then pounces, using us to her advantage and to feed her dramatically – and she can go even farther with this to make it even richer in feeling as scene rather than monologue. When one of the characters dies, she keeps a tally by slapping a sticker on the designated audience member, “Dead.” Putting Richard in a woman’s body makes dramatic sense and justifies the character’s arc that is all about the need to over-compensate and be ballsier than any guy. In this venue as in Richard’s court there is no exit.
Small is indeed good, and some of the most successful shows at the Fringe are the small-scale puppet shows. I for one am learning perhaps the most from the very different kinds of puppet work I’ve seen. Such extreme focus these puppeteers have and it’s the quality of their focus even more than the actual manipulation that enchants.
East of the Sun, West of the Moon
There’s Bunraku puppetry excellence from the Fetch Company. Purvin, founder and artistic director, looks as if he might be an original Pict — though not painted blue — as if he lived close to the earth and had absorbed all its ancient wisdom — managed the most lovely puppet work in the tale of East of the Sun West of the Moon. In the retelling of the traditional Nordic story, he used two small tents, a couple of pieces of cloth, and some sticks as props. The carving of the young girl’s face and the great white bear puppets are exquisite, and when Purvin straps the girl-puppet with the long red braids to his body, he presents oneness and optimum expression in every gesture and inclination of her head. Purvin also knows what to select in telling the story through puppetry. The simplest tasks – blowing a fire to life, the wiping smoke from eyes, and the falling of snow — became pure enchantment.
Another show, featuring Old Norse culture – this time spoken language – was more a ritual than a play with three women who become embodiments of the three fates found in so many traditions. All enacted inside a metal framed cage, the intimacy of the work is part of its power, and the performers in turn seem to be both puppets and puppet masters who cut the strings of life. Twine.Measure.Cut comes to the Fringe from the Swedish company Teater Sláva and features fantastic harmonies and shifting overtones that stem in part from the tradition of rich Bulgarian women choruses. In a cage-like structure, the three women spin, wrap and cut twine with an ancient sickle. Bodies fall, get up again, embrace, comfort, and fight with a primitive intensity.
Boris & Sergey’s Vaudevillian Adventure
Boris & Sergey is a show of a whole different order. Loose and fast, it’s entirely naughty as only puppets can be and still be legal. These two leathery-stuffed fellows have neither eyes nor other facial features but once animated by three humans for each puppet, they express a range of human emotional states. Soon into the show, all chaos cuts loose, leaving at least one puppeteer corpsing. They batter each other and the crowd with the same fury, and the intensity of focus in the puppeteers has at least two of them drowning the stage in sweat. Then in the next moment these creatures communicate achingly lonely pathos, as when one of them threatens to cut the other off for good. My favorite moment is when one of them discovers as if for the first time that he is tied to and manipulated by a puppeteer. The puppet communicates affront, rage, rebellion, cruelty, and then terror and need all in the space a several seconds.
Smart, Savy and Sexy
Smart, savy, and sexy also works well at the Fringe. Even nudity can work. It is Fringe after all.
I Am Not Antigone
Take the show I Am Not Antigone. The actress playing Antigone delivers the play’s message with use of an Apple computer on stage, a smart phone, and a twitter account. The barrage of texted media iPhone snapshots demonstrates how hard it is to stay pure and on task when everything around gets recorded and sent out over the airwaves. The same actress plays Antigone’s sister as a warped photo-shopped Skype face that becomes more banal and materialistic with every recorded dialogue these two have. There is also an Assistant “technician,” who also plays Antigone’s boyfriend and the father, King Creon himself. The two play well together and what could have been a political diatribe gets fierce and riveting fast. When Antigone whips off her clothes to use her naked body to make a political statement we watch before our eyes the transformation of a woman’s breasts from something sexual to something politicized and curiously asexual through black paint and then back to something vulnerable and exposed within the space of the climactic scene. What seems at first like political street theatre has fooled us, showing how crafted and “smart” this piece actually is.
Nudity is used for mostly other purposes in Neruda Nude. The performers deliver some of Pablo Neruda’s most lush and intimate poetry with passion and unabashed choreography. We are reminded that bodies of all shapes, colors, and sizes have the need to touch and be touched. At the same time, watching, poem after poem delivered on the canvas of intertwined flesh, I end up observing, as so many artists have discovered that total nudity is less interesting than when semi-revealed. A shoulder, a piece of draped fabric, an elbow, the base of the neck – are so much more stimulating than the “full monty,” and words most salivatingly and achingly sexy than anything else.
And finally it was time to take to the stage ourselves.
Our tech was terrifying. Animations, the maze of ladders, and the new stage configuration threatened to drag us off to an actor’s hell. But lo and behold, we get delivered by the magic of theatre. After the show, which ran for five performances and closed the festival, we all met one last time at Beseda for a wrap-up event. There is nothing like drinking a Pilsner Urquell beer at the bar and feeling the goodwill and genuine interest by fellow “fringers.” And nothing like hearing from the director of the Fringe pronounce, as only he can in his thick Scottish brogue, “F_ _ _ _ing brilliant!” As for the review, I’ll let it speak: “… a superb production. Difficult, demanding, rich, powerful and rewarding.”
Then there are the goodbyes and thank yous. So many performers and over fifty interns, and the technical staff, we’ve become family. I’d seen seventeen shows. So many shows, so little time.
[Note: Another DC company was also a Prague Fringe invitee: SCENA Theatre was there with Kafka’s Report to An Academy]