Some people who talk about Fringe offer a warning: it’s uncurated. Anything could get produced. The implication, of course, is that curation is needed to prevent bad art from getting through to where the innocent eyes of the public might accidentally see it. Even if that were true (it’s not), then we’d still have the problem that you can’t filter out bad stuff without also losing the likes of Aliens, Nazis & Angels.
That is not to say that Leah Harris’ solo show is a surprise hidden gem. It’s unpolished, technically messy, and fuzzy in focus. But the argument against the “Here There Be Monsters!” approach to an uncurated festival is not just that it could exclude some under-the-radar masterpiece, but also that a small, searching, nakedly personal work like this might otherwise never get an audience. And Aliens, Nazis & Angels deserves one.
Harris’ autobiography is mostly driven by her intimate knowledge of mental illness, through her experiences with her mother – who conceived her at a mental hospital with another patient – as well as her own. The aliens, Nazis, and angels are figures from her childhood, when her under-and/or-over-medicated single mother inspired little Leah’s wall drawings. Wracked by paranoid delusions, Harris’ Mama would call for a moratorium on food and take her out into the night searching for Nazi human-experimenter Josef Mengele (still alive at the time!), to ensure he stopped poisoning their food so they could eat again.
Eventually, Mama would lose custody of young Harris, but that would only be the beginning of her travails, as the imprint left on her would carry on for the next decade of encounters with the mental health system, culminating in institutionalization and a stint in a group home. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the arc of Harris’ life and story eventually climbs to a happier, or at least bittersweet, conclusion, given that she’s here to tell it to us.
Aliens, Nazis and Angels
Written and performed by Leah Harris
Details and tickets
The principle and motivation behind her storytelling is understood more clearly by reading the program, which discusses recent breakthroughs in epigenetics and problems with the medical model of mental health. These points certainly come up over the course of Aliens, Nazis and Angels, and Harris’ direct experience gives her theme considerable weight.
However, the show as a whole has a more woolly, life-in-review sort of feel. There are numerous tangents into stuff like how Harris’ first girl-crush was Linda Hamilton in The Terminator that – while clearly important to her personally – are not folded neatly into the narrative. Some purposeful editing would help.
As a performer, Harris is clearly unschooled; thankfully, she is prone to smiling and nodding to herself when working her way through awkward transitions, which makes the exercise fairly charming to watch. Director Regie Cabico (of Godiva Dates & One Night Stands local fame) has set up a series of standard solo-show tropes for her to cover, from the dance break to the accent-based portrayal of various characters, and she will presumably grow more comfortable with these as the show’s run goes on. His coaching is evident, and Harris has the natural wit and radiance to really benefit from it whenever she gets past her self-consciousness.
So: a decidedly amateur piece (in the “doing it for the love” sense of the word) that doesn’t quite come together as a whole, even though it abounds in emotional detail. Not the kind of thing a curator would let through (even with Cabico’s name there to help), nor the kind that the non-curator Fringe administration will eagerly leap on as proof of the superiority of their open-gate policy.
But it’s a story with enough quiet outrage to stick with you and expand your empathy a little bit, despite the ephemeral issues with performance and dramaturgy. And it’d be a shame to lose that – and whatever else Harris may bring us in the future.