Autobiographical solo performances are a major food group at Capital Fringe. Spy in the House of Men follows the recipe step-by-step, but stands out from the rest as particularly well-written and important to hear.
Penny Sterling has seen a lot of hardship: abuse, addiction, assault, and fifty years spent trying to live as a man. Her perspective as a trans woman, a parent, and an addict all build into a rich, heart aching narrative that keeps the audience hanging on every word.
And yet Sterling brings to the stage a story just as fun as it is dramatic!
Spy in the House of Men
closes July 21, 2017
Details and tickets
The credit for it is two-fold. First, the writing. Each chapter has a great arc and attention to detail, full of pleasing humor and callbacks. Her experience as a stand-up comedian shows as she masterfully balances tension and comedy.
Second, Sterling’s strong performance. For first-time director Lynne Sánchez-Fries, it is an impressive debut. The show achieves the intimacy of a personal conversation to a degree that will make many solo performers jealous.
But Spy in the House of Men suffers from one crutch of the genre. Sterling uses bursts of reenactments to introduce many of the chapters, often ending with the cliché “…I guess I should explain.” In an otherwise enthralling performance, these breaks feel cheesy and even a little frustrating. Sterling is a capable actor when characters ranging from a pair of energetic 8-year-old girls to a middle-aged man at a gas station actually prove vital to her story, but these throwaway introductory scenes break up her flow for a cheap pay off.
The venue also works against Spy in the House of Men. Shopkeeper’s basement is well-located with regard to Fringe headquarters, but not when it comes to the still active café operating right over the audience’s heads. Shows like this one thrive when the audience is completely focused even while the performer is silent. Hard to do over the sounding of moving furniture and conversations upstairs.
Additionally, the tight quarters means some seats have a stage light beaming hot against your neck. Aim for the front row or aisle seat to keep from getting a sunburn in a basement.
It’s no surprise that Spy in the House of Men has already won awards at the Cincinnati and Ithaca Fringes. Its adherence to the rigid structure of its genre and the fact that it has been seen by many audiences before keep it from achieving a truly Fringe electric energy. Instead, it is quieter, but still enthralling.
Spy in the House of Men. Written and performed by Penny Sterling. Directed by Lynne Sánchez-Fries. Produced by Penny: For Your Thoughts. Reviewed by Marshall Bradshaw.