Eighth Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival concludes on several impressive notes, in show quality, attendance and awards

EDITOR’s NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series offering a roundup of reviews of shows from the eighth Great Salt Lake Fringe festival. For Part 1, see The Utah Review feature here.

The Great Salt Lake Fringe completed its eighth edition, in venues at The Gateway, on strong notes. Representing both weekends of the festival, 2,351 tickets were sold, a good showing for the event’s first full in-person presentation since 2019. Award winners include Clown House (Best of F), Antigone (Best of FF) and @All Times, All Things, All Places (Best of FFF). Other honors included Can I Say Yes to that Dress? (Outstanding One-Person Show), With You (Outstanding Ensemble), A Night to Dismember (Outstanding Original Script), Antigone (Audience Choice with most votes overall), With You (Mx. Congeniality with highest cumulative attendance) and Look Me in the Mind (Fringe Pick).

#CHAMPION: Amuse Bouche Productions 

Throughout the performance of #CHAMPION, an Amuse Bouche Productions show by Sheila Klein and Masha Mikulinsky, the viewer periodically returns to the two lists enumerating Klein’s numerous surgeries, hospital stays, the times they have had to learn to walk and cumulative length of scars, among other items. 

It is an edifying context for the captivating performance of dance movement, which includes props such as a stationary bike, IV stand, crutches and a soundtrack of Queen’s greatest hits and solo covers by Freddie Mercury. Klein’s movement language is animated by their generous emotional nonverbal gestures and communication, which sharpen the impact of the epiphany. Meanwhile, Mikulinsky handles the puppetry of moving and manipulating a skeleton that complements Klein’s movement in the 11 sections of the work and accentuates the underlying creative pulse of #CHAMPION.

Sheila Klein (right) and Masha Mikulinsky,

As Klein shared in a 2020 interview with Jamie Kraus, they “live with a triad of rare, chronic diseases: Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS), which affects collagen/connective tissue and causes joint hypermobility, skin elasticity, and tissue fragility; Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS), which means my mast cell/histamine responses are out of whack; and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), which causes autonomic nervous system dysfunction.”

#CHAMPION epitomizes the new chapter of Klein’s artistry. They began dancing at the age of three, earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in dance at The University of Michigan and had a professional performing career for a decade in New York City. The work, indeed, captures the spectrum of emotions since the diagnosis, including the frustrations of realizing that physicians and colleagues do not comprehend these diseases nor the ongoing impacts of their effects on Klein’s body.

The pieces of #CHAMPION fit nicely into a cogent, clear message that resonates in their performance. What happens when a dance artist (queer and disabled) opens up fresh creative vistas for expressive possibilities in movement theater, only to find that performing arts companies have not yet made the space for such work to be esteemed for its merit and value as anything else in the repertoire. While many companies proudly proclaim their sensitivities to inclusivity and accessibility, many fall short, especially when they inadvertently and subconsciously situate such work as serving more the purpose of checking off an item on a mission list rather than incorporating it into the creative corpus of their repertoire. 

Klein’s work reminded me of a historical parallel in music from the early 20th century. The Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein was already enjoying a fruitful concert career when he was called to serve in World War I. He lost his right hand but decided to resume his career by strengthening his left-hand technique as well as adapting and rearranging works from the piano literature for concerts. He also approached composers to write music for him, especially new concerti to be accompanied by orchestras. But, many fell short because the music felt like a stunt or novelty. Few could rise to the opportunity to push creative boundaries into new blue ocean territory. Then, French composer Maurice Ravel wrote a piano concerto for Wittgenstein with orchestra, which had all of the rich textures and artistic heft that such a piece would have, had it been written for two hands. 

Klein is a lifelong dance artist and unquestionably a formidable creative producer and choreographer. They eschew the labels of “inspirational” and “heroic” because those terms suggest exploitation rather than acknowledgment of genuine artistic merit. Watching #CHAMPION, this audience member looks forward to other works and shows by Klein and Mikulinsky. And, promoters and companies should embrace the opportunity to make good on their promises and to break down the fences because there is plenty of artistic ground, which performers like Klein and others have potently demonstrated. 

Small Box with A Revolver

The two-handed Small Box with a Revolver, written by Dustin Hageland and featuring David Knoell and Stephanie Shroud, was the cream of the crop for theatrical productions during the 2022 edition of the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival.

A smart interpretative variation on Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Hageland pens his own absurdist dark comedy, this time featuring Sam, an accountant, and Gene, an English teacher, who like the characters in Stoppard’s original are befuddled by mysterious circumstances and events and are trying to reason out the cryptic instructions they have received.

Just as the play’s title suggests, the important prop is this small box which happens to contain a revolver, as both protagonists discover early in the play. But, as the play progresses, they discover other items and clues in the box, which heighten their respective confusion and fears.

Hageland has framed these characters in imaginative ways that make them original and compelling on their own merit, not derivatives of Stoppard’s conception. The characters could be played by any combination of actors, regardless of their gender identity. Both characters at various moments embody and trade off traits that are linked to the familiar portrayals of Rosenkranz and Guilderstein. The world of Sam and Gene is not of their own making and they commiserate about the stark brutality of what is being asked of them.

Knoell and Shroud have tight chemistry and timing. The best comedic lines land as they should, particularly in their version of “reverse Russian roulette.” There are many wonderful moments, as Gene tells Sam stories from mythology and religion that they use in the hopes of deciding how they should respond to the blunt yet mystifying instructions they have discovered. The trio of stories help to tie the narrative plate together, including the accounts of Pandora’s box, the Old Testament story about Abraham and Isaac and the Celtic legend of Breogán. 

The firearm as the play’s centerpiece connects to an intriguing but relevant side theme. In a country overrun by indiscriminate and brutal gun violence, when will we finally decide that our discourse on this subject should be driven by genuine compassion and humane considerations instead of by peers who apparently will never have sympathy to use their power wisely and prudently.

With You

Poised as an audience favorite, With You was a sensitive, witty and well-grounded bit of chamber theater. Playwright Jamie Wilcox sets the story in the early 2000s with three friends. Georgia and Christopher are best friends and when they go to a bar, they meet Dustin, their server. Christopher (Tristian Osborne) plays matchmaker, urging Georgia (Amy Livingston) to proceed in dating Dustin (Pedro Flores). Wilcox keeps the exposition light-hearted and the play skips along in a fairly rapid rhythm, with short scenes punctuated by a playlist of songs that are relevant to the story line. There is Van Morrison’s Moondance, The Flaming Lips’ With You, Radiohead’s How to Disappear Quickly and Johnny Cash’s A Little at a Time, for example. 

The relationship hits the right groove for Georgia and Dustin, to the delight of Christopher, who makes the ideal gay best friend for Georgia. But, the relationship with Dustin darkens, especially after Georgia discovers scars on his wrists, indications that he had been cutting himself. Georgia sincerely tries to be compassionate but Dustin also is worried about the stigma of his own personal issues surrounding depression and episodes of mania in bipolar disorder. Christopher is unfailingly devoted in empathizing with Georgia while he also seeks to understand Dustin’s struggles and his ability to cope.

Wilcox has produced a script with authentic emotions and the actors respond effectively to these challenges. Wilcox originally conceived the story for a two-hander nearly 20 years ago, after her boyfriend (Eric Price) committed suicide. She eventually fleshed it out to a full one-act work and a third character. The added character is Christopher, who embodied the playwright’s best friend (Ryan Mouritsen). Mouritsen was out-and-proud in the LGBTQ+ community and died in a flying accident in 2009. The genuine emotion in the script leads to the play’s moving final scene, which is exceptionally well done.

All ticket sales were donated in the memory of her boyfriend and her best friend to the ​Utah Pride Center, specifically to ensure access to mental health services and counseling for those struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.

The Haunting Is You: The Box

At The Box, the resident experimental and theatrical performing space at The Gateway, R.J. Walker has a sly, keen skill for interactive and improvised productions. The Haunting Is You, described as “an interactive horror comedy where the audience is the ghost.” In one respect, think of it as a zany outgrowth of the Scooby Doo cartoon franchise. There is a cast of five actors who confront the peculiar intersection of a Gen Z entrepreneur who wants to turn a burned-out theater into home for his new SwagCoin business. Also, there are a nearby gas leak and the story of Macbeth (hey, what would any self-respecting Fringe be without at least one or two contemporary takes on Shakespeare). 

Walker is the master of this interactive theatrical enterprise. The production is free to audience members but at the end of each act, he invites audience members to donate cash or to venmo their contribution @dollarcompliments. Audience members are instructed to peruse a 69-item list (nice!) labeled “Possession and Mischief.” This sets up the improv possibilities and let’s just say they are hilarious, outrageous and shameless. There are dildos as weapons, jalapenos to be eaten, voice mimicking Elmo (the world’s most loveable and annoying Muppet character which really turns out to be creepy but properly over-the-top) and the requirement for every line to be punctuated by “sugar tits,” said in a smoky-soaked voice of an old diner waitress. These are just a handful of the items on the list. And, the cast responds splendidly. It’s a free-wheeling romp and the topsy-turvy nature of the production encourages actors to flex their improv skills without feeling self-conscious. 

The proceeds are divided between the cast and The Box venue, which will be used to provide free after-school theater programs for youth, who are in transitional housing. Other donation opportunities during the show include a stageside bar and concessions stand. 

The production continues with post-Fringe performances at 10 p.m. this weekend (today and tomorrow), as well Aug. 19 and 20. Same quirky rules apply for this riotous affair.

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