Great Salt Lake Fringe 2020: Virtual format delivers smart concept shows, excellent performances

In Edinburgh, the birthplace of the Fringe festival concept in 1947, this year’s version has gone digital. “It’s hard to imagine a summer without the Fringe,” Shona McCarthy, Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society chief executive, said in a statement published online. “The explosion of creativity and community that the festival brings every year is unparalleled, and whilst we may not be able to provide a stage in Edinburgh in quite the same way this year, it feels hugely important that the spirit of this brilliant festival is kept alive.”

Many of the more than 250 Fringe festivals around the world have followed suit. And, this includes the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival (GSLF), which is in its sixth year.

“The virtual format allows even more creativity than usual,” Jay Perry, co-festival director, says. “The gamut of available genres is pretty close to what we have had in other years, thanks especially to Zoom video and conferencing technologies.” He adds, “the performers really are in uncharted territory for finding ways to explore the magic of live theater in the virtual format. We wanted to do something because we just felt like we needed to give some place for artists to gather – now more than ever.”

His colleague echoes the sentiment. Festival co-director Shianne Gray explains one of the greatest strengths of the Fringe concept is that the “free spirit translates very well to a virtual medium; a nontraditional setting. And, we saw in the submissions how everyone responded to that challenge in droves.”

There is a mix of new and old faces in the schedule, with nearly 40 percent of the shows coming from out of state. Coming off of last year’s record in ticket sales and audiences for more than 150 performances spread over two weekends, the virtual GSLF this year just completed its first weekend with more than 2,700 views of the Fringe video channel – a solid performance.

The schedule resumes for four days, beginning Thursday, Aug. 6, with the schedule of 38 shows. Normally, multiple Fringe performances occur simultaneously but with the virtual format, the offering is exactly like a classic broadcasting network with a daily schedule, as one show streams after another. Each show receives two streams, one per weekend. Several shows require RSVPs in advance and viewers receive a specific link.

However, many of the streaming shows are open to anyone, and viewers are encouraged to tip or donate to various artists. Several performers are using the Fringe platform to raise donations for social justice reform causes including Black Lives Matter and the Utah Food Bank. Shows are rated in terms of age-accessible content for audiences, just as they have been in previous years.

Normally, GSLF would be offering live performances in the heart of The Gateway in downtown Salt Lake City. However, Perry and Gray are still using the center as broadcast headquarters for the festival. “Although the Fringe Festival has been modified to keep performers and attendees safe, we are thrilled to continue to support this important cultural event,” Jacklyn Briggs, The Gateway’s marketing director, says in an email statement sent to The Utah Review. “As with most difficult times, art has a way of innovating and creating special moments to mark time. The Gateway is proud to be a host and sponsor of the Fringe Festival now and for years to come. We encourage people to tune in as the hosts broadcast previews and interviews with the performers live from The Gateway. Maybe even order takeout from The Gateway restaurants to support our local restaurants and bring the experience home.”

The Utah Review has selected eight shows to review. The first four reviews are presented below:

Dumbed Down, LIT Co. (Local Independent Theatre)

Directed and written by Darryl Stamp for Local Independent Theatre (LIT Co.), the virtual reading of Dumbed Down is a smart, sharp dramatic narrative take on the school-to-prison pipeline and the culture of discriminatory school discipline policies that overwhelm the sincere quest for an education with genuine meaning.

Kevin Simon, an African American English teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School, knows first-hand the systemic challenges his students (Malcolm and Craig) face and the potential with a mentor who understands them and knows how to open the doors to knowledge. There also is Isaiah, a few years older than Malcolm and Craig, who ends up in the state prison. Finally, the school principal seems oblivious to Simon’s mission calling for relevant educational experiences, not discipline or testing, to be emphasized and prioritized.

Stamp’s concise script balances the narrative challenges with a firm yet understated grasp. Simon understands the dynamics in his classroom, as restless students seem more focused on their cellphones, while others nod off at their desk, or the endless parade of students asking for a hall pass. However, there are flickers of hope as well. In one scene, Simon asks the students about pathos in Patrick Henry’s famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech with the question: “What did Henry mean when he said that their cause was a matter of freedom or slavery?” Elated by the student’s correct answer, Simon demonstrates how a teacher could connect with his students: “What Jax was trying to say without the F-bomb,’ was that the colonist’s freedom was at stake. They didn’t want to be like slaves, because a lot of rich people already owned slaves, and they knew how, uh, messed up that was. Was that right, Jax? Nice job! Take the hall pass and go get a drink. Of water. I’m just messing with you. Hey, don’t take all day!”

However, as with naturally gifted teachers who instinctively know how to connect with their students, Simon also must confront a principal who is definitely ill-fitted for the school and cannot communicate effectively with students. The principal does not even stop to listen carefully to Isaiah, a young man who skillfully draws context in his life and surroundings to characters from great films. Isaiah, for example, references Travis Bickle, the protagonist of the 1976 film Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese. So utterly clueless to any sociocultural context, the principal says, “Marilyn, find out what class Travis Bickle is in during next period. Thanks.” Simon and the students in Dumbed Down will remind viewers of the 1988 Stand and Deliver film, directed by Ramón Menéndez‎.

Darryl Stamp

The cast handles nicely Stamp’s excellent script, including Cal Beck (Mr. Simon), Pedro Flores (Isaiah), Jake Barnes (Malcolm), Brandan Ngo (Craig) and Jeff Owen (Principal Davis).

Last year, Stamp directed a LIT production of Richard Greenberg’s 1987 play The Author’s Voice at Fringe. Dumbed Down was written as part of Plan-B Theatre’s Theatre Artists of Color Writing Workshop. Stamp also wrote Roar (produced by Plan-B in 2019) as well as Mise en Place and Go Home Come Back this year.

Proceeds from the production will go to the Utah Food Bank. The second presentation will be Aug. 9 at 7:30 p.m.

Madazon Can-Can, Can-Cantasia

Madazon Can-Can, Salt Lake City’s “favorite nekkid clown,” returns to Fringe this year, after last summer’s triumph with the festival’s “Outstanding One Person Show” award. Madazon’s (Madison Lindgren) performances exude natural magnetism in celebrating the fluidity of human identity about which all of us should feel comfortable in embracing. Last year’s show Genit-Hell Yeah! also was part of the research Madazon used to complete a Weber State University master’s degree. Their thesis was appropriately prescient: Performance Art for Social Change.

This year’s show excels with Madazon’s exquisite skills at making penetrating statements about the contemporary scene while providing the same generous bounty of entertainment that last year’s Fringe production offered.

Madazon strikes the right pitch in every scene of this drag, burlesque and clown fantasia that becomes a cause célèbre for thinking about the artist as human and the uniquely terrifying circumstances of sustaining that passion and livelihood in this unprecedented pandemic time.

Madazon Can-Can.

Madazon can be funny, outrageous, subversive, mischievous, alluring and naughty with a sexy wink and smile. But, Madazon also can connect emotionally and profoundly without uttering a single word. Madazon’s performing elements heighten a tone that never seems trite or cliché, even when some of the elements that are incorporated are so damn familiar.

Take, for example, the spoken word text of Alan Watts, well known for its use in the song What Fills the Gap by Will Cady, which starts, “Let’s suppose that you were able every night to dream any dream that you wanted to dream. And that you could, for example, have the power within one night to dream 75 years of time. Or any length of time you wanted to have.”  

This comes a while after Madazon “interviews” the Angel Moroni. The iconic statue, of course, was toppled from the temple on the morning of the March 18 Magna earthquake. In Mormon Utah, Watts’ words are magnified monumentally for those who either left, were forced, excommunicated, or abandoned the church just because they had chosen to live their existence as human.

This sets the stage for her spiritual treatise that matters to Madazon, who epitomizes the freedom that makes Can-Cantasia such a gem. The segue into the backdrop featuring Michael Bublé’s version of the Great Depression Era song Dream a Little Dream of Me signifies Madazon’s fabulous brand for Fringe, virtual and live.

Honestly, one of the best video images that perhaps encapsulates 2020 is Madazon’s scene with Frank Sinatra’s version of Send in The Clowns, that Sondheim classic from A Little Night Music. Madazon appears in clown attire outside, sitting in front of a patchwork curtain fluttering in the breeze, along with a Harlequin mask. It is a bittersweet tableau in the most quintessential representation of Madazon’s art form.

The show opens with a clip from last year’s Fringe triumph. The pace at first is frenetic, especially with a montage of scenes from January and February before the pandemic ground everything to a full stop. Madazon’s musical selections undergird this marvelous, sensitive and astute artistic journey – from I Think I’m Paranoid (Garbage) to All by Myself (Celine Dion), Don’t You (Forget about Me) (Simple Minds) and Running Up That Hill (Kate Bush).

In its virtual format, Madazon’s show, which received a grant from The Blocks SLC, is a tour de force— certainly one of the most ambitious rising stars of the Utah Enlightenment. The second week stream will take place Aug. 8 at 10:45 p.m.

Risk of Exposure, Liz Whittaker

Many GSLF shows demonstrate the versatile creative opportunities for Zoom technologies for virtual theater and Liz Whittaker’s take on dating during a pandemic succeeds solidly, given that it was entirely rehearsed and filmed in isolation.

Whittaker leverages the premise perfectly. The main character, Hero Lovelace, is a 34-year-old woman who has been persuaded by her friend to create a profile for the fictional Sparkmate dating app (“keep the spark alive,” as its tag line). A nurse, she is open to men and women, loves books, tries to maintain household plants, and reveals that she has “crippling student debt.” She also indicates that she is a socially responsible mask-wearer.

Throughout the script, Whittaker incorporates wise bits of recently familiar pop culture, such as the “hot priest” from Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s excellent dark comedy series Fleabag.

Her first Sparkmate encounters are horrendous. One guy wastes no time in asking what colors are her panties or urging her to expose herself. Another indicates that he already is, um, gratifying himself.

And, then she meets Orion, a manager of a local grocery store. She wasn’t expecting him. The initial chatter suggests that there is nothing to match up on: introvert/extrovert, morning/night person, only child/seven siblings, etc. She tells Orion that she has not been on a date since the Obama Administration. The conversation already is awkward enough when Orion suggests that they metaphorically remove their masks, and share with each other their own “dark and terrible” secret. They decide that if one reveals something that is too dark and terrible, they will hang up and never talk again. Indeed, the risk of exposure makes the conversation seem so tenuous and fragile that one wonders if Hero or Orion will be the first to hang up abruptly in a virtual date failure. Ideally, it is the virtual format that compels viewers to see this through the end, which Whittaker handles in a completely satisfying, credible way.

Rounding out the cast is Ali Lente (Delilah), Aaron Woodall (Misogynist Match), Patrick Harris (Hell No Match) and Tyler Fox (Orion). Whittaker (who plays Hero) also enlisted Kailey Azure Green as intimacy coordinator.

The second stream will be presented Aug. 7 at 9:45 p.m.

I’m Not Playing, WHO’S LOUIS?     

A clever format that works exceptionally well in its 25-minute presentation is the digital installation I’m Not Playing, created by the four actors who comprise the collective WHO’S LOUIS? The premise is straightforward for the four characters who share living quarters: Jeremy and Jess had a terrible argument and both impulsively have decided to end their relationship. Meanwhile, Caitlyn listens to Jeremy and Dev listens to Jess.  There are plenty of emotional entanglements here while the four decide to proceed with their regularly scheduled game night (the classic game of revenge: Sorry).

However, audience members decide how they want to navigate the five spaces featured in the installation to distill what actually is happening and just where the relationships between and among this quartet of young roommates stand. In times of social distancing, the digital installation is a surprising treat, as the viewer can feel the intimate vibe of actually sitting in their apartment and hear and observe the events of this cohabitation drama unfold. They have rehearsed the intricately developed parts so well that the whole effect has a natural spontaneity. The navigation according to one’s own preferences works smashingly well. It would be fascinating to experience countless combinations in this well-conceived digital installation. The ensemble of characters generally fits with what one would expect with four young people living together, especially when two of them are a couple.

I’m Not Playing, WHO’S LOUIS?

The chemistry in performances is natural. The four actors (Monica Goff, Cece Otto, Katryna Williams and Dominic Zappala) formed the group while they were students at The University of Utah and they performed in the 2016 GSLF. They live in New York City (Brooklyn) and they reside in two apartments across the hall from another. While I’m Not Playing is perfect pandemic entertainment, this platform approach has been elemental to the group’s work, even prior to the widespread shutdowns that happened in March.

The show also is being presented virtually at the Minnesota Fringe Festival and has been slated for Rochester, New York, in mid-September.

The second GSLF stream will take place Aug. 9 at 10 p.m. The show also is available at the group’s website for streaming during the duration of GSLF.

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