Opera, Shakespeare, Ibsen adaptation, a trio of clowns and local satire are some highlights of 8th Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part I of a two-part series featuring reviews of some of the shows at the 8th Great Salt Lake Fringe festival. The event continues this weekend, Aug. 4-7, at The Gateway. See The Utah Review preview here.

There may be nine fewer shows and one less venue than last year for the Great Salt Lake Fringe, but as reviews below for five shows suggest, some of the offerings are among the best in the event’s eight-year history in Salt Lake City. As of the first weekend, 1,040 tickets were sold and revenue topped the $10,000 mark, with more than $325 coming in donations as well.

With a maximum length of one hour, many Fringe shows are like beta tests for gauging their creative impact and quality. Fringe has become such a worthwhile proving ground for new companies and creative producers. No question that some shows will find a performing life once Fringe winds up on Aug. 7, with an expanding platform. Therefore, audience members should not hesitate to be among the first in line to say that, indeed, they attended a Fringe performance of a particular show that eventually will continue in one form or another.

The following reviews represent five shows from the first weekend and they will have performances during the upcoming weekend for Fringe:

Much Ado about Nothing: Grassroots Shakespeare Company.

Much Ado About Nothing: Grassroots Shakespeare Company 

If there is one staple of Fringe, it is having at least one contemporary take on a Shakespearean play. Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s splendid queer take on the comedy Much Ado about Nothing pops faithfully with the Bard’s keen commentary on social realism and the dynamics of gossip and rumor mongering in a tight community,

Grassroots is well known for its theatrical brand, which follows original practices of Elizabethan Era when the plays were performed. There were no directors, actors learned their lines quickly and were responsible for costumes and props and staging was minimal. The significant upgrade on the practices is that all forms of gender identity and expression now take on the roles, as opposed to the Elizabethan practice when all characters were played by men. This artistic democracy of sorts results in a crisply paced rendition of restless energy and the ensemble chemistry is solid.

The story boils down to the counterpoint of two sets of lovers:  Benedick and Beatrice initially are not enamored of each other but then the spark of romance hits, while Claudio and Hero love each other but then their romance wilts and nearly dies before they reunite. Happily, marriage abounds for all. Of course, weddings are a trademark in every Shakespearean comedy.

During Shakespeare’s time, the maneuvers of subterfuge were just as evident as they might appear in one of today’s rom-coms, especially when involved parties are scheming to see the fruits of their matchmaking. But, slandering someone for their sexual behavior also was a recurring plot element in a lot of theatrical productions during the 17th and 18th centuries. Think of the satire The School for Scandal.

In their fabulous flamboyance, the Grassroots cast elucidates the play’s timeless dynamics. Benedick and Beatrice exchange barbs to hurt each other rather than cope with their respective inner emotional pain. Only when they overhear others chatting do they realize that they truly love each other. Hero readily accepts what Don Pedro has to say about Claudio but meanwhile the self-doubting Claudio also is easily blinded by the words coming from Don John. The flawed central characters are redeemed only when they free themselves of the conventions of social propriety and recognize such requirements are not essential to finding honor. And, the Grassroots company makes it all properly lighthearted. 

Karllen Johnson (left), Aimee Pike (right), Alyssa Liu (sitting), Hilary Koolhoven (standing), violinist Jose Flores.

The Combat: Opera Contempo and NEXT Ensemble

Definitely make space in the Fringe schedule for The Combat, a superb adaptation of an early 17th century protean opera that was written in the form of a dramatic madrigal. Running just barely 21 minutes, the work is a bracing contemporary version of Claudio Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, set to a poetic libretto by Torquato Tasso.

The work was composed in 1624 and premiered in Venice during The Carnival celebration. In 2022 at Fringe, The Combat is presented by two Utah-based collaborators, Opera Contempo and The Next Ensemble, featuring a score by David Campbell, which adapts and magnificently fleshes out Monteverdi’s original.

Directed by Emilio Casillas and produced by Mandi Barrus, the production of this romantic tragedy features Tancredi, who was an Italian knight warrior in the original, and Clorinda, who was a maiden warrior and a Saracen in Monteverdi’s setting. There also is a narrator, Testo. Monteverdi’s setting was on the battlefields outside of Jerusalem. But, in Opera Contempo’s rendering, Tancredi and Clorinda are locked in a brutal war online, engaged from their respective homes. Think of the flame-throwing rhetoric on Twitter where civility collapses, impulsive rhetoric becomes emotionally explosive and venomous posts inspire hate and violence. It can quickly spiral out of control.

There are many brilliant metaphorical strokes in the adaptation, which is sensitized for how it gives audience members who may have never seen an opera a glimpse of why the experience can be relevant, even thrilling, in the 21st century. In the original, the work is scored for tenor, baritone and soprano but the adaptation features three sopranos: Hilary Koolhoven (Testo), Alyssa Liu (Clorinda) and Anna Hawkes (Tancredi). Hawkes, who was recovering from a cold, appeared on stage for the first performance but did not sing. On 18 hours’ notice, Michelle Hunt substituted as the singer. 

Alyssa Liu (sitting); Aimee Pike (punching); Karllen Johnson (being punched).

Meanwhile, Tancredi and Clorinda also exist in the virtual world, and the dimensions of their characters are amplified by spot-on choreography by Karllen Johnson (who portrays Clorinda) and Aimee Ruth Pike (as Tancredi). Both dancers weave in and around the three characters, adding the emotional textures that propel Tasso’s original libretto and ratchet up the dramatic tension. While the work is sung in Italian and there are supertitles with the translated text, a viewer will comprehend the full dramatic impact of the text by watching all five performers on stage without necessarily referring to the supertitles.

Likewise, the musicianship is gutsy, muscular, rugged and sturdy — in the singers as well as in the small string orchestra which includes an electric harpsichord, conducted by Evie Marie Gilgen. The company makes remarkably effective use of the tiny stage space, which adds to the exhilarating immersive impact of the performance. 

Monteverdi was a composer who bridged the Renaissance and Baroque periods and in much of his music, he was clear about his timbres, sonic textures and mood shifts. Campbell leverages this objective by adding numerous instrumental effects for the strings, many of which were unknown during Monteverdi’s time.

For the composer generally recognized as the father of opera, only three of his operas exist in full form and therefore, Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, remains important for many reasons.

Opera Contempo, which specializes in the one-act opera form and organizes performances that last an hour or less, has presented this work as a double bill with an appropriate companion work, Gian Carlo’s Menotti The Telephone (incidentally, this critic would be thrilled to see the company present Menotti’s The Medium). Unquestionably, The Combat opens up a new avenue for Fringe offerings and for the Utah performing arts scene on a broader scale. 

@ll Times, All Things, All Places: Network Theatre Company

Playwright Laura Elise Chapman’s @all Times, All Things, All Places, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House strikes as embodying some of the original’s most earnest sentiments. Her adaptation sets Nora Helmer (played by Chapman), as a seemingly dutiful Mormon housewife. But, Nora also strives to keep her extremely popular and subversive social media account, where she uses a pseudonym, a secret from Thomas (Bryce Lloyd Fueston), her husband. He is a by-the-book Mormon who insists on abiding the strictest features of the traditional marriage arrangement. She also is keeping secret from him the fact that she is bisexual.

It’s Christmastime but Nora is antsy about preserving her cover during the season. Their houseguest is Chris, a out and proud queer (Riki Squire), who makes Thomas very uncomfortable. Nora can confide in Chris, who also warns Nora that she inevitably will have to come to terms with her real identity. She returns to her phone constantly but only when her husband is not nearby. Her social media presence inspires those who desperately need an independent outlet of relief from Mormonism but she also has drawn the ire of #DezNat followers, the alt-right group which seeks to expose her true identity. Just before the holiday, Thomas fired Joseph (Brian Kocherhans), apparently for watching pornography at his office desk. Joseph identifies as a #DezNat follower who threatens to expose Nora’s social media account to her husband, but he also has a secret that cannot be contained. A perfect storm has been set. Also, Chapman’s script plays up on tropes that should be familiar to many Utah audience members. And, in Utah, where six degrees of separation are more often like one-and-a-half degrees at most, an associated storyline fuels the tensions that erupt in the play. 

A Doll’s House has resonated as an enlightening connector to the Mormon culture of perfectionism in marriage and to the uneasiness about genuine expressions of sexual and gender identity and roles. The late playwright Eric Samuelsen, a titan of Mormon literature, was an Ibsen scholar who translated the Norwegian playwright’s most celebrated works including A Doll’s House and Ghosts, which became that much more relevant for contemporary audiences. In fact, Samuelsen specifically retitled his translation A Doll House, where  removing the apostrophe from the original title signified that women rightly belong in far more places, and certainly not the “doll’s house.” Samuelsen also amplified the wit and comedic moments of Ibsen’s plays, even when they dealt with such intense dramatic storylines.

Chapman’s treatment, directed and produced by Amanda Debry, likewise is entertaining, as many audience members enjoyed the comedic inflections while the gravity of Nora’s predicament gradually overwhelms the scene. The four actors deliver solid performances. Chapman enriches the experiences of the characters with the concerns of homophobia and sexism, which Nora clearly finds as incompatible with the promises of salvation, as she tries to hold onto some hope that things might be resolved. The current script, however, would benefit from a smoother integration and flow between the critical scene involving Chris and Joseph and the climactic scene between the Helmers.

Clown House: Beyond The Line Theatre Company

With no dialogue but plenty of pantomime and a smart approach to movement in a theatrical setting, Clown House, directed by Jordan Reynosa, packs a lot of meaning in a chaotic circus-like rendition featuring three clowns.

The trio of clowns – Reynosa (Nim), Tom Roche (Tiny), and Kaiti Smith (Sparkles) – take the audience on a thought-provoking journey of the rituals of a day, punched up by a nice bit of audience interaction which includes balloon animals, cute hijinks and playtime. The setting, however, is framed by numerous juxtapositions. The clown personalities are opposites of their given names. The walls in their “house” are covered with conflicting messages. The floor is strewn with wadded up papers, perhaps the signs of failed inspirations, routines, tricks, or ideas that will never see the light of day.

The clowns do not speak one word but their message is compelling and philosophical. The clown is an archetype of humanity. Wading through the wads of paper might be our search to find the bits of our souls, ideas and thoughts that we have discarded or have lost in the rush to fulfill the routines of our lives. Thus, the artifacts of juxtaposition that drive Clown House become the carnival of paradox and ambiguity that gives the trio and, hopefully, the audience the chance to comprehend the nonsense of our contemporary lives. The humorous antics do not need to be explained but on their own they can spark the awareness we would love to discover on our own. The clowns are trying to envision a life of soulful freedom beyond the walls of the Clown House. In the circus or carnival, the answer might be clearer than sitting in the somber setting of a chapel and waiting for the magic of prayer to deliver the epiphany. To Nim, Tiny and Sparkles: thank you for a meaningful experience, as your silence and movement spoke volumes.

Forbidden Utah: Unmasked!: Wasatch Theatre Company 

Last year’s Fringe featured the Wasatch Theatre Company’s inaugural edition of Forbidden Utah with a satirical mix of observations about the state’s theatrical scene and politics, presented in parodies of familiar show tunes. The best moment of that production was the satirical send-up of Utah Governor Spencer Cox’s handling of the drought and pandemic, with Hey, Big Spencer, based on Sweet Charity’s Big Spender

The format is the same for the 2022 version, which highlights observations about the struggles of arts companies returning to live performances in the wake of the pandemic, the aging demographics of audiences, finding parking in downtown Salt Lake City and casting a troublesome personality for a production. Perhaps the best moment was the send-up of Gee, Officer Krupkee from West Side Story, where the lyrics spoke of the challenges of finding non-offensive shows for Utah audiences. That particular number, by far, was the sharpest bit of satire. In other instances, the satire seemed mild and restrained, which seems ironic compared to the parody and intentions of Gee, Officer Krupkee.

Nevertheless, the performances are solid in the show, written by Ann Davis along with George Plautz, who directs the production. The cast members include Melody Baugh, Salie Cooper, Jim Martin, and Daniel Torrence. Wasatch Theatre Company also is a resident arts organization at The Gateway. 

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