[Editor's note: Last night was day one of the Fringe Festival. For the next two weeks, we'll be checking out the amibitious, the weird, and the ugly offerings, and letting you know our thoughts. Be sure to also follow audience reviews as well a www.fringefestival.org.]
Spy in the House of Men: A One-Woman Show with Balls
Spy in the House of Men is a phrase Penny Sterling uses to describe the way she felt for most of her life: a woman among men, studying their world in the hopes of deciphering how to put on a convincing performance of masculinity. “Rather than become a person,” she remembers, “I developed a persona.”
Now middle-aged and the divorced parent of adult children, Sterling has found honesty and happiness. This well-edited monologue about her history poignantly describes the feelings that many other transgender people of Sterling’s generation have described: In the absence of any vocabulary or framework for understanding what it means to have a gender that doesn’t match one’s body, there can be a sense of what Sterling calls “the fundamental wrongness of me.”
The show centers on a series of episodes in Sterling’s life, and the stories’ wide-ranging nature—one involves being caught wearing her mother’s dress, another centers on an assault in a service station, a third describes a “teachable moment” with two young children in a coffee shop—ultimately serves to illustrate how foundational the artist’s gender identity is and has always been to her life. Consistently moving and sometimes amusing, Spy in the House of Men is easy to recommend.
Taking the Phoenix Theater stage on Thursday night, Joy Dolo Anfinson offered to explain what makes Blackout Improv’s show a little different from the average Fringe production: “We are black.” Attendees who had been expecting her to explain the nature of improv comedy gave the line a hearty chuckle. Given how overwhelmingly white the audience was, though, Anfinson could have paused a beat and added, “But actually.”
Blackout’s show alternates panel discussions with improvised sketches riffing on themes pulled from a hat of audience suggestions. On Thursday, topics of conversation included Chuck E. Cheese animatronics, the Confederate flag, changing attitudes toward homosexuality, and Maxine Waters.
The latter led to a serious discussion of black representation in media, which led to a mention of Busta Rhymes on kids’ TV, which led to a skit about Sesame Street that turned into a raucous romantic triangle involving Cookie Monster and Tickle Me Elmo. It was typical of Blackout’s blend of serious conversation with comedy that ranges from pointed satire to glorious goofiness.
The Fringe show also incorporates special guests; Thursday’s was Queen Drea, who used a sampler to build a song about hot flashes that included her hot takes on stories from the local alt-weekly. “Let’s see what’s in City Pages,” she said, paging through the latest edition over the sound of her freshly made beats. “Probably some bullshit.”
Gravitational Collapse has a premise that could come straight out of The Twilight Zone: Five spacefarers (Katie Robinson, Gail Estelle, Niomi Kaiser, Hailey Colwell, and Danna Sheridan) wake up in a ship spinning out of control. They don’t remember what happened, or even who they are. As they struggle to navigate an asteroid field, they also have to figure out where they came from and why the mission took a potentially deadly turn.
Unfortunately, what could have been 50 minutes of escalating tension turns out to be 35 minutes that just feel like 50. The show is full of tedious soul-searching as the characters use the potentially fascinating puzzle of their immediate circumstances as a springboard into deep questions of identity and relationships.
Do they really want to know who they are? Could they find fresh fates, and would that be a good thing? These would-be profound musings often play out as shallow bickering: two characters, for example, somehow manage to get into a quasi-marital spat, despite the fact that they apparently have no idea whether they’re actually married to each other.
Playwright Cole Sarar is best known as a poet and spoken-word performer, and her script veers into implausible flights of metaphor that lead to lines like “Can I just zip back up and forget I ever saw this bitter piece of foxberry pie?” Composer Dameun Strange’s music adds a dimension of far-out ambience, but it’s short on dynamic shifts, so the vaguely ominous electronic murmurs ultimately just underscore the fact that this existential drama is lost in space.
This is the show that led to a lawsuit last year when the Minnesota Fringe Festival denied Sean Neely permission to present it, an action that the performer said contradicted the festival’s publicly stated aversion to censorship. This much, at least, is certain: You won’t leave Sean Neely thinking that the controversy is just a tempest in a teapot.
Originally bearing the more informative title Having Sex with Children in My Brain, this ostensibly autobiographical monologue has Neely informing the audience that he experiences feelings of sexual attraction to young boys. He admits to having, in the past, possessed illegal images related to that attraction, but says he has not and will not otherwise act on those feelings. He’s married, and a father to two boys.
Neely asks for understanding, and says his feelings have contributed to such “self-disgust” that he feels compelled to open up about his situation. The Thursday night crowd largely sat silently for Neely’s quiet, halting disclosures. They took some opportunities to laugh at observations about theater culture, which came in the context of Neely describing his transition from a more conventional actor to a performer who uses the frame of theater to open difficult conversations he feels the need to have.
The show concludes with the observation that it’s confrontational, by design. Neely acknowledges that people will have varying reactions to the show, one of which might well be to call the police. That’s actually happened at Fringe, in 2015, when Neely performed a show about rape.
Fringe-goers who are familiar with Neely’s approach are sharply divided: Does he broach taboo topics in a meaningful and substantive way, or in an obfuscating manner that appropriates and trivializes crimes like child abuse, rape, shootings, and racially motivated attacks? After all, it’s not every day you see a man sit onstage and confess to pedophilia—and there are reasons for that.