Fringe Day Ten: Cirque du Fringe goes ‘Laugh-In’ on us
Now in its ninth year, we already know what to expect of the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival – or most any other fringe festival – even under non-coronavirus conditions. A diverse array of music, dance, theater, spoken word, puppets, magic and more, with artists bending Shakespeare into unrecognizable shapes to suit their own purposes.
With these shows, we will witness great artistic achievement. We will see shows that are works in progress. We will see failures.
And please: Failures are welcome. Failures are like the night, without which there would be no dawn. Failures can be funny or endearing, and they are learning experiences. Fringe festivals reward excellence, but they also reward promise.
This is the sixth year for Cirque du Fringe at Rochester Fringe, co-created and hosted by Matt and Heidi Morgan. Rather than bringing the show to us at the glittering Spiegeltent parked at E. Main and Gibbs streets, they are presenting the new show "Quarantini" and an updated version of the Shakespeare drinking theater “Shotspeare” to us through our glowing laptop computer screens.
"Cirque du Fringe: Quarantini" is presented entirely as a pre-recorded video. If you remember "Laugh-In," or have seen the variety-show comedy on one of the retro-minded cable channels, you'll recognize the quick-cut editing, silly jokes, canned laughter, extravagant splashes of psychedelic colors, and Heidi Morgan playing off the characters portrayed by "Laugh-In" regulars Goldie Hawn and Ruth Buzzi.
It works really well. And all of this is woven between the kind of vaudeville acts that Cirque du Fringe brings to Rochester Fringe each year: a contortionist on a tricycle who's almost painful to watch; a beautifully shot segment with a ribbon aerialist; Ugandan dancers breathing fire; other performers include motorcycle daredevils, and jugglers, as well as the Morgan's young son mixing the two a martini (vodka, dirty).
There's also a moment when "Quarantini" offers a potent shot of reality in 2020. Superb rope aerialist Deon Fox recites text written by a friend, as a reminder of where we are in this summer of racial reckoning: "A Black man in America, where diversity is never welcome."
"Shotspeare presents The Complete Works of William Shakespeare... sort of" turns out to be a train wreck, which is likely the idea for this mix of both recorded and live sections. Drinking cues are scattered throughout, such as "The Bell of Libations," or when Matt Morgan instructs the audience, "You shall drink when we drink… when you see a live animal..."
The live aspect includes the actors stopping the action to call for viewers to take a shot (this reviewer was drinking a three-olive gin martini, dirty) and a Shakespeare trivia contest, with viewers typing their answers in the Zoom chat box.
It is a disjointed comedy of errors, shards of the Bard, at one point played out by Batman action figures. "The Wheel of Soliloquy" returns from last year’s "Shotspeare," alongside a new recurring piece called "Soap Opera Shakespeare," with Shakespeare’s words set in contemporary daytime TV settings.
In Shakespeare's day, actors would enthusiastically create gory fight scenes. But in the 21st century of "Shotspeare," we hear, "I'm vegan, so I can’t use pig's blood!" Similarly, Shakespeare’s most original stage direction — "Exit, Pursued By A Bear" — gives way to pursuit by a budget-conscious Morgan in a lion costume recycled from previous skits.
"You're gonna see a lot of stuff that should be in the dumpster," he said.
Consider yourself warned. But as Jackie and Diane foreshadowed, and Morgan warned, "At least you’re not walking through streets deep in sh**, like Shakespeare did."
The final "Cirque du Fringe" shows take place at 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 25, and Saturday, Sept. 26. $25. Ages 13 and over. The final “Shotspeare” will be presented on the final day of Rochester Fringe, Saturday, Sept, 26, at 10 p.m. $21. Ages 21 and over. The complete Rochester Fringe schedule is at rochesterfringe.com. — Jeff Spevak
"Zoom Your Own Adventure"
One thing I miss about experiencing the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival in person, besides being around people in general, is the element of surprise. No two performances are exactly the same. But with many of this year’s Fringe shows being pre-recorded, some are in fact, identical. That is not the case with "Zoom Your Own Adventure."
Writing duo Sara and Matt Moore tackle familiar issues: quarantine, Black Lives Matter protests, and police brutality. But it’s done with a touch of levity without losing its serious core message at the end. The play features 10 actors, each turning their Zoom cameras on or off when their character is “on stage.” A narrator walks us through would-be stage directions that can’t be expressed through words or facial expressions. It’s a bit like an old radio play, but for the 21st century. And it largely works.
The story focuses on two parts of the same family – two moms and their kids, and Cousin Billy and his girlfriend Celeste, as well as their three young kids (not seen on screen) – as they clash over politics, the current COVID crisis, racial tensions, and immigration. While the story leans into some stereotypes, it ends with everyone coming together. The message? We are all human and need to care for one another – and one of the best ways to do that is to vote. The message was made especially poignant, as the night I saw the show, the news of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death had just broken as I logged off.
There are a few delays between lines, but after the first few minutes, the cast really found their rhythm. Joanne Brokaw is on-point as Leslie (one of the moms), and Gregory Ludek is equal parts amusing and infuriating as anti-masker Cousin Billy. Despite only appearing toward the end of the show, Scott Fybush ( a reporter and radio host at WXXI News) delivers a sympathetic and heartfelt performance as a homeless man whom Leslie’s daughter Brooke (Lisa Fybush) has befriended.
About 10 minutes in, the audience is given a choice: do we want to hear from character A or character B? Each has a monologue prepared, which may or may not be heard, depending on how the audience votes. One of our votes ended in a tie, so we got to revote. In between each of the acts, audience members are asked to type random words so the actors can come up with "commercials" on the spot. My suggestion of “prolific boogers” was chosen for the first ad spot – for the Booger Blaster! As a new mom, that actually might come in handy. The final performance of "Zoom Your Own Adventure" will be on Friday, Sept. 25 at 8:30 p.m., via rochesterfringe.com. Tickets are $5. For ages 5 and over. — Kathy Laluk
"The Scranton Strangler: An Office Musical"
Unlike many 30-somethings, I have never really watched the hit comedy series "The Office." I’ve seen a few episodes here and there, and I definitely have seen plenty of GIFs from the show on Twitter, but that's about it, so I went into "The Scranton Strangler: An Office Musical" largely blind.
The 46-minute pre-recorded show pokes fun at the sitcom, parodying each of the characters as they discover a not-so-mysterious killer in their ranks. Dunder Mifflin Regional Manager Michael Scott goes under-cover as his alter ego, FBI agent Michael Scarn, who is investigating a series of killings in Scranton. As the lead, the actor initially struggles to find his footing, but once he does, he soars. Turning the infamous one-liner "that’s what she said" into a hilarious romp at the moment when he discovers who the real killer is. It’s particularly amusing when the piano trills to signal a character’s aside to the cameras — a hallmark of the show. The musical numbers are somewhat sporadic, light and catchy enough in the moment, but not enough to get stuck in your head. Although the ending tune — "thank God for Netflix" — may have convinced me to add the show to my queue.
Even if you’ve never seen the show, the jokes still land. I’m sure die-hard fans of “The Office” will appreciate it more (based on audience laughter in the recording, I know there are some punchlines that flew over my head), but anyone will find it an amusing comedy bit.
“The Scranton Strangler” is free and streaming on demand via rochesterfringe.com for the duration of Rochester Fringe. Ages 13 and over. — Kathy Laluk