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'Remnants' and 'ShMILF Life' yield powerful insights at Rochester Fringe

Ashleigh Deskins

Searching for spirituality in ‘Remnants’

Just a few moments into Friday’s KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival show “Remnants,” at Ellison Park, I became ashamed of my inferior spirituality.

The park, just off of Interstate 490 and Blossom Road, is home to the remnants of Rochester’s long-ago heritage. A replica of Fort Schuyler. And the spirituality of the Haudenosaunee people.

Unavoidably, “Remnants” is the confluence of the ancient and the 21st century. The show has seized the rustic log structure of Fort Schuyler and filled it with laptop computers and photos suggesting wisdom; elderly people and trees, some with their gnarled roots exposed, suggesting the silent passage of time. And a video projector, flashing images on a screen of dancers cavorting as one with the trees and Irondequoit Creek.

It was an impressive crowd of well over 100 people who came to Friday’s free performance, if you want to use the word performance. “Remnants” is spoken word and music and dance, but it consists mostly of introspection: How do you feel about what you see and hear here?

On this beautiful late afternoon, beneath the protective shade of trees, festivalgoers walked the paths amid September’s first scattered leaves, staring at their phones, trying to decipher the nature that was around them. Then glancing through the trees to see disc golfers less than 100 yards away, expertly flinging their plastic across the beautiful, green, 18-hole “course.”

Or, these Remnants inspectors could simply listen to the period-costumed guides, some of whom carried staffs topped with evergreen fronds. Evidently some of kind of Druid cosplay was at work here.

“Part of our goal here is to action the space of Ellison Park,” one guide said. And frowning on the use of phones, the guide reminded attendees, “Part of our goal here is to experience this together.”

“You can co-create your experience with the quality of your attention,” her fellow guide added.

Credit Ashleigh Deskins / WXXI
Actors perform in Ellison Park as part of Remnants on Sept. 17, 2021.

This newly spiritualized Rochester Fringe audience learned the Haudenosaunee legend that the planet was once “the water world and the sky world.” Until a great turtle created Turtle Island, which became North America as it is known today.

The spirituality of this earthy atmosphere soon overwhelmed whatever remained of the 21st century. Musicians with a guitar and accordion were accompanied by hushed, almost sighing, singers. Actors playing several generations of Haudenosaunee women asked if the audience could detect the smell of roasting corn. “That’s one thing I don’t like about being dead,” said one, who claimed to have lived until age 108. “You don’t get to eat.”

They spoke in melancholy tones — and sometimes with droll humor — of the indignities forced upon Native Americans: “Imagine having to buy your land back after it was stolen three times…”

“Wanting less is better for Mother Earth…”

And how the 17th-century explorer La Salle tried to sail a ship up Irondequoit Creek — it was a river then — in search of a passage to India; the audience laughed at this foolishness. And Christopher Columbus? “Don’t get me started on that one…”

Wandering through all of this were people leashed to their dogs. Dogs who clearly understood that this is the best — the best — Rochester Fringe show ever.

“Remnants” returns to Ellison Park at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. — JS

A Penny for your thoughts

Penny Sterling immediately broke the fourth wall and made each of us in the Rochester Fringe audience on Friday night her confidante, student, and ally. She told us that she was waiting for a date — one that through her weary, yet unflappable tone we could tell she didn’t really expect would show up.

Credit Ashleigh Deskins / WXXI
Penny Sterling performs her one-woman show, ShMILF Life, at the MuCCC as part of Rochester Fringe on Sept. 17, 2021.

Sterling ("Spy in the House of Men," "Parents & Children/Husbands & Wives") presented her new one-woman show, “ShMILF Life,” giving comedic but poignant insight into her experiences of trying to date as a trans woman. Additionally, she says, she’s old.

How old is she?

“I’m so old that when I transitioned, I hit puberty and menopause at the same time,” she quipped.

And Sterling has been ghosted before, she said, but in her day they called it “being stood up.”

As she told us stories and pretended to wait for the unforthcoming date, Sterling made subtle but telling observations. She tried to find a place for a used napkin, running her hands down her skirt, and lamented the loss of “pockets — the one thing I miss.” She pantomimed frustration as she corrected a typo on a document and sighed to the audience, “I’m growing out my nails.”

Throughout, Sterling has created a clever exposition, built from a combination of various spoken-word performance styles stitched into the telling.

She ticks off the exact dates when she says she admitted to herself that she was “not really, really a man,” when she spent her first day as her authentic self, and when she ventured out into public with other trans friends as the women they knew they were, in the outfits that made them feel the most beautiful. And the friend bailing yielded an exciting but fraught experience with a man whose desires overwhelmed her own.

Sterling shared jarring realizations about juxtaposing realizations: “All that time I spent staring at women I wasn’t sexualizing them, I was taking notes,” she says, in the same hour that she confesses that in the portion of her life lived as a man, she had avoided paying attention to her own physical body and performatively objectified and arguably assaulted women.

Credit Ahleigh Deskins / WXXI

Trans visibility, and more importantly, hearing trans people discussing their own experiences, is crucial.

Sterling’s stated desires will be familiar to most other women: She’s seeking an authentic connection that will hopefully lead to an authentic relationship, but she’s caught up in the wild arena of men who have been taught to objectify her and other women.

But with humility, Sterling has the uncommon insight of a person who has both been in the thrall of and the victim of what so-called toxic masculinity can do, and someone who is trying to parse an anecdote about a confusing experience of sexual assault that was something she also wanted.

Importantly, instead of excusing the assault because she could once relate to the man, or diminishing the assault because of her desire, she uses her insight to crystalize the problem: “It was sexual assault because he did not care at all if it was what I wanted.”

“ShMILF Life” will be performed again on Thursday, Sept. 23, at 7 p.m. at the MuCCC. Tickets are $15 and the show is appropriate for ages 13 and older, with a content warning about the fetishization and sexual assault discussed.

“I’m so old that when I transitioned, I hit puberty and menopause at the same time,” Sterling quipped again, following it with an anguished statement: “That means I missed the middle,” she said, angrily alluding to the sexual awakening, the innocent fumbling, and learning that benefitted cis people. "I’m angry about the time I missed,” she said. — RR

The complete Rochester Fringe schedule is available at Go to “Find a Show,” create a list of events by date, venue and genres, then hit the “Filter” button. Tickets to each event are available at the web site, by calling (585) 957-9837, or at the venue one hour before the start of the show if they are still available.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's arts and life editor and reporter, and Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's life editor. Feedback on this article can be directed

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.
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