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Fringe Day Four: Cirque du Fringe, and a look at three very diverse shows

Sep 18, 2020

Heidi Brucker Morgan, left, and Matt Morgan teturn to host Circue du Fringe this year, albeit virtually.
Credit Provided by KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival

This is the season for slapstick, the motorcycle globe of death and slurred soliloquies. The KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival unveils one of its marquee shows, “Cirque du Fringe: Quarantini,” previewed here along with its Shakespearean sideshow, “Shotspeare.” Plus, we have reviews of “Milkdrunk,” “The Nightmare” and “A Spy in the House of Men.”

You’ll find the complete schedule and ticket information at rochesterfringe.com.

Quarantinis and Shakespearean shots in the summer of coronavirus

As the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival rolls into its first weekend, the completely virtual event has left the intersection at East Main and Gibbs streets looking like … well, like a parking lot. Which it is for most of the year. 

It’s missing the mirrored, turn-of-the-last-century anachronism, The Spiegeltent, which during this time of year here looks like something that dropped out of an episode of “Dr. Who” and landed in downtown Rochester.

The Spiegeltent's absence has left a hole in Matt Morgan and Heidi Brucker Morgan’s September as well. They’re the hosts of Cirque du Fringe, the cabaret of vaudeville charms that has been the anchor of Rochester Fringe. The preparation of the shows seems to hold almost as much charm as the actual show itself for the couple, partners in life and slapstick. That was particularly true when they gave the site one final look-over with juggler Dario Vazquez, who would soon be huffing ping-pong balls toward the ceiling and catching them in his mouth.

“Boy, we sure miss walking into that tent, and getting texts -- ‘Are you at the tent?’ -- and setting up rigging that day or two before the artists and everybody shows up, it’s one of my favorite times,” Matt Morgan says. “Just ’cause it’s quiet, and the ideas that, like, Dario and I have had in terms of building the show and stuff, we’re kind of building those things. It’s special, it’s really special, Rochester.”

Talking through a Zoom connection alongside Heidi from their home in Las Vegas, Matt sounds kind of wistful. At the start of this year, they had been working on a live-show concept for this year’s Rochester Fringe. But when COVID-19 settled over the country, even early on they knew there would be no live, in-person Cirque du Fringe this year.

They went back and forth a few times with Rochester Fringe Producer Erica Fee about whether a virtual event was even possible. Maybe… and here, Heidi Brucker Morgan explains in the urgent voice of an overly enthusiastic, approval-seeking writer throwing a pitch into a room of fellow writers:

“We’re in an underground bunker and we’re living off the grid.’ And we were really playing up the,‘We’re in a pandemic and isn’t it crazy?’ ”

And then reality steps in.

“But I said, ‘You know, it’s September, we’ve been at this for like six months, everybody’s tired of hearing about the pandemic and we are all ready to move on with our lives.

“We kind of said, let’s do something that’s really just fun. And just silly, and just is kind of an escape from the, ‘Oh, doesn’t this suck?’ Just feels really freewheeling and fun and doesn’t really comment that much on anything that, anything heavy, because we’re getting that all day long from the news and our personal lives. So that was the goal with ‘Quarantini,’ to just sort of be a release.”

Quarantini” is their new Cirque du Fringe show, opening Friday at Rochester Fringe. A collection of the kind of vaudeville acts always featured in Cirque du Fringe. But now it is coming from Las Vegas to Rochester, not live, but via video. Which is, in itself, a challenge.

“We’re really trying to produce a television show,” Matt says, “and it’s going to be a TV show in the same style as ‘Laugh-In.’ Or maybe like a Smothers Brothers kind of thing, like a ’60s or early ’70s kind of whack-a-doodle variety show with some circus acts, and some comedy, a multitude of characters, that you’ll see sort of running throughout. So that’s kind of the nuts and bolts.”

The nuts are Matt and Heidi, the bolts include a skating duo from Russia, some Ugandan stunt performers, a motorcyclist, and a Swedish juggler. It's assembled with the kind of camera angles and quick edits often seen in music videos.

“Sometimes when you watch things that are meant to be live, on screen, you just don’t quite get the energy of it, and the connection with it,” Heidi says.

“We’re really trying to make it more cinematic, while it’s still being performed.”

Shotspeare
Credit Provided by KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival

For their Zoom interview, the two are wearing what looks like Tudor-era costumes; perhaps they just like wearing vintage clothing. Clearly visible on a bookshelf behind Matt and Heidi is a human skull; perhaps it is Hamlet’s pal, poor Yorick. Also visible behind them is an open liquor bottle; that is definitely rehearsal material for “Shotspeare,” their audience-participation drinking theater built around Shakespeare’s plays. Matt calls it a mix of “Monty Python” and “Drunk History,” and they’ll present it, with some live aspects, on the two Saturday nights of Rochester Fringe.

Curiously, he says it’s easier to find sword swallowers to perform with Cirque du Fringe than it is to find serious Shakespearean actors to take part in the ribald “Shotspeare.” Perhaps it is the company they keep, he says.

And with big theater productions going dark, it may be easier for such small-scale productions -- the ones built on slapstick and whiskey-fueled Shakespeare -- to get up and running when the country emerges from the coronavirus pandemic.

“A lot of these big fish are maybe floundering a little bit, or trying to find their way,” Matt says, accidentally stumbling on a pun.

“It’s important to keep our head up and try to generate as best we can in the given moment that we’re sitting in.” 

-- Jeff Spevak

Cathleen O'Malley tackles being a new mom in her comedic one-woman show Milkdrunk.
Credit Provided by KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival

“Milkdrunk”

When flipping through the list of Fringe shows this year, “Milkdrunk” immediately caught my attention. It was a term I had come to know and love --– that moment after your baby nurses, then just lies there, eyes half-open, with a goofy grin on their tiny little face. How my little one slept as I watched Cathleen O’Malley’s hilarious one-woman hurricane of a show and desperately tried to contain my laughter, I do not know.

In the on-demand show, O’Malley gives us a raw, snarky, and unfiltered glimpse at what it’s like to give birth and be a new mom. She starts ticking off items that she and her husband brought to the hospital: fuzzy slippers, New Yorker magazine, portable speakers with a birthing playlist (Cat Power on loop), three electric candles, a Scrabble board -- “we thought we’d have some downtime” -- only to discover quickly that there was no longer any downtime in her life.

The jokes are rapid-fire, as she rattles off things that she’s been told by friends, family and doctors seemingly in a single breath. “The lactation consultant coaches me through a wide variety of holds: cradle, cross-cradle, football – squeezing my boob mercilessly into a -- what? -- nipple sandwich?! Quick, now shove it in the baby’s mouth!” She bemoans getting bombarded with advice from parenting magazines and electronic newsletters with “anxiety-triggering clickbait-y titles like “10 life-threatening things your pediatrician forgot to tell you. Click! Damn you!”

It’s not only hilarious, but relatable to any mom out there. Her energy is manic and infectious. It builds until toward the end of the show, when she’s reached her breaking point and describes going and sitting in her car and just letting out giant screams. 

She chronicles her daughter’s sleep regression, and how she’s become one of millions of "midnight mothers" just like her, nursing and rocking their babies while simultaneously Googling “how to get my baby to sleep.” And although the show is largely filled with jokes, she takes time to tackle serious issues like mental health and how much pressure we put on new moms, and the lack of adequate paid maternity leave in the United States.

The show is a whirlwind of hilarity, but O’Malley brings it full circle -- back to the moment her daughter was born. In that quiet moment, she embraces her daughter -- filled with the joy that one journey has ended and another is just beginning. 

– Kathy Laluk

The Nightmare
Credit Provided by KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival

“The Nightmare”

It was a dark and stormy night. 

Or at least, it sounded that way in “The Nightmare,” a spooky story that unwinds over the course of an hour, completely via SoundCloud. This radio drama-style production by director-playwright Alec Barbour features vocal talent by Emily Lipski, Jade Miori, and Matt Gordon, and takes listeners down a dark road of murder, abuse, family secrets, and magic.

There’s a little eerie music, and household sound effects thrown in here and there, but the bulk of this production rests on the three voices, with Lipski and Miori in the largest roles (and, unfortunately, hard to distinguish from one another at times). The story is relatively easy to follow, even if most of the dialogue hits like reader’s theater or a scripted podcast. It’s hard to know if the actors were able to record together, but based on the stunted conversation between Gordon’s character and the female voices, it’s doubtful. 

The script also relies on some gratuitous swearing in the first half that makes the flow less natural and believable. In the second half, fights are confusing (who is battling who?) and strong emotions of fear and sadness come off as trite. That said, the script Barbour has penned is quite compelling.

Radio drama is very different from onstage or on-screen drama, because it requires so many sensory gaps to be filled. (And, of course, some actors are more adept at audio acting.) But hey, it’s only five bucks, and “The Nightmare” is a worthy first radio drama attempt from this group -- not to mention a creative way to tackle virtual Fringe.

“The Nightmare” plays live via SoundCloud at 7 p.m. Sept. 19; 8 p.m. Sept. 23; and 9 p.m. Sept. 26. $5. Appropriate for 18 and older. 

-- Leah Stacy

Rochester's Penny Sterling performs A Spy in the House of Men.
Credit Provided by KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival

“Spy in the House of Men”

I’ve wanted to see Penny Sterling’s show since I saw her open for “Good Joke, Bad Joke Bingo” two years ago at Fringe, but the timing never worked out. And while it’s disappointing to have to watch "Spy in the House of Men" online instead of in person, I’d argue she’s just as captivating in this format as any other. “I wish you could have seen me in person. I feed off of audience energy. And pizza,” she wrote to me on Twitter.

Penny is a master storyteller -- jumping from anecdote to anecdote about her life with humorous tangents sprinkled throughout. The on-demand show focuses on her knowing, admitting, and accepting that she is transgender. Her stories flawlessly mix sharp-witted humor with genuine heart. And her pacing is brilliant. It’s quick enough to keep you engaged, but slow enough so you don’t miss a thing. 

And you don’t want to miss a thing. Her little sidebars are flashpoints of genius -- comparing buying a pair of “used boobs” to buying a used car (“They belonged to a little old lady who only wore them once a week to bingo!”) had me in stitches.

But the piece is also a wonderful exploration of her life -- and she has lived quite a life. Stories about her parents’ conformity to traditional gender roles and physical punishment for wrongdoing is told not for pity but to make a point. At age 8, her mother told her, based on old wives’ tales, that she expected Penny to be born a girl. It’s a moment Penny says made sense to her -- that’s the knowing part. But after being caught wearing her mother’s linen, bright yellow, A-line dress, she swore she’d never do it again. And so she continued to live a lie, one that grew on her the longer it went on.

She’s honest, funny and self-deprecating in a way that’s charming and thoughtful as she explains why her marriage didn’t work out, and how she finally found acceptance from her daughter as they drove out to visit a college. She recounts how on that trip she was assaulted at a convenience store in a gut-wrenching moment. But it’s a teachable one -- much like when she befriends two young girls at a coffee shop, only to have them taunt, “You’re a boy! You’re a boy!” But Penny rises above it, explaining how sometimes you can be a girl in a boy’s body. And just like that, the girls are back to jabbering about their pink and green glitter sneakers.

The last story is a perfect example of what she does in the show: She guides you gently and gracefully through her own journey of self-discovery, hoping you’re entertained and you learn something along the way. 

-- Kathy Laluk