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Fringe Festival Day 5: Spevak on a day of satire, EstroFest and Mo-to-the-oncle

Sep 17, 2018

EstroFest with, from left, Dresden Engle, Allison Roberts, Norma Holland, Rick Staropoli, Freyda Schneider and Andrea Holland in the comedy sketch "The Real Housewives of Rochester, NY."
Credit Jeff Spevak

EstroFest claims to be “an equal-opportunity offender.” What does that mean? And what does it mean when the young, extraordinarily talented young woman who writes and stars in a one-person musical comedy, Mo-to-the-oncle, rolls out character after character that seem rooted in stereotypes?

Maybe it means it’s time to re-think an outdated criticism like “political correctness.” Correctness left the conversation when Donald Trump moved into the White House. Before that, even, if you were paying attention. The women of Rochester’s treasured all-women comedy quintet, EstroFest, and Mo-to-the-oncle’s Melissa Cole, were wielding a deadly weapon Sunday at the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival. Something else was going on here.

Satire kills.  

Celebrating its 20th year in a sold-out show at Geva Theatre Center, EstroFest relentlessly mocked the world through character sketch comedy and video, including older material that makes it clear that Dresden Engle, Andrea Holland, Norma Holland, Allison Roberts and Freyda Schneider, and a host of actors headed by Rick Staropoli, share a dim view of humanity. A “Ms. Middle Aged America” contestant is so oblivious to her own aging that she proclaims, “I hope to be crowned Ms. Menopause some day.” A video advertising a DNA test to determine ancestry plays off of the anticipated race joke – a black man wouldn’t have a Polish grandmother, would he? – by revealing his genetic quirk is he has a kangaroo tail. Black gay men populate “The Rochester Snuggler Network,” while white vegetable-peddling rubes have missing teeth and can barely stumble through a sentence.

Children’s books celebrating “blond and blue-eyed children” are re-populated with pimps. An app provides closed-caption translations for incomprehensible comments by Donald Trump. And the women of EstroFest can be as raunchy as any junior-high boys’ locker room: A segment on creative recipes combines a hot dog and a pair of “those adorable Hostess snowball” treats, with the audience is groaning in recognition of what’s coming before it’s even taken out of the box.

EstroFest pats political correctness on the belly with a spade. It was dead in that room. Against our better judgment, we love laughing at our fellow humans. And we certainly are easy targets, aren’t we? But this is humor that asks a legitimate question: Where is the diversity in those Little Golden Books, populated by blond- and blue-eyed children, that kids have been reading for 75 years? What is the response to a culinary specialist whose creation is so lacking in real-world awareness that she doesn’t recognize its phallic aspects?

Satire. A noble craft dating back to Jonathan Swift. That’s the response of EstroFest.

Of course, a large sector of the country would argue that the Trump closed-caption app is hardly satire, but offers legitimate possibilities that could save us from World War III.

Meanwhile across town, at the School of the Arts, Mo-to-the-oncle was piling on the satire even thicker. The premise is a teenage boy named Detroit, Jr., whose father misses an insurance payment and loses his family’s vision coverage. Eyeglasses are too expensive, but as part of a discrimination settlement against the local optometrist, no kid is permitted to walk away without some vision aid. So Detroit gets a monocle, resulting in him being relentlessly mocked at school. He decides his only recourse is his “Second Amendment Rights.”

Melissa Coles in "Mo-to-the-oncle"
Credit Jeff Spevak

Melissa Coles’ one-woman play is a Cuisinart of characters, mostly male – I lost track of them, maybe 10 in 60 minutes? – clearly drawn from black racial stereotypes. But Coles, who is black, flips the script so rapidly and cleverly that it soon becomes evident that she’s satirizing the society that’s allowed such problematic polarization in the first place. The characters flip as well. A thug named Bones is revealed as a crafter who makes decorative tissue boxes. Detroit’s uncle is a pimp. But he can’t help Detroit get a gun for protection, because he’s in favor of gun control. He writes country-music songs, and gets his pimp hats at the same haberdashery as Brad Paisley.

Coles’ characters rap in the same breath that they utter clinical-sounding sociological phrases that have no connection to the reality of Detroit’s world. Coles is also satirizing a culture where, as a hospital nurse later warns, the wrong accessory such as a monocle “can almost mean certain death.”

The rawness of the production might come off as amateurish, but it actually feels right, with the unadorned set not getting in the way of the message. Mo-to-the-oncle is smart and funny and fearless, and Coles’ comedic writing is excellent. I expect to see her on the cast of Saturday Night Live in a few years. As one of the show’s Random Black People, to borrow the kind of stereotype that she uses so successfully in Mo-to-the-oncle.

Mo-to-the-oncle , which also played the Fringe last year, has ended its two-show run here. EstroFest continues with shows 5:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday.

Brick House Betrothal

There’s nothing that cements a relationship like riding around on a golf cart as a handful of aluminum cans on strings bang along on the pavement behind you.

The comedy duo of Abby DeVuys and Kerry Young are as intrinsic to the Spiegelgarden as the Jenga game stacked on a table by the outdoor movie screen. As Bushwhacked, DeVuys and Young have five different backyard-themed shows going on during the 11-day Rochester Fringe: Backyard BBQ, Backyard Bonfire, Backyard Bathtub, Backyard Burial and Backyard Betrothal.

Patrick and Mary Beth Lenzi getting renewing their vows in Bushwhacked Backyard Betrothal
Credit Jeff Spevak

Bushwhacked couldn’t entice any couples to agree to get married at Backyard Betrothal – DeVuys is a licensed officiant – but his past weekend saw two couples renew their vows at Backyard Betrothal. Saturday it was Patrick and Mary Beth Lenzi of Irondequoit, first married on May 27, 1982. A Speigelgarden reception afterward featured the couple dancing to “Endless Love” and a crowd-choreographed “Brick House,” with champagne and the trust-building tradition of the couple shoving cupcakes in each other’s faces.

No package deal was offered with Backyard Burial. But one more couple gets the Bushwhacked Betrothal renewal at 1 p.m. Saturday.

Fringe Festival Day Six

For the complete schedule, and to order tickets, go to rochesterfringe.org.

The 24-Hour Plays, 7 and 9 p.m., Writers & Books. The Rochester Fringe’s version of reality TV, participants have 24 hours to create and fully stage original plays. These shows are what they’ve come up with. 

A Brit of Magic, 7 p.m. Kilbourn Hall. Audience-interactive magic and wit with the British husband-and-wife duo of Keith Fields and Lady Sarah. This is a pretty cheap ticket for 12-and-under kids, $5. The show’s also 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Divine Milieu: The Last Confession of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 7 p.m. Monday, The Avyarium. Yeah, I had to Google him, too. Teilhard de Chardin was a 20th-century philosopher, Jesuit priest, paleontologist and geologist who worked to reconcile Catholicism with science, a fight science inevitably loses. This stroll through Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere is also 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Jeff Spevak, a cultural arts contributor to WXXI and Rochester-based writer, is reporting on the Fringe Festival daily at wxxinews.org. His web site is jeffspevak.com.