Philadelphia is overrun with dance, theater and more until the middle of the month thanks to this year's edition of Live Arts Philly Fringe, the annual fall art festival. I caught three works early, and they were all excellent comedies, with strange similarities coursing through them.Opening The Fringe was "Disco Descending," by Karen Getz. This is a follow-up to her "Suburban Love Songs." That work covered a party in 1968. The present piece is set some 10 years later and finds the same set of characters, nascent "hippies" in the original effort, now disco habitues. Also, it is less about this world and more about a mystic realm, Hades. Indeed, this piece is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
And the telling is a combination of choreography and music, with nary a word spoken. This is what makes the work unique in that Wait, there is something else that heightens the power of this "play" and proves that anyone can dance. The cast of six-excluding M. Guest, who wrote, choreographed and directed the piece-is split between trained dancers and actors, the latter of whom were taught their steps and hit it on the head with every neat move. In fact, you can't believe they weren't schooled from an early age.
This is a comedy with some heavy touches, and Hades is a disco where the party never stops, just alternates the disco hits with cheesy power ballads. My one quibble was I awaited the disco crew to go punk and turned Hades into CBGB to the strains of The Sex Pistols. Didn't happen. Still this work captured 1978 just great along with twisting the myth.
The first internationally commissioned piece is not to be missed. "The European Lesson" is the brainchild of Jo Stromgren Kompani and its founder Jo Stromgren. Yet the performers are a who's who of Philly talent. This follows the title just fine as it opens with Jeb Creager as an amateur anthropologist, who doesn't have a degree, let alone a doctorate. His subtext is that mysterious people, the Slovakians, whose drab living room is hidden behind a curtain.
Creager spouts a lot of hog-wash, while clicking a clicker that freezes the "Slovakians," who speak in a mixture of catch-phrases and effective and hilarious gibberish. Now, this is something of a live documentary that illustrates the lives of these Europeans.
Why Slovakians? At a post-performance question and answer session, Stromgren said that even to Europeans, the Slovaks were basically unknown to other nationalities. Before this was stated, what singled them out for me was that John McCain referred recently to Czechoslovakia, which hasn't existed since the end of the Cold War. There is a narrative, of course, and it delves into sexual intrigue and the strange fits of a woman (Sarah Sanford) who is "psychic." Of course, as things progress, they grow ever stranger until reality becomes fluid.
An amazing coincidence, "The Giant Squid," produced by Squid, Inc., is a perfect companion piece to "The European Lesson." All the main details are identical. Robert DaPonte portrays an amateur scientist and intrepid explorer who doesn't have either an undergraduate or advanced degree. And instead of The Slovakians, his target is that rare creature, The Giant Squid. He holds court behind a lectern and offers details, even though he's never actual seen it. In fact, this hasn't stopped him from putting together Team Broom, a crew to helm a submarine and hunt down the beast.
This is also a droll comedy that touches on not just serious subject matter, but outright Gothic horror. The giant squid is the second most intelligent creature on earth next to Homo Sapiens, and it has the largest eyes of any beast-as big as a volleyball. The baleful stare also has the power to hypnotize.
This more than references the work of the great horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft, proven so by Professor Broom as he states his quarry is "eldritch," a favorite adjective of Lovecraft. Various scenes are enacted on stage by the other members of Team Broom, which are less pulp fiction-esque and more like old school boy's tales. The tale takes plenty of twists, not all them shockers, yet all are hilarious, especially an appearance of a certain someone at the climax.
These three plays were the perfect start for what's to come.
For tickets, time and other info, please log onto www.livearts-fringe.org.