Reviewing The Berkshire Fringe: “Dark”, “Riot”, and “Yelling at Bananas in Whole Foods”
by Gail Burns
For the Berkshire-Capital region’s most comprehensive listing of theatre offerings visit GailSez.org
A trip to the Berkshire Fringe Festival is always a highlight of the summer. This year Bazaar Productions has restructured the Festival a bit, inviting international artists, offering fewer shows for longer runs, and presenting a work of their own creation. I was able to take in three of the five 2012 offerings in one evening last weekend and my impressions appear below in the order in which I saw the shows. Sadly, my own busy August schedule will probably prevent me from seeing the other two Fringe offerings this year – Haerry Kim’s “The Bathtub Play” and Daniel Forlano’s “Fragile Nincomtard” – but I encourage you to catch them and the many other stage and music events on offer.
YELLING AT BANANAS IN WHOLE FOODS
Written and performed by Dan Bernitt
Directed by Paul Takacs
Dan Bernitt is a gay playwright and monologist. Although he has appeared at the Berkshire Fringe before, with his 2006 monologue “Thanks for the Scabies, Jerkface” and the 2008 “Phi Alpha Gamma,” this was my first time seeing him and hearing his work. I would classify “Yelling at Bananas in Whole Foods” as a monologue rather than a play because, although I know that director Paul Takacs had Bernitt on the move, my overall impression of the piece was one of him seated. Bernitt does have an on stage companion in the form of a small silent stuffed alligator named Chompy, who is credited in the program as playing himself. He also gives voice to a few characters other than the unnamed first person narrator, notably Susan Powter.
In case that name doesn’t ring a bell, here’s a reminder from Powter’s Web site: “Fitness and diet guru Susan Powter was a mid-1990’s self-help sensation, recognized by millions for her ‘Stop the Insanity’ mantra, signature high energy, direct delivery and white, buzz cut hairstyle.”
The Susan Powter character is either her current public incarnation or his version thereof. According to a brief snippet called Susan-Powter-needs-to-take-her-own-advice (no longer available) it would appear that Bernitt’s characterization of her as a stream-of-consciouness blogger and vlogger on all things food and health is quite accurate and I assume he has legal permission to use her name and trademark “Stop the Insanity” line.
Insanity is still an extremely accurate word to describe Americans’ relationship to food. The media, particularly on the left, has us currently whipped into a state of mass hysteria over what we eat and has linked it closely to the current class war and the specter of corporations as the omnipotent enemy. People with eating disorders – and these days eating at all is considered highly suspect – recognize their afflictions as a desperate attempt to gain control of some portion of their life.
This quotation from the currently hot “self improvement” guru Dr. Wayne Dyer sums up the recent misguided idea of self-control: “You cannot always control what goes on outside, but you can always control what goes on inside.” Tell that to a cancer patient! Our bodies are guaranteed to betray us in death regardless of how much “control” we may imagine we are exerting.
Bernitt takes us on the journey of one such susceptible soul – a young gay man who meets Powter while on an artists’ retreat in Taos, New Mexico, and takes much of her advice on food to heart while enrolled in an MFA playwriting program in New York City. All of this appears to be highly autobiographical, the only parts that I cannot prove apply to Bernitt himself are the face-to-face meeting with Powter and the subsequent descent into an insane attempt to “vote with his body” against the Svengali of mass produced food and the feared corporate take-over of his mind/body/soul.
But the central question here is not about food but about faith. In these post-religious days how and where to we choose to place our faith, and why?
Human beings naturally yearn to believe and trust in something. Bernitt’s character announces publicly that he is an atheist at a crucial moment when his own faith in Powter and the power he has vested in the food he chooses to eat, or not to eat, are obviously doing him bodily harm. But his epiphany comes when he, literally, yells at a bunch of bananas in a Whole Foods supermarket and asks “When did I become a man of faith?”
His misplaced faith literally nearly kills him, and only in reverting to a gastronomic atheism is he ultimately saved.
I have found it difficult to write about “Yelling at Bananas in Whole Foods” because it is a dense piece and the journey Bernitt takes you on is not always a straight path. We all carry tremendous emotional/physical/spiritual baggage relating to food and our eating habits, which means that all audience members will have certain defenses raised while viewing this piece. Bernitt might do well to tighten it up a bit and make his points more swiftly and clearly so that viewers can ponder his message filtered through less of their own angst.
DARK: AN END OF THE WORLD PLAY WITH MUSIC AND AN EXERCISE BIKE
Written and Directed by Timothy Ryan Olson
Original Music and Sound Design by Peter Wise
Featuring Sara Katzoff, Emma Dweck and Michael Brahce
Dark is the second full-length production by Bazaar Productions, the artistic trio behind The Berkshire Fringe. The piece is written and directed by Timothy Ryan Olson, with music and sound design by Peter Wise. Sara Katzoff appears in the piece, along with Emma Dweck and Michael Brahce, two actors with ties to the Berkshires.
As the title states, the play takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in a remote moutaintop cabin where the never-seen Harold has sent his sister Kessie (Katzoff), his wife Ida (Dweck), and their son Emmet (Brahce) to survive and await his arrival. Harold has instructed Emmet in how to operate a generator he has rigged up to be run by pedaling the titular exercise bike. He has also given Ida instructions on how to handle the food rations which she follows obsessively. At night, they keep the house “dark” with blackout curtains while Emmet and Ida take turns pedaling the bike to assuage Kessie’s fear of the dark.
They have a little radio, which is battery-operated, that they periodically turn on to search for sounds of other survivors. They hear exactly one cryptic sentence. While Ida clings to the hope of Harold’s survival and imminent arrival, after eleven months pass they face dwindling rations and their own mortality. Just exactly what are they surviving for?
There is a lot to like about “Dark” – the cast is engaging, Wise’s music is wonderful, and the set by Lisa Myers and lighting by Tim Cryan work very well. However I would not refer to it as a “full-length” play. It is both too long and too short at different times, and the tone is unbalanced. This is a very serious topic, but there are echoes of Gilligan’s Island (is Harold secretly The Professor?) which would make it impossible to take seriously even if that were Olson’s intent, which it clearly is not.
As Ida and Emmet, Dweck and Brahce make an engaging mother and son team. I believed their family tie and Brahce’s portrait of a very young man (I would guess Emmet is intended to be 15 or 16) left as the lone male of the household, possibly the last man on earth. His performance was touchingly twitchy and tentative. Dweck’s lean, tense frame and large, unblinking eyes made Ida a sympathetic character. The solo Wise has written for Ida, about using numbers to control her terror, helped complete the portrait.
I loved Wise’s music. There are four named songs and lots of intriguing background music. Of those four songs, three work very well but the fourth “Dark (The Bradley Cooper Song)” fails utterly. Katzoff gives it a winning performance, accompanying herself on the ukelele, but it is too silly and adds nothing to the plot or Kessie’s character. We already know she is obsessed with actor Bradley Cooper and dreams of repopulating the earth with his offspring, but that is not the basis for character.
The fact that most people in the theatre knew that Cooper was on stage in Williamstown, starring in “The Elephant Man,” as Katzoff performed the number made her character’s endless quest to find him inadvertently embarrassing. Olson could not have predicted that Cooper would be in Berkshire County during the run of “Dark” when he wrote it, but when it became apparent that he would be another celebrity name should have been substituted. Surely Cooper isn’t the only sexy man on the planet. What happened to Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Gosling, and Channing Tatum?
Overall I found Katzoff’s Kessie the least well integrated character, as she teetered most precariously on that razor’s edge between comedy and drama. It seemed as if Kessie had walked on stage from a different play, and I was more interested in the one Ida and Emmet were starring in.
I hope that Bazaar Productions will take what they learn from this first public mounting of “Dark” and go back to into development mode. As I said, they need to take some things out, add some new things in (more songs by Wise!), and work on establishing and maintaining a consistent tone. As a true full-length play I think it could be very entertaining and launch this triumvirate on the path to creative success.
“RIOT: AN EPIC TALE OF VIOLENCE, GREED, AND CHEAP SOFAS”
Created and choreographed by The Wardrobe Ensemble
On February 10, 2005 there was a riot at the midnight opening of a new Ikea store in Edmondton, a northern section of London. Thousands of people turned up, nine ambulances were called, and six people were kept overnight in hospitals.
I might vaguely have known about this. We have since had similar incidents on “Black Friday” here in America, where people hurt and even kill each other over consumer goods. Only the higher order of primates get violent over what they want rather than what they need, jealousy and covetousness exist only in the primal competition to mate in most species, but we can work up that same blood lust over Tickle-Me Elmo dolls or cheap furniture. Did I just refer to us as the “higher order”?? Oy!
The Wardrobe Ensemble, a British company of young actors who have sprung from the training program at the Bristol Old Vic, has created a stunning piece of physical musical theatre based on this event. “Riot,” which is one of the best pieces of new theatre I have seen, has everything – comedy, drama, music, romance, violence, dance. The company is a true ensemble of actors who are – in alphabetical order – Tom Brennan, Emily Greenslade, Jesse Jones, Kerry Lovell, Jesse Meadows, Helena Middleton, James Newton, Ben Vardy, and Edith Woolley.
If you Google “Edmondton Ikea Riot” and “Wardrobe Ensemble Riot” you can find text, video, and still photos that will give you some flavor of the real life event and this theatrical take on it, but in “Riot” the Ensemble so cleverly crafts artifice into visceral experience that seeing this show probably brings you closer to the reality of February 10, 2005 than even the store cam videos on YouTube can.
What is on the stage? Nine actors, a couple of white folding chairs, and a bunch of working lamps. I assume the chairs and lamps are for sale at your local Ikea store. There are also various musical instruments – slide trombone, saxophone, drum, synthesizer – all played live by various performers. With this equipment and the aid of a recorded soundtrack and some stage lighting the Ensemble plays multiple characters whose stories weave together brilliantly. You quickly get to know and understand the personalities and motivations of the fictional characters who comprise the Ikea staff, and you come to really care about them in the scant 80 minutes the show runs.
But this is not a “book” show. The stories of the staff are interwoven with real life quotes from people involved in the riot, and scenes of intense physicality – sharp bursts of energy that bring a sense of heightened reality to the proceedings.
At times the script or the quotations ask questions about how or why this happened, but “Riot” doesn’t attempt to explain or excuse these events. The Ensemble simulates the violence and terror of the day, as well as the banal and pathetic events, in a way that allows and encourages you to draw your own conclusions. This really happened. We can analyze it all we want but that does not change the reality.
I have never been into an Ikea store – there are only two in New England and both are at least three hours away – but I understand that they are laid out like a maze and that there is only one way out, which is through. This obviously added to the physical danger for the people involved in the riot, although many of the injuries took place outside the store in, as the British say, the car park, and beyond.
You do need to be prepared for a certain amount of Brit-speak here, by the way. I attended the second performance on American soil, and the play was prefaced with a stiff little introduction in which the Ensemble tried to make what Brits would have considered common knowledge intelligible to us Yanks. I suppose it was necessary, but hope that in the future it might be replaced by enhanced program notes or a projected explanation, a la Star Wars.
This is the first year the Berkshire Fringe has gone international, bringing The Wardrobe Ensemble from the U.K. and Haerry Kim from South Korea, and it is the U.S. premiere of “Riot.” While in residency here, The Wardrobe Ensemble is also developing their newest theater piece, LOS 33, which focuses on the story of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days in 2010.
Bazaar Productions, producers of the Berkshire Fringe, are wisely featuring “Riot” for the full three weeks of their 2012 Festival. GailSez this is one of the very best shows of the year in the Berskhires. At only $15 a ticket, an 80 minute intermission-less run time, and a variety of show dates and times to choose from, there is NO EXCUSE not to get yourself to the Daniel Arts Center at Bard College at Simon’s Rock before August 13.
Despite the violence of the actual acts in Edmondton, “Riot” is family friendly and perfectly appropriate for children ages 8 and up. In fact, and not suprisingly for a show developed and performed by 20-somethings, there is a distinct aura of the video game to this production that will appeal strongly to young people. I may have been deceived into believing high-tech audio-visual production was the theatre of the future that will capture the next generation of ticket-buyers. The future may lie in stories told in this kind of explosively physical live-action video game format.