Agnostic's Way

Written, performed, and directed by Vince Balestri.Both of Vincent Balestri's parents have died, and their absence has caused him to reflect on the oddly unfinished finality that puzzles anyone who has lost loved ones. Balestri, best known for his long-running Kerouac at the Velvet Elvis, is asking familiar questions in his latest show -- What should we think about Death? Where do we go when we die? -- and the serene uncertainty with which he addresses them almost makes this haphazard effort work. Almost. Agnostic's Way is obviously a work-in-progress, lacking revelations and filled with curious half-notions; the piece purports to be about someone named Wade, though it plays purely like autobiographical performance art. Balestri's benignly compelling presence keeps it vaguely afloat to the point that he actually brings off a potentially dreadful sing-a-long as though it were the most natural thing in the world. He quotes vital thoughts on the eternal from Albert Schweitzer and Bertolt Brecht, and when he's not strumming the guitar, he's reacting to a drum-thumping figure shrouded in white (Kay Morrison), or attempting to engage the audience in an awkward discussion about the possibility of Heaven. This could all be awful, yet somehow isn't; though if Balestri wants to expand his show, I wish he'd solidify some of his New Age-y weightlessness -- the evening is as frustratingly intangible as its subject. STEVE WIECKING


Banging Bamboozles...

Written, performed, and directed by Leah Mann and Ela Lamblin.In Banging Bamboozles, the prop-oriented music and dance performance piece, there are a few really nice moments, and both have to do with really big instruments. Seeing Ela Lamblin and Leah Mann using elements of dance to make music from the inside of Lamblin's oversized jungle-gym-styled instruments can be very affecting, a reminder of the cooperative synergy between male and female, play and performance, and various artistic disciplines. However, even these strong pieces are over-long, and several others -- particularly those where more chaotic play is stressed -- don't really come off at all. The clever moments, because they fail to build, come across as false starts and outtakes from a more cohesive show. At these times, the audience is left with only the novelty of the games played and the athletic skills of the performers playing them. That's more than enough for most audiences: People have a deep and abiding love for people who can do things that they themselves can't. But this show, like many of the rigidly traditional theater pieces at the festival, could benefit from tighter direction and a greater attention to theme. TOM SPURGEON


Eros, Errors, Sparks and Larks

Written and performed by Theater Babylon.Eros, Errors, Sparks and Larks is a composition of several "short plays" that feature a variety of subjects such as sexuality, relationships, and isolation in the age of technology; something called an "eternal cosmic orgasm," which I still haven't quite figured out; and a funny little guy who looked like Buddha, who took off all of his clothes and gave head to a handgun. These shorts are equally divided between: (A) some really confusing and unstructured crap that falls flat on its face while reaching for intellectual depth; (B) a few good ideas that never quite pan out, and; (C) some clever and ingenious moments that manage to provoke genuine thought and laughter. Being forged from several hit-or-miss short skits, Eros provides a fairly accurate cross section of what can be expected from the Fringe in general -- like a little Fringe Fest all in itself: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Yet, all for all, Eros left me with the same dazed, numb, and somewhat confused feeling of an hour spent channel-surfing. I am not confident in recommending this little cluster of vignettes based solely upon a handful of good moments, but that Buddha-fellating-a-handgun bit is a real must-see. Theater just doesn't get any "fringier" than that. ADRIAN RYAN


Portrait of a Sissy

Written and performed by David DeBlieck.

Directed by Dack.What should be about the universal loneliness of a certain kind of delicate, young homosexual becomes, in the hands of David DeBlieck, a cringing, precious, indulgent piece of solo performance. I'm one of the biggest pussies I know, and I identified with much of DeBlieck's Charlie's Angels-obsessed childhood isolation, but I just kept hoping someone would kick his ass. I don't know what unhinged me more: hearing DeBlieck, in a baby's voice, apologize to the bunny he killed as a Boy Scout, or watching him writhe in an extended bit of half-naked religious torment screaming, "Why hast thou forsaken me?" This is the kind of stuff you want people to have worked through before they go on stage. Witnessing DeBlieck ineptly act out some personal therapy for 90 minutes was so intensely creepy it almost brought on a panic attack; I haven't been this uncomfortable since that one-woman show about incest I saw last summer. A recovered tape recording of the boyhood DeBlieck entertaining himself with a touchingly heartfelt rendition of "Feelings" hints at the bittersweet celebration this show could have been had anyone (like the absent director listed as "Dack") stopped to realize that surviving, in itself, does not a play make. STEVE WIECKING


Shylock

Written by Mark Leiren-Young.

Directed by Mitch McGowan.More than half the audience stood and clapped at the end of Shylock, which left me with the distinct impression I had missed something. Shylock is adequately acted and a clever enough concept, and God knows there certainly are worse shows running during the Fringe, but a standing ovation? Here's the schtick: Jewish actor John Davies (Dennis Rolly) has inspired a hornet's nest of controversy due to his unflatteringly villainous -- and, he argues, accurate -- portrayal of Shylock, Shakespeare's notorious Jew. He stands before us to make a case for Shakespeare and art in general, and to eschew the reactionary p.c. revisionists who would go so far as to label Shakespeare a "neo-Nazi propagandist" and Davies a "self-hating Jew." An interesting concept, and certainly a worthy topic. But Mark Leiren-Young's script is unable to keep the story moving forward or to sustain interest: Davies (Shylock) keeps going in circles, telling variations of the same story, making the same points, exploring the same issues, and then starting over again -- dragging out what began as a smart and thought-provoking idea into an hour-and-a-half-long tangent. So again I ask: Did I miss something, or are the seats at the Union Garage theater simply that uncomfortable? ADRIAN RYAN


Six Characters in Search of a Story

Written and performed by Carla Smith-Zilber.

Directed by Kim Porter.Carla Smith-Zilber's one-woman musical takes the potentially interesting subject of the performer's time as a wedding singer in New Jersey and smoothes over the details with well-practiced performer's shtick. In Smith-Zilber's world, all males are variations of the same over-macho, slightly ethnic loudmouth, while her female characters -- angry street poet, laconic hippie, wise black woman -- offer a broader range of stereotypes, with the same uninvolving results.

According to the show, Smith-Zilber internalized her wedding-singer experiences almost solely out of her need for proper role models and career motivation. We learn this through constant direct-to-audience updates on the character's mental and emotional state. A sharper, more detailed picture of the world being experienced would have been infinitely more interesting. The show also suffers in that its original songs aren't as clearly superior to the constantly reviled wedding standards as Smith-Zilber assumes them to be; this puts an even greater burden on simply taking Smith-Zilber at her word that she's better off now as an artist and person. And while Smith-Zilber has the range to pull off songs in character, her approach is more Rich Little than Daniel Day-Lewis. In the end, I would rather have seen a few of Smith-Zilber's wedding shows in their grand, schlocky entirety than this superficial attempt at deriving meaning from them. TOM SPURGEON


Torch River

Written and performed by Shannon Jardine.

Directed by Terry Costa.Torch River is a visit to the Emerald Land of Irish Stereotypes, female version. The play is based on the life and times of the author's grandmother, but the affection shown for the character can't hide the story's unfortunate status as a primer on the Suffering Irish Woman: a poor but loving upbringing; a childhood fondly remembered as a time of dancing and music; immigration caused by IRA-related troubles; optimism in the New World (met with disappointment and poverty); and, finally, drunken abuse by the male, with the character's eventual resignation to life's cruelties. What strengths the show displays are in its details, particularly the gleefully racist diatribes of a wheelchair-bound, 94-year-old character, and insights into the abusive husband that indict his military background as well as the political and economic hardships he suffers. Given the limitations of the show's insights, and the sometimes-hoary dialogue (one meal is described in full, happy accent as a "grand stew"), Shannon Jardine's performance is energetic and reasonably engaging. But not even a great performance could make Torch River much more than a loosely written letter of affection to a favored older relative. TOM SPURGEON


Weeds

Written by Daniel J. Ichinaga.

Directed by Beth Amsbary.Writer Daniel J. Ichinaga has a good idea in Weeds -- to explore the shame and redemption of Friar Lawrence, the man whose failings helped usher in the deaths of Romeo and Juliet -- but the cleverness very quickly slips away. The devastated Friar (Kevin McQuade) is allowed about 15 minutes of guilt before a Franciscan brother (Bob Marion) and a dewy-eyed, naive pupil (Eric Mayer) lead him to grace. Ichinaga's noble attempt at blank verse lumbers uneasily from "This grief will surely kill, if he will not with us some portion share" to "Goddamn it! Goddamn you and Goddamn me, too!" The language is sincere, and Ichinaga's intentions certainly honorable, but the result is rushed and facile -- the play skips from idea to idea without ever landing on anything. Everything is far too grand, without ever being crucial. Affectation in the staging heightens the problem, with an unfortunate amount of fist-shaking, finger-pointing, and worldly, Shakespearean chortling. Beth Amsbary's clumsy direction encourages each of the actors in turn to plant himself downstage and give anguished recitations while staring off meaningfully into the distance, leaving the others to speak to his back. Both the play and the production need a dose of reality. STEVE WIECKING

The Seattle Fringe Theater Festival continues at various locations on Capitol Hill through March 19.

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