Stage

Fringe Benefits

Downtown Greenfield hosts a weekend of playmaking and placemaking.

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Thursday, November 08, 2012
Photo Courtesy of Double Take Fringe Festival
The Ha-Ha's Comedy Troupe

It’s not only about the performances, says Linda McInerney, producer of this weekend’s Double Take Fringe Festival in Greenfield. It’s about spinning and knotting threads of community, about arts-based economic revitalization, about reclaiming public space for human needs—what city planners and urban activists call “placemaking.”

A 2010 white paper from the National Endowment for the Arts defines placemaking as “partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shaping [a community’s] physical and social character… around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes… and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.” The Double Take festival touches all those bases.

McInerney, whose Old Deerfield Productions is co-producing the festival with the Greenfield Chamber of Commerce, says she was first alerted to the intersection of arts with “place” by the annual Brick and Mortar festival, which “opens the doors” of historic, mostly abandoned buildings in downtown Greenfield for cutting-edge video installations. “It was the open doors that really grabbed me,” she recalled in a recent post for The Public Humanist blog (see valleyadvocate.com, September 25, 2012). “All of those lost spaces, filled with history and possibility and calling for more…. It was like a crowd of unnoticed ghosts simultaneously opening their eyes and suddenly all looking into mine for the first time.”

McInerney has spent her career making theater that builds community, so her first thought was to fill those spaces with live performance. “I thought that a fringe theater festival would be amazing in them,” she wrote. The first Double Take festival was mounted a year ago this month. Last summer, Old Deerfield Productions extended the theme, performing the two acts of The Madwoman of Chaillot in separate buildings across Main Street from each other. This weekend’s festival, spanning Friday and Saturday nights, builds on that momentum.

A fringe festival, by definition, takes place on the periphery of a city’s mainstream, although the First Night celebrations that light up city centers also follow the “fringe” template: numerous short performances bundled into a walkable downtown area. Greenfield itself is on the fringe of the Valley’s entertainment scene, but, like Holyoke and Easthampton, is rapidly developing into a homegrown cultural hub.

Some of the dozen-plus spaces the Double Take Festival will occupy—all of them clustering within a few downtown blocks—are part of Greenfield’s renaissance. The Arts Block and Artspace Community Arts Center, once an office building and a tenement, respectively, are hosting three of the shows. But many of the venues are non-arts spaces—restaurants, a church, even a college classroom—temporarily “repurposed” for performance.

The festival, of course, is not only about placemaking, but playmaking, and at least one show is both. Crisscross is very much about the spaces that contain it, taking its audience on a peripatetic mystery tour of buildings in Greenfield center. Devised by John Bechtold, who last year staged a multi-stage Midsummer Night’s Dream all over Amherst Regional High School, it is partly inspired by the British environmental theater troupe Punchdrunk, whose Sleep No More overlaid Macbeth with creepy atmospherics from Alfred Hitchcock films. Bechtold’s show dips from the same film noir well, its plot drawn from Hitchcock’s classic Strangers on a Train, in which an ordinary man—and in this case, the audience itself—becomes an unwitting accomplice to a grisly crime.

Bechtold calls the piece “an intimate performance in large spaces [which are] as important characters in the play as the actors.” Of whom there are nine, discovered in the various venues as the audience moves in small groups through the show’s one-hour loop. Like the movie it’s based on, the piece has a prerecorded soundtrack, which audience members download in advance to play on their iPods as they trace the action through the town. (Info and soundtrack at sites.google.com/site/doubletakecrisscross.)

Organized Chaos

Crisscross will loop through downtown a total of 13 times. The other seven productions, averaging 30 to 40 minutes, perform twice each night. The festival features some 30 performers in all and, in true fringe fashion, embraces a broad expanse of style, tone and theme—from one-person shows to comedies scripted and improvised, through relationship collisions to tales of murder and suspense.

Several of the shows are adaptations of literary and dramatic works. One of these is The Marriage of True Minds, a three-part look at what performer Joshua Platt says “can go hilariously, painfully wrong when two people get married.” While Chekhov’s comic sketch “The Dangers of Tobacco” presents a meek husband under the thumb of a domineering wife, the other two scenes delve into gay relationships. Platt’s own “A Modern Story” and Strindberg’s “The Stronger,” here gender-switched, look at “committed gay relationships coming up against an internal boundary.”

A Shot in the Heart by Way of the Funny Bone explores two relationships from John Cariani’s omnibus play Almost, Maine. Director John Reese says the scenes “make me laugh out loud, but at the same time there’s that very thin line of darkness and pain.” One of them finds a couple of beer-drinking bachelor buddies complaining about their lack of dates and making a startling discovery. The actors, Jonathan Polgar and Bill Stewart, will swap roles with each performance. The other scene, an almost slapstick piece involving an ironing board, features Mary Kearney and Troy David Mercier as an abused young woman and her boyfriend who “has some issues with his ability to function.”

Dysfunctional relationships comprise the punningly titled Al Bee Seeing You, two scenes and a monologue from plays by Edward Albee. “He’s such an intelligent playwright,” says director Maureen McElligott. “Raw, vicious, but sophisticated.” Real-life couple Mike and Joan Haley perform an excerpt from the ultimate Albee marriage brawl, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; Tim Holcomb and Sarah Wilson take on the roiling subtext of The Goat, about a species-crossing extramarital affair; and Ann Steinhauser plays a woman reflecting on her own less-than-perfect marriage in Three Tall Women.

While the Albee scenes involve subtle forms of interpersonal game-playing, Unscripted, Uncensored, Unbelievable is game-playing pure and simple. The Ha-Ha’s comedy troupe will invent long-form improvisations based on audience suggestions “and whatever improv magic is floating in the dust motes on the stage,” according to Pamela Victor. Each night’s two performances will present a different improv structure, starting with a new game created for the festival, “in which we create characters meeting at a book club, and then perform a series of scenes inspired by our book club meetings,” followed by “Shrink,” which extemporizes a series of therapy sessions.

Seth Lepore’s SuperHappyMelancholy-expialidocious is what the performer calls “a stranger-than-fiction satire about the war on thought.” Its target is “the happiness industry”—the self-help motivational movement as practiced by everyone from megachurch charismatics to Oprah. A through-the-looking-glass trip around Americans’ obsession with easy-fix self-improvement, the performance has been described as “part Friedrich Nietzsche, part Jim Carrey.”

Kelsey Flynn describes Wrath of Mom as “one part public service announcement, one part stand-up comedy and one part confessional.” Subtitled “A dusk (as opposed to dark) one-woman comedy,” the piece encapsulates what she says are “the worst three months I’ve ever had in my life,” just after her son Gram was born this time last year. It’s a sometimes graphic chronicle of “breast-feeding failure” and a seriocomic indictment of a society that celebrates motherhood as beautiful and fulfilling and too often demurs on the downside information: “It’s gonna be bleak, you’ll feel despair like you’ve never felt, and it’s really lonely.” The show is framed by video PSAs created by Liesel de Boor that satirically deliver public service warnings about the unexpected pitfalls in having that bundle of joy.

De Boor is also one of the creators of On Word: Terror, the latest in the August Company’s series of stage adaptations from literary classics. In this case it’s two horror stories by H.P. Lovecraft, “Pickman’s Model” and “A Picture in the House,” both involving shadowy New England houses that harbor malevolent secrets, heart-stopping noises and slimy creatures—oh, and cannibalism. The performance is an experiment in disembodied words and sound, with the audience seated in a circle facing away from the actors and surrounded by a ghostly soundscape. “We don’t know if this will work,” says de Boor. “No one’s ever done it before. But that’s what’s fun about a fringe festival. It’s like, we don’t know, but let’s see.”

Indeed, Linda McInerney likens the festival to “organized chaos” as established players experiment with new roles, buildings take in new lodgers and performers adapt their shows to unusual venues. “It really takes a village—or a small city—to create it,” she says, adding, “We are very lucky to live in such an open, creative, giving, and imaginative community.”•

Double Take Fringe Festival, Nov. 9-10, $10 for one night, $15 for full festival pass. Tickets and info at double-take.org.

Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.

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