Keep Louisville Theater Weird: The Fringe Festival Returns

Jul 28, 2021 at 10:51 am
Camera Lucida, Roxell Karr and Jon Silpayamanant, are playing the trippy show "Sorceress!" at the Louisville Fringe Festival this year. |  Photo by Rachel Miner.
Camera Lucida, Roxell Karr and Jon Silpayamanant, are playing the trippy show "Sorceress!" at the Louisville Fringe Festival this year. | Photo by Rachel Miner.

In 1947, Edinburgh Festival Fringe began with a concept that still remains today — bring alternative theater that may get traditionally left behind to small venues. That festival in Scotland has become the world’s largest art festival, but its influence has spread all over the globe, including to Louisville. The Louisville Fringe Festival, which started in 2018 and shares the same ethos as the originator, takes place this year at neighboring businesses Mile Wide Beer Co. and Planet of the Tapes on Wednesday, Aug. 4-8. There are numerous performers, locations and moving parts at Louisville Fringe — a full schedule of which you can find below — but in this article, theater critic Marty Rosen wrote four mini features about three of the performers and one venue who will be featured at this year’s Fringe, to give you some insight into the type of performances to expect.  

Katherine Martin

For at least 2,500 years — from Sophocles to Spiderman — masks have been a powerful storytelling tool. In ancient Athens, every character on the stage was masked. Contemporary pop culture — especially in the comic book multiverses that draw enormous crowds to movie screens — still cloaks its heroes and villains in masks or mask-like makeup inspired by the stock characters of 16th century commedia dell’arte. 

And yet, on most contemporary theater stages, masked performance is vanishingly rare. That’s because the theatrical aesthetics of our time are dominated by the notion that great acting is defined by looking “natural” or “believable” on stage — an objective that requires a naked face. 

But Katherine Martin, whose masked piece “Barbara” plays next week as part of the Louisville Fringe Festival, thinks differently. 

“As an actor your body is your main tool,” Martin said in a phone interview. “I like the emphasis on the body. When you put a mask on you become an abstraction, and I like the exaggerated life of physicality when you’re behind a mask. It’s a heightened storytelling technique. There’s a freedom that comes from telling a story with your body — but to execute it well you have to be very precise.”

A decade or so ago, Martin studied pantomime at the legendary American Mime Theatre in New York City — an experience that inspired her to go deeper into the world of physical and masked performance. Over the last several years, I’ve seen her onstage work with some of the most interesting companies in the city, including The Liminal Playhouse and Theatre [502]. In 2018, at the first Louisville Fringe Festival, Martin was memorable in the title role in Baby Horse Theatre’s superb and unsettling “Robothello,” a remarkable sci-fi update of Shakespeare’s play about the Moor of Venice. 

These days Martin and Megan Adair, who joins her onstage in “Barbara,” are also  affiliated with the accomplished puppetry ensemble Mary Shelley Electric Company, which is producing this Fringe production.  

Over the last year, of course, masks and masking have become political flashpoints (though as far as I know, there have been no reported cases of superheroes refusing to wear their masks).

But Martin took the pandemic year as an opportunity to study (via long-distance classes) and think deeply about the art of mask-making and masked performance. One of those — at The Movement Theater Studio in New York, French actor Jacques Lecoq’s ideas about the rhetoric of masks and the art and craft of physical acting — was the genesis for “Barbara,” a short piece that, in Martin’s summary, sounds simple enough: A woman walks down a street and finds a box. She opens it up. 

But underlying the simplicity of the premise is the mysterious irony that, for Martin, a mask is not about concealment, but about revelation.  

Martin said, “It’s a simple thing that happens to anybody. You’re walking down the street. You find something. You look up. And what happens is that the mask is all about looking out at the audience — and sharing. The mask is all about looking out at the audience to share your change of emotion as you’re taking in the environment and the objects around you. So, it’s a constant ping pong, and it is about sharing because the mask is fixed, but the body can still change. And it’s amazing that you will see the mask transport — the mask will start to move as the body changes the emotions that are supporting it.” 

It sounds like stage magic to me.

“Barbara,” produced by the Mary Shelley Electric Company, is slated to run at Planet of the Tapes on Thursday, Aug. 5 (during a 9 p.m. slot) and Friday, Aug. 6 (during a 10 p.m. slot). 

Keith McGill

For Keith McGill, whose career is a multi-dimensional tangle that includes stand-up comedy, acting, playwriting and more, art is sometimes the only way to express what cannot be expressed. 

In a five month period in 2016, he lost four members of his family: his mother, his brother, an uncle and a nephew. 

This was an experience that McGill knew he had to talk about — but he couldn’t figure out how.  

Perhaps, he said, he was too close to it at the time, but he couldn’t comprehend the right medium. When he tried to fit it into his crafts — stand-up, and theatre — he couldn’t find a path. But he persisted and started writing, and as he shared the work with people, he kept getting challenged. “It’s an accountability thing,” he said in an interview. “People kept saying, ‘You have to finish this and share it with people.’” 

Five years later, he’s starting that step at this year’s Fringe Festival with part of a new work called “Laundry on New Year’s Day.”

It’s a personal story, said McGill. But it’s also more than that.  

“There are so many factors that contribute to the death of Black people,” said McGill. “There’s a healthcare crisis that played into the way my mother died. She was misdiagnosed.” And, by the time she was correctly diagnosed, McGill said, the only treatment option was a chemotherapy regime she couldn’t tolerate.  

The facts and details of all these deaths, said McGill, are part of a complex pattern that is rooted in the structure of health care, in male psychology, in economic inequity and faith-based certainties that aren’t so certain. 

[caption id="attachment_79192" align="alignnone" width="2560"] Keith McGill. | Photo by Jon Cherry.[/caption]

The title of his work-in-progress is drawn from an old tradition. “There’s a superstition,” said McGill, “that says that if you do laundry on New Year’s Day, you will wash someone out of the family.” 

For McGill, that became a sort of tragic-comic cosmic punchline that summed up the spring of 2016. 

And five years later, he’s starting to find his way.  

“This is sort of new for me,” he said. “I’ve done storytelling. But this feels like it’s not storytelling.” 

In form and style, he said, it’s more akin to the works of, say, David Sedaris or Mike Birbiglia. But, in performance, he said, it feels like a fusion of monologue and theater: “It’s me telling the story, but I’m also playing the characters. I’m me, then for 10 seconds, I’m my mother or my brother. And I become an amalgam of all these people. So I feel like it’s part acting, part monologue, part stand-up, part-part-part-part-part-part.”

Then McGill goes on to articulate what might be a perfect mission statement for the Fringe Festival, “What’s great about being in the Fringe is that whatever you do is the right thing to do.”

McGill is slotted in at Mile Wide Beer Co. on Friday, Aug. 6 at 7 p.m. 

Jon Silpayamanant and Roxell Karr

For nearly a decade, Roxell Karr and Jon Silpayamanant, founders of Camera Lucida, have teamed up on multi-media projects that integrate (or perhaps it would be better to say dis-integrate) music (improvised, composed and essentially experimental), video (fresh and repurposed) and dance/performance art (live, captured on video, or both) to create post-modern, one-of-a-kind works that trample across any cultural, chronological or aesthetic boundary you might imagine.

 For the Fringe, they’ve created a piece called “Sorceress!” that sounds… well… just plain trippy.

Silpayamanant, a cellist, is a musician of eclectic tastes who can be heard around town in a variety of experimental and world music contexts. Karr studied at the IUPUI Herron School of Art + Design. And the two of them seem to share a common interest in using technology to make new things out of basic elements: light and sound. The name of their ensemble, Camera Lucida, comes from an early 19th century (or perhaps earlier) technology — an optical prism that allows an artist to see both the subject of an artwork and the work itself simultaneously. 

For “Sorceress!” the artists are using contemporary tech to mine the past in new ways and tell stories in ways that are both hypermodern and steeped in ancient tradition.   

Basically, what they’ve done is first rove through the world of century-old, public domain silent movies collecting striking scenes, then they wove them into a sci-fi storyline that Karr finds hard to describe: “We’re trying to recreate the spirit of the Flash Gordon movies. That’s not exactly right, but is as close as I can get.”

In summary, the work relates the tale of an alien sorceress who has depleted the life force of her native planet — and decides to come to earth to take over.  

Before the pandemic, said Karr, he and Silpayamanant had been working with another band on a project rooted in the ancient art of shadow puppetry, which originated in Southeast Asia a couple of thousand years ago and remains popular in Thailand and across Southeast Asia. 

When events put that on hold, that project paused, and this idea emerged. There are, of course, no puppets at hand in this project (maybe we’ll get to see those in the future), but there will be plenty of light and shadow.

And just as when those ancient films were new, there will be live musical accompaniment. A hundred years ago, you would have seen those movies in big theaters, accompanied by someone improvising dramatic accompaniments at a pipe organ.  

In this case, the accompanists will be Silpayamanant on cello and “various electronic contraptions” and Karr on “electronic stuff.”  They’ll be improvising based on themes composed by Silpayamanant, but you can be sure that each of the two scheduled performances — both at Planet of the Tapes, Thursday, Aug. 5 in a 10 p.m. slot, and Friday, Aug. 6 in a 7 p.m. slot. 

Venue: Planet of the Tapes

In some years, the Louisville Fringe Festival has felt a bit like an adventure in geocaching or a theatrical version of Pokémon GO: part of the fun was finding your befuddled way across neighborhoods and then rushing back and forth from one ad hoc performance space to another in hopes of not missing anything.  

This year’s event is as convenient as can be. According to Google Maps, the two venues – Mile Wide Beer Co. and Planet of the Tapes – are exactly 72 feet apart from one another (though in the spirit of the Fringe, the advance calendar notes that an event is slated to take place in an undisclosed “mystery location”).

Based on the schedule, it appears you’ll find longer form works (including some new plays incubated in the influential Derby City Playwrights project) at Mile Wide, and a deliciously busy schedule of shorter pieces at Planet of the Tapes.

Mile Wide, which opened in 2016, is a familiar fixture on the Louisville scene, of course.

But Planet of the Tapes? 

It opened July 1, 2020. So don’t blame yourself if you missed it. But now is a good time to get acquainted.  

In the middle of a pandemic, co-owners Chris Vititoe and Jim Bob Brown had the audacity to open an intimate comedy club that features table service, excellent cocktails with a punny, retro-cultural, movie-nerd slant that celebrates the ‘80s and early ‘90s.  

[caption id="attachment_79193" align="alignnone" width="2560"] Ambo Dance Theatre performs at a previous show at Planet of the Tapes. |. Photo by Jon Cherry[/caption]

“The VHS thing is an aesthetic,” said Vititoe in an interview. “It’s something we grew up with that makes it feel like a home. We have VHS tapes all over the place. They’re on the stage, the baseboards, the bathrooms.  It’s a look that we gravitate towards.”

Planet of the Tapes even offers an idiosyncratic collection of DVDs (no VHS, sorry) for rent. Said Vititoe, “I was a big fan of Wild and Wooly Video, and when they left I really hoped someone would pick up the baton, so we’re doing that to a smaller extent with a small, curated collection.” 

Not the new releases, Vititoe said, “but the good stuff — the movies that are sort of weird and that you haven’t thought about for a while.”

“Good stuff that is weird” might be Vititoe’s mission statement — and is one of the reasons Planet of the Tapes is hosting Fringe events. “I like outsider art,” said Vititoe. “Our space has a stage, but it’s not a cavernous place — it’s an intimate spot, a good place to see somebody tell a story or stage a dance routine, so the Fringe is right up our alley.”

Vititoe and Brown wanted a smallish, comfortable space that wouldn’t feel cramped — so the room’s seating capacity is 50, and the seats are within about 25 feet of the stage. “We’re not snooty, said Vititoe, “but we wanted people to feel that they were having a special experience.”

Hosting the Fringe, said Vititoe, is consistent with his own adventurous sense of programming and the excitement of joys of discovery. “I try to book people that I am excited to see. Period. I don’t care about credits or whether a performer is a newcomer or established. This is a place I want to grow to the point where people trust us that we don’t put on anything bad, and that we’re going to put on a a smooth, professionally produced show.” 

“Comedy is a kind of magic,” Vititoe said. “It can snap you out of the worst mood ever.”

Louisville Fringe Festival Schedule

Mile Wide Beer Co.

636 Barret Ave.

Aug. 4, 8-11 p.m.

Aug. 5, 8-10:30 p.m.

Aug. 6, 7-11:30 p.m. (including "Laundry on New Year's Day" at 7 p.m.)

Planet of the Tapes

640 Barret Ave.

Aug. 4, 8-11 p.m.

Aug. 5, 8-11 p.m. (including "Barbara" at 9 p.m.  and "Sorceress!" at 10 p.m.)

Aug. 6, 7-11:30 p.m. (including "Sorceress!" at 7 p.m. and "Barbara" at 10 p.m.)

Aug. 7, 8-10 p.m.

Aug. 8, 7-10 p .m.