July 23: Theatre: A Love Story
July 24: No Justice, when once the sky was blue
July 25: Best of Fringe: Electra, Terms of Forbearance
If the producers have done their work well, a fringe festival should almost be impossible to categorize.
Its greatest promise lies in the titled term itself: a collection of shows situated, often simultaneously, on one or more edges, from the artistic and cultural to the technological. If your tastes tend toward the classics or the tried-and-true—should Dame Agatha Christie be the first name to come to mind when you think of women playwrights—it might be best to beat a quick retreat back to the mainstream.
Fringe work lies along, and usually pushes us beyond, previously established borders. It takes us places we haven’t been before. That crucial mission is accomplished in the National Women’s Theatre Festival’s WTFringe 21 Festival. All fourteen productions in this year’s complement are virtual, a combination of live and prerecorded feeds aggregated from locations across the nation and the globe and put online through the festival’s nexus in Raleigh.
Five productions—three already scheduled for the festival’s last weekend and my two top candidates for the juried Best of Fringe showcase on Sunday, July 25—stretch audiences from earnest considerations of racial schisms to caustic social satire, and from innovative genre fusions of music and dance to an immersive and truly sublime virtual reality theater experience.
In director Dana Hall and actor Kenisha Morgan’s one-act drama, Justice (Morgan), a Black law school student in Illinois on lockdown during the pandemic, has been referred to a therapist when her mother turns ill back in her small hometown. When the therapist, Dr. Myers (Ruth Hansen), turns out to be white and there are no Black therapists on the school’s staff, racial borders must be reckoned with as the two struggle to address Justice’s crisis, as two national crises unfold at the same time. Hall and Morgan leaven pointed cultural criticism with humor in a script whose occasional didacticism doesn’t compromise its warm heart.
Terms of Forbearance
The viewer who termed actor Matthew Ferrell’s smarmy TV host “the nightmare-fueled love child of [The Hunger Games’] Caesar Flickerman and Perez Hilton” was spot-on. In Emma Givens’ acid-etched comedy, directed here by Addie Barnhart, three women who’ve defaulted on their student loans are placed in a reality TV series without frontiers: imprisoned, alone, in rooms with cameras that never turn off. Audience members may contribute to pay off their debts and free them—if they perform in a sufficiently ingratiating manner. Standout performances by Julinda Lewis as a bewildered Morgan, Sarah Rose Nottingham’s initially glib Ashe, and Chelsea Goode’s disenchanted Sullivan ground a work that mercilessly grills our culture’s unspoken assumptions about monetary versus human value and the bases of mass entertainment.
Digital theater company Access Classics’ first online production is a convincing proof-of-concept for director Claudia Alick’s alchemical mix of choreography, music, and drama. Randy Wong-Westbrooke’s nuanced visual design nimbly identifies the characters in playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s soulful adaptation of Euripides.
Alick’s strategy to have multiple actors play the title character underlines the universality of one person’s struggle and situates it among a supportive community. Striking performances by performers Camille Simone Thomas, Sabrina Liu, Antoine Hunter, and Grant Miller propel a story whose blood-soaked culmination is conveyed with eerie grace.
Theatre: A Love Story
Award-winning playwright Caridad Svich’s rueful love letter to her genre is placed in a virtual promenade format, as audience members click on the screen to progress through the play’s 10 sections. Despite that disruptive strategy, the 10 directors in this WTFringe Lab production make an unexpectedly cohesive experience of Svich’s critical narrative, which resists its jadedness while castigating the economics of privilege that make theater possible. Look for notable performances by Gabrielle A. Woods, Monique C. Aldred, Laura Blankenship, and Claudia Warga-Dean in the mix.
when once the sky was blue
The on-screen recommendations at the start do disclose the best way to experience Sri Lankan-Peruvian multimedia artist Harshini J. Karunaratne’s 360-degree virtual reality work: via full screen, in a quiet, darkened room, through a home sound system or headsets.
At the start, we find ourselves suspended in a night sky, facing three hooded figures in different portals. Clicking on them takes us on three overtly meditative journeys. While some virtual reality experiences can have a disembodied-feeling dynamic, the hypnotic calmness in Keira J. Simmons’ narratives and ambient soundscapes alongside the work of visual programmer Naushikha Jayawickrama firmly ground viewers in embodied experiences: walking through a garden and along a mountain edge before a gravity-defying stroll across a body of water at sunset.
But the gentle narrative of sights and sounds here are constructed for a future therapeutic use: to comfort humans in a time of what the creator calls eco-grief, in an era beyond our own, when skies were still blue.
Correction: The print edition of this piece incorrectly listed Royal Shirée in Terms of ‘Forbearance.’ The role of Morgan was played by Julinda Lewis.
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