Dead Letter Office. Photo by William Bezek.
Dead Letter Office. Photo by William Bezek.

Reviewing Week One of the Berkshire Fringe
by Gail M. Burns and Larry Murray

Gail M. Burns and Larry Murray have been following the BERKSHIRE FRINGE FESTIVAL for years, though Burns has managed to see far more of their work than Murray. Sara Katzoff, Timothy Ryan Olson and Peter Wise are the co-artistic directors who have been tenaciously cultivating the region’s younger audiences with quirky, peculiar theatre that is alternately slapstick, serious, sad, silly and always surprising. Cross-disciplinary and dynamic, it is both theatre that is on the cutting edge, and theatre that matters.

The Fringe is back for its ninth season, and we ventured once again to the Daniel Arts Center, located at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, MA. Their audiences have been growing at a steady pace, and this year two of the three performances seen on a Friday were close to full. Gail particulary liked THE OTHER MOZART while Larry enjoyed MALHALLA. Both swooned over the droll DEAD LETTER OFFICE which is full of surprises. Here is their capsule review of those three performances in the order that they were seen. (You can find additional comments from Gail on Facebook while Larry’s notes also appear in Broadway World.)

Malhalla. Photo by Aehee Kang Asano.
Malhalla. Photo by Aehee Kang Asano.

MALHALLA

Larry: MAHALLA from the Anthropologists is hypnotic to watch, even if sometimes you don’t know what they are getting at.

Gail: This one frankly puzzled me, and as I continued to fail to make intellectual and emotional connection with either characters or plot, I lost interest. This is sad because I believe the ensemble has a real passion for the issues they are trying to address here, but they fail to convey it to the audience.

While Malhalla was billed as a “world premiere” I don’t think it’s beyond the workshop stage. I have no doubt that The Anthroplogists were deeply moved by the ongoing struggle for financial security and gender equality in Egypt, but they have not yet shaped a theatre piece that clearly conveys their passion or enlightens the audience.

Larry: Yes onstage it was quite amorphous in many ways, but I think the struggle in Egypt continues to change shape daily as well. What we do see on stage are three women wearing khumur (what we call a hijab in the USA) spin a tale of life in Egypt with high hopes and low wages that leads to the 2011 Revolution. Habiba (Jenna Bosco), Oni (Mariah Freda) and Samia (Pooya Mohseni) live tightly controlled lives which are in total contrast to the fourth character, Jordan (Rafael V. DeLeon). A college aged basketball player, he lives in the USA with all the freedom of travel and occupation that signifies. They work in a garment factory, prepare food for sale on the side while the American is an emerging basketball player and the son of Egyptian parents.

Gail: Or so the guy thinks…

Larry: …so secrets are involved, aren’t they. Meantime, the garment workers complain about the shrinking value of their already low wages whilst the young American has received an invitation to join an Egyptian pro ream. Jordan dribbles his way around the stage while the women sew, hang and dance with shimmering sheets of fabric, some suggesting the banners of revolution.

Gail: I was not always clear on what place and time the women were in, they referred to so many different struggles in Egypt’s recent past. And since they wrote this polticial turmoil has again erupted in the country, which makes Jordan’s story – theoretically set in the “present” – instantly obsolete. In light of the ongoing changes in Egypt, The Anthroplogists may need to completely rewrite this piece before they present it again.

Larry: We learn that neither Jordan nor the basketball league officials are aware that he has a Jewish heritage. He eventually travels to Egypt in search of his father’s history, but is totally unprepared, not knowing the language, culture or religious history of the place.

Gail: This part of Jordan’s story I found interesting. I hadn’t realized that you could be born in a country and yet not a citizen on account of your religion. But I found the Moses analogy labored and the story incomplete in its current format.

Larry: Using found text, dance, acres of billowing fabric and even a You Tube video, The Anthropologists have some success combining ritual storytelling with current events, and how the innocents – whether factory workers or teenaged athletes – often go off on futile adventures without really knowing what they are getting into. In the end it is indictment, not an endorsement of technology whose naked nuggets of information rarely provide essential context.

Silvia Milo in The Other Mozart. Photo by Daniel Murtagh
Silvia Milo in The Other Mozart. Photo by Daniel Murtagh

THE OTHER MOZART

Larry: From the Little Matchstick Factory comes THE OTHER MOZART, written and performed by Sylvia Milo. Can you summarize it?

Gail: A prime example of why it sucks to be a woman. Such was the case in Salzburg in the 18th century and its only slightly better today. It also doesn’t help to have a younger sibling who completely overshadows you. Did Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart really have more talent than his sister Nannerl? Or were her talents merely ignored and underdeveloped because of her gender? No doubt that we are talking about mega-genius here, but there are strong indications that Nannerl was no dummy. She also performed internationally and composed, but her work is lost to the ages and we can only see her now as her father, brother, and occasionally her mother, described her in their letters.

Photo by Daniel Murtagh.
Photo by Daniel Murtagh.
Larry: I love the way she ensconces herself in the middle of a dress that is eighteen feet in diameter, filling the stage. With a matching corset, she sits, stand, crawls and buries herself within it as she unfolds along with this little known story of Wolfgang’s sister, Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart (1751-1829), As Nannerl, Sylvia Milo regales us with the painful truth, that while she was every bit as smart and talented as her younger brother, she was quickly shoved aside – and abandoned – by her father, Leopold Mozart, in his favor. It will be impossible to hear his charming but lightweight music again without being reminded of his callousness.

Gail: Even in America it is really only in the last half century that the education of women has been considered as important as that of men. Nannerl, the elder child by four and a half years, was very well educated for a woman of her day, and obviously very intelligent and musically gifted. Her brother began his performing career as a kind of freak show wunderkind during his sister’s concerts. Alone and together they performed all over Europe as children. But once Nannerl hit puberty, she had to toe the line in order to be considered “marriageable.” The Mozarts were not a wealthy family, and, despite her very marketable talent, Nannerl would have been no option but becoming a household servant to support herself if she didn’t marry well. Little girls could perform on stage, women could not – at least not “nice” women.

Larry: Milo rises and falls as the light of Nannerl’s life waxes and wanes over the decades, and here the brilliance of director Isaac Byrne literally shines. Credit is given to a dialect coach, but frankly THE OTHER MOZART was handicapped by yet another difficult stage accent getting in the way of understanding an important story and its message.

Gail: Although I had not problem hearing and understanding her, I will say that Milo affects a very soft and girlish tone too, a breathy Marilyn Monroesque voice, which will be difficult for some to hear.

Not only did THE OTHER MOZART tell a fascinating and important story – but it did so most theatrically. I loved the concept of Nannerl literally allowing her world to be proscribed by the circumference of her dress, by fashion, if you will. The dress was both set and costume – an astonishing number of props were concealed in its folds and pockets, and Milo had to know exactly where to find each treasure at the right moment of the play. The dress, her undergarments, and her towering wig were all in white, giving the effect of a giant wedding cake come to life. The piece really worked as a cohesive whole.

There was also a soundtrack with some of Wolfgang Mozart’s music included – although Nannerl composed none of her work has survived. What the world has lost over the millennia by devaluing and disposing of women’s contributions to society!

In the video embedded at the bottom of this report, you see Milo rise, and I thought that she must be being lifted from above, but as I saw the show live it was apparent that there was no rigging to do so. When she did begin to get up in the dress at the end, I thought there might be a small hydraulic lift beneath her. But in fact she raised herself and walked in that enormous, prop-filled skirt all on her own muscle power. The reality and the visual effect were really impressive. If only Nannerl had possessed that strength and courage!

Dead Letter Office. Photo by William Bezek.
Dead Letter Office. Photo by William Bezek.

DEAD LETTER OFFICE

Larry: For me, the whole reason to drop everything and get to the BERKSHIRE FRINGE FESTIVAL is to see brilliant and original theatre like the DEAD LETTER OFFICE (a prelude to Bartleby the Scrivener) from The Lunar Strategem of Huntington, WV.

Gail: I loved this piece too. But then I am fascinated by words and this was an extensive, vaudevillian take on human written communication. A word play.

Larry: One can only admire playwright Matthew Earnest and his performers – masters of the abstract and absurd – as they use every device imaginable in telling a phantasmagorical tale of baroque workers trapped in the never ending job of a dead letter office.

Gail: They refer to themselves as “forensic epistolographers,” “obductionists,” “etymological necropsists”…

Larry: Frequently reciting their lines in perfect unison, the bewigged and courtly Shawn Farr, Nicole Perrone and Topher Payne struggle with handwriting that is alternately cryptic or just plain wretched, but in the end they are never stumped: befuddlement turns to joy as one mystery after another is solved. That is, all except one, which is revealed when a letter with a zip code, which represents the beginnings of technology, arrives. The end is near. Soon emails and texting will make these workers totally irrelevant.

Gail: But in actuality, this is a highly technological production, heavily dependent on electronic control of lights and sounds. The trio’s movements are mechanical and repetitive, like assembly line work.

Larry: The trio of laugh-makers channel songs and zany routines from old films, shows and television which constantly interrupt the proceedings for a few minutes of madness. But they in turn are interrupted by their lights suddenly going black which portends their dark future. The entire show could be considered a metaphor for the recent shift from human communication to the impact of our digital distancing from each other.

Gail: If you see this production, I highly recommend purchasing the script, on sale in the lobby. There are fascinating footnotes to the dialogue, and the dance numbers have delightful titles like The Dance of the Exultation of Letters and and A Dance for the Flying Kisses. While highly theatrical, DEAD LETTER OFFICE is ultimately a play about the written word, and reading the script, seeing it on the page, is just as important as seeing it on the stage.

And that made me think. This play, THE OTHER MOZART, and NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART which we saw at Shakespeare & Company the following day, are all epistilatory plays, plays which could not exist if people had not written, and saved, personal correspondence. In the past generation we have lost the practice of letter-writing – a friend told me just the other day of a young man recently admitted to Princeton who had to ask his father how to address an envelope, he had never sent a paper letter in his life and had no idea where to place the stamp, address, and return address. Humans are writing to each other more than ever, but ALL electronic communication is ephemeral – DOA as it were. E-mail is the ultimate Dead Letter Office.

Larry: Now there is a frightening thought, one of many the first week of the BERKSHIRE FRINGE has generated.

The BERKSHIRE FRINGE FESTIVAL continues with ever-changing performers, groups and shows all the way to August 5. [link to schedule] In total, a dozen different companies will perform under their auspices. Upcoming shows include: “Moment of Impact,” “…Dedicated to Dexter” and “Painting His Wings” in the middle week, with “Fufu & Oreos,” “The Ape Woman” and “On Est Deshabille” slated for the final week.

Gail: In a daring departure from the first nine years, there is a second producing company at Simon’s Rock this year, Mass Live Arts [link] which is presenting Half Straddle and Radiohole. It is likely that the synergy which seems to be developing could bring yet more experimental theatre to a region long celebrated for its traditional offerings,and that would be a wonderful development.

THE BERKSHIRE FRINGE FESTIVAL presents Mahalla devised by The Anthropologist’s Ensemble, Conceived and Directed by Melissa Moschitto; The Other Mozart from The Little Matchstick Factory, written and performed by Sylvia Milo, Directed by Isaac Byrne with Music composed by Nathan Davis and Phyllis CHen; and The Lunar Strategem’s Dead Letter Office (a prelude to Bartleby the Scrivener) a piece by Matthew Earnest. The Festival runs from July 15-August 5,2013 at the Daniel Arts Center, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, 84 Alford Rd., Great Barrington, MA 413-320-4175

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