Boulder International Fringe Festival offers real fringe benefits

An image from The Mother's Bones.
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Before all the political theater comes to town, we have some real theater.

At the Boulder International Fringe Festival, now under way at several Boulder venues, at any moment you might find yourself trapped watching a miserably amateurish performance -- or stunned and delighted by something you’d never have the chance to see anywhere else.

I'll have a complete review of Pedro and the Captain in this week's Westword -- and you don't want to miss that production. In the meantime, some notes on what I’ve seen -- and you can still see, too:

Jonathan Bender’s In the Belly of the Whale is an extended meditation on Jewish identity and Bender’s desire to reclaim and define his own. He impersonates all kinds of contemporary middle-class American Jews: a retired professor who believes his social activism is a manifestation of Judaism, and who has nothing but contempt for formal ritual; a ditzy teenager not entirely comfortable telling her classmates she’s Jewish; a Los Angeleno who’s far more aware of his gayness than of his religious background; a Holocaust survivor.

The piece could use tightening up -- things tend to come to a standstill every time Bender ducks behind a huge onstage book to change personae -- and the profiles are uneven. I imagine Bender got a lot of his material from interviews with other Jewish people; the most successful characterizations are those in which he clearly felt empathy with the subject -- some of these were charming.

Though overall this is a thought-provoking performance, I can’t help feeling the analysis could have gone deeper. How do you address Jewish identity without considering the relationship of U.S. Jews to Israel? What do we do about the fact that so much of who we are has evolved as a reaction to the Holocaust? And just how much self-examination and identity discussion is useful anyway?

I remember something English novelist Zadie Smith said about one of her characters, a teenage American who was worried about being insufficiently black. He needed to shift his focus, Smith observed, and to understand that if the word "black" wasn't capacious enough to contain who he was, then it was the word that needed redefinition, and not himself. I love that observation.

One performance you absolutely do not want to miss is The Mother’s Bones, created by Kath Burlinson with Paul Oertel and Nancy Spanier (many of us remember Oertel and Spanier from their Boulder years), and performed as a solo by Burlinson. It’s a piece about a grandmother, mother and daughter. You infer the plot because it’s told without words -- or at least, without any words you can understand. All three characters have a kind of language; these languages, like their voices, are highly individualized. Every now and then you catch a phrase that sounds familiar, a word you think you recognize as French, English or German. The story is broad and mythic. The mother loses two of her babies, and finally bears a living child, whom she is desperate to protect. The child grows and explores her world. The grandmother, a playful, powerful, mischievous and almost supernatural old being, gives this child the tools she needs to descend into the underworld, explore and return safely. There are no pomegranate seeds here, but the allusion to Persephone’s voyage into Hades and the desperate search undertaken by her mother, Circe, is clear.

I know this may sound new agey and pretentious, but the production is redeemed by the power and specificity of Burlinson’s work -- work that you could call dancing, acting or ritualistic incantation. She embodies all these women with absolute passion and abandon, making each one larger than life, archetypal almost, yet also human, down-to-earth, individual and appealing. You can’t help marveling as the folds of the mother’s skirt become a baby; laughing when the child discovers her own toes or, later, positively wiggles with excitement while drawing on paper with magic marker; grieving as you see the grandmother’s strength draining from her aged body. There’s are some terrifying scenes, including a protracted death, but there are also strong evocations of life, continuity and transcendence. In short, The Mother’s Bones is a deep wonder.

Power to Pleasing: The Sex Lives of Teenage Girls is staged in the women’s bathroom at the Dairy Center—an artistically daring choice—and it’s been the talk of the Fringe Festival since it was first shown a couple of years ago. When I saw it this weekend, an audience of two dozen people stood shoulder to shoulder as three actresses moved between the stalls behind us and the mirrors in front, sometimes perching on the counter beside the sinks. We could see ourselves and our fellow watchers in the mirrors; it was hard not to touch the performers, whose swinging hair might accidentally caress our faces and who were often standing or sitting only inches away. There was also lots of hocus-pocus with lighting: faces starkly lit from below, long moments of absolute darkness. We were in a tense, hot and stifling situation, environmental theater at its most immediate.

The show begins as a twelve-year-old girl called Mary shares her innocently quasi-mystical thoughts about the nature of reality, a monologue delivered with charm and warmth by Christa Ray. Unhappily, that’s the most original part of this forty-minute event, because almost immediately we were in territory so familiar that I could predict every topic before it emerged: Teenage girls get pressured into sex, and sometimes do very stupid and self-destructive things at parties; it makes females feel powerless when construction workers greet them with whistles and catcalls; media images of skinny, perfect models damage young women’s sense of self and can lead to eating disorders. And so on and so on.

Just because all this is familiar doesn’t mean it can’t make for good theater, but aside from their startling physical effects, Giving Voice Productions seems more interested in therapy than drama. There’s no dramatic throughline here, just a pastiche of comments from books and interviews. It would be wonderful to follow the personal journey of lovely, imaginative Mary—and in a way we do—but she’s lost all her individuality and become nothing but a symbol of the way social pressure transforms clear-eyed little girls into victimized teenagers.

I can see how Power to Pleasing would be a useful teaching and therapeutic tool—though I do wish either the piece or the program would give some indication of just how prevalent the worst of these problems are. I know a lot of youngsters are damaged on the journey through adolescence. But I also had the privilege of closely observing the teen years of three young women—one of them my daughter—and though they were often confused, unhappy, self-hating or self-critical, they were also tough, funny, creative and smart. They developed ingenious coping mechanisms, and they had an amazing way of bending the universe to their wills when the chips were really down. And at least one of them thoroughly enjoyed her sexual encounters.

I’ve grown so tired of this culture’s all-prevasive narrative of victimhood, promoted and cemented by teachers and therapists, and the way the middle class has learned to ignore so much real suffering while lavishing the tenderest pity on itself.

The Boulder International Fringe Festival runs through August 25 in Boulder; for a complete schedule, go to www.boulderfringe.com. -- Juliet Wittman

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