The first act of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull centers on a botched production of an experimental play that's been written and directed by an oversensitive young man named Konstantin Treplev. The production bears all the markings of bad avant-garde theater: it's humorless and incomprehensible, full of baffling imagery and pretentious language. Treplev thinks he's broken new ground. His mother, a successful actress on the commercial stage, laughs at the poor boy, dismissing his work as decadent nonsense.
The good news about the five shows I saw during the opening weekend of Curious Theatre Branch's Rhinoceros Theater Festival—an annual fringe showcase now celebrating its 25th anniversary—is that none of them falls into the Treplevian trap of self-serious weird-for-the-sake-of-weird-ism. That said, I often found myself thinking the shows could do with a little of Treplev's ambition and stylistic daring. Just because something's on the fringe doesn't mean it has to be outre, of course, but you also don't want it to feel too small or too safe.
A failure to raise the stakes does in AstonRep Theatre Company's production of The Dumb Waiter, Harold Pinter's 1957 one-act about two hit men awaiting instructions on their next job. Beneath their mundane conversations about tea and crockery, Pinter plants hints of fear and violence that hang in the air like an unspoken threat. It should generate suspense, but actors Tim Larson and Rory Jobst play the whole thing like a Laurel and Hardy routine, draining Pinter's highly charged small talk of its mystery and menace.
Immediately following the curtain call for The Dumb Waiter comes Jeff Helgeson's In the Moment, a Pirandellian lark in which Jobst and Larson, as themselves, realize they can't leave the stage because we're still in our seats. It's an amusing premise—I especially liked Sara Pavlak as a put-upon stage manager—but this sort of meta noodling grows tiresome fast. And the inevitable comparisons with Pinter's subtler ways of defying theatrical expectations do Helgeson's script no favors.
Tell It & Speak It & Think It & Breathe It, from the Ruckus, is also playful and also slight. The hour-long program comprises six short plays, each by a different author using the lyrics of a well-known song as a jumping-off point. Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" inspires a surprisingly sweet tale by Dan Caffrey about two teens meeting in a postapocalyptic wasteland, Neko Case's "Man" prompts a meditation from Jessica Reese on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Joshua Davis finds visions of paradise and hell in the Chords' "Sh-Boom," and so on. The playlets are well acted and, on the night I saw the show, were nicely accompanied by Katie Schell on piano (different musicians are scheduled to step in throughout the run). But ultimately the production adds up to a series of tantalizing bites rather than a full meal.
In One Week in Spring, a drama about three women involved with a nonprofit organization for survivors of sexual assault, playwright Kristiana Colon tries to deal with more substantive issues. The center's director, who has herself been raped, struggles to open up to her compassionate boyfriend. Meanwhile, a female rapper inches toward romance with a rival musician, and a blogger who's into S&M pretends to have been raped because—well, I never got why she does that. Colon has some interesting things to say about sex—specifically, about the way fears and fantasies can get mixed up in the human psyche—but she fails to make her characters connect or even make sense, falling back instead on stereotypes and therapeutic bromides.
By far the most effective of the Rhino Fest offerings I saw were two solo shows, one by Cecilie O'Reilly and another by Mark Chrisler. O'Reilly performs 21 of her own poems, most of which have to do with nature or solid, ordinary objects like newel posts and oak tables. Her precise and often surprising observations occasionally lead to reflections on aging, change, and loss, but she's also content to simply savor the beauty of a sun-kissed apple or a purple rag lying in a clump of dead leaves. As a performer, she conveys both tenderness and resilience, sort of like the flower-box geraniums she describes as withstanding a pelting rainstorm despite their softness.
In Chrisler's Phonies, Frauds, and Fakes, the writer-performer reads from a script while seated at a table, Spaulding Gray style. What starts as a witty lecture on history's biggest lies soon morphs into the fascinating story of Chrisler's four-year involvement with a girlfriend who turned out to be a pathological liar. As he relates how he fell for one whopper after another, Chrisler is insightful on self-deception and the way great liars exploit our willingness to believe what we want to believe, even when the truth is staring us in the face.
Still more ingenious, Chrisler uses those very qualities against us, carefully parceling out information in a way that leaves us eager to know what happens next even after we begin to doubt the reliability of our narrator. It's an unsettling and irresistible act of storytelling that may not usher in the new theatrical forms Treplev clamors for, but nevertheless illustrates the power of a cracking good yarn.