A Fringe Fall: Aspen Fringe Festival stages second annual Fall Fest
New play and dance film explore our divided and distanced times
What: Aspen Fringe Festival Fall Fest 2021
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Friday, Oct. 1, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $25-$35
More info: Proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test required for entry; aspenfringefestival.org
The writers, actors, dancers and creators at the Aspen Fringe Festival have been holding up a mirror to humanity throughout the soul-strafing experiences of the pandemic and the 2020 election.
Ever rich in artistic integrity and creativity — and, its producers admit, still woefully short on funds after 13 years — the scrappy festival has taken its truth-telling role seriously in the past year. Its third in-person festival presentation of the pandemic period, its second annual Fall Fest, runs Friday at the Wheeler Opera House. It includes the production of the new one-act play “Patty Furnace” and the dance film “Closer” choreographed by Fringe Fest’s Adrianna Thompson.
“As artists we still believe in the power of theater and live performance to bring everybody together in the same room, which is not easy anymore,” said Fringe Fest director David Ledingham, who is Thompson’s husband. “We believe that the act of watching something together in a theater — especially something that is relevant to what we’re dealing with right now, brings us closer and gives us compassion and empathy for other people.”
A year ago, in the pandemic doldrums of late September 2020, the perseverant and high-minded Fringe creative team staged its inaugural “Fall Fest” at the Aspen District Theatre, with a distanced audience of about 50 people. It was among the few live indoor events staged here in those pre-vaccine days of the pandemic, performed by masked actors and dancers in multimedia pieces.
The two-night event, a powerful and potent experience, curated seven pieces that shined a light on the struggle for human connection in this isolated and anxious early months of the pandemic with short new works by acclaimed playwrights including Simon Stephens, John Kolvenbach and Sharr White along with the dance film “Shelter in Place” featuring Thompson’s Soulskin Dance.
In June, during the hopeful moment of post-vaccine re-opening and un-masking, Fringe Fest re-opened the Wheeler Opera House for its first event in some 15 months, staging a cathartic evening of new drama, dance and song that reflected the painful realities and persistent hopes of life in the pandemic (with some welcome doses of humor).
“It was truly the first public performance back again in the theaters, and the outpouring of hope and love and how close we felt was overwhelming,” recalled actor Mike Monroney, who was featured in June’s main festival and returns this weekend. “Now we’re more pessimistic because we thought it was over and we’re masking up again.”
“Patty Furnace” is a two-hander from the playwright Penelope Skinner, who brought a workshop production of “Angry Alan” — her incisive and darkly funny one-man show about the men’s right’s movement, written in the wake of President Trump’s election — to Fringe Fest in 2017 and 2019.
“Patty Furnace” is something of a sequel to “Angry Alan” — which has gone on to productions at the Edinburgh Festival and in London — and delves further into our age of misinformation and online radicalization. Starring Ledingham and veteran Monroney, the new one-act play focuses on exchanges — verbal and text and, yes, probably, Zoom — between twin brothers born on either side of midnight and now on opposite sides of the political spectrum.
“It’s about this epidemic of misinformation that has been occurring for a while now,” Ledingham said.
He said that the development of the play for this workshop premiere, with virtual table reads with Skinner — who is based in the U.K. — have refined the characters and themes into increasingly gray areas of America’s bitter divisions. One is a Hollywood producer and one is back home taking care of mom, both seek information sources that reinforce their biases and both clinging tight to views that might look like crackpot fake news to the other.
No politicians are specifically name-checked in the play — unlike the festival’s bombastic one-man production of “The Trump Card” in 2017 — which the actors hope will lend it a sense of timelessness, even though it’s about western civilization at this moment.
“It’s a COVID play, but that’s not really what it’s about,” Monroney said. “I keep going back to other things in history that have split families — all the way back to the Civil War, brother against brother, literally in this case.”
The dance film “Closer,” choreographed by Thompson on her San Francisco-based Soulskin Dance company, speaks to similar issues in movement.
Thompson recalled calling filmmaker Jaco Strydom and hatching the idea for the film, beginning an 8-month-long process of rehearsal and guerrilla-style filming with Soulskin dancers.
“It took eight months, but we had a vision,” Thompson recalled.
The 34-minute film, with an original score, cuts between dancers battling to connect with one another in locations like a dance studio, empty theater, on a playground, in a cathedral, on the street and in the redwood forests of northern California.
“‘Closer’ was about every single artist’s prayer of surrendering to what’s happening, but knowing we’re going to be OK,” Thompson said, “and to know that we would eventually hug each other and get a little closer to having some kind of normalcy, but what does that really mean?”
There are no easy answers in “Closer” or in “Patty Furnace,” instead Aspen Fringe Fest is here exploring the thorniest and most pressing questions of the day.
“The pandemic has changed us forever,” Thompson said. “It’s this healing that we want, but we’re still divided. So as artists, what do you do? You talk about it. That’s what we’re doing.”
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