The Rogue Festival, Fresno’s cultural gem of a fringe/performance fest, ended Saturday (March 12) the way these things usually do: with people scrambling to see the shows they haven’t had the chance to see yet, making hard choices between shows playing at the same time; and a seriously cut-loose party at the end of the night at the Starline, one of the traditional festival venues.
Anyway, here’s my spiel on the final three shows of my Rogue — nine shows in all, 11 if you count the two I sat through on a box office shift Thursday night at Veni Vedi Vici (which I didn’t, as I was too preoccupied to write fairly about them).
“The Wretched Void,” Starline, Saturday 3/12: Damn you, Scotti — I wish you would’ve warned me; I would’ve gone out and bought some waterproof mascara ahead of time.
Scotti is Scotti Maldonado, a young local gay rights activist and one of the five performers in “The Wretched Void,” the debut production by the Cutting Edge Theatre Project. As with many social/political plays, this show (written by director Scott Hancock and the Cutting Edge members) is as subtle as a bag of sledgehammers. Except that they don’t just sledge you, they make it hurt — really, truly, emotionally hurt.
Anyone who has been through the bullshit of taunts or bullying or worse based on sexual and gender identity, real or perceived, will have a hard time sitting through this unrelentingly intense half-hour; there were lots of sniffles among the audience, and it was all I could do to not fall apart. All of a sudden, I was an adolescent in Connecticut again. I thought I was past most of it, and this tore open an already semi-open and unhealed wound. (And Scotti told me afterward that the actors themselves had to fight throughout the production to keep from crying onstage. Maybe that’s why it was so effective.)
The room was dark, and not just because of the adjustment of our eyes from the bright sunshine outside. Starline was black to start with, and the stage lights came up, dimly, on four of the five performers.
The spotlight alternated among three stories. Scotti played a high school student trying in vain to convince his principal (in an off-stage voice-of-God) to get the kids to stop bullying him. There were Caroline Long and Danielle Jorn as a daughter and mother, respectively; the daughter tells her mother, who’s too preoccupied with her social-climbing/status/what-will-my-friends-think life, that she’s going to the prom with a girl. Jonathan Wheeler plays a young man, cast out as an adolescent by his fundamentalist Christian parents, having a conversation with God — alternately angry, alternately reasoning — as he prepares to kill himself. And in the end, James Martinez joins the ensemble as a teenage boy reading the suicide note he wrote to his parents.
It’s wretched, alright. It’s the darkness of a huge, steaming void. It doesn’t let up. Then again, neither does the torture of adolescence. And for some kids it never does, and they take endgame into their own hands. That’s the message the company was hammering into the audience. I know I wanted to kill myself at that age (though I never acted upon it), and I’m kinda glad I didn’t. But seeing those feelings on the stage made me feel like 14, 15. 16 again, and not in a good way.
Now the challenge for Cutting Edge is to take this to a wider audience. Preaching to the choir, as they did at the Rogue, is one thing. Getting others to embrace it, or at least start to comprehend it, it is another.
“Burning Brothels: Sex and Death in Nevada,” Million Too, Saturday 3/12: Katherine Glover, a freelance journalist and storyteller from the Twin Cities, has explored her interest in sex and sexuality in two different ways these past two years. Last year, she delved into relationships in “A Cynic Tells Love Stories.” This year’s offering, “Burning Brothels,” was a history class couched in the millieu of performance art. And if you weren’t careful, you could learn something.
In this case, the surface subject was the history of legalized prostitution in Nevada. She traced prostitution back to the state’s early days — to the days when working girls in Virginia City had to enter theaters from the back entrance and sit in their own special section; and to the tale of Julia Bulette, a well-known Virginia City lady whose strangulation in 1867 was the stuff of legend. (Mark Twain was one of the attendees at her killer’s hanging, and thanks to the 1950s embellishments of expatriate writer Lucius Beebe, her tale was gussied up a bit for latter-day Americans — she was even the subject of a “Bonanza” episode.)
She later veered into the tale of Joe Conforte, a former Oakland cabbie who opened his own brothel, the (in)famous Mustang Ranch, and how, through his efforts, prostitution became legal in much of the state. And how Russell Reade, a former high school biology teacher from Sebastopol, modernized the business when he started running the Chicken Ranch in the early ’80s — computerizing operations and, in 1986, after the prostitution business dropped off in the wake of Rock Hudson’s death and the ensuing AIDS scare, making his brothel the first to require condoms (which is now the law). And in the end, how, while now legal, the working girls ended up, metaphorically, right back where they started back in Virginia City.
Directed by Rogue founder Marcel Nunis, Glover and her extroverted personality kept the story colorful and the pace brisk, and even when she veered off on a tangent, it was a quick detour. And through it all, she gave her audience a lot of info to digest as she flipped paper signs with dates to move the story forward or, in a few cases, backward. (For some reason, the only times she used a musical bed were the couple of instances when she reverted to 1955 and the blare of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.”) At no time did the production feel overly long. Or dull. And now we know more about prostitution in Nevada than we thought we wanted to know. But we were at least entertained.
“Cap’n Scurvy’s Ragnorok Hootenanny Jamboree,” Dianna’s, Saturday 3/12: Arguably the most talked-about — and most walked-out-of — event at the Rogue was the R-rated show by Cap’n Scurvy (the alias of Shane Spears), what he billed on the Rogue website as “guerilla vaudeville Americana.” As I sat box office duty the previous Saturday for one of their shows at the Million Too, I heard much laughter and shouting inside, but also encountered a woman who left early. “I’m sorry,” she told me with a smile. (She didn’t owe me an apology …) “I’m Christian. This is really offensive.” And I had heard of another performance where two other people had walked out.
I had heard about Scurvy for years, seen him hanging out in the Tower, and had heard his show last year was pretty wild. And since this was a Rogue festival, after all, I had to close my experience on a roguish note, especially since he announced during the week that this would be the final performance of his show ever.
Well, the first half of the show, I laughed my ass off. The second half, I alternated between marveling at human feats and understanding just why those people left. (In fact, two young women sitting right behind me did the same about two thirds of the way through.)
The show was modeled after a 19th-century snake oil sales show and religious revival, but with modern twists and jagged edges. Scurvy — tall, long-haired, bearded, wearing a top hat and a goofy grin — and the Reverend Ezekiel Ignatius Flatbottom (Scott Copeland) started off with an explosion of words that didn’t let up, as they pitched the audience with a machine-gun torrent of lyrical legerdemain and what Elvis Costello would call verbal gymnastics, selling Scurvy’s home remedy for the incredible low price of a dollar-99. (To which the audience would repeatedly repeat, “A dollar-99?”)
And throughout, we were treated to the visual distraction of the show’s assistant and resident beauty, Velveeta D’voh (Dorian Follansbee). Just your typical petite, demure 19th-century sweetheart adorned in sausage curls, fishnets and a killer corset, occasionally wielding a dildo or a riding crop. Her extremely expressive face probably would have made her a huge star in the pre-talkie era; indeed, one of the show’s more enjoyable moments came when she and Scurvy did a fire-swallowing scene that, with the help of a strobe and cue cards, became a silent film brought to life. And speaking of performances, another highlight was the knife juggling, while balancing on a trunk, a board and a cylinder, by Daniel Fernandez, a onetime Ringling Bros. clown who lives in town.
Anyway, the verbal assault through the first half of the show was just the softening of the beachhead. But by the end, the show had gone into full-scale offensive, emphasis on offensive, seemingly with no real point or reason. Or, by the end, humor. The Powerpoint slide show of various cast members caught surreptitiously in uncompromising positions was cute. But the program slowly devolved into a sea of violence and fake blood, a nun singing “Jesus hates you” (alongside a larger-than-life cut-out of the Man Himself, or at least one of those whitebread depictions) and a bit of gynecological spelunking that brought out the EWWWWW! factor.
And then it was over — there was no neat way to wrap up a show that degenerated into sloppy except to essentially say “Screw it — that’s all, folks; we’re done here. Let’s go party.” It was a shame — what started as an intelligent and captivating show just crumbled into the equivalent of kids scrawling with poopy on the walls for no other reason than because they can. But the Rogue afterparty was pretty good.