Rooting for Fringe Fest
“What do you see?” is the opening line of John Logan’s potent two-man play, “Red,” staged June 22 and 23 at the Aspen Fringe Festival.
The question, posed by actor Preston Maybank, playing the painter Mark Rothko in the production, at the opening of his powerhouse performance, is one the audiences joyfully got to explore at dance and theater performances throughout the six-day festival.
The Fringe Fest, in its fourth year, has proved itself a vital and welcome addition to Aspen’s rich summer arts lineup — pairing quality performers with top-notch material. The only disappointment at the festival was the many empty seats at the Aspen District Theater — this is the kind of enthralling theater experience you wish more people could share.
Maybank seethed with passion and frustration — immersing himself in Rothko’s self-immolating need to be understood by his audience. While Mark Christine, playing Rothko’s increasingly disillusioned assistant, matched Maybank brushstroke for brushstroke. The pair managed to make the high-minded dialogue of the play accessible and lively.
The two-day run of “Red” was book-ended by a performance by the Dominic Walsh Dance Theater and a reading of an unpublished and in-progress play, “Hope and Gravity,” by Michael Hollinger.
Hollinger was in the audience at the District Theater taking notes. He and the cast — including local actors like Nikki Boxer, Carolyne Heldman and Kent Hudson Reed — took questions from the audience afterward. Such insight into the artistic process is a rare treat for the public, and among Fringe’s unique strengths.
After “Red” on Friday, the actors, Fringe founder David Ledingham and Aspen Art Museum director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson discussed the play and Rothko’s life. The play’s central question — “What do you see?” — elicited divergent responses from the group, and gave the audience some additional material to chew on.
Ledingham paraphrased the playwright Logan’s description of “Red” as a “work play” that could have been about auto mechanics as easily as abstract expressionists. Its 90 minutes of verbal jousting about craft, he argued, were universal to any person engrossed in work.
Zuckerman Jacobson countered that from her perspective, “Red” was intrinsically linked with Rothko’s process and struggles with painting, and how he was viewed by the public and critics.
“For me, it couldn’t have been about anything but art,” she said.
And that is the genius of “Red.” Its depth and weight and untold emotional layers allow the viewer to decide what they see in it. From what I saw at Fringe Fest, I want to see the festival grow and gain the audience it deserves next year.
Take a trip to 'Avenue Q'
Unemployment, racism and bad sex have never been so fun. Those are among the thorny themes tackled in “Avenue Q,” the R-rated puppet musical staged in a jubilant Theatre Aspen production, running through July 21 at the Hurst Theatre in Rio Grand Park.
The musical satire follows Princeton, fresh out of college and out of work, finding himself among the everyday puppet derelicts on Avenue Q. With puppet neighbors, including a closeted gay Republican, a porn-addicted monster, a good girl and a bad one, along with a human Gary Coleman and a young newlywed human couple — Princeton sings and dances his way through bad choices and 20-something drama.
The energetic Theatre Aspen cast nails it, making their furry, fuzzy, foul-mouthed props full-bodied characters. Watching Jeffrey Correia do double-duty as two of the musical’s lead male characters, and Julie Kavanagh do the same with its pair of female foils, is something to behold.
If you know the songs and snappy dialogue from “Avenue Q” already, from Broadway or elsewhere, you’ll be pleased with their faithful and pitch-perfect takes on “Everybody’s a Little Bit Racist,” “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” “The Internet is for Porn” and the Bad Idea Bears’ bad advice. If not, well, you’re in for a gut-busting couple hours of biting puppet theater and you’ll never look at “Sesame Street” the same again.
The cozy confines of the Theatre Aspen tent, while they lead to some distracting blocking among the cast, prove mostly to be an asset here — as actors and puppets move up and down its rows for some forced audience participation. So God help any prude seated stage right during the puppet sex scene and “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love).”
The play’s transcendent, transgressive bliss, though, comes from its ability to pull at your heartstrings. Yes, it includes puppet fornication and puppet f-bombs and a fictional Gary Coleman hamming it up. But somehow you root for Princeton to find his life’s purpose and pick the right girl, you cheer for Rod to come out of the closet and be himself, you want Trekkie Monster to stop masturbating and do something helpful. When they do, somehow, it makes you feel all fuzzy inside.