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Seeking the Fantastique 

Is Liebe Wetzel's surprising, compelling theater a dying breed at the Fringe Festival?

Wednesday, Sep 15 2004
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Liebe Wetzel has a weird kind of fame. For the last five years she's created stirring puppet shows out of found objects like foam strips, wrenches, feather boas, and rolling pins. Her ensemble, Lunatique Fantastique, has no competition for "object theater" in the Bay Area -- in fact, it's nearly unique in the nation -- but her work strikes an instant chord with audience members who might otherwise be inclined to skip puppet shows.

Wetzel's signature production, Snake in the Basement, told a harrowing story about child molestation in music, newspaper, and napkins. Brace Yourself! was a drama derived from her father's polio, told via street clothes, kitchen implements, and a leg brace. The current Lunatique show, now playing the 13th annual San Francisco Fringe Festival, is a gentle, funny story of lifelong friendship between two women (really two sweaters, with hats) called Reframing the Hourglass. It's a surprising piece of theater as well as a victory lap for Wetzel, because she started her whole unusual career with a few bits of foam at the Fringe Fest in 1999.

As a rule, the less dialogue in a Lunatique show the better, and Reframing the Hourglass is silent except for a few sound effects. Two short, whimsical puppets (named Aunt Henri and Moldie May) meet as girls, learn to ride bikes, try on bras and high heels, get married and pregnant, and begin to die. Empty picture frames are a theme: The puppeteers use them for cars and mirrors, rafts in a swimming pool, and, in one case, mammogram plates. Puberty arrives as a panty liner, fluttering around each puppet in the shape of a butterfly. Part of the brilliance in a Lunatique show is that each object and gesture becomes a puzzle that the audience needs to solve, but of course the puppets have to be worth the trouble, and that takes work. Investing each sweater and hat with a soul requires no fewer than three people, wearing black (like Japanese bunraku puppeteers), working in a subtle choreography.

The Fringe Fest is an incubator for theater-expanding work like Lunatique's; there may be no other way to discover it. The trouble with this year's Fringe is a lack of similarly surprising new shows. The Exit Theatre's citywide free-for-all of short plays always attracts the good, the strange, and the unfortunate, but in 2004 the roster seems especially thick with solo theater and stand-up comedy.

Do we really need more improv, for example? Or more magic tricks? I have to admit I skipped that stuff on purpose. A solo show called Flower Murderer had promise because Sabrina Stevenson was going to play such a wide range of characters, from an ordinary couple having relationship problems to an alien, a poetess, and a young mother on trial for killing her hideous father. The piece started as a classroom exercise; Stevenson spun all her situations and dialogue from random news photographs. Problem is, it still feels like a classroom exercise, except for a few sharp moments in the harshest vignettes, like the murderous young mother's. Nothing holds these scenes together -- not even a theme -- and the poetess, a pompous woman in a big straw hat, is nowhere near interesting enough to come on twice.

Diana Galligan's Viva Vivi! is better: It's a live silent film about a fictional Hollywood star, Vivi Vitaly, stranded in 1928 by the sudden arrival of sound technology. Galligan has strong movement skills, and she's studied silent-film divas; she captures the wide eyes, the puckering lips, and the sophisticated insouciance of a flapper who never has to utter a word. Like the real-life Mary Pickford, poor Vivi has a horrid squeaky voice that dooms her career in "talkies," and Galligan's treatment of a down-and-out Vivi is hilarious. The story could be told in half an hour, though. Galligan struggles to make it suspenseful for 50 minutes.

Baba Brinkman's tour de force, The Rap Canterbury Tales, imagines a white kid stowing away on the bus of a touring hip hop show, where celebrity rappers with unlikely names like "The Pardoner," "The Miller," and "The Wife of Bath" deliver their (somehow familiar) stories over simple heavy grooves. The Miller is a lowlife who drinks 40-ouncers ("It's Miller time, y'all!") and raps about an astrologer carrying on with his landlord's daughter; the Wife of Bath is a homegirl rapping about marriage. The tales are intact -- Brinkman edits them and updates the voices, but never bowdlerizes -- and the Wife of Bath's, especially, has a new power and charm in a hip hop mode. Brinkman's point is that rap has more vitality than stuffy, page-bound modern verse. Chaucer rhymed, he could be dirtier than Shakespeare, and The Canterbury Tales was all about a battle of storytelling wits: Who says he couldn't have thrown down with Jay-Z?

One exception to the solo-show-and-comedy rule this year is a series of three brief plays called "Short and Sweet." Hit the Muscle by Jennifer Kollmer, Commit Me to Memory by Karen Macklin (a contributor to SF Weekly), and Ritual Trio by Elizabeth Gjelten all try to bring a small dose of original ensemble theater to the festival, with varying degrees of success.

Hit the Muscle deals with a Midwestern yuppie lawyer who loathes hypodermic needles for reasons buried deep in her past. Nicole Lungerhausen plays the lawyer, Holly, in a crisp, almost satirical style, complete with phone headset and tapping laptop; Sarah Mitchell is amusing as her friend Lisa, helping Holly to get pregnant with a needle-injected drug. But even in its half-hour time the play seems to wander and dilute its own point. Commit Me to Memory is better: an oblique two-handed play about a journalist, Jessie, who now lives in an Indian ashram in order to deal with (or submit to) a brain tumor. The acting, by Jennifer Dean and David Stein, is a bit superficial, but the piece ends in an unexpectedly moving speech about the "poetry of decomposing" that Jessie has found in India. Ritual Trio is a very short and extremely pretentious piece about lust in middle age, set in a bar and performed in a phony neo-noir or antique-Beat style.

All three plays would fit into any festival, though: There's nothing offbeat or "Fringe" about them. My search for a new act as startling as Liebe Wetzel's thing-puppets -- admittedly quick and small, given deadlines -- turned up empty.

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