Erika Kate MacDonald and Paul Strickland have carved out a place for themselves in Cincinnati. Their outfit, Theatre Mobile, recently made this town their home base, and anyone who has seen a show at Know Theatre this season was offered a glimpse of their creativity — they were responsible for most of the show-related music, cocktails and decorations in the Underground, as well as the post-show entertainment. Their entry to this year’s Cincy Fringe is “ExTrashVaganza,” and I’m happy to report that it is utterly and delightfully weird.
“ExTrashVaganza” starts (I think) with the duo scrambling around the stage during pre-show seating. They call out that they’re cancelling one of the songs — “Jazz Cow” — and after some protest, they perform it. I’m not sure if this was part of the show, and during one of their introductions — there’s one at the beginning and one about three-quarters of the way through the performance — Strickland calls attention to how weird the show is going to be, specifically mentioning the cancelled-then-performed number without letting the audience in on whether it was all meant to be that way.
That’s about the best example I can give of the general tenor of this production. It is weird, but it is well-aware. Strickland and MacDonald are certainly avant-garde, but they know it, and they know the kind of reactions they’ll get. So they weave a sort of generous sincerity throughout the production, almost like they’re holding our hands and guiding us (though not explicitly) through the strange things we’re witnessing. They give us hints, telling us what emotions and concepts they’re trying to explore. Then they play bizarre music and create a stepping stone bridge out of composition notebooks.
This strikes me as something that could very easily go wrong. “Show, don’t tell” is, after all, one of the cardinal rules of any narrative. But Theatre Mobile has a delicate touch. When they address the audience directly, they give just enough insight into what they’re trying to say that you’ll start to think you understand some of it. Not all of it, of course — they warn you not to think you understand all of it, lest you be “that guy.”
Other than that, “ExTrashVaganza” is difficult to describe. It’s something of a variety show, featuring puppets, comedy, absurd sit-com setups and some of the most deliciously terrible puns I’ve ever heard. At two points during the show, each of the two performers takes a moment to tell a story. One of these is about saving the last page of journals to write a reflection of everything contained therein, then not following through and leaving the pages blank. The other is an imaginative explanation of what happens when people lose their voices. Both are incredibly compelling examples of storytelling, and in what seems to be the theme for this review, I’m not sure I could tell you why.
The bottom line is, “ExTrashVaganza” is somehow both weird and inviting — avant-garde but almost unpretentious. That’s not a combination that most people can pull off, but somehow, Theatre Mobile got there.
Zach Moning is the communications manager at ArtsWave. Reach him here with questions or comments about ArtsWave Guide.