Some people yearn for sunshine this time of year and find their way to a beach to recharge their batteries. Theater fans who are impatient for the annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival, which doesn’t roll around until June, were reminded this past weekend of the kind of creativity that makes those two weeks in early summer so stimulating. Thanks to the drama program at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), theater fans were offered a jolt of onstage vitality that just might be enough to sustain us for a few months. It was a festival called Transmigration.
Starting in December 2008, CCM drama students were assigned by department chair Richard Hess to create entirely original stage works. The festival drew its name from a word that means “movement from one place to another” or “the transition from one state of being to another.” Sophomore, junior and senior students — just about every major in the program — took on these tasks with enthusiasm, from writing scripts to bringing them to life, from staging them to organizing several days of complex performance schedules.
The output of Transmigration was six pieces, each slightly less than a half-hour, with a budget of $60 to spend as necessary on props, set pieces, costumes or marketing. In a given performance period (Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and Saturday afternoon), attendees were invited to choose four of the six and move between two rehearsal halls and a lobby space at CCM. I took time Friday evening to see four of them and returned on Saturday afternoon for the two I’d missed. It was a varied feast.
The most moving piece was Still Standing, which wove together several stories about worlds ending — from the bombing of Hiroshima to a family split apart by a bitter divorce. But the piece was really about human resilience and hope, about the human drive not only to build but to rebuild. It was a touching piece that got down to a very fundamental message, and its execution was pure poetry.
A piece called (fun)eral was flat-out funny. It proposed an alternative to a more staid funeral, managed by a manic guy who’s more stand-up comic and carnival barker than staid undertaker. The young man recently dead apparently wanted to help his starchy sister loosen up, and she’s attacked on all fronts — by a priest who’s really a stripper and karaoke masters who drag her into combative choreography to tunes like “Killing Me Softly.” The performers in this one had fun, and audiences were laughing out loud.
Another piece that caught audiences’ fancy seemed to be EarWorm, premised on those tunes that get stuck in your head. Most of this was a collage of tunes and ad slogans (one segment was called “Jingle Explosion”) that won’t let you have any piece, but weaving through it was a monolog by an old man who kept hearing tunes, a kind of soundtrack to his life. (It was derived from a feature on an episode of the NPR program, This American Life.) This one was both entertaining and made you think about the role that sound and noise play in our everyday lives — and how much of it we carry with us, even when we think we are in silence.
What Shame Sounds Like offered a story about the death of a homeless man. Several witnesses — a bodega operator, a small-time drug dealer, a school teacher — and a police investigator are drawn together by the crime and assemble a more complex picture of the man who died by comparing notes of what they knew about him. This was a more straightforward drama with a bit of a moralistic overtone, but thanks to solid acting it worked and made its point. The ending was moving, as the four men truly found a bond created by a man they barely knew.
Barren was a kind of fairytale, a bit too arch for my tastes, but staged inventively. A young woman in a barren land is believed to have blood that can bring things back to life. She is pursued by all sorts of characters who want to draw on her energy, but they succeed only in draining her almost completely. But love wins out in the end. I liked the jazzy score for this one, and the cast put forward some fine acting and movement.
To my taste, Side Effects was the most contrived and least successful of the six pieces. A researcher at M.I.T. comes up with a drug intended to cause people to fall in love, and we watch a supposedly controlled experiment involving two couples. It goes off course in several ways — but the script vacillated between humor and being too serious, so its tone never settled. There was an intriguing O. Henry kind of ending, but it wasn’t enough to keep this one as engaging as the concept suggested.
Every one of the pieces was worth seeing. Each presented interesting acting opportunities for the students, and I’m certain they all learned some important lessons about making theater, which was the point. In advance, Hess said that his students would be presenting work that would be “unexpected.” He offered the observation that “the envelope will not be pushed. It will be ripped wide open.” That’s a pretty dramatic metaphor, but I’d say for certain, that these envelopes definitely delivered.