FRINGE 2018 CRITIC'S PICK: 'Vox Box'

10 playful sound pieces where words lose their meaning

click to enlarge "Vox Box" - Photo: Dan R. Winters
Photo: Dan R. Winters
"Vox Box"

Count on Performance Gallery to bring something completely unusual to the Fringe. They’ve been doing so for 15 years, the only group to have a show annually. This time around it’s Vox Box, “a sumptuous sound sensation, like Jabberwocky meeting a blender.” Six veteran Performance Gallery regulars — Jodie Linver, Willemien Patterson, Patrick Earl Phillips, Regina Pugh, Charlie Roetting and Mary Tensing — present 10 playful sound pieces where words lose their meaning. In 2008, Performance Gallery did something similar with a fascinating work called Fricative, by Brian Griffin. This year, Griffin teamed with performer Roetting to create a piece that pushes beyond words to pure sounds and rhythms. It’s presented in a community room at Over-the-Rhine Community Church.

They begin with the phrase “Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors” (SSRIs are a type of antidepressant), dissecting the sounds and repeating them over and over. Next is a similar but longer exercise, “Bloom Flower Blossom,” using the names of flowers, especially the word “chrysanthemum.” It becomes a regular spark for jumbled syllables and expressive repetition, but many numerous flowers are cited — larkspur, hydrangea, azalea — repeated until their sense is demolished and only sounds remain.

“Succotash” starts simply with three pairs of people at café tables. They utter singular words as if reading them from the menu — “succotash,” “bouillabaisse” — and other short phrases (“I don’t know what I want to order,” “Order something, please!) that are repeated, distorted and jumbled into a cacophony. The piece ends quietly with one performer saying simply (and startlingly), “Check, please.”

Sometimes the cast simply plays with sounds they can make, including in “Breath,” several minutes of rhythmic breathing, panting and sighing, sometimes together, sometimes chorally. In “Didascalia,” each performer picks a slip of paper with a real word (including “corncob,” “fragile” and “popper”) and one by one he or she begins to say the word over and over, until it becomes merely sounds, shouted, whispered, exclaimed, expressed with fear or joy. In a second round the “words” are nonsense, and for the third round the lights are extinguished and the performers move randomly around the audience uttering fragments of phrases.

“Screamy Buckets” provides an episode of humor and fear: Each performer puts a metal water bucket over his or her head for “Screamy Buckets.” At first it’s amusing, but their shouts become more and more pitched and furious — again using a rhythm. This one lands gently, with one performer sweetly humming.

The tone for the piece is set in “Proem” as the players, wearing breathing masks, spend several minutes in undecipherable mumbling and wandering. Eventually they more clearly say, “The words you are hearing are not the words I am saying.” That theme returns in “Coda” at the 50-minute show’s conclusion: “The words I said are not the words you heard,” a cryptic summation of a fascinating, well-rehearsed performance.

Vox Box won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But many who give it a chance will find it moving and entertaining, and intriguing how sounds can have meaning even when words become unintelligible sounds. Leave it to Performance Gallery to find a new way to stimulate willing audiences.

The Cincinnati Fringe Festival runs through June 10. Find showtimes, tickets and more info here.

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