If you can overcome the dissonance of a grown man struggling with a plastic bag and adjust your eyes to the strobe effect, you’re in for a treat.

The Fringe show dungeon is coy in its advertising. Short at only 45 minutes, its content is accessible to everyone. There were three kids in the front row for opening night, although they might have come away shell-shocked. Put on by Hit the Lights, Dad Theater Co., an “artistic agreement” from New York City participating in the Fringe for the first time, this is an intriguing little experiment that focuses more on atmosphere than plot, tugs at the nostalgia strings of a 30-year-old’s heart and lives or dies on the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief.

The plot summary is simple: A young man of indeterminate age scares his sister into running away; she falls down into a dark underworld. He follows in hopes of saving her and along the way encounters bizarre, otherworldly beings. Inspired by shadow puppet shows, video games, horror movies and Disney Pixar shorts, dungeon is a treatise on the power of the technical aspects of a production. What little there is in character or even set is replaced by pure aesthetic and sensory envelopment, with clever transitions between the human performers and light projections against a white-screen backdrop that centers the action.

This is all done with the barest of budget and material, presented in a space at Over-the-Rhine’s First Lutheran Church. The young man encounters floating creatures akin to jellyfish, a helpful caterpillar steed, an octopus of some sort, a playful sprite in the vein of Tinkerbell and —worst of all — a terrifying red-eyed spider, nightmare fuel for the kiddies. These curiosities are realized through such everyday objects as cardboard cutouts and flashlights, and yet simple signifiers help assuage and engage with what’s presented. There’s a logic inherent to their functionality, somewhere between deep sea anemones and cave-dwelling creepy crawlies. The actors’ pathos, coupled with familiar sounds of struggle and victory and accompanied by booming bass guitar, guide toward the appropriate emotional reaction.

This works if you’re willing to accept what your eyes behold. There’s a certain social contract involved in attending the theater: These actors want to take us on an emotional journey, and we must let go of any impulse to dominate or control the material. There were a few nervous titters, not always at the right moments. But that’s not the fault of dungeon. Rather it springs from a detached need to be above the art, perhaps to outsmart it. 

One should instead embrace the little joys. The violin cues from the original Super Mario Bros. with the side-scrolling imagery. The brief interlude of whimsical play with the sprite. The imagination bomb that concocted the rules for the other actors, dressed all in black, functioning as the rocky scenery. And finally, a purposefully ambiguous ending. 

If you can overcome the dissonance of a grown man struggling with a plastic bag and adjust your eyes to the strobe effect, you’re in for a treat.

With an M.A. in English from Xavier University, Bart Bishop has been teaching composition for six years. He’s edited two published novels and loves ranting about movies and comic books. This is his third year of reviewing the Cincinnati Fringe Festival.

Read the official 32-page FRINGE FESTIVAL GUIDE here

 and find the full performance lineup 


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