The Performance Gallery has built a reputation for creating works (they're the only group to have a presence in Cincy Fringe for each of the festival’s seven years) that are passionate and experimental and that manage to succeed on the edges of what a theater normally delivers. Yet this year’s entry, The Council, scripted by Brad Cupples and directed by Darryl Harris, chooses to stick to a more familiar format, the extended comedy sketch.
The scenario is straightforward: Follow the egos and issues that guide a single city council meeting through its loopy lawmaking process. Unfortunately, the central flaw that hobbles most work of this type applies here as well. The underlying concept is already its own best joke. Since it’s assumed at the start that the local political machine of the small town of Chalmerstown, USA is dysfunctional, what follows are mostly variations on a theme.
The bits that work here are usually the ones that are the most outlandish, such as the motion to legally change the gender of one of the council members, which passes and is then repealed when the panel recognizes that it places the official in a same sex marriage, which is illegal within the city limits.
The staging and venue also introduce difficulties. Cupples’ concept and script requires the entire cast to remain seated for most of the show, and Harris’ adherence to the placement of the panel members in a formal line keeps the staging static and interferes with any opportunity for direct confrontation or interaction. The stage level of the lecture hall at the Art Academy also makes for some challenging sightlines beyond the third row.
Some of the Performance Gallery veterans manage to bring energy and heft to the production, most notably Aretta Baumgartner, who plays a series of citizens who address the council. Her take on the corporate PR representative sent by the company planning to privatize the public library is a highlight. Regina Pugh also gives Councilwoman Francis Cooley a fierce grounding that makes the comic material more immediate and real. Paul Lieber as Council President Ponsford keeps the show moving as quickly as he can and lends the kind of easy smugness that's come to define the local politician.
The production opens with a series of video clips from a variety of actual City Council meetings where real citizens vent their frustrations at the local governance or elaborate on personal and impossible plans to improve the city. These bits of recorded reality say more about the realm of local politics than the scripted show that follows — that fact is often more absurd than fiction.
(Get upcoming performance dates and venue details here.)