There's a really talented actor who left Milwaukee for New York some time back. Evidently he thought the idea of a Milwaukee Fringe Fest was kind of funny. He'd joked about in social media. In Milwaukee it’s ALL fringe. (Is what he said.) And he’s right, of course...but there’s something really cool about a formal fringe festival that celebrates the ephemeral aspects of theatre...someone’s onstage for about an hour and then they’re gone. There's no extended promotion for any one show on the festival. It's presented as a big temporary gallery of work. There's no opening and closing. No extended run. There’s only the moment. Only the performance.
This year the festival opened its Todd Wehr Hall shows with (among others) a trio of one-person pieces. John Schneider’s Where or When was a touching tribute to the tragic life of composer Lorenz Hart had him accompanied by pianist Connie Grauer, One piano aside, yesterday Todd Wehr played host to a consecutive trio of intimate exchanges between a single performer and a small audience. Schneider received a standing ovation. He was followed by stage veteran Elizabeth Fuller in Survival--an aphoristic, little piece in which she played three different characters...one of them being Elizabeth Fuller.
The most interesting experience on the first evening for me was Tyler Anthony Smith’s Mein Comps. Smith plays an aspiring New York actor named Adolf Moira Angela Hitler. Smith crafts a character who is touchingly out of synch with the rest of the world. He's a dreamer who has lost touch with reality in favor of cuddling with his own ego.
Smith’s work is fascinating to me. The rest of the audience loved it as comedy. I loved it as drama. The Todd Wehr was electrified with laughter, but...honestly I didn’t find it at all funny. I might have been the only one in the entire theatre who wasn’t laughing, though. So by the standards of the audience in question, he's objectively funny. But I didn't laugh. But I loved the show. I’ve never been so captivated by a comedy that I didn’t even find remotely funny.
It would be understandable for me having missed the humor everyone else was enjoying if I had found it offensive. Honestly...seeing a guy play a character engaging in simulated phone sex with Mike Pence on a stage that usually plays host to children’s theatre...yeah...I could see how someone might be offended. I wasn’t, though. I can separate the performance from the venue while respecting the strange novelty of it.
It would be understandable for me having missed the humor everyone else was enjoying if it wasn’t my kind of humor. That wasn’t the case either, though. Adolf Moira Angela Hitler reminds me of an exaggerated version of various characters one might have expected to see on Kids in the Hall and I DO like Kids in the Hall. And it’s not like the humor that Smith was putting on the stage felt overly derivative of the old sketch comedy show (or anyone else for that matter. It’s quite unique in fact.)
Regardless of what it was that kept me from laughing at Smith, I found myself wanting everyone else to laugh at him. I felt like there was a part of me cheering for him to be funny...which is weird because I’ve never even met the guy and he’s from out of town so there’s no connection there. I'm not so strangely altruistic to want him to do well because he's onstage or anything like that. But I cared about the character because Smith was admirably vulnerable in the role.
A good portion of comedy is simply getting an audience to like you...and I really do like the character of Adolf Moira Angela Hitler. Throughout the show, he’s making exceptionally bad decisions and he’s doing so in a way that feels so crushingly human. So an audience identifies with that and WANTS him to be successful even as he makes mistake after mistake. So on a dramatic level, Adolf Moira Angela Hitler works even if his humor doesn’t. That says a LOT about Tyler Anthony Smith as an actor...that he’s able to construct a character who might be a little abrasively annoying and turn him into someone the audience actually cares about for about an hour or more.
For me this was a big reminder of the importance of a fringe festival. Yes...everything in Milwaukee is more or less “fringe” unless it’s a big-budget touring production or one of the top-tier UPAF groups, but . . . the atmosphere at a fringe fest makes it really easy to go in and see a comedy that isn’t funny...and actually end up loving it in spite of that. It’s one performance on one stage for one moment. Then it’s gone. You engage with it as more of a theatrical event. You’re more open to enjoying something that you might not otherwise give much of a chance. You see things differently because things look different from the fringe.
The Milwaukee Fringe Fest continues through today at the Marcus Center. For today’s schedule and more information, visit the Fringe Fest online.