Fringe Day 5: Airborne balls, not Adele, and square-dancing tap 

Balls in the air
"A Nerdy Gay Juggling Show" | Sept. 17 | $15 | 13 and over

The pre-show setup onstage sometimes suggests what’s to come. Juggling clubs, balls, hoops, a bowler hat and machete-like knives.

And … mouthwash?

These were only a piece of the story Saturday afternoon at The School of the Arts, and “A Nerdy Gay Juggling Show.” As the actor and juggler in this solo show, Jacob D’Eustachio, pointed out, he’s also Jewish.

click to enlarge KSENIYA KALAUR.
And so much more. An engaging and funny man, D’Eustachio insisted juggling is powerful and sexy: by bending over backwards, figuratively and literally, to prove his point, while flipping the clubs behind his back. Taking sexy further, he stripped down to his boxer shorts, and after a few more tricks enlisted the aid of someone in the audience to help him pull his pants back on. Difficult enough for one guy to do for another, even more difficult while D’Eustachio continued juggling.

Balls, pins, and hoops soared overhead in different patterns, always arriving where he expected them to come down. Departing from juggling to another circus art form, D’Eustachio did the old sword-swallowing trick, except with a folded-up coat hanger, and only after dousing it in the mouthwash. (Hygiene counts, for you future circus performers out there.) As does knowing how to turn a mistake into a plus: if he dropped a ball, D’Eustachio recovered gracefully, with a smile. That’s a part of the game.

“Now you see how it’s an hour-long show,” he said, while retrieving an errant ball.

No, it was an hour-long show because D’Eustachio had a much larger point to make: “Ninety-nine percent of you had a difficult childhood.”

His was a mix of teen years in pursuit of dreams of life as a circus performer – would his college-professor parents approve of such clowning around? – and coming to the understanding that he is gay.

Describing his life as a gay man was every bit a part of this show as balancing a hat brim on the bridge of his nose, and then flipping the hat onto the top of his head. Being gay, he discovered, “didn’t make me a worse juggler.”

It made him a juggler with a message. The New York City native has performed in 15 countries on five continents, and he carries with him wide-ranging humanitarian concerns. Such as working as a juggling and clowning coach with HIV-positive children in Cape Town, South Africa.

It’s about understanding who you are. And sharing that understanding with others.

“Raise your hand,” D’Eustachio said to the audience, “if you pretended you were something you weren’t.”

A lot of hands went up in that room. —JEFF SPEVAK

Well, she’s no Adele
Tig Notaro: Hello, Again” | One night only

Dry, self-deprecating, and deadpan, comedian Tig Notaro knows how to work a crowd.

So did her two strong openers. SUNY Fredonia alum Madelein Murphy Smith catered toward the lesbian audience. Cancer survivor Joe Wilson’s parting urge to “take 10 seconds to feel lucky about something” led to a few standing ovations.

Tig’s set was grounded in personal experiences, from the mundane (her son’s dismissive “it’s just her” when she came home from work) to the wild (a hallucinogenic reaction to meds). Her pace was slow but deliberate, milking each anecdote, from getting carried to an ambulance by a hot firefighter to mishearing “Shailene” for “she leans”, for every possible drop of comedy.

She fell into the tired cliché of treating her ASL interpreter as a fodder for jokes. “If you know my material so well, what’s next?” Interpreter Luane Davis Haggerty played along with humor and grace.
click to enlarge From left, audience member Jolene Tucker and comedian Tig Notaro. - LEAH STACY.
  • From left, audience member Jolene Tucker and comedian Tig Notaro.

The show’s title came from the finale, in which Tig recreated the time she performed “Hello” for the song’s artist Adele at a star-studded LA event.

“I love to sing and play the piano. I don’t know how to do either.”

She noodled on the grand piano, probably the worst musical performance Kodak Hall has ever seen. She apologized to anyone who only knew her from Star Trek. “‘Oh, she does comedy? What’s that like?’ It’s like this.” Atonal dissonance.

She warmed up to “Hello” by asking the audience for recommendations and led the sold-out-except-for-ten-seats crowd in singing “Piano Man” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Trusting a room of strangers to sing and bringing up a front row audience member to help lead could be disastrous, but Tig was always in control.

How strange to pay up to $80 for bad piano and mass karaoke, but Tig pulled off an entertaining night – she made sitting in a packed hall feel like an intimate chat with your funniest, most honest friend. —KATHERINE VARGA

click to enlarge KSENIYA KALAUR.
Shock & Bizarre and Nat King Cole
"(Not So) Late & (Very Much) Live" | Two nights only

Taking an afternoon off from duties that included guiding a female egg through the reproduction process in “The Comedy Trio Happy Hour,” Mark Gindick played host to a quick Spiegeltent review of the charms to be found playing on stages throughout the remainder of the Rochester Fringe Festival.

He brought out juggler Jacob D’Eustachio (Who you just read about seconds ago, ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION?). And King Bey, one of the stars of “Stand Up For Drag,” at the Multi-Use Community Cultural Center, dancing for your pleasure as to what might have been Beyoncé, or might have been Lizzo.

click to enlarge KSENIYA KALAUR.
And Steven Nicholas, whose show “Mind Reader” is exactly that, at the School of the Arts: Black Box Theatre. Nicholas previewed a couple of mind-blowing tricks, including bringing to the stage a guy from the audience. He was asked to select random numbers from a book that has published something like 7,500 decimal digits of the mathematical constant Pi, numbers which it is theorized stretch to infinity. Nicholas correctly guessed the numbers, including one set of more than a dozen digits. There is no explanation for this, except it must be a stupid trick.

There is also no explanation as to why anyone would publish a book with pages that are nothing more than 7,500 digits of Pi.

Then, Gindick brought on Connie Fredericks-Malone, whose “Alone With My Music” is playing at the CenterStage Theatre at the JCC. A jazz singer with the relaxed style of “All of Me,” “Summertime” and a cha-cha version of “What a Difference a Day Makes.”

Gindick also brought out a stage full of the larger-than-possible world of tap dancing, including performers in traditional, Latin and square-dancing tap.

You read that right. Square-dancing tap. There’s some diversity ahead.

A long way off from tap were two breakdancers showing off their popping and locking moves ahead of next Saturday’s Fringe Street Beat at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Park at Manhattan Square.

The previews took a dark turn with the haunting music of the ghoulish Charming Disaster, music of the mediums. And the weird duo Shock & Bizarre, in which a hand holding a Rubix Cube was severed by a mini-guillotine.

So the audiences have their work cut out for them. Or, in the case of Shock & Bizarre, cut off for them. —JEFF SPEVAK

All Rochester, all night
"Erin & Ross host Writers in the Round" | One night only

The idea: Do your own songs, and do the songs of other musicians in the room as well.

So it was all Rochester, all night. Erin Futterer and Ross Falzone played host to this songwriters in the round showcase at the Rochester Music Hall of Fame on Gibbs Street. The duo, who describe their own music as “a new kind of old,” were joined by Scott Regan, Jed Curran, Bill Welch and Connie Deming.

This night called for Deming to bring out one of her best, “She Said,” in which Deming calls forth women who took a stand: Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Maya Angelou and Helen Keller. And, in a more-recently added verse, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Conceding that Deming is one of the best singers in the city, Curran offered her one of his own compositions, saying, “It makes you feel like a real songwriter when she sings one of your songs.”

They’re all real songwriters, real good ones. Regan’s “Different Kind of Sects” is eye-rollingly clever and thoughtful. And he teamed up with Deming on “Osprey,” a song they co-wrote that was inspired by the rare old-growth forest in Cobb’s Hill, with trees a couple of centuries old. A philosophical ode to nature, Regan said, of being among trees.

Guitars aside, the music was frequently accented with Futterer’s extensive use of the French horn (I think it was a French horn, I don’t know my brass from a hole in the ground). There was some solo piano and vocals, with Welch’s beautifully haunted “Sacred Heart.” Yet Futterer’s “Motel,” a desolate ballad of loneliness with the refrain, “Don’t look, don’t tell, motel,” might have stolen the show.

We are fortunate when we open our treasure chest of the city’s songwriters. On this night, the consensus among the six musicians is a collaboration of local songwriters exploring each others’ music should be a regular thing. —JEFF SPEVAK

click to enlarge DANIEL J. KUSHNER.
Trauma as entertainment
The Velvet Noose’s “The Everything Rose” | September 23 | $15 | Ages 16 and over

By the performers’ own admission, a show by The Velvet Noose is open to interpretation, which typically means it will be cryptic. But the avant-garde theater troupe’s latest work,”The Everything Rose,” presented at the MuCCC on Saturday, captured the performance artists at their most direct and comprehensible.

It began not with a sight, but a sound: someone gasping for breath. The element of singing is a relatively recent addition to The Velvet Noose’s performance, and Rivkah Simcha and Theo Trombulak’s a cappella liturgy, resembling Gregorian chant, was an inspired way to frame the action initially.

What followed on the stage was not so much a cohesive story as a series of related scenarios that felt nightmarish: a man wrestling a faceless, shadowy figure (played by Ishmael Walker); a couple desperately trying to connect and unable to do so; a woman compelled to dance feverishly by an invisible force that won’t let her rest. Joy and agony were indistinguishable from one another.

The woman, portrayed by Teagan West, was later consoled by a masked Simcha, who seemed to call the dancer “Hedony” and urged her to rest and eat. What Hedony proceeded to do wasn’t exactly eating, and it didn’t seem nourishing.
This was about trauma, ritual, and the ritual of trauma.

“The want is to create hope and to entertain,” The Velvet Noose’s Creative Director Harold Taddy told CITY in a recent interview. The performance of “The Everything Rose” was neither uplifting nor diverting, but it succeeded in being worthwhile because it provided an unwavering depiction of people surviving emotional pain.

As visceral as The Velvet Noose’s art is, it works on an internal level in the hearts and minds of individual viewers. Though at times tedious, “The Everything Rose” works as an impassioned physical manifestation of a complex process of spiritual struggle and resiliency. —DANIEL J. KUSHNER

Soap opera
Ants to Gods: Population Overload” | Sept. 20 | $15 | 18+

After a day of well-executed performances about heavy topics, this absolute pinnacle of snark was most welcome. Introduced as one of the funniest troupes in town, Ants to Gods delivered, and made me realize my life was missing more live comedy shows.

The show began with the trio asking the audience to shout out a place where people gather — the theme being “population overload” — and someone provided the “public restroom” for the setting. Hilarity ensued.

click to enlarge REBECCA RAFFERTY.
As someone who struggles to think on her feet — much less convey what I’m thinking with any sort of charm — I’m always dumbstruck by improv. These folks are god-tier improvisational artists.

The setting was Dove (yes, the soap company) HQ, and the show opened with an employee being interviewed in a bathroom. Then, employees working in a call center for the company, with overlapping one-sided conversations as well as clever asides to one another. Navigating calls from people who cannot help but drink the delicious smelling soaps, then switching to a room where the creative team figures out how to market the accidental scents, with a field trip to Olive Garden.

The “population overload” theme didn’t noticeably come into play here, but it didn’t really matter. The audience was cackling every 30 seconds or so. My sides and cheeks hurt by the end of it. The troupe executed quick delves into the nuances of each office setting, roasted the corporate environment, and brought to life an absolute shit show of a worst-case scenario when product test subjects got loose. It was dark, dark humor, but you’ll feel no pain. —REBECCA RAFFERTY

Highs and lows
Mounting Washington: The Story of a Mountain & a Miracle” | Sept. 23 | $20 | 13+

Penny Sterling is back, thank God, with another yarn about a pivotal moment that  shaped her life.

The Rochester-based writer and spoken word
click to enlarge REBECCA RAFFERTY.
 artist is known for her previous one-woman shows “Spy in the House of Men,” “Parents & Children/Husbands & Wives,” and “ShMILF Life,” in which she has unpacked her process of coming to terms with being a transgender woman, coming out, and living what she refers to as her “third life.”

But this show isn’t about that. Or is it? Sterling starts this story in the time before she came out, in the ravine she found herself 22 years ago while still living as a man — freshly divorced, debt-ridden, and dysfunctional. Home and health in shambles, she decided that her children deserved stability and set about getting her shit together. This story is about that, with a throughline of learning to ride a bike.

The show opens with Sterling, 64, pedaling on her bicycle, secured onstage in a stationary trainer rig. She pedaled the entire 60-minute show, simultaneously telling her tale with no detectable breathlessness, discussing friendship, and therapy, meeting a goal three years in the making, and the miracle she believes helped her meet it.

That goal was completing “The World’s Toughest Bicycle Climb” up Mount Washington in New Hampshire, a 7.6 mile trek with a daunting last 50-yard stretch of a mighty 22 degree incline. (Whew.)

Sterling’s storytelling is filled with candor about finding clarity and meaning in her experiences, and she incorporates a sense of the epic in every struggle (with plenty of sarcasm). The tale’s many sprints are punctuated here and there by jaunty, witty songs accompanied by Jeff Liles on banjo and kazoo.

Our cycling Sisyphus keeps the tone of the tale light and sarcastic until her goal is met, miracle and all, after which she imparts some very understandable fury about her then-unresolved circumstances, and the yarn unravels. The ravine returns. But that’s another tale about another one of her lives. Wait for it. —REBECCA RAFFERTY

Shake thy fist, shake thy hips
Goddess Out of Exile” | Sept. 23 | $10 | 13+

This mother-daughter act is one part dazzling spectacle of dance by an absolute master of the craft, and one part spoken word performance that left me confronted with mixed feelings and questions about gender norms and feminine pride, centuries of oppression and what a good resolution might look like. The show creators achieved what they set out to do — poke the bear and let people sit with their thoughts.

click to enlarge REBECCA RAFFERTY.
Actress, poet, playwright, and writer Sharon Rula Backos created an impassioned appeal to consider and embrace the feminine force as sincerely as we might do the established masculine gods.

Taking turns on the stage with her daughter, Dylaina Alexandria — who teaches Middle Eastern Dance at the University of Rochester — Backos spoke in poetry and prayer, entreating listeners to remember the feminine aspect of the divine, and all that was done to suppress her. She cited Eve, “witches” burned, and centuries of misogynistic control.

In her earnest soliloquies, Backos claims the divine role of Creator, alluding to the female ability to bring forth life, and noting the existential threat women pose to all mankind if they refused to create. She cackled as she spoke about women owning their sensuality and sexuality, and what she calls their irrational and emotional nature, just as Alexandria expertly twitches and undulates in an unabashed invitation for women to flaunt what their mothers gave them.

It was a sight worthy of a kind of worship, don’t get me wrong. But it left me wondering about women who exist outside of these definitions and depictions of feminine power. If we harken all the way back, we ignore how far we have come. I didn’t detect more definitions of women’s powers beyond the usual ones: sensual, sexual, emotional, vessel, and nurturer.

Still, those roles deserve better than they’ve been given over time.

The show’s best message is condensed in one powerful moment when Backos tearfully asks the audience to “Look at me and know that I am real,” begging women and men alike to see women, what they endure, and have some blessed respect. —REBECCA RAFFERTY

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