Thursday, January 22, 2009

FronteraFest Short Fringe, January 20

Blips, illnesses and reschedulings are typical of any extended festival. The random walk at FronteraFest last Tuesday night, January 20, gave the half-full house an unexpected opportunity for comparison and some unscheduled blazing political rhetoric.

The Hyde Park Theatre reached out to Michael Karnes, presenter of the 90-minute Let's Get Real at the Long Fringe, to help cover at the last minute. Karnes gave us an abridged version of his one-man satire of motivational
speakers. He strides the stage as "master teacher Ted Jiles," energetically engaging the audience with questions ("How many of you are really happy? I mean really happy? Let's see your hands!"), anecdotes outlining how he overcame himself and his faults ("I was with my dog, and we were both eating garbage out of a can, and I stopped, and I said to myself, This is not who I want to be!"), and a showy, plausible line of talk that means almost nothing at all. We recognize the up-close-in-your-face confessional style and the upbeat talk, the rhetorical questions and the spins aimed to make us feel good about ourselves, or about something, or somebody. Karnes played it clean-collar, white-bread straight and we enjoyed it, maybe even got a burst of energy. The full show is sure to tease out the idea even more and probably savages that good-vibes speaker with patent irony.

That was the opener. And the closer of the evening, two hours later, was Houston native Adam Neal, under his professional name "SaulPaul" -- a muscular African American who at first appeared nervous, pacing back and forth, eyes flickering around the room, speaking conversationally, without dramatics. Gradually he told us his story -- growing up with no father, not realizing he and his neighborhood were poverty-stricken, raised by his grandmother, getting an academic scholarship to UT, then blowing that so badly that he wound up a convicted felon, serving time. "From Tower to Tower -- from the UT tower to the prison block tower."

SaulPaul took logical measure of his situation, found faith in the Bible and in himself, and after his release managed to get reinstated at the university and to earn a degree in film studies. He sat on a chairback and played his guitar, continued his story, and briefly lectured his audience about rap ("What does 'rap' stand for?" From the back: "Rhythm and blues?" A smile from SaulPaul. "That would be 'rab.' You need a 'p' -- for rhythm and poetry.")

He joked about Ted Jiles and then, to demonstrate his talent, asked the audience for random words. He collected about ten of them, ranging from "redemption" to "lasagna" and not finding any paper, wrote them on his forearm. After checking with his public on the choice of a beat -- we chose 'creative' -- he set the computer going and with syncopated moves, not a single hesitation, wit and rhymes, he improvised a work that included all of those impossible words.

Talk about contrast. Ted Jiles the satire of the smooth con man and SaulPaul the ex-con,straightforward, humble and gifted (see

Second in the playing order that evening was The Choices that We Breath by Kristie Schuh, who plays a young woman who suddenly finds herself in a barren room with a smarmy guy in a white suit. He is fidgeting over the paperwork for admitting her to the afterlife. He acknowledges that he was her guardian angel, but offers the excuse that he was overworked and just didn't get there in time to prevent the accident that killed her. Voice-over from God: "You were watching 'Grey's Anatomy'!" Elsewhere in these cyberpages I commented that this plot device is the second-hoariest in the theatre, and this little production didn't prove me wrong.

Stepping then to the podium vacated by the guardian angel, Ken Webster read to us Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize acceptance speech of December 7, 2005. Pinter delivered it by video because he was too ill with cancer to travel. The video is available at the Nobel committee's website. This is a blistering piece of anti-U.S. rhetoric, a cry from the heart of a writer who had engaged U.S. diplomats concerning U.S. support of the Nicaragua contras and who fiercely opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Pinter's sweeping condemnation of U.S. hypocrisy, exercise of force and influence beyond its own borders is accompanied by a bitter j'accuse against British governments for supporting U.S. policies.

It's a powerful piece of writing. Pinter is particularly withering in his description of a mid-1980s meeting with Raymond Seitz, deputy to the U.S. ambassador in London. If I were still in the diplomatic saddle, with the obligation of defending my country right or wrong, I would have an uphill battle to rebut his contention that the United States has been directly responsible for most of the blood letting in third world conflicts of the last 50 years.

I do not accept that contention, but I did relish the aggressive eloquence of Pinter's call for a change of U.S. policy. And
on the evening following inauguration day 2008 it was a sweet note to hear Ken Webster's echo of Pinter commenting in 2005, "There are those in America opposed to these policies, but they have not had success -- not yet."

After intermission and before the surprise of SaulPaul we watched Patchwork, a moody piece centering on a young woman going through boxes of random personal items packed up after the death of her father. Julianna Fay soliloquized to us in a stunned, reflective manner, and then as she took a phone call, time split. We heard one side of her prickly conversation with her mother. At the same time, remembered scraps of comment from her father resounded in voiceover, accompanied and sometimes overspoken by other remembered conversations. We saw both mother and father moving in silent pantomime about the set, reflecting those scraps of memory. The overlayering was deft and evocative, giving resonance to a situation that was painful but in the last analysis all too banal.

Review by Jonelle Seitz of full-length version of Michael Karnes' Let's Get Real, Austin Chronicle of January 30

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