I saw only two shows at the Fringe Fest on Sunday. While they were wildly different in content, they were alike in two ways. First, they showcased some of the truly astonishing artistic talent we have right here in Rochester. And second, they cemented for me that the quality of Fringe Festival shows in general has increased exponentially from Year 1 to Year 2.
First up was "Waiting at the Crossroads Café" at Blackfriars Theatre. The play -- directed by Blackfriars Artistic Director John Haldoupis and written by Haldoupis and Katharine Fischer - stars Rochesterians Janine Mercandetti and Robyn Fazio as a pair of aspiring performers working at a café in which "actresses pretend to be waiters." As you might guess from the title, both women are at a crossroads both personally and professionally, and they work through their issues by reminiscing and singing a selection of show tunes and even a few pop songs.
Every song selected for the show is wonderful and well placed. Many were totally new to me, along with some wonderful unexpected choices (the superb "Let Me Be Your Star" from the late, lamented TV show "Smash," and a mash-up featuring songs by contemporary singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles). There's also an uproariously funny Broadway-standard montage that rips through all the clichéd B'way show stoppers in a few short minutes.
The success of this show depends on finding two equally strong performers to pull off the demanding vocals, and Mercandetti and Fazio are dynamite. They truly share this show (and are ably backed by Aaron Staebell on drums, Erin Koch on guitar, and musical director Brian Clickner on piano -- he also has a speaking role in the show) and turn it into a true singing tour de force. If you like your Broadway belted, your voices huge, and harmonies that literally make your spine tingle, you cannot miss this show.
("Waiting at the Crossroads Café" also plays Thursday, September 26, 7:30 p.m. at Blackfriars Theatre. Tickets cost $11.)
I am going to attempt -- and fail -- to adequately describe the merits of the astonishing "Anomaly." This collaboration between local performance troupe BIODANCE, local musical group Sound ExChange, and RIT professor and multimedia artist W. Michelle Harris was the most amazing piece I've seen thus far at Fringe 2013. It was so lovely to behold that I found myself dreading its inevitable conclusion.
The performance is staged at the Rochester Museum & Science Center's Strasenburgh Planetarium, and the venue itself is a critical component of the work. The show actually began in the lobby, as a small grouping of futuristically dressed dancers performed strong, aggressive, yet elegant movements choreographed by Eran Hanlon. It then moved into the Planetarium's dome theater for the bulk of the show, featuring a larger troupe dancing choreography by BIODANCE Artistic Director Missy Pfohl Smith.
"Anomaly," to me, was a brilliant merging of modern dance, classical music, and eye-popping visuals. Every element of this show reflected a great deal of thought and artistry. I'm hesitant to make assumptions about the intent behind modern dance, but in the five almost seamless pieces I picked up recurring themes about reaching for the heavens, flight, migration, community, and the cosmos -- all of which made perfect sense given the surroundings. I found myself reflecting on the concept that life on this planet, in a cosmic sense, is itself an anomaly. A beautiful, terrifying, delicate anomaly.
The dancing was consistently graceful and inventive. I was repeatedly surprised, delighted, and inspired. The music by Sound ExChange -- the live string quartet performed works by John Cage and Arvo Part -- was the perfect accompaniment to the slow, sweeping movements. Finally, the projections by Harris were almost impossibly cool, varying from fascinating bisecting color grids to kaleidoscopic backdrops that, when combined with a handful of helium balloons and their shadows, made for a hypnotic and enveloping visual element.
"Anomaly" is a true sensorial experience. If anything, the challenge comes in taking all of the performance aspects at once, especially the dancing given the unique layout of the Planetarium. But for 60 minutes I found myself enraptured in a brilliantly crafted world of beauty, melody, and calmness. Exceptional work by everyone involved in this very special show.
("Anomaly" also plays Friday, September 27, and Saturday, September 28, at 6:30 p.m. at the RMSC Strasenburgh Planetarium. Tickets cost $10.)