Rochester's PUSH Physical Theatre nearly brought home the $100,000 jackpot in Monday night's final episode of TruTV's "Fake Off." The show challenges performance groups to come up with the best "fakes" using a combination of illusion, theater, acrobatics, and black lighting. PUSH received a score of 28 out of 30 for their on-stage interpretation of the 1910's while Lightwire Theater, a luminous puppet theater group from New Orleans, earned a perfect 30 in depicting the 1970's.
PUSH, led by husband and wife team Darren and Heather Stevenson, was one of four groups left from the original 10. The show's finale was its eighth episode. The other two finalist groups competing in last night's episode were The Body Poets, a street dance troupe from San Diego, and Free Illusion U.S.A., a video projection mapping group from L.A. by way of Budapest, Hungary.
For the first six weeks, these groups were given topics to perform in 90-second segments. PUSH's extreme physical movement and clever humor stood them well in their presentations of "Football's Biggest Night" (a recreation of the Super Bowl), "Action Movie Mayhem," and "TV Sitcoms." Each team was able to choose their topic for the final performance. PUSH's selection of the 1910 decade well-suited its intelligent execution of touching on societal conditions and concerns to get the audience thinking.
Its performance went from Charlie Chaplin (brilliantly portrayed by Ben Christensen) and Prohibition to World War I -- Darren Stevenson's depiction of a soldier felled in battle was especially poignant. Stevenson has the rare gift of deploying both facial expression and body movement to express the drama and turmoil of a situation; in the course of seconds, his face changed from aggressive exhilaration to realization of the horror and ultimate loss of war. In stark contrast, was the group's high energy portrayal of a Prohibition counter with people swilling the off-limits alcohol and cavorting around the bar -- jumping over it, climbing out from under it, and so on. Costumes, too, were noteworthy. Heather Stevenson was easy to believe as a Vaudeville performer in her black dress and hat, big shimmery necklace, and flouncing movements.
The winning group, Lightwire Theater, had the more technically dazzling performance, but to me, lacked PUSH's compelling cut to the human condition. Lightwire used their sophisticated puppetry and lighting to project birds as representations of soldiers returning from war along with one odd duck (pun intended) who needed help dragging himself back out of the muck and mire by learning to dance with John Travolta (well-played in a humorous vein). The performances by The Body Poets and Free Illusion were strong forces to contend with as well.
The producers' concept of a "fake" still had me a touch confused. I was not sure exactly what the judges were looking for most. Technical prowess? Movement talent? Execution of the theme? The judges were certainly high-profile: five-time Grammy Award winner Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas of the group TLC; actor, dancer, and choreographer Harry Shum Jr. from "Glee;" and concept and visual designer Michael Curry of Broadway's "Lion King."
Last seen in Rochester at The First Niagara Fringe Festival this autumn, PUSH Physical Theatre also includes: Jonathan Lowery, AviPryntz-Nadworny, and Ben and Christine Christensen (recruited back for Fake Off). Hopefully, the attention and recognition the group received from its television stint -- its first appearance on a competitive TV show -- will push it to more high-profile performances across the country and the world -- as long as the group always returns to Rochester.
To read more about PUSH Physical Theatre's participation on "Fake Off," click here.