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Rochester Fringe Festival, Day 3: 'The Memory Palace,' 'Confessions of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl,' and 'The Empathy Project'

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"The Memory Palace"

In a brief 10 minutes, Nate DiMeo pulls together a century and a half of history, making the connection between Frederick Douglass and Daniel Prude — confirming the old adage, once again, that “past is prologue.”

DiMeo is the creator of the award-winning podcast “The Memory Palace.” At last year’s KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival, he assembled a thoughtful, almost wistful biography of George Eastman.

He’s followed up this year with two more episodes of “The Memory Palace,” commissioned by Rochester Fringe. “High Falls” is a nicely detailed telling of legendary 1800s Rochester daredevil Sam Patch; DiMeo mischievously can’t resist riffing off Patch’s Rhode Island birthplace, opening with a line drawn from a bawdy limerick: “There once was a man from Pawtucket…”

But “From a Parking Lot” is a different animal from Patch’s reluctant falls-diving bear. The parking lot he references is the empty space – on a wisp of a downtown avenue named Corinthian Street – where once stood an acoustic marvel called Corinthian Hall.

Named for the four columns that once dominated its architecture, Corinthian Hall is the only non-sentient member of the Rochester Music Hall of Fame, co-inducted alongside that era’s greatest opera singer, Jenny Lind, who performed in the venue.

Opening in 1849, DiMeo points out that Corinthian Hall was also “as important to American intellectual thought as any building in America.” Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Mark Twain spoke there. The legendary fake spiritualists of Western New York, the Fox Sisters, supposedly summoned ghosts within those walls. Also, there were “men of renown, now unremembered,” DiMeo says. He has a poetic way with words.

Frederick Douglass was there as well, delivering one of his most-impassioned anti-slavery speeches. No plaque marks the spot of these historic moments, and this historic building. There is only a newly installed fiberglass, life-size statue of Douglass, looking a bit out of place alongside a hotel.

But DiMeo notes that history has recently revisited this site. Black Lives Matter marches, and citizens protesting the death of Daniel Prude at the hands of Rochester police, have walked right past the fiberglass Douglass, and the parking lot where Corinthian Hall once stood. Where, “Protests against police violence,” DiMeo says, “were met by more police violence.”

Both “The Memory Palace” podcasts are available for free at rochesterfringe.com.
— Jeff Spevak

“Confessions of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl”

Anna Bennett in "Confessions of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl."
  • Anna Bennett in "Confessions of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl."
They’re usually portrayed as kitschy, doll-like girls who like niche pop culture and have unique hobbies. Some talk a lot, some not at all. And they’re endlessly fascinating to the men who fall in love with them. Or, as the show puts it, they’re just “sad millennials who think that being quirky is a personality.” Meet Manic Pixie Dream Girls, the postmodern, anti-aging stock character you love to hate.

This Rochester Fringe Festival show comes from one-woman powerhouse Anna Bennett, who plays four separate manic pixies in a support group: a geek, a quiet dancer, a fun-loving talker, and a sophisticated blonde. The stereotypes and tropes are out in full force - this is “500 Days of Summer” meets “Her” meets “Amelie.”

The whole performance is presented via Zoom, and the “scene changes” (really, screen sharing) are mostly flawless, jumping from pre-recorded video clips and live segments with Bennett. She sings! She dances! She tells audience members to put on pants because there’s fourth wall interaction on this Zoom performance at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday!

This show could’ve been — perhaps should’ve been — 30 or 45 minutes at most. But instead it was padded out, not to the advertised 75 minutes, but almost two full hours, with rambling monologues and even a 10-minute “walking tutorial” from the pink-haired manic pixie.

There’s an impressive amount of music, both live and recorded, worked into the performance, even if the whole thing comes off feeling like an indie film a college kid wrote for his senior thesis and he cast his longtime crush in the leading role.

“Confessions of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl” plays live via Zoom on Thursday, September 17 at 6:30 p.m.; Friday, September 18 at 8:30 p.m.; and Saturday, September 19 at 3:30 p.m. $10. Appropriate for 18 and over. — Leah Stacy

“The Empathy Project – Part 1 & 2”

My first shows at the 2020 Rochester Fringe Festival did not look like they normally do. Normally, I jaunt around the Spiegel Garden, greeting friends with warm hugs. Normally, I pick up a meal from a food truck before dashing off to a show. Normally, I sit shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers and friends in the Spiegeltent, at the Eastman Theatre, at the School of the Arts, and so forth. This is not a normal year.

"The Empathy Project" by The Inner Loop Theater Experience.
  • "The Empathy Project" by The Inner Loop Theater Experience.
And that was part of the impetus for “The Empathy Project: a new human experience.” The Outer Loop Theater Experience asked writers and artists to submit works about their experiences with the pandemic and our country’s reckoning with systemic racism. The two topics produced a wide range of works – from monologues to poetry, original songs to dances.

Part One of the two-part experience focuses on stories in the time of COVID-19, the very pandemic that has forced the 2020 Fringe Festival exclusively online. And much like how we are coping with the crisis, the tone varies from piece to piece. Some are humorous, like in “An Open Letter to the Man with a Cart Full of Meat,” which chronicles the frustrations of a woman over another man’s selfish shopping habit.

Others are heartbreaking, like in “Helpless,” in which a mother agonizes over helping her young adult son cope with the changes in the world because of COVID-19, unsure of how to help him battle depression and whether to give him space or hold him close. “The Virus” features a techno music-backed voice track that explains the pandemic’s effects on health, the economy, and the national mood as a woman dances in front of a tarp, covers her hands in glue, and plasters the tarp with news articles and tweets about COVID-19. In “Prospettiva” (Italian for ‘perspective’) a woman from the United States chats with her friend in Europe about the difficulties they are facing.

Other pieces are more uplifting, though still introspective. In “Heartbreak in the Time of COVID: Planted,” two artists from PUSH Physical Theatre are crammed inside a trunk, twisting and contorting as they fight over two props: a potted plant and a watering can. Soon, they’ve used masking tape to divvy up the already cramped space in half. But without a word, through movement, the pair realize that they cannot function without one another – they need one another, just like the plant needs water. It’s a reflection of what many have felt during the pandemic – feelings of being trapped, and the struggle to be around roommates constantly.

Part Two focuses on racism, discrimination, police brutality, and the deaths of black men and women at the hands of police – a topic that has become even more paramount in the past two weeks since the public learned about Daniel Prude’s death. Since the show was recorded prior to Prude’s death becoming public knowledge, he isn’t mentioned, but the artists do focus on George Floyd’s death. It’s impossible not to replace Floyd’s name with Prude’s in some pieces.

“In Black and White” features two actors – a black man and a white man – the same age as George Floyd. As the white man lists all the similarities he has with Floyd, the black man reenacts Floyd’s final minutes. “A Deeper Look” features Buffalo filmmaker Isiah Gates in dual roles as a therapist and a patient. As the patient begins to describe the pain and fear he feels over Floyd’s death, a stopwatch runs next to the therapist’s notepad. By the time the patient is done talking, the stopwatch stops at 8 minutes and 46 seconds – the length of time that police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck.

“Privilege/Caged Bird” starts by showing a white woman and a black man side-by-side. The two are actors. It shows the woman clicking on roles to audition for, for a production of “Hairspray.” She quickly clicks seven or eight options. Then it’s the man’s turn. He has only two choices: a supporting character or the ensemble. It shows the woman being pulled over. She fixes her hair and makeup and calmly reaches for her driver’s license and smiles at the officer. Then the man is pulled over. He grips the steering wheel tightly. He cautiously rolls down his window. He puts his hands up and slowly, terrified, reaches for his ID. The piece transitions to feature two dancers dressed in bird costumes, as a narrator reads from “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” It is spliced with images of black men and women who have been killed while in police custody. I’m embarrassed by how many of them I do not recognize.

The show ends with a song, “Freedom Is,” beautifully sung by Kate Odulukwe. The song’s sweeping melody is as moving as its message: “Changes are what we want, changes are what we need, why must our families bleed, to keep us from being free.” It’s a poignant message to end on.

“The Empathy Project” is streaming on demand throughout the festival. Tickets are $20. — Kathy Laluk

For the complete Rochester Fringe schedule and ticket information, visit rochesterfringe.com.


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