The Capital Fringe Festival launched its annual July performance blitz Thursday night, with a literary/historical theme shining through. Roger Catlin reviews Claudia Baumgarten’s solo turn as Dorothy Parker; Amanda Erickson listens to how Allen Ginsberg’s seminal 1950s diatribe “Howl” sounds now; and Celia Wren reports on wartime Maryland nurses.
“Wit & Wrath: The Life & Times of Dorothy Parker”
Claudia Baumgarten begins her immersion into a celebrated New York writer early, introducing herself to those climbing the stairs to the intimate second floor space at the Pursuit Wine Bar for her one-woman play “Wit & Wrath: The Life & Times of Dorothy Parker” in her vintage 1940s dress and stylish period hat.
Upstairs, the New Orleans actress, storyteller and vintage clothing shop owner, who claims to have read “almost every word by or about Mrs. Parker,” continues her obsession in a smartly drawn piece that incorporates a lot of what is best known of the sharp-tongued writer along with a fast-moving bio.
Parker’s move from populist Jazz Age poet to magazine critic made her part of a Algonquin Hotel round table group where she held her own with phrases like “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy” and “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”
Simply reciting such witticisms would be entertaining enough, but Baumgarten weaves them into a biography of the writer punctuated by lines from her verse (“I hate women; they get on my nerves”).
The tough and often frisky personality breaks so she include parts of her needy “A Telephone Call.” One of her longest relationships is measured out in waltz-time. And rare silence accompanies a suicide attempt, an act she sardonically dismisses in a poem that concludes, “Guns aren’t lawful/Nooses give/Gas smells awful/You might as well live.”
Throughout, the elocution and modulation of Baumgarten’s voice exude the sophistication of the era. She carries a martini, which is not out of place at a wine bar. However, downstairs noise and the occasional siren shattering her reverie might have made fodder for another of her subject’s scathing poems.
60 Minutes. July 8, 9, 11 and 12. Pursuit Wine Bar, 1421 H St NE.
“Howl in the Time of Trump”
In October 1977, the New York Times asked Allen Ginsberg a simple question:
What do you like best about your own poetry? His answer: “Cranky music,” the “vowelic melodiousness, adjusted towards speech syncopation. Assonance, long mellow mouthings of assonance.”
That’s a good description, too, of “Howl in the Time of Trump,” a one-man show featuring Robert Michael Oliver. Over an hour, Oliver performs the iconic poem like a Southern street preacher, running his voice up and down the luscious lines.
The heightened tone occasionally grates. But it’s well-suited for Ginsberg’s bombastic, fantastic fever dream of a work, one that describes the “best minds of a generation,” who “burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism, who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism and subsequently presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse with shaven heads and harlequin speech of suicide, demanding instantaneous lobotomy.”
In the background, composer Douglas Fraser strums along on guitar, offering up a collection of jazz.
Though Trump is in the title, Oliver lets the poem do the talking and allows his audience to draw their own conclusions. Some of the more affected flourishes feel phony. I’m still not sure why I was given a hand puppet halfway through, or a glass of water, and I could have done without the devilish-looking mask that appears at one point, with a familiar-looking pompadour. But the show is a fitting tribute to “Howl,”which began its life out loud, as a reading at a San Francisco gallery.
It’s a fitting protest, too, against America’s crueler, colder impulses. That’s as relevant today as it was in 1955.
60 minutes. July 7, 8, 21, 22 and 23 at Shopkeepers, 1231 Florida Ave NE.
“Ready to Serve: Remember the Nurses”
First came the sound of the ambulances rolling up to the hospital entrance. Then, the shouted alert to medical staff: “Gas! Gas! Gas!” It was a heads-up that the ambulances had brought victims of a gas attack on a World War I battlefield. The nurses would see the soldiers shuffle into the hospital, coughing, with bandaged eyes, each man holding on to the shoulder of the man in front in a kind of macabre conga line.
Those images are among the vivid details that surge up from “Ready to Serve: Remember the Nurses,” storyteller Ellouise Schoettler’s solo piece about Maryland nurses serving in France during World War I. Drawn from nurses’ letters and other documents, the 70-minute piece eschews performative polish: Dressed in contemporary garb, Schoettler talks casually, plopped on a stool, like a grandmotherly acquaintance recounting anecdotes over tea. But she has curated her material deftly, and the monologue is often moving and searingly specific.
Told in the first-person, through the eyes of a composite nurse character, “Ready to Serve” contains many scenes that are more upbeat or prosaic than the gas-attack sequence. The narrator recalls a pile of hand-addressed envelopes sent by nurses eager to volunteer; a dismaying first look at the bathrooms in the nurses’ residence in France (no shower curtains!); a hospital ward’s Christmas tree, festooned with ornaments that wounded soldiers had crafted from shiny candy wrappers. Through such glimpses comes a portrait of resourceful, mutually supportive, fiercely committed medical pros coping with harrowing circumstances they hadn’t foreseen.
“Ready to Serve” follows a previous World War I-themed show that Schoettler performed at the Capital Fringe Festival: “The Hello Girls,” about military switchboard operators. This newer piece gains added resonance from timing, arriving at the Fringe in the centenary year of America’s entry into the war.
70 minutes. July 8, 9, 15, 18, 20 & 22 at the Eastman Studio Theatre, Gallaudet University.
IF YOU GO:
Fringe tickets $17, plus one-time purchase of a $7 Fringe button. Available online at www.capitalfringe.org, 866-811-4111 and at Fringe venues.