The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Capital Fringe 2015: From ‘Winter’s Tale’ to a zookeeper’s notes

As the Capital Fringe Festival enters its third week, Celia Wren is moved by a trim "Winter's Tale," Roger Catlin checks out clever fake interviews, and Jane Horwitz parks upstairs for stories at the H Street NE pub the Argonaut.

"Bortle 8"

In his phantasmagorical solo piece "Bortle 8," actor Chris Davis takes his audience deep into inner space and high into the cosmos. He has an engaging hipster style that carries everyone along in good humor, even when the odd boulder of incoherence diverts his stream of consciousness.

Early on, Davis also clings to the word "like" as sentence glue but soon, happily, lets it go.

Then he's off to explore terra incognita, ditching his van-driving job and his unfinished Obamacare application to sail on a "ship of imagination." His itinerary, full of digressions and detours, includes the pre-human ancestral fossil "Lucy," Christopher Columbus, Galileo, Disney's "Dumbo," the Milky Way, Davis's own childhood backyard and the imaginary depths of the Potomac. For Davis, it's all part of "a constant confrontation of the unknown," seeking the internal self in tandem with the universe.

"Bortle 8" refers to amateur astronomer John E. Bortle's Dark-Sky Scale, which gauges artificial light pollution and how much it obscures the stars, especially in cities and suburbs. "Ninety percent of the people in the continental United States have never seen true darkness," Davis informs us.

So he flies us through the Bortle Scale, from urban to suburban to rural skies. Backed by Adriano Shaplin's cool sound design, Davis goes star-climbing and meets Bortle himself. He and Bortle link hands and fly together like Scrooge and his Christmas ghosts. Deep in the Potomac, they find a "rock of barnacles" made of Davis's unhappy relationships.

Explore universes within and without, Davis seems to say. Find the darkness in order to see the light.

His 55-minute personal epic journey may not be wholly illuminating, but it is a fun trip.

-- Jane Horwitz

"Bortle 8," July 22, 25 and 26 at the Argonaut, 1433 H St. NE.

"The Winter's Tale"

Young Prince Mamillius of Sicilia — a Fringe artist in the making? Well, maybe not. But we do glimpse the infant blueblood using a sock puppet to tell a story in We Happy Few Productions’ “The Winter’s Tale.” The detail is just one of many shrewd touches in this rewarding six-actor Shakespeare staging, the latest in a series of 90-minute classics (including 2012’s “Hamlet” and last year’s “The Duchess of Malfi”) that the company has contributed to Capital Fringe in recent years.

Directed by Hannah Todd and mounted at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, the production gets off to a strong start thanks to Nathan Bennett’s persuasively cogitative Leontes. As the misguided Sicilian monarch thinks himself deeper and deeper into jealousy, suspecting his wife, Hermione (a dignified Raven Bonniwell), of infidelity with the visiting Bohemian king Polixenes (the persuasive Kiernan McGowan), the emotional temperature of the court grows icy. The diaphanous white hangings on the set, designed by Dean Leong, echo the frosty mood.

The shift in atmosphere is so speedy and chilling that it’s a relief to travel to Bohemia, a place awash in goofy pastoral antics. (Paper flowers warm up the set’s color scheme.) After Polixenes’s son Florizel (William Vaughan, exuding boyishness) falls in love with Perdita (Kerry McGee), the adopted daughter of a bumbling shepherd (Katy Carkuff, who also plays Hermione’s valiant ally Paulina), a happy ending is in sight.

Donning and shedding simple costume elements like the shepherd’s poncho and straw hat, the actors embrace the sometimes frantic role-doubling that is essential to the production. (Julie Cray designed the costumes.) Bonniwell is particularly good at morphing into the earnest courtier Camillo, with the help of some spectacles. McGee is convincingly childish in her early scenes as Mamillius, and she swaggers effectively as the rogue Autolycus, who interacts with the audience and plays a bright blue ukulele. The performers take turns depicting doltish-looking sheep.

The ingeniously trimmed script comes across as seamless and true to the Bard’s original. A highlight is a bit of inspired streamlining that makes the story’s ending feel achingly poignant and profound.

-- Celia Wren

"The Winter's Tale," July 23, 24, 25 and 26 at Flashpoint's Mead Theatre Lab, 916 G St. NW.

“Interviews With ...”

There are no interviews at all in Emily Cohen’s “Interviews With ... ," playing a large anteroom at the W.J. Jenks & Son hardware store on Bladensburg Road NE. Instead, the cast of four presents blackout sketches, dozens of them, purporting to be confessions from various walks of life.

Considering the detail in some of the writing, you might actually believe that these are the inner thoughts of, say, tollbooth operators, who begin the 45-minute show. One enjoys the power he wields; another likes to teach patience.

Another bit convinces you that yes, there is some gossip among romantic novelists about hookups at the annual conference.

I believe there really a school crossing guard at 13th and Colorado streets NW who showers love on her flock each day (though I don’t think she talks quite like this).

But long before they get to things like “Bird & Cat in Apt. 408” or “Spoons,” you realize it was all made up by Cohen with contributions from Daniel Gutstein.

Under Brett Steven Abelman’s direction, there is an awful lot of fussy choreography and unnecessary chair moving between scenes for Cohen and her cohorts, Beth Krause, Rajan Kapoor and Patrick Slevin, all clad in monochromatic jeans and T-shirts.

And there is a wide range of performance skills, much of it in the advanced charades-player category. They’re pleased with what they do, since they smile at the end of many scenes as if to indicate, if only to themselves: Nailed it.

The main lesson for “Interviews With ...” is how much difference live music makes in any production, even this one. Two women from the Rogue Collective — Alexa Cantalupo and Kaitlin Moreno in the performance I saw, play compelling violin to a backing track before the show starts and then improvise during and especially between scenes during the show. They’re even featured for two brief times in the show and could have been featured further, replacing maybe “Siblings of Dictators” or the too-close-to-home “Hardware Store Employees.”

-- Roger Catlin

“Interviews With ...,”  July 24 and 26 at W.J. Jenks & Son, 910 Bladensburg Rd. NE

"The Eulogy"

Playing the mourner in his oddball comic tour de force "The Eulogy," Michael Burgos asks one audience member to smack him hard and another to wear a veil and be the silent widow. At one point, he pretends to be the voice of the dead man in his coffin. A dignified funeral, this is not.

Burgos and his creation are fresh and new, for sure, but they share DNA with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Sid Caesar. Watch his seemingly spontaneous bouts of herky-jerky physicality and listen to his comic verbal gaffes and you'll get the connection.

It is his former roommate, Tomas, who lies in that coffin. Tomas has won the race of life, Burgos intones, and "will stand horizontally on the winner's podium -- in the box of victory." Oh dear.

Tomas, was morbidly obese, we learn. One could, in fact, fault the hourlong "Eulogy" for being, at its most basic level, a prolonged and rather mean fat joke: "I'm not saying his heart attack was his fault . . ." [Insert involuntary jerky movement here.] "But eggs don't fry themselves."

Yet Burgos's creation rises above its own political incorrectness -- a tribute to Burgos's writing and performing talents. A flashback in which he portrays Tomas as a child, shrugging and keeping his cake-filled mouth shut while his mother asks accusing questions, is a comic gem.

And when, in his eulogy, Burgos digresses to observe that a squirrel crossing the road in search of nuts "deserves to be dead -- that's just math," lovers of dark humor must rejoice.

Unlike poor Tomas, whose days are numbered in the negative, Burgos would seem to have a long life of performing ahead of him.

-- Jane Horwitz

"The Eulogy," July 25 and 26 at the Argonaut, 1433 H St. NE.

"Wombat Drool"

David S. Kessler bounds onto the tiny stage upstairs at the Argonaut restaurant and fires his first shot: "Wombats! Ya gotta love 'em, right?"

And by the end of his hour-long solo piece, complete with slides and plush toys but mostly driven by Kessler's soul-deep enthusiasm, all but the surliest spectators will agree. We gotta love wombats. And we gotta love naked mole rats, and stinky moonrats, and shy gibbons, and escaping red pandas, and Aldabra giant tortoises who poop prolifically and copulate often.

Bespectacled and casually preppy, Kessler's cheerily infectious wit and energy are well guided by director Jane Beard. He shares highlights of his 39 years "behind bars" as a keeper and researcher at the National Zoo, mostly in the Small Mammal House.

William, that shy gibbon, was recovering from a broken arm and had been rejected by his parents. Kessler sat motionless for days in William's enclosure. The gibbon slowly adapted to his presence and began to brachiate (swing hand-over-hand) above Kessler's head, then graze it with his feet, then sit on it. Eventually he curled up for a snooze in the keeper's lap.

When he retired last year, Kessler was profiled in The Washington Post. He spoke emotionally then about the way in which a life caring for and studying animals had saved him from his own issues and enabled him to exist in a world that used to overwhelm him.

But that's not the crux of Kessler's high-energy and often comical Fringe show. He just wants everyone to appreciate the less popular, less adorable mammals he has come to love. Phooey, he says, on those black-and-white superstar bears from China and those little "eucalyptus-munching, seemingly cuddly" tree huggers from Australia.

Consider instead the lowly, burrowing, beady-eyed, uncuddly wombat, he implores us, and all the wonders of creation shall be revealed.

-- Jane Horwitz

"Wombat Drool," July 21 and 25 at the Argonaut, 1433 H St. NE.


Fringe tickets $17, plus one-time purchase of $7 Fringe Button. Available online at, by phone at 866-811-4111, and at the Fringe Festival box office, 1300 H St. NE (Tuesdays-Fridays 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Saturdays-Sundays 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.).