SALT LAKE CITY — Typically I like to begin a review with a summary of the show I attended, disclosing just enough of the plot to provide a framework for the details that follow. After seeing the Radical Hospitality production of Elizabeth BAM at the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival, I recognize that a conventional approach to such an unconventional experience simply won’t do.
Instead of offering an overview, I have to disclose that while I felt engaged and entranced throughout the short play, I can’t honestly say that I understood any of it. Perhaps my theatrical experiences to date simply haven’t been “fringe” enough. But once I stopped trying to figure it out, set aside my notebook, and just gave in to the ebb and flow of the piece’s theatrical flair, I enjoyed the out-of-control feeling that came along with its unique motion.
Because I couldn’t grasp this absurdist show as a whole, I found myself latching onto key moments that stood out as particularly resourceful, interesting, or well-executed. In one tense moment underscored by the cast’s percussion, Samantha Matsukawa (playing the role of Elizabeth BAM) flipped a deck of cards to the rhythm layering in an unexpected sound. Ariana Farber (playing the role of Peter Nikolaevich) used her long, lean body to create a variety of precise shapes to mimic the movement of Shawn Francis Saunders (playing Ivan Ivanovitch) or to noticeably express herself individually. When Matsukawa moved, each muscle released or flexed with such precision that I considered her movement to go beyond just blocking into the realm of dance. She used the angles of her joints, particularly her feet and knees, to create vulnerability or strength to suit the current mood.
Playwright Daniil Kharms, director Morag Shepherd, and costumer Emma Robinson made distinctive choices to set Elizabeth BAM apart from the other four actors on the stage. Kharms required Elizabeth to speak without the use of contractions which gave her dialogue a deliberate feel. Robinson chose to dress the rest of the cast in black while creating a white pixie-like costume for Elizabeth. The artistic effect was striking, especially on the nearly bare stage.
I keep repeating the action in my mind, going over it again and again with the intent to assign some sort of meaning. Each time I come to the same conclusion: this production was over my head. Fortunately, I didn’t have to get it to appreciate the skill that went in and the beauty that came out. And while I only had the opportunity to see 3 of the 52 shows available at this year’s GSL Fringe Festival, I feel like an unconventional experience like this one is exactly what the Fringe is all about.
Full disclosure: The director of this production (Morag Shepherd) is a volunteer editor for Utah Theatre Bloggers Association. Shepherd had no involvement with the writing or editing of this piece. Honest criticism was encouraged.