SF Fringe Fest thrills despite minor theatrical missteps

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‘Ballet Russe Spectacle Variete’

Before the show even started, the 10 actors involved in “Ballet Russe” commanded the tiny theater space. The elder characters, Sergei (Brian Mathis) and Natasha (Lori Saltis) greeted each audience member with stern admonitions to take a passport — the playbill — and a potato to “study.” The small orchestra, composed of Ken Burnett, Jude Darnell and L. Mason Stewart, warmed up their respective mandolin, violin and guitar, dressed in vibrant, traditional Russian costumes. The other actors scurried back and forth behind the curtain, beaming and clattering enthusiastically in costumes covered with cymbals.

“Ballet Russe Spectacle Variete” effervescently straddles American and Russian forms of entertainment. Loud and boisterous, the troupe jokes and sings in vaudevillian fashion about Russian traditions and current human rights violations. The plot follows a Russian family circus sent to America to spy for its fearless leader, Lennon Rats Putin (Stewart). They try to teach the audience “how to be Russian” through hysterical songs and slapstick humor. Masha (Julie Antti) meets a “bear” in the Castro district of San Francisco who teaches the immigrants the importance of personal freedom. Within the span of an hour, the family starts to blaspheme and rebel against their beloved shirtless president.

Ragtag and extremely low-budget, “Ballet Russe” relies on the actors’ ebullience and physical comedy instead of props. The players self-reflexively ask the crowd, “You know how to make something from nothing, don’t you?” Their vivacious and poignant performance answers the question for the audience with a resounding “Da!”

—Cara Cerino

‘2 Ruby Knockers, 1 Jaded Dick’

Tim Motley’s one-man performance, “2 Ruby Knockers, 1 Jaded Dick,” strings quick-witted one-liners into a narrative storyline in which he plays Detective Dirk Darrow, who is hot on the trail of a Philadelphia bank robber. Puffing on candy cigarettes throughout the show and toting a toy gun, he takes center stage, spotlit, and snaps his finger to trigger the background lighting. While Motley’s persona is arresting on its own and the puns so perfectly bad that the crowd had trouble deciding whether to groan or cackle, he involves the audience throughout the show. He uses illusions, handwriting analysis and a keen observational eye to “read the minds” of audience members.

Motley speaks the whole show in a dry, fast-paced tone, perfectly parodying film-noir detectives of the past. He is so fast, in fact, that many of his wry observations go misunderstood by the audience. He makes up for the jokes that don’t land with an unparalleled self-effacing humor, never missing a beat — even on a tangent. Through prop malfunctions and incorrect assumptions about audience members, Motley’s wit and fast thinking shone through the limitations of an SF Fringe circuit show.

“Ruby Knockers” captivates the audience, although the storyline is purposely hackneyed. The raucous, audience-member-assisted finale was a treat, complete with choreographed pelvic thrusts and the culmination of “knockers” jokes. Dirk Darrow proved he may not have been the dick this Fringe Festival needed, but he was the dick they deserved.

Cara Cerino

‘Cabaret Terrarium’

Ribbits from wooden handheld frogs throughout the audience welcome Nhar on stage as he glares into the audience with a deer-in-the-headlights gaze.

“Your mission is to use the frogs to make noise and cover the sound of your laughter,” says the stage’s main speaker, Gustave, to his audience. He gives the narrative with a dry humor that prompts laughter throughout the show. Nhar, the quieter half of “Cabaret Terrarium,” offers miming and sidekick characteristics that make the show wacky and playful while he performs as Gustave’s imaginary friend.

Their latest collaboration, “Cabaret Terrarium,” continues Chris Kauffman and Richard Harrington’s streak of critically acclaimed comedic productions. The two bring their show to the Bay Area this month, maintaining polished comedy that brings great laughter throughout the performance.

Gustave leads the show with charmingly awkward storytelling of his absurd life story and of finding identity again after losing his memory after an accident. Both Kauffman and Harrington work well off with each other, and their chemistry in the final dance number finishes with just enough silliness to fill the room with laughs. Witty and simple, with loads of wry anecdotes and jokes, this show will certainly make every audience member love both Gustave and Nhar’s journey.

Melanie Jimenez

Contact Cara Cerino at [email protected].

Contact Melanie Jimenez at [email protected].