Anyone who has partaken of even a modest sampling of Fringe shows must realize that multimedia productions are big with young artists. Three of the six shows I have seen used live-action performance with video and/or film. The individual components of Strawberry Pie are often quite artful. This piece from Cincinnati-based Jamming Talent Productions includes aerial dancing and a dramatic film/stage character portrait detailing the agonies of Joe (Chris Conner), a heroin addict. But problems arise in the failure to integrate these artistic elements so the whole can become greater than the individual artistic parts.
The show opens with a wrenching film from Andrew Bernhard, shot in impoverished areas of Cincinnati, detailing Joe’s aimless, solitary life made insular by the heroin he heats up in a cooker and mainlines. Conner, as Joe, is a pale, frail, slight actor who certainly projects the ravages the drug on the body. This is no gym rat.
Joe gets high and sits numbly on a fire escape, wanders his cavernous empty apartment and prowls streets and alleys. He has become a chemically constructed zombie. Once the film goes into freeze-frame, Conner’s Joe is live onstage. His mind racing, he launches into a monolog “arranged” (supposedly that means written) by Conner. What Joe throws out are reflections of an arduous journey across a barren emotional plain ranging from desperate, even frenzied, contemplations of a failed life to euphoric hazes.
He talks vividly about the bridges of life collapsing before he and his fellow addicts can cross them to the shore of opportunity. “I could have changed the world,” he shouts to the silent air. The lament is classic in addicts. Their vocabulary is filled with could-haves, should-haves and would-haves. Their conditional verbs are commentaries on their lives of inaction.
As Joe’s stupor increases, the performance becomes more physical. Conner shows the definitive symphony of addiction-depression, muscle and bone pain. All this is captured in what could be called the choreography of inner pain. He raises his arms and turns his head away as if deflecting invisible threats. There are contortions of the torso and heaves upon the floor.
But this kitchen-sink reality is basically abandoned with the appearance of aerial dancers (Rebecca Parker, Holly Price and Jeremy Allen Millsaps). The lyrical effect, so disparate from the harshness of Joe’s addiction, suggests an evening of two one-acts even though there actually is no intermission in the 45-minute performance. The aerial dancers show considerable strength, lifting themselves up silken swaths of fabric. They competently wrap their bodies in the fabric in various ways to achieve the support that enables them to hang upside down, spin and strike and hold the grand jeté pose (what the ballet terms a split-like extension of the legs achieved in a mid-air leap).
These dancers are Joe’s guardian angels. Two of the angels, masked and poured into what Millsaps calls liquid latex body suits, initially appear briefly in the first section. They carry Joe in various forms of elevations, perhaps to suggest a protective presence. But in the concluding and quite extended section they seem to be rather uninvolved creatures tending pretty much to their maneuvers with the cloth, like acts in Cirque du Soleil. At one point, Joe sits passively in a womb-like sling formed with the fabric, while these angels contort about him. Finally, Millsaps as the praying angel, descends and sprinkles rose petals on Joe’s corpse.
The aerial dancing is not served well at the Know Theatre, lacking a fly space from which to hang the rigging to give the dancers more elevation. At the Know, the dancers are too close to the floor, robbing their moves of a more thrilling dramatic impact.
Millsaps’ Jamming Talent Productions is an earnest company and reflects sincere commitment to producing works with substance. Millsaps told me that Strawberry Pie was based on the death of a cousin who also was addicted.
Yet the drama and dance portions of this work are disconnected possibly because of the great divide between drug hell and the ethereal acrobatics. Millsaps’ spinning angels do not guide, nor instruct, nor save. They are merely decorative, just as those stony figures that guard the entrance of tombs. Pretty — but irrelevant. This lack of a more defined vision might be a consequence of Millsaps multiple talents. Perhaps another director could have stood objectively outside the production rather than Millsaps, who is so deeply placed within it.
– Jerry Stein