For its past two appearances at the Asheville Fringe Arts Festival, local avant-garde theater company Anam Cara presented original pieces created by an ensemble. For 2015, its players are trying something slightly more traditional while still keeping with the Jan. 22-25 event’s focus on cross-genre collaboration and innovative performances.
“The goal of Fringe is to try new things,” says Anam Cara Executive Artistic Director Erinn Hartley. “We’ve done some contemporary plays and Shakespeare adaptations, but we’ve not had a local playwright write us a script and go from there.”
Enter Erinn’s wife, Kim Hartley, and co-writer Justin Evans, whose Farmer Dave’s Bicycle-Powered Dream World: A Biotech Whodunit will run Jan. 22 and 24 at 9 p.m., at the BeBe Theatre. The two-act, hour-long play is inspired by the true 2013 story of an Oregon farmer who found GMO Roundup Ready wheat in his field. Fingers were pointed at Monsanto, which in turn accused anti-biotech saboteurs of deliberately planting the crop as an activist statement.
Guided by Anam Cara’s commitment to promoting social justice, Kim studied the political economy of food and researched the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl era, 1930s cinema and old-time music, leading to dual settings of 1933 and 2013. “It struck me as a really interesting platform to explore some of those issues,” she says.
Kim sought to expand her vision beyond an intentionally dusty production rooted in historical facts (yet peppered with stock characters, caricatures — including one of J. Edgar Hoover — and puppetry dream sequences). With Erinn signed on to direct, Kim reached out to Evans, a poet, playwright and member of Anam Cara’s experimental ensemble Accordion Time Machine, who brought aboard his distinct creative style. “I’d say [my writing is] different because it draws on classical imagery, and I try to emulate great literature and religious art’s relationship with the grotesque and the ecstatic,” Evans says. “I guess a lot of people aren’t doing that, for whatever reason. Also, I make an effort to be offensive.”
Another part of Anam Cara’s mission is blending multiple art forms. In addition to puppetry, the play incorporates live music, dance and silent comedy, the latter of which has survived from Kim’s largely dialogue-free initial vision.
Although social and political issues are embedded in Farmer Dave’s Bicycle-Powered Dream World, Evans and the Hartleys deliberately avoided preachiness. “We’re not telling the audience what to think or how to feel,” Erinn says. “We hope that through our abstract presentation, people will have a visceral experience and come away with some questions for themselves.”
Following Asheville Fringe, Evans and the Hartleys will meet, exchange notes and retool the play as necessary before its Feb. 27-28 and March 6-7 performances at Toy Boat Community Art Space.
Hailing from Liverpool, England, Joanne Tremarco and Chris Murray are members of the U.K.-based Nomadic Academy for Fools. The geographically scattered collection of performers embraces the notion of the fool signifying nothing, a concept in line with its zero value in tarot. The fool may, in turn, become anything, Tremarco says. The fool’s journey that Tremarco and Murray take incorporates audience participation in defined stages — something they’ve all learned from company director Jonathan Kay.
It was Kay’s partner who inspired the title of Tremarco’s one-woman improvised fool show, Women Who Wank. It’s her response to the question, “What is the final taboo?” Though the show’s use of “wank” applies to the generally unspoken topic of female masturbation, Tremarco says that “it’s more about being a wanker or an idiot or being self-indulgent — a mental masturbation thing” — with a focus on connection and disconnection.
Tremarco performs Women Who Wank at The Mothlight on Thursday, Jan. 22, and Saturday, Jan. 24, at 9 p.m. “My show is not traditional improv where you ask for suggestions,” Tremarco says. “I arrive and have a way of dealing with the audience. I ask questions. Sometimes they answer, sometimes not. There’s an opening for the audience, then I go and create a play.”
Tremarco and Murray also will team up for the 20-minute street theater piece The Fig Leaf Wars, part of the LaZoom Bus Fringe Tour on Friday, Jan. 23, at 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 24, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 25, at 5 p.m.
Intrigued by the often-hostile environment of the street, Murray wanted to make a story that was immediately visual and recognizable to everyone. “I also wanted one that didn’t really rely on language so I could take it anywhere, even places [that] don’t speak English,” Murray says. “So, I came up with a penis and vulva.”
Under the names Dick and Fanny, Murray and Tremarco don giant genitalia costumes made of vinyl and tablecloths. The outfits’ exaggerated sizes allow Tremarco and Murray to explore the history of sex organs, their current treatment and how they are often scapegoated by their adjoining humans. In the process, the two speak to the audience as genitals and humans, break out a few dance moves and allow room for the audience’s story.
The Fig Leaf Wars made waves in 2013 when a man in Glastonbury, England, expressed his disgust with the work and assaulted Murray. Since then, Murray and Tremarco have experienced no such trouble, thanks both to spotters and appearances within the context of a festival — including acclaimed performances at the 2013 and 2014 Edinburgh Fringe. “So many street acts have to be tame,” Tremarco says. “We’re there to help [Edinburgh Fringe] feel good about themselves as being a radical theater festival.”
Their presence also can provide impromptu education. While Tremarco and Murray were performing The Fig Leaf Wars on the streets of Berlin, a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf approached them with her children and turned the performance into a sex-ed lesson.
WHAT: Asheville Fringe Arts Festival
WHERE: Various venues, AshevilleFringe.org
WHEN: Thursday, Jan. 22-Sunday, Jan. 25. $12 per show or $50 for an all-access Freak Pass