Desperate and Gentle Characters at SD Fringe Festival

small_squareOn the last day of the San Diego Fringe Festival, there’s still one more chance to see “Oyster Boy” (today at 5 p.m.) and “The Desperate Characters of Mercer County” (6:30 p.m.), both at Space 4 Art. And both shows have moments of magic.

“Oyster Boy,” presented by the Haste Theatre from London draws on Tim Burton short stories in which boy (Italian gelato vendor) meets girl (blushing Brit), they wed, and – after a dinner of aphrodisiac oysters – they conceive a child who unfortunately has an oyster for a head. Two of the six women in the troupe play the couple, and the rest form a sort of Greek/Hawaiian chorus, narrating much of the tale to ukulele accompaniment. Oyster Boy is a dangly puppet, its limbs moved by troupe members who hold its hands or feet. A particularly sweet effect in this gentle and charming show happens when Oyster Boy goes swimming and finds, after not fitting in on land, that he’s in his element.

In “The Desperate Characters of Mercer County,” Jenna Ann MacGillis brings her ancestors, hard-scrabble farmers in Missouri, to life. Using minimal narration, she tells the story through masks, physical theater, object theater, and beautifully crafted puppets that include a marionette lamb, a downcast old woman, and delicate butterflies fluttering on sticks. There’s also a rich  score of American traditional music, directed by  Clint Davis, and played live by Davis on guitar, banjo, and autoharp, and voice; violinist Batya MacAdam-Somer; and Meghann Welsh on accordion and saw. The story is rather slow-moving and not deeply involving, but the power of “Desperate Characters” is in its tableaus of image and song, for instance, when MacGillis and Ali Dressell, wearing aprons, sift tight, imprisoning circles of flour around their feet to “Single Girl, Married Girl,” about how a girl’s brief freedom gives way to a life of drudgery.

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