My program guide from the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival is 360 pages long. The one from the San Diego Fringe Festival is 22 pages. And I admit I wasn’t expecting much from the local fest, especially in its debut year. Well, yesterday I saw three San Diego Fringe offerings, and any of them could play at the 66-year-old Edinburgh Festival. In the afternoon, I enjoyed the madness of “Ubu Roi” (reviewed earlier). Last night, I caught two one-person shows by the late Philip-Dimitri Galas.
Although the shows are listed in the program as separate pieces, they should be billed as a duo. The same artistic team produced them: Anne Meighan directed Sean Sullivan in “Baby Redboots’ Revenge,” and he directed her in “Mona Rogers in Person.” Deeper than that, it’s brilliant – and deserves trumpeting – that the premiere San Diego Fringe Festival is presenting what amounts to a Galas retrospective. An incandescently talented artist, Galas invented his own genre, “avante-vaudeville,” to describe his combination of physical theater and explosive, poetic language, and the term seems Fringe-perfect. To top it all, Galas, who died in 1986 at age 32, was a hometown boy.
“Baby Redboots’ Revenge” won Los Angeles Drama-Logue awards for Galas as playwright and Sullivan as actor. That’s right, Sullivan originated the role of Baby Fourstrings, a former child entertainer reduced – as he sees it, due to bad mojo from his former partner, Baby Redboots – to playing bass in a polka band. I saw him do this piece in the mid-80s, and he hasn’t lost any chops. His opening monologue is glorious, a monsoon of inventive language and emotion and “Hey, look at me! Please just look at me.” He struts and tap-dances, “buffling off to Shuffalo,” in green tennies. He mimes playing the bass as one foot heel-toes it into an extreme version of a yoga warrior poise. Played by a now gray-haired Sullivan, Baby Fourstrings has had even more years on the skids, and when he pauses as if having pain in his “swan of a heart,” I worried he really meant it (though maybe that’s just projection since I’m almost thirty years older, too).
He’s had nothing but bad luck, but he’s no slumping sad sack, resigned to being a nobody. In what feels like a radical act of hope, he rages against his bad breaks and acts out scenes of redemption, auditions in which he escapes Baby Redboots’ revenge and shines. And the verbal imagery! A few of the gems I wrote down: when he describes a convertible “with girls standing up in it like water skiers,” a series of poses in which he enacts stages of “moral abandon,” and his description of Baby Redboots as a “truculent chanteuse.” This production of “Baby Redboots’ Revenge” was “produced and re-imagined” by Lynne Griffin.
Like Baby Fourstrings, Mona Rogers has gotten the short end of life’s stick. But Mona, an over-the-hill burlesque artist who describes herself as a “dead-end girl,” lacks hope. And she has no desire to charm. She wouldn’t stoop so low. Glaring at the audience, Mona – in tight black miniskirt, fishnet hose, and red heels – is hard and angry as she talks about how she’s been used by the world. Meighan is an Amazon, perhaps six feet tall and with a wrestler’s physique, and her Mona exudes a menacing stillness; lip curled, one hand on her hip, she makes few extraneous gestures. She’s a warrior in heavy armor, and when she harangues and manhandles a doll she calls Little Fatty, you get a sense of why she might have become so guarded. The guardedness felt overdone, though. Much of Meighan’s background is in directing rather than acting, and what I missed in her Mona was a sense of underlying vulnerability.
“Mona Rogers in Person” isn’t an acting tour de force like “Baby Redboots’ Revenge.” Both shows, however, demonstrate Philip-Dimitri Galas’ literary genius, and his ability – as someone who achieved a remarkable degree of stardom at any early age – to imagine himself into the hearts of people who’d been knocked around by life. Both productions run through the end of Festival on Sunday. For times, check the San Diego Fringe website.