Fringe picks: '8 Songs' is mad fun at festival
The San Diego International Fringe Festival, whose fifth edition is now in full (and often freaky) flower here and in Tijuana, is a definition-defying mix of theater, dance, music and multiple other modes of expression. (Check out our full preview here.)
Some of its 80-odd shows, of course, take on familiar forms: Short plays, comic and/or confessional monologues, choreographic showcases.
And then something comes along that will make you say: “Only at Fringe.” (And thank the weird-art gods — and festival organizers — for that.) Case in point: “8 Songs for a Mad King,” the immersive, opera-meets-tweeting-meets-Trump spectacle whose final Fringe performance is (very unfortunately) today.
The piece, presented by Bodhi Tree Concerts — a major fest presence over the past few years — was created in 1969 by the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, a composer who was an iconoclast in the extreme.
Davies wrote “8 Songs” as an ode to the “mad” King George III, who ruled England during the American Revolution and whose increasingly erratic behavior may have been caused by the blood disease porphyria.
It’s a trippy chamber-music piece that at times is a cacophony of keening strings, pounding percussion and jittery trills of flute and piccolo. (It’s inspired both by George’s own words and songs from a music box with which he apparently tried to teach birds to sing.)
But at the center of the work is the careening figure of the “king” himself, played in the Bodhi Tree show by the impressive Walter DuMelle in full Trump-ian glory — long red tie, fussy hair, phone at the ready for a tweetstorm.
If you go to the show (staged-directed by Kim Strassburger, with music direction by Brendan Nguyen), you can’t miss him: He’s the guy stomping down the length of the runway-lake tabletop at which you and most other attendees are seated.
The show is full of strange and funny vocalizations — whoops and shouts and octave-leaping bits of sung text.
What’s most fun, though, is that production-team member Jason Ponce has created a kind of in-house live-tweeting system (dubbed “Trash Talk Theater”) that allows everyone else at the show to log in on mobile devices and start tapping out timely/snarky observations on the happenings.
Those messages are then displayed on TV screens arrayed around the venue, the Bivouac Ballroom in downtown’s U.S. Grant Hotel
It can create a bit of disconnect for the audience to be both watching the screens and DuMelle’s performance — and at times to be lost in fits of laughter at a particularly witty tweet, while the music (played with great skill by a live ensemble) has entered a brooding, somber passage.
But it’s also a perfect way to adapt “8 Kings” for a tweet-mad leader who thrives on attention; some authentic Trump tweets even pop up on the screen occasionally, further mixing the worlds of performance and politics.
In all, it’s a singular and memorable show full of both fun and frights, with music that fits the mood perfectly but is anything but catchy or comforting.
As one attendee tweeted in mid-performance on Saturday night: “This is what my hangover sounds like.”