Tweet review: #NightlyFringe outing #7 for virtual #mnfringe 2020: Waiting for Hugs; just deeply wrong on so many levels and so, of course, very entertaining; good theater about bad theater people - 4 stars
(Previous overview) (for the curious)
The smartest thing the trio of Highland Kitty does (other than the name Highland Kitty, of course) is to tailor their production, Waiting for Hugs, to take advantage of all the current limitations on theatrical performance. They don't pretend it isn't a video conference set up. They don't pretend they're all in the same room together. They don't pretend to be anywhere other than a room in their respective homes. They lean in to all the things we, collectively as a society, are stuck with right now. And they mine the absurdity of the situation for all the comedy it's worth.
"I find if I stick too closely to the script early on, it gets in the way of my process."
For instance, we start with the camera on a handwritten sign with the title on it. But in the background, off screen, we can hear one of the actors, Bert (Rob Ward), doing ridiculous vocal warm-ups. I mean, they're actual vocal exercises but those always sound silly out of context. That's the pre-show noise
if you show up online before curtain time. Once the hour arrives, however, Bert turns the camera on himself. Jen (Jenna Papke) signs on but at first we can only hear but not see her. Bert has to remind her to turn on her camera. Their fellow cast member Miki (Mickaylee Shaughnessy) is late, and when she
appears, she's muted and they need to remind her to turn on her microphone. So right away, we're tripping over all the common pitfalls that have newly been applied to many people's work lives, and now are extended to trying to do theater, too.
"Does that mean I can put the turtle joke back in?"
Bert, Jen and Miki are one of many acting teams working for the production company Love Garage, which provides theatrical entertainment for church youth groups. This particular show is called Super Noah and His Wonderful Ark, with the deeply unfortunate song "Spread Your Cheeks and Let the Sun Shine In" (which is supposed to be about smiling but... c'mon, you know your mind when there). While they wait for the church to establish a connection from their end in order to start the show, they rehearse various bits in order to get ready.
"That would be impressive. Happiness isn't something you're particularly good at."
The show is genuinely amusing, mostly because of the juxtaposition of acknowledging the current circumstances of the outside world with these completely inappropriate adults trying to muster enthusiasm to put on a painfully awful church play. Theater about theater is rarely my thing, but for some reason I found the inside jokes here more entertaining than I normally would. Probably because some of them are very specific to our theater community and are refreshingly vicious about targets that deserve the ridicule. (I won't spoil it, but one of Bert's theater scandals is going to sound very familiar to some people.) Half the fun is the bracing sense you get of "Oh wow. They WENT there. Good for them.")
"The rights of parroting."
"That's not a word."
The only real drawback is that Miki's character is almost unbearably stupid. And a lot of the humor is based on the fact that she's stupid. This isn't a ding on the actress. She commits and plays it full out. She's supposed to play a unicorn but forgot her costume and all her props, so instead she wears a duck onesy and figures that'll make up for it and no one will notice. She's been doing this play for a while now but still can't remember her one minuscule monologue. She is easily confused into thinking that a threesome is some kind of board game. There's just so many people right now in real life, ruining
things, I really don't need any more stupid people in my entertainment. Even if you're making fun of them. They're still dangerous. I can't laugh. (I freely admit this is a "me" thing. A lot of people will not have a problem with it, and for them I say, Enjoy.)
"Am I the only one who doesn't want to get sued?"
On the other hand there's inspired touches like not allowing themselves to be locked into a single shot for the whole show. "What's that thing you have that got us into so much legal trouble?" The actor pivots their camera to reveal the recognizable puppet from a beloved children's movie - and of course that's exactly the wrong thing to do in the context of the show we're watching because now, argh, they've violated copyright again (but the show is free so, ha ha). Their legal battles? "That was a never-ending story." (can I get a rimshot, please?) Another person pivots their camera to reveal that the people they're talking to off screen actually exist and are present in the same space. There's just enough unexpected moments like that to lift this above your average socially distanced online theater production. Smart people trying to push the envelope.
"At least I don't headbutt children."
Plus, they don't want you to donate to them, they want you to donate directly to the Minnesota Fringe Festival to keep the community alive. Good on them. (Yes, artists should still be paid, but in this case, they're redirecting their pay toward a good cause. That's the one exception, and don't overuse it.) If you missed the live performance on the Nightly Fringe schedule, the recording is on the newsfeed for the Phoenix Theater facebook page for further viewing.
4 stars - Highly Recommended