Blurring, if not obliterating, the line between live performance and experiential event, Live Action Set’s happening in the Soap Factory basement uses Dostoevsky’s massively influential novel of 19th-century alienation and moral earthquakes as fuel for an hour that combines intensity, abject confusion, and humor in proportions that will vary for each attendee (but which, for me, skewed in favor of a spiky, welcome-weird dreamland territory).
Before you descend the stairs into semi-darkness, you’re asked to don a mask and keep silent for the proceedings to come, which include vignettes both literal and symbolic, a tour through passages designed to distort and disorient, and flashing visions that are by turns murderous, sexual, tragic, funny … and that’s as close to spoiler territory as we should get.
Don’t arrive expecting for anything close to a literal take on the novel of the same name, but if you’ve attended the Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement you’ll have some idea what’s in store (Noah Bremer directs here as well as leading the annual demented Halloween festivities). It’s theater as amusement-park ride, and I mean that in the best sense possible. It will provoke, frighten, amuse, and evoke at once—your taste for dream logic will be your best guide.
The jokes keep coming in this sharply performed series of oddball skits, fragments, and gags that draw from writer Joshua Will’s literate irreverence and gleefully malicious takes on Biblical names, romantic relationships, TV networks, and study techniques relying on self-assault as a means of brutal memorization.
Not everything works here—there’s an aimless skit on self-important restaurant patrons that feels like an idea in search of a direction—but the exceptions stand in contrast to what does, which is laugh-out-loud funny and a sweet-spot intersection of script and cast. It’s an hour that goes down easy, and leaves you walking out humming the hand-down goofiest Hawaiian melody of this year’s Fringe.
Mike Fotis has stacked up a body of work as a storyteller that’s almost enough to make us take him for granted—he’s got a wry and piercing observational gift wedded to a comedian’s delivery and pitch-perfect timing, not to mention an obvious affection for all that he skewers and a reflexive (and hilarious) knack for self-deprecation. He almost makes it look easy.
It isn’t, of course, and it’s a point driven home in his latest. Ostensibly the account of a one-more-time family trip with his brother and his parents to the Grand Canyon (his folks pitched into fits of apprehension by such things as debit cards and iTunes), it segues into a gutsy account of paralyzing anxiety that is at once unflinching and funny to the point of feeling universal (whether one has ever been bitten by the anxiety demon or not). It’s impossible to see this one and not laugh hard and laugh often, to a point at which even life’s troughs and terrors seem of a piece with all the other foolishness—a nifty trick, and a sign of a great talent.