Fringe benefits 

Making Wonders of the World work

Some of Missoula’s best rock shows don’t occur at the Adams Center, the Wilma or The Other Side, but in some enterprising promoter/fan’s cramped basement. The band will usually be situated under a heating duct and next to a washer-dryer combo, half the crowd will be pushing down from the stairwell, bent over to see where the noise is coming from, and everyone will be fully engaged if for no other reason than there’s nowhere to hide at a house show. The atmosphere provides a certain raw energy and communal spirit that make it immediately more endearing than something more corporate and composed.

The Wonders of the World: Recite feels like the theatrical equivalent of a house show, so it’s fitting that the DIY-flavored, hour-long play is slated for an international tour that hits fringe festivals, theaters, bars and, yes, friends’ living rooms over the course of the summer. Recently, a special preview show was staged—and by staged I mean performed without anything resembling an actual stage—in a local space that had all the ambiance of an anti-meth commercial: an ominous industrial basement accessible only by back alley, with barely enough light to make out the dozen or so invitees in attendance and an air of potential illegality, since the room was definitely not, shall we say, part of the Fire Marshal’s scheduled rounds. But the alternative atmosphere, and the manner in which the Missoula Oblongata production company played to its possibilities, was almost as much of a draw as the performance itself.

The set design for Wonders looks like a cross between a yard sale and a children’s play fort. For example, an elevated “lighthouse” in the back is made of what looks like broken window blinds and tapestries with an auto body part as the roof. The rest of the “stage” is filled with old suitcases, laundry lines strung about with artwork attached, a bookcase of knick-knacks and additional piles of what can best be described as necessary junk. The illumination comes courtesy of one spotlight operated and positioned by the actors when they’re not delivering lines. If the whole setup sounds a little rag-tag, it is, but strategically so.

Wonders takes place on a remote cape in a nondescript part of the world populated by two peculiar packrats and their even quirkier collection of stuff. Eugene (Donna Sellinger) is a little boy with an active imagination who lives with his grandmother, Cora Bell (Madeline ffitch; she prefers the lowercase spelling). Grandmother is a delusional Mary Poppins type, and when she home-schools Eugene on the wonders of the world, she includes some alarmingly random tidbits, such as that all diseases are incurable and that if a meteor were to hurtle toward Earth there would be no missiles to knock it off course. Cora Bell discourages Eugene from listening to the pair’s unreliable radio, but the little boy ends up befriending a fisherman/mailman named Wolfram Frybrid (ffitch and Leo Gebhardt share the role), who is the only other visitor to the cape and happens to have a skill for fixing old transistors.

The quirky story fits somewhere between a macabre coming-of-age tale (as it’s described by Missoula Oblongota) and a tragic ode to whimsy and isolation. Written by Sellinger and ffitch, the script initially threatens to be too weird to be penetrable—casual references to Ulysses S. Grant and Robespier will do that—but as the story quickly unfolds everything finds its place. The character development proves to be tight and the plot deceptively thoughtful. Even more impressive, the peripheral props eventually become vital—the lighthouse, the suitcases, even a birthday cake are all prominently involved. At one point the space is transformed into a romantic beachfront, and in another it becomes the scene of an octopus hunt. For a traveling three-person play, it’s a show with a surprising breadth of Vaudevillian pageantry.

When Wonders comes back through Missoula for two shows June 1 and 2—after scheduled runs in Seattle and Portland and before a trip to the Montreal Fringe Festival—it will be performed in the University of Montana’s Open Space in the PAR/TV building. Although it’s a considerably larger room than where the preview show was staged, I’d be shocked to see anything short of Eugene’s feared meteor strike suck the appealing eccentricity out of the performance. This play was designed to be malleable in its anywhere/anytime pick-up possibilities, and, in true fringe festival fashion, the location hardly matters. What’s far more important is the quality of the content and, just like at a house show, the expectations with which an audience approaches it. Expect to be fully engaged.

Wonders of the World: Recite runs Thursday, June 1, and Friday, June 2, at 8 PM in the Open Space of UM’s PAR/TV building. $10/$8 students.

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