Fringe Fest with a Jewish twist

By ALAN SMASON

The seventh annual New Orleans Fringe Festival held in three main areas of the city – Faubourg Marigny, Bywater and Central City – concluded on Sunday. Within its 82 different shows were several presentations of special interest to the Jewish community either because of Jewish content or because the performers were Jewish. In many cases both were true.

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Windy Wynazz, Fringe performer in “Uncouth.” (Photo by Lynne Fried)

One of the more interesting was performance artist Windy Wynazz (real name Wendi Gross), who originally hailed from the Baltimore area and then later moved to Orlando.

Wynazz, who now calls Oakland, CA her home, performed her one-woman show titled “Uncouth” at the Shadowbox Theatre at 2400 St. Claude Avenue.

“I would say it’s a clown show,” when asked to describe her act. “It combines acrobatics, slapstick and dance,” she explained. Wynazz, who recently studied at the San Francisco Clown Conservancy, based this particular character as part of a concept she developed there.

Her clown’s whiteface is accented by rhinestone appliques above her eyes and thick blue and silver eyeshadow. She used her disarming and charming clown persona to make contact with audience members, occasionally bringing them into her act as she executed a number of impressive acrobatic moves.

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Windy Wynazz performs in “Uncouth” at the New Orleans Fringe Festival. (Photo by Shoot that clown.com)

What might seem to be simple performance art underlied a carefully constructed script of music cues and voiceovers. The voiceovers were designed to be the judgmental commentary from her character’s mother. “It’s a voice in her memory,” she related. “It’s her mother telling her she’s not good enough; she won’t make it.”

The research for this feminine clown with an enormous dose of Jewish guilt was conducted in collaboration between Wynazz and one of her Clown Conservancy professors, Dan Griffiths,  who served as the show’s director. She feels confident she has now struck a proper balance between a sanguine and a hilarious act.

Several props were utilized throughout the performance including several small chairs and a miniature piano used for acrobatic work (and occasionally playing). The piano was sent to her by her mother, who asked her to take care of it and not paint  it. “She thought it was classic as it is.” So, her Jewish mother is truly in her act.

Wynazz began performing at an early age. “My mom enrolled me in classes because she felt I was emotive,” she explained. She studied at Rollins College, a liberal arts college in Florida and went on to receive a degree in directing, rather than performance, which Wynazz feels has contributed significantly to her work.

Although she did perform at the Orlando Fringe Festival in her former home, the New Orleans Fringe Festival was her first real out-of-town fringe festival appearance, but it apparently won’t be her last. Wynazz was recently selected by lottery to appear at the Orlando Fringe Festival and seven other Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (CAFF) over the course of next summer.

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Joanna Caplan in “Total Verrükte!” (Photo ©2014 Maria Baranova)

Another show with Jewish content was the compelling “Total Verrückt!,” a one-woman cabaret work by Joanna Caplan, a Canadian who now hails from the Boston area. “Total Verrückt!” included poetry readings, puppetry and original music and sounds to evoke the lives of performers interred in Westerbork, a transit camp, during the Holocaust.

The title, which can be translated as “totally crazy,” served well as the background story constructed from the diaries of Jewish-Dutch poet Etty Hillesum as well as cabaret stars Max Ehrlich, Johnny and Jones, and Dora Gerson. Caplan used her own material to capture their memories as well as to register their use of art as a means of resistance and survival through incalculably tough times.

Her painstaking research of these real Jewish characters allowed her to connect to her own heritage.

She began the research on this unusual topic back in 2010 and turned out the first iteration of the work in 2011 as a resident of the Double Edge Theatre in Boston. Caplan constructed a makeshift set in an attic to elicit the feel of a prisoner looking out of a window.

She also worked with a set of two rails which she uses to great effect in the performance to denote the track these real life personages took from comfortable lives in cities like Amsterdam to trains that led them to transit camps and eventually to death camps like Auschwitz. The show, which ran about 40 minutes, was performed at the Dancing Grounds, 3705 St. Claude Avenue in Bywater.

Perhaps the most liberal use of a Jewish theme was the provocative “A Roller Rink Temptation,” penned by playwright  and actress Catherine Weingarten. The story was one of teen angst on roller skates and performed by a company of seven. The setting was a roller rink, where the teenage girls professed their love for one another in a variety of ways.

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The cast and playwright of “A Roller Rink Temptation.” (Photo by Alan Smason)

The cast of characters included three pairings. The first was a popular cheerleader (with an unseen boyfriend) and a shy recluse. The second was an ill-advised match of a clueless hottie in a neck brace with her hopeful friend, who wanted to ramp up their relationship. The last was an avowed and confident lesbian roller rink worker with her more-than-curious Jewish teen. For comic relief there was a male character, who alternately acted as narrator and commentator at various times.

The Jewish character, who went by the name of Rutabaga, wore a T-shirt with a Star of David emblazoned on it. Weingarten based part of the character on her own Jewish experience growing up. The hour-long piece was accompanied by very funny video clips that paced the performances. “A Roller Rink Temptation” was performed at Beaubourg, 615 Gravier Street, in the Central Business District.

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Claudia Baumgarten as the acerbic Dorothy Parker in “Wit and Wrath.” (Photo by Alan Smason)

Claudia Baumgarten, played the role of Dorothy Parker in “Wit and Wrath,” an immersive play in which she portrayed the acerbic Jewish-born female writer, who held residence at the Algonquin Round Table in New York with the likes of Edna Ferber, George S. Kaufman, Alexander Woollcott, Robert Benchley and Harpo Marx among many others. In character, she treated attendees to a number of pithy Parker quotes and read several passages of Parker’s poetry gleaned from her popular books and widely read columns in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.

Held in Central City on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard (the former heavily Jewish area of Dryades Street), the show was directed by local actress Diana Shortez. It was a brilliant tour-de-force for Baumgarten, who wore a hat and gloves in addition to her vintage 1940s attire to emulate the acid-tongued writer and poetess.

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