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‘L’Ange Avec Les Fleurs’ Kicks Off Fringe Festival With Creative Flair

July 23, 2008

By Robert Trussell, The Kansas City Star, Mo.

Jul. 23–Well, I made the right call by venturing into the Just Off Broadway Theatre for the opening night of the KC Fringe Festival.

There I encountered a most remarkable musical play by a group of fringe-circuit players based in Austin, Texas.

“L’Ange Avec Les Fleurs” isn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last theater piece to remind the viewers at every turn that they are, in fact, watching the muscle and sweat of make-believe, but few shows do it with such creativity. The charmingly low-budget production turns its relative poverty into a virtue by evoking the days when bare-bones sets and costumes could be packed into moving trunks and hauled to the next gig.

No particular effort is made to conceal costume changes from the audience and at times the narrative moves forward in comically threadbare marionette shows. The actors wear whiteface makeup and most play multiple roles. Illuminated by footlights and enlivened by live performances from the Bric-A-Brac Band, the show is redolent of a musty theatrical past even as it finds refreshing new ways to tell a story.

It’s also a rather elaborate play within a play. The actors don’t just play specific characters. They play the fictional French actors playing those characters.

Derived from Henry Miller’s The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder, this is a clown show in the best sense. This is the story of Baptiste, whose career as an A-list circus performer has left him spiritually exhausted. He sheds his clown persona and sets out on a journey in which he seeks only to be himself — a normal human being doing normal human activities. He comes close to achieving it but ultimately confronts an obdurate reality — once a clown, always a clown.

Chris Gibson seems propelled by inexhaustible energy as Baptiste. His physical performance is impressive and Baptiste’s angst is convincing. He’s an ideal choice for the role because it’s impossible not to watch him. Cami Alys Yankwitt is eerily appealing as a circus girl and later as a hooker. Martin Luecke has a couple of hilarious numbers as the Big French Bear (yes, he wears a bear costume) and Jonathan Van Matre is as funny as he is disturbing as Mr. Germany, a sort of entertainment cop dedicated to stopping people from having too much fun. (The play is set in 1940, when France was occupied by the Nazis.)

The Bric-A-Brac Band is outstanding, creating an irresistible cabaret sound with drums, string bass, accordion and guitar. The songs, many of them in the French cabaret tradition, were written by company members.

At 90 minutes the show seems a bit long and Baptiste’s identity crisis feels a bit laborious before all is said and done. But those are minor complaints. This piece is hard not to like. At times it seems startlingly original.

Producer Beth Marshall, who happens to be the producing artistic director of the Orlando International Fringe Festival, said the show has been evolving since it was first staged in 2002. She also reports that it’s been accepted at the Toronto Fringe Festival next year. That’s good news because this play deserves a much wider audience.

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“L’Ange Avec Les Fleurs” will be performed again at 8 p.m. Thursday, 9:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central. Admission is $10 with a festival button. Festival buttons cost $5. For more information, go to www.kcfringe.org.

The Bric-A-Brac Vintage Vagabond Variety Show will perform at 8 p.m. Friday, 6:30 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday at The Foundation, 1221 Union Ave. in the West Bottoms. Admission is $10 with a festival button.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send e-mail to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Kansas City Star, Mo.

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