After seven years, people who still don’t totally understand what the Cincy Fringe Festival is all about should make plans to see A Night of Well Adjusted Ladies, the perfect example of what’s right and fun about Fringe theater. There are more produced, glossier shows in the lineup, to be sure. There are probably more “important” works as well, whatever that means. But pound for pound, I’m not sure you can find a more accessible, charming and pee-in-your-pants-funny show this week.
The titular well-adjusted ladies are Megan Venzin and Emily Althaus and, to a lesser extent, their mothers. Venzin and Althaus launch into the show by distilling as simply as they can who they are as women right now. They then spend the next 45 minutes or so explaining the maternal forces in their lives that got them there. Each childhood story is funnier than the one before.
Venzin’s mom is a bipolar alcoholic with a boob job and a penchant for QVC benders. Althaus’ mother is a manic narcoleptic from the South, known to curl up and nap in Wal-Mart, McDonald’s or while teaching a class full of kids about science.
The tales could easily have been mean-spirited but aren’t.
Credit the thoughtful writing. The actresses, who also wrote, directed and produced the piece, walk a fine line between milking their family’s dysfunction for yuks and demonstrating that, through their childhood madness, they still felt loved. Maybe not Hallmark movie-of-the-week kind of love. But unconditional love, with warts, 911 calls, nasty fights and everything that happens in the real world.
I lamented recently that some Fringe offerings over the years substituted edgy content for theatricality. I still go to see theater, after all. I want to be moved by presentation and characters as well as by content. So it’s a joy to see a show like this one that hits the right balance with aplomb.
Venzin and Althaus and a pad of paper comprise the cast. They act out each memory on the cozy Coffee Emporium stage with dramatic verve. Mostly they present their stories as monologues, bouncing the spotlight back and forth between them. But the best moments are when they interact. The energy sizzles. It’s also quite cool to see how engaged each actress is in the other’s story. Each is tuned in, laughing, enjoying and supporting her friend.
Highlights include Venzin’s recounting of her 18th birthday party — or, as she describes it, “a redneck cotillion.” Her well-lubricated mother stole the spotlight with her skimpy swimwear, her unashamed grabbing of her children’s asses and her bloody tumble into the family pool. Althaus shines when she brings to life several supporting characters from her childhood, most notably the McDonald’s worker who needs an explanation for the sleeping mother on the recently mopped floor.
The show wraps on a variation of “your mom” jokes, as the actresses try to top each other with one-line zingers about their moms’ quirks. They even include some audience participation at this point, allowing everyone to commiserate about their own family dysfunction. Well-Adjusted Ladies makes a point to demonstrate that Venzin and Althaus love who they are right now. While audiences might get a chuckle from this form of group therapy, the show seems to say that, through it all, they wouldn’t change a thing.
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