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Skysail Theatre presented its debut performance at the Asheville Fringe Arts Festival: a compact, comedy of errors musical, Tithonia: A Lesbian Space Opera. The Asheville-based company has its roots in devised theatre, but this musical comedy was expertly crafted, showing a clear amount of enthusiasm and expertise. With a clever script by Terran Wanderer and original songs and music by Michelle Troszak, this hour-long mini-musical was full of romantic comedy tropes, sci-fi adventure, and so much enthusiasm. Director, production manager, and co-stage manager Lea Gilbert was the third and final piece of the production company trio, and propelled the company's marketing efforts through social media, a fundraising campaign, and so much joy.
The cast, appropriately tiny for the modest black box that is The Magnetic Theatre, was constantly multi-tasking. Troszak, in addition to being the music director and composer, played N.A.N.C.I. (the Noetic Artificial Nano-Computer Intelligence), the personified ship's computer. She was adorned in wires and motherboard-esque face paint, and perched downstage to observe and influence the action of the others. N.A.N.C.I., often through song, observes and comments upon the crew's action, with the actor using a voice-doubling mechanism that transformed her voice to make it sound more artificial. However, Troszak was able to deliver clear, appealing vocals and a bit of an amused quirk to her speech that brilliantly reflected N.A.N.C.I.'s increasingly apparent plot to sabotage the ship.
Rebecca Boyce played the intrepid and stubborn Captain Jacqueline – but also served as stage manager for the production and lighting designer alongside Gilbert – while Shannon McKerlie* played the more lighthearted yet brilliantly intelligent Engineer Aria; McKerlie had also worked with Troszak on costume design, and led set and prop design and construction. The actors did their own set transitions and even appeared before the show to distribute Tithonia stickers and share information about the company's GoFundMe page. It all felt wonderfully communal and authentic, as many of the productions at this festival did. Tuesday evening's preview party was an intimate gathering at LaZoom Room's zany "Bar & Gorilla," the home of the wildly comedic Asheville bus tour. There the Tithonia crew performed a short selection and Phillipe Andre Coquet previewed his multidisciplinary tales and songs of sex work, Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's Off to Work I Go, which premiered an hour after Tithonia's opening on Friday (and will repeat following Sunday's Tithonia show).
The seemingly modest set – produced, in true fringe theatre fashion, on an incredibly limited budget - was full of interesting details; from an interactive control panel to an exterior tower with a space-walk tether that the actors hooked into, everything was painted an attractive (and very sci-fi) shiny silver. The video and graphic projections serving as control readouts, window into space, and occasional communications display, all designed by Caroline Dischell, were central but remained surprisingly unobtrusive. All of it combined effectively to convey the "newest vessel in the Andromeda fleet" and the "safest" reconnaissance vessel on her maiden voyage, the Tithonia – which promptly explodes in the first two minutes of the show. The resulting chaos served to frame the action of the final two crew members in their struggle to survive – at least long enough to be rescued.
Boyce and McKerlie had great chemistry, progressing from reluctant partners of the shipwreck to a confident and capable team. Even though they are terribly shaken by the dire nature of the situation, they playfully joke and flirt as they get to know each other, racing through just about every rom-com trope possible, even kissing in the "rain" of a broken sprinkler system. Boyce had a strong, professional musical theatre belt to her voice, while McKerlie used a softer, lighter lyric tonality – both were suited perfectly to their characters, and they were able to blend and balance alongside each other in sweet harmonies without need of amplification. The light, contemporary music was pre-recorded, composed and performed by Troszak on a combination of synthesizers and vocal harmonies, and sound designer Casey Clennon did a great job layering in various atmospheric sounds and effects. Alex Levine, running crew and board operator, should also be commended: Gilbert and Levine's work coordinating light and sound cues was so impeccably carried out that it felt effortlessly seamless.
The story is full of wonderful little details that endear the characters to each other and serve to continually propel the plot forward through magnificent plot twists. Boyce, McKerlie, and Troszak all used timing to produce excellent comedy, and their acting was versatile and compelling. The story is entertaining and silly, but emotionally genuine, telling a love story that just so happens to be queer – and in space. While less "fringey" than some of the performances I saw this week, Tithonia: A Lesbian Space Opera is a fun new musical, and it received a warm welcome with a sold out opening night and many well-wishers and generous artists offering support and suggestion after the show.
Audience members were encouraged to vote throughout the festival on which events were their favorites and which were "the Fringiest of the Fringe." Tithonia will most likely rank higher on the former and lower on the latter, in contrast to Shadow Organization's Discomfort. This show was a collection of jarring and varied vignettes put on by a troupe of burlesque artists and belly dancers. Ranging from pole dancing to satire to pantomime and dance, it was not a completely enjoyable experience, but was certainly effective! There is a vast array of events at a fringe festival, and Asheville's iteration, having successfully entered its 20th year despite delays and COVID-19-related setbacks, continues to offer both wildly experimental and (slightly) more mainstream shows through Sunday, in a wonderfully weird arts incubator.
*Shannon McKerlie is reviewer Andrea McKerlie Luke's sister, and their family was highly involved in the production of this show.