Aug. 10 2015 04:26 PM

Heckling the Fringe Festival's silliest, longest-titled play


"I wrote a play," Scott Ehrig-Burgess writes in a Facebook message. "It's going to be in Fringe this summer. It's called Scenes From Mars One: Now With 68% Less Gravity! A One-Act Play With Thirteen Intermissions."

I rack my brain trying to remember how I know Ehrig-Burgess. I almost close the message, dismissing it as a shameless attempt to get coverage for a two-bit arts event, but the next part makes me hesitate:

"I've also read a lot of your 'Well That Was Awkward' series. The concept for which is just brilliant...Would you be interested in taking a VERY SMALL role in my play[?]"

Giving me compliments is like feeding a shark: my eyes roll back, and I'll become subservient to a primal desire for further approval. I charge forward until we're either best friends or one of us is dead. However, it still feels journalistically shady to participate in a play for the explicit prerogative that I'll cover it. Plus, I have my own reservations about the Fringe Festival's pay-to-play, artist-exploiting structure. 

I read on: "I even secretly hope you take the role and then trash my play."

I take the role.

July 2: All performances of Mars One will take place at the 10th Avenue Arts Center stage. It's a chilly, Brechtian room shrouded and painted in black—standard for theaters, but oppressive nonetheless. 

Ehrig-Burgess, sitting in the highest row, announces my arrival: "Ryan Bradford from CityBeat. Heckler #2, everybody!" Ehrig-Burgess has the bearded, hatted look of most creatives I know, and his voice is laced with delightful sarcasm. He tells me that the Fringe Festival accepted his proposal before he had written any of the script, which might explain the world-weary, self-deprecating tone of it, as well as his open invite to ridicule it. 

We watch the actors on stage rehearse a scene in which Heckler #1 is pulled from the audience and gets her throat sliced. The actor is rigged with a blood pouch meant to give the performance some projectile carnage. She pumps the apparatus, and blood trickles out, but doesn't even have the distance to splatter the port-a-potty behind her. The port-a-potty is supposed to be a rocket exterior. 

"It was a flat $60," Ehrig-Burgess says, referring to the port-a-potty rental price. He seems very proud of this. I concede that that sounds like a good deal. 

Heckler #1 is ready to go again. "This is your big scene," Ehrig-Burgess says. When Heckler #1 is onstage this time, my line (one of three) is: "That's why I never sit in the front!" Boom: throat slit. 

Ehrig-Burgess leaves me alone to oversee something else. I sit in the top seats and yell my line to a mostly empty theater.

July 21: I chat with Heckler #1 during the tech rehearsal. We compliment each other on our performances. I probably appear to be creepily obsessed with her blood pouch. 

I meet Randy, who plays Baron Von Krankenstool, a famed German theater teacher/pedophile. Randy remains in character even during the downtime. He introduces himself with his stage accent: Rahhndy

Adult non-professional actors are good people, but they are a strange, sad breed. I know because my mom's second husband was one. This isn't meant to sound condescending, as I credit a lot of my own strangeness to the exposure to theater and actors during this period of my youth. But even then, I noticed an underlying sadness among actors who would congratulate each other on performances in front of a seven-person audience. These people were always just a little over the hill. They overacted. They were a little too dependent on alcohol. 

Or maybe I'm projecting. It is quite possible that the cast of Mars One does not share these qualities, and that I'm using this analysis as makeshift therapy to get over mom's second divorce. Yes, it's possible. 

July 25: Opening night. Due to some good press, the audience is big. Esteemed KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando is here, sitting close by. 

The moment comes when I have to deliver another one of my three lines: FUCK YOU! Yelling "FUCK YOU" from the audience is fulfilling a dream that every theatergoer has had in their lifetime, but yelling "FUCK YOU" in a theater in an audience that contains esteemed KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando is a specific dream of mine. Check that off the bucket list.

July 26: One of the onstage chairs breaks halfway through the second performance. Given that the actors spend approximately 60 percent of the time sitting in these chairs, it's fascinating to watch how they navigate this pitfall. Ehrig-Burgess and director Mark Stephan sit behind me and laugh the entire time.

July 29: It's nearly a sold-out audience on the final night I perform. The lead actress gets caught in a chair. The lights dim and she walks off-stage with it strapped to her body. I later ask Ehrig-Burgess, "What's up with those chairs?" and he replies: "Seriously." 

When the lights come on, Burgess steps onstage and announces that tonight is my last performance (I'll be out of town for the final two shows). He thanks me and people applaud. I'm almost convinced of my newfound stardom until a dog—which had a small role in the production—ventures into the audience and everybody rushes to pet it.

PS: Scenes From Mars One: Now With 68% Less Gravity! A One-Act Play With Thirteen Intermissions ends up winning Outstanding Comedy at Fringe.

Ryan is the author of Horror Business. Write to or follow him on Twitter at @theryanbradford


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