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Terrorist and geeks get 15 minutes of Fringe

Gutsy, goofball political plays have long been a staple of the Fringe Festival but are in short supply this year. One such exception, a satire called “Romancing the Terrorist: Tajiki Nights!” imagines a power-hungry Republican U.S. president falling for a gay “terrorist” who prefers to make love, not war.

The kooky plot is set in motion after the American embassy is attacked in Tajikistan, a tiny, struggling republic bordering the Middle East. Although the offending leader is ousted and his gentle gay son (Mike Mosallam) promises to make amends, the U.S. president (Marshall York) and his pushy advisors wage war anyway, sort of. It is an election year, after all, and wartime presidents are always re-elected.

But when the sultry Tajiki leader continues to ply the warmonger with compassion and George Michael tunes, will love conquer all?

Sadly, this fantasy—more of an overlong “Mad TV” sketch, really—is just too farfetched, and the direction too scattershot, to hold our attention. The production values, even by rough-and-tumble Fringe standards, are sorely lacking. It’s no surprise that the promotional materials cite no credits for set, lighting, or costumes.

York clearly has talent and timing. But if casting an actor who looks like he’s in college to play the leader of the free world is part of the joke, it’s lost on me. A little baby powder in the hair might have lent him some sorely needed credibility.

Although the play’s execution falls way short of its inspiration, you must give creators Negin Farsad and Michael Wallach props for speaking out, albeit in an absurd vehicle, against the equally absurd U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and also against the trampling of gay civil liberties. Their goal, and it’s an admirable one, is to offer a “freaking beacon of hope”—they imagine a world where the American love affair with oil is supplanted by a love for humankind, no matter what gender.

And, to be fair, a few of the zingers do ring true. A character conducting a Google search quickly finds more inside information about Tajikistan than the CIA can uncover. The Tajiki leaders’ aides freak out when they discover he is “negotiating with the Americans,” making us wonder who the real terrorists are in the geopolitical equation.

The disjointed delirium of “Romancing the Terrorist” is relieved by the plaintive wails of George Michael songs, and his lyrics “you gotta have faith” become an anthem for the love-struck leaders. As for us, we lose our faith midway through this well-meaning mess.

“Band Geeks: A Halftime Musical” is one of those frothy “Urinetown” wannabes that valiantly trips over its own high-steppin’ aspirations. A half a musical is more like it.

Embracing ‘80s nostalgia in all its big-haired, over-synthesized glory, the musical is set in 1989 in a “suburb of a suburb” called Elyria, Ohio. Elbowed aside by the more glamorous sports teams, the ill-funded high school band is on the verge of extinction, and only a miracle, in the form of staging a half-time show at the Monday Night Football Cleveland Browns game, can save them. But can they get their act together in time?

Led by band chaperone Mrs. Love (E. Jones), the so-called “band fags” are bent on proving they’re cool in their own geeky way. The cast boasts 15 members, many playing multiple roles including the acne-ridded girl with scoliosis, the Goth chick, the Mennonite piccolo player, the horned-up tromboner, the knocked-up baton twirler, and, of course, a trio of ballsy, thick-necked jocks.

Problem is, the production, which returns to Chicago for an encore run in September, lacks the guts to go the distance. There are only a handful of musical numbers, and the vocals are all over the place. Much of the dialogue is inaudible, as is the score, which sounds like it’s emanating from a boom box somewhere offstage. Worst of all, the actors—unconvinci­ngly—fake playing their instruments so the rousing marching sequences, while cleverly staged, fall a tad flat.

Despite the clunky, made-for-high-school quality, “Band Geeks” does hit occasional high notes. Director/songwriter Andy Eninger borrows freely from the styles of the 1980’s and beyond, and his songs are “totally tubular,” especially the finale, “Everybody Wants to Be a Band Fag.”

The selection of ditties blared by the marching band, like “Eye of the Tiger,” “Mr. Roboto,” and “Blister in the Sun” (a Violent Femmes folk-punk song with nasty lyrics), is genius.

The wry book by Becky Eldridge and Amy Peter, self-confessed band geeks, is spiked with some devilish touches, like when the baton girl’s water breaks and a band-mate squeals, “It smells like placenta!”

Later, the Goth chick groans of her experience at band camp, “My slave nickname was Crater Crotch.”

“Band Geeks” promises redemption for anyone who was ever shoved up against a locker for not being a jock or cheerleader in high school. But if you think about it—and you’re not really supposed to—the message isn’t so much that band geeks are people too. That’s a luxury reserved only for band geeks who snag high-profile TV appearances.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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