Comedy, Theater / Performance

CONES (The Rotunda, 19Jun15)

TAKE NOTE:  THIS SHOW CAN STILL BE SEEN 22JUN and 23JUN at Rotunda!  Get your tickets here!

What they say it is:

The Medium Theatre Company presents CONES, an action-comedy game show about vampires, vision loss and ice cream. A blindfolded boy has stories to share—secrets about eating cereal, wearing capes, avoiding bright lights and learning how to fly. When a team of well-meaning doctors, gym teachers, rock stars and new-age healers try to pry his eyes open, what will he see? The answer may be in the ice cream. And the ice cream will certainly be served in CONES.

NEW Tara Says Graphic

Sometime back around the year 2000, I was searching for an identity beyond that of your typical, transitory West Philadelphia university student, and simultaneously looking for ways to be a more active participant in the community.  Around this time, I interviewed to be a roommate with a film editor and free spirit who also happened to be vegan.  I didn’t get the room.  I was a meat eater.  They were vegan.  I didn’t understand food politics and, at the time, I wasn’t open to experimenting with a new way of eating.  However, this couple told me all about a small food co-op where you could get all the groceries you could ever need; and they gave you a key any time of day or night.

As mentioned, I wasn’t ready to change my lifestyle habits, but I was fascinated with the other ways to live in the world and I was interested in meeting more West Philadelphians.  So, I explored what the co-op had to offer, and ended up being one of the volunteer members.  My shift as a cashier turned out to be a great way to meet others in the area, and also led to my first meeting with Morgan Fitzpatrick Andrews—author and solo performer of Cones.  Morgan was a patron who seemed to have interesting things to say even during mundane, everyday interactions such as paying for groceries.  As I got to know him a little better, Morgan became ‘West Philly famous’ to me.

Across the space of several years, I was lucky enough to encounter Morgan’s influence in the community again and again.  I spotted him at studio 34, a fundraising brunch, the annual fun-a-day celebration—and then he became my favorite yoga teacher.    At some point, I learned that Morgan donates a portion of his yoga earnings to organizations like Books Through Bars bars and the Pentridge Childrens Garden.  He conducts an amazing New Year’s Eve yoga class, which even includes holiday snacks at the end.   He also is a puppeteer, DJ, student, teacher of yoga, punk rock music lover, gardener and more.   So….though I’ve noticed and known Morgan for many years, I don’t believe calling Morgan ‘my friend’ would be exactly accurate—but there is no doubt that I came to see him as a fascinating person who offers a lot to the world.  Morgan has a gift of making you really ‘know’ him—even from a distance—by sharing personal insights at the beginning of yoga class, and then constructing patterns of movement that expand intentionally and carefully on the presented intention or organizing idea.  His practice has allowed me to explore my own views and gratitude in life through the lens of Morgan’s own.

Here is what I didn’t know through all those encounters and years.  I’ve noticed that Morgan occasionally squints his eyes, but I had no idea that Morgan has impaired vision—a fact that is the primary focus of his latest artistic effort, Cones.  During yoga classes, his teaching includes typical correction and advice–so, I never had a reason to wonder about his eyesight or the way he provides instruction.  However, reflecting on it now, Morgan does give particularly excellent verbal instructions about the specific ways that you should be moving and detailed orientations for complex poses.  And I once heard him talking his work on an annotated bibliography . . . so he must be able to see the computer, right?  Anyway, even after seeing Cones, I admit that I’m not entirely sure how well Morgan is able to see, but I did realize that I’ve been making assumptions, and that Cones is Morgan’s way of discussing the issue.

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ANYWAY–If the paragraphs above strike the reader as overly verbose and you happened to skim ahead to this point, I’ll summarize it for you: Morgan strikes me as mysterious, interesting , intelligent and witty person—someone who I was curious about and wanted to get to know a little better.  Readers of this blog may recall that Clay and I saw a preview of Morgan’s show Cones at the Rotunda earlier this year (you can read Tara’s comments on that preview here).  At the time, I was excited to learn that Morgan was doing a theatrical performance, and after seeing the preview presentation, I looked forward to learning more about Morgan, his condition, and experience the finished show.

Learning that Morgan has difficulty with his vision was a surprise to me.   After the preview, I was too embarrassed to ask, but my partner (Clay) helped out by asking Morgan if the play was autobiographical – and he confirmed that this was very much the case.  It felt as though I was given another reason to be impressed with this person.  On top of all his other activities, he also writes, produces and performs a funny and intimate story about his life experience.  I love memoirs, opportunities for gratitude, voyeurism, documentaries. . .  learning!!!  There is so much intelligence and life out there that I will never have the chance to know or fully understand.  I have no idea what it is like to be blind, but I want to  learn how to be a more empathetic and understanding person.  For example, I’ve never understand why SEPTA announces each stop on their lines . . . duh! Could it be that a person might not be see the stop they are at?!?

According to the ads for this show, Cones is a show about vampires, vision loss and ice cream.

So many mechanisms were used to explore the topics of Cones –the program became a cone-shaped party hat, we were offered free drinks in paper beverage cones, and most memorable of all, the show closed with free ice cream cones by Little Baby’s.  Through all these means and media, Cones discussed issues of ability vs. disability, the choice of whether to “pass” (i.e. hide one’s own physical challenges), social pity, and more.

this picture is from http://rodcone.blogspot.com/

this picture is from http://rodcone.blogspot.com/

The play opens with Morgan in a pair of tight white underpants walking across the stage blindfolded carrying a road cone.  This object is placed on the stage, and then a trunk and clothing rack are added.  As the play unfolds, the audience is welcomed to participate by selecting clothing items for the actor to wear for his “day”.  Like an optometrist’s exam, Morgan holds up shirts, calling out “Which is better–number one, or number two?”, until the wildest shirts are finally chosen and worn for the remainder of the play.  During the show, he shares his experiences growing up in a small apartment occupied largely by a couch, television and his mother.  His parents were separated and, naturally, that this was distressing to him.  By way of introducing vision loss, he tells how during those childhood years he would watch Mr. Magoo and, though he hated the cartoon (and its reliance upon a single unfunny plot line revolving around sight impairment), it was the only cartoon available at 6am, so he endured it.

Morgan is a great story teller.  He takes his dramatic experience and morphs it into a humorous situation, thereby making it less scary and more accessible to an audience, and probably easier for him to talk about as well.  For example, Morgan allowed (or tricked?) the audience to select a vampire cape for him to wear (this, instead of pants)—and then transforms himself into Dr. ‘Macula’ (Dracula) as his childhood optometrist.  Dr. Macula turns out to be a reasonably friendly (or at least well-meaning) vampire who will explain Morgan’s very real and pathological vision loss for the audience.  A touching/telling moment in the play is when Morgan discusses relationships, and his very real concern about whether a potential love interest will be interested in him as a person, and not simply ‘into’ his disability (i.e. getting stuck with a partner who is acting out a hero complex via Morgan’s eyesight challenges).   This was a revealing moment about his fears of intimacy, and an acknowledgement of his concerns about social perceptions of disability. This show is both a discussion about these complicated topics, as well as a way for the author to come to terms with his situation . . . how to deal with life as a partially sighted person, and addressing his own fears for the future.

The experience of seeing this play and writing this blog entry have made me think more about the assumptions we make about people, and the value of ensuring that others have everything they need in life.  When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me…..

Morgan also draws on the common childhood sensation of feeling left out.  On stage, he begins the routine team selection process, hinting at that embarrassing experience we all feared—being picked last.  He then distributes wiffle balls to audience members and invites the audience to tell him when to swing the bat.  Keep in mind—Morgan is blindfolded for the majority of the play.  What could be a more apt demonstration of unfair humiliation, loss, and exclusion than poor physical coordination caused by a disability?  Even those of us without physical handicaps can relate to the awful gym experience, so it was certainly an effective mechanism to reach audience members.  I wonder if this was an authorial choice based in real life, or because it was an effective mechanism to draw in an audience through participation and relatability?  I wonder Morgan had other stories to tell but which didn’t make it into the show because they weren’t as generic or familiar to the experience of the general population . . . ?

I continue to be amazed by people, by their many achievements and personal life hacks, by their ability to reach others and make an impact . . .  by the ways that people like Morgan inspire ideas and new behaviors.

Thank you Medium Theatre, hope to hear from you again soon.

NEW Clay Says graphic Ernie

WOW—Tara wrote a real blog for you folks.  As you can she, we’ve covered quite a lot of ground in this entry—Tara’s history with West Philadelphia, her various experiences and encounters with the author of the show, and her inspired reaction to the topics of Morgan’s play.  I’d asked her to lead on this entry, but had no idea she’d pound out nearly 3 pages of commentary.  Therefore, I’ll just add a few of my own critical observations and thoughts in no particular order, and let this massive entry stand as-is.

I enjoyed the play, and reading Tara’s meditations above made me consider it more deeply than before.  Tara is excellent at appreciating the subtleties of biography and personal experience, so I’m particularly glad that she gave me the context by which to appreciate Morgan’s vitality and extracurricular life contrasted against the darker topics found in Cones.  I don’t know Morgan beyond his role as my wife’s yoga instructor and from occasionally spotting his friendly face in the sea of amazing West Philadelphia, but Tara’s enthusiasm is infectious. The mere fact that after years of dejectedly searching for a yoga teacher that she actually likes, Tara was able to find a happy match in Morgan’s weekly classes . . .  this is enough recommendation for me.

As a play, it felt like a amalgamation of life experiences and scenes across many years, almost like small vignettes organized along the line of a single common thread.  As a one-man performer, Morgan works hard to keep the rhythms and the narrative flowing, and there’s a good contrast between the potentially heavy (i.e. encroaching genetic blindness) and the lighthearted (wearing a traffic cone on one’s head, for example).  There are plenty of moments of audience participation in this show—something I’m a big fan of—and I especially liked the comedic effect of picking a wardrobe for a blindfolded actor, as well as our fruitless attempts to help a blind man hit a baseball.  Additionally, whenever a work exceeds the bounds of strictly-staged affair, you can sign me up for a ticket.  The free (cone-shaped) drinks, the conical hats, and the ice cream CONES at the end—all of this was well executed, clever, and appreciated.  A big high-five to the author for such creative efforts.  The show tickets were almost too cheap to cover the associated expenses of the performance—so we definitely got value for our dollar here.

Running at around an hour, Cones is the right length for the topic.  It’s a meditative journey with no conclusive outcome, though my own interpretation is that Cones is meant to be a sort of coming-out party for Morgan, a way to get his sight-related fears and thoughts into the open of his local life.  As Tara was saying, even having spotted Mr. Andrews around the city, I never knew he had any kind of impairment, and I can easily imagine the conflicts one would experience when deciding to share or hide a personal ailment.  I adore the idea of confronting a personal challenge with such boldness and ‘cant-take-it-back’ publicity.  Own your faults, instead of letting them own you.

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