By Caleb Calhoun
The car, a late-90’s Taurus, is already running when we arrive. The driver, although cordial, is clearly uneasy. He holds the door for Dr. Mack, Ms. Mariposa, and myself as we climb in, unsure as to what exactly we have gotten ourselves into.
Then noises from the trunk. Banging and shouting and chaos and confusion. A secret agent is birthed from a sedan’s boot just in time to fend off a rabid drug-dealer who, just happens to be, the owner of the car.
Drug-lord dispatched, she scampers into the front passenger seat and we are off, our departure heralded by skid-marks, screeching tires, and a small cloud of smoke.
This is The Ride-Along, an immersive theater experience and a part of the whole that is The Asheville Fringe Festival. Now in it’s 15th year, this weekend bacchanalia of art, theater, poetry, and just plain-weird fits like a glove on the six-fingered hand that is Asheville.
It feels as if Ashvegas is the city to birth such an event, but the first Fringe fest on record was, in fact, held in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1947. There, several troupes of actors and writers were denied entrance to a major theater festival, so they chose to offer their own alternative event. The idea quickly caught on with other creators on the artistic fringe and satellite festivals are now held everywhere from Minnesota to Australia.
Still, it’s hard to imagine a better scene than Asheville for this kind of thing. Weird is what we do. Of course we would embrace this high-brow freak show with open arms.
The bar, while not crowded, is basically full. There is no stage per se, but there is a focal point. A black bag, perhaps 6 feet long and 36 inches, wide lays in the middle of the floor. Beyond it is a table, a chair, and a rocks glass of what appears to be whiskey.
Brittanie Gunn is talking to someone. Perhaps to me, but I’m not so sure. I’m honestly not sure of much. Only one thing is abundantly clear. This woman is a nut-job. She is an author, she tells us, of dinosaur erotica, a particularly tiny sub-genre of, ahem, literature, in which cave-women are violated by their leather-skinned jungle companions.
She is on a mission to find readers who have negatively reviewed her book and to show them the light. With a crowbar. And here I sit, strangely aroused, as she reads explicit portions from her writing in between taking verbal swings at her prisoners.
I want another beer but standing up is out of the question.
My roommate and I arrive early. We are worried about the possibility of a sellout and the illustration of the Walt Whitman-esque man with exposed titties on the flyer has us convinced that this will be a show not to be missed.
This is Poetry Cabaret, and it is also my first visit to The Magnetic Theatre. Better late than never I presume, but I do feel as if I should have arrived here long ago. The art gallery/performance space is somehow both wildly unique and quintessentially Asheville.
The show begins with a musical number from Aaron Price on the keys and Polly Panic on the cello. In my entire natural life I have never had the opportunity to describe the sound of a cello as 1970’s psychedelic rock on heroin, but I don’t know how else to explain it. Driving and heavy at points, it twists your heart in knots and then completely sloughs off the responsibility of helping you untangle yourself.
As the music fades to silence Caleb Beissert takes the stage. I have heard beat poetry read aloud and I have heard slam poetry lectured at me and I have seen Billy Collins read to a room full of transfixed (and slightly lovesick) college students. This is none of those things.
This is a creative genius waving his middle finger at the institution. This is subversiveness defined. This is welcome to the family or get the fuck out.
As the night progresses, Beissert yields the floor to poet after poet, each with their own voice, their own words, and their own gravitas. Still, to be honest, it wasn’t the poetry that got me to the show in the first place and I would be doing a disservice to you, my reader, were I not to mention the burlesque.
The truth is that burlesque is a clumsy word for the nuanced and dexterous performance put on by Hester Prynncess. One can hardly even view her body because her facial expressions are perfect. We, the audience, are hypnotized.
Still, as a professional journalist, I feel an obligation to really take it in. The curves of the back of her thighs, the lines of her collarbones, her beautiful, delicate, unshaven armpits. She is magic. She is transcendent. She is Psyche herself, the stage is Cupid’s palace, and the tattered office chair with which she performs is a throne of sapphire-studded gold.
When she is done there is more poetry. Poetry so good as to make you forget that you are hoping for more burlesque.
After the show, I mill around talking to the other patrons. I speak to the performers and congratulate Ben Mack, a magician who was part of the show, on his mind-boggling act. I finish my PBR.
My roommate the DD, we take to the car for the hour-long drive back to Lake Toxaway. What have we seen this weekend? We have no conclusions at first. A commonality perhaps? A community?
Or maybe it was even more than that. Maybe it was validation. A massive, loving stamp telling us that we are alright. Telling us that we are accepted. Telling us that we need not subscribe to what the mainstream prescribes but that we are in fact each unique individuals to be celebrated and loved.
Even those of us who want that love to come from an 18-foot long, prehistoric lizard.
Caleb Calhoun studied writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and music at a plethora of clubs and bars across the southeast. He is the author and publisher of Rosman City Blues and currently resides outside of Asheville with his dog and best friend, Dr. Gonzo.
You can reach him at Caleb.firstname.lastname@example.org and/or Facebook.com/GonzoNC.