The question to ask during FronteraFest Short Fringe's The Piano Has Been Drinking, Not Me is not, “What's going on?” or, “Why is he holding a jar of what looks like eyeballs?” but “Why isn't more Austin theater this delightful?” What elevates this strange song and dance number from goofy-dudes-onstage to sublime absurdism is the talent and ingenuity of Justin Sherburn and Zeb L. West.
Sherburn, of Okkervil River fame, has also made a name for himself around town composing and playing for local theater companies Trouble Puppet and Tongue and Groove. He looks happy to be onstage, tearing through dramatic riffs on the piano and laughing occasionally at West's antics. Impressively, West trained at the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theater in California, and his movements have a rare grace and precision.
The premise seems simple: Sherburn plays piano while West enacts an increasingly elaborate ritual of longing. He pulls a framed photo of a couple out of a wooden chest and hugs it close, then displays it to the audience. He tries to dance but keeps bursting into tears and dusting the photograph, until he gives up and dances while sobbing.
He goes back to the chest and pulls out a Kenny Rogers wig. As the music changes, he puts on the wig and sings “Lady” to a woman in the audience before giving her a rose. He pulls on some long black rubber gloves, pours dish soap and what looks like a can of beans into the chest, then pulls out a large, slimy jar that might be filled with boiled eggs — or eyeballs. He tries to give the jar to the lucky lady in the audience and looks sad when she refuses.
All of this happens before West even gets to the titular drinking, the striptease or the earnest, hip shaking rendition of R. Kelly's “Bump N' Grind.” He fully commits to every bit of ridiculousness and remains completely deadpan throughout the entire act. His mastery of movement and expression, partnered with Sherburn's musical finesse, create a compelling twenty minutes of what feels like profound tomfoolery.
On the same bill, Austin newcomer Tom McTigue anchors the short, one man play Marilyn, by Beth Broderick, with a grounded and nuanced performance that keeps the somewhat cliched script from slipping into melodrama. Vince is an East Coast cop whose incredulity at Democrats and “Save the Whales” bumper stickers is offset by his deep love for his brother Michael, who was gay and recently died from AIDS. Vince tells the audience about flying to LA to bury his brother, who loved Marilyn Monroe, but finds himself overwhelmed by the kindness and devotion of Michael's best friend.
This script is at its best when it explores the inarticulateness of grief. Vince doesn't have the words to explain how he feels and can only memorialize his brother with utterances like, “He had good friends. That's good.” McTigue weights these lines in a way that makes every word matter, and he lets the story carry him along until Vince loses control of his already crumbling facade. McTigue is a veteran screen actor making his Austin stage debut, so local companies take note — here's an actor who only needs a minute to capture an audience's attention.
Despite McTigue's performance, Marilyn is too short and self-contained to earn its emotional climax. This could be a powerful monologue in a longer play, but as a standalone piece it asks for too much commitment from the audience too quickly. As it stands, it feels like a character sketch waiting to be expanded into a longer narrative.
FronteraFest's Short Fringe finishes its month-long run of shows this Friday before hosting its final Best of Week show on Saturday at 8 p.m. Best of the Fest shows (selected from the top Best of Week shows) run Feb. 14 - 18.