Watermark on the Fringe: Commencement

By : Billy Manes
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Orlando Fringe is known for its irreverence and occasional trips into the sex and love and doubt of reflective, experimental writing and acting. Also, beer tents and funnel cakes abound while conceits melt in the heat and rain of the oncoming summer.

But Commencement, in the same tear-garden vein of several other offerings this year – David Lee’s O-Town: Voices of Orlando, most notably, but even humorist Michael Wanzie is turning confessional this year for Wanzie with a Z, recounting something of a tortured past: a revolution in evolution, so to speak. We are coming to terms, and we’re doing it at Fringe.

And that brings us to Fringe veteran Beth Marshall’s presentation of Clay McLeod Chapman’s Commencement, a difficult and moving portrayal of gun violence from the points of view that surround a singular incident.

It goes without saying that Marshall, who has been trying to get this production shown for several years, is aware of the importance of the subject of gun violence in Orlando nearly one year after the Pulse Massacre, but echoes of Virginia Tech, Columbine, Sandy Hook and all of the others resonate here.

Marshall, in perhaps her most moving role yet, plays the mother of a suicidal assassin at a school. She’s joined by Rose Helsinger (a young graduate) and Jamie Middleton (the mother of one victim killed).

At its center, Commencement is about stages of grief as experienced by all parties involved.

“All I want is to sit with the other parents,” Marshall’s character says. “Why can’t I sit with them?”

Marshall opens the show shaking. She is trying to reconcile the death of her own son, a troubled child who turned to the gun. It should be stated here that the often bawdy, but always controlled Marshall is at her most vulnerable in this role. Her pallor is washed to white in a monologue that forces her to reconcile her own loss with those of others.

With Middleton and Helsinger leaning in with their own monologues – the performance was originally a one-woman show – the three-sided die is cast into a dramatic blame game. Well, not so much blame, but reckoning – the fourth side, Mitchell, is notably missing, left in shards of bone and memory and suicide and murder.

Jamie Middleton plays a riveting – if absolutely despondent – mother of a deceased daughter scheduled to give the commencement speech at her school’s graduation. Marshall is forced to read the written, often folded, speech out loud to the waterfall of a mother’s tears. It’s a tough punishment but also a clearing.

Marshall spoke of Pulse after the show and how it made Commencement that much more important now, even if it’s a “drama at Fringe.” She paired with Pride Fund to End Gun Violence for this production stating that she wanted to make a difference. She has. The former queen of Fringe is not letting up, not while there’s still work to be done. A must see.

Running through May 28 at the Gold Venue. For more information, go to orlandofringe.org

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