Area performers bring musicality, social commentary to famed Scottish festival

  • Paul Richmond, Tony Vacca and John Sheldon perform their “Do it Now: Manual Override” at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland last month. Submitted photo

  • Paul Richmond, Tony Vacca and John Sheldon perform their “Do it Now: Manual Override” at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland recently. Thomas Gleissner photo

Recorder Staff
Published: 9/3/2018 10:50:29 PM

It’s not your typical theater production that poet Paul Richmond of Wendell, percussionist Tony Vacca of Whately and guitarist John Sheldon whipped up, but then again the Edinburgh Festival Fringe isn’t your ordinary festival, either.

The three are just back from a month at what bills itself as the world’s largest arts festival — with 3,548 shows from 50 countries in mega-venues, some of which had as many as 40 stages within them

As it was, the threesome performed their hourlong “fusion of music, words and percussion” — as one reviewer described it — a dozen times, Mondays through Saturdays in a venue that seated 75 to 100 beginning at 10:30 each night.

“Do it Now: Manual Override” was produced by Serious Theatre Ensemble, which also produced Sheldon’s one-man autobiographical tour de force, “The Red Guitar,” downstairs in the same building, at 9 each night as well as eight performances earlier in the month — a return engagement for Sheldon, who’d done it two years earlier.

“Wow! It’s arts mayhem to the 10th power,” said Vacca of the Scottish festival. “If you’re an adventurous theater person, and you’re there doing a presentation, you’re in real good company, ’cause there are a lot of people who take a lot of pretty big dares in the world of theater. Some of them were subtle dares but had some real emotional depth. They were so good that, ready or not, they’d take a whole audience.”

Vacca, who’s known for stirring African percussion and spoken-word presentation, got to do his “Child of the ’60s” component of the show.

“There were some (shows) that were very socially adventurous, trying to make a tough point, like racism. They really took you to the deep end of the pool and ready or not, here comes something that — pow — just pushes your sense of what you can see in theater.

“Overall, it was great, amazing, wow!” he added.

“Danger! Systems are being corrupted and broken,” the program notes said of “Do it Now.” “We must take back control. It’s time for Manual Override. Taking control from the U.S. are John Sheldon on his red Stratocaster, Tony Vacca on all things percussion, and Paul Richmond with his droll yet beguiling spoken word delivery. They take on anything from the mundane envy of a neighbour’s dog to nuclear power posturing, creating poetic flashes of text that erupt from a hotbed of music. Non-verbal communication between artists is as much the theater of this show as Richmond’s words or personal reflection by Sheldon and Vacca.”

Their show, based on an improvised, flowing interweaving of spoken word, electric guitar and percussion, delivered stinging social and political commentary. Vacca said the international audience “appreciated that we occasionally hit it right between the eyes, so they had nowhere to go.

“The folks from Europe really wanted to know, when we got to talk to people afterwards, they were fairly polite in asking, ‘Where’s America going?’”

Richmond, who said that what began as pure improvisation among the three a year ago at a Shea Theater benefit has gradually been perfected and honed into a more unified work, added, “We saw it as a very glamorized 12 days of rehearsals, because suddenly we were given a pretty nice little venue, with a good sound system. The improv was still there, that groove works, so we can use that next time as a base.”

The reaction to their honest, seeming stream of consciousness about America’s turmoil seemed to make an impact on audience members, he said.

“Folks were coming up to us, they wanted to talk to us. One guy had his hand on his heart, saying, ‘You don’t know how much this means to me. We get depressed, ourselves.’”

Richmond added, “We tried to make it universal … They were just glad it was out in the open, that we were open to talking about stuff.”

He added about the appeal of authentic spoken word “Everybody is wanting something real … that brings people together as humans with emotions.”

Reviewer Mike Took of Write Out Loud wrote, “American trio Sheldon, Richmond and Vacca provide a powerful fusion of music, words and percussion in this enthralling 50-minute show which is part hippy-trip, part U.S.-apologist and part sensory journey. … The combination of that guitar with Richmond’s mesmerizing lyrics and almost dream-like delivery is sewn together improbably yet with utter ecompletion by the phenominal antics of Tony Vacca whose billing as ‘percussion’ does not do him justice ... Richmond’s wily and evocative spoken words dress the experience with a narrative which bounces effortlessly but incisively along important subjects like politics, imprisonment, love and dog envy. … This is three guys who have been places and done stuff, doing their thing together, as one. Sublime.”

Most of the musical performances at the festival were derivative, agreed Richmond and Sheldon, who said people were trying to do tributes to James Taylor or Joni Mitchell without adding anything original, so the return of “The Red Guitar” to Edinburgh gave music lovers a chance to mesh with “the history of the Stratocaster,” said Sheldon, who plays guitar throughout his autobiographical piece.

“The most gratifying thing was seeing these young people like that really being affected by it. That means a lot. Because they don’t have the cultural references.”

For Sheldon, who was advanced in The Herald Scotland as one of two “outstanding Fringe Music finds of the past two years, who … first brought his red Stratocaster, with its guitar case full of stories, here in 2016. He stayed away last year, honing an already sharp and focused show further. … Masterly storytelling, honest personal recollections, wry wit and nimble playing on the eponymous guitar merge in fifty minutes that pass way too quickly.”

“I got gratitude,” said Sheldon, who had several people follow him upstairs from his solo show to see the three performers right afterward. “One young man came up after ‘The Red Guitar’ and said, ‘That was one of the most important experiences of my life.’ And he was really sincere about it! Several people posted that this was the highlight of the Fringe. Those things make a difference.”

After what Serious Play’s Sheryl Stoodley called an “Amazing and exhilarating and exhausting month of two shows every night,” the theater company plans to present “Reserve from The Fringe” for three nights the first weekend in October at the Northampton Center for the Arts. Richmond said he also plans to return Do it Now to the Shea Theater.

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