July 20, 2008: Review from the Washington Post
The story couldn’t be more straightforward, and it’s written with charm and affection. Local color and petty rivalries are efficiently evoked, the parody is gentle, and the verbal kickers that punctuate the ends of scenes are as thoughtful as the short banjo tune that fills the brief transitions. There’s nothing wily about Sobler’s performance, but her understated approach feels like a virtue.
It’s a treat to come into a low-tech performance, and before the show begins be invited into the piece’s atmosphere. In this case, original, sweet folk tunes calmed and opened the space up for solo performer Alix Sobler, as she takes, not just on but breathes in small town America. As the audience sits in the black box, they view a laundry line of simple costume pieces, each representing a different person in the town. From that vantage, the 2nd hand clothing takes on a sheen of almost elegance, and it’s in that ‘almost’ that the story begins with the “waiting for the rebirth of wonder.”
This piece addresses through the microcosm of the fictional town of Sommerville what happens as its Cloud Factory closes with the death of the last man who knew how to operate the machinery- Sonny Airdale. Sobler neatly and simply- although not completely adroitly – serves up a sampling of townies as they reel from the certain fate of their town. All the neighbors you expect to meet at the town hall are to my mind welcomed guests: Gus, the endearingly crotchey old man; Harvey, the upstanding citizen; Lauralee, the insufferable factory owner’s wife; Betty, former homecoming queen and present drunk. And then there is the young and conflicted as embodied by Sonny’s granddaughter Mary, who must choose between staying with her town or leaving in order to make another life for herself.
All of which would add up to only a decent night of theatre, but for Sobler’s writing. This woman is a swift, capable and, most of all, sincere story writer. The writing blends the familiar with the colloquial to create people you’d count yourself lucky to sit beside on a long bus trip. And the treat is that within each of these characters lies golden nugget one-liners that materialize, well, like clouds. Sobler’s clever that way. When Mary bemoans the fact that a boy has a crush on her (which young women are wont to do), she laments, “If I marry him, I’d have no one to talk to.” Or for the more wistful, as Gus looks into the clouds, he shares his vision of, “History meltin’ up into the sky.” Just. Good. Stuff.
There’s only one more performance of this show, and, well, it shouldn’t be something that Fringe goers should let roll by.
I’ve read several reviews so far that talk about the relative “Fringe-iness” of the show being reviewed. General consensus seems to be that the out-there, the edgy, and the daring are the definition of Fringe (vis-a-vis The Naked Party), but based on my experience, far more common (and at times far more beloved) at Fringe is the small, simple solo show. Perhaps they are even the bread-and-butter of Fringe, these 7×1 Samurais and McSwiggins Pubs and Mothers of Inventions, compared to the flaming desserts and exotic liquors (to belabor the metaphor) of the Naked Parties and Sticking Places. So it all depends on what you’re looking for.
Cloud Factory is one such gemlike, intimate solo show. Making its U.S. premiere after writer/performer and native New Yorker Alix Sobler debuted it in Canada, it’s the kind of show that fits in a suitcase: a couple basic costume pieces to help indicate character changes, four props (one of them a ukelele), a CD of sound cues and nothing else except for Sobler’s script and talent.
A moment here to acknowledge the excellence of that CD of sound cues, which contains both some spot-on original folk/country music and a superior achievement in the aural evocation of the titular cloud factory – and, no, the title is not a metaphor. It really manufactures clouds. (The explanation for why clouds need to be manufactured in the first place turns out to be one of the show’s cleverest moments, if a brief one.)
The plot concerns a crisis in a fictional small, Southern town called Sommerville, when an incident forces that cloud factory to shut down. The town has been surviving as much on the factory’s income as it has on the tourist draw of having the last operating cloud factory in the United States (all the rest closed down due to competition with Asian factories). The program says that Sobler wrote Cloud Factory after having toured and seen many small towns surviving off their own nostalgia, “because [she] believe[s] in the importance of these small towns for what they have contributed to North America in the past, and what… they have the potential to contribute to our future.”
You can probably get a picture of this show already: folksy, a little bit wistful, with some light humor, a touching and simple love story, sort of like Our Townsans Stage Manager and graveyard. It’s family-friendly and sweet. Sobler is a capable performer; I’ve seen soloists with wider range of voice and gesture, but she gets the job done, and with wit. She portrays about three or four major characters of sympathy and a bit of depth, as well a passel of broader, more generic caricatures who I felt diluted the show’s gentleness and honesty. (Did she need to resort to a stutter and a crosseye for lack of enough ways to distinguish personages?) Overall the show was most engaging when it left its attempts at hokey town-hall social comedy and instead let the characters contemplate the history and personal meaning of this fictional but oh-so-familiar town with its fantasy factory, sketching a story both intimately connected to our national myths and intriguingly relevant in our increasingly globalized world.
As an import from way, waaaay out of state, this show is unlikely to be well-attended due to the lack of local connections; but if it sounds like your thing, there are far worse ways to spend an hour’s time.