Debora Weston in See How Beautiful I Am
(© Richard Heeps)
Debora Weston in See How Beautiful I Am
(© Richard Heeps)
"Doing the Fringe takes courage," says Debora Weston, who is starring in the solo show, See How Beautiful I Am: The Return of Jackie Susann at the New York International Fringe Festival, which runs August 8-24 and features over 200 shows in 20 downtown performance venues. The British actress -- who has previously performed the show in Edinburgh and London -- has an impressive West End resume, but says doing this kind of production is different. "Fringe tends to be done with less money and less bossy producers telling you what must and must not be done," she notes. "It takes a willingness to transform the lack of sets and lights into an opportunity to be more creative with the basics -- the actor and the script and the interaction with the audience."

See How Beautiful I Am, written by Paul Minx, is the tale of the author of Valley of the Dolls, a novel Weston first encountered as a child when she found it in her mother's underwear and pantyhose drawer. "Yes, I was snooping," she says. "I used to race home from school, grab the book and sit in the corner of my closet with a flashlight reading. Mostly I would scan through trying to find the sex scenes...of which there are many." Indeed, Susann's novel is quite frank about sex and sexuality, and the solo play doesn't shy away from revealing intimate details of the author's own sex life. "Jackie had quite an extensive relationship with Ethel Merman, which by all accounts was sexual," says Weston. "When Merman dumped her, Jackie had what I could only call a nervous breakdown. She got on her knees outside Merman's apartment building and began howling her name."

Another international entry, albeit of a different sort, is Suzie Miller's Reasonable Doubt, which comes all the way from Australia. The play is a love story about two jurors whose murder trial experience affects their budding romance. "I wanted to explore within both the legal system and personal relationships, the different notions of truth and guilt," says Miller. "Both characters have a strong and passionate argument about the differing sides of the prosecution and defense. This adds conflict, but also proves how difficult it is to be sure of the truth with anyone, even the person you are in love with in the bed beside you."

Carter Anne McGowan, the author of The Grecian Formula, a backstage comedy set in Ancient Greece about a tyrant who creates the world's first theater festival, spent years working as an entertainment lawyer before switching to playwriting. "We have rhyming odes, iambic pentameter, and all sorts of interesting things to play with," she states. "In the Fringe, you can take risks and do things that are not necessarily what you would usually do. We're not striving for realism, and although this is not a musical, it does have an eleven o'clock number in it."

Brad DePlanche in China -- The Whole Enchilada
Brad DePlanche in China -- The Whole Enchilada
More singing and dancing can be found in Mark Brown's musical comedy, China -- The Whole Enchilada, which attempts to compress 4,000 years of Chinese history in less than two hours. "It's written to be performed by three Caucasians," says Brown. "It begins with 'The Disclaimer Song' in which they say 'we're three white guys and we're not going to pretend we're Chinese' -- and of course, they do every stereotypical thing I could remember."

The piece deals head-on with racism and Brown states that while it has gotten a great response from different theaters, "everyone was sort of afraid to tackle it because they didn't want to offend people." The author's favorite -- and most controversial -- song is "Lotus Shoes," which is about foot binding. "It's funny in a very black comedy sort of way, but then there's also a monologue by a four-year-old girl afterwards about how women have always been second and third rate in China. I'm trying to get a few serious moments in, as well as stupid stuff like Ghengis Khan, Kubla Khan, and Ricardo Montalban from The Wrath of Khan singing the 'Khan Khan.'"

On a different musical note, writer/director Christopher Carter Sanderson is presenting what he terms "a romantical, comical, nautical musical" entitled KNB: The Musical. The acronym is short for Kuwait Naval Base, which is where Sanderson has been stationed for the past year as a member of the Navy Reserve; and while the piece draws from its author's experiences, it is neither autobiographical nor politically inflected. "It's not pro-war and it's not anti-war," says Sanderson, who admits he would like to get a commercial run from this production. "You've got characters that say things that are bothering them about the war and others who say things they like about being in the Navy, but neither of these creates an overall political agenda," he says. "The issues of deployment are as immediate as today's headlines, so there's some intelligent commentary and satire going on that I think is pleasantly contrasted with a very familiar, fun and toe-tapping style of music."