Find the world of Off-Off Broadway theater a bit bewildering? Try the New York International Fringe Festival brochure. A Bhagvad-Gita of the avant garde, it presents a pantheon of images and sound bytes that leave one dazed and breathless. Where to start? Well, as a service to our readers, I chose my Fringe menu -- Give Him a Minute and He'll Do It Again, The Burden of Sunflowers, and 3 x Pirandello -- just as anyone new to the scene would certainly have chosen: by odd titles, wacky descriptions, and pictures of naked performers. Here's what I found.
Give Him a Minute and He'll Do It Again begins with five nubile women lounging in bordello lingerie. As we enter the theater, a bearded man browses, then chooses for his pleasure a Japanese beauty: "Your bones placed indiscreetly under skin -- a sanctuary of internal organs -- and the posterior of you!" The woman with umbrella coyly replies, the madam translates these as weather reports, and the other women dance hypnotically in the background.
This is the Delicious Biscuit treatment: movement, poetry, technology. Their scenarios include a 1920s backstage drama, a 1940s noir thriller, and a modern white-trash epic, smelted into perfectly ironic multi-media, and making it a definitive Fringe show. While the movement lacks some precision and force, inventiveness often kicks in to fill the gap. The company makes full use of all of its members, including sound tech Jeff Morey, who processes music live via G3 Powerbook.
At one point, a voiceover blares: "She had committed the crime of being shallow -- a word packed with violence, said with such ease." While this fear often drives Fringe theater into complete opacity, Delicious Biscuit tips its hat and keeps playing.
Tipping the gender balance is Zachary Hug's The Burden of Sunflowers: a love story for queer boys in the city. Early on in this new musical-with-canned-music, we get the metaphor of the sunflower, which cannot grow alone. That's love, you see. Don't worry, they'll say it again. No matter, the play becomes increasingly energetic and clever as a chorus of guardian angels work to nudge two hopeless "sunflower" boys a little closer together.
Dance numbers come crashing in at arbitrary moments; "We're the rootin' tootin' shake your booty Burden of Sunflowers dancers!" say the inept cadre of lumpy urban types, as they boogie to the gay standards. The play is campy and presentational in the best style of, say, Jeffrey meeting Judy and Mickey. The very young-looking cast seems used to playing in urban barns. I discovered that I was hopelessly enjoying myself, to my surprise and chagrin. Be warned--straight or gay, this is best enjoyed with a date.
I went to 3 x Pirandello, Horizon Production's nod to the old Italian playwright, out of reverence for fringe of yesteryear. Outre before your grandpa was born, he ventured boldly into absurdism, deconstructionism, and philosophical drama before it was cool. Best of all, he likes to talk. His characters -- professors as well as prostitutes -- gab, piece things together, voicing eloquently a complex theory of identity.
Unfortunately, I have never seen Pirandello performed well in this country. Maybe it's our Strasberg-poisoned fear of intellectualism -- no one really feels like they're acting unless the tears flow. No great surprises in this production. Director and actor Rafael De Mussa trots out three great short works, and fails to do them justice. The (again) young cast flounders in their words like a boy in his father's shoes. If you can stand a spirited, but flawed rendering, these pieces -- all rare works concerned with money -- deserve to be heard in their own right.
All of these plays gave renewed meaning to the "25 and under" class of theater -- generally referring to dollars, in this case, I don't think there was more than one performer who had hit 26. And that's the best and worst of it. The Fringe can harness that exuberance and exploration of the recently-out-of-school crowd. What it lacks in polish, it makes up for in heart.