Color me Goldilocks. While you're at it, imagine the greater Lower East Side as enchanted forest. Now suppose the New York International Fringe Festival is a house in this forest. And that the Three Bears, its famous residents, are the participating theaters whose plays--Purdy Woman, and Synchronized Swimming: The Dry Version--I sampled.
BEAR #1: Purdy Production's Purdy Woman
VERDICT: The porridge is too cold.
Let's play a brief word association game: What instantly comes to mind when you hear "Fringe Festival"? The phrase is usually associated with a type of theater that is more experimental than most of commercial theater. Consider the phrase "on the fringe"; the very word "fringe" implies an alternative to the mainstream. While Mary Purdy's one-woman show, Purdy Woman, is well done, funny, and intelligent, it did not fulfill my expectations for a Fringe debut. What it had in talent, humor, and delivery, it lacked in innovation and originality.
Purdy Woman is a series of sketches loosely linked by the fact that they all pertain to New York life. As described by Purdy Productions, the piece includes Mary's "video stint as a guerilla reporter, a stylish mime of a harried chef, and deft vignettes of those New York characters who most deserve to be skewered."
Although generally amusing, these vignettes tend not to be very insightful or original. Her stint as a reporter, for example, seems like an imitation of Beth Littleford (formerly of The Daily Show fame) and Jay Leno. The mime of the chef seems like a Desi-Lu Production, with elements of Charlie Chaplin and Warner Brothers inspiration. And even the set-up of her show has been done before, by artists such as Tracy Ulman. Almost every sketch has a precedent, and most fail to achieve the comedic force of the original.
One exception is a notable sketch involving a pretentious child actress. This character wheedles her way to the top of her school's drama club via the political sway of her mother, the principal. Using the power of nepotism, she invents a role for herself as a prostitute in Grease, the Frank's personal psychic in The Diary of Anne Frank, and changes the ending to Shakespeare's Othello.
Unfortunately, the through-line for all of these sketches seems tenuous, at best. A few of the pieces seem tailor-made for SNL-style sketch-comedy shows. The material of these entertaining shows, however, do not make for exceptional theater, even in the hands of an intelligent and talented writer/actress/comedienne like Purdy.
BEAR #2: theater et al's The Chronicles of Hell
THE VERDICT: The porridge is too...experimental.
On the opposite side of the spectrum lies theater et al's The Chronicles of Hell, a sure-fire hit among fans of early 20th-century Belgium drama and the most esoteric expressionist performance. For those with less eclectic tastes, prepare to scrunch those eyebrows before going to the St. Marks Theater to view this production.
The Chronicles of Hell, as described by theater et al, is an English adaptation of Michel de Ghelderode's "scandalous 1928 ode to spiritual excess." It stays true to that description, with simulated sexual acts (among clergy no less) for every taste, occurring every five minutes. I am only barely exaggerating. This obviously begs the question: Does the piece play for gratuitous shock value?
The answer is yes--and no. The Chronicles explores the difficulty of retaining one's faith in a world filled with spiritual amorality. It's lead character, well played by David Green, is a hardened Monsignor whose disillusionment with the Church and "the masses" leads him to sins of the flesh and beyond. In this regard, his simulation of anal sex with nearly the entire ensemble is in line with his characterization. And, as is usually the case with spiritual excess, too much is never enough.
Unlike in Purdy Woman, the issue is not so much content as it is delivery. theater et al is notoriously expressionistic. Its brand of expressionism, however, elevates the understanding of the play's tone over that of its text. The Chronicles' excessive (and often bizarre) use of audio, visual, balletic, and symbolic devices divert the audience's attention from the dialogue to the multimedia spectacle around them.
During an intense monologue, with Monteverdi music blasting and lights circling, the ensemble members blow balloons, symbolizing the proverbial "wages of sin." The ideas are good, but the timing is distracting. And although the group prides itself on being "visually stunning" (and it does uphold that reputation), the spectacles presented overwhelm, rather than compliment, the action. Even with fine acting across the boards and intriguing concepts, what might have been a powerful piece turns into a performance art self-parody. In the theater's future I'd like to see more matter, less art.
BEAR #3: Ursus & Nadeschkin's Synchronized Swimming: The Dry Version
THE VERDICT: This porridge is just right!
Swiss sensations Ursus (Urs Wehrli) and Nadeschkin (Nadia Sieger) perfectly capture the spirit of the Fringe Festival in Synchronized Swimming. What is "the spirit of the Fringe Festival"? In Ursus' own words, having "not enough money to pay for a stagehand." To a certain extent, he's right. Without huge budgets, large commercial sponsors, or sometimes even adequate performance spaces, Fringe shows must rely on unmatched substance to be successful. The duo explains as they perform a bizarre "circle dance" around the relatively spacious Kraine Theater, "We just have to use all of the space, so they will let us keep it." Counting only on their wit, talent, and rapport, they pull off a successful performance.
From the beginning of the show, the pair is completely innovative. Each walks in separately and inconspicuously (save for their recognizable appearances), casually chatting with various audience members. Nadeschkin ask a woman who's eating if she is enjoying her meal. "Don't worry, eat," she adds nonchalantly. "Are you enjoying it?" After a series of impromptu quips, they move onto the stage.
Since their brand of performance defies categorization, description will have to suffice. In one gag, Ursus displays the craft he has accrued from three years of mime school--a résumé that Nadeschkin insists is greatly exaggerated. Ursus asks the audience to name any tree for him to mime, although he can only mime a beech tree. When an audience member challenges him with an aspen, he spends a few minutes in preparation and asks Nadeschkin to create a diversion. She then proceeds to distract the audience by flailing her arms wildly, and, when that fails, tells her New York audience, "Think of Finland."
In another shtick, they ask one of the older audience members if he has ever done a back flip. Predictably, he says no, and then adds, "And I'm not going to." Never fear, they assure him. They are going to use "a simulator." The audience, at this point, is feverishly guessing what that "simulator" might be. The house's curiously is satisfied hilariously when they juggle white balls said to simulate him and some other audience members.
With their unique brand of comedy, dance, and acrobatics, Ursus and Nadeschkin prove themselves to be consummate performers. Acts like these demonstrate the benefit of the Fringe Festival; it is a treasure trove entertaining, innovative, and intelligent theater. You only must rely on your luck and persistence to seek the treasures out. Or, as the Fringe motto more succinctly puts it, "You'll never know until you go."