I love the New York International Fringe Festival. With its concentrated focus on downtown theater, it has a special energy and excitement. Its offers many opportunities to visit performance spaces in which you've never set foot and to sample work from all parts of the U.S. and a few foreign countries. This is the first of several scheduled TheaterMania roundups of FringeNYC; we will be updating the site with more fringe coverage as the seventh annual festival continues.

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Igor Goldin and Jamie Heinlein in Penny Penniworth
Igor Goldin and Jamie Heinlein in Penny Penniworth
Penny Penniworth

Chris Weikel's Penny Penniworth is full of clever word play and Dickensian plot twists. Set in Victorian England, this supposed lost epic by Charles Dickens tells the story of young Penny Penniworth (Jamie Heinlein), whose childhood love Hochkiss Spit (Christopher Borg) is driven out of town after nearly killing the wealthy Rupert Stryfe (Igor Goldin). Years later, Penny finds herself penniless and so enters into the service of Miss Havasnort (Ellen Reilly). There's more to the story, of course, but it's not so much the plot as the way the tale is performed that gives this production its power.

The four-person ensemble creates an entire world full of colorful characters as each actor plays multiple parts. Borg's Hochkiss is a comic highlight, speaking in a hilariously impenetrable brogue, and the versatile actor is equally adept as Penny's mother. Reilly's Miss Havasnort is portrayed in a dry, deadpan manner that produces gales of laughter from the audience. Heinlein has plenty of pluck as Penny and doubles as the hunchbacked Malodorous Dump; this is taken to absurd proportions when Penny and Dump have to play a scene together.

The cast members function as both narrators and characters, deftly switching back and forth from one guise to the other. Crisply directed by Mark Finley, the show clocks in at under an hour but is far more entertaining than many shows that are double its length.

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American Fabulous

There's a lot of potential in Neo Neo Theatre Company's production of American Fabulous but most of it remains unrealized. The script is adapted from Reno Dakota's 1992 documentary film of the same title about the life of Jeffrey Strouth. An idiosyncratic storyteller, Strouth lived a life full of sorrow but chronicled his adventures with wit, humor, and a hint of defiance. Several of the stories are unexpectedly funny, painting a portrait of a "poor white trash" gay man who was neglected as a child, tried to kill his father as a teen, prostituted himself to survive, hitchhiked across America, and arrived in New York City in the 1980s, whereupon he became a performer at the legendary nightclub Area.

Dakota's documentary had Strouth in the backseat of a car, telling stories. Writer/performer Troy Carson's stage adaptation, directed by Jonathan Warman, sets the action in a cabaret-like setting with Strouth speaking directly to the audience. However, Strouth's rambling tales seem ill-suited to this environment. Between stories, the lights dim, a bit of music plays, and Carson/Strouth takes a drink or smokes a cigarette; these transitions are awkwardly handled and break up what little continuity has been established.

Carson has an engaging stage presence, sashaying across the stage and throwing knowing looks at the audience as he talks, but the pacing is off and the intermissionless one-hour-and-40-minute show drags. It doesn't help that Carson/Strouth seems to keep losing his train of thought, wondering aloud what he's supposed to be talking about next. It's unclear whether this is a character choice to indicate Strouth's disorganized thoughts or simply Carson as an actor forgetting his lines. The latter seems more likely.

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Hilary Chaplain in A Life in Her Day(Photo © Maike Schultz)
Hilary Chaplain in A Life in Her Day
(Photo © Maike Schultz)
A Life in Her Day

Adults and children alike are sure to enjoy Hilary Chaplain's solo performance piece A Life in Her Day. Chaplain is an engaging and hilarious physical comedienne whose antics are a pleasure to watch.

The show begins with Chaplain in bed -- a bed propped up so that we're allowed a bird's-eye view of the action. The performer goes through her morning routine: She's awakened by her dog (a very cute hand puppet), eats some chocolate, and does her exercises, each action mined for full comic potential. Once out of bed, she does a double take, acknowledging the large number of people that seem to be looking into her bedroom.

From then on, the audience becomes an interactive component of the show and Chaplain certainly knows how to work a crowd. She transforms everyday objects into a delightful series of props to work her magic and she's particularly good at finding multiple uses for a roll of paper towels.

The show becomes less engaging as Chaplain begins to live out a life onstage that includes marriage, kids, domestic strife, and death; while some of these sections are extremely funny, others seem rushed or underdeveloped. Still, A Life in Her Day is pleasant, silly, family-friendly entertainment.

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Potty Mouth

Andy Horwitz's solo show Potty Mouth is aptly named. It's also really funny. Horwitz spins delightfully trashy, "mostly-true" tales of his sex life that range from blowjobs in the gym shower to rimming a man named "Big Red." Recommended for mature audiences, the show is a comic gem that touches on issues such as body image and insecurity while making the audience laugh continually.

In another performer's hands, this material might seem too over-the-top, maudlin, or self-indulgent. Horwitz, with the assistance of director David Gautschy, manages to avoid these traps thanks to a charming, personable stage presence that helps to make his graphic tales of queer sex amusing. He undercuts his stories with a wry, self-deprecating humor that puts you on his side. While there are times when you may feel that Horwitz is revealing just a little too much information, you'll be hard pressed to keep yourself from laughing anyway.

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Candis Cayne and Laura LeBleu in Scalpel
Candis Cayne and Laura LeBleu in Scalpel
Scalpel

Scalpel has what must be the best fight choreography in the Fringe but, unfortunately, the musical is less than successful in other respects. The concept is certainly full of campy promise: An aging socialite named Jaqueline "Jack" Tilton (Laura LeBleu) goes in for cosmetic surgery at the hands of the charming Dr. Bulgari (Michael Francis Stromar). However, Bulgari is involved in a sinister plot to overtake the government by implanting control chips in his wealthy, unsuspecting patients and causing them to commit a series of treasonous crimes.

D'Arcy Drollinger is responsible for the book, music, and lyrics, Scalpel might have been more effective as a straight play. The musical numbers tend to slow the pace of the story rather than propelling it forward. The music is not particularly memorable and the lyrics contain such clunkers as "It may sound cruel some / But it's the only solution." (Drollinger also tries to rhyme "salon" with "politician.")

The production does boast a few fine performances. Most noteworthy is Candis Cayne as Taylor "Fritzy" Fitzgerald, one of Jack's best friends. The transgender superstar has a captivating stage presence and superb comic timing. Another standout is Brandon Olson as Jeffrey, the Tiltons' chauffer. Olson is blessed with an extremely expressive face and a manic energy that is both sexy and goofy.

Still, it's not until the climactic fight scene, choreographed by director John Ficarra and Combat Inc., that this production takes off. Here, ensemble members clad in black lift other actors high into the air to perform a dazzling display of kicks, punches, and other actions. This sequence alone is worth the price of admission, and it's too bad that the rest of the production doesn't measure up to it.