Eli Finkelman in Howie the Rookie
Eli Finkelman in Howie the Rookie
In just six short years, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival has gone from a five-day blip on the city's cultural radar to a 16-day extravaganza of international significance. Boasting nearly 250 shows to choose from, the Fringe can at times seem a bit overwhelming; but there are a number of productions this year that shouldn't be missed, including two truly outstanding efforts that are running through September 14, the festival's final day.

Nobody does the Fringe Festival quite like Brat Productions, a local company that keeps its record of quality intact with Howie the Rookie, the company's fifth foray into the festival. A pair of connected monologues from Irish playwright Mark O'Rowe, both parts are set in a small Irish community populated by a marvelous array of social misfits and are cleverly linked by a scabies epidemic that has infected several of the town's young men. We first meet Howie Lee (an intense, if erratic, Edward Snyder), a fellow notable for both his street fighting prowess and his odd collection of acquaintances. Believing that he has discovered the source of the scabies, Howie and his companions set out to find the Rookie Lee, a self-possessed ladies man who describes himself as a "breaker of hearts and hymens." But after the expected confrontation with Rookie, a tragedy befalls Howie's little brother; this is a somewhat contrived turn of events but it segués nicely into the evening's second monologue, hosted by the Rookie himself.

Superbly played by the criminally underappreciated local actor Eli Finkelman, the Rookie is in deep trouble. Already beaten by Howie and his companions, he has also raised the ire of the village's toughest and most ruthless character; however, much to his surprise, his namesake turns up to defend him. Boasting a brawl of frightening intensity and a conclusion that is as disquieting as it is oddly satisfying, Finkelman's work displays a gift for bringing imagery to life that is at times astounding, and Madi Distefano's direction is enormously adept at capturing the script's varied and vibrant sense of rhythm.

Another artist who has enjoyed past success at the Fringe is director Mark Lord, whose previous staging of Beckett's Endgame continues to be the benchmark against which all festival works are gauged. This time around, Lord takes on the daunting task of presenting Peter Handke's nearly indecipherable The Ride Across Lake Constance in a site-specific production at the dilapidated Imperial Theater. Set in a once grand hotel (thoroughly realized by scenic designer Hiroshi Iwasaki), the play concerns five main characters who exist on a plane tenuously situated between perception and reality. A sometimes vicious attack on the emptiness of language, the piece is performed in a production of an illusory nature that is highlighted by the hotel's occupants -- a superb group of actors playing their real selves portraying actors. All of this occasionally seems inscrutable, but it is also exquisitely effective. Unable to understand each other, both the audience and the characters are left to their own perceptions of the action, making The Ride Across Lake Constance a unique and intensely personal theatergoing experience.

The Ride Across Lake Constance
The Ride Across Lake Constance
While both Howie The Rookie and The Ride Across Lake Constance are exceptional efforts, there are several other noteworthy productions running into the Fringe's final week. In the festival's burgeoning dance/theater category, the English company Protein Dance is presenting a highly entertaining and chaotic look at the British bar scene in Publife, while the Bessie Award-winning Headlong Dance Theater takes on pop culture in the technically stunning world premiere Britney's Inferno. Also impressive is the hybrid work Smart Set, a slightly more conventional dance piece inspired by The Great Gatsby in which creators Leigh Garrett, Katie Workum, and Ayla Yavin use snippets of Fitzgerald's text and Workum's original music to cleverly evoke Gatsby's pretentious world of endless parties and empty relationships. For those who like their theater straight up, the new Luna Theater Company is offering a production of Albee's The Zoo Story that is buoyed by Neill Hartley's insightful direction.

Of course, with so much to choose from, there are bound to be a few disappointments. Lucidity Suitcase's shockingly inept take on the 9/11 tragedy, titled Earth's Sharp Edge, and Project DNA's The Ghosts are in the Water lead the list of shows to avoid. If you missed Obie Winner (In On It) Daniel MacIvor's remarkable performance in da da kamera's Cul-de-sac, you're temporarily out of luck; having already completed its three-day Fringe run, the production is headed to Canada before it's scheduled to re-emerge in May 2003 at New York City's P.S. 122. It is well worth the wait.

Tickets for all Philadelphia Fringe Festival shows can be purchased by calling 215-413-1318 or via the website www.pafringe.org.