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Fringe Fever

A sneak peek at shows in the ninth annual New York International Fringe Festival. logo
The cast of seduction...
(Photo © Juhani Naukkarinen)
"Fringe is about pushing boundaries and being daring," says Peter Bull. "Fringe is not about playing it safe." The director is bringing his London production of seduction... to the ninth annual New York International Fringe Festival, or "FringeNYC" as it's nicknamed, with the British cast intact. Written by Jack Heifner (best known for Vanities), seduction... is a gay re-interpretation of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde. "It fits the fringe mold perfectly," says Bull. "It's very funny but also a little disturbing and has a wonderfully naughty, voyeuristic feel to it."

FringeNYC has grown considerably in the last nine years, partly due to the successful Broadway transfer of Urinetown, which played the 1999 festival. From August 12 through 28, roughly 180 different productions will be presented in a variety of downtown New York venues. Every genre of theater is represented: musicals, solo performances, reinterpretations of the classics, and much more. "People producing commercially viable musicals view us as a way to get their work seen by those who can make it happen," says FringeNYC producing artistic director Elena Holy. "And then we have people with absolutely no Broadway aspirations, who want to expand and diversify their audience and make their careers working in downtown theater."

The Fringe is also a good place to catch stars that don't normally work downtown. Ellen Foley, whose career includes singing with Meat Loaf, a stint on TV's Night Court, and Broadway starring roles in Me and My Girl and Into the Woods, is one such example. Foley stars in a rock-n-roll update of Euripides' Heracles, called Hercules in High Suburbia. She portrays Megara, wife to Hercules, played by African-American actor Postell Pringle. "The interracial thing is not an issue within the show itself," says Foley. "But it is subliminal. The piece becomes about celebrity murder, because Hercules kills me and the children. So the idea of Othello and Desdemona, of OJ and his wife come up. It really raises the idea of these celebrity crimes, because he'll probably get away with it due to who he is."

One of the more high-profile entries this year is Silence! The Musical, a parody of The Silence of the Lambs featuring music by brothers Jon and Al Kaplan. The world premiere production is directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, whose previous credits include choreographing the Off-Broadway smash Altar Boyz and directing-choreographing the Actors' Fund benefit concert of Hair. Gattelli remarks that, while it's helpful if people are familiar with the film, it's not absolutely necessary for enjoyment of the musical. "We're trying to satisfy audience expectations of the very iconic moments, but we're putting a spin on them," he says. "If you're a fan of the movie you're going to get it, but if you're not, it's still really funny."

Gattelli has assembled an especially impressive cast for a Fringe show, including such Broadway and Off-Broadway actors as Jenn Harris, Paul Kandel, Lisa Howard, Stephen Bienskie, and Diedre Goodwin. "We were shocked and thrilled about who was coming in the door at auditions," says Gattelli. "We all know that the Fringe is not a lot of money and the schedule's kind of scattered. We kept saying, 'Do you realize what you're auditioning for?' "

A musical about the making of the infamous 1963 flop film Cleopatra and the off-screen romance it engendered between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton also seems like it's ripe for parody. But Charlie Barnett -- who wrote book, music, and lyrics for The Last Days of Cleopatra and is also serving as the show's musical director -- insists that it's not. "Liz Taylor would be an easy person to send up, but we made her a girl to fall in love with," he states. "If she came to the show, she would be flattered. There's a soft spot in my heart for that girl, and will be forever." In fact, Barnett was surprised that the Fringe even accepted his show proposal. "The Fringe operates on the outer limits of theatrical accessibility," he says, "and this is a very traditional book musical." Barnett and director Christopher Gerken both did extensive research on the film and its stars, but not all of it proved useful. "We've actually had to learn to forget the facts," says Barnett. "If they don't work out dramatically, then we're not interested."

A staple of fringe festivals is the one-person show, and there are plenty to choose from at this year's FringeNYC. One of the more promising entries is Jesus in Montana by Aspen, Colorado native Barry Smith. "About a dozen years ago, I found myself involved in a religious cult that believed that Jesus had returned and was living in Montana," says Smith. "I actually went up there, met this Jesus guy, lived in his basement, and did the whole cult thing." The writer-performer, who pens a weekly humor column called "Irrelativity" for the Aspen Times, adds: "I'm fascinated with the things people believe, and I don't really have any reverence for any of it -- even my own beliefs."

Cynthia Silver in Bridezilla Strikes Back!
(Photo © Tom Bloom)
Another solo performance that promises something a bit off the beaten track is Bridezilla Strikes Back!, Cynthia Silver's one-woman show that chronicles her experience as an unwitting casualty of so-called "Reality TV." Silver participated in a documentary film project that showed her wedding preparations only to find out that the footage became part of a Fox reality TV series called Bridezillas. "I heard that a lot of the other brides [from the show] attempted to take legal action," she states. "But I felt that my best compensation was to make something creative out of it." Silver tells her story and even recreates the Fox broadcast on stage. "The audience gets to see how the editing was manipulated into making us all look crazy," says Silver.

Arguably the hardest working artist at the Fringe this year is Andy Eninger. He's involved in no less than three different productions, all hailing from Chicago, where Eninger is based. As playwright, he's the author of The Last Castrato, a darkly comic tale of a man born without a penis. "It's written in a sort of gothic style of tragedy with an operatic feel, yet has all sorts of base jokes going on at the same time," says Eninger. The solo show is performed by Jeff Swearingen, and directed by Brad McEntire.

Eninger also wrote the music and lyrics for Little House on the Parody, which he's directing. From the show's title you can probably guess it takes a few liberties with the beloved stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the 1970s TV show it inspired. "It has that late night campy edge," says Eninger of the musical, which features a book by Becky Eldridge and Amy Petersen. "It's a little bit sweet, and has good messages like 'Believe in yourself' embedded in that saccharine TV style, but it's also a little bit dirty." Finally, Eninger is a performer and contributing writer to Weddings of Mass Destruction, presented by Gayco, an offshoot of Chicago's Second City. "The company creates gay and lesbian sketch comedy," says Eninger. "It's very satirical and very political."

While some Fringe shows make a profit, many do not -- especially when you consider the time and expense of bringing a show in from out of town or out of the country. Still, there are Fringe benefits other than remuneration. Says Bull, "FringeNYC will put us in contact with an amazing number of talented and creative people from across America and the world, all exchanging ideas and striving to create stunning and original pieces of theater. Who knows what future partnerships will come from it?"

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