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Masterpieces, Fringes, and Puppets!

Every inch of America (Canada included!) is bursting with summer theater. logo
Peek-a-boo! Velvetville is one of the puppet shows taking Atlanta
In response to TheaterMania's preview of the wealth of summer theater festivals available to New York City audiences, you may have rushed to cancel vacation plans for fear of missing a single moment of the fun. Understandable! But those who are still determined to shrug off the chains of the city sometime during the next couple of months need not abandon all hope of enterainment, not by any means: The nation's stages are full of goodies this summer, whether you're heading south to Dallas, west to Los Angeles, or even north to Canada--which, technically, isn't even a state.


The World On A String

Finally, the age old question is to be answered: Just how much puppetry can one mid-sized American city withstand? The testing ground is Atlanta and the puppets are courtesy of Puppets Take Atlanta (June 1-August 18), a three-month barrage of the manipulated-doll arts. Among the participating puppet-masters: Paul Zaloom (West Hollywood, California), The Puppet Showplace Theater (Brookline, Massachusetts), Grey Seal Puppets (Charlotte, North Carolina), the National Marionette Theater (Brattleboro, Vermont), and Tanglewood Marionettes (North Falmouth, Massachusetts). In performances at the Atlanta Center for Puppetry Arts, these companies will be telling a wide range of stories, from classics like Cinderella to clever new concepts like B.B. in L.A., a production by the New York company Great Small Works that is all about Bertolt Brecht's adventures on the Left Coast.


On the Fringes

Nothing says summer like a fringe festival. Edinburgh, Scotland started a remarkably durable phenomenon back in 1947, when a group of rejected applicants to the Edinburgh Festival of Music and Drama said phooey and set up their own throwdown on the periphery of the fest. The quality and ideology of fringes varies from place to place, but the basic idea is universal: to provide artistically curious audiences with a crazy quilt of theatrical spectacles, created by artists given an opportunity to be as "experimental" as they want for a freewheeling summer week or two. Everybody wins: the cities get a blast of cultural vibrancy, the audiences get to check out up-and-coming artists, and the artists can hone their chops or try out new ideas without the pressure of a full production.

Our hometown favorite, the NYC International Fringe Festival (August 9-25), has counterparts in cities as far flung as Minneapolis (August 2-11) and San Francisco (September 4-15). The fringe in Philadelphia (August 30-September 14) was born in 1997, same as New York's, and has grown at similarly exponential rates: last year 1,100 artists were featured. Seattle's fringe (September 19-29) sprang up in 1991, the first in the United States. For artistic communities across the country, fringes are eagerly awaited events; witness Orlando, Florida, where this year's festivities were recently concluded and the webpage now reads "only 319 days until the Fringe Festival hits the streets of downtown Orlando."

Keep in mind that the first fringes in North America were hosted by our neighbors to the north. The oldest and largest Fringe outside the U.K. is in Edmonton (August 15-25), and there's a vast range of such events elsewhere in the Great North, from Vancouver (September 5-15) to Saskatoon (August 2-11). Unlike many States fringes, members of the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals subscribe to a non-juried philosophy; participants are selected not by a panel of judges but by lottery or on a first-come, first-booked basis. (Crazy socialists!)


Chasing the Bard

There are at least 45 summer Shakespeare festivals in this country, from Shakespeare Santa Cruz to the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival--which means that, if they coordinated their efforts, the festivals could present all of the Bard's plays at once. This is an unlikely proposition, to be sure; they'd end up fighting over A Midsummer Night's Dream. So the wealth of options for the Shakespeare lover remains staggering.

Best of all, many of these festivals offer free admission: The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival, for example, has gratis productions of Henry IV and As You Like It beginning July 5, while The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival will be traveling its free production of The Winter's Tale from Golden Gate Park in San Fran to parks in neighboring cities.

Here's a neat trick for you: Some Shakespeare Festivals have slipped the bonds of summertime entirely. Though the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (which is, alas, not free) offers a full menu of classic and contemporary work during the hot months--among this year's selections are Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and (surprise!) Noises Off--they're busy eight months out of the year. Stop by their Ashland home in October, for example, and you can catch two intriguing dramas: Timothy Bond's production of Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Playboy of the West Indies, playwright Mustapha Matura's Caribbean spin on The Playboy of the Western World.

Shakespeare & Co., the Berkshires-based training center and theater now in its 25th year, won't be neglecting the "& Co." part of its handle this summer. The company's calendar, besides , features two plays from well outside the canon: a dramatization of the Edith Wharton novel Valley of Decision and Golda's Balcony, William Gibson's docudrama about Golda Meir.

The Blue Mountain Arts Colorado Shakespeare Festival, meanwhile, is offering (besides Richard III, Macbeth and, yes, A Midsummer Night's Dream) a "fun and funny take on how we relate to Shakespeare," called Shakespeare in Briefs.


Wonderful Town

Christopher Fitzgerald in Where's Charley?
The Williamstown Theatre Festival starts early, so its season opening production of the Frank Loesser/George Abbot musical Where's Charley? has already come and gone. Not to worry, though; the 48-year-old summer smorgasbord, presented at Williams College in western Massachusetts, has plenty more treats in store. Right now, for example, there's the undying Kaufman & Hart comedy Once in a Lifetime, to be followed by a comedy about dying, Joe Orton's Loot. And Donald Margulies, a Pulitzer winner for Dinner With Friends, has adapted a classic of the Yiddish theater called God of Vengeance for the final mainstage production.

All of the above still wasn't enough for Williamstown producer Michael Ritchie, who's rounding out the bill with a "mini-festival" August 14-25, featuring three plays: For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, A Distant Country Called Youth (based on Tennessee Williams' early correspondence), and Ruben Santiago-Hudson's one-man show Lackawanna Blues. Set for the festival's second stage are four world premieres from such folks as Eric Bogosian and Alfred Uhry.

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