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On the Fringe: A Critic's Notebook

Dan Bacalzo takes in the scene at the 2002 New York International Fringe Festival.

Victor Ortado, Carolyn Almos, and Jon Beaurgard
in Resa Fantastiskt Mystisk
(Photo: Sean Isroelit)
As the audience members file into the hot, non-air conditioned Present Company Theatorium, they find small, handheld audio-listening devices on their seats. Todd Merill, who introduces himself as the director of Resa Fantastiskt Mystisk, informs us that he'll be sharing with us his vast knowledge of Swedish dramatist Lars Mattsun, who wrote the play. His audio commentary -- which includes snipes at the actors and overly analytical interpretations of the stage action -- makes the experience one of the most original, funny, and inspiring shows of the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC for short).

Now in its sixth year, FringeNYC has grown into one of the most anticipated cultural events in New York City. During the first four days, I caught 17 of the nearly 200 shows that comprise the program. I also chatted with participants, audience members, and volunteers who were all abuzz about the festivities. Part of the excitement this year, of course, is due to the Broadway success of Urinetown, which had its humble beginnings at the 1999 festival.

Before the first show even opened, FringeNYC had sold a whopping $100,000 in advance tickets (up from $38,000 from last year's figures at this time). By the end of the festival's first day, the entire run of All American Boy, a tuner about gay scandal in a popular boy band, had sold out. (Rumor has it that producer Daryl Roth has already expressed interest in the property.)

Other musical offerings also seem to be doing well at the box office. The Joys of Sex, directed by up-and-comer Jeremy Dobrish, sold out its first performance, as did the self-described "working class musical" Minimum Wage: Blue Code Ringo. Cast members of that show acknowledge Urinetown's influence on both the increase in musical offerings this year and the potential for shows to move beyond the Fringe. "This is a nice place for producers to see established works," says Minimum Wage cast member Paul Ashley. "It's 16 days to see stuff that is ready to be presented, rather than having to beat the streets trying to find things."

But it's going to take a lot to repeat the success of Urinetown, which recently won Tony Awards for its book, score, and direction -- a hard combination to achieve. For example: Minimum Wage features an outstanding cast, clever lyrics, and catchy, upbeat musical stylings. The entire show is sung a cappella and a love song called "Boy Meets Grill" is one of the funniest numbers I've ever seen. Unfortunately, the show lacks a strong book, which is the downfall of many a musical contender.

Dan Pintauro as Allen Ginsberg in beat
This year's festival also seems to have attracted a number of high profile and/or established artists. Two of the biggest are Randy Harrison of TV's Queer as Folk, who is featured in Deviant, and Dan Pintauro (Who's the Boss?), starring as Allen Ginsburg in beat. A docudrama revolving around the Howl obscenity trial, beat is a fascinating, albeit uneven, look at the Beat Generation. A highlight of the show is a spoken word rendition of Ginsburg's poem "America" set to the rhythms of the cast snapping and beating on bongo drums. Pintauro may not bear any physical resemblance to Ginsburg but he endows the theatrical version of the poet with a sensitive, lonely quality that works well within the piece. And, as an audience member commented to me: "If Ginsburg were alive, I'm sure he'd love to be played by someone that cute."

Name and reputation are not guarantees of a show's popular success, however. onemanshow, written by and starring Myles Thoroughgood, is directed by Tony Award-winner Thommie Walsh. Walsh was a member of the original cast of A Chorus Line and a Tony Award winner for choreographing A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine and My One and Only (for which he also received a Tony nomination for direction), so you'd think that he would attract lots of attention. But, on the night I attended the show, I was one of nine people in the audience -- including Walsh. The show itself doesn't break any new ground in terms of one-person shows. It's clearly a showcase for the actor, allowing him to take on five different characters including a professor from Africa, a gay club kid, and a woman at a self-help seminar.

Solo shows are a staple of fringe festivals, for good reason. They're relatively easy to produce, don't require a huge budget, and can be done with a minimum of props and set pieces. Antonio Sacre has mastered the art. His latest offering, Up to the Sky, marks his sixth consecutive appearance at Fringe NYC. Sacre is a charismatic storyteller who allows the joy he obviously feels in telling a good tale to shine through. Cyndi Freeman, while not quite as natural as Sacre, also spins an entertaining yarn. Her show I Kissed Dash Riprock sparkles with wit, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

Other practitioners of the solo performance form are not quite as adept as the aforementioned artists. Tonya Canada's It's All About Me is funny and entertaining but the writer/performer tends to speak at the audience rather than to them. Similarly, Rebecca Hardin-Thrift, star of The Becky Show, is full of fascinating stories. Her accounts of growing up "trash" are alternately amusing and harrowing. Yet there's no shape to the show; the ending comes abruptly and it's unclear what the writer/performer is trying to convey through her work. Then there's Me: A 5 Woman Show, written and directed by Deb Loftis. The concept is clever, with Loftis splitting the usual solo performer into four women and one man, each of whom take on different aspects of this "Everywoman." Unfortunately, in doing so, Loftis robs the show of what makes a solo performance work -- specificity. Her split subject never gets personal enough to make what she/they talk about seem meaningful.

The search for meaning is the focus of Last Call, by Kelly McAlister. Set in a post-9/11 world, the piece concerns a group of friends whose lives are going nowhere. They're desperately reaching out to the wrong people for something to hold onto and their intertwined stories make for a sad but compelling play. Last Call gets off to a rocky start but, once all the characters are introduced, it kicks into gear. The same cannot be said for Adam Hardman's Wasting Zen, which never takes off at all. An incoherent drama set in the near future, it substitutes pretentious language for content and character development. (A typical line in the play goes something like this: "The soul belongs to God but the body belongs to us.") What makes the show even more disappointing is that it's by one of the creators of Fuck You, or Dead Pee-Holes, which deservedly received a FringeNYC Overall Excellence Award last year.

Alexa Dubreuil and Paul Keany
in Death of Frank
(Photo: Ron Richards)
Another artist with a good Fringe reputation is Stephen Belber, who won an award for Excellence in Playwriting at the 2000 festival for Finally. He's represented this year by his 1997 work, Death of Frank. Although the play could use some judicious editing -- Belber tends to overemphasize and repeat his themes too often -- it remains a complex exploration of the sexual and emotional ties between family members and lovers, performed by a talented ensemble cast.

A strong ensemble is also featured in edWARd2, writer/director Anton Dudley's reinvention of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II. The cast handles the play's language as easily as it does the production's use of puppetry. The show pushes the homosexual angle of the story to the forefront but, oddly enough, doesn't allow the two actors playing Edward and Gaveston to create any sparks. They're both very good in their roles; but, every time it looks like they might kiss, there's a scene change or they opt to hug instead.

No such sexual ambiguity surrounds Christopher Shinn's brilliant one-act The Sleepers, performed on a double bill with David Greenspan's Five Frozen Embryos. While both shows are worth seeing, it's Shinn's that grabs hold of your heartstrings. The Sleepers follows one evening in the life of two men who hit it off while masturbating in the backroom of a gay bar. Each carries with him emotional baggage that is alternately forgotten and relived in this tender, sad, mesmerizing piece of theater.

Another highlight of this year's festival is Matt and Ben, a comedy that satirizes the success and friendship of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. It created a bit of a stir before the start of the festival for faking a story about how Damon and Affleck were bringing legal action against the show's creators. The show's website even includes falsified correspondence from a lawyer said to represent the Hollywood stars. However, there's more to Matt and Ben than hyped-up controversy: The two female writer/performers, Brenda Withers and Mindy Kaling, are pitch-perfect in the title roles. They have an easy comic chemistry that turns what could have been a one-note joke into an engaging theatrical experience.

The same is true of Spanked!, written and performed by boyfriends Aaron Hartzler and Ian MacKinnon. This show satisfies the prurient interests of those lured in by the title as well as those hoping for something more. It starts out with the duo discussing the kinds of underwear their dads wore but soon moves to compelling autobiographical narratives concerning religion, child-rearing, and the pains and joys of forging both sexual and emotional relationships.

It's worth noting that some shows (such as Spanked!) may not be appropriate for all audiences. Although this year's FringeNYC program guide identifies shows suitable for children and teens (with two levels -- FringeJR and FringeHIGH), there aren't always filters to prevent kids from attending other shows. A child sat in front of me at the premiere performance of Asians Misbehavin' in 2002 and I was a bit concerned about his presence as the cast launched into a whole litany of four letter words. Fortunately, his mother shared my concern and took him out of the theater before those naughty Asian American actors performed a skit entitled "The Joy Cock Club," a hilarious parody of Amy Tan's most famous novel that featured dildos, cross-dressing, and other treats.
There truly is something for everyone at FringeNYC -- even if it's often difficult to find. Some of the theaters are quite far from each other, so you need to take into account travel time if you're seeing shows back to back. This wasn't so much a difficulty in the first few years of the Fringe, when most of the venues were located on the Lower East Side. But as the festival has become more popular, there's been a slow creep uptown; now, half of the theaters are above Houston Street. It's only a matter of time before they go above 14th! For now, though, the Fringe maintains a tenuous balance between the mainstream and the margins. It's where you might possibly catch the next big Broadway musical, but it's also just a fabulous place to see some really good downtown theater.

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