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On Top of the Fringe: A Critic's Notebook

Dan Bacalzo sees the shows, talks to the participants, and gets the gossip at the 2001 Fringe Festival. logo

(Photo: Danya Elraz)
During the first ten days of the fifth annual New York International Fringe Festival, I caught 20 of the approximately 180 shows being performed. In addition, I chatted with performers, audience members, and fellow journalists in order to get that Fringe experience. The New York festival often doesn't seem as unified as others I've attended--mainly because it doesn't have a designated bar where participants hang out, drink, and share stories. But if you hover around the Fringe long enough, you discover that it's still got the special energy that makes these festivals exciting.

What makes FringeNYC possible is its large volunteer base: Roughly one third of the participating artists donate extra time to help staff box offices and concierge desks, which are also manned by supportive locals. Volunteers are often the ones who know which shows are hot, or who have the information on special opportunities at the Fringe. For example, one volunteer urged patrons to fill out an audience ballot by plugging a contest co-sponsored by TheaterMania. "Not only can you vote for your favorite show of the festival," she enthused, "but you can enter a drawing to win two tickets to The Producers!" Then with a slight drop in vocal intonation, she added: "Ironic, I know."

When I stopped by Fringe Central on Saturday afternoon, a friend excitedly informed me that she had just bought her ticket to Debbie Does Dallas. A few hours later, the entire run was sold out. This show has received the most buzz of any at the Fringe; I even heard that one of the actors from the original porn video on which the show is based attended and said that he "liked what they did with it."

On Monday I participated in a panel at FringeU, the educational arm of the festival, titled "Why Won't You Review My Play? A Critic's Roundtable." FringeNYC publicist Ron Lasko moderated the discussion, which also featured commentary by Next Magazine's Robert Kent,'s Leonard Jacobs, head honcho Martin Denton, and's Paul Wontorek and Beth Stevens. We fielded questions on what gets us to see a show, whether or not you need a publicist, and the Do's and Don'ts for crafting a press release.

(Photo: Ron B. Wilson)
By then, I'd begun to hear good buzz on shows that weren't on my initial list of what I wanted to see. A fellow journalist highly recommended Hustle, performed by the Sideway Theater Company. I caught the show the next day and it turned out to be my favorite of the Fringe thus far. Writer/director Michael Stock has crafted a script that is a cross between Waiting for Godot and an Abbot and Costello sketch. The two actors in the piece, Alexander Alioto and Adam Reiner, have an amazing on-stage chemistry that makes the production vibrant and compelling.

On Wednesday, I ran into the Fringe Lunatic. Her name is Maev Brennan and, no, she's not insane; she just likes to see a lot of Fringe theater and was the first person ever to purchase a "Lunatic Pass," which gets you into all the shows that you could possibly squeeze into your schedule during the course of the festival. I met Maev in 1997 at the first FringeNYC, when I was performing my one-man show I'm Sorry, But I Don't Speak the Language. Surprisingly, she still remembered me from then--which was gratifying, as she saw over 100 shows during that festival alone. This year, she informed me, she felt she had to cut down. She's only seeing about 60.

On Thursday, I stopped by the "Busking Bonanza" at Tompkins Square Park, where several shows were scheduled to perform excerpts of their works. Unfortunately, many of the performers involved did not know how to adapt to an outdoor environment. Someone from Mary Magdalene told me that the cast members of that show weren't given any instructions and were just making it up as they went along; after attempting to do a dance that attracted absolutely no attention, they resorted to simply handing out publicity postcards. The only successful busker was R.J. Lewis, who was promoting his show Vaudeville's Not Dead (I'm Killing It Every Night). For one thing, he brought his own portable sound system, so he could be heard. Lewis knows how to work a crowd, and he proved to be an entertaining and funny magician.

There are many different factors that go into deciding what to see at the Fringe, and time is one of them. I soon found myself looking for the shows that were shortest in length. This backfired when I attended Photograph, a Gertrude Stein piece involving identical twins. As an audience member commented upon leaving the theater, "That was the longest 20 minutes I ever had to sit through." It's not that the performers in this show are bad; they just don't seem to have a clue as to what they're doing. There's no intention behind their lines or movements and, while they are technically proficient in executing them, director Sarah Kermensky seems not to have bothered to tell them what it's all about (if she herself even knows).

On the other hand, one of the Fringe's overlooked treasures is a short, 35-minute piece from Israel titled Studio. This is documentary theater at its finest. Sculptor Eytan Ronel actually creates a miniature sculpture of his nude model, Noa Hyman, during the course of the show; she, meanwhile, uses a video camera to document the process of creation. The camera is attached to a monitor, allowing the audience to see things from Hyman's perspective. Meanwhile, voice-overs and video images play in the background, revealing the history of the two artists and giving insight into their working relationship.

Pascal Ulli in Basketball Diaries
Since the Fringe is an international festival, I always try to attend several shows from outside the U.S. I figure if a production goes to the effort to come all the way over here, it must have something. With shows like Studio, this is certainly the case; but not always, as evidenced by Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries. Although based upon an American novel, this production starring Pascal Ulli hails from Switzerland. Ulli plays Carroll, a junkie writer growing up in Manhattan in the 1960s. Although the performer has a strong stage presence, the show lacks focus and direction. Extended sequences during which Ulli speaks with a slurred vocal intonation are nearly unbearable. Transitions between scenes are also handled awkwardly, with the actor leaving the stage for long stretches of time.

Some Fringe shows have titles that make you cringe; but that didn't stop Urinetown, which was first seen at the 1999 New York International Fringe Festival, from making it all the way to Broadway. Still, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I attended Fuck You, or Dead Pee-Holes, produced by the White Trash Hamsters. In the wake of Columbine, a dark comedy reflecting the tragedy of high school shootings is a dangerous and potentially catastrophic undertaking; but Fuck You is brutal, disturbing, occasionally quite hilarious, and extremely well done.

The play is performed at the Fringe's makeshift space, Theater One-Ninety Six, a converted garage on the lot of The Present Company (the organizers of FringeNYC). When the White Trash Hamsters printed up their publicity postcards, the performance space had not yet been assigned a name, so they called it "The Butt-Hole Theatorium." Apparently, the higher-ups at FringeNYC were not too pleased. But hey, this is the Fringe!


Other TheaterMania Coverage of the Fringe:

The Pumpkin Pie Show, Last Laugh, and A Message in Our Music

Biography's Top Ten People of the Millennium Sing Their Favorite Kurt Weill Songs, The Elephant Man: The Musical, and Tarnish

Yi Sang Counts to 13 and Often I Find That I Am Naked

The Outer Fringe (Dan Bacalzo's preview of "out-of-town" Fringe shows)

Debbie Does Post-Feminist Sexual Politics (Adam Klasfeld's musings on the Fringe hit Debbie Does Dallas)


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