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Take Ten

The New York International Fringe Festival celebrates its first decade. logo
Jody Lambert, Chris Sorensen, and Leslie Farrell
in Americana Absurdum
(© Marty Granger)
It's hard to believe it's now the 10th year of the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC for short). The annual event, which will run August 11-27 at a variety of downtown venues, has grown a lot in its first decade, becoming a place where Broadway and Hollywood stars occasionally perform; theater agents and producers scout for talent; and more and more shows seem to get presented (there's over 220 this year). And yet, there's a lot that hasn't changed, too. Experimentation and innovation remain a guiding principle, there's still a flying by the seat of your pants feeling for many participants, and amateurs mix with professionals in a seemingly indiscriminate manner.

In honor of FringeNYC's first 10 years, here's a brief look at 10 shows in this year's festival that are worth checking out:

Americana Absurdum
This is the show that started it all. Director John Clancy's 1996 Off-Off-Broadway production of Brian Parks' play was a huge success, and many people kept telling him the show would do well at the Edinburgh Festival. However, the cost of bringing cast and crew over to Scotland was prohibitive, so Clancy lit on the idea of starting up a festival in New York. "We talked to theaters downtown and the only good reason not to do it that anyone could come up with was that it was impossible," he states. "And that's not a good enough reason when you're young." Now, Americana Absurdum returns to FringeNYC as part of the festival's "Alumni Production Project," in which several past Fringe hits have been invited back to perform. Clancy himself is unable to take an active part (he's ironically in Edinburgh directing a stage version of Midnight Cowboy), but Paul Urcioli is staging this latest incarnation based upon Clancy's original direction. The black comedy is made up of two parts: Vomit and Roses and Wolverine Dream. "It's such an inspired, comic piece," says Clancy. "But at the same time there is real emotion at the heart of it and a real understanding of what it feels like to grow up and live in this culture."

Broken Hands
British playwright Moby Pomerance was sitting in a park one day, when a drunkard with a beer bottle sat down next to him. Instead of running -- as most sensible people would probably do -- Pomerance decided to stay. "The man had been a street fighter during the time of the Kray brothers, the underworld bosses that ruled London in the 50s and 60s," says Pomerance. "His brother had borrowed a lot of money and ended up shooting himself on one of the bridges over the Thames." Pomerance's Broken Hands is inspired by this story, which revolves around two brothers in late 1950s London. "Most of Britain was still immersed in the poverty brought on by the costs of war," says the playwright. "And yet, like 1930s Chicago, there was enough cohesion in the underworld to create a rather flamboyant subculture." The different choices the brothers make results in their alienation from one another. "What drives the play is the struggle to understand what it means to know something or someone in a way that's irreducibly true," says Pomerance. "Sometimes the hardest struggle becomes about communicating the simplest things."

The Fan Tan King
C.Y. Lee is best known as the author of the novel, The Flower Drum Song, which provided the basis for the famed 1958 Broadway musical. Now, Lee is trying his hand at penning his own tuner, adapted from his 1974 novel, Days of the Tong Wars, and featuring music by Douglas Lackey and Gene Kauer, with lyrics by Hy Silver. Pan Asian Repertory, which is planning a commercial production in the future, will bring the show to FringeNYC under the helm of the company's artistic director Tisa Chang. "I was really attracted to the story, to the history, and to the songs," states Chang of the show, which is set in 19th-century San Francisco and is loosely based on the life of Peter Fong. "In those days, with all the restrictive laws, Chinese immigrants coming here were either going to work on the railroad or would have to make their mark some other way. Peter Fong was quite a nefarious character, a Chinese Mafioso."

The October Sapphire
"Many playwrights seem intent on punishing their audience in order to get a response," says writer/director Nicholas Coyle. "Most people like catharsis, but more people like escapism, which is what The October Sapphire offers." The play tells the story of a former movie star who owns a magic sapphire containing a singing genie. A Mexican puppet living in a closet, a male nurse with a lisp, an innocent teenager with a dark past, a murderous orphan, and a chorus of Greek Furies also play crucial roles. The show, while not a musical, features a few original songs by Andy Clockwise. Coyle and his company are coming to New York all the way from Australia. "We've begged, borrowed, and stolen our way, while simultaneously relying on the kindness of strangers," says Coyle. "No one expects to get their money back, let alone make a profit, but we're just happy to still be performing this show. Despite all the soul-destroying money-raising, it's really, really fun."

The Onion Lovers
A man sitting alone at lunch is interrupted by a street hustling actress who changes his life forever. "The whole idea of the show is about breaking the constraints of your everyday, mundane life to realize your creative potential," says director J. Julian Christopher. "And I think that's why a lot of us do the fringe, to express that creativity. Some people are theater professionals and that's great, but a lot of us aren't and this is what we want to do to break out of the mundane constraints of our own lives." Christopher is teaming up with playwright and old college buddy Robert J. Bonocore for this world premiere. "Robert used to be a member of the indie rock group Zolof the Rock and Roll Destroyer, and is writing an original song which will be performed in the show," says the director. "The play itself is really absurd, humorous, and out there. But it all comes together and should be really moving."

The Penguin Tango
Remember all those news stories about gay penguins? Playwright Stephen Svoboda does, and has penned this "ripped from the headlines" comedy inspired by actual incidents at zoos in Central Park, Coney Island, and Bremerhaven, Germany. "The events that catalyze the start of the play are taken directly from the news reports," says Svoboda. "But once the ball gets rolling I looked to classic stock character comedies for inspiration for how this community of penguins deals with the aftermath of the introduction of aversion therapy and labels of sexuality and gender in their happy habitat." All the characters within the play are penguins, which created a few challenges for the Miami-based company. "How do you do a gay comedy and not have sexy boys?" asks Svoboda, rhetorically. "We tried to find a balance in the costumes that allows for the penguins to still have some 'human' sexiness while retaining the feel of penguins. In terms of how they move, the classic penguin waddle finds its way into the play quite a few times. We decided as a team that it should come out in moments of extreme emotion. So as the penguins experience highs and lows, they waddle."

Red Herring
"In high school, I was involved with a pen pal program where I corresponded with Death Row inmates," says playwright Michael Albanese. That experience forever changed him and his opinions about the death penalty, and serves as inspiration for Red Herring. The play takes place on Death Row, as two men spend their time talking while literally waiting to die. "There's an older, African American man [played by Tony nominee Thomas Jefferson Byrd], who's been on the Row for quite some time," says Albanese. "He's almost, in many ways, a father figure to this younger, more frenetic character who hasn't come to peace with himself, what he's done, and why he's there." This world premiere is being co-produced by American Idol finalist Katharine McPhee, who read the play thanks to Red Herring's lead producer (and McPhee's boyfriend) Nicholas Cokas. "The play scares everyone involved in a good way," says Albanese. "It's opened up conversations about the afterlife, mortality, and metaphysics. The discussions we've had have been so vibrant. I'm not here to preach to anyone about what they should think about faith or capital punishment, pro or against. I just want to tell a story and explore the humanity of these two men who are considered monsters by the outside world."

A scene from Trouble in Shameland
(© Scott Hall)
Trouble in Shameland
Fans of comic books may be the target audience of this new musical written, composed, and directed by Bryan Putnam. "Many of the characters of Shameland have a comic book feel that is definitely in line with some of the darker graphic novels out there," says Putnam. "But here, we deal more with the inner emotional landscape of the human heart." The musical tells the story of graphic novelist Michael Carson -- who interacts with the very characters he created -- as well as that of his estranged, religious mother (played by Broadway veteran Florence Lacey). Large-scale puppetry is utilized to help create the dream-like atmosphere of the production. "The puppets are a tool to separate us from the stark reality of the 'real world' scenes," says Putnam. "They evoke magic when they come to life, and remind us of our childhood."

Walmartopia The Musical!
"Wal-Mart is easy to make fun of," says Catharine Capellaro, director and librettist for this irreverent new musical, featuring music and lyrics by her partner Andrew Rohn. "This is where a huge percentage of Americans are working now, and there's so much satirical potential. The CEO himself handed us a song by likening his PR troubles to being nibbled to death by guppies. We have dancing guppies, with the CEO running away from them." The show was a hit in Madison, WI, where Capellaro and Rohn are based -- so much so that Madison's Mayor Dave Cieslewicz issued an official proclamation to declare "Walmartopia Days." According to Capellaro, "Mayor Dave is wonderful, very environmentally savvy. We knew that he would be sympathetic to this operation so we approached him. The proclamation is a lovely affirmation of local businesses and our need to protect our local economies from the globalization that Wal-Mart represents. I wonder if Mayor Bloomberg would sign one."

YourPlace...or Mine?
Online social networks like are the inspiration for this collaboratively written piece from Greensboro, NC. "We discussed the growing popularity of these networks, their impact on society, and just generally how it seemed that communication is changing and intimacy is being redefined," says head writer and director Kim Moore. Although depicting an online world, the show does not feature actors staring at computer screens. "We get inside the world of YourPlace and set up our rules very quickly," says Moore. "Bulletins are sent using hula hoops, when a character is online he/she wears a lapel blinky-light, and character stats are voiced in a Brechtian-caption kind of way." To develop the piece, participating writers posted fake character profiles online and let them interact with others. Moore set up rules, such as not intentionally hurting people and not friending minors for this project. Also, the writers came clean fairly early on, letting people know that they were creating a play. "Most of the 'real' people who friended our characters thought it was hilarious," says Moore. "I think maybe five or six people in total got upset and deleted us."

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