Fringe Binge

A Consumer Guide to the New York International Fringe Festival

By producing 144 shows in 12 days, the New York International Fringe Festival acquires the scope of a vanity press publication, giving artists the feeling of achievement without accomplishing very much. Most of the work I sampled in my semi-random travels neither sang nor croaked, teetering instead on the awkward branch of okayness. Diving into this melee in a city that's already a fringe festival has the casual and bland feeling of tuning into an alternative radio station to provide cool background noise.

Brown and Black and White All Over (Red Room) Half-Cuban/half-white performer Antonio Sacre's account of his weekend at a Robert Bly men's retreat is everything you'd expect: self-righteous, "angry," and contextualized by didactic poetry and New Age psychobabble. Surrounded by candles and rocks and speaking from a mound of dirt, he first scolds you for not listening to the stories of inner-city youths, then doesn't tell enough of them himself, and, most irritatingly, doesn't tell his own story either. But at least he does real social work outside the "ritual" of theater. B

Burn Manhattan (Soho Rep) Like most improv groups, these free-form Dadaists miss more often than they hit, but every once in a while the clouds of obscurity lift and you can see the Machu Picchu of humor shining clearly at the top of their mountain. Though they exude a Firesign TheaterÐish obscurity, thankfully none of them are showoffs, nor are they concerned with tying every last loose end together in Harold form. Their degree of physical trust and comic altruism astonishes as much as their ability to think together. A MINUS

Lightbulbs (Collective Unconscious) In a near-monologue told by a Malaysian woman who decides to search for the meaning of life by killing off members of her rock band, the Lightbulbs, playwright Karen Quah's style shifts between sparkly and silly. The direction is pretty cheesy, and the multimedia concept isn't well integrated, but the lead actress, named simply "Johanna," sustains the show with her goofy presence. B

The Golden Ass (The Pit) Ostensibly the story of the seduction of Lucius by lascivious women, this open-air bluegrass musical stars mostly frat boys in towels and one blond in a dinner jacket. It looks like a tailgate at a University of Maryland football game, and is accordingly only comprehensible to the intoxicated. D PLUS

The Sleeping and the Dead (Henry Street Settlement) The International WOW Company presents a new-Vaudevillian movement piece that resurrects silent-movie acting, using minimal verbal expression to recount a day in the life of an everyman. It's amusing if insubstantial, like the Adobe Theater Company with their tongues ripped out. B MINUS

Doughboy (Henry Street Settlement) I didn't see Doughboy. By my second day, I was already tired of freshly scrubbed postcollegiate straight white boys. However, this piece based on the letters of WWI soldiers bulges with a dead poets' society's worth of most-adorable male ingenues (whom I ogled while they rehearsed in the street), and was written, interestingly, by a woman, Heather MacDonald. But one of the handsome fellows in the cast informed me that there isn't any sex in it, so I sighed and moved on. N/A

Little Red (Kraine Theater) It would have been very easy to go wrong adapting "Little Red Riding Hood" to an avant-garde context. Director Erica Ruhl and playwright Linell Hanover's transfer of the fairy tale into a decaying world of abject poverty and fear works by keeping its associations -- child molestation, war, murder -- just under the surface, where they're extremely disturbing but not obvious. Rather than following the story's lead, Hanover superimposes the original tale onto her own quirky and specific work, to chilling effect. It may also be the best (and most darkly) lit play in the festival. A MINUS

Martini Ceremony (Mazer Theater) If Whit Stillman ever got bitten by the downtown theater bug, he'd probably come up with something like Martini Ceremony, in which an ensemble of black-tie white folks sassily perform a dance-theater mix based on a barrage of facts concerning the history and culture of the vodka-vermouth mix. "One might see the martini as an extended metaphor for Euro-American culture itself," blurts out one of our kooky hosts. Is that because it's often so dry? B MINUS

Lizzie Borden's Tempest (Connelly Theater) Apparently, most people think that to be avant-garde, they must make a play from material lacking drama, and/or based on a forced juxtaposition of unrelated texts, say, Lizzie Borden's biography and Shakespeare's The Tempest. Huh? Brendan Byrnes's scatologically obsessed and uneventful spectacle makes that mistake. It's also way purple: "My bowels constantly remind me of the possibility of sharing Christ's passion," Lizzie exclaims. Yet Byrnes directs with such a sharp (if slightly passe) formalist eye that you might not notice how much Tempest feels like reading a not-so-well-reasoned term paper. You focus more on the lush stage pictures. And the costumes -- Oh my gawd! -- to die for! B

The Importance of Being Earnest (Red Room) Wilde is too resilient to screw up. Doing his work, as Hugh Hysell directs it, with casual sketch-comedy energy, only adds a layer of irony. And setting it, somewhat gratuitously, on Fire Island with an all-male cast only flattens the script in that it's far too genteel -- not to mention intelligent -- to be spoken by the "spoon up the nose, knife in the back, dish all around" types that actually populate the Pines. If the entire cast had been as pumped up and unintelligible as spandex-clad "houseboy" Michael Marcel, however, that could have made this Earnest a harsh and funny critique of gay culture's retrogression, though impossible to watch. B

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