Fringe Binge

A Consumer Guide to the New York International Fringe Festival

HamletMachine (Henry Street Settlement) More recent undergraduates, pink as newborn hamsters, this time clunkily transferring Heiner Muller's iron-curtain special to the depressed industry of Detroit. Dressed as club kids and climbing around on a homemade scaffolding, they graze some interesting ideas, but the staging is too muddy for them to hit their targets. B MINUS

Bender (Red Room) Where Martini Ceremony offered no drinks and an unrefreshing view, writer-director Eric Dyer and his motley bunch do exactly the opposite. All attending the noon performance of Bender were treated to both a Bloody Mary and an intoxicating thrill. Circuitously following a hard-boiled script about a detective having a really bad day (played with off-the-cuff insanity by Dyer), but also including bits of Repo Man and other texts, the directorless group stitches together a comic and mysterious pastiche calling John Jesurun and the Wooster Group to mind. Strings of evocative phrases rush by -- "dreams cracked open like skulls on coconuts" -- just above the waves of a live electric theremin. Then what seems like an episode of Kojak emerges from the blur, only to disappear once again. It may be the only show in the festival to deserve the word fringe, a badge it wears beautifully. A

New York, New York (Context Studios) These two one-act plays, "Rogues" and "The Special Fund," by University of California at San Diego grad students, run a narrow gamut from Melrose Place to Dynasty. Both concern themselves with insider trading, the first among entry-levels, the latter among management, though the young cast remains essentially the same. The evening reeks of an industry showcase directed at soap-opera talent scouts, and strengthens my suspicion that the Fringe has temporarily inverted Manhattan, exchanging the population of the Upper West Side for that of the Lower East Side. Or is that happening on its own? C

Tales of a Bugged-Out Black Chick (Nada) Just when I was most starved for a sister to represent (a black man was too much to ask for; I saw not a one in any production), I got instead Echo Allen's In Living Color-wannabe antics. It pissed me off to think that any Negro who wants a sitcom as badly as Allen seems to would resort to such self-debasement. Dressing up as a fat and missing-toothed caricature, "Miss Gloria Glamorpuss," who explodes her own breast implant, she rolls her eyes and shucks and jives like a pickaninny come to life. Later, she portrays a thinly written drag queen character who can't snap her way out of a paper condom and impersonates a buck-toothed Japanese character that made me flee the premises. D MINUS

Circus of the Damned (Surf Reality) The humor of the sketch comedy group Hoffenrich tends toward high-concept, pop-culture redux ideas. Even so, between television parodies like "Low Self-Esteem Jeopardy" and a takeoff of Jerry Springer, they have enough smarts and energy to pull an extremely funny show out of their underwear, and occasionally hit on something really unexpected, like the hilarious "Euroclown." A MINUS

Mr. Raisin Head and Other Delights (Tenement Museum) Erika Batdorf, a Boston-based movement professional, slinks her way through one short and one long solo piece with great facility and quirky humor. In "kid," the short one, she does a dead-on impression of a child trying to tell a story about a traveling feather. In the long one, "Mr. Raisin Head," she inhabits a Southie-type middle-management flunkie who tries to stave off his impending age and obscurity by learning something about art, hoping that "virtues" will recognize him. In the process he begins to discover a personal philosophy and a new way of perceiving the world. A MINUS

Rum and Vodka (Red Room) Irish sensation Conor McPherson's slice-of-life about the sordid and amoral exploits of a young working-class guy searching for salvation in drink, adultery, and more drink captures almost photographically the despair in the life of this Reilly. Candidly portrayed by John O'Callaghan, the character at times seems too generic for the play's good, yet in his lack of self-reflection and half-baked transformation lies his tragedy. B PLUS

Dance in Vein (Allen Street mall) This festival opener, a painfully New Age, slow-motion movement piece to Indian music danced around sculptures of stiff pants stuffed with bundles of sticks, wasn't so satisfying. When they literally hugged a tree, I knew it was time to go. C

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