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Fringe '99— It's my penis and I'll cry if I want to

Few theatrical menus are as big and bizarre as that of the current New York International Fringe Festival. With a 10-day schedule of 142 eccentrically titled productions from 15 countries spread out among 20 performance sites around Lower Manhattan, it's important to adopt the proper smorgasbord mentality. First, no one should attempt to sample the whole thing. Second, not all of the offerings are readily classifiable. (In fact, many of the odder-looking dishes appear to have been whipped up expressly for the occasion.) And finally, it's best not to be too picky. Remember, it's the glutton, not the gourmet, who thrives at the downtown banquet.

Given the logistical realities (a show must often set up in 15 minutes), there's no getting around the slapped-together feeling of much of the work. And if serious, groundbreaking experiment is what you're after, the general low-key whimsy may grow a bit tedious. Still, there seems little point in asking, as so many journalists have, whether the city "needs" a Fringe Festival of its own. Since when is "need" the litmus test for anything involving passion, imagination, and commitment?

Which doesn't mean we shouldn't lament the paltry ambition and undisciplined execution of much of the fare. Of course, it would be unfair to generalize too negatively when one has seen only 10 percent of the total package. And no doubt your method of selecting shows isn't going to be the same as mine. Confounded by a program of largely unrecognizable names and titles, I decided to see as many works as possible promising either sexual or spiritual salvation. Needless to say, the unspoken fantasy was to encounter a work that could somehow mystically combine the two.

Urinetown!: Mind your pee and queues.
photo: Hiroyuki Ito
Urinetown!: Mind your pee and queues.

Still, my list had to be pruned. In a somewhat capricious manner, I nixed The Pimp Clause, Killer Kondom, and something by Joyce Carol Oates called I Stand Before You Naked. The Whore From Harlem and Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery were placed on temporary hold. That left nearly a dozen and a half to choose from, not counting those with a religious theme. (Oh, August is the cruelest month!)

Antonio Sacre's solo piece My Penis— In and Out of Trouble quickly rose to the top— and not because of the Festival guide's taunting blurb, "Come and be molested." No, Mr. Sacre happens to be a serious artist who won a Best Acting Award in the 1997 Fringe Festival. (His postcard also shows him to be quite a hunk!) Apparently, I fell straight into his trap.

Sitting on a chair amid hundreds of strewn photographs, the tall, dark, pony-tailed performer picks one up off the floor. "This is my penis, age seven," he says in a neutral tone, before recalling an innocent childhood erotic incident. Meditating over another Polaroid moment of his young schlong, he suddenly tears the evidence up into pieces. Later, while examining pictures of himself at more advanced years, he talks about his compulsive sexual practices with women. He also confesses to having occasional random thoughts about young people's bodies when having sex. In time, he begins to make the connection between the torn-up photo and his own troubled adult libido.

What is so remarkable about this personal exploration of childhood sexual abuse is the way Sacre avoids pop psychological clichés. His style is that of a naturalist whose subject just happens to be his own past. Only toward the end of his journey does he become rhetorical about his victimization, releasing his anger in a generic, textbook-like voice. His finale, however, makes for gripping drama. Before leaving the stage, he takes the audience to task for wanting to "get off" at his show. "Are you disappointed?" he asks. "Or just ashamed?" He then storms out of the theater in a flourish that would have left me even more red-faced had he refused to come back to take his bow.

On the way to see what turned out to be an incoherent spin-off of Genet known as Roses That Pierce the Night (more like The Queens of Cell Block H), I ducked in to see Marga Gomez's Jaywalker, a New York Latina lesbian's take on the perils of not having a car in Hollywood. "How many of you out there hate L.A.?" she asks, to a round of deafening applause. Recalling the time she spent searching for a TV role that wasn't a drug addict or maid, she explains how her solitary pedestrian presence upset traffic patterns all across Santa Monica Boulevard. Blisters and casting-agent rejections seemed like her exclusive West Coast fate— that is, until her epiphany at John Tesh's star on the Walk of Fame, where suddenly "it seemed like anything was possible." If Gomez's standup style is still somewhat raw, her material has a smart and savvy edge.

By this point, I'm afraid, all the false advertising in the Fringe guide began to get on my nerves. The Oops Guys' The Naked Guy claims that "Someone's gonna get naked tonight!" but he failed to materialize during the first half (all I could endure) of an hour-long gay sitcom that makes Three's Company look like a work of towering genius. Meanwhile, The Job— a slightly more amusing skit about a group of young college-bound students who, in exchange for free tuition, sign up for a scientific experiment involving the effects of giving 300 blow jobs— dangled the phony carrot of "optional audience participation after the show."

At least All-Male Lives of Y2 Gay— The Musical introduced a talented troupe of singers concerned about the gay community's future. With charmingly amusing lyrics and pleasant voices, the handsome cast share their ideas on everything from the importance of coming out to one's parents to the muscle-man craziness of Eighth Avenue. If only their friendly fraternity were more diverse (come on, eight Banana Republic­clad white boys!) and didn't skirt around AIDS so much, perhaps their hopeful message would have carried more weight. But their audience (mainly older versions of themselves) lapped it up like a steroid drink in Chelsea.

Urinetown! (The Musical) didn't seem like my cup of tea, but after Clowning the Bible (a crash course from Creation to Crucifixion by an earnest, red-nosed ensemble) and the faltering Reverend Billy (Bill Talen) in The Church of Stop Shopping, I was ready to go to the devil. The piece, which turned out to be one of the imaginative high points in my Festival junket, takes place in a city where private toilets have been outlawed and the poor must beg for spare change to pee at the corporate-owned public amenity. Bobby (Wilson Hall), a fed-up custodian, leads a movement against Boss Cladwell (Adam Grant), the profiteering president of Urine Good Company, for the right of free urination. The sudden uprising (call it Rebellion Number One) forces the naive idealist Hope Cladwell (Louise Rozett) to choose between the boyfriend she loves and the father who showers her with free flushes.

The musical, written by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, casts its droplets of political thought into the most playfully theatrical terms. Though the lyrics and comic exchanges are unflaggingly inventive, the farcically convoluted book lacks the Brechtian sharpness and command otherwise evident throughout the production. With so much audacious cleverness on tap, it's hard not to wish for better plumbing from the plot.

Director Joseph P. McDonnell's raucous cast features the hilarious Carol Hickey as the busty chief custodian of the pauper's urinal, who brings the house down with her belting rendition of "Privilege to Pee." Jay Rhoderick, who plays the patrolling police officer, and Spencer Kayden, as the precocious little roller skating girl, make a winning Greek chorus­like combination, not only ironically commenting on the action but making frequent cracks about the godawful title.

As I neared the end of my Fringe binge, it became clear how much the event relies on its audience to enter into the appropriate wacky mindset. The thought actually occurred to me during Right On, America!, a political cabaret about our country's growing indifference performed by yet another all-white ensemble. Though their satirizing point of view often hit the mark, the group failed to earn my comic complicity. I listened with a smile, but never quite made it to a laugh. Maybe it was the subliminal hypocrisy or perhaps just a case of theatrical overload. That's the other important thing about attending the Festival: knowing when enough is really enough.

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