Britney’s School for Aliens

On the first Monday of New York's fifth annual Fringe Festival, the dais at the Present Company boasted a bottle of Poland Spring and a vase of wilting flowers. But Robert's Rules of Order were nowhere in sight as a heated debate (95 degrees at least) flamed in the Theatorium.

The resolution read: "There must be a Fringe Festival in 2002." The affirmative side maintained that the Fringe helps theater artists produce and network, and can even lead to Broadway transfers (Urinetown, what hast thou wrought?). The negative countered that the Fringe does little other than line the pockets of its producer (the Present Company) and lacks the resources to ensure that all 180 shows have adequate publicity and good working conditions.

Perhaps the debate's most trenchant remarks were made by indefatigable impresario Trav S.D., who, during the Q&A section, posited: "You're trapped in a burning building with an infant and the New York International Fringe Festival—which do you save?"

Debbie Does Dallas: porn free
Photograph by Cary Conover
Debbie Does Dallas: porn free

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The New York International Fringe Festival
Various Lower East Side locations
Fringe Central, 196 Stanton Street
212-420-8877

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Well, it's burn baby burn as our Fringe marches on apace, bigger each year if not demonstrably better. (The current festival continues through August 26.) This year, happily, more shows started and ended on time. But with venues ranging from 14th Street to East Broadway, getting to and from the shows—often in the rain—proved no treat. Also, as in past seasons, the theaters themselves ran the gamut from stifling to glacial. With the rain, it felt like a forced stay at a sadistic Japanese bathhouse: first scorchingly hot, then savagely cold, but always very wet (and without any fluffy towels or red-bean cakes).

Like New York Fringes past, most of the plays sampled were all wet themselves—for every really good show, you could expect four or five mediocre to unwatchable ones. Last year, I wrote about the number of shows concerned with extraordinary bodies (aliens, freaks, the guy who ate lightbulbs), as well as outmoded genres and the all-around arduousness of being a man in the year 2000. Well, it's 2001, and while aliens and postmodern pastiche remain popular, new trends have emerged. There are at least five plays about high school as nadir of civilization, several Spanish-language pieces, and quite a few end-of-the-world and reality-TV riffs. Hearteningly, this year's Fringe boasted a number of excellent shows by and/or about women. Welcome to Ladies' Night—minus the margarita specials.

For her adaptation of the classic '70s porno Debbie Does Dallas, producer and star Susan L. Schwartz has chosen the subtitle A Success Story. She's right. The plot concerns the success of Debbie and her cheerleading friends as they make money to help Debbie become a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. And the play itself may be the best success of the Fringe. A little naughty, a little weird, a little camp, and a lot of fun, this slight delight overflows with period costumes, playful acting, and laughable dialogue ("Oh, Mr. Greenfeld, how big you are"). Equally big are the outsized set pieces designed by Matthew Ronay, which boast enough bright colors and skewed lines to lend the whole production the mise-en-scène of a "very special episode" of Schoolhouse Rock. Director Brock Enright hasn't found a compelling way to stage the sex (or lack thereof), but he ensures that his actors strike the balance between dazed and insouciant that is the province of the adult-film actor. If the cast occasionally wink at their characters, their delight in playing them is about as unironic as a porno revival can get.

More ironic, but nearly as enjoyable, Esther Silberstein's People Like Usexplores the lives of a handful of karaoke enthusiasts. With a toss of her hair or the quick inclusion of some barrettes, Silberstein morphs from venal host Qui Qui to lonesome metalhead TJ to disaffected housewife Beatrice. Though the Qui Qui section proves far weaker than the subsequent two, and director Caitlin McClure could better stage the scene changes, Silberstein writes and performs with charm and compassion. Admittedly, Silberstein composes in a rather minor key—with the exception of the finale, in which all three characters take turns singing Supertramp's "Goodbye Stranger." But I look forward to hearing from her again.

I'm also hungry to hear more from Erin Keating, the writer-performer of the one-woman show Ravenous. Keating, a contributor to the highly recommended journal Bitch, has feminism on the brain, but it's not the humorless sort at all. Keating inhabits seven women all struggling to synthesize their own desires and attitudes with those society expects them to have. Take Savannah, a dominatrix composing a video personals ad. She loves her job and will defend her independence to the death, but she also wants to find a man to give her children and companionship. She barks out "And I make perfect pancakes" with heart-wrenching vulnerability. Other notable characters include a Ukrainian hairstylist and an Orthodox Jewess, though a society matron and an angry butch prove less convincing.

If only Savannah would use her professional talents and whip some other women-centric shows into shape. Nancy S. Chu, director of A Piece of My Heart, a play by Shirley Lauro based on the experiences of nurses in Vietnam, wouldn't know an interesting stage picture if it lobbed a grenade at her. Nevertheless, she manages to coax truthful performances from her actresses—successfully navigating the emotional indulgence and sentimentality that land-mine an otherwise fascinating script. Often I Find That I Am Naked, an Australian import, profits from the vivacious Jacqueline Linke as a cyclone in a slit skirt and the excellent Keith Agius as any number of her lovers (including an amorous pup). But the script, a pop-psych mishmash that equates breakups with psychotic breaks, is a naked disaster. And, speaking of psychotic breaks, though the wide-eyed Susan O'Connor does a marvelous turn as a bitter grad student in Take, she can't render Timothy P. Jones's tragedy particularly meaningful or necessary.

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