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
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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.


More meaningful, if still not precisely necessary, were two male-driven pieces. The first, An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening, comes courtesy of Theater Oobleck, who last year graced the festival with the even more multisyllabic The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett, etc., etc., etc. Audiences expecting a similar farce are in danger of disappointment (if not heatstroke—oh, the Saharan splendor of the Downtown Variety Lounge). Nevertheless, playwright Mickle Maher and Ben Schneider's Faustus do deliver a thoughtful meditation on language, intention, hell, epistemology even. And they give the audience beers—cold, cold beers.

Though solo performer Antonio Sacre does not distribute Buds, his Si La Gente Quiere Comer Carne, Le Damos Carne . . . The Remarkable Story of My Brother is nearly as refreshing. Sacre, inhabiting a host of relations from his half-Irish, half-Cuban family, unfurls the true tale of his younger brother Henry. Sacre follows Henry from overweight spaz to surly teen to successful bookie to accused drug dealer to triathlete competitor. A five-time Fringe participant, Sacre infuses his stories with considerable humanity and affection. The script skates too lightly over the bad old days and the narrative often gets sidetracked, but the eddy and swirl of voices and Sacre's great love for his brother emerge intact.

Sometimes, however, love isn't enough. I would bet that adapter-performer Kevin Mitchell Martin, of A Touch of the Poe, profoundly loves our E.A. But the necrophiliac result plays out like a very bourgeois tribute band. Did we really need everystanza of "The Raven"? Nevermore. And playwright Lucas Rockwood must have loved last year's news story about an airline passenger killed by other passengers in a fit of air rage. But Fifty Minutes doesn't fly—it spends nearly an hour and a half watching people type messages into a chat room. I began to echo their sentiments: "I keep hoping things will change." "God I'm lost." "Help."

Speaking of help, several plays appeared so misguided as to be beyond it. Life's Callpromised to be a rarely performed Arthur Schnitzler melodrama, but as almost no line proved intelligible, I can't say for sure. Director Brian Rogers's production, with its frenetic pacing and assaultive soundscape, obliterated the text almost entirely. If this is indeed Life's Call, it's a damn poor connection. Similarly, playwright George Bennett offers a very tenuous connection between any aspect of The Toothless Virgin and coherence, interest, or sense. In a word, Toothlessbites.

More toothsome, but still half-baked, was the Aporia Players' adaptation of the Alan Lightman novel Einstein's Dreams. Paul Stancato directs and choreographs a relatively accomplished performance, and the cast all look handsome in their white outfits. But with all Einstein's talk of energy, some should have found its way into the production, cutting through the preciousness and quickening the languid pace. Another patience-tester is Daniel Kleinfeld's A Little Piece of the Sun (I left after the first act—an hour and 15 minutes!). Kleinfeld fascinatingly juxtaposes the activities of Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo with the Chernobyl disaster. The script of this documentary play has real potential, a potential Kleinfeld might realize if he'd content himself with only one stage action or sound at a time. (Hey, isn't that what serial means anyway?)

New musicals have potential all their own, typically potential for disaster. In Jesus Gets the Blonde—a confused tale of gangsters and transsexuals in the afterlife—the sweat-stain Rorschach patterns on the actors' shirts proved the most interesting element. A misguided parody, The Elephant Man: The Musical has its own share of sweat stains and transgressions, but it does boast one amazing song that rhymes the titles of every musical in recent memory. Not since Tom Lehrer crooned the periodic table has a single tune covered so much inert material. A bit better, if poorly sung and unevenly plotted, was the Key Theatre's Two Girls From Vermont, a "dirty pop" adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Veronadotted with teeny-bop tunes. Should its creators rewrite and recast, then I hope they, oops, do it again.

I hope the Fringe producers, oops, do it again as well. Heat and ham-acting aside, I have a soft spot for the Fringe—the morass of shows, the under-rehearsed plays, the environmentally unsound theaters. I trust that it will flourish.

Now, will someone please go rescue Trav S.D.'s baby?

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