A Venture Through The 12th Annual New York Fringe Fest

Get out your coolie hats and your bloody Popeye clothes.

On the first day, in the first hour of the 12th-annual New York International Fringe Festival, an actress lay splayed on a hospital bed, murmuring: "Happy? What do I have to be happy about?"

In the past several years, I've often asked myself that same question at the Fringe. The August heat, the cramped venues, the uninspired offerings didn't encourage joy. Even as house managers lauded the FringeNYC as "the largest multi-arts festival in North America," I would wish myself away to the Fringes of Edinburgh, Dublin, and various Canadian locales—festivals that attract a better quality of show. I would also find myself missing the earlier years of the Fringe, when the venues all clustered on the Lower East Side, which lent the Fringe a feeling of community and camaraderie now lacking.

But as the bed-bound actress Debora Weston, playing the title character in See How Beautiful I Am: The Return of Jackie Susann, lolled and kvetched, I actually felt rather cheerful. I'd just returned from traveling in India—dodging food-borne illnesses and some very angry monkeys. Suddenly, spending five days sitting quietly in the air-conditioned dark, with Western-style toilets nearby, seemed an undreamed-of luxury. Yet despite my newfound equanimity, five days of furious Fringing resulted in a typically so-so experience: several terrible pieces, lots of middling ones, and a few delights.

See How Beautiful I Am retreads, in high heels, the Jacqueline Susann story. While suffering from terminal cancer, Susann graciously takes time to recount her career and perform the occasional song and dance. Paul Minx's script has its share of bon mots—"I used to worry about my mascara dripping; now, it's the whole face"—but doesn't offer any new reading of the famed author. In Jessica Dickey's terribly sincere The Amish Project, mascara isn't a concern since Dickey performs without makeup, bonnet-clad. She's based the piece on the 2006 Amish-schoolhouse shooting, but combines the case facts with invented characters and monologues, out of a desire "to remain sensitive to the real people who were affected by the shooting while giving myself license to write an unflinching play."

The pleasantly insensitive China—The Whole Enchilada doesn't worry about ethical niceties. This musical opens with a white guy decked out in Tang Dynasty regalia, trading his r's for l's. He's soon joined by a castmate sporting buckteeth and a coolie hat. Scripted by Mark Brown, who recently scored a modest hit with his adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days at the Irish Rep, China offers a breakneck take on 4,000 years of Chinese history, very much in the manner of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Deliciously silly, it's a pupu platter of what the Fringe often does well: amusing, topical, low-budget musical comedy.

Of course, that formula doesn't always guarantee success, as evinced by Perez Hilton Saves the Universe (or at least the greater Los Angeles area). Alas, the show doesn't have nearly enough of the cruelty and lunacy of the website on which it's based. A more genial work, The Johnny, also falls flat. It centers on the attractive, blond villain of teen movies like The Karate Kid. It might have played better had the lyrics risen above such declarations as "You can't fall in love and play sports."

Falling in love—nice, Christian, boy-girl love—is the subject of The Gay No More Telethon, a musical with a limp book, but some bang-up songs and performances, including Corey Glover as a preacher and David Abeles and Gerti Lee James as a formerly gay country-and-western duo who sing a very unconvincing chorus of "There's Nothing Better Than Heterosexual Love." Heterosexual love is but one thing mercilessly parodied in Gem!, based on the cartoon I once adored. Amanda Allan's script proves more brainless than necessary, but Angela Harner's costumes and David Lee's direction enliven the proceedings.

The deluxe environs of the Deluxe Spiegeltent at the South Street Seaport improved several lackluster cabaret performances. The Home for Wayward Girls and Fallen Women features some fine burlesque, like Little Brooklyn's Pierrot act and Tigger's sacrilegious priest number. But 6 p.m. is far too early to watch a corpulent man stuff dollars into a dancer's gyrating brassiere. Even so, some confident gyrations might have improved Marco Frezza's magic show, Strange Attractor. Frezza characterizes himself as an alien desperate to save Earth from destruction, but even his status as an ET can't entirely excuse his appalling stage presence—call it stage absence. His nifty tricks are eclipsed by his painful unease.

Sailor Man concentrates on a different type of pain. A collaboration among several Yale graduates, the piece distills the Popeye cartoons into an excuse for uproarious and bloody stage combat. Before the show, a participant's mother described it to a friend, aptly, as a "violent Sesame Street." Another pleasantly odd, though less gory, turn: johnpaulgeorgeringo, in which Dave Jay stars as all four members of the Beatles, responding to audience questions with a combination of cleverness and thorough research. Jay somewhat undercuts the event by promoting his own music—a pop varietal known as J'Blammo—and playing it.

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