Fringe Marathon: The Spider Tops Our Roundup of 10 Shows

Last weekend kicked off the 17th year of the New York International Fringe Festival (aka FringeNYC), which runs through August 25. As with any such festival, when you choose what shows to see, you’re really rolling the dice. This two-week-long feast of all things performative offers shows by 185 theater troupes and dance companies from 13 countries and 17 U.S. states. The total number of performances is an overwhelming 1,200, and it all takes place in 20 downtown Manhattan venues.

This was my first attempt to see 10 Fringe events in a little over 48 hours. (In case you’re wondering, I’m very tired, and my legs are sore.) The measure of the festival’s success is probably not how many stellar shows there are but rather the ratio of pretty good ones to godawful bores. To the credit of FringeNYC, most of the performances I saw were of the former variety, and a couple were truly outstanding.

The most important thing, which I learned immediately, is that you should never, ever, under any circumstances arrive even one minute late to these things. FringeNYC is a well-oiled machine, with none of this leisurely holding the house open for an extra 10 minutes that you find on Broadway. If you arrive late—actually, if you don’t arrive early—you are S.O.L. Take note.

Penko Gospodimov and Anastassia Liutova play conjoined twins in “The Spider”
Courtesy The Drama League
Penko Gospodimov and Anastassia Liutova play conjoined twins in “The Spider”
From "Clown Play"
From "Clown Play"

My weekend of theatrical madness began, perhaps appropriately, with Manic Pixie Dream Girl: A Graphic Novel Play at The Celebration of Whimsy (or the C.O.W.). The comedy by Katie May uses familiar graphic novel clichés (like big “Pow!” sound effects for bodily contact) to tell its story of Tallman, a frustrated artist who finds a muse in a mysterious mute woman who wanders into a bar and comes home to live with him. This title character, Lily, is explained as a “trope,” ironically, by the best-friend-in-a-bar stock personality functioning as the voice of reason: A “manic pixie dream girl” is a quirky girlfriend character that one knows nothing about “outside of the relevance to the dude’s life.” Think Kate Hudson in Almost Famous. However, what seems like a script constructed of such tropes takes a surprisingly poignant turn when Lily’s origins are revealed. A Starburst wrapper serves as an unlikely metaphor for a shift in perspective that’s as revelatory to the lead character as it is to the audience.

Another piece that relies on conventional characters and situations—but forgivably so—is The Awful Truth, a ’40s-style radio play presented at The Connelly by Gotham Radio Theatre. In this campy farce, five actors take on more roles than are even listed in the program in a silly I Love Lucy-esque romp about marriage and infidelity. The sound effects are created live onstage, and the cast should be applauded for their tightness as an ensemble as well as for their individual vocal versatilities.

By contrast, Clown Play (at The C.O.W.), written by Paul David Young and directed by Robert Lutfy, is completely unconventional. The dark comedy begins with an existential monologue by a woman named Maria (Carol Lee Sirugo), who compares herself to “the indirect object,” the “acted-upon.” Following this, a motley crew of four burglar-clowns-turned-squatters assembles in an abandoned house. Their physical shenanigans at gunpoint are equal parts whimsy, perversion, and absurdity (several members of the cast are formally trained clowns). The script is intelligently bizarre: It’s Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects meets Marcel Marceau, and ultimately connects its disorienting components into an ode to clowning and the pain it sometimes masks.

Talk to Me About Shame is a one-man show created and performed by Julian Goldhagan at Los Kabayitos. Wearing only a diaper (and eventually nothing), Goldhagan shares some of his own experiences with shame as well as recorded interviews with people discussing their feelings on the topic. He engages the audience in lighthearted participation and then opens the floor for what became, at this performance, a very honest confession by an audience volunteer. Goldhagen is warmly engaging, often hilarious, and fearless in his vulnerability. Few performers could achieve his intended goal of creating a safe and open space where strangers feel comfortable revealing protected emotions; he undoubtedly has a gift for connecting with an audience.

In the spirit of shameless honesty, I will admit that The Skype Show or See You in August took an hour and a half of my life I wish I could get back. Written by Jody Christopherson (who plays herself), based on Skype conversations she had with Michael De Roos (who plays himself), this is a self-indulgent if well-intended chronicle of a long-distance relationship (reenacted live via Skype) of an American woman whose creative and romantic partner moves back to the Netherlands when his student visa expires. It is almost embarrassingly painful to watch Christopherson hanging on to a dwindling romance with a man who appears to be stringing her along with halfhearted intentions to return to the U.S.—until De Roos physically appears in the theater at the end of the play. Call me cynical; I experienced the foregoing 85 minutes as an exercise in codependency inoculation by immersion rather than a tale of star-crossed lovers.

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