Squirming in the heat of a sweltering theater, awaiting another lukewarm show, a colleague asks, “Have you seen the box office totals for the first day of the Fringe?” With resignation and a little disdain, he reveals that the New York International Fringe Festival has amassed over $100,000 in advance ticket sales—a fairly staggering amount for the low-rent event, nearly three times greater than last year’s number. He shook his head and said, “The Fringe is dead.”
With the Fringe-begot Urinetown!‘s three Tony awards, numerous off-Broadway transfers, and the newfound moneymaking, it’s tempting to accuse the Fringe of having sloughed off its skin of indie cred, of having all the edge of a pâté knife. Gone are the days of artistic ambition and groundbreaking theatrics. Now it functions as industry showcase and launching pad—or so the story goes.
But having attended five of the Fringe’s six festivals and covered three, I’m confident that each year never boasted more than a handful of risky, “fringey” works. Judging from the 20 or so plays witnessed this year, while a few entries do display some distressingly canned professionalism or reactionary ideology, most are as scrappy and spontaneous and, well, shitty as in Fringes past. With its grand scale—nearly 200 shows performed over 17 days in 20 venues—the festival guarantees a muddle of daring and complacency. It also guarantees small companies a chance to find an audience, and not just any audience, but one comprised primarily of 18-to-35-year-olds—a great rarity in New York theater circles—with decades of theater-going ahead of them.
This edition boasts the typical array of one-person shows and small-cast musicals, revamped classics and playwriting debuts, unfunny comedy and irreverent drama. Surprisingly, if not unhappily, September 11 makes itself little felt (though the afterglow of civic pride may have something to do with the high ticket sales). In fact, few general themes emerge, save some plays detailing corporate avarice and the plight of wage laborers (people in the theater will always have day jobs), as well as the usual complement of violence- or sex-based pieces.
Titillation has its uses, and a show managing to combine both sex and violence beat out the competition. In the autobiographical Spanked!, real-life boyfriends Ian MacKinnon and Aaron Hartzler trace how the terrors of childhood paddlings metamorphosed into a pleasurable adult activity. The young men have ingested too many self-help books (a pall of pop psychology clings to the production, most notably in references to “the light of my gay soul”), but they are candid and likable performers, well-served by director Jacob Titus, though he might have insisted on some editing—the emphasis is definitely on bikini rather than brief. And for the more sheltered spectator (self very much included) the spanking demonstration is indeed—as Hartzler wryly notes—worth the cost of admission. That demonstration is brave—as is the wearing of leopard-print “man panties” while crooning “Love Hurts”—but braver still are the moments in which the men admit failure in reconciling themselves with their pasts or their own discomfort with the material.
Discomfort with the material is the comic seed for Resa Fantastiskt Mystisk, an ostensible masterwork by underappreciated Strindberg contemporary and goose herder Lars Mattsun. As the director Todd Merrill explains in his anxious curtain speech, the play is a masterful parable of artistic creation and he’s tremendously concerned that the audience “get” it. To facilitate, he’s distributed wireless headsets so that he can provide guidance and clarification. A dead-on parody of DVD commentary tracks, Merrill recites lines along with actors, grows snippy when a scene goes awry, and offers insipid nuggets such as “Here Philip retreats within himself.” The play ought to have retreated from its 90-minute run time, as one joke, however amusing, is still one joke.
Here’s another joke: What if the script for Good Will Hunting fell—quite literally and mysteriously—into the laps of pre-fame Matt Damon and Ben Affleck? In Matt and Ben, as conceived and performed by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers, the phenomenon occasions a rift and retrenchment in the now legendary friendship. Kaling and Withers might have better mimicked the hunks’ speech patterns and gestural vocabulary, but they attempt their roles with gusto and requisite cockiness—as Affleck notes, “We’re white, we’re handsome, we’re American, we were in School Ties.” Unlike many of Damon and Affleck’s subsequent projects, Matt and Ben has an affectionate eccentricity—particularly dream sequences involving Gwyneth Paltrow and J.D. Salinger—that excuses much of the imprecision and plotlessness.
As in every festival, there are certain projects nothing could excuse (OK, maybe vast amounts of money slid through the ticket window to me). Death in the City has the clever premise of improvising a show based on information from the day’s obituaries. But the performance reviewed, a tribute to the life of Vietnamese dissident Tran Do, found the actors incapable of establishing chronology or character, nor could they decide whether or not Tran was the surname—effectively, a Tran don’t. In Assorted States and Clean Living, Blindspot demonstrates a similar level of improvisatory incompetence, though they fare slightly better in the sketch-comedy portion of their show, especially a bit featuring renegade stewardesses. A Night of Shitty Theatre more or less lives up to its name (it was an afternoon, technically), although the intentionally awful scenes scripted by Joe Wack might have been hilarious had they not been performed with such insufferable knowing. Altogether unknowing was the dance-theater piece Stalking Christopher Walken, which made the logical snafu, “Hey, Christopher Walken is weird, so if we put in a lot of other weird stuff, like St. Marks aliens and descending bananas, well, that should work.” Makes you want to tell them to put a stalk in it.
Another—more successful—form of hero worship arrives in the form of Beat, writer-director Kelly Groves’s mash note to Allen Ginsberg. This piece of documentary theater—centered around the Howl obscenity trial—offers clever editing, energetic performances, and polished staging, but takes its subjects far too reverently. How can you hold a mirror up to nature when you’ve made it all steamy? Like several Beat anthologies, the play also pretends women were absent, a fault Gregg Tomé’s one-man show Babylon, Long Island shares. Recalling suburban teendom, Tomé performs a coterie of 1970s stoners and slackers with some aplomb, but the repetitiveness of the monologues and the oddly moralistic ending don’t make Babylon captivate.
More captivating, as far as one-person shows are concerned, is Tonya Canada’s aptly-named It’s All About Me. Recounting a term as a Portland Rose Princess, employment at a menacing law office, and a disappointing date with Robert De Niro, the insouciant Canada wears her egotism as well as her miniskirt. Patrick Tull doesn’t wear miniskirts (as he’s a burly 61-year-old this is no hardship), but still commands attention in The Hero of the Slocum, a record of a 1904 inland waterway disaster. Though somewhat static, it does provide an engaging narrative and proves that corporate greed isn’t a contemporary invention. Downsized explores a similar topic—here the greed is made manifest in the 500 pizzas a beleaguered boss orders as he forces two underlings to pass the night with him.
The two young men who pass the night in Christopher Shinn’s onanistic The Sleepers are just jerking around in comparison to the two white-garbed women of the one-act they’re paired with, David Greenspan’s extraordinary Five Frozen Embryos. Greenspan confirms his talent for the deceptively simple and artlessly devastating as the women graciously quibble over syntax and language as they reconstruct a court decision barring a woman from impregnating herself with embryos fertilized by her ex-husband.
In the “boy band pop musical” All American Boy, a Svengali named Sven Gali attempts to bring an embryonic boy band to term despite myriad scandals and gay romances. Though the ultra-asinine lyrics (“Love you like you love me when you love me like you like me”) do provoke an occasional titter, the book wants rewriting and many of the roles recasting with performers who can actually dance and sing (Kellie Overbey providing a welcome exception). All the performers of the revue The Joys of Sex have the requisite chops, but neither they nor Jeremy Dobrish’s brisk direction can rescue the piece from its bourgeois smarm. It pretends to celebrate kinkiness and candor before insisting that only the married, heterosexual, baby-making paradigm really gets you off. In Sophie Rand’s uneven and earnest Deviant, however, it’s insect squishing, doll humping, amputees, aliens, and the vegetable drawer that provide the turn-ons.
As any catalog of extreme sexual practices suggests, there is satisfaction to be found in unexpected places. And even if few shows in this year’s Fringe proved entirely gratifying, many were not without attractive aspects: a breath of innovation, a breeze of genuine comedy, the feel of the air conditioner before the crowds have made it ineffectual, the discovery that the deli around the corner carries the energy cookie you’re infatuated with. If the Fringe is dead, long live the Fringe.