After a recent performance of their late-night Chicago hit Band Geeks: A Half Time Musical, co-authors Becky Eldridge and Amy Petersen of Single Box Turn Productions hit up the audience. “We’re taking another show to the New York Fringe Festival in August,” Eldridge explained. “It’s the Sundance of American theater.”
That show, Little House on the Parody, fits in with the dominant aesthetic of the New York Fringe ever since Urinetown (created by two veterans of Chicago fringe theater) broke through in 1999, leading to a rash of [Insert Pop Cultural Phenomenon Here]: The Musical! What’s interesting is that Eldridge and Petersen’s spoof of all things Wilder isn’t emblematic of this year’s offerings from Chicago or of Chicago fringe theater as a whole, where over 200 companies compete for audiences throughout the year. Some of the best bets making the trek eastward include a Dada cabaret, a dizzying race through all of Ibsen’s plays, and a rarely performed piece by 20th-century Polish visionary Stanislaw Witkiewicz—the latter courtesy of a company that has long made “Witkacy” central to its programming.
WNEP Theater scored a good review in the Times last year for Let There Be Light..!, based on John Huston’s documentary about traumatized World War II vets. They also, according to producer Don Hall, attracted interest from a producer who urged them to “funny it up” in order to get a wider audience. “I told him, ‘I appreciate your feedback, but there’s not a chance in hell we’re going to do that,’ ” says Hall (thus denying audiences Shell Shock: The Musical!). With this year’s Soiree Dada: Neue Weltaffen, the company breaks from docu-realism to pay homage to the acrid lunacy of the Cabaret Voltaire, balancing verbal assaults with high-powered anarchic fun. “I think fringe groups in Chicago always have to acknowledge that ultimately, a show has to be entertaining at some level or it won’t get an audience,” says Hall. “It just can’t be GG Allin taking a shit onstage.”
Greg Allen, founding director of the Neo-Futurists, whose signature piece, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, is the longest-running fringe show in Chicago history, returns to New York for the fourth time with The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen (not to be confused with the Carbs & Dairy production of Fucking Ibsen Takes Time). The show mirrors Too Much Light in that none of the mini-Ibsen plays (some of which are actually summaries rather than concluding moments) lasts longer than two minutes. The funniest segments focus on the Norwegian master’s forgotten early gems, like The Feast at Solhaug (enacted with a variety of condiments). The company also manages to incorporate the climactic avalanches of two Ibsen plays. Allen notes, “The kitsch factor is very high in the New York fringe, and it really does help to have some sort of hook.” His past Fringe hits include K., based on Kafka’s The Trial, and The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in an Envelope (partially burned) in a Dustbin in Paris Labeled “Never to Be Performed. Never. Ever. EVER! Or I’ll Sue! I’LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!!!” (a collaboration with Chicago’s Theater Oobleck), which went on to tour Great Britain and Ireland after selling out at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2002.
Trap Door Theatre is among the most experimental of Chicago companies, and its production of Witkiewicz’s The Crazy Locomotive marks the group’s third staging of this “super-parody” of cinema and futurism as well as its New York debut. “Our goal is to break out of Chicago and to get more international recognition and international funding,” says Trap Door’s artistic director, Beata Pilch, who admits she’s eager to “see how we stand up against people from all over the country and see how the company can pull it together when we’re in a bigger pond.”
Some of the other Chicago fish in the New York Fringe pond include GayCo Productions, Second City’s gay and lesbian offshoot, with a revival of last summer’s hit Weddings of Mass Destruction; another Second City vet, Tim O’Malley, with his acclaimed comic solo about addiction, Godshow; and Chicago playwright Harlan Didrickson’s heavy-on-the-fight-choreography portrait of the Elizabethan playwright Marlowe, produced by Bailiwick Repertory. How these Chicago imports will fare remains, of course, to be seen. Says Allen, “For us, it’s a fun way to expand our name beyond Too Much Light and just get our style out there to other people from around the country. It’s all part of our expansionist world domination policy.”