Oh!” said a young woman seated behind me. “This is actually cool.” We were attending an evening performance of
Orientarhythm, one of 200-some productions in this year’s New York International Fringe Festival. Onstage, five black-clad figures cavorted with glow-in-the-dark nunchakus, swirling and twirling them in unison. The effect was somewhat sinister, somewhat comic, slightly Busby Berkeley–ish, and, yes, actually cool.
At the 11th annual Fringe, cool appears in rather short supply, and the August heat cannot be entirely to blame. Typically, Fringe festivals allow the theater to shake off its good manners and high-culture pedigree, to indulge in art that’s inventive, dirty, and not so well-behaved. But with New York’s wealth of Off-Off-Broadway theaters and countless festivals devoted to new works, theater already spends plenty of time with its tie loosened. Our Fringe attracts a handful of companies doing the Fringe circuit and lots of local novices seeking a cost-effective production—few could argue that the NYC Fringe doesn’t offer a great deal.
However, four days spent sampling the festival’s fruits suggest it doesn’t offer much great theater. With my shoulder bag packed full of bottled water, Cliff bars, Band-Aids, and sweaters (the air-conditioning in some venues is fierce!), I tramped to and from 14 comedies, dramas, one-person shows, and musicals. Most of the work fell below the par of the average Off-Off offering, with a few bright exceptions, and a few shows so terrible they might have moved a less hardened girl to tears.
Though the Fringe launched on a sultry Manhattan Friday, I quickly found myself in An Air Balloon Across Antarctica. The mood in the Cherry Lane Theater didn’t feel too festival-ish—the audience sat tranquil and slightly damp, chatting quietly. The production maintained that same pleasantly sedate mood. A piece of gentle absurdism, Air Balloon concerns “one explorer, exceptional, and one hamster, obese,” as they attempt to sail across the South Pole. Writer Darragh Martin is dangerously fond of wordplay and strong-stress rhyme, but the script proved tender and the cast—newly minted Columbia MFAs—eager.
I was eager for Hillary Agonistes, described as a comedy-drama about Madam President. Drama? Perhaps. Comedy? Nope. The play features Priscilla Barnes (of Three’s Company) as the POTUS. When 1 percent of the world’s population suddenly vanishes, she must decide if the Christian Rapture or alien abductors are to blame. (As Bill Clinton is among the disappeared, it likely isn’t the former.) She receives visits from Pat Robertson, the Angel of Darkness, and a burqa-clad Chelsea. One character cries, “This country is beyond reason!” The play is, too.
An unreasonable delight was BASH’d, billed as a “Gay Rap Opera.” Written and performed by Alberta natives Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow, it offers a funny and devastating portrait of a gay couple and the violence that dooms them, all in rhyme. Craddock (a/k/a T-Bag) and Cuckow (Feminem) use the trappings of rap and hip-hop—musical genres not typically kind to gays—to tell the story of country boy Dylan and city slicker Jack, who meet at a club and quickly acquire wedding rings and a pug. Based on a recent rise in anti-gay violence in Canada, the show allows the merry obscenity and insouciance to devolve into tragedy. Throughout, the writing’s naughty and gorgeous, with tremendous attention given to rhythm and word choice. Jack says he’s got “a dick that’s thicker than Guinness”—just check out the internal rhyme and assonance on that one. Theater owners in the West Village: Please give these gentlemen a long late-night run.
Track work on the F train meant a long late-night run home for me, so I arrived at Farmtrucks on the following day somewhat unrefreshed. The caffeinated content of Farmtrucks: A Corporate Coffee Adventure, didn’t offer too much of a wake-up. A mild satire of a certain coffee company that “will not settle for anything less than world domination,” the nonsensical script mostly serves to showcase the attractive ACT MFAs who form its cast.
And Somewhere Men Are Laughing proved less palatable. Though it had garnered a full production in L.A., Jeff Mandel’s script seemed sadly amateurish, if heartfelt. Set in 1950s Brooklyn, it features a Jewish family collapsing even as their beloved Dodgers triumph. Heavy on the exposition, clunky in its tonal shifts, it lasted more than two hours, echoing a character’s cry, “Oh, God. Why? Why?” Bukowsical!, another L.A. success, raised similar queries, especially for anyone who’s seen the similar Gutenberg! The Musical! Also structured as a backer’s audition for “the next great musical experience,” Bukowsical! adapts the booze-fueled ramblings of Charles Bukowski. The title number opens: “What’s the feeling you get/When you’re down on your luck/And you’re too drunk to fuck/Bukowsical!” Reasonably clever, but it hits those same crass notes again and again, lending the whole production a tone of unintended alcoholic stupor.
Sunday dawned with a sober showing of Williamsburg! The Musical, which concerns hipsters transformed into zombies and forced to rent overpriced loft apartments. (The last time I lived there, this could be effected without zombification.) In a subplot, Shlomo, a Hasid, and Piper, a cool kid, “share the same zip code, but we’re living in separate worlds.” The love story’s sweet and the costuming awesome, but all the American Apparel leggings in the world can’t cover up the lameness of the book and lyrics. Exchange the leggings for sheepskin and you might say the same of The Winter’s Tale Project, a well-intended but pretty dreadful musical that offers such lyrics as Leontes’s “I wouldn’t want to be you/But I wouldn’t want to be me, too.”
You might want to be Leon Theremin, the subject of Duke Doyle and Ben Lewis’s Theremin. Though it needlessly complicates Theremin’s fascinating biography with ramblings from a straitjacketed Brian Wilson, the show does feature lots of live theremin playing, which sometimes sounds gloriously space age and sometimes like a bear in considerable pain. More painful: The Ladies of Eola Heights, though it received a bewilderingly enthusiastic response. The drag comedy follows a family of incest survivors who come home to bury their bad daddy. It also features lip synching by the lovely Miss Sammy of such songs as “Good Morning” and “People.”
People who saw next afternoon’s Notes to the Motherland weren’t the luckiest people, nor the unluckiest. Paul Rajeckas discovers that his beloved mother worked for the Gestapo. A remarkable story, though endless digressions and directorial interventions nearly prevent him from telling it. Another one-man show, Semi Permanent by celebrity hairdresser Rick Gradone, also loses volume and shine. Gradone and director Johanna McKeon plump for an unnecessary framing device—a Learning Annex lecture—instead of allowing the voluble Gradone a more natural style.
Perhaps Gradone could have volunteered his aesthetic skills at Lost in Hollywoodland, or The Slug Woman From Uranus. In this earnest but rather unstylish musical set amid monster movies in 1950s Hollywood, writers, directors, and stars sell their souls to the devil to achieve fame. At this point, I might have struck a Mephistophelian deal just to be in my bed before midnight, so my attention may have wandered. It briefly returned for the above-mentioned Orientarhythm, a fusion of martial arts and hip-hop dance hailing from Tokyo. Wearing Asics sneakers and kimonos, the cast punched, kicked, leapt, and pop-and-locked to taiko-drum ‘n’ bass. Their program claims, “Everyone, young and old, can enjoy our show and experience ‘Japanese Cool’!!!” If only more Fringe shows so earned their exclamation points.