At year 12, the New York International Fringe Festival may now be said to be entering puberty—though both supporters and detractors might agree that with its traditional mix of attention-getting stunts and in-your-face experimentation, something resembling adolescence has been a key element of the festival from its start. Billed as “the largest multi-arts festival in North America,” this year’s Fringe will present 201 separate productions at 19 venues from August 8 to 24. While impressive as ever in both volume and variety, Fringe 2008 promises to be a year more defined by the strengths and weaknesses of individual productions than by the bursting of new frontiers.
In fact, in certain areas, there actually seems to have been some contraction. For example, there are only 11 international productions in the festival this year, nearly half of those from Canada or Mexico. Fringe press agent Ron Lasko says that despite greater than usual outreach, submissions from overseas were down this year—a fact he attributes to the proliferation of new festivals and the unpopularity of American foreign policy abroad. (Some of the productions do double duty, however: Bye Bye Bombay, by Vancouver’s Cara Yeates, takes us on a trip through India; Campo Stella’s Oneword is a German-Spanish co-production.)
Also, the festival contains surprisingly few productions related to the war on terror or the upcoming election. Compared with 2004, when a large portion of the theater community seemed swept up in the politics of protest, this year’s Fringe offers only about a dozen such productions— two of them adaptations of Shakespeare. Still, activist audiences might want to check out The Dershowitz Protocol, which considers the morality of torture in the face of a ticking time bomb, and Mourn the Living Hector, which juxtaposes scenes from the Iraq and Trojan wars.
The most notable development is the addition of the Spiegeltent as a Fringe venue. A summer fixture at the South Street Seaport for the past three years, the Spiegeltent specializes in decadent, European-style variety shows presented in the round. This year, Spiegeltent’s producers approached festival director Elena K. Holy about their new second stage, the Deluxe at Spiegelworld, which Holy describes as “just the right kind of home” for variety-oriented productions such as Dreadful Penny’s Exquisite Horrors (a show of “divine grotesqueries” from Chicago), The Home for Wayward Girls and Fallen Women (a “burlesque soap opera” by local troupe Hotsy Totsy), and Strange Attractor (a one-man show by magician and mind-reader Marco Frezza).
As always, the festival contains more than its share of plays promising sex, nudity, and even poo, but in a landscape where shows like Urinetown! and Puppetry of the Penis are mainstream popular successes, such exercises in exhibitionism may have lost whatever intrinsic lure they formerly possessed.
Instead, the most fertile area this year seems to be the exploration of the lives and works of writers. Some of these productions—like That Dorothy Parker; Mirrors of Chartres Street: Faulkner in New Orleans/New Orleans in Faulkner; and Anaïs Nin Goes to Hell—have fairly self-explanatory titles. Others require more explication: Ariel View is described by its creators as “a collage of texts by and about Sylvia Plath”; Krapp, 39 is an autobiographical work in which author Michael Laurence, turning 39, prepares recordings for a production of Krapp’s Last Tape that he’s planning to do as an old man. Straight-up adaptations also abound. No less than two separate productions are adapted from novellas by Joyce Carol Oates (The Corn Maiden and Zombie); also represented are adaptations of works by Edgar Allen Poe, Lewis Carroll, and Ray Bradbury.
But if you’re not the literary type, take heart. Fringe is still Fringe, and you can always check out Gingham Theatre’s For Reasons Unknown. That’s the poo play.