Perusing the newspapers earlier this month just wasn’t much fun. Workplace shootings. Record troop deaths. Extreme weather. Good news seemed to have taken a vacation; I wanted one, too. So when it came time to book my tickets to this year’s New York International Fringe Festival, the 16-day behemoth running through August 29 that brings 197 shows to 18 downtown spaces, I arranged for an all-escapism holiday.
No confessional one-person shows, no plays plucked from the headlines, no realism at all. Instead, I selected plays about cowboys, extraterrestrials, serial killers, and sorcerers—the theatrical equivalent of a stack of beach reads. Attending 13 shows in three days didn’t offer much in the way of R&R, but it did often provide distraction: Who can fret about the consequences of the oil spill or the midterm elections when an alien takeover threatens?
In choosing a Fringe show, one has little to go on—typically, just a few sentences in the program guide. Each ticket purchase is a roll of the (20-sided) die. Receiving an unexpectedly high score: Saving Throw Versus Love, a very funny play disguised as a lame romantic comedy. In Larry Brenner’s script, Carol finds her relationship threatened when she learns that her fiancé, Sam, spends one night a week as a seventh-level elf princess, in pursuit of a Dungeons & Dragons–style amusement. If the Sam and Carol scenes are rather tired, those set around the game table are a great pleasure, and I was genuinely sorry that a scheduling snafu made me exit before the play’s end. I only hope the fifth-level Scottish dwarf made it out OK.
Brenner’s characters would find themselves at home among the elves, wizards, and goblins who populate “epic fantasy musical” Spellbound, although they might question the world’s lack of Mountain Dew and narrative coherence. This long and baffling extravaganza should have come with an FAQ. Why do dead characters spring back to life? Why does the Goblin fart so much? Who decided that “The druid spirits. They are talking. There is a darkness. They see . . . something” comprised adequate dialogue?
There is more darkness on display in Baristas, Evan Twohy’s black-coffee comedy about two latte slingers obsessed with serial killers. Whenever Ramon and Camille’s caffeinated hands touch, they slip off into reveries about their favorite psychopaths, though not a single death actually occurs in the course of the uneven play. Famed murderers Hamlet and Macbeth also make Fringe appearances. Sacred Fools Theater Company’s Hamlet Shut Up replaces iambic pentameter with obscene gestures and lots of silly props. Though the gags become repetitive, the performers strut and fret entertainingly. Again, a double-booking necessitated an early departure (Horatio, so sorry for tripping over you), and I had to leave before the finale, which apparently included a shark. I can only assume someone jumped it. Perhaps the odd marine creature would have enlivened MacChin: The Lamentable Tragedie of Jay Leno. While rewriting the classic to include Conan O’Brien, Johnny Carson, and Jon Stewart is the sort of idea that seems genius after a bong hit or two, the execution proved as unfunny as many a Late Show monologue.
Perhaps Hamlet would have proved more decisive and Macbeth less rueful had they followed the example of Hanada, No. 3 assassin and hero of Depth Charge’s Butterfly, Butterfly, Kill Kill Kill!—an adaptation of Seijun Suzuki’s nonsensical yakuza-flick Branded to Kill. When not becoming aroused by boiled rice or grooving to David Harrington’s live jazz score, Hanada offs thugs with little deliberation and less remorse. The plot is unparsable, the Japanese accents deeply offensive, and yet the Nipponese New Wave whole is a wonderfully weird delight.
Even weirder: Strange Love in Outer Space, a gnarly sci-fi musical scripted by Janyia Antrum, a 12-year-old from New Haven. The plot concerns the four-eyed princess Splontusia, her evil worm husband, Dr. Tuscanunin, her merman lover, and his dog pirate bride. At least one song, “Party in My Mouth: I’m a Toilet!,” suggests that someone ought to have called Child Services. Or the William Morris agency. Perhaps Ms. Antrum could have script-doctored Invader? I Hardly Know Her, a genial if tedious musical by Jason Powell about an average Joe who discovers that his affianced is an alien. Or she might have productively intervened in Ghost of Dracula, in which Kenneth Molloy mashes up Bram Stoker and The Breakfast Club, though not a single person gets bitten.
Only marginally more toothsome is Stephen Kaliski’s West Lethargy, a quasi-Western without cowboys, Indians, or even a lone death from cholera. Ellie and Turner are pioneers bound for California when they unexpectedly meet a couple from the present. And what do they do upon encountering these time travelers? Have a pleasant dinner and play parlor games. At least there are pistols, sheriffs, and sinister landowners on display in Viva Los Bastarditos!, although Jake Oliver’s rock comedy makes it only as far West as Adams, Massachusetts. When an evil Welsh-Dutch-Spaniard claims several thousand acres of that fair state, a power pop trio called the Pickles become his unlikely opponents. Much of the script is beyond twee (superheated marshmallows feature as weapons), but it includes at least one genuinely great song (“Western Mass”) and several other hummable ones.
You can’t say the same of Z-Man and Cindy Topps’s Hip Hop High: The Musical, although problems with body mics prevented many of the songs from being heard at all. This school dispenses with reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic in favor of a novel curriculum in which, as one teacher says, “Our only objective is to get you signed with major agencies.” (To judge from the amateurish and underrehearsed performances, they may want to revise the syllabus.) Far more educational is Samara Weiss’s accomplished AK-47 Sing-Along. Whereas I had hoped for puppets wielding semiautomatic weapons, the play instead draws on actual children’s programming to paint a grim picture of ABCs in the Middle East. In fact, it proved far too substantive for the mandate I had set myself. In the first half, the Israelis tortured and killed the cat creature who hosted the Palestinian program, and I heard an usher tell another audience member, “There’s a whole second act for things to get even grimmer in.” Real life is quite grim enough—summer theater needn’t be. So I left before Sesame Street could be suicide-bombed.