Does New York City need a Fringe festival? Of course not. Theatrical alternatives already abound. Numerically, Off- and Off-Off Broadway theaters trump the Great White Way by a factor of at least four to one, guaranteeing work as outré, irreverent, and let’s-put-on-show–ish as anything that populates FringeNYC.
But by the same token, New York also doesn’t need chalk paintings, accordion-playing buskers, sculptures on medians, or those wavering murals on rolling shutters. Yet they’re all part of our landscape of accessible art. If they don’t render local aesthetics much richer, they are at least colorful.
Our Fringe has now reached the nubile age of 16, which, if I may draw from my own experience, means it paints its toenails with glitter and could medal in the 800-meter sulk. While it has never merited the designation of liveliest Fringe or most eccentric or most career-making, it still promotes itself as the largest arts festival in North America and has kept ticket prices consistently low.
This year advertises 187 shows at 19 venues, ranging from storied spaces (Cherry Lane, Here) to less commodious ones (the bar beneath Soho Playhouse). On the opening weekend, I managed 12 plays in three days (subsisting entirely on frozen yogurt and diet cola) and only had to break into a run twice. If the Fringe offers a chance to sample the zeitgeist, then judging by the program guide the spirit of our age cavorts with politicians, zombies, queers, Shakespeare, and banned substances, all of which I encountered, mostly onstage.
Take, for example, the half-baked histrionics of Danny Visconti Is Hill-Bent: My Night With Hillary Clinton, a solo piece at the Huron Club with music by a former cruise-ship performer. It involves a debauched night with the Secretary of State: arson, psilocybin, leather bars, strip clubs, and a full-throated rendition of the Gummi Bears theme song. In an effort to sympathize with Clinton regarding family scandals, Visconti reveals his blood ties to the gay male porn brethren the Visconti Triplets, a fact I am much too squeamish to check.
If you delight in cable news, you’ll already know the facts animating Tail! Spin!, a playfully lewd verbatim piece assembled by Mario Correa at the Kraine Theater that considers various electoral peccadilloes and features at least two actors of whom you may have heard: Mo Rocca and Rachel Dratch. Correa’s script mines Twitter feeds and IM chats of Anthony Weiner and Mark Foley that make the Starr Report look tame. Yet amid all the talk of packages and wood, there are also droll observations, such as Suzanne Craig’s reaction to her senator husband Larry’s arrest for solicitation in a men’s restroom: “This was such an unusual thing for him not to tell me.”
Confessions or their lack also feature in An Interrogation Primer (the Steve & Marie Sgouros Theatre), written by a former military operative and performed by a sweaty, forceful Sean Bolger. This compelling 35-minute monologue examines the illogic and futility of interrogation tactics and training. Perhaps Bolger’s inquisitor could get to the heart of the scattershot Bang! The Curse of John Wilkes Booth, at the Gene Frankel, written and performed by Scott Baker (also perspiring heavily). Bang! floats a somewhat crazed conspiracy theory regarding the infamous assassin. It also features card tricks.
An even crazier conspiracy (re)animates Love Death Brains, at the Players, a Romeo and Juliet story about the forbidden love between walking corpses and “breathers,” which includes the rousing tune “It’s a Flesh-Eating Kind of Day” before succumbing to missed cues and flat notes. You would think zombies, or at the very least dryads, might populate The Hills Are Alive! at Theatre 80, but this underrehearsed musical instead lampoons the Von Trapps of Sound of Music fame, wondering what might really have happened had they set out to walk to Switzerland. (In reality, they hopped a train.)
You only had to walk back into Theatre 80 for another mountainous musical, the atmospheric Dark Hollow, which sets Gëorg Büchner’s Woyzeck amid the Appalachian hills. I’m not sure Büchner’s proto-modern script benefits from the relocation, but this production does claim a stirring bluegrass band and a song list drawing on terrific traditional ballads. The original ones, by Elizabeth Chaney and Christopher Peifer, aren’t too shabby, either.
If Dark Hollow rests discontented near the Cumberland Gap, Quest for the West: Adventures on the Oregon Trail, also at Theatre 80, a play based on the educational video game “Oregon Trail,” lights out for the territories. Packed with ample audience participation, it only rarely rises above the level of cheerful inanity, though I’m impressed they found an approximate rhyme for “diphtheria.”
Quest only makes it to the Gold Coast, but Night of the Auk at the Players goes all the way to the moon, which was pretty far when the play opened for an abbreviated Broadway run in 1956. Written by Arch Oboler in grandiloquent pentameter, Auk—which never really soars—concerns the astronaut’s return journey, which devolves into murder, suicide, and total global annihilation. It’s enough to make you cancel your Virgin Galactic reservation. Blank verse and violence also appear in Pulp Shakespeare, at Cherry Lane, a well-executed if ultimately nonsensical attempt to reimagine Quentin Tarantino’s famed flick as rewritten by the Bard: “Knowest thou what the French call cottage pie?”
But try to find a show more purposeless and yet more delirious (if overlong), than LOLPERA at Theatre 80. Though its influences run more to Gilbert and Sullivan and jazz riffs, this opera is a fully sung-through gesamtkunstwerk about the battle for the world’s soul with lyrics drawn entirely from Lolcat captions. I can haz Fringe hit? Why not?
I have always thought that the Fringe existed more for the benefit of its participants than its audiences. For international companies, it provides an excuse to travel. For regional troupes, it bestows bragging rights that you’ve played Gotham. For college students and the like, it means adding a semi-legit credit to your program bio.
A notable exception is Independents, a new musical at Theatre 80 with a tragic backstory: The book writer, Marina Keegan, died earlier this summer just following her college graduation. Here, the audience, which seemed largely drawn from friends and relations, had come to celebrate her promise, displayed in this somewhat inexplicable piece about aimless twentysomethings who turn from drug dealers to historical re-enactors aboard a Revolutionary Era ship.
Yes, there are second act difficulties (we ought to know whether or not the boat explodes, etc.) and way too many reprises, but it is an affecting portrait of the young and aimless. You may find particular poignancy in many of Mark Sonnenblick’s lyrics, such as, “The moral of the story is that life goes fucking quick.” Yes. And there are many worse ways to spend an evening of it than in a theater with performers and spectators all hoping so bittersweetly for a play’s success.