Last weekend kicked off the 17th year of the New York International Fringe Festival (aka FringeNYC), which runs through August 25. As with any such festival, when you choose what shows to see, you’re really rolling the dice. This two-week-long feast of all things performative offers shows by 185 theater troupes and dance companies from 13 countries and 17 U.S. states. The total number of performances is an overwhelming 1,200, and it all takes place in 20 downtown Manhattan venues.
This was my first attempt to see 10 Fringe events in a little over 48 hours. (In case you’re wondering, I’m very tired, and my legs are sore.) The measure of the festival’s success is probably not how many stellar shows there are but rather the ratio of pretty good ones to godawful bores. To the credit of FringeNYC, most of the performances I saw were of the former variety, and a couple were truly outstanding.
The most important thing, which I learned immediately, is that you should never, ever, under any circumstances arrive even one minute late to these things. FringeNYC is a well-oiled machine, with none of this leisurely holding the house open for an extra 10 minutes that you find on Broadway. If you arrive late—actually, if you don’t arrive early—you are S.O.L. Take note.
My weekend of theatrical madness began, perhaps appropriately, with Manic Pixie Dream Girl: A Graphic Novel Play at The Celebration of Whimsy (or the C.O.W.). The comedy by Katie May uses familiar graphic novel clichés (like big “Pow!” sound effects for bodily contact) to tell its story of Tallman, a frustrated artist who finds a muse in a mysterious mute woman who wanders into a bar and comes home to live with him. This title character, Lily, is explained as a “trope,” ironically, by the best-friend-in-a-bar stock personality functioning as the voice of reason: A “manic pixie dream girl” is a quirky girlfriend character that one knows nothing about “outside of the relevance to the dude’s life.” Think Kate Hudson in Almost Famous. However, what seems like a script constructed of such tropes takes a surprisingly poignant turn when Lily’s origins are revealed. A Starburst wrapper serves as an unlikely metaphor for a shift in perspective that’s as revelatory to the lead character as it is to the audience.
Another piece that relies on conventional characters and situations—but forgivably so—is The Awful Truth, a ’40s-style radio play presented at The Connelly by Gotham Radio Theatre. In this campy farce, five actors take on more roles than are even listed in the program in a silly I Love Lucy-esque romp about marriage and infidelity. The sound effects are created live onstage, and the cast should be applauded for their tightness as an ensemble as well as for their individual vocal versatilities.
By contrast, Clown Play (at The C.O.W.), written by Paul David Young and directed by Robert Lutfy, is completely unconventional. The dark comedy begins with an existential monologue by a woman named Maria (Carol Lee Sirugo), who compares herself to “the indirect object,” the “acted-upon.” Following this, a motley crew of four burglar-clowns-turned-squatters assembles in an abandoned house. Their physical shenanigans at gunpoint are equal parts whimsy, perversion, and absurdity (several members of the cast are formally trained clowns). The script is intelligently bizarre: It’s Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects meets Marcel Marceau, and ultimately connects its disorienting components into an ode to clowning and the pain it sometimes masks.
Talk to Me About Shame is a one-man show created and performed by Julian Goldhagan at Los Kabayitos. Wearing only a diaper (and eventually nothing), Goldhagan shares some of his own experiences with shame as well as recorded interviews with people discussing their feelings on the topic. He engages the audience in lighthearted participation and then opens the floor for what became, at this performance, a very honest confession by an audience volunteer. Goldhagen is warmly engaging, often hilarious, and fearless in his vulnerability. Few performers could achieve his intended goal of creating a safe and open space where strangers feel comfortable revealing protected emotions; he undoubtedly has a gift for connecting with an audience.
In the spirit of shameless honesty, I will admit that The Skype Show or See You in August took an hour and a half of my life I wish I could get back. Written by Jody Christopherson (who plays herself), based on Skype conversations she had with Michael De Roos (who plays himself), this is a self-indulgent if well-intended chronicle of a long-distance relationship (reenacted live via Skype) of an American woman whose creative and romantic partner moves back to the Netherlands when his student visa expires. It is almost embarrassingly painful to watch Christopherson hanging on to a dwindling romance with a man who appears to be stringing her along with halfhearted intentions to return to the U.S.—until De Roos physically appears in the theater at the end of the play. Call me cynical; I experienced the foregoing 85 minutes as an exercise in codependency inoculation by immersion rather than a tale of star-crossed lovers.
The 3rd Gender, at The Connelly, is a futuristic sci-fi drama written by Peter Zachari. The premise: In the year 2397, being transgender is considered the highest evolution of humanity; cisgender humans (those whose gender identities match their anatomy) are given up to 20 years of treatment in an effort to make them trans in “spirit.” If the treatments fail, they are abandoned to “The Zone,” a fate close to death. The problem with this play—apart from lead actor J.P. Serret’s distracting, hyperactive mannerisms—is that in its attempt to address a nonbinary view of gender, the characters nevertheless exist in a gender-polarized world. While there is homosexuality, acknowledging a sexual-orientation spectrum, there is no spectrum of gender, only “spiritual” poles of male or female gender residing within opposing physical “conduits” (bodies). In this play, there are no “two-spirit” (or androgynously identified) beings or intersex beings, only binaries within binaries. Thus, the script fails to fully explore the very concept its title suggests.
One of the refreshing delights of the weekend was Peter Pan & Stardust Dancers, a dance concert choreographed by Eva Dean, presented at the Theater at the 14th Street Y. (To my astonishment, the YMCA has one of the largest, best-air-conditioned black box theaters downtown—with very comfy seats!) For an audience of parents with shockingly attentive young children, a company of seven dancers performed a short pantomime of Peter Pan set to music. But the real treat were the pieces that followed, creatively using glowing balls hanging from string, juggling on Rollerblades, and incorporating other props in fun, gracefully executed dances. At 45 minutes, it was exactly the right length, a joy from start to finish.
Playwrights generally regard two-person plays as being among the most difficult to write. How do you keep the action moving forward—and the audience invested—when there are just two characters? In Still Life, by Zeke Blackwell, the characters are two grapes hanging on a vine, so they have little choice but to talk to each other. They pass the time by debating everything under the sun, from semantics to linguistics to astrophysics. Most of the play is heady argument and wordplay with little emotional depth beyond Orley the Grape’s optimism and Donald the Grape’s pessimism. For this reason, the characters feel thinly written (more like the playwright arguing with himself) for three-fourths of the overlong 90 minutes, until Donald makes a pivotal decision to jump off the vine. That said, actors Gabe Greenspan and Tommy Bazarian carry the script with admirable energy. Greenspan in particular is superb: relaxed, natural, and lightning-quick.
For another take on the two-person play there is The Spider at The C.O.W., an intense, hour-long drama from Bulgaria about a pair of adult conjoined twins (one male, one female) on the eve of their separation surgery. Actors Penko Gospodinov and Anastassia Liutova speak in rapid Bulgarian, but the depth of their brave, raw performances transcends language. The text appears in English subtitles on a screen behind them, and the script—by Dimitar Dimitrov and Yordan Slaveykov, who also direct—is economical and profound as it excavates the core relationship, one that is only as freakish as it is intimately relatable. Plays like The Spider are the reason one goes to the theater. If you see just one FringeNYC play, see this one.
My weekend ended with Pilot Fish, a satire of pilot season in Los Angeles, when actors, writers, and producers are clamoring to be “attached” to a fledgling TV show. Superficiality, sexual coercion, and plagiarism seem to be the stuff these prime-time sitcom dreams are made of. A hysterical masturbation monologue by actor Tom Coiner is a highlight, and Liam James Daniels stands out as he morphs between playing a jaded stand-up comic and various bit roles with the chameleonic skill of a great character actor. The script by Patrick Kennedy feels like an insider’s take on Hollywood; beyond earning the laughs it aims to deliver, it will make you glad you live in New York.