A friend complained that the trouble with the Fringe Festival, the heady conglomeration of theater, dance and art that opens on Friday night, is that it’s “not Fringe-y enough.” He had been scanning the 135 offerings just before coming to that conclusion.
I went back and scanned the events again, and I don’t know about it being Fringe-y “enough,” but the festival does seem tamer this year. The last 17 years of Fringe Festivals offered some mighty strange events – a show that took a few audience members at a time in cars that swerved through a West Philadelphia multi-story parking lot as the drama played out; a piece that asked the audience to walk down an Old City Street where, suddenly, the action erupted from a rooftop above; another in which you waited in a Center City park for someone to give you directions that eventually led you to a room full of dancers who mirrored every move you made.
Because of those experiences, many Fringe-goers are more at home with what you could call Theater on the Edge. Shows that once seemed weird or unfamiliar may seem not so unusual, not so new. When my friend complained about a lack of Fringiness in the Fringe, he may have been referring to fewer entries that are Out There, but he may also be saying that he’s no longer so surprised at edginess.
Still, a number of shows in this year’s Fringe Festival sound are potentially odd. While the 135 offerings may lack extreme ideas, satisfying possibilities abound: someone adapting “Anna Karenina” to 2014 and setting it inside a real rowhouse, or performers breaking into noisy arguments about relationships in a public place, or two gay guys thwarted in their infatuation because of a Romeo/Juliet-type dilemma: They belong to different Mummers brigades.
Sounds pretty Fringe-y to me. Then again, your definition of that dynamic might be different from mine. You may not be happy until you see people rise out of mounds of stage dirt and come to life as ghouls, or follow a mystery that takes you into four or five different playing spaces within an hour.
I think we can agree, though, that the definition of being theatrically on the fringe has common elements: We don’t necessarily want to sit in a theater and be a passive audience. We want to feel like we’re taking some sort of risk for our time and money (still not too high-priced for the Fringe, compared to other entertainments). We want a sense of adventure to accompany our attendance. We want the unusual or outrageous, and maybe even the unpolished (this ain’t Broadway, and it’s not supposed to be). And we all want something inventive and surprising – memorable for being different and good, or even different and awful.
With that in mind, I offer some options for this year’s Philly Fringe Festival – what you might call my picks of the Fringiest. I have no way of knowing whether I’m right, only a sense refined by a decade and a half of Philly Fringing, and the self-assurance that I can usually spot Fringe behavior a mile away from a performance space inside a graveyard.
One suggestion: In addition to this list, many entries on the list of 17 Fringe shows I want to see (and am seeing) qualify as outré or more than a little weird. These include some I’ve alluded to above. Click here for that list.
I’ve stayed away from one-nighters or shows that have been presented before in Philadelphia.
WETLAND. More an attraction than a show, artist Mary Mattingly has built a “public art installation, island-based ecosystem and mobile habitat” on the Delaware River at Dock Street, designed for the time when, her press material says, “rivers and oceans overtake our cities and towns.” She’s been living there since August, and will stay through the festival. There’ll be concerts and other events aboard, without admission fees.
EXPERIMENT #39 (OLD CITY). The classic Fringe set-up: a “sneakily guided walking tour,” according to the New York-based Institute for Psychogeographic Adventure. (Oh, wait, we could stop right there.) One person at a time is guided through Old City. If that person is you, artists await you at certain places, residents greet you in ways you may not expect and there’ll be “surreal encounters,” the Institute promises.
MIRRORING SKY – A SOUNDSCAPE. InVersion Theatre presents what it calls three “curated listening parties” through a soundscape it creates in Rittenhouse Square. It’s an enhanced sort of walk, they say.
SUSAN’S UNDOING. To tell her story of fighting the nemesis that is breast cancer, Mount Airy dancer and theater artist Susan Chase uses of a ladder, ropes, a blindfold, choreography and at one point, even a little vaudeville-like routine. She performs the show in both Fairmount and Center City during the festival.
ANTIGONE SR. The bulky full name of choreographer Trajal Harrell’s piece is “Antigone Sr./Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church,” and it’s purportedly a mixture of Sophocles’ “Antigone” play and voguing, fashion and modern dance. It’s being done only twice, at the theater in the new FringeArts headquarters at the foot of Race Street, at Columbus Boulevard.
INCONGRUOUS. Laurencio Ruiz presents an “explosive adult puppet show” with anatomically correct puppets that have physical disabilites. He says this is “the one and only puppet show for mature audiences’ inner child.”
THE WAY OF ALL FLESH (SHOW): A GRAVEYARD CABARET. For two years, REV Theatre Company packed ’em in to Philadelphia’s historic Laurel Hill Cemetery to sip cocktails in the gathering darkness for what it calls a “toe-tapping, spine-tingling” evening of performance. This year’s version will unfold on four different nights.
LIVING IN EXILE. This modernized retelling of “The Iliad” – with offerings of bread and wine for the audience – will have live original-music accompaniment. It’s from a new group called the Philadelphia Experimental Theatre Ensemble. I don’t know if it fits most people’s definition of Fring-ey, but it has potential.
THE BACK DOOR. A performer named Jasmine Zieroff, whose press material says she is “beauty and voracity, unashamed and glorious” moves forward with what is listed as “her latest naughty-artist sensation.” Just what that means remains to be seen, literally.
LOOP. The Philly Fringe has in the past featured some cool circus-theater shows, and this year the eight-women of the locally-based aerial dance company called Tangle Movement Arts get tangled, literally, through suspended loops of rope, in what they say is their way of exploring human relationships.
DEEP BLUE SLEEP. The local experimental group Found Theatre Company, specializing in original music and unusual set design, this year pairs dreaming with the ocean –descending ghosts, a skeleton named Reggie and, of course, ocean music. Some of the shows are at midnight; during daytime, what sounds like it’s a psychedelic nautical set is open to the public as a piece of installation art.
RESURRECTION ROOM. Get lost with a young woman who “encounters everything from hot pink hostels to demon geishas, igniting a world that’s dead-set on eating her alive.” Now there’s an invitation, from athletic and gender-bent dancer/choreographer Gunnar Montana.
THE ORGASM CHRONICLES. From OneTaste Philadelphia, this is supposed to be about a life “saturated in orgasm” – personal stories shared in poetry and prose. I will refrain from commenting on the possibility.
WHAT NARWHALS TALK ABOUT WHEN THEY TALK ABOUT LOVE. Grace Mi-He Lee and Leslie Elkins perform a “karaoke cabaret/minimalist ballet/piercing talk show” about narwhals – the strange-looking whales defined by their enormous protruding canine tooth, and how they relate to love. The story unfolds in Grace’s South Philly row house.
TILL BIRNAM WOOD. So here’s a take on Macbeth that sounds Fringe-y to me: You sit in the middle of a quick (55 minutes) production of “Macbeth,” with the action swirling around you — and you’re blindfolded the entire time. Now that’s not a typical night in the theater, at least not for me.
Visit the 2014 Philly Fringe Festival website information about the performances.