Edgy theater, with sir conditioning
The Eighth Annual FringeNYC Festival dips a toe into the mainstream
By DAVID KENNERLEY
Defying Convention. Thats the official theme of this years New York International Fringe Festival, the annual downtown avant-garde theatrical extravaganza. Sounds a tad obvious, no?
Yet according to Elena K. Holy, producing artistic director for FringeNYC since its inception eight years ago, the theme harbors at least one extra layer of meaning.
With the festival occurring days before the Republican National Convention, [participating artists] are seizing the opportunity to express their views, she said. We have16 days to celebrate the freedoms in this country weve come to determine are not necessarily guaranteed.
Holy likened the festival to a political partythe fun kindwhere politics are flagrantly displayed while performers and audiences alike have one hell of a time in the process.
We are staking claim to our city and filling it with positive energy, she enthused. This is our New York, this is what we do, this is who we are.
This years FringeNYC is, in a sense, defying its own quirky conventions. Bigger and more selective than ever, the event showcases more than 200 shows in 20 venuesranging from theatre, dance, buskers, spoken word and multimedia. Shows were culled from a record number of 800 well-qualified hopefuls, nearly double the amount from a few years ago.
Our adjudication process is nothing short of excruciating, Holy said. Teeth are gnashed, tears are shed. Its really tough.
According to Holy, this years festival organizers have assembled the most diverse, powerful and entertaining array of work from all over the world. More countries are represented than in any past yearincluding Australia, Germany, England.
Its a harsh geopolitical climate these days, Holy explained. Frankly, participants come from countries that face a situation similar to us here. They are not necessarily supported by their governments, so its a challenge to get their groundbreaking shows fully realized. God bless these artists who want to be in New York City as part of this celebration.
Its not just the artists who hail from faraway corners of the globe, but a fair share of the audience as well. FringeNYC is listed in travel books and web sites, so visitorsmany of them Europeanschedule their holidays around the event.
We get more tour groups coming from outside the New York metropolitan area than from inside of it, Holy said.
We get large groups from Louisiana, she added by way of example.
The venues this year are more spacious and more state-of-the-art, and yes, Holy assured, theyre all air-conditioned. Bleacher seats are nearly extinct. For the first time, Fringe shows are playing at such venues as the Lucille Lortelle on Christopher Street, the Players Theatre on MacDougal Street, the Soho Playhouse, and the Schimmel Center at Pace University.
Before, we were limited to putting our Equity shows in houses that were 99 seats or less, so our wonderful lush musicals were crammed onto stages 15 feet wide, Holy explained. In some cases, thats less than one square foot per actor!
For 2004, Holy finagled a special Actors Equity side letter agreement to allow for larger venues.
Another unconventional new twist to the festival is the preponderance of established name actors, playwrights and directors. Film, TV and Broadway stars abound.
Its so flattering to get their applications, Holy said. Its a chance for them to recapture some of the joy that gets lost at the upper echelons of theater. Its like summer camp.
Familiar faces are likely to be in the audience as wellMike Nichols and Diane Sawyer were spotted last year.
Celebrities attend because they know someone in the show, or theyre seeking new talent, Holy explained. Its become a destination for commercial TV, film and theater producers. Its good for them to get downtown for a change.
Some producers participating in the festival take FringeNYC so seriously that theyve begun staging brief out-of-town tryouts. Such a practice was unthinkable when the festival first began.
With all these enhancements and skyrocketing popularity, is the Fringe festival going mainstream?
Hardly. A glimpse at the show titles alone reassures that the Fringe factor is as potent as ever. And tickets are still affordable to those priced out of Broadwaya mere $15.
What to see? For a comprehensive overview, your best bet is to check out FringeNYC.org. But read on for a selective preview of some of the most promising shows, many with a distinct gay accent.
A strong suit of the Fringe Fest has always been musical offeringsUrinetown, which leapfrogged to Broadway to wide acclaim, being the holy grail held out to everyone who participatesand 2004 is no exception.
Sherry Boone (Marie Christine, Jellys Last Jam) has written lyrics to Ellen Craft an original opera starring Donna Lynn Champlin (Hollywood Arms, By Jeeves). Based on a gripping true story of a female slave who escapes to freedom dressed as a white male Southerner, nearly everyone involved boasts a stellar list of creditssurely a must-see.
Directed by Thomas Caruso, Mimi Le Duck is an unlikely musical about a woman in Iowa who paints ducks for the QVC channel and flees to Paris to live the quintessential bohemian life. With music by up-and-coming composer Brian Feinstein and lyrics/book by Diana Hansen-Young, the lavish production stars Annie Golden (Hair, Full Monty), Donald Grody (Caroline, Or Change), and Allen Fitzpatrick (42nd Street).
Andrus Head is an edgy rock musical by Stephen Wilson about a childrens public access TV show, hosted by a disembodied head, that gets bought by an evil corporate mogul, with much chaos ensuing. Though the lively mélange of indie rock styles promises to amuse, the real reason to go is for the sexy choreography by Mark Dendy, who recently mesmerized Broadway audiences with Taboo and The Wild Party.
Even more tastelessly wacky is Die, Die, Diana: A Musical, a prickly satire arguing the theory that Princess Dianas fiery car-crash death was no accident. The composer is Jef Labes, who played keyboards on Van Morrisons 1970s soulful classic, Moondance. Originally produced at Californias San José State University, the show created a media sensation and is banned from ever being staged in Britain under sedition laws.
A musical comedy tribute to Helen Reddy, Reddy or Not!, is helmed by Joseph McDonnell, legendary for directing the FringeNYC 2000 phenomenon, Urinetown. The show is written and performed by Joanna Parson and Lance Werth who portray obsessive fansa feminist and a high-strung gay guywho adopt Reddys mildly angry tunes as kind of balm for tumultuous times.
For the first time ever, San Franciscos venerable Theatre Rhinoceros, Americas longest-running professional queer theater, is coming to NYC. Theyll perform Queer Theory, a musical farce about a professor whose theory that men and women slip between genders goes magically awry.
Many of the FringeNYC dramas are disguised as comedies. A new and improved version of Daddy was the Biggest Stagemother in Texas, first seen at the Duplex in Sheridan Square a couple of years back, stars Ron Palillo (Arnold Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter). This twisted semi-autobiographical work by Jack Dyville features a boy pursuing his dream to become a professional dancer and his pushy redneck father who could upstage Gypsys Mama Rose.
The First Step is a scorchingly graphic new dramedy about a gay sex addicts slippery slope to recovery, written by Henry Covery and directed by Tony nominee Michael Leeds (Swinging on a Star). Expect lots of wittily deprecating gags about Internet hookups and restroom blow jobs.
Tony Award-winner Jack Hofsiss (The Elephant Man) directs Confessions of a Mormon Boy, a one-man show written and performed by Steven Fales, who plays more than 25 characters dramatizing his spirit-wracking journey as a gay Mormon. The show chronicles his conflicting identitiesBoy Scout, missionary, husband, father, hustlerand, later, his divorce and excommunication from the church.
Another one-man show is queer Filipino-American Rich Kiamcos Unaccessorized, whose earlier stagings around the country garnered rave reviews. Directed by Dan Bacalzo, the collection of boundary-bashing, autobiographic monologues depict his search for romance and truth, from Illinois to Manhattan and beyond.
Courtesy of the groundbreaking Fresco Productions and the University of Miami is the harrowing drama, Odysseus Died from AIDS. Described as Odyssey meets Cuckoos Nest, the play follows a heroic man who, after managing HIV for ten years, succumbs to an opportunistic infection and retreats into a fantasy world fit for Greek tragedy. This show is written, directed and produced by Stephen Svoboda.
Many offerings simply defy categorization. Take Harvey Finklesteins Sock Puppet Showgirls, which marries the jaw-droppingly atrocious melodrama of the infamous Joe Eszterhas film with the whimsy of puppetry. As in the film, the show traces an innocent wannabe showgirl as she learns the harsh realities of making it in Sin City, and was a fave among hipsters in Chicago. The press notice warns adults only so watch out for full frontal puppet nudity.
Also noteworthy are two FringeNYC al fresco shows. American Oligopoly, which takes on world politics with Pres. George W. Bush and Vice Pres. Dick Cheney, plays out on a giant 20 by 20-foot Monopoly board in Washington Square Park. Meanwhile, The Suitcase Playersyep, they literally pull their show out of a suitcasewill perform 15-minute condensed versions of American classics for people waiting in line for other shows.