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Time to Feast on the Fringe

By: Isaac Butler
Date: Aug 18, 2009


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By Isaac Butler

It's that time of year again. The time when stepping out of an air-conditioned space makes you feel like a sno-cone under a radiator. That time when tempers flare and subways break down. The time that Cole Porter had in mind when he wrote the infamous Too Darn Hot. And, like the swallows returning to Capistrano, theatrephiles the world over will return to New York for the New York International Fringe Festival.

Currently in its twelfth year, the not-so-Little Festival That Could showcases more than 200 shows in fourteen days.  This gargantuan, herculean effort is made possible by 1,500 volunteers, 4,500 artists and roughly 75,000 audience members.   The Fringe has also become well-known as a place to launch edgy new work. Ever since Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman's satirical musical Urinetown made its slow-and-steady way from the Fringe to a hit, Tony Award-winning run on Broadway, producers have both scouted the Fringe for picks and tried to get their own shows up and running there.

The results, at least as far as box office returns are concerned, have been mixed thus far.  In the wake of Urinetown came flops Dog Sees God and Debbie Does Dallas as well as the modest success of Matt and Ben, a play fictionalizing the pre-success friendship of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (themselves played by two actresses).  Subsequent years have seen the occasional transfer or high-profile extension, but nothing on Urinetown's level. 

This year is no different, but lest you think it's all corporate gloss masquerading as downtown filth, a wide range of viewing options are available, from irreverent musical adaptations to dark-as-pitch comedies featuring the devil.

For example, if you happen to be a fan of movie musicals or political satire in general, you may want to check out Citizen Ruth, a musical adaptation of the 1996 abortion comedy. The film, about a fume-huffing vagrant who gets in way over her head once a judge orders her to get an abortion helped launch Alexander Payne's career (he later went on to direct Election, About Schmidt and Sideways). Citizen Ruth is helmed by Howard Shalwitz, who runs Woolly Mammoth, one of the premiere new play theaters in America. 

Sometimes, all you need for a Fringe show is an outrageous title. Plays like George and Laura Bush Perform… Our Favorite Sit-Com Episodes seem tailor made for a rambunctious hot summer night.  One eye-catching title that's gotten a lot of pre-festival buzz is Abe Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party. The play imagines a "trial of the century" in which a school teacher is put on trial for asking if Lincoln was gay.  The play is three acts whose order is decided upon by the audience.

Many Fringe shows are put on by previous Fringe success stories.  For example, the makers of last year's award winning There Will Come Soft Rains (based on the work of Ray Bradbury) are putting on Powerhouse, a new play about the life of Raymond Scott.  On the darker side, Fringe darlings Gideon Productions (whose Fleet Week: The Musical was an award winner a few summers back) have returned with one of their darkest plays yet. Given that two of their previous works include Hail, Satan! About the birth of the anti-Christ and Universal Robots about a robot apocalypse, that's really saying something. Playwright Mac Rogers has a knack for transforming macabre set-ups into deeply felt and very human dramas. His latest, Viral is about a woman who is planning to kill herself and meets a couple who will help her do it if they can film it and sell the film after she's dead.  As the title might suggest, the play tackles themes of privacy and humanity in the internet age, as well as wryly looking at the claustrophobia of cohabitation.

Continuing down the dark path (not to mention the ridiculous) a surprising number of Fringe shows can't get enough of the ole Prince of Flies.  One of them, Devil Boys from Beyond has been getting a lot of attention because it has Everett Quinton, long time member of The Ridiculous Theatrical Company (not to mention Charles Ludlam's partner) in it. The play appears to be a 1950s B-movie pastiche, complete with crusading reporters, UFOs, infested swamps and missing persons.  Meanwhile, 666 Comedy, an import from Castillan theatre company Yllana that was critically acclaimed at the Edinburgh Fringe, tells the tale of four death row inmates (one innocent) who live out elaborate fantasy lives while in prison.

This is just a drop in the bucket of what is on view at the Fringe.  Spending a little time with the Fringe's Slice-O-Matic search engine can help you find everything from postmodern European dance to the latest campy send-up of reality television. Also, TDF members may find many Fringe shows available for sale at the new "off -Off @ $9" tab of their member offerings.

Happy hunting.
Isaac Butler