Seeing the San Francisco Fringe Festival, now in its 21st year as Occupy Fringe Theatre 2012, is an exercise in serendipity and anthropology. You never know what to expect from a show, other than that it will last about an hour, it will have minimal lights, sound, and set, and it will probably be too weird in some way for conventional theater. Getting a piece into the Fringe is a matter of luck -- there are no judges or selection panels -- making it one of the most democratic theater events in the Bay Area. Performers range from professionals who have rehearsed fastidiously for months to fledglings only hoping to make it to the end of their hour. Pieces could be high art or smut, brooding solo shows or exuberant ensemble musicals, a body and a chair in a space or a whole complex of mikes and speakers, cameras and projection screens.
All shows, however, come from a burning passion to get onstage by whatever means necessary. And that's where an audience member to the Fringe is always in part an anthropologist. "How on earth did this artist get this idea," you will wonder, "and what possessed him or her to put it onstage and share it with so many people?" A drug dealer who tries to grind with his male customer and then dances with a woman who appears out of nowhere in a slashed skintight dress? A baby doll rigged with a hose down its throat so it can projectile vomit shaving cream? Is this your artistic fantasy, performer? Where does it come from, and what are we to glean about ourselves and our society by the fact that you wanted to stage it for us?
In all seriousness, asking these questions is what seeing the Fringe is really about: probing the dark underbelly of theater, understanding its mysterious digestive processes, and predicting which of its numerous lumps will sprout into plump, pulpy growths. Don't get us wrong; the Fringe isn't stomach cancer. It's just that established, big-budget companies can't cook the creative stew on their own. They need the Fringe to serve as a breeding ground, giving talented new artists a place to hatch and grow, and untalented ones a place to hatch and keep on hatchin.
In this spirit of anthropological derring-do, SF Weekly saw nine Fringe shows this weekend -- a paltry fraction of the 42 that comprise the festival but enough to see that the creative stew is alive and bubbly. Reviews, in brief, follow:
915 Cayuga's SF Fringe Fest Extravaganza! The sketch comedy troupe's radio variety show is recorded live, so try to stifle those lecherous chuckles and wet coughs as you partake in an anachronistic thrill: being part of a live studio audience, your uncanned laugh track caught on tape for eternity. This show features all your favorite segments from the glory days of RCA: space age noir capers, phone-in advice shows, cheesy commercial breaks, and a sound effects table. Some of the gags fall flatter than others, but the farther over the top the eight-person ensemble ventures, the better: One advertised product, Man Soda, which is made of real hair and real iron (the metal, not the sissy mineral shit), comes in a can "shaped like the testicles of your enemy."
Aerial Allusions. At the end of this excruciating show, performers Azana Pilar and Jason Morneau have a strip war seemingly because they can't remember what else they're supposed to do. This misstep would be forgivable as the gratuitous nudity the Fringe would be incomplete without, as might the performers' amateurish dance routines and facile lectures, apropos of nothing, about how childhood was "more simpler" and relationships are hard. But the pair's intentions don't even seem to be good. They purport to explore "gender roles and expectations, insecurities and confusion, feminine and masculine perspectives." What that means in practice is that Pilar performs a lap dance for Morneau in the first two songs, and he brutalizes her by every possible means -- punching, kicking, slapping, slamming -- in the next. If these two are truly gender explorers, you'd be better off as a sex role isolationist.
Alaska Leavin': The Musical. This Yeti Boy production centers on Jay (Michael Doppe), a video store clerk cum aspiring musician who's so paralyzed by stage fright as to summon a rock 'n roll guardian angel (Adrianna Delgadillo). But if that part of the story is predictable and its performances declamatory, the musical also offers a warm, compelling performance from Rana Weber as Evelyn. She works at Forbidden Fruit, a fruit stand, selling tempting apples (get it?), while she mulls trying acting, and dumping her boyfriend Manny (Randy Russell), whose virulent loutishness makes their relationship seem improbable anyway. Though Evelyn's a classic one-dimensional virtuous female, Weber imbues the part with enough comedic timing, surprising inflections, and, when she sings, riveting belief in her lyrics that she makes a stereotype into a real person.
The Collector. You'll have a hard time figuring out what Animal Cracker Conspiracy's genre-defying, ruthlessly avant-garde piece is about, but that won't make it any less visually arresting or aurally haunting. Bridget Rountree and Iain Gunn employ animated video, live video projection, and puppetry to tell the story of a debt collector who works at "Accrued Property Enterprises." His world is populated by menacing bellows cameras, chaos-kindling monkeys, and one bird man with beady red eyes. The dexterous puppeteers work in full view of the audience, creating subtle, tremulous movements so invested with their own emotion that you half-expect them to drop their puppets and interact with each other. Scored by Margaret Noble's multilayered, discordant soundscape, this intense sensory experience might not work as a traditional theater event; it thus makes a great case for the Fringe -- as if you needed one!
Journey of Light, A Glo-Opera. Seeing Alecks Rundell's show is like watching a lava lamp: Though at times visually mesmerizing, it's also slow, predictable, and soporific. Five performers wear glow-in-the-dark tubes and dance in pitch black to the cello, piano, and voice of Kaitlin McSweeney. Occasionally, the performers create the illusion that the tubes are moving on their own, but that's about all they create. There are no discernible stories or characters, and the choreography, which fails to take full advantage of torsos and legs, often looks like little more than vague arm waving.
To Be Merry. In her autobiographical solo show, Mary Knoll finds a common trope (and a common problem) in the lyrics of today's musicals: "I'm an edgy young person who doesn't want to get a job and pay the rent-rent-rent." Knoll prefers the glamour and grandeur of golden age musicals -- Brigadoon, Showboat, West Side Story -- so much so that she can rarely resist bursting into their songs, as loudly as possible and preferably while standing on top of a chair. The joy of belting gives her solace in difficult times, and she recounts many of those, each character she portrays, especially her ashtray-voiced grandma, a rich collection of quirks and foibles. Belting also endows her with preternatural exuberance, giving her the energy to hula hoop practically through the entire show.
VGL 5'4" Top. Lucas Brooks dissects his corner of the gay community and his role in it, as dictated by the flaws and attributes of his own body, with the calculating, meticulous rigor of a scientist and the wit of a rapacious satirist. "If your asshole got dressed," a dating site questionnaire asks him, "what would it wear?" "Duct tape," he responds. Trouble is, Brooks wants to have it both ways, indulging his own snark but condemning it in others. He catalogues "homosexual habits" he hates, but he doesn't make himself likable enough for us to hate with him.
Wounded Stag. The dark, sui generis humor of Dan Carbone is childish in every sense of the word. All his stories on this "journey to the far side of the room," which he wrote with Andrew Goldfarb, are from his twisted 1960s childhood, and he tells them using dolls, dioramas, and kids' songs with lyrics like "Mommy loves the baby with Beelzebub in her brain" or "General Tommy, the astronaut/his mother's womb is his favorite spot." Carbone's voice is part David Bowie, part Rick Moranis, and always veering into a squeaky, nasal falsetto, which unfortunately obscures some of his clever lyrics. But his show is manna for overgrown but still fucked-up kids everywhere -- which is to say, for all of us.
Weightless. The rock opera by Kate Kilbane and the Cellar Doors is one of the best shows of the year, in and out of the Fringe. The surprising and poetic fairytale about sisterhood, adapted from the myth of Procne and Philomela in Ovid's Metamorphoses, tells its story partly through old-fashioned narration (by Alisha Ehrlich) and partly through funky, jazzy rock. In a few key moments, the band members also act out scenes, and their electrifying stage presence as musicians -- emanating total cool while also making each lyric blaze with passion -- translates into theater that's every bit as captivating as the music. This one might sell out its run, but don't be surprised if you see it appearing somewhere else soon.
Occupy Fringe Theatre 2012 continues through Sept. 16 at the Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St. (at Taylor), S.F. and at the Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor St. (at Ellis), S.F. Admission is $5-$12.99.