Rising rent, and limited space -- as no one in the San Francisco theater scene needs to be told -- is a problem for almost everyone hoping to put on a play, so this year, the Fringe Festival ought be more important than ever. For a low fee the local producer, the Exit's Christina Augello, offers promotion and space to 50 or 60 individual shows. You'd think small theater troupes would leap at this chance to experiment with new material in front of an automatic audience (opening-night ticket sales were up 11 percent this year), but the tone is still more Fringey than really experimental. "Fringey" implies lots of magic, comedy, and overall weirdness that seems unique to the festival, as opposed to envelope-pushing theater. Nothing wrong with Fringiness. Everyone expects it. Some acts do nothing but tour the world's Fringe festivals. But I did expect the local real estate market to change the festival's tone a little more than it has.
Take the Banana, Bag, and Bodice show, inexplicably named Number 2, which seems to be a pale rip-off of a Beckett play (say, Endgame or Godot). It features a serving boy on stilts, a cantankerous boss on a ladder (who mumbles nonsense and eats porridge from a bucket), and two clowns stomping around the stage in a mess of coat hangers, cotton balls, and pornographic playing cards. You can't ask for a better definition of Fringiness. It's lively and fun, now and then, but I assume B, B, & B came back to San Francisco because the troupe had nothing else to do in New York. If you can do absolutely anything at the Fringe, why not a serious one-act? Why not a dry-run of that play you've been writing? Who enforces Fringiness, exactly? And how does an anarchistic free-for-all get to feel so weirdly conformist?
Just wondering. -- Michael Scott Moore
10 Kevin Augustine's stunning, mysterious play has the strange beauty of a David Lynch movie and its own skewed, desperate vision. Augustine wrote, directed, built the puppets, and performs this enigmatic version of the Frankenstein story, assisted onstage by two gifted puppeteers, Jane Catherine Shaw and Carol Binion. Andrew (Augustine) awaits his fiancee on his wedding day; she fails to appear. Andy subsumes his pain in a plan to create a man who can dance to Tchaikovsky. He enters a strange contest for "Creators," others who are attempting the same thing as him, some who've achieved acclaim for their results and who arouse his envy. Andy's creature, the puppet Daniel, begins to take form -- his haggard, misshapen face, his scarred, patchwork body -- but his legs cause Daniel too much pain to dance as his progenitor has planned, and Andy despairs. As he lies on the floor in pain, certain he's failed, Daniel begins to dance, and the moment is overwhelming. 10 is a great and terrible fable about art and love. (J.M.)
Angry Jellow Bubbles -- The Revenge In Eva Minemar's free-form show from New York, six women -- all of them young and alluring -- talk for an hour about their bodies. It's not exactly improv, because the performers mount the stage with a good idea of what they're about to say; but it's also not anything else. Some routines are angry, like Olivia Singer's witty laceration of the Botox trend. Other routines are interesting, like Sigalit Ben Yehuda's discussion of her Orthodox Jewish family's attitude toward body exposure; or funny, like Tracy Tobin's impersonation of her own skin complaining about the sun. But other segments are sophomoric, like the parodies of pop songs the women sing in the first segment. Minemar seems to build the show around her performers' personal beauty-insecurities, and as long as the women are funny and frank, it's reminiscent of the better Vagina Monologues. (M.S.M.)
Breton's Dream Sean Owens' smart and funny treatment of the surrealists gets a rather messy production from director Lisa Giglio and the Center for Imaginary Solutions. The show, with an eight-member troupe and an unwieldy set piece, is too large for the Exit Stage Left playing area. But the main problem is the uneven cast. Michael Stubblefield in the title role has no shape or energy: His Andre Breton remains blurry and indistinct. Thank God for Christopher Kuckenbaker's hilarious turns as Max Ernst ("The Nazis are Man Ray's iron," he proclaims, referring to the famed dadaist flatiron with protruding nails in its underside) and Salvador Dali. Kathryn Wood's costumes put the actors in underwear and garters, with witty accessories delineating the various roles. Owens and his cohorts are on to something here: With more crispness and polish, Breton's Dream could be great theater. (J.M.)
My Penis -- In and Out of Trouble Antonio Sacre returns to the Fringe after last year's Black and Brown and White All Over with a piece that will polarize audiences. A strangely subdued Sacre sits in an armchair with hundreds of snapshots spread out on the floor around him. He picks up one picture and begins a gentle, humorous recitation of his sexual history. Sacre is funny, playful, and charming, even when dealing with the seamier side of sex, such as his first trip to the doctor to be treated for VD, or the time he slept with a stripper at her boyfriend's house. And then his story turns horrific -- appallingly, staggeringly so. The shock is brutal, abrupt -- which is exactly Sacre's intention. He isn't merely performing here, he's lecturing, confessing, haranguing, exposing, even assaulting. He tears the audience wide open, shattering the distance between it and himself. Is this show Art? No. But it's brutally effective. (J.M.)
Run Jenny An Oakland theater troupe called Bay Stage works against the mood of the Fringe by offering a realistic drama set in the antebellum South. Run Jenny is about a Northern woman named Henrietta Hunt who moves to a Southern town called Willow Springs. She upsets things there by encouraging the local slaves to escape, and later stands trial for killing her husband. The story has passion, suspense, and a powerful twist, but playwright Michael Thomas Tower casts it in the most awkward form possible for a play. Instead of watching what happens, we hear about it secondhand. John Buchanan is earnest and well-paced as the gently defiant apothecary; Tower himself plays the grave Southern judge with authority. But other acting is uneven (although Mahasin Islam delivers an excellent final speech as Jenny), and the show as a whole seems to walk stiffly when it wants to run. (M.S.M.)
Stew The sleeper hit of the 2000 Fringe might be Cameron Galloway's Stew, featuring the hapless, neurotic, fragile, sentimental, romantic-liberal idealist Eustencia Charity, who does a cooking show. She wants to emphasize that all food -- notably the chicken in her pan -- was once alive, and should be thanked in some way before the meal. Eustencia's weird behavior causes friction with her director, a disembodied male voice she happens to have married. The friction drives her to the comforts of various personalities, including her therapist, her shotgun-wielding sister, Noam Chomsky, and an adoring mango. Chomsky (Terry Lamb) makes a hilarious appearance on the TV show in an apron, theorizing about paella; later Eustencia dances with a giant cob of corn. Her capacity for building major crises from trifles, and acting put-upon in a squeaky voice, is what makes Eustencia so much fun to watch. Strong performances by Lamb, Cynthia Bassham, and Megan Blue Stermer offset weaker performances by Michael Carreiro and Adrian Elfenbaum; the show generally feels pointless when Eustencia isn't onstage. (M.S.M.)
Theatre/Plague Artaud wrote, "The theater, like the plague, is a crisis which is resolved by death or cure." Also: "We cannot go on prostituting the idea of theater whose only value is its excruciating relationship to reality, and magic, and danger." The Frenchman was pretentious enough on his own, but Atomic Elroy, in Theatre/ Plague, only makes him worse. Elroy sits onstage in a straitjacket and a cardboard dunce cap, with an incongruous headset to amplify his voice, and alternately mouths long quotations from Artaud or does weird shit while Artaud-quotations flow muddily over a speaker system. And on opening night, when Elroy lit incense in the close hot room, then poked the burning stick through the top of his dunce cap, and had to pluck it out to keep his hair from burning -- this was the opium-smoking scene -- it became time for me to leave. (M.S.M.)
Trailer Trash Tabloid This uproarious Florida import features the survivors and descendants of victims of a 1964 tornado telling their stories on the Lamont Lazarus tabloid TV show. See, when the twister flattened the "New Drawl City Mobile Home Village & Putt-Putt Golf" in South Georgia, killing most of the inhabitants, the Village's owner, Velveeta magnate "Happy Frank" Forkenberg, also wound up dead, but from a shotgun blast to the head. Actors Michael Wanzie and Doug Ba'aser play a variety of roles in outrageous costumes (by Skip Stewart). As Delilah Forkenberg -- Happy Frank's widow, who survived the disaster by hiding in a barbecue smoker -- Wanzie sports a phallic red beehive do and a collar of black and red feathers. As Rhoda Schuster, the trailer park love child, Wanzie has Shirley Temple curls, polka dots, and a lisp. As Doug Snood, inbred and missing teeth, Ba'aser delivers the goods on the park's suspected "lesbanese" inhabitant, Ethel-Mae Hyde-Park (Ba'aser again), who resents the implication that she looks like Janet Reno. Director/writer Lewis Routh's script is perfectly constructed; every detail pays off in unexpected ways. As one character says, "Her blond hair flowed down her shoulder like chicken gravy over mashed potatoes, and I thought, "Damn, I'm hungry.'" (J.M.)