Playwright and longtime San Francisco Fringe Festival participant Lee Brady is well known in the Bay Area for her staunch feminism, both because of the content of her work and because she's a co-founder of 3Girls Theatre, which is dedicated to producing women's plays. But for Random Acts of Love, her show at this year's Fringe, she's written two very short plays and a musical interlude that all center on men. "I think they're funny and that they need sympathy," she says of her characters. "They just don't have a clue." Then, giggling, she jokes that "it's mean" to write people this way.
The first scene, "Sunday Lovers," features five San Francisco men of a range of ages all sitting on stools telling their stories. But even the eldest is pitiably ill-equipped for the world, complaining that, without his wife around, he can't even boil an egg. The musical interlude is also about an older S.F. gent, this one with a Schwinn bicycle that Supremes-style back-up singers tell him he's "too old to ride." In the final scene, "BART Train to Antioch," Brady takes a more serious turn with a scene about a white actor on BART who, initially put off by a rowdy black couple, ends up taking stage-like direction from the man.
World-traveling self-described song-and-dance man Movin Melvin Brown also explores racism in his piece, A Man, A Magic, A Music, which at the time of our interview was at the Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland. The show traces Brown's life through the history of black popular music. Growing up in Cincinnati in the 1950s, Brown says he benefited from a record label that moved into town to record black artists, putting them on the radio for the first time. "At a very young age, I was running out the window of the house to go to night clubs," he says. "I was too young to be there, but I could always talk to the band and ask if I could sing with them. I had my own doo-wop group when I was eight years old, and we did a couple of church things. Then, when I was 12, we could open for shows." Brown opened for artists like the Four Tops, James Brown, B.B. King, and Little Stevie Wonder. In that time, Brown says, "there was a line that was drawn" out of racism. "And when you're an entertainer, you get to step across the line."
The San Francisco-based company Rapid Descent also weaves music into its storytelling at this year's Fringe, but here the interpolation is a more unusual choice. The company is adapting the first half of Macbeth into Macbeth — Limited Edition, a years-in-the-making physical theater performance with music. An even shorter version of the show played most recently at foolsFURY's Factory Parts; the company is gradually expanding the piece to cover all of Shakespeare's tragedy. Composer, music director, and performer Aaron Priskorn has created a complex soundscape for the piece, complete with trumpet, loop station and a densely layered, constantly shifting choral sequence, while stage director Megan Finlay makes the staging rough-and-tumble. In particular, her version of the banquet scene, in which the ghost of Banquo haunts Macbeth, is like a wrestling match; her three weird sisters all have their own unique physicalities, shape-shifting to become other characters.
Evangeline Crittenden's Fringe show is adapted from another source as well. Philia comes from "Philematophilia," a short story by Crittenden's friend Traci Chee, who has commissioned different kinds of artists — an illustrator, a filmmaker, and now Crittenden — to create a new piece inspired by each story in her collection. "There's a collection of work around her work," says Crittenden, a local performance artist.
Crittenden describes the musical as a combination of the stories of King Midas, The Scarlet Letter and Glee. Set in both a fairytale world and a modern-day high school, the show follows Helena (Derricka Smith), who, Crittenden says, "has this magical touch where whoever she kisses has this magical transformation. But all that happens to her is that she gets labeled for kissing all these people. She doesn't have any transformation. People notice her promiscuity." For Crittenden, while the show has "a lightness and a sense of humor," it also delves into the deeper issues of "gender, slutshaming, and our motives for partnerships."
These are just four of the 36 shows in the festival, which this year runs for three weekends instead of the usual two, giving audiences even more of an opportunity to partake in that quintessential Fringe activity: throwing recommendations to the wind and stumbling across something wonderful — and weird.