I've always maintained that one of the best things about attending an unjuried Fringe Festival such as the one we have annually here in San Francisco is the crapshoot aspect. Visit one theater to watch a scantily clad girlfriend and her bend-over boyfriend give a lecture on the sexual practice of "pegging" (complete with songs accompanied by a toy glockenspiel and live demonstration); visit another to experience a truncated Greek tragedy complete with hairy guys in togas waving wooden swords.
However, never knowing what you're going to get can also be one of the Fringe's biggest downsides. I was reminded of this fact the other evening when I attended the Fringe "Sneak Peek" soirée at the Exit Theatre. Hosted a few weeks shy of the festival each year by comedian Mark Romyn, the Sneak Peek is a free, similarly uncurated, and usually fun affair. It provides a taster of some of the upcoming performances and, generally speaking, is enticing enough to make the average underground theater buff want to come back for more. The good stuff outweighs the bad. And even when it's a close call, the bad is so bad that it's actually quite good, especially after a visit to the Exit Cafe for a champagne cocktail.
Regretfully, this year's Sneak Peek was nothing short of a complete disaster. The bad far, far outweighed the good. The event was, in fact, so outlandishly mediocre that even multiple visits to the Exit Cafe during the course of the evening couldn't assuage my feelings of abject terror regarding the upcoming festival, not to mention fear for the future of fringe theater as a whole.
Things got off to an unpromising start when two actors involved in an earnest little drama about the Israel-Lebanon War walked onstage and proceeded to read aloud from their scripts. Come on, guys, if you're going to put an audience through this type of tripe, at least bother to learn your lines. Unable to recover my composure after such an audacious introduction, I sat in a stupor through the rest of the show and didn't fully come to until my friend Davey prodded me when the lights went up and suggested we make haste for the nearest bar.
The whole event was a bit of a blur, really. At one point, an accordionist told stories about her cat. At another, a group of performance artists wandered about the stage intoning mantras like "bump, bump." Elsewhere, a trio of spaced-out middle-aged women who seemed to have taken a wrong turn on their way to a Harbin Hot Springs moonlight equinox birthing ritual babbled about "searching for the voice of the third." That the highlight of the evening involved a lip-synching drag queen ripping off her panties and giving the audience an eyeful of her cock is really saying something. But just what it's saying, I'm too polite to articulate in public.
Despite the distinct lack of promise afforded by the Sneak Peek, I'm still planning on showing up for this year's festival. Call me a masochist, but I've a feeling that there might still be some worthy theatrical wheat hidden in the piles of chaff.
First, I should mention the known quantities. The Climate Theater is hosting performances by a bunch of astonishing clowns. Summer Shapiro is one of the funniest people ever to have graced a black-box stage in a voluminous tutu and tight-fitting jacket. She is also one of the prettiest. Her new solo show, Legs and All, is bound to have legs. I am similarly psyched about Cirque du Soleil alumnus John Gilkey, who's teaming up with fellow funnymen Donny Divanian and Alec Jones-Trujillo to bring a production of very likely absurdist proportions titled Show No Show to the Fringe. Other companies whose work I have admired in the past are using the festival as an outlet for heightened creativity. Sleepwalkers Theatre is presenting Break-Upocalypse, a couple of shorts about imploding relationships. With tempestuous(ness) or History Is Told by the Victors, Performers Under Stress (PUS) is deconstructing Shakespeare's The Tempest in an attempt to reclaim — perhaps with a nod to Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — the play's sidelined and much-maligned witch character, Sycorax. Meanwhile, Dark Porch Theatre's hybrid performance piece, Cockroach, sounds bracingly creepy.
Next I should talk about a few shows that look like they might be worth checking out, if the marketing materials are to be trusted. Kristin Stone Entertainment's Inside Private Lives has apparently won favorable notices from The Los Angeles Times and LA Magazine, among others. The show, which hails from Tinseltown and sends up the rich and famous, also won an Edinburgh Festival Pick of the Fringe. Barry Smith of Aspen, Colorado's Jesus in Montana: Adventures in a Doomsday Cult comes to the San Francisco Fringe with similar critical clout. The autobiographical solo show about a man who discovers that the savior is alive and well and living in the Treasure State won Outstanding Solo Show at the 2005 New York Fringe Festival. Other productions with positive track records to their names include Recess, Una Aya Osato's drama based on her teaching experiences within the New York public school system, and The Surprise, a quirky, comic play by New Yorker Martin Dockery about a secretive family.
Previous experience and positive reviews are typical methods for figuring out what to see at the Fringe. But this article wouldn't be complete without mentioning a few shows whose very titles — though the creation of complete unknowns — cry out for attention. Who can pass up the opportunity to catch Larissa Garcia of Brazil's A (Bearded) Lady? Or Fishbowl Theatre of Toronto's The Frank Diary of Anne? Or The Texas Chainsaw Musical! by San Rafael's Pantywaist Runt Productions? At $12 a ticket or less, this stuff is hard to resist.
So get tanked up and take your friends for a fringe crawl. Even if the crapshoot that is the San Francisco Fringe ends up mostly being crap this year, I doubt that it'll be a Pantywaist of time.