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Bizarre Bazaar 

The Fringe Festival's 10th anniversary finds the Exit expanding its empire

Wednesday, Sep 5 2001
The weeklong anarchy of 50-minute plays known as the San Francisco Fringe Festival tends to scare up bizarre, inventive material, but Elisa DeCarlo distinguishes herself this year by telling a freakish story that isn't even fiction. DeCarlo is a comedienne from New York who impressed local audiences four years ago with jokes about man-okapi sex and dominatrix homemaking in Cervix With a Smile. This week -- after a two-year Fringe hiatus -- she'll present the grim, true story of a man who murdered his daughter in an arson fire, then confessed it, years later, to a crowd of strangers online. DeCarlo was one of them; she and two others turned him in, and he's now serving 40 years. There was a brief media blitz about the arrest in 1998, after the New York Times ran a story on its front page. "I got to be Monica Lewinsky for a day," DeCarlo says. "It was horrible. I mean, here I am, a performer, busting my ass, I always wanted to be famous, and then suddenly I'm famous in the absolute worst possible way."

The show's title, Toasted, seems to refer to everyone involved, including DeCarlo. By helping to turn in the man in '98, she became persona non grata within her online support group for alcoholics. The group was, of course, confidential. But after dropping hints about having "murdered" his daughter, DeCarlo says, "he wrote this long, explicit, detailed confession of how he burned her to death. He burned the house, and he trapped the daughter inside." The man, Larry Froistad, would still be free if he hadn't confessed. The fire had been ruled accidental in 1995. DeCarlo and another online member discussed the confession privately and called the police; a third member called the FBI. No one else went to the authorities. The group had 200 members, and after Froistad's arrest there were howls of betrayal. "One guy," says DeCarlo, "who I knew personally -- he didn't know he was referring to me -- called me "a meddlesome, tight-ass, rat-fink minimus of an oozing worm-turd.'"

DeCarlo examines every side of the story in her one-woman, 30-character show. She explores the limits of confidentiality and wonders if she's as vulturelike, now, performing this play, as the network journalists who swarmed her for three days in New York. DeCarlo hasn't done much solo performance since a few months after Froistad's confession. ("Ninety-eight was just a terrible year," she says.) Lately, in Manhattan, she's been managing a series for women called "Broads" at Performance Space NBC. But it's fitting for her to make a comeback at the Exit Theater, because the Exit produced her first full comedy show in 1988, and in the '90s she was a fixture at the San Francisco Fringe. "Doing this stuff is like coming home," she says. "That's the only way I can describe it."

The Exit has organized the San Francisco Fringe since 1991; this is its 10th anniversary. The point of every festival is to give space to offbeat or experimental shows, and for the Exit's artistic director, Christina Arguello, this means no curating. The New York Fringe Festival chooses its acts from a pool of submissions, but in Arguello's mind such selectivity excuses it from being honest Fringe. She gives space to 50-odd projects chosen in a blind public lottery, and she likes the grab-bag quality of the resulting fest.

The Exit as an organization can offer more space this year because early in the summer Arguello and her managing director, Richard Livingston, opened a spanking-new stage called the Exit on Taylor. A new theater anywhere in San Francisco is something of a miracle, and the details of how this one came about are worth a brief digression. Livingston has been working on the project for four years. In 1997 he found a low-income housing developer, Mercy Charities Housing, willing to include a theater in its plans for a new retirement home. Mercy Charities' regional president, Jane Graf, agreed with Livingston that a theater in the complex would help revive the neighborhood. "It's much simpler and easier just to do the housing," Livingston says, "but then you normally end up with a [blank] wall that in this case is half a block long, where there would have been no activity at all." The Exit on Taylor brings "positive nighttime activity," in developers' parlance, to a stretch of the Tenderloin that might otherwise have been a dead, and maybe dangerous, street.

The city's late-'90s real estate bubble was bad for the performing arts, and Livingston thinks deals like his -- with a nonprofit developer -- are the best way for theater companies to survive a bloody rental market. But Berkeley will finish 2001 with no fewer than three new theaters in its impacted downtown. The reason for this discrepancy is simple: The city of Berkeley goes easy on developers who offer space to viable arts outfits. "We give them a density bonus," says Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean. "It usually gives [developers] an extra floor; it translates into a somewhat bigger building." Two out of Berkeley's three new stages will owe their existence to this enlightened policy. The Aurora Theater and the Shotgun Players (opening a space in December) have both signed with the same for-profit developer, who wants to earn that density bonus.

This kind of provision is rare. San Francisco, like most cities, gives a bonus only to developers of low-income housing. A source I spoke to in the San Francisco Planning Department, who wished to remain anonymous, had never heard of the idea, and our conversation was typical:

"If somebody's putting up a new building and they include a theater," I said, "do they get any sort of break from the city in terms of zoning?"

[Long pause.]

"N-n-no. They wouldn't get, like, a bigger FAR or anything. And they would still have to have the required parking."

FAR stands for Floor Area Ratio limit. It refers to building size.

Anyway, the Exit Theater is thriving -- against long odds. And the Fringe Fest still serves as a bazaar where artists can swap ideas. It's also the only regular opportunity for local audiences to see underground work from other countries. Jonathan Rice brings his one-man show about anti-gay violence, Charlie's Angel, to San Francisco after five years of roaming Britain. The play has become a showpiece in the British movement to overturn Clause 28, which forbids schoolteachers in England from discussing homosexuality. Charlie takes place in Brighton, where Rice was born. Several years ago, walking home at night with a friend, Rice was assaulted by two thugs who assumed he was gay. Brighton is a gay mecca, sure enough, but Rice is straight. Charlie's Angel tells the story of two fictional brothers -- one gay, one homophobic -- whose relationship changes after the homophobic one gets gay-bashed.

This year's Fringe also features at least two projects with origins in earlier San Francisco fests. John Sowle and Steven Patterson got to know Dan Carbone at the 1998 Fringe, when they saw his alarming, hilarious play Up From the Ground. Carbone was unknown around here, but Sowle and Patterson were well established as a partnership called Kaliyuga Arts; now Carbone works regularly with Kaliyuga. They've collaborated on an experimental play called The Pilgrim Project, based on Sowle's pilgrim ancestor George Sowle. Carbone wrote the script, and Sowle has incorporated movement techniques he learned in master classes with the late theorist Jerzy Grotowski. "If everything coalesces, it will be jaw-dropping," says Patterson. "If it doesn't, well, then it'll be -- another Fringe show."

A play called The Family Tree was written by an ex-punk drummer and slam poet who decided to turn playwright after seeing the 1999 Fringe. Denise Dee, who also directs, developed her semisurreal show in a local playwriting course. "Most of the people in the class already had, like, M.B.A.s, or whatever it's called," she says. "I was the only person starting only from scratch, [and] it took a lot of struggle against everybody sort of telling you what to do." She rebelled, in particular, against the notion of dramatic arc. "There's no big conflict in the play," she says, dismissively, "and there's definitely no arc." But there are three Equity actors in the cast. From Dee's enthusiasm as a spectator in the '99 Fringe to her creative role in the current one, she says, "It's a complete full circle ... and they told me at the Exit that I'm the first person that's ever done this."

The 2001 lineup also includes a new show from Wendy Weiner called Searching for the Sixties, a piece essentially about slacker-generation nostalgia. Weiner won a Best of the Fringe Award in '98 with a show called Give Me Shelter, on another familiar theme -- How to Find a Goddamn Apartment -- which, now that she lives in New York, is a question that's been settled in her favor. "I have a rent-stabilized one-bedroom in Alphabet City," she says. "I got it because a friend of mind slept with the realtor."

Aha. Did Weiner also have to sleep with the realtor?

"I did not. He was a gay man, so it wasn't even an option. But that's how I got this great apartment."

Something, maybe, for directors here to keep in reserve.


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