Sunday, September 12, 2010

First Week of the San Francisco Fringe Festival

The important thing to remember about fringe festivals around the world is how entrants are selected. A monologist (or perhaps a group of performers) submits an application, pays a registration fee, and usually participates in some kind of lottery that will determine in which venue a performance will take place.

The entrepreneurs who produce fringe festivals are, in some ways, similar to the people who launch news aggregators like The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast. As the hosting venue, they offer a portal to a wide range of attractions.

It isn't only the consumer buying a $10 ticket (the same price one might pay to attend a first-run movie) who is taking a financial risk. While ticket sales go directly to the performers, the numbers don't lie:
  • Most venues at the San Francisco Fringe are within the 40-80 seat range.
  • Many performances do not sell out (often several of the bodies attending a show are volunteers or fellow artists).
  • With most tickets going for $10, a performer who manages to attract 30 people to each of his shows might barely be able to cover the costs of traveling to San Francisco and staying in town during the festival (many artists crash with friends and volunteers).
  • Attractions which include larger casts must split their take into smaller amounts for each participant.
The artists themselves are often testing new material, performing labors of love, or taking therapeutic breaks from their day jobs. Still, there's no escaping the fact that this year's San Francisco Fringe Festival got off to a lame start. During the first week, I didn't see one production that compelled me to tell friends they couldn't afford to miss it. There were, however, quite a few duds.

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Let's start with the obvious train wrecks. Throughout the course of the year, I attend numerous readings of new works at the Aurora Theatre (presented each February as part of its Global Arts Project) and the Magic Theatre (presented each March as part of its Virgin Play series). Playwrights Foundation and Theatreworks just finished their mini-festivals of new works.

Smaller Bay area theatre companies (Boxcar, Cutting Ball, Crowded Fire, Brava Center for the Arts) offer playwrights opportunities for readings scattered throughout the calendar year. Playground (an invaluable program for aspiring playwrights) offers an intensely structured program that allows new voices a chance to hear their work emerge from the mouths of professional actors in an incubator setting.

All of those venues, however, pass some sort of professional judgment on a new work as part of the process. Whether that judgment comes from a single person who has read all the entries or a panel of judges who have voted on which plays show the greatest promise in a juried competition, an artistic judgment has been rendered as to whether or not a piece of performance art is ready to meet the public.

That's not the case with a lottery system (as evidenced by two dismal presentations seen earlier this week). Eat Our Shorts was a collection of eight short plays created by members of GuyWriters (a playwrights' collective under the guidance of Alan Quismorio), whose stated goal is to develop new works that primarily focus on modern gay life. The writers whose works were staged included Tom W. Kelly, Andrew Black, Edgar Poma, Rhoda, and Bob Hayden. The paucity of their talent (showcased in poorly-directed performances from some fairly weak actors) failed to create much of interest. Indeed, the finest moments in Eat Our Shorts came from an attractive young male Filipino dancer busting some moves.

If Eat Our Shorts offered the audience small pieces of disappointment, the world premiere of Zinnia Rosenblatt aimed for one giant mud puddle and succeeded in making quite a sorry mess. The publicity blurb for Joe Besecker's play reads as follows:
"There's been a double suicide in Lori's vacation cabin. The bodies have rotted beyond recognition. Who are they? Lori's ex-husband and his new wife are the most obvious guess until...? A witty, existential dark comedy that questions the existence of the individual soul...or if the soul can only reveal itself outside of oneself. Full of mystery and shocking surprises, nothing is as it seems."
The only thing Mr. Besecker's execrable play was full of was itself. The writing, direction, and acting were so appalling that at times I found myself convulsed with laughter. Late in the play, when one of the characters begged another to leave -- saying "C'mon, we don't have to stay and sit through this" -- it was all I could do to remain in my seat. If someone offers you a free ticket to Zinnia Rosenblatt, I'd suggest you use a friend's classic response: "That's so thoughtful of you. I really wish I could go, but I have an  appointment with a headache!"

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Fringe festivals tend to attract monologists and, as is to be expected, some fare better than others. The temptation for such artists is to think that they can string together certain events in their lives to form a compelling narrative. Unless the work has been crafted by a talented artist like Charlie Varon, Ann Randolph, or Martin Dockery (all of whom are excellent writers as well as actors), such performances can leave the audience wondering where the performer is going or what made him think he actually had a show.

James Schneider's one-man show, Man on Sex, (a world premiere featuring "full frontal music") is the kind of monologue whose ad copy sounds enticing:
"A Shakespearean penis; a lovelorn long-haul trucker; a regular guy deconstructs strippers; a transsexual stuck in a tree. The songs (think Ben Folds, Randy Newman, Elton John), keep the action moving as an array of adult experience is explored in a humorous and soulful collage."
The reality of watching his performance, however, is quite different. A reasonably talented singer/songwriter, Schneider has tried to string his songs together with a narrative that starts off talking about how his wife isn't interested in sex and, since she never comes to see his show, he'll tell the audience everything else that's wrong about their marriage. Not only does this fail to make the performer particularly attractive to an audience, Schneider's writing is not as impressive as he might wish to believe. Here's a sample of him imitating a Shakespearean penis:

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The U.S. premiere of Shaun McCarthy's one-man show, Baggage: A Non-Musical Romp Through One Catholic Gay Man's Dating History included musical themes from his favorite movies. It was also far from anything one would describe as a romp. An attractive man with a mellifluous baritone, McCarthy tried to string together his dating history to form a monologue which measured his own personal growth against the limitations of the men and women he pursued.

Shaun McCarthy in Baggage (Photo by: Aaron Wouters)
Although his story (which describes how one of his friends bravely fought off return bouts of cancer) is quite touching, much of McCarthy's narrative tends to be quite self congratulatory. Recalling an early date with a young woman who opened the car door while he was still navigating the driveway to her house, ran up the steps, got inside the house and turned off the light without even saying good-bye, McCarthy seems to have missed a critical hint about the effect he might have on others.

McCarthy starts the show by explaining to the audience that he is basically an introvert. This becomes evident in performance. While he has obviously worked hard to craft a monologue that has some length, breadth, and depth to it, what Baggage ultimately lacks is spark. Essentially a tale describing the trials and tribulations of gay white bread concerned about its shelf life, Baggage makes its audience feel as if they are watching memories of former tricks and boyfriends slowly thump their way around a deserted luggage carousel.

Although I wasn't particularly excited by Last Fare, at least Dominic Hoffman is a seasoned performer who knows why he's onstage and how to make the most of his time in the spotlight. The thin thread holding a variety of characters together involves a mysterious man who was killed in an apartment complex in Los Angeles.

Hoffman portrays a variety of characters who might provide an investigator with some clues about the deceased. His characters range from a black Brit who is driving a taxi around Los Angeles to a drag queen hustling on the streets of West Hollywood; from a flamboyant queen who likes to talk while improvising dance moves in front of a mirror to the priest trying to offer some words of wisdom at the deceased man's funeral.

With background music by Branford Marsalis, Mr. Hoffman often seemed to be a far better performer than the material he had created for himself. He's a compelling artist with a talent for accents.

Dominic Hoffman in Last Fare (Photo by:Zach Lipp)

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In some ways, the women performing at the Fringe his week had better luck. Because I have always been a very heavy dreamer, I was curious to see Annie Paladino's one-woman show, Dreama. As the publicity blurb explained:
"Dion McGregor talked in his sleep....well, 'talked' might be somewhat of an understatement. Recorded by his roommate in the 1960s, McGregor's incredibly detailed, nuanced, and often outrageous somniloquies are the 'text' for Dreama, an original solo performance conceived and developed by Annie Paladino. Weaving together an exact vocal reproduction of Dion's dreams with an original, experimental staging, Dreama invites you to delve deep into the dream world -- always surprising, sometimes hilarious, and often terrifying."
Annie Paladino in Dreama

While I admired Paladino's performance (which often involves quite a bit of terrified or angry screaming), Dreama helped to remind me that my own dreamscape is fairly benign and happy. Because it was very warm in the theatre during the performance I attended, there were moments when I found myself drifting off into daydreams that were far more pleasurable than those being enacted right in front of me.

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Sarah Abbey's monologue entitled The Weight Game (which was developed with and directed by Joya Cory) introduces the audience to a series of women who, at various stages of their lives, have all struggled to cope with their weight. Whether she is portraying a young girl who always knew that if she didn't succeed in something, there would be edible consolation prizes waiting for her at home or a woman who attends Weight Watchers meetings in order to avoid her skinny husband, Ms. Abbey knows her territory and inhabits it with exceptional dramatic grace.

Using a variety of hats and hair styles, she can easily switch from portraying a Southern belle who likes to dip into the jar of peanut butter with her finger to a masculine husband who can't understand why his wife thinks that, by leaving ice cream containers that are 95% empty in the freezer, she is fooling anyone other than herself.

As a narrative continues in the background detailing how many calories a person has eaten (and how much exercise she did to burn off those calories), Abbey inhabits the bodies of a grade school teacher trying to avoid the temptation of home-made cupcakes as well as a teenager who has determined that, if she starves herself into a hospital bed, everyone will be forced to beg her to eat.

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Finally, we come to Angina Monologues, a series of skits created by Karen Ripley and Annie Larson that takes lethal aim at what they call "the Hell-thcare system." With Ripley appearing as a patient trying to find a healthcare plan she can afford that will actually cover her needs -- and Larson portraying Molly (the good hearted driver who accompanies her friends to the doctor and has a contact in case anyone needs pills or a heart valve) -- this merrily subversive group of elderly women drew lots of laughter from the pain of recognition.

Annie Larson and Karen Ripley in The Angina Monologues
Photo by: Linda Kessler
Among the supporting players were Karla Carmony (who believes that "chronic silliness is her most notable preexisting condition") and Linda Kesler (who, now that she has retired from teaching, "is delighted to work more directly against ignorance and stupidity promoted by the far right corptocracy." Ironically, the show was stolen from everyone else onstage by Sara Moore who, wearing a neck brace and clutching a four-pronged aluminum walker, delivered some of the most hilarious bits of improvisation I've seen in years!

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Dene said...
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