The Fringe Festival: Oh, Forget the Money. Let's Dress Up and Play!
You have to feel fondly toward an enterprise that declares pride in its own insignificance, its very name a trumpet flourish of defiance and chagrin. The New York International Fringe Festival 12 days of largely unheralded theatrical performances, hundreds of them, sprinkled over the East Side of Lower Manhattan like the contents of a spice rack concludes tomorrow. And anyone who sampled it intermittently as I did this week can't help but feel that the joint effort of organizers, audiences, volunteer ticket takers and, of course, performers, is a buoying one for the theatrical world.
It is, after all, a celebration of the impulse of some people to put on a show and of others to see one, and what it illustrates is how undampened those instincts are by artificialities like financial resources and media attention. That the festival gets put on at all and that it spreads such a pleasant patchwork umbrella of good will you've never stood in line less impatiently, with such decent-seeming strangers as company have to be one's first critical judgments.
It's hard to imagine, for example, that Dov Weinstein, the creator of "Tiny Ninja Macbeth," an enactment of the Scottish play using inch-high plastic figurines on a black tabletop, envisions himself on, say, a Broadway stage. Or any stage: as it is, the 10-person audience hunching in front of the table Mr. Weinstein sits behind it, manipulating his toys and reciting all the lines are provided with cheap opera glasses. And it isn't theater, exactly; it's more like a long joke, lovingly told. Of course, in order to sell such a joke, he really has to want to. It's an impressive commitment.
This isn't to say there is no ambition on the part of the Fringe performers to escape the fringe, just that the spotlight isn't their prime spur. And to come upon a fully thought-through performance like that of Sophia Martin, a young Australian actress, in Daniel MacIvor's monologue "See Bob Run" in an 11 p.m. show in a fourth-floor-walkup space with just a half-dozen others in the audience, is truly to be touched by motivation of another sort.
Mr. MacIvor's play, which is about a teenage girl Roberta, hence Bob hitchhiking to the beach, away from what turn out to be some gruesome experiences at home in Sydney, provides an understated, convincing portrait of ordinary girlhood. Bob is someone with an inattentive mother, a romantic boyfriend who turns pleading and insistent, a pouty and manipulative best friend. Her more serious problems an abusive father, her own tension that erupts in violence are the show's problems as well; they inform the circuitry of the plot but are familiar enough to feel shopworn as dramatic material.
The interesting thing is that in Ms. Martin's hands, they become almost completely irrelevant. I've rarely seen an adult performer so thoroughly inhabit a teenage persona; the attempt is usually deadly. She doesn't do anything in particular, just understands the earnest manner of a smart young girl who doesn't yet know that everything she thinks isn't fascinating. And she has acute control over her body language, which is effusive with the alert response system of the very young. Slumping in frustration or stiffening in indignation, Ms. Martin's reactions to Bob's rapidly shifting moods seem instinctive, not professionally invoked. She does wonders with a quivering lip, a pout, a cheek drawn tight. In the end, I hope she felt that the 14 hands clapping for her were meant as an ovation.
Ms. Martin's work was the apex of my Fringe festival, and after all, everyone's is different; with 180 separate acts, it's a performance salad bar, and the quality of the Fringe is notoriously varied. I can say confidently that this is true, even if, obviously, I can't claim to have taken in enough work to qualify as a representative sample. I attended seven shows over three days, chosen mostly for convenience. Out of personal preference, I also tried to avoid (if I could, based on titles and descriptions in the program) the more effusively camp offerings dealing in gender confusion or political outrage. I didn't entirely succeed, and there were other moments when I felt, sitting insufficiently diverted in a tiny, stuffy room without air-conditioning, that I'd simply made an unlucky choice. But that stipulated, here are a few other highlights.
"Charlie Victor Romeo," a reprise of an Off Off Broadway production (by Network 23 and Collective: Unconscious) from last winter, recreates the natural crucible of an airline cockpit during a flight emergency. It's an exceptionally vivid contribution to documentary theater, a series of blackout scenes taking, for their dialogue, the transcripts of actual black box recordings from threatened and doomed aircraft. The language is sometimes arcane, and the stories, such as they are, are unshaped; you can't tell what's happening to the plane, exactly, or how near an ultimate disaster. (Silent projections at the end of each one informs the audience of the real-life consequences.) But the excruciating uncertainty is, of course, the point; waiting for the drama to end is the drama. And the actors, a company of 10 who play pilots, co-pilots and flight attendants in varying combinations over the course of six different "flights," are splendid, projecting a variety of human responses to terror. They make you wonder what you're made of yourself and make you grateful for the ground under your feet.
If Samuel Beckett ever wrote for "Saturday Night Live," the result might be something like the show conceived and performed by Greg Allen, Ben Schneider and Danny Thompson and pendulously titled "The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in an Envelope (Partially Burned) in Paris Labeled 'Never to Be performed. Never. Ever. EVER! Or I'll sue! I'LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!' "
This is essentially sketch comedy a series of Beckett's ostensibly discarded false starts that are unhappily linked by a labored narrative conceit that the performers are being threatened by the litigious legal guardian of the notoriously controlling playwright. But a couple of the sketches are howlingly on target.
I particularly liked "If," which asks the very Beckettian question: Is life too short or too long? In it, one of the actors (I never found out who was who), playing a woman fading into oblivion, refuses to let go, exclaiming "More!" just as the house lights, and her heartbeat, seem ready to expire. The life force that is rejuvenated in her, however, is represented by a recording of "If a Picture Paints 1,000 Words," the unbearably saccharine pop song by the bubblegum band "Bread." As the song plays, the woman wears an expression close to ecstasy, and when it ends, she becomes comatose again, only to gurgle "More" once again at the last instant. That's the whole skit, except it's repeated four times or until the audience gets into the act, pleading, "Enough!"
The last show I took in was a model of Fringe incomprehensibility. Called "The President and I," it was a piece based on a Polish short story by an Austrian company, Theater Tanto, and performed by two actors, Susanna Tabaka-Pillhofer and Jan Tabaka. Ostensibly it was about a woman in love with a plasticine figure of a president so said the program and it appeared to involve a courtship of sorts.
Their intricate dance, which involved martial gymnastics, intermittent songs pleasantly rendered in a capella duets (most in German but some in English that I suspect the performers had memorized for the occasion but didn't understand) and several circuits by Mr. Tabaka around the stage on a small bicycle, was thoroughly opaque yet choreographed and orchestrated with enough discipline that its singular music was unmistakable. Ms. Tabaka-Pillhofer looked agonized throughout, and Mr. Tabaka fiercely amused, periodically uttering a nonsense cry, something like "Hoo ha" that began to seem less nonsensical the more often he said it. I've been repeating it to myself ever since, and thinking this: these two traveled to the United States to perform this wildly idiosyncratic piece for a handful of people who were not likely to parse its alien esthetic. That something moves them enough to do this is what made it work. I was moved. Hoo-ha.
© 2000 The New York Times