Part of the 2017 Philadelphia FringeArts Festival
Off Off Broadway, Various
Ran 9.7.17 through 9.24.17
Various venues throughout Philadelphia
by Keith Paul Medelis on 9.24.17
Performers in Geoff Sobelle's HOME.
BOTTOM LINE: Without our own major fringe festival this year, Theasy left NYC to explore a fringe festival that is stronger than ever.
If you’re following the gossip, the New York International Fringe Festival took a break this year to do some soul searching and discover the best course for the future. It's known for having 200 productions (which Theasy covers all of) spread over only a handful of venues, and notorious for the Times' annual hazing for improperly working air conditioners and performances featuring a lot of willful, blind optimism. It seemed like a festival breathing its last breath, but rising from the dead, we’re back in 2018 baby.
I write with a unique perspective—I’ve never even been to Philadelphia (quelle horreur!) and this scrappy, patriotic little city with a grungy arts core was calling me. I found my hypothesis of FringeArts to be largely true: for nourishing artists who are trying something truly new, this town rocks. Exemplified by Pig Iron Theater Company, the famous devised theater ensemble (who premiered their A Period of Animate Existence the final weekend of the festival), many theatre makers in Philadelphia have the passion, support, and talent that New York theater artists constantly seek.
FringeArts supports any artist who wants to join: find a venue, pay them money, and they push it for you. This invites audiences to walk all over the city, from a park down by Philly's recycling facilities to a fancy, sparkling City Center venue. It’s an exciting and interactive way to experience a town steeped in colonial patriotism. You may just run into Betsy Ross on the street in between an experimental children’s show and a kinky gay dance piece. It’s all part of the charm.
Weekend vacationers should know that there is a curated fringe festival and then everything else. The curated festival is larger-scale productions (that are often sold out), and features both big players in the industry, like Bill T. Jones, as well as local heroes like Philadelphia’s own Martha Graham Cracker. Highlights of this year's curated fest include Geoff Sobelle’s HOME and New Paradise Laboratory’s Hello Blackout!
HOME is a remarkable achievement. Creator and performer Sobelle welcomes us with the simplest of gestures: a wooden frame is stapled with that plastic tarp stuff you always seen at construction sites. He’s building a house slowly, methodically; he makes a mistake, and then corrects it. It goes on for longer than you might want it to. Soon we’re treated to a fragile structure taking on the life of a home, a golden-hued lamp by the bedside and front door with a charming doorbell. It all appears like some magic show, but with less trickery and more heart.
Soon Sobelle and the ensemble have created the bones of an entire house. But it’s not one family we visit, it is an amalgamation of homes, notably suburban Americana kind of homes. We experience these people imbuing life into this structure—“making it a home” (cheesy I know)—with all the average behaviors of sleeping, showering, cooking, and taking out the garbage presented as some kind of glorious showcase. Then we see scenes of grief: a death, a relationship lost, a fire. All in a day’s work.
The latter half of Sobelle’s piece is so bonkers it just makes perfect sense. And for a theater community as embracing as Philadelphia’s, it works. The ensemble brings up the audience one at a time to imbue their own energy into the home. It’s a dinner party. And then a birthday, and a wedding, and a bat mitvah. We all celebrate with Sobelle’s creation. When a row of festive lights come soaring across the seats, we feel as one.
HOME has no story. It has no fancy actors. Only a few words are ever spoken. And it could probably never work in New York, a city that would find its sentimentality abrasive, and its aesthetic too family-friendly. Not to mention that the experimental HOME also requires a massive space; any NYC theater large enough would be too expensive to take the risk. Thus the beauty of the FringeArts Festival.
New Paradise Laboratories' Hello Blackout! goes further into the realm of the insane, a realm that an audience will demand from any fringe festival worth its title. And demand they did, as this crowd was packed tightly into a large black box that we soon discover has the ability to completely black out—a luxury not to be unappreciated (and also probably impossible in New York). Whit MacLaughlin directed and conceived this production, with music compositions by Bhob Rainey and lights by Thom Weaver. A narrow hallway of sorts is the primary design feature in Matt Saunders' set, stretched out across the space with black all around, white-washed walls inside the hall yielding mysterious objects from just outside or light years away.
In Hello Blackout!, the company explores the moment before the big bang—the nothing part of the universe that is haunting and mysterious. Sure, that seems doable. New Paradise Laboratories: I salute you. For much of the beginning, we’re in complete darkness, alternating between dimly lit scenes where the performers stand, inert and static, subtly moving around the stage during blackouts. It is frightening in its disorientation (one audience member bailed no less than two minutes into the endeavor.) I found it ultimately comforting. Despite reviewing theater for years and sitting in theaters for even longer, I tend to hate these uncomfortable, crowded spaces. In the pitch darkness I felt alone, free, with nothing but the gentle wash of air conditioning vent kissing my right cheek. Sans that vent, this must have been the nothingness of the pre-big bang non-existence from long ago.
The first real event of Hello Blackout! comes about fifteen minutes in. A white ball is thrown at the wall and explodes with a chalky substance. Life. More. Till eventually, perhaps halfway through the piece, the ensemble emerges in full medieval regalia for dinner over candles and fancy cutlery. The story doesn’t seem to matter. But it feels overwhelming in it’s “thing-ness.” We’ve spent so long it its absence that the story feels imposed and abrasive. Much like emerging from the comfort of the womb, we cry. We want to go back to the safety and warmth pre-birth, before the days are counted, the birthdays are had, the world is lost, and death is upon us.
It would be taking the wind out of the sails to reduce Hello Blackout! to an assessment of like or dislike. It’s not a piece meant to be “liked,” but instead one meant to begin philosophical post-show conversations that the creators are happy to host over wine and cheese. Which you should stay for, and allow these ideas to wash over you in any way that makes sense—or un-sense—to you.
A Billion Nights on Earth
Of the curated fringe options, I also took in A Billion Nights on Earth by Thaddeus Phillips and Steven Dufala. At 11 on a Sunday morning, it’s the better version of some family-time weekend cartoon hour. A young boy (Winslow Fegley) loses his stuffed whale at the Natural History Museum, and he won’t rest until he and his father (Michael Fegley) find it. What ensues is an epic imagined hunt to retrieve the toy that takes on a journey through the icy tundra of the refrigerator. Here, FringeArts brings its exploratory aesthetic to storytelling that includes kids.
Deliberately, theater is left out of the name of FringeArts. Also on the curated list is Kate McIntosh’s Worktable, an art installation of the interactive, moving, and playful kind. We’re asked to select from a shelf of random props—magazines, a glass vase with a rose, a stuffed animal, a pine cone. Then we’re shown to our workstation, where we are met with every tool necessary for destruction. Signs greet us that say, “destroy this object.” And it’s delightful fun. I chose a potted aloe plant, my companion an electric guitar. Mine was destroyed in moments; his took the better part of 45 minutes. A second room asks us to reassemble a previous patron's destroyed object. Here we get tools for mending—a sewing kit, tape, staples, pipe cleaners.
The final room is an art gallery of sorts—a display of all the objects destroyed and mended by the visitors of the Worktable. Refreshingly honest and filled with metaphor of our own making, I wished I had spent more time here. I wondered at each step what was next—being careful to not fully destroy my object with the fear that I would have to put it back together again. Maybe that was the intent? Is it ok to be comfortable with our desire to blissfully smash something to pieces without consequence? Presumably the pieces will be mended, but by whom?
FRINGE AROUND THE CITY
Outside of the curated fringe, you are on your own. Since anyone can join the FringeArts Festival for a nominal fee, it’s really a stab in the dark. But that mystery is part of the joy. After you’ve trekked through the uncharted terrain of Philly's side streets, encountered locked doors, and followed obscure signs with arrows, you may be met with something that is spectacular. And if not, at least it’s only an hour or two of your life.
Gunnar Montana’s KINK HAÜS serves the queer fantasy of your dreams. Up the stairs, we're greeted with bare asses and the leather of a kink club. It’s loud music, dildos, heels, and lubed-up dance floors from there forward. We all know what we’re here for: hot dancing with heaping portions of sex. Montana’s production delivers, if only in a tease. Structurally, it just starts to get good, and then it’s over. And for a title like KINK HAÜS I expected to be shocked; instead, the erotica here is actually pretty tame.
The Groom's a Fag; The Bride's a Cunt; The Best Man’s a Whore; and the Maiden of Honor (Just) Hung Herself in the Closet
Tease seems to be the thing at FringeArts. Where the curated artists tantalize with their desire for experimentation, the fringe artists want to follow suit with something equally shocking. The Groom's a Fag; The Bride's a Cunt; The Best Man’s a Whore; and the Maiden of Honor (Just) Hung Herself in the Closet is a student production that, from the name, wants to shock. We even sign a waiver that says, more or less, “You will be offended so fuck off and don’t come in if you are not ok with that.” This aggression in title and greeting had better be met with some seriously offensive stuff, right? It’s not. The unfulfilled attempt makes it come across as posing. Better viewed drunk or not at all, The Groom’s a Fag is a rare miss of the FringeArts Festival.
Get Pegged Cabaret
Lastly, there’s cabaret. Missing from the New York International Fringe Festival is a central gathering point. Philadelphia has just the answer with Le Peg. In the back there’s a massive performance venue, and the restaurant itself hosts John Jarboe’s Get Pegged Cabaret. It is drag in the most generous sense—today he is dressed as a queer Captain Planet—and offers some advice on the current hurricanes, floods, and wildfires ranging across America, with twisted lyrics to songs like any good drag artist. Jarboe is part of the grungy Philadelphia royalty and he offers his act monthly at Le Peg. This time, he’s invited one of the most magnificent creatures of my entire FringeArts weekend: Dieter Rita Scholl of Berlin. He’s the unapologetic but gracefully beautiful performer out of a postcard of Berlin queer nightlife. It’s a wonderful way to wind down with a cocktail after exploring this beautiful, inventive festival.
The festival is done for 2017. But put it on your 2018 calendar now, and spend a weekend outside the city. I know, I know. New York is the theater capital of the world, the country's best place for experimentation, blah blah blah. FringeArts proves Philadelphia has much to offer; my first visit will most certainly not be the last.
(FringeArts takes over Philadelphia for three weeks in September. More information is available on fringearts.com.)