While theater companies in the Bay Area are launching the first plays of their 2014-15 seasons, the San Francisco Fringe Festival has to show them all up by opening 35 shows all at once.
Now in its 23rd year, SF Fringe always offers a delightfully random grab bag of theatrical acts at the Tenderloin’s Exit Theatre. And I do mean random; applicants are selected purely by chance though a lottery. This year’s festival features 150 performances over 16 days, the shows rotating in the Exit’s three different black box theaters. All of the box office money goes to the performers, and volunteers circulate with tip jars for spare change to keep the festival going.
I chose to brave one full day of the Fringe on Saturday, from the first show at 1pm through the end of the last one at 11:30. I saw seven shows in all, running anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes apiece, with breaks between them just long enough to grab a quick bite when needed. All shows start on time and there’s no late seating, so plan accordingly.
A trip to the Fringe always involves some hard choices between unknown quantities: there may be multiple shows that seem promising in the same time slot, while other options are so mystifying that you may as well flip a coin, if you can find one with three sides. And there are almost sure to be some fascinating-sounding shows that don’t happen to be playing on that particular day.
By far the most gripping piece I caught was Campo Maldito, a seriously spooky ghost story about gentrification and addiction, among other things. This two-character thriller by SF native Bennett Fisher is a co-production of People of Interest and Ubuntu Theater Project. Drunk and at the end of his rope, a micro-finance dot-com entrepreneur (Walker Hare, disheveled and snide) has been plagued by one inexplicable problem after another, enough so that he’s afraid his office may be cursed, and he’s called in a Santeria priest (an intense Luis Vega) to try to fix it, even if he doesn’t remember doing that. Directed by Jesca Prudencio, the drama that follows is creepy and compelling and sometimes confusing, with explosions of violence and barbed undercurrents of race and class tensions.
Another multi-actor drama, Theater Dinamundo’s Hang On, is a more staid affair. Written and directed by Erik Blachford, a Montreal native now living in San Francisco, the half-hour play is all about people falling in love with Montreal — and with Montreal bagels, which apparently are a big deal. It’s also about a love triangle between a Montreal native (Ben Calabrese), his New York transplant girlfriend (Susannah Rea-Downing), and her new-in-town summer fling (Gabe Kenney). Ultimately it’s more about whose-city-is-it one-upmanship than about romantic love, and it’s all very reserved and somewhat stilted.
One thing there’s a whole lot of in the festival is solo shows, which are of course particularly portable for traveling the Fringe circuit. (The San Francisco fest is one of many in Canada and the United States alone, to say nothing of venerable international institutions such as Scotland’s Edinburgh Fringe.) In Saturday’s sampling, that meant several confessional monologues back to back.
Austin poet and theater artist Krissi Reeves muses on her dating life in Spinning the Bottle, downing a bottle of wine as she cogitates aloud about the neurological impulses behind romantic attachment in long, eloquent sentences. (“You can probably tell by the wine that I’m a poet,” she says.) Another Texan, Kate Robards, charmingly recounts growing up in the colorful small town of Orange and adjusting to expatriate life in Shanghai in Mandarin Orange. Directed by Jill Vice, whose solo show The Tipped & the Tipsy was in last year’s fest (and later played The Marsh with the definite articles stripped out of its name), Robards embodies a variety of colorful characters from her pricelessly chatty mom to the hilariously quirky real housewives of Shanghai.
Mandarin Orange was developed with Bay Area solo-show guru David Ford, and so was Animal Love, Annette Roman’s bittersweet monologue about her relationship with her pets and deaths in the family. The somber reflections on the experience of grief are much more resonant than the many jokes that don’t quite land.
Andrew Potter places a video screen so close to the audience for his solo show The Road to High Street that it can be difficult to sidle past it to enter the small Exit Studio. The show recounts his 15 years in the High Street Circus, his unicycle-riding juggling duo with Wheeler Cole. Now a video producer, Potter sits with a laptop and acoustic guitar regaling us with often hysterical anecdotes from his life as a San Francisco street performer, accompanied by well-edited videos showing us exactly what he’s talking about and peppered with folky songs of his own composition that are generally pleasant but otherwise don’t add a lot.
Australian Tim Motley takes on the classic persona of an American hard-boiled detective in 2 Ruby Knockers, 1 Jaded Dick, with trench coat and fedora, percussive rat-a-tat-tat diction and long, florid metaphors. There’s a loose story of the case he’s supposedly pursuing, but really it’s a thinly-veiled standup comedy act, with wry audience banter always at the ready. (“Your groans only make me stronger.”) He even throws in several magic tricks, mostly in the mentalist mode of stage psychics. Some bits don’t quite work (a musical number seems particularly forced), but for the most part it was a welcome treat at the end of a very long and overstimulating day.
The San Francisco Fringe Festival runs through September 20, 2014 at Exit Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit sffringe.org.