Spooky Queers, Reimagined Classics, Giant Misses: 2019 Fringe recap from an outsider

In the last three weeks, I saw ten shows, in my very first Fringe experience. The pieces varied from FringeArts-sponsored spectacles to apartment plays with room for eight. Here are some of my thoughts, as a Fringe outsider, about this year’s Fringe Festival and what it says about the state of Philadelphia theater.

THERE at the Wilma. Photo by Joanna Austin.

THERE at the Wilma. Photo by Joanna Austin.

The Big Institutions

Superterranean (produced by Pig Iron Theatre Company) and There: In the Light and the Darkness of the Self and of the Other (produced by The Wilma Theater) have much in common: both were highly conceptual ruminations put on by mainstay Philadelphia institutions, both were created in partnership with scenic artists, both were visually arresting, and both left me feeling cold. For Superterranean, Pig Iron Theatre Company collaborated with designer and MacArthur Fellow, Mimi Lien, to create a devised work about the relationships (tactile, aesthetic, emotional) that exist between humans and large-scale urban infrastructure. The result was a wordless, plot-less, 80-minute exercise in tedium. Large stretches of the play featured almost no action at all; at one point a performer opening a door was the climax of a particularly grueling five-minute slog.

A similar malaise permeated There, which was centered around the poetry of Etel Adnan. The half-pipe set, conceived by Rosa Barba, evoked a too-similar-for-comfort feeling to last season’s extraordinary Kill Move Paradise. While the company (which was made up of Wilma’s resident HotHouse members) did not play specific roles, they were rather pointedly separated by gender. This binary separation (denoted by both costumes and often scenes) felt especially dissident given the poet’s universal and communitarian aims. While Pig Iron’s show left me wanting for any language, Wilma’s production had me cringing with generally overwrought readings of poetry.

As Philadelphia institutions on the artistic Fringe, it seems that both Pig Iron and the Wilma are undergoing an identity crisis. What does it mean to create work in the spirit of the anti-establishment when you have, in fact, become the establishment? A possible way forward could be seen in Bearded Ladies Cabaret’s brilliant and inclusive installation Late Night Snacks in South Philadelphia. Rather than produce their own Fringe show, the cabaret company transformed an auto garage into a dynamic and inexpensive curated performance venue, Late Night Snacks, for the duration of the Fringe. By using its brand name and institutional leverage, the Bearded Ladies formed meaningful partnerships with the city government and other nonprofits to pull off a diverse celebration of talent and voice.

Cast of IRC's COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA.

Cast of IRC’s COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA.

Fringe Takes on Giants

While Philly’s larger institutions disappointed, many Fringe productions this year breathed new life into some of the world’s most prolific playwrights. Among the best of this year’s lineup were surprises from giants Williams, Ibsen, and Inge. EgoPo, Idiopathic Ridculopathy Consortium and MACHO GOAT, in turn, uncover, recontextualize, or subvert the masters in ways that highlight universal themes of autonomy and desire.

EgoPo’s staging of Tennessee Williams rarely produced And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens, offered its audience a glimpse of queer life in mid-century New Orleans. Current conventions of gender and sexuality clash against those of the recent past which made for a brisk, but engaging work that frankly discusses queer sexual desire and the isolation that can surround it. Outside of the context of her time, Williams’s Candy, the show’s deluded queer protagonist, exudes an existential loneliness that resonates clearly in a time of hookup apps and increased social acceptance.

Meanwhile, in The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium’s Come Back, Little Sheba, artistic director/director/star Tina Brock brought an acerbic groundedness to the role of Lola. Her choices to strengthen Lola didn’t always work but they did make the central marital tension in the play one of equals. This worked brilliantly in her scenes with Doc Delaney (John Zak). Where Brock’s Lola was more assured than typically played, Zak’s Doc was more fragile, closer to the end of his rope. Brock’s Lola was not delusional or lovesick but trapped in her marriage out of a pragmatic knowledge of what lies outside of her four walls.

Things are perhaps made a little too, well, literal in A Literal Doll House, staged by MACHO GOAT in “a literal apartment.” Arielle Silk had the monumental task of portraying all the characters in the Ibsen classic as a little girl playing with dolls. This device made melodramatic and (surprisingly) funny work with the three-act drama. While Ibsen’s central metaphor was certainly written to be played with a slighter hand, some fun and many revelations came with this fringey adaptation of A Doll’s House (read my fuller review here).

Hella Fresh's AUTOPIA impressed in Kensington.

Hella Fresh’s AUTOPIA impressed in Kensington.

Fringey Fringe

The Fringe Festival provides a real opportunity for some smaller companies to expand their audience and showcase their fantastic work. Hella Fresh Theater‘s play Autopia, performed at their primary space, the Paper Mill Theater in Kensington, was an engaging two-person play about the often treacherous conversational dynamics when your run into someone you haven’t seen in years. Lucky for Philadelphians, they are producing plays year-round.

I also enjoyed my very first Tribe of Fools production. Have a general aversion to acrobatics and anything “cirque,” however, Operation: Wawa Road Trip managed to incorporate physical theater and clowning into a dramatically consistent play. The entire company did a tremendous job bringing the story of two siblings (Jahzeer Terrell and Taiwo Sokan) as they drive from Dayton to a Philadelphia Wawa with their father’s ashes in tow. In a festival filled with visual spectacle, and heady reinterpretations, this comedic and poignant road trip was a delight to watch.

Given the richness of the work I saw from these groups, I hope that soon some of them will produce more consistently. On this scrappier and younger side of the fringe, the intersection of horror and queerness was explored richly by two (three if we count Gunnar Montana’s BASEMENT) companies.

Down steps on the side of the Bok building, we were led to the basement of the former high school for the Antidote’s homage to David Lynch, Red Lodge, Montana. This site-specific, ambulatory, original work brought the aesthetic of Twin Peaks while trying to subvert the Lynchian heterosexual, white, male gaze. Their efforts toward the latter offer mixed results. In order to critique the violence in which Lynch often puts the female body, the company used a play-within-a-play framing device that added little and mostly served as an uncomfortable book-end to the otherwise fantastic play. More successful was the inclusion of queer sexuality in a scene that felt both very Lynchian and very new. Tapping into the Twin Peaks universe while creating a more experiential theatrical work is a smart move to draw millennial audiences that don’t typically see themselves at the theater.

On a similar mission, On the Rocks presented our ouija board, the games we played, the shit we conjured, & the dead dude, we hate-fucked, with an eye to attract queer millennials. The way they engage this demographic ranged in many tweaks to the theater-going experience: the run I saw had a 10:30 curtain (that didn’t get underway until 10:45), they encouraged patrons to BYOB, they had a donation-based shot and beer bar (which accepted Venmo, naturally), and the audience I was with seemed comfortable to call out commentary while the play was running. This, in addition to a pumped-up pre-show playlist and party lights, made just getting into the theater feel like a nightlife event. Once the play got started, what followed was a well-written horror play about a group of seven friends 10 years after they graduated high school. Ouija board excels by using explicit high school trauma as a metaphor for the wounds we carry in the secret desires and acts during our adolescence. By coming to terms with these secrets, the play seems to say, we will be able to move on from our traumas and ghosts.

The theatrical life of our city has so much creativity and vitality that it need not be contained to one month a year. As some of Philadelphia’s more prominent theaters become more and more institutionalized I hope they will continue to support the younger fringe-based artists and companies gain footing in the artistic life of the city year-round.

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About the author

Joshua Herren

Josh Herren is a writer and third-grade teacher living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Josh has a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated summa cum laude in history (American concentration) and art history, with a minor in gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. His thesis "Furious Acts: AIDS and the Art(s) of Activism, 1985–1993" won the Rose Award for Outstanding Thesis. Josh is passionate about education, theater, and convincing others that Philadelphia is the greatest city on earth.