Deb Miller’s 15 Top Picks for the 2015 Fringe Festival

Since 2013, Phindie has provided the best and most comprehensive coverage of the annual Philadelphia Fringe Festival, with previews of the hottest shows, interviews with leading creators, and reviews of almost every show on offer. (See the 2015 Fringe Festival section of the site for full coverage.) We kick off our coverage with Deb Miller’s annual Top Picks for the non-curated Fringe shows.

With just over 130 listings this year in the Neighborhood Fringe, the number of participating artists and companies has dropped over the past few seasons. But the tried-and-true mainstays, with their proven record of entertaining performances, give us many shows to look forward to in the 2015 Fringe Festival, as do some emerging young talents. The Top Picks for September (excluding the FringeArts Curated programming) include a range of offerings, from theater and dance to music and multi-disciplinary work, from new plays and original ensemble-devised pieces to revivals and reinterpretations of the classics. What they all have in common is that each invokes the power of art to take us to another time, place, or state of mind–to the fringes of our everyday reality. In alphabetical order by artist/company, they are:

Peter Jones and Teddy Fatscher in a rehearsal photo for AMERICAN STANDARD by Brian Sanders’ JUNK (Photo credit: Ted Lieverman)

Peter Jones and Teddy Fatscher in a rehearsal photo for AMERICAN STANDARD by Brian Sanders’ JUNK (Photo credit: Ted Lieverman)

1. Brian Sanders’ JUNK, AMERICAN STANDARD – Philadelphia’s most thrilling, uninhibited, and masterful dance troupe goes on a trip to the country to escape the stress and throngs of urbanism for a more bucolic existence. Will the smell of hay, the sound of bluegrass music, and the feel of a cattle’s coat against a body au natural return Fringe-going city-dwellers to nature and engender an idyllic mood in metropolitan audiences? With a spectacular set that includes half a barn and hay loft, and several tons of hay, JUNK’s inventive narrative, exhilarating choreography, and fearless dancers (including returning favorite William Robinson) are sure to surprise and to delight!  

Promotional image for Found’s CITY OF WOES (Photo credit: Harish Pathak)

Promotional image for Found Theater Company’s CITY OF WOES (Photo credit: Harish Pathak)

2. Found Theater Company, CITY OF WOES – Inspired by the 14th-century Gothic vision of hell described in Dante’s Inferno and evoking the dark and dangerous world of film- noir crime dramas of the 1940s, Found leads us through the descending circles of an underworld populated by lost souls, demons, and fallen angels, on one man’s quest to solve the mystery of each sinful level to find his missing love. With nightmarish imagery, haunting music, and one hell of a young troupe, this ensemble-devised show is guaranteed to transport you to another realm of consciousness and artistry, as Found never fails to do.

Promotional image for Hannah Van Sciver’s FIFTY DAYS AT ILIAM (Photo credit: Hannah Van Sciver)

Promotional image for Hannah Van Sciver’s FIFTY DAYS AT ILIAM (Photo credit: Hannah Van Sciver)

3. Hannah Van Sciver, FIFTY DAYS AT ILIAM – Drawing from ancient Greek history, classical mythology, and art history, this devised work employs text, music, movement, and visual projections to explore the final tragic weeks of the city’s decade-long siege in the Trojan War, first told in Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 BC) and re-envisioned in Cy Twombly’s monumental series of abstract paintings in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1978). Led by Hannah Van Sciver and directed by William Steinberger, the simultaneously intellectual, visceral, and explosive ensemble-piece examines the role of the artist in the retelling of violent narratives and the relationship of the artist’s own biography to the age-old theme.

The cast (Patricia Durante, Robb Hutter, Anna Lou Hearn, and Jenna Kuerzi) of IRC’s EXIT THE KING (Photo credit: Johanna Austin)

The cast (Patricia Durante, Robb Hutter, Anna Lou Hearn, and Jenna Kuerzi) of IRC’s EXIT THE KING (Photo credit: Johanna Austin)

4. Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, EXIT THE KING – Theater of the Absurd numbers among the fringiest genres in the history of theater, and IRC numbers among its most expert practitioners. Following their sold-out FringeArts absurdities of the past two years (Kafka’s The Castle and Ionesco’s Rhinoceros), director Tina Brock and her ridiculously honed team bring another Ionesco classic to this year’s festival. As the 400-year-old megalomaniacal King Berenger preposterously refuses to acknowledge that “the party’s over” despite a crumbling kingdom, shrinking coffers, an aging populace, and his own imminent demise, the play’s meaningful gallows humor reminds us that the sun is waning on all of us and it’s absurd to deny it.

Members of Ombelico Mask Ensemble (Photo credit: Courtesy of the Artists)

Members of Ombelico Mask Ensemble (Photo credit: Courtesy of the Artists)

5. Ombelico Mask Ensemble, LIKE A BAT OUT OF HADES – Some of the most fun-filled family-friendly free offerings of past Fringe Festivals have been Ombelico’s outdoor Commedia dell’Arte performances; this year’s all-new version of Euripides’ “Alcestis,” created and developed in Calabria in partnership with Ombelico Italia, continues that welcome tradition. OME’s interpretation of the ancient Greek tragicomedy—of a wife’s self-sacrifice and Heracles’ battle against Death for her return from the underworld–employs masked actors, puppetry, and music in an engaging and exuberant physical style that will delight all ages. So invite your family and friends, have a picnic, and don’t forget to bring a blanket to sit on and some cash to drop in the voluntary donations bucket, to show your support of this terrific company!

Promotional image for ANDY: A POPERA by Opera Philadelphia and The Bearded Ladies Cabaret (Photo credit: Design by Flying Hands Studio)

Promotional image for ANDY: A POPERA by Opera Philadelphia and The Bearded Ladies Cabaret (Photo credit: Design by Flying Hands Studio)

6. Opera Philadelphia and The Bearded Ladies Cabaret, ANDY: A POPERA – This third and final phase in the collaborative production of a world-premiere Pop opera on Andy Warhol considers the public image and commodification of the Pop Art Superstar, posing the question, “What happens when a man becomes a brand?” Staged in a warehouse that recalls Warhol’s legendary ‘60s studio the Factory, and incorporating extensive research on his art, life, philosophy, and fame, the show’s original score is a mixture of cabaret and opera with contemporary hit music; its colorful design references Andy’s well-known imagery and iconography; and the cast takes on the roles of the artist, his infamous associates, and the familiar subjects of his internationally renowned artworks-come-to-life. Plus they promise it will end in silver. Fabulous!

Promotional image for Pat Finnerty/BRAT Productions’ THE LID (Photo credit: Ali Wadsworth for BRAT Productions)

Promotional image for Pat Finnerty/BRAT Productions’ THE LID (Photo credit: Ali Wadsworth for BRAT Productions)

7. Pat Finnerty/BRAT Productions, THE LID – In-your-face, rock-‘n-roll theater is the hallmark of BRAT, and this year’s collaboration with musician Pat Finnerty promises to be just what the “Fringe” is all about. The story of Lee, a man hoping to escape a life of drudgery, is told through fourteen original songs that mix tunes from the 1960s’ British Invasion with irreverent satirical lyrics and cabaret-style dialogue. Featuring a live band, back-up singers (including head BRAT Jess Conda), and a cast trying to figure out WTF is under the eponymous lid and whether or not it will free Lee from his boredom, the wild and raucous show will have you guessing, laughing, and rocking, in keeping with BRAT’s mission of “changing the way that music is seen and theater is heard.”

Rachel Brodeur in a promotional image for the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective’s THE CAPTIVE (Photo credit: Ashley LaBonde and Wide Eyed Studios)

Rachel Brodeur in a promotional image for the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective’s THE CAPTIVE (Photo credit: Ashley LaBonde and Wide Eyed Studios)

8. Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, THE CAPTIVE – From the highly acclaimed purveyors of rarely produced classics comes a site-specific version of Édouard Bourdet’s restrained tragedy of a young woman from a ‘good family’ who is compelled to lead a life of quiet despair, held captive by societal intolerance and contemporary constraints on same-sex love and marriage. Performed in the historic Physick House in Society Hill and directed by PAC co-founder Dan Hodge, the once controversial play, which faced censorship and the brief imprisonment of its actors and producers during its 1926 run in New York, features a cast of ten, in period-style costumes by Robin Shane.

Kirsten Kunkle is featured in the Philadelphia Opera Collective’s JUMP THE MOON (Photo credit: Design by Brenna Geffers)

Kirsten Kunkle is featured in the Philadelphia Opera Collective’s JUMP THE MOON (Photo credit: Design by Brenna Geffers)

9. Philadelphia Opera Collective, JUMP THE MOON – The POC invites you to “leave your orbit” to experience new, intimate, experimental chamber opera designed to appeal to both steadfast fans and newcomers to the genre. Created by director Brenna Geffers and composer Josh Hartman, JUMP THE MOON is based on the true history of three women at Harvard in the 1890s who made brilliant discoveries in astrophysics (identifying and cataloguing more stars than anyone before or after them), while facing significant challenges because of their gender. With a soaring asymmetrical score and a non-linear expressionist approach to the story, this innovative world-premiere work, like that of the women who inspired it, reaches for the stars.

Promotional image for Sam Tower + Ensemble’s 901 NOWHERE STREET, with Emilie Krause (Photo credit: Lauren Tuvell)

Promotional image for Sam Tower + Ensemble’s 901 NOWHERE STREET, with Emilie Krause (Photo credit: Lauren Tuvell)

10. Sam Tower + Ensemble, 901 NOWHERE STREET – Described as “a collaboratively created neo-noir play,” this contemporary gynocentric version of the traditionally male-dominated crime-detective genre infuses its hardboiled female protagonists with the three-dimensionality generally found lacking in their forerunners. As an aspiring novelist is drawn into the sultry world of a private eye and publisher who struggle to eradicate their secret past, power and greed meet desperation, ‘40s ballads merge with a haunting score of live electric guitar riffs, and a sharp new script is teamed with cinematic imagery, surreal fantasy, and hallucinatory staging.

Promotional image for TALE OF THE PHANTOM SHIP by Temple Theater’s Sidestage Season (Photo credit: Painting by Meredith Collins)

Promotional image for TALE OF THE PHANTOM SHIP by Temple Theater’s Sidestage Season (Photo credit: Painting by Meredith Collins)

11. Temple Theater’s Sidestage Season, TALE OF THE PHANTOM SHIP – Set in a Charlottetown tavern in 1812, this ambitious new musical by Temple University students references the Celtic lore and folk songs of historic maritime Canada, as the cast portrays a group of locals who recount the popular tale of the Ghost Ship of Northumberland Strait to a visiting stranger. The storytellers’ re-enactments of the legendary events of 1774 include singing and dancing, sea shanties and patriotic marches, drinking and brawling, a wistful romance, and the dark secrets of St. John’s Island (present-day Prince Edward Island) stumbled upon by a young fisherman.

Bradley Wrenn and Dawn Falato in a promotional image for The Berserker Residents’ IT’S SO LEARNING (Photo credit: Kate Raines)

Bradley Wrenn and Dawn Falato in a promotional image for The Berserker Residents’ IT’S SO LEARNING (Photo credit: Kate Raines)

12. The Berserker Residents, IT’S SO LEARNING – Go back to school for a highly interactive classroom experience with the most hilarious goofballs ever to have graduated! Justin Jain, Dave Johnson, and Bradley Wrenn (with Dawn Falato, Lee Minora, some help from Sarah Sanford, and direction by Adrienne Mackey) pose the question “Why do we go to school?” in their darkly comic look at the state of education in our country’s floundering system. If you have memories of timed tests, red pens, gold stars, grades, being praised, being bullied, and teachers taking attendance, you’ll love being a part of this berserk ensemble-created take on institutional learning and the“world full of bureaucratic chumps” who do battle with students on a daily basis.

Damon Bonetti as Mercutio in The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s 2008 production of ROMEO AND JULIET (Photo credit: John Bansemer)

Damon Bonetti as Mercutio in The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s 2008 production of ROMEO AND JULIET (Photo credit: John Bansemer)

13. The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, KILL WILL – While dedicated exclusively to The Bard’s canonical oeuvre during its main season, The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre offers newer pieces on the fringe of Shakespeare–based on, inspired by, or re-envisioning his plays–for its FringeArts presentations. KILL WILL, directed by fight choreographer Michael Cosenza, is a comic play-within-a-play pastiche of the most violent and memorable death and combat scenes drawn from more than a dozen of the playwright’s works. Juxtaposing his poetic texts, dangerous swordplay, and interpersonal conflicts with some amusing current banter among the actors, the body count rises as Shakespeare’s many victims of murder, suicide, mutilation, cannibalism, and misogyny meet their fates in exciting, entertaining, and funny new ways for 21st-century viewers.

Ensemble members of Renegade’s DAMNED DIRTY APES! (Photo credit: Daniel Kontz)

Ensemble members of Renegade’s DAMNED DIRTY APES! (Photo credit: Daniel Kontz)

14. The Renegade Company, DAMNED DIRTY APES! – The Fringe Festival dream-team of Chris Davis, Sam Henderson, and Mike Durkin join forces with Jig-Bee (a local flower farm promoting community-supported agriculture) for Renegade’s immersive theatrical experience in South Philly’s FDR Park, where the only rules followed by the eponymous animals and co-existing humans are the laws of the jungle. Referencing such classic sci-fi films as Planet of the Apes, Tarzan the Ape Man, and King Kong, the homo-sapien and simian storytellers will lead you on a wild walking tour of nature and an even wilder exposé of natural instincts, so be advised to wear comfortable shoes, be prepared to get “damned dirty,” and, above all, be careful not to stray from the path!

Terry Brennan appears in Tribe of Fools’ ZOMBIES . . . WITH GUNS (Photo credit: Kate Raines)

Terry Brennan appears in Tribe of Fools’ ZOMBIES . . . WITH GUNS (Photo credit: Kate Raines)

15. Tribe of Fools, ZOMBIES . . . WITH GUNS – After an impressive showing in the finale of truTV’s Fake Off, Tribe of Fools returns to Philadelphia FringeArts with its wacky take on the insanity of gun violence in our country. Set in the scary times of a Zombie Apocalypse, the futuristic vision is part dance party, part circus acrobatics, part “Zombat” (Zombie combat), and total craziness, while addressing a relevant social issue with ToF’s signature originality and humor. When is the use of guns justified, and what is the real root of the problem—guns, people, or the titular zombies with guns?

The 2015 Philadelphia Fringe Festival runs September 3-19, 2015, at locations around the city. Tickets and info at fringearts.com.

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About the author

Debra Miller

Debra holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware and teaches at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ. She is a judge for the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice, and has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and President of the Board of Directors of Da Vinci Art Alliance. Her publications include articles, books, and catalogues on Renaissance, Baroque, American, Pre-Columbian, and Contemporary Art, and feature articles on the Philadelphia theater scene.