Excitement builds for the 2014 Philadelphia Fringe Festival, running September 5-21, 2014, at sites across the city. Last year, Phindie provided more coverage of the festival than any publication in the world (granted, there wasn’t too much competition outside the Delaware Valley). This year will see more reviews, more interviews, more previews, and more Fringe-befitting coverage of the area’s premier live arts festival. Coverage begins with 15 picks from star Phindie writer Deb Miller, a longtime reviewer who sees more shows in the city than just about anyone and knows what she’s talking about.
Along with original devised works by emerging talents and highly anticipated shows by established artists and companies, this year’s Fringe Festival theater offerings feature a slew of innovative takes on the classics. From William Shakespeare to Mary Shelley, the timeless appeal of their universal themes proves once again that classics are classic for a reason, as they continue to resonate throughout the centuries and to engender fresh interpretations for new fringe audiences.
Arranged in alphabetical order by artist, my top “Neighborhood Fringe” picks in the category of Theater are:
1. 1812 Productions, INTIMATE EXCHANGES: Jennifer Childs and Tony Lawton star in the all-comedy company’s staging of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s inventive two-hander, which considers the importance that each decision we make has on our lives. The ambitious multi-ended domestic rom-com begins with a single scene but has eight possible conclusions, with the audience choosing which direction the characters should take. You can see this show many times, and never see the same show twice.
2. Aaron Cromie and Mary Tuomanen, THE BODY LAUTREC: Partners Cromie and Tuomanen create a work of physical theater inspired by the life and oeuvre of Post-Impressionist artist, dwarf, and aristocrat Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who captured the louche Parisian nightlife of Montmartre in his paintings and prints, only to die at the age of 36 from complications due to alcoholism and syphilis. Expect a combination of acting with puppetry, French with English, and art with medicine, and expect it to be très brillant.
3. Bri Shaw/Brian Clores/Brey Barrett/Haygen Walker, NIGHTMARES IN NEVERLAND: Based on J.M. Barrie’s popular children’s character Peter Pan, the inherently foreboding cloud that lurks over the boy who wouldn’t grow up is explored by a group of promising young theater artists (writers Brian Clores and Haygen Walker; directors Bri Shaw and Brey Barrett; and a cast that includes Jenna Kuerzi) in two original one-act plays. Employing progressive fragmented storytelling, they examine the disquieting loss of childhood and innocence that we must all face, despite the juvenile archetype’s futile attempt to escape the inescapable.
4. Chris Davis, ANNA K: Just back from the Edinburgh Fringe with his solo hit Drunk Lion, Philadelphia festival mainstay Chris Davis presents a condensed current adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in his own unique style. With a killer cast (Sam Henderson as Levin, David Sweeney as Oblonsky/Alexei, Jenna Horton as Kitty/Dolly, Chris Davis as Vronsky, and the irresistible Ama Bollinger as Anna), this updated version of the Russian epic, set in a South Philly row house in 2014, is guaranteed to be hilarious, absurd, and deeply provocative.
5. Found Theater Company, DEEP BLUE SLEEP:: Following last year’s FringeArts blast into outer space with the transportive This Is the Twilight Kingdom, Found’s creative collective takes a plunge into the ocean for a dreamy marine adventure in this year’s festival. Exploring the nautical world of pirates and sailboats, and the underwater realm of sea creatures, sirens, and lost cities, the ensemble-devised piece will enchant you with maritime lullabies and seafaring tales.
6. Hannah Van Sciver, MARBLES: Grab a free cup of coffee as you get connected with a pair of digital-age daters in this unconventional romance staged in the basement of a neighborhood coffee shop. Rising stars Sam Sherburne and Hannah Van Sciver (who wrote the piece) illustrate the overlap of technology, love, and anxiety as their characters come to realize that true connection means caring for one another, not just texting each other.
7. Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, Eugène Ionesco’s RHINOCEROS: Under the direction of Tina Brock, IRC’s stable of expert absurdists (including Ethan Lipkin, David Stanger, Bob Schmidt, Kirsten Quinn, Susan Giddings, Sonja Robson, Jerry Rudasill, Michael Dura, and Tomas Dura) tackles Eugène Ionesco’s illogically logical parable of mindless conformity and one man’s responsibility in a purposeless society’s metamorphosis from human apathy to bestial savagery. Master designer Erica Hoelscher provides appropriately ridiculopathic costumes and set.
8. John Schultz, TILL BURNAM WOOD: Performed before a blindfolded audience, director John Schultz’s dark and sensory approach to Macbeth focuses on the power and eloquence of Shakespeare’s words, free from all visual distractions. The result will be a spine-tingling experience that compels attendees to envision in their own mind’s eye both the supernatural elements and the all-too-real horrors of the Bard’s bloody hair-raising tragedy.
9. Ombelico Mask Ensemble, FLIM FLAM PHANTOM SHAM: Performed outdoors in a neighborhood park, audiences are invited to bring a blanket, a picnic, and the whole family—even the dog–to this free all-ages show. Masked performers mix one part Commedia dell’Arte with one part spirited romantic spectacle for a joyful madcap concoction that takes the action (and the voluntary donations bucket) right into the crowd, so be prepared (and be as generous as you can). Remember: There is no fourth wall in the open air.
10. Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, THE RAPE OF LUCRECE: Adapted and performed by award-winning actor and PAC co-founder Dan Hodge, this solo interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragic poem retells the ancient Roman story of 509 BC, recounted by both Ovid and Livy. The violent narrative of uncontrolled lust, sexual violation, and suicide at the court of Tarquin, King of Rome–which led to a revolt against the leaders and the foundation of the Roman Republic—should prove to be the perfect vehicle to highlight Hodge’s considerable dramatic talents.
11. Philadelphia Opera Collective, BY YOU THAT MADE ME FRANKENSTEIN: The parlor of the historic Franklin Inn Club (Philadelphia’s oldest private writers’ club) is the setting for the POC’s new site-specific world-premiere chamber opera. With music by Reese Revak and Josh Hartman, a libretto by Brenna Geffers, and featured performances by Kirsten C. Kunkle (Dr. Frankenstein) and Michael A. Lienhard (the Monster), the collaborators that delivered last year’s Poe-inspired Opera Macabre should have another Fringe hit on their hands with this intimate musical foray into the operatic lives of Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and their libertine circle of Romantic authors in the summer of 1816. You don’t have to be a traditional opera buff to find the POC’s work fully accessible and thoroughly engaging.
12. Revolution Shakespeare and Hear Again Radio Project, KILL SHAKESPEARE: LIVE GRAPHIC NOVEL: This dark cartoon tale pits Shakespeare’s most famous heroes against his most reviled villains, on their quest to discover a reclusive wizard (named William Shakespeare) to assist in their battle against the forces of evil.A co-production by Philadelphia’s newest theater company dedicated to the works of the Bard and the city’s foremost purveyor of vintage radio entertainment, the collaborative performance of the hit comic-book series includes live Foley sound effects, colorful visual projections, and adventures of Shakespearean proportions; presumably there will also be some tongue-in-cheek action-hero histrionics.
13. The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, iHAMLET: With its focus on character rather than action, South African playwright Robin Malan’s adaptation of Hamlet provides insight into the mind and motivation of Shakespeare’s tragic Dane. Directed by David O’Connor, one solo actor speaks the words of the lone central character, laying bare his thoughts and himself, and exposing the imbalance within him. The monologue/soliloquy performance will be intense and revealing, and freshly appealing to those of the iPhone/iPad/iPod generation who regularly post their innermost feelings for all to see on the social media, as well as to everyone who revels in Shakespeare’s language, psychology, and universal emotions.
14. The Renegade Company, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME . . . A MUTE PLAY: Paying homage to the 1923 silent film starring Lon Chaney, this wordless deconstruction of Victor Hugo’s Romantic novel, conceived and directed by founding artistic director Michael Durkin, examines what it means to be a monster through the perspective of the deformed fictional bell-ringer of the lofty Gothic cathedral. Staged in the sanctuary of an actual church, the movement-based performance incorporates stained-glass puppetry by Le Puppet Regime, original compositions by Joo Won Park, and Foley sound and percussion by Adam Vidiksis.
15. Tribe of Fools, TWO STREET–A TALE OF STAR CROSSED MUMMERS: The company that brought the smash hits Heavy Metal Dance Fag and Antihero to the Fringe returns with its zany brand of socially relevant humor and dynamic physicality, in a fast and funny romantic comedy with a distinctly South Philly flavor. Two gay Mummers from competing Fancy Brigades meet and fall in love with falling in love, then have to deal with all the unrealistic expectations and gender roles that come with relationships.
FringeArts’ 2014 Philadelphia Fringe Festival runs September 5-21, 2014; fringearts.com.