Deb Miller’s Top Picks for the 2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival

Multidisciplinary work and collaborative partnerships are a hallmark of this year’s Philadelphia Fringe Festival and Curated Fringe, spanning seventeen days in September. From international co-productions of opera and commedia dell’arte to site-specific works informed by the venues in which they are performed, from creating bridges between theater, art, and dance to telling stories through a synthesis of movement, music, and video, Fringe artists are blurring the boundaries between the genres to create innovative pieces with crossover appeal. Many of the shows and performers are breaking through the fourth wall of traditional staging, as well, with immersive environments, audience interaction, or a choose-your-own-adventure format for a more personalized theatrical experience.

Also among this year’s intriguing offerings are new examinations of historical events and re-imaginings of classics from the cinema, theater, and literature, seen with a post-modern eye, but demonstrating the enduring popularity of the originals and their relevance across time. And some annual Fringe favorites are presenting updated remounts of past hits, so if you didn’t catch Greg Kennedy’s SPHERUS, Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium’s production of EUGÈNE IONESCO’STHE CHAIRS, or Tribe of Fools’ ANTIHERO before, be sure to see them this time around!

1. Almanac_Exile2588_MarkWongBenGrinbergNicoleBurgioLaurenJohnsNickGillette_PhtoKateRaines
Photo credit: Plate 3 Photography

Almanac Dance Circus Theatre and Chickabiddy, EXILE 2588 – A 70-minute world-premiere mash-up of contemporary acrobatics, circus arts, break dancing, folk music, and space epic, Almanac’s adaptation of the ancient Greek myth of Io–featuring company co-founders Nick Gillette and Ben Grinberg, and an original live song cycle by Chickabiddy (the multi-talented Aaron Cromie and Emily Schuman)–is set 500 years in the future. Inspired by science fiction, the movement of transhumanism, and the work of Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom on the ethics of artificial human enhancements, this collaborative blend of physical and musical storytelling (and Almanac’s most ambitious work to date) will pose questions about the amount of control we have over our bodies and our own mortality.      

2. Birds on a Wire, IN THE CLEARING promo image with CrystalNicole, Plate 3 Photog
Photo credit: Plate 3 Photography

Birds on a Wire, IN THE CLEARING – You are invited to bring a blanket and a picnic for your nocturnal journey into the woods, through trees and trails, patches of light in the darkness, and encounters with spirits and shadows. Directed and choreographed by Melissa Cameron (artistic director of the emerging company), this dance/theater performance unfolds in a clearing in the forest, recreated inside the expansive space of Christ Church Neighborhood House by scenic designer Kevin Jordan. It’s not just in front of you, but all around you, as you explore the best and worst of yourself through the expressive movements and physical narration of this talented young troupe.

3. BSJUNK, Carried Away, with text, pto SBelkowtiz
Photo credit: Steve Belkowitz

Brian Sanders’ JUNK, CARRIED AWAY – Using the homo-erotic art of Robert Mapplethorpe and Tom of Finland as a backdrop, and the resonant pop music of his youth as a soundtrack, ever-daring choreographer Brian Sanders and his dauntless dancers create a semi-autobiographical reflection on intimate encounters through disco and punk, denim and leather, “shame under pride,” and living life with HIV over the past 30 years. Featuring seductive and spellbinding performances by troupe members TeddyFatscher, Julia Higdon, Billy Robinson, Tommy Schimmel, and Kelly Trevlyn, expect this very personal piece to be revealing, provocative, exquisitely beautiful, and profoundly moving, as JUNK never fails to be.

4. Chris Davis, Apocalypse Now, pto Maria Shaplin (1)
Photo credit: Maria Shaplin

Chris Davis, ONE-MAN APOCALYPSE NOWTheuniquely savvy Fringe superstar Chris Davis returns to the festival this year with his original interpretation of the iconic 1979 film Apocalypse Now. The dark and funny 60-minute adaptation of Francis Ford Coppola’s nightmarish vision of the Vietnam War takes place in an urban industrial warehouse, with Davis assuming all of the roles. If you loved Anna K–his witty 2014 FringeArts version of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina–you won’t want to miss this.

5. Iron Age, RUNAWAY, design by John Doyle
Photo credit: Design by John Doyle

Iron Age Theatre, A RUNAWAY, A SOLDIER, AND A SNOWBALL FIGHT – In this creative look at the events leading up to the Boston Massacre in 1770, runaway slave Crispus Attucks—the first casualty of the American Revolution and an icon of the abolitionist movement—engages with bumbling British soldier/barkeep Sam Adams. Combining dramatic tension with comic surreality, the world-premiere two-hander, directed by Iron Age’s John Doyle and written by Leah Lawler during an eighteen-month PDC residency with the company, casts a socially-conscious critical eye on the historical glorification and justification of unjust murder.

6. Jace Clayton ROOM21, pto Max Lakner (1)
Photo credit: Max Lakner

Jace Clayton, ROOM 21 – Curated by Lee Tusman in collaboration with Ars Nova Workshop, Jace Clayton, aka DJ/rupture, creates a musical response to the art installed in the titular gallery of the Barnes Foundation, and to the extensive record collection of its founder, for a live one-night Curated Fringe performance on site. Considering ideas of adjacency, the New York-based composer and an ensemble of more than a dozen musicians capture the “overall rhythms and unexpected resonances” in the eclectic assemblage of pieces from different artists and cultures. Guests are encouraged to roam around through the choreographed performance, just as they would typically do through a museum space.

7. NCDC, Geoff Sobelle, NCanuso, pto Lars Jan
Photo credit: Lars Jan

Nichole Canuso Dance Company and Lars Jan, PANDÆMONIUM – This Curated Fringe collaboration between choreographer/dancer Nichole Canuso and director Lars Jan, with live music by Xander Duell, merges the media of modern dance, rock music, theater, and live-feed cinema to explore separation and connection in our digitally-advanced world. Inspired by the emptiness of the California desert, abandoned properties, and mannequins, performers Canuso and fellow Fringe veteran Geoff Sobelle are physically apart, but come together in the virtual space of post-modern technology, within a scenic design that provides an immersive experience for the audience.

8. Ombelico Mask Ensemble, pto BCanino
Photo credit: Beatrice Canino

Ombelico Mask Ensemble, OMELETTO: LIKE HAMLET, ONLY SCRAMBLED – You don’t have to be a linguist to join in the fun of Ombelico’s new madcap commedia dell’arte deconstruction of Shakespeare’s classic, performed in English, Italian, and French by the intercontinental troupe, and accompanied on cello by Rachel Icenogle. All the stock characters from the 16th-century itinerant genre will be there–Arlecchino, Pantelone, Capitano, and the restand so should you, to enjoy this annual al fresco delight. In keeping with tradition, the show employs costumes, masks, and puppets, the performers encourage impromptu audience interaction, and you are welcome to pay what you will as the cast and crew pass the bucket for donations.   

9. On the Rocks, BIRDIE promo
Photo credit: Courtesy of On the Rocks

On the Rocks, BIRDIE’S PIT STOP & THE QUEERS WHO F’D EVERYTHING UP – The second installment in “The Dead Teenager Trilogy” by emerging playwright Haygen Brice Walker, this send-up of the horror genre, featuring Philly rising stars Jenna Kuerzi and Campbell O’Hare, follows last year’s slasher-themed Fringe hit Spookfish. The eponymous dive bar in the worst part of a bad town provides the site for an over-the-top take-off on demonic possession, human sacrifice, and gun violence. When a tribe of queers en route to a drag show arrive on the scene from up north, a wild night ensues and “all hell breaks loose.” Literally. Oh, and somehow JLo factors into the infernal mix!

10. Opera Phila & Third World Bunfight,MACBETH, Owen Metsileng as Macbeth and Nobulumko Mngxekeza as Lady Macbeth - photo by Nicky Newman
Photo credit: Nicky Newman

Opera Philadelphia and Third World Bunfight, MACBETH – A two-night stop on Third World Bunfight’s American-premiere tour, South African director Brett Bailey’s radical adaptation of Giuseppe Verdi’s operatic version of Shakespeare’s MACBETH is presented as part of the Curated Fringe and Opera Philadelphia’s 2016-17 “Opera in the City” season production. Set in the provinces of the post-colonial Democratic Republic of the Congo, and performed in Italian with English supertitles, this updated and relocated tale of blind ambition and greed, rampant corruption and brutality, proves once again that Shakespeare’s themes are truly universal and that classics are classic for a reason.  

11. POC & PL, SHADOW HOUSE MLienhard, KGrasser, ACrosby, phto RA Friedman
Photo credit: RA Friedman

Philadelphia Opera Collective and PhilaLandmarks, SHADOW HOUSE – An original site-specific work by artist-in-residence/creator/director Brenna Geffers traces episodes from the history of Society Hill’s 250-year-old Powel House (constructed in 1765) in a world-premiere synthesis of opera and theater. Follow the stories of eleven real-life people portrayed by a cast of actors and singers (including POC founder Michael Lienhard) throughout the rooms and garden in a CYOA experience, where the characters’ mysteries interlock across the centuries in the common space they inhabited at different times.  

12. Rev Shakes, KING JOHN promo image, design Daniel Kontz
Photo credit: Design by Daniel Kontz

Revolution Shakespeare, KING JOHN – With parallels to the politics of our own time, a futuristic vision of Shakespeare’s infrequently seen history play about England’s Middle Ages is re-set after the fall of civilization, during a violent power struggle for total domination by a corrupt ruling class. Directed by Dan Kern in South Philadelphia’s Hawthorne Park, the open-air show features a top-notch design team, trip-hop music by Christopher Colucci, actors Kevin Bergen, Jared Michael Delaney, and Cathy Simpson as the royals, and a large ensemble cast with some of the city’s finest young talents. The show raises the timeless question of where you would stand in the face of war, murder, and intrigue.

13. Tavern Productions and PAFA, SWITCHED promo image
Photo credit: Switched! Archives

Tavern Productions and PAFA Performs, GILBERT AND SULLIVAN’S SWITCHED! OR THE INSIDER AND THE OUTSIDER – Social order goes topsy-turvy when the rich VP of a Philadelphia brokerage firm switches places with a poor street urchin. Making its debut at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and set in The Union League of Philadelphia, this Philly-centric rock-operetta by Kevin Stackhouse is a take-off on Mark Twain’s famous story of The Prince and The Pauper with a contemporary spin. Sung to a score of favorites from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore, it considers their themes of loyalty and duty, along with “duty to one’s self.”

14. The Berserker Residents, Lee Minora, Bradley Wrenn
Photo credit: Plate 3 Photography

The Berserker Residents, I FUCKING DARE YOU – Founded by three of the funniest guys in Philadelphia, the Berserkers have been perennial Fringe favorites, both here and elsewhere, since premiering with The Jersey Devilin the 2007 festival. This year’s entry is a double-header of two separate bouffon-style pieces, featuring original Resident Bradley Wrenn as a lunatic prince who drags us into his dark dank dungeon, and Lee Minora, who appeared in last year’s It’s So Learning, joining him as a resident shut-in of her decaying English manor house. The company’s signature style of alternative comedy is always hilarious, ridiculous, and—you guessed it–berserk!

Photo credit: Ryan McMenamin

The WaitStaff, MAKING THE FRINGE GREAT AGAIN!You never know what you’ll get when the wacky comics of The WaitStaff take to the cabaret stage, but they’re guaranteed to make you laugh—and not only because of the cocktails that are available for purchase before and during the show! The title for this year’s assortment of sketches and stand-up routines references the campaign promise of a certain Republican presidential candidate, so expect a unique perspective on the election and a liberal dose of political lampooning from Eric Singel and his hilarious cohorts in comedy.

[Performed at venues throughout Philadelphia] September 9-24, 2016;

[Tickets for the independent Fringe shows go on sale August 1, 2016; tickets for the Curated Fringe are available now.]

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