San Francisco Fringe Festival 2003
SF Chronicle September 6, 2003 (Robert Hurwitt)
Home / Now
Playing & Coming Soon / Back to Media List
/ To email us
- Take a chance. Take a pass. Bring a throw pillow. Advice and opinions
abound at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, where everyone's a critic
and just about anything goes.
- Follow the buzz. The first rule of fringe festivals is the hardest
one for a critic to observe. No, not because we think we know better than
anybody else (not always, anyway). It's just that there's usually very
little buzz to follow by the time most critics attend.
- Still, two of the three San Francisco Fringe Festival shows I saw Thursday
- - all on their festival opening nights -- had generated enough word of
mouth already to make me very glad I'd listened in one case and genuinely
rueful that I hadn't in the other. Fringe rule No. 987: You just have to
quash that fear that somebody in another theater is having a much better
- Now in its 12th year, the second-oldest fringe festival in the United
States (after Seattle's) is an unjuried affair -- following in the tradition
of the oldest and largest of the lot: the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, born
when eight companies showed up uninvited at the first Edinburgh International
Festival in 1947. The 54 companies at this year's fest -- from locales
as far- flung as Melbourne, Australia; Sedona, Ariz.; Vancouver, British
Columbia; San Diego; New York; Folkestone, England; Juneau, Alaska; and
Berkeley -- gained entry on a first-come basis.
- That means that even Exit Theatre directors Christina Augello and Richard
Livingston -- founders and executive producers of the Fringe -- have little
more idea than I of what's going to be hot this year when we trade tips
in the theater hallway Thursday. This is the second night of the festival,
and audiences are always sparse the first two weekday nights. Buzz hasn't
reached the faint-hum level yet. Even the very helpful Fringe Festival
Web site has only a smattering of audience reviews so far.
- Fringe Rule No. 69: Check out those audience reviews. They're often
as refreshingly brutal as enthusiastic ("ridiculing the all-too-commonly
ridiculed," "There are good parts in the scripts, and there is
some good acting talent, but the good parts of both never quite seem to
match up"). They provide useful advice ("Bring a throw pillow").
And you'll find observations you won't read in most newspapers ("Wish
she could explain the unexplainable: Why does any woman now stay a Mormon?").
- Fringe Rule No. 70: Beware the audience reviews, or at least apply
a few grains of salt. Some are written by friends, family or members of
the company. One upbeat review I read Thursday was for a show that wouldn't
open until Friday.
- I like the Fringe. The potluck format appeals to my sense of theatrical
adventure, and most of my annual visits have yielded one or two truly exciting
experiences. This year, with only one night to sample the wares, I decided
to stick to Fringe Central -- the Exit on Eddy Street, where I could catch
the maximum possible three of the 18 shows on tap that night. A visit to
one of the outlying venues would have cut my options to two.
- The Exit Cafe and the crowded central hallway leading to the two theaters
is the best place to pick up audience buzz (Fringe Rule No. 189: Watch
out for actors dashing down the hallway with armloads of costumes or parts
of the set between shows). Thursday, though, audience members are outnumbered
by performers -- some in costume, some in clown noses -- promoting their
shows. Talk of shows seen is minimal compared to performance evaluations
of the evening's minor earthquake.
- I'd already made my choices, based on the usual onslaught of press
- tips from festival publicists and staff members, some past experience
and a certain amount of gut feeling. All of which served me pretty well
for the first, a 7 p.m. show at the Exit, J.B. Enterprises' "Crime
and Variations," a sly, funny and curiously, creatively twisted tale
of Stephen Sondheim facing a creative crisis over his newest musical.
- This one had looked promising for several reasons besides its subject.
Playwright Joe Besecker has a long, productive local track record, including
some plays ("Tennessee in the Summer," most notably) that have
been widely produced. Director and designer John Sowle has an equally impressive
performance history, particularly with his Kaliyuga Arts partner Steven
Patterson, who plays Sondheim.
- "Crime" pays. True, the script is a little repetitive and
at times self- indulgently catty, and the acting is uneven. But Besecker
invents a funny situation -- Sondheim sulking on his 45th floor Manhattan
patio (a playfully attractive set by Sowle) after a disastrous backers'
audition for his new musical about Alex King, who killed his father with
a baseball bat before trying to hide the evidence by burning the house
down. Then Besecker turns it on its head with some very clever twists.
- It is, as advertised, "a classic bitch-fest" among Patterson's
depressed, caustic and lecherous Sondheim; a wily, animal-sexy Alex (Kevin
Malfatti, a bit overmatched by the part); his wealthy, older wife (Carolyn
Doyle); and a bitter, ambitious, sexually ravenous Daisy (daughter of Hal)
Prince (a sharp, dynamic Jennifer Taggert). But it's also something more.
Beyond the theater in- jokes and cunning lampoons of Sondheim songs, "Crime"
works some creative twists on the writing process -- and the author as
subject -- itself.
- "Clearing Hedges," my second show, was chosen less for its
subject (Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the dominant female track and golf athlete
of the '30s through the '50s) than its provenance. Chicago writer-performer
Jennifer Barclay had developed it in a workshop with Mary Zimmerman, creator
of the magical "Metamorphoses" (and the forthcoming "The
Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci" at Berkeley Rep).
- As staged by Jay Paul Skelton, "Hedges" shows little debt
to Zimmerman, but it's a direct, compact, engaging and deftly performed
solo. Barclay, an athlete as well as a busy Chicago actor (she had to take
a two-week leave from another show for the Fringe), builds her portrait
from several points of view - - Babe's, her wrestler-manager husband's,
her sister's, her possible lesbian lover's -- quickly shifting characters
and their ages with a good use of accents, tone and body language.
- Back in the cafe between shows (beer, wine, other beverages and such
offerings as taquitos, pizza and quiche), there's just a bit of buzz about
my last choice -- Richard Kenji Shields' new musical "Neon's Crazy
Blue" -- and it's negative. I should have listened. An ill-fated romance
with a Noh-theater- style demon, it's ineptly written, flatly staged (by
Michael Carlisi) and indifferently performed -- by a cast that, in fairness,
looks marooned by the material. Ah well. Fringe Rule No. 10: Unlike the
lottery, the more chances you take, the more likely you'll come up with
- Home / Now Playing & Coming Soon / Back to Media List / To