SF Fringe Festival 2004
review by Robert Hurwitt, SF Chronicle September 14, 2004
- Lecture rap, ice skating and other pleasant surprises at Fringe
- Ice-skating at the San Francisco Fringe Festival? Well, yes -- of a
sort. Nor is that the biggest surprise in the 13th annual Fringe Festival.
Some of the highlights in the seven shows I saw Sunday at the Fringe included
a panel discussion, a live silent movie and an academic dissertation inaugurating
the new genre of lecture rap.
- Expecting the unexpected is basic to fringing in this town. S.F. Fringe
founders Christina Augello and Richard Livingston adhere to the non-juried
principle of international fringing, allotting space by luck of the draw
to the 44 companies (the 45th, from Florida, had to withdraw at the last
minute) in 10 venues this year. Nobody, Augello and Livingston included,
knows quite what to expect until the shows open.
- Experienced fringers check the audience reviews on the festival's Web
site and pay attention to the buzz in the cafe and hallway at the Exit
Theatre -- Fringe Central -- as performers tote sets and costumes in or
out between the crowds lined up for the next shows. In a potluck smorgasbord
such as this, some dishes will almost always be less well prepared than
others. This year, though, my day on the Fringe consisted of one pleasant
surprise after another.
- It was a day dominated by hourlong solo
shows, only two of which turned out to be autobiographical. Ed Holmes'
"Subhuman: True Tales From Beneath the Sea," at Exit Stage
Left, is the most traditional such show, despite his clever use of submarine
videos and toy ships. It's the story of his years on submarines in the
U.S. Navy -- told with the wry, irreverent humor one expects from this
mainstay of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and founder of the annual April
1 St. Stupid's Day Parade.
- It's a piece that doesn't seem finished yet, but Holmes has a fascinating
tale to tell, full of curious and unsavory details of Navy life. And any
hour with this master comic is bound to be time well spent (final showing
- Joani Rose's "Under the Counter
Culture," at the Exit's main stage, is a less traditional autobiographical
monologue. For one thing, it's a cabaret. For another, Rose is working
with accompaniment from superb country fiddler Jessie Modic and guitarist
Jeanne York. The life story is interspersed between Rose's eight original
and beguiling songs.
- Songs and narrative tell the story of how a Midwestern Catholic girl
ended up a Humboldt County hippie communitarian, single mom and sometime
pot farmer. Rose is an engaging narrator, sweet singer and gently satiric
songwriter. She's delightful on aspects of aging ("Menopause,"
"Cholesterol"), and particularly acute on the gaps between good
intentions and reality ("The Tea Bag Song," "Our Sons").
- More offbeat is "The Rap Canterbury
Tales" from Vancouver at Exit on Taylor. Created and performed
by tall, boyish Baba Brinkman, it is -- as its title promises -- three
tales and some of the prologue from Chaucer's 14th century masterpiece,
retold in rap. The stories are great -- including the graphically bawdy
"Miller's Tale" and the buoyantly feminist "Wife of Bath's
Tale" -- and Brinkman tells them pretty well. Where he excels, though,
is in his "lecture rap" on thousands of years of oral poetry,
and an invigorating encore that combines hip-hop with ancient Anglo Saxon
- Sabrina Stevenson's "Flower Murderer,"
at the same venue, is another collection of tales -- 14 vignettes, each
as sharply performed as it is crisply written. Some are character studies:
A lovely pretentious poet, a woman obsessed to the point of stalking, a
hilarious response to a bothersome roommate. Most are concerned with male-female
relationships, from comic looks at men who can't deal with female sexuality
to tough depictions of spousal and child abuse. Stevenson, lead singer-songwriter
with the Los Angeles art punk band Third Grade Teacher, is a mesmerizing
performer, nicely showcased by director Karen Aschenbach.
- Diana Galligan of Toronto is another captivating
actor-writer, though her show -- "Viva Vivi!" (Silent
Pepper Productions) at Stage Left -- is more of a silent movie. Which is
appropriate, since it's the story of a silent film star's career falling
apart with the advent of talkies. Staged in sharp, quick scenes by Victoria
Goring, and performed -- mostly in silence -- with broad early-cinema gestures
and Galligan's irresistibly expressive eyes, it's poignant, comic and engaging.
- Far less straightforward, and the most exciting
of the shows I saw, is "The Young War" at the Exit by
Jason Craig of the ever-intriguing Banana, Bag and Bodice. Staged as a
panel discussion on sex, courtship and relationships - - performed with
magnetic understatement by panelists Craig, Jessica Jelliffe, Rod Hipskind
and Heather Peroni, interrupted by a charismatic Peter Blomquist -- it's
a multifaceted, fragmented, evocative piece that manages to be funny, edgy,
affecting and oddly sexy as well.
- Oh yes, and the ice skating. That's the
climax of "Come Fly With Me Nude, " written and brightly
performed by actor-dancers Diane Karagienakos and Todd Pickering (Dombella
Productions) at Stage Left. The story of performance poets who become unlikely
superstars, it's a show that gets funnier as it goes along. No, there's
no nudity -- or ice, for that matter. But that skating scene has to be
seen to be believed.
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