From antiquity to the present, tragedy and drama to absurdism and comedy, masterpieces by classic playwrights to experimental ensemble-devised works by local artists, the 2017 Philadelphia Fringe Festival runs the gamut over the span of eighteen days, from September 7-24, with 158 offerings throughout the city (plus another twelve shows in the Curated Fringe, and seventeen more in the Digital Fringe). By casting an eye on stories from all periods of history and into the future, participating artists not only entertain and affect us, but also remind us of the importance of art in illuminating the recurrent fundamental issues in human nature and aggregate society, while underscoring George Santayana’s truism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
My top picks for this year’s Fringe will make us look at ourselves, laugh at ourselves, and maybe even learn to be our better selves. Arranged in alphabetical order by company (and excluding works listed in the Digital and Curated Fringe categories), they are:
Die-Cast, Pericles – A brand-new company founded by Director Brenna Geffers and Designer Thom Weaver, Die-Cast makes its debut in the 2017 Fringe with an inventive interpretation of the seldom-staged Shakespearean classic Pericles. The immersive ensemble-based production, employing original song, movement, and poetry presented by a team of favorite collaborators (Keith Conallen, Hannah Van Sciver, Chris Anthony, Colleen Corcoran, Carlo Campbell, Kayla Anthony, Shamus McCarty, Anthony Crosby, and Andrew Carroll), invites audiences to choose their own path in exploring the narrative. Staged within the crumbling walls of The Rotunda, the piece is sure to evoke the dark mood of the ancient story, filled with incest and riddles, assassins and brothels, fire and storms. Expect an epic struggle between good and evil, fortune and fate, painful separation and joyful reunion, and a re-envisioning of the protagonists’ traditional gender roles and sexuality, all told with expressive emotion and physicality. September 7-9, at The Rotunda – 4014 Walnut Street.
Found Theater Company, Game Show Show – After its sorely-missed absence from last year’s Festival, the always hypnotic and incisive Found returns with an absurdist dream-like meditation on our societal standards of success, failure, winning, and losing that combines original text, music, and physical scores. Set in the colorful pop-culture world of a TV quiz show, contestants compete for prizes, bonus rounds, and their notion of the American Dream (between commercial breaks, of course!), until the surreal game spins out of control, revealing the intentions of the players and viewers, and the lengths to which people will go to get what they want. Under the direction of Co-Founding Company Member Alison Mae Hoban, Found veterans Joe Wozniak, Adrienne Hertler, Joe Palinsky, and Matt Lorenz (who also serves as Assistant Director) are joined by the newly-Found Kristy Joe Slough and Ciara Collins (a current theater student at Temple University, where the company began), in this critical examination of human nature. September 6-10, at The MAAS Building – 1325 North Randolph Street.
Heart of a Lion Productions, As the Matzo Ball Turns – The Musical – Based on the 2012 autobiographical book by Jozef Rothstein, the aspiring actor-turned-waiter-turned-author recounts his humorous, heartbreaking, and humbling experiences in Hollywood after leaving small-town Pennsylvania in search of stardom. What he found instead was a “ten-year sentence as a waiter in a Jewish deli” frequented by celebrities (he names names!), along with the occasional hit man, drive-by shooting, and unfulfilling work in commercials, while waiting for his big break. This insider’s look at the dark side of the entertainment industry and the restaurant business should have all the melodrama of a TV soap opera set to music, and the wit of a satirist using laughter to preserve his sanity, to overcome the disappointment of his shattered dreams, and to turn lemons into lemonade with a well-received publication and a hoped for success in the theater, if not on the Silver Screen. September 7-10, at the Independence Seaport Museum – 211 South Columbus Boulevard.
JUNK, . . . strand . . . – World-class dancer/choreographer Brian Sanders and his ever-amazing troupe take Fringe audiences on an immersive 50-minute site-specific self-guided adventure through the wild paths of Forgotten Bottom (the DuPont Crescent Trail – a little-known urban strand along the banks of the Schuylkill River). Participants select from four levels of experiences, each with a different starting point and pricing: the bare-bones elemental “Rugged Primal” walk; the apocalyptic “Nuclear Romance” on a limited number of scooters; the merry “Medieval Revelry” led by courtly minstrels who provide pickings of food and drink; and the “Future Fancy Ultimate Tour” with seated meal service and fermented ichor (“blood of the gods”) on the lawn. All of the eras and audiences intersect on the Crescent at sunset, culminating in an acrobatic-dance-theater performance by the intrepid Billy Robinson, Teddy Fatscher, Chelsea Prunty, Julia Higdon, Kelly Trevlyn, Regan Jackson, Frank Leone, and Brandon Pereira, exploring the malleability of time and the surreality of history. So don your field gear, plug in your headsets to hear a unique soundscape, or rent a surrey-for-two (at an extra cost) for an expansive ride around the grounds. Happy trails! September 7- 23, at DuPont Crescent Trail – Grays Ferry Crescent Trail Park.
On the Rocks, The Groom’s a Fag; The Bride’s a Cunt; The Best Man’s a Whore; and the Maiden of Honor (Just) Hung Herself in the Closet – In the final installment of On the Rocks’ sharp-witted and critically-acclaimed Fringe series “The Dead Teenager Trilogy,” playwright Haygen Brice Walker deconstructs marriage with a frighteningly funny contemporary eye on the horrors of commitment and the other things that haunt us. With a cast of returning favorites from the past two chapters (Joe Canuso, Ashton Carter, Jenna Kuerzi, and Campbell O’Hare) directed once again by Elaina Di Monaco, the haunted wedding play features a virgin bride and a gay groom, Emma Stone and the Easter Bunny, cocaine, hookers, and glamping. Needless to say, “shit gets fucked up” in this over-the-top parody of the horror-film genre and send-up of our most laughable socio-cultural trends. Glamping. Really? September 8-22, at The Beard Cave @ St. Mary’s Church – 3916 Locust Walk.
Revolution Shakespeare, Cymbeline – Now in its fourth year of offering free open-air performances in South Philadelphia’s Hawthorne Park, RevShakes presents a small-cast version of Cymbeline, with a diverse ensemble of seven (Griffin Stanton-Ameisen, Mitchell Bloom, Newton Buchanan, Izzy Castaldi, Sabrina Profitt , James Tolbert III, and Twoey Truong) playing multiple roles in the Bard’s story of love, jealousy, false accusation, and reconciliation in ancient Britain. Through the characters’ conflicting ways of life and clashing traditions, Director Jared Michael Delaney aims to show how differences too often separate us, but can also bring us together. Now that’s one revolution we should all fight to win. September 20-October 1, at Hawthorne Park – 12th and Catharine Streets.
Sam Tower + Ensemble, Strange Tenants – In the spirit of their 2015 Fringe hit 901 Nowhere Street, director Sam Tower, playwright Jeremy Gable, composer Alec MacLaughlin, and designer Kevin Meehan, along with co-devisors/performers Merri Rashoyan, Nia Benjamin, Bi Jean Ngo, Tess Kunik, and Katie Croyle (with contributions by Emilie Krause and Anna Szapiro from the work’s early development phase in 2016), set a noir-inspired mood of mystery that evokes the films of Alfred Hitchcock, but with a distinctly post-modern feminist focus. The original “dance theater psycho thriller” takes a walk on the sinister side, as the reunion of four estranged female friends becomes an exploration of a puzzling disappearance that reveals their childhood secrets and broken promises, personal histories and cultural inheritances, past memories and surreal imaginings – the titular Strange Tenants that inhabit us all – through hypnotic movement, redolent visuals, and an evocative soundscape. September 7-17, at Power Plant Productions Basement – 233 North Bread Street.
The Greenfield Collective, Tilda Swinton Adopt Me Please – Co-Creators Nicholas Scheppard and Hannah Van Sciver star as an unconventional pair of twins from a “normal home” who would seem to have everything, but become obsessed with gender-bending actress Tilda Swinton. The Greenfield Collective’s highly conceptual and stylized exploration of adolescent imagination, celebrity stalking, gender identification, and the acceptability of love in all its forms combines theater with performance art, dance, evocative audio-visuals, and characters whose look mirrors the transcendent androgynous beauty of their idol. Directed by Maura Krause and designed by Sara Outing, Lucas Fendlay, and Michael Lambui, the original piece, presented in association with Minding Your Mind and Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, not only contains a serious message, but also provides supplementary talkbacks and informative hand-outs for those in attendance. September 13-17, at Asian Arts Initiative, Studio C – 1219 Vine Street.
The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano – The first “anti-play” written by the master of the Absurdist genre when he was trying to learn English, Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano is this year’s Fringe entry by Philadelphia’s own masters of the genre, the IRC. At the heart of the seminal tragicomedy is the failure to communicate, the disintegration of language, and the collapse of reality, as the conversations of two married couples in London descend into gibberish, non sequiturs, and repetition. Staged in the Bethany Mission Gallery hung with outsider art, the setting should further illuminate the plight of those who are unable to make themselves understood, and highlight the lack of meaningful dialogue – on a personal, national, and global scale – both then and now. In keeping with the IRC’s mission, a ridiculously good mix of company stalwarts and newcomers (Sonja Robson, John Zak, Tomas Dura, Arlen Hancock, Bob Schmidt, and Producing Artistic Director Tina Brock, who will also direct) is guaranteed to “bring good nothingness to life.” September 5-24, at Bethany Mission Gallery – 1527 Brandywine Street.
The Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, Iphigenia at Aulis – In collaboration with the Independence Seaport Museum, the PAC takes audiences aboard the 1890s steel warship USS Olympia (the oldest still afloat) for its telling of Euripides’ last extant tragedy of circa 406 BC. Directed by company Co-Founder Dan Hodge, the ancient historical tale recounts a heartrending family drama of patriotism, pride, devotion, and sacrifice within the context of Trojan War. A traditional Greek chorus (including Peggy Smith and Stephanie Iozzia) provides running commentary and didactic observations on the actions of Agamemnon (Nathan Foley), Clytemnestra (Tai Verley), Menelaus (Aaron Kirkpatrick), the titular Iphigenia (Becca Khalil), and other famed figures from antiquity, whose human struggles are no less relevant today than they were two-and-a-half millennia ago. September 7-22, at Cruiser Olympia, Penn’s Landing – 301 South Christopher Columbus Boulevard.
The Revivalists, United – Could there be a more timely site-specific show in historic Philadelphia than a commemoration of the date of September 9, when, in 1776, the Continental Congress officially changed the name of our country from the Colonies to the United States of America? The 18th-century Betsy Ross House, purported to be birthplace of the American flag, serves as the venue for The Revivalists’ immersive performance of traditional folk songs and stories that declare our independence and send out a call for us to stand united. Expect to be swept away by a spirited evening of rebellion and the birth of a nation. But don’t forget that if we were permanent residents of England, we’d all be covered under the free national healthcare system, so God Save the Queen and Long Live the Revolution! September 9-23, at The Betsy Ross House – 231 Arch Street.
Tribe of Fools, Fishtown – A Hipster Noir – A perennial hit with Fringe-goers and critics alike, Tribe of Fools is known for its combination of thrilling acrobatics and parkour with a Philly-centric narrative of locally-inspired characters and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that culminates in a relevant message. This year, with a female lead and sexier dreamier dance-like acrobatics, the Tribe sets its latest creation in the Fishtown section of the city, for a noir-style detective story that ponders the mystery of our obsession with virtual reality at the cost of our disconnect from the real world around us. Self-described as a mash-up in the spirit of Chinatown meets Black Mirror meets Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the new work – written by Caitlin Weigel, directed by Peter Smith, and performed/co-created by Joseph Ahmed, Zachary Chiero, Tara Demmy, Jenna Kuerzi, and Kyle Yackoski – follows the adventures of a luddite private eye who stumbles upon a new app at the center of a high-tech conspiracy, which allows users to live out their wildest fantasies. Just think of the ramifications; these insightful ‘Fools’ have. September 8-23, at the Louis Bluver Theater at The Drake – 302 South Hicks Street.
University of the Arts and The Berserker Residents, These Terrible Things – You can always count on the uproarious Berserkers for full-throttle hilarity, and if their Fringe production is even half as funny as their description of it is in the catalogue listings (“I hate this show. These assholes are forcing us to [word limit reached]”), we’re all in for some non-stop hysterics. This year they’ve teamed up with the University of the Arts for the research and development of their latest original comedy, These Terrible Things, working alongside some very lucky students to help them craft the show. A self-referencing piece on life in the theater, the company’s faux staging of a bogus “old-ass play” will test the relationship between audience and performer, lampoon regional theater-making, skewer the tendency to present the classics rather than creating something new, and bring attention to those behind-the-scenes artists without whom the show could not go on and the play could go wrong. I’m already laughing! September 14-23, at the Caplan Studio Theater, University of the Arts – 211 South Broad Street.
WaitStaff Sketch Comedy, Labor of Love – Longtime favorites The WaitStaff, a mainstay of the Fringe and a part of the Philadelphia nightlife for nearly two decades, serves up a winning concoction of liquor and laughs at L’Étage Cabaret, with a new evening of no-holds-barred sketch comedy and cocktails (for sale to a 21+ audience). Featuring skits by Jim Boyle, Sara Carano, Joanne Cunningham, Gerre Garrett, and Chris McGovern, the comics’ latest offering, under the zany direction of Eric Singel, will forego the widespread focus on our current presidential administration, with refreshing politics-free humor that is still sure to be politically-incorrect. So if you’ve lost your sense of humor of late, come find it again with this welcome Labor of Love. September 8-23, at L’Étage Cabaret – 624 South 6th Street.
WeftWorks, Mistress of the Maze – Multi-disciplinary artist, writer, and trained anthropologist Sarah Carr presents her WeftWorks’ inaugural performance project, Mistress of the Maze, in the 2017 Fringe. Based on the mythology of the Minoan culture of ancient Crete, and taking its inspiration from the imagery and rituals depicted in extant frescos, sculpture, and seals, the original dance/theater piece weaves together movement and music with contemporary fiber-arts costumes and masks. Performed by three female dancers and one male, this new exploration of the pre-Greek roots of the Minotaur, the Labyrinth, and Ariadne (the daughter of King Minos) examines the principle of female power and the hypothesis of a matriarchal society, as embodied by her dominion over the sacred maze and the hybrid creature that inhabits it. September 16-17, at CHI Movement Arts Center – 1316 South 9th Street.
Along with the new works and company premieres, you can also catch remounts of past favorites in this year’s festival, including my top four picks for sure-fire revivals:
Almanac Dance Circus Theatre, Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes – Originally performed at the Fleisher Art Memorial in June 2015, Almanac brings its brand of daring acrobatics, theatrical narrative, and live music to the 2017 Fringe with a re-envisioning of its metaphorical tale about the mistakes of believing too hard and, consequently, becoming “lost at sea.” September 6-23, at the Painted Bride Art Center – 230 Vine Street.
Iron Age Theatre Radical Acts, Marx in Soho – Marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of Das Kapital (Karl Marx’s seminal 1867 critique of Capitalist economics), actor and political activist Bob Weick returns to the Philly Fringe, where his ongoing national tour began in 2004, with his signature performance of Howard Zinn’s Marx in Soho, produced by Iron Age Theatre Radical Acts and directed by John Doyle. September 6-22, at the Ethical Society of Philadelphia – 1906 South Rittenhouse Square.
JCProductions, Joan Crawford in Her Own Words – Get up close and personal this Fringe with legendary movie star Joan Crawford, as she defends herself against critics in a camp solo show created verbatim from her own books and interviews by Michael McHugh, and delivered by the hilarious Eric Singel in a boozy tour-de-force drag performance directed by Peter Tupitza – the same team that debuted the work upstairs at the old 247 gay bar in 1993. September 7-24, at Tabu Lounge – 200 South 12th Street.
REV Theatre Company, Death Is A Cabaret Ol’ Chum – Since it first appeared at Laurel Hill Cemetery in 2012, REV’s “Graveyard Cabaret” has killed it with spine-tingling vocals, eerie costumes, and complimentary tomb-side cocktails, so bring your blanket or folding chair for another round of macabre delights, with a few added songs and new cast members, directed by Rosey Hay. September 13-16, at Laurel Hill Cemetery – 3822 Ridge Avenue.