By Pat Launer
The numbers are mind-boggling. The variety is eye-popping. It’s the 5th Annual San Diego International Fringe Festival, happening now through July 2.
More than 500 performances by 100 artists from 87 different companies, in 24 different venues. Many performers are from San Diego, but they also come from as far away as Japan, South Africa and Australia.
Every show lasts no more than an hour, so you can hop from one to another, and in one day, experience dance, music, drama, circus arts, magic and more.
If you’ve never been to a Fringe, you just have to try it.
The origin of Fringes goes back to 1947, when eight groups showed up, uninvited, to the newly formed Edinburgh International Festival. They performed their shows “on the fringe” of the main festival… and a phenomenon was born.
The Edinburgh Fringe is now the largest performing arts festival in the world, but there are more than 200 other Fringe Festivals around the globe.
The San Diego festival, which has grown since its inception, from 38,000 attendees the first year, to over 66,000 last year, is quite an endeavor, mostly accomplished by volunteers. Commendably, 100 percent of box office proceeds go to the performing artists.
The Fringe prides itself on having “no censorship,” offering an open platform for local, national and international artists of all disciplines to share their talent and spread their wings in new directions. It sounds wonderfully egalitarian; the only downside is that no censorship means no quality control. So, while the Fringe can guarantee you enormous quantity, there’s no guarantee of quality. But, that’s the nature of the Fringe. Every choice is a crapshoot, but since each show is so short, you can move on easily and forget the ones you didn’t care for.
Among the numerous shows I’ve seen so far, only three have really stood out, and sadly, one of them was only performed on the opening weekend.
That wild experience was “8 Songs for a Mad King,” an extremely avant-garde 1969 opera/monodrama by maverick composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016), with text by Randolph Stow … and King George III. The one-man opera (remarkably sung by Walter Dumelle) requires tremendous versatility, as does the score, which was magnificently played by a stunning six-piece chamber ensemble, under the baton of music director Brendan Nguyen. Direction by Kim Strassburger had the ‘Mad King’ strutting and ranting atop a long banquet table, at which the audience was seated (it could accommodate up to 50 people). The King was dressed in a suit and long red necktie, so comparisons were inevitable. For added comic relief, this production marked the debut of Trashtalktheatre, a technology which has, apparently, been used with film. A closed-circuit Twitter account is created, allowing the audience to comment during the performance. These remarks were displayed on monitors around the room. Some of the politically-relevant comments were downright hilarious, adding an extra dimension to this already-unique production.
“Flight: The Little Prince Returns” is a terrific bit of physical storytelling that was nominated for Best Family Show at the Edinburgh Fringe, recently appeared Off Broadway, and is headed for a summer tour across North America (Winnipeg and Boulder up next). Call it acrobatic theater, if you will. Two magnificently flexible women (Cynthia Price and Taylor Casas ) intertwine in wondrous ways, as a male performer (Christian Sullivan) supports them and narrates the story of the pilot who goes looking for the Little Prince (a female this time), to remember the lesson he’d acquired before: learning to see with the heart. Stunning work from the Bossy Flyer company from Long Beach, CA, who twist and contort themselves in beautiful ways, to become whales and seas, cacti and islands. Sheer magic, and thoroughly delightful.
Speaking of magic, that brings me to my third favorite thus far: “6 Quick Dick Tricks” (this Australian loves provocative titles; he has another show called “2 Ruby Knockers and 1 Jaded Dick”); in both cases, the most titillating word refers to Tim Motley’s persona as a noir detective trying to solve a mystery. But that’s just a setup for the fact that he’s a magnificent mentalist. I’ve certainly seen sleight of hand before, and I somewhat understand that. But this is a whole other domain. How he was able to not just guess but already have written down, numbers, facts and other tidbits from the audience, was really mind-blowing. His patter is terrific, and his American gumshoe accent is superb. Definitely worth checking out.
Other shows I’ve seen:
“Beau and Aero,” a Portland duo that was the darling of last year’s Fringe, are back with their latest creation, “Crash Landing.” The highly lauded company, A Little Bit Off, was just that this year. They’re adorable, and they know it. So a good deal of this show was spent mugging for the audience. They didn’t do much of their signature physical comedy till the last ten minutes of the show. Alas, too little, too late.
The two performance themes that seem to be running through this year’s Fringe are aerobatics or circus arts, and immersive theater. There’s a great deal of audience participation, and one show presents itself to just one spectator at a time.
In the former category were two very ambitious undertakings from two San Diego companies: “Specific Gravity” from the Circus Collective, and “Echoes of Gallows Hill,” from Astraeus Aerial Dance Theatre. In both cases, the aerial work was superb, but a little goes a long way, and it tended to get repetitive after a while. And, although both tried to incorporate a narrative thread into their presentation (the plight of displaced persons, as well as an oblique statement about the LGBTQ community in the first production, and the Salem witch persecution in the second), only rarely did the aerial work conform or relate to the storyline.
“Leash Your Potential” is basically a straightforward Powerpoint lecture on surviving in the corporate environment, presented by Canadian Ryan Gunther, who spent 15 years at a Fortune 500 company. It’s sarcastic and at times amusing, though it tends to be kind of dry, and folks actually IN a corporate bureaucracy will find this, like a Dilbert comic, a little too close to reality to be really humorous.
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.
>> Subscribe to Times of San Diego’s free daily email newsletter! Click hereFollow Us: