The Mulch Effect

The Fringe Festival

I have to confess that I've read Woyzeck more than once without completely understanding it, and going to see Wits End's production at the Fringe was no particular help. The brilliant fragments of an uncompleted play that Georg Buechner left behind are reassembled (in no particular order) and played by Wits End in a mad-carnival treatment that lasts just over an hour. Woyzeck, in soiled thermals and a scruffy beard, comes bolting down the stairs and hops onstage, hears his name whispered from behind a curtain, rips it down, and unveils a crowd of unsavory characters piled around a trunk, looking vaguely like the group of carnival freaks on the sleeve of Dylan's Basement Tapes.

A Fringe atmosphere doesn't encourage high seriousness. The show, like the entire festival, is mainly just wacky. One scene is as random and inconsequential as the next, and that's more or less how Steve Winn described the Fringe as a whole in his manifesto last week explaining why he wasn't going to attend.

"Without any curatorial sorting," he wrote in the Chronicle, "the good, the bad and the self-indulgently terrible all get equal weighting." Fringe Festivals, by definition, are a mulch of one-hour shows unselected by producers; Winn complained that the result fails to infuse our local scene with surprising new talent, and argued in favor of a little "weeding and selection."

An Obvious Hit: Highway to Helen.
Laura Jane Petelko
An Obvious Hit: Highway to Helen.


The 1999 Fringe Festival. Various artists. At the Exit Theater (156 Eddy), Exit Stage Left (156 Eddy), Il Teatro 450 (449 Powell, Third Floor), the Lorraine Hansberry Theater (620 Sutter), and the Shelton Theater (533 Sutter) through Sept. 19. See for specific show times, or call 673-3847

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In one way, he's right: Curating might save certain critics from having to see Dead Horse Ensemble more than once; and it probably wouldn't have kept Byron Yee's Paper Son, or the Whistleaires, or most of the other recent Fringe successes from finding places on local stages. But random selection makes the festival unique. Tidying it up would turn it into something else, or worse, might put a conforming pressure on the acts ("What will the producers like?"). Winn is sick of the chaos -- he sounds like Wits End's Woyzeck, in fact, driven crazy by all the freaks -- but his broadside last week only made a public position out of personal ennui.

I support the Fringe idea even though, this year, I picked some real bombs to review. Bardo A Go-Go could have been an interesting tribal dance piece but turns out to be a pompous pagan ceremony that includes a sermon from the devil more presumptuous and didactic than anything I ever heard in church. Duke Ellington and Me should have been an intriguing personal history by a dancer who slept with Duke in the late '60s, but Luba (who goes by no other name) rambles for too long about the bad marriage she was in and not nearly long enough about Ellington. Talking With Angels has Shelley Mitchell in its favor, but her adaptation of a (supposedly true) book about a Jewish woman channeling advice from angels during the Holocaust is over-weighted with fortune-cookie metaphysics.

A good tonic for all the overseriousness is The Purple Sage, a musical revue by a stooped old lady in horn-rimmed glasses named Helen Slayton-Hughes. She offers "nine spiffy ways to cope with growing older," in nine characters, accompanied by piano; "Try New Age Stuff" features an old woman with hibiscus in her hair complaining about her New Age lover. "He goes out of his body and it's out-and-out spooky," she sings. "I think he's up there with a diaphanous cookie."

The Ugly Duchess qualifies as the most intriguing show I saw. It's a monologue written by Janet Munsil (former producer of the Victoria Fringe), and based on Quentin Matsys' painting of Margaret "Maultasch" of Bohemia, the putative Ugliest Woman in History. Paul Terry plays the rich and well-connected duchess, green-faced and impressively ugly, wanted across 14th-century Europe for her dowry, but derided for her looks.

The festival's obvious hits -- Highway to Helen, Popcorn Anti-Theater's Mexican Bus -- set this year's tone. On opening weekend a three-piece band played on the sidewalk in front of the Bus, while feathered women handed out fliers and a naked tech crew was nearly arrested for indecent exposure. "Indecent" is exactly the word: Fringe Festivals cultivate a cheerful indecency, and those who don't like it don't have to show up. (Michael Scott Moore)

Highway to Helen
Equipped with rubber chickens, crash helmets, whipped cream, and other standard comic props, Canadian women's sketch comedy group 30 Helens kick down the door of comedy's boys' club and bust in with an exhilarating collection of vignettes crafted from manic physicality, barbed satire, and infectiously gleeful raunch. Over the course of one action-packed hour, they transform themselves into wide-eyed children and dizzy dames, angry poets and manhandling rappers à la the Yeasty Girls, skewering pop culture and social norms with ruthless efficiency. Absurdity reigns supreme, and haiku will never sound the same. (Heather Wisner)

Thursday, Sept.16, 8:30 p.m.; Friday Sept. 17, 7 p.m.; Saturday, Sept.18, 5:30 p.m. at the Exit Theater.

Popcorn Anti-Theater on the Mexican Bus
Take 45 relative strangers, put them on the garishly decorated Mexican Bus, pump some salsa over the sound system, lube the crowd with Jell-O shots handed out by the PopTarts (who wear miniskirts and cheap tiaras), and drive to various city locales for poetry, comedy, or God-knows-what. Much drama lies in whether the packed bus will make it up city hills, and irate, inconvenienced taxi drivers are cheerfully flipped the bird. Friday's show featured Mad Libs and Attaboy, two energetic spoken-word poets, in Portsmouth Square. Art-indifferent cops cut Saturday's Yerba Buena show short. (Joe Mader)

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