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.

Details

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 www.sffringe.org 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)

Wednesday, Sept. 15, 8:30 p.m.; Thursday, Sept. 16, 7 and 8:30 p.m.; Friday, Sept. 17, 7 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 18, 2:30 and 7 p.m. Board the bus at the Exit Theater.

Tired Cliches
What seem at first like unconnected riffs on mundane curiosities (the perversely happy world of photo albums, the shuddery ballet preceding cat vomit) eventually work themselves into a story. Orbiting a pile of cardboard boxes, into which he periodically launches himself to underscore a point, T.J. Dawe weaves a compelling, if raggedly paced, show about his post-grad rude awakening in the mentally sluggish real world. With synchronized brushes and rolls, as well as his voice, jazz drummer Yevgeney Piotrarovitch heightens the comedy (Dawe: "What if doorbells rang with the sound of a human scream?" Piotrarovitch, in the distance: "Aaaaa!"). (H.W.)

Wednesday, Sept. 15, 8:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 18, 5:30 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 19, 8:30 p.m. at the Lorraine Hansberry Theater.

Black and Brown and White All Over
Antonio Sacre's powerful solo show describes his own struggles with his half-Cuban, half-Irish racial identity, his triumphs and fears as a high school teacher of black and Latino kids, and the overwhelming effect on him of a weeklong retreat for men of different races and generations. Giving detailed, engaging portraits of the people he's encountered, he connects the dots a little too obviously, but Sacre's message that a generation of young men is being discarded can't be ignored; the production is among the best of the Fringe. (J.M.)

Thursday, Sept. 16, 7 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 18, 7 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 19, 2:30 p.m. at Il Teatro 450.

Alligators From the Sewer
Audiences are frequently more familiar with urban mythology than the classical kind, which automatically grants works based on the former a certain accessibility. L'Eau Theque (pronounced "low tech") succumbed to the lure, but the sketches the group has written around urban legends don't really illuminate the human condition, as was intended. Husband-and-wife team Kimberly and Dennis Goza and their young son Zephyr energetically sing, dance, and mug their way through self-consciously choreographed scenes, ticking off Coke and Pop Rocks, hotel bathroom kidney surgery, and the rest. When it works, it's mildly entertaining; when it resorts to precocious kids and dumb Southerners, it just feels lazy. (H.W.)

Friday, Sept.17, 7 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 18, 4 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 19, 5:30 p.m. at the Lorraine Hansberry Theater.

Knock on Wood
It's a dangerous world we live in, and we all have our own ways of coping. Kim Porter's method was knocking on wood, which, like alcoholism or cowlicks, ran in her Texan family. Porter, an endearing storyteller, comically confronts her compulsive 200-knock-a-day habit through a series of reminiscences tracing the problem back to her childhood, when her Aunt Edna's horror stories of shark attacks in 3 feet of water would be followed by a brisk round of wood knocking from her canasta club audience. Porter's loathing for her own timidity, and the brief bursts of optimism that occasionally still it, is keenly felt, and she juxtaposes lyrical metaphors (a tornado encroaches "like an accusatory finger") with a fine ear for the banalities of ordinary human speech. (H.W.)

Wednesday, Sept.15, 10 p.m.; Sunday, Sept.19, 4 p.m. at Il Teatro 450.

Dirty on the Inside
The Compost Comedy Heap

Nudity Is Contagious
Big Boned Theater

Start Trekkin'
Improv abounds at the Fringe. CCH's trio of Deven Grey, Joel Bryant, and Gregg Spillman is talented, high spirited, and lewd, and interacts with the audience. In one skit they provided each other's voices; "The only thing that can revive me is a great big man-kiss," Deven had Gregg say. In another sketch, an audience member was recruited to play "The Mating Game," questioning two unseen bachelors: Death, and a well-endowed Greek god named something like Erectus. BBT's improv relies less on audience participation, concerning itself more with character and narrative. Each sequence attempts to be a small play. Charles Burbridge, Eric Moore, and Dia Shepardson imbue their roles with delirious detail and audience-given suggestions pop up in unexpected ways. (A request for an occupation resulted in "Priest." Moore became a Judas Priest aficionado in the ensuing scene.) Finally, in Start Trekkin', a group of local actors uses Star Trek as the jumping-off point for their improv, making their own "shhht" noises for the automatic doors and violating the Prime Directive at every opportunity. It's silly fun, perhaps best taken with a couple of beers. (J.M.)

Dirty on the Inside: Wednesday, Sept. 15, 8:30 p.m. Nudity Is Contagious: Saturday, Sept. 18, 10 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 19, 4 p.m. Start Trekkin': Saturday, Sept.18, 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 19, 2:30 p.m. All shows at the Exit Theater.

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