Fringe Character

Just another beautiful night in the Tenderloin, sampling the Fringe Festival and the Virgin Queen Contest

An eroded man with road-map eyes shuffles toward me, murmuring about the "liftoff" as he sucks the marrow out of a wet, oily chicken bone. He stops in front of me and smiles, his greasy lips curling back over four dark nubs of teeth. "Want Fringe?" he asks, allowing an arid chuckle to get beyond the bone still protruding from one side of his hollow mouth. "Want Fringe?" he burbles again. I think, Usually, and nod. "Straight. Side. No birds or buts," he says, indicating the road behind him with a shrug. I lift my chin in thanks and walk into the condensed sunlight. Even with Polly Esther's nightclub on one side of the street and the Exit Theater on the other, this stretch of Eddy smells like the Tenderloin. I am grateful. It reminds me of a real city, a place where disparate elements are still forced to rub nipples. I watch incredulously as three pale, plump women in pastel shorts gambol past with a shambling homeless man in tow. The tag-along souse is waving his finger like a conductor's baton and craning his neck over the shoulders of the nearest woman as they walk. They are singing. I swear, all four are grinning and singing, putting final flourishes on the last strains of "New York, New York." After a momentary lull in song, the homeless man begins to improvise, "There were three lovely ladies in powder shorts/ They walked down the street and stole my heart." The women laugh deeply, from their bellies, and all four continue down the street like old friends.

Outside the Exit Theater, Fringe Festival co-producer Richard Livingston stands in the sun, smiling as two young women come barreling toward the playhouse at full speed. "It's OK. It's OK. You have plenty of time," he gently reprimands, as if he were an indulgent schoolteacher.

"See, by the last weekend, the festival has gained momentum, and people are literally running to get here on time, because they've already been turned away once or twice," Livingston says with a chuckle. "Not your normal stroll-in-10-minutes-after-curtain theatergoing behavior. It's nice to see." The Fringe Festival -- 52 shows, 250 performances, in five theaters over the course of 11 days -- is a non-curated, non-censored marathon of live performance for theater lovers and their previously indifferent friends. No show is longer than an hour or more than $8 (which is, as they say in the promotion game, less than the price of a movie ticket); 100 percent of all ticket sales goes directly to the performers; every show starts on time, with five curtains every half-hour; no one is allowed in late, no exceptions, no matter who you know; all shows are seated on a first come, first served basis; and all ticket sales are final.

Inside the theater cafe, known as Club Fringethis week, people are sipping beer and poring over the Fringe Festival program, mapping out their plans of attack. The excitement is conspicuous.

Sarah Niski, a 27-year-old who has seen six shows already, chats with other theatergoers, getting opinions before circling a few titles. "You have to make choices," she says significantly. "You can't see everything." She grabs pretzels from one of the numerous bowls lining the bar and shoves them into her mouth. "You have to keep your strength up, too," she laughs. "There's no time for lunch."

Niski walks into the hall and joins the line for Trailer Trash Tabloid!, a winner of the Orlando International Fringe Festival. As the line grows, a man steps out of the procession and begins to sing about San Francisco. "Why are there nine sex clubs in this town, but you can't get takeout after 10?" He is joined by an accordion player, a trombone player, and two other singers who also spring unexpectedly from the crowd. "A Starbucks on every corner," they charge. This is a Spontaneous Musical Happening, one of the frequent aural occurrences that have been appearing on street corners and at BART stations since the festival's opening. The crowd is tickled.

Trailer Trash Tabloid! is a two-man, 11-character show based on the great tornado of 1965, which ripped apart the fictional New Drawl City Mobile Home Village and Putt-Putt Golf Course, and the mysterious death of Velveeta Cheese magnate Frank Forkenberg. Carefully written and beautifully delivered, Trailer Trash Tabloid!combines the high camp of drag with the raw sensitivity of drama as Michael Wanzieand Doug Ba'aser bring to life the confused and misbegotten lives of a Bible Belt community held under the sway of an incestuous philanderer with too much money and not enough good taste. Through a series of monologues, the truth about plastic pink flamingos, flying meat smokers, the voice of God, and roadside strippers is revealed, and no one leaves disappointed.

Between shows, I hurry two blocks west to the New Meat Campus, a seedy gay porn theater where Klubstitute Kollectiveis holding its sixth annual Virgin Queen Contest. The show is not part of the Fringe Festival, but it is certainly worthy of the name. Downstairs, in the dimly lit video lounge, well-toned men indulge in an array of video porn, sucking and yanking to pass the time until show time. Upstairs, this year's performers gather nervously in a hallway decorated in vibrant murals of oversized male members, nervously adjusting wigs and applying makeup. There is 33-year-old Howard Brown III, an accountant with wavy brown hair and a beautifully tailored suit; 21-year-old Liam Carey, a community theater veteran from Pennsylvania who has wire-rimmed glasses and short bleached-blond hair; 26-year-old Robert Gammel, a well-built visual communication student sorely lacking an official Drag Mother; a daddy named PJ Pupkinwho looks entirely comfortable in leather chaps and a tank top; and 22-year-old Nova Darkstar, a glitter-covered latecomer who designs clothes and wigs. In the dilapidated theater, where male strippers usually strut their stuff on the catwalk (and are well-received, if the numerous stains on the stage and carpet are any indication), a colorful crowd of well-dressed men and women begins to gather, taking seats in sagging, musty chairs. Producer Ruby Toosday storms about the stage, taking care of technical difficulties and ridiculing the audience for being on time to a drag show before announcing this year's contestants as boys. The men file in, carrying on their arms the Drag Mothers who will teach and transform them. As with any beauty contest, Mothers count. Brown boasts Manly Lennoxas Mom and Ginger Snapas Drag Auntie, both of Club Tango Tango, while Carey is favored by Catherine, the flamboyant Florida transplant with a cable access show of the same name; Virgin Queen 1999 Lucia Lovegraciously adopts Carey; and Pupkin's Drag Mother is the bearded and aptly named Rude Awakening.

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