Bizarre Bazaar

The Fringe Festival's 10th anniversary finds the Exit expanding its empire

The weeklong anarchy of 50-minute plays known as the San Francisco Fringe Festival tends to scare up bizarre, inventive material, but Elisa DeCarlo distinguishes herself this year by telling a freakish story that isn't even fiction. DeCarlo is a comedienne from New York who impressed local audiences four years ago with jokes about man-okapi sex and dominatrix homemaking in Cervix With a Smile. This week -- after a two-year Fringe hiatus -- she'll present the grim, true story of a man who murdered his daughter in an arson fire, then confessed it, years later, to a crowd of strangers online. DeCarlo was one of them; she and two others turned him in, and he's now serving 40 years. There was a brief media blitz about the arrest in 1998, after the New York Times ran a story on its front page. "I got to be Monica Lewinsky for a day," DeCarlo says. "It was horrible. I mean, here I am, a performer, busting my ass, I always wanted to be famous, and then suddenly I'm famous in the absolute worst possible way."

The show's title, Toasted, seems to refer to everyone involved, including DeCarlo. By helping to turn in the man in '98, she became persona non grata within her online support group for alcoholics. The group was, of course, confidential. But after dropping hints about having "murdered" his daughter, DeCarlo says, "he wrote this long, explicit, detailed confession of how he burned her to death. He burned the house, and he trapped the daughter inside." The man, Larry Froistad, would still be free if he hadn't confessed. The fire had been ruled accidental in 1995. DeCarlo and another online member discussed the confession privately and called the police; a third member called the FBI. No one else went to the authorities. The group had 200 members, and after Froistad's arrest there were howls of betrayal. "One guy," says DeCarlo, "who I knew personally -- he didn't know he was referring to me -- called me "a meddlesome, tight-ass, rat-fink minimus of an oozing worm-turd.'"

DeCarlo examines every side of the story in her one-woman, 30-character show. She explores the limits of confidentiality and wonders if she's as vulturelike, now, performing this play, as the network journalists who swarmed her for three days in New York. DeCarlo hasn't done much solo performance since a few months after Froistad's confession. ("Ninety-eight was just a terrible year," she says.) Lately, in Manhattan, she's been managing a series for women called "Broads" at Performance Space NBC. But it's fitting for her to make a comeback at the Exit Theater, because the Exit produced her first full comedy show in 1988, and in the '90s she was a fixture at the San Francisco Fringe. "Doing this stuff is like coming home," she says. "That's the only way I can describe it."

Elisa DeCarlo: Her piece examines how she turned in a man who 
confessed to murder online.
Maurice Narcis
Elisa DeCarlo: Her piece examines how she turned in a man who confessed to murder online.

The Exit has organized the San Francisco Fringe since 1991; this is its 10th anniversary. The point of every festival is to give space to offbeat or experimental shows, and for the Exit's artistic director, Christina Arguello, this means no curating. The New York Fringe Festival chooses its acts from a pool of submissions, but in Arguello's mind such selectivity excuses it from being honest Fringe. She gives space to 50-odd projects chosen in a blind public lottery, and she likes the grab-bag quality of the resulting fest.

The Exit as an organization can offer more space this year because early in the summer Arguello and her managing director, Richard Livingston, opened a spanking-new stage called the Exit on Taylor. A new theater anywhere in San Francisco is something of a miracle, and the details of how this one came about are worth a brief digression. Livingston has been working on the project for four years. In 1997 he found a low-income housing developer, Mercy Charities Housing, willing to include a theater in its plans for a new retirement home. Mercy Charities' regional president, Jane Graf, agreed with Livingston that a theater in the complex would help revive the neighborhood. "It's much simpler and easier just to do the housing," Livingston says, "but then you normally end up with a [blank] wall that in this case is half a block long, where there would have been no activity at all." The Exit on Taylor brings "positive nighttime activity," in developers' parlance, to a stretch of the Tenderloin that might otherwise have been a dead, and maybe dangerous, street.

The city's late-'90s real estate bubble was bad for the performing arts, and Livingston thinks deals like his -- with a nonprofit developer -- are the best way for theater companies to survive a bloody rental market. But Berkeley will finish 2001 with no fewer than three new theaters in its impacted downtown. The reason for this discrepancy is simple: The city of Berkeley goes easy on developers who offer space to viable arts outfits. "We give them a density bonus," says Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean. "It usually gives [developers] an extra floor; it translates into a somewhat bigger building." Two out of Berkeley's three new stages will owe their existence to this enlightened policy. The Aurora Theater and the Shotgun Players (opening a space in December) have both signed with the same for-profit developer, who wants to earn that density bonus.

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