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During the course of last year's Fringe Festival two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, and theaters across the country canceled or postponed their shows. Some people asked Christina Augello -- who's been hosting the fest every September since 1991 at the Exit Theatre -- what she planned to do. Would the S.F. Fringe stay open? "I told them, 'Well -- yeah,'" she says. "What else would I do? I don't know how to do anything else. Under those circumstances you just go out and do what you know how to do."
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She left it up to the individual acts. Only one group decided to cancel, and "audiences came out and stayed a lot longer, hung out, talked, shared. They were very supportive of each other and reflective with each other," she says. "It was a good thing." This year the event will again straddle the week of Sept. 11, and Augello has no plans to adjust. "We'll do our festival and celebrate being creative. I think that's the most important thing."
"San Francisco Fringe" refers to a weeklong open season of offbeat theater, when almost anyone can put on a play in front of an unsuspecting but lively local crowd. Actors and troupes on the Fringe circuit come to the city from Canada, Britain, Australia, and South America -- as well as different parts of the U.S. -- to try out new material, rant about politics, or say things they could never get away with saying on a conventional stage. (Hard-core Fringe types then move on to more festivals, in Seattle or Vancouver.) Not even Augello knows what will happen in her theaters: She has to flip through her own catalog to see what looks good. This year the event expands to "satellite venues" all over the city, making room for more elaborate shows that don't have to obey the usual 50-minute time limit.
"Some are two hours, some are 35 minutes," says Augello. "Some have bands -- the one at Xenodrome has an eight-piece band that just wouldn't work so well here [at the Exit]." (She's referring to My Son, the Mummy: Episode Pi, a Gothic vaudeville musical about a mathematically inclined undead creature who battles UFOs.)
Annie Lore will also put on a two-hour version of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra as it might have been played with Lola Montez, the Gold Rush- era starlet, as the Egyptian queen. Lore has been portraying Montez alone for 20 years, but never as part of a larger production. Montez was a legend in 1850s San Francisco: She came here under a cloud of scandal after a famous, destructive affair with Bavaria's King Ludwig I, and earned a hot reputation as a showgirl with a number called the "Spider Dance." ("To slow but provocative music Lola dramatized the plight of a woman attacked by spiders," according to The San Francisco Stage: A History.) "Lola's personality, and her position as tabloid queen and a source of mythologizing -- it's so much like Cleopatra," says Lore, "that it just seemed like a natural." She edited Shakespeare's A&C down to a two-hour play, renamed it Cleopatra! -- and Antony, and applied to produce it at Venue 9, where her group can raise an elaborate set. "It's much more congenial to a big show such as this," says Lore. "We're interested to see how it's going to be, ourselves."
The more typical Fringe pieces are simpler. Steve Parks will do a solo performance called F---ing Handicapped Guy about his own struggle with multiple sclerosis. The show is billed as "Stand-Up Comedy in a Wheelchair," but Parks rejects that description. "I don't know who called it stand-up," he says. "I don't." In the monologues, he describes his upbringing as a Christian Scientist and the beliefs that kept him from seeking medical help when his MS turned severe. The show is hopeful, says Parks, in spite of the title. MS has forced him to trust strangers for help in his wheelchair. "And they come through! That's the good news," he says. "I've learned that, by and large, it's a good species we've got here."
Two other plays look at politics and corporate culture in the wake of Sept. 11. Jay Martin's Candistan imagines what might have happened if the fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, had stayed in the air for eight minutes longer and crashed into the Hershey's chocolate factory. Martin plays the CEO of a fictional firm called Mercy Chocolate. "I just wanted to say a whole lot of awful things about corporate America," he says. "But I don't know how it's going to come across."
The most provocative piece of the festival may be George Bush's Nuts (or How I Learned to Enjoy Real Time War Footage on LSD), a five-character solo show that makes fun of knee-jerk patriotism and happens to play on Sept. 11. Brandon Welch developed it last year in Baltimore. "I started working on it pre-9/11," he says. "It was about a Supreme Court-appointed president with a really terrible public-speaking problem and a penchant for trying to destroy the environment. After 9/11, it sort of became a Supreme Court-appointed president with a very bad public-speaking problem who wanted to destroy the world."
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