For theater lovers, the San Francisco Fringe Festival is a much-anticipated marathon -- 200 performances of 38 new shows delivered in just 12 days -- which demands a sturdy constitution, a reliable day planner, and a precision diet of strong coffee and light cigarettes. For dilettantes, the Fringe generates a carnival-like atmosphere where low ticket prices and (typically) shorter running times persuade us to flit from theater to theater, reveling in moments of sublime imagination, frustration, delight, and disaster, as the case may be. As with most Fringe Festivals, the program is unjuried, allowing thespians to take risks with edgier material that might careen over the edges of decency and absurdity, and dip into truly refreshing brilliance. To make all this possible on the cheap, traveling troupes usually billet with locals and strip down their productions in order to share stages and tech crews.
One very notable exception this year is Banana Bag & Bodice, who present The Sewers in all its underworld glory Sept. 5-15 at the Garage, a venue new to the Fringe. The semi-permanent home is necessary because the elaborate physical structure of The Sewers (a dank subterranean bunker wallpapered in peeling newsprint, murky light, and fading memory) is as much of a protagonist as a purgatory, where industrial waste and other more deeply human embarrassments lie in hidden countless alcoves. The inhabitants of the shelter -- a megalomaniacal dramaturge (played by the real playwright Jason Craig), his wife, and his sister-in-law -- are tended by a menacing mechanic who swabs furniture with urine and manipulates the surprising technical intricacies of the set. Through lean, carefully modulated dialogue that would leave Hal Hartley squirming with laughter, we come to learn that an apocalyptic "shortage" has expunged the outside world of niceties such as birds, soap, and children. The playwright is also part of a turgid love triangle resulting in the doomed pregnancies of both sisters. Even as the production reaches its astounding visual climax, the deeper meaning of the play (and the play within the play) remains wittingly ambiguous. At once dark, whimsical, and waggish, The Sewers is what Fringe theater is meant to be: above all, ground breaking and provocative. Other noteworthy Fringe offerings include Heavy Metal Playground, a rock opera inspired by an upper-middle class teen's undying love of Mötley Crüe, and Tesla's White Pigeon, a rumination on the human need to communicate even through the most bizarre means. Some entries hark back to the classics: A Turn of the Screw is bold reinterpretation of Henry James' psychological thriller, A Strange Black Passion is based on the real-life love of D.H. Lawrence and Frieda Weekley, and The Stetson Manifesto is a modern western in the vein of Clifford Odets and Sam Shepard.