Fun on the Fringe

What you see may suck, but at least the actors are having a laugh

One of the simultaneously running shows that opened the 12th annual San Francisco Fringe Festival last Wednesday was a brief and loony baseball musical called The Seventh Game of the World Series, about a shortstop named Vincent Valence who makes his female fans swoon, but chafes under pressure to keep his gay sex life secret. The show is woefully bad. On opening night it resembled a rehearsal for a college production. I like the idea of a musical dealing with gay athletes — it's the perfect medium for such an incongruous, closeted topic — but the only parts of Seventh Game that gave real pleasure were Pete the Concessions Guy (Kevin O'Malley), gruffly throwing popcorn and peanuts into the Exit on Taylor crowd; and the house band, a jazz combo cleverly organized around a ballpark-sounding electric organ.

Perry Smith also stood out as a strong and witty performer (as Darla, pert assistant to a would-be team owner named Frank Blackstone), but in general the show was a ruin of dropped lines, stiff acting, strained singing, and choreography that was all over the map. Still, the cast enjoyed itself, as if Seventh Game were more of a comical seventh-inning stretch — and that, in a nutshell, is the point of a balls-out, truly random and experimental Fringe: What you see may suck, but at least the actors are having a laugh.

This year's festival takes place on 12 separate stages around the city, from the Mission to the Tenderloin. Some shows aren't serious, like Seventh Game, but others are real and provocative works of exploration, like Paul Outlaw's Berserker, a one-man show about Nat Turner, Jeffrey Dahmer, race, and homosexuality. Juxtaposing a cannibalistic serial killer like Dahmer with a murderous anti-slavery insurrectionist like Turner may seem bizarre, but the notion behind it — which Outlaw never mentions in the show — is that both men exhibited “berserker” tendencies. Berserkers were Scandinavian warriors who lapsed into a trancelike frenzy on the battlefield. Working from texts both killers left behind (along with other writing by Essex Hemphill and Samuel R. Delany, as well as stories from Outlaw's own life), Outlaw maps the dark intersection between violence and sexual frenzy.

Berserker is not for the fainthearted. And it sounds self-indulgent. In lesser hands the show would be insufferable, but Outlaw is a seasoned performer who's mounted shows in New York, Berlin, and L.A.; his control here is formidable. On a plastic-covered stage he drifts between personas, from the country-Southern voice of Turner, describing his long rampage with a small army of slaves through the homes of white people in Virginia (in August 1831), to the warped and sullen-voiced Dahmer, talking about meeting black boys in and around Milwaukee, taking them home, killing them with a barbell, and packing their meat in the fridge. Outlaw also describes his own sexual coming-of-age in the '70s. He gives a cheeky description of his first blow job, at 14, and the older man who seduced him: “If we'd been caught, George would have been arrested for child molestation. But I wanted him to touch me.”

And later, even more chillingly, he says, “I was a tall, skinny, twentysomething black man,” like most of Dahmer's victims. If Outlaw had wandered through Milwaukee in the early '80s, “Chances are I would have ended up in Jeffrey Dahmer's refrigerator.”

Outlaw performs mostly naked. He takes a meat tenderizer to three big tomatoes and a knife to bulging Hefty sacks filled with strips of newspaper, movie popcorn, and what looks like shredded beets. Near the end of the show his stage is an unholy mess of those things and some kind of green goo. Then, amid this colorful wreckage, he picks up a microphone and gives a frank, cabaret-style confession about living in Berlin as a gay black American during the 1980s. This confession is the weakest part of the show, if only because Outlaw is such a talented actor that it's a shame to watch him stop acting. But even with the final speech his performance holds up as a provocative trip through racial rage, murder, and lust, to that still point where it's possible even for an outcast like him to feel human — and American — again.

Another solo Fringe piece, Shadow Kissers by Abby Schachner, takes us through comic portraits of four women having trouble with men. A middle-aged New Yorker chain-smokes and tells her invisible friend about her stale and near-sexless marriage. A sensual Southern woman keeps falling in love with invalids. (Her last boyfriend is lying in a coma, but she swoons over him the way she swoons over all the others.) A cocaine addict named Elise is a wannabe actress trying to sleep her way around Hollywood, and a black prostitute tells funny stories about her johns. All four portraits are vivid, perfectly pitched, and sometimes hilarious, but they're intercut with singing (a cappella singing — there's a lot of it in the Fringe Fest this year) and self-conscious talking that seems unnecessary. Schachner just needs to find a way to combine her stories dramatically (without explaining them), and she'll have a terrific piece. All four women are in love with shadows, instead of real men — what Jung would have called imagoes — but the parallels aren't as clear as they might be.

Joe Besecker, who likes to write about famous people, has a play set in the near future called Crime and Variations, about Stephen Sondheim. It's 2008, and Sondheim is suffering behind the scenes of a disastrous reading of his new musical, called Crime and Variations. Besecker is always funny, and Steven Patterson does witty work as Sondheim, but this play isn't up to the collection of limpid miniatures Besecker wrote for last year's Fringe, The Way Light Strikes Filled Mason Jars.

Any good Fringe Fest also needs at least one nonfiction piece — an outrageous tale that really happened to the teller — and this year's entry is Man 1, Bank 0, about a local guy who deposited one of those phony junk-mail checks (printed in his name, for $95,000, with a signature), as a joke. The check read, clearly, “NOT NEGOTIABLE,” but loopholes in banking law allowed him to keep the money. Patrick Combs became an Internet folk hero for sticking it to an unfriendly bank and junk-mail company in 1995. He appeared on David Letterman, the Today show, and other programs, and tells the story with more enthusiasm than polish; but hearing him describe a bunch of bumbling, mean-minded suits trying to get their money back is worth the price of admission.

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