We came. We saw. And then we saw some more. Our elite corps of Fringe Festival reviewers has covered an unprecedented amount of theater this past week, all the way from original musicals to opera, sketch comedy to the merely sketchy, one-person shows to large-cast extravaganzas. So check out our picks, then check out the festival; believe it or not, there's plenty more than what we were able to see, and as with all live theater, if you miss your chance now, forget about checking it out on video at a later date. The festival ends March 21, so grab a guide and hurry.
Inside the OPM Den II
by Leroy Chin and OPM
Last year's Fringe production by this Asian-American satirical troupe was a hoot: devilishly funny one minute, gleefully, unapologetically stereotypical the next. But this year's sequel, a series of 14 sketches with such commercial interruptions as a message warning about DWA (that's Driving While Asian) falls into a lackluster rhythm, partly due to the absence of Leroy Chin, the group's founder and the show's producer. Without Chin, even such promising material as "Charlie Chan's Angels" and an Asian Actors' Reunion failed to ignite. Standouts, however, were Serin Ngai in multiple roles and Charles Kim as a cable-access hip-hop host.—Emily Baillargeon
Count Gil thinks his wife's taken a lover, but the truth is even more scandalous—at least by the standards of 1909, when Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari wrote this intermezzo, one of the finest one-act comic operas ever. It's really just an extended duet (sung in English translation), but it packs a lot of beloved operatic devices into its 45 minutes. The voices of Emily Riesser and Cliff Watson are strong enough to make Wolf-Ferrari's perkily lyrical music sound appropriately glorious. Rachel Levy and Tom Sunderland play the two mute servant roles with verve, and pianist Beth Kirchhoff fills in for the orchestra. Elegant silliness. —Gavin Borchert
The Adventures of the Merry Monk & Frog Prince Freddie
Two best friends, one a juggling monk and the other a frog (played by a hand puppet), set off on a journey of redemption after the divine is defrocked for sleeping through one too many mornings of chanting. Performer Colin Ernst works in juggling tricks, trombone playing, unicycle riding, and a complete disregard for traditional stagecraft into a show that's sort of a live-action version of a Crumb comic. Ernst does have an overindulged tendency to rush offstage for costume changes and props while leaving the inert Freddie to entertain us, but it's still a gloriously silly show that will produce a goofy grin.—John Longenbaugh
Appealing to the hearts of pyromaniacs everywhere, this Fremont-based group of "fire artists" is a bunch of folks who enjoy courting third-degree burns for fun. This big-top-themed show has fire clowns, stilt walkers, a "poodle" trained to jump through a fiery hoop, and several erotic tangos that literally smolder. Live music, a tornado of flame, and the grand finale involving the veritable explosion of "Pyro Boy" make this the most fun I've had since melting my first GI Joe.—J.L.
Urban Legend Follies
L'eau Theque Productions
The Gozas must have interesting family meals, if this all-singin', all-dancin', all-sketch-comedy piece is anything to go by. Mom Kimberly directs, acts, choreographs, and does the scenery; Dad Dennis writes and acts; and 8-year-old Zephyr is one of those stage kids who's equal parts endearing and eerily professional. Switching costumes and characters at a dizzying pace, this is a cheery but very corny show that tries to stuff more than 70 urban legends into one hour, and does so only by sacrificing subtlety and stampeding over many of its own laughs. Still, it's sweet to watch this threesome obviously having such a blast.—J.L.
A Surreal Circus
This collection of musicians, aerialists, jugglers, dancers, and comedians are involved in a monstrously ambitious endeavor to use traditional circus skills in a way that's disturbing and original. Hats off to them, but it's a decidedly uneven result. Some elements, particularly the music of Armitage Shanks and the Flat Joint Fives, a mushroom-induced Sprite Dance, and several aerialist acts, are wonderful. But much of the comedy falls flat, and a backstage conflict involving the ringmaster and his janitor flunky fizzles. A fun ramble down the midway that might end up tighter and funnier in its next incarnation.—J.L.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Three Dragons Productions
Blithe and breezy, this production of Shakespeare's giddy roundelay proceeds at a feverish pace, as the eight actors try to fit every scene into 90 minutes. The company is particularly good with slapstick bits, and the Peter Quince play-within-a-play subplot is masterfully handled. Occasionally a line gets swallowed, but these players, outfitted with costumes and a set that are clever but minimal and their infectious enthusiasm, conjure just the magical atmosphere that allows a Dream to flourish.—Jackie McCarthy
I Am the Pirate King
Full Moon/Schmab Productions
In Cecelia Frye-Georges' funny and sweet one-woman show, she chronicles the glories and pains of the tumultuous years in which she finally said goodbye to childhood (and such joys as bike riding, playing pirate, and running around without a T-shirt on) and found herself with perhaps too much experience at an early age. What keeps the material from sliding into a public therapy session is the performer's sense of humor about her early misdeeds and misunderstandings, and her triumphant conclusion that even as an adult, it is indeed a glorious thing, every once in a while, to be a Pirate King.—J.L.
Taproot Theater Company
Sean Gaffney's original adaptation of H.G. Wells' famous novel, about a scientist who turns beasts into men with no thought of the ethical consequences, is both ambitious and ambitiously staged by director Scott Nolte. A cast of nine tells the story of a biologist who finds himself repeatedly faced with the question of what divides animals from beasts. While the ethical debate is admirably clear (and relevant in our gene-splicing age), the company fails to capture the nightmare of Moreau's creations; there's little to differentiate one beast-man from another and there's too little action in the telling. Thoughtful theater that could use some more good old-fashioned suspense.—J.L.
Several alumni of Stickfigure Productions tear through this early Christopher Durang play with a very appropriate comic fury, driven by an unrelenting (and seemingly inexhaustible) onstage drummer. Family members on the famous unsinkable vessel subject each other to any number of horrible revelations and even more vile acts, including incest, rape, and being tricked into having sex with slices of white bread. True to Durang's intent, the crazed comedy is just a comforting patina over some dark truths. Don't go expecting DiCaprio, but do go for one of the most aggressively funny ensembles seen in Seattle in years.—J.L.
Circus of the Flaming Gypsy
Theater Au Naturel
The welcome return of San Franciscobased Theater Au Naturel features another visit with the pith-helmet wearing Professor Adventure, who's joined this time by a carnival barker to tell us the story of coming face-to-face with the monstrous Flaming Gypsy, 7-foot-something of pure snarling malevolence who treats his sideshow freaks like, well, a bunch of sideshow freaks. William Hall and Andy Peterson are essentially tall-tale tellers, and this one's a doozy, including the unexpected appearance of former US President James Polk. While the show never quite lives up to its great title, if you enjoy fluent verbal nonsense, this is the one for you.—J.L.
An Evening with Chuck
Eric Jordan's one-man show is a visit with a cantankerous old-timer who's clearly not long for this world, if the amount of vodka and the number of cigarettes he's working through are any indication. Chuck fills us in on his personal history, from his service in WWII to his lonely present, with most of his thoughts circling around his failed relationship with his stepson. The problem with this extended character study is that it's never certain whether Jordan's portrayal is meant to elicit our sympathy or our laughs, and the resulting effect is more of severe discomfort.—J.L.
The Booby Trap
Aided by a few props, a beautiful singing voice, and the ability to make faces with the best of 'em, Rebecca Castelli wows in this one-woman production. The general topic is society's definition of beauty and how it is imposed on young women; the specific story is Castelli's decision to fight the pretty girls at their own game by competing in the Miss Alabama pageant. Castelli throws herself into the role, slyly making serious points through her sometimes silly, self-deprecating humor. Prude alert: There's some raunchy language and the actress bares her breasts twice (but always in context, of course).—James Bush
Where No Pig Has Gone Before
The Pork Filled Players
Likable and amusing, if not always laugh-out-loud funny, the Pork Filled Players mine familiar sketch-comedy themes like dating, health clubs, and the sex lives of cereal mascots with great success. Artists-in-residence at Northwest Asian American Theater, the group naturally includes many references to being Asian in America in its work, but the biggest laughs here come from good old-fashioned physical comedy and a pair of wonderful characters: a scolding Chinese grandma and a narcissistic Filipino aerobics instructor. —J.B.
Rebel Without A Cause
A Theater Near You
Unbeknownst to many (or at least to this writer), this adaptation of the 1955 movie that made James Dean a star has long been a standby for high school and youth theater productions. And, unlikely as it seems, Rebel fills the bill as kind of a West Side Story minus the singing. Unfortunately, despite very good work throughout this Actor's Attic production, Rebel still comes off as a high school play being performed by adults. At least they had the good sense to include Garfield High senior Brian Goldsbury Corbett in the cast; he steals the show as the shy outcast, Plato.—J.B.
I Hate Chekhov
Performer Betty Consalvi's solo show is less a comedy than an audition for a comedy. In a series of mostly wordless scenes, we see Consalvi struggle through aerobics, acting exercises, and work on her unlikely audition monologue, the role of Iago in Othello. It's a moderately clever idea and garners a few chuckles from actors in the audience, but at 50 minutes the joke stretches far too long, and the actress clearly lacks the external eye of a directorial influence to set her straight. Perhaps Consalvi should make some peace with Chekhov, and see what he has to teach her about narrative.—J.L.
Muddy Feet Theater Group
A neighborhood bar serves as the setting for this delightful foray into the world of '90s relationships. From the sassy, cruelly named Michael and her philandering husband, Jacob, to widower and single dad Henry and his bitter, bartending sister Rachel, the play's characters deal with the witty and frequently poignant struggles of loving, leaving, and losing. The combination of an exceptionally talented cast, an honest, resonant script, and a sleek set makes this seem more like professional theater. With the exception of occasionally jarring jumps from one story line to another, this play is a rousing success.—Samantha Ender
The cumbersome title of Regie Cabico's fast-paced solo show doesn't do it justice. Earnest and funny, Cabico takes you through the life of a young gay Filipino man growing up in a strict Catholic family in suburban Maryland. The high-energy star creates a whirlwind of great comedic timing, renditions of Jennifer Beal's dancing technique, and brilliant spoken word that sucks audience members in. Don't let a fear of one-man shows keep you from this one; although it occasionally succumbs to self-indulgence, Cabico's self-effacing humor and talent as a poet more than compensate. (Note: The show is only 60 minutes, not 90 as printed in the Fringe guide).—S.E.
Any sketch-comedy group that can find a way to use the phrase "post-industrial" twice in less than three minutes is OK in my book. Although mired in the slow-starting "I Married a Voice Inside My Head" sketch, the show quickly moves into the realm of the unexpected. Bottlecap tooth playing, a bored and murderous Obi-Wan Kenobi, and a large bearded man dancing erotically with a broom . . . it defies explanation, but it sure is funny. If you're brave enough to watch a tap dancer get beaten and Shakespeare's classic tale of love and tragedy defiled, head to the Broadway Performance Hall for some pee-in-your-pants fun.—S.E.
If I Wake Before I Die
Slippery Fish Productions
Comas aren't generally funny, but when John Lennon and Fluffy (quite a diva of a dead cat) show up, there's just no telling what might happen. Unfortunately, this comedy about the decisions facing comatose commercial writer Louise falls victim to a heavy-handed script, poor timing, and acting that misses more than it hits. The actors can't be faulted for any lack of enthusiasm; Diane Felty's Grandma and Shawn Hausmann's control of rather clich餠roles are noteworthy. However, while the dramatic moments are well captured, the comedic elements are rushed past or skipped over entirely, and this misstep damages the whole.—S.E.
The Maiden and the Makita
Leap of Faith Theater
Playwright and performer Beth Amsbary cracks our alabaster image of the perfect and untouchable Virgin Mary with Internet video games, Chinese takeout, blues songs, and a cordless drill—the Makita. The Queen of Heaven is smart, depressed, and (gasp!) desirable. Multitalented Amsbary is fun and fearless as Mary struggles to find self-definition with the help of power tools. Triumphant and radiant, she brandishes the Makita above her head, a priceless picture for those of us Catholics who spent their youth intimidated by such religious icons in Sunday school. Provocative, irreverently clever, and downright amazing, this show is a must-see whether or not you are religious or familiar with Makita tools.—Jaimie Lin
Dead Horse Theater Ensemble
Director and writer Elizabeth Spreen presents the stories of Electra and Hamlet in fragmented segments that focus on the madness of women. San Franciscobased actors Gillian Chadsey, Patrick McCracken, and Susannah Martin have created an innovative and thoughtful production, but the action often becomes confusing when they assume multiple roles. This distracts the audience from ever seeing the true meaning behind the characters' madness, and only hinders understanding of the two source plays. However, this remains a visually spectacular production, filled with songs, free-form movement, and a spectacular, oversized blue dress.—J. Lin
Saint-Simon at Versailles
Language of the Gods
Thomas Berghan is a splendid storyteller; in this show he relates anecdotes from the memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon, an intime at the court of Louis XIV, in a marvelously even, clipped, arched-eyebrow voice that draws the listener in—and which makes the WASPish gossip, scatology, and sex even funnier. He's no less splendid a lutenist—he played the interspersed period musical selections with seductive flexibility and nuance. My only quibble concerns staging; how much more delectable this divertissement would have been had we all been arranged around him on divans in a salon set, rather than in traditional auditorium seating.—G.B.
Rock Opera: The Fossil Record
Beginning with a brief geology lecture and ending with a throbbing hard-rock sing-along, Rock Opera aims outside the bounds of the average musical into educational territory. The imaginative costumes and metalish music make this an ideal field trip for a junior-high science class, though the production numbers vary widely in tone from comic to startlingly serious, and even perverse (the character of "Water" wears a micro-mini and brandishes a whip). Retelling billions of years of scientific history in the space of 60 minutes requires a bit of poetic license, but Rock Opera could have trimmed some of its songs and gained some entertainment value.—J.M.
Talking Birds Theater Company
Based on a J.G. Ballardesque scenario in which a man and a woman are (literally) thrown together after a car crash, Joy-Ridden is both intensely odd and slyly funny. Trapped in a purgatorial wasteland, the punkish, brash woman (Claire Kirkby) and the goofily average man (Nick Walker) are not so much opposites as ciphers; these two souls would have nothing to say to each other if it weren't for their big collision. Required to be both disoriented and philosophical, Kirkby and Walker are compelling performers, carrying us through even the weirdest moments. In the end, despite its gruesome subject matter, Joy-Ridden leaves you strangely elated. —J.M.
Small Hand Open Fist
Developed and performed by Martha Enson and Mik Kuhlman, this is an enchanting play that explores the myriad emotions between sisters. The multimedia involved in this piece is extensive and wonderfully creative, including projected images, puppets, and interpretive dance and songs. The play is rich in symbolism, succeeding in conveying a thousand different feelings within an immensely short amount of time. Which is, of course, representative of the complex yet fulfilling relationship between sisters. Enson and Kuhlman give an amazing and touching performance as two women who sometimes can't live with each other yet obviously can't live without each other. This is true sisterhood at its best.—J. Lin
Emma Goldman: Love, Anarchy, and Other Affairs
At the turn of the last century, Emma Goldman hides from authorities and recounts her compelling story. This riveting portrayal by Caroline Brown brings the revolution to life, inspiring sympathy for the anarchist as humanitarian, as well as human. Celebrating her ideals for labor reform, free speech, and love, it reveals a full-dimensional person and not just a radical thinker, a woman who dances with abandon despite her lover's disapproval and who fears public speaking despite her talent. Brown commands the space with ease, with her voice shifting from vulnerable to passionate—and as she articulates, the progress of liberation unfolds as "a process, not a finality." —Roberta Cruger
The Animated Blake
James Jay's Word Up
Variety show meets poetry recital. Illuminating the visionary writing of William Blake through interpretive juggling and music renditions, the Reverend James Jay, complete with Southern accent, performs a circus-style religious revival. His Acolyte and Ringmaster sidekicks are more visual aids than key players in this multimedia event featuring Blake's art as backdrop. The jester's twirling, spinning, and book manipulation serve to clarify the mystical musings and divine manuscripts. The awesome antics can distract, but esoteric themes of innocence vs. experience and the "Marriage of Heaven and Hell" amuse in such moments as a reading of proverbial fortunes in a "communion" cookie ceremony. Even "The Tyger" burns brighter in this clever show.—R.C.
What Big Teeth You Have! Or, Little Red Bites Back
Theater Au Naturel
Eve Smyth's one-woman deconstruction of "Little Red Riding Hood" hits the fairy tale from all sides, as Little Red strays from the Path to Virtue. She instead decides to make her own way, to "break free from the beaten path which is fast becoming a rut." When she does, she metamorphoses into the Fallen Red, a sexually craven woman whose story becomes Beauty's (as in "and the Beast"). Outside the path, the sometimes disturbing universe of fairy tales is governed by the chipper Good Fairy, Myrtle, whose wish-grantees include none other than Cinderella. Smyth is a delight in all three roles, leading us around the entire province of the Brothers Grimm with sparkle, confidence, and sass.—E.B.
Five quick pieces culled from an earlier festival: the first two, involving senility and sexual role-playing, are almost forgettable except for a memorable kissing scene, and the third is a dark look at a family whose veggie daughter serves dog meat to her parents. The final two are in another league entirely. "love theory" pits a flower vendor against a defensive woman at a bus stop in a story of hatred turning to love. Jason Phillips and Sara Forsythe shine as the pair, delivering their banter as satisfyingly as Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedick. The final short, a monologue by Susan Segella as a geriatric on roller skates, is a physical feat of near genius. Her body sags and her mouth flaps, but the story doesn't move one lick. —E.B.
The Cropped Folio: A Comedy of Condensed Shakespeare
One man, all of Shakespeare, and an hour. John Osebold's grand entrance was as grand as they come: The final strains of "Fanfare for the Common Man" played to an empty stage, and nothing. Then again . . . nothing. On the fourth go, the long-haired actor, wearing a billowy white shirt and tights, skidded in and broke into song. He ran the audience through every plot of every play, made it all rhyme, stayed in tune, and bowed. That was only the beginning. From a five-minute Hamlet to a six-minute Romeo and Juliet, Osebold boldly goes where no sane person dares venture: into the thick of iambic pentameter, Hamlet's afterlife, and the Death-ed Star. Osebold's rabble-rousing earned him a standing ovation—much ado about something worth all the fuss.—E.B.
Edgar Allan Poe at the Richard Hugo House
Seattle Playwrights Alliance
One hundred and fifty years after his death, a perfectly preserved Poe returns for a charming and alarming appearance in our "fine city." The father of Goth and spooky short stories continues his after-life promotional tour for a proposed literary magazine, expounding on the secrets of eternity and hacking away at his hated rival Longfellow. Paul Edward Smith recites Poe's poetry with eerie intimacy, creeping over the line while retelling "The Tell-tale Heart." A window into the morbidity of Poe's work is uncovered, and the depiction unveils a warm, intelligent portrait, complete with several witty touches, including a coffin-shaped flask.—R.C.
Hell On Earth
The Essayons Theatre Company
Chance, Hope, Grace, and "Tru," a band of not-so-virtuous angels serving as an escort service for humans' journey to the other side, get waylaid by a shrewd executed murderer. Playwright Art Hennessy, in the role of Chance, gives new meaning to "judgment day" with his cynical attitude toward humans, while Hope seems ambivalent, Grace foolish, and Tru unpredictably desperate. An ambitious concept filled with symbolism has the heavenly residents searching for meaning with their heads in the clouds. The characters' repartee expresses our own internal dialogue about death (with an inconclusive resolution naturally), leaving everyone a lost soul.—R.C.
All In the Timing
The Repertory Actors Theater
1998's "Best of the Fest," this encore presentation catapults a simple table and chairs into six comedy shorts focused on wordplay. In the new "Universal Language," Unamundo, a jargon of jibberish (combo of Spanish, Scandinavian, and Nintendo) is taught via a spellbinding performance by molto blizzardo Joseph Yang. While practicing conversation in "English Made Simple," the secret and superficial meanings of salutations are divulged with frighteningly funny accuracy. Caught in cosmic "Philadelphia," relentlessly replaying pick-up lines in "Sure Thing," and playing with innuendo in the fresh "Foreplay," T.J. Langley and ensemble shine with witty lines, inventive twists—and fine timing.—R.C.