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Lunatic Fringe

September 12, 2007

Our theater critic sees seven shows in 10 hours at the Fringe Festival and lives to tell about it

I frequently boast about my theatrical stamina. As a critic at Scotland's massive Edinburgh Fringe Festival over several summers, I often reviewed five or six shows within a 24-hour period — every day for an entire month. How difficult could getting through one measly seven-show day at the San Francisco Fringe be to a seasoned pro like me? Little did I know. Here's a blow-by-blow account of my euphoric-exhausting 10 hours on Sept. 8 at the 16th Annual Fringe.

12:45 p.m. Stride purposefully into Exit Theatre for press pass. Play round of "who has the best flier" with fellow Fringer, Marc. Featuring a man's head squished between two pairs of outsize female buttocks, Drama Mamas' Low Hanging Fruit postcard wins outright.

12:55 p.m. Head around corner to Exit on Taylor for the first production of seven I am going to see today, Robert Estes' 1 Quandary Place. Espouse grandiose personal theory regarding typical proportion of good-to-bad shows in fringe festivals en route: One-third captivate (some are even brilliant.) One-third are indifferent. One-third make you want to bash down the door of the nearest bar.

2:05 p.m. Yank frantically at door of Original Joe's until Marc points out "push" sign and we throw ourselves at mercy of bartender. Attempt to make sense of baffling 1 Quandary Place. Rambling quality of Estes' three monologues (which revolve around hatred of a noisy neighbor, the ups and downs of an attorney's life, and a salesman's love affair with his couch) is compounded by performer's constant shuffling about stage with one pant leg caught in sock. Estes never looks at audience. His gaze focuses, alternately, on feet and nearby chair. Suggests performer's deep discomfiture with being on stage. Discuss whether there might be more to apparently hapless performance than meets eye, like standup comedian Gregg Turkington's intentionally terrible but popular Neil Hamburger persona. Marc and I both agree that Estes' performance is of a different order.

2:30 p.m. Return to Exit on Taylor for inFluxdance's Found & Lost: Goals for 2002. Combination of found objects (vacuum cleaner, bunches of keys, etc.) dance, theater, and American Sign Language sounds novel.

2:40 p.m. Energetic all-female cast initially engages with powerful, earthy choreography and whimsical aesthetic. Punk chick rocks out in mini-kilt like Vivienne Westwood model, destroying rectangles carefully drawn on floor in flour. White powder flies everywhere.

2:50 p.m. Catch sight of soles of performers' feet. Filthy.

3:00 p.m. Despite sporadic inspiration, (e.g., when performer holds up dismembered doll limb and says, "Found: baby leg — Montreal Fringe,") Found & Lost ultimately disappoints. Faux philosophy ("the closer I get to you, the further I feel from ... me") cloys. Not sure where sign language fits into theme about human connection to world of "things." Feel like punching bossy, pigtailed performer in angel wings.

3:40 p.m. Find Starbucks but get lost looking for Hotel Bijou.

3:55 p.m. Arrive at hotel for I Hate My Friends, intriguing if gimmicky site-specific play following 24 hours in life of Los Angeles therapist Thomas Allen as he prepares and delivers speech at local convention.

4 p.m. Pile into tiny elevator with nine other Fringers. "Everyone keep their hands to their sides, no funny business," says skinny guy in leather jacket on way up. Ushered into Room 203. It's hot. Décor (predominantly yellow) is making me feel queasy.

4:05 p.m. Feel like voyeur as protagonist enters, unpacks belongings, and takes leak (or at least pretends to) in an adjacent bathroom while airing private life on cellphone.

4:10 p.m. Cellphone dialogue thankfully ends and action picks up.

4:30 p.m. Pile back into elevator. Next stop, hotel conference room for next segment of I Hate My Friends. It's cold but at least décor isn't yellow.

5:00 p.m. Conference room scene lacks pungent farcical punch of bedroom one. Nevertheless, quirky concept and intimate, funny performances from actors Jeff Dooley and Shari Gulley make for entertaining hour.

5:05 p.m. Marc leaves. Deride him for conking out prematurely. Secretly wish I were leaving too.

5:15 p.m. Back at Exit. Totally packed. People compare show notes. Bespectacled guy gives Found & Lost thumbs up. Bald guy in caftan enjoyed Class Notes. Woman from Super Glossy hands out show fliers. Fail to recognize performer without lipstick on teeth. Gobble free pretzels. Wonder if I'll have time to eat dinner before midnight with only 30 minutes downtime between shows.

5:20 p.m. Greet Fringe founders Christina Augello and Richard Livingston. Livingston anxious: It's Festival Day Four and devoted local theatergoer Jeff Firman (who typically sees 40 shows each year at Exit alone) has not yet put in an appearance. "Yeah, where is Jeff?" a nearby woman asks.

5:35 p.m. Puppeteer Bob Hartman's expert stand-up comedy routine in Frisco Fred's Cabaret injects much-needed dose of weirdness into otherwise uninspiring magician and juggler lineup. Household pet jokes aren't typically funny, but as delivered by furry, two-foot-tall wolf marionette with George Carlin voice and pointy little fangs, they're hilarious.

6:30 p.m. Grab handful of pretzels. Dash up Taylor Street to catch Geary bus. Get off at Franklin for New York–based storyteller H. R. Britton's Jesus Rant. Reinforcements have arrived in guise of husband James. Hooray.

7:00 p.m. First Unitarian Church basement is decorated with lurid embroidered banners trumpeting "Praise" and "Sing Be Glad." Signs on doors read "bell choir." Sweetly disheveled Britton idles on dressed in black with "Got Jesus?" emblazoned on T-shirt. Spend entire show — an endearing though unfocused yarn about H.R.'s complex personal relationship with J.C. — wondering how he managed to get permission to perform this show in God's house. Am pleased, regardless.

8 p.m. Hotfoot it to Garage at 975 Howard for Banana Bag & Bodice's The Sewers. Inhale yogurt from sketchy corner store.

9:50 p.m. Show overruns by 20 minutes, fatal news for Fringers with tight schedules. Don't care: It was stunning. BB&B manages to transform black-box space into steam-punk palace with fizzing electric lights; tattered 19th-century-inspired costumes embellished with futuristic goggles, tail-like cables, and winking LEDs; and rotting newspaper walls peppered with secret cubbyholes, pulleys, and wheels. Barely human characters (a husband and wife, her sister, and a shady individual in a filthy butcher's apron whose identity remains obscure) scratch at the landscape's tattered fragments and question everything from ability to procreate to rudiments of good stage acting. At times dripping with black humor and physical energy, at others moodily lyrical, The Sewers combines hints of Chekhov and Blade Runner into intoxicating mix.

10:10 p.m. Arrive breathless at Phoenix Theatre. Curse broken elevator and run up six flights of stairs to boom of catatonic bass line from Ruby Skye next door. Thankfully, The Hasheesh Eaters, SF Buffoons' rambunctious, drug-and-booze-addled glimpse into the sordid underbelly of Gold Rush San Francisco (and my seventh and final show) hasn't yet started.

10:45 p.m. After ten hours of sitting, can barely feel butt. Am I really watching a group of sweaty men in old-fashioned underwear playing leapfrog to lurching elbowings of pipe-smoking fiddler or is show's hallucinogenic subject matter, coupled with my hunger and fatigue, playing tricks on my brain? "'Tis a mad city full of perfectly mad people," says character in play. Feel like poster child for above statement.

11:10 p.m. Deliverance. Stagger down Mason and collapse before plate of French fries at Pinecrest Diner. James asks for lowdown about seven shows. All a blur. Can't remember titles, so list names of Snow White's Seven Dwarfs instead. Head home to bed.



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