Philadelphia Fringe Festival: Week One
Philadelphia’s Fringe Festival has returned bigger and seemingly better than ever this year to present art that you won’t see anywhere else. An increasingly popular annual tradition in Philly, FringeArts does extensive work to promote and support artists creating art that would usually be outside of the mold of traditional theatre. With an impressive lineup of more than 150 shows including art exhibits, plays, musicals, dance, acrobatics and so much more, it is a stunning reminder of how diverse the art community is.
Beyond simply presenting unconventional art, the Fringe Festival also does a spectacular job of booking similarly unexpected spaces to create their shows. Tabu, Eastern State Penitentiary, L’Etage, various lobbies and side rooms of theatres and bars are just some of the examples of places you can find Fringe shows this year. And these locations are as far flung as you could imagine, instead of the relatively Center City based arts scene that presides over the majority of the Philly art season.
This week I had the pleasure of attending four very different shows, mostly taking place in North Philadelphia. My first stop was the hilarious and referential, "Paperback Dreadful" by Shannon House. Inspired by the older penny dreadful genre of theatre and the contemporary children’s book series, "Goosebumps," the show took an audience placed in the main lobby of the Arden Theatre into a dramatically funny tour through our scariest childhood moments. It was an airy, but accomplished way to kick off the festival.
The following night things got a bit sillier as I attended the aptly titled "Bye Bye Liver" by the Pub Theatre Company. The troupe mixed sketch comedy with audience interaction (something that usually makes me a bit nervous or cringey) to great effect by depicting some of the more common hilarious and annoying characters and occurrences of a night drinking. As anyone that has ever been to a college party knows, the quickest way to feel comfortable with someone is to get drunk together. As the alcohol flowed at the Urban Saloon in Fairmount, the audience quickly seemed at home among these sketch comics and the interaction felt smooth and normal instead of awkward. It was a fun night out, although perhaps not the strongest offering of the festival.
But I was in luck the next morning when I attended the thrilling "Break/Drift/Resist" by Tangle Movement Arts. The all-woman interdisciplinary troupe use ropes and props to create dramatic interactions amongst them. As a self-titled circus act of sorts, the movements are so incredible and unexpected that it was almost too much to take in at times. But even when overwhelming, the aerial dance routines that this company has created for this show were stunning and truly something that you would be hard pressed to find in Philadelphia at any other time other than the Fringe Festival.
This same thought brings me to my final and favorite show of the week. Blue Suede Productions’ "And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens" by Tennessee Williams was a subtle, but increasingly affecting play that got under my skin more than any of the other shows I have seen so far this year. It took place in an absolutely tiny side room of the London Grill in Fairmount. I had to sit at the bar at which the characters made drinks. It was a quick one-hour, two-act play. There were only four actors, two of whom were only in it for about five minutes each. But somehow for all its sparseness, it spoke to me the most as to why a festival like Fringe is important.
This tiny lost treasure of Tennessee Williams’ considerable legacy would be out of place in most arts’ scenes. It is quiet, possesses little flash, and shows an uncomfortable relationship between a transvestite who appears to be more likely a transwoman and a physically abusive straight man. Add this plot to a room no bigger than your boss’ office, and it was a moving experience, however short.
My first week of the Fringe Festival was a quick reminder of why I look forward to it every year. One night you’re getting drunk with comedians poking fun at your drinking habits, and the next you are experiencing a part of literary LGBT history. Its diversity and willingness to take on small, niche productions is what makes FringeArts such an asset to Philadelphia. While some shows run short (the Williams’ play only played Sunday and Monday of this week,) it is the perfect time to experience art outside of your comfort zone.