Spanning nearly 150 artists and 700 performances over 18 days, next week’s annual Fringe Festival, its 17th iteration, promises a feast of excellence on stages both conventional and unconventional. Since navigating its enticing offerings can be quite a challenge, we’ve compiled a brief list of some of the fest’s most promising productions to put on your must-see list.
If you think dance is some kind of inscrutable high-culture art form intended only for a small, niche audience, you haven’t seen JUNK, Brian Sanders’ electrifying, intensely physical dance troupe, consistently one of the biggest draws at the Fringe. The company’s new production, Hush Now Sweet High Heels and Oak, explores the sometimes disturbing messages imbedded in nursery rhymes. Featuring original music, the action takes place on a small island of white sand surrounded by the vast concrete darkness of the Armory. Potent and visceral, Sanders describes Hush as a “sexually charged piece” that is at once “primal and spiritual.”
Philly’s popular theatre company Tribe of Fools returns to the Fringe with the satire Antihero. Inspired by two real-life encounters of violence on the city’s streets, artistic director Terry Brennan says the piece is a reaction to how violence is portrayed in summer movie blockbusters. “There’s an implication in most mainstream entertainment that violence is easy and that there are no unintended consequences,” says Brennan. “It is a world view of a 12-year-old.” Antihero pokes fun at this simplistic view by combining acrobatics and stage combat in the story of one man’s quest to overthrow that common commuter enemy, the Philadelphia Parking Authority.
If you missed its debut several years back, there’s a second chance to experience one of the most unique productions in Fringe history: Pig Iron Theatre Company’s fascinating comedy Pay Up. Set in what director Dan Rothenberg describes as an “artificially simulated economic environment,” Pay Up raises questions about the relationship between performers and their audience. As a non-profit company, says Rothenberg, Pig Iron’s members wondered whether theater audiences’ are customers, clients or a congregation. Is it the artist’s responsibility, they ask, to fulfill their own desire or to give the audience what they want? Featuring a cast of 31, Pay Up is a journey in which commerce and non-profit theater collide in a series of alternately unsettling and humorous financial transactions.
If your idea of a show at sea is a bad lounge singer crooning aboard a Carnival Cruise, you won’t want to miss The Sea Plays and Bathtub Moby-Dick, two works with nautical themes.
A site-specific production presented by the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective onboard Philly’s tall ship Gazela, The Sea Plays features Eugene O’Neill’s dramas Bound East for Cardiff and In the Zone. Both focus on the crew of the fictional ship S.S. Glencairn. In Cardiff, the ship’s unofficial leader is on his deathbed, and the crew is split over who should succeed him as their vessel’s commander. In Zone, the story’s second part, the ship finds itself in the midst of war, a situation that becomes tenser when the crew suspects that a spy has infiltrated their ranks. The two psychologically intense plays feature an all-star cast that includes Keith Conallen, Brian McCann and the reliable veteran John Lopes.
Inspired by Moby Dick, the Herman Melville classic, Bathtub Moby-Dick takes place entirely in a bathtub. Produced by Renegade Company, one of the city’s most underrated troupes, the story—written and directed by Renegade’s artistic director Michael Durkin—focuses on a man named Robert who finds escape in the pages of Melville’s novel. Rejecting his own identity, Robert assumes the role of Captain Ahab and, from his bathtub perch, begins his hunt to capture the great white whale.
Azuka Theatre returns to the Fringe with the Philadelphia premiere of Dutch Masters, Greg Keller’s affecting play. Set in 1992, it focuses on an encounter between two men, one black and one white, on a NYC subway train. A raw and shockingly honest look at race relations, this unpredictable and intense drama features a surprise ending that you won’t soon forget.
And finally, the always-exciting alternative theater company Swim Pony takes over the haunting confines of Eastern State Penitentiary with a new production of their 2006 Fringe hit, The Ballad of Joe Hill. According to director Adrienne Mackey, the updated show has been dramatically reimagined; nearly half of the production consists of new material. With a mysterious woman (who sings, but never speaks) as our guide through the prison, the production recalls the true story of Hill, a union leader who was the defendant in one of the most sensationalistic murder trials in America’s history.
The 2013 Fringe Festival takes place Sept. 5-22. For production dates, times, venues and ticket prices, visit fringearts.com.
13 can’t-miss theater happenings