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On the Fringe 

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The inaugural New Orleans Fringe Festival was full to overflowing with exciting new work — too much for any one person to see and much too much to discuss in the limited space here. Theater suddenly seemed to be everywhere — in scattered oases for aesthetic Crescent City nomads. And the nomads came in droves.

The main box office for the festival was a large tent at the railroad tracks below Franklin Avenue. A stiff wind blew it down, but the inconvenience didn't seem to discourage festival-goers. One night at Marigny Theatre, I found myself waiting in a large crowd that gathered in the lobby half an hour before the curtain went up for Sex Crimes, written and performed by Gabrielle Penabaz. I asked some fellow audience members whether they were there for the sex or the crimes. No one was there for the crimes; maybe that explains the predominance of eye-catching show titles in the festival.

A trio of multitalented performers — Diana Shortes, Francine Segal and Jennifer Pagan — performed monologues in a selection titled STRIPPED! Naked in a New World. The name was racier than the contents. All three monologues were well done, but I'm particularly looking forward to the full-length version of the Baroness Pontalba piece Shortes is working on.

Marigny Theatre started modestly as a dance club several years ago and grew into a cabaret. Now it looks like it will be joined by other small venues that opened for Fringe. The Skull Club on Spain Street is less well known. Among the shows there was a new work by R.J. Tsarov, one of the city's most intriguing playwrights. Tsarov calls his approach to storytelling "nonlinear." In his latest outing, he not only lived up to the term, he took it a step further.

The first part, titled We-ell ..., showed us Tom and Mary meeting at a bar. The meeting seems at times clouded over with the guilt of one. Tom is the brother of Mary's husband. An affair would not merely be illicit, it might also break kinship taboos and invoke the anger of the Greek Furies. Or maybe the two have already had an affair. Those details of the story are difficult to pinpoint, partly because the dialogue lurches forward and backward in time, obscuring the truth, though not in an off-putting way. Tsarov created a sort of linguistic Möbius strip with no inside or outside. The actors kept the mystery and complexity fascinating through their commitment to the immediacy of the exchanges. Veronica Russell and Chris Lane threaded their way through this dramatic maze of mirrors with perfect pitch, and, I was told, they did so without a director. Bravo.

Le Chat Noir presented its annual New Plays Festival. The short scenes tended toward comedy but ran the gamut. In fact, they were more sketches than plays — with the indefiniteness characterizing postmodern sensibility — written by many different hands and strung together as a show about New Orleans. Carl Walker capably directed the works, and a special nod goes to the illustrious Vernel Bagneris (creator of One Mo' Time) who has been absent too long from local stages.

It's hard to highlight pieces in the potpourri, but two spring to mind. In Mary Louise Wilson's Lost, Carol Sutton and Clare Montcrief wreaked hilarious havoc with their characters' inability to master even the simplest fact or action. In Jamie Wax's The Scutley Papers, Montcrief related a simple but stirring monologue about a woman's struggle to escape her lowlife husband and the hopeless world where she's trapped.

These are just a few of the many Fringe Festival shows that sprouted like mushrooms — some psychedelic, some poisonous — at nearly 20 locations in the French Quarter, Marigny, Bywater and elsewhere over a long weekend. The festival was a delightful surprise. I look forward to next year.

click to enlarge Diane Shortes, Francine Segal (standing) and Jennifer Pagan performed monologues in STRIPPED! Naked in a New World.
  • Diane Shortes, Francine Segal (standing) and Jennifer Pagan performed monologues in STRIPPED! Naked in a New World.
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