The New Orleans Fringe Festival included both conventional and unconventional theatrical productions, but some of the weekend's great pleasures came from some of the fringiest moments. The scruffy contortionist/illusionist duo Button Wagon opened Trash Rabbit, a show full of gun-toting and references to living in poverty, by asking the audience to rise for the national anthem, which they delivered somewhat conventionally and brilliantly. Outdoors in City Park, the hilariously snide drag queen narrator in The Vanities of the Poor had no sympathy for Death, informing the distraught Reaper that his bar was not hiring. New York's Freefall company performed its compellingly odd dance/performance art ode to hotel room trysts (lie, lay, laid) in a tiny hotel room with a twin-size bed and only enough room for 10 spectators.
The festival also was full of simple pleasures, like aerialist/acrobat Elizabeth Rose's sweet solo piece A Lovely Picnic (performed on a swing hung from a massive oak tree), and new takes on classics including Hamlet and Euripides' version of Medea. We were only able to take in a quarter of the festival's 70 shows, but below are the highlights of what we saw.
In Instant Misunderstanding, Goat in the Road Productions' Will Bowling and Chris Kaminstein played brothers both named Johannes Gutenberg. They labor to create a modern machine that can reproduce words, but they are befuddled by complex words and technology and take breaks to assemble sandwiches by throwing ingredients with euphemistic names into a file cabinet drawer and pull out complete sandwiches. Clever and absurd word play and their odd relationship made it a smart and funny drama.
Minneapolis, Minn., native Pat O'Brien presented Underneath the Lintel, a one-man show about an obsessive librarian outraged about a book 123 years overdue. His determination to find the culprit progresses from a menial task to an erudite detective job to a quest for enlightenment. O'Brien did an excellent job transforming the comedy of exaggeration into a tale of inspiration.
In Vanities of the Poor, Nina Nichols and Case Miller combined a doctored Grimms' tale, a bedraggled drag queen narrator, a '60s-style garage rock band with harmonizing backup singers, some animal characters and a rolling bar and created an absurd and entertaining fringy musical fairy tale.
New York's Tremor Theatre Collective delivered an excellent surreal version of Hamlet that retained many of the best-known lines and scenes. The production was driven by energetic movement and dialogue from popular culture, including marketing slogans ("Just do it"), hip-hop and the vapid platitudes of campaign speeches.
Following the national anthem, New Mexico's Button Wagon presented a mix of Ember Bria's amazing contortions and flexibility and Matthew "Poki" McCorkle's object illusions. They played with a rifle, fans and a stream of flimsy plastic bags in a show that combined impressive stunts and stark, funny and at times unsettling images.
Helpless Doorknobs animated Edward Gorey characters in a sort of spoof and love letter to murder mysteries. The New Orleans/New York hybrid cast made the most of serially repeated cryptic announcements ("Alfred returned from the Arctic," and a baby was tossed from a window). It didn't follow a whodunit plot, but it was an entertaining play/poem.
The Mysterious Axeman's Jazz was a true crime shadow and rod puppet show by The Mudlark Puppeteers. It recounted a series of ax murders in New Orleans from 1917 to 1919. The puppetry, singing and musical accompaniment were all good and the story was fascinating. The large number of characters seemed to diffuse the story's focus, but the account was detailed and the climax was an amusing take on New Orleans' culture.
Both Under the Skiff and Grim and Fischer mixed comic and tragic, high-brow and low-brow elements. A collaboration between New Yorker Jenny Sargent and French performer Maja Bieler, Skiff featured two eccentric women negotiating a bureaucratic immigration office. Portland, Ore.'s Wonderheads theater presented Grim and Fischer, a wordless drama about an old-woman cleverly resisting a business call from Death. Both works had silly and poignant moments.
Kacey Skye Musick performed the one-woman show Body Play and delivered powerful monologues about body image as she played many characters. She created the urgency of real-time conversation and exposed the fragilities of the process of self-discovery.
In Jack Spicer's Billy the Kid, Lisa D'Amour, Brendan Connelly and ArtSpot Productions revived the Beat poetry of Spicer and his interest in the gunfighter. Several of Spicer's poems were turned into songs, and the show was upbeat and fun, often dwelling on Spicer's offbeat philosophizing about poetry, gun-fighting and sex.
Also on the fringier side was the toy theater and puppet show The Collector by San Diego's Animal Cracker Conspiracy. The company created excellent puppets and tiny sets, though one needed to be close to the stage to appreciate them. The acid trip of a tale wasn't always easy to follow, but the props and technique were great.
Some shows left much to be desired. Southern Rep presented Steve Yockey's Wolves, a horror tale that was neither scary nor engaging in spite of an ample supply of spilled blood. The performance art/dance piece Surprise, No Surprise sought to evoke the difficulties of domestic life and empty relationships, but it was too introverted to effectively communicate much and the experience was unsatisfying even before Angelle Hebert finished the piece by serially spitting in an illuminated glass vase. That's not fringy — that's just gross.