The New Orleans Fringe Festival opened Wednesday, and there are nearly 70 shows running at various venues around town. With two nights left, here are some recommendations based on what I have seen so far. My apologies to all the artists/shows I haven't been able to get to yet.
There is a full schedule on the Fringe website.
The Vanities of the Poor
Vanities is one of the fringiest of shows, partially because it takes place outdoors in City Park. It's sort of hard to explain but easy to love. In a reworking of a Grimms' tale, Death becomes a godparent to a poor man's child, and even Death finds raising children difficult. The story is narrated by a hilariously snide drag queen, who is dressed as a turtle, and many of the characters are swamp creatures. It's also sort of a rock musical, with a low-fi 60s garage-rocking band complete with a large lineup of harmonizing back-up singers. There's also a rolling bar that's part of the show, and drinks are available. The story is good, and the costumes and extras make this a really fun show.
In this conventional if a little bit abstract comedy, two brothers both named Johannes Gutenberg work to create a machine that will reproduce moveable text. Technology is changing their world, and they're constantly tripped up in trying to define big words as they labor with the task. They take breaks to make sandwiches, which also features an odd construction method.
The Tremor Collective puts on an essentialist version of Hamlet that retains many famous lines and scenes but is infused with a lot of contemporary sensibilities and frenetic movement. Claudius and Gertrude become the new royal couple and talk like candidates from the recent presidential election, with endless vapid platitudes and fake smiles. Hamlet is troubled, but much of his problem comes from being taunted about incestuous thoughts about his mother. The fusion of popular culture and tragedy hits a brilliant note when Gertrude declares herself the Queen of Pop and raps. One doesn't need to know or like the original tragedy to enjoy this show, but it is funny to see how some of the characters are re-imagined.
Last year this group did a wonderful spoof of a spaghetti Western. This year, it takes on murder mysteries in the image of Edward Gorey characters. It doesn't have a whodunit plot and resolution, instead reveling in the dramatic pronouncements that Alfred has returned from the Arctic, a baby has been thrown from a window, a mysterious stranger came to the side door, someone had too much sarsaparilla. The characters and gestures are archetypal and a bit over the top and its an entertaining parody and love note to old mystery thrillers.
Good, but I have maybeone quibble:
The Mysterious Axeman's Jazz
The Mudlark Puppeteers have created what seems like CSI: New Orleans, 1919. It's a true crime story about a gruesome series of ax murders. The use of shadow puppets to create dancehall scenes and people bustling through a market is great. Rod puppets are in Pandora Gastelum's distinct style. The basic story has a lot of suspense, and the climax on St. Joseph's night, when the killer has threatened to reappear is great. One difficult aspect is how many characters are in the hourlong show. Several were wrongly accused, and resolving all of that seems to siphon off some of the dramatic tension. But it's a unique and entertaining account of a forgotten moment in New Orleans' history.
Under the Skiff
This two-woman show offers a lot of silly clowning and slapstick. Much of it is funny, even if the opening is a bit slow. Two eccentric women are waiting in an immigration office, trying to negotiate all the necessary forms and procedures to become citizens of this odd country. There is both silliness and poignancy, much of which is brilliantly handled by Jenny Sargent. But the transition from foolishness to the hardships of people who are more refugees than immigrants is not seamless.
Death of Baka
The Red String Wayang Theatre presents a — from what I can tell — traditional Indonesian shadow puppet show projected on a screen. The two-dimensional puppets are intricately detailed and brilliantly colorful, and their bodies and arms are manipulated by rods. The story follows a king who tries to save his people from a neighboring cannibalistic demon king. It seems like a fable because of the way it celebrates certain virtues. The puppets are beautiful, and it seems that most of the production's efforts were focused on being faithful to the genre's traditional elements. The story is a bit simple, but it's a good introduction to this particular style of puppetry.
This drama shoots for horror but ends up flat and messy. A man has moved to a big city and is afraid to go out at night, fearing "wolves." The play seems to transpose Little Red Riding Hood's story, but instead of whatever is lurking in the woods, he fears predators lurking in bars. His roommate and former lover doesn't share his fear, and their relationship has frayed. The main character is not very well developed or sympathetic. An intruding narrator character is used to explain some parts of the story instead of letting the actors act. It's a big challenge to try to do horror on stage, but I didn't find this show scary or terribly compelling.
Surprise, No Surprise
This performance art/dance piece was very introverted. It seemed to be a tortured meditation on disappointments in domestic life and relationships. But it was not very accessible, which ended up calling attention to what should have been lesser flaws, like the silly plastic full-head mask on the silent male character (if it's important, get/make a good mask). The piece seemed designed to create/share some level of discomfort or trauma, but it failed to communicate anything meaningful about that, and neither technique nor effects helped rescue the effort.