San Francisco Fringe Festival

19th Iteration of SF Fringe Festival Brings Diverse Theater Groups Together For 12 Days, 43 Plays

Photo: San Francisco Fringe Festival
Sijia Wang/Illustration
San Francisco Fringe Festival

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Graffiti Highway." "Phone Whore." "32,700 Instants of Horror." These aren't the plays you read in high school English class, to be certain. They seem dangerous, maybe a little bit edgy. They are. They are among the new, the daring, the many shows to be performed at the San Francisco Fringe Festival this year, which kicked off its 19th year last week in the city. "The fringe has always been a gathering of small theaters making something happen," said Christina Augello, artistic director of the EXIT Theatre in San Francisco and longtime producer of the San Francisco Fringe Festival. "It happened organically."

Organic artistic expression seems to be the running theme of the Fringe Festival, which features 43 diverse productions - all under the umbrella of independent theater - over 12 days at the EXIT Theatre and its sister venues.

The idea of a "fringe festival" originated in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1949 when alternative theater companies began to perform on the fringes of the Edinburgh International Festival. Each year the number of acts performing on the fringe grew, until it eventually became larger than the Edinburgh International Festival itself. Similar fringe festivals began to materialize in other parts of the globe. "Though the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is much more filled with a lot of producers, it was the impetus of the artist that in the beginning sowed the seeds of fringe festivals," Augello said.

The San Francisco Fringe Festival is more inspired by the spirit of the fringe festivals in Canada and the United States. The idea is to create an accessible theater experience, not only for audiences, but also for artists. All of the shows that play in the festival are chosen by lottery, and 100 percent of the returns from ticket sales go back to the artists. Of the 40 performance groups that the festival has space for, five of these spots are reserved for international performers, 15 for national performers and 20 for local performers. Keeping with the democratic mission statement, the operation of the festival relies on volunteer efforts, and audience members can submit reviews of the shows they attend to be published online.

The general openness makes SF Fringe a fertile ground for new artists. "Fringe performers are about 50 percent in their twenties," Augello said. In fact, Cutting Ball Theater, the current resident company of the EXIT Theatre, got its start at the SF Fringe Festival over ten years ago. "But it's not just new and upstart companies that perform," Augello assured. "The idea is to be very democratic, to really give everybody an opportunity to participate."

Until September 19th, SF Fringe will be playing at the EXIT venues, giving artists a chance to perform as well as giving audiences a chance to see work that they wouldn't usually see. "The [SF] Fringe is daring because for ten bucks and 60 minutes you can really just take a shot at something," said Augello, who attends all of the shows and has even performed herself. "The best thing to do is to just go through the program and find something that interests you."

OPM's Green

Tea Party

Los Angeles-based sketch comedy troupe OPM continued the festival's theme of political satire with their "Green Tea Party." The show opens with a raucous protest by Asian Americans decrying high taxes, the President and, well, immigrants.

The mostly-Asian OPM crew also flirts with racial stereotypes in a way that can sometimes leave the audience with that "should I be laughing at this?" discomfort. Overall, though, "OPM's Green Tea Party" provided easy watching, hitting many of the usual subjects such as Obama, Steve Jobs and "Glee."

One memorable sketch featured Ewan Chung as a nervous college student (in a Stanford sweatshirt) attempting to buy drugs in Golden Gate Park. In an experiment in race-bending, an Asian actor plays a Latino character who Stanford Boy mistakes for a drug dealer - in fact, he is a canvasser for Greenpeace. A World Wildlife Fund fan enters; cue a scuffle with eco-friendly shit-talking. One guy pulls a knife, declaring it "100 percent biodegradable, just like your ass!"

Other skits fell a little flat, such as a "Jeopardy" parody featuring a randy Kim Jong-il, Sarah Palin and a good old-fashioned America-hating Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Fair game one and all, but it all felt a little 2008.

OPM's sketches were far outshone by three of the company's short films projected throughout the show. These showed off the unique humor of the OPM crew, musing on such topics as "The Guy Who Cured Cancer."

These films drew even more raucous laughs from the audience than the live sketches could, and deserve far more than the few thousand hits they now boast on YouTube. Even if you skip the live show, there is no excuse not to watch OPM's work online.

-Hannah Jewell


Annie Paladino's one-woman, episodic play "DREAMA" is the theatrical realization of songwriter Dion McGregor's work - that is, the work he's more famous for, the stuff he produced while sleeping. McGregor's sleep-talk rants are the stuff of cult following, the material of three albums and a book illustrated by Edward Gorey. His albums include The Dream World of Dion McGregor (He Talks In His Sleep), which documents the real-life lyrical-raving-madness of a sleep-talker gone wild. But don't hold him accountable for it. He didn't know what he was doing.

What's notable about McGregor's "somniloquies" - recorded by his roommate - is that their absurdist narratives are rife with those jewels of dramatic structure, perfect for the theater. Fashioned with tension, rising climaxes and bizarre premises, the recordings provide fully-dimensional alternate worlds. These are worlds in which sex advice is solicited from carnival women named Vulvina, and in which food roulette involves a gamble with poisoned eclairs.

Paladino's retelling of these dream-tirades roots the ravings in a more visceral reality. "DREAMA" also showcases a painstaking effort: Paladino mirrors the vocal "score" of McGregor's work, imitating the inflections, rhythm and timbre of his voice.

The play constructs meaning by toying with the theme of dream versus waking life. Each act is separated by a short interlude in which Paladino embodies a character no longer in the dream world. She uses this time to prepare for the next segment, while looking lost, confused. It stands in stark contrast to the dream sequences, when she takes on an animated if sometimes alarmingly lively persona, fearful and frightening in its intensity.

Perhaps to be asleep is to be in a more thrilling world than when awake. While watching, you feel it too - this dream state is more gripping than anything you'll experience while conscious.

-Liz Mak

VITCH Slapped

Every now and then, a fella will wake up and think to himself, "Tonight, I'd like to go out and have three lovely dames scream in my face." Not to worry, young man! There's a show for you: "VITCH Slapped," featuring Nancy Kissam, Diana Yanez and Starr Ahrens of "The Gay Mafia" improv and sketch comedy company.

The theme of the "VITCH Slapped" show could be summed up as "Louder is Better." Thankfully, this was often an accurate theory, as in one scene in which Diana Yanez comes on stage alone as some kind of nightmarish German lesbian to scream at the audience, declaring us a bunch of "assenholen."

The ladies of "VITCH" use the extremities of their vocal chords to mock the extremities of society, be it two Tea Partier characters on their "Righteous Judgment Hour" radio show shouting about the evils of (insert naughty word for homosexuals here) or as the "Menses Minstrels" singing about their lesbianism and, well, menstrual cycles.

Moments of sketch genius included the "Titty Bear," in which Kissam, in a teddy bear outfit, sits center stage and lauds the life of a teddy bear; specifically, the particular joys of being pressed up against women's voluptuous breasts.

"VITCH" has managed to bottle and share the kind of humor birthed of late-night high school girly sleepovers, when the collective estrogen has reached a boiling point of insanity.

If you wouldn't use the word "abrasive" to describe a fun night out at the theater, this might not be the show for you. But if getting VITCH slapped sounds charming, head down to the EXIT Theatre to - JUST KIDDING! By the time this is published, their five shows will be over. You snooze, you lose.

-Hannah Jewell


Arielle Little is the lead theater critic. Contact her at [email protected]

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