Everybody Wins at the San Diego Fringe Festival

It’s hard to see any losers at the San Diego International Fringe Festival, which continues through July 13. (sdfringe.org)

Not that there are no lousy shows. There are. But even the most gruesome train wrecks bring knowledge to both the doers and the watchers. Next time, maybe.

Since July 1, there have been nearly a hundred shows in a dozen locations ranging from ballet to burlesque, irreverence to sentimentality, horror to homilies, from rampant egos to humble servants, poised professionals to averted-eyes amateurs. The concept, originated in Edinburgh during the 1940s, is to try for the widest possible variety, strung around the city’s summer Mozart and Shakespeare like a, well, a fringe.

Everybody’s a winner, the volunteers who genially staff the venues, the clusters of fans comparing schedules and the artists themselves, rubbing shoulders and tweaking inspiration. The air is thick with the ozone of creativity and curiosity.

Beau and Arrow at Fringe Festival.

Beau and Aero at Fringe Festival.

Performers buy their way into the schedule, mostly on a first-come, first-served basis, and they get the entire modest box office take. So it’s possible to break even. (And rumor has it that some of the more popular acts get waivers or even a bit of financial help.) The idea is to gather 50 percent of the roster from the San Diego area and 25 percent each from national and international origin.

Most artists get six performances, spread over the two weeks, so there’s plenty of time to cruise colleagues and get to know the audiences.

I made my choices based on the catalogue descriptions, the recommendations of colleagues and the ragged round of previews. I have no regrets.

Beau and Aero: He’s stalwart, dreamy-eyed and something of a bully. She’s adorable, nimble and a feline as her excellent makeup. They wear boots, puttees, leather helmets and goggles, celebrating a vaguely aeronautical theme, but they actually are a crackerjack vaudeville act, wordlessly manipulating balloons, tambourines, bits of aviator gear and each other in a smoothly acrobatic fantasy that ends in a long skydive. Soon, I’m told, they’ll be off to French circus school but I’ll hope they return next year.

Lady Grew: A tiny dynamo of erotic energy, she set a standard of pole dancing which may never be matched at Les Girls, the venerable and sleazy sailors’ heaven strip joint in the Sports Arena area. In a non-stop hour of singing, swinging, grinding, bumping, rapping and sensual gymnastics on the general theme of “What if bad girls ran the world?”, she left no nuances unexamined.

Courtesan Café: A local troupe of bold exhibitionists with noncommercial bodies preceded Lady Grew on the Les Girls stage each evening with a dreamy, abstract tribute to fin de siècle decadence in Paris, played in underwater slo-mo with muted narration and vague continuity. Kata Pierce-Martin is the choreographer and reigning priestess while the token panting John was played by George Willis, a local dance institution.

Jon Bennett: A tireless world traveller, the young Australian performance artist began accumulating photos of himself posing with a wide assortment of phallic symbols, from the Eifel Tower to Machu Picchu in addition to a dizzy range of hand props. He calls the illustrated lecture “Pretending Things Are a Cock” and it sounds far more naughty than it actually is. In fact, the show has become something of an international cult favorite, as may be seen in the Internet. I found his pacing and energy and flexibility nearly perfect and unlikely to be forgotten. (Full disclosure: I volunteered to house a Fringe artists and Bennett was one of two assigned to me.)

Jon Bennet

Jon Bennet

“Dog Years”: A polished monologue by New Yorker John Grady, in the style of the late storyteller Spalding Gray, about a man and his dog in Manhattan. Precise, sincere and quite moving.

There were ensemble shows aplenty at the Fringe too. Three of these addressed classics with generally positive results:

“The Hideout”: Haste Theatre, six young ladies from England, Scotland and Italy, were a hit last year with “Oyster Boy” were back with a lively burlesque on the story of Theseus vs. the Minotaur. Lots of room for broad comedy there and they moved in with their precise ensemble clarity but without the surreal fog around the Oyster Boy.

“Dr. Frankenstein’s Travelling Freak Show”: The Shed Theatre from Wales splattered high energy all over the Mary Shelley classic but eventually leveled out at too much hysteria. Very impressive physical control, though.

“Doctor Shmoctor”: The best of the broad comedy assaults on classics came from San Diego’s Max Fischer Players, with Michael Nieto taking the role of Sganarelle Moliere created for himself in the farce usually translated as “The Doctor in Spite of Himself.” The slouchy title indicates the company’s approach, hard to criticize given the material and the venue. All of the players romped and reveled in a fashion most appropriate. And I loved the mid-show pause for Cliff Notes.

Rhianna Basore, left, and Loie Gail in "The Peacock and the Nightingale" at Fringe Festival.

Rhianna Basore, left, and Loie Gail in “The Peacock and the Nightingale” at Fringe Festival.

“The Peacock and the Nightingale”: A representative traditional play, written by an English playwright and performed with style by local actors under Bryant Hernandez’ direction. The play is a Hollywood fragment of little interest and no particular insight but it did offer Loie Gail a chance to be endlessly snooty as Edith Sitwell and Randy Coull to plumb the big shot ethos of George Cukor. Rhianna Basore, who really doesn’t resemble Marilyn Monroe and who was saddled with an impossible ivory-colored wig, still managed a fascinating impersonation of MM caught between Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, savoring the mysteries of an icon.

So a salute to Kevin Charles Patterson, the Fringe director, and his assistant, Todd Blakesley, for pulling off something of a minor miracle. There are still some performances left as of this writing. Details are at sdfringe.org.

And I can’t close without a final personal memory.

Decades ago, at The San Diego Union, we used to see a familiar face about this time every year, an amiable bear of a man named Shel Dorf. He’d come in over and over, begging for some coverage of an event he and some of his nerdy friends kept presenting every year. We’d try to help them out when we could with what they called…

San Diego Comic-Con

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