Many Are the Wonders Out Here On the Fringe

The whole thing about so-called “fringe festivals” is that you never really know what you might find. The journey is as fascinating – well, nearly – as the destination.

So, for the first night of third annual San Diego International Fringe Festival, I opted for familiar ground, chose the downtime Lyceum Theatre and let the shows come to me.

The fringe menu is eclectic to say the very least. Few races, colors, creeds, sexes or categories go unrepresented and the level of work ranges from amateur that defines “rank” to awe-inspiring professionalism. Everybody’s on the hustle for something – new material, breakthrough attention, sharing the message or just scratching the exhibitionist itch – and that includes the audience, buzzing with gossip and tips as they propel themselves around 18 venues (including four in Tijuana) from July 23 to Aug. 2 with precious few idle moments. Top admission price is $10, all of which goes to the artists, and if the staff seems rattled, remember: They’re all volunteers!

I find myself sitting through stuff I probably wouldn’t know about otherwise, sometimes chafing at incompetence, other times agog with enchantment. I wouldn’t want a steady diet of this any more, but a couple of weeks a year are a tonic.

Armando Munoz and Laura Dasi in Jennifer Curry Wungrove's Save My Soul at the San Diego International Fringe Festival. Steven Wetherbee Photo

Armando Munoz and Laura Dasi in Jennifer Curry Wungrove’s Save My Soul at the San Diego International Fringe Festival. Steven Wetherbee Photo

So, Thursday night, there we were in the Lyceum Space, waiting to be dazzled. And, as it happened, the evening peaked early with the first show.

Jennifer Curry Wingrove, formerly a ballerina with the California Ballet Company, has created a steamy midair fantasy for five, Save My Soul, which lifts strengths from several artistic disciplines: Well-marinated New Orleans jazz, serenely executed classic ballet and sleekly fascinating aerial gymnastics.

Wingrove herself, tall, lean and majestic, is a French Quarter showgirl who duets with her sister, the equally talented and delicately wound Laura Dasi. A humble Cajun janitor, played by a compact Adonis named Armando Munoz, is the other side of a romantic triangle. There’s a dark voodoo lady, Cecilia Goodman, and a light voodoo lady (Kiona Daelyn) who help the story to its bittersweet ending in finest fairy-tale fashion.

All the performers carry themselves with the grace and conviction of artists secure in their work. The sisters spend much of their time spinning above the stage on silks. Munoz works his solos on straps; Goodman and Daelyn use ropes. Wingrove’s masterly choreography transfers the ballet grace to the acrobatic sphere effortlessly, which is an absurd statement, of course. As in so many movement marvels, all effort is well hidden.

I was really knocked out by this show. The costumes – especially Dasi’s snake outfit – are exactly right; the recorded music, selected by Munoz, is ideal; and even the rough-and-ready lighting design is supportive. The program didn’t tell me all I wanted to know but it did include a respectful homage to the head rigger, Sal Garcia. May I join in that salute?

Christen Blair Home, Sharmay Musacchio and Jordan Miller, left to right, in Bodhi Tree Concerts production of Tears of the Knife at the Fringe Festival  Stevenb Wetherbee Photo.

Christen Blair Home, Sharmay Musacchio and Jordan Miller, left to right, in Bodhi Tree Concerts production of Tears of the Knife at the Fringe Festival Steven Wetherbee Photo.

The next hour-long show was a prodigious effort of music and art scholarship, a nearly unknown 1928 chamber opera by Bohuslav Martinu, Tears of the Knife. Martinu and his librettist, George Ribemont-Dessaignes, were working under the spell of the DADA Movement, which I haven’t the time or patience to discuss (Google it please!) so the thing makes no sense. On purpose.

There’s graffiti on the set, the earth as a piñata, skipping children, a snoring accordionist and a hanged man. The soprano, Christen Blair Horne, is in love with the corpse, as is, while her mother the mezzo (Sharmay Musacchio) prefers the suave, handsome baritone next door, name of Satan (Jordon Miller). It all works out or maybe not. But there’s a distinct sense of duty in bringing such a curiosity to its San Diego premiere because it’s really hard to perform.

Pianist Bryan Verhoye does prodigious work with the score, assisted by not enough of Mark Danisovszky’s accordion, which always is welcome on San Diego stages. The singers are uniformly skilled and dedicated, as are the three children underfoot. Despite some lulls, Shirley Johnston makes as much sense of the staging as the piece deserves. And the whole thing is a presentation of the saintly Bodhi Tree Concerts, which not only offers rare repertoire but also pays local artists to perform and then gives the profits to charity. Whew.

An epic titled Sizzzling Circus Sirens followed in due course, opening with 13 – count ‘em – 13 young and less young ladies ranged across the Lyceum stage with chairs, not too many unfortunate tattoos and the familiar frippery of burlesque cuties. The recorded music bumped and grinded, as did they, and the audience worked itself into a froth, egged on by Tito Bonito, a superbly focused master of ceremonies, who could have run the War of the Roses without the parade of silly costumes and the liberal sprinkling of rude japes, using only his microphone and his self-assurance.

Speaking as someone with vivid memories of the real thing, I find it hard to understand people’s fascination with the burlesque performance tradition in these permissive times. But it does seem to keep emerging. In this case, Sizzzling Circus Sirens is billed as a presentation of “Circus Mafia” which apparently is a branch of Unity Hoops, an enterprise operated by Valentina, a noted hoop dancer.

Unknown juggler in Sizzzling Circus Sirens at the San Diego Fringe Festival. Steven Wetherbee Photo.

Unknown juggler in Sizzzling Circus Sirens at the San Diego Fringe Festival. Steven Wetherbee Photo.

The highlights of SCS, other than the fascinations of Bonito, were a lanky juggler of plumber’s friends and a genial bald gent on the balance plank. No names, please, except stuff like Lance Planter or Poofy la Foof. All part of the fun, I guess.

And the evening ended with what is known in the theatre as a train wreck. The title is Big Shot, billed as “an original Irish musical,” but little additional information is shared with the audience and certainly nothing coherent comes from the stage, where 10 actors work away with passion and enthusiasm, endlessly moving furniture units in the dark, throwing out cool-type lines (“Her toenails were the greenest I’d ever seen.”), dancing with grim precision, emoting and posing.

A four-piece band, not without ability, cranks out a standard assortment of pop tunes and vamps during the many blackouts. On opening night, from clues imbedded in various conversations, the outline emerged of a story about a gangster, his lawyer, the girl they both fancy, a comedy couple as pals, a sullen gun goon and such. How it all fits together is hard to say.

The costumes were too tight and never varied, the lighting was a nightmare and the flop sweat flowed. The were scars enough to indicate that vast chunks of the piece had been chopped off so maybe some earlier iteration made more sense.

I think I’ll chalk this one up to unchecked ambition and hope that these earnest players find some way to bring Irish musical’s closer to the successes often enjoyed in this count

Save My Soul continues in the Lyceum Space at 2:30 p.m. July 25, 9 p.m. July 28, 10:30 p.m. July 30 and 2:30 p.m. Aug. 1.

Tears of th Knife continues in the Lyceum Space at 6 p.m. July 25, 9 p.m. July 26, 7:30 p.m. July 31 and 6 p.m. Aug. 1.

Sizzzling Circus Sirens continues in the Lyceum Space at 10:30 p.m. July 24, 7:30 p.m. July25, 4 p.m. July 26 and 7:30 p.m. July 28.

Big Shot continues in the Lyceum Space at 11:20 a.m. July 25, 4 p.m. July29, 4 p.m. July 31 and 6 p.m. Aug. 2.

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