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New York's Fringe Festival: Expect the Unexpected

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To the sound track of "The Exorcist," skaters whirl about in bell-bottoms and halter tops. The glides and leaps serve as both backdrop for and commentary on the pitfalls of growing up--you guessed it--repressed and inauthentic. The usual suspects are at it again: school, church, and society.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time for "Fringe on Ice"--with its '60s-cum-'90s sensibility--to surface: an outdoor ice theatre show awash in--not the best turn of phrase--topical references, self-mocking elbow-nudging parody, hot pop music from the past and present, and even a smidgen of performance art.

"Fringe on Ice," is an all-day event, Aug. 23, noon-9 pm slated for the Lower East Side's Seward Park, and a highlight of The 2nd Annual New York International Fringe Festival, Aug. 19-30.

"The only rule in 'Fringe on Ice' is that there are no rules," says its creator Lisa Clinton, a professional figure skater."Yes, our skits do have an SNL flavor. 'Fringe on Ice' is about growth and artistry--we offer skaters the chance to do their own thing, especially for those who are no longer part of traditional figure skating companies. We are not about competitive sports."

"Fringe on Ice" is part of FringeAlFresco, a central component in this year's Lower East Side spectacular that includes parades, buskers, installations, and projections designed to eschew traditional venues in favor of unexpected settings that, say Festival spokespersons, "startle and intrigue." FringeAlFresco is block party meets environmental theatre.

The Festival, a.k.a. FringeNYC, will present 144 productions and over 20 special events representing, for the most part, emerging theatre companies worldwide. The two-week long multidisciplinary, culturally diverse theatre events will be held in 17 of New York's most prominent Lower East Side performance spaces. Among these: Nada, Surf Reality, Collective Unconscious, The Red Room, House of Candles, and LES Tenement Museum.

"Our mission is three-fold," says Festival Producing Director Elena K. Holy. "Besides being advocates for the Fringe, we want to unite the next generation of artists. We want to build a bridge between the local community and not-for-profit theatres, and we want to serve as champions for fringe theatres on the Lower East Side. We have a special responsibility to rebuild Off-Off-Broadway's infrastructure, create those theatre spaces, and foster a supportive local community where Off-Off-Broadway can happen."

Operating on a budget of approximately $100,000--mostly earned through application and admission fees--FringeNYC hopes to "become a cultural force as opposed to simply a group of Off-Off-Broadway theatres here and abroad," says Holy. And, she continues, "the Festival will generate publicity and attract, ideally, a whole new group of young producers who are in sync with the vision and may be interested in offering these performers extended Off-Off-Broadway runs. And there's always the possibility, that some of these producers are uptown types in search of new talent.

"Remember, what's fringe now is mainstream five years from now!" asserts Aaron Beall, artistic director of downtown theatre group Toda Con Nada, Inc. and one of the Festival's founders.

Fringe festivals are not new. The Edinborough Festival Fringe, now celebrating its 51st anniversary, is the Granddaddy. And there are many others both abroad and in the United States. New York is the seventh American city to host a fringe fest.

What makes FringeNYC unique, however, is its communal purpose. The administrative team schedules all the events, and finds theatres for each of the shows; typically, productions arrive at festivals, rent their own space, and do their own advertising. Here, resources and marketing tools are shared. And unlike other festivals that work on a first-come, first-served basis, admission to this festival is highly competitive. This year 450 applications were reviewed.

"We look for innovation, vibrancy, and diversity," notes Holy. "While the quality was high last year, I believe it's even higher this year. And this time around we were more selective. Last year, we had 175 shows. This year, it's 144."

So what, if anything, ties the Festival's shows together? Are there unifying themes and subjects?

"There are several pieces based on true-life figures and there's some reworking of classics from 'Hamlet' to 'Medea' to the Ionesco's 'Bald Soprano.' In fact, we have two 'Bald Sporanos,' " says Holy. "And since it's Brecht's centennial, we have six pieces by Brecht."

Without spelling it out, Holy suggests an experimental off-the-beaten-track sensibility is the operative esthetic. For the most part, realism is out. So is linear storytelling. In some instances, text is gone. High theatricality and the visual--admittedly on a low-budget scale--are big. And one-person shows engaging in high-decibel stream of consciousness rants will be well-represented here.

The thrust of each show, as well as its creator's missions, clearly vary. "Fringe on Ice" 's Lisa Clinton, for example, hopes her production marks the beginning of a new genre with broad application. "It is a much-needed event for professional skaters who, after a certain point in their careers, may have no place to perform. It also talks to audiences who are craving something zany on ice along with skating's artistry. We're just in the beginnings of this experiment, but I'd love to take this show on tour and then do it in an Off-Broadway theatre as it develops. Ideally, it'll evolve into a real script. We are theatre on ice."

(SUB) Dark Side of the Net

The piece that may well garner the most attention is "Mail Order Brides & Other Take-Aways," presented by Singapore's ACTION Theatre. The play looks at the lives of several women--including a Thai prostitute, a Filipino maid, and a Chinese woman--who sell themselves as brides to Western men over the Internet. It is a bleak account.

"The play is a response to the burgeoning mail-order bride business on the net and the agencies that sell dreams to both the men and women [Western and Eastern, respectively]," explains Pek Siok Lian, writer-director of "Mail Order Brides." "The play is also a reaction against the blatant way in which some of these agencies play the Pinkerton pimp, hawking Asian women as the exotic, the sensual, the subservient. These agencies are appealing to the most dangerous racist stereotypes."

ACTION Theatre is a 10-year-old Singapore company which focuses on developing and presenting original new works in English that explore topical and contemporary issues. Some plays are scripted, others emerge from improvisation. Neither the acting style nor the production value is especially experimental. Whatever controversy the work evokes stems from the subject matter.

" 'Mail Order Brides' raises a number of uncomfortable questions," notes Pek Siok Lian. "Is this phenomenon [Asian women "bought" by Western men] another expression of hegemony and/or simply a flesh trade? What's really in it for these Asian brides-to-be? What does it mean to offer oneself as a life partner on the Internet? Is it any different from the kind of faceless matchmaking that has existed in Asian societies for decades?

"I hope the play suggests that nothing is easily categorized, despite appearances. It's all too easy to see these women as either victims, on the one hand, or wanton materialistic types, on the other. It's more complex than that."

Pek Siok Lian maintains that "Mail Order Brides" is a fringe work because it looks at the lives of women who are marginalized, sometimes in their own societies as well as the cultures to which they aspire. "They are Alices in what turns out to be a hostile Wonderland."

(SUB) A "Wordless World"

In a different vein, there's "Tenement Vaudeville." Set in the Tenement Museum, a "restored" turn of the century tenement on Orchard Street, "Tenement Vaudeville" makes use of that evocative scene, tying the acts together in the ultimate site-specific theatre. The central character is a contemporary construction worker who finds himself in an old tenement, unlocking an ancient trunk. As he removes props and costumes from the metal chest, a range of variety acts materialize on stage. Make no mistake, this is no traditional vaudeville show, circa 1890. The absence of the emcee is only part of the equation.

"Many of the acts are traditionally based," says Mark Lonergran, "Tenement Vaudeville"'s co-creator. "But we do a little tweaking to give them a '90s flavor." He pauses. "Our vaudeville is timeless. We're creating a wordless world that is not unlike a circus," asserts Lonergran. "I'm far more interested in visual effects than text."

The 20-25 acts run the gamut--from an escape artist to a saw player to a life-sized puppet show. Inspired, Lonergran says, by the physicality of Bill Irwin, the Cirque Du Soleil esthetic in general, and Magritte's paintings in particular, this vaudeville's unifying element is its surrealist and dream-like ambience.

Lonergran, who appeared last year in FringeNYC's "WHITE! NOISE! JUMP!"--notable for its amphetamine-tempo storytelling, snippets of loudly proclaimed dialogue, and electronic sound montages--earned one of the Festival's Excellence in Theatre awards. "What we did last year was avant-vaudeville, it was heavily based in language. This is different. It's an experiment that will serve as a foundation for a larger project that I hope will lead to an Off-Broadway run."

(SUB) Without Lineage

On a more somber note there's "Gotraheen," Arthur Miller's "A View from the Bridge" seen through an East Indian lens. Co-presented by Nandikar--a 30-year-old theatre company based in Calcutta--and two American groups--New York's Epic Actors' Workshop & Choir, and the Association of Indian Arts & Culture in New Jersey--"Gotraheen" is an experiment on several fronts and thus fringe-worthy, explains Sudipto Chatterjee, actor and artistic director of Epic Actors' Workshop & Choir.

The latter was founded in 1980 and is made up of "serious amateur actors originally from Calcutta, now living in New York. Nandikar is a pioneering professional theatre group in Calcutta. It was the first to bring Chekhov and Brecht to India."

"The mix of professionals and amateurs and the cross-continental collaboration between American-based and Indian-based troupes makes this an unusual production," says Chatterjee. "More important, we speak in Bengali. In New York, has anyone heard a play in Bengali? Very few people know that it's the seventh most spoken language in the world and that there are 30,000 Bengali-speaking people in New York."

Clearly, the most central "fringe" element is the play's reconceived setting: here it's the docks of Calcutta, as opposed to Red Hook, Brooklyn. The Italian immigrants have become disenfranchised East Indian Muslims. "In Calcutta, one of the most impoverished cities in the world, the Muslims are the poorest of the poor. The most marginalized.

"We're not really adapting Arthur Miller's play, but rather deconstructing it and then reconstructing it. We do not believe in the sanctity of the text," Chatterjee stresses. "Still, we're trying to show the universality of Arthur Miller's play, regardless of culture, specifically, the experiences of minority cultures." The title is revealing too. "Gotraheen" means without lineage, a concept that has application to both Miller's play and the fringe festival, emphasizes Chatterjee.

An esthetic that is maintained, however, is the play's central realism. The acting is realistic, but it's not Stanislavksi realism. "Realistic acting in India is informed by traditional styles of performance." Chatterjee notes the slight readjustment the New York actors have to make to accommodate the old acting style, although the players are all native East Indians. "But then that mix is precisely part of what makes the collaborative process dynamic," he says.

"I'd like this production to be a stepping-stone for further collaborations between peoples from two different cultures who share the same language and same roots."

(SUB) Removing the Mask

Assurbanipal Babilla, a theologically trained Presbyterian Iranian, also defines himself as a minority within a minority, adding "It's no wonder I'm fringe." The avant-garde theatre artist fled Iran during the Fundamentalist coup and the Shah's downfall in 1979. Now living in New York City, Babilla is the head of Purgatorio Ink (sic), an experimental theatre group that has become a staple of the downtown scene.

Religious, sexual, and political imagery of the most twisted kind are central to his artistic vision. So is physical--by his own definition "exaggerated"--acting. "Good art should never be realistic." Influenced by Polish theatre artists Grotowski and Tadeus Kantor, he says, "My theatre is centered around the actor as opposed to the text. That's not to say text is unimportant, but I'm far more interested in the actor revealing himself rather than playing a role. Theatre is the removal of the mask. No, it's not psychotherapy. Psychotherapy tries to make you normal. I dig into the labyrinthian paths of the soul. I'm not talking autobiography here, or confession. That doesn't interest me." He adds, "I'm also influenced by Joseph Conrad's works. Like him, I have a deeply pessimistic view. I have little hope for mankind. We are stupid creatures."

In the Fringe Festival, he will be performing his hellish one-man show, "Something Something Uber Alles," that examines the experiences of a Hitler look-alike who is at first appalled at the resemblance and his cult-following, and then undergoes a conversion of sorts. He embraces his new identity, indeed celebrates it, even as he spirals downwards.

Babilla acknowledges that his work often arouses distaste. "I've been accused of everything, from being racist to misogynistic to anti-Semitic. Some people think I'm a Hitler-lover. And they couldn't be more wrong. I'm fascinated by tyrants, but I'm especially fascinated by their followers. That's also my feeling about Charles Manson and his followers." [Babilla's earlier work, "Born Again Killer or Dead Women Talking" looked at that monster-freak]."Manson was a great authority figure. I hate authority figures. The ultimate authority figure is, of course, God. And he is the one I most debunk. God is the final example of the overblown male ego."

Babilla says he hopes audiences walk away from "Something Something Uber Alles" seeing the connection between politics, religion, and sex and that all of them are frequently marked by hypocrisy and corruption. "I want audiences to see that I've torn myself apart and given them my liver and my gut."

Asked what he hopes exposure in the Fringe Festival leads to, he doesn't miss a beat. "Fame and fortune."

Now there's a fringe goal!

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