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Summer Festivals Sizzle

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In an average season, fewer than 40 productions open on Broadway. Off-Broadway that figure roughly doubles, and Off-Off-Broadway--depending on how you define it--as many as 300 or more shows might celebrate opening nights. During July and August, however, three festivals offer about 300 shows combined in what is one of the largest and, in terms of aesthetics and sensibility, one of the most freewheeling theatrical convocations in the world. The festivals are the sixth annual New York International Fringe Festival (Aug. 9-25), the HERE Arts Center's 13th annual American Living Room (July 13-Sept. 1), and the third annual Midtown International Theatre Festival (July 8-Aug. 4).

With 195 productions and countless ancillary events, the Fringe is the pink elephant of summer theatre--something impossible to avoid noticing. And more than that, why would you want to? After all, the list of productions which have graduated from the Fringe and gone on to productive, profitable lives is headed, naturally, by "Urinetown," now playing on Broadway. The American Living Room, meanwhile, sports over 100 new works, over 1,000 participating artists, and unapologetically calls itself "New York City's oldest downtown summer performance festival." (One of the Living Room's conceits--transforming HERE into "a cozy, relaxing living room, complete with comfy couches, relaxing lazy-boys, funky table lamps, and kitschy coffee tables" is still the coolest idea since air conditioning.) Finally, the Midtown Festival plays its upstart role well, with over 25 productions.

In total, it's an entire New York theatrical season in eight frenetic weeks.

The Fringe on the Balance Beam

The challenge in programming this year's Fringe Festival--coming weeks after "Urinetown" took three Tonys--is in finding a balance between cutting-edge works by complete unknowns and cutting-edge works by well-known artists.

And, in essence, that's what the production list for the 2002 Fringe Festival looks like. Here are five examples: "Him and Her," a new musical by Paul Scott Goodman ("Bright Lights, Big City") starring Liz Larsen; "Five Frozen Embryos," a one-act by actor/playwright David Greenspan; "Sleepers," a short play "about two guys who meet while masturbating" by Christopher Shinn (author of last season's "Four"); "The Death of Frank," by Stephen Belber (author of last season's "Tape"); and "Beat," a world premiere drama tracing the life of poet Allen Ginsberg--in particular his obscenity trial for "Howl." Described as "part poetry slam, part rant, part musical jam session," the piece stars Danny Pintauro, famous for his seasons on the TV sitcom "Who's the Boss?" and various gay-themed theatrical showcases in New York in recent years.

Contrast that list with three under-the-radar works: "Duct," a solo performance piece by Stephanie Shaw about a woman stuck in a heating duct; "Almost Obscene," a solo comedy by Mad Magazine Senior Editor Joe Raiola exploring "free speech, Internet porn, flag burning, and public funding"; and "The Dentist or Be Careful What You Put in Your Mouth," which is written and directed by Jason Kendall and features "bedtime stories by French maids, magic candy from flying witches, succulent borscht from the Dells of Wisconsin, and a healthy dose of uncontrolled nymphomania and sword-swashbuckling."

In the end, the most joyous thing about the Fringe is how high the kooky quotient can go. Consider, for example, "The Joys of Sex: A Naughty New Musical Revue." With lyrics by Melissa Levis, music by David Weinstein, and direction by Jeremy ("Maybe Baby It's You") Dobrish, the piece is a "comic musical romp from foreplay to fireworks?.With songs like 'The Three Way,' 'The Vault,' and 'Intercourse on the Internet,' this dirty show is good clean fun.'" But that's nothing compared to Joe Wack's "A Night of Shitty Theatre," which consists of a series of intentionally dreadful sketches that send up some of the most thoroughly cliched theatrical situations ever devised.

Cooking in the Living Room

In the 13 years the American Living Room series has been a downtown summer theatre mainstay, such artists and troupes as Camryn Manheim, Elevator Repair Service, and Basil Twist have pushed their artistic boundaries to the limit. That's the essence of the Living Room--a place comfortable enough for people to tap into the deepest parts of their theatrical selves without facing withering criticism or unreceptive audiences.

Part of the idea behind the Living Room is the vast diversity of the work. One may visit the Directing Cabaret, which features 14 distinct programs, each with three new works by three directors; the Performance Series, running Thursday and Fridays in August and featuring two solo pieces per night; or the Puppet Parlor, which sports three short puppetry pieces over two separate evenings. And because HERE is committed to multi- and cross-disciplinary work, there's a Music Lounge series, a Film and Video Salon, and in the main gallery, an emerging artist exhibition representing the handiwork of over 50 individuals. Each section of the American Living Room is curated by two or more affiliated artists.

For many, the most fascinating program is the Directing Cabaret, with almost every piece bearing all the hallmarks of super-smart art. This year, for example, Susanna Speier has penned and directs "Nine Eleven," a play in which "a bull and a bear wander through the dust-filled Lower Manhattan night" as "a statue and two bridges try to come to terms with the not-too-distant past." And if that weren't absurdist enough, there's "Tumor," written by Sheila Callaghan and directed by Catherine Zambri. In that piece, "Kathy is pregnant, Sarah is pregnant?and so is Pete." And finally, in "Excelsior," written by Jay Bernzweig and directed by Kevin Vavassur, "a hotel's relentless luxury triggers paranoia for a nervous guest."

For those interested in more individualistic pursuits, the Performance Series is the one to watch. And this year's entries sound fascinating: Martha McDonald's "The Honey That Attracts the Bees," a comic look at "butterflies, bees, and the power of flirting"; Blue Inc's "Splice," which calls itself "a theatrical tribute to film which uses physical theatre, puppetry, mask, and music to recreate the images and icons of over 20 classic films"; and Wendy Weiner's "Searching for the '60s," which recounts the author's quest "for the mythical freedom and idealism" of the flower-power era.

Theatrical Mayhem in Midtown

Produced by John Chatterton, who by day publishes the Off-Off-Broadway Review (OOBR), the Midtown International Theatre Festival has the advantage?and the challenge?of having to artistically distinguish itself from the other two events. It's apparent, particularly judging from this year's entries, that Chatterton and his associates are doing just that. On the one hand, there's light, frothy fare like Donna Stearns' "All the World's a Stage", a "gay-friendly musical farce" based on "As You Like It," in which "lesbian Celia is hot for Rosalind, who is pursuing a porn-fixated boy, who is dating another boy, who, by the way, is actually Rosalind in disguise." On the other hand, there's "City of Dreams," a musical presented by Youngblood, one of the offshoot groups of Ensemble Studio Theatre, which is a co-presenter of the piece.

With direction by Michael Alltop, music by Joseph Zellnik, and book and lyrics by his brother, David Zellnik, "City of Dreams" takes place in fin de siecle Vienna where "young Sigmund Freud watches as the Royal Hapsburgs are swept down an Oedipal whirlpool of love and rage." As the piece progresses, Freud and his friend, the artist Gustav Klimt, "stare in disbelief as the fate of the empire rests on an indecisive, melancholic Prince, a half-mad anorexic Empress, an iron-fisted reactionary Emperor--and a 16-year-old social climber whose affair with the Crown Prince threatens to topple the entire Empire."

An even eerier musical is "Mustard--It's a Gas!," which is part of a series of staged readings also in the Midtown Festival. This particular piece by Ben Murphy is a "musical comedy based on the life of Fritz Haber, who almost single-handedly invented modern chemical warfare."

Finally, in between the light, the dark, the absurd, and the sublime, there are tons of solo work to check out as well. One particular tour de force is undoubtedly two solo one-act pieces written and performed by John Tedeschi. In "I Love Myself" Tedeschi portrays ten characters in Hell's Kitchen. In "Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?," Tedeschi uses songs by Queen, Journey, Blitzstein, Lloyd Webber, the Rolling Stones, and Aretha Franklin to allow Narcissus "to discover unconditional and unobjectified love." And, no doubt, to show the actor's talents in every conceivable light.

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