Fringeworthy

Fringe, Purged: Year of the Woman?

Capital Fringe founding executive director Julianne Brienza and audience services manager Cory Ryan Frank at last night's festival-closing party.

It was a Capital Fringe Festival in which technically impressive shows—whether the technique on offer was digital or manual—were the talk of the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar.

It was a festival that cost more to attend than in prior years, at least until a withering heat wave inspired a $12 weekend ticket special.

And if it didn't seem mildly, casually sexist to proclaim a festival in which six of the nine big award-winners were female-run companies The Year of the Woman, then we would go right on ahead and do that.

(Oops.)

It's a fact that lady-run companies ruled the TheatreMania-sponsored Pick of the Fringe Awards, winning in five of the eight categories. (How'd we get to six out of nine? Well, the Best Dance victor was a tie between two entities, the DC Aerial Collective for UPheaval and Verena Lucia for SHE. )

Best Comedy went to Nu Sass Productions's Priscilla Dreams the Answer, directed by Emily Todd and produced by Todd and Aubri O'Connor. Best Solo Performance went to Katie Molinaro's punky suite of retribution-rock against her former boyfriends, On the Rag to Riches. (She's moving to Los Angeles pretty soon, so fellas of the District won't have to sleep with one eye open for too much longer.)

Molinaro's show shared a theme as well as a venue (the suffocating Baldacchino Gypsy Tent) with the Best Musical winner, Pinky Swear Productions's rowdy, randy CABARET XXX: Les Femmes Fatales. Even the triple-digit heat index didn't prevent the show's final performance, at 6 p.m. Friday evening, from selling out.

Allyson Harkey, Julianne Brienza, and Karen Lange. Harkey & Lange are co-artistic directors of Pinky Swear Productions, whose CABARET XXX won Best Musical.

Best Experimental production went to Pointless Theatre Company's The Super Spectacular Dada Adventures of Hugo Ball.

The Directors' Award, which Capital Fringe Executive Director Julianne Brienza and Producing Artistic Director Scot McKenzie bestow on one festival entry each year for professionalism and artistic excellence, went to iKilL, a challenging, Japanese-themed movement piece performed in the stifling Apothecary venue. It was written and directed by Izumi Ashizawa, who has staged shows around the world. With its supernatural air of dread and its operatic style of acting, the show to me recalled legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's 1965 ghost story, KWAIDAN.

Taking home Best Drama award was Grain of Sand Theatre's Hamlet Reframed, which examines the titular melancholy Dane from the point of view of the other characters in the play, excising all of Prince Hamlet's famous soliloquies. Carl Brandt Long directed the piece.

Best Overall went to Marshall Pailet and A.D. Penedo's musical satire (there're two kinds of musicals nowadays, satires and Oklahoma!) Who's Your Badhdaddy?, Or How I Started the Iraq War. Its producer, Charlie Fink, was behind last year's Best Musical winnter, Super Claudio Brothers, as well as the concurrent F#*king Up Everything.

Of course, award-winners are not necessarily always the most unique or notable examples of their form. There were no shortage of imaginative shows this year that didn't take home trophies, which are in this case actually paper certificates. "If you didn't win an award tonight, please relax," Brienza said during the ceremony last night, adding that of 17 shows she'd taken in this year—a personal record—"only one of them was bad."

I saw 16 shows this year. In my unscientific estimation, both ambition and quality of execution seemed to have risen across the board.

Traditionally, the Fringe format—at least as practiced here in the District—has restricted how ambitious a show can be in terms of physical production, not just because the shows are low-budget, but also because they get very little opportunity to rehearse in the space they'll actually perform in.

That makes efforts like Illuminate: A Martial Arts Experience, wherein the performers execute jaw-dropping physical feats in the dark, mere feet from the audience, all the more impressive. When John Shryock (who also directed the show) swings his rope-dart, the weapon snaps at at the air close enough to the audience that patrons in the front row, and possibly the fourth, feel it on their faces. That'd be impressive even in a show that had the benefit of lengthy tech rehearsals. (Shryock told me he and his fellow performers practiced their elaborate fight choreography in a space marked off to replicate the exact dimensions of the Warehouse stage.) Meanwhile, UPheaval staged its aerialist acrobatics in the Studio Theatre's Mead space without any Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark-type catastrophes.

Sixty-five performances sold out this year.

e-Geaux (beta) was another festival entry that generated substantial buzz. This parody software product demo was so convincing that I had trouble telling how much of it was a joke.

A: All of it, actor/producer Joseph Price assured me. While I understood that the specific products promoted during the show — a self-explanatory photo-alteration app called Furry-izer; a Facebook plug-in called eGeaux-Stroke — were fake, I assumed that Pepys, Inc. was a real startup that would be rolling out some kind of genuine social networking product in the near future.

A big reason the illusion was so persuasive was because of its digital sophistication. Price and his castmates invite arriving audience members to "opt-in" via a custom-built web portal. Once you opt-in, Price's confederates appropriate your Facebook account to complete a demographic analysis of each house, recommendations of who among your fellow audience members you should friend-as-a-verb, and some hilarious new captions for your photos—for all in attendance to enjoy, naturally. (I didn't opt in, but my publicly available mug ended up in the show anyway. Price said it was a screw-up and apologized.) It takes real techy know-how to do those things. So the tech-elves working on the show — Chuck Harmston, Allen Leis, and Hannah Poferi — were doing all that highly skilled labor (effectively) for free, just for fun?

Yep, Price told me.

Perhaps because of the first price increase in Capital Fringe history, the festival's five years of steady expansion leveled off, with the festival slimming its roster by 10 percent (from 137 shows in 2010 to 124 this year) and selling about 20 percent fewer single tickets. The final tally of about "just over" 27,000 individual tickets was good enough to make this the second-most-attended Capital Fringe, but fell well short of last year's all-time high of 33,897.

Audience participation is perhaps more prevalent among Fringe fare than theater at large, but even so, this year's preponderance of shows wherein the audience was critical to the very conception of the finished work still felt notable.

Fringe artist emeritus-turned-invaluable Fringe & Purge Action News and Commentary Squad member Ryan S. Taylor pointed this out in our "critique the critics" dialogue between our bloggers and Fringe artists last week. An incomplete list of audience-participation shows: Megan and David's Low-Cost Creativity Workshop, Gwendolyn & Cicely's Fantastical Capital Balloon Ride, Who Killed Captain Kirk?, Tactile Dinner Car, Stevie Jay's life, love, sex, death... and other works in progress (a multi-chakra extravaganza), eGeaux (Beta). There're surely more.

A few other trends I observed, if an accumulation of two can be called a trend:

Dylan Marron and Jo Firestone. Their MEGAN AND DAVID'S ORIGINAL LOW-COST CREATIVITY WORKSHOP was one of many audience-participation shows this year.

Fake Seminars Performed by Gifted Comic Duos: Assembly Required: Comedy A to Y and Megan and David's Original Low-Cost Creativity Workshop. These were the funniest shows I saw this year, both of them from duos returning from last year's Capital Fringe. In Assembly Required, Brian Sutow and Joshua Morgan of the Helen Hayes Award-winning No Rules Theatre Company reprised their roles as the adversarial school/prison-assembly performers Rob and Flick, who in their Fringe debut last year taught us how to create an original musical.

Meanwhile, Jo Firestone and Dylan Marron won the Directors' Award last year for their Ridgefield Middle School Talent Nite, which they continue to perform around the country. Their Megan and David made its debut here. Our critic, Benjamin J. Freed, didn't like it nearly as much as I did. Like Abe Lincoln's cabinet, the Fringe & Purge Action News and Commentary Squad is a team of rivals.

Shows Performed in the Warehouse, in the Dark, Using TRON-y, Rave-y Neon Visuals: Illuminate and Illuminopolis, a burlesque revue that featured fire-eating and a stripper who did Illuminate's L.E.D. gloves one better, donning L.E.D. pasties.

Shows Featuring Jokes About the Feebleness of Using the International Star Registry to Name a Celestial Body After Your Sweetheart: Iluminopolis and Hookups, which we reviewed twice. Totally on purpose.

Shows about Roosevelts: The Man in the Arena, about Theodore and Alice, about Alice Longworth Roosevelt.

Outer Space: As contemplated in Paco Madden's Who Killed Captain Kirk? and Evan Crump's FLYBOY, both of which I have effused about at length.

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