We’ve Got to Get Out of This Place: Notes on Capital Fringe’s Last Year at the Fort
“We want the cops to come,” Julianne Brienza boasted to the audience at the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar Sunday night, as she prepared to announce the ninth Capital Fringe Festival’s award winners. “We want them to try to shut us down.”
But five hours later—still an hour before the beer garden closed its gates on New York Avenue NW for the last time—the place was pretty quiet, and no law enforcement had intervened. The last big group of us, about a dozen, all seated in the area cordoned off from the sidewalk by a yellow plastic chain, packed it in a little before 1 a.m. For the six years prior, a group of diehards had always remained on the festival’s closing night to shut the bar down, but this time, it was like we’d all already accepted it was time to move on.
Capital Fringe has a $1.65 million payment due on its new home at 1358 Florida Ave. NE on Oct. 1. At the closing ceremony, Brienza announced that the Share Fund of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region had pledged a donation to the festival of $1 million—a big step toward paying the estimated $9.2 million total for the new space, which includes renovation expenses and an operating reserve. When I follow up with Brienza to confirm the award, she says Fringe will make half of it a matching grant, meaning the festival will return $500,000 if another donor doesn’t pledge another $500,000.
Fringe’s job this year was to impress potential donors. To the community of artists and patrons (and artist-patrons) that's returned to it with an admirable rate of recidivism in the six years since the festival installed itself at the former A.V. Ristorante Italiano, its bonafides and its bummer-fides have been long established. The festival is trying to turn some of these folks into financial backers, with a $10,000 capital campaign that runs through Aug. 7. With suggested donation levels of $1, $20, $50, and $250, this one isn’t just targeted at the well-to-do subset of Fringe fans.
In its ninth iteration, the festival felt like more of the same, in a pleasant if unexciting way: The across-the-board uptick in quality that became evident in 2010 or 2011 was preserved, although there seemed to be more cancellations than usual, with four shows scotching their entire runs and Fringe opting to end a fifth, Secrets of the National Mall, following customer complaints.
The single-ticket sales tally of 31,395 that Brienza announced on Sunday night represented a modest uptick from 2013's 30,868 tickets. But sales of multishow passes declined by about 20 percent, from 1,582 in 2013 to 1,274 this year. Payout to artists totaled $226,538 last year and will be $215,015 this year.
One hundred and nineteen performances sold out in 2014, compared with 100 last year, but it’s difficult to compare apples to apples given the change in venues. The addition of three of the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s four performance spaces this year provided two new large-capacity venues, the Sprenger Theatre and the Lang Theatre, with 280 and 262 seats, respectively, as well as the 90-seat Lab II.
As the Atlas is located just one block south of Fringe’s new HQ on Florida Avenue NE, its use gave festival goers a taste of the transportation headache that the new location could bring. Though already a proven arts and entertainment destination, the Atlas District is far less accessible by public transit than Fringe’s old New York Avenue digs, with the nearest Metro stop more than a mile away and only the twice-hourly X2 bus serving the area late at night. One hopes the DC Streetcar’s H Street/Benning line will be running in time for the tenth Capital Fringe next July.
Contentwise, this festival was as robust as in recent years. Some shows scored big with winning, easily communicated concepts: Live Arts DC put their R + J Star Cross’d Death Match in the bar DC Reynolds on George Avenue NW in Park View, and sold out its run. (The show was voted Best Drama in TheatreMania’s Audience Awards, and producer Heather Whitpan has arranged for a six- or seven-show remount to begin performances at the bar on Sept. 20.) A Dream Within a Dream—an entry in the festival’s new site-specific program this year—sold through its stock and added more shows, albeit with only 10 tickets available for each one, according to Brienza.
Field Trip Theatre's production of Patrick Flynn's original drama Giant Box of Porn was a critically hailed hit. The original opera A Fire in Water won raves, including one from Fringeworthy (née Fringe & Purge) founder Trey Graham. Coosje, from the New York City-based No. 11 Productions, was an out-of-left-field delight, charting the love affair and creative partnership of sculptors Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen with a light touch and a graceful command of the show’s varied but seamlessly integrated tools: flying set pieces, tasteful video accompaniment, and a sentient pear (played by Sina Heiß in a fruit costume) that found its way into the script after one of the troupe’s members described Oldenburg and Van Bruggen as a “sentient pair” and another mistook her meaning.
The Wandering Theatre Company’s Antigone took the Best Dance & Physical Theatre award. The Director’s Award, which Brienza bestows and the City Paper sponsors, went to relEASE’s SELF, a dance and storytelling show devised and performed by Tori Bertocci and Pasquale Guiducci.
The Best Comedy and Best Overall awards went to Fringe perennial Nu Sass Productions for Stone Tape Party, a New Orleans-set ghost story by Danny Rovin that differed substantially from the company’s prior offerings: In 2012, their Tent of Dreams: An Occuplay addressed the Occupy movement, while last year’s 43 ½ : The Greatest Deaths of Shakespeare’s Tragedies was a crowd-pleaser unburdened by any political payload.
But many returning companies seemed to play to their established strengths.
Pinky Swear Productions’ fourth entry in their popular tent-bar Cabaret XXX franchise, Everybody F*cking Dies, took the temperature of the festival and killed off its three primary character before the show even started, treating us to the amusing spectacle of Allyson Harkey, Karen Lange, and Toni Rae Salmi all playing more conservative characters eulogizing their more flamboyant, and departed, alter-egos. (While they haven’t ruled out one-off return appearances, both Lange and Harkey have said this is the end of the line, as far as the cabaret’s regular appearances in the festival.)
Live Action Theatre, a company dedicated to elevating the art of stage combat that made its debut in last year’s Fringe, doubled down and gave us the fight-film parody The Tournament. It was 100 percent funny as last year’s The Continuing Adventures of John Blade, Super Spy, but with 200 percent of the prior show’s fisticuffs (and swordicuffs, etc.). Alexandra Petri turned in another hit comedy for classics majors, Miss Emma’s Matchmaking Agency for Literary Characters. It wasn’t all that different from Tragedy Averted, her 2013 play about the doomed heroines of Shakepeare’s tragedies going to summer camp together, in the sense that both played like extended sketches. But it was funny and well-performed and made you feel smart for getting the joke.
Ron Litman delivered another two-hander mini-musical with his songwriter partner Tom Pile, Waiting for Armageddon. Less directly autobiographical than his prior shows DC Trash or Fish Outta Water, its paranoia about all the ways the world could end felt genuine, and most of the songs were good.
Vaughn Irving, who’d won Best Musical and shared the Director’s Award bestowed by Brienza last year for Disco Jesus and the Apostles of Funk, had another hit (and another award-winner, for Best Musical) in You, or Whatever I Can Get, a collaboration with Flying V Theatre that he and Steve Przybyiski wrote in collaboration with Irving’s castmates Suzanne Edgar, Farrell Parker, and Doug Wilder.
The show was about four housemates’ romantic travails at or near age 30, with each of them gradually resolving to stop grieving for the past and face the future with optimism and confidence, or at least an open mind. In that regard, it was the show that defined the festival. Maybe we don’t need to close down the bar every night to feel like we’re having fun.
Capital Fringe images © 2014 Paul Gillis Photography