Navigating the Novelties

The Cincy Fringe Festival returns to Over-the-Rhine in all its fringy glory

May 22, 2013 at 9:24 am
click to enlarge "Loon" by Wonderheads
"Loon" by Wonderheads

So what tips can I offer, as the 10th Cincinnati Fringe Festival is about to begin? I’ve attended these annual round-ups of theater, dance, comedy, music, monologues and oddball unclassifiable performances for a decade, so I have accrued some modest authority. Of course, I can’t compare myself to Know Theatre’s team who pulls all this madness together — a crazy Rubik’s Cube of venues (10 of them this year) for more than 30 productions, each one presented maybe four or five times during a stretch of 12 days (May 29 to June 10 this year) — not to mention the behind-the-scenes tasks like providing housing for dozens of traveling performers and coordinating a boatload of volunteers.

But I do know something, since I annually organize a crew of writers who fan out as shows open to see first performances and write reports for so you can get some advance notice of what’s happening before you arrive at Know Theatre to buy your tickets.

My first tip: Don’t think you can outwit the Fringe. I like to say that the festival is best described as theater roulette. Give the cylinder a whirl, pull the trigger and see what comes at you. Sometimes it might be what you expect, but more often than not you’ll be surprised. There are duds, making you wonder why the performers bothered. Sometimes a show proves to be a clever idea that just didn’t get pulled off. (Bear in mind that these are very low-budget productions and that they typically share a venue with one or two other productions, so nothing can be too elaborate — since it has to be stowed away when someone else is performing. That means many shows are very bare bones.) 

But there’s always the chance that you’ll stumble into something unexpectedly wonderful. 

For previews, you can read the official guide, published in the May 15 issue of CityBeat and available at Know Theatre and other venues, and also at CityBeat’s online hub of Fringe coverage, where previews will be replaced with reviews as our writers return from early performances with their takes. 

But be warned about the previews: The artists are notoriously cryptic about their shows. How about the rundown for Lolita: a Three Man Show, presented by Four Humors Theater from Minneapolis (back for their fifth consecutive festival)? It’s described as “a one-hour play which is based on a two-hour movie by Stanley Kubrick, which is based on the six-hour screenplay by Vladimir Nabokov, which is based on the 300-page book by Vladimir Nabokov. Performed by three men.” Or Mater Facit? Performance Gallery, the longevity champs of Cincy Fringe, has participated every year since 2004. Here’s what they say: “War begins with mommy. A delicate tale told by idiots,” adding that it’s “an absurd look at motherhood, nationalism, sex, sacrifice and rabbits.”

Some shows are more straightforward, such as Petunia & Chicken, “inspired by the writings of Midwestern author Willa Cather” and featuring “two daring performers [who] create an epic story of love and loss as big as the prairie itself.” I’m looking forward to a return engagement by Wonderheads, a pair of performers who charmed audiences a year ago wearing larger-than-life masks for Grim and Fischer. Their 2013 piece, Loon, is “a love story that whisks a man to the moon and back” using “fantastical puppetry and a style … described as ‘live-action Pixar.’ ” Another tip: Groups like Wonderheads travel to many festivals and pick up recognition worth noting; these performers won the 2012 Edmonton (Canada) Critics Choice Award and another “best of” citation in Vancouver.

Based on Tanya O’Debra’s piece from 2013, Radio Star, I suspect that her Shut UP, Emily Dickinson, will be intriguing. The polished actress from New York City calls her show “a pseudo-historical, quasi-biographical psycho-romance about America’s most annoying poetess” and adds, “She’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, smothered in mental illness on a bed of terrible personality.” That gets my attention.

Don’t presume that the best work comes from out of town, however.

Local playwright Catie O’Keefe’s script, The Space Between My Head and My Body, will be presented by Shark Eat Muffin Theatre, while Pones Inc., a Cincinnati-based dance company will offer Choose Your Own Adventure, a performance that will ask audiences to make decisions about how the story proceeds. Another local troupe, MamLuft&Co. Dance, is presenting Maps, “a video and dance theater work about getting lost to be found.” Tangled Leaves Theatre Collective, which has produced popular works at past Cincy Fringes, is staging Vortex of the Great Unknown, a slice of “Dimension 317, a division of the Zoetropic Galaxy.” It’s got a little bit of everything — comedy, drama, multimedia and music.

Also locally originated will be three performances by high school students as part of the FringeNext series, running for several evenings during the first week of the festival at the Black Box Theatre at the School for Creative and Performing Arts. There’s Persephone’s Prerogative, inspired by reality TV; Thou Shall Rot in Hell, with a guy reviewing his screwed-up life; and We Put the ‘Fun’ in Funeral, a darkly comic tale of dysfunctional family whose members come together when one of their own has passed away.

I’m just skimming across more than 30 choices available to you. If you plan your evening carefully, you might be able to see three pieces, but more often it will be two. And here’s a warning: Unless you are a scheduling wizard, you won’t get to see everything. So another tip is to check out the commentaries that CityBeat writers will be providing (we’ll keep them coming via Twitter @CityBeatCincy). But we’re not the only ones, and it’s worth it to drop by Know Theatre’s below-the-street Underground bar each evening after 10 p.m. to mingle with other fringe-o-philes and performers who show up to meet people and promote their shows. You’ll hear what others have to say and pick up recommendations. I suspect you’ll also come to understand that Cincinnati’s festival might be the most artist-friendly fringe, one that visiting artists often return to — as well as passing the word to others that this is a friendly place for performers with enthusiastic audiences. That means the quality of what comes our way gets better every year. It’s also why attendance keeps growing: Last year nearly crossed the 8,000 threshold, and with some luck (and good weather), it’s not hard to imagine that the Cincy Fringe’s 10th anniversary might get to a five-digit total for attendees.

By the way, the Underground is the place to be for the nightly “Bar Series,” which is great fun and available at no extra charge (cash bar), kicking off around 10:30 p.m. with the very tongue-in-cheek “Channel Fringe Hard-Hitting Action News Update” and typically followed by various special events. Some favorites include a game night (May 30), a prom (June 1, with a sci-fi theme this year), Fringe-A-Oke (June 2), Fringe Olympics (June 3) and more. And you’ll want to show up on June 8 for the closing night party when the Pick of the Fringe winners are announced, based on voting by audiences, critics, producers, pass holders and artists. My final tip: It’s well nigh impossible to be bored during the Fringe.

This year’s performances will take place in 10 locations in Over-the-Rhine, all within a few blocks of Know Theatre (1120 Jackson St., just south of 12th Street), which serves as a venue, the central box office and Fringe headquarters — where there’s a party in the Underground Bar every evening. Other venues are the black box theater at the School for Creative and Performing Arts (108 W. Central Parkway); Elementz Hip Hop & Youth Center (formerly Media Bridges, 1100 Race St.); Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati (1127 Vine St.); Art Academy of Cincinnati (1212 Jackson St.); a vacant building opposite the Art Academy (1211 Jackson St.); Coffee Emporium (110 E. Central Parkway at Walnut Street); Lucy Blue Pizza (also serving as the headquarters for volunteers at 1128 Walnut and 12th streets); a storefront at 1334 Main St.; and MOTR Pub (1345 Main St.).

An Honor Roll of Weird Creativity: Cincy Fringe 2004-present 

In the world of Fringe festivals, “weird” is a highly appreciated quality, much sought by audiences who frequent these confabulations of creativity and invention. As the Cincy Fringe returns for its 10th iteration, here’s a weird honor roll — the audience favorites since the local festival began in 2004: Time Outside My Body (2004) by Tara Michelle Guilfoil; A/The PostmodernLoveStory (2005) by BlueForms Theatre Group; The Catholic Girl’s Guide to Losing Your Virginity (2006) by Annie Hendy of Giggling Girls Productions; Calculus the Musical (2007) by Matheatre; Don’t Make Me Pull This Show Over: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Parenting (2008) by R3 productions; Gravesongs (2009) by Ensemble Theatre’s Intern Company; Opal Opus: Sophie’s Dream (2010) by Serenity Fischer; Journey to Alakazoo (2011) by Tangled Leaves Theatre Collective; and On Her Pillow (2012) by Honour Pillow.

Occasionally the critics — including the corps of contributors annually recruited by CityBeat for quickly provided coverage throughout the two-week event — agreed with audiences, but the list of critics’ picks since provides an alternative set of oddball creativity, some presented by groups and companies with names as inventive as their shows: You Don’t Exist to Me (2004) by Peer Group Theatre; Does This Monologue Make Me Look Fat? (2005) by Amy Salloway; The Catholic Girl’s Guide to Losing Your Virginity (2006); True + False (2007) by Big Picture Group; Oatmeal and a Cigarette (2008) by Bad Dog! Productions; 7(x1) Samurai (2009) by David Gaines; Harold (2010) by Four Humors Theatre; Miss Magnolia Beaumont Goes to Provincetown (2011); and Bombus and Berylline, or the Bumblebee and the Hummingbird (2012) by Four Humors Theatre.

I’d cite several more personal favorites: (UN)Natural Disaster (2006) by Out of School Productions (made up of CCM Drama students and their professor Richard Hess); iLove (2007) by the Satori Group and New Stage Collective; Mortem Capiendum (2008) by Four Humors Theatre; Empire of Feathers (2009) by Giant Bird; and Grim and Fischer: a deathly comedy in full-face mask (2012) by Wonderheads.

Shows that have been singled out cannot be categorized. Some have been produced by local artists like Performance Gallery’s fricative (2008), and quite a few have links to the drama program at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music and drama teachers Richard Hess and Michael Burnham. Others are by out-of-town groups that return, such as Four Humors Theatre from Minneapolis and Wonderheads from Portland, Ore., both back with productions for 2013, as well as individual artists who Know Theatre has invited back to town during the traditional season for reprise performances. That group includes Kevin Thornton whose stand-up comedy monologues with guitar playing have thrilled audiences (he also performed a role in Know’s recent production of Cock) and quirky Tommy Nugent, another proponent of colorful verbal essays drawn from a complex, varied and eventful life.

Many Fringe acts from out-of-town come here based on success elsewhere. And a handful of local performers have taken their shows elsewhere: The CCM show (UN)Natural Disaster went on to the New York Fringe Festival, and CCM grad Alison Vodnoy’s In Rehearsal (2008) toured to several festivals the year after its local debut. The Satori Group, also with CCM roots, came together as a local company and subsequently moved to Seattle, where it’s taken root. 

One of the best stories about Fringe performances has to do with Calculus the Musical, a comic lecture about conceptual math that most people don’t understand, a runaway box-office hit at the 2007 Fringe. Marc Gutman and Sadie Bowman from Austin, Texas, brought the show to Cincinnati as a production of Matheatre, riding a wave of success launched in 2006 at the Minneapolis Fringe. Know Theatre “adopted” Calculus and Bowman in 2008; she performed it on tour for several years, and Know continues to present it at schools across the country (it reached more than 25,000 students last year alone). Bowman, who worked at Know for several seasons, now lives elsewhere, but returns to Cincinnati annually to offer her varied contributions as an organizer, comedian and musician to the weirdness that’s the Fringe Festival.