A transgender woman in Cleveland, Ohio holding her own coming out party. A millennial man struggling to come to terms with—what he believes is—frighteningly small genitalia. A female film student weighing whether to trade her sex appeal for the recognition her talent genuinely warrants.
These are the diverse, deeply flawed, and nuanced characters that are currently scattered all over lower Manhattan in the more than 185 productions featured in this year’s New York International Fringe Festival.
The annual theater festival is in its 19th year, with performances occurring at nearly every hour of the day, and spanning an array of genres.
Fringe offers one-man shows, operas, burlesque, clowns, and improv comedy among its theatrical buffet. Puppetry? Sure.
More specifically, how about puppetry featuring Japanese Manga, samurai warriors, and “mature content” in a single show? Kamikaze Cutesauce Cosplay Club should satisfy that that dramatic hunger.
However, unconventionality is not a prerequisite to win a spot at Fringe from among the more than 850 entries submitted this year. Nor is it needed to become a favorite.
Among the nearly 200 plays at Fringe, Schooled was earning critical buzz before the festival even opened.
The drama centers on a 22-year-old film student, Claire (Lilli Stein), who realizes the willingness of her professor, Andrew (Quentin Maré) to work with her after class has little to do with her cinematic interests.
What could have merely been a cliched story of teacher-student sexual tension is complicated by Claire’s boyfriend, Jake (Stephen Friedrich). He’s a golden boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he is also willing to sabotage Claire’s future in film to secure his own.
Disparities in power and opportunity borne by sex, money, and status pull and push against each other in Schooled. Larger questions of who has the right, or, more accurately, the privilege to make art drive the crackling plot, as the characters lob verbal grenades at one another.
Jake is self-righteously indignant when Claire points out how his parents pay for his apartment and financially support his film career. He whines, “I have to climb the ladder.” Claire points out what we all want to shout at him: “You started at the higher rung.”
Schooled has the makings of one of the Fringe premieres that ends up making a mainstream splash.
While some Fringe shows are one and done, others have transferred to Broadway or started careers.
Urinetown, the Tony-award winning musical about an impoverished imaginary city where people struggle to scrape together enough money to pee, premiered at Fringe in 2001.
A year later, Mindy Kaling would begin her rise to comedic stardom when Matt & Ben, a play imagining Ben Affleck and Matt Damon before Good Will Hunting fame, premiered at Fringe.
Unsurprisingly, New York’s Fringe was inspired by the world-famous Edinburgh version, says Elena K. Holy, the current artistic director and one of the original founders who established the festival in 1997.
Holy and her co-founders were contemplating taking a play they developed, Americana Absurdum, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “But we quickly realized that would cost the equivalent of the annual budget,” she tells the Daily Beast.
Not only was that trip barely financial feasible, it was completely ludicrous. “We had moved to NYC to start our careers in theater. Why were we traipsing across the globe for attention?,” says Holy.
The founders held a town hall meeting in 1996, where around 350 people attended. “It was very organic and community-based,” Hall recalls. A year later, the first Fringe in New York premiered.
Since then, Fringe has managed to retain the same communal ties.
“We like to have a very personal relationship with our artists, to be able to ask ‘What happened with that scene in the second act?’ Did they find a child to play that role?,’” says Holy.
“There’s a warmth to the festival, which you don’t usually find in the theater world,” Sinead Daly tells the Daily Beast.
Daly’s Painting His Wings, a play about a girl who constructs a fantasy world out of finger puppets and her imagination to help her deal with her family’s ups and downs, marks her second foray with the Fringe.
As a born and raised New York, Daly (the daughter of Daily Beast writer Michael Daly) finds the festival to be extra special, but the uniqueness is not merely in its location.
“It’s a fun way to quickly throw together a piece of theater. It’s down and dirty. Everyone forgives the little mistakes. It’s about letting the art show through,” Daly tells the Daily Beast.
She found out Painting His Wing’s performance venue less than a month before the Fringe festival commenced.
The relatively short notice brought its own set of challenges, from not knowing the size of the stage or even what times your shows will be performed.
“We only get two to four hours of tech-time to rehearse in the space. Your show’s opening is like the first time to see how the techniques work, to make sure the cues are on,” Daly says. “It’s very tight. It’s very nerve-racking. But it’s kind of amazing.”
Sometimes, rolling with the punches New York City pulls can be disappointing for artists and audiences. Two performances I was slated to attend —Divine/Intervention and She-Rantulas From Outer Space in 3-D—were canceled.
The culprit? The air conditioning was broken in the performance spaces. Due to Fringe’s already jam-packed schedule, they didn’t get new slots.
In the case of She-Rantualas, I was not told it had been canceled until I had already hustled to the venue. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I felt a bit frustrated and harried.
Then again, part of the New York City experience as an attendee is dealing with the last-minute changes, as well.
At one show, a middle-aged couple plopped down next to me, exasperated and perspiring, minutes before the performance started because two venue locations had been listed in publicity information for it. “This is bullshit. I never would have gotten tickets for this in the heat wave,” I heard the woman mutter to her partner.
Yup, this Fringe definitely has a distinctly New York City flavor to it—even in the set design.
Nowhere was this clearer than when I attended a Wednesday night performance of Fail Better: Beckett Moves UMO.
My eyes scanned for a number on a door that matched the address attached to the venue on my ticket until I realized that the Parking Lot at Clemente was not an artistically dramatic name, but in fact the parking lot to a Lower East Side public school.
The windows were open in the school, and throughout the performance, I could see a janitor carrying a large black garbage bag down a staircase.
I assumed it was a purposeful theatrical effect and was waiting for him to pop his head out and say the kind of abstract yet profound one-line one expects in a Beckett-inspired performance.
The trash bag must have some larger significance?
It wasn’t until Fail Better ended that I realized the janitor was a regular man working for the city to get its schools ready for September.
Another part of the Fail Better experience was audience members had to wear headphones that magnified the actors’ voices.
We were told by director Elizabeth Klob this was because if the performers projected their voices at the volume we’d need to hear them outdoors, they’d break New York City sound ordinances.
While Fail Better had, by far, the most unique venue I encountered, My Ass (in The World) gave it a run for its money.
I am all but certain that the Ludlow Street performance space was a kindly theater fan’s living room, donated and converted at last minute. I sat on a big comfy black leather couch in a room lined with shelves of books on one side and a voracious CD collection on the other. The bathroom had a shower and a personal scale, suggesting someone, in fact, lived there.
Unfortunately, unlike its venue, My Ass’s casual quality wasn’t as charming. The premise was extremely promising. Jasmine Pittenger’s show is a series of monologues set in the different countries she has lived in, framed through locals’ reactions to her “big ass.”
Pittenger’s exploration of female body images and beauty values in different cultures is fascinating, but she also lost me at critical moments—like when she compared her decision to get liposuction to women who suffer female genital mutilation in Senegal.
Not unlike Pettinger with My Ass, Mark Della Ventura used a body insecurity as the driving dramatic tension to structure a chronological exploration of his—or his character Matt’s—life up until this point. Its title: Small Membership.
One doesn’t need three guesses to discern which part of the male anatomy drives Matt’s painful self-consciousness.
A man’s obsession with his “small” (I put it in quotes because an exchange with his doctor makes it clear that he is in normal medical range) penis could have been a series of dick jokes or an unrelatable, phallic-focused bro fest.
Instead, Della Ventura eschews the cheap laughs and brings so much vulnerability and candor to Matt.
Too infrequently, male body insecurity is ignored, mocked as effeminate, or given short shrift with Dadbod debates.
Small Membership counters with one of the most nuanced meditations on body image pressures and sexuality standards imposed on men.
Set in Matt’s first visit to a support group, he opens up about his penis size, but spins out into his lonely, ostracized childhood, being overweight, wrestling over his sexuality.
Brilliantly biting dark humor pierces the play, like when Matt recounts lying to his mother on his 21st birthday, claiming he was surrounded by friends and mimicking human interactions while sitting alone at the Cheesecake Factory.
My favorite one-person play was Christine Howie in her autobiographical Exact Change. “Tour de force” doesn’t do justice to Howie’s chronicle of the struggles to transition from Dick, who she was born as in 1945, to Christine in 1990 after sex reassignment surgery.
Howie electrified the theater space in the West Village. All on her own, she created a cacophony of different characters and their voices, so explosive that it almost felt like the noise was pressing against the walls of the venue.
It was remarkable to watch her play herself against her former wife, Dinah, her mother, and even Walter Cronkite.
Exact Change not only moved seamlessly back-and-forth in time, but between reality and fantasy.
Dolly, a southern-voiced transgender woman Howie met when he was in college in San Francisco, weaves in with advice at different moments—as does the Enforcer, the angry, snarling inner voice in Howie’s head that was instructing her to conform or encouraging him to commit suicide when she couldn’t.
Howie’s flexibility as a writer and actor is remarkable. She moves from humor, like a dream scene of Dick as Beowulf having breakfast with Dinah, to terror, like when Christine was harassed by a group of teenagers and scared into not leaving her home for a year.
Howie also makes the painful relevancy of Exact Change acute.
Near the end of the show, Howie juxtaposes a shot of Christine Jorgensen, the first known person to have sex reassignment surgery, with Cece Dove, a 20-year-old transgender woman from Ohio who was killed in 2013, more than 60 years after Jorgensen’s transition.
Dove’s death was announced in the Cleveland Plain Dealer under the offensive headline: “Oddly Dressed Body Found in Olmstead Township Pond Identified.”
Exact Change had only previously been performed in Ohio theaters and in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Hopefully, its New York debut in the Fringe festival will ensure it earns the audience and acclaim it so deserves.
For me it was the perfect Fringe experience: small, perfectly formed, unique, and—one hoped, walking out into the balmy evening—deserving of a bigger life and stage.