Seattle Fringe Festival 2016: Opinion & Four Mini-Reviews

Courtesy of the Seattle Fringe Festival.
Courtesy of the Seattle Fringe Festival.

It’s feels like Spring and the Seattle Fringe Festival is taking place — it’s been over a decade and a half since you could say that both things were true. For the handful of people in town who actually remember those days, the feeling of déjà vu is strong. Which isn’t to say that everything is as it once was; this version of the Festival, while still fledgling and small, has made a couple of changes in how it operates which will affect the festival going forward.

But first, the good news is that the “new” Fringe Festival is almost four years old now, and it finally seems to have caught on with the media and in the mind of the public. “The response has been great,” says D’Arcy Harrison, the fundraising and marketing manager for the Festival. “The press is really throwing support towards it, and ticket sales in general have surpassed the entirety of last year.”

This is wonderful to hear, because it means this year’s decision to branch out of the Capitol Hill neighborhood might be successful. Likely borne out of a need to acquire more spaces to perform in — Capitol Hill used to teem with performance venues from the Pilgrim Center of the Arts, through Oddfellows and down to the Eclectic Theater Company space, formerly the Odd Duck — the Fest takes over the Seattle Center Armory Theater for the length of the run. Ensconced within the Armory are three spaces, the 199-seat Center Theater, the 99-seat Black Box, and the 49-seat Studio.

The notion of the Fringe Festival spreading out into the rest of the city is an appealing one. Imagine outposts in Ballard, the International District or Greenwood; on the one hand, it might dilute the impact of the festival; on the other, it could encourage exploration of the city’s performance spaces. We asked Harrison if that was the desired result. “Right now, we’re experimenting with different neighborhoods across the city to see if that might help expand accessibility to events.” The group will discuss the success and possible pitfalls this incurs after the current festival is over.

The inclusion of the Center Theater has brought with it a new wrinkle in how they program the fest. Programming for every space outside of the Center Theater — the Studio, Black Box and the spaces on Capitol Hill at the 99-seat Annex Theatre and 49-seat Eclectic Theatre — is done by lottery, a process in which productions are selected at random. Programming for the Center Theater is by invitation only, focusing on producers and productions that have succeeded on a local level.

The Festival says that there are benefits to programming the fest in this manner, especially in these early stages of development, but it seems to go against the truly democratic nature of the original festival, which was done on a first-come-first-served model. As a certain alternative weekly loved to complain at the time, this opened the Festival up to a certain amount of amateurish productions, but it also encouraged risk-taking among the participants and this spirit leaked out into the rest of the community as a result. This adventurous spirit is what fueled Seattle’s reputation as one of the nation’s leading theater communities. It is entirely possible that the Fest will return to this format, as Harrison notes, “who knows where the festival will be in a couple of years if things continue to improve?”

Here’s hoping this hurdle will be cleared in the years to come.

In the meantime, it should be noted that the Festival vibe was strong at the venues visited for this piece. For example, the lobby at the Center Armory was abuzz with conversation between shows–the talk focused on what was just seen and what else is worthy of viewing at the Fest. Precisely the sort of word of mouth energy that makes for a successful Festival.

A very good sign indeed, and further evidence of the déjà vu we noticed earlier.

Our time at the festival wasn’t as extensive as we would have liked for the first weekend, but here are our impressions of the productions we did see. — ed.

Uncle Seagull at the TPS Center Theater– The Libertinis are a local burlesque themed performance troupe, having sold out productions at Annex Theatre on Capitol Hill and at Ghostlight Theatricals in Ballard. The troupe is known for its tongue in cheek approach to their material, while allowing for moments to develop in performance to accentuate an “anything goes” atmosphere. Billing themselves as equal parts “clown, art […] writ[ing] and burlesque”, one expects a bit of the bawdy to seep into the performance, but perhaps it wasn’t to be for this production. On the evening this correspondent watched, there were times when the piece felt attenuated to accommodate timing restraints, but this is conjecture. The piece as it stands is a clever riff on Chekhov-ian themes, taking pieces from the Cherry Orchard, The Seagull and Three Sisters to tell the story of three orphaned seagulls as they grow to leave their nest. If you like your witty allusions mixed in with silly choreographed numbers, and seek not much else from your entertainment, this is a pleasantly diverting time.

Anna and the Sea at the TPS Studio– Scot Augustson is best known for the shaggy dog tales told through shadow puppets created by his Sgt. Rigsby character. These stories are hyper-whimsical, with wit to match, but they are shaggy to the point that clarity is thrown out the window, which, admittedly is a large part of their charm. It is a surprise, then, to find that by distilling that whimsy, wit and charm so that they could be performed by one person (Shawnmarie Stanton, a regular member of the Sgt. Rigsby ensemble as well as primary song writer for that group), the charm is amplified tenfold. The marriage of Stanton’s versatile talents with Augustson’s storytelling and Meghan Arnette’s subtle direction has yielded a delightful story about a young woman, her adventurous aunt, the aunt’s collection of rare artifacts, a turtle, a hummingbird, a protective octopus mother and many other surprisingly pleasant characters. Each character allows Stanton to flex her singer-songwriter muscles, and the overall message is one that needs to be shared. If you have a young companion, the show is suitable for reasonably clever tweens, but be warned that the piece contains adult themes and language, so enter at your own peril. Everyone else will likely find something to enjoy in this nimble tale.

An Oak Tree at the TPS Center Theater– It has been seven years since this production was first mounted at Theater Schmeater; the show’s premise remains the same: The show contains two characters, one of them, a hypnotist portrayed by David Gassner knows what the show consists of and helps to guide the other. The other character is played by a different actor for each performance, this actor has neither rehearsed the play nor has seen it in production–they are tasked with trusting Gassner to lead, but are otherwise completely unprepared and therefore naked, figuratively speaking, for what lies ahead. (In the interest of full disclosure, your correspondent has been one of these unwary performers in the past, but has not seen the play in production until this Festival.) The set up seems gimmicky at first blush, but something subversive starts to take effect once the meta-narratives begin melding with the performance, something that starts almost immediately. Because Gassner plays a hypnotist at the same time he conveys messages of what to do or say to the other actor through a pair of headphones and occasional scripted dialogue, the other actor is asked to commit to a performance on the fly, and that is its own magic. Combine this with the mystery of the actual story and you have a mildly heady and entrancing evening at the theater. The production team has scheduled a roster of local Fringe heavy hitters to play the second character: the first weekend was occupied by Keiko Green and Sara Porkalob; the second weekend will be performed by Brandon J. Simmons on Friday and Kate Jaeger on Saturday.

In Love with Chekhov at the TPS Black Box–At some point in the 90s, some scholar (many claim it was Spalding Gray) made the observation that in Russia, Chekhov is considered a comedic storyteller in the vein of Woody Allen and Albert Brooks. Since then, there have been the occasional production that strays from traditional presentations (bone dry, dramatic in nature) of the Russian master in order to mine this comedic vein to varying degrees of success (in this correspondent’s experience, the most successful attempt was Pattie Miles Van Beuzekom’s Ivanov at the Paradise Theater School back in 2011). For In Love with Chekhov, Bards, Bands and Bravura, the company behind this production, have landed on the unique approach of giving Chekhov a bit of the old Catskills/Panto humor. Taken on its own, the choice certainly accentuates the comedic, but at the expense of the wry observations on Russia’s landed gentry that Chekhov used to puncture his subjects. When taken in context with the company’s decision to present the evening (consisting of Chekhov’s The Dangers of Tobacco and The Bear) as part of a tent revival service that’s falling apart at the seams, the effect is peculiar and unusual. Whatever could be said of all this, the company is committed to the approach, which goes a long way toward providing a shambling kind of charm and giving a humor to the proceedings that’s at turns in and out of synch with the material.

We also recommend Mad Scientist Cabaret at Annex (an experimental clown show in the vein of UMO Ensemble), Totally Solid Gold at Eclectic (exploring the kitsch and camp behind the Solid Gold Dancers, featuring choreography based on the original), DUMP Cabaret at Annex (the Little Burlesque company set this evening’s entertainment amidst the garbage), and Dragon Lady: I’m Going to Kill You! at the TPS Studio (a continuation of the story begun in Sara Porkalob’s Dragon Lady which focus on Porkalob’s grandmother’s immigration story and came to vibrant life last year at various solo performance festivals and other venues). These are but a handful of the productions that are available at the Fest, above all else, we simply recommend experimenting on your own. Taking a chance is literally what the Fringe Fest is supposed to be about.

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