Choose Your Own Adventure at the SF Fringe Fest

The San Francisco Fringe Festival is a dizzying experience. Now in its 22nd year, the Fringe has a different one-hour show on each of the Exit Theatreplex's three stages every 90 minutes, six days a week -- 158 performances of 36 shows in all. The fare is so varied that it's impossible to know what to expect, even for the organizers. The acts are selected randomly by lottery, so inclusion doesn't necessarily imply anyone's stamp of approval. It's word-of-mouth and audience reviews on sffringe.org that separates the wheat from the chaff. Even knowing the local theater landscape pretty well, I found myself practically flying blind as I chose shows to see on opening weekend, and the uncertainty was exhilarating in itself.

Several of the acts I caught are one-woman shows. Written and performed by Jill Vice, The Tipped & the Tipsy is a celebration of the hardworking bartender. Directed by David Ford, the go-to developer of solo work in the Bay Area, the show goes back and forth between scenes taking place in a seedy bar and lighthearted asides such as heroically narrated "Tales of Alcohol-Induced Courage." The central story is sobering in more ways than one, as the hard-boiled bartender tries to intercede to stop a regular from drinking himself to death. Vice's portraits of the colorful barflies are memorably distinct if distractingly cartoonish, but the arc of the story is compelling and poignant.

Nell Weatherwax's Storyzilla Full Frontal Human Movie is a bit more rambling, a free-associative personal narrative about being an introvert and how anxiety affects her personal relationships, day job and performing life. She makes dancerly movements as she talks, which are hypnotic even if they rarely seem connected to what she's saying. The story bounces around a lot in time, making it difficult to keep track of which job or boyfriend she's talking about. From time to time there's a turn of phrase so funny and wise that it makes the confusion worthwhile.


Maria Grazia Affinito in Eating Pasta off the Floor; photo by Serena Morelli.

Hilarious and bittersweet, Maria Grazia Affinito's Eating Pasta off the Floor is a powerful, personal piece about her relationship with her loudly eccentric Italian immigrant mother. From embarrassing trips to Safeway to a revelatory journey to her mother's hometown, Affinito spins a spellbinding tale with beautifully drawn, distinct characters that she makes instantly recognizable by voice and posture alone.

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None of the above requires much of a set, but The Women of Tu-Na House involves a couple of tables full of religious knickknacks that writer/performer Nancy Eng was frantically setting up before the show. A series of portraits of the women who work in a seedy massage parlor (the type with "happy endings"), the show also requires several quick costume changes as a voiceover in the character of the last woman we met introduces the next one -- in rhymed couplets, no less. Some are heavily accented immigrants, others are all-American Asian women who only pretend to be fresh off the boat, but they all speak frankly about what they will and won't do for a buck and what brought them here, and each portrait is funny and distinct and unflinching. (As for the props, the cheery proprietor prays willy-nilly to Buddhist and Christian icons for whatever blessings she can get from them.)

That's not even the only show about sex work I caught that day. Starring and codirected by Sean Andries and porn performer Siouxsie Q, Fish Girl is a pulp fiction love story of sorts, marvelously charming and terribly sad, about a mermaid who's thoroughly resigned to a life as a freak show performer who's pimped out to paying customers (by a gravelly-voiced "manager" seen only in silhouette) until she meets a wide-eyed, naive typewriter salesman from the Midwest who's filled with wonder at the sight of her. The story is packed with familiar pulp-fiction tropes and the bad guy's voice is more silly than menacing, but both the performers are terrifically entertaining and affecting in their roles, and Siouxsie Q sings some bittersweet original songs, accompanying herself on ukulele.


Sean Andries and Siouxsie Q in Fish Girl; photo by Micah Goldstein.

Other shows really highlight the grab bag nature of the Fringe. All Terrain Theater's Babies, the Ultimate Birth Control zooms through seven short vignettes by Tracy Held Potter and Rachel Bublitz about the trials and tribulations of parenting, performed by a versatile cast of four and directed by local actor Elena Wright. Highlights include Potter's look at a working mom finding herself too thoroughly replaced by a too-competent nanny; Bublitz's no-holds-barred negotiations between an opportunistic baby (played by a full-grown man) and his mom about nap time; and Potter's attempt to turn an anti-feminist bedtime story into something more empowering.

Genie and Audrey's Dream Show! is a diverting clown show, suitable for all ages, that feels a lot like two childhood friends playing games at a sleepover. Audrey Spinazola and Genie Cartier play their way through accordion and found-object music, acrobatics, stage combat, puppetry and total nuclear annihilation while keeping it all endearingly upbeat.


Caitlan Vance, Kaichen McRae and Raul Reyes (not the SF cast) in Dinner with Dan; photo by Heather Karsevar.

Written and directed by R.S. Scott, Dinner with Dan is a rare 85-minute show when others keep it under an hour. It's a full-length play about a schlubby sci-fi nerd with terrible luck at internet dating and all his entertainment industry friends who mock him relentlessly for it. His best friend has written a book about Dan's miserable dating life that's now been optioned for a movie by a train wreck of a starlet. It's a very L.A. story in the sense that everybody in it is an a-hole, but as either a romantic comedy or an industry satire it's pretty limp.

A day and a half of Fringe performances seems pretty excessive, and was certainly exhausting at the time, but even then there were plenty of other shows I wish I could have caught that I didn't have time for. On Sunday I hoped to catch O Best Beloved, a physical theatre adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories by the ensemble Cool Beans Jack. But BART was delayed and I arrived two minutes late, running afoul of the festival's strict policy of no late arrivals. All shows start and end right on time, because there's only 30 minutes between shows for one act to load out and the next act to load in.

As varied as the fare is, there are certain patterns that are just part of Fringe culture. Several performers asked the audience to submit a review on the festival's website, and some also asked any other Fringe performers who might be in the audience (and there were always some) to stand and tell everyone about their shows. Then a festival representative would bring out the tip jar, explaining that all ticket proceeds go to the artists, so our tips help keep the festival going. With so much frenzied activity going on in every corner of the Exit's space in the Tenderloin, it just goes to show how much would be lost if the Fringe ever does go away.

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The San Francisco Fringe Festival runs through September 21, 2013 at the Exit Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit sffringe.org.

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