The schedule of Capital Fringe Festival shows is notoriously bewildering: Should you see the play about an audition that turns into a human sacrifice, or the musical about nuts, featuring a robot and a vampire? The best part of Fringe might be the gamble; plunk down $17 for the musical about the singing creatures in a restaurant aquarium, and it might just be the most glorious theater you’ll see all year. But if you want to improve your odds as you wade through the 120 productions in this potpourri of offbeat theater, we’re offering up some of our picks, in handy categories, from promising new shows to practically assured hits.
Baby’s First Fringe
Stephanie’s pick: “Pascal’s Aquarium”
The Baldacchino Tent at Fringe headquarters was transformed into a funkadelic aquatic adventure last week during the festival preview, which rocketed this musical from Fringe newcomer Nice-eeNice Productions to the top of our must-see list. The snippet featured spectacularly wacky puppets, not to mention a catchy tune sung, in part, by one seriously soulful sea horse. Lyricist and composer Danny Pushkin has been honing his skills at family-friendly Adventure Theatre, which might explain why the show seems geared toward each theatergoer’s inner child — although profanity means actual kids should probably steer clear.
Lavanya’s pick: “Between Takeoff and Landing”
When his New York-bound flight from Dublin was grounded during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, New York-based writer and performer Michael Walsh was stranded in tiny Gander, Newfoundland. The residents of Gander took the in-limbo travelers into their homes, and it’s their kindness — not the fear that followed Sept. 11 — that remained with Walsh, who created this show about the quirky international passengers and locals who became his makeshift family for several days. The show, which has made the fringe festival rounds across North America since 2003, should stand apart as one of the more polished shows of the festival.
Stephanie’s pick: “Meagan & David’s Original Low-Cost Creativity Workshop”
Last year, the Fringe Festival Director’s Award went to GoHorses, the absurd, hilarious duo behind “Ridgefield Middle School Talent Nite.” That show — a kind of sketch comedy held loosely together by that adolescent nightmare most adults probably have worked hard to forget — featured actors Jo Firestone and Dylan Marron slipping into a parade of characters, from an angsty goth girl to an overworked janitor, and from a Type A student body president to a disenchanted assistant principal. The show was as uproarious as it was awkward, which bodes well for the pair’s new show, a riff on a bargain workshop designed to unleash one’s inner star.
Lavanya’s pick: “[Expletive] Up Everything”
The storyline of this rock musical by David Eric Davis and Sam Forman (a playwright locals might know from his two recent Theater J shows, “The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall” and “The Moscows of Nantucket”) might remind some Gen Xers of the grunge-era movie “Singles.” The show, which debuted in 2009 at the New York Musical Theater Festival, follows the travails of Brooklyn hipsters who play in bands and helplessly lust after one another. Protagonist Christian likes Juliana, who, along with pretty much every other woman in sight, seems to like Christian’s bad-boy musician buddy, Jake. The show is winningly set to songs about cougars, weed and men who never grow up. Its run at Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s Melton Rehearsal Hall will continue past Fringe, till Aug. 14.
ROFL: Guaranteed Laughs
Lavanya’s pick: “Assembly Required: Comedy A to Y”
Last year, the manic “edutainment” duo of Rob and Flick — No Rules Theatre’s Brian Sutow and Joshua Morgan — taught packed Fringe houses the fine art of creating a hit musical, from coming up with a compelling title (their suggestion was “Penie the Prison Poodle”) to incorporating a dream ballet. But Rob and Flick didn’t stop there; they pulled up audience members for public mocking, Jell-O-wrestled and brought the crowd to tears with what might possibly have been the most uncomfortable instance of full-frontal male nudity ever. This year, the pair turns its creepy leer to the subject of comedy, opening the gates for antics even more outrageous than last year’s. Be afraid.
Stephanie’s pick: “e-Geaux (beta)”
Facebook can be a rabbit hole of wasted time, but this show sounds as if it could turn social networking into an hour well spent. The production, which brands its performances “product demos” and its actors “data analysts,” blends improv comedy with the Facebook pages of audience members. Better yet, the group behind the show includes quick-witted alums from SpeakeasyDC performances from past Fringe Festivals (always surefire hits), including Amy Couchoud, who directed “Chocolate Jesus,” and Joseph Price, who took the stage for “The Sin Show.” If nothing else, it will be a better use of your time than stalking your ex online.
Lavanya’s pick: “UPheaval”
You can always count on Fringe for clowns, but this year the crazy carny offerings include an illuminated martial-arts show performed in darkness (“Illuminate”), fire spinners (“Illuminopolis”) and “UPheaval,” an aerial show that climbs to heights of 15 feet as it tells the tale of random meetings at a bus stop. The last, performed by DC Aerial Collective, melds music, spoken word, opera and flamenco — yes, flamenco.
Stephanie’s pick: “Illuminopolis”
If there’s one show that will live up to its name, it’s Tilted Torch’s performance that proclaims “Let there be light” with ultraviolet luminescence, LED lights and even real flames. The group, which blends burlesque, live music and dance, has an established track record, putting on fiery extravaganzas at Red Palace, among other venues. Expect the performers, including Malibu, Miss Joule and Shortstaxx, to heat up the stage with either flaming costumes or a distinct lack of clothing.
And here is a handful of other offerings that we couldn’t leave off our must-see list:
“Who’s Your Baghdaddy or How I Started the Iraq War”: From the people who brought the beloved Super Claudio Brothers to the stage in 2010.
“I Like Nuts! (The Musical)”: Turn off your cellphones — and your logic — to fully appreciate this wacky ride.
“ Tactile Dinner Car ”: Others attempt Dada, but do they have a neo-futuristic food truck smack in the middle of Fort Fringe? We don’t think so. This mobile piece of theater doesn’t serve duck fat fries, but dishes out “hybrid food-art performance.” Future food is small, weird and strangely transformative.
“ Fat Men in Skirts ”: Prepare to be disgusted, scarred or both, thanks to Molotov Theatre Group.
“Illuminate: A Martial Arts Experience”: Local blackbelts battle in darkness, with only candy-colored LED lights to illuminate their movements. We yawned, but men we asked later were transfixed. May be the Fringe show for the non-Fringer.
Still curious? Check out photos from the recent Fringe preview below.