Secrets to Capital Fringe Festival success: Keep the liquor handy


Ian Blackwell Rogers as Edgar Allen Poe, center, and Bette Cassatt as Virginia Clemm Poe appear in "A Dream Within a Dream" at the 2014 Capital Fringe Festival. (Joseph Young)

Sex, beer and Edgar Allan Poe. Two weeks into the Capital Fringe Festival, some themes are emerging that separate the shows that sell out from those that merely play to half a house, or a smattering of actors’ roommates. Selling out at Fringe has proved to be a stairway to greater things in the D.C. theater scene. Sometimes new companies jell and begin to perform year-round; sometimes troupes reunite to perform their shows at other festivals around the country. So what are this year’s hot tickets? At total of 69 performances have sold out thus far. Of the roughly 140 total shows at this year’s festival, here’s a look at five box-office heroes, and the not-so-secret reasons their shows are selling tickets.

1. Hold your show at a bar. Heather Whitpan, co-artistic director of LiveArtDC, checked out several establishments in her Petworth neighborhood as possible venues for “R+J: Star Cross’d Death Match” and settled on the bar DC Reynolds for two reasons. She loved the decor and patriotic vibe, and it had a great fire escape. “I really wanted to do the balcony scene on a balcony,” Whitpan said.

“Star Cross’d Death Match” is adapted from a version of “Romeo and Juliet” performed last year by a New York troupe called Three Day Hangover. Whitpan talked her way into a sold-out performance by saying she ran a theater company in Washington. In the aftermath, a formal collaboration was forged, and Whitpan expected the show would go over well in the District. “But lines out the door? That was beyond my imagination,” she said. All 10 performances have sold out, and Whitpan is trying to negotiate an extension beyond Fringe. Bar owner Jeremy Gifford is all for it: He calculates that many of the more than 500 people who have come to “R+J” are first-time customers who will return. Whitpan’s challenge is that her cast members have other gigs. “That’s the downside of working with such great actors,” she said.

2. Hold your show in an art gallery with a bar. The sketch comedy troupe Brick Penguin is making its first appearance at the Fringe Festival, but the ensemble has been performing nearly a year at the punk-ish Barracks Row art gallery known as the Fridge. Two of the troupe’s first five performances have sold out, and sales are strong for the remaining three. Founding member Murphy McHugh shrugs off the suggestion that “Brick Penguin Tries Its Best,” a best-of sketch-comedy retrospective, is selling well because the troupe has a following. “That’s too flattering,” he said. “We have some fans.” He and his colleagues signed up for Fringe in hopes of reaching new audiences and expected to lose money by the time they paid for entry fees, rental fees, advertising and prizes. He’s thrilled that they’re on pace to break even, yet he feels a bit guilty that Fringe ticket prices are so high. ($17, plus a $7 button.) Hence the T-shirt giveaways and drink specials. “We are trying to make this a worth-your-money experience,” McHugh said.

3. Remember that sex sells. “The title definitely helps bring people in the door,” says Nick Vargas, managing director of Field Trip Theatre. “Giant Box of Porn,” a comedy about a couple who receive a mysterious delivery of NC-17 VHS tapes, is the troupe’s third Fringe show in three years, but it’s the first that is so salaciously named. All five of the “Giant Box of Porn” performances sold out. Vargas admits the title was somewhat strategic and aimed at enticing a casual Fringe-goer. “It’s like being at Denny’s or the Cheesecake Factory, you have so many options to choose from, which one looks and sounds most appetizing,” he said. But the play has also received strong reviews. “We’ve been fortunate enough that our title is backed up by substance and the piece itself has been leaving audiences talking,” he said.

4. Be enigmatic. In advance, it’s hard to suss out much information about “A Dream Within a Dream,” a site-specific production by a small group of first-time Fringe collaborators that calls itself the Union Stylus Collective. Patrons meet at a New York Avenue address and become characters in this mystery, led by three actors trying to discover just what killed Edgar Allan Poe. Director-performer Nasreen Alkhateeb declined to say exactly how many tickets are sold to each performance — it’s a lower number than most sit-down shows — but said the original run of 18 performances sold out in 48 hours. Strong reviews prompted the addition of six more, and those sold out in within a day. Alkhateeb says the Union Stylus is working on a “third phase” of “A Dream Within a Dream” that “will be revealed in the form of digital media.” How mysterious!

5. Put on a play that people had a good time reading in high school. We Happy Few Productions takes its name from a line in Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” and like Mistress Quickly, the troupe is a reliable, reoccurring purveyor of Elizabethan drama. Actually, this year’s entry, “The Duchess of Malfi,” is technically a Jacobean revenge tragedy. That it’s bloodier than “Titus Andronicus” is apparently a draw at Fringe. We Happy Few also likely benefited from renting out the Source Theatre on 14th Street NW rather than using a Fringe DIY venue. Two opening weekend shows sold out, as did Wednesday’s final performance.

‘Hamlet’ goes global

On the same weekend that this year’s batch of reimagined Shakespeare and other classics close up shop at Fringe, England’s Globe theatre company comes to the Folger to remind all the aspiring thespians in Washington that venerable British actors have been doing Shakespeare for 400 years, and they don’t need to do it in a bar, thank you very much.

They can do it on a beach in South America, inside a castle in Prague or at the United Nations.

Twelve actors and four stage managers from the Globe have embarked on a two-year global tour that will eventually result in performances of “Hamlet” in every country on Earth. After a brief stint in Iceland, the troupe will perform three shows at the Folger this weekend and check the United States off its list of nations, although for good measure, the troupe will also travel to New York and Chicago.

“On such an epic journey, it would be madness not to go to the Folger,” Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole said.

This production shares a similar stripped-down aesthetic with the Globe’s eight-actor “Hamlet” that came to D.C. in 2012. The entire show travels in 16 suitcases, including props, costumes and the actors’ personal belongings. Onstage, those cases become part of the set, but don’t expect to see toothbrushes.

“That shouldn’t happen,” Dromgoole said. “They are very discreet.”

Want to see “Hamlet”? Check with the Folger to see whether any last-minute seats are available, because like the best shows of the Fringe festival, the Globe’s “Hamlet” is sold out.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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