Fringe Benefits At Theater's Edge

Charles Ross performs his
Charles Ross performs his "One-Man Star Wars Trilogy" during the Capital Fringe Festival.

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2006

To get a sense of the serendipitous breadth of Washington's newest -- and with any luck, brashest -- arts extravaganza, the Capital Fringe Festival, just spend a bit of time talking to Charlie Ross and Kristin Cantwell.

Ross, who lives in a small British Columbia town, is chief cook and helmet-washer for the "One Man 'Star Wars' Trilogy," which is, as advertised, a one-man reenactment of the "Star Wars" movies of the 1970s and '80s. Cantwell, who hails from Fairfax County, is the author and headliner of "Confessions of an Invisible Woman," a show about living the overweight life.

Ross has toured widely with his " 'Star Wars' Trilogy": His gigs have included a five-month off-Broadway run and an appearance before 3,500 "Star Wars" fans at a convention in Indianapolis. Cantwell, meanwhile, is essentially stepping out for the first time with "Invisible Woman," a piece she wrote as a theater major at the University of Mary Washington.

Their shows are among the nearly 100 theater and dance productions-on-a-shoestring that will fill more than a dozen spaces in a walkable swath of downtown Washington starting Friday -- and represent the diverse flavors and entrepreneurial spirit of the Fringe. Born in Edinburgh more than a half-century ago, the independent-minded theater movement has caught on in a growing number of U.S. cities and now makes a debut here, in a town that can stand to loosen a few artistic buttons in the swelter of a swampy summer.

The Capital Fringe Festival is the brainchild of a guy who worked in marketing for Woolly Mammoth Theatre, and prior to that was involved in theater in Philadelphia. The event is designed as a showcase for homegrown talent and as a magnet for audacious types from elsewhere eager to take their inspiration on the road. Over the festival's 10 performance days, theatergoers will have a chance to sample from a wild smorgasbord of works that are by turns primitive, outrageous, contemplative and -- if the theater-and-dance stars are in alignment -- brimming with imaginative potential.

"Very few of the shows coming have been done before," says Damian Sinclair, the festival's executive director, late of Woolly. "A lot are brand-spanking new. It's so exhilarating to create something like this, to be there at the beginning."

Working from a single desk in a G Street building shared by a host of arts groups, Sinclair and his associate, festival director Julianne Brienza, have spent a year cajoling donors, recruiting volunteers, securing spaces and plotting schedules for the hundreds of hours of performances for the $250,000 festival.

The groups that have agreed to open their doors to performance reflect both the character of the city and the free-form esprit of Fringe. In addition to more traditional theater venues that include Woolly Mammoth and the Warehouse, such unlikely hosts as the Embassy of Canada, Pepco, the National Building Museum, the Goethe-Institut and Calvary Baptist Church have offered their buildings as stages.

Another downtown institution, the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, will turn itself into a playhouse. Judith Levy, the temple's executive director, says that she came away months ago from a presentation by Sinclair intrigued by the project.

A few guidelines had to be set at the synagogue: no shows during the sundown-Friday-to-sundown-Saturday hours of the Sabbath. "And we have a policy that only kosher food can be brought in," Levy says. This meant a musical titled "Lunch" -- set in a middle-school cafeteria -- was not an ideal candidate for Sixth & I.

But "Cordelia's Fool," a 45-minute re-spinning of "King Lear" from the point of view of his youngest daughter, was deemed a good fit. So for a mere $15 -- generally the festival ticket price -- you'll be able to stroll into the temple during any of the five performances and get a short stack of Shakespeare. (The festival is offering a range of ticket packages, up to a $300 all-access pass. For information, visit http://www.capfringe.org/ .)

It's impossible to say which of the myriad offerings will be worth your time. Not even Sinclair has a clue. Like most fringe festivals, Capital Fringe is non-juried, which means groups or individuals can participate if they meet the basic requirements: They must pay a $400 entry free, and their shows must be in the 60-to-75-minute range and be capable of a rapid setup and striking of sets. One of the pleasures of Fringe is discovering something wonderful (or hideous) on your own. You can rely on instinct and, as the event unfolds, word-of-mouth to map out your own personal journey. It's theater tailored to the iPod era.


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