Backstage

The Fringe Festival's Rainbow of Threads

Kevin Duffin in the rock musical
Kevin Duffin in the rock musical "Lunch," part of the Capital Fringe Festival. At left, "An Experiment With an Air Pump" as staged by Potomac Theatre Project, which is decamping to New York. (Courtesy Of Tom Piwowar)

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By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Politics, poetry, teen angst, taboo love and personal secrets fuel six of the pieces by Washington-based theater folk taking part in the first-ever Capital Fringe Festival, which runs Thursday through July 30 at various downtown venues. The 100 or so Cap Fringe performers and troupes -- some of them out-of-towners and veterans of other fringe festivals -- tend to do experimental, controversial or envelope-pushing works.

John Morogiello ("Irish Authors Held Hostage") punches into a comic vein with "Bushwa: A Modern Ubu" (Georgetown Theatre Company, July 20-23 at the Goethe-Institut). The playwright minces no words about the target of his update of Alfred Jarry's absurdist, anarchic 1896 play "Ubu Roi," about a crude, amoral lowlife who becomes a tyrannical ruler. "Bushwa" is "incredibly silly and as offensive as the administration it mocks," he says. "We place the blame entirely on the top. We have no Cheney, or Rumsfeld."

Vice President Cheney won't want for Fringe attention, though. The five playlets of "You Don't Know Dick" (Art Riot Theatrical Company and AccokeekCreek Theatreco, July 22-29 at the Flashpoint Mead Theatre Lab) grew out of a dramatists' work group's writing exercise inspired by Cheney's Texas hunting accident. The playlets range from "outrageous, almost bawdy, to more of a dark, kind of ironic take on some of his policies," says the group's D.W. Gregory.

Political satire not your cuppa? "Prufbox," a movement-infused riff on T.S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (Happenstance Theater, July 22-26, Warehouse Downtown Arts Complex), was created by mime artist Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell (who, by the way, married on Saturday). Looking to collaborate as artists, they found parallels between the poem, a favorite of Jaster's, and a solo piece Mandell was developing, "The Box Ceremony," and merged them. "Prufrock is this lone man who never manages to succeed in his love because he's constantly hesitating," Mandell explains. "In the play that I wrote was this solitary woman . . . she becomes this sort of mermaid, this otherworldly character, who becomes Prufrock's imagined woman."

"Lunch," a rock musical about a middle school cafeteria (Bouncing Ball Theatrical Productions, July 21-25 at Edison Place Gallery), began life as a commissioned 10-minute piece, which playwright-composer Shawn Northrip ("Titus, the Musical") has expanded to 90. The boys' rock band in the show, Mophead, was the name of Northrip's band in eighth grade. At rehearsals he brought his yearbook to show the actors with "all these yellow Post-it Notes in it, pointing out which people inspired which characters."

Callie Kimball's comedy "May 39th" (July 21-29 at Touchstone Gallery) examines the dating scene in a futuristic Washington where mutating viruses have made physical contact too risky and human interaction takes place technologically. The couple in "May 39th" fall in love online, then have a tryst. The play takes place the next morning, Kimball says, when they wake up and learn new, awkward things about each other. "The humor is more situational, just like today," she says, "when people date and they have these awkward discoveries."

Songs about getting naked, having facelifts and imagining a wayward boyfriend eaten by a shark are among the ditties in "Naked Cabaret (Emotionally, That Is!)," presented by DC Cabaret Network, July 21-27, at the Warehouse Downtown Arts Complex. To make the show more "fringey," Judy Simmons says she and co-director Steven Cupo have gone out of their way to find edgier songs by Amanda McBroom, Jason Robert Brown and others. "We wanted to make sure that people understood that . . . we were ready to do exactly that -- become naked emotionally. And we're also going to be making the audience do that." Audience members will be asked to write their secrets anonymously on bits of paper, perhaps to be read onstage.

PTP 2 NYC

Potomac Theatre Project, the small summer company devoted to contemporary plays with a political bent, is moving its operation to New York City next year. For the past 20 summers, PTP has performed in the Washington area. For the past 12 years it has been in residence at Olney Theatre Center, where its up-close and personal stagings of Howard Barker's "No End of Blame" and Shelagh Stephenson's "An Experiment With an Air Pump" run through Sunday.

Olney Artistic Director Jim Petosa founded the shoestring summer troupe in 1977 with Cheryl Faraone and Richard Romagnoli, theater professors from Middlebury College in Vermont. Called the New York Theatre Studio, it was in New York until 1984. After a break to reorganize, they moved it here as the Potomac Theatre Project.

At Olney, PTP has operated with its own tiny budget (about $60,000) and offered meaty roles to veteran area actors, including Helen Hedman, Naomi Jacobson, Alan Wade, Paul Morella and Richard Pilcher.

"If it were only about the quality of the talent we wouldn't be relocating. It's got nothing to do with that," Faraone says, although one attraction of New York is that many of their former students -- and potential cast members -- are there. "In many ways, what we came here to do, that void that we came here to fill, other companies are filling. It's a completely different theatrical universe here," she says, "and it may be time for us to catalyze somewhere else."

Petosa, who continues his Amtrak-enabled schedule at Olney and as head of Boston University's theater department, will keep up his involvement with PTP when it moves to New York, and likely changes its name again.

"PTP is a kind of company that in order to maintain its own guerrilla theater sensibility, you can't let it get too comfortable," he observes. "This idea has enough challenge to it that I think we're going to find it reinvigorates the nature of the work."

Follow Spots

· The nonprofit Cultural Development Corporation is offering to manage Source Theatre as a financially viable space for multiple troupes. The group, which operates the Flashpoint arts incubator at Gallery Place and helps small arts organizations find performance venues in downtown Washington, submitted a proposal Thursday to the board of the debt-ridden Source, whose 14th Street NW building is slated to be sold to developers. The organization's Anne Corbett is scheduled to talk on Friday to Source's board, whose decision is to be made by the end of the month.

· Studio Theatre will hold its annual garage sale of props, costumes (prison jumpsuits, anyone?), set pieces and other collectibles Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 14th and P streets NW.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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