Capital Fringe Festival

A Boffo Buffet With a Little Bit of Everything for Someone

Floating new ideas:
Floating new ideas: "La Corbiere" was staged at a Georgetown pool. (By Agata Peszko)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Washington just got a little cooler.

You're in on this non-meteorological revelation if you were hanging around downtown over the past week and a half and ducking into the Touchstone Gallery on D Street or the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue or the funky Warehouse complex on Seventh. At these and a dozen other locations, fresh air blew in on a jet stream of whimsy, nerviness and surprise -- a sustained gust otherwise known as the first Capital Fringe Festival.

The festival and its eclectic offerings -- 97 productions in all -- had precisely the desired effect. For 11 days in late July, little oddities popped up among the city's monuments. The works ranged from one in which a gay man in a wedding gown enlarged on his obsession with the president, to an audience-participation show set in a fake cocktail lounge; from a piece that had spectators pursuing dancers around an art installation, to one depicting a painting lesson by Frida Kahlo.

In other words, the event, which ended Sunday, broke down artistic barriers, making an institution-driven town more hospitable to entrepreneurial spirits in theater and dance, to independent types eager for a local platform to show what they could do.

Or, for that matter, couldn't. As with any attempt to stretch boundaries, a fringe festival tends to attract many performers not yet ready for the limelight. Capital Fringe provided its share of twaddle, as many a festival-goer was happy to expound on as they dashed from show to show. Still, cheap tickets and a feeling of being on an adventure in entertainment mitigated any sensation of pain.

As an older gentleman at a dance performance on Saturday observed, about his so-so experience at another production: "I got my $15 worth."

In some cases, of course, you got more than your money's worth: dexterous theatricality and unexpected pleasure. I happened, for instance, to take in, at noon on Saturday, a staged reading of "Abstract Nude," a new play by Gwydion Suilebhan, and was bowled over by the suppleness of the writing as well as acting. (Someone needs to pay close attention to this Baltimore-bred, Northwestern-trained playwright, who lives on Capitol Hill.) The night before, I sat through "La Corbiere," an obtuse poem-play about prostitutes who drowned in a shipwreck off the Isle of Jersey during World War II. Its major satisfaction was the inspired spot where the sharp little theater company, Solas Nua, chose to stage it: a pool in Georgetown.

On a macro level, too, the festival gave full value. From this theatergoer's perspective, the organization of the massive event was superb. Working with a staff of 30 and an additional 80 volunteers, the festival's organizers, Damian Sinclair and Julianne Brienza, pulled off an astonishing 11 days of precision urban choreography. The online ticketing was terrific, and every show I attended was smooth and began on time.

Sinclair and Brienza, transplants from theater (and fringe) in Philadelphia, were still gauging the venture's impact in its final days. According to Sinclair, the Fringe's executive director, the festival sold 17,763 tickets and brought in more than $220,000, much of the money going to the performers. The festival gets a small percentage, too.

All told, Sinclair said, about half of all seats were sold, an outcome that he described as in line with projections. "The word on the street is very successful, but to be fair, we're not a sellout," he said.

By the festival's start on July 20, tickets to some shows, such as Charles Ross's "One-Man Star Wars Trilogy" at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, were impossible to obtain. (I secured a standing-room spot for that one.) The turnout was impressive for many other pieces I saw. A 5 p.m. performance of "Confessions of an Invisible Woman" July 24 at the National Building Museum, for example, was virtually sold out, and Friday's 6 p.m. show of the solidly mounted "Frida Vice-Versa" at the Touchstone Gallery was packed. A long line for "Le Corbier" at the Georgetown Swimming Pool on Friday began to form half an hour before the 9 p.m. show; every seat was filled, too, for a weekend performance at Woolly Mammoth of Rick Fiori's solo piece, "The Worst President Ever."

Fiori's act -- a Cupid's arrow aimed at W and tipped with strychnine -- was a 50-50 experience: some funny bits wrapped in some not funny ones. As a performer, Fiori is sweetly unaffected. He's better, though, at telling a story than embodying a character. His best notion is that of a clueless gay man, gazing longingly at a cutout of the president and hurling insults masked as encomiums. Less successful is his impersonation of an equally clueless Southern soldier's ex-wife making a pilgrimage to the White House gates.

Satire was also the main feature at "The Eddie Lounge Show," a good-natured sendup of lounge acts that provided Ed Spitzberg and a group of his friends an outlet for a pent-up need to sing. The environment was primitive -- a rickety little space called Warehouse Next Door -- but it somehow matched the genially fringey air of the 45-minute set, sung by the fictional Eddie and the Cosmos.

Spitzberg, development director at Arena Stage, smartly kept things loose, almost karaoke-style. As Eddie, the lead singer, he invited audience members onstage for cameo roles in the Cosmos' renditions of the oeuvre of Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond. A bit in which a spectator is recruited for impromptu drumming was funny, and a duet of "We've Got Tonight" between the group's keyboard player (Alex Romain) and the lounge's cocktail waitress (Melissa Romain) evinced bona fide charm.

The find of the festival, for me, was "Abstract Nude." Performed only once, at Flashpoint-Mead Theatre Lab, the 70-minute play unfolded as a witty, finely observed glimpse at the ways in which a work of art can be viewed. Moving back in time, Suilebhan's drama tracks the passing through several hands of a sexually graphic painting. In the process, the lives of a diverse group, from a frustrated wife (Naomi Jacobson) to a dissolute slacker (Josh Thelin), are comically and poignantly revealed.

A staged reading, in which actors typically read from scripts on music stands, is not the best way to see a play. But it's a great way to hear one, and with a cast this good -- in addition to Jacobson and Thelin, top-notch contributions came from Teresa Castracane, Mauricio Alexander, Jen Plants, John Lescault and Jeffrey Bailey -- you heard a really strong play.

No doubt the inaugural Capital Fringe Festival brought new people to the theater. At the start of "Star Wars," for example, when Michael Kyrioglou, Woolly Mammoth's communications director, asked the audience how many had never been to Woolly before, most of the hands went up.

Still, pumping oxygen into a piece such as "Abstract Nude" may be the most vital service a fringe festival can do. Brienza, the festival director, said that the hope for next summer is to expand the number of performance spaces and offerings even further.

I say, bring it on.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company