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At Fringe: Swords, Wonks, Rock

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The WashingtonPost
Thursday, July 23, 2009

As the Capital Fringe Festival, the annual extravaganza of offbeat theater and dance, approaches its closing weekend, we present a sampling of a few more of its myriad offerings. For performance schedules, visit http://www.capitalfringe.org.

'BARE BREASTED WOMEN SWORD FIGHTING'

To answer the obvious questions about "Bare Breasted Women Sword Fighting," (a) indeed they are, and (b) yes, they do. Which is why no one under 18 is admitted to this bawdy vaudeville at Source.

Not that toplessness is all there is to the act; after all, a savvy group of women aren't just going to do that, are they? What the performers of Dog & Pony DC have created is both a burlesque and an anti-burlesque: They'll show some skin, but this ain't yer daddy's strip club. They're going to play with conventions and make you think about it.

That attitude leads to some of the most sophisticated comedy I've seen so far on the Fringe, especially when an emcee dressed like Marlene Dietrich (men's tux) and dripping with Mae West innuendo saucily warms up the crowd. The acts that follow are a weird, canny blend of degrading and empowering, with the first -- "The Amazing Rubber Woman," who bounces back with a chirp and a smile each time her man slugs her -- making it impossible to view anything else as a mere playful display.

There's a rasslin' match between a Warrior Princess and a Damsel in Distress, a pair of half-nude Amazons glowering and wielding swords, and a string of classic dirty jokes told by a three-headed figure embodying the stereotypical virgin-mother-whore view of womanhood. The entire evening is awfully skillful: The comic timing is polished, and the cast banters winningly with the crowd throughout the evening. The women generally keep the irony dialed pretty high, and the control is impressive as they play these overdrawn types to the hilt, egging the audience on in a peculiar high-spirited conspiracy to have women flirting, fighting and exposed.

'DIZZY MISS LIZZIE'S ROADSIDE REVUE'

A little bit of Woodstock at the Fringe: That's what you get with the party-ready "Dizzy Miss Lizzie's Roadside Revue -- The Saints."

This is storytelling via rock-and-roll. The band of musicians who had a hit last summer with an electrified "Oresteia" are now reviving it at the Church Street Theater, and their amped-up, laid-back carnival routine in "The Saints" at the Baldacchino tent still makes them as cool as anything at the festival.

Again, the original songs are by guitarist Steve McWilliams (who also serves as emcee) and keyboardist Debra Buonaccorsi (who also works the accordion, guitar and mandolin). Their blues-based tunes tell the tales of various biblical saints, from Augustine (played in cowboy gear by bassist Jason Wilson) to Francis of Assisi (a very hippy-dippy Jordan Klein).

This being rock-and-roll, it's all done with equal parts devotion, subversion and wit. The Virgin Martyrs get a honky-tonk number, St. George sings a country ballad and the range of styles surprise and amuse. The band also rocks, which means the audience spontaneously claps along. As before, Dizzy Miss Lizzie looks so fine: The muscular, high-spirited music and appealingly casual atmosphere have no trouble creating new converts.

'GS-14'

Transplant "The Office" to a government bureau and you get "GS-14," a wonky comedy from Jason Ford.

The playwright has done a stretch or two in federal government jobs, so his procedural jokes about a scheming project manager get plenty of knowing laughs. Plotting isn't his long suit, though, and director Catherine Aselford does practically nothing in terms of staging.

The "GS-14" actors know their lines (pretty much), but the show is largely carried by Ford's writing: He gives a merrily Machiavellian manager named Hank lots of snappy lines as the character pushes the envelope of right and wrong. The main story is about how Hank tries to secure a project that might actually help save lives.

What's more interesting is the subplot that comes from the colorful gallery of characters Ford's created. The office staff includes a competent new guy named Theo who, on principle, shows up to work in women's clothing.

"I hope this job will be a nice mix of useful projects and social justice," says Theo, played with appealing dignity by the tall, strapping Ricardo Frederick Evans. Ford makes this figure intellectually compelling -- he's rebelling against the tyranny of gender roles while getting good comic mileage from the challenge he poses to the office.

The bulk of the show, though, deals with the politically incorrect manager Hank as he manipulates his minions while fighting off grievance charges from the local union lawyer. Though Ford keeps the pace brisk at 90 minutes, the comedy is eventually similar to its bureaucratic target: confused and bloated.

'THE GIRLS INSIDE'

Leayne C. Freeman's drama about life in a detention center for women is so new and unfinished that it's only 35 minutes long. (You can get that kind of thing at Fringe.) Still, it's a good start -- better than expected, really -- because Freeman has worked at a detention facility in Laurel, and the voices she channels ring true.

Freeman gets it off to an action-packed start as four young women each get apprehended by unseen authorities, snarling and resisting all the way. "Why me?" they wail, and Freeman then has them tell their stories to the audience, sometimes in hip-hop style.

The performers are passionate, and they're ably directed by Anastasia Wilson. Freeman oversimplifies the issues, of course, because her goal is simple for now: She wants you to hear these girls and like them a little. If you need an introduction to the hard choices faced by the young women who land inside juvie, you could do worse.

'BILLY THE KID: FIRST EXHUMATION'

If you have a bit of surly gunslinger in you, it might be drawn out by "Billy the Kid: First Exhumation."

Directed by Jackson Phippin, this moody experimental piece is based on the legend of Billy the Kid. Using some clever Old West cutouts on the stage and echoey guitar work and electronic noise from Steven Leffue, the cast roughs in the outlaw's history and acts out a few of the highlights.

But the loose exploration of Billy also includes what seems like personal confessions by the actors, who then play themselves as they describe instances of petty crime and hair-trigger fights. They tell these vivid tales directly to the audience, using their own names (Tim Pabon, Bolton Marsh, John Benoit), and Benoit's story leaves you wondering if he really did have an unexpected hand in the death of an old man.

Why do they share these anecdotes? Actors being actors -- and this being a certain brand of collaborative theater that's not really interested in text -- eventually they look within themselves for personal connections to the story, and their own inner Billys come tumbling out. Pabon and Benoit are particularly compelling, and Leffue's live accompaniment is an invaluable partner in this intriguing excursion.

The members of Redd Shifft are well versed in the techniques they are using, and moment by moment, the show holds the stage. You can tell you're in the hands of pros, which, of course, isn't always the case at Fringe.

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