A critic raves: Post reviewer Celia Wren dives into Fringe in 'The Rave Scenes'

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 24, 2010

"This is a rare opportunity where everything that could possibly go wrong in a show . . . has," my castmate Danny Pushkin says with improbable cheerfulness as a rehearsal of "The Rave Scenes," the new play we're acting in, chugs into gear. It's a Friday evening in an American University classroom. Our show, part of the Capital Fringe Festival, opens in six days -- and our playwright-director, Nathaniel Russ Jr., has just informed us that one of our fellow actors has quit.

It's the second performer desertion in a week, and the anxiety that's swirled in me since we started rehearsals is alchemizing into giddy fatalism. As for Russ -- he should be in tears, given the challenges he's already coped with: the abdication of a costume designer; the scheduling problems posed by an actress's wisdom-tooth surgery; the awkwardness of hosting initial read-throughs in his tiny apartment, which happens to be in his parents' basement, and which is crammed with books and a model roller coaster.

But no: The 29-year-old director gives an almost beatific smile.

"Welcome to Fringe!" he says happily.

I would not ordinarily be whiling away my summer in rehearsals (50-plus hours of them!), with or without collaborators gone AWOL. But this year is different. Earlier in the decade, I was a reviewer of Capital Fringe offerings. A T.S. Eliot-inspired tale of talking elephants? A multimedia Kabuki ghost story, with puppets? A Christopher Marlowe-meets-Mel Gibson skit? You name it, I reviewed it. I began to wonder: What was it like to be inside Fringe -- to contribute to the ferment that's so much more whimsical, ecstatic and reckless than the theatrical establishment's routine?

I had been an avid college actor, but that was two decades ago. Still, I mustered up courage to approach festival Executive Director Julianne Brienza, who connected me with Russ, then seeking actors for his show.

A D.C. native whose encounters with the kinetic vigor of rave parties prompted him to major in dance at the University of Maryland, Russ has appeared on a few local stages and stage-managed "Queen of the Bohemian Dream" at Fringe 2007. When the 2010 festival paperwork deadline rolled around last fall, he applied to produce "The Rave Scenes," a primer on electronic-dance-music culture.

He shelled out $30 for the application fee, $575 for the participation cost and $200 for insurance. His show would become one of 137 in the 2 1/2 -week festival, which will conclude on Sunday. But when a partial cast gathered for our first read-through on June 17, certain roles were yet to be filled. And Russ had penned only about three-quarters of the script: He was hoping to round out the text with input from his performers, who included fellow ravers and acquaintances from the arts and academic worlds.

He certainly wouldn't pick up any useful dance-club lore from me, whose idea of a great Saturday night is, say, rereading "The Pickwick Papers." Still, I did my best to flesh out my character, a snarky raver known as "O."

The cast would ultimately number seven, including Russ, who would take one of the defecting actors' roles. (We divvied up the other's lines.) The director aside, the only Fringe veteran was Pushkin, a busy local actor. The previous exposure had given both men a taste for the festival's anti-elitist, throw-caution-to-the-winds exuberance.

"I definitely drank the Kool-Aid," is how Russ put it.

Despite their expertise, readying "The Rave Scenes" proved halting work. We would not have access to our stage -- the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar -- until the day before opening, so we rehearsed in people's homes and at AU. Sequences were blocked, and then wholly re-blocked. One day an actor didn't show up because an electrical outage had locked his car in his garage. Rehearsals regularly devolved into wisecracking. "I feel like I'm in elementary school," I wrote crankily in my notebook at one point.

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