The Capital Fringe Festival always has something new up its sleeve, and this summer — voilà! — it’s Mike Daisey. Booking a genuine headliner is a twist for Fringe, which has typically been the city’s unjuried playground — a grab-bag of amateurs, pros and in-betweens getting an act together for a few weeks in July. Daisey’s solo “A People’s History” delivers a roaring punch of personal reflections jazzily tied to turgid U.S. history and foreboding current events.
Daisey’s 18-chapter performance is different every night as he churns through Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” with each installment running about 90 minutes. The ambitious project kicked off an early launch July 5 of the festival, which fully opened Tuesday, and it anchors the handful of “Fringe Curated” offerings. For the second year, this clutch of curated shows finds Fringe in a selective mode, showcasing particular projects in offbeat spaces at Arena Stage. But based on two of the other three plays in the series, the curated event — Daisey aside — has lost its edge.
It’s counterintuitive that the center of gravity for a fringe event would be Arena Stage, the historically notable, futuristic-looking mother ship of D.C. theater. But Arena is a good hub — the rest of the venues are churches in the Southwest neighborhood — and if Daisey, too, seems unusually established, you can argue that he’s a quintessential fringe artist. Daisey is a hard-wired skeptic, typically taking an outsider’s stance (though in keeping with Zinn’s alternative history, he frequently notes his privilege as a straight white male) and typically doubting deeply ingrained systems as he spins stories that splinter in unpredictable directions.
I caught “The Blind Spot,” chapter four in the string, which will look familiar to fans familiar with such Daisey excursions as “The Last Cargo Cult,” “The Trump Card” and “The Story of the Gun.” He sits at a desk in Arena’s handsome Kogod Cradle and talks, rarely glancing at notes, and sometimes saying, “This is from the Zinn” when his riffs wind back to his foundational text.
The act takes stock of the rapacious track record that exists within American “exceptionalism,” and “The Blind Spot” title comes from an eye injury that taught Daisey how humans literally have a blind spot in their vision. You can see the metaphor coming at you like a Mack truck as he skims “the Zinn” and talks about normalizing whiteness and patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean the engine doesn’t have power. Just when it seems as if he’s meandering, he hits a sequence driving through the West, visiting an Indian reservation, arriving at Andrew Jackson and spotting Donald Trump on the horizon.
That’s just a 20-minute stretch; apparently Daisey has hours and hours of this. The road he navigates feels wide open, and the zeal of his delivery — which is generally kept fairly low key — is, at its peak, compellingly ferocious. The audience responded enthusiastically because the thinking was so rewardingly cogent.
Every year, the Fringe Festival is crammed with Shakespeare, from sincere stuff to burlesque knockoffs, so it seems terribly on-the-nose for the slight “Shakespeare’s Worst” to have made it into the curated strata. The script is by “The Simpsons” writer Mike Reiss and Nick Newlin, and it focuses on a snarky actor playing the servant Launce in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.”
Chris Stinson is quick and punchy as Launce, but poking at the lesser comedy’s labored puns and problematic plot seems lazy in the crowded field of Shakespeare takedowns. (The Reduced Shakespeare Company does this much better.) When the leading lady enters disguised as a man, as happens in the comedies, Launce’s best effort is, “Hold on there, Justin Bieber, you’re not foolin’ anyone.” Seriously.
Like “Shakespeare’s Worst,” Iris Dauterman’s “Hatpin Panic” is being performed in a rehearsal hall at Arena that hasn’t been reimagined with any flair — portable platforms and three static backdrops, colorfully lighted — that’s it. Dauterman has a terrific premise, though, taking the actual “hatpin panic” from the early 20th century, when women retaliated against “mashers” with hairpin jabs.
Dauterman’s gambit is to connect the suffragist-era circumstances with modern obstacles as a woman declares for Congress and airs an accusation. The storytelling is labored and explain-y, but the idea seems worth developing. As is, the script is raw and even the performance is sometimes halting as five actors tackle multiple roles and deliver gobs of data. You don’t go to fringe festivals for sure things, but a curated series ups expectations in ways that — except with Daisey in the Cradle — are not met.
The Capital Fringe Festival Through July 28 at Arena Stage and multiple venues in Southwest Washington. Single tickets: $20 ($35 for your first performance of “A People’s History”). 866-811-4111. capitalfringe.org.