It is Friday at 5 p.m., happy hour by definition, but it doesn’t feel that way. It’s gloomy and overcast, as if the sky were under the direction of Christopher Nolan.
That is, it is gloomy everywhere except at the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar, a food, drink and live music hub at the center of the Fringe Festival wheel. The watering hole is a rainbow-splatter-painted shelter from the oncoming storm. It sticks out from the rest of the gray-scale street like a shot of technicolor in a black-and-white movie.
Because Backstage is where the theater action is, and the Fringe is full of theater and action, this week’s mission was clear: to descend upon the Gypsy Tent and soak up the Fringeness of it all.
A tiny hitch in this otherwise flawless plan: The bar just opened and hardly anyone is here.
The band Blue Judy — Robert Cole, Susan (Robert’s wife of 36 years) and Scott Burgess — are sitting around a table waiting until it’s time to perform.
“We play avant-garde folk and what we don’t want to call bluegrass, because we don’t want to disrespect bluegrass,” Burgess says. “We call it tealgrass.”
“We’ve been part of [Fringe] since the outset,” says Robert, who is best known around D.C. for his day job as a sculptor; he’s got an eponymous studio on 15th Street NW. “The big thing about Fringe is that there’s a chance for somebody to get in who can’t get in up there,” he says, pointing his finger skyward at the Washington theater establishment.
They’re not too concerned about the nonexistent crowd. “We invited people, so they’ll feel guilty if they don’t come,” Susan says, and, as if on cue, Lisa Markuson strides over decked out in the theater-hipster uniform: thick-rimmed glasses, red lipsticked mouth, straw fedora over auburn hair.
“You made it!” cheers Susan.
“What’re you drinking?” Markuson asks.
“Blood,” says Susan, holding out her red glass of prosecco, which the bar has on tap.
Markuson calls herself “a philanthropist patron of the arts. I’m an amnesiatic mime in ‘The Circle,’ and I’m a volunteer at the bar here.” It’s her second year at Fringe, two years being the longest she’s resided in one place in the past decade. “I’m a nomad, but I’m staying here,” she says. “Unless they start Fringe in Beijing. Then I’ll go to China.”
When the Blue Judy show starts, the audience is three members strong. Robert sings and strums a song he wrote, “Cool Blue Heat”: “I’ve been good and I’ve been bad / I’ve been happy and I’ve been sad.”
Skip Bryant — that’s Big Skip to you — head of security, stands by the entrance, awaiting the masses he knows will arrive. It’s his fifth year of Fringing. He’s been a cook and a bartender, too, and he knows his way around the festival.
“The people meeting different people from all walks of life: That’s what we love,” he says. “People making six figures just hanging out with everyone, doing what they love. [You see] all nationalities, all sexualities. It’s a melting pot.”
The tent might seem dead, but he knows when the scene will liven up. “Around 9 or 10,” he says, “it gets really heavy.”
* * *
On Saturday night at 10:30, it is, as Big Skip promised, really heavy, especially given the weather, which has scarcely improved on the previous night and can best be described as “threatening.” Puddles on the deck are soaking through everybody’s shoes, and the air smells of beer and cigarettes and rain.
Although the festival celebrates individuality, everybody looks like they got dressed out of the same closet. You could make a drinking game out of plaid-shirt sightings, bonus points if you catch six standing in a row (that happened, although it’s unclear if the flannel-clad men noticed that they matched).
Anthony Logan Cole, the technical director of one-man show “Thumbs Up!” is distributing fortune cookies out of a wicker basket.
“They’re advice cookies,” he says, a tasty gimmick to promote the show about “a guy who decides to hitchhike across the country to fulfill his father’s last wish.”
Michael Venske, the writer and actor of “Thumbs Up!,” says the story is based loosely on his teenage misadventures. Or it was, 13 drafts ago.
“It’s not about that hitchhiker anymore,” he says. Driving a stolen church van, the then-16-year-old Venske and his girlfriend offered a ride to a stranger in exchange for two packs of cigarettes. “I didn’t intend to steal the van,” Venske says. “It just happened.”
Venske and his girlfriend drove from their home state of Minnesota to the Santa Monica, Calif., pier. They fell asleep on the beach, woke up with third-degree burns and wound up in the hospital.
“We gave [the hospital] fake names,” Venske says, “because we were runaways, and we’d stolen the van, and also I’d stolen $5,492 that I’d discovered in a locked box in my grandparents’ basement.”
The story takes as many twists and turns as the highway he was driving on before we finally meet the hitchhiker, a drug enthusiast with an affinity for sexual innuendo. Unsurprisingly, Venske deemed him “not a good man” and cut him out of the final “Thumbs Up!” script.
“What I learned is, there’s definitely a higher power,” says Venske, possibly trying to make amends for “borrowing” a motor vehicle from a church.
The other take-home from his experience: Venske decided he needed to do this performance and to do it alone. “I knew if I didn’t do a one-man show, I’d always regret it.”
Starting in August, Arena Stage will no longer keep its box office open on Mondays.
In a written statement, Arena Executive Director Edgar Dobie said, “Closing box offices on Monday is a standard industry practice nationwide, as most theaters are dark Monday evenings.”
Nationally, however, many theaters do keep the box office open on Mondays, including the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the Public Theater in New York. Most large theaters in the Washington area have Monday box office hours, as well.