The Capital Fringe Festival, D.C.’s annual unjuried theater extravaganza, is something of a thermometer gauging the mood of playwrights and directors from the D.C. area and beyond.
In recent years, the mood was light, and Fringe plays tended to be zany and intellectual, with clever musicals, remixed fairy tales and wacky interpretations of Shakespeare dominating the lineups. For this year’s festival, which opens Thursday and runs through July 30, the tenor is decidedly darker, with many of the festival’s plays taking place in dystopias and grappling with political issues, Capital Fringe president Julianne Brienza says.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had that before, where everyone is dealing with a similar vein of questions with their work,” Brienza says. “That’s not to say all the plays are about social justice, but a lot of them are.”
What accounts for the shift? Donald Trump. Even before he was a serious presidential candidate, Trump inspired many of the 85 or so plays on this year’s schedule. One such play is “Morningstar,” which is set inside a bunker during a nuclear apocalypse.
“With Trump’s comments early in his campaign about his potential willingness to use nuclear weapons, it seemed like a story that really needed telling,” says playwright Nathaniel Klein, who wrote “Morningstar.”
The glut of dystopias isn’t just a reflection of liberals’ pessimism about America’s future — it’s also a way to look at current political issues in a new light, Fringe directors say.
For example, “Lazarus,” from Unstrung Harpist Productions, imagines a world where the 1 percent can buy an expensive medical procedure that makes them live indefinitely, a situation that creates a permanent upper class. This society — with little social mobility and an entitled ruling class — should be familiar to anyone who watches the news, playwright Evan Crump says.
“Unstrung Harpist’s choice to produce this play now is no coincidence, since we have in office a living, breathing bright-orange example of plutocracy in action,” Crump says.
Among all of the festival’s dystopias is at least one play with a happy ending: “Shinka” imagines life returning to a war-scorched Earth. The aim of the piece, a theater-dance hybrid, is to inspire hope and action, director-choreographer Yoshiko Usami says.
“We — all of us — can stand and think about the society we live [in] and not repeat the same thing in the past,” she says.
Actually, humans’ tendency to repeat mistakes is a theme of several Fringe plays this year.
“Roseburg,” for instance, looks at two historical events in Roseburg, Ore.: a speech about gun control by Bobby Kennedy in 1968 and a 2015 school shooting at a community college.
“RFK had strong feelings about mentally unstable people having access to guns, and nearly 50 years later, not much has changed,” “Roseburg” playwright and director Ginger Dayle says.
Dayle wrote the play back when she didn’t even think a Trump presidency was a possibility, but he makes a cameo anyway, she says.
“He’s featured in the play because the shooter’s mother was a huge Trump fan,” Dayle says. “She read ‘The Art of the Deal’ to her son [when she] was pregnant with him. Truth is stranger than fiction.”
The MVP of PMs?
Amid all the doom and gloom, the Fringe Festival hasn’t lost its trademark zaniness. For instance, the comedy “I’m Margaret Thatcher, I Is!” features an action-hero version of Great Britain’s first female prime minister who battles Jack the Ripper, helps form The Beatles, unravels mysteries with Sherlock Holmes and invents the double-decker bus. “There’s a lot of absurdity to go around these days,” director Lucette Moran says of current events. “I hope we can give people … a moment to focus on something that is meant to be absurd for a change.”
Various locations; Thu.-July 30, go to capitalfringe.org for ticket prices and a full schedule.